Sunday, December 19, 2010

Humbug

This year doesn't feel like Christmas. Not a whit. Not a bit. Not a jot. I've been to no parties. I've baked no gingerbread. I've neither strung lights nor rung bells nor sung carols. (And I do love to belt out 'Joy to the World').

We started out this holiday season poorly. Thanksgiving passed unobserved. Instead of the planned repast at my in-laws' Atlanta home, we caught an emergency flight to Boston and rushed to the bedside of my brother-in-law, diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. We prayed and we cried and we talked about anything we could think of to ease the tension of waiting. When dinnertime came, he ate slices of turkey and cranberry relish from a hospital tray. Later on, I excused myself down to the chapel and cried for my new brother and for all the hurts summoned by a hospital room. We were offered leftovers by dear, kind friends around 11 o'clock on that Thanksgiving night, but I was carsick and could not eat it. I fell asleep on their living room sofa. The next day I watched my mother-in-law weep great hot tears that fell on the cover of a leather Bible and wipe them on the bedsheets so that no one would see. But friend after friend like came a steady river, beseeching Heaven for healing. And there was laughter in that room, and kind words and embraces, and in that room Christ was with us.

After several days at the hospital, we returned home to northern Virginia, but only to pack up our apartment and move across town in freezing cold weather. We were joined in this effort with by friends that I think ought to be canonized, though one of them rejoined that he would have to die first, so would I kindly not rush the business. We missed that Sunday service, the second of Advent, rushing to scrub the dirt and grime from our old apartment. But as our friends helped us move, Christ was with us.

The following Sunday, it was my turn to work in the nursery. It was the Lessons and Carols service, one of my favorite services of the year. It's a time of lit candles and holy words and lovely songs, a reverent ushering in of the Christ child. So I was feeling perhaps a little curmudgeonly as I sat down in the basement with the goldfish crackers ground into the carpet while my husband went up into the pews. But then the two- and three-year-olds built a cake for Jesus out of building blocks and crayons and Scotch tape, and they sang 'Happy Birthday' to the infant Savior out of tune and out of rhythm. And I held in my arms the softness of a little baby boy who clung to my hands, and I stopped minding quite so much. And as the children sang, Christ was with us.

And the week after that, I went outside and waited for my bus to come. It never came. I stood for an hour in a five-degree wind chill, stamping my feet to keep them alive. Two days later I came down with a flu that has kept me housebound for the better part of a week. I missed church again, and with it my last chance this year to sing carols in the dear brick church where my husband and I were married. But it snowed. It snowed a soft, fine, bright shawl over the cold ground, as though to remind the world that its sorrow and sinning shall not stand forever. And I sat and drank the soup my husband brought home for me, and I watched the bits of whiteness fall. And in this apartment with its towers of half-filed cardboard boxes, Christ is with me.

And so, you see, this Advent, we have had none of that expansive joviality (aided, perhaps, by a mug of mulled wine) that Christmas seems to warrant. But then, we have had family, and friends, and the most angelic of choirs. We've had snow outside these walls and love within them. We have had the the dearest of all messages that Christmas brings: that now we have Christ with us always.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The End of the Story

Think about the favorite, well-thumbed book of your childhood. Your Lord of the Rings. Your Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Your Gospel of Luke. Let it be to you whichever volume you kept under your pillow and read furtively with the lamp turned low past bedtime, while with one ear you listened for your mother’s tread upon the landing.

If you take any of those stories in the middle, you find a situation past resolution, the hero in the clutches of the dragon and the lovers sundered forever by their parents’ decree. The pierced Savior sleeps entombed and the disciples tremble in the basement. All is lost.

But even as children we somehow knew that stories could not end that way. Armed with that blessed assurance we slogged expectantly through pages of despair and defeat, onto the peace, love, and victors’ bliss that awaited us in the last chapter.

Twenty six years into my life, I believe that our lives are stories that have not yet reached their final chapters.
I believe that the passages of tedium, defeat, and sorrow will find their place in the purpose of the years.
I believe that the fruitless hours spent waiting in the cold, the painful accidents of chance, and the rout of our bodies by cancer and age and long hard use will prove all along to have fit into the Potter’s palms.
I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the live everlasting.
I believe in the end of the story.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Poems for Jesus: Things Born

‘Neath the ice there lies, hidden from my eyes,
A brightness now dormant and dimmed.
In the deep, cold ground, far from sight and sound,
Waits a tulip with scarlet brimmed.

Never I hear in the wood dead and drear
The life that is raging within
The sap in the bough that flows even now
And promises leaves for the spring.

As the old year wanes and the new one gains
But the nights stay long and dark
Who’d ever guess that the brightest and best
Of the seasons now comes with the lark?

