Why my daughters cried on Tuesday morning

“Or does it explode?”

We planned to go to St. Louis to visit my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. My parents-in-law live there, as does my sister-in-law and her family. My daughters were excited; they don’t get to see that side of the family often. So we packed. Stopped the mail. Ate up all the food in the house. All the things that one does when preparing for a week-long trip. We were going to leave on Tuesday morning.

Of course, we’d been watching the news, my husband and I, waiting to hear the announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision. My sister-in-law called, telling us to be careful, obviously anxious about the tense situation. When I went to bed, no announcement had been made. An hour later, my husband came in the bedroom and said, “No indictment.”

My reaction: This isn’t going to be good. 

By morning, Ferguson had exploded.

Not literally. But I thought of a Langston Hughes poem I read in high school. “Harlem” asks the question, “What happens when dreams are deferred?” Hughes offers various answers in the form of metaphors. But the last line rang in my mind: “Or does it explode?

This is bigger than you”

We decided that it wasn’t a good idea for us to be in the St. Louis area. Our hotel destination was thirteen miles from West Florissant Street; we would be driving through unstable areas. While my husband cancelled the hotel reservation, I broke the news to our daughters. Both burst into tears, ran to their rooms and slammed the doors.

I went to my older daughter’s room. “Listen,” I said. “Have you heard of Michael Brown?” My voice wavered, and I drew a deep breath, remembering that my daughter has read quite a few books on the Holocaust and that she’s not unaware of the hatred this world contains. “Listen.”

And as she listened, I told her the bare bones of the story. Michael Brown. Darren Wilson. The protesters. The grand jury. The anger. The announcement. And now, the violence.

“Sometimes people use a protest as an excuse to do wrong. Not all the protesters are violent, but some are, and they’re making things hard for other people . . . Stores have been looted, police cars have been set on fire. Even the schools have had to close.

“We don’t think it would be safe for us to be near that area. Your aunt lives far enough away that she’s probably safe. Grandma and Grandpa have another house where they can stay if things get bad.

“Daddy and I are not being mean and trying to spoil your Thanksgiving. We know you’re disappointed and frustrated. We understand. But this is bigger than you.

“Good from Bad”

I found my younger daughter sitting in her closet, crying. I sat down in the closet and she crawled into my lap. She’s only seven, so I had to explain in more simple terms.

“People are angry because of a decision that’s been made. And some of those people are angry enough to be dangerous, and it wouldn’t be safe in the area where we were going to be staying.”

She was still sniffling.

“Do you think we should pray about this?”

She nodded. So I prayed with her.

Dear Jesus, please protect Grandma and Grandpa and everyone else we love in St. Louis. Please protect everyone in Ferguson . . . the protesters, the police, and everyone who lives there. Please calm the situation, so that real work can be done. That people can learn to understand each other. To forgive. To change things that need to be changed. Please make something good come from all this bad

Good coming from bad. I thought of all the bad:

A career ruined. Stores looted and robbed and burned, hard work destroyed. Dreams destroyed. Families and friends grieved and angered. Instability in a small town. Mistrust of the legal system. And most of all, a young life lost.

My children weren’t the only ones who wanted to cry.



Categories: race | Tags: , | 4 Comments

A tribute to my late professor

He was always late. A guy in my freshman composition class joked that Dr. Richard Cornelius was on “Cornelius time,” which inevitably ran five minutes behind our standard student time. Because he was a full professor, though, we were duty bound to wait for a full fifteen minutes before “absentee teacher” was a legitimate excuse for leaving.

He always arrived.

Probably some of my classmates were disappointed. Dr. Cornelius had a reputation for being a tough professor, and not everyone enjoyed his English classes. Some dreaded them. A few flunked.

I, as a third generation student at the college, had entered his Introduction to Literature class with different expectations. My grandfather and grandmother had known him during their time at the college, as had my father and uncle. My mother, an English major, had regaled me with stories of her college days, and Dr. Cornelius had been her favorite professor.

