Lessons from Amber — Mamaw, the Unsung Hero

Ambi & Mamaw
Amber always had a way of making people feel special and all she had to do was look at them. I have never seen anyone able to display pure adoration like Amber did. If you have ever been adored by her, you know there is nothing like that feeling.
One special person, among the many she adored, was her Mamaw, my mother-in-law, Edwina Blackburn.
Edwina doesn’t get a lot of recognition for all she has done, and continues to do every day. And, even though I know her family and friends do appreciate her, Amber had her own way of showing it.
Amber’s Mamaw took care of her many times over the years, and let me tell you that even though it was always rewarding taking care of Amber, it was hard work too. But, Amber never felt like a burden to her Mamaw. She knew her Mamaw adored her too.
Going to Mamaw’s house was like going to a spa in Amber’s mind. She was the princess and she got treated like it. Amber’s mamaw always had some fun little gift for her, a new pair of shoes (Amber loved shoes), a book, a toy that lit up or played music, or BOTH, or a movie to watch.
For breakfast, Amber would get some of Mamaw’s fantastic French toast. For lunch or dinner, she would get her favorite homemade mashed potatoes. For desert on Thanksgiving or Christmas, Mamaw always made sure to have some of Amber’s favorite butterscotch cream pie with fluffy merengue on top.
Amber and her Mamaw would spend time together reading stories, singing songs, watching TV and at bedtime, praying the Lord’s Prayer.
Often, before Amber’s health began to decline, we’d all go out for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Amber had her favorite spots, and she rarely wanted to try new ones. Make that never. She picked restaurants for the kindness of the waitresses or the atmosphere, more than for the food.
Her favorite place for breakfast was a local place called Richard’s. It had homestyle American food that was tasty and not too expensive, but Amber went to say “hi” to her favorite waitress, a friendly African American woman whose smile and friendly attention made Amber’s day. They both considered themselves to be buddies.
For lunch or dinner, she usually wanted to go to a place called La Charreada, a Mexican restaurant. There, Amber loved the atmosphere, having always loved Hispanic culture and language. She loved hearing the trumpet music over the speakers and looking at the colorful decorations and sombreros lining the walls. She’d get a quesadilla and listen to the music. Or, she might also spend some time eavesdropping on the conversations of diners at nearby tables. She’d laugh and get red-faced whenever we’d catch her at it and tease her. Mamaw could tease with the best of us, and Amber got a kick out of it.
One of those funny family stories we all remember is about the time Mamaw thought she just might try to talk Amber into trying some place new. She asked Amber if she would consider going to eat at Cracker Barrel.
As soon as Amber heard the name, she rolled her eyes and got quiet. She was always afraid of hurting peoples’ feelings, but, it soon became clear, amidst much laughter, that she really wasn’t sure she wanted to eat at a place that served crackers for supper.
Eventually, Amber did let herself be coaxed into going to Cracker Barrel ONCE, many months later. She liked it all right, but it was no Richard’s.
Mamaw’s visits to Amber were just as much fun. She loved to show Mamaw her room (with its Walker, Texas Ranger theme), play her Wii and let Mamaw be impressed with her tennis playing, snowboarding or airplane flying skills. The latter skill involved making all onlookers motion sick as she flew her Wii plan in vertical loops continually until her plane hit the ground and her little Mii popped out. She especially loved it when she’d win an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding so she could bask in the adulation her Mii received, standing on the pedestal amidst cheering admirers.
Amber had other games she played with her Mamaw. One favorite was a Tiger Woods’ golf game for her Nintendo. She would laugh as she won golf match after golf match, especially when her grandmother finally discovered she’d been pushing the wrong buttons. Her mamaw cried foul, “cheater,” she teased and Amber cackled.
Yes, Amber’s adoration also came with a healthy dose of mockery. But, it was all in good fun. She certainly mocked her Mamaw any chance she got, and all the while, she’d be adoring her.
Even now, I know that Edwina, like me, can hear Amber’s laughter from time to time whenever she does something she knows would crack her up. Every time she can’t find her glasses, or she bangs her toe on a chair or has to run through the entire list of family members’ names before she finally says the one she wants, Amber is looking down and cackling.
But, that’s not all she’s doing. I’m sure that Amber also looks down and prays for her Mamaw, and also thanks God for her. I have a feeling that when she notices that her beloved grandmother is feeling weary or discouraged, Amber is probably cheering her on, in her enthusiastic way, shouting, “Go! You can do it!” and almost certainly adding, “I love you” into the bargain. I hope Edwina feels that love with her every day and knows that a love like Amber’s never dies. It just glows on and on.

