13 April 2014

7 Things I Wanted to Post to Facebook

On one of the first spring-like days, K. had chorus practice after school, so I took A. to play on the school playground. Their elementary school had a brand-new, beautiful playground built just last year. A. played on the playground for exactly 20 minutes before she abandoned it for the adjoining woods. She recruited the  other kids there to work on a building project.

She doesn’t know the other little girl in the picture. But she got her to help carry big branches to add to the teepee thingy that other kids have started. A week later, on a different playground, she managed to get 4 boys and 1 girl (all the boys were older and bigger than she is) to play a “princess” version of tag. All of the kids did exactly what she told them to. The girl is a force of nature, in the most charming way.
And then there’s the other side of being 5 years old. Yesterday, the girls and I drove up to visit my parents in PA for a few days.
As we’re driving away from a rest stop about halfway through the trip, at about 2:30 pm, A. says from the back seat, “Mom? I got dressed all by myself this morning.”
Me: “Oh, yeah?”
A.: “And I put on panties, but now they’ve disappeared.”
Me: “What? Are you saying you have no underwear on?”
Big sister: “What? You don’t have panties on!?”
Me: “And you just noticed at the rest stop?”
A.: “Yes”
Me: “Ummmm….Ok, then.”

What else could I do?


Big sister K. kindly (it seemed) invited A. to sleep with her at Gram and Pap’s house (other options: for A. to sleep with me or in a room by herself). A. was thrilled that Big Sister actually wanted her. Of course, when it came right down to trying to share a (queen-sized) bed, then A. was touching K., or was too close to her, and A. refused to move, and K. was taking up too much of the bed, and yada, yada, yada--and a half-hour of bickering and multiple threats from me later, they finally both went to sleep. Tonight, it started out the same way. Then A. decided that she didn’t want to sleep with K. but with me. Fine, sure, no problem.
Except then K started to cry because A rejected her. “But you were just complaining that her arm was in your face!” says I. “But now it feels like she doesn’t love me anymore!” wails K.

I....just…there is no logic among siblings.
Earlier today, I told K. to “let it go,” which I tend to tell her often, because, well, she needs help doing that. Now, of course, those words are a cue to break into “Let It Go” from Frozen. And then K paused and said,  “Do you know what the boys at school do now? They sing Let It Go and then pass gas. Why are sixth grade boys so weird?”
I told her that it sounded like sixth-grade boys had changed very little since I was in sixth grade. And I thought to myself that I’d like her to see boys as weird for as long as possible Some of the kids her age are already “dating” and “breaking up.” I think she’s had a few crushes, but nothing like the rudimentary flirting and boy-craziness of some of the girls her age. With a little luck, we can delay that another few years. And it sounds like the singing, farting boys may even help with it.

I’ve been working on writing a Bible study/devotional. I’ve never tried this before, so it’s a bit of an experiment. I showed a bit of it to my mom, who said it seemed familiar to her…then she pulled out a Max Lucado book she’s been reading and said, “Here, read this section. I think you write a lot like him.” So now I’m torn between being hugely flattered (Max Lucado is a giant in the Christian publishing world) and a bit discouraged (why publish me if Max Lucado does the same thing and already has a huge platform?). Of course, once I finish this thing, I can market to a competing publisher: “My mom says I’m the next Max Lucado!” I’m sure that would go over well.
Last weekend, hubby took the training wheels off A.’s bike. She did amazingly well. I don’t know how she got her agility, but she’s definitely more coordinated than K. and me. She needs a bit more practice in starting out on her own, but if hubby steadies the bike and gives her a little push, she can ride it just fine. In addition to some natural ability, I also think her little German bike with two wheels and no pedals helped her with balance. Wish we had known about those when K. was small.

Every so often, I end up listening to music I haven't listened to in awhile. Audio Adrenaline has reformulated with a new lead singer, so I've been listening to their newer releases. But I downloaded and started listening to their old "Best Of" album a few weeks ago, for the first time in some years. And I nearly forgot about the last song on the album, which God used to get me through my pregnancy with Katrina. Having already gone through one miscarriage, I was incredibly anxious during my pregnancy with her. At some point, I heard this song, and something clicked. I hung on to the chorus of "Rest Easy" for months, whenever my anxiety ratcheted upward. Listening to it again, I see why. The verses are faster and kind of a barrage or words--very similar to how my brain feels when I get anxious. Then the chorus comes in, relaxed and slow, reminding me that God is with me. I don't know whether it will click with anyone but me, but it's a reminder of a hard time in my life that brought me such joy on the other side. A good thing to think about as we enter Holy Week.

