Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Thoughts 2010

Beautiful music has always had the ability to bring me into the presence of God.

One of the most poignant memories from my childhood involves music. My family usually sat in the balcony of the Pacific Union College SDA church in which I was raised, next to the choir loft, and from the time I can remember anything, I remember being mesmerized by the anthems that choir sang. I remember thinking that nothing could be more heavenly than to be in the middle of the choir, singing with them – to have the music all around me, to be part of the beautiful sound. Even at age six, if I could have figured out a way to jump into the choir loft, I would have been singing with them!

I joined a children’s choir in 2nd grade and continued to sing in choirs for most of my elementary, high school and college years. In fact, the choir I belonged to my senior year of college had the distinction of being one of the first groups to tour East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990 – an incredible experience both culturally and musically.

As an adult, I stopped singing in choirs. By then, I had a job, a growing family, and virtually no spare time. And anyway, as an adult, I was finding that religion was much more difficult than singing in the church choir. As devout Seventh-day Adventist Christians, my husband and I had been raised with a clear set of guidelines and expectations, and a complex, precise approach to the world – an approach which seemed more legalistic and cumbersome to us the older we got.

It seemed that as SDAs, we spent so much time trying to be different than the world that we had little spiritual energy left over to make positive connections with it. As our faith grew and developed, it looked less and less like the 27 Fundamental Beliefs of the SDA Church. This created a huge conflict inside us, since the SDA church was the church in which we were raised and we were afraid many relationships would be broken if we left.

In spite of our fear and misgivings, by 2005 JD and I felt so stifled in the SDA Church that we became “closet Methodists,” going to a nearby Methodist church early every Sunday morning before our Adventist friends were awake, but also attending our SDA church every Saturday morning. We absolutely loved the Methodist Church, with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit, a vibrant, connected faith community, and, above all, its social gospel. I found out that my approach to faith – for example, working in underprivileged communities and starting a health clinic to care for those forgotten and left out by the system – was actually very Wesleyan. For the first time in a long time, I looked forward to going to church, and felt connected to the people there. I remarked to JD that I felt like a Methodist waiting to happen.

Leaving the SDA church was one of the hardest things we have ever done, and I will not go into all the details here. Suffice it to say that it was painful – for us, our kids, and also, I suspect, for our families and friends. I will admit that we were hurt by the SDA church, although I’m sure that was not their intent. Why were we leaving? Nobody understood. Even I did not fully understand, but both JD and I felt more strongly than we had about anything for a long time, that God was calling us to join the Methodist church.

For four years, we were actively involved as members of Bethpage United Methodist Church, and our faith took on new dimensions which were challenging, exciting, and fulfilling. The church supported me wholeheartedly in my ministry at Hope Clinic, and they supported JD wholeheartedly in every avenue of ministry he pursued. We both became certified lay speakers and began preaching when asked. JD joined Agape, the church’s praise band, and became a Sunday School teacher. We made many new friends.

But our new church was not immune to problems. The United Methodist Church’s pastoral appointment system did not serve our church well: in four years, we had six different pastors, all with very different leadership styles. A church that had once been vibrant and strong suffered from the many changes in leadership, and many of our friends left. And, while I liked the theological openness and freedom of the Methodist Church, this meant that it was possible for pastors to have a wide range of views which they could impose on the church.

And within our family, the switch to a different denomination caused its share of stress. Our oldest daughter Ellie had never been happy with our decision to leave the SDA church, and at age 12, made the decision to be baptized into the Highland SDA Church. We were incredibly proud of her and grateful for her decision to be baptized. But having a family with members in two denominations was often difficult – especially two denominations that went to church on different days.

In the summer of 2010, when a pastor was appointed to Bethpage United Methodist Church whose theology and leadership style I strongly disagreed with, I could no longer continue to go there. JD wanted to stay, but also did not want our family to be split up at different churches. After much discussion and prayer, we decided to start attending McKendree United Methodist Church, only 10 minutes away from home.

We began attending McKendree and enjoyed it, but to be honest, as we moved toward the Christmas season this year, I was really struggling with the whole idea of church. As I looked back at our experience, it seemed that the one organization which had hurt me more deeply than anything else during my adult life was the church. No matter where we went, big problems came up which were painful to deal with.

