Happiness is a Season

Wedding dress

The summer of 1997, the summer that Princess Di was killed in a car crash, I was nearing 40 years old. The big 4-0, the year of dread, especially if you had never taken that walk down the aisle. I remember the hot stillness of that August day, sitting on my lawn, hidden by boysenberry bushes, pondering the untimely death of the beautiful Diana, and writing in my journal: “I am nearly 40 years old, and nobody loves me.”

Like many little girls, I had dreamed of the white wedding. The beautiful gown. The flowers. The jittery groom waiting at the altar, an uncontrollable smile breaking out on his handsome face. I had had literal dreams of marriage: Dreams in which I was all dressed for the wedding, but missing my shoes. Was that God’s way of telling me I was almost, but not quite ready?

Years before, I had met the man whom I considered the love of my life. A fellow transplanted New Yorker, he was a handsome artist with a studio facing an Adirondack lake. We had met on a blind date; for me it had been love at first sight. We’d had a whirlwind courtship, and then he’d disappeared.

I remember praying ceaselessly that he would return. Once or twice he did, but would inevitably disappear again, with letters laden with apologies. I would sometimes see the beloved himself, walking down Broadway, felt hat sitting jauntily on his black curls, shoulder to shoulder with another woman. Once I saw him enter a store across the street and followed him in, where we briefly greeted each other. But despite my hopes of re-igniting the relationship, nothing came of it.

Until one March day when I arrived home to hear his voice on my answering machine. It was 8 years after our initial date. “I have so much to tell you,” he’d said.

He’d married, separated, and was now struggling to raise a young infant daughter by himself. He needed help. I was 42 years old and I was finally going to be a wife and mother!

Five months later I was single again, due to his verbal abuse. I had found the opportunity to escape after a bad argument, when he stormed out of the house.

I remember standing in the living room, looking up at the ceiling and asking God: “Does this mean I can leave?”

My ex’s gun had been confiscated after a particularly ugly fight with his former wife. That was the day he was to get his gun back. God’s timing was perfect!

The exhilaration didn’t last long. Depression and questions followed. Why God? Why did you allow this to happen? Have I not been faithful? Am I not a good enough Christian? Do you really care about me? Where is my happy ending?

As the years piled up, the pain did diminish some. I realized that God had given me quail, as he had the children of Israel who grew tired of manna and demanded meat. I had prayed, bargained, wheedled until I got what I wanted, and it had turned to ashes in my mouth.

I was now nearing 50 and still alone. I had the occasional crush, but no doors seemed to open in terms of the fulfillment of marriage. I had already grieved the empty arms of not having a child; would I now also be alone for life?

I pondered “these strange ashes,” as Elisabeth Elliot called it; what remains of a dream when the fire and the smoke have cleared.

Yet I have come to believe firmly that, if you are one of the 51 percent of American women over 18 without a spouse (or one of 70 percent of black women) and you sincerely desire a husband and do not feel “called to be single,” then God may yet “give you the desires of your heart.”

But there are lessons to be learned in the waiting.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

Was I truly seeking God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength – or was my true goal a man? (Deut. 6:5-9) God asks us to put him above all our hopes, dreams and desires. God knows that only when we make His desires our desires and His will our will, will he be able to give us those godly desires of our hearts – and that includes husbands.

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice (Romans 12:15)

I attended many bridal showers, weddings and baby showers as a single. Would I be able to rejoice with those who rejoiced? Celebrate their happiness as if it’s my own? Or will I, as one friend did, boycott a friend’s wedding because it was just too painful to attend? Sometimes we need to grit our teeth and do the hard thing; for we do reap what we sow. As we partake in the joy of our friends and relatives, we are sowing the seeds of their rejoicing with us.

And remember, in God’s economy, there is no scarcity. It’s not as if when someone gets something we want, there’s nothing left for us. So sow seeds of support, love and happiness and they’ll surely come back to you.

Don’t let a root of bitterness spring up … (Hebrews 12:15)

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (Hebrews 12:15)

Was I bitter? Did my disappointment, and what I saw as delays – and seeing other people’s blessings get me down? Sure. But by will, I needed to release that bitterness. Bitterness can stop God’s blessings faster than a thunderstorm can ruin a picnic. If I wanted God to fill my cup, I needed make sure I was holding up a clean cup of gratitude and praise, and not one filled with the bitter dregs of anger, envy and discouragement.