For more Quick Takes, visit Jen at Conversion Diary

26 March 2014

What “Person of Interest” Is Teaching Me About Faith

If you haven’t watched the TV show Person of Interest, check it out. Its premise: a supercomputer built after 9/11 by a reclusive genius billionaire and ostensibly run by the U.S. government collects and analyzes all available data to predict terrorist threats. Data includes all online information, phone calls, security camera footage, and anything else that can be input to a computer. As a byproduct of all that data, “the machine” can also predict threats to individuals—mostly premeditated murder. Harold Finch, the computer’s creator, can’t bear to ignore the individual threats (deemed “irrelevant” by the government), so he recruits ex-intelligence agents to investigate and prevent the murders. The “story of the week”—whatever person the team protects for the episode—combines with a longer story arc. The show also has prominent themes of redemption and respect for individual life. And the current season has given me food for thought on the nature of our relationship with God.

Over the course of the show, the machine has become essentially sentient—and as omniscient as current data-gathering allows.  And an intriguing character has emerged. Originally introduced as a genius computer hacker (geniuses abound on this show) and sociopathic killer, who is also a beautiful, charming woman, Root sees the machine as a god—the only god she believes in. Through a series of plot twists, Root and the machine establish a relationship. The machine whispers in her ear through a cell phone earpiece (and as of the most recent episode, a cochlear implant), giving her step-by-step instructions that she obeys—almost without question. Her relationship with the machine is slowly transforming her—though she’s still unpredictable and has little regard for human life, the machine has a high regard for the value of human life and restrains her. It even seems to be teaching her. Her latest actions—walking through a gunfight to rescue a man in danger, and getting herself shot in the process—show that her desire to obey the machine supersedes her natural inclinations.

Meanwhile, Finch continues to communicate with the machine in the only way he knows how—the machine gives him Social Security numbers of people in danger, and no more. Finch takes care of the rest, with his own genius computer skills and the help of his team. Root—the amoral killer—enjoys a closer relationship to this entity than does Finch—the highly moral crusader for life, the creator of not only the machine itself, but the machine’s ethics. In an interesting conversation between Root and Finch, Root posits that the machine respects Finch’s boundaries. 

That’s where my musings come in. Finch’s relationship with the machine is rule-bound: he receives only specific information in a specific way. In flashback, the show traces Finch’s sustained effort, dating from the machine’s inception, at limiting the machine’s contact and possible affection for him. In the context of the original premise, this is perfectly reasonable—the machine’s job is to protect everybody equally. But if we explore the machine=God analogy, his actions feel different. He holds up his hand, staving off closer contact. He builds walls—in this case, firewalls—to protect both himself and the machine. Even when evidence accumulates that the machine has become more than he thought it was, he maintains his walls, his rules--no matter how he may yearn for the closer, riskier contact that Root enjoys. Finch’s highest concerns are safety and control. The machine is a machine—and a dangerous one at that, if it falls into the wrong hands.

Root has no such concerns. She’s flouted conventional morality all her life, and sees other people merely as tools for her to use or discard. But her fascination with the machine leads to her volunteering to be the machine’s tool—its human interface. And as she obeys, the machine shows her a different way of interacting with the world. Her genuine love for the machine begins to overcome her disdain for other people. Even though she doesn’t understand the machine’s values, much less its overall plan, she ultimately obeys, to the point of putting her life at risk to save another. At the moment, she wants only to protect the machine, and protect her relationship with it. She is by no means reformed. But I look forward to watching her trajectory.

One could argue that Finch is an example of God’s people under the Law, and Root an example of Gospel. Finch’s interactions with this stand-in for God are prescribed, careful, and limited. I think of the people of Israel, who became very uncomfortable with Moses’s glowing face after he talked to God, and their request that he cover it. The machine gives Finch a mission, and Finch carries it out with little to no help from the machine.

