Thursday, January 31, 2013

Why I Am Reformed

The other day Sherri Edman called me the nicest Calvinist she knows. I smiled at that, because I've known Sherri and Peter long enough by now to hear a little subtext to that description. It's one of those statements that is not entirely a compliment.

It's not unusual. When people talk about "Calvinists" or "the Reformed," there is often a tinge of suspicion. My non-Presbyterian friends direct certain expressions of bafflement my way. It's somewhere between "Gosh, you're smarter than I expected for a Nascar fan" and "I never expected anyone as pleasant as you to torture small animals for sport."

 One of the lovelier consequences of Reformed theology is that you don't have to be concerned with changing people's minds. Very freeing. But since I am trying to get back into the swing of blogging regularly and I am casting about for subjects, it occurred to me that a series of posts about why I 'm Reformed might shed some light on a subject that you've wondered about.

So if everything you know about Reformed theology comes from your high-school reading of The Scarlet Letter and you're wondering how high our congregation's pillory is, or if the word "predestination" sends fatalistic chills up your spine and you can't reconcile that with the way I'm always jabbering on about love, stop on by for the next week or two. I'll try to put a friendly face above that Geneva collar.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

More than being right

Pick one: 

A. God is good.

B. Look at those people over there who don't believe that God is good. We must resist them before they ruin everything.

I spent some time reading arguments in the blogosphere this week. This is the junk food of Christian theology. Chest-thumping, testosterone-fueled debates in which clever people try to convince you that those people over there are threatening everything. They will be the downfall of the church! I almost stopped being a Christian because of them! Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party!

I used to think that this style of faith-as-conflict was strictly a male phenomenon. God, in his mercy, used the internet to correct my sexism. That tricksy God. Won't even let me keep my smug little prejudices.

There is a particular bent to these arguments, reflected in the choice above. You can say a true thing, or you can portray a war in which you, brave warrior, are marshaling the forces of good against the forces of evil. The particular occasion of the conflict almost doesn't matter. What matters is that people observe you leaping into the fray, being right.

There are people who love the truth, and there are people who love being right. While anyone who has ever been married knows that sometimes we can belong to either group, the nature of internet arguments often encourages one over the other. One makes better theater than the other.

One of the reasons I love Ann Voskamp's blog is how thoroughly she refuses to engage in option B. Her faith is expressed in the small particularities of an incarnate life, not in trouncing designated enemies.  It is lovely, and ultimately does more to create a solid sense of the good than the endless wrangling of the arguers ever accomplished. It has been an example to me more than once.

The argument I read this week was over the Problem of Evil, an irresolvable debate if ever there was one.  How can a good God allow evil to happen? Why do good people suffer unjustly? The attempts to resolve this are no more successful than they've ever been. One group redefines evil to mean good, apparently believing that will let God off the hook. The other redefines God to be something smaller and less responsible, an affable spirit buddy who means well, but can only do so much. Nobody solves the problem in the terms given, because no one can.

But there is no passion like the passion of someone convinced that their inadequate solution is better than your inadequate solution. Grab the popcorn, watch the fireworks. Call him a sociopath and call her a sinner in rebellion. Bronze your humilities and mount them on the wall; point at them to show  you're better than your opponent. Someone must surely win (won't they?) and it's important it be you. Everything depends on it.

Job lost everything, and he cried out to God. His friends argued for days, certain that the rightness of the world was threatened by Job's questions. But their arguments blew away on the wind, and the  answer to Job's cries - the only satisfaction - was the presence of God.

I don't have an answer to the problem of evil. But if Job was answered by the presence of God, then the only thing we can offer is to be the presence of God in someone's life. The quiet, loving friend, the tender mother, the faithful wife. It doesn't solve the insoluble, and it won't make anyone applaud you for being right or winning a war. Nobody becomes president of a seminary or makes the best-seller list by holding the hand of someone in pain.

But it says that God is good. Here, here is goodness: baked and covered in this casserole dish, shining in this stack of clean laundry, ringing in that phone when you're lonely. God is good, my letter says, even if the words aren't printed on it. God is good, I hear in that familiar joke from a much-missed friend, who suddenly stopped by. Not watch me win, but God is good.

