Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

30 January 2007

Let It Not Be So

Last Sunday, on the way to church, we found my daughter Charlotte's dog Tessi—the mother of the lab pups who were born in my first post—dead on the road. There is a longer, more distressing version of this story that I won't tell here, involving the family coincidentally being in two cars and us all seeing the body separately and separately concluding that that the fur was the wrong color of brown to be Tessi, and then my husband leaving the girls and me at church while he went back to verify that it was indeed our poor dog. In fact, he never really was able to recognize Tessi from her remains—the accident that had killed her had been too brutal, too complete—but he could see that the dog was female and that she had recently whelped.

Anyway, back at church, before the girls and I knew—or, before we accepted that we knew—I prayed a prayer that had occasioned two dog miracles in the past: Let it not be so. My daughters were praying the same prayer, I'm sure, as was my husband, as he looked in vain for Tessi's collar and then went home to change his clothes and fetch a black plastic bag and then returned to the scene of the accident. Let it not be so. Let it not be so. Let it not be so. As I prayed it, though, I felt pushing up through my words a different prayer, a prayer I didn't want to pray, a prayer I rarely pray unless made to do so, typically at church, and even then not usually in much earnest: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

What a scary prayer. You are praying against your own interests, for one. And, invariably, if you are sincerely acknowledging God's superior will in a situation, then you know things are bad, really bad, not as you would have them at all, and not likely to change for the better. Thy will be done is a pitiable, last minute plea for order, for sense, it seems to me. It is a prayer that means, Oh Lord of heaven and earth, let there be some good reason for this misery, this evil suffered, even though I can't see one. Once you pray it, Thy will be done repels all lesser prayers for help or healing—especially the mindless, hopeless, breath-holding prayer of Let it not be so. As such, it also relieves you, I suppose, of the tense burden of hope in suffering—the hope that keeps you from embracing pain and truth and thereby, perhaps, getting past their attendant terrors. But Thy will be done is—for me, in any case—the hardest prayer to pray and mean it, whether for a child's dog or for a friend with cancer or some other trouble or for the victims of some atrocity you read about in the news. I’d so much rather just pray the familiar Let it not be so, which takes me on the slow road around my mountain, than enter one of the dark faith-tunnels that hurtles one straight through to whatever unknown safety might lie on the other side.

In any case, someone else’s will was done than ours, this time. Tessi was dead, and we were left to console ourselves with the obvious violence of the accident, which allowed no time for suffering. And with the fact that Tessi had managed to wean her nine pups before she left us. And with what fine pups they are, just now learning to climb their pen and plop, fat-bellied, to the yelping freedom of the yard and the fields beyond.

But Sunday morning at church, in one of those ironic fiats that God seems to enjoy, when I could hardly listen to the sermon for praying my prayer and my daughters’ prayer and my husband’s prayer, the pastor preached on the power of corporate prayer. He made reference not only to the Lord’s Prayer—focusing especially on the line that had by then made it to the back of my throat—but to one of those alluring promises of Jesus’s that seems to invite us to desire that our own will be done: “if two of you on earth agree on anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three of you come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:19-20). And so I was left to reconcile, as always, the sovereignty of a God who thunders, “Where were you when I made this world?” and whose will is done, willy-nilly, with the love of a parent who wants to give his children good things and has granted me countless miracles in the past, many of which I probably didn't even notice.

I am also left with this bleak question: Could it be that the two or three passage is not about the granting of our corporate requests at all but about the futility of our ever agreeing, simultaneously, on what’s important? I mean, perhaps we get so busy praying Let it not be so that we can’t recognize, much less agree to, the larger prayer for life that begets all prayer.

The puppy miracles my family has witnessed in the past—a broken leg miraculously healed, a congenitally non-existent eyeball restored to normalcy—have moved us closer to that life, I think. We saw and believed, at least temporarily. When I spoke of one of these miracles in church, though, a friend of mine was offended. His wife suffers a debilitating illness from which she will eventually die. Why, he asked, would God heal a puppy and not a woman who had been prayed over and prayed over earnestly, by droves of friends and loved ones for years?