Delight Yourself in the Lord (Psalm 37:4)

I needed to fill this season of singleness being busy about God’s business while I waited. God knew I desired motherhood. There were always little ones, especially little girls, who needed “other-mothers.” Although they had moms, I found that little girls desire love outside the family circle, and a Sunday school teacher is often the recipient of that lavish love. Meantime, I was blessed with support from other women, especially in the church. God promises to set the lonely in families. If you are lonely pray that God will set you in a family while you wait.

Pray!

Psalm 38:9 says, “All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” God sees, as he told Hagar when she ran away from her mistress and was wandering in the wilderness with her son. He knows your longings; he placed them there. As long as you’re alive, God can change your circumstances in one instant, no matter how long it takes.

How can I be so sure?

On July 26, 2009, I walked into church to see an unexpected crowd of young and middle-aged men. As I took my customary seat, by myself, I flipped over the bulletin to see that we were hosting Teen Challenge, a faith-based drug and alcohol recovery ministry. Downstairs, during fellowship time, Judy, my pastor’s wife, asked Karen, the worship leader, and me to go and make small talk with two young men seated alone on the far end of the room. Before I could make it across the room, a tall, handsome middle-aged man stepped into my path and introduced himself to me. My pastor ended up inviting my friend, Lydia, and me to stay for the luncheon, where I learned that he was on the staff of the ministry. This week, on my 58th birthday, I bought my wedding dress.

Three years before I met him, I had gone to the anniversary celebration of my former pastor’s new church. The minister opened the altar for prayer after the service. As he prayed down the line he had a “word of knowledge” or encouragement for each person. When he came to me, he began to pray exuberantly, but then he paused, and his voice became serious. “You have been waiting for something for a long time, and it seems like God has forgotten you. But God wants you to know He has not forgotten you; he has his hook in somebody, and he’s reeling him in.”

My fiancé accepted the Lord within a year of that prayer. God prepared him, then he reeled him in. Right in my path, by the way.

I have learned that just as singleness is a season, happiness is a season as well. Since God works in and amongst people, sometimes we have to wait, not because of anything we have done or not done, but because God’s love is putting something together that is “greater than we can hope or imagine.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/october/grief-happiness-and-hope-of-late-in-life-singleness.html

Breaking the Code

Obama cool black manPoor President Obama, he just can’t catch a break. Looking strained and weary, he had to interrupt his Martha’s Vineyard vacation and return to Washington because the world seemed aflame with problems both at home and abroad.

His entire second term has been characterized by Congressional gridlock and immigration woes. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took shots at his foreign policy in the media, and he’s been criticized by African Americans for not attending to problems in the inner-city, the type of which boiled over recently in Ferguson, MO.

It’s not that the president doesn’t try. Before African-American audiences, he will assume an air of familiarity that some have found patronizing. About Republicans planning a lawsuit against him, he says they should stop “hatin’ all the time.” Before his last election, he told members of the Congressional Black Caucus (reportedly switching to a preacher’s cadence) to take off their “bedroom slippers and start marching.” He even recently complimented his White House pastry chef by saying his pies were so delicious, “I don’t know what he does – whether he puts crack in them.”

What?

That was my reaction until I realized that yet again, our president was “code-switching.” Saying something has crack in it is like saying it’s crazy good. (With two teens in the house, Obama has a ready resource for the latest slang.)

In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, columnist John McWhorter argued that such relatability was requisite for the presidency today, noting that George W. Bush was often criticized for his Texan swagger.

Many groups code-switch. Italians, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Mexicans. We all have “in-group lingo;” something that lets us feel we’re members of the inner circle.

I remember when my then-16 year old nephew, Christian, came back from vacation in California, sounding as if he’d grown up on the mean streets East Palo Alto, despite having been born and schooled (and often on the high-honor roll) in rural upstate New York. Now 24, he said, “I think code-switching is necessary to smoothly transverse through different groups. Growing up out there I did not learn what we typically consider ‘urban code.’ Coming to California was my first introduction, and I definitely wanted to speak the code at first just to fit in. I mean, I have regularly spoken in urban code for the last 8 years. But at the same time, I realized what my grandmother meant when she said that people perceive you a certain way when you look and speak a certain way. So around sophomore year of college, I realized it could be beneficial to be able to do both at any time.”

In a TED talk, spoken word poet Jamila Lyiscott riffed easily between urban, Caribbean and standard English, telling her audience she was “tri-lingual.”