Once, some students had lured a dog into a senior level English class. Midway through the class period, the dog strolled in and sat down. Dr. Cornelius paused. “It seems we have a new student today,” he said, and then returned to his lecture as if having a large dog in a literature class was quite common. My mother swears that my father was behind the prank; my father swears that he had nothing to do with it. But from the smirk that accompanies the denial, I think I know who to believe.

I had met the unflappable professor as a child. In my mind, I had expected he’d look like Dr. Cornelius from Prince Caspian: dwarfish dimensions; a long, white beard; a pipe to be smoked during thoughtful moments; and wire-rimmed glasses that he’d peer over as he imparted wisdom, perhaps polishing them with a white handkerchief for extra flourish.

I was so disappointed. Unlike my stout, short dwarf, he was tall and thin. He was clean-shaven, no trace of a white beard on his chin. No pipe. At least I’d gotten the glasses right.

He deserved his tough-teacher reputation. He was a stickler for details. (My ex-boyfriend claimed that when he protested a deduction on a paper for “too-wide margins,” Dr. Cornelius pulled out a ruler and measured the margin width. My ex didn’t say who was right.)

He knew Harbrace Handbook of English like he knew the Bible: chapter and verse ready on the tongue, concordance and maps organized in the brain, the lessons learned by heart.

When he graded our papers, he didn’t tell us exactly what we did wrong; he listed the number of the Harbrace section about our mistake. We had to search for the mistake and correct it, write a detailed list of mistakes, and show the corrected paper to him. Grammar, mechanics, punctuation, diction, effectiveness: Harbrace had a rule about all of them, and Dr. Cornelius made certain we knew all of them. Or, even better, that we knew how to apply the rules to our own writing.

In other words, if grammar and punctuation mistakes linger in my writing, don’t blame Dr. Cornelius. He tried.

His daily assignments were long. For a typical intro to lit assignment, we read a short story, then listed and analyzed:

  • the major facts of the story,
  • the theme,
  • the development of the plot,
  • the major characters,
  • the point of view (defending our choice if necessary),
  • the physical setting and atmosphere,
  • miscellaneous items (such as allusions, imagery, symbolism, irony, etc.),
  • the tone,
  • the credibility of the story and its illusion of reality (listing both pros and cons), and
  • the meaning (ideas, applications, universal meanings).

Did I mention that this was a daily assignment? And that we had one short story for each class? And that class met three times a week?

But did I also mention that his extra credit was generous? Read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, answer a question or two, and receive ten points to apply to that daily assignment. We only had to do two of the three assignments for the week. But if we did all three, he dropped the lowest score. Hmm. Tell me again how students flunked his classes?

I’ve kept every assignment and handout from this class. They were that useful.

Last week, after I heard about his death in August, I reread some of his comments on my papers and smiled. “Good but wordy” was a constant refrain sung in red ink in the margin. On one daily assignment, he wrote, “Excellent ideas (. . .) a plethora of verbiage. Try to be more concise. Have faith in your scholarship.” On another, he wrote, “Thanks for caring enough to do excellent work.”

Some students dreaded his classes; the red ink, they complained, looked like blood.

That baffled me. How could they feel revulsion at the red words spewed across the page? It meant he cared enough to examine those details—the stray commas, the awkward wordings, the misplaced modifiers—and help us see the weaknesses and strengths of our writing. To me, there was nothing worse than a perfect score given without comment.

Maybe we got along because we were so much alike. Perfectionistic. Detail-oriented. Driven.

After I dropped out of that school to seek treatment for anorexia, he wrote me a long letter. He apologized for typing it— “you know how poor my handwriting is”—and expressed his heartfelt desire for my recovery. He also apologized for any role he might’ve played in my increasingly driven and perfectionistic outlook on life. He shared a bit about how his own perfectionism had hurt him and his relationships, and urged me to slow down, enjoy life, and receive God’s love and grace.

When he retired, he had taught at Bryan College for forty-eight years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. But for as long as I live, I will remember Dr. Cornelius: his dedication to his work, his dry sense of humor, his encouragement to me.

