Tuesday, October 30, 2012


This is, as usual, a draft. I wasn't feeling poetry tonight, so for now this sits in prose. 

I found myself picturing you as we sat at my mother's table. Your daughters laughed and shared stories in a dimly-lit kitchen, the summer wind early in its sweep through the window. There was an empty chair at the table--not purposefully vacant, but as I looked between the women you walked into the world I could nearly see you. Aged nearly 20 years from when my child-eyes last saw you, quieted by the loss of another wife, but comfortably at rest at the head of the table, and a wink as our eyes caught. I found myself picturing a different world, where you weren't smoking in the hospital room and your hair didn't need to rebloom a rich brown when the treatments were done. 

You wouldn't have appreciated the store-bought wine, but there was too much food for the four of us, so elements of you remain even at a casual meal. Your old phrases slip easily into conversation, a vernacular both natural and acknowledged. I cannot stitch the picture complete--my pieces of you are too thin, and I don't have enough of the restorer in me to maintain integrity. Between the panels of memory I sketch daydream and imagining, glazing it over so that in the convenient candlelight of the table you seem almost fully there. 
You have lost some weight--from the disease or age?--but still take up more than your physical space. Even silent, you occupy the conversation, each relation feeling more than seeing the smile, the raised brow. And it is your judgment--the pushed-back chair, the effortless break--that signals the rest of us to rise, clearing the ends of sentences with our dishes. And here is where my restoration glares in the light, shows itself as falsity, because I do not know how this ends. I have not known a grandfather save as a child knows him, and the motions I assume--a small laugh, a kiss on the cheek, a squeeze of the arm--are too fabricated and the vision fades. I try to turn it back, but what spell I'd cast is lost. 

As I have sat picturing, this original meal has broken, a signal I did not catch, and my uncle leans in a pushed-back chair--an effortless break. The world has pushed on from you, and I did not notice until now. A child mourns over things differently--I cried then, but not for you. 
I raise my glass toward your chair--it is yours, I realize, and always has been--and smile for you. It is as much as I can offer--a kiss on the cheek, a squeeze of the arm?--but I find myself answered in the stillness as you see it for all that it is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Narcissus & Co.

[Drafter's Note: I spent my lunch hour and another chunk this evening reading my blog--everything from the beginning through this month. This resulted in A) realizing how ridiculously little I've written in over a year, B) restarting my drive to write every day--or, at least, as frequently as I can manage--and C) the title of this post. Gazing at yourself--err, your words--for hours on end tends to do that.]

I love Greek mythology. I have since I was a kid--I'm not sure when it started. In seventh grade, social studies was Greek and Roman history, a large part of which (or, at least, a large part of what I've remembered) was mythology. It was my first (realized) brush with my tendency to over-prepare: as I sojourned through my 5-10 minute presentation on Odysseus, Mr. Bednarsky cut me off at the 35-minute mark. (It's ODYSSEUS, for crying out loud! How do you do that in 5 minutes? Something awesome might have been left out.)

Sometime shortly after this I found a small tome of Bulfinch's Greek Mythology, likely a remnant from my brother's education, and was hooked. Some stories (like Narcissus) I read and moved past; others have never left me. The boy I was in love with at 15 was long-since interwoven to Icarus, and to separate them now would be impossible. Even then, I longed to be a Penelope: waiting, strong, resistant. I never tired of the endless travels of Odysseus, or of Perseus or Jason. I didn't know what to do with myself, crying silently from the edges of the frame as Orpheus turned around, as Psyche lit her lamp, as Persephone stood caught between mother and lover. I was in love and never looked back.

My love for fairy tales and folk tales and mythologies are all tied together. It would be needlessly cruel to ask me to pick favorites. In part, I suppose, I love the idea that these same stories were told hundreds, thousands of years ago to little girls who became women and who, too, remained strangely tied to them. I love that there is truth and heroism and sacrifice and loss and everything else human, even punctuated by three-headed dogs and lovers who become reeds and then pipes.