Root, however, takes the machine into her heart—or at least her ear. Most of the time, she does not know the mission. She only goes step by step, listening to the voice in her ear and obeying it. She has faith that the machine has a plan, and that the plan is a good one. External rules don’t apply to her—she follows higher instructions than human law and higher even than her own sense of what she should do or wants to do.

And so I wonder—what walls do I put up to block God’s work in my life? I am, of course, much closer to Finch’s character than Root’s. What’s a rule-follower to do when the rules no longer apply? And how do I respond when I can’t see the whole plan? Root’s character grows from her willingness to obey fully and immediately, without knowing why. Where am I in that “long obedience in the same direction”? Am I listening to the whisper in my ear, in my heart? Am I yielding, or building walls? And when it seems like communication from God is sparse, is it because He is just respecting my boundaries, the walls I throw up, the rules I make up, about what His call should look like?

So there you go. This may be about as geeky of a post as I’ve written. I can’t promise that I won’t overanalyze something else, though…I’m reading the Divergent series finally, and good heavens that’s some interesting commentary on human nature and virtue all wrapped up in a dystopian teenage coming-of-age story. It’s my blog so I get to be a geeky as I want, right?  When I start reading more sci-fi again, watch out.

Here's Root talking about her god...creepiest faith talk evah.

21 March 2014

7 Quick Takes--Writing and Weather and Words, oh my!

1.      I just wrote a whole draft of “quick takes” on how the TV show “Person of Interest” has got me thinking about our relationship with God, but then I realized that it was much too long to be “quick.” Story of my (wordy) writing life. Since I’ve now upgraded it to a full post, I need to edit it more and flesh it out.

2.      Speaking of writing life, the writing workshop I attended last week changed my focus. I’ve been thinking of writing as that thing I do for myself when everything else is done. But everything else is never done. And I have come to think of it as (1) not only for myself, (2) a gift and a responsibility from God, and (3) not a hobby or a skill, but as necessary to my well-being as food and drink. Something clicked, quietly and without drama. I don’t know where God is leading me in this, but he has re-oriented me, somehow. It’s early days yet, but I hope not to fall back into the overthinking and paralysis that’s marked my attitude toward writing for a long time.

3.      I gave up Facebook for Lent. I know—sooo overdone and trite, the giving up and then the talking about giving it up, and the new! precious! insights! into being present instead of looking at a screen all the time, and the “making a long face, so men might know that you’re fasting, and lo, you have received your reward.” And yet, I was pretty well addicted and used FB as a retreat and an escape. So I gave it up. We’re, what, nearly halfway through Lent? I still miss it, more than I missed chocolate when I gave that up for Lent a couple of years ago. And I don’t have any new insights from my suddenly less-connected life other than realizing that my self-medication for mental stress changed from fiction to Facebook at some point.

4.      Well, no insights other than this: my writing Facebook statuses and comments relieved some of the internal writing “pressure” that I feel.  Hence the precipitous drop in blog posts when I became enamored with FB.

5.      I really, really need to complain about the weather. Again with the triteness. But people, it is now officially spring. Forecasters say sunny and upper 60s tomorrow, and possible SNOW on Tuesday. It’s…just…I can’t even…sigh.

6.      Part of the frustration now is that my rheumatologist said I could lower my dose of immunosuppressant once the temperature was consistently over 60 degrees. Apparently cold weather is harder on autoimmune diseases (and Reynaud’s syndrome is a common companion to AI disease, although I don’t have it at this point), so she doesn’t want to try a lower dose until it gets warm. I am eager to lower the dose, since I basically lose one day a week in brain fog, extreme fatigue, and often headache. (One day lost but seven days without pain or rash and six days without [much] fatigue, so it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.) C’mon spring!

7.      The band Gungor introduced me to Amena Brown, a Christian spoken-word artist who was on their live album. And then she turned up on a blog I read, doing this amazing reading/spoken-word poem with Ann Voskamp, whose prose writing is half poetry anyway. It's worth your time. And now I want to be a spoken-word poet when I grow up.  I embedded the video below, but Blogger seems to think that all videos come from YouTube, so I had to download it to my computer and then upload it here, and it looks a bit blurry to me. If you want to go to the source and watch a full-screen version that's a bit clearer, here's the link: http://vimeo.com/89473829 
For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary.