Lessons from Amber — Stories are Awesome

Story time
Some of Amber’s favorite things were stories. I remember reading to her even before she was born, just in case. I wanted her to love stories as much as I do.
Sure enough, I got what I asked for and more. She used to wear me out at bedtime, wanting to hear story after story. “More,” she would say in her way that I could not resist. I can’t remember how many books we read or what they all were, but it was a special time for us, and I cherish those memories.
Some of her favorites stand out to me, of course. One of the first books she grew to love was “Fox in Socks,” by Dr. Seuss. It’s filled with tongue twisters, as many of you know. Amber used to love to laugh as I struggled, stumbled and goofed my way through that book of clever word play. With her great sense of humor, she liked anything that made her laugh.
There were the poems of Shel Silverstein that we called “Funny Poems” from the books that her mamaw bought her, “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic,” and the one I got her, “A Giraffe and a Half.” Some of her favorite poems were “Ticklish Tom” (during which I would tickle her quite a bit), “It’s Hot!” (also a favorite of her cousin Audrey),”Backward Bill,” “Bear in There” and “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too,” (during which she also got tickled). My favorite is still “Early Bird.”
She liked a book called “I Love to Sneeze” by Ellen Schecter, because she thought sneezes were hilarious. She also loved “Eloise,” by Kay Thompson the “Amelia Bedelia” books by Peggy Parrish and joke books. I remember that her favorite joke was “What do you call three ducks in a box?” “A box of quackers!”
She liked non-fiction books as well, loving to learn about the planets, Amelia Earheart and other famous women, nature and animals, and other countries. She liked other languages besides English, Spanish being her favorite. She had a book of Spanish words for kids that was a lot of fun.
When she got older, she began to be more interested in stories that were more involved and longer. Together, we discovered wonderful worlds and characters to love as we delved into great children’s literature.
Some of our favorites were the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan” by E.B. White, “The Finches’ Fabulous Furnace” by Roger Wolcott Drury (a family favorite from my childhood), “The Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Graham, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle (and other books in the series), “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis, “The Complete Tales of Winnie the Pooh,” by A.A. Milne, and “The Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum.
One book that became a treasured favorite, (so much so that we read it every summer) was Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
Amber and I both loved meeting the red-headed, freckled orphan, with her big open heart, wild imagination and knack for “getting into scrapes.” We loved the humor, the warmth, the beautifully written descriptive language, and even the sorrows that unfolded before us in that book. When Anne longed for, and actively looked for, “kindred spirits” we both identified with the concept. It became a life lesson, that there were always people in the world who your soul would connect with in a special way, and they became kindred spirits.
We fell in love with Anne, her crusty foster mother Marilla Cuthbert, and the understanding, quiet Matthew Cuthbert, who had a special connection with his “Anne-girl.” We even fell in love with Prince Edward Island. It was a place we always hoped to visit one day.
Amber also liked to listen to stories in music and watch them in movies like “Mulan,” “Ella Enchanted,” and “Thumbelina.” Television became very important to her. As a little girl, she loved the purple dinosaur and his silly songs, as well as the colorful Power Rangers. But, as she grew up, her heart turned toward TV shows with female leads, shows with humor and romance, but ones that still maintained some innocence.
The first “grown-up” show she grew to love was “Lois & Clark” starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher. For years, she pretended to be “Wois” as she said it, and made us call her that name as she took on the role of the plucky Lois Lane, in love with the mild-mannered Clark Kent and his dashing super alter ego.
Later, a favorite was “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” with Kate Jackson and Bruce Boxleitner in the leads, “Remington Steele” with Pierce Brosnan and Stephanie Zimbalist, and finally “Walker, Texas Ranger” starring Chuck Norris and Sheree J. Wilson.
She began to use these stories to help her escape from the real world of doctors’ appointments, her wheelchair and helpless state, and become a glamorous, heroic woman with a cute boyfriend. She loved becoming the capable assistant district attorney, Alex Cahill, with a man as strong and capable as Cordell Walker to watch over her.
She also liked to read the Bible at night, before bed. A lot of the language in the Bible reminded her of her favorite TV and other types of stories. When she heard the words “testimony,” “counselor,” “witness,” etc., she couldn’t help but think of the courtroom scenes in “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
The problem is that she assumed that when she giggled at the words because they made her think of her show, that she was committing some kind of sin — that she was being disrespectful. I didn’t realize this at first, but eventually, I would see her giggle, then shake her head “no,” as if to try to shake the “bad” thoughts out of her brain.
When I figured it out, I reminded her that Jesus used stories to teach, and it’s ok if the words in the Bible make you think of stories you hear other places. I told her that the images Jesus used were meant to make people think of things they understood, so that they could picture some of the deeper things of heaven. She drew comfort from that fact, and I actually believe she was doing just what she was supposed to do when hearing the Bible, applying it to her life. It was absolutely charming to me.
Stories did so much for Amber, and I learned to appreciate them so much more because of her love for them. There are so many books I never would have read had it not been for her and I think they made both of our lives much richer.
Stories stirred in us more compassion, a sense of wonder about life, an appreciation for nature and people who are not just like us, and a reverence for the beauty of language. We learned that words are powerful. They can change lives, and they can change the world. Stories are, indeed, awesome.
I believe that Amber would want for you all what I want, that you stay connected to stories and let them help your heart to grow two sizes, find some kindred spirits and explore the ends of sidewalks everywhere.

Lessons from Amber – Have a Sense of Humor

One of the things I remember most about Amber was her sense of humor, and her laugh is one of the things I miss the most. In spite of the obstacles in her life, the pain she endured, and the hard times, she laughed more than anybody I know.

Here are some of the things she found funny: mistakes, burps, sneezes, people falling down, people’s pants falling down, the Three Stooges, people getting beaned with something, Knock-Knock jokes, ducks, general all-around silliness. Oh, and my dancing – which fits into that last category nicely.

She laughed at church when the pastor misspoke because Amber knew her Bible. She laughed at choir practice when someone hit a wrong note, because she had a keen musical ear and could always tell, and since we were amateurs and made lots of mistakes, she had a lot to laugh about. She laughed at the movie Jurassic Park when the guy gets eaten by a dinosaur using the porta-potty. She laughed during the movie Home Alone every time the bad guys got hurt. She laughed at me when I whacked my head. She laughed when people at the grocery store sneezed. She laughed when I read her my proof-reading assignments for the newspaper and I read a mistake to her.

