Sunday, August 22, 2010

Church Mystery Shopper (Read this if you are a pastor or church member)

I am on an extended stay out of town and so I got to be a church visitor this morning. I chose my place of worship based on the church's website (Take note, pastors. This is how people choose a place to visit in the 21st century. Your church website will be one's first impression.). It had a clean, professional appearance, and I figured their style is probably as up-to-date as their calendar of events. Another selling point for me was that they offered a coffee-and-donuts hour prior to service (because face it, people need to talk, and food has facilitated talking since the beginning of time). I put on my jeans and drove in a torrential rain to a place in the country that looked like Cracker Barrel. It was a flat-roofed warehouse with cafe tables set up outside that I imagined were used in good weather. I've been alone for almost three days, so I was looking forward to conversation like it was a plate of Homemade Chicken n' Dumplins waiting in there for me.

What I found were four school-age boys sitting against the wall in the only chairs available while their parents rushed around making preparations for the service. The coffee lady welcomed me with a "free-for-visitors" coffee and donuts commercial and walked away. I helped myself and soon realized that I had hydroplaned across flooded intersections to stand in the middle of a room caffeinating myself alone. When one of the boys got up I took a chair and read through my bulletin. The word "community" was scattered all over it, like little C-shaped grubs curled up to die. By the fiftieth checking of my watch the saints came marching in, about ten minutes until starting time.

The doors to the sanctuary opened and I took a seat in the middle, in front of some ladies that looked promisingly conversant. No one greeted me. For a moment I wanted to leave and drive back into town to the church with a steeple, vespers and senior citizens. But then I looked across the aisle and saw a young woman sitting alone--the only one in her row. Her hands were folded on her lap and she looked down. I had a horrifying thought: What if she's a visitor too? I walked across the room faster than Bill Hybels and introduced myself. "Mary" was a sweet, shy twenty-something girl with a welcoming smile revealing teeth that hung like yellow stalactites. She'd been a regular there since the church's beginning.

Announcements dragged on for twenty minutes (Apparently the congregation is illiterate and needs someone to read their bulletins to them).  When the people were told to "greet one another in that wonderful love of Jesus" I rushed to the ladies' room to pee out my Dunkin' Donuts and make it back to my seat in time to be welcomed by someone. I didn't miss anything.

The music was fresh and invigorating--an acoustic guitar and bongo drums backdropped by the rain falling outside the open windows. The preaching was even better--perhaps the best I'd heard in years. Conviction was so heavy I felt like crawling down the aisle and laying myself at the altar. Take James McDonald with a sweet dash of Billy Graham and turn him loose in a 40 x 80 warehouse and that's what you've got.

This place should have been bursting at the seams. Instead it had grown to a whopping sixty people in fifteen years, trying to be seeker-friendly while forgetting how to be people-friendly.

After the service, a middle-aged couple asked my name and where I was from. They were sincerely interested in getting to know me. Thank God they showed up. Otherwise, the overall feel of the place was that no one really cared about visitors beyond the obligatory, "Hi, how are you?" For all they knew, I could have been on the brink of suicide. I hate to admit it, but if I had been a non-believer visiting there this morning, I may not have walked into another church for a long time, if ever.  

Pastors, laymen--this is a wake-up call.

(Note: If you are not a believer and are thinking, "I knew it. They are no different than anyone else"--well, you'd be right. Romans 3:10 says "There is none righteous, no not one." Jesus said that a physician comes for the sick, not the healthy. The church is made of sick people in recovery; we are in the process of recovering from the fall to become the original loving selves we were meant to be (i.e., Jesus-like). Some are further along on the journey than others.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Do Monks Bite?

My girls and I have taken up letterboxing. I recommend this as a great way to spend time with your kids while getting exercise, getting artsy, and getting fresh air outdoors. Our most recent hunt led us up a country road to a monastery, where we sampled a little taste of Catholicism. The conversations went something like this (more or less):

"Isn't this a beautiful place, girls? Maybe we'll see some monks."

"What are monks? Do they bite?"

"I don't think so."

"Wow! Crypts are awesome. Can we light a candle?"

"Not for $2.25. Remember, be reverent and respectful. Tiptoe. Whisper. Don't touch anything. Try not to breathe."

"What is that lady doing?"

"She has come here to pray."

"Why did she have to come here to pray?"

"She feels close to God here. It's a quiet place away from distractions. The Bible says a lot about getting away to a quiet place."

"But is she really closer to God here?"

"No. God is wherever we are. He has made His sanctuary inside us."

"Is that like sanitary?"


"I can't believe she came all this way just to pray."

"Remember, be respectful. Catholics are wonderful people."

"Are they Christians?"

"Some are. Just like some Protestants are Christians. Some really know and love Jesus."

"Oh. What's that bowl of water for?"

"That's holy water. You dip your hands in it when you come in. It makes you clean."

"Can I try it?"

"No! It harbors bacteria."

"But I thought it makes you clean."

"Never mind."

"Why do they always have Jesus on the cross?"