So here’s to you, sir. May you enjoy the eternal rest of our savior. I will see you again.

Categories: death, relationships | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

Screwtape on human individuality

In The Screwtape Letters, the elder demon Screwtape is instructing the younger demon Wormwood on how to properly tempt a human. He writes,

“Of course I know that the Enemy (God) also wants to detach men from themselves, but in a different way. Remember, always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves; He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. Hence, while He is delighted to see them sacrificing even their innocent wills to His, He hates to see them drifting away from their own nature for any other reason. And we should always encourage them to do so. The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting point, with which the Enemy has furnished him.”

–C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (bold emphasis mine)

I love this. God delights in our individuality; he has given us likings and interests–for example, my love for literature–and he delights when we use those interests in a healthy, God-glorifying way.

We’re not clones of each other, and we’re not intended to be exactly alike: thinking the same way, being interested in exactly the same things, and responding in duplicate to each circumstance of life.  God created a variety of people!

Categories: quotations | 11 Comments

Power & Prejudice

I was searching online for a quote that I was 99% certain I had read somewhere (and now I’m 99% certain that it exists only in my head.) I couldn’t find the quote. Quite possibly my memory made it up.

But I did find a blog post explaining that reverse racism doesn’t exist.

I bristled. So minorities can’t be prejudiced? So what about . . . and I started to tick off all the cases of minority prejudice I had ever heard or read. (That’s not something I’m proud of admitting. My inner racist kicks defensively, and I hate that. I’m working on this.)

Stop. Ask. Listen.

Those weren’t the words Rick had used in his comment on my last post, but the message was there. Ask, “why do you think that?” before immediately defending your stance.

I stopped. Inhale, exhale.

I silently asked Jamie Utt, the blog writer, “Why do you think reverse racism can’t exist?” Inhale, exhale.

I read on.

Utt explains that racial prejudice and racism are two different things.

All people can be racially prejudiced. But racism adds power to the prejudice:

Prejudice + Power = Racism

The power comes from white privilege. I don’t often see my white privilege, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It gives my prejudiced words and my prejudiced actions a power that similarly prejudiced words and actions from a minority don’t have. Mine have the power to reinforce systematic racism.

If someone called me a racial slur, that would hurt.

But it doesn’t pound yet another nail into the solid structure of a racially oppressive system where one race determines the worth, opportunities, and perceptions of all others.

It doesn’t reinforce a negative message about who is in the dominant position and who isn’t.

It doesn’t bear the weight of centuries of discrimination, of slavery, of mob lynchings, of fear and grief and anger.

Nigger. Coming from me, a white person, that word does all that and more.

That is the point Utt makes. (He also makes some other great points about “8 Things White People Really Need to Understand about Race.”) For the first time, the idea that reverse racism doesn’t exist made sense.

Then I had a second ah-ha moment. This explanation answered a question left over from graduate school. We were reading Native Son, by Richard Wright. It takes place in Chicago in the 1930s. Early in the book, Bigger, a young black man, is hired by the wealthy Dalton family as a chauffeur.

One night, he is reluctantly driving the spoiled daughter Mary and her Communist boyfriend Jan through the South Side of the city. The couple believe they are working for racial equality and try to treat Bigger like a friend, though every attempt is filled with racial prejudice and white privilege.

Mary touches Bigger’s arm and says,

“ ‘You know, Bigger, I’ve longed to go into these houses,’ she said, pointing to the tall, dark apartment buildings looming to either side of them, ‘and just see how your people live.’ (. . .) ‘I just want to see. I want to know these people. Never in my life have I been inside of a Negro home. Yet they must live like we live. They’re human. . . . There are twelve million of them. . . . They live in our country. . . . In the same city with us. . . . .’”

Native Son, by Richard Wright

A classmate commented. “She’s using the word ‘they.’ That’s so racist.”

