“It could be worse.  You could be on the Bataan Death March.”

Mike and Jeff, one at Wheaton, one at Countryside High, were impossible to Christmas shop for at this age.  I was trying to warn them that the gifts under the tree this year might not be great.  Comparing that to the Bataan Death March, a  65 mile trek of prisoners of war through the Philippine jungle during World War II, is a psychological idea. View your own hard time with something far worse.  Presto, you feel better.

Most Christmases were delightful, and some memorable, like the year Jeffrey was born two days before Christmas.  And 29 years later to the day, our granddaughter Sophie was born!

Christmas 1990 was another.  We had moved into the house at 6700 Cornelia Drive.  Mike was 10.  His hobbies were ice skating at the Cornelia School rink, playing video games and collecting baseball cards.

Jeff, who turned 9 on December 23rd, collected baseball cards, too and sat right beside Mike, reading video game instructions to him while he pushed the buttons on the controller.  Jeff also loved reading comic books.

Duane’s dream for Christmas morning was seeing stacks of gifts under the tinseled glowing tree.  Every year we carefully planned weeks in advance what to give our kids.  One morning Duane spotted an ad in the newspaper.  A comic book collector was selling ten boxes filled with his pristine comic books for  $1000.

“A thousand dollars!”  Duane moaned.  He wanted to buy it.  Knew it was perfect for Jeffrey.  Every year we worked to make sure he didn’t feel deprived by his birthdate.

“At least go and look at it,”  I suggested.

Duane came home with ten clean white file size cardboard boxes.  Each held one hundred comic books, each in a plastic sleeve.  I didn’t read comic books as a kid, but I was impressed.

“Where are we going to hide it?”

We buried it in Jeff’s bedroom closet, under sheets.

We couldn’t wait for Christmas.

In our Edina life, we opened presents Christmas morning at 6105 Abbott Avenue with my parents.  Dad and Mother came to our house on Christmas Eve, then brought our presents in bags to put under their tree.  Mother and Dad’s  tree, always a real one, was so small it made the pile of presents look more massive.

Mother was the queen of gift giving.  She taught me:

  1.  A gift must be something that the person would really like or want.
  2. The gift must surprise them.

To combine those two is impossible.  Mother was a magician.  Most times, if we really want or like something, we’ve already bought it.  Mother’s style of gift giving eliminates our cursed culture’s habit of just going to the mall to ‘buy something.’  It also takes thought and love.  If you ever have someone ask you, “What gift do you want me to get for you?” – well, they are not holding up Mother’s Gold Standard.

When I was thirteen, on Christmas morning I opened a package with a tag scribbled ‘love Santa,’ which I knew was from Mother and Dad: a small tortoise shell case of blusher.  My first make up.  I was totally surprised.  I loved it.  And still remember it.

Amazingly, that Comic Book Christmas,  Jeffrey never looked through his closet.  We had just moved.  The house was a disaster for months, which may be the reason we got away with it.  For Christmas morning, Duane had wrapped up one of the 18 x 12 x 12 inch files of comic books and put it under the tree.

“Oh, wow!”  Jeff said, when he opened the present, and lifted the cardboard lid to find the neat but packed tight trove of comic books.

“They’re beautiful!”  He carefully pulled one, still in it’s plastic sleeve, from the box, to admire it.

Inside the box was a mysterious clue.  “There are more… but you have to find them…”   Duane had cooked up scavenger hunt clues that led Jeffrey, Mike close behind him, to his bedroom closet to find the rest of the treasure.

“What in the world?!  Dad, where did you get all these comics?!”  Jeff said when he found the remaining nine boxes.   He spent the next few years of his life carefully reading, sorting and arranging that comic collection.  Mike enjoyed them, too.

That was not a ‘Bataan Death March Christmas.’

Three years ago, Mother had a heart attack on December 19.  By Christmas Eve, she was not eating or drinking.  She wrote her sweet, “I love you all very much… and God loves you…” letter goodbye on the back of her menu at the rehabilitation facility a few days later.  She died December 30.  Mother was looking forward to seeing Jesus, but it was the first year Mother and Dad weren’t with us.  The Bataan Death March flitted through my thoughts.  A quiet loss circled opening presents that Christmas morning.