And all this writing about them has made me want to tuck back into them. I think that's part of the love, too--there's always a new one I'd somehow missed, and an old dozen I happily snuggle back into.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: Alone with a Jihadist by Aaron D. Taylor

In 2002, Aaron Taylor, a young pastor and missionary, answers an ad to take part in a documentary concerning Christianity and Islam in the post-9/11 world. (That documentary, "Holy Wars," is available here -- though, fair warning, I haven't watched it yet, as I didn't want it affecting this review.) In the ensuing years, Aaron wrote a book about the experience: his conversation with Khalid, a Muslim fundamentalist, and the ensuing shift in his own doctrinal thinking. Published in 2009, Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War sets out to address questions of nationalism and nonviolence in regards to Muslim/Christian relations and beliefs, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy.

The book opens with an introduction of how Taylor started in ministry, and how he got involved with the "Holy Wars" project. He gives a brief look into his conversation with Khalid, giving the reader a sense of its tone without, I trust, spoiling the work of the documentary. Entering the interview especially mindful of non-Christian viewers, Taylor is hopeful only to represent Christ well and, perhaps, bring Khalid to--as he facetiously puts it in retrospect--"a Dr. Phil moment." Khalid, however, ends up directing the conversation to places Taylor is not prepared to defend, and he leaves with more questions than he anticipated. Much of the next several chapters are devoted to Taylor's pursuit of answers, describing how he dug through the Bible to justify all that he had for so long taken as gospel: in short, the basic pillars of the Religious Right. He examines the nonviolent, service-based, counter-governmental words and actions of Jesus and His followers, pitting all this against the current American Christian political stance. Taylor then shifts his focus for a few chapters to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both as it's playing out in Israel and how it's seen by the typical American Christian. Wrapping up his argument with a nod toward peaceful anarchism (Thoreau, Chomsky), Taylor envisions a new Christianity, known for its self-sacrifice, service, and peaceful disassociation from positions of power and government.

For a little over half the book, I was thoroughly a fan. Sure, his argument isn't perfect, and the book is in desperate need of a copyedit (in addition to the usual minor offenses and a much-overused italic emphasis, my personal favorites were "the Iron/Contra scandal" and "the Lord Jesus Chris"). But he's admirably vulnerable and confessional with how deeply rooted his beliefs were, and how poorly they lined up with the Jesus he claimed to follow. He does an excellent job of gently bringing examples straight from Scripture of Jesus and his followers avoiding opportunities to wield power in earthly ways (politics, violence, oppression), and drawing the stark parallel to the modern American Christian's zeal for war and political advantage. Often pulling his points from familiar passages, Taylor strikes a balance of asking a leading question without falling into patronizing or condemning language:

Some say that the only reason Jesus stopped Peter [from using his sword when soldiers came to take Jesus to trial] is because He knew He had to go to the cross to die for the sins of the world, but notice that Jesus did not say, "I appreciate the thought, Peter, but I'm doing this for the sins of the world, so save your sword for another occasion." Instead He said, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword." The question is simple. Is Jesus our moral example or not?      (115)

Taylor's strongest arguments come through in Chapter 4, "Is Democracy the New Crusade?", where he examines the interconnectedness of American and Christian ideals. He questions how much the Church has backed military action in the name of democracy and freedom--which is to say, conforming other nations to the sociopolitical structure of the U.S. Taylor is still careful with his words, but here he finds his confidence with a solid and succinct argument. "I believe that for too long the word 'evangelical' has been synonymous with hyper-nationalism. We've turned the Lord Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, into a tribal deity who fights for the U.S. flag" (56). In addition to referencing general feeling and belief, Taylor also cites wartime speeches from President George W. Bush and does nice work drawing out the problems of unifying American nationalism with the Gospel.

Though he never references the book, this is in some ways a toned-down version of Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw'Jesus for President--and I say that not as a slight to either title. JfP, while very well done, would be off-putting for some in its unapologetic charges; Taylor is much more cautious and tempering with his arguments.

But about halfway through the book, those arguments begin to slip. He starts repeating them (the quote above regarding Peter is the third time he's referenced the same passage and point) and starts drawing on looser threads. He is, at times, so careful to not offend that he is nearly unintelligible, shifting into a passive tone that can't be read without picturing his arms upraised in dramatized innocence. As he shifts his view to Israel and later to anarchism, he seems to lose his footing more, like he couldn't remember where he had started this conversation. And wrapping up the book with a chapter entitled "Powerless Prophets" does seem somewhat fitting, as the strong arguments of the early chapters seem less convicting after his pitfalls. Taylor ends the book with an imagined conversation describing a hoped-for future American Church, but it's a bit too sugary-sweet and idealized to ring true. 