Everyone else nodded their heads, but I scratched mine. I understood that Mary was behaving badly, expressing these sentiments to a black man, and failing to understand that, no, Bigger’s family didn’t live like she did, in her safe, glitzy world. Mary’s father owns the apartment building where Bigger and his family live in a cramped, rat-infested, one room apartment. No, Mary,” I wanted to say, “you don’t live like “them.”

I understood that.

But I didn’t understand how “they” was racist. What other word could she have used? I asked the question on our class online forum. The responses revolved around this:

When Mary uses the word “they,” she distances herself from the very people she wants to understand.

Her words reinforce her dominance in the social hieracrchy:

she controls whether or not she goes into a black home,

she longs to see into the houses but not live in them,

she claims the city for her people and treats minorities as displaced people.

And, after all, the car is her family’s. Bigger works for her father. When she allows her boyfriend to drive, Jan can drive wherever he pleases. When Bigger drives, he is limited to where the white couple direct him.

Even proclaiming that “they” are human calls into question whether or not she truly regards “them” as such. If she regarded everyone as equals, would she even need to say this?

I was still puzzled. After all, Bigger regards white people in much the same way. He’s suspicious, hostile, and rebuffs Jan and Mary’s attempt to befriend him. Didn’t he see that their gestures were well-intentioned, if inadequate? Isn’t he racist, too?

Prejudice + Power = Racism

Jan and Mary have white privilege that blinds them. Their words and actions reinforce Bigger’s lack of power. He can’t tell them no:

No, I don’t want to go to a black restaurant with you and eat fried chicken.

No, I don’t want to tell you slang terms so you’ll sound “black.”

No, I don’t want my friends to see us together.

No, I don’t want to answer your nosy questions.

He is powerless, and he knows it. They have power, and they don’t know it.

I have power, too. How often do I realize this? And how often do I recognize how my actions and words reinforce a system of oppression?

Categories: race, relationships | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

If physical illnesses were treated like mental illnesses.

Laura Droege:

Unfortunately, the responses in this cartoon are all ones that I and others have had from uninformed people about our mental illnesses. These responses are as unhelpful for the mentally ill person to hear as they are to those with physical illnesses. A better response? “Is there anything I can do to help you right now?” Listen to the response, and do what you reasonably can.

Originally posted on thatlolagirl:


View original

Categories: mental illness, sickness | 4 Comments

Why I’m not praying for peace

I’m not praying for peace.

For months now, my husband and I have been watching the news coverage about the protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting death of Micheal Brown. We have family near that area. They’re a little nervous and have said that they are avoiding crowded areas. It’s not that they expect to be personally targeted, but if violence breaks out, uninvolved, violence-shunning people can be caught in the crossfire and hurt. (A bullet doesn’t have to be deliberately aimed at a particular person to kill her or him.)

So, theoretically, I could be praying for peace, a quick squelching of protest, an iron hand clamping down on any violence–whatever could protect my loved ones.

I’m not.

I hear anger, and I think I understand and sympathize as well as a sheltered white woman can understand and sympathize. (Which isn’t much, but I’m trying.) Another young black man has been killed by an older white police officer. A life has been ended—violently ended, one of a long line of young black men to lose their lives in a brutal, bloody way.

I hear anger on both sides, defenders and detractors of both men expressing deep emotions.

I hear sorrow and grief, frustration and anger.

I see conflict.

It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not naturally a confrontational person; I run from fights, wave the white flag, grovel like a coward.

When our church was splitting, I prayed for peace and reconciliation. It didn’t occur to me that they aren’t the same thing.

I prayed for peacemakers to bring opposing parties together, but what I really wanted was peacekeepers. They’re not the same thing, either.

This time, I’m not praying for peace.

Not our culturally normal version of peace, at least. That’s a truce: a silent, smoothed surface over bubbling hostilities.

The silence allows wounds to fester, hurts to be inflicted, patterns of wrong behavior to continue without restraint because no one is held accountable and no one speaks (or is allowed to speak) of the issues.

The silence promotes stereotypes, each side becoming more entrenched in their initial views of the other, each side refusing to listen, refusing to forgive, refusing to see the other as human.