As I thought back over all the relationships that had suffered or been broken, all the struggles in the SDA church to meet the standards and all the struggles in the Methodist church to keep our church family from falling apart, and even all the hurt and strained relationships within our own family due to the fact that we were now bi-denominational, I felt sick. Reflexively, I wanted to run away from all of it. I wanted the companionship, warmth, and spiritual support of a church, but I was afraid to commit to relationships within the church, or to become involved in the life of a particular church, because I knew inevitably what would result: yet again, I would be hurt, and the cycle would continue.

It was at this time, about 3 months after we started attending McKendree, that church organist Pat Empson invited JD and me to sing in the annual Christmas cantata, a joint enterprise of McKendree Methodist Church, Highland SDA Church, Oasis SDA Church, and Highland Academy, an SDA secondary school which is JD’s alma mater. I really didn’t have time, but Pat continued to enthusiastically invite us, even dropping the cantata book and CD off on our front porch one evening. I must admit that the thought of singing in a choir again, after almost 20 years, was very tempting, and both JD and I began going to the rehearsals.

It was interesting singing with four organizations, all of which were, or had been, part of our faith experience. We quickly found that McKendree and Highland were already close to each other- in fact, as one McKendree member described it, “Sister churches.” Their choirs had been joining forces for many years to perform a Christmas cantata, so the choir members and other musicians enjoyed a warm relationship with each other. It was strangely refreshing to be surrounded by people from both of the faith traditions which had shaped us, who obviously respected and cared for each other.

This morning, we performed the cantata at Highland SDA Church. The combined choir and orchestra, 70 members strong, filled the entire stage, and about 700 people filled the church and balcony. The church was decorated for Christmas, with reds and greens, twinkling lights and candles. As the church filled up, the joy and expectation were palpable.

The orchestra began to play and the choir sang, “Lift up your heads O gates, and make the highway straight, prepare to celebrate the coming of the Lord!” Sitting right in the middle of the choir, surrounded by the beautiful voices, part of the music, I remembered the way I felt as a child listening to the choir. It was so simple then - no doctrines, no denominations, no guilt or hurt feelings - just the beautiful music and the presence of God.

As I was singing and thinking these thoughts, I had the strangest experience. I was aware of all the people around me, representing separate strands of my church experience, and the music coming from all of them blending in the most amazing way. And all at once, something happened in an instant which I had not been able to accomplish in years of trying. What was it? It felt like a combination of forgiveness, peace, and healing, a sense that all the disparate pieces of my church experience had come together again. Suddenly, it all seemed so simple…just the beautiful music and the presence of God.

This morning Pastor John, the Adventist pastor who baptized our daughter Ellie, led the congregation and choir in a song called “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” As I sang it I sensed its truth in a new and surprising way. My membership is rooted not in one denomination, creed, or church, but in the family of God! We are human and we fail, we hurt each other, yet we are brought together each Christmas to worship and to sing, to join as a family and celebrate the coming of the Lord.

And when we do, everything else fades away, and all that is left is what really matters: the beautiful music and the presence of God.

Friday, January 30, 2009

About Jonah - a story remembered - and a plea to parents to immunize their kids

When my son Jonah was not quite two months old, he had a terrible case of pertussis - the kind of pertussis, in fact, that kids are immunized against when they get the DTP shot, given first at two months of age.

Unfortunately, Jonah got the illness at seven weeks of age, just a week before he was scheduled to get his first round of shots.

At first, I noticed that he wasn't breathing well through his nose.  That was a problem when he tried to nurse.  He couldn't breathe, so repeatedly stopped sucking to breathe, and finally started to cry in frustration. I took him to an ear, nose and throat doctor who was a friend of mine.  By then, his breathing was worse, and it was painful for me to watch him trying to get enough air. But my friend told me he just had a virus and would be better in a few days.

By then, the nights were terrible.  Jonah couldn't breathe at all while lying down.  I put him in his carseat or swing, but couldn't sleep myself for fear he would suffocate.  Finally, I would end up holding him for hours, so exhausted I could hardly stay awake.

I tried everything I knew - vaporizers, nasal drops and spray, even a mild decongestant, but nothing worked.

It was a dark time for our family in general.  JD had been out of work, and after several months of not working myself, I had just started a new job the week before.  I was desperate to make the money our family needed to pay bills, determined not to miss any work.  So I stayed up with Jonah at night, and worked in the day.  

