Monday, October 25, 2010

Religion and Relationship Advice Column

Today, I offer you an advice column with a question coming from a friend in ministry in Southeast Asia.

Question: We have a great woman at our church but her husband, formerly a church leader, has turned away from God over a leadership concern. They have two kids and she is trying to teach them the ways of God but encounters resistance from her husband 24/7.

How can we help?

Answer:  He may have been wounded by church people. Whatever his part may have been in the break with the church and with God, he is now in a place of pain, anger, and possibly guilt and shame. That's a complicated emotional meal to swallow, and his wife keeps placing it before him by her work and support of the church.

The wife's challenge now: honor God AND honor her husband --who apparently doesn't want her to honor God in her accustomed ways.

She must not compromise her own faith. She must also not ask her husband to compromise his current stance. 

I've often wanted to walk away from the church because of the actions of those who call themselves Christian. But then I ask myself, "How many others have wanted to walk away because of ME?" I'm not immune from doing some pretty awful things in the name of Jesus.

Her husband speaks his truth: he can't do church and God now. Truth beats a lie, the pretense of being Christian. It is a good starting place. 

The wife will do best if she also speaks truth. Among other things, is she using her husband's disregard of God as an excuse to disregard her husband and his needs? I'm not saying she should leave her love for God behind. May it never be!!!! I'm saying that living out of the love of God in this situation may have to be done in a way that she has not yet considered.

The wife can live from her love for God by loving her husband fully. That means acknowledging that he is a person of value to God, even in this time of disbelief. 

Their children should see modeled loving patience, an ability to hear differing viewpoints, and gracious reception of them. This mean living the gospel without necessarily preaching it: the path of grace and invitation to the heavenly places. 

You want to comfort this woman. Be careful here--and I say this out of personal experience now. Often the person who looks the most righteous in a marital spat is the root cause of the problem--a deeper issue that surfaces as a disagreement over spiritual matters. 

In a situation like this, the wife may easily cast herself as the noble martyr with the unrighteous husband. But the kindest and most loving act she can do is encourage her husband to explore what it means for him to declare himself separated from God.  Ask him to define what that means for him personally, and what that means for them as a couple and as parents. What does he think is right for the children's Christian instruction? Is he willing  to let them hear Bible stories and learn to pray? If not, why not? If so, within what bounds? 

The wife needs to ask similar questions. What does it mean for her to continue to seek to be a woman of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ? How does that play out in the mundane tasks of caring for a household, rearing children, loving her husband, doing ministry with the church? Out of my experience, I have learned there is a fine line between living as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and being an arrogant and hypocritical prig, looking down my nose at others who do not believe as I think they should or act in the ways I want them to.

Wish there were an easier fix.  Discipleship is always messy.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Grandfather's Letters

Last week, as I was writing on my mother's letters, I noted that my grandfather, my dad's father, didn't ever seem to write any letters.  Most of the correspondence was between my mother and Kokomo, my dad's mother. 

Kokomo died in the summer of 1971. Mother, ever faithful in her letters, kept writing and this time addressed them to Grandfather and Elaine, Elaine being my father's invalid sister who had lived with her parents after some years in the mission field.

Then, Grandfather began to write.  I don't know why I was surprised to see how well he wrote.  Like Kokomo, his livelihood had been teaching school, and he was a literate man.  But I had only known him as retired, and as the most wonderful Grandfather who could fix anything.  We all eagerly awaited his often lengthy visits from Indiana to Texas when he would get to work and do a year's worth of maintenance projects on my parent's aging and often crumbling house. 

But he could write, and he did write of his heartbreak.  He had lost the love of his life. Grief simply swallowed him.  He traded life-long superb health for chest pains and recurring bouts of pneumonia. This independent, energetic man suddenly asked if my parents would permit him to move in with them, leaving his own home behind in Indiana where he had spent his entire life.  The answer was an immediate "Yes, we'd love to have you," but every time Grandfather would decide to buy a ticket and see how to make this work, the chest pains took over.

I read of his emotional devastation, and suddenly, after weeks of bleak grief of my own, my mind and heart lightened and cleared.  This is my family.  An ordinary, American family.  Better educated than some, perhaps, but that is about the only thing that stands out. Financially conservative, we pay our bills and live middle-class lives.  We have squabbles and differences.  Difficult children and challenging marriages litter the landscape, but no divorces until my own generation said a louder "no" to marital misery than the previous ones had been able to do. 

We live ordinary lives and we have been dying ordinary deaths as well.  Most of the grandparents and great-grandparents lived into their 80's.  They had the usual decline, and then death.  We have been doing what most American families do:  figuring out a way to cope with this, and wondering why it is so hard.