And beneath my skin there’s a soul grown thin
On the meager feasts of earth
But beyond this strife I will yet find Life
At my new and second birth.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Untitled

Inspired by Antoine Saint-Exupery, author of Wind, Sand and Stars



The hiker ascending Costa Rica’s Rincón de la Vieja, an active volcano east of Golfo de Papagayo, climbs 5,000 feet and passes through several ecosystems. First, near the entrance to the park, the forest spills over the footpath in a restless green vandalism. You see the horde of tree and fern sucking at the rich, moist soil and stripping from the sunlight all its effulgence. In the gloom breathes an armored blue iguana, invisible until it moves, like a thousand turquoise stones organized suddenly under a primary volition. Farther up the hiker meets a cold mist, and trees cowering away from a firm down-slope wind. Every few hundred yards the ground rises more steeply. At each switchback, the vegetation grows up from the thin, stony soil more dwarfish and hardy. At last there mounts up into the white mist, scoured by the wind, a trackless pate of gray and broken rock.
This afternoon, with my husband of six days, I climb over and under downed trees. For several days, the park closed as high winds uprooted trees and felled thick limbs, but today is calm. There is something foreboding in the stillness of the green canopy, where so recently the violence of the wind brought the dumb trees to a pitched and groaning battle. We walk through a world muffled and tangled, a world secretive to strangers.
The secrets of these volcanic forests include pools of bubbling, breathing mud and, higher up, ancient craters scalloped from the heights in eruptions of fire and ash. In the vanishing views offered by the shifting mist, the water-filled craters appear from above as smooth and luminous as the faces of cut gems; the crater walls seems to drop into them as if in homage to beauty, and from their hot, acidic surfaces steam rises toward the cooler mist. When the volcano last erupted, it rained plumes of mineral-rich ash down upon its flanks. Now insects unknown to science hum and bore into the wind-felled trees. A delicate biology thrives improbably upon the marriage of wind, water, and fire, not unlike man holed up in his pockets of civilation.
In the middle of the forest a single ficus tree with two interlocking trunks has grown high into the canopy and deep into the earth. It gathers into its trunks all it can of sunlight, rain, and nutrients. It draws us to it to itself to marvel and gape. It is a kind of forest deity, the two-in-one god. Locals call it Los Gemelos, or The Twins.
Near The Twins we hear a large party of Costa Ricans descending the trail. They round a bend, and we see them. Their eyes are round and vanquished.
“Turn back!” they say to us, who would venture. “Turn back, because the trees are down, and the way is slick, so you cannot pass.”
Having come so far, however, my husband wants to continue. We gamble that we are tougher than those that the crater has turned back, a family party with an old man amongst them. So I follow my husband over the raspy girths of downed trees, through the damp softness of muddy earth, behind the opacity of emerald curtains.
Finally, after hiking for several hours toward the summit, we cross above the last of the big trees. We see where we have come. A bird rides the air currents down to the dry, golden plain of Guanacaste. A gulley, carpeted with green, passes away to the east.
 Above the trees grow only stunted shrubs with oar-shaped leaves. The earth is pink as a blood-soaked napkin, and fissured by a muddy watercourse which we traverse slowly, marking off the yards in roots for grasping. Slick ledges for toes. We make halting progress. Streaked with earth, I nearly cease to believe in the warm, humid, arboreal tent and sweet, loamy footpaths of this morning, effaced as they are by the chill, eager billows of descending cloud.
We rise up to the lip of the crater where nothing grows. It is a trackless, lunar ground, the unfriendly slope of a perfect cone. The wind has become a personal malevolence, and it hurls itself across the ground with a force I have never felt outside of a hurricane. Its noise rises like a pained cry and falls like stitches are being ripped from a garment. I halt and double over, afraid that if I stand up the wind will get a firm enough hold to toss me off its hip.  My husband leans into the slope above me, zigzagging between rocks. Every several paces he stretches a long-fingered hand to the loose ground, as if ascertaining the reality of the earth in a dreamscape. He turns to look for me. The mist passes before him. Obscures him. He calls something that the wind carries away, so that his voice sounds to my left instead of above me. I hesitate, then struggle up to where he waits for me. We brace ourselves together against a fresh lash of wind. His thick hair flattens over his brow with the gust, and I laugh.
We are here on the edge of the cold, white abyss beyond the trees and all wise admonitions. All this whiteness! The cloud has erased everything, and there are no longer in the world any signs of life, of green, or warmth. There is only me and the man I said vows to at a church six days ago, who is still nearly a stranger. And there is our mysterious covenant to conquer this whiteness, and not to be plucked from it. How naked and doomed and brave now seems the pact between us, set down in a world that will never in truth offer us more clarity and hospitality than this cold and truncated circle! From whence will we draw the strength to arise from our isolation day after day and go to succor each other? The vows he and I have repeated seem but fragile links forged in a tender hour: a wind could tear them up, a fire burn them. Now we have climbed up above our heedlessness.
Yet we are together now. Somehow because of that sole fact I am not afraid. Together we dare the fierce wind and the white cloud and the universe to sunder us if they can. We may thrive improbably against all the violence. This absurdity and this unquenchable comfort are in my laughter hunched over on the rough, sliding stones. I read in the curve of my husband’s answering smile a similar exhilaration, a secret to bear down between us through the forest and among the habitations of men. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Helping Hounds

His eyes concealed behind dark sunglasses, Chris Goehner walks into a restaurant in Washington, D.C., shadowed by his service dog, Pelé. When Chris sits, the large, sunny-coated retriever curls up on top of his feet. The restaurant employees notice Pelé and assume that Chris cannot see—until they spy him typing text messages on his cell phone.

Chris is not blind. He returned from military service in Iraq with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious anxiety disorder triggered by traumatic events. Pelé, trained by a special group of inmates in New York, helps Chris cope with the otherwise crippling effects of his condition.

Invisible Battle Scars

Chris comes from a small, closely knit community in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley. Eighteen days after his high school graduation, he enlisted in the Navy. Though his grandmother offered to pay for college, “I felt like I could do something better,” says Chris. “I could do something more.”

He received training as a medic and served two tours of duty. On the second tour, Chris worked at a base 30 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital. At all hours of the day and night, wounded soldiers arrived by truck, helicopter, or tank. “If you’ve seen the TV show M.A.S.H.,” remembers Chris, “it was pretty much like that.”