"To remember his death, which is very important. But I'm glad He's no longer there, aren't you?"

"Yeah. Is that a monk?

"That would be a monk."

"Do monks ever go shopping?"

"Not for video games. Just for food and toilet paper, I think."

"Why do they live here?"

"They have devoted their life to serving God."

"I want to demote my life to serving God."


"I want to serve God."

"Me too. But we choose to serve God in the worldly places, where the people are. Our love for God is shown in the way we treat bossy bosses, and mean teachers, and bratty sisters, and moody moms, and slobbish  kids who leave their clothes on the floor..."


"... and telemarketers, and slow waiters, and tailgaters, and grouchy old  men...."

"Monks are lucky."

"They never marry and have kids."

"Never mind. But I still like monks."

"Me too."

"Who is that old man?"

"They call him 'Father' so-and-so. I think he's the priest, kind of like the dad to all these monks, which are called 'brothers'."

"Do we have a priest?"


"Pastor John?"

"No. Our priest is Jesus. But He is our brother too."

"Cool. Our priest is our brother. And God is our Father?"

"You got it, girl."

Monday, August 16, 2010

My Last Build-a-Bear

Do you see what is wrong with this bear? If you do, chances are you like to sew. You may also like to quilt, can, freeze, knit, bake and raise goats. You probably enjoy reading directions.

I am personally afraid of my sewing machine, but when Ruthie asked me to help her with the Build-a-Bear kit she got for her birthday, I thought, How hard can it be? The box says, "Age 6+." I tossed aside the directions and showed her how to stitch around the thing. Like me, Ruthie is easily  bored, so I ended up finishing the project. I realized there was a problem when I started to stuff the last arm. I retrieved the directions and found that bear bottoms are better places for "whip stitches" than bear arms.

When I held Ruin-a-Bear up and examined her clubbed arm, I felt depressed and slightly mad at my friends who sew beautiful PJ's for their kids at Christmastime and put away peaches. I wanted to throw the bear against a wall and run away to an eternal library. Thankfully, when Ruthie saw her finished project, she grabbed it, hugged it, and said, "I'm going to sleep with her every night!" (Phew!)

I'm OK with not being good at everything I put my hand to. I know what I am good at. It's not sewing. I won't be opening a seamstress shop any time soon.

Do you ever come across people trying to do something they weren't meant to do? Anyone can  learn a new trick, but may not be a "natural" at it. It's a beautiful thing to stay happily on the path you landed on naturally (i.e., were gifted by God to do).

I can learn to sew, and perhaps should, for the sake of my four daughters. OK, that's it. I'm going to start. Tomorrow.

What comes naturally for you?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Return of Ferdinand (con't. from previous post)

Last night Ferdy returned to our pond, in all his white feathered glory.

A few days ago Dave received the email from Intel (every scientist's dream place to work) saying that they've chosen another candidate. Oregon would have been fun.

This afternoon I was driving through the rain on route 14 north of Troy. While reaching out into the wetness to throw the wayward windshield wiper back onto the windshield, I listened to a voice mail on Dave's cell phone (I don't recommend the use of cell phones while attempting to fix a broken windshield wiper as you're flying down the highway in the rain.). The message informed me that Dave will not be working for K. in his latex testing lab. This local company has also chosen someone else.

Now this will be a great relief to Dave, because although he would enjoy working with his good friend and former employee (that's right, I said "former employee"), he did not just complete three grueling years of grad school to test rubber gloves. Not even for a short time, only to say "Adios" to K. and leave him to go through the hiring and training process all over again.

I am fine with that. But I was hoping, just a teeny bit, that maybe this could be something Dave could do in the meantime. Which is ridiculous, because it's not what Dave wants to do and it would be very unfair to K. So I was being selfish, and crying in the rain, along highway 14.

Then I started to think about my friends, and other people I know, with bigger problems. Or should I say, with problems. Friends with sick kids. Lonely friends. Friends with confused, runaway kids that are breaking their mothers' hearts. Friends with chronic pain. And friends with lots of money and still without a clue as to who they really are in life.

Then I felt very small, and whiny. I imagined God saying, "This is about a duck?"  Yes, a stupid duck. A duck that will come back to us. Soon. Very soon.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

My Daughter's Deep Dark Secret

I noticed this morning that Anna has been distant lately. An alarm went off inside me, since nothing in this world is as important as keeping my kids and hubby close. So I set aside my beloved laptop and squeezed Anna's big thirteen-year-old bubble butt next to me on the green la-z-boy. (Please understand that I am giving my daughter a huge compliment here. She takes after the other side of the family in this regard. I would have given anything to have a butt like that at that age. Or at any age for that matter.)

Putting my arm around her, I asked, "What's wrong? Why do you seem so far away?"

She answered in typical teenage fashion: Silence.

I tried to make it easy, to coax verbiage out of her like I sometimes wish Dave would do for me (Honey, you're sulking because I didn't notice your dress. Is that it? Getting better at this mind-reading thing, aren't I?)

