Last June, Lon and I had been with our new friend Alicia and a few other neighbors on a river rafting trip. It was the most exhilarating and playful time I’d had in years. Piling giddily into the van to head for home, Alicia checked her messages. There was one from a doctor, supposedly the “best fertility specialist on the Westside,” who told her in a monotone voice message that for a variety of reasons her body, at the age of 41, was simply incompatible with pregnancy. She should stop wasting her time and money, pursue adoption or make her peace with not having children. It was a very long six hours home.
But Alicia is a woman of hope and persistence. She would not take no for an answer. She sought out a Chinese herbalist, drank vile concoctions religiously. Even asked me to pray. Now, prayer is not her primary language but she has dedicated her life to the good works of a Higher Power, celebrating 13 years of sobriety on our rafting trip, and making a vocation out of helping others reach that same goal. Somewhere deep inside she believed that there was a baby in her. And then, there was. She and her boyfriend Jamis entered 2011 as expectant parents. Alicia was sick every single day of her pregnancy but never complained. She was glowing, beautiful, a living example of the scripture passage from Acts 2:26 “my flesh lives in hope.”
Jackson was born on August 16th, just moments before Lon and my 26th wedding anniversary. It was a hellacious labor followed by a c-section followed by every sort of nursing challenge a mother can face. It seems this is increasingly common, women not being able to generate enough milk, women worrying themselves sick about it, feeling guilty that they are failing at parenting right out of the gate. A whole industry has been spawned to “support” them in their commitment to nursing: prenatal nursing classes, nursing coaches, pumping stations, online breast milk purchased from virtual wet nurses. I’m grateful that I never had to go through all that; both of my children latched on instantly and gulped for a good nine months. But I hate that we’ve created this culture of judgment in parenting styles. Whether it’s nursing or cloth diapers or the family bed or organic baby food— the list of choices and decisions that a mother and father will have to make as they endeavor to raise a child will go on for a lifetime— the fact that parents seem to have a Greek chorus of wagging fingers and Gotta Shouldas in their ears helps no one, and makes it painfully hard for new parents to feel the confidence in their own good judgment they need to be effective.
Today was the first day that Alicia had Jackson with her all day long without any help. Her mother had just returned to New Mexico. Jamis was back at work. Alicia’s best friend— my next door neighbor Rachel—who works for Alicia at a sober living home for women, put the All Hands On Deck out on Facebook. Every mom on the cul-de-sac responded, stood at the ready to take a shift. Fifteen minutes is the gift of eternity to a new mother. I got the text to come over as I was working on a research exercise for my new theology program, essentially an academic treasure hunt intended to familiarize me with all the databases and resources at my disposal. I had just finished defining Diatessaron and was moving onto a question about the typical diet in Israel around the time of Christ when the text came. Come over. I need to pump. .
It’s been a very long time since I’d held a fussing infant. They can’t be reasoned with. They can only occasionally be soothed. And without fail, they’ll demand with their jagged cries—their one and only resource—that you continue to pace and jiggle so as to simulate the feeling of being back in the womb. Jackson will grow up surrounded by a community of strangers who have committed to the idea of being a family. It was only this week when I realized that I was the “grandmother” of the group, standing by, offering a bit of wisdom where I can. Free from having to defend my own day-to-day parenting choices (my own children are now 17 and 21) I can now say with utter sincerity, “There are a lot of ways to raise a child well.” I wish we could all bear this in mind as we come alongside other parents in our lives. God has given them this child— them, and no one else— and it is up to them— them, and no one else— to listen to the still, small voice of their hearts, that same voice that told Alicia— and Sarah, and Elizabeth, and Mary— that she would have a child. That will continue to guide her and Jamis as to what their child needs and how they can best deliver it. Breast or bottle, schedule or free flow, work or stay-at-home, God will be with them through all of it. And in the end, “only three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Day 3 in my new office with its pale yellow walls and its clean, white, seemingly endless desktop. The chair in corner is not too big, not too small. I can read there comfortably for hours. The windows are open out onto the street, which is quiet now with all the neighborhood kids back in school. For my morning devotion I was reading from Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together: The classic exploration of Christian community and was struck by these lines: “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work. At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it.” This passage called me back to my time in Taize, to a particular song that I suddenly longed to hear so badly that I postponed by homework while I searched for a good copy of it, bought it, downloaded it, listened and smiled to it, and now have it to share with you. Most of the music I tend to be drawn to is replete with minor chords and longing and the seeds of a good cry. This one is full of confidence, joy, hope and the sure promise of our faith. May it bless your day as it has mine.