I was ashamed of my family’s little miracle, then. Of our sometime need for answered prayer to document and prove God’s love. Were not puppies themselves proof enough? Or daughters? Or the white winter sunshine last Sunday morning? And what of my friend’s complaint? Why no healing there?

I have no answers, no deeper knowledge of the ways of God than this: It will be as he wills it, but he loves us, crazily, with that single-subject doting of the most besotted mother. It seems a puny answer, though, this riddle, to assuage a young daughter’s loss and a friend’s years of fruitless petition for healing.

22 January 2007

Church (Continued from Last Week's Struggle)

Last week my husband and I sat Charlotte and Lulu down and told them we were thinking about just doing church at home and seeing how that worked out. That way, we wouldn't need to get up early. And they wouldn't have to suffer through me singing too loud to suit them. And Lulu wouldn't have to brush her teeth until that night. And we could make the day be about celebrating God in ways suited precisely to us. Maybe take a walk as a family. Maybe invite some of our friends from our old church over for a dinner/Bible Study, which the girls could participate in or not. We would probably take naps.

To our astonishment, both girls looked aghast and agreed that they didn't want to do anything like that.

"That's what atheists do," they told us, as if atheists were a club that not only got up late on Sunday but had small group worship and Bible studies and rested all Sunday long.

But the message was that they didn't want to be atheists, which was good news. So, we discussed some more and decided to try yet another church, one that I've been a bit leery about and starts even earlier in the day than the last one we visited but that has a youth group of local renown.

So we went, and the most amazing thing happened. First of all, the youth group leader—a youngish married man wearing his checked button down shirt untucked and toting a tiny newborn high on his chest—went over to the girls after the service and introduced himself. Then, a girl about their age talked to them. And then, most amazing of all, this guy that had been a counselor at a nearby summer camp they go to—known among the girl campers as one of the hottest guys there—came over to greet them and knew them both by name. That did it. The power of being known by name. By someone goodlooking. So now they want to keep going there, for the nonce.

It's an okay church, from my standpoint, although I've checked and they have absolutely no women in any kind of position of authority. Not even as a deacon. That was a bit disturbing. And the sermon was not electrifying, but it did cause me to go to this place in Matthew where Jesus says, "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (11:27).

In other words, God the Father is knowable, via Jesus' revelation of him to us, but no one can know Jesus but the Father. So, what I have always found to be the case in my own experience is, in fact, how it should be: that is, I feel like I understand God the Father, sort of, but Jesus typically comes across to me as one big conundrum. What a relief! All these years just about every sermon I've ever listened to and every hymn I've sung seems to want to assert just the opposite: that Jesus (what a buddy, just like us, 100% man, etc.) is knowable and God (omniscient, omnipresent, omnieverything supreme power) isn't. I've always thought there was something wrong with me that I have such trouble really "knowing" Jesus the way my friends seem to, especially compared to my relative facility with understanding God the Dad. I mean, I get him. He's a parent, like me. He loves his kids even though they mess up. And he loves their genuine remorse and gratitude—oh rare delights!—even more than their perfect behavior. His biggest joy is when his kids to get along. I can't tell you how it thrills me when Charlotte and Lulu hug and call each other Sis and spend the whole afternoon playing Viva Pinata. God is like that about us, I think. So, anyway, I am entering this week with something new to consider. I like that.

This is one of those temporary happy ending struggle stories. Like most, in my experience. Except when I'm in one of those temporary unhappy ending struggle stories, which seem to subsume all else.

14 January 2007

This Week's Struggle: Church

Today is Sunday, and we’re not going to church. The world beyond the windows is coated with ice, but that’s not why, although the prospect of an ice storm last night did occasion the happy speculation—on our daughters’ part and, secretly, on mine and perhaps even my husband’s—that slick roads might preclude our attendance at the church we have been visiting for the past few months.