17 March 2014

Christmas in March

I recently returned from a writing workshop sponsored by the Women's Leadership Institute, an organization associated with Concordia University Wisconsin. The workshop focused primarily on writing in a Christian, specifically Lutheran, context. One writing prompt gave us a Scripture verse and an "object" and asked us to write something combining the two. I received Rom. 8:31-32 and "grandmother's recipe card." It is Christmassy, but since we just received 7 inches of snow last night, and the kids are on their tenth? eleventh? snow day of the year--well, I'm not really feeling St. Patrick's Day. And this memory always makes me smile, so I'll hope that it makes you smile, too. Here's an edited version of what came out of that assignment.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? --Rom 8:31-32 (NIV)

Cookies star in many a holiday gathering, but Christmas will always taste like Gram’s punch to me. The whole family would pile into the car and drive the five minutes down to Gram and Pap’s house. We sat in their front room, which they only used at Christmas. The overstuffed couch looked and felt stiff; a fake tabletop tree sat on an end-table pushed in front of the window; and waves of heat rose from the floor vents. We kids shifted uncomfortably on the couch and pretended to be interested in the lovely sweater that Pap gave Gram for Christmas. But, really, we were just waiting for the punch and cookies.
Gram served from a real glass punch bowl, filled to the brim with pale orange liquid, with bits of sherbet fizzing and floating on top. That giant punch bowl seemed bottomless. Ladle after ladle of sweet, fizzy goodness went into our paper cups. We drank until we could drink no more (or until our parents put a stop to our greediness).
The bounty of my grandmother’s Christmas punch recalls the bounty that our Lord showers on us. Gram sacrificed a little time and a lot of orange sherbet for her beloved children and grandchildren. But Jesus gave up all for us—his life for our sins, his glory to be with us on earth.  Often, we get mired in the muck of life here on earth—sickness, violence, temptation, depression. We feel beaten and broken, undeserving of the sweetness of God’s love. But God has already proven that He loves us, through Jesus’s sacrifice. And He wants to give us all things: forgiveness, shelter, peace, and love overflowing. He offers us the cup of salvation; we only have to reach out and take it.
And somehow, I think it tastes a little bit like my grandmother’s punch.

08 November 2013

7 Quick Takes, Family Edition

1. This week, I made a quick trip up to my parents' house in PA. My mom has a (very painful)herniated disc, so my sister and I cooked some meals and I took them up, leaving the kiddos in the care of hubby. I can't remember the last time I drove any significant distance without at least one child in the car--and most often, two children who consider the car to be the best place to hone their apparently much-valued bickering skills. Three plus hours alone in the car, listening to whatever music or podcasts I wanted? Bliss. Maybe my parents will need some more help in a week or two?

2. Speaking of which, my mom has been mostly flat on her back for the better part of three weeks, unable to do any cleaning or tidying up. My dad also has some trouble getting around. I, on the other hand, have no mobility problems to speak of, *and* recently hired a cleaning lady to come every other week. My parents' house STILL looks cleaner and (for sure) tidier than mine. I will now place the blame for this on our darling children (just ignore that derisive laughter from my sister, who stayed with us for a time before we had children).

3. So is it petty to wonder whose food my parents will like more, that cooked by me or by my sister? Maybe I should have given my parents a rating card for each dish, and not told them who cooked what. Except the meatloaf I made kind of fell apart, so after being frozen and reheated, it will likely end up being tasty meat crumbles. Wendy wins again--drat that chicken a la king!

4. Back to the appalling state of our abode--Monday is when I truly realized that tidiness vs. messiness is an inborn trait. My oldest is messy, and sees no problem with it. Asking her to clean up her room (or, when she was younger, her toys) is tantamount to torture, as far as she is concerned. I'm convinced that she really sees no reason for it. "It's fine!" she will say, as I look at her supposedly clean room, and point at obvious pieces of trash on the floor--right next to her trash can.

On the other hand, Monday afternoon, I said to my youngest daughter, "Your friend is coming over tomorrow--can you pick up your toys in the family room? Then later we can clean your room." (She's five, so still qualifies for parental assistance in room cleaning.) She happily (!) cleaned up her toys, then said "I'm going to clean my room now!" and disappeared for a good half-hour. When I checked her room, it was tidy, nothing on the floor, and she had even had a go at making her bed (difficult because it's a loft bed). I'd say it's amazing what the promise of a playdate can do, except that I have tried the same strategy with my oldest and still gotten moans, groans, and maybe one clear spot on the floor where her clean laundry used to be.