We all pretend everything’s okay, pack up and go home and preserve a polite, nice demeanor.

We quote Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers” and forget his fiery confrontation of hypocrites.

We notice that peace is a fruit of the Spirit and don’t notice that nice and polite aren’t on the list.

We keep the peace. We don’t make it.

Nothing changes.

I’m not praying for that perversion of peace. I shouldn’t.

Making true peace between people is a messy process, a long process (particularly when the conflict is centuries old).

  • We have to listen.
  • We have to listen to what is truly said, and not what we think is said.
  • We have to hear the good and the bad and the uncomfortable.
  • We have to listen to our own faults, no matter whether the language is crude, the articulation unskillful, and the manner condemning.
  • We have to listen, and extend grace and forgiveness and ask for forgiveness for our wrongs, even when the other person is unwilling to do the same. Maybe they will in the future. We don’t know. But we can take that first step.

That type of peacemaking doesn’t look like walking away from the fight. Rather, we embrace the fight—not physical violence, but a fight that grapples with the problem and refuses to give up until it’s resolved, no matter how wounded we are.

It reconciles people. It builds relationships. It promotes understanding. It allows for disagreement and differences because we respect one another and never lose sight of this one thing we all have in common: we are human.

That’s what I’m praying for.


(Note: I hope it’s obvious that I’m NOT saying we should attempt to reconcile with abusive people. That wouldn’t be safe or healthy. Sometimes peacemaking isn’t possible with certain individuals; I’m sure we can all think of situations where that is true. But generally, I think that we should try to make peace with others when possible, particularly when the issue is bigger than individuals and extends into society, as it does with racial conflict. I wanted to make that clear.) 

Categories: Christianity, relationships | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

What my English teachers got wrong about literature

This is a post about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But it’s not really about the story, or themes, or issues. It’s about the book, and how I am finally reading it for the first time. Enjoying it, too, if that’s not too odd a word to apply to such a tragic, disturbing novel. The enjoyment springs from discovering Hardy’s writing: how an already-known plot unfolds; how Hardy uses nature to show character moods; how the characters are drawn and shaded and brought to life.

Years ago, I had an ill-fated encounter with The Return of the Native; it was summer reading for high school, and either I was too immature to appreciate the work or too inclined to roll my eyes at my Christian school’s summer reading selections. Either way, I shunned Hardy’s work because I loathed that one book. But someone mentioned Tess in a blog comment, and I decided that it was high time to read it.

I’m thankful that I didn’t read this in high school. One of two things would’ve happened.

First, I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it. Although I’d suffered depression for years, I still hadn’t reached the acute stage of mental crisis that I did in college and later. I hadn’t been through my own harrowing experience of darkness, my own crisis of faith, my own experiences of rejection and loneliness. Sometimes we have to go through things before we can empathize with certain characters (or real people!); other times, the characters evoke our empathy for their fictional trials, and that empathy extends beyond the page into the real world.

Second, my high school teachers would’ve ruined it. Don’t get me wrong; I mean no disrespect. My English teachers were fine Christian women, trying to stuff literature and grammar and writing into the chemically-imbalanced, hormonally-out-of-whack brains of teenagers. But they weren’t necessarily well-informed on literature. Being a book-crazy girl, I saw and was disgusted by the ignorance.

For me, their thinking had two major faults.

Too censored. As if embarrassed by the disturbing themes in classic novels, the teachers and administrators avoided these books entirely and picked safe (and inferior) works to study. My senior year of high school, we read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, an overview of the major Greek and Roman myths. My teacher told us to skip two chapters—the myths of Oedipus and Clytemnestra—because we “didn’t need to read it.”

I read these chapters anyway. For pity’s sake, it’s not like the guy acted intentionally, so why make a fuss? And if we can’t maturely (if awkwardly) discuss Clytemnestra’s affair and subsequent killing of her husband, then are we really mature enough for college?