One thing cool about her is that she never let anyone feel sorry for themselves. One of my fondest memories was of the first time Amber had met Jolly’s business partner, Steve Johansson. We were living in Indiana and he had come to meet with Jolly. He had had a rough trip, with many troubles and he proceeded to tell the story to Jolly. He got pretty worked up remembering his car troubles, and actually stumbling across some gun show after his U.S. Army reserve training and being afraid for his safety. As he talked, Amber would burst out laughing at every mishap. He would get a funny look on his face and and she kept on laughing, louder and louder with each additional problem.

She had learned one of life’s secrets. Do not take life too seriously. A little humor helps a person keep from becoming bitter, and life is just plain funny.

It was humor that helped her not become too scared when she had hip surgery after hip surgery. It was humor that gave her a perspective on life that was positive instead of negative. She had such a sweet, funny little spirit.

Some of the funniest times happened between us as I tried to take care of her and we hung out in her room. Sometimes, we would listen to music together (a lot of times, actually), and a song would come on that would make me feel like dancing. She would laugh at my dancing style (as anyone would) and so one time, when a song came on that I knew I had to dance to, I said, “Ooh, Amber, I’ve got to dance to this one, but I will go behind the TV where you can’t see me.” She looked at me with the cutest smile and said, “Pweese.” We both burst out laughing at that. Sometimes, she’d laugh so hard her face turned red. I loved that.

Even some of the most “sacred” times could be funny. She and I read the Bible every night at bedtime, and I read her one passage that made her bust a gut laughing. It was 1 Corinthians 15:50-52 that says, “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

You see, to her, a girl who was too disabled to use the toilet on her own, being changed meant getting her diaper changed. So, picturing everyone, raised up and changed in the twinkling of an eye cracked her up.

Do I think God was offended by that laughter? No. I think he laughed too. He and Amber are probably still laughing about it now. I know I do every time I hear or read that verse of the Bible. I also thing God was glad that she was living into the command, written in the letter of Paul to the Philippians, to rejoice always.

The most beautiful sound I have ever heard is the sound of Amber’s laughter. If I can maintain as good of a sense of humor as she had, I think that my life will be something beautiful too. So, I have to remind myself not to get too serious, which is not always easy for a worrier like me. But, I will give it a good try anyway. I know one thing, whenever that song comes on still, I start to dance, look up to heaven and laugh to think Amber is hiding her eyes and squealing with embarrassment.

Lessons from Amber, part I

Amber and the school bus

Amber and the school bus

So, I have been trying to start my mornings with prayer, Bible reading and working out. When I work out, I walk on the treadmill and read a great book, then meditate. It was during this walk, the other day, that I felt inspired, remembering something that my pastor has told me more than once — that Amber has taught me a lot of lessons, so don’t waste them. I decided to write about those lessons and share what I have learned from my precious girl. I know that she taught a lot of people besides me, as well. I remember her papaw, my father-in-law, when he was going through surgery for his heart, said he had better not complain after all Amber had been through with her hip surgeries and body casts and still she managed to have a smile on her face.

One of the most important lessons I, and others, learned from Amber, was how to be helpless. She was helpless. Physically, she relied on someone else to meet her every need. She could not sit, walk or stand, roll over, feed herself, go to the toilet, bathe, turn on the TV, brush her teeth, read or entertain herself. She even had trouble communicating, not being able to talk very easily. When she was younger, that was not such a problem. She didn’t really think about being helpless. Most babies don’t feel self conscious that they need their caregivers for every need.

But, as she grew up, she began to notice. It takes humility to accept that you can do nothing for yourself. Amber had that. But, she also had gratitude. She would say thank you for everything, from me tying her shoe, to people holding doors open for her. She never became angry, or bitter, that she couldn’t do things like other people could. She was happy for what she could do. And, in spite of her daunting physical disabilities, she did a lot. She loved better than anyone. She made people feel important. She listened. And, she was patient. She had to be. She had to wait on someone to help her scratch her nose, rub her legs when she had a cramp, roll her over, give her a drink, etc.

We talked about it sometimes. Thinking about my child’s condition, and discussing things helped me see that we are all just as helpless as Amber. We think we are in control, but we are not. We all depend on others and God (or fate or Providence if you prefer)for everything. We may be able to bring a spoon to our own mouths, and we may be proud of how we can earn a living to make the money to pay for our food and the ability we have to cook, but, without people growing the food, distributing it to where we can get it, making governments and money that put into place our economic system that allows us to exchange money for goods, etc., we would be on our own. And, without a healthy body we wouldn’t be able to even grow food or hunt for what we need.

She taught me how to be humble when I need help, and accept the kindness of strangers without feeling guilty or like a failure because I can’t do everything myself. Nobody can get through this life alone. We might try, but without other people we would have to build our own homes, claim land to build on, perhaps fight for it, grow our own food, etc. And, if we didn’t have sound bodies, good muscles, undamaged brains, we would be in trouble.

Amber had to trust those around her to care for her. She trusted me to keep her safe, give her medicine, hook up her feeding pump so she could be fed, put her favorite TV show on for her to watch, and to read to her at night.

Every morning, I would be awakened pretty early because she never could sleep very late due to pains, her pump needing more formula, etc. I would get up, change her, put on her Walker, Texas Ranger wedding so she could start her day feeling good, and give her her medicine. She took Baclofen for muscle cramps, which was so expensive in liquid form so I would get the pills, crush them, put them in a little water and shoot the mix into her feeding tube. I would also give her allergy medicine this same way, except it came in powder.

I would get her ready for school, and often have to encourage her because she knew that the day would be hard for her physically. She’d be in her wheelchair all day without a break, having to ride the bus to and fro as well. By the time she got home, she was exhausted and sore. We would pray and read the Bible together in the mornings and then, as she was older and heavier, use the Hoyer lift to get her out of bed and into her wheelchair.