5. One of the perks of going up to PA was the chance to stop at the local tea shop. After reading this article about pesticides, plastic teabags possibly leaching chemicals, etc., I have sworn off buying more tea at Teavana, which is the only place I've found here that sells loose tea. If any fellow NoVa residents know of a locally owned tea shop, please let me know! But I don't know that anything can beat the blend I'm currently in love with, an organic black tea mixed with coconut. Yum.

6. In the past year or so, I've really become interested in people's stories. Rather late in the game, I realized that if I ask the right questions and engage with other people, they will tell me the most fascinating things. This is in stark contrast with my modus operandi since childhood--when the stories in books were far more interesting than actual living, breathing people.

Last week, I was sitting on the playground while my younger one played, with my Kindle in hand. A young woman sat down near me. I had seen her briefly the week before, when (who I thought was) her son played tag with my daughter. She struck up a conversation with me, and instead of giving her noncommittal answers and going back to my book, I asked her where she was from. And that led to a very interesting story: a young woman from Jordan, who had come to the U.S. to visit relatives (the boy was actually her cousin) and decided to stay and get her nursing degree at the local community college. She already had her bachelor's degree plus a master's in social work, and had worked in her field, including traveling around the world doing music therapy for an international NGO, for nearly a decade. But she had always wanted to be a nurse; her parents had discouraged her from majoring in nursing when she was younger, because the long hours would make it difficult for her to get married and have children. Now, she was still unmarried and without children, but she was in the United States and an adult, so why not pursue her dream? She was eager to finish her studies and get back to Jordan, though, because she disliked the NoVa weather and missed her family. All this from a random woman on the local playground. And I would have missed it if I hadn't paid attention and listened.

7. And here's a different take on pursuing your dream: Phil Vischer, the founder of the hugely popular Christian cartoons, VeggieTales, now speaks and writes about what he learned when his company disintegrated around him. What happens, he asks, when your dreams die? Listening to this, I was struck again on how truly following Christ can sometimes be the opposite of what culture tells us is important. "Follow your dreams," says the American culture, and people arrive from all over the world to do just that. But Christians are to be about the business of following Christ. How countercultural can you get?

Here's a short version of Phil's story, though I find the graphic shenanigans every time they make an edit annoying. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJw_njstsNg

And here's a talk he did at Taylor University, which I found funny and thought-provoking.

For more Quick Takes, go to Conversion Diary.

02 November 2013


Here’s how it went from my perspective. The two primary leaders of my church’s women’s Bible study retired in the spring, so a call went out that new volunteers were needed to replace them. [As background, about 50 or more women attend each Wednesday morning. First, everyone meets in a big group for snacks, “fellowship” (Christianese for social time), and a short worship/devotional time. Then, we break up into smaller groups for study (five groups this year, each on a different topic).]

I’d been going to this group for two years at that point, and I had me some thoughts and some opinions on the devotional part of the morning. I was also pretty sure that the hardest role to fill would be the person who spoke to the large group every week. I’ve heard rumors that some people don’t like to speak in public. So, Speech League girl thought, “I should offer to do devotions. I could do that.”  The undertone there, I’m ashamed to admit, was “I could do that better.
Anyway, on the end-of-year survey/plea for volunteers, I wrote that I’d be willing to “help” with devotions. By “help” I meant, “gimme that mike ‘cause I gots some IDEAS.” I did not follow up or mention it to anyone. I figured if whoever ended up in charge needed help, they’d call me. I dismissed it from my mind and went on my merry way.