Why be flustered by bawdiness in certain of The Canterbury Tales to the extent that they go unread? Why not address it in a Christian classroom to a group of college-bound seniors? We were going to encounter even more disturbing things at a secular university. So why not prepare us now, when we can learn how to think through the issues with a teacher who believes in moral absolutes and not moral relativism? Give a disclaimer or acknowledge the problematic contents, and work with the students through these issues.

Too narrowly-defined in their Christianity. For them, there was one Christian view of just about any subject. They didn’t want to stray from The Christian View of whatever. But Christians don’t all think alike—shocking, I know—and Christians are allowed to have different interpretations of Hamlet or Moby-Dick. Really. You don’t have to agree with me.

Even as a high schooler, I wanted to devour the texts: sniff out the potentials, dig deep into the dirt and grit of the novel, sink my teeth into the words until I tasted the truth amid the flavors, a dog ripping meat from a bone. But only the meaty texts. Not throwaway junk food.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

–Sir Francis Bacon

Reading too much of those junk novels is like eating too much junk food; it kills the taste for anything else. Artificial and sugary and chemical and salted to induce addiction: that’s junk food. That’s junk reading. That’s junk thinking.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but it illustrates my point. Years ago, when I ditched my favorite Diet Coke, I went for a year without another soft drink. I had to learn what water tasted like. Strange, but true. After a while, I preferred water, and I didn’t crave soft drinks.

Water tasted real.



Nothing settled my thirst like water.

Then one night at my daughter’s track meet, there was nothing but Diet Coke to drink. My husband handed me a cup. I took a sip. Stopped. Stared at the styrofoam cup. “Are you sure? Taste this—” I thrust the straw at him “Does this taste right to you?”

“Tastes like Diet Coke.” He shrugged.

I was shocked. That was what I had been drinking: this nasty chemical concoction? I had preferred this over other beverages? I gave the drink to my husband and found a water bottle for myself. All those years, I had been quenching my thirst with something artificial, when the really satisfying object was just a water fountain away.

When we satisfy and satiate ourselves on inferior things, the junk food of thought, and read and swallow and listen to these things to the exclusion of all else, we kill our taste for the real.

And when our taste for the real is dead, we have difficulty thinking for ourselves, and thinking (and acting) in the radical, turn-the-world-inside-out manner that Jesus demands.

And that includes having empathy for those who suffer like the fictional Tess.

Categories: writing | Tags: , , , | 18 Comments

A dying man muses on God’s race

I ran across Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful novels several years ago. Some are loosely designated mysteries. The chief delight for me, though, is in McCall Smith’s warm humor and intellectual depth. It’s a bit like drinking a hot cup of tea laced with antioxidants; the health benefits are present, but disguised by the pleasant warmth of the tea that sinks right down to the soul.

His No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series revolves around Precious Ramotswe, a single female detective in Botswana. She’s feisty, opinionated, and destined to kick the butt of the wannabe bad guys in her path.  Early in the first book of the series, her dying father reflects on his life. And country. And God. And his daughter, Precious.

And as I read his musings, I came across this passage:

“They gave me pills–large white ones–and they told me to take these if the pain in my chest became too great. But these pills make me sleepy, and I prefer to be awake. So I think of God and wonder what he will say to me when I stand before him.

Some people think of God as a white man, which is an idea which the missionaries brought with them all those years ago and which seems to have stuck in people’s mind. I do not think this is so, because there is no difference between white men and black men; we are all the same; we are just people.

–Alexander McCall Smith, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, pg 19.

Can I have an amen?


Categories: quotations | Tags: , | 14 Comments

When a trash can tells the truth (thoughts on graffiti, faith, and honesty)

As I was driving to school this morning, I passed a trashcan at the end of a driveway. Painted on the side in bold, haphazard lettering was this:

I love Jesus!

It was a large green can, the type that our local government distributes to residents. It obviously awaited the garbage truck; it will stop, lift the can high, and dump its contents into the back of the truck. The truck’s mechanical jaw looks like someone cross-bred a cobra and alligator, and the resulting offspring is this robotic devise that carries away our filth.