In 2005 a suicide bomber destroyed a bus near the base. A young boy wandered into the field hospital with a severe shrapnel wound.

“Boy walked in,” shudders Chris. “Not crying. Not screaming. Not blood everywhere. He moved his hand. Moved his bandage. And you could see right into his abdomen . . . You remember that stuff.”

Now, when Chris sees his young nephew, the image of the wounded Iraqi child comes rushing back.

Chris left Iraq in March 2006. Though he had left danger behind, normal events unsettled him. Fireworks caused a panic. Loud noises irritated him. Many nights, he lay awake for hours. When he did drift into sleep, he would wake from a nightmare covered in sweat. When suicidal thoughts plagued his mind, he decided to seek professional help. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

A psychologist prescribed medication to treat Chris’s anxiety and insomnia, but the young veteran still suffered. Though bright and articulate, he struggled in school, as though he had forgotten how to learn. He tried to find simple work in a hospital emergency room, but even with all his experience, no one would hire him.

Chris’s relationships suffered, too. Acquaintances judged him for serving in a controversial war. Old friends misunderstood him. His marriage, too, became a casualty. Nervous in public and distrustful of strangers, Chris turned inward.

Finding Help

A turning point came when Chris learned about Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), founded by New York resident Gloria Gilbert Stoga in 1997. Under this innovative program, now active in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, inmates volunteer to raise and train puppies. With careful instruction from inmates and PBB’s staff instructors, the canines grow up to become guide dogs for the blind, bomb-sniffing dogs for law enforcement, and life-changing companions for veterans like Chris.

Pelé, who was born in 2008 and named after the Brazilian soccer legend, was raised by inmates at Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison in New York. Pelé lived with inmates 24 hours a day. In addition to normal obedience training, Pelé learned specific commands that would help him serve a veteran. He learned to “block,” or stand close to his handler and keep strangers at a distance, and he learned to “pop a corner,” or go ahead of his handler to check for danger.

Pelé and Chris finally met in November 2009, when Chris traveled to New York to receive a service dog from PBB. Before Chris could take Pelé home with him, though, he also had to go to prison and meet the inmates who raised Pelé. Never having been to prison before, Chris was nervous. To prepare himself, he watched every prison show on television, and his tension mounted. He expected to find scary cliques of tattooed, muscle-bound toughs in the prison yard.

Instead, he found a clean, well-kept facility with inmates who were “nice and respectful.” Some had also served in the military.

The inmates who had raised Pelé sat down with Chris to help him understand his dog’s personality. And they shared some of their own struggles, chief among them the difficulty of reintegrating into a society that judged their past and ignored their contributions, like raising Pelé.

Although Chris realizes the obvious differences between serving time in prison and serving in the military, he empathized with their struggle to reintegrate. Wow, he thought when he heard the inmates’ stories, that’s kind of like getting out of the military!

A New Life

Pelé has made an enormous difference in Chris’s life. Chris no long suffers from nightmares, because Pelé jumps onto the bed and licks his face. Chris finds it easier to control his temper, because Pelé tugs on his sleeve when he raises his voice. Chris has stopped taking five of his psychiatric medications, and he has the confidence to venture into public. Together, Chris and Pelé have been to the White House, Las Vegas, and the inside of the Hoover Dam. Pelé even provides an easy conversation-starter when Chris meets strangers, and he is learning how to trust people again.

He also wants to help others like himself. Recently Chris worked for a senator on the Veterans Affairs Committee, helping to write a Senate resolution clarifying the rights of PTSD-affected veterans with service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Chris and other veterans are not the only ones to benefit from Puppies Behind Bars. Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the organization’s founder, says that inmates who participate also reap rewards.

“They learn compassion,” she explains, “and also increased self-esteem. They learn that they can undertake something difficult and succeed.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

From the Archives: 2008

C.S. Lewis has written that raw kindness does not care so much whether its object becomes good or bad, but only that it does not suffer. God sees wickedness, and not pain, as the ultimate misfortune, and so he is willing for us to suffer in order to make us good. Sadly, pleasure and prosperity rarely make a man or woman better than before, unless the soul has already advanced far on the heavenward road.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Visitors

In early spring a foolish robin built her nest in the side of our apartment building, right along the stairwell. I could have reached out and touched her with my hand. As I came around the corner, I always stopped to look at her, and she watched me warily with her round black eyes.

After a few weeks came her three eggs, blue and reflective as turquoise stones. During the raging storms of summer evenings, she spread her brown pinion feathers over the sides of her nest, that the eggs might not know a drop of moisture.

My husband and I looked in on her every day. We regarded her as a friend, a fellow sojourner surviving in our corner of Fairfax. We rejoiced and cooed when out of the eggs broke three robin chickens with pink, translucent skin.

But a couple days later I found the nest empty. No chicks. No robin. No trace of shell or feather. They have never returned. I suspect the grey housecat that lives on the first floor. Jim thinks the mother “carried them to a new nest,” which he says either to comfort me or to comfort himself. I cannot believe it.

We still glance reflexively into the nest when we come down the stairs, though nothing changes.

Then this summer there came a mint-green luna moth with a fuzzy, white body and antennae like tiny ferns. Dramatic plumes curled from its back wings. Day after day it stayed motionless by the lintel of our door. Once I made him to crawl up on my finger and brought him into the apartment. I called him Simon, spoke to him, and tried to feed him sugar water, as I used to do with monarch butterflies. I put his feet in the water, since moths and butterflies have their taste receptors in their toes, if they can be said to have toes. But I found out later that it did no good. Luna moths live for only a week, their sole purpose to mate before death.