And it is not our tenuous relationship with the church in question that keeps us home. We’re only visiting because we are in search of the perfect church, one loved by the entire family, and we all know this church does not, cannot, exist. Because my teenage daughters require a church that is not boring and speaks on their level, but my husband and I want a church that is not inane and speaks on our level. Somehow these two notions of church don’t, can’t, won’t mesh. The sort of church my daughters would like to attend—and I need to add that, ideally, it should also not entail rising earlier than noon on Sunday—does not appear to exist in a town famous for its abundance of churches, and the churches my husband and I like and force our daughters to attend cause the church experience, for me, to approximate my idea of hell. In my moments of enlightenment, I hear my daughters sighing beside me. If I break my rule and allow myself to look over at them, I find them rolling their eyes or concentrating their surly gazes on the back of the seats before them. If, despite this, a song moves me to joyful enthusiasm, Charlotte and Lulu can’t restrain their embarrassment. “Mom, don’t sing so loud!” they hiss, and the bodies of the other congregants before and beside and behind me shuffle and lurch in commiseration with my lot or pride in theirs, and I am silenced by the horror of life.

In truth, I love all churches. The predictable liturgy of my Catholic childhood pulsed with revelation for me. And the roiling Baptist hymns--every one of them about blood or the sea or both--of the local church I attended when I returned to my faith after years of atheism routinely made me cry. I loved even a church we visited a few years later that my husband and I decided was a cult. They required members to tot up the number of people they had managed to evangelize each week, and they enforced discipling sessions called Bible Talks in which no one was allowed to examine what the Bible actually said. Their members were forever calling us up and wanting us to join, and every time we talked to anyone from the church we discovered a new rule—no musical instruments, no malls, regulated fasting—that made us both suspicious. But their services—the unaccompanied singing, the shared fervor, the bracing message—sucked me into them. The first time I attended I had to go to the bathroom but couldn’t persuade myself to leave. I thought I might miss something. Had it not been for one of those answered prayers that are the miracles of my daily life, I would have had an accident and embarrassed not just my daughters—although they were younger then and less embarrassed by my perceived missteps and in any case absent from the service in the church’s concurrent Sunday school—but the whole congregation.

Recently I figured out, after a summer of nonattendance at any church at all that left me feeling bereft, that what I like about church is not just singing with others, although I do love that, and not just hearing a message that causes me to look inward and to enter the week with a fresh burst of love for God and my neighbors, but getting together with a bunch of people who are very different from me with the shared purpose of considering God in our lives. That, I have decided, after a decade of wondering and worrying about it, is the sole appeal of going to church for me. Getting together with others to share God through dialogue and instruction and corporate acts of appreciation.

Why is this so hard to find? Or, why is the locus of this shared experience so hard to agree upon in families, especially families containing teenagers?

We had it once. Not in an actual church building. Not directed or organized by a pastor or worship leader or deacons or elders. Not in a particular denomination. It was just a couple of college girls who came to our house most Sunday nights and ate with us. The discussions we had were lighthearted, ribald sometimes, about everything but God, one would think if we listed the topics: books we were reading, dogs, problems with friends, funny things we had heard on the news, boyfriends, clothes, marriage, the food we were eating, other countries, stupid jokes, my daughters’ friends and classes, growing up, families, the stuff people talk about over a meal. And yet every word offered was God-infused for the simple reason that he just wouldn't stay out of it. We broke bread together. That too was about God—about our gratitude and luckiness to be his children—although we didn't make much of an ado about it beyond giving thanks. And after the meal, one of the girls got out her guitar and we sang songs together. Old rock songs. Hymns. Made up songs. Songs about ponies and gum trees and putting the pickup in the barn in a storm. My children were sucked in, as I was by those cult gatherings. Or, to use the more churchy term, they were evangelized. And I was strengthened in my faith, ready for the week, once I got the dishes washed and the kitchen put back in order.

Those meals were a preview, it seems to me, of the promised feasts of heaven. My ideal church. Satisfying what one of my colleagues told me the other day—trying to convince me that regular attendance at a church was important—were the four functions of church: fellowship, teaching, evangelism, and worship. Those meals served all four purposes, unorganized, unforced, unled.