That's all I want to say.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


The flu doesn't die easy. I told my feverish five-year-old a few days ago that there was a war going on in her body. She had been invaded, and her white blood cells were inventing weapons that very minute to bash the bad germs. Soon they would be experts at beating those germs, and her sickness would go away.

And it worked. We are all much better. Sniffling and coughing still, but well on our way to wholeness. The doc has cleared the children to return to school, and our naps are getting fewer. A sore throat lingers for me, though, and I asked my husband to make me a hot toddy.

My husband's hot toddies are dangerous. They taste good, they soothe the throat and ease the coughing. But they are deceptively powerful. One means I am in for the night. Two means it will be an early night.

So I am nursing my toddy and watching the fifth season of The West Wing. Unlike the toddy, it is absolutely awful. Hard to believe that show could tank so badly and still go on for two more seasons. Now that I mention it, it's a lot like this virus. Bad television as flu experience. I'm seeing medical schools showing the last three seasons of The West Wing to teach sympathy for infectious disease patients.

We have church tomorrow, but I will probably need to stay home. I'm not quite ready to trust this coughing body to the public. I'm a forty-year-old mother of four and... I don't need to explain, do I? Let's just call it The West Wing Effect.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Thought That Counts

This past December I had an idea on facebook. Instead of sending out holiday cards (which I never do because it makes me crazy), I would give a personalized book recommendation to each of my facebook friends. I have about 150 friends on facebook (I deliberately keep my list small), and I would suggest a different book for each of them, a book I imagined they would like.

It took me over a month, but it was a lot of fun. I kept a list, and I mulled over book ideas for an hour or so every day. I like thinking about books, so this was no hardship. I thought about the tastes and personality and history of the people I knew, I read a few more books to expand my own palate, and I finished my list in early January.

I was surprised at how people reacted to this. It seemed such a small thing to me, and I was a little concerned that my friends would be annoyed by it. But if anyone was, they were kind enough not to say so. Instead, some of my friends were sentimental in their thanks. It was a pleasant surprise. After all, I wasn't actually buying the book.

It is easy to forget how lonely the world is. Or rather, it's easy to believe that the world isn't as lonely for other people as it is for ourselves. Other people must have lives filled with community and fellowship and easy, graceful camaraderie, right? Loneliness must be unique to me. I have been surprised how many people assume that their friendships only exist by fragile accident.

But they don't. Look, I am a mildly grumpy introvert with four small children, easily exhausted by social interaction and having little time to pursue it. If I am in your life, it's because I want to be. If I have a kind word or a friendly welcome for you, it is meant. I'm not flawless, but when I hurt people it's by accident. If I know your name and I smile when I see you, it's because I'm actually glad you're here. Sincere friendships already test my introverted energy; artificial friendships feel like death to me. They are not in my tool set.

My friends are not friends by chance. I can chalk up that first meeting to Providence, but I kept at it because I like you. At the risk of sounding pompous and maudlin, I chose you. And it means the world to me that in some fashion, you chose me back.

I am not a New Year's resolution kinda person. But if I can suggest one thing to keep in mind this year, it's that most people are lonelier than you think. Most of us wonder if we really matter to that other person. Everyone feels on a hard day that they must have been forgotten. The ripples from small kindnesses can be huge.

Even if it's only knowing that someone thought about you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Flu and Gratitude

We are all on the mend, but tired and cranky. Everyone caught the flu in the end, but my youngest daughter's breathing remained clear despite the cough, for which I am grateful. Thank you for your prayers.

I take a nap between each household task. Dose out the medicine; take a nap. Load the dishwasher; take a nap. My husband has been well enough to fix soup and toast for the kids. I have eaten about a dozen crackers over the last two days, which is enough to keep me alive, apparently.

My husband claims that if our marriage is ever in trouble, he will move us all to Iceland. He says I love him more when it's cold. And he says life gets very simple in Iceland: you need to find food and stay warm, and everything else is optional. I'm sure there are many Icelanders with complicated lives who could correct him, but it rings true about a house with the flu. Things have been very simple here this week. Keep the kids' fevers down, keep them hydrated, and rest. Everything else was an extra we could ignore.