I asked Anna, "Is it me?"


"Is it anyone in this house?"


"Is it something you did?"

More shaking of the head.

"Do you just need more lovin's?" That's usually it. But not this time.

"Honey, you know you can tell me anything."

She furrowed her brow and huffed. I knew she had something to say. Suddenly she burst into tears and I thought, This is serious. (Because not only does that side of the family have well-rounded buns, but they are normally very emotionally even-keeled.) This is the day my daughter is going to tell me that she is running a meth lab out back. Or dating a pedophile. Or wants to pierce her tongue. (Even mothers of the most angelic children have these kinds of thoughts flash through their minds in such moments.)

I braced myself. Maybe it won't be so bad. She wants to be a nun. Or join the army.

"It's Ferdy!" she sobbed. "He likes the P--'s pond better. He has friends over there and he's been lonely since Dorothy left and I miss him!" The snot was flowing now.

"This is about a duck?" I supressed a chuckle. "I mean, this is about your duck!"

I hugged her tightly, grateful for a problem that could easily be solved with a quick trip to Craigslist. After a few minutes of browsing through listings of five-dollar Pekins, laying hens and pedigreed rabbits, Anna jumped up and went to bake cookies.

What about you? Have you squeezed your teen today?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nobody Messes with My (Unemployed) Man!

Yesterday someone called to check and see how things are going with Dave's job hunt. He meant well and I appreciate his effort to pick up the phone and let us know he cares. Let me repeat: I so appreciate that he cares.

But as the conversation developed, I felt less cared for and more judged. I could hear in his words that he views my hubby (whom he's never met) as a man who sits around burping and scratching when he should be out working. The man who just spent three years at perhaps one of the most competitive universities in the world, studying things like polymers alongside Chinese students who never sleep, working eighteen hours a day to come out with a decent grade in Cornell's graduate chemistry program.

Yeah, I'm bragging. I'm also pounding this keyboard too hard. Nobody messes with my man. My man who got home at one o'clock in the morning, slept for four hours, then awoke at five to make the one hour drive to school again--for six and sometimes seven days a week. This is not the kind of man who is content to sit on the couch all day and read Hunter magazine.

But I didn't point any of this out to my phone-a-friend friend. I politely thanked him for caring and said good-bye. 

I hesitate to write again about our "situation." Unemployment is a reproach, an icky disease that people discuss behind your back. It's not like having cancer. Cancer isn't your fault. But unemployment is, right? It's something you can fix, and should. That's why my friend called me up on the phone. Because he's a fixer.

That was yesterday. Tonight my hubby asked me to pray with him. So I knelt beside him on the couch (you know, where he drools all day instead of working) and tried to pay attention to his prayer. If you know him, you know that his voice can put you to sleep and I mean that in the kindest way. His is a deep, soothing voice, and his words are carefully thought out, one at a time almost. So I knelt there and soon was thinking about fashion, and wearing jeggings this winter, and big rings. Suddenly I felt the couch shaking. I put my arm on Dave's back and it was shaking, and I realized he was crying. "Oh God, please use us for your glory. Don't let us miss what you have for us, because we're too busy smelling the roses. Do with us whatever you choose. We give our lives to you."

You know what? Dave may never again wear a white lab coat and goggles. He may never realize his dream of developing something groundbreaking and useful for humans in this life. We may never get to take that cross country trip in an RV and show our kids America. But it's fine by me. Life is short--and then the real life begins.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Bracing myself in the doorway, looking down at the patchwork of earth below, I am paralyzed with fear. I have no choice but to jump. This is no thrill ride for an adrenaline junkie; the plane is going down.

The plane is a part of my life I’ve worked hard to keep airborne—a bright future constructed of all things done my way. It soared for a while. But so did my blood pressure and heart rate. Trying desperately to stay above the clouds, I turned into an enraged, maniacal freak racing to and fro in this manmade machine called human effort. I screamed orders into the cockpit, but the only one there was me—the one who’d attempted in vain to fly solo. And now that plane is falling from the sky.

So I jump. A momentous I-am-out-of-control-here-and-I-am-going-to-die terror seizes me. I wait for the merciful jerk of rope and harness, a strong arm to catch me. But there is nothing.

I am in free-fall, plummeting forward at the speed of a race car. 

The wind roars in my ears, telling me that all will end soon—my body will make a splat on hard rock. The air rushes in, drying my mouth, and I can’t cry out anymore. But I feel a tap-tap on my shoulder and am reminded to spread my arms wide and fly. It’s my guide. I can’t hear his voice, but I feel him bound tightly to me. So I remember to look, and to open up myself to the vastness of earth and sky. 

The plane is forgotten. I am no longer an eagle trapped aboard an aircraft. I am soaring on wings of freedom, resting against the mighty force of wind that carries me over dark valleys and raging water. There is no more fear. I know that at the precise moment, at just the right height—when the ground looms in my face, the parachute will open. All will be quiet. I’ll hear him again. And we’ll float gently together to a safe landing, on solid rock.