I took him out into the stand of trees in our complex, hoping that there he might have better luck.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

He to Whom We Call

We use it all the time. We whisper it. We curse it. We sing it. It’s part of our basest slang and our most sacred expressions. But where does the English word “god” actually come from?

The other languages I am familiar with all have a Latin base. The word for “god” in Latin languages comes, originally, from “zeus”. It survives in English in terms like deism or theology.

I’ll cover the Latin roots in a follow-up post, but the roots of “god” are not Latin, but rather an ancient Germanic language. Many of English’s most basic words come from this source: man, woman, child, hunger, thirst, sun, death, birth, and water all have nothing to do with parlance of Rome. The word we use for the One we worship is no exception.

So let’s take a look at where we get the word for “god”.

Before “god”, says the linguists who study Proto-Germanic (the theoretical, reconstructed root of all modern Germanic languages), we had the word “ghutan,” which was used in the sense of “supreme being.” But that word had an even older root (ghut), which in turn had an even older root: “gheu”. And “gheu” once upon a time meant “to call, to invoke.”

So when our ancestors spoke of god, they meant not merely a spiritual being, but one on whom they called. One with whom they could interact. A relational Person. God was “the one to whom we call.”

I like this—very much.

Because regardless of our personal theologies, we all do this. In the foxholes of our daily lives, we invoke the help of a Being we may say we don’t believe in. How many atheists have been forlorn to hear themselves cry out, “God, please!” in the moment of their personal distress?

It’s as is we cannot help ourselves. Because at some level beneath reason and will, we poke our fingers through our measurable, material surroundings in search of the spiritual we instinctively know to underlie it.

Scientific studies sometimes bump up against this phenomenon. http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/04/04/neurotheology/

One of the scientists quoted in the above article explains at length how the human experience of “god” is an evolutionary adaptation, an almost universal response to the pressures of sentient, rational existence.

But what if it’s the other way around? What if we call upon God because He designed us to call, and because He loves it when we do?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Chasing Tony (From Jubilee, July 2010)

“Can you get a gun?” asked Tony, then 16.
He and two friends had run out of drug money. To get it, they robbed seven convenience stores with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun. “We just wanted play money,” remembers Tony.
At the seventh store, the cashier reached for the phone. The boy wielding the shotgun fired, and the clerk went down, a red stain blooming on his flank.
How had it come to this?
When small, Tony was raised by his Catholic grandparents in Chicago, and at the church of a believing aunt, he remembers reciting John 3:16 before the congregation.
But when he turned eight, his father, who lived in Dallas, brought Tony to live there. Tony resented the change—and his father’s battle with alcohol. He started failing school and fighting.
“Every week,” remembers Tony, “I had to bring a note home explaining my bad behavior. . . But it didn’t seem to deter me.”
Tony stole to fund his spiraling drug addiction, and he ran away to avoid the consequences. Whenever he ran, his father patrolled the streets all night in search of him. Tony failed to recognize his father’s love at the time, but now he recognizes that “my father never gave up on me.”
After he was arrested for the convenience store robberies, Tony was released to his father’s custody pending trial. Before long he ran again, hiding from both his father and the police.
On February 1, 1989, Tony was apprehended fleeing from a stolen vehicle. He was certified to stand trial as an adult and sentenced to 25 years.

When Lightning Strikes
By then, whatever faith Tony possessed had dwindled to a faint memory of brimstone and catechisms.
“I was 16 going on 17,” he says, “and I wasn’t going to be nobody’s fool.”
Prison only honed his criminality; after 10 years of incarceration, he lasted four months on his first parole. Tony returned to a hole that no light penetrated—until lightning struck.
Tony’s pregnant Aunt Tina was hit by a lightning bolt. Though she survived, doctors recommended terminating her pregnancy. Tony’s Aunt Margie offered God her life if He spared Tina’s child. When Tina delivered a healthy boy, Margie surrendered her life to Christ.
Margie and her husband, Mark, began to visit Tony. He scoffed at their mention of a caring God, but their own compassion bewildered him.
“Don’t worry about me,” he assured them. “This is my world.”
They wept for the nephew who could imagine no life but prison, but eventually, their perseverance bore fruit.
“God started giving me a soft heart,” says Tony.
He began to pray before parole hearings. When denied, he would give up on God again. But God never gave up on him.
In 2006 Tony reviewed his note card with scripted statements to impress the interviewer at yet another parole hearing. But something made him throw it away; for the first time, he approached God without conditions.
“I’m tired of the games,” he confessed. “If I serve the rest of my term, that’s fine. I want to know the power that’s behind the people who come into prison to visit me. Just help me.”
Tony was shocked when he was offered parole and his choice of reentry programs: nine months of drug rehab or 18 months in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI), a reentry program developed by Prison Fellowship and based on the life and teachings of Jesus.
Though tempted by the shorter program, Tony remembered his request of God. Here was his chance to meet the Power behind his aunt. He asked to be sent to IFI.