There were other things painted on the sides of this particular can, but driving 40 mph on a busy road isn’t conducive to reading graffiti. So what stuck in my brain was I love Jesus!

Being the type who analyzes everything, I tried to find a starting place for analyzing this, but was stumped. What I finally found was this:

Graffiti is an honest expression of the artist’s heart and mind at a particular moment.

It’s usually anonymous. So it can be honest. Brutally honest. Obscenely honest.

Even if it’s a deliberate lie, intended to slander or damage, there’s still a truth here, a truth about the teller.

It’s an honest picture of the writer’s character.

Think about these two examples:

One: Derek loves Cynthia 4ever, spray painted while Derek is cheating on Cynthia, for example. Does Derek feel the need to declare his fidelity as a way of denying his infidelity? Or is he attempting to guilt trip Cynthia into staying with him, even when she learns of his infidelity? Or trying to tell her “I’ll always love you. That other girl? She means nothing to me! Really!”?

Two: Someone is labeled with a smutty term on a bathroom stall door. Even if she/he is behaving in an objectionable way, this filth is designed to slander or damage another person’s reputation. Doesn’t this say something about the graffiti writer’s character? A person who spreads gossip and slander has a heart-issue, not just a potty mouth issue.

It takes those words (or image) and rips it out of one context, and puts it into a new context, one where it doesn’t belong and looks out of place, thus drawing attention to the ideas.

I love Jesus on a trash can?

  • A statement of the hypocrisy of declared Christians whose lives are filled with filth?
  • A testimony to Christ’s power to transform even the trashiest of people into artistic creations of life?
  • A declaration of the need to rid ourselves of all filth and sinful tendencies in our own lives, much like a trashcan takes the garbage from our homes?
  • Or a simple statement of newly-discovered or rediscovered faith and love?

Recently, I read Chang Rae Lee’s novel On Such a Full Sea. It’s almost undefinable. Is a literary novel? A post apocalyptic dystopian? An unconventional romance? A statement about American angst over Chinese influence on the American culture? Proof that one can write a thoughtful novel (from a first person plural point of view, no less) and still have an engaging plot?


It revolves around Fan, a young Chinese woman from B-Mor (the post-apocalyptic name for Baltimore, now repopulated by fish-raising descendants of Chinese immigrants). She leaves the city, her job, her family, everything to find out the fate of her missing boyfriend, Reg.

Somehow her disappearance captures the collective imagination of the confined B-Mor dwellers. In their structured, protected, and highly regulated lives, forever in an inferior class to the white “charter city” inhabitants, Fan’s decision to leave is unnerving.




They become obsessed with Fan and Reg. Suddenly, almost overnight, pictures of the couple are painted on buildings. Graffiti is spray painted everywhere:

Long live Reg and Fan!

I love Reg!

Fan and Reg forever!

The authorities try to suppress this, of course. But to no avail. The graffiti doesn’t belong in their world. (Whose image does belong on the side of a brick building?) Ripped from the conventional place for artistic expression (a canvas, perhaps, or doodled beside class notes), it draws attention to Fan’s unprecedented action—and fuels an artistic rebellion.

Suddenly, paintings of other subjects appear on shop buildings. One graffiti artist paints an image; the offended building owner paints over it; the artist repaints the image the next day. The building owner gives up.

Soon others join in, adding their own images to the original one, and the work evolves into an elaborate countryside scene. A collaborative effort, never ending and ever evolving.

Whatever emotion is captured by the graffiti may not last, of course. It doesn’t in Lee’s book. The B-Mor inhabitants eventually come to a new normal; the feverish intensity of the graffiti lessens but the affect of Fan’s disappearance lingers, changing how the people view their work and place in society.

Derek may not love Cynthia 4ever. He may move on and have a healthy relationship with another woman.

The person who trashed another person’s reputation on a bathroom stall door may regret the action and may want to make amends.

The person who wrote I love Jesus on a trashcan may fall out of love with Jesus, regaining it later or walking away from faith entirely.