We’d go out to the garage to wait for the bus. Daddy had installed peep holes into the door so we could watch for the bus and stay warm enough. In the winter I would bundle her up with a coat that would go on backwards because of her chair, then put a poncho on top of that. People kindly made her ponchos of fleece for warmth. I’d put a blanket on her lap, a hat on her head, mittens on her hands and wrap a scarf around her neck and lower face. By the time I was done, all you could see were her eyes, peering out like a little turtle. But, you could still hear her laugh under all of that stuff.

She laughed a lot. She didn’t let life get her down just because she wasn’t like other people. She knew that nobody was like another person and that we all have our challenges and troubles. She knew that love was the most wonderful thing in the world. And, she knew that if she looked for joy in every day, she would find it, because it is there if we look for it.

She didn’t let being helpless get her down either. After all, she knew that she was not the only one, and she also had perfect faith in the One who holds us all in His hands.

Books I’ve Read

I promised that I would write about the books that have influenced my walk with God and life the most. So, that is what I’m doing. I will share quotes from as many of them as I can. Now, I know these are progressive Christian books, and not everyone will appreciate them. But, I seriously challenge people to give them a try even if they feel that way because I felt the same about them once. Our life grows and gets better when we give ideas a chance, I’ve learned. Of course, maybe that is just me.
One book that challenged me the most when if first came out was Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins.” Now, I know that to some people just the mention of his name sends them running for cover. But, I love this book. It has given me hope and joy and peace. It does not, as some people think, say there is no hell. It does give me peace that Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, and God’s love, is much more than many imagine it to be. One thing he does is go through the gospel and examine the many instances where Jesus told people their sins were forgiven, or that they would be with him in paradise. There is such a variety of ways that people came to him, and still do.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is this: “To say it again, eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life now in connection to God.
Eternal life doesn’t start when we die;
it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

This is such a truth that resonates with me. The rest of the book is equally encouraging and also, in my opinion, biblical.

One of my favorite authors is Rachel Held Evans. I love her blog, her thoughtful, brave, sweet and funny way, and I love her two books, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” and “Evolving in Monkey Town” that was later renamed “Faith Unraveled.”

I had heard about A Year of Biblical Womanhood from a friend. It is Rachel’s experiment in finding out just what “biblical womanhood” is all about. She delves deep into the Proverbs 31 woman, and shows us that this description of a godly woman is not a job description, but a song. Rachel learned from a Jewish woman that those of the Jewish faith do not use this chapter to tell women how to serve their husbands, but it is a song of love that Jewish men sing to their wives. It is praise for a godly woman.

There is so much more to the book, as Rachel follows various dictates that many believe apply to women today. Her journey is not only interesting and funny, but also wise.

Here is a great excerpt:

“There’s a certain security that comes with feelings like you’ve found a magic text, be it authored by Sears, Ezzo, or God Almighty, that tells you exactly when to have children, exactly how to raise them, exactly how to love them, and exactly how to be a good mom… right down to the very last detail. But no such text exists because faith isn’t about having everything figured out ahead of time; faith is about following the quiet voice of God without having everything figured out ahead of time.”

Another book that enlightened me is called “Jesus Feminist” by Sarah Bessey. Now, the word “feminist” raises a lot of defenses and images in people, I know. So does this wonderful, sweet, Canadian author who writes this book with such loving language that I can’t imagine anyone being offended by this book. It is about grace and fairness, love and relationships… and it is beautiful.

Take this quote: “And I want us to talk about this — really talk about womanhood, church, the labels, and where we go from here. Because the vicious arguments, the limits, the you’re- in- but- they’re- out, the debates, and the silencing aren’t working, are they? We have often treated our communities like a minefield, acted like theology is a war, we are the wounded, and we are the wounding.”

And this one: “I’ll be honest: some of the words I have to say might rub you wrong. You might disagree with particulars, but that’s okay — stay with me. Let’s sit here in hard truth and easy beauty, in the tensions of the Now and the Not Yet of the Kingdom of God, and let us discover how we can disagree beautifully.”

And this: “So may there be grace and kindness, gentleness and love in our hearts, especially for the ones who we believe are profoundly wrong.”

And, this: “At the core, feminism simply consists of the radical notion that women are people, too. Feminism only means we champion the dignity, rights, responsibilities, and glories of women as equal in importance–not greater than, but certainly not less than–to those of men, and we refuse discrimination against women.”

Another favorite is the radically different, joyful, foul-mouthed, tattooed, gay-friendly Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber who wrote a book called “Pastrix.” In her autobiography, she writes about being raised in a church where it was taught and believed that women are not allowed to teach men, or even be ushers. Her journey through life, rebelling, becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, trying to find her way, to find peace, to find answers for her questions and her journey to faith is outlined here honestly, sometimes raw, but ultimately grace-filled and triumphant, is refreshing beyond words. She is now the pastor of a wonderful Colorado church called House for All Sinners and Saints, and is a highly-sought after speaker.

She writes, “Sometimes I experience God when someone speaks the truth to me, sometimes in the moments when I admit I am wrong, sometimes in the loving of someone unlovable, sometimes in reconciliation that feels like it comes from somewhere outside of myself, but almost always when I experience God it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection.”

Also, “There’s a popular misconception that religion, Christianity specifically, is about knowing the difference between good and evil so that we can choose the good. But being good has never set me free the way truth has. Knowing all of this makes me love and hate Jesus at the same time. Because, when instead of contrasting good and evil, he contrasted truth and evil, i have to think about all of the times I’ve substituted being good (or appearing to be good) for truth.”