Finally, when Jonah had been sick for about a week and I was beyond exhaustion, it came to the point that I knew we couldn't go on.  Jonah had started to cough by now, and there were long spells during which he simply couldn't catch his breath at all.  Quickly, I packed him into his carseat and headed for the hospital.  On the way, I called the pediatrician I was working for and told her I was on the way.

At the little Portland hospital, they couldn't start an IV and didn't have the right equipment to get his oxygen level up.  My mother-in-law, who is an RN, came to be with Jonah and me.  

Ever since that day, I have had a hard time forgiving myself for what happened after that.  I worked in one of the offices in the hospital, and I was the only provider there that day.  In fact, the receptionist (who doubled as a medical assistant) had not shown up.  I opened the office at 9:00 and started checking patients in myself.  I knew my baby was sick, but I felt such a sense of responsibility to be at my job. 

I had only taken care of a few patients when my mother-in-law called to say that Jonah was worse.  "He needs to be in Vanderbilt," she said.

I called the doctor again and told her I wanted Jonah at Vanderbilt.  They called an ambulance, and I held Jonah while we waited.  I felt terrible - frightened, more tired than I'd ever been, weak, and lightheaded.  It was then that I realized that, in addition to not sleeping, I hadn't eaten much in the past two days.  

It was such a relief to finally be in the ambulance, headed for Vanderbilt.  The paramedic was exceptionally nice.  He got some oxygen on Jonah and kept him on the oxygen monitor all the time, so I could see that his levels were OK.  His confidence was contagious, and I started to feel better.

It was an even bigger relief when we got to the hospital, and they had a room ready for Jonah, with staff already assigned to him.  In fact, his nurse met us at the door and walked with us to the room, getting a history as we walked.

I will never forget how efficient and skilled those people were.  They deep-suctioned his lungs almost right away, allowing him to breathe more freely.  They made his bed into an oxygen tent, so we didn't have to try to keep a mask on him.  When he was able to breathe better, he started to drink, first from a bottle, and by that evening was able to nurse again.

I stayed with Jonah constantly.  JD was there, but his main job was to care for Ellie and Owen so I could be with Jonah.  

As I watched my tiny baby, still breathing with difficulty but at least breathing, so many thoughts raced through my mind.  I wondered who he would be as he got older - what he would look like, what kind of personality he would have.  I desperately wanted him to survive so I could find out.  Life is so fragile, I thought.  Just a few breaths separate life and death - just a few breaths missed, and there are no more chances.  

I slept in Jonah's room that night, and again didn't sleep much, but felt relief that help was right outside in the hallway, if he should get into trouble.  

Amazingly, Jonah was so improved that they let him go the next day.  The cough was still there, but after that, his breathing was almost normal.  It was like the illness finally gave up, released Jonah from its grip, and slunk away.  It was no match for the skill of the healers who cared for him at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.

Now, Jonah is a healthy, lively, very normal five-year-old, and this is the first time I've written about his illness.  It was such a painful spot in my memory, that it was hard to even pull it back up again.  But now that I have, I realize I learned some things from the experience.  Here they are:

1) Since then, I have learned to set better limits.  It was a difficult process for someone addicted to doing it all, caring for everyone, and never disappointing anyone.  It actually took some time with Kay Arnold, an excellent therapist who helped me work through the reasons I could not set limits.  

Now, I can say with confidence that if this happened again, I would never leave my sick child in order to take care of patients.  I dont' think the patients would even want me to do that!  I have also learned to take better care of myself, since the health and welfare of my family depends on me being healthy.

2) I haved learned, firsthand, the incredible power that those in the healing arts possess, to relieve suffering and give people the gift of life and health.  Since then, I have approached people who are in physical or emotional pain with a new, deeper empathy, and a renewed passion to be the very best, most knowledgeable, skillful, and compassionate healer that I possibly can be. 

I will never forget the people who helped Jonah, from the paramedic in the ambulance, to all the staff that cared for him at the hospital.  Though I don't remember their names and may never see them again, I bless and thank them whenever I think of them.

3) I have learned that even though I am a medical provider myself, it is hard for me to be objective when caring for my own kids.  In retrospect, I should have taken Jonah to Vanderbilt much sooner.  I probably would have told other parents to do this, but somehow I couldn't see it myself.  Also, I had not eaten or slept much, which clouded my judgement.

4) Having experienced the fragility of life, I really treasure every minute I have with Jonah, Ellie, and Owen.  And when I go into their rooms at night to check on them, sometimes I stop and just listen to their easy breathing, and feel grateful!

