Where Are Your Accusers?

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Rerunning some of my favorites this August:

 

I grew up on cop and courtroom shows. I loved the drama of catching the bad guy or seeing a lawyer convince the jury, in commanding tones of injured justice, that the defendant was innocent. I planned to become a lawyer up until my last two years of college.

Having worked in a law office and served on a jury, I’m now aware that television doesn’t portray a courtroom exactly . . . accurately. There’s a lot less drama and a lot more drudgery. We don’t show justice quite as it happens. (But if you want to see a humorous video of all our favorite dramatizations, click here.)

This is nothing new. Courtroom scenes have always been played in different ways, sometimes in ways far from just.

Today’s story — and the question God asks—isn’t just a story about one person, or one trial. And it is so relevant to today’s world.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. (John 8.1-6)

 

So here’s the setting. A crowd. Jesus teaching. And what happens? This group of men interrupt the teaching (rude) to deposit a woman, most likely with little clothing, in the middle of the crowd. It’s wrong on so many levels.

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Most Embarrassing Moment

Have you ever been embarrassed in front of a group? I remember one particular 10th grade spelling bee. At some point, I looked across the room at my crush. And he was looking at me. I looked back. I flirted a little. I smiled, made eyes, and was generally overjoyed that he was looking right at me.

Until I realized that everyone was looking right at me. Because it was my turn. And the entire classroom had seen my awkward tenth-grade attempts at flirting.

I have no idea if I spelled the word correctly.

This woman is completely vulnerable, at risk, and humiliated. They’ve made sure of it.

The wording says they “put” her in front of the crowds. Like she is a stray fork or a plate of bad cafeteria food they can toss wherever they like. She is, in fact, their tool for entrapping Jesus. Little more.

She has no agency at all in this matter.

In a trial that should have been private and should, by law, have involved the guilty man as well, the men decide to make her shame public instead, because she fits their agenda.

Does this all sound vaguely familiar?

It’s the way women have always been treated. And Jesus isn’t having it.

Keeping the Law?

For men so intent on keeping the law, they break several.

1 —They could and should have brought her privately if they wanted a court judgement. They brought her in public, to shame her and challenge Jesus.  They wanted a dramatic lynching, and they wanted him holding the noose. It’s not about justice, and it’s not about her. She’s collateral damage.

2—They could and should have brought both guilty parties. Except a man would have demanded his rights. He would not have been as vulnerable. She had no rights. She was an easy target. People who want power choose easy, vulnerable, targets with no ability to make their own case.

3—They could and should have brought the required two witnesses forward immediately. Except, well, for two people to actually witness adultery? They had to see it at the same time and place and have the same story. In other words, they had to have set her up. No one accidentally witnesses adultery, certainly not two people. Yet these witnesses don’t materialize.

4—They could and should have tried to stop the sinner out of compassion. That was the law. Obviously, no one did. They watched and waited.

That’s just a start at the injustice of it all.

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Grace or Law?

It was a test of grace or law. Would Jesus lean too far toward grace—let her go— and break the law? Or would he lean too far toward law —agree to stone her—and invalidate all he’d taught?

Either way, the leaders are back in power. That’s the point.

They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. (John 8.7-9)

They kept demanding an answer. They are impatient, wanting condemnation on their terms, their timeline.

Jesus Replies

Jesus gives his answer. Fine. Toss a stone. Throw it. Hard.

But only according to the law that you so carefully keep—the two witnesses have to go first. The crowd would know that was the law. The accusers would, too.

He demands that her accusers be the first to begin taking a life. If your testimony is absolutely truthful, he hints, this should not be hard. If you haven’t misrepresented anything, exaggerated, told one white lie—you’re good. Go ahead. Throw a rock.

And no one does.

Jesus is keeping law for them, but enacting mercy for her all at once.

Never cross Jesus when death is on the line.

Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  (John 8.10-11)

Didn’t even one of them condemn you?

The truth here, in Jesus’ beautiful question?

No one has power to call you guilty except the Lord of grace and truth.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. (Romans 8.1-2)

Sometimes we are this woman.