As I was writing this blog, especially as my mother's death came closer and closer, I became painfully aware that most people I know don't have any idea how to handle what is inevitable for all of us.  I see too many people agonizing over a parent's decline with no preparation in receiving death as both sorrow and as gift. 

People will whisper to me, "I just can't take this much longer."  That happens when the chore of caring for the dementia-ridden, lingering, overly-medicalized parent or spouse one ends up hurting the care-givers far more than it offers help to the one being cared for. I hear words of relief when it is over, often spoken in shame rather than recognizing the normality of such a response.  Relief and grief hold hands. They are intimate friends, not enemies to be forever separated.

We don't know what to do with our relief or our grief.  My grandfather, this so alive man, missed his wife with such intensity that when he died, a year and a half after her death, his doctor actually said, "He died of a broken heart."  I understand. I had times after my mother died that I wasn't sure I could keep going.  My depression was so deep that I wanted it to end with my own death.  Just too much pain.  I also knew enough to be aware that it would pass, given enough time and sleep and decent food and good friends to listen to me.  And it has now passed.  Something about reading Grandfather's ache freed my own.  I will always miss my mother, my father, my grandparents.  I miss friends that have already died.  The places reserved in my heart for loving them still exist.  But I am no longer disabled by this loss. 

I have also learned something:  we need to accept this inevitability.  We must learn to appreciate death as a part of life, and to prepare for our own end for the sake of those who love us.

We must first address the state of our souls.  This one thing I know for sure:  the personal characteristics that you practice the most will become powerfully evident at the end of life.  One who practices impatience will become a tyrant.  One who practices kindness will be the most loved patient in any setting.  It will be revealed.  Get those holy habits in place now.  There's no "later" here. It's time.

In addition, every adult, even with few assets,  needs to have a legal will, and this is absolutely vital if there are dependent children.  Each of us also needs to make decisions about the disposal of our bodies so these decisions are not left to those who have just lost someone and are themselves lost in grief.  These are acts of love.

Assuming that most of us will die with the usual process--the slow and often lengthy decline until things just start to snowball and finally cave in, each of us need to decide just how much medical intervention we want as that inevitable decline accelerates.  Why do we expect others to make those decisions for us?  How unfair!  And when we've made them, we need to make sure that others who may have to enforce the decisions know clearly and fully what is expected to be done and what must not be done.

There are books written on how we should live with grace and power. It's time to write some on how we shall die with grace and power. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Chaos of Life/church

I have been home sick for a couple of days and managed to get into the church office yesterday for what I had thought would be just a couple of hours--which of course turned into an all-day marathon.

But, more to the point, as I walked in, I was greeted with construction chaos.  Ladders in the hallway and storage room as electricians did some re-wiring.  More work on the new sound booth in the worship center.  The administrative office completely re-arranged.  A new and wonderful laminator has been delivered, purchased by the lengthy and laborious collection of food labels by church members under the leadership of Kristi Lounsbry, and it is HUGE and needs a place to live.

My desk sagged with work that I had hurriedly left on Tuesday thinking I'd be back on Wednesday to clear it out but became ill instead. Mail stacked high for me to look at, charge conference reports coming in and still needing to be finished, emails, people I needed to see.  The book I'm writing on my mother's death sits unfinished as I read her letters and pick out the very best for this. Yes, wonderful chaos.

I'm deep into the 1971 letters.  I can only read a few and then have to stop.  The complexity of this year for my family gets to me.  
  • My brother, graduating in 1970 from Rice University, had moved to Santa Barbara, California as a computer engineer. 
  • I graduated from Rice in May, 1971, and went to California in June to join Campus Crusade for Christ.  
  • My sister became engaged that summer; I broke off yet one more relationship that summer (I had ended an engagement the previous summer; this summer's young man was living with my parents at the time when I broke that one off!) 
  • My dad's mother, Kokomo, died on August 10.  I found the last letter she wrote to my mother on August 1.  From what I've can glean, she wrote nearly daily to my mother for 20 years.  And then she became ill from some sort of gastrointestinal situation (apparently of long standing), went into the hospital, slipped into a coma and died.  
  • I moved to Seattle, Washington; my brother got engaged to Nancy, from Dearborne, Michigan. and they started making their wedding plans for February, 1972; my sister and her fiance broke up and she did a tailspin into a terrible depression.  
  • I found Campus Crusade to be a very difficult environment theologically and personally (I've often said this was the first really bad decision I ever made), gained 25 pounds and watched with horror as my to-then perfect complexion turned into a mass of red welts.  
  • There had long been difficulties between my mother and my father--all three of us children figured they would split when we had all left home.  They didn't split formally; they just split emotionally. 
  • Money was still tight--the big delight was finding frozen dinners for $.33 apiece.  Fortunately, there was only Jill left in college, so that helped a great deal.  But still, I could see the financial pressures on all of us.

