November 28, 2008

Cedars of Lebanon [naomi]

This town has seen better days. It is clear to me that, in its younger years, it was vibrant, pretty even. Now the buildings stand like a flock of old ladies, painted up in Sunday best. Don’t come too close or peer beneath the paint covering their naked bones, ‘cause nothing ever changes here, it just gets a face lift.

This town is strange with its opposing tides of culture, ebbing, flowing, climbing into each other. I see calico frocks, stockinged feet and hair neatly (almost permanently) pinned beneath a modern version of an outdated doily. Little girls follow the tug of their apron strings into the past. My eyes turn northwestward and I see a shirt stretched tight against the breasts of a young woman while below her waist her pants swoosh swooshing almost drowning out the sound of her children chattering two steps behind. Stone lips touch a cigarette and try, with one more drag, to soften life. Old man walks the street, never quite using the cane he won’t put down. I see Old Glory, hailing from every corner, and Puerto Rico beckoning from every other car. The stain of families sitting too long in their own sweat opposes the smell of new blood—different blood—in town. Multi-colored mannequins cross cement seas. We are different breeds, and how we collide is anyone’s guess.

Silence is hard to come by in this town. Neighbors tramp the streets marking territory between cars. The pavement pounds out their beat; I can feel it in the soles of my feet all the way up my spine: This war with no winner, these cultural tides.

If you listen, and listen well, below the sonic thrust of the streets and the shattered chatter on the sidewalks. Listen to the cedars, those silent guardians of stillness, they who deny the seasons and dance with the wind, they who know this town as it was and whose silent march of time will outlast the pounding pavement, and the peeling bones, and the lonesome call of the outbound train. They will speak and tell, for those who care to listen, of hope.

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November 25, 2008

The Advent of Christmas [jenna]

Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way …

The witches have whisked off department store shelves, magically leaving red and green and tinsel in their place. “Jingle Bells” hits the department store airwaves on Black Friday. Brace yourself.

“It’s the spirit of the season / You can feel it in the air …” Cold. Coupons. Long lines. Brightly colored paper (unless you’re artsy, like my family, and use earth-tones.) “We three kings of Orient are / Smoking little rubber cigars …” Life-size Santa Claus robots saying “Ho, ho, ho!” “Merry …” ummm … “Happy Holidays!” The company parties, family parties, friend parties. Overwhelming amounts of sugar. “Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock …” Holiday episodes of every show on television. Snow tinsel bells decorations candy trees parties beer relatives jingle bells jingle bells jingle all the way …

The first candle

“For people who live by the liturgical year, the transition into Advent can be as physically invigorating as the shift from summer into fall … I’ve learned how much the Advent season holds, how it breaks into our lives with images of light and dark, first and last things, watchfulness and longing, origin and destiny.” —Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pp. 67, 72

On the fourth Sunday before Christmas (November 30 this year), a circular candleholder is brought into church. It holds four candles: three purple, one pink. The purple candle furthest from the pink one is lit; that single flame burns, and for the Western Christian calendar, the liturgical year has begun.

While the outside world goes on with its melee of expectations and meaningless hubbub that one must appear to enjoy or be labeled ‘a Scrooge’, quiet and mystery hold place in the Advent season. The big party is coming; we just have to wait for it.

The second candle

Advent is a time of repentance, of waiting. In the slowly increasing light of these small flames, we remember the long wait of the world for Christ’s coming, and our current wait for his return. We prepare ourselves for him, dusting off the old disciplines of prayer, meditation on the Word, and even various forms of fasting. In liturgical churches, the Glorias are restrained until Christmas.

It’s almost impossible to celebrate Advent exclusively nowadays, at least without offending a lot of people. Most of the parties happen before Christmas day. Likewise, shopping for gifts has to be done in advance, and a trip to a retailer almost always entails a week of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”—or worse, “Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart”—on instant replay inside one’s head.

Still, Advent has its means in times of silence, prayer and reflection, in putting off the Christmas decorating for awhile, in letting the season and its intrinsic waiting remind us to wait on Christ.

The third candle

The third Sunday of Advent arrives, and the mood lightens with the candle color. We light the pink one. Gaudete Sunday is a day of ‘joyful anticipation’ (Gaudete is the imperative form of a Latin word meaning “Rejoice”). It comes as a reminder that our repentance moves us in the direction of final happiness. It is hope:

“for who hopes for what he already sees? But  if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” —Romans 8:24–25

Eagerly … like a child awaiting Christmas.

The fourth candle

“O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Four flames rise from the Advent wreath; Christmas is less than a week away. The above verse is one of the “O antiphons” from the last week of Advent, meant to be recited before and after the Magnificat during evening prayers. The hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a combination and paraphrase of the O antiphons, all of which call on Christ to come to us.

I hear John Michael Talbot’s mild, beautiful arrangement of the Magnificat. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit exults in God my Savior. For He has looked with favor on my lowliness.” Mary, the virgin mother of Christ, set us the Christian example in her “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord” just a few verses back. In her song—as in all her example—she points us to her son and Savior.

The white candle

Advent is incomplete without church on Christmas day, or at least the night of Christmas Eve.