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In this life, People will shame you, hurt you when you’re vulnerable, treat you like an object to use, humiliate you, judge and condemn you. I know they have.

But they don’t have the power to make that call. Don’t let them have that power.

Has no one condemned you? No, Lord.

In calling Jesus Lord, she is transferring power. She is admitting him as her master. And she is transformed. Her accusers no longer have power over her. They can’t bring her shame, judgment, or hurt. Only he can. But he doesn’t.

Look into face of your Lord. Hear his words. “Neither do I condemn you.” Let them cover you with grace and truth.

Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. (Romans 8.33-34)

No one has power to call you guilty except the Lord of grace and truth.

There is more to this story. We’ll get into it next week. For today, though, remember, shame has no place in God’s kingdom. The answer to Jesus question is—no one. No one can condemn us. Only Him. And he doesn’t. Let it transform you in all those deep places of fear, humiliation, and shame.

She is free at the end of the story, in more ways than one. He offers the same thing to all of us.

Lizzie Bennett, Pride, and Me

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When did I first meet you, Lizzie Bennet? My guess is senior english; I wish it had been sooner.

Dear Lizzie, I thought I was a wit, too. And a piano player. At least you knew your limits on the latter.

I could have used you senior recital day, some months after I must have met you. So I can’t even beg the excuse that your cautionary tale hadn’t been told to me.

Exhibit A:

My best friend emceed the concert evening, made up of all of us going to meet our ignominy at music contest festival. Playing before a judge would be sufficient terror for me, but playing before an auditorium full of kids, many of whom had never particularly liked me, and their parents? Would that be something akin to how you felt having to play and sing for Miss Bingley? Lady Catherine?

Probably not. You appear to be an extrovert, at least, and that could have saved you. At least, your bravado would have. We introverts do not comprehend that level of nonchalance.

But my friend and I were at odds just then. We were not comrades on that stage, he with the microphone and I with the sheet music. He introduced me as playing Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, joking into the mic a hope that my playing would be far from pathetic. I muttered on my way across the stage, which seemed enormous, “You’re pathetic.”

As witty comebacks go, well, it shouldn’t have gone.

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Photo by Nahir Giorgio on Unsplash

The playing was, in fact, fairly pathetic, as I always bit off more than I could chew, musically and otherwise. My 17-year-old Red-Bullesque emotions, hurt and anger from our rift, didn’t enhance the non-virtuoso performance.

We Know Now

Lizzie, you didn’t hate Mr. Darcy for his pride so much as for yours. Oh, I get that now.

When he hurled those accusations of poor family connections, vulgar behavior on the part of your relations, and less-than-stellar paternal judgment, you didn’t hate him.

You hated that it was true.

See, Lizzie, I know how that goes. I spent my teen years hating other people first so that they would not get close  enough to see that it was all true.

We were misfits, my family and I. I was a loser, behind the straight-A facade. I didn’t grasp all the social cues that made it all so effortless for the Misses Darcy and Bingley of McHenry High.

I could dance a superb jitterbug or disco, in fact, but the Dancing Through Life concept was beyond me. I didn’t ever glide where turf was smooth.

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Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

My favorite activity was debate team, where I could make someone else look small and me brilliant, and I got points for doing it. I excelled at debate team.

Drama worked too, because I could be someone else on stage, and I liked being someone else. Anyone else.

Years later, I’d hear phrases like “imposter syndrome” and I would come to realize that pretty much everyone in high school feels like a loser, but that was many years later.

Jane Austen, I Salute You

I am still in awe of your creator that she managed to write a book where everyone, including you, assumed it was his pride and your prejudice that caused all the issues, when really—Ms. Austen was laughing politely into her palm all the time—it was quite the other way around.

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Pride is an expert at camouflage. I assumed it couldn’t endanger me so long as I thought so little of myself. I didn’t grasp the deep drive underneath my words, like “you’re pathetic,” that propelled me to be better, smarter, more talented, whatever.

I needed my pride because I was so afraid it was all true.

Exhibit B:

I stopped my Old Testament prof near the registration desk. “I don’t understand why I got this score. What was wrong with the short answers?”

He looked at me quizzically. “I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

“I think I deserved an A.”