During the bombing of London, the English lived, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”  So, this November, when Duane and I became aware of a family crisis before leaving for a planned trip to England and France, we went anyway.  We wondered what kind of a trip it would be as we carried sadness along with our suitcases.  Christmas was on our minds as I like to shop in England for gifts because I see things I don’t see at Countryside Mall.  London lavished streets and shop windows with lights and festive decorations.

We walked London.  We had lots of time to talk and think about our ‘family situation’ – a euphemism for business that impacts me but isn’t my business to explain here.  How would our family celebrate this year?  TV ads and movies idolize family togetherness at Christmas.  Would that be our Christmas?

The first Sunday evening in London we had booked a concert of  Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” at what we thought was a cathedral.  St. Stephen’s turned out to be an intimate, old church in Kensington.  We had purchased the ‘premium seats,’ which meant the front row, with a (very thin) cushion.

We even got a program included in the price, which had all the words to the pieces the Bromley Boy Singers were to perform.  I had chosen this concert because I had sung Britten’s ‘Carols’ when I was in a 9th grade madrigal group.  The young boys, in black pants and white shirts, filed into the nave and, intently watching their director, began singing when he lifted his hands.  The music as it bounced throughout the warm church lit up the words like fireworks.

“A Ceremony of Carols” is made up of eleven short songs describing Christ’s birth.  The seventh song, words by poet Robert Southwell,  shook me awake from our cultures’ fantasies, into the reality of what I do believe.

Christmas is about “This little Babe…”

I wanted to learn about the gilded life of such a deeply Christian poet.  Southwell was English, yes, but educated in Rome.  Became a Jesuit priest, and returned to a Protestant England.  Not good for him.  Tortured ten different times. He languished in prison the last two years of his life.  At age 34, he was beheaded, drawn and quartered.  A Bataan Death March Christmas for him.

Eureka!  One of my Wheaton professors used to exclaim that when he discovered something brilliant.  Christmas is not about how many family members are in the room Christmas morning, or the state of my family, or my health or job or whatever burden I’m carrying.  It’s because of these troubles, our sometimes Bataan Death March life, that God sent his Son to earth. “Emmanuel.”  God with us.  His gift is like Mother’s gift giving:  just what we need and want and at the same time a wonderful surprise!

So, I’m buying gifts still for all those I love, and baking cookies, and putting up my Christmas tree.  (The truth is the trees were up before we left and everyone who knows us knows that.)   I’m thrilled this year that Jesus has come and is with our family and with me.  I found this felt creche in a Benedictine gift shop in Paris behind a Cathedral in Le Marais.

“… If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly Boy.”

– Robert Southwell

 

 

 

 

5-star-movie reviews

A great movie has to have a story, sure.  But number one, it has to be visually interesting.  ‘Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse’ visually stuns.

Is it a cartoon?  No, it’s an amalgamation of live action, anime, computer generated, graphic design, and comic book art.  I know I inadvertently left out some categories, because I’m not a professional artist like some of my family members.  But, it’s a feast for the eyes.  Original.  That’s saying something.

Fun, fresh take on the Spiderman story, with the intriguing theme about how old does one have to be before one can begin to make the world a better place.  Witty dialogue.  Laughs.

This is not a dark superhero movie, although there’s plenty of evil going on throughout to be overcome.

Can’t remember one bad word being used; completely family friendly.  There are also girl superheroes, so I did not feel left out, little feminist me.

Here’s a complete compliment:  If you want to lose yourself in joyful entertainment for a few hours, see this film.

 

It’s just excellent, all the way around.  Based on a true story; unique characters who make heroic choices but also are not perfect.  The story focuses on the relationship between a concert pianist and his driver – that’s a move story?! – yes it is.  And they improve each other.  That’s a wonderful theme:  people need people. (Barbra Streisand song!)

Duane couldn’t believe one of the leads was the actor who was in “Lord of the Rings,” Viggo Mortenson – he looks like he gained fifty pounds.  The title refers to a green book that contained the names of hotels where ‘colored’ people could stay in the South back in the day.

A movie somewhat about racism could fall into stereotypes, but the writing is so fine the characters remain real people.  Another big theme:  courage and love.  How real people show that.   A serious film containing humor.  That’s life.

Scenery/visuals/settings excellent also.

Worthwhile.  Go.

 

Every London theatre plasters their exteriors with reviews, “This is the most fabulous show you will ever see in your entire lifetime and throughout eternity.”  “Five stars – the Guardian.”  “Five stars – the Telegraph.”  on and on.  We’ve been to a lot of shows.  These reviews are not always reality.  For example, “Caroline or Change,” which had some good moments, was not a “constant joy.”