One of the most revolutionary, and biblical, books I’ve read is Brian Zahnd’s “A Farewell to Mars.” In this book, Zahnd talks about how his thinking about empire, the kingdom of God, war and peace were radically challenged by God and changed. He speaks about how Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to bring a new kingdom, His kingdom, to earth, not to endorse the governments and empires of mankind. And, he certainly did not come to be turned into the war god of nation after nation who have used him to justify killing other people in battle. He talks about how Jesus’s political ideas for the world are what made him seem so dangerous to the powers that thought they controlled the world at that time.

And, it talks about how the people who were waiting for a Messiah were not waiting for a Prince of Peace. They were waiting for a king who would help them overthrow their enemies, not die for them, not let himself be weak in order to show the power of love.

One passage of the book that really shook me and stirred me to think in a new way was, “Divorcing Jesus from his ideas — especially divorcing Jesus from his political ideas — has been a huge problem that’s plagued the church from the fourth century onward. The problem is this: when we separate Jesus from his ideas for an alternative social structure, we inevitably succumb to the temptation to harness Jesus to our ideas — thus conferring upon our human political ideas an assumed divine endorsement. With little awareness of what we are doing, we find ourselves in collusion with the principalities and powers to keep the world in lockstep with the ancient choreography of violence, war and death.”

This is getting quite long, and I apologize. I have many other books that have shaped me and stirred me, challenged me and given me joy and peace. Those I won’t bother quoting, but will list, include: “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning, “One Thousand Gifts” by Ann Voskamp, “Surprised by Hope” by N. T. Wright, “Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God,” by Frank Schaeffer, “The Question That Never Goes Away” by Philip Yancey, “Torn” by Justin Lee, and, of course, the Holy Bible. I love anything written by N.T. Wright or Philip Yancey, of course. Other favorite authors are C.S. Lewis, Greg Boyd, Tony Campollo, and Shane Claiborne.

And, these are just the non-fiction books…

Selective Morality

cross on my apartment door
A lot of people say the Lord’s Prayer, but they don’t really mean it. When they say “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” they don’t really think about the words, nor do they actually want them to be true.

If they did, they would submit to God’s ideas about how to live on this earth, including how to care for the poor. When Christians claim our nation is a godly one, and that we need to be guided by biblical principles, they mean they want to tell people not to have sex with people of the same gender and not to have abortions. They mean to kill criminals and hate Muslims. At least that is what some mean, and it is very twisted. Because they definitely ignore the major portions of the New Testament that teaches that to follow Christ is to care for the poor and the “least of these.”

If you want to impose financial compassion upon the citizens of our country and on corporations, then you have gone too far and are now progressive and socialist according to these folks, even though the Bible doesn’t ever say that democracy is godly, and that socialism is evil. So, they really need to stop claiming that they follow the Bible.

When John the Baptist preached in the wilderness, preparing the way for the poor, he told people when they asked what they should do to repent that if they have two coats they need to give one to someone who has none. He told them they should also share their food with the poor as well. He told the tax collectors to no longer cheat anyone and soldiers not to extort money from people.

When Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats, a story about the judgment, he lays down the requirements for calling him Lord and claiming to know Him. He tells one group who calls Him Lord, that He never knew them because they saw him hungry and didn’t feed him, saw him naked and didn’t clothe him, saw him a prisoner and a stranger and didn’t visit him or help him and didn’t help him when he was sick. They ask him when they ever saw him hungry, sick, naked, a prisoner or a stranger and not help him and he tells them that when they failed to do help the least of these, they failed to help him. He tells them to depart from him because he NEVER KNEW THEM. When he sees another group and commends them for helping him when he was hungry, naked, a prisoner, sick or a stranger and they don’t understand, because they’d never seen him in any of these desperate conditions. He tells them when they’ve done it to the least of these, they’ve done it to Him. He tells them welcome and invites them to come in to the glory of God. Here, Jesus was identifying himself with all the groups that many “Christians” today claim they don’t need to help, and that the government especially should not require people to be godly in this way, only when it comes to sexuality and abortion. (By the way, the Bible says very little about abortion).

Jesus also tells a rich man who has followed every commandment that he lacks one thing. He needs to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. The man goes away sad because he can’t do it. This is the state of many Christians today, I think, only we still want to claim godliness.

When the first church was being formed, after the Holy Spirit fell upon the believers at Pentecost, the believers sold all their goods and distributed them evenly among each other so that no one had a need. They had wiped out poverty with their “socialist” kingdom come government. This was biblical government.

Sadly, many Christians today want to claim morality and godliness, superiority even, in their political beliefs, but their hearts are very far from God. Their claims are hollow, shallow and false. Nobody is perfect, true enough. I make mistakes every day.

The question is, are we open to the teaching and leading of God’s Holy Spirit and the living and written Word of God? Or, are we clinging to false gods of greed and self-righteousness, blind to the fact that we are not at all following Christ like we think we are? I certainly hope that when my judgment comes, I will hear God welcome me as a good and faithful servant, having cared for Christ in the least of these, and that I don’t have to hear the chilling words, “Depart from me you evildoer, for I never knew you.”

Biblical references: Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 2:43-45, Acts 4:32-37, Mark 10:17-22

My Faith Journey

I have been asked by someone who has had a different faith journey, and who has come to different conclusions about what Scriptures say, to write about how I have come to the place I have. I was reluctant to do so, not because I’m ashamed of what I think, or how I got here. Far from it. But, I was reluctant because he also wanted to share his with me and somehow that felt as if he really wanted to try to convince me he was right. That exercise is not something I am interested in doing, because I know that where I am is where I am supposed to be. Nobody is going to convince me otherwise, unless it is God, through the Spirit and through teachings of people that I know and respect enough to listen to.