Black ministers are often masters of the code-switch. My pastor, the Rev. Arnold Byrd III, a young African-American minister, can easily go from standard English on his job in sales with a major cable company, to language designed to connect with the congregation in his predominantly black church on Sundays. He says he follows the example of Jesus, who used things his listeners could understand – fishing and farming – to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. “Peter was a businessman; he owned his own fishing business. So when Jesus told Peter, ‘I will make you a fisher of men,’ Peter understood where he was coming from because he uses something Peter could relate to.”

With the news dominated again by the killing of a young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, even in the comments section of Christianity Today, we see that black and white Christians seemingly talk a different language. One can see how, if people only hung around with others who shared their views, both on and off-line, deadly misunderstandings could occur when we confront one another in real life.

This shouldn’t be so.

My pastor says that Mark 12:30-31, the famous scripture that tells us to love God with our heart soul, and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, is crucial. “In everything about me I am going to show God I love him, which means his ways trump my beliefs, my thoughts or how I perceive a thing,” he told me.

As Paul writes in Ephesians, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. (Ephesians 2:13-18 RSV)

As believers we should be masters of the ultimate “code-switch.” After all, we not only are citizens of various nations, but we are citizens of heaven. We should be conversant not only in the language dictated by our differing cultures, but in the language given to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics column in August 2014: http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2014/august/code-switching-for-kingdom.html

 

 

Waiting for Lucia: What a Puppy Taught Me About Waiting

I knew her name before I had ever met her. Luci, short for Lucia, which means light.

Lucia couch

Lucia, at 7 months, sitting on couch

My fiancé, who then was living in New York City, had been discussing getting another dog, just for him. I had taken trips to the local humane society to look at puppies several times, even once taking my older dog, Neptune, to see how he would respond to a puppy.

Sometimes only adult dogs, mostly pit bulls, were available. But in the spring, puppies were plentiful. One local shelter allowed you to view and reserve potential pets online, and when you got to the shelter, you had first dibs on that particular animal. One day, I reserved a truly cute roly-poly dog, female, some type of mix, I don’t remember of what.

Neptune and I drove over on a sunny Saturday to check her out. The dog had a soft, fuzzy gray and brown down coat; was beautiful, healthy, playful, everything a puppy should be, but there was something missing. We had no connection. Even Neptune was indifferent to her. A little girl and her father were second in line to visit the puppy, and I told them she was all theirs.

Then there was the pure white pit bull female, Blanca, that I met while sitting on a coffeehouse patio having lunch with a friend. Two workers from the local animal shelter were having lunch there also, Blanca in tow. Blanca came over and nuzzled me for a few minutes. Her little wide face with a mottled pink nose was so innocent and open that I put aside my fear of pit bulls. I vacillated a few days about putting in an application for Blanca. By the time I made up my mind, and drove to the shelter on my lunch break, someone else had adopted her.

Four years ago, my neighbors had a litter of puppies, border collie – Australian shepherd mixes. There were five puppies that they left in a pen on their lawn. Every morning on my way to work, I would drive past the pen of puppies, seeing them grow a little more each day.

My heart began to yearn for a puppy in the house.

I finally decided to stop and inquire. Four of the puppies were spoken for, one was a maybe. If the tentative owner pulled out, she would be mine. The puppies were beautiful dogs, with the traditional black and white markings and pointed nose of a border collie.

I would sit on my porch and pray about the puppy. That’s when the name came to me, dropped into my head with clarity, seemingly from nowhere. Lucy. Hmmm. Lucy? I didn’t really care for the name; being of a certain age, all I could think of was the 1950s comedy, “I love Lucy.” Then the name expanded on its own: Lucia. I looked up the word and saw that it meant light. Perfect, I thought. I prayed for the puppy, writing my pleas in my yellow journal. “Lord, if Lucia is mine, please let the other potential owner pull out.”

Yet when I checked back at the agreed upon time, the dog had been adopted. I put dreams of a new puppy on the shelf. My fiancé, Morgan, had since relocated upstate. Ours was a late-in-life connection. We were both 51 with three marriages between us when we, through a string of improbable events, met at an Assembly of God church in Granville, Washington County, New York. Both Brooklynites, we had coincidentally, both lived on Clinton Avenue in Fort Greene.

He and Neptune had become very attached, after an awkward and tentative beginning. Neptune recognized Morgan as his Alpha dog, and was sometimes more attentive and affectionate to him than to me. So a dog was no longer such a priority.