Last night we watched The Aristocats, each of the four kids on a chair or the couch, quietly curled under a blanket. The only movement was the taking of turns in my lap. Everyone wants Mama's arms when they are sick. I looked around at my slowly mending family, and I felt so grateful for all the things that let us heal. We are blessed with so many things we could not earn, so many complicated, wonderful things that let us keep our life so simple this week. And because this is my blog and I get to say whatever I want, and because I'm coming off the flu so I know you'll all be extra patient with me, I'll end this post with listing the many things I am grateful for that made surviving the flu a relatively easy thing for this family.

A solid home
A relatively safe country
Running water
Reliable heat
Analgesics and fever-reducers
A fully operational immune system
Children's cartoons
Crackers and soup made by someone else in a factory somewhere
Reliable medical advice
Loving family and friends

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

We have the flu.

3 of us are sick. The other 3 haven't caught it yet. I'd appreciate your prayers. I am especially concerned about my youngest. She has not caught this yet, but she is prone to croup, so any respiratory illness means she has difficulty breathing.

I'll be back in a few days.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Making Myself Sit

Tonight after the homework was done, I sat on the couch with the kids while they watched The Lorax. I didn't sit for the whole movie, but for the first twenty minutes I stayed put, with children sitting on and around me. Their giggles are more intense, I have noticed, when I watch with them.

I hate the Lorax. I would never watch it by choice. And I don't sit down to watch movies much. There is always too much to do. Movies and videos are things I watch while doing housework, something to take the edge off time-consuming tasks that bore me.

My mother is a fiercely energetic woman who rarely sat down in my childhood. She was always active, always doing. The few tv shows that could tempt her to sit on the couch with us became events. I watched Remington Steele curled up next to her on the couch, even though she did not approve of Mr. Steele. "Oh," she would say when asked why she watched it anyway, "this show grows on you." A rerun of the original Start Trek might persuade her to sit for a while ("Oh, that Captain Kirk has such blue eyes"), and I once watched an old Humphrey Bogart movie with my head on her shoulder. I don't remember which one it was, but I remember Bogart made her heart beat faster.

There is always so much to do. It feels like nothing is ever done. But those thirty-year-old memories of my mother are precious to me, even now when she lives a mile away. They will be even dearer when she is gone.

So I sit on the couch and watch The Lorax. I laugh at the giggles, if not at the movie, and I hope some day my girls will remember this moment too.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Love lasts

I love the laziness of Saturdays.

I don't set the alarm. The girls want me to be in bed when they wake. On school days there is no time for snuggles, so Saturday they come running to my room. The spots on either side of me are the enviable ones, so they are claimed first. The youngest and the lightest are allowed to lie on top of me with their heads on my shoulder if they want. Whoever is last tucks herself into the crook of my knees. This is how we spend the first half hour of our weekend.

My husband makes coffee for me and cocoa for the girls. Sometimes they turn on a video right away. Today they didn't. They played in their room, all four together, some elaborate pretend-game with all their favorite stuffed animals. I made bacon, eggs and toast, and they came running when they caught the smell.

We are full of breakfast, warm and content. The girls are still playing, and their games weave in and out of each other's, sometimes together, sometimes alone. At this moment, my five-year-old has borrowed her sister's cape and is racing around the house to make it billow behind her. The nine-year-old and seven-year-old are playing senet. The four-year-old, who will not dress unless I tell her to, is cutting paper into snowflakes. In another moment, they will all be somewhere else, doing some other thing with a different sister.

I love the laughter in my home. There are screams too, and whines and shouts and sobs. But right now my home is full up to the rafters with laughter. If you wonder why people have kids, or why people have more than one, or why all the work and grief of parenthood seems worth it to someone, why that beautiful friend of yours whose clothes used to match now wears spit-up stains - the answer is here, in my house, on Saturday morning.

Or maybe it isn't. Not every home gets these moments. Some children never get old enough to laugh, or never have the awareness. If the gamble of parenting is that days like this make it worth the pain, then some people lose that bet.