Even when shows win Olivier and Tony awards; that’s no guarantee of a great night at the theatre.  “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” swept multiple awards.

What was once a clever story about a little boy with a funny scar on his head going to a school of magic in Scotland has morphed from fresh characters to repetitive storyline and caricatures.    I loved the charm of the first few books and films by J. K. Rowling.  Now the Emperor has no clothes.

Then this theatrical Harry Potter experience appeared.  We decided to give it a go.  It wasn’t easy.  It took us three years to get tickets.  The theatre experience for this show was serious and controlled, unlike other popular West End shows.  Besides standing in line to go through security for bombs, which all theatres do now, our jacket pockets were checked for snacks.  We finally squashed into our small row, eagerly anticipating something ‘wait worthy.’  Something new.  It wasn’t.  All the same characters and themes are in the  show, just 19 years older.  Whoever cast ‘adult’ Harry, Ron, and Hermione (now African American) left out any of their charisma.  Just because they’re older doesn’t mean they have to lose that ‘joie de vivre.’  Their children, whom occupy less than half the story, were one dimensional also.

Management strongly cautioned that this show was not for children under 10 years of age.  So I was expecting something more adult in theme.  It wasn’t.  It would be a perfect show for elementary age children; the later Harry Potter films are more intense than this.  What used to be whispered with fright, “He who must not be named,” was easily often mentioned as “Voldemort.”

Stage lighting was dim on tedious sets that lacked any beauty, unless you find staring at gothic arches for six hours to be thought provoking.   The four act, two night story hinges on a time machine.  Not much of a plot, and then throw in some whining about father/son relationships.  Special Effects  I won’t give away as the management continues to beg viewers to not give away any of the Secrets, but I was not blown away.

The ladies in the line at the loo (bathroom) during the interval (intermission) couldn’t stop raving about the show.  “I bought my ticket two years ago!”  one gushed.

“You don’t get out to the theatre much, do you?”  was my thought.  I’m bugged I wasted two nights in London at a show that hardly deserved one.

Mother did not sew.

Mother cooked reluctantly, loved to iron, planted bright red geraniums in pots for the front step, changed the beds on Fridays, vacuumed, taught school, studied the Bible, taught the Bible, read TIME magazine, and all the assorted things that talented women do throughout life.

But Mother did not sew.

Dad had learned to sew in the Marines.  I can still see him sitting on the edge of their full size bed in white underpants, undershirt and brown socks, hunched over a pile of cloth in his lap.  His fingers hold a needle the way a conductor holds a baton as he stitches a button back onto his  shirt.

Mother never pumped gas, either.  In the days before self service gasoline stations, this wasn’t a problem.  When self service arrived, Dad took on the task of making sure Mother’s gas tank was filled.  Mother wasn’t lazy.  She just had standards.  She often quoted George Bernard Shaw:

“A woman should realize that as long as she insists on her equality, she has lost her superiority.”

Then one Christmas morning, Mother shocked my sisters and me.

“I have a special gift for each of you,”  Mother beamed as she reached under the evergreen tree covered with ornaments.   She lifted four similar sized presents, each hastily wrapped in bright red and green striped paper late the night before.  Mother was not a perfectionist, either.  She examined each tag, to make sure she matched the right gift to the right daughter.

“What is it?!”  we murmured, curious.  “Do we need to open them at the same time?”

“Just open them,”  Mother said with a wave of her hands.

I untied the bow on mine and pushed my thumb under the scotch tape to undo the wrapping.  When I opened the box, hidden inside white tissue paper lay a quilted angel, wearing a pink gingham gown.  Mother knew I loved the color pink and gingham.

“I made them,”  Mother announced.

That was impossible.  Mother did not sew.  And my angel wore a dress with a seam in it.  And a ruffle of white lace at the bottom which was not attached with a hot glue gun.

“Yes, I did it.  My friend Gail helped me,”  Mother worked to convince us she was telling the truth. “Look, Jennifer’s has Jennifer’s hair style.”   Indeed, her angel wore a page boy.

We admired each other’s angels.  They were cut from an identical pattern, but Mother had individualized each angel with unique fabric, buttons, ribbon and lace.  My angel had brown embroidery floss hair braided into pig tails.  The tiny white heart buttons  at the neck were exactly what I would have chosen.