From ‘watching and waiting’, the season leaps forward into joyous vibrance. The hushed, haunting, minor-keyed “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” modulates into the heaven-meets-earth “Hallelujah Chorus”; the bells ring out in good earnest, and when we get to our Gloria, we sing it with angel choirs.

The white candle may or may not be a part of the Advent wreath, but it is lit for Christ on the celebration of his birthday—and perhaps for the full twelve days of Christmas, for the Christmas season itself lasts until Epiphany, the commemoration of the visit of the Magi, on the sixth of January. By Epiphany, the retailers have got their red and green down and even the New Year’s sales on diet products are yesterday’s news, and the Christians are, as usual, the only ones still happy about the birth of Christ.

As impossibly backwards as the whole celebration is to the secular way, getting to Christmas through Advent puts back before our eyes the whole purpose of having such a holiday. It requires us to ponder, in our own hearts, the sacred mystery that is so central to all Christian doctrine: the Divine becoming human, taking part in our physical existence, obediently putting on our mortality, all for our redemption.

Jesus. Our Savior, who “though we have not seen him, we love him” (paraphrasing St. Peter).

“For who hopes for what he already sees? But  if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”

Eagerly—like a child awaiting Christmas.

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Paper Crane [rachel]

In the sanctuary
I’m drawn to the painting with the paper cranes.
They catch my eye every time
Many-colored, ready to take wing.
If only the Maker would breathe...

I sometimes feel like I’m living in a box.
My mind stretches and pushes
Bumping against flat surfaces and corners.
I’m drawn to metaphors,
But the space is so tight
And they need room to move.
I breathe deeply when a paradox breaks through
Puncturing the wall and letting in some light.

The lid opened the other night;
Eternal sunshine did it.
(The strangest things are catalysts.)
I know it’s so because if it weren’t
I’d be thinking about precision.
Think it right.
Say it right.
Do it right.

Then I went for a walk,
found ginkgo leaves outside.
Once home, I got out the canvas, the brushes,
Mixed paint with water.
The leaves started as a pattern,
The shapes and lines so formed,
So neat.
Then something whimsical seized me—
The comical ginkgo became an inspiration.
I splattered the paint,
Let it fall where it will
Enjoying the chaos on canvas.

Where did the box go?
I must have tipped it over
And crawled out the opening
When the fresh cold air hit my face this morning--
The wind was a mighty rushing one.

One of these times
I won’t crawl back into what feels like
Protection from the wind.
I’ll open my arms wide
Let the gust blow me over--
Or I’ll take flight
Like the many-colored paper cranes
In the sanctuary
As the Maker breathes.

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November 21, 2008

This I Believe [guest]

I believe in regret.

This belief in regret has given the courage to break out, and break up. Before my belief I lived a safe life, staying within the walls that had been erected for my safety and success. I thought that life was about security and success, risk losing those and risk losing happiness. A safe life meant living carefully and following the rules.

During my freshman year in college I worked in a Hospice inpatient unit as a nurse's assistant that forever changed my view on life and instilled within me a sense of wonder regarding life. While working for Hospice I met some remarkable people who taught me how to live and love. At a mere 19 years old I was suddenly faced with questions about mortality and how I wanted to live my life and how would I feel when it was my time to die?

Would I be the patient who died with the crippling powerlessness of regret or would I be the patient who knew that she had lived life as fully as possible without major regrets?

Regret can touch our lives in many ways. Most often we feel its tentacles with late apologies, the flowers that we never sent but should have, the love we failed to give away, and time spent doing instead of being. I watched the pain of regret loom over people like a dark cloud that rendered them helpless and in pain. It was too late to do what they had not done-and they could not undue what had been done.

These were good people, people who by all accounts should have been okay with the way they lived their life, they were generous, good family people that resembled me - yet they regretted the things they never did. I am not sure why they didn't do what they wanted to, I don't think it's my place to figure that out. But I have decided to learn from them and honor their lives and deaths by living mine.

I thought about running a marathon, and I knew that I would regret not running one more then I would regret doing one - so, I did it. I loved with my heart wide open knowing full well that it would possibly get shattered... and and sure enough it did, but I still love - I can't not love as the pain of not loving is worse then the pain of a broken heart which always heals. I laugh hard, and I cry hard, because I will regret holding back. Now, I live with the cloud of regret looming over my head but instead of raining down powerlessness, it gives me shade from the harsh sun.

I believe in regret because it has opened up my heart and allowed me to run through open fields all the while sharing my life with others. This I believe.

Summer Lillie is a 27 year old girl who is taking it one day at a time with a great big dream to love the world - one sick person at a time.