I started life in an Army hospital when dad was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. My first attendance at church was 11 days later. From then on, I attended with my family, who eventually picked up two more girls, every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and midweek services.

We were Wesleyans from way back, at least as far as my grandparents and probably back a bit further. Wesleyans were known for “holiness” in my hometown, where we eventually settled, in Marion, Indiana, where my folks and their families were from.

Wesleyans didn’t smoke, drink or swear. And, many of them also refrained from dancing, playing cards, going to movies, listening to music that wasn’t church music (especially not Rock and Roll), wearing red, wearing jewelry, etc. Women wore dresses and long hair done up in buns on top of their heads.

In spite of how strange this seems to many people, not all were this strict, and I don’t remember anyone preaching about the evils of wearing red or dancing. It was just a way of life for many, so they could keep themselves from becoming “worldly.”

Wesleyans also were abolitionists of both alcohol and slavery. They had once been Methodists but split from the Methodist church over the issue of slavery and many of them helped run the Underground Railroad, which went through my hometown. The Wesleyan college I attended, which was a place many in my family also graduated from, had places to hide runaway slaves. One of them was the house used as the English department that we called Century Hall. I was an English major and spent a lot of time in that building and went down to the basement to see where the false walls were for hiding people.

You see, I come from a long line of rebels. They not only rebelled against the world and its ways, but they rebelled against the laws of slavery. All in all, it is not a bad place for a little girl to start out.

When I was high school age, my family changed churches, though stuck with the same denomination. The church I grew up in had mostly older people as members and my mom and dad thought we needed to find a church with a good youth group. We switched our membership to a church with a vibrant youth group and I really grew in my faith. I had accepted Jesus as my Savior as a little girl at my kitchen table after thinking about some things my Sunday School teacher had said.But, my childlike faith needed to be nurtured and grow. It needed to be relevant to my life.

We had some wonderful youth leaders and kids in that group. We became very close and loved each other tremendously, as we attended a yearly youth camp in the summer. It was a Mennonite camp in Michigan called Miracle Camp. There, we had so much fun playing games and sports, water skiing in the beautiful lake there, and having services that helped us go deeper in our walk with God. We shared with each other where we were struggling and we prayed for each other and encouraged each other in these struggles.I remember once confessing to some of the kids that I truly struggled with hating myself. They gave me loving words,hugs and prayers. It was a special moment. I got baptized in that cold Michigan Lake one morning and it was such a meaningful time.

I credit this church, and my family, with helping me to love God, to know the Bible, and to learn how to care for others. But, no human institution is ever perfect and my questioning mind was stirred over the subject of racial prejudice that I felt passionately was wrong, but seemed to be accepted by members of the church, some of them in leadership positions. I also noticed how wealthy many of us were, but I noticed that there were people in our town who lived in poverty. My mother was a first grade teacher in a school in town where the poor kids lived. I had seen them, worked with them in the Summer helping with Head Start, and they stirred my heart. I was an idealist, mom said. I wanted the church to be an example of love to people who were hurting.

In my conservative Christian college, I started to learn about politics and current issues. I learned about abortion, something I had not a clue about before. I began to believe that it was a great evil, that unborn, innocent babies were being killed for no real reason I could see. To me, this was a startling injustice. When I turned 18, I was proud to vote for Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan. And, for most of my adult life, I voted for Republicans for president, feeling as if they were the ones who followed the Bible and were godly people.

When the issue of homosexuality first came to my attention, it seemed like a strange and unnatural thing. I felt, like many other Christians, that it was a choice people made and a wrong one at that. I did not hate anyone, I simply thought they were misguided and I felt we must protect our nation from this sinful lifestyle.

Yet, all this while, while my brain felt secure in its ways of thinking, my heart was stirring with compassion for people. In high school, I stood up for people who were teased for being “queer” and also for African American kids who were bullied and insulted regularly.

When I joined the Army, I was so glad to get away from home, where I felt prejudice was rampant. I wanted to get to know people who were different than me and the Army was a perfect place for that. Even though I had a degree in English, I never wanted to be a teacher. My passion was for writing. I had gotten married to my high school sweetheart, and we had joined together. The Army had journalists and I was intrigued by that possibility.

I went to Basic Training and then to Advanced Individual Training at the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. In journalism school, which is the Military Occupational Specialty I was in, I attended classes with military members from all services. It is where I first became aware that I was friends with a few homosexual men. There were rumors swirling about a few of them, but I didn’t listen to them. I felt a person’s sexual identity was personal, and that it shouldn’t be gossiped about. I felt like if these guys wanted to let me know about their sexuality, they would tell me, otherwise it was not my business. They were people, that’s all I knew or cared about. I saw their struggles and my heart was moved.

I had actually known other homosexuals, but I just had been too naive to know it at the time. My own aunt was a lesbian, and looking back I remembered that she had tried to marry a man once and this union lasted only a week. I remember her anger and pain directed at my mom over things they had gone through as kids. It was a painful thing.

Through the years as a soldier, then a civilian contract journalist with the Army, I began to meet and know many types of people from all different backgrounds. God was leading me. I had given birth to a daughter with disabilities due to premature birth and brain bleeding. I had gone through a divorce. And, I was in a place where I was desperate for the healing God could give me. I was open, because of my personal pain, to him leading me in new ways. It was during this time that God led me to become friends with a woman who is a Wiccan. I learned so much from this experience. It opened my eyes to just how much God loves everyone, even people who we’ve been taught are our enemies.