“We started working on them back in July.”  Mother’s words sounded as if she was explaining the miracle to persuade herself.

I still have my angel.  Each November 1, when we put up our Christmas tree, that angel, now yellow and lightly crushed after spending months in a box, crowns the tree.  Every time I look at it, I remember that Mother made it for me, and I’m surprised.

Mother’s gift reminds me of God’s ‘hesed’ love.  My new favorite Hebrew word, ‘hesed’, knocks  ‘shalom’ into second place.  ‘Hesed,’ it is fun to hear out loud.  A loyal, boundless, never ending love.  God epitomizes that love.  And parents do, too.   Hesed love promises your kids, “I’ll never stop loving you.  I’ll do anything for you.”

Even sew.

“His hesed love endures forever.”  Psalm 136

 

 

 

Duane and I scurry out of our Covent Garden flat by nine o’clock.  Westminster Abbey isn’t that far away, but walking there takes time.  On a chilly November Sunday morning, we’re heading to the Matins, the 10 a.m. sung service.

We walk briskly past Trafalgar square.  At this hour Sunday morning, London is empty, unless they’re hosting a marathon on a Bank Holiday Weekend.

We arrive at the gate outside Westminster Abbey by 9:30.  No later, or we won’t get the seats I want.  The one with the boys’ choir in the red robes with white ruffle collars.  The parish gentleman in robes greets us and points the way to the massive open wooden door.  Once inside, I want to take pictures.   Sunlight glistens through stained glass windows onto brass chandeliers and rows of wooden chairs, statues, monuments and pale grey stone walls.  A sign commands, “No photos.”  Duane holds his iPhone close inside his jacket and  pops a picture, but I’m a rule follower.

We read the tributes on graves and monuments as we amble along the aisle.  A lay minister greets us at the end and directs us with a smile into the wooden seats where the choir sits.  This is all free.  If not attending a service, entry to the Abbey is 20 pounds.  We slide into our individual thousand year old  worn oak stall.  Brightly colored embroidered prayer stools tuck under the shelf in front of us.  The choir area fills with silent tourists.  While we wait for the service to begin, I read the Bible on my phone and gaze at the light pouring into the Abbey through those beautiful windows.  A row of lit brass lamps with red shades lines the choir stalls, transforming the space from cavernous to cozy.

The organist smashes the silence with the Introit.  Now a layer of music piles onto the spectacular scene.

The choir of men and boys processes in and sits right in front of us.

The service begins.

God is here.

A few years ago, we found another treasure in The Queen’s Chapel, across the street from St. James Palace.  It’s not always open for services.  The elegance of gold painted carvings, velvet curtains and sung Psalms made me feel like Alice in Wonderland.  The complete opposite of Westminster Abbey; an intimate space.  The picture doesn’t capture the soft blue of the walls.  Designed by Inigo Jones.

Outside the Queen’s Chapel hangs the posting for Chapel Royal, inside St. James Palace, across the street.   This is England: someone penned a casual, hasty note in red ink on the formal notice.  Breathless, I’d run all the way to arrive on time.  I struggled to decipher the handwriting that explained where the service at Chapel Royal actually  was.  I never found it.   Maybe I was too late.  You can’t be late.  Maybe next trip I’ll find it.

An ethereal beauty fills these abbeys, cathedrals and chapels.   They’re places to wander.   Places to sit down and pray.  And find dead famous people.   I discovered St. Giles near the Tower of London.

John Milton’s buried there.  John Milton!  The literary giant who wrote “Paradise Lost.”

Wow.

But the services…. we get out the door early to attend a worship service.  Just get out the door, every morning in London.  One Sunday we rode the Tube to the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at Old Royal Naval college in Greenwich.

We came to sung Eucharist here Sunday morning. The school there has a music department. The choir sang, among other hymns, a Rutter piece I had not heard before. gorgeous.

The 19th century hymn writer Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander wrote “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” a more well known Rutter choral piece.

I hear that music when I travel:

“All things bright and beautiful,

all creatures great and small,

all things wise and wonderful,

the Lord God made them all.”

 

 

If you are ready to relax, and have a little nap (I did), you will enjoy “The Old Man and the Gun.”  It was slower and less charming than I was expecting.  Lots of quiet conversations. I never did relate to or understand Redford’s character: his affect throughout seemed mildly cheerful without any change, which made him seem not real to me.  Cissy Spacek’s character was real; Casey Affleck’s was, too.  I liked them.  Always tough, to the point of distracting, (“Oh you look so old, Redford”) I keep thinking.  I should be paying attention to the movie.