The years flew by. Once in a while, when Neptune proved stubborn and obstinate, Morgan would say he wanted his own dog, to train up from a puppy.

My Facebook friend Brenda’s dog had a litter of puppies two years ago: Border-collie – Aussie mixes. There were five, and they were quickly spoken for. I didn’t really covet any of them; although they were awfully cute. Finances were tight; there were a million other priorities before a new dog.

Two more years passed. Brenda thought Maggie, her border collie, was pregnant again. Then she confirmed: Maggie was carrying seven puppies. It was January, a little bit early for what I thought of as puppy season; but I began to feel a tugging in my heart. I told Brenda I’d be interested in a girl, but made no commitment.

When the puppies were six weeks old, I drove out “just to look.” Two of the puppies were already spoken for. Five were available.

Brenda and her husband lived in a log cabin on a winding dirt road. Inside, was a great pen right in the middle of the living room, with seven squirming, tumbling, round, puppies with various markings in black and white.

I sat on the floor overwhelmed by choice, as I am when I walk into a grocery store and am unsure of what brand paper towels to buy.

One puppy nuzzled close and ran off. Closing my eyes I did what I am accustomed to doing when I am unsure of something. “God, bring me the puppy I am supposed to have.” No sooner had the prayer been lifted, than a puppy with a funny-looking serious face, all black, save a dash of white on her chest and rear paws, climbed into my lap. For the rest of my visit, the funny-looking puppy clung to me.

“I guess I’ll take this one, since we’ve been hanging out together,” I said.

Four years after my desires had not been met for the first border-collie – Aussie puppy, I finally had met Lucia.

Morgan was settled in. He was soon to start a new more lucrative job (although we weren’t aware of that yet). Rough edges had been polished off our relationship. Finances were more plentiful. It was time.

With the excitement of first love, I began preparing for our new puppy. Soft new American Kennel-brand fleece bed. Toys from Petsmart. Smart new faux suede carrier. It was literally “puppy love.”

As I sat reading my journal recently, I re-read my prayers for a puppy named Lucia. I didn’t know then that there would be a four-year wait. It reminded me that in life, we don’t always get what we want … at least not immediately. In the Book of Galations in the New Testament, one of the fruits of the Spirit is patience. Sometimes God wants us to wait; for his own reasons.

But like fine wine, spring, and late-in-life love, some things come not a moment too soon or a minute too late. They come right on time.

This Time, It’s Personal: Reflections on the Charleston Shootings

Black&White CharlestonIn the last several weeks, we have seen two extremes unfolding in the saga of race relations in America.  On the one hand, was the amusing, but at the same time sad and puzzling story of Rachel Dolezal, who, apparently empathized with African Americans so much, that she slowly began to take on the identity of a black woman. However, her story was forced off the front pages by yet another signal event in this country’s bedeviled relationship with race.

This time, the script was more familiar. A young disenfranchised white male who apparently had been spending his time prowling the Internet’s racist sites and imbibing raw, unfiltered racism, decided that it was his duty to incite a racial war. Forget the fact that in the more than four centuries since the introduction of African slaves, there has never been a war between the black and white races on our shores. A large part of that has been because of the resilience and the faith of African Americans.

The church has long been considered the most important institution in the black community. Writing for The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said:

“The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America… After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the country’s oldest black Protestant denomination and remains one of its most prominent. An outgrowth of a civic group called the Free African Society, Methodist evangelist Richard Allen founded the first AME church in 1794. When his segregated congregation in Philadelphia went as far as pulling black parishioners from their knees when praying, Allen knew it was time to establish safe, secure places where people of African descent could freely worship.

AME churches thrived in the Northeast and Midwest, but also eventually stretched below the Mason Dixon line. At one time, the dream was to remove African Americans from the US and to take them to established black homelands in Liberia and Haiti, but those plans eventually were foiled. (The denomination does now have branches in Liberia, Sierre Leone, and South Africa.)

My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all grew up in the pews of the AME church. I come from a long line of AME ministers, and although my parents were non-observant, the imprint of my father’s AME past was passed on to him and his three siblings. Raised in a strict home as PKs, pastor’s kids, they were expected to achieve and serve. I see the influence of their AME upbringing in their striving for excellence, concern for social justice, and passion for education.

I saw glimpses of that ambition and commitment to service in the victim’s obituaries as well: distinguished graduates of historically black colleges, active in community organizations, faithful ministers of Emanuel AME Church.