5) I REALLY believe in immunizations!  I mean, I have always thought it was a good idea, but now I'm almost fanatical about it.  If a parent tells me they don't believe in shots, I tell them Jonah's story.  I would NEVER want anyone to go through what we went through with Jonah, especially when it can be prevented with a series of simple little shots. 

The sad thing, that I only found out through researching the topic after Jonah recovered, is that a fairly high percentage of babies who get pertussis do not survive.  Many who do, end up having to go on the heart-lung bypass system, which sounds pretty traumatic.  

Jonah is learning to read now, and every day makes new discoveries.  He is independent, creative, cuddly, and full of mischief.  He also has a wonderful sense of humor, and often has the whole family laughing.  He is very affectionate and always climbs up on my lap during church, while watching a movie, or reading a book.  His freckles, brown eyes, and big grin are completely disarming, but then I admit to being biased!

Thank God for excellent health care professionals, equipment, technology, compassion, and a big helping of grace, which allowed Jonah to come through such a serious illness, back to full health and well-being. 

I can't wait to see all the great things Jonah will do as he grows - and am glad he has been given the chance!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I took a goofy little quiz on Facebook yesterday which said that my color is white. According to this quiz, the color white describes me best because I am pure, peaceful, and kind.

Now, I don't know about the validity of the quiz. Or the description of my attributes, with which my family would doubtless take issue.

But it did start me thinking - about something I had not thought much about since teenagerhood. My name, Jennifer, actually means "white."

Growing up, I was always disappointed by this. It was so, you know, boring. Other names meant cool things, like "given by God" or "Beloved". Mine was just a color, and not even a colorful color.

Upon further study, I learned that the name Jennifer is actually Welsh, derived from "Guinevere," who was the bride of King Arthur and lover of Sir Lancelot, knight of the round table. According to legend, Guinevere's affair with Lancelot eventually caused the demise of the kingdom and death of her husband, Arthur, along with a great many of his knights, and she spent the rest of her days in a convent.

That's exciting alright, but doesn't make for much of a role model. Now, a name like Mary, Hannah, Elizabeth, Esther, or Eleanor - those are names with honor behind them, names that bring to mind great people worthy of being emulated.

But Guinevere, portrayed as anything from weak and easily influenced, to manipulative and conniving, doesn't get much credit in any of the stories. Except that she is beautiful, that is one thing they all agree on.

Despite its derivation, I have always liked my name - not Jennifer, but Jenny. It sounds kind of youthful and energetic to me, and those are things I want to be.

Another reason I like my name is that my grandmother, who passed away several years ago, loved it. In fact, she would have been pleased as punch if my parents had gone all the way and named me something really Welsh, like Gwyneth, Guinevere, or Gwendolyn.

Born in Wales around 1910, my grandmother was Welsh through and through. Although she and her family moved to Canada when she was seven, and later to the United States, she always spoke with a Welsh accent. When I was small, she used to travel back to the United Kingdom once every year or two, to visit her sister and other relatives who still lived there.

Later, I attended college in England for three years, and took the opportunity to go to Wales and visit my grandmother's hometown of Hereford. It is a journey I will never forget. In the height of summer, Hereford, on the banks of the River Wye, was picturesque and perfect. The modern homes in the city center gave way to older-fashioned cottages and farmhouses in the outer parts of town, and everyone seemed to have flowers growing in their gardens. Around the village, the hilly landscape was being mowed for hay, and the sweet scent of the drying grass permeated the air.

In another nearby village, I visited my great-great-grandmother's grave, and met several families who were distantly related to me. They took me in like long-lost family, insisting that I stay for several days, showing me all around the town, and introducing me like I was someone very important.

JD and I loved Wales, and during college, spent our most memorable hitchiking trips there. I will never forget, as we hiked along a cliff overlooking the ocean, rounding a turn and seeing Harlech Castle, built right on the cliff's edge, spread out in the distance - or reaching the summit of Mount Snowdon in such a thick fog that we couldn't see more than two feet in front of us.

In fact, I am pretty sure that it was in Wales that I first started to fall in love with JD. We shared the same sense of adventure, the same thrill in new discoveries, the same curiosity to see what lay beyond the next turn in the road - and in Wales, it was always something fascinating.