The cinematography almost had a sepia/washed out tone – to replicate the 1980’s setting?

It wasn’t bad… although I couldn’t figure out what the point of the whole thing was…just thought it was going to be better.

 

 

After Duane read “A Wheaton Love Story,” my college memoir, he said, “You describe all the characters by their hair:  ‘Carol has long brown hair. .. Sue’s blond hair hung straight…’   It’s kind of boring.”

He was right.  People are more than hair.

“But you don’t understand how important hair is, to a girl,”  I argued.

I was right.

I grew up with three sisters.  Mother spent Saturday mornings at the beauty parlor getting her ‘hair done.  Wendy slept with her long brown hair wrapped around empty soup cans.  In high school, she stayed home on Saturday nights to do her hair.  First, she washed it, then she rolled it in prickly rollers, and imprisoned herself under a plastic cap hooked up to a small suitcase with a motor that blew hot air.    To keep the hair curled, she wore the rollers to bed, too, so her hair would look nice for church.

 

Like Peter Pan,  I didn’t want to grow up.  I wasn’t ready to pay the painful price for pretty hair.   I had the easy freedom of what was called “the pixie” haircut: short hair with bangs, until college.

In Junior high, I became aware that because of my hair style, something I chose, and the necessity for glasses, which I didn’t choose, I wasn’t pretty.  I won’t say I didn’t care.  I accepted that beauty was not going to be my forte.  I identified with the heroine in “Gone With The Wind”:  “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful,  but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm…”

The people who mattered most to me, my parents, put outward appearance in its proper place, like Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people.”  A balanced life.

In the kitchen Mother hung a small bulletin board.  She had been an English teacher. Whenever she saw an inspirational quote or interesting thought, she clipped it out, or wrote it on a 3 x 5 card, and tacked it up for us to read.

“Think, girls, think!”  Dad frequently cajoled.  He and Mother wanted us to consider what was important in life.  What had meaning.  To be that kind of person would require effort.

‘You’re not going to turn that in,”  Mother said with a disapproving voice when she looked over my homework.  She didn’t feel I had spent much time on it .  Reluctantly I agreed.

The same went for outward appearance.  Mother carefully shopped for clothes that would help us look our best.    Dad was a tennis player and Mother walked regularly with a friend.  With love, we were reminded to have healthy habits.

“Stand up straight,”  Mother often pleaded with me.

“Be clean!”  Dad would say, as he trimmed and inspected our nails each week.

When I gained fifteen pounds after my freshman year of college, they sat me down for a talk.

“We don’t like seeing you look like this,”  they said gently.  “You’ve got to do something.

I started to cry.  “It’s so hard.”

They listened, but believed I could do better.

They had bigger dreams for us than what we looked like.  Mother and Dad’s goal was a college education for all four daughters, which was a financial challenge.   They encouraged us to have meaningful hobbies, work part time while in school, and be involved with family and friends.

 

Duane was, eerily, like my parents about having high expectations for me, and himself.  We had started dating in April 1975.

A few weeks later, as we sprawled on my red gingham blanket on Blanchard front lawn, Duane said:  “You know, I have something I want to talk to you about.”

I was all ears.  Duane’s mind fascinated me.  We had great talks.

“Sure, what it is it?”

He mentioned something about eating in the dining hall.  The dining hall was fun.  Wheaton had an ‘all you can eat’ meal plan.  Students pushed trays through a cafeteria line, picking out whatever looked good.  At breakfast, they served homemade hot donuts, with bowls of vanilla and fudge icing.  It was worth going to breakfast before an 8 o’clock class.

Then I realized he was telling me I ate too much.  I don’t remember being offended, just surprised.  I didn’t think I ate that much.  “Diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell and making them happy to be on their way.”

His concern, again, like my parents, was that I would be the best ‘me’ I could be.  He had started running with college friends to get in shape.  And his aspirations for me were not only about health.

“It is a beauteous evening, calm and free…,”  he quoted the entire Wordsworth sonnet.  He had memorized it to share with me, as we walked around campus after dinner that spring.  When we took Professor Clyde Kilby’s Christian Fantasy writers’ class together, I realized I would have read all the assigned course work and attend all the lectures, because Duane did.