“You got an A-.”

Me. Still standing there. Looking at him.

“You are actually arguing over an A- on an OT mid-term?”

I should have gotten a clue by his face, really.

It wasn’t the superior, “I don’t even give A’s, so why are you wasting my holy time?” sort of look. I had one prof like that. 

It was more a look of, “This should not bother a person who wants to be a pastor, and I’m trying to find a nice way of saying that, AND BTW, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?”

Something clicked into place. I didn’t want to be the pastor who spent her life checking her stats on “Rate My Pastor.” (Please tell me no such site exists. Please.)

I wanted to stop fighting for a spot on a pedestal. Heights make me dizzy, anyway. 

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Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

It was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice . . . In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’ The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. CS Lewis

I do hate being patronized. So much. I know you did, Lizzie. I fidget in my seat, too, whenever I read the dialog (monologue) between you and Lady Catherine. I bite my tongue, too. She’s so interfering. So controlling. So . . . prideful. So much like I probably could be, and so could you, if we didn’t have a good sense of humor.

Are you, too, an Enneagram 5, Lizzie? Pride is the dark side of those of us who fall into the 5 range. I never understood it better than when I learned this was my core personality—my core need.

Enneagram 5:

  • Basic Fear: Being useless, helpless, or incapable
  • Basic Desire: To be capable and competent

So competent I could not handle an A-.

“Pride leads to every other vice . . .” And yet it is such a vise itself. It grips us so tightly we have to work to keep the handle supple, yielding in its turn. We must consciously turn it back, dial it in, remind ourselves that backward is sometimes the best way to turn when we’re hurtling forward into our own self-interest.

Backward reminds us to let out the throttle of pride, before it sends us careening toward destruction.

Thank You, Lizzie Bennet

Lizzie, I need you right now more than ever. Right now, when I’m teetering on the 5 edge because injury and circumstances tell me the lies that I am useless, helpless, incapable. The lies become the stories we tell ourselves, as Brene Brown would say.

Laugh with me, Lizzie. Remind me how small I really am, and how helpless we all are in the eye of the One who gives us our daily breath. When we 5’s recognize that smallness, Lizzie, it’s freeing. You’d think it would be the opposite, but we both know better.

Remind me that we spend too much time heeding the lies about who we are and too little enjoying others for who they are.

Lizzie Bennet, you are a masterpiece, and I’m grateful for having to read characters who change us, often by being like us.

A Day in the Life, Lady Preacher Style

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Day in the Life posts, videos, instas, etc look like so much fun. I’ve always wanted in on it. Who wouldn’t want to wittily record their day, with all its pratfalls and pitfalls? Every one of the joys and brilliant flashes of inspiration?

When I actually try to video a day in my life, however, two things happen.

  1. I realize I do not video well. At all. I’m just better in person, guys.
  2. I discover that a day in my life isn’t all that riveting.
  3. I forget about twelve minutes after I begin and don’t ever get back to it.

So, no day in my life has been recorded for posterity. Yet.

Yet, if I practice what I preach, I also realize that “not riveting” describes mot of us, and that, too, is a valid way to spend our hours. “Not riveting” doesn’t mean pointless. Most of us, if we tell the truth, find that pursuing our dreams and passions is a fair mix of riveting and tedium, things that must be done for the rivet to happen.

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Riveting Is Overrated

The mix tends more toward reliable trudging most days. That’s what makes up the moments that earn us the ten minutes of riveting. I’m learning to be OK with that. I’m learning, with Bilbo Baggins, to celebrate a simple life, and to be grateful and ready for the adventure.

It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.

But do you have any curiosity about a day in the life of a pastor? Most likely, my day is different than other pastors’ days. I can assure you, it’s different from male pastors.

Just a Liiiiittle Different

I remember sitting in my spiritual formation class in seminary, where the professor had just handed out a worksheet on time management. Next to each blank, we future/current pastors were supposed to record how much time we spent on each item.

Study. Check.

Sermon prep. Check.

Administrative duties. Check.

. . . .

I looked all the way down the sheet and raised my hand.

“Where are the blanks for child care? Housekeeping? Running errands? Cooking dinner? I don’t see any of those.”