But I diverge. I was talking about my name, which means "white," and reflecting on the fact that it is derived from Guinevere, who wasn't much of a role model.

Which reminds me of something else. Our new president, Barack Hussein Obama, has just been instated in the most powerful office in the world, in spite of his name!

In this country, post 9/11, in the middle of two wars being fought in Muslim countries, the middle name "Hussein" should be kind of like a lead weight tied around a person's ankle. Like a sure way to get voted out. Like a death sentence for a campaign.

But he did it anyway! In less than two years, this young and relatively unknown man won the confidence of our country and, arguably, of the entire world. He was able to do it, in my opinion, by believing and hoping and visioning the kind of world that could be, and letting us in on the view.

So, as I think about my name, and it's meaning, I realize that it's up to me to make it or break it. There are some things I like about my name and its history, and other things that I don't. I will never act as deceitfully as did Guinevere. But I will always be proud of my Welsh heritage, and proud of my grandmother. I hope that, not only in my name but in who I am, part of her beautiful spirit will show.

I think, after all, that I kind of like the color white. Purity, peacefulness, and kindness are good things to strive for - not only for me as an individual, but for us as a country, and for us as a world.

And, I am just naive (or optimistic) enough to think that we could actually do just that. All around me, I feel the world changing. And maybe, just maybe, all of us, no matter what our history, name, ethnicity, or beliefs, can come together to make the world a purer, more peaceful, kinder place.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reflections on Zechariah

I really struggle with guilt.  Left to my own devices, I tend to feel guilty about everything - even things I haven't done but could imagine myself doing, or things that aren't my fault.  In fact, as time has gone on, I have realized that this is the devil's most potent tool in bringing my spiritual growth to a standstill.

Probably the thing I'm feeling most guilty about lately is the fact that I haven't been spending enough time with God.  A close second would be my wealth - all the things I have - especially when compared with the poverty of so many I rub shoulders with each day.

One of the problems with guilt is that it tends to drive me further away from God, and stop any dialogue between us.  It is paralyzing.  Ironically, it worsens the rift between myself and God even further, which gives me more to feel guilty about.

Recently, this vicious cycle resulted in about a month-long period of distance from God.  During the Christmas season, all the things I had to do crowded out my time for prayer and study, and the resulting guilt made me feel infinitely far from God.  And, though I felt badly about it, I couldn't get back into the habit of regular communication with him.

Then last Wednesday night, I couldn't sleep.  The dogs woke me, then Jonah, then Ellie.  I dozed a little, but kept waking up again.  

Finally, at 3:00 AM, I got up and sat at the kitchen table with my Bible. I felt exhausted, full of remorse for my distance from God, angry that I couldn't be more self-disciplined.  But I also felt a strong sense of God's presence, and I knew I had been kept from sleep for a reason.  

Opening the Bible, I turned, for no particular reason, to Zechariah.  I can't remember the last time I read this book, but this time it got my attention right away with its bizarre, surreal visions and images.

When I came to Zechariah 3, the words almost jumped off the page:  
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD , and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD , who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?" 
3 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes." 
Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you." 
5 Then I said, "Put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by. 

 As I read the verses, I heard God's voice, rebuking Satan on my behalf.  I felt the relief of being valuable enough to pull from the fire, to clean up, and dress in new, spotless, perfect clothes, the symbol of forgiveness. 

I knew that while Joshua is a symbol of Jesus, he also represented me - someone who, despite her faults, was precious and loved.  And as I read through the chapter, I recognized the promises of the Messiah, of Jesus, who did indeed complete his mission, making redemption and forgiveness ours.

As I went back to bed, and through the rest of the week, I was filled with awe and gratitude that God values me enough to get me out of my routine and deal directly with the spiritual struggle I was facing right then.  Since then, the crippling guilt has not returned.  

I do think that guilt serves a purpose: to point out sin and help us appreciate forgivenss.  But I hope that this encounter will help me remember not to stay engulfed in it, like yesterday's outfit, but instead to step into the much more comfortable, newly-washed, and beautiful clothing of grace.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Reflections on the End of the World

Recently, Ellie and I saw a movie that really got the circuits in my brain firing.

A futuristic drama called "City of Ember," this is the story of two children's struggle to reach the earth's surface from a city thousands of feet underground. As the story goes, years earlier, a natural disaster ravaged the earth. Fearing that the human race would be destroyed, the builders of the city made provision for 50 men, 50 women and 100 children to go below the surface, where all their needs would be provided for the next 200 years, until the earth, they hoped, would again be habitable.