It was the beginning of 43 love filled years together.

 

At 63, I still struggle to keep my priorities in balance.    I’m back to the Pixie haircut, 2019 version: short but not too short.

I wish I had corrected my posture in youth, as Mother had suggested.     I watch what I eat, but for boring reasons like bone health.   Like those woven Chinese finger traps we played with as kids, I can still get stuck on my outward appearance.

At my sisters’ weddings, Mother asked me to sing a favorite hymn, “May the Mind of Christ My Savior.”

“May his beauty rest upon me, as I seek the lost to win,

and may they forget the channel, seeing only him.”

My knees shook as I sang, not from fear.  As I looked out over the gathering, I could see Mother smiling at me.  She always did when I sang a solo.  I trembled because the words inspired me.

A woman,Kate B. Wilkinson, wrote them.   Mother would mouth the words along with me as I sang.  She had memorized all six stanzas.  Me, too.  The truths free me from slavery to hair and outward beauty, the impossible dream imposed by our culture on people, especially girls.

 

“People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  I Samuel 16:7

 

 

 

 

 

When the camera moves more than the actors’ lips, Houston we have a problem.

Full disclosure:  I’m not a scientist.  I’m married to one (we’re totally incompatible, but we admire each other).  He loved this movie.  I did not.  He didn’t like the handheld camera throughout either.  Sadly, there’s a great story buried under all the silent glares and glances, about the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong.

Neil Armstrong was an introvert, along with most of his fellow scientists.  And his wife.  All those serious ‘looks’ between the two of them that means … that means – what?  I can’t tell, except you look upset.  Just speak to each other, for heaven’s sake!

The film has all the 60’s setting pieces right, but with the camera shaking throughout, not only when the rockets are taking off,  I had to close my eyes often to avoid motion sickness.  And I hate rocket ships and space suits and all those visuals.  Sorry, this film was on the same level for me, no a notch above because human beings actually inhabit this one although truthfully the characters tend towards the robotic, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  I’m sure if you are a scientist you will love this film, too.

I used to be a skeptic.

“I don’t believe in God.  I can’t see him.”

I was four years old.    How could I believe something I couldn’t see?  My parents laughed when my Sunday School teacher told them what I had said.  To her, it wasn’t funny.

Unbelief is a dark place.

Like the afternoon Nancy and I, 10 and 9 years old,  were trapped in her sister’s bedroom closet.  I’m not sure why we had both walked into the space.   The door shut.

My fingers reached for the door knob.  I tried turning the cool metal.  It was locked.  Our prison was black as midnight on a moonless night.

“Hey, we’re stuck in here!”  We screamed.  Silence.

No one was home.

There was nothing to do but sit on the hard wood floor under the hanging clothes.

We waited for minutes, and then an hour.

Restless boredom overcame fear.

When Nancy’s Dad rescued us several hours later, we emerged, exhausted by the ennui.

 

In the last act of the play “Peter Pan,” Peter implores the audience, “Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!” in an effort to revive Tinkerbell.

Children throw their hands together with enthusiasm.  Adults, seated beside their children, realize they must clap, too, for their children’s sake at least.  Of course, they don’t believe in fairies.  No one does.  Except children.

But what to believe in?  In the film “A Star Is Born,” Jack preaches to Ally, his new songwriting friend who is having a moment of panic before presenting her art to the audience.  “There’s one reason we’re supposed to be here:  it’s to say something so people want to hear…don’t apologize… and don’t worry about why they’re listening, or how long they’re going to be listening for, you just tell them what you want to say.”

Urgency filled Jack’s words.

Writing about believing in God presses on me.  It’s what I want to say.  Like Ally, I need a push; it’s as treacherous as a mountain hike on a stony path with a steep drop off.  One wrong step and your credibility goes crashing away.

I can’t leave the  realities of God and me out of this memoir.  I’ve written the stories of my grandparents’ belief in God.  My mother’s life radiated confidence in God.  I have the note she weakly scribbled on the back of her menu at the nursing home, days before she died, “God loves you and I love you…”  She told me Dad’s story.  After WWII,  Dad came to America.  He wasn’t interested in God or church.  He’d been on a ship that rescued prisoners of war from Japanese camps.  He saw terrible suffering, which maybe caused him to question God.  A few years later, Don Chittick, a family friend, reached out to Dad, and helped him back to believing.