I recall hearing stories from my relatives about NAACP meetings held in the church basement and the traveling civil rights leaders who visited. My grandfather, a presiding elder overseeing AME churches in Baltimore, ended his career at Washington DC’s Turner AME Church. Decades later, the congregation still remembers his legacy with a bio on their website:

“The Reverend Clarence Clyde Ferguson … was a spiritual and dynamic leader with foresight, wisdom and great pastoral ability. Under his leadership, Turner continued to grow and to develop rapidly. A parsonage, located at 509 P Street, N. W. was purchased. The church grew from a mission to a station charge. Reverend Ferguson served until his death in 1946.”

I think about how the late pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, will be remembered. Sadly, he too served until his death—at just 41.

But after months and years of declaring #BlackLivesMatter, why has this event been the one to stir more white Americans as well as blacks and their progressive allies?

Understandably, the Charleston shooting hits especially close to home, symbolically and emotionally, for African Americans like me.

Many African Americans, even those raised in the North, have ties to South Carolina. More than half of black Americans have ancestors who came as slaves through the state’s coastal ports including Charleston, according to historians.

Within my family, there are black Fergusons in South Carolina to this day. (Our branch migrated to North Carolina; my father was born in Wilmington. I grew up in New York, where my parents, Southern transplants, met and married.)

Even more significant, though, is Mother Emanuel itself. A historic black church, it represents both a force against American slavery and oppression and a beacon signifying the rights of African Americans to worship freely.

When I heard that Pinckney and the others were killed in their church basement, I immediately flashed back to my own memories of Wednesday night Bible studies, of being excited to welcome any new face who came.The young white man who visited Emanuel AME apparently considered it his duty to incite a racial war. We know, however, that our battle ultimately is spiritual, not physical. We know that the enemy comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

I watched grieving in both black and white communities on CNN in the aftermath. Commentators marveled at the joy in the worship service, attended by both South Carolina’s black and white communities. I saw the mutual comforting and the tears. I heard the church bells that rolled across the historic city of Charleston in mourning for nine lives lost.

It brought to mind this Scripture: “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17, 21)

This time, the killing of black Americans going about their daily business, I suspect, became personal for white believers. Instead of a thug, they saw a pastor; instead of unfamiliar, possibly suspect blacks, they saw brothers and sisters in the Lord gathering for Bible study.

I pray they can remember how that feels—to assume the “other” to be one of them—next time an injustice occurs. That instinct can be a first step to bridging a divide, to loving their neighbor, to begin healing racial wounds.

My prayer is that brothers and sisters in Christ, be they white, black, brown, or any other color, would put down our differences at the foot of the cross. For as South Carolinians of every stripe demonstrated in the last several days, and as we sing in our churches: “He is our peace; He has broken down every wall.”

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Her.menuetics blog on Christianity Today)

Do Our Souls Have Gender? Musings on Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner

caitlyn-jenner-i-am-cate-01-770x513My hairdresser and I were discussing the respective men in our lives. We talked about communication styles and the methods we use to diffuse arguments when the men start getting hot under the collar. And how they can spend long phone conversations talking to loved ones, but neglect to find out the important things: is a sick relative feeling better, or a friend’s marriage on the mend? They don’t know the answers, because they were talking about cars.

We agreed that, even women who are childless usually are naturally nurturing: to nieces and nephews, to the children they teach in Sunday school, to people who are weaker (nursing used to be a traditionally female career), to pets and others. How being a female is about more than high heels and makeup; even though all those things may be fun. Yet many young moms barely have time to apply lipstick regularly and most women, after 40, struggle with 5- or 6- inch heels, learning to prefer comfort over style.

These musings were brought about by the recent media hoopla about the Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner’s stunning transformation, after three marriages and five children, to “Caitlyn,” a surgically enhanced, satin corset-wearing 65-year-old bombshell.

As the laudatory celebrity tweets rolled in; and dissenting voices were silenced, I don’t think I was alone in being disturbed by this news. Reading comments in center-left newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, revealed that commentators, who are able to post anonymously, were, by a margin of about 3 to 1, critical of Bruce’s “new look.”

Jenner has claimed that he has always had a female soul. But can a human soul be misplaced? Can God, our Creator, accidently plant a female soul in a male body? Is there even such a thing as a “male” or “female” soul? We know the male and female psyches differ. Despite early feminist efforts to say there were no differences, or that those differences don’t matter, most people by common observation (which is backed by science) can see that generally speaking men and women have definite differences in behavior and the way we interact with the world. On a light note, we women sometimes wonder why our mates can be glued to ESPN or Monday night football or never tire of watching the Fast and Furious franchise over and over, when a good rom-com or drama would be so much more interesting. Or why my brother-in-law and nephew’s conversations on Facebook revolve around the cars and trucks my nephew seems to trade as if they were baseball cards.