But why, you may yet ask, are we not going to church today? My husband says that, contrary to what I have been arguing, it is not because we and our daughters want something that can’t be had. He thinks the girls don’t know what they want in a church, although they have told us many times what they don’t want: a boring experience where the preacher talks about matters of no concern to them. Kris is confident that such a church exists. So we try the church that used to be a skating rink and the church with the gigantic youth group and both halves of the church that used to be the most popular one in town until it split in two a while back. Kris is hopeful that the church of our dreams can yet be found. He would like to try a megachurch—they have something for everyone, don’t they?—in faraway Lowell, Arkansas and has even proposed that the girls’ involvement in any church-related group, such as a Sunday School class or a youth group, be their church for the nonce. But none of these ideas make them happy. Or me. There’s the drive. And that we’d be split up, them in their youth group playing Capture the Flag, and us in an idyllic Bible Study class we have yet to find. And finally, most importantly, there's the fact that we have experienced the church of our dreams, at our own kitchen table, and nothing we could find elsewhere could compare with that.

Maybe I just like misfits, but most of my Christian friends are unhappy with church. They don’t like the music, but they like the message, or vice versa. Or they don’t feel like they belong. The church they attend is too big, too small, not really a family like they want it to be, too much of a family: dysfunctional, predictable, replete with gossip, enforced participation in miserable anniversaries, and the inevitable feuds that cannot be resolved. One of my friends has repeatedly complained that her church doesn’t send flowers when a member of the congregation loses a loved one. And the church troubles of most of my Christian acquaintance—even the churchiest of them readily admit—increased when their children became teenagers. Is it merely that inevitability, the metamorphosis of tractable children into almost adults with wills and tastes and requirements of their own, that accounts for the growing inability of any one church to fill the family's need. Or could it be that for other Christians, as for my family, the memory of some happy gathering of two or three fellow believers in their pasts—maybe it was a feast with friends, maybe it was camp, maybe participation in a former church that figured out a way to make everyone present happy—precludes all possibility of finding a something even close to their private definition of church in the present?

There is always the future. Heaven. That ultimate gathering of believers that we can only guess at from hints here and there in scripture. Our own apartment in a mansion. The dissolution of our meannesses into Christlikeness. Feasts. We will joke and laugh, I’m sure, at that table. Talk. Tell funny stories. We will help one another resolve our problems. Yes, I think we’ll have problems, as here, that will need resolving. If we didn’t, what on earth would we have to talk about? Beyond the windows, the trees will be jeweled with ice, as they are today; we will admire them. And we will sing. Kris, my tone-deaf husband, will belt out his crazy, tone-deaf dog songs without embarrassment, and we will all join in. I will sing loudly, but no one will object. My own daughters will sing. Also loud. Tearful. Ecstatic. We will be church.

06 January 2007

My Struggles as a Blogger

Okay, here's the problem. Audience. I hated my last attempt at blogging, which was—I tried in vain to escape the problem by lamenting it at the end—preachy, teachy, and obnoxiously self-congratulatory when I got to thinking about it and did not really solicit anything but encouraging remarks from kind friends and acquaintances and former students of mine. Which remarks—don't get me wrong—I do cherish. Immensely. But something in me senses that this is not what a blog is supposed to be. So, I'm starting over. I'm not going to give you, as I promised in my last failed blog, a summary of all the wonderful instruction I have to offer on the subject of writing. I know you're sad about that.

Instead, I have thought and thought and come up a new plan. I will write about my ongoing struggles. I was reading someone's blog in which the writer questioned whether struggle and growth amounted to the same thing. I think they do. So, that's what I plan to write about. My current questions about and objections to and general ruminations and research on matters of faith. The usual stuff of my writing—just rawer, less processed, potentially more wrong and cranky and rude than I let myself be in my essays. I invite you to intervene and commiserate and/or set me right.

One more thing about audience and blogging. I find myself saying "you" a lot more than I see the word used in others' blogs. I keep worrying about what you, my readers, might be interested in reading here. This may be my problem as a blogger. It seems that blogs are generally these places that are totally about the writer but that everyone in the world can read. I don't know how to have that sort of voice—how to be that intimate so publicly. Perhaps one of you can give me some pointers. I fear, too, that even if I could figure out how to do it, I would feel as though I were in one of those upsetting dreams in which I am naked in some public place, like the median of a freeway. So, for now at least, I'm letting myself dialogue, clothed, with an imagined—and also clothed!—audience. You, gentle readers, in your snug bathrobes. The result is that my blog voice may sound more like the narrator of a Victorian novel than most, but bear with me. I will figure this out.