My prof looked confused for a moment. Uncomfortable. Then slightly rebuked. “I guess it’s an old worksheet. Maybe it’s time I get a new one.” (I liked that man.)

I think times have changed somewhat, and I want to give male pastors their due when they share the household load equally. Still, I wonder how much has changed.

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I searched my usual site for photos of female pastors. There were none. So here I am, in protest mode, because that’s wrong, too.

So, instead of a video, here are a few random moments in the life of a (female) pastor.

A Day in the Life, Sort of

6am— Wake up. Shower. Write in gratitude journal, pray, ice my pain-filled feet, and color pictures on my phone. Whatever it takes to stay awake.

7am—Take middle child to train station to catch her train to work. Find Pokemon Go stops on the way home because, hey, life is short.

8am—Breakfast, facebook, email, grocery order. All the administrative things.

9am—Chores for the day: laundry, dishes, bathroom. Pick up endless errant stuff lying around like some really nerdy people had a rager. Feed cats before they eat my face. The usual.

9:23—Remember the three administrative tasks I forgot to do, pledge to do them as soon as I sit down again, and promptly forget them seconds later. (This is what Flylady calls mental clutter. I have a LOT of it.)

9:30—Start work for real. Sermon prep. Blog posts. Article writing.

9:35—Get distracted by birds at the feeder. The blue jays are bullying. The Orioles are gorging. The grey catbird is also eating jelly—who knew? And I’m afraid my beloved Grosbeaks have flown farther north after their usual May stay.

9:45—Get back to work. Get lost in a rabbit hole while researching marathon racing. Don’t return to task for twenty minutes.

Speaking of rabbit holes . . . 

I bet you think pastors know/learn about the Bible and not much else. Ah, how much you don’t know. How much I didn’t know until I started doing research for sermons. In just the past sermon series I have learned:

  • What a Mercalli Intensity Scale is and that earthquake shocks can travel at 8300 miles per hour. This is way faster than my new car, even when I push the “Sports mode” button.
  • That the Battle of Bunker Hill did not take place on Bunker Hill. I feel greatly deceived and will check this out on my next visit to the Freedom Trail.
  • That there are people who have nothing better to do with their time than to rank angels in order and determine all their possible permutations, even though to say that is extra-biblical knowledge is to greatly understate things.
  • That there were still people living in the South believing they were slaves in 1963. Actually, I already knew that, but now I have a name and a story to put to it.
  • That 12 million Americans believe there are reptilian beings taking over human bodies, intent on dominating the world. I, too, find it hard to believe that 12 million Americans are that stupid imaginative, but there it is.

This is merely in the past month. It says nothing of my research into building skyscrapers, ancient shepherding practices, Greek oratory, or the lost head of King Henry the 4th. For a person whose highest Strengthsfinders indicator is Input, this is the Best. Job. Ever.

Also, in church during this series, we have built gingerbread houses, simulated earthquakes, blown bubbles, and other shenanigans, so it’s safe to say some other people are having as much fun as I am.

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Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Afternoon

12:00—Lunch, which I might be blessed to have with friends, colleagues, or church members, but which usually happens at home. If it’s at home, it’s highly likely to be cheese on top of some starch item consumed in my chair while I keep working.

Yes, I need healthier options. Feel free to bring lunch.

Btw, said work chair, next to the bird feeder, is a chair bought specifically for my back issues, which was a great green leather until Pippin the furniture shredder got hold of it. It needs a little TLC. And reupholstery.

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12:30—Sit and stare at social media wondering if I’ll ever concentrate on my work again and also if I have any idea what’s for dinner.

1:00—Maybe I’ll putter in the garden; maybe I’ll do housework. Maybe I’ll look over the 123 things I have to get done before my daughter’s wedding and do, or contemplate doing, one or two of them. It’s a toss up, Maybe I’ll keep staring at Facebook. Post-lunch concentration is hard, people.

2:00—Back to work. Very possibly this will take place in a local library, because said concentration level at home is just done. I am acquainted with every library, and every Starbucks, within fifteen miles. If anyone needs to know the comfiest chairs in DuPage, Kendall, or Kane County, I can tell you. (Actually, my favorites are in Cook County, because the Elgin Library reading area is AWESOME.)