On a more serious note, we wonder, why, when we ask our partners about a dear friend’s well-being when they get off the phone or home from a visit, they may reply, “We didn’t go into all that.” Whereas when two women get together, even in a new friendship, by the time an hour is over, we know the basic contours of one another’s lives.

We, as Christians, can definitely feel isolated in from our culture’s views of human sexuality, marriage, and gender identification. Sometimes we learn to keep our views to ourselves for fear of offending others, or just because we don’t want to argue or seem intolerant. But when I heard about Jenner, all I could think of was how sad he must be. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has lived a life of wealth, notoriety and material blessings; with all the houses, cars and toys many Americans only can enjoy vicariously. Yet, there apparently was still a void in his life that riches and fame could not fill.

As the Bible succinctly notes at the end of Judges: “Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Our times are similar. Many Americans have not submitted to the King of kings and Lord of lords, so all we can muster is doing what seems right for us: reveling in “our own truth.”

I like the opening line from a favorite poem, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. She begins the poem with, “I stood with two strong legs.”

Didn’t we all? We “woke up” and were here. We did not choose our parents. We did not choose where to be born. We did not choose our race or ethnicity or the socio-economic group we were born into. And we did not choose whether we were male or female.

But God works through our particular circumstances: we can feel secure in the fact that he has appointed the time and the place where we are born; it was not a cosmic accident. And if we draw near to him, he will surely show us how our individual circumstances can be used for his purpose and for the purposes he has chosen for us to serve.

But we are mysteries to ourselves. Psalm 64:6-7 notes:

“The inner man and the heart are mysterious; but God will shoot them with arrows; suddenly they will be struck down.”

Jeremiah further says. “The heart is deceitful beyond all things; who can understand it?”

It is only through our relationship with God, and our daily communion with him, that we will ever understand our true natures and selves.

In the discussion of Jenner, a prestigious hospital that pioneered so-called sex re-assignment surgery, no longer performs these operations, after findings showed that many people were just as troubled after as they were before surgery. After a decade, the suicide rate for transgendered surgically altered people was 20 times higher than for those who did not have the surgery.

As Christians, we should have empathy for Jenner; although I don’t believe we can applaud his choice. Better, as the former head of psychiatry for Johns Hopkins said, is to steer these people into therapy, where they can explore why they don’t feel comfortable in their skin.

Every one of us has “issues,” areas that we struggle with daily; sins that we mightily strive to overcome. Failings and shortcomings and even physical and mental illnesses that we, however difficult it is, must deal with and run to God with every day.

It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus commanded his followers to “Take up your cross daily.” Because it was on one particular cross of suffering that death was overcome and new life given to all who come. Our crosses are often the very things God uses to purify us and make us suitable instruments for, and eventual inhabitants of, his Kingdom.

This story originally appeared in Christian Post

http://blogs.christianpost.com/guest-views/do-our-souls-have-gender-and-other-musings-on-bruce-caitlyn-jenners-transformation-25756/

The Ray Rice Redemption

Ray Rice jpgOkay, now that every media outlet, blogger and commentator has piled on to Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, can we all take a deep, deep breath for a minute and consider some other sides of this troubling case?

The facts as we know them are this: After a night of heavy drinking, star-running-back Rice got into a verbal and physical altercation with his then-fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer Rice. He sat down with his bosses and powers-that-be at the NFL and told his side of the story. The NFL likely knew exactly what happened; either through direct viewing of the whole videotape or by extrapolating from the portion that was initially released showing Rice dragging the unconscious Janay from an elevator. Rice and his team and the NFL came to an agreement about the punishment and consequences. Rice would be suspended for two games and he and Janay were to go through some kind of anger-management/marital counseling. Some were dismayed that he had only merited a two-game suspension, but things had moved on.

Next thing we know, a fuller version of the elevator surveillance video is disseminated by the gossip site TMZ, and all @#!% breaks out.

Yes, it was disturbing to watch a young, muscular man essentially knock out a much smaller, weaker woman with one punch. But really, what was in that full-length tape that we did not already know?