05 – I am sure I shall see the goodness of the Lord
A few years ago, I was working as a Creative Director at a technology-based advertising agency. It was an unlikely company as very few people— like, ten out of 400— had any experience or even interest in the advertising business. Most of the employees came out of film or technology or sales or somebody’s personal phone list and had signed on with the sure promise of being millionaires by the end of the year. There seemed to be no basic understanding of marketing or strategy or the American consumer; when I heard one day that we had an in for a pitch with General Mills, I had to explain to several key executives what General Mills was and why securing business with them might be a good thing for growing the company.
In my final month there, I got wind through one of the sales people that we had been invited to pitch the national business for the Presbyterian church. I offered to attend the meeting. “I speak that language,” I told him cryptically. “I think I can help.” The air between us suddenly felt charged. I sensed that I had gone out on a limb. I had never made an issue of my Christian faith before at work; it was a flagrantly secular company, which was why I thought it important for me to be at the meeting.
My offer ended up being misconstrued in more ways than I will ever know. My boss accused me of every sort of deception. Although it was understood that I was to handle all new business pitches and particularly businesses with large “franchise” possibilities, and although I spoke to sales people and made plans for meetings every day, somehow the issue of religion had cast my actions in a different light. I tried to explain why the pitch was even important. “Churches are a perfect model for creating a national TV message with a localized tag. It’s exactly what our company is set up to do. I know if I go to the meeting I can get us the business. They’ll recognize that they’re in safe hands.”
There was no indication that he appreciated the gesture. “I can’t believe there are that many Presbyterian churches,” he said curtly. “I want to see a number on my desk by this afternoon.”
“10,000,” I replied, pointing to my desktop. I’d already begun researching some of the nuances of the denomination that morning. This enormous number seemed as foreign to him as the idea that Americans ate breakfast cereal and spend lots of money on it. In California’s “film-technology-cultural complex” it is a point of pride not to even know about what the rest of America is doing. I remember trying to find creative teams to work on projects for both the NFL and the NHL and young men rolling their eyes (through hipper-than-though glasses) as if the idea of professional sports was offensive to them. I tried to educate my boss. “There’s a great history of ad campaigns for the church. In the 80s, the work being done for the Mormons won every creative award in the book. Last year the Methodists had a really cool campaign, too. I’m telling you, church marketing can lead to really great creative possibilities. The kind of work that’ll get us noticed.”
His blank stare twisted in on itself, confusion transitioning to dumbfoundedness. “What could a church possibly be marketing?”
I paused, considered how best to explain it. “Hope. Joy. Peace. A sense of purpose. A sense of belonging.” It felt, in that moment, like a testimony.
I was laid off the following week. Stunned, but ultimately, grateful. The scripture “Do not cast your pearls before swine,” came to mind.
Recently, as I began to solidify my plans to begin my MA in Theology, I found that the power of marketing faith played no small role. Faith without Mandate. That’s what it said on the website for Concordia University in Irvine. My first impression of Concordia— formed over a decade ago— was that it was a small, regional, Lutheran college; small, as in narrow, small as in limited. In all my grandiosity, I had imagined I would need to study theology expansively, without limits, without the blinders of any particular denomination. I had considered Fuller and Claremont; I had looked at Biola and Azusa Pacific. I had even flirted with the idea of commuting up to Berkeley as another friend had done. Long before I even knew or understood or admitted that I would make theology my heart’s desire, I had searched every Christian university website in the Pacific north and southwest. Every one of them required a “faith statement” —- basically, a statement where a person attempts to say what precisely, exactly, they believe in a language that will be approved by those in charge. Although I’d come to accept it as necessary, everything about this requirement felt wrong to me.
I can’t say for certain when Concordia began using the slogan Faith without Mandate or its tagline “Developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.” I had looked at their site 100 times and never noticed it before this summer. The Holy Spirit is funny that way, revealing things at just the right time. As I filled out my application, the only statement I was required to make was a short explanation of why I’d chosen Concordia and what I hoped to do with my degree. In other words, they were willing to give me the best of what they have to offer, of what they have learned and believed to be true about what it means to follow Christ, about how to apply myself rigorously towards understanding matters of theology in a more profound and purposeful way, but how those teachings take root in me, how scholarship emboldens my faith, what I enter— or walk away— believing is between me and God. Deep in my heart I knew that this is how it should be.