Possibly this means:

Monday:

  • Complete outline of sermon.
  • Write blog post or two or three for me or one of the outlets I work with.
  • Read articles I left from the morning’s email because ain’t nobody got time for that in the morning.
  • Work on church programs that need to be finished this month.

Tuesday:

  • Finish sermons details.
  • Create graphics for the main points.
  • Create graphics and choose pictures for blogs and social media. These are fun. They aren’t work.

Wednesday:

  • Research next week’s sermon.
  • Work on an article.

Thursday:

  • Plot out next week’s sermon.
  • Work on a speaking engagement.

Friday: Go to the zoo. Scrapbook. Read. Work on some of those 123 things to do for the wedding. Garden. Fly to Paris. Whatever I want. It’s my day off.

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

5:30—Finish any social media posting/marketing that needs to be done.

6:20—Return to train station to pick up child. Remember I never got anything out for dinner. Or folded the last load of laundry. Finish above. Binge watch Great British Baking Show or Dr. Who. Sleep. Repeat.

What’s your day look like?

Dad’s Nose, Mom’s Smile

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I have my dad’s nose. Every bit of my face, dirty blonde hair to crooked smile, belongs uncontestedly to my mother, but the nose. That broad Hutchinson nose defies my mother’s narrow ski slope one, as if my dad had to lay claim to at least one feature to prove his paternity.

Honestly, the rest of it is Mom’s too, from blue eyes to bad kidney to oddly long, skinny toes. I’ve always called the awkward smile in photos the Hutchinson smile, but it’s clearly the Swanson smile, because my brother has it too, and he is not a Hutchinson.

My dad runs deeper in me than facial features, though. Though he couldn’t prove it by my face, much of me is his, more than I ever realized as a child, staring into the mirror assuming I must be my mother through and through.

Not so.

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Skye

I look up at the white stone arch, September-red leaves twining around it like tendrils of a Scottish lass’ hair framing her alabaster face. At least, that’s what one imagines, gazing at castle ruins and thinking of lairds and ladies descending that now-crumbling staircase to waiting fawners and flatterers.

It appears this Isle of Skye, my potential homeland, wasn’t the kindest place to run a castle. They tended to fight over them on the regular, exchanging land between the clans like I exchange paint colors on the walls. Every several years, but much more violently. Seriously, if you want a change of scenery, paint is a simpler call.

Coming to Skye has been a dream of mine since I can remember. Before I knew my maiden name likely hailed from Scotland more than England. Before I knew its possible origin lay right on this island, nestled in the Clan Donald castle in whose ruins we now stand. Some part of me has always longed to stand here.

Also, I’ve always known a castle by the sea should rightfully be my home. It’s obvious some ancient lady who had my nose once walked along this shore. I know it.

The other castle we tour has far more visitors, but this one calls me. It’s a period novel cover, and I love every last falling, moss-covered stone.

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Leaving

We make our way to the museum on the grounds, and the displays on emigration fascinate me.  There is a replica of a ship’s quarters, pieces of memorabilia, and a room filled with the history of those who left the island when persecution mixed with hunger grew too insistent.

The wooden trays pull out smoothly. Either the museum workmanship was stellar, or ages of people like me have pulled them out, searching for signs of who knows what, more interested in some hazy genealogical quest than the history of Skye and its clans.

The tiny bunk area, a scarce few feet wide and long, housed families leaving the persecution of the Scots and hoping for a new start, after weeks on a rough sea in their miniature quarters.

Do I have ancestors who made that sail? My father’s family hails from Kentucky, somewhere. That’s about all I’m sure of. Kentucky is a quick jump over the mountains form North Carolina, the settling place of some of these ships. Were distant grandparents on one of them, and were their names recored somewhere within these wide pull drawers?

I don’t know. I want to believe so.

Why do I need to know?

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Our exchange student years ago asked that question. “Americans—you say you’re Swedish, or German, or Irish. But you’re not—you’re American! I’m German. Why are you all so obsessed with being something else?”

She had a point.