Almost twenty years ago I sat at a bagel place with some friends for breakfast. They were both new wives; I was newly engaged. They both said they never wanted children; I was open to the idea. When we talked about whether we wanted children and why, I said that I wanted children for the same reason I was getting married: because I had become convinced that loving and living with someone was how most of us become good people. Faithfully loving someone over years rasps off our sharp edges, makes us kinder and more patient. Loving children, I supposed, must change us even more.

One friend's response was immediate. "That's selfish, " she said. "That's just having children for yourself."

I blinked, and gave it up as one of those conversations where we couldn't understand each other. Once you are told that committing to relationships that make you less selfish is selfish, there aren't many places for a conversation to go. (Years later, she did have children, so maybe we'd have a more lively discussion today.)

I've thought of that conversation over the years, and the reasons I gave. I still think that having children because it changes you for the better is a decent reason. But it's not the reason I think of most. Instead, I think more and more of the world to come.

Here's where faith comes in: love lasts. Rejection and death and loss happen, but love lasts. The idea of the Kingdom of God - or at least, one of the many complex ideas in the Kingdom of God - is that God has established his kingdom through Jesus, is building it through us, and will complete it when Jesus returns. My every act of love and service is a brick used to build that kingdom. What I do for my daughters, through the mystery of God, becomes an eternal part of that kingdom. My acts of faithfulness to friends, or kindness to strangers, or forgiveness for someone who hurt me - these are not dead-end acts. They are making something that lasts, even if I don't understand exactly how.

The Jesus who brings wholeness to the world also unites present and future, making our present acts have eternal significance.  Wonderful days like today are not the reason I had children. I am profoundly grateful for this day, but if it never happened, my decision to be a parent would not be less wise. Serving someone else builds a world I haven't seen, but long to.

At the end of the day, the end of this day, the end of the final day - love lasts.

Friday, January 11, 2013

7 Quick Takes

Here are 7 Quick Takes about my week. The meme is hosted over at Conversion Diary.

1.  I did not blog yesterday! I meant to. I took the computer to the living room, turned on an old episode of Poirot, and got comfortable on the couch. The next thing I remember was my husband saying, "Sharon! Sharon, you're asleep. You're about to drop the computer. Go upstairs and go to bed." So I did.

Maybe that shows a lack of commitment to blogging.  I prefer to think of it as a strong commitment to sleep. A friend and companion as dear as sleep deserves commitment.

2. I took my youngest to the grocery store today. I foolishly let her bring her sister's favorite toy inside. She left it at the store. I have already called the store, but they haven't found it yet.

Nine years into parenthood and I am still making rookie mistakes. There will be tears when school is over. Not mine. Well, not at first.

3. In other grocery store adventures, I bought a fancy German candy bar that I thought was milk chocolate with almonds. I took my first bite and discovered it was instead milk chocolate with amaretto-flavored marzipan. If dictionaries defined words by food, this one would be next to the word "anti-climactic." (And, as I said on twitter a few days ago, white chocolate is the taste of disappointment. Obviously.)

The silver lining here is that my calorie count for the day just fell by a couple hundred, because there is no way I am putting that thing in my mouth again. Blechh. Anybody want some chocolate?

4. On the way to the grocery store, my youngest kept singing  "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer," but she rewrote it to include lines about Santa's underwear.

I give up.

5. I have written and deleted a paragraph about my husband's employer three times because it seems unwise to print it, especially now that I blog under my real name. Instead, I'll suggest you read James 5. Scripture has more wisdom than I do anyway.

And that's all I have to say about that.

6. Have you heard my friend Liz Bowater sing? She and some other local musicians got together to make an album of Christmas music to raise money for a local charity, United Ministries of Northern Kentucky. They provide all sorts of aid to families in our area. I especially like "Christmas for Everyone" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

7. We are reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell for my book group. It was published in 1997, which means for fifteen years there's been a sci-fi novel about Jesuit missionaries in space and no one told me. Someone dropped the ball. That's all I'm sayin'.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Drip, drip, drip

Like everyone and their brother, I am trying to write a novel. That's how I always say it: like everyone and their brother. Like it gets me off the hook. Don't expect too much, it says. I'm only dabbling. But I'm not dabbling. It's work, and I mean it.