And now, once again, a young black man has been held up as the poster boy for some form of societal dysfunction. His name is even used as the hook for the website of the national Domestic Violence Hotline in a headline, which asks, “Have you been affected by the recent news concerning Ray Rice and the NFL?”

It recently came to light that Rice has attributed his (and Janay’s) bad behavior to a night of heavy drinking, and has said that they have since renounced hard liquor and have turned back to their faith. Their church, and no doubt many other people, are standing by, praying for them and counseling them.

The problem I have with the whole scenario is this: One’s word is one’s bond. If Rice, the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens had come to an agreement as to his punishment, and Rice was compliant, it is very “unsportsmanlike” for the league and owners to renege on the understood agreement. It’s as if someone served their jail time based on eye-witness testimony, and only later, after a videotape is discovered with visual evidence of the same crime, the person is sent back to jail to serve even more time.

The result of the latest iterations in the case, in addition to shaming the Rice family and, as Janay wrote, making their lives a nightmare, is that the interruption of his livelihood will no doubt have a very ill effect on the family’s future. Whether one is making millions in the NFL or doing the 9 – 5 grind, we all depend on, and value, our livelihoods. They not only allow us to pay our bills, but many times our work is tied up in of our self-respect and self-definition. Losing our livelihood can create almost unbearable stress.

However, the most important part of this story, to me, is the strident moralizing in the face of a contrite perpetrator, whose victim has apparently forgiven him.

Since Rice has apologized to all concerned, taken his punishment, renounced the things that contributed to his and his wife’s behavior (alcohol) and returned and recommitted to his church, why must we, as a society, be less forgiving than God Himself?

Don’t get me wrong. Violence against women or any other person is completely unacceptable. It is a serious national problem, affecting 1.6 million women annually and costing the nation $5.8 billion in aftercare, including more than $4 billion in medical costs. I am fully in support of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and have worn purple to signify it.

However, Christians believe that God will receive us upon repentance (turning away from) our sin “as if it never happened.” Our culture celebrates and condones all types of behavior once frowned upon (MTV Music Awards, anyone?) but becomes strangely moralizing when addressing a select subset of sins.

When someone repents of their behavior and pledges to improve, and is forgiven by those whom he has hurt, why can’t we extend grace to that person?

Had Ray Rice violated his agreement and been violent to his wife or someone else again, then sure, bring it on. Fire him from his team; suspend him permanently from the NFL, whatever.

But it serves neither his family, his team, his fans nor anybody else, when he is punished again for a crime he had already been punished for and expressed regret for.

Can’t we allow Ray Rice to be a poster boy for redemption instead?

This article was originally published in Onfaith. http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/09/18/ray-rice-domestic-violence-rage-nfl-redemption/34147

How to Love a Dying Friend

HowtoLoveI met my friend – I will call her Gigi because she reminded me of a ‘60s actress – a little more than a year before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I actually do not remember how we met; just that it was through a mutual friend, Lydia. My first memory of Gigi is New Year’s Eve, 2010, when she, Lydia and I went out to a buffet at a semi-nice restaurant in town. We had no reservations for dinner, so we perched at the bar to eat.

Over the next months, though, Gigi and I became fast friends. She was one of those people I just quickly bonded to. Was it her love of the arts? Check. Her sardonic wit? Check. The way she could make thrift store finds look like a million dollars? Absolutely.

She was medium height, with wide-set blue eyes. She had a nose that I call pert, small and well formed with a slight upward tilt – the type of nose that people go under the knife for. Her hair was once blonde, but now was streaked with gray, and she wore it short, with bangs that skimmed her brows, and she was slender.

Gigi was always up to doing something. A play. A concert. A Greek festival. An art opening. A movie.

Lydia and I fell into a routine of meeting Gigi at her home Sunday afternoons after church. At first, we would go out: to a rustic restaurant in nearby Vermont, or a lakeside eatery where we would dine under a big canopied tent, and lie on wood lawn chairs, dipping our toes in the cold waters of the lake.

Gigi was always keenly interested in what was going on in Lydia’s and my life. She never allowed the presumed shortness of her own life stop her from “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

In July 2011, we planned a trip to a Vermont playhouse to see “Ain’t Misbehaving.” We sat knee to knee during the production, and when I glanced at her, she was clapping her hands and laughing like an excited child. That’s another thing I liked about her: the ability to live life in the present moment.

After, she had to use the restroom to clean her colposcopy bag. When she was diagnosed with cancer after many months of health complaints that were not taken seriously by her health providers, she had had to have several feet of intestines removed.