She was kind enough to accept me, as conservative as I still was, even though she was liberal and not a Christian. She respected me and I respected her. God showed me that all he wanted me to do was love her so she’d know He loved her too.

Later, as God graciously healed my marriage and my daughter and I were reunited with my husband, I became involved with Kenzer and Company. I started to help my husband with his magazine, Knights of the Dinner Table. He had begun doing the comic of B.A., Bob, Dave, Brian and Sara and later many more characters, in our on-post bedroom at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and I had helped him with the magazine they were in, Shadis magazine.

Now, here we were, back together after some tough years. It was a miracle and we were so happy. When we moved to the Chicago area to be closer to his partners, it was scary, but ended up being a fantastic thing. Amber and I found a church near us, a Lutheran church, where the pastor’s daughter befriended her. It was a true blessing.

When we moved again, after Kenzer and Company got offices in Waukegan, 26 miles north of where we had lived before in Arlington Heights, I could no longer go to the church I had grown to love for four years, very easily. The drive was too much for Amber to really be comfortable with, being expected to sit for the drive and the service and the drive home. So, we stopped going very much. We had church in her bedroom together. School had taken a lot out of her by that time. She’d had many hip surgeries over the years and sitting for that long of a time was not easy for her. But, she was a trooper and did her best. We had some precious times reading the Bible together, praying, singing, listening to services on the radio.

During this time, God had prompted me to get involved online with the forums for Kenzer and Company. I had not wanted to do this, since I was sort of scared of the entire internet thing. I had heard about online drama that I wanted no part of. But, with prompting from the Holy Spirit, I ventured into it and it was here that I got to know people from all over the world and with many differing viewpoints. It was a learning experience, and it was at times challenging, as it should be.

I got to know some people who were gay, through these forums, and we became close. They poured out their hearts to me and I truly struggled with how to be friends with them and true to God at the same time. I felt as if the Bible told me to let them know they were wrong, but my heart wouldn’t let me do that. I’m so glad now that this was true. I truly began to wrestle with this issue in my heart, praying, weeping, reading everything I could. It was then I learned that a Christian singer I admired, Ray Boltz, had “come out of the closet” as a homosexual, and so did Jennifer Knapp, another Christian singer I liked.

I started to read about their stories, their struggles, and how hostile Christians had been to them, telling them they’re going to hell, and boycotting their shows. I started to realize that these people still loved God. They were just gay. I found out that there were many gay Christians. I also read online about the struggles many homosexuals and others in the LGBQT community had with faith and the stories I read were heartbreaking. I read about how Elton John’s partner, the son of a pastor, had killed himself because the pain in his life was just so great.

It’s hard to accurately describe how my convictions changed, but really it all came about by prayer. I was more and more being convinced that I had not been right in my previous interpretation of Scripture, and in the knowing of God’s heart for people of all types, especially LGBQT folks. I started to see that Scripture can be interpreted many ways, and that people’s interpretations can be fallible. I began to learn that the Holy Spirit has to lead us in interpretation, and that this is how such things as anti-slavery work has been embraced by the church, even though Scripture does not blatantly ever say that slavery is wrong. In fact, on the surface, it seems to condone slavery and was used by slave-owners for many years, to justify their ownership of other people.

I began to read Christian authors who interpret scripture more compassionately, and just as biblically, if not more so, than people who see homosexuality as wrong and sinful. As I read the stories of gay Christians, and how they had to struggle to come to peace with who God made them, and figure out how to live in a world that seems to reject them, I was convicted that the Holy Spirit is leading me, and others, to the heart of Jesus for all people. I can now see that God loves and accepts people even if we do not. But, it is doing so much harm for the church to continue hardline stances against homosexuality when there is so much evil in the world, and these folks need to be a part of us. I understand the misguided notion that scripture condemns homosexuality, just like it seems to condone slavery. But, I can no longer buy into that way of thinking.

It was when Amber died that I was most shaken in my walk with God, and became most open to the Spirit of God leading me to new ways of thinking. You see, the intense and unbearable pain of losing my only child, made my heart long to find the real Jesus. I needed something real in my life. I needed something I could lean on that was stripped away of all pretense and B.S.

When my friend’s son committed suicide just two months after my own child passed away, I began to be open to learning more about what happens to non-believers when they die. I could no longer embrace the hardline that every person who hasn’t prayed the sinners prayer before they die is going to hell. That harsh, but seemingly biblical belief, just could not bring comfort to me or my friend.

I hungrily read Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins,” a book that at one time, I had rejected because I felt it was unbliblical. When I actually read the book, I saw that the ideas expressed in it were all based in Scripture, I was filled with joy. He is counted a heretic by many Christians, but many embrace his ideas, and I am one of them.

The one scripture I keep falling back on is the one that tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. It is Romans 12:2 and it says, “Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God…”

I feel like anyone who is not willing to let their ideas and interpretations about Scripture, Truth and God be challenged and examined, is in danger of being wrong their entire lives. I am now thoroughly convinced that learning is essential to a right walk with God, and that fear of outsiders and of different ideas, is wrong.

This is my faith journey, and I am thankful because I live in peace with God and man, and I have joy in the freedom I now walk in with God. He is healing me, he is leading me, and I feel stronger and more alive than ever before. Praise be to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit now and forever.

Death Who Are You?