My own beliefs have been, sometimes, closely aligned with Judas, who couldn’t imagine Jesus as anything more than a loser, and went out into the night to betray him.  Contrasted with moments when I’ve had the faith of Mary, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Luke 1:47).

 

My favorite color is white, because it’s the presence of all colors.  I don’t like black, it’s the opposite: the absence of light.

Red, orange and yellow leaves covered the trees of Wheaton’s campus in the fall of my first semester at a Christian college.   I met great new friends, had a terrific writing professor, and was able to do whatever I chose whenever I wanted.

After Christmas, a Chicago winter hung colorless over the campus.  Independence morphed into the burden of responsibilities.  Each class syllabus meant a Mount Everest of work.   Professors were pushing me to rethink what I believed about God.  I had a simple faith, and their ideas were confusing me.   I realized that no one had asked to room with me next year.   I made a giant social faux pas:  I called a boy I liked, who didn’t like me.  “Girls do not call boys!”  One of Mother’s Life Rules.  Living surrounded by Christians should have been heaven on earth.  It wasn’t.

I walked into my dorm room on an April afternoon.  My roommate and suite mates were gathered.  No one said anything.  Awkward silence.  I looked from Carol to Lynn to Rochelle.

“We have some bad news for you,”  Rochelle gently said.  “Don asked Elverda to the Banquet.”

The boy I had foolishly chased all year had asked out my own suite mate.

I needed to get away.  My parents bought me a ticket to go home for the weekend.  I had to fly out of O’Hare Airport, an hour’s drive from school.  I saved up my meagre babysitting money to pay someone to drive me to the airport.

At the ticket counter, the agent behind the desk asked for my student card when I handed him the money for my ticket to Minneapolis.

“I don’t have one,”  I answered.

“You need a student card to get that price,”  he informed me.  “That’s twenty five dollars.”

“I don’t have twenty five dollars,”  I answered.

“Then I can’t issue the ticket,”  was his gruff response.

I thought about crying, but didn’t think that would help anything.  He was adamant.  I needed twenty five dollars or no ticket.

I turned away from the counter.  I was stuck at O’Hare.  The driver from school was gone.  I didn’t have enough money to get on the flight.  My eyes were filling with pointless tears.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had to beg for the money.

Heart pounding, I approached total strangers.   Everyone I asked said, no, I can’t help you.  Finally a kind, older lady told me to go to Traveler’s Aid.  They arranged for me to fly home.

Those hours at O’Hare were like every day of the semester.  It was as if I was locked in that dark closet again.   I would sit at my desk and listen to a recording of the song, “He’s listening to you, he’s listening to you, he knows every heartache that you’re going through,” and cry.  I didn’t feel like God was there at all.

I didn’t know what to believe anymore.  When I got home for the summer, our church asked me to share a story of my faith from my first year of college.  They didn’t know I had lost it.   But I wasn’t going to be rude or embarrass my parents by not going to church.  On lined paper I wrote out some sentences about my new heretical state.  I read it to the church.

Mrs. Erickson, one of my Sunday School teachers,  came up to me after I spoke.  “I appreciate your honesty,”  she graciously encouraged.

My mother had another suggestion. “Why don’t you read the book of John for yourself?”

I had never done that.  I knew Bible stories and had heard sermons preached from the Bible.  When we were kids, we sometimes read verses from the Bible after dessert, as we sat around the dinner table.   It was boring.  I couldn’t wait until we were finished so I  could go out to play.

“I have some ladies in Bible study who’ve said this is their first time reading the Bible,”  Mother added. “They haven’t believed in God because they haven’t met him.”  That was me.

I started John, chapter 1.  I met Jesus.  His words and presence in each situation surprised and delighted me.  When I got to chapter 20, Jesus found Mary in the garden after his resurrection.  He called her by name, “Mary.”  It was personal.  When I read the sentences about that meeting, I sensed Jesus speak my own name, “Jill!”

I did believe in Jesus.  I realized I could take the baby and throw out the bathwater.  I could believe in him, without accepting everything else: the baggage of religion, the hypocrites,  and things I didn’t understand.

That was summer of 1974.

Seeing isn’t believing.   Believing is seeing.

I am human.  I still have moments of skepticism.  “God, where are you when things don’t go the way I think they should?”

But most days,

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”  John 1:12

 

 

 

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