And mother just kept writing letters.  This may be the year of her highest achievement in writing.  I can almost see her trying so hard to hold everyone together as we are individually, especially me, my sister, and my grieving grandfather, disintegrating.  She wrote and she sewed frantically, as if making clothes for us (she had become quite skilled at making clothes for me, my sister and for herself as a way of saving money) would heal the wounds.  

So, on this rainy Saturday in October, 2010, five weeks after my mother's death, she is extraordinarily alive to me.  That caring heart, that need to control (that one was handed down to me in a BIG way), the hope that activity can smooth over turbulent emotions and unsettled relationships, the gift with words:  they are all here in these folders filled with onionskin copies and hard-to-decipher originals.  

It gives me hope in the midst of my own chaos. When I read my own letters written than year, I see the glimmers of an emerging maturity, even as I struggle with a deep depression and do my best to hide it and cover it up.  

All of us will always live in some kind of chaos--it is the nature of life.  And it is possible to find the holiness in the chaos, at least for me, as we're all trying to figure out our lives and how God does work in them.  It is not a neat and ordered process.  Right now, I simply feel extraordinarily lucky in the glue of my mother that sought to hold us together so tightly as our lives swirled, danced and got tangled up around us.  What a prize she was!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Souls Revealed in Our Letters

I've not written recently about my mother and my continuing grief process over losing her.  Mainly, I've not written because I just didn't want people to know how hard this is for me.  So I've shoved it inside and let it fester and now I'm sick.  Just a bad cold, but enough that I am not able to go to work right now. I know my illness and my unwillingness to write about my interior life have intertwined.  So, if I won't deal with my stuff one way, its going to come out another way.  As with all of us, my mind, soul, spirit and body together form me, and one part cannot be ignored or permitting to grow unhealthy without consequences.  

Last week, several kind souls helped me put all of my mother's saved letters (I've estimated about 8000 pages) into folders by year and also to make stacks of some personal keepsakes that I've salvaged from the piles and piles of papers I had to go through.  The first folder starts at 1949 and the last one this year, 2010.  Some are stuffed--and some years needed two folders.  Others represent lean years--primarily the early and the later years. As I think about it, the folders arrange themselves quite well into the bell curve--the outer edges barely registering on the graph, but the middle years rising sharply and hitting their peak when all three of us children were in college and starting our careers and families.

Yesterday afternoon, with a cup of hot tea and plenty of tissues to keep me company with this nasty cold, I began to read in earnest, starting with the oldest items. As I read, I am putting aside the very best letters Mother herself wrote that she kept copies of (this practice was sporadic until about 1966, unfortunately)--the ones I think most expresses mother's uniqueness.  But I'm also reading letters she decided to keep that were written to her.

We were a letter writing family.  No question about it.  Unfortunately, none of us had particularly legible handwriting.  Apparently, my dad's mother, known to all of us as "Kokomo," wrote nearly every day for quite a while, although it looks like most of those letters no longer exist.  Mostly just about routine stuff, daily happenings, family matters.  She also wrote one special letter to each of her grandchildren on their birthdays each year.  I have mine and I've seen the ones to my sister, but am not sure about the ones to my brother, but hope they are still here somewhere.  

In the oldest folders, I found letters from my aunt who was working as a nurse in a mission stations, first in Africa and then in India, and some snippets of correspondence between my mother and Kokomo.  Mother clearly did not find life easy when dealing with three small children (three of us in five years, a common pattern in our family and one that I also followed).

Personalities emerge in these letters. My brother and my dad wrote simple, factual letters, rarely expressing their emotional life and a bit shocking when they do (especially from my dad) Kokomo spoke for her husband ("Grandfather") and I don't think he ever wrote.  So far, (I'm up to 1971), I've not seen a bundle of letters from my sister, but I can hear her good voice in the ones I've read, her ability to analyze things and describe so well what what happening around her.

What has become exceptionally clear is that my grandmother, my mother and I most definitely all wrote in order to deal with our demons.  While we wrote about the everyday stuff, we wrote in order to make some sense of all that stuff and our lives in the midst of the daily challenges and chaos.  We wrote about our wishes and dreams, our financial and personal struggles, and, what I find particularly fascinating, the constant struggle for all of us to maintain decent, affordable and workable wardrobes to go with the daily demands on the lives of three very busy women.