Perhaps it’s America’s youth, its rootlessness, its diversity. Its rough and rumble beginning that makes it question its parentage like a child who doesn’t know who his daddy is.

But why is it personal? Why do I not simply want to know about the MacDonald clan of Skye but I desperately want to be one of them? Information isn’t enough. I want membership.

We wander the gardens after, looking skyward at the massive trees. Apparently, the laird loved his trees, and he brought them back form all corners of the world. There is a love of growing things in my heritage—more proof I belong.

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Gardens

Another garden, another time, two other people. One eats a ripe, irresistible fruit. The other stands beside her, neither encouraging nor preventing, complicit in the act. Nearly as soon as the act is complete, the questions come.

Who am I?

Who is my father?

Why am I hiding?

Will I ever know those answers again?

And ever since, God their father has been trying to give them back their identity. To tell them who they are. Whose they are.

Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “Identity. It’s always God’s first move.”

It’s what we all seek. It’s what we all want.

A name. A Place. A past. A future.

My identity may begin in Varmland, Sweden, and Skye, Scotland. It might not. I only know the former for sure, and I still deeply want to know the latter. Or maybe I don’t, because if it isn’t true, I’ll have to give up my dreams of lairds and ladies and castles by the sea and being Scottish which is, I think we all agree, better than just plain English. Certainly the accent is.

I have my dad’s nose. I have my Father’s image. Who I am doesn’t depend on those sliding trays of names and history. It doesn’t. But still, I want to know.

Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance

Two weeks ago, I talked about stories. I’ve been feeling a pull, a call, to write down some stories. To remember, revisit, and reclaim some of my own. This is the first. I have no idea why it came to me first. I don’t question those things much anymore. I hope you like it.

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Photo by Mitchell Gaiser on Unsplash

Junk Mail, Couches, and Repentance

The beige rental carpet itched my legs, bare on a rare warm Montana afternoon. Who knew what those fibers were made of or what had made contact with them over years of rental to college students. A newlywed, I figured I had immunity to all of life’s hardship, including infection from dubious rental carpet. Still, I moved to the couch to open my stack of mailbox-warmed envelopes.

I had a new last name and a new home, and the fact that said home sat in the landlady’s basement and had a kitchen so small I couldn’t open the oven and the refrigerator at the same time mattered little to my self-satisfied first months as a bride.

The landlady’s only real intrusion came on random Saturday mornings when the live-in boyfriend decided to practice his elk horn at 4 am. Directly above our bedroom. I don’t know how well he could bow hunt, but his elk horn skills were enthusiastic.

Said new name and home made opening even junk mail in the basement an exciting daily event. Neither age nor experience had yet jaded me to seeing my name and address on an envelope half-way across the country from where I’d grown up and feeling the special adultness of it all.

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Photo by Christian Stahl on Unsplash

The couch’s combo of white polyester and black vinyl squares didn’t treat my thighs much better than the carpet had. My new in-laws had given us the couch when we moved from St. Louis to Bozeman for the first year of medical school, with them ten miles away. I didn’t look gift furniture in . . . what pat of a couch passes for a mouth? Point being, with a recession in Montana and no one hiring an English teacher with one year of experience and only one year of commitment to offer, gratitude seemed the sensible option.

I opened Concerned Women for America’s red, white, and blue envelope third. On our meager income, I’d agreed to send a few dollars when I could. We were in a fight after all, we Christians and “them.” Even then, I wasn’t quite clear on who “them” was. But I knew it was true. I listened to conservative Christian radio and focused on my family every day even though we had no children and wouldn’t until we lived on a lot more than a part-time after school program facilitator’s  salary with generous outstanding student loans.

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Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

Currently, “we” were fighting allowing gays in the military. The slippery slope warnings in the letter, appropriately capitalized, italicized, and red in all the right places, made sense. They had to be true. They came from people that people I trusted  said people they trusted said were to be trusted—so how could they not be?

“They” would cause morale to drop. Trust would fail among the brethren. Real men would flee the military. Troops would decline, we’d embarrass ourselves in every war, America wold lose its status as world leader, and western civilization would end as we know it.