“God Never Turns His Back.”
“He was just a different person,” marvels Margie, remembering the first time she visited Tony in IFI. On the four-hour drive back home, Margie and Mark wept tears of gratitude.
Tony grew to know God in IFI’s structured, values-centered environment. He also learned to release the pain of his childhood and to understand the consequences of his own choices. And when his business plan won at an IFI business fair, “it amazed me, and it gave me a new viewpoint of my capabilities.”
After his release Tony continued IFI’s post-prison phase. After a difficult job hunt, he finally found employment with Artifex Technology and was promoted to project manager. “I would trust him with anything,” says Artifex owner Jacob Cervantes.
Tony also married Annie Cervantes, a relative of Jacob, and became an instant father to her 11-year-old, Nathan, soon followed by baby Giovanni.
Giovanni’s birth left an awestruck Tony determined to make it on the outside. “Two nights ago,” says the dad, “I was holding Giovanni and the thought crossed my mind if there was a way I could earn some fast money. But he was just looking at me . . . and I realized that my son will look to me as the example.” For his own example, Tony can look to his father, about to celebrate eight years of sobriety. They talk daily.
Tony “understands what life is now,” says his father. Someday Tony wants to use his life to help other ex-prisoners, but for now he serves and loves his family. Despite some transitional struggles, Annie says he’s doing “excellent.”
Day by day, he looks to God for strength because, no matter how far Tony ran in the past, “God never turns His back.”

Raising Up Fathers (from www.prisonfellowship.org)

Raising Up Fathers from the Inside Out


View This IssueOn Father’s Day in America, the tangy smoke of barbecue will float over countless backyards. Young daughters and sons will present their fathers with hugs, homemade cards, and breakfast in bed. But for over one million children of incarcerated men, one thing will be missing: Dad.



The hundreds of thousands of fathers behind bars have an irreplaceable role in the lives of their children, and they need training and practical tools to become better parents. Prison Fellowship has partnered with the National Fatherhood Initiative® (NFI) to develop InsideOut DadTM Christian, a curriculum based on solid biblical principles to help men become the fathers that God created them to be.



And it’s available for your use!





Life Like a Locomotive
Rev. E. Gregory Austen, Jr., director of corrections programming for NFI and primary author of InsideOut Dad Christian, compares the situation of many incarcerated fathers to the biblical character of Samson. “Samson spent most of his life as a man who was unaware—going through life like a locomotive and not fulfilling God’s purposes for him. He couldn’t see clearly until he was in prison and blinded.”



Likewise, says Rev. Austen, men who have made serious mistakes and entered prison have an opportunity to see themselves clearly for the first time, especially in their parental roles. InsideOut Dad Christian is designed to illuminate for men their God-given purpose as fathers and equip them to begin to live it out.





Speaking to the Man
InsideOut Dad Christian “speaks to the man—not at him,” says Raeanne Hance, executive director of Prison Fellowship Florida. Through 12 core sessions, 26 optional sessions, and a reentry module, the curriculum addresses issues central to men, such as: exploring faith, handling and expressing emotions, improving communication, maintaining mental and physical health, and managing stress.



Check It Out for Yourself!
Click here for sample lessons of InsideOut Dad Christian.

Holistically grounded, men will be better able to tackle the fatherhood portion of the curriculum, which helps men to write letters to their children, understand their children’s developmental needs, and reestablish relationships with caregivers.



Each volunteer-led core session comes with optional sessions that expand on important themes. Participants study the curriculum, journal their thoughts, and discuss their findings in breakout sessions. The curriculum also suggests creative ways to interact with their children from afar, such as: “Paper Hugs from Daddy,” chess by mail, and recordings of storybooks. Woven throughout with Scripture, InsideOut Dad Christian is edited for a sixth-grade reading level.



“Volunteers . . . love the curriculum. They love the principles that are being taught,” says Raeanne. She has made InsideOut Dad Christian an integral part of reentry programming at four facilities in Florida and hopes to add a fifth in the near future. She also plans to train inmates to become peer facilitators and lead the program on their own.



The inmates’ “attitudes have changed,” adds Shawn O’Neill, who directs reentry for Prison Fellowship Florida. They have “that eagerness to take that rightful, God-ordained place as father of the family.”





From Sorrow to Hope
When participants were confronted with the importance of godly fatherhood, “their reaction was remorse,” says Bill Anderson, executive director of Prison Fellowship Arizona/Oklahoma, who oversaw promising pilots of the curriculum. But soon participants moved from sorrow to hope as the curriculum offered them practical ways to reach out to their children—and wait patiently for trust to grow back in broken relationships.



Shawn tells the story of one inmate who had a broken relationship with his daughter. Though he had written to her several times before, no answer came. He wrote to her again to share some of the insights he had gained from InsideOut Dad Christian. Soon, she re-opened correspondence with him. By the end of the program, says Shawn, they were “well on their way to reconciliation.”



Robby, an inmate and the father of three boys, wrote to Rev. Austen to say, “I just want to be the father they need in their lives. I truly am blessed to be apart [sic] of a program . . . and I really do appreciate the guidance. It’s only by the grace of God! I plan to apply what I have learned over the last 12 weeks to the best of my ability.”



Not only does fatherhood training help men become better fathers from the inside, but it also helps ex-prisoners stay out. Behind a saving relationship with Christ, claims Rev. Austen, nothing can motivate a man more than the desire to be there for his children. “When they believe that they have an irreplaceable role in the lives of their children,” he says, “it gives them a reason to care.”



Returning mature, well-equipped fathers to their families also helps to break the cycle of intergenerational incarceration. With children of prisoners at significant risk of entering jail, effective fatherhood training can help mitigate some of the worst consequences of separation and betrayed trust.





Implementing the Program
Although it is sometimes inappropriate, and illegal, for inmates to seek contact with children or their caregivers, Austen emphasizes that in the vast majority of cases, reconciliation can reap a harvest of renewed hope for prisoners and their families. Even when caregivers return prisoners’ letters to their children unopened, prisoners are encouraged to save the letters so that one day they might prove to their children that they cared.