We wrote about needing to see psychiatrists, and wrote so we could figure out how to manage our lives without actually getting professional mental health therapy.  

It looks like Mother kept most of the ones I wrote to her during my years at Rice University.  I'm loving the time-spaced dialogue that would take place between the two of us.  Questions asked in one letter found responses much later, and overlapped then with intervening questions and conversations.  

I've also become aware that I was a real twit especially during my first year at Rice.  Selfish, vain, and uncaring of others.  My social life was most definitely my number one priority.  While I managed not to flunk any of my courses my first semester there, it was a close call for me.  I had intentionally left my spiritual development behind and had no plans to ever darken the door of a church or Bible study again.  I starting thinking about the yearly birthday letters that Kokomo had written to me.  She clearly became more and more concerned about me as I grew up.  There was good reason for that concern.  What a mess I was.  

I trust that years, growing maturity, and a regaining of the willingness to be shaped by God has helped the situation.  But the more I read, the more convinced I am that Mother really was something of a saint, just for hanging in with me.  That is what mothers do, of course.  So perhaps all of us mothers are all saints in a way.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Harem by Any Other Name

I admit it: I've watched the TLC TV Show "Sister Wives" with a fascinated horror. Here's my take on the plot of this reality show: The alpha male, Koby, takes three blond look-alike wives when he is in his 20's. Eventually, they start having children, and by the time we meet the family, these three wives have given birth to 13 offspring between them. All three are attractive and personable but . . . that's a lot of pregnancies and they've lost their 20 year old skinniness and nymphet sexual appeal as a part of the normal aging process. So, the balding Koby gets a "testimony" (apparently this is fundamentalist religious-speak in the polygamous world in Utah for "I've got the hots for another woman") and starts dating the younger, skinny, brunette Robyn. 

Yes, he dates her. With his wives' approval. And marries her.  The wedding now over, new wife Robyn gets the privileges of the marital bed every fourth night. One big happy family. 

Apparently, however, he is legally married only to the first wife. The others are in some sort of promise relationship, since the institution of multiple wives has been outlawed for quite a while now. 

So, what he really has is a harem. One wife and three concubines. 

According to, a concubine is "a woman who lives with a man in a situation which is similar to marriage, although without all of the privileges of marriage.” 

Wisegeek also says, "Generally, only men of high social status have concubines. Additional wives require more wealth, especially since a well-outfitted concubine elevates a man's social status, while an obviously neglected concubine would reflect poorly upon him." 

At one point, First Wife does ask her husband something along the lines of "How would you feel if I brought another husband into the family?" Koby simply can't imagine the thought. While acknowledging that this is indeed a double standard where he, the important male, gets more privileges than the less important females, he shrugs this off as no big deal. After all, he did get his "testimony," so clearly God has ordained this. 

As I watch this, I sit amazed, and not so amazed, at our human ability to justify anything we want to do by our assurance that God has given the green light. I see this especially with sexual matters: the sex drive is so strong that the hormone-bathed brain misreads getting the hots for someone as a clear directive from God to go ahead and act on it. 

Now, for the record, I don't care if Koby has 30 concubines. It's a free country; I don't get to dictate the morality of others; and if those women aren't any smarter than to buy into this disempowering system, it's their problem. I also wonder about all the men who can't get wives because of the Koby's in the world who greedily grab more of a limited resource, but that's another issue.  

My real problem lies with the justification for his harem being anything other than his selfish ne to keep a bundle of adoring women around in order to keep his fragile ego intact and his status high in the eyes of others. I also have a really, really big problem with using the name of God to justify behavior and decisions that are anything but holy.

I will never understand a theology that says, “it's OK for me, and God wants me to do this because I'm a male (or more powerful or more privileged or more well-to-do) and therefore more important than you, but it is not OK for you because you are a (woman, minority, impoverished, without power, etc.) and therefore you are less valued in the eyes of God.” 

Either God is for all of us, or God is for none of us. There are no favorites in the kingdom of Heaven. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rusted Cans

Last week, I spent several hours sorting donated canned goods at the North Texas Food Bank.  During the days of the State Fair of Texas, people can get into the fair on Wednesdays at a greatly reduced price by donating three cans of food per person.  On Thursday, those thousands and thousands of cans must be sorted and boxed for distribution to various agencies around the Metroplex so the food can get to the hands of the hungry.

Instructions:  "Often, people will bring the dregs of their pantries in order to take advantage of the almost free entrance into the fair.  Some of the cans will be bulging, dented to the point of danger, or rusted.  You will need to look at every can, and toss the questionable ones."