In mid-August, I got an e-mail from the new leader of the Wednesday gathering. My response sheet (and another person’s) had been overlooked earlier, but was I still interested in helping with devotions? My first phone call with the leader was interesting. I did this thing I do sometimes—“listen” to the other person with the thing I want to say already in mind, so I can interject it as soon as the other person pauses. Except that the ideas that she was outlining were pretty much the same as the ideas that I had. We were already on the same page in terms of content, and we had never spoken before that moment.
One thing led to another, and I’m now the one who plans (with the music team) and delivers the devotion each week. I get to choose the stories I read, and the Scripture, and I get to use all my inherent dramatic flare (oh, and I do possess some Drah-ma on occasion) to read them. It’s not a lot of time up front—maybe 5 to 10 minutes of me with the mike, bookended by songs selected by the music team. I’m also trying to recruit other members of the group to speak about their faith stories, so it’s not always just me reading out of a book. It’s going well, and we’ve had some good feedback. I feel like I’m contributing my talents to the good of this group, which is made up of truly stellar and spiritual ladies, and which has contributed a lot to my own spiritual growth.

 The leader emailed me a few weeks ago about something or other and added that she was glad I had responded to God’s call to lead devotions.  My knee-jerk reaction was that I had heard no specific call. I volunteered because the job was in line with my skills/talents and I thought they would need the help. I supposed that I was acting on God’s principles of sharing your gifts with others, but there was no burning bush or strong impulse (or at least no impulse that was distinguishable from my, ahem, not-so-virtuous view that I could do it better).

Now, here’s the situation as told to me from other people’s perspective: The newly minted leader of Wednesday morning women had everything in place by midsummer (which is saying something in an organization this size undergoing its first leadership turnover in 15 years)--except someone to lead devotions. M. knew from the start, she said, that leading devotions wasn’t her thing. But she was willing to do it if no one else came forward. She said to me recently, ”But every time I thought that I’d just go ahead and do them, the Lord slapped me down. I just knew someone else was supposed to do it.”
At one of the team leadership meetings during the summer, M. announced to the leadership team that she was still looking for someone to take over devotions. (My volunteer sheet was apparently found at some point later.) Last week, a Bible study leader who was at that meeting told me, “When M. said that, the Holy Spirit told me it was you. Your name came into my mind. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I was unsure about speaking up. But I want you to know that it was supposed to be you.”

What gives me pause here is that I had never spoken with this person before September. I had heard her name, but hadn’t put a face to it until this fall. She had never been in a small group with me or had any meaningful interaction with me.
(Another woman heard this conversation and said, “Yeah, I thought of you, too!” This person I knew and had been in small group with, so that was not so disconcerting, though it was very nice to hear.)

The more I think about that conversation, the more it causes me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew about myself and about how God works. I have no reason to disbelieve what I’ve been told. I believe God speaks to people today—heck, I’ve been the occasional recipient of such communication. But not often, or at least not often in a way that has this kind of—supernatural?—feel to it.
The idea of God talking to other people about me is what really gets me. Are the 10 minutes or so once a week that I stand up and read from a book of God-stories  really so important? Am I really so integral to that 10 minutes? It doesn’t seem likely to me. Then again, “his eye is on the sparrow,” so why wouldn’t God be interested in that 10 minutes of someone talking about him and his work?

And does it count as being called if I just thought, “hey, I’m a decent public speaker, I could do that” and threw my name in to the ring? Most of the time, when God called people in the Bible, burning bushes or otherworldly visions or being struck blind was involved. And the person’s response was more like, “whoa, wait, you want me to do what?” Of course, standing up in front of 50 nice Christian women is on quite a different scale than arguing with Pharaoh in his throne room.
Maybe that’s the crux. I think of “being called” as a big deal—one is called to “let my people go” or to go into full-time ministry or to leave your cushy life and take care of dying people in Calcutta. But maybe God also calls us to the smaller things—to give a few extra dollars to that charity, to send that encouraging note, to stand up and read a devotion for 10 minutes each week. And maybe it doesn’t always feel so mysterious, or even terribly spiritual. Maybe it’s God working through our own willingness to serve.

And maybe, just maybe, we’re more important to God’s plan than we think we are. Maybe we influence people more than we know. Maybe the small tasks that we fumble through, with our mixed motives and our haphazard ways, are still vital to God’s kingdom. What if God’s calling you, quietly, faithfully, lovingly, to take up those small tasks, to learn more of his ways, to follow Him in the everyday--and not wait for that burning bush before you begin?

03 October 2013

The Problem with Knowing the Right Answers

Some years ago, I think I inadvertently freaked out our pastor while giving him a compliment. He had just preached a sermon on the Transfiguration, and had gone in a different direction with it than I had heard before. I told him that I had heard many a sermon on the story of Jesus’s Transfiguration—there’s a Transfiguration Sunday every year on the liturgical calendar, after all. Most sermons I’ve heard on it go in one of maybe two directions—both of which I recited to the pastor. But he had brought something new to it, so I appreciated it.