InsideOut Dad Christian is published by the National Fatherhood Initiative. You can view samples online. If you would like to bring the curriculum into the prison where you minister, please contact your local Prison Fellowship representative in the field, or call the PF National Program Support Center at 1-800-251-7411.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Dollars and Sense (From Prison Fellowship's Inside Out e-mag)

When Jill Colon came out of prison, she walked into the arms of her Prison Fellowship mentors, Ginger and Esther. They treated her to a picnic lunch in the park before escorting her to a safe transitional housing unit. For a year before Jill’s release, her two mentors had met with her many times to help her prepare for freedom, and they continued to walk with her from the day of her release, gathering donated clothes, finding money to pay for her prescription drugs, and ushering her into a local church.




When Jill Colon (left) got out of prison, she had mentors and resources to help her succeed. Most released prisoners go back inside--crowding prisons and straining budgets.But for many of the 700,000 prisoners released to American neighborhoods each year, the return to society looks bleak. After months or years in an environment prone to eroding decision-making skills, many will take their bus fare and the clothes on their backs and head straight back to familiar territory: addictions, broken relationships, and crime. Nationwide, about half of released prisoners will land back behind bars within three years. Taxpayers will foot the bill for their continued incarceration.





The Big Picture
The alarming recidivism rates of offenders are part of a much larger crisis in American corrections—a crisis that many innovative legislators, corrections officials, and nonprofit partners are working hard to address.



But first, how did we get here?



In the last three decades, many of America’s national and state policy-makers—with broad public support—made sweeping avowals to get “tough on crime.” Harsher sentencing legislation soon followed, such as three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and the abolishment of parole for certain categories of offense. Meanwhile, tougher penalties for drug use, possession, and distribution helped to keep more people in prison longer.



As a result, by the end of 2008, more than 7.3 million people were incarcerated or under correctional supervision. That’s more than the individual populations of 38 U.S. states, or one in every 31 adults.1 America’s prisons are the fullest in the world.





What Incarceration Costs Us
The cost of corrections has spiraled to roughly $68 billion per year.2 Nationwide, it costs $20,000 to $40,000 per year to incarcerate each of the country’s 2.3 million prisoners, and as the prison population ages, the cost of prisoners’ medical care climbs by 10 percent annually.3



Add to those the hidden costs of high incarceration rates.



When prisoners, especially nonviolent drug offenders, spend decades behind bars, state, local, and federal governments lose out on untold taxable income and workforce productivity.



The incarceration of a parent also adversely affects the family left behind, and minority families are disproportionately represented in their ranks. Seventy percent of children with a parent in prison belong to a racial minority.4 Once a parent is in jail, parent-child contact often fades away. Prisoners’ children—seldom recognized as victims themselves—face an elevated risk of long-term emotional and behavioral disturbances, including academic failure, aggression, and intergenerational incarceration.5



Finally, whenever corrections policy emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation, prisons risk becoming warehouses for inmates. Without access to evidence-based programs to combat addictive behaviors, improve literacy, and impart parenting and vocational skills, released inmates emerge from prisons no better equipped than when they went into them. Prisoners who have not addressed their drug addictions or skills gaps are more likely to commit new crimes upon release, creating new victims and compounding costs for corrections.



Truly dangerous criminals belong in prison. But many offenders could be diverted to alternative corrections without risking public safety, and others could be given tools to make their prison time a truly transformative experience instead of simply a brief hiatus in a life of crime. Because public safety is at stake and public funds are scarce, it is time to examine whether every taxpayer dollar spent on corrections is really making our society more secure, just, and compassionate.





Seeking Solutions
The economic downturn has hit state budgets hard. Combined, states face a projected $375 billion shortfall between FY2010 and FY2011.6 While tightening their belts, states have had to examine their corrections budgets—which previously ballooned 349 percent between 1987 and 20087—and find places to cut spending.



States have first attempted to slash corrections spending in the short term. They have worked to make daily operations less costly by renegotiating the cost of inmate pharmaceuticals, reducing staffing, reducing salaries or benefits, consolidating facilities, and canceling inmate programming.8 Twenty-two states have in some way diminished their corrections capacity by shutting facilities, reducing beds, halting planned expansions, or delaying the opening of new facilities.9 States have also embraced low-risk approaches to reducing inmate populations, such as reducing the number of technical parole violations that result in incarceration and allowing some low-level offenders to serve less than mandatory minimums for satisfactory participation in rehabilitation programming.



Reducing prison populations through innovative release and supervision policies is an important step in controlling corrections costs, but what consequences arise when states must also apply the scalpel to rehabilitative programming?



States like Kansas, Texas, and Colorado, which have in recent years put major dents in their recidivism rates, did so largely by proactively investing in evidence-based pre-release programming. But when the budget crisis hit, Kansas lawmakers slashed funding for community rehabilitation programs—particularly for substance-abuse treatment—that had shown dramatic success. “The money simply doesn’t exist to begin to restore those programs,” laments Bill Miskell, a spokesman for the state corrections department.



While the move has helped shrink Kansas’ corrections budget for the moment, the long-term consequences are already beginning to show. This year one of Kansas’ shuttered prisons will re-open, partially to help house the recidivists, whose numbers, after a promising dip in 2007, are again on the rise.10



So far, Texas has managed to exempt inmate treatment programs from planned budget cuts.11 Colorado has implemented sentencing changes designed to reduce imprisonment rates for low-level drug offenses, raise penalties for more serious offenders, and invest the savings in substance-abuse treatment.