Contained in a small metal box were the instructions for leaving the city and returning to earth. The box, programmed to open 200 years from the city's founding day, was given to the first mayor, with instructions to hand it down to each successive mayor who ruled the city.

Unfortunately, the box was lost during the seventh mayor's term, and now, at 200 years and counting, the generator which powers and lights the city is failing. The frightened citizens find various ways of coping with the threat of impending darkness, from denying that the generator is faltering, to staunchly trusting the builders of the city to come back and save them. Some, including the mayor, escape from reality by binging on the limited food supply.

The hero of our tale tries repeatedly to fix the generator, and when he realizes it is a lost cause, starts trying to find a way out of the cave. He and a girl about his age find the box and set out for the surface, using the torn and faded instructions they find in the box to guide them.

Although this movie was probably produced for Ellie's age group rather than mine, I found it visually compelling, attention-grabbing, and thought-provoking.

Watching the scenes in the dim city as the lights repeatedly flicker and go out, I could not help but think of the world in which I live. I always feel a twinge of anxiety when I see footage of the polar ice caps melting, or maps showing projections of the vast stretches of coastline which would be under water if the earth's temperature were to increase by even a few degrees.

I have friends who deny that this is really happening. They write global warming off as a figment of Al Gore's imagination. Others check off each calamity against Bible prophecy, proclaiming the end of the world and waiting expectantly for Jesus to come back to take the faithful to a new world. And still others work to unite mankind in pursuing technology and behavior change which would fix the problem.

A common truth which is not terribly encouraging, is that none of us really knows how this will end. Will the human race come together to solve the problems, feed the hungry, build sustainable energy sources and ways of living, and achieve a better quality of life for everyone? Or will we continue to fight with each other, kill each other, fail to cooperate, and keep making choices which will wear out our fragile earth? Will Jesus come back before the end and save those who follow him? And even if we do everything in our power, will it make a difference?

Something else that caught my attention was the image of all those people who had never seen the blue sky, sun, or the light of day. For them, these things we take for granted were only legends, and some had even ceased to believe that a world existed beyond the reach of the generator's flickering lights. Early in the story, we see the girl coloring a picture of a landscape with hills, a sun, clouds and a blue sky. She runs her hands over the picture almost reverently, and you can tell she is thinking: do these things really exist?

It reminds me of the place in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair, when the children and their companion Puddleglum find themselves in an underworld of huge caverns and dim cities, ruled by a wicked queen. The queen captures them and puts a spell on them to try to convince them that no other world than her own exists, and that the sun and sky are just stories.

Resisting the spell with great difficulty, Puddleglum says, "Suppose we have only dreamed or made up all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones...that's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any, we're setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland."

In the end, both sets of children - those from Narnia and those from the City of Ember - do find their way to the surface. "City of Ember" ends as the sun rises and the children see the rosy sky of dawn and the vast expanse of hills, valleys, and waving grass for the first time. In just a few minutes, their view of the universe changes completely and they realize they have been living in the dark, experiencing only a fraction of reality.

It is interesting to me, as I read the New Testament, that here and there we see glimpses of God's country, the heavenly kingdom, shining in the far distance with a mysterious glow. One of the last things Jesus told his disciples was that he was going to prepare a place for them. It is alluded to in Hebrews and Revelation, yet we still have no very clear picture of what it looks like.

Perhaps it is because of my Seventh-day Adventist heritage, or maybe because I am futuristic, but I spend a lot of time wondering about God's country. Will it be as awesome and paradigm-changing as coming out of lifelong darkness and seeing the real world, full of light, for the first time? Will my eyes and other senses be opened in ways I cannot now imagine or comprehend?

Sometimes, doubts creep in and I hear a voice which says, "You have no proof that such a country even exists. What if it's all make-believe? What if humans like yourself just invented heaven to make dying a little easier for us?

But in the end, I side with Puddleglum. Even if the Overland, or Heaven, or God's country, don't exist, I will continue to live as if they do. I will continue to believe, even in the absence of absolute proof.

Because I choose light, beauty, and redemption over doubt, fear and hopelessness. I choose to believe the captivating story of a God who cares enough for me to take me from a world whose lights are going out. I don't know exactly how this will happen - but, like other Christians before me, I believe that it will.