I’d never get those 2.5 children. All because real men didn’t want to shower with not real ones.

Obviously, I had to do my part.

I don’t think it was that day I began to read a bit between the lines, began to see what hadn’t been explicitly written but what surely had. It took time. A few red, white, and blue envelopes opened. A number of appeals that decried “them” as despicable minorities intent on shoving their agenda into my well-ordered, clearly Christian-Right manicured life.

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Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

A few more adjectives that made me pause. It happened one day that year on my scratchy black and white couch. I saw the words and I wondered if Jesus would use them. I wondered whom he would call despicable. Disgusting. Militant. I wondered why I read a lot of words about America and protection and rights and not any at all about Jesus even though all these words in the red, white, and blue envelopes supposedly came straight from his heart.

The discomfort had been trickling in, but I’d ignored it because of all those trusted people. If I couldn’t believe these words, what would happen to my well-ordered, promising future? Who would defend me against “them”? Being young and in love did not protect me from the weary woes of the world—bad carpet or bad policy. I knew this. Who didn’t need a buffer between us and them, me and those who would come for my one-day children, if I didn’t send in my duly-appointed ten dollars?

That day, I didn’t.

Another Couch

Another couch, another day. Many years between, and three children, one of whom sat beside me, sixteen and lovely, but mad as righteous indignation can make an almost-woman.

We could afford a better couch by this time, and I’d bought this one to match my perfect plans for the living room—navy blue plaid, intermingled with forest green and cranberry, shards of gold shot between. The precise colors I’d wanted. Still, perfection is a beast of a slave master, because Pippin the black cat used that couch regularly to sharpen his mouse-catchers on, and all the shouts, claps, and sprays of water in our arsenal had never convinced him to desist.

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I can’t protect my couch, let alone my neat world.

I apologized to the girl-woman, she uncertain if tears or spitting anger fit her mood best, so she alternated the two in amazing synchronicity. I unsure of the words to admit I’d been wrong, because words of apology had always hung somewhere between my heart and my mouth, like a breech baby wanting to come out but not willing, and in the meanwhile showing its worst side to the world.

I’d tried to protect her, really to protect me and the perfect world I’d created as a pastor and a mother. She wanted to support her lesbian friends on the Day of Silence, and I’d refused to let her buy the commemorative T-shirt to wear at school that day. I made up some excuses as to why I didn’t want her wearing it, that kids were cruel and crazy and sometimes even allies got attacked, but we both knew they were flimsy at best. She had friends, and she wanted to love them well, and it seemed an easy choice to her.

But not to me.

All those us’s and them’s came pouring back over me, and I understood as I held her I’d messed up not just in my edict but in showing courage to a girl learning to step into her skin and her world. Though I’d refused that agenda twenty-some years before, I lacked the nerve to do it out loud, at least, to allow her to do it out loud and accept whatever ripple effect it had on me.

I had such potential as a right-wing political activist. Nearly went to law school. Could write a potent protest letter when the need presented itself. Knew all the right causes and defenses.

Until I didn’t.

Until I realized that agendas go both ways. We all have them. That we don’t see our own only creates a wider chasm between us and them.

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Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

I don’t know if I’ve put my agendas down, but I know now that safe isn’t on any of them. I know that if I can’t imagine my words coming out of the Prince of Peace’s mouth, I’d probably better rethink them. I see his agenda, and I see how we, I, have wanted to use it to create my own.

The exercise should frustrate me. The backwardness of it astounds me.

They’re still around, CWA. The website, nonexistent in those days of red, white, and blue envelopes, still touts defense of family, religious liberty, and national sovereignty. I clicked on the “gays in the military” fact card, but I got a 404 message. No more facts to be had, I suppose, and now I understand that there never really were.

Still, the fact card decrying “hate crime” legislation, the quotation marks intentionally delegitimizing the pain and fear of those who don’t find themselves in the beautiful white straight majority, perches unapologetically on the resources page, daring me to argue with its logic and new veneer of grace.

I still don’t see much Jesus.

Thanks, Dad

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The Field of Honor flags hang still as I walk among them, their stripes melded together with not a hint of breeze to break the humid, stifling July early evening. Yesterday, they fluttered and flew. Today, nothing. I wish they would, walking between poles in the slightly curved display of hundreds of flags.