My idea of Heaven

My idea of Heaven

Not long ago I was in a conversation with my pastor and I mentioned that I was not afraid of death because being with Amber would be wonderful. She winced and said she didn’t want me to denigrate the life I have now due to grief. She told me that I have a lot to offer the world and she challenged me to learn from Amber’s life and to love myself as much as I love Amber. She also gave me an assignment, to write about Death, and what I think about it. So, here I go. Quite a cheerful subject, eh?

Death Who Are You?

You are a curse, separating me from the one I love,
and I despise you.
Yet, you have been defeated, and so I know
that my grief is not without this hope.
Death, your sting is gone,
but a dull ache is still here.
It is the ache of longing,
and yet, I feel her here still.
The death of Death at the hands of God Incarnate
means that her spirit is as alive now
as it ever was.
Perhaps it is even more alive now.
Where she lived in a broken body,
she now lives free and without pain.
Where she was tied down to a chair here on Earth,
she soars now free of all fetters.
I am happy for her, and I still know she’s with me.
So, why do I let Death fool me?
It is a cruel thing, that is sure.
It mocks and sends me visions of loss
that haunt my dreams and sap my strength.
I buy into its lies that say she’s gone from my life.
I need reminded that she’s really not dead at all.
Her body is gone, but her spirit lives on.
And, someday, I will be in her presence again.
But, for now, I smile when I think of her.
And, sometimes, I cry.
Death has left an empty bed
and silenced the laughter from my home.
But, it doesn’t have the final word.
For, she needs no hospital bed now.
And, her laughter rings out in the songs
of the birds and in my memory.
I sing with her many praises
and smile when I know that she sees
how I dance in my funny way
at our favorite songs.
Death, you are not the end.
Your horrors are not here.
They’ve been buried beneath a cross.
That is your final resting place.
I embrace life that goes on and on.
Amber is not gone.
Death where is your victory?

Logan’s Party

My grandmother used to bake wedding cakes, and she baked the best birthday cakes ever. This is one of mine.

My grandmother used to bake wedding cakes, and she baked the best birthday cakes ever. This is one of mine.

Today is the birthday of one sweet guy, a friend from long ago, named Logan Opsahl. We were friends when he was 8 and I was 30 something. Now, even though he’s not on Earth now, I think I feel that he is probably celebrating along with a famous person who shares his birthday, Elvis Presley!

I can see it now — Blue Suede Shoes ringing through Heaven, a big cake, or maybe a banana cream pie, angels dancing, and Logan taking it all in, maybe telling a few jokes in his wry, special way. Presents? Since this is my imagination of the possibilities, I’m thinking that Elvis gives Logan a pink Cadillac and Logan gives Elvis a boxed set of DVDs, maybe Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which I seem to remember he liked), or a horse.

Logan and Elvis will blow out the candles and make a wish. Logan’s wish will have something to do with wanting his loved ones to be happy and blessed. Elvis’ wish will be similar. They both wish for peace on Earth, and that justice is done for people who need it most. I know they both had very big hearts.

I’m sure that they both hope that all of us left here in this life will live whatever time we have left to the fullest. I’m sure that Amber would be in on the festivities. After all, she’d been part of Logan’s parties before and he’d been part of hers.

I never will forget the bowling party we had for her one year, and Logan and Freya were there to help her celebrate. So, I think Amber would be at Logan’s party now, and Elvis too. Amber is a music lover, you see.

I guess one reason I’m imagining this party is because I don’t want to think of this day as anything somber, even though this wonderful young man is missed. I’m sure Elvis is missed as well. But, I wanted to think of all of the joyful possibilities for him, because I love him and he made life better for a lot of people. I imagine that he is happy now, in his quiet, sweet and charming way.

I wanted to write this also to give his mom, my sweet friend Tess, a fun picture to think about today, in case her heart gets heavy with the same kind of ache I get when Amber’s birthday rolls around. I want her to laugh a bit, and think about how great it might be for Elvis and Logan to be hanging out together, shooting pool maybe, having a laugh together and smiling down on her today.

Happy Birthday, Logan.

The Second Week is Tough

I was pretty gung-ho about the new year a few days ago. I felt all-powerful and ready with a bright future ahead. Already, however, (if I am to be honest) 2015 is starting to feel like a drag.

When the euphoria of newness has begun to fade and the blush is gone from the rose, that is when the work begins. It is a time for persistence, a trait I feel I lack an abundance of. Yet, maybe it isn’t about feelings at all.

In the Bible (2 Cor. 5:7) it says we walk by faith, not by sight. That can be interpreted many ways, I’m sure, and it is part of a larger thought. But, for me, I have thought of it this way (and I don’t think I am alone). I think it means, at least in part, that God’s truth and love are constant and can be counted on, no matter what I see, no matter how I feel.So, too are his promises that I am more than a conqueror, and that he will never leave me or forsake me. So, we don’t live by how we feel, but what we know is true, at least those of us who try to follow God. Feelings change, nano-second by nano-second. One moment, I see my husband and feel as if he is the greatest man who ever lived. The next moment, I’m perturbed at him for something minor, like putting trash in the recycling bin. No matter how I feel moment by moment, however, I knew I love him and that isn’t dependent on how I feel in any given moment or situation. If it is, then, it isn’t really love at all.

So, though I feel like giving up on working to achieve my goals, because my lazy body wants to sit on the couch and sleep, I know that I really do want to improve my life and health, and that won’t magically happen. I have to work for it.

With that said, I have decided to write this as an after-New Year’s pep talk and you’ve been included in this. So, “go, me!” “Go, you!” “We can do it if we do not give up!” “We are not in this thing alone!” “We are able! We are champions!” “Go, team!”

The rewards will be well worth the effort — even better than eating that second bowl of ice cream. “Now, put down that spoon, me and get back on that treadmill!”