Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Gilead's Balm

Sometimes we come suddenly face-to-face with our own brokenness, and it's as though we could feel its seams like the raised skin of a scar beneath our fingertips, and we are only too aware that we cannot heal ourselves.

There is a song that I like for such days. 

There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

Sometimes I get discouraged
And feel my hope's in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

If you can't preach like Peter,
If you can't pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus
And that He died for all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Poem Written Long Ago in a Legal Pad on an Occasion I No Longer Remember

Mantengo mi silencio come la nieve
Que cierra las montaƱas
Una belleza escondida, tranquila, olvidada
La belleza de monjas rezando
Es mi silencio
Mi silencio una pregunta, una duda, un pacto
Mi silencio mantengo

(I keep my silence like the snow
That closes the mountains
A beauty hidden, still, forgotten
The beauty of nuns at prayer
Is my silence
My silence, a question, a doubt, a covenant
I keep my silence.)

Friday, October 17, 2008

In Defense of Fake Cheese

I believe that Kraft macaroni ‘n cheese is good for you – or, at least, it’s not going to kill you tomorrow. Here’s why: I have two sisters, and when we were growing up, my mom sustained us on a relativelt healthy diet, punctuated with our favorite stop-gaps: Bisquick pancakes, beef-flavored Top Ramen, and, yes, Kraft macaroni ‘n cheese. I still remember the royal blue cardboard box. The noodles, innocuous enough, had a semolina base. To the boiled noodles you added milk and butter, but the true magic lay in the cheese packet. You ripped open the package with your teeth, and out came a clump of powder glorious to behold, better to taste. God only knows what the fine folks at Kraft put in their fake cheese (fire hydrant paint, from the color of it). Whatever plants or animals it came from originally, upon consumption it was processed, hydrogenated, and emulsified into a vegan’s nightmare. Paradise on a plate. Julia Childs it wasn’t, but it filled me up, and the preparation was simple enough for me to slay my third-grader hunger until dinner time.
Many would gainsay me, among them, presumably, the designers of the food pyramid and legions of parents. I see their point. I’ve downed my share of square meals, and I like it when my food has ingredients I can pronounce. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are massive health care concerns, and they must be addressed with improvements to our overall lifestyles. But I think, sometimes and in some places, we’ve gone over the edge. I have seen juice cups wrested from the hands of babes. I encounter parents in the aisles of the supermarket, angst-ridden over the choice between seven-grain Kashi crackers and organic carrot sticks. Don’t we have enough to feel guilty over? Aren’t their enough menaces to truth, justice, and the American way with finding them in the peanut butter jar?
My sisters and I have grown into intelligent, active, cancer-free adults. The occasional enjoyment of fake cheese did not permanently stunt our development, but we might well stunt the rising generation in more grievous ways if we expend our energy on minor battles instead of major challenges. A warming planet will kill us. Multi-resistant TB will kill us. Wars of religion and ideology and oil will kill us. Give the mac ‘n cheese a break.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Cute or Stupid?

Every now and then, I walk up to one of my female friends  and ask, "Cute or stupid?" 

It began as a habit with my sisters. I like to play around with my clothes, my make-up, my hair. Try new ensembles. California is kind to that sort of thing, I suppose, but my judgment in fashion is far from impeccable, so I often approached either of my sisters - both far beyond me in taste, and asked, "Is this cute or stupid?" Had I gone beyond the bounds of good taste? Would the soccer moms tsk-tsk me in the produce section? Would the cheerleaders turn their upturned noses up further than normal? I did it often enough that I could barge into either of their bedrooms and announce, "I need a cute-or-stupid check," to get a final verdict on my way out the door. I could trust them. They loved me; they would not ridicule me, but neither would they, for the mere sake of my feelings, let me walk out the door looking like a train-wreck.

("Almost a month without a blog," you protest, "and this is what we get? The cute-or-stupid checks?" Bear with me, gentle reader. I promise I'm going somewhere.)

A week ago, I spent three days in the woods near Goshen, Virginia for the annual IJM staff retreat. I went for long runs on the misty mornings through stands of pine that favor the sandy soil. I went to bed tired and achy, halfway toasted from a bonfire, hoarse from singing the choruses to songs written before I was born. I slept out under Orion and the Seven Sisters and woke up cold and covered in dew. That was all better than good, but it was not the best.

Every year, IJM studies a spiritual discipline. This year's theme is rest. It's self-consciously ironic; you'd be hard pressed, on any given Monday, to find a more hard-core group of Type-A personalities congregated under a single roof than the staff of International Justice Mission. But, irony acknowledged, we went out of the city for three days, reading and praying and singing about the Fourth Commandment and its application to our complex and demanding existence.

Much of the talking centered around the rhythm of Sabbath. Every seven days, God says, stop what you are doing. Take off your yoke, acknowledge me, and just do nothing. Why seven? It seems arbitrary. 

Mark Labberton, the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley, was our guest speaker for the retreat. Mark suggested that the length of time was indeed arbitrary, but that the arbitrariness itself was significant. "God puts us on a leash. I don't think we can go any longer," Mark mused, "before we start to forget which one of us is God, and which of us is not."

I came away with many new truths to cobble into my daily life, but this one has been particularly resurgent. The sabbath is not just a cessation of work, nor a mere dutiful, religious observance. Like my silly cute-or-stupid checks, the sabbath is a reality check. Sabbath is an invitation to remember that I am human - neither more nor less. 

I am not God; therefore, if I stop working, the world will go on spinning. And though I am not God, I am still God's; therefore, I have the responsibility to be no less than what I was made to be, "a little lower than the angels." The life I lead I live not for my own gain, or for ends beneath my heavenward calling, but for His pleasure and glory. If I can, every seven days, remember these things, I am markedly less likely to get myself in a fix. I can focus on being fully and merely a creature of God, with all the glory and blissful smallness that entails. 

Sabbath is, in these respects, like looking into the loving eyes of my sisters and saying, "How am I doing? Is this working? Have I gone beyond myself again?" It's just that here, the stakes are far higher.