Non-Prison Options
There are also cost-effective approaches outside of prison walls, like community corrections options. According to Dr. Joan Petersilla, community corrections are “non-prison sanctions that are imposed . . . instead of a prison sentence . . . to provide offender accountability, deliver rehabilitations services and surveillance, and achieve fiscal efficiency.” Not only are community corrections approaches generally found to be more effective, particularly for drug-addicted felons, but they can also offer significant savings. An Ohio study in 2002 found that the state saved between $2,000 and $11,000 by appropriately diverting an offender to community corrections instead of prison.



There are also more than 2,000 drug courts in the nation. The original drug court, an intense, community-based program to treat, restore, and supervise drug felons, appeared in the Date County Circuit Court in 1989. Drug courts divert nonviolent substance abusers into treatment. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, research has shown that drug courts “lower arrest and conviction rates, improve substance abuse treatment outcomes, reunite families, and produce measurable cost benefits.”





The Nonprofit Piece
Departments of corrections (DOCs) throughout the nation face difficult decisions. In California the secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, Matthew Cate, summarizes the situation of many: “The budget reality has forced . . . tough choices as we weigh population reductions, staff layoff, and a significant cut to our rehabilitation programming. We must target our limited resources.”



Like Jill Colon on the day of her release, DOCs have friends eager to help them reach their goals of offender rehabilitation and public safety. Nonprofit organizations, churches, and entire communities can help to fill in the service gaps that the budget crisis has left.



Prison Fellowship is just one organization that works with DOCs in all 50 states to bring change into the lives of prisoners. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative® (IFI), developed by Prison Fellowship, is an intensive, combination in-prison/post-prison reentry program based on the life and teachings of Jesus. Research on one of the IFI programs, now active in five states, showed that its graduates have a much lower rate of return to prison than comparable prisoners. Prison Fellowship is working diligently to incorporate the most effective elements of IFI into programming in other prisons.



IFI and similar programs can complement the aims of Departments of Corrections who may have the will to fight recidivism but lack time, manpower, or resources. Further, faith-based organizations can provide spiritual guidance that helps change prisoners’ lives at the core level of conscience and character.



Beyond assisting with programming, nonprofit ministries can help DOCs create the community-based continuums of care that help ex-prisoners make a successful transition. Prison Fellowship has begun to organize Out4Life coalitions throughout the United States. Out4Life partners—DOCs, prison ministries, churches, community-service organizations, social-service agencies, and volunteers—work together to provide services and resources that help ex-prisoners gain employment, find housing, and reconcile with their families and communities.



The corrections policies of recent decades have taken an enormous toll—both financial and social. While many states have adopted evidence-based policies to reduce prison populations and ensure public safety, the current fiscal crisis imperils both goals. But in this moment of crisis, DOCs and nonprofit partners have a unique opportunity to collaborate in the interest of the law-abiding public, and for the good of prisoners who could safely rejoin the world outside the walls.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why Mentors Matter (Visit www.pfm.org to learn more)

Why Mentors Matter
Volunteer Dan Pearson on Filling the Father Gap for Ex-Prisoners

Alyson Quinn




Our Current Issue Includes:•Accountability: Helping Others Live Godly Lives

•Why Mentors Matter
•Unmasking Our Real Selves
View This Isssue“On Mother’s Day, there are tears shed at the prison. Father’s Day passes quietly. Most of these guys haven’t had a dad,” explains Dan Pearson, a Prison Fellowship volunteer and a 70-year-old grandfather from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Citing the absence of strong male role models in many prisoners’ pasts, Dan emphasizes the importance that mentors can have for their futures, especially upon release.



“I don’t think you and I can understand the pull of the world on these guys when they get out,” says Dan, “They are like children—giddy.” But after the thrill of freedom come the challenges of reintegration. Ex-prisoners can easily drift back to the places, friends, and habits that led to their incarceration.






Dan and Sondra PearsonThat’s when a mentor can make all the difference. “The recidivism rate is much lower for those who are Christians and have mentors,” Dan insists. Studies have linked involved mentors to significantly reduced rates of return to prison.


Mentors become even more important as states cut corrections budgets. In Michigan, where Dan has led in-prison Bible studies and mentored prisoners since 1996, the state Department of Corrections has decreased its inmate population by 6,500 since 2007, partially by increasing its parole approval rate. As more ex-prisoners reenter neighborhoods, “the answer,” says Dan,“is more mentors.”





“Whoa, I Think I’m a Mentor”
Dan’s path to long-term prisoner mentoring began when he met Prison Fellowship Founder Chuck Colson at a book signing.



When he first encountered the challenge to become involved in prison ministry, “it was love at first sight,” Dan recalls. He entered Prison Fellowship’s Volunteer-in-Prison (VIP) training in the spring of 1996 and soon entered prison for the first time at Deerfield Correctional Facility (ITF), a now-closed minimum-security prison in Ionia, Michigan.



Dan volunteered at Deerfield for 12 ½ years, but only after time, as men continued to call and write to him after their release, did Dan wake up one morning and say to himself, “Whoa, I think I’m a mentor.”



Dan’s mentor role has only increased. He and Sondra, his wife of 48 years, pray for 40 men released from Deerfield. They maintain contact with half of them, monitoring their tenuous progress on the path to a new life.





The Road to Reentry
“I need to find a job,” Dan’s mentees often tell him when they’re about to “ride out.”