I'm looking forward to the documentary, and I think Taylor did some admirable soul- and Scripture-searching to find truth and relevance in his faith. If it were possible to recommend half a book, I would. In looking back through my notes and brackets, I really did appreciate much of what he had to say, but the last chapters' wandering and disconnectedness left a bad taste in the mouth, and I can't help but point interested readers toward those whose arguments stand a book’s duration.

Alone with a Jihadist: A Biblical Response to Holy War is published by Foghorn Publishers © 2008. For more information, check out it's product page on Amazon. And for more information on Taylor, his blog is here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Ever-Faithful & the Following

I'm studying the Book of Ruth these days, which, if you're unfamiliar, is a pretty killer short story. It's got everything you need: tragedy, romance, heroism, big speeches, and a happy ending. I recommend it.

I read it through before we started, but now I'm in the midst of a six-week Bible study on it (6 weeks to cover 4 chapters subdivided by the study writer and 8 women thinking & discussing = we're not missing much). To cap things off, I started listening to Mark Driscoll's sermon series on it today. I'm a fan of overkill, maybe, but I'm enjoying digging into it from a few different angles.

As Driscoll was reading the text and I was washing the dishes, something caught my attention. Switching between translations, the same English phrase pops up twice in Chapter 1. (To recap, Naomi, who has recently lost her husband and two grown sons, is leaving Moab to return to Israel, and she encourages her Moabite daughters-in-law to return to their families.) After Naomi tells them to go, she says, "'The Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me'" (v. 8, NKJV); the repetition of the phrase is from Ruth as she insists that she will remain with her mother-in-law: "'May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me'" (v. 17, NIV).

I'm not going to go off on the original Hebrew or anything--in fact, I am admittedly pulling this out of its context, and am referencing it only because it presented itself in my head, just as I'd been searching for a way to explain this very concept. Call it divine inception. (ba dum chhh)

Naomi and Ruth are both referring to the same God, and for all we can tell, have very similar faiths. But they are framing God's response to the same action--Ruth leaving Naomi--in opposite terms. Naomi says leave, go home, and the Lord will deal kindly with you; Ruth says, in effect, Au contraire. If I let even death separate us, the Lord should punish me. This isn't a doctrinal debate. This is life. This is looking at a huge expanse of gray area and deciding where to put your foot. Reality, for lack of a more poetical term.

See, the reason this caught my attention is that I've been puzzling over how to frame this very idea, both in my own head and in talking with my best friend. How do you frame, "We're both right"? She and I had a chat last weekend about some stuff in my life, and she has a very definite--and very sensible--plan of action that she suggested. I told her I would think about it, which I have, in great depth. I spent a good part of Sunday in some combination of conversation (read: frustrated irkings) and tears with God. I stayed home and took a mental health day on Monday, trying to puzzle through what was sensible, what was responsible, what was right. My best friend is smarter than me--this is not self-deprecation, but fact--and she generally sees the world in a more head-on way than I do, and so is innately good at cutting through the crap, in general and in me. And so when she starts a conversation with, "I may deny this later, but we're talking about it. What's the deal with..." I have a reaction not unlike an ostrich on an iceberg. Where did they put the sand?

That's not to say I'm ungrateful--if you don't have someone who can slice through the crap and get to the center of you, you're doing life wrong. And it's essential to hear alternate points of view, as I, at least, am often too much in my own head to see straight (doubters, keep reading). But, though beneficial, it is hardly enjoyable. I sat and listened, countered occasionally, but mostly watched as she expertly flayed open an aspect of my life that I'm used to skimming over, fully knowing the potential for good or ill that particular can of worms has. But like a good surgeon, she didn't open indelicately, or without purpose. She saw a problem, and she was out to fix it as directly as possible: Chandra doesn't meet single men. How, then, can she marry one?

(One of these days, Sydney will ask a hard question for which I have an answer ready, and THEN, my friends... Watch out! This was not one of those days.)

It's a fair question, and we talked about it a bit that night, and I went home pondering it. I spent the next three days pondering, and getting increasingly frustrated with God. Where was this awesome guy I'm supposed to be marrying? And even removing imminent marriage from the table, where were some possibilities, some somebodies who might be a Somebody? Hadn't I waited? Hadn't I done everything right? But it was true: unless my mailman is my man, I don't stand much chance of meeting this guy right now. What am I saying--I've never even met my mailman.