Yet, I never heard Gigi complain about wearing the bag, or for that matter, about having cancer.

Some people find it awkward to be around the dying. Words fail. You avoid talking about the future, thinking it will hurt them since they won’t be there. You feel uneasy around their suffering. And, yes, the dying sometimes make us uncomfortable because we are forced to contemplate our own mortality.

Lydia and I didn’t have that problem, largely because of Gigi’s great attitude. The three of us single women were always out and about – we called ourselves “the three Musketeers,” although my fiancé preferred to call us – in our mid-50s to 60s – the Golden Girls.

It helped that we all were Christians. Gigi was a Catholic who had had intense experiences with the Holy Spirit. She bought a white wedding gown to be buried in. She wore a silver ring with a cross on her left hand. She spoke longingly of heaven, and credited (or blamed) her Welsh blood for a lingering sense of melancholy that always seemed to hang over her like a veil.

Gigi had come into salvation as a young mother in a troubled marriage. One night, her heavy-drinking husband had disappeared, and she found herself at her wits end, prostrate on the floor, beseeching a deity she only knew at a distance. As she related later, she had a vision of Jesus standing before her, his arms open wide, and he spoke words of comfort to her. She and the husband later divorced, and she remarried and divorced again.

When I met Gigi, she seemed worn out and buffeted by life, although still only in middle age. Two bad marriages, the stresses of parenting a hard-rocking son, and some emotional issues had taken their toll. Many dreams, especially those of serving her Lord, seemed to have come to dust. She had taken chaplaincy courses, but that career never materialized. She had even dreamed of joining a convent.

She was a smart woman with a master’s degree, but before her diagnosis, she worked as a health aide in a nursing home “wiping people’s behinds,” as she wryly put it. The one job she had achieved commensurate with her skills – providing services to recent immigrants – had been short-lived due to a misunderstanding with a client.

The winter before she died, we went shopping for vacation clothes, as she would be spending several weeks in Florida with a cousin she had reconnected with. In the dressing room, watching her try on dresses with flouncy skirts, Lydia and I didn’t want to believe that Gigi didn’t have long to live.

“Nobody who’s that near death has that much interest in shopping!” Lydia had snorted, and I had agreed.

However, there was a turn for the worse when she returned from Florida. Lydia and I still went to Gigi’s, but we would sit around the kitchen and talk instead of going out. Sometimes we would get the “anointing oil,” a bottle of olive oil from the kitchen and pray. I remember that after an especially powerful time of prayer, Gigi called to thank me, saying that she felt, for a moment, the closeness that she had once felt with God. Since she was often wracked with severe anxiety besides the ever-present pain, it was hard for her to feel the presence of God, she’d said.

Two weeks before she died, fluid had surged in her lungs and she feared suffocation. She was rushed to the hospital. My fiancé Morgan and I visited her the next day.

By the time we arrived, she’d had several liters of liquid removed from her lungs. She was looking as pretty and pert as ever, in a satiny blue nightshirt. She told us, matter-of-factly, that the doctors had told her they could do nothing more to make her comfortable. She made Morgan promise that he would befriend her son.

I got the final call in the airport, at a stop between New York and Louisiana. I wept at the airport café table. As I stood in line to board the plane, the agent at the gate asked me what was wrong, and hearing my answer, she gave me a badge to board the plane with the people with special needs. I still remember the older man and his wife waiting there who comforted me.

What did I learn from Gigi? To never be afraid to love a dying friend.

The Bible says no matter how long, our very lives are like a vapor (James 4:14), or like the grass that is fresh and green in the morning, and ready to be thrown into the fire by evening (Mathew 6:30).

A dying friend needs the same thing that she needed when healthy; and that we all need: love, companionship and an ease in being with her. She needs you to listen when she’s anxious, and to laugh with her when she’s happy. She needs to be able to talk about what will happen when she’s no longer here, no matter how awkward or painful that may be to you. She needs you to be her friend in the same way you would were she well.

Gigi left two checks with her mother after her death – one for me and one for Lydia. I smiled when I cashed mine – for $150. I made an appointment to do my hair, bought some bright orange hoop earrings and a flat of flowers, and Lydia and I went out to an Irish restaurant on Gigi’s birthday and raised our glasses to our friend.

Befriending Gigi, and spending time with her during the last days of her life, was a priceless gift. As my friend Debby noted, it is a privilege to walk with someone up to the gates of eternity.