Over the next couple of years, he mentioned that conversation a number of times, and that’s when I realized that maybe I shouldn’t have said anything. After all, he still had to preach a sermon on that story every year, and I had just shown him that I was a bit jaded with the usual interpretations. I think I took away his fall-back position.

This is the challenge with “growing up in the church”: after a while, you know all the right answers. Or, rather, you’ve heard enough sermons and/or spent enough time in Sunday School that you can predict what lesson the preacher/teacher is going to highlight from the most frequently read Scripture verses.

The Transfiguration? Can’t always stay on the mountaintop, gotta take that glory and insight with you when it’s time to muck around in the valley of real life.

David and Goliath? God will fight for you.

Abraham and Sarah? The importance of faith.

You get the idea. But what happens when you go beyond the “right answers”? That is, the answers those of us who grew up in the church learned in Sunday School? That’s when the real wrestling begins. (There was this guy named Jacob…)

We went to a newly formed “small group” last week (church-speak for combo Bible study/social club/support group…a way for people to actually get to know each other outside of sitting in pews facing forward). Our church is reading through “The Story”—basically a Reader-Digest-condensed-version of the Bible, long on action and short on “begat” lists and tabernacle-building instructions—and the small group discussion focused on the story of Joseph. And as I said to the discussion leader later, I felt like the downer of the group. A good part of the discussion focused on how Joseph’s bad experiences—being sold into slavery, later thrown into prison, and then becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man, though still a slave—saved him and his family from starvation (and not incidentally, Egypt, as well). I’m sitting there thinking, “Yeah, it says God was with him…but he was still in prison!” And I’m the one who pointed out that, yeah, Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, but he did mess with them a good bit, first. (And good for him…they deserved it.)

I guess I have a knee-jerk reaction to easy answers. And the Joseph story is easy to simplify, because Joseph himself says it, to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.” Ding, ding, ding! Correct answer! And then he and his brothers hug it out. Happy ending.

Maybe the problem is not in the story—it’s in the fact that we can read about a person’s entire life in 10 minutes. But when we’re in the midst of our own lives, it’s not that simple. Some of the members of the group told stories of hard times which turned out to have had blessing and purpose. And sometimes, we can look back and see how something desperately hard worked out for good. Sometimes we see it. Sometimes we don’t—the meaning, the purpose escapes us.

Then, too, I wonder about the practice of examining each Bible verse for a life lesson, a practical application. Should the vivid people and grand adventures of many of these Bible accounts be reduced to “but what does it say to meeeeee?” I believe the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Bible, but I think that often we are too quick to jump to the end of the story, to recite the pat answer, to speed through the uncomfortable parts.

Joseph was enslaved for over 20 years…and probably for the rest of his life (although once Pharaoh plucked him out of prison, he wasn’t exactly making bricks). I bet those years he spent in prison seemed awfully long and even hopeless, but in the Bible, those years are given just a few sentences. How did Joseph cope? Traditionally, we’d say that he had faith—and I’m sure he did—but did Joseph ever pray, “Hey, God? Are you there? Is this what I get for being faithful?” As readers, we know that he was in the middle of his story, not the end—that good things were coming. But Joseph didn’t know that.

Being in the midst of our own story is different than being the reader of someone else’s story. There’s no jumping to the end of the book, or even the end of the chapter. There are no point-of-view changes, no omniscient narrator or wry voiceover, no real sense of plot structure. Once in a while we might get a glimpse—like Joseph did—of a purpose, a sense of direction. But most of the time, we’re living in the spaces between the sentences, trying as hard as we can to keep the faith. “God was with Joseph” the Bible says, repeatedly. I wonder, did Joseph feel that? Did he know it?

Ah, and now the temptation, to bring it all back to me, to my life. What does this story say to meeee? Can I wrest answers from these musings—or from my life—and come to a tidy ending? What if I just hold up the sharp shards of my disjointed thoughts and doubts and questions, all my old pains and new longings, and let them bloody my hands and cut into my soul, and present them to God, not asking for answers?