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Deep [jake]

I want to believe that there is a point
At which the pain stops
I want to believe I will eventually reach
My destination; then I can finally quit
Seeing myself: the sum and reflection
Of my fruitless efforts

Wouldn’t it be great if Buddha was right?
If all we needed to do was find a way
To cease to be
To stop existing
Because wishing for death
Is getting a little pessimistic

There is an end; there is a star we all chase
There is a completion of time and a place
In which we can all rest
I believe in this place where fulfillment exists
I believe in this place where all things consist
I believe that pain stops,
No matter how great
Death consumes itself and we no longer
See ourselves, or the cuts
On our rough and tired hands: the suffering
Of fruitless struggles

Wouldn’t it be great to recognize all of time
In its proper place and for what it is?
Maybe then I could see this symphony around me
And blend the movements of life and death
Maybe then I could hear this dance
Like breathing, and not just a single breath
Each exhale not an ending of one, but
A part of the whole progression

In quiet moments with eyes closed
For a flicker in my dreams, I see
Glory and pain as mirror images and I stop
Digging deep for escape and I start
Burying myself deep in the bosom of God
Planting myself in His lungs

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November 18, 2008

233, 511, Everywhere [jake]

I don’t like going to bed alone
I don’t like coming to an empty home
I don’t like having nothing to do
     And no one around to do it with
I don’t like staying in
     While others go out
I don’t like being quiet
     When the group is allowed to shout
But I hate being a riot
     If silence snatches every other mouth
There is something to sleeping solo
     That gets under my skin
There is something to a vacant house
     That needs to let someone in
There is something to time and solitude
     That taunts me in my heart
Knowing—at least feeling—that the neighborhood
     Is playing in the yard
     Across the street
Why couldn’t anyone send an invite me?

My soul was meant to share
My mind was meant to mingle
My spirit screams to be a part
     Of every single
My heart
     Was meant to sing
     In a chorus—
     I’m not a solo-artist
I’ve got no side project
My body was meant to be by breathers like me
And it’s no wonder why
     This only bystander
     Feels empty
     Without someone to stand by

But please stand by
     Because this broadcast is about to change—
This is a public service announcement
     To all whom with I have exchanged:
I believe that One is with me
     Who indeed has never gone
He’s never left or rejected
     These principles that I stand on
My soul has been surrounded
And my mind has many friends
His Spirit always seems to be
     Where mine, He packages and sends
My heart plays strings
     In a band of glorious things
     And it sings and it sings and it sings
Of what my God has done
My body, broken by the Son
     Has been reborn
     And filled with holy company
That stands by me
     Before I ever went to bed alone
He is the sheets that cover me
     And the light that fills my home

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Her Dad's Eyes [kris]

The last time I saw him was in April when I was in Mrs. Bale’s fourth grade class. He dropped us off at school that morning. They didn’t tell us much (me, Joey, Chris), just that something terrible happened. All we know is that it made Mom cry, a lot, and made Dad go away forever. They didn’t tell us what it was called or where it came from, but when we listened for it, we heard it. A secret, floating in the thick, stinging air, and into the telephone wires, traveling hundreds of miles over big green lakes, winding muddy rivers, and stretch out grey highways, from New York City to Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle—speeding through lines quicker than the NASCAR racers Joey and Chris like to watch on TV. The word that sticks out, the one all of the traveling secrets and whispers have in common, is suicide. I am nine and starting to feel it but I think it was always with me.

Dad is gone and I find the mysterious word everywhere. In a news blurb when I was watching “Animaniacs” and “Seinfeld” after school in the den—“A fourteen year old boy was found dead this morning, hung from a wooden rafter in the garage of his family’s suburban home. The Westchester Police have ruled out foul play and are convinced it was suicide. . .” and in moves, like “Girl Interrupted” when Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie find Britney Murphy in the bathroom, and her face looks cold and purple like she has grape juice underneath her skin—because of the word.

We never talk about the word at school or at church, or at the dinner table. Sometimes I’m not sure I know what it means—maybe I got confused and the word isn’t why Dad is gone. Sometimes I even think I made the word up in my head. Mom and Chris never say it, and they don’t talk about Dad either. Sometimes Joey forgets and asks when Dad is coming home and Chris gets mad at him for being “stupid.” Joey doesn’t know what the word means either and he doesn’t understand that it took Dad away forever.

I don’t think my friends know about the word. We don’t talk about it when we play freeze tag, or soccer, or “high school cheerleader girls with cute boyfriends.” We do talk about everything else though, the apartments we’re going to have in New York City in twenty-seven story buildings with scratchy green Astroturf tennis courts on the rooftops and blue striped sun umbrellas with matching lounge chairs where we will sit at night sipping fancy drinks from crystal glasses with long delicate stems. We pretend to sit in our expensive lounge chairs and look out at the silver skyscrapers, turquoise ocean, and the Statue of Liberty, “Libby,” who has turned mossy green like the old pennies Mom has in the bottom of her purse. Sometimes we talk about scary things too, like how the football player OJ Simpson (who we saw a picture of on one of Joey’s trading cards) went crazy and murdered his wife, and about how a guy named Hannibal Lector got so hungry that he ate actual people like they were chicken or something. We read stories from the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book about misty ghosts that open and shut doors late at night, and about rotting green corpses that come alive when its dark outside. My friends and I talk about all of these things, but never about the thing that took Dad, except once.