I think Hebrews says it best:

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them."
-- Hebrews 11:13-16

I can't wait to come out of the darkness, out of these three dimensions, out of the limitations of this mind and body, into whatever new world Jesus went to prepare for us. Knowing God, it will be beyond amazing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A New Philosophy of Christmas

Christmas will be different at our house this year.

We have tiptoed around it in years past. We have discussed the virtues of doing it differently. We have come right to the brink of change, then always retreated to the familiarity of tradition.

This year, the financial crunch has forced us to re-think our priorities.

In years past, my (George) family Christmas has involved wonderful family time, music, spiritual programs and discussions, and food. And also presents - lots of them. Each adult draws two names of other adults, and everyone buys for the seven children. The result is an enormous stack of gifts, usually too large to fit under the Christmas tree. All this, at a time when multiple holiday responsibilities have pushed us past our budgets and frankly, none of us have a lot of money to spare.

Admittedly, it's fun to open gifts. Especially for the kids. But as I look at their rooms and toy-boxes, already jammed full of stuff, I wonder, do they really need anything else?

Last weekend when my family got together for the triathlon, we talked about Christmas. And, as often happens when my family is together, we started to throw around some strange ideas. Maybe, we reasoned, this Christmas could focus on something other than buying more stuff.

By the end of the weekend, we had decided to go for it. The rule about presents, we decided, was that they had to be either second-hand, made, or non-material, such as a certificate for a particular act of service from the giver. At any rate, they could NOT cost much money.

Since then, my mind has exploded with other new ideas to make the Christmas weekend meaningful and memorable, without costing much of anything. JD and I will be hosting Christmas at our house this year, so to start out with, we won't have the cost of renting a cabin as we have for the past two years. Here are some other suggestions, some of which - if the rest of the family agrees - I would like to try.

1. Candlelight program. Our big family room has now been re-done with hardwood floors, new walls, windows and paint. We will be moving our piano into this room shortly. It is a big room, the perfect size for a candlelight program - Friday night, as Sabbath is beginning, would be a good time. I would like to have each family bring candles, then place them around the outsides of the room and light them as the program begins. I would place chairs in a big circle around the room, and give people parts to do several months before we get together, so they would be ready. Music would be alternated with readings or testimony. Pretty much everyone in our family is musical and it's always fun to hear them, especially if they've practiced and are prepared. We also would do some hymns or choral music all together, as a group.

2. Christmas Tree Decorating Ceremony for the kids.
We could put up a tree with lights but no ornaments. Then, we could set out two big folding tables in the middle of the family room and put all seven kids around the tables, and put craft supplies on the tables. Popcorn strings, pictures painted on old glass ornaments, ornaments made out of favorite small toys, or pinecones and other objects collected outside - this would keep the kids occupied, and make the tree much more interesting - something the kids could be proud of.

3. Christmas 5K or 5-mile run. My brothers, sister-in-law, JD, and I have been training for a trail run and possibly a 10K or half-marathon, and this would be a great time to run all together. We probably won't be able to find any organized races this time of year, but we could map out our own course and run all together one of the mornings that everyone is there.

4. Letters to prisoners and those less fortunate. Our Christmas will be held over New Year's weekend, so by then, we will have already given away gifts to the families we are sponsoring. I was thinking that a great service project over New Year's would be to get together for about an hour, and each of us write some letters or cards to people in our lives who are going through a rough time, incarcerated, missionaries overseas, or anyone just needing special encouragement. A lot of times we concentrate on giving away material things to those less fortunate at Christmas, but we forget that encouragement and messages of support are probably just as helpful and uplifting, and usually don't cost us anything.

These are some ideas to get started. So far, I have not discussed any of these plans with JD's family, only with my own, so the above plans may only apply to one of our Christmas celebrations.

However, I am excited about this, can't wait to plan it all out, and am looking forward to this Christmas with my family more than I have any Christmas in a long time. And the great thing is that we won't still be paying it off in February:)

I would welcome any of your own suggestions for ways to make this holiday season meaningful without going broke.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer Road Trip 2008: learning about whaling on the Atlantic coast

Our family just returned from a two-week vacation during which we visited Washington D.C., the port at Mystic, CT, the Jersey shore, Boston, Plymouth, New Bedford, New York City, and the Outer Banks. More on this soon - to see pictures, scroll down about seven posts.