I'm also not being strictly truthful when I say I'm writing a novel.  The truth is that I've started three, as well as a book of essays. These were my first efforts at writing a book, and I learned the hard way that starting is much easier than finishing. So there are these four books, scattered in bits and pieces on my computer and in journals, waiting to be worked on and finished.

I don't know where it comes from, this fear. Steven Pressfield, who has written as well about the creative process as anybody out there, says we're afraid of success. I'm not so sure.  It feels more like that shaky feeling you got when you liked a boy but didn't want to show it because he might not like you back. I feel wobbly, like if I show too much enthusiasm you all might point and chant, "Sharon's writing a nooooooovel! Sharon's writing a nooooooovel!" And then someone would push me off the jungle gym.

I'm only mentioning it now because I promised to post every day while Jennifer's sick. I can write about my family or books (my essays are about both), but the other big thing in my life is this project, this stack of journals, this list of files. My brain returns to it all day long. If I plan for it, I can make myself dream about it (This is the one thing missing from the many books on writing that I have read: manipulating your subconscious into resolving plot or character problems in your dreams. Many thanks to Beck for this excellent piece of advice).

I am stuck right now. I need a good solid weekend with a working printer (our kids sat on ours and broke it), an internet connection and a lot of coffee. Life with small children means I am unlikely to get it. I keep telling myself that next year, when all four of the kids will be in school, will be my productive year. That keeps me from getting too frustrated, even if it isn't actually true.

Rabbi Akiva began studying Torah well into adulthood, unlike most of his colleagues. He famously saw a rock which was being hollowed out by years of slowly dripping water. "Am I dumber than a rock?" he asked himself. Bit by bit, he could learn anything, like water shaping a rock, so he began to study.

Bit by bit, I tell myself, I can write anything. For now, I carry a pen and a journal in my purse, and I use any unoccupied moments to jot down sentences. It's not enough, but it's still words. Eventually, I hope, there will be enough of them.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cleaning Out the Furnace Room

Jennifer Fulwiler, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Conversion Diary, is pregnant and ill with blood clots in her lungs. She expects to recover, but it will take months. In the meantime, she is reading lots of blogs. If I lived in the same town as Jennifer, I would bring her soup or invite her kids over to my house for an afternoon. I don't live in Jennifer's town, so the next best thing I can do is write frequently on the blog to entertain her. Here we go.

Yesterday I cleaned out the furnace room. We call it the furnace room because it contains the furnace.  We're literalists, that way. We could also call it the room of unidentified junk we step over to get to the furnace if it stops working. That would be more accurate. Or maybe the room of the sneaky condenser leak that ran under the basement carpet along the wall for two months until it molded. That gives it some history. Clearly it's a room of adventure.

But I cleaned it out this week. I threw out two suitcases with holes in them. I threw out parts to a stroller we gave away years ago, and empty boxes from appliances that broke five years ago. I threw out styrofoam and plastic sheeting. My husband loaded two headboards, four bed frames, and an old rug into my dad's truck and I drove them to Goodwill. I don't know how we crammed all that junk into the furnace room. I also don't know why.

Besides all the junk, we keep our tools in the furnace room. Most of them. The ones that aren't left  under the sink or in a tin can on a shelf or deep down between the couch cushions. After I cleaned out the junk, I started sorting the tools. This was challenging, since I didn't know what several of them were. But I got them more or less organized: things that tighten, things that pound, things that are sharp, things that are rough, things I can't identify.

I cleaned and organized and tried to simplify. Still, I could not bring myself to throw away screws and nails. There are pounds and pounds of screws and nails in that basement. Why do I keep them? Am I planning to begin a rash of home carpentry projects? Perhaps using the tools I can't identify! I bet they take extra screws.

Unless the handful of frames I have hanging on my walls inexplicably increase in mass and require an additional 127 nails apiece to hold them up, I am in no danger of running out.