This aforementioned Bible study didn't help much, either--at least it didn't feel helpful at the time. All it wanted to do was talk about the provision of God, and how Ruth just so happened to return to Israel at the barley harvest and just so happened to go collect grain in this one certain field and just so happened to meet this guy named Boaz. (Hint: he might be significant to that happy ending I mentioned.) Yes, yes, I understood that it wasn't luck, but divine providence. But my notes in the margins of the book might indicate my frame of mind: "What the heck?!?" "UGH." "But what does this actually LOOK LIKE?!"

I kept insisting to God that the timing really couldn't be beat. How much better could a deity show off his perfect plan of "happenstance" than to present my husband in the midst of trying to figure out a game plan? God could come up with no answer, apparently, because He remained silent on the subject.

It took a good chunk of the next couple days for my head to start wrapping around some ideas. (This, by the way, is how God typically deals with me. No booming voice, no casting lots, just gradual feelings and inclinations that you might choose to attribute to positive thinking or something, which, while I accept the compliment, only proves how well I've fooled you into believing that I think well.)

Firstly, I'm actually, genuinely content being single right now. And by "right now," I mean for the last 8 months. God got a hold of me with some underlying issues I was holding on to back in February, and we dealt with them, and really, honestly, I haven't obsessed about it since. Do I still want to get married? Absatively. Do I still have the occasional feeling of, "Man, a boyfriend would be really swell right now?" Of course. But those are passing moments over the course of eight months. I'm happy single. And so, while meeting single guys with possibility would be nice and all, it's not really necessary--or even, once I started digging into it--desirable for me right now.

Secondly, I not only believe in but base my life on the belief that God is both sovereign and good. (This was occurring to me, for the record, before I listened to Driscoll's sermon--the first in that series--where he slams on this very idea.) I believe that there is no part of my life that He is not aware of, and I believe that He has things orchestrated such that as long as I'm tied close with Him, being where I need to be and doing what I need to do, He will take care of me. And because He knows who I am, that means not only bread and water and a roof but also my husband, and whoever I may date before finding him. I trust this, not out of fear or desperation but out of the knowledge--the beautiful-but-still-shocking truth--that He has taken care of me for this long, and has done a far better job than I could have done alone. I want no man in my life but that man He wants for me--be that a friendship, dating relationship, or husband. And so I rest in that.

And NO, that doesn't answer my fervent questions of "What does this look like?" Sydney's point remains: hiding away, either purposefully or incidentally, will not result in much of anything, romantically or otherwise. So I'll continue to look for ways of getting out more, and meeting new people, and maybe a few of them will even be dudes.

This all, somehow, circles back to Naomi and Ruth. Pulled out of context (forgive me, Old Testament professor), neither woman is wrong. They are looking at the same set of circumstances and making a judgment call. They are assembling what they know and believe and feel into a plan of action. They came up with two different answers. Ruth's answer back to Naomi is not a direct contradiction--she doesn't say that her mother-in-law is wrong because she isn't. Should God treat Ruth well for returning to her own family (and a hope for a future) after taking such good care of her mother-in-law and deceased husband? Certainly. It holds up to every imaginable plane of common sense and reasonable thinking. But Ruth is not going by what makes sense, but by what she's picking up from God. There are plenty of times when a leaning from God makes no kind of sense. That's part of this blind adventure we've labeled faith. Like calling freezing ocean water "refreshing," let's stick to calling it an adventure. :)

For every person who reads this, there will be another solution, another plan. That's okay. We can all be right--to a certain degree. But for me, I have this Ever-Faithful, this God who has saved me from so much already and continues to call me (coax me, drag me) toward a better way of living, a better version of myself. Like Ruth's road, following Him will rarely be easy or clear. It will not necessarily make sense to anyone watching. But it will lead me toward Him, and, less important but almost as thrilling, toward a time and place where I'll meet the man my Bible study group has affectionately named Beauregard, my husband. I hope it is not in a barley field--I don't look pretty in the midst of manual labor--but I'll take what I get.

Monday, October 1, 2012


Last Sunday, I actually got up a little early, and allowed for some time to read my Bible a bit before church.
"'I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies... Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.'" (Amos 5:21, 23-24)
Well, dang. That's not quite the reading you're going for as you're preparing to go to your religious assembly, wherein you will hopefully take part in some noisy praise. Where are all those "good onya for going to that there church, missy" verses? I swear, sometimes I think I got the wrong Bible. I can't find those pat-on-the-back verses anywhere.