Weekday evenings in the summer, between eight and nine o’clock, me and Susan pop tar bubbles in the street. When the air is warm and thick, and the top of the sky is cool lavender, then hazy tangerine and bright pink where it meets the houses on Susan’s side of the street, we walk the black tar strips that outline sections of sandy colored pavement between our driveways, tracing the four small squares that make up one big square starting at my mailbox and ending across the street at Susan’s. We watch it all day. The dark, sticky tar boiling in the mid-morning sun while we are at swim practice, thinner and runnier in the afternoon heat while we are swinging in the backyard and cutting trails in the woods behind my house, trying to find the secret treasure (ceramic knick knacks from the fancy living room) hidden by Black Bellamy and his band of pirates. At the end of the afternoon, when the treasure is found and our interest in swinging and swimming lost, the tar is thin and shiny and loose in the cracks. We wait until after dinner when the hotness from earlier has fled, trapping small pockets of air underneath the thin top layers of tar that cool quickest. We trace the squares on tip toes, pressing our big toes into the bubbles, and then flattening the soles of our feet onto the pavement, making the noise pink chewing gum makes when you blow a bubble and then quickly suck it back against your lips and teeth. It was a weeknight in August and we were popping tar bubbles when we talked about it.

“Yah know what I heard on TV today?” I said, concentrating on popping a bubble with my toe.
“What?” Susan asked.
“I heard that a boy died in his garage.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was hung with a rope.”
Susan stopped. “Somebody hung him in his garage?”
“Not somebody,” I said, still focusing on the tar, “he did it himself.”
She paused, “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know.”
Susan looked down and continued tracing the lines, “Maybe it was an accident.”
“I guess.”
That was all we said. I thought about it though, about Brittany Murphy, the boy in his garage, and Dad. Maybe the boy didn’t like his parents, and in the movie Britney was sad. Did Dad not like Mom, or Chris and Joey, or me? Was he angry or sad because of us? Maybe it was God that messed up, except at Church they say that God doesn’t do that. It could have been an accident, like Susan said—but if it was an accident then why didn’t anybody say that? It Dad didn’t have an accident, and God didn’t make a mistake, and I didn’t make the word up, does that mean Dad wanted to leave us?
* * *
Five years later I could have been the boy from TV. It was spring again, Chris was eighteen and in his freshman year at Tulane. He moved out at the end of the summer and had been home twice since, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Mom said he didn’t come home a lot because his classes were harder now and he had lots of work. He’s going to be a lawyer like Dad. Mom was working again too, in a doctor’s office downtown. Joey was ten years old, and in fifth grade. He started playing soccer and baseball, and he didn’t ask when Dad was coming home anymore. I was in ninth grade at Parkview High School. I was fourteen, it had been with me a long while, and it was about to end.

I can’t blame what I did on the new school, because for a while I loved it. Like first semester when I got to play Bunny Flingus in the underclassmen play, “The House of Blue Leaves,” or homecoming when Greg Strate, a sophomore on the varsity swim team, asked me to be his date for the dance. I can’t blame it on being lonely (even though I was alone), I had friends at school, at home, and at church. It wasn’t because I listened to Linkin Park, Eminem, and sometimes Marilyn Manson, or because I’d seen “Girl Interrupted,” or “The Virgin Suicides.” And I didn’t do it because I was copying what I heard on the news, people sometimes think that. It’s not Dad’s fault, but I know people think that too. They think it’s an infection, but they’re wrong. It was in me before Dad left us, he didn’t pass it on to me like strep throat or the twenty-four hour flu. I guess I just wasn’t interested in things anymore—and that’s when the feeling took over.

Even the simple things I used to like seemed exhausting once it took over. On Sunday nights Mom and me liked to curl up on the leather sofa in our den with fleece blankets and big bowls of butter popcorn to watch 11 o’clock movies on channel six, old movies like “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.” It was my favorite thing to do and by the time I was fifteen even that wasn’t enough to make me okay again. The sense of dread that had been growing deep in me had become overwhelming. I started to slip away.

My bout started innocently enough. It wasn’t something I was really going to do—just a dark and placid little fantasy I kept tucked away inside. A secret I held on to, an escape that in some obscure way kept me going. I could only let the feelings surface when no one would know. When I needed that I went to my room and hid in the closet. I would curl into a ball with my knees hugged tightly to my chest, pressed between wool sweaters, silky pink and black dressed, fall jackets, and blue jeans. I sat in the cramped closet, surrounded by old Nikes, Docs, patent leather church shoes with the tags still on them, flip-flops, and furry snow boots. I closed my eyes, and drifted away. Sometimes I cried, and sometimes I rested my head against the sliding door and floated in the darkness behind my eyelids—losing sense of time by hours. My dangerous flirtation wasn’t violent, the point wasn’t how it would end, it was what there would be after. Blank space and quiet. It was so alluring I couldn’t stand it. I was obsessed. It was the only escape I could imagine that would free me from the thoughts that lead in circles, the way I felt late at night when I couldn’t be distracted from myself anymore, the questions that plagued me—the ones no one could answer. . .the idea of escaping was more than tempting, I was addicted.
* * *
Tuesday, June first was the last day, ten days after my fifteenth birthday. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, school was uneventful, drama club was fine, but in me I knew it was the day. Instinct. On Tuesdays Mom got home from work after seven, and Joey went home with a friend from school and then to soccer practice at six-thirty. On this Tuesday I got home just after six. The house was empty and quiet except for the soft hum of the air conditioner and the creak I caused in the wood beneath the powder blue carpet as I walked up the stairs to the second floor bathroom.