I was reminded of how important this idea of faith without mandate was to me again just last week when I read that Governor Perry had spent a weekend retreating privately with 200 evangelical church leaders for the purpose of giving his faith statement. Of having it vetted. Of making promises about how that faith would translate into action, running mates, platforms. Now, I have no idea what Governor Perry believes. He may be a true saint. He may be an ordinary guy who’s smart enough to know how much money a presidential bid takes. He may be evil incarnate. I really couldn’t say. But I believe there’s something very wrong about a person using his claim to faith to buy votes. Maybe I was guilty of the very same thing when I offered to try to win business with my “Christian credentials.” Maybe those of us who walk down this road and find themselves, on occasion, on the front lines, need an extra measure of protection from our lesser angels.
When it comes to marketing faith, may we try to remember that Christ himself wrote the manual of best practices 2000 years ago: “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
My dear friend Barbara called me tonight from Santa Fe. She was staying at her mom’s house, looking out at a desert sky full of lightning. She wanted to tell me that she’d found a copy of my first book “Baptism by Fire” in the guest room and she’d just finished rereading it. The first time she’d read the book, she and I had barely known each other. Barely known Christ. Now I count her on a short list of very special people in my life. And in the church.
She and I are both entering seasons of change. Mine, at least on the surface, appears to have more shape to it: I’m starting my MA program, Remy is starting college, Graham is finishing college. Lon and I are in the middle of repainting a room, reclaiming what had been the turf of children as a real grown-up office for me. I am far from having all the answers— about who will publish my new book, about where this MA will lead— but I have chosen a new road and have begun heading down it. Barbara’s entering a different stage, that place where your exterior life still appears quite defined— perfect even— but underneath there are fissures of change splitting across your psyche, groaning, demanding their due. We talk of the need to be still, to wait, to pray. We talk of seeing the things God puts right in front of you until something starts to become clear.
In times like these I always turn to “The Prayer of Thomas Merton.” At one point I kept a copy of it in my wallet, could recite it by heart. But it was not until Kate Campbell, another dear friend, recorded it that the prayer, for me, came fully into its own. Which is, in the end, the goal that God has for each one of us.
Many thanks to Kate for allowing me to share it with you here. Prayer Of Thomas Merton
Over the past few years my son Graham has developed a funny habit of calling me from the road for Sigalerts. For those of you who don’t have a service like this, it’s basically an online map of your local freeways showing horrible traffic in RED, and mild slowdowns in ORANGE, and smooth sailing in GREEN. They even spell out the start and stop points by freeway exit, and often times, the cause. It’s not that Graham thinks I can do anything about the traffic; what he wants to know is how long will he have to suffer, and will it be smooth sailing after that. Isn’t that what we all want to know when we’re facing a challenging time? How bad is this? Will it get worse? Or is this merely a blip in an otherwise lovely life.
My first official class for my MA in Theology started this week. It’s a 1-unit online class on how to do theological research—you can’t proceed with other courses until you’ve taken it. So on Wednesday I found myself on the 405 south, headed for the Concordia Bookstore. It was 11:00 a.m.. It should have been a straight, 70-mile-an-hour shot, but halfway down I found myself at a dead stop. I inched. I furrowed. I began to consider what life would be like next month when I’d begin driving down in the late afternoon twice a week for night classes. Smooth sailing seemed like a distant memory. I reached for my phone (I know, I shouldn’t have, but I did), pushed the speaker button, and speed dialed my son. “Check the Sigalert for me, wouldja? I’m at Bixby Knolls.”
Within moments he was able to report that the RED was short-lived and that I’d have an easy ride the rest of the way. Suddenly, I felt better. Despite the snail’s pace and the wall of neighboring trucks, I could relax. Enjoy the music. Not be bogged down thinking about being stuck in traffic all day long and through the next 18 months of my program. It was then I began to wonder why God couldn’t provide us with some sort of Sigalert for our journey through life. “Hard times thru spring, then a burst of new life.” “Detour unnecessary, stay the course.” “Four lane pile up; expect delays.” Wouldn’t that make it easier for us to endure hard times?
Probably. But then I thought about our basic human nature, which is pretty well hard-wired to avoid suffering. Given the choice of getting on a road that was guaranteed to have trials and pitfalls, many of us would choose not to travel down the road at all. And then where would we be? Safe, but stuck. Not out there in traffic, but not moving at all. Growth takes movement. And setbacks. And sometimes even collisions. May God grant us the peace we need to take them as they come.