I hope not. I hope that they always feel that enthusiastic about Jesus. I hope that even as faith flickers, almost snuffed out—I hope that he remembers that simple declaration of love and seeks to ignite that passion once more.

Categories: art, Christianity | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

“All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others”

“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

This phrase from Animal Farm came to mind as I was researching female ordination in my church denomination. Each time I begin research for my new novel, there’s something new that startles me. I knew that my conservative denomination didn’t ordain  women as pastors, elders, or deacons, but I was surprised by the amount of vitriol aimed at Presbyterian churches that do allow women to assist deacons.

Assist deacons, mind you. Not be deacons.

The charge against those churches is one of rebellion against their presbytery. Not rebellion against God, but rebellion against the presbytery-that-represents-God.

One blogger claimed that it’s not about exegesis of certain passages of Scripture but about rebellion. Not an issue of equality, he said. If I hadn’t been reading in a public place, I might’ve screamed. As it was, I muttered, “Yes, it is. It is about equality.”

Oh, yes, women are equal to men in Christ, but not equal enough for ordination. Not equal enough to be considered as possible candidates for leadership positions. Not equal enough to be granted the full privileges of serving Christ in whatever capacity he has gifted us.

What was it Orwell said? All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Substitute “human” for “animals”—

All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others.

—and you’ve got the issue here, not to mention the principle used to condone slavery, discrimination, and all kinds of injustice where one group of people is lifted above another.

Technically, I could earn a M.Div and a D.min from a reformed seminary, jump through all the academic hoops, receive my diploma, and be as (if not more) educated as the typical Presbyterian minister. Yet I couldn’t ever be ordained as a minister or an elder or a deacon in my own denomination.

The denomination wouldn’t consider whether I was spiritually gifted to preach, to teach (anyone other than women or children), or to lead.

What it would consider: I am female.

What the answer would be: No.

Why? Because I was born with the wrong genitalia.

Crude, but true.

I haven’t spoken up before now. Maybe I didn’t realize how this has affected me. But it has. When I went to a Christian college, I encountered one of the most sexist environments I can imagine. I was already depressed and spiraling downward, and while my interest in the liberal arts was affirmed (as it was not at my hometown university), I still didn’t have a voice. My opinions weren’t valued. When I needed help dealing with an overly aggressive suitor, I was not only unable to speak, I was stifled to the point of not knowing that I needed to speak. His behavior was considered normal. My feminism? Not normal, I was told.

And it broke me. In August, I was a feminist. By Christmas, I was broken. I sat in my bedroom and felt myself break, like a fragile tree limb cracking beneath my weight.

You’re easier to deal with now, a male student told me in the spring. Not as argumentative.

And that was a good thing? When the result was more depression, more instability and fear, more starving and binging and purging, then there’s an issue. And it’s an issue of whose voice is heard and whose is suppressed. And it’s an issue of equality and freedom.

I haven’t spoken up before now. Maybe I didn’t think this was my fight. I’m not a leader, not called to formal ministry, not particularly interested in theology. I’m not the strong, driven, opinionated type of woman. (Okay, maybe a little opinionated. Or a lot.) This was a fight for my mom or my friends or some other women, I thought. They don’t need me to speak on their behalf.

But this does matter. This is my fight. If it affects other women, men, and children, then it does affect me. No man is an island, John Donne writes. No woman, either.

This is my fight. It is my business. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge tells his late partner’s ghost, “You always were good at business, Jacob.” The ghost replies, “Business! Mankind was my business!”

None of us can afford not to care what happens to others. What happens to one could also happen to me or my daughters or my sisters-in-Christ. What happens to one is happening to others. It is happening to me.

And here’s what this feels like:

Like someone clapping a hand over my mouth. Stifling protests. Ripping voice from throat. Being mugged by the church, the one place where everyone should feel accepted, respected, and free to use their gifts and express their calling.

We haven’t come a long way, baby. Not by a long shot.

Categories: Christianity | Tags: , | 18 Comments

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