“No, you don’t,” Dan responds, “You need to find a good church.”



Dan, a deacon at Heritage Baptist Church in Kentwood, Michigan, tries to first steer ex-offenders toward a healthy Christian fellowship—one that will embrace them and fit their needs—as a foundational step toward successful reentry. Through the church, ex-inmates can usually find jobs and eventually advance their education and careers. “Deacon Dan,” as he’s sometimes known to his mentees, practices what he preaches, introducing ex-prisoners to the pastor at his own church. Some attend services there and have even found employers and new mentors within the congregation.



But growth comes slowly.



A parole officer may call to say that one of Dan’s mentees is on the run. Or the mentees themselves may call with perplexing, or even “goofy,” questions. Dan remembers one ex-prisoner who planned to make a living shining shoes at a shopping center, failing to realize that in the 12 years since his incarceration, shoe-shine boys had become a thing of the past. But if tempted to impatience, Dan reminds himself, “They are asking you for help because they don’t have a dad.”



While he may not have all the answers to their problems, Dan offers his mentees the same vital lifeline any volunteer can offer: a listening ear, encouragement, and his faithful prayers in their behalf.





“We All Need Jesus”
Dan helps “his guys” learn to live and stay on the outside, but the process teaches him as much as it teaches them.



“As a volunteer, I’ve learned patience, understanding, and the importance of keeping myself in the Word. We all need Jesus, prayer, and the Word every day. If any mentor doesn’t stay strong spiritually, he will lose his desire to mentor, and eventually he’ll lose his effectiveness. The prisoners look to their mentor because they see something in them that they desire for their own lives.





“Honey, I’m Your Daddy”
With all his experience, Dan continues to grow as a volunteer. “As long as I’m a volunteer, I’ll keep learning,” he says. Part of his instruction comes from ongoing training through Prison Fellowship.



In 2009 Dan attended a Prison Fellowship conference at Calvin College that helped volunteers connect with other ministries to holistically address the needs of prisoners and their families. There, Dan encountered Forgiven Ministry, Inc., for the first time. On December 4, 2009, Forgiven Ministry and Prison Fellowship volunteers—including Dan—partnered to hold a One Day with God Camp at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Center in Muskegon, Michigan. The warden and the chaplain selected 20 inmates to invite their children and their caregivers to come and spend a day of structured, spiritually based relationship building and fun with their fathers in the prison gymnasium.



“You can imagine the emotions,” says Dan, recalling the scene. “Thirty kids in that gym going to play with their fathers. But one little five-year-old girl just stood there on the side, watching. The volunteers urged her to go and find her father. But she couldn’t. She had never seen him before. Finally, a prisoner got down on one knee in front of her and said, ‘Honey, I’m your daddy.’”



Scenes like these encourage Dan to continue as a mentor. He’s spurring redeemed ex-prisoners on to rebuild their lives as responsible parents and members of the community, replacing cycles of alienation and despair with connection and hope.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What to do with 520 hours?

Dear Friends,

As many of you know, I recently changed jobs. Along with that, my commute has decreased by 2 hours per day. Considered in the long view, that's 10 hours per work week, and 520 hours per year. That's 21 days of my life back! I think I feel younger. Any thoughts on how I should use my redeemed time?

~ AlyRose

Friday, April 16, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"The prayer just goes out of you," says that woman in front of me, trying to explain her depletion.




The second day has almost ended. I am in the prayer room for Cebu. Andrey, the Field Office Director, is here, and so is Gary Haugen, and several dozen GPG participants. We are tired now, fighting hard to pray with the same intensity we had this morning. I pray with my eyes open, lest I doze off. I feel more than usual sumpathy for the disciples who, tasked to watch with Jesus in the garden, instead feel asleep.



Why is intercession such a fierce exertion? Perhaps because, though seated, we strain to the utmost the muscle of our faith in our desire to move Heaven. What glad work it is to labor along with those who have come far and ask no pay! How sweet a reward to know that whatever we ask in His name and according to His will, we must receive! May He grant us all wisdom to ask rightly.

Friday, April 9, 2010

For me, a four-year IJM staff member, the Global Prayer Gathering starts here: 5 o'clock on Friday night, shivering in the stiff breeze outside of the Sheraton Premiere. IJM staff from across North America, Europe and the developing world congregate in the sunken garden for a brief meeting. Dressed all alike in immaculate black suits, the IJM uniform, we are also united in some degree of exhaustion. Long, exacting hours of preparation for the GPG have brought us to this point: cold, tired, and standing on the brink of a weekend of yet more work.


But in defiance of the sobriety of our dress and the numbing tiredness of our bodies, the meeting is charged, surprisingly, with joy. Laughter ripples through the throng of us. We cheer, clap and smile at the leaders who lead us in the litany of final details. Why should such gladness infuse us today, when the hours of preparation have led only to this: a Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the job?

For one thing, the GPG is our family reunion. The staff, many of whom labor in distant countries or in lone-ranger outposts, come together again. Our community rejoices in the fulness of its numbers.
But there is another reason behind the lightness of our spirits.

The reason lies in the nature of the work that we undertake this weekend. Our work will be the labor of prayer.

Make no mistake. Prayer is work of the hardest kind. Starting tomorrow morning, during the prayer room rotations, we will expose ourselves to the depth and breadth of depravity worked against the poor, and in prayer we will saturate our own hearts with God's sorrow over injustice. This work will bend our bodies to the floor with the weight of sin and our own incapacity to circumvent suffering. This work will wring the tears from