Once inside I locked the door, flipped the light switch on the left wall, and dropped my navy Eastpack on the cool tile floor. I leaned across the marble sink to open the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. Generic aspirin, Cortisone Ten, silver nail clippers, a Dixie cup of Q-tips, Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol tablets, and on the second shelf Band-Aids, cotton balls, a navy razor. . . I reached for the aspirin bottle on the first shelf, and then felt its weight in my hands. It was almost full. I held it sideways to read the printed warning label. “Do not exceed eight tablets in a twenty-four hour period. If this occurs call the poison control center immediately. . .” I twisted off the child safety lid and tilted the bottle. The pills fell gently into the palm of my left hand—reminding me of the Wintergreen Altoids Chris used to keep in the front pouch of his backpack. I set the plastic bottle and its lid on the sink, and carefully examined the small pills. Each one was powdery and bleach white like fresh snow. I curled my fingers around the pills, pressing them firmly into my palm. When I relaxed my hand the pills stuck gently to my clammy skin. Carefully I let two of them fall into my cupped right hand, then tossed them into my mouth and let them roll down my throat. Two more went. Then three—but as I reached my head back to swallow these three I caught a glimpse of myself in the cabinet mirror. A fair skinned girl, five-seven or eight with long blonde brown locks and warm honey eyes. Her Dad’s eyes. This girl, frozen in front of the mirror in a plain white shirt and blue jeans—half a bottle of aspirin in her left hand, three more in her mouth, four more dissolving in her stomach. My hand relaxed and the remaining pills fell to the tile, each one bouncing once or twice as they spread across the floor and settled. I leaned over the sink and spit out the three pills that had stalled in the back of my throat. Tears rose and I became aware of my quickened heart beat. I looked up to see Michelle Skinner gazing back at me, awake and alive, maybe for the first time.

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November 14, 2008

The Election [jay]

Well, we did it --- and I am so glad we did. Barack Obama is president and everything seems to be as it was meant to be.

Now, if you’re a liberal, don’t be so happy. And if you’re a conservative, don’t lose it on me. I voted for McCain. But I am very happy that Obama is president.

For the greater part of my existence on this earth, and mainly through the avenue of the Church, I have watched over and participated in trying to keep America strong in its Judeo-Christian posture toward all things. My earliest memories politically are of Reagan winning the cold war and solidifying trickle-down economics as true capitalistic procedure. George H.W. Bush was next, standing bravely for freedom against the Muslim hordes of Saddam Hussein in Kuwait. In we swept, the great Christian nation, defending those who could not defend themselves and a great victory was won. But as we won in the Persian Gulf, the economy started going downhill in America and a dark horse from Arkansas named Bill Clinton rode a ticket of Change (sound familiar?) – with the key question: Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Screw defending freedom and helping those who cannot help themselves, in 1994 we gladly turned our backs on the man who led us in these ideals in order to answer Clinton’s most selfish of all questions with an affirmative “We deserve more!” And more we got. The prosperity of the 90’s can only be compared with the Roaring 20’s. And with money in our pockets and sub-prime mortgages for Joe The Plumber on the horizon, life was good.

How I remember the church, almost gleeful at the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Here was a guy empty enough in some part of himself to risk his family and his office in order to receive love in a way never intended for him, and we offer condemnation. Was he wrong? Of course. Did he lie? Yep. Should he have been impeached? Probably. But the Body of Christ did not love Bill Clinton, we condemned him. Where were the spiritual counselors offered to Ted Haggard at that point in Clinton’s life? Where were the prayer vigils roused for George Bush’s candidacy?

With a typical “we-told-you-so” posture, the evangelical vote swelled to record numbers in 2000 and secured the presidency for George Bush. 9/11 led to fear, which led to Afghanistan, which led to fear, which led to WMD’s, which led to fear, which led to Iraq, which led to fear, which led to a long war, which led to fear, which led to discontentment, which led to fear – you get the point. Pour the financial distress of the last few months on top of all that and I don’t think the greatest Republican who ever lived – Jefferson or Reagan – could have beaten Obama.

Nor am I sure that they should have.

Presidents pacify Evangelicals. What else are they supposed to do? Evangelicals are not the only people that presidents are called to represent. In fact, they are a small portion of the people they are to represent. In my opinion, the problem is not with the president, it is with the Church.

We Christians greatly over-estimate the power of politics to actually change anything. Government is meant to govern society, not change society. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” is not a political statement, it is a personal statement. A nation is not a nation without the people who live in the nation. America is not America without Americans. Therefore, the only way that “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” can be true is if “Blessed is the [man, woman, child, family, neighborhood, village, hamlet, city, crackhouse, town, base, district, church, prison, whorehouse, fort, factory, office, school, bar, barracks, team, courthouse, institution, plant, camp, bank, store, zone, temple] whose God is the Lord”. I am not saying that Christians should not be involved in politics, on the contrary, I deeply believe in it. What I am saying is that having a Christian in government means that person’s call is to govern society as a Christian, not change society for us who put them in their office. No one person can change society. Only the Body of Christ can offer what the people in our country and world truly need. Societal change that is not a result of the life of Jesus flowing through His Body is not societal change. It is simply a shift from one idol to another idol. Lady Liberty with a picture of Jesus’ face taped over her face is neither Jesus nor Liberty.

Which is why I am so happy that Barack Obama is president. We have finally just stated what we should have stated a long time ago: “We are a secular nation”. The actual reality of an American Judeo-Christian ethic is hardly Judeo and even less Christian and it’s high time that we called a spade a spade. As a nation, we don’t care at all what God thinks. There need be no more half-ass stupidity about running the nation according to the will of God or ridding this place of abortion or protecting marriage the way it was meant to be. It is not a politician’s call to do these things, it is the Church’s call. Roe v Wade is not the reason why abortion is everywhere in America. Abortion is everywhere in America because selfishness and greed are everywhere in America. Government cannot change people’s selfishness and greed, only Jesus can. The Church is His Body that lives this message of change.

Barack Obama as president opens a door to authenticity and reality for which the spirit of our country has been screaming. Having a president who pacifies our religious pontifications and pompousness with subtle nods of the head here and there has done jack-squat for the furthering of the transformation that is the death and resurrection of Christ. I love Obama because he seems to say what he thinks. He promised absolutely everything to everyone and I don’t think there’s any possible way he can deliver, but I think that he thinks he can. And I respect that.

Obama is not going to try to pacify Evangelicals with concern for abortion or legislatively protecting marriage, and he has said as much. He has socialist leanings in regard to economic policy and he has clearly stated what those leanings are. Are these things important? You better believe it. But now the onus for responsibility for change lies where it was meant to lie. The Church can no longer sluff it off on politicians who claim to be Christian and then condemn them when they don’t pull off the expectations that we should really have of ourselves. Now we may have to actually leave the comfort and convenience of our McMansions and mega-churches and do the work of Jesus.

God bless you, Mr. President-Elect. I pray for His mercies on you and your family, for protection from evil. I thank God for you and pray that you would know and experience the mediating work of Christ that will transform your spirit and breathe life into the deepest parts of you. May the joy of the Lord be your strength, may you have fullness of joy and may you find that joy only in Christ.

I pray the same for myself, my family, my friends, my church, the Church. God grant us repentance, mercy, grace and transformation.

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November 11, 2008

Can God Be Trusted? [melanie]

God’s plans are not our own. I mean not even slightly our own. But He knows what He’s doing, right? And it is good. It has to be. He’s God. Right?

If it sounds like I am trying to convince myself of this truth, it’s because I am. Once again I find myself in a situation out of my control. Once again my faith in God’s trustworthiness is tested. This time it’s a long-broken relationship on the verge of either being redeemed, or causing further pain. Which way will it go, and how do I hope for redemption and healing while protecting myself from the potential of exacerbated wounds?

The eternal question has come up once again. Can God really be trusted? Can He really redeem what’s broken, or is that just wishful thinking? Voices from the world are shouting, “People don’t change.” Are they right?

Fortunately, God has taken me down this road before. And He is eager to remind me of a personal story of restoration that I did not believe was possible until I walked through it with my own two feet, one fearful step at a time.

That story involved a relationship too—my relationship with my dad. For years I tried my best to play the game that things between us were fine, but in reality I was scared to be alone with him. He was an alcoholic, and though he could be tender and compassionate, he also had a volatile side. I never knew what would trigger his anger, so I did what I’d learned to do, tiptoe around and avoid any conversations that had the slightest chance of setting him off.

I had a long list of wrongs I felt I’d suffered as a result of the two divorces (my parents divorced, remarried each other, and divorced again), his alcoholism, and his overall lack of responsibility. I didn’t consider discussing any of these wounds with him. I had learned from experience what his response would have been (an alcoholic’s middle name is denial), and I saw no point to it. So I continued in my tiptoe pattern, with the ever-gracious smile and the silent prayers that I would not step on a land mine.

What I most regret now that I know how far God was willing to go for us, was never praying for our relationship to be redeemed. I never once asked God to heal it. I made no attempt at restoration, or even envisioning the possibility of it. What was the point? Dad was not going to change. Long-ingrained habits and patterns don’t go away. Or so I reasoned. It turns out my short-sighted thinking could not have been more wrong. God had a plan of action that no one could have imagined.

Dad ended up with advanced cirrhosis of the liver at age 62. When he was given six months to live and admitted to hospice, things became too much for my stepmother to handle alone. Being Dad’s only child, I quickly saw that the best (only?) solution was for me move out of state to live with him for the duration and to help out as best I could.

It was uncomfortable at best. Beyond challenging is probably more accurate. Overnight I, along with my stepmother, became Dad’s primary caregiver. It was still difficult for me to be alone with him, but not for the same reasons as before. Suddenly things between us were incredibly different. Dad was too weak, and often not lucid enough to maintain his prior emotional and behavioral patterns. In the process of learning to care for him, I found myself moving from my role as fearful child to one of responsible parent. There was no longer a reason for me to be intimidated by my dad, or fearful of his anger. That Dad, the one I’d known my entire life, dissolved in his weakness.

It was all so gradual, and I was so immersed in chaos, that I didn’t recognize for a while what God was doing. I now helped dress, wash, cook for, and feed the father I’d long feared. Initially I was still very angry with him, blaming him for the position I was now in as well as all that had gone before, but slowly, very slowly, compassion became the more prominent emotion. The bitterness and resentment I’d long held began to fade. It would eventually dissipate altogether.

To the surprise of everyone, Dad gradually began to get a little better. Nine months after entering hospice care, he was discharged to seek more aggressive medical treatment. As he continued to improve month after month, a renewed personality began to immerge. My previously volatile Dad regained his strength, but not his anger. We began to see one another in an entirely new way, and as he became healthy I realized that our relationship in no way resembled what it had been before he’d gotten ill. He was now gentle and I was now strong. Bitterness was replaced with genuine love and respect.

Two years later, Dad was well enough that my presence was no longer necessary, and I returned to my previous life. I left behind a new Dad. Not only had he healed physically and emotionally, he’d also given his life to Christ and become active in a local church. Our relationship had been restored. The fairy tale ending was fact.

Time passed and I began to reflect on God’s creative healing methodology. Dad never asked for forgiveness, and I never directly addressed my need to forgive him. It just happened while I wasn’t looking. With the restored relationship came the forgiveness, with the forgiveness came the healing. And the redemption God brought about in my relationship with my father continues today. I’ll visit him this weekend, my New Dad who is now five years old, and I’ll remember.

God uses our stories as Ebenezer stones, solid reminders of His redemptive power and trustworthiness. Today I return to mine as I redouble my efforts to trust God in the broken relationship I now face. God is not predictable, and He works in different ways in each situation. More pain may well come before the relationship is redeemed. But I’ve been reminded in the sweetest of memories that with God all things truly are possible. I will not make the mistake again of failing to pray for answers beyond what I can see or imagine. I know God can be trusted. I know, because He’s proven to me in profound ways, that He is in the business of redemption.

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Holding Back The Tide [joshua]

Clark S. Judge, special advisor to President Ronald Reagan, recently asked his readers, "Have we lost touch with the American narrative, with the nuances of the nation's culture, with the fabric of its life?" His question, coming on the heel's of Barack Obama's historic Presidential victory, conveyed concern over the values of a country so quick to place it's care in the hands of so liberal a man. Is President-elect Obama's acsendency evidence of the American way lost? I would say not. His is a cyclic triumph; a political season. But our way is under attack from a different source, and I think we ought to try and save it.

With some space and more time, I could show how American values, in their original and best form, are directly linked to Christian values. I could show how freedom, self-government, and democratic law foster an environment which brings out the best in us. But let me assume we can agree that our American ideals are worth preserving. [For further clarification on just what our ideals are - see Alexis deTocqueville. His observations of early America are the most distilled picture of what I'm referring to.]

Any cursory glance at modern society reveals corruption and evil aplenty. No question about it. I think inward spiritual decay necessarily precedes the outward display of it. Depravity signals spiritual deficit. Assuming a connection between our American values and Christian morals, it's clear that spiritual decay in America has also wrought the abandonment of our civic ideals. Misery loves company; as the keepers of our values falter [people of faith], those with less fervor for our American way discard it easily. To compound the problem, we accept of a daily influx of people with no connection to our culture and who've no intention of adopting it. This aspect of the problem is larger than most people realize, and I'd like to examine it.

While our national spiritual health must absolutely be addressed, discipline in action is often the first step to recovery. Let me suggest something controversial and ask you to stick with me through the end of my argument. I think we ought to stop all immigration into our country except in the most exceptionally worthy cases. I know. It's actually a bit of a painful thing for me to say. Heck, like many of you, my great-grandparents were bonafide foreign immigrants. Just like the immigrants of today, they came here in hope of a better life. But something is different now, and it's not, in fact, the people who want to come here. They are largely the same. Rather, we've changed.

Before the 1960s, immigrants were expected to learn English, be self-sufficient, and, as the Citizenship Oath says, truly give "all allegiance and fidelity" to the United States. They were expected to become patriotic Americans. Immigrants entering our nation today are met with an entirely different experience. Mark Kirkorian, Director of the Center for Immigration Studies puts it this way, "[T]he rise of identity politics, political correctness, and Great Society programs means we no longer make these demands. In short, the problem isn't them, it's us." We no longer demand of new citizens that they become "Americans". Public schools love to indoctrinate kids with the idea of America as the "Great Melting Pot", but it is a modern day myth. Hardly anyone "melts" anymore. Demanding that anyone learn our language is insensitive, demanding that they work is uncaring, demanding that they love our country is unreasonable.

A few statistics from the Center for Immigration Studies, "Massive Mexican immigration into the United States is a relatively new problem - in 1970 there were less than 800,000 living here. Now there are more than twelve million. Mexican immigrants have the lowest citizenship rate of any immigrant group, 43% of illegal Mexican households use at least one major welfare program, and even third generation Mexican-Americans use welfare at a level three times that of American natives. Polling shows that over half of Mexicans believe the American southwest belongs to them, and their children are much more likely to be incarcerated than Americans. Second-generation males aged 18-39 from El Salvador and Guatemala are incarcerated at a rate six times higher than American natives, and those from Mexico at a rate eight times higher. Studies show illegal immigrants pull down wages - about 40% in California between the years of 1969 and 1997. The United States spent about $4.5 billion subsidizing the education of foreign college students from 2005-06. The average lifetime cost of low-skilled immigrant households was about $1.2 million to American taxpayers."

As Krikorian has noted, there are three major problems associated with massive immigration - both legal and illegal. First, low-wage illegal workers drive down wages and thereby discourage innovation. If labor is cheap, companies have no incentive to create new methods of production. Economies grow when creative destruction occurs, that is, old jobs are phased out as new technology is invented to replace the workers, and new jobs are created in the production and implementation of the new technology. This growth is stymied by cheap immigrant labor. Second, the whole idea that there is a class of jobs that are unfit for dignified American citizens destroys the very thing that democracy is founded on. Self-discipline and hard-work are corner-posts of self-government and individual liberty. I want my kids to learn those values through a hard days work. Mass immigration perpetuates the notion that there are some jobs which are beneath American citizens, and that destroys equality, placing some above others. This is truly a moral issue. Thirdly, its a security issue. The quintessential example of this is the case of the Fort Dix Six. Three of these men, all from the Middle East, crossed the Mexican border in 1984. In 2007, by all external accounts, they were Americanized. They spoke English well and went by English names. None were citizens. They were caught by the FBI plotting to blow up Fort Dix military base. They had not bought into our values.

Why all the problems associated with immigrants? Because the United States government has become an enabler for their vices. We require nothing, and give everything. Why is it bad for America? Because it threatens the integrity of our American ideals. We are diluting our nation of Americans into a nation of Ameri-Mexicans, Ameri-Vietnamese, Ameri-Guatemalans, Ameri-Whatever. People leave their homelands to reap the benefits of being in America without having to truly become part of it - and they do quite well. It is our country that gets the short end of the stick.

We solve this problem by aggressively overhauling our immigration policy. Of course, we cannot deport 12 million people. What we can do is virtually shut down the borders until we can get control of the problem. In order to become a citizen, you must be college educated or otherwise demonstrably skilled. You must be able-bodied and self-sufficient. Exceptions can be made for marriage to a citizen. You may bring your family into the country once you are financially established here. All immigrants must learn English. They must learn about American culture and history and swear allegiance to the United States. As for the illegals currently in the country, we first deport those we can. Then we eliminate the largest reason they come; jobs. We impose dramatic fines for employers found to be employing illegals. Once the jobs dry up, many illegals will return home on their own. We completely eliminate welfare programs for illegals.

If America is to maintain "the fabric of [her] life", then her people must subscribe to her unique culture. It's that dynamic that made immigration such a source of her strength in the early 1900s and it's the lack of it which has begun to undermine her. With some adjustment and good sense, I think it can again be a vital part of our democracy.

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November 7, 2008

The Children Gathered 'Round [mark]

The children gathered 'round
after following the laughing clown
he was walking through the town
"he is so strong" a few would say
the anvil in his hands would sway

to and fro and up and down
the painted man with fear and frown
his tiny hat then hit the ground
loose change to beg as every day
for such a laugh they gladly pay

then all in a hurry
with floppy feet and flurry
and entertaining scurry
he the jovial jester may
with heave and haste be on his way

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November 4, 2008

The Depression Box [theodora]

Do you remember the depression box? I remember it quite well. It started with an old shoe box I decided to take into the front yard and spray paint. The shaking of the can made music and fumes hung in the air like heavy, cheap, suffocating perfume. I coughed. I sat on the crunchy leaves, watching as the paint began to dry. It was early evening. It was an early, sad evening.

That was when it started getting dark early. The sun would hide behind the trees at 5pm and I would fear that all soon the darkness would be our scenery. Chills go up and down my spine even now as I can still feel the days grow shorter, shorter, shorter, sadder..

During that time, I started using child scissors to cut out forms and shapes. I bent paper clips into stick people. I preserved the leaves that otherwise would have been trampled. I scribed every word that crossed my mind. I emptied bottles of pills. I let red and blue paint run like glorious symbolism of blood and sorrow. Art was my breath. It was the depression box.

The box now sits in a paper bag, tucked away in my closet. I have not opened it in months, for it somehow still holds a haunting power I am not sure I am courageous enough to confront. It is the reminder of all of what the human heart can hurt. The depression box was the home that I never should had visited, the place I never should of had to dwell. (And where does that leave me now you ask? It leaves me with a story I have to tell, a testimony that thrives, a journey that is still being walked.)

A year later. I breathe in, I breathe out. The spray paint can is empty and a new autumn is here. I swear, I can see hope everywhere.

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Affected by the Weather [liz]

Never out of control
Heat the house, a different feel awake or asleep
In your car warm your seat, cool your face
Park in the garage, never feel a drop
But here with a hundred names
The storm soaks through to my cold, cold skin
Night lights shine where the water falls
A current in the path
Each drop hits my head
Running down this coat to the ground
And when winter breathes in my window
I know she’ll not be gone for a long, long while
An unwanted guest following me around
Put on more clothes, find a companion to keep warm
Alone the air could stop your heart
Change with the earth’s movement, we do
Sun, rain, cloud, and cold
Here with the rest, we will always be
Affected by the weather

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