I posted it on Facebook, I was so ticked. How's a girl supposed to start her Sabbath on that note? Stay home? Back to bed? Neither of those would set to rolling "an endless river of righteous living," though I can throw one heck of a pity party.

So I, err, pretty much ignored it. I got in the car with Julie like usual, and we drove to Dunkin Donuts like usual. I got my coffee like usual, and we pulled onto Broadway--only to see a woman standing in the median, tears streaming down her face. Julie was in control of the car as we stopped at the light, but both of us were arrested by her. Julie rolled down the window, and the woman asked if we were going toward the mall. "No, sorry," Julie said, real regret in her voice, and pointing to the next side street, "We're just going up to Highland." The woman broke down, and got only a half sentence into her story before Julie cut in. "Get on in, we'll take you."

For the sake of privacy, we'll call her Ariana. She got in the van and we rode the 15 minutes over to the mall to bring her to her clinic appointment. And along the way she shared some of her story with us. It's the kind of story that hurts just to listen to, both from it's emotional pain and the knowledge of how common it is. She still loves him, and that's the problem. It makes his eruptions of rage, his financial recklessness, his infidelity impossible to take on their own. It's easy to wish a Hollywood plot line on her--to picture a late-night car ride with the kids sleeping in the backseat, a cool welcome from estranged parents, a job at a diner to get her back on her feet. But life isn't that cut and dried. She can't leave him--not only from logistics (where does that car come from, or the gas money? and what about those kids that are legally his?), but because she loves him enough to choose to stay. She knows things would be better--for her, for her small children, for the third that's growing inside her--but she can't break from this thing that is still, in bits and broken-off pieces, occasionally good.

This post isn't about Ariana. Not really. We gave her a ride, and we dropped her off at her clinic. Julie says she's called the church and gotten help before, and will likely do so again. I've prayed for her often in the last week, knowing nothing else to do.

But what caught me in all of this--in the midst of my imaginings of diner jobs and new starts--was how very much this is all of our lives in the absence (or the less-than-complete lordship) of God. We convince ourselves that things, while not all good, are good enough to require our sticking to the status quo. We can justify and excuse everything from abusive relationships to financial hardship to general apathy, all because this is the life we've come to expect. To think there is more is childish naivete. We are people of the wider world, and we've heard the backstories on all the superheroes, and have come to know that there are no saviors. We save ourselves, or we continue to drown.

And all the while--even in the midst of our reasonings and hopelessness--there is a God who drew us together, who designed us and breathed life into us, who authored the miracle of creation, in the abyss of space and in our mothers' wombs, and He wanted so much more for us than what we've settled for. He wanted us to live with passion and abandon, to pursue worthwhile adventures and invest in healthy, restorative relationships. He listens as we list out everything that's wrong and every reason why it can't be fixed and His heart breaks at our blindness. He shows off in every way He reasonably can--through creation, through the love and compassion humanity is still capable of, through a book of poetry and story that doesn't settle for patting us on the back but cries out for us to live outside of normal and comfortable. He could step down from the clouds and show Himself as "real," but for what? Is it still love when a hand is forced? He calls us to a life of purpose and truth, but He asks that we choose it for Him, not just for what He can do for us. Like any lover, He longs to show love and grace and understanding, to improve and better and benefit His love, but in order to do those things He must be chosen for the sake of love alone. He alone can pull us out of the most complicated, entangling circumstances, but with our eyes on the tangles alone, we stand no chance of rescue. We are hopeless, we are caught in a pattern, we are certain that the bits of love we occasionally see make the rest worthwhile, and we wait it out, convinced that we have it the best that we can hope for.

I ache for Ariana, for the place that she has found herself in, for the trap she is caught in. I wish there were a way for me to step in and save her, but that is not--at least at the moment--the role God has for me. He may use me or someone else, but He alone will be her savior, as He alone was (and continues to be) mine. I pray for her as I pray for myself: that we would see not only what captures and ensnares us, but also--more than that--Who can set us free.

"I prayed to the LORD, and He answered me.
He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to the Him for help will be radiant with joy;
no shadow of shame will darken their faces...
No one who takes refuge in Him will be condemned."
- Psalm 34: 4-5 & 22

"'There is no other god who can rescue like this.'"
- Daniel 3:29