We were also told not to worry about expiration dates.  The leader said, "It will paralyze you to find the dates.  Just look for the signs of damage."

So for the next several hours my group along with other volunteers from around Dallas grabbed armfulls of cans from big bins, inspected each one, tossed the bad ones and boxed the usable ones.

Most of the cans were in great shape.  However, a fair number did have to be discarded.  As I was sorting, tossing and boxing, I couldn't help but wonder about those who had intentionally donated such unusable items in order to get into the State Fair cheaply.  After wrinkling my nose at one severely rusted can, I thought, "Does the person who donated this item not care that it could easily make someone ill?  Is a person who needs to use a food bank for family provision of less worth than those who have the means to donate to a food bank?"

I just about always find it convenient to point the fingers of blame at others (as do most of us), so I decided I should look at myself. In what ways have I offered the dregs of my life, my heart, my talents, my closet, my pantry, to others and to God?  Where have I looked down my nose at those who need help?  It's easy to do, and is a particularly nasty form of snobbery. We all operate off a thin safety margin, even in the best of economic times.  Right now, things are unusually difficult for those on the financial edge.  The giver of today could very easily be the receiver of tomorrow.

I often see the human tendency to give from the leftovers, not from the best.  The Bible and other sacred scriptures speak clearly to this:  We are to give to God from the first fruits harvested, not the last ones dutifully gleaned after the good stuff is already picked. We are to give from the best of the harvest and the flock, not what is dented or lame or rotting or unusable.  We are to give from the top of the paycheck, not as an afterthought or because there just happens to be a little bit left after all other wants and needs have been satisfied.

Our world teaches "me first."  "God first" thinking means we turn our minds upside down and our souls inside out.  We acknowledge that we have a responsibility to handle with holiness the money, possessions and talents that come our way. We become stewards, not owners, knowing that God will someday call us to account for our choices. 

I want to hear, "Well done, Christy" at that time when God examines my life and choices. I'll hear those wonderful words when I, too, give from the precious and priceless top, not the worthless leftovers. I'll get that pat on the back when I quit thinking, "This is MINE!" and start thinking, "I've been entrusted with much.  Therefore, much is required of me."  What a privilege!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

And the Hurt Goes On

Yesterday, I emailed on a friend of mine whose mother had a stroke similar to my mother's and who is also in hospice care, being wonderfully watched over.  She wrote back with "and how are YOU doing?"

Not well.  As I write that, I'm not sure what "well" is.  Maybe I'm just fine, but my "fineness" means living deep in sadness, again unable to sleep, no appetite, but when I do eat, I choose foods that are not the most healthy for me.

Going back to work has helped some, although I feel ineffective.  I also have to face the huge backlog of undone work, including the reality that Charge Conference reports are due soon and I've not even started (only United Methodist clergy can understand the horror of that situation!).  

Mostly, I think, "she's gone."  

My dining room table and my spare bedroom are littered with copies of her letters which I am trying to get into chronological order.  In December, my brother will return with a very nice scanner and we will scan all this into electronic form, but they've got to be in order first or I'll never be able to sort them out.  More than that, I simply want to talk with her about what I am reading.  I want to go deeper and understand more.  Another friend reminded me of what a treasure I have with these letters--so many people do not leave behind such a record of their lives, thoughts and ideas.  It is a great gift, and one that both brings me joy and adds to my sadness.

I've also found letters from my aunt, a trained nurse, who served at some mission stations in Africa and India from 1949-1954.  Although typed, they are hard to decipher--these are probably the third carbon done on an unreliable manual typewriter.  Every inch of the lightweight onionskin paper is covered with typeface.  Several times she wrote, "I still have an inch left on the paper so I can write some more." Obviously, she did not waste paper the way I do--for her a piece of paper was a treasure to be well-used.  Just as clearly, the work to which God had called her was extraordinarily difficult and ultimately took her physical health from her.  I wish I knew more but there is no one left to ask and other letters are long gone.

I'm troubled that I'm so off-balance by this, knowing that there are huge tragedies taking place all over the world.  The death of an elderly parent who had lived her life well, and whose final illness was mercifully brief, is not a tragedy.  It is life, and a good part of life.  But I've talked with several others who have lost their elderly parents like this and discover that our responses are similar.  We wander in a mist, doing our work, living our lives, and wondering when this fog is going to lift.

Now I must leave.  My wonderfully efficient sister, the executor of Mother's will, has given me some things I need to do in order to help finish the settling of the estate.  Tomorrow, I head back to what we are now calling "The Manor," the house my mother designed and lived in so happily, to clean out yet more closets before the next recycling/trash pickup.  

And the hurt goes on . . .