It would be a better photo op, at least.

A few years ago, I zip tied these flags to the poles, along with a couple dozen other volunteers in the VFW multi-purpose room. I purchased one for my dad. I thought he would be proud to have his name there, giving passing people the chance to thank him for what he had done long ago on a ship in the South Pacific.

I toured that ship last summer. I walked the same decks he had as a boy in 1944. Yes, a boy he certainly was. Sixteen year old—probably the age of one of the cafeteria servers in the black and white photos that hung in the bowels of the ship-turned-museum. For all I knew, that photo was my dad. I didn’t know what he looked like at sixteen. I didn’t know what he had done on that ship.

I don’t know how much of his choice to enlist resulted from patriotism and how much stemmed from a deep desire to get away from home. Regardless, for two years that teenaged boy who would be my father walked those decks, heard those guns, ducked enemy fire, and committed acts of both bravery and horror of which he never, ever spoke.

Maybe the flags hang silent for a reason.

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For the first time in the twenty-two years we’ve lived in our little community, I didn’t march in the July 4th parade. (Technically, it’s July 3rd here, but who wants to be technical?) I heard the celebration from my backyard, the usual pre-parade chaos of sirens and drums, not quite ready for prime time. I usually heard it from a much closer proximity.

I’ve walked that parade route as a 4H volunteer, a community theater board member, and, most recently, as a library participant. Possibly as a garden club member, too, tossed in one year for fun. I’ve walked it in rain and in scorching heat. Once, we walked it in a thunderstorm, but that disbanded quickly, and I spent a couple hours locating my children who had fled the 4H float and taken refuge in that same VFW hall.

It seems community can’t get rid of me here. Part of me missed the chaos and camaraderie; part of me appreciated the relative quiet and definitely the air conditioning.

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Seventy-five years ago, my dad stepped on a ship that must have been the largest structure that southern-Illinois-bred boy had ever seen, sporting a new buzz cut and a uniform doubtless too big. He fought a regime that only believed in human dignity insofar as the humans looked like white northern Europeans and thought like they were instructed. Which means, they didn’t think. They chose to look away. They chose to scapegoat their personal fears and woes. They chose to excavate multiple reasons why what was happening must be so. It had to be a deep dig.

There is nothing, nothing on the face of this earth or in heaven, that justifies treating an image of God as anything less than that. We must dig far to find those things, because they do not lie anywhere easy in God’s good world.

A few years ago, I bought that flag and its memorial, waterproof pouch for my dad, and they put his name on it. They printed the years he served the US Navy, 1944-46, and I remembered that pouch when I walked the metal stairs and touched the cold bunks of the USS Iowa. What he did there died with him, but I knew he had grown up quickly in those years, and I knew he understood why he had gone.

This year, I chose not to walk the parade, because I could not step in time to a theme of “Let Freedom Ring” when it does not and is not for so many. When boys my father’s age on that boat are in cages and babies have to defend themselves in court. When parents who only want their children to live have them stolen instead. When people die because they dreamed of freedom, and even to request it was denied.

I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

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I think that choice also honored my dad. Dad believed in fairness. He believed in treating humans as fellow humans. He believed in fighting evil and naming it for what it was, even if that fight for him began more as a way to leave his parents’ difficult home than as a declaration of human rights. He believed Teddy Roosevelt.

He had seen what happens when we look away.

Victory Lap

 

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I knew from the age of twenty-eight that I might die the way my mother did. An ultrasound confirmed the hereditary kidney disease that had taken her, her sisters, and her mother far too young. That day I began to understand what it means to live in fear of dying, something most twenty-somethings don’t have any business understanding.

Our hearts sometimes can’t hear our heads through the fog of fear. Though my head knew that medical science had progressed in those years since my mother’s death, my heart knew only its own experience. If I died at the same age she had—fifty—I would leave a youngest child the same age her youngest child had been when she died. That child was me.

See the rest of the story today over on THE GLORIOUS TABLE. Do we want to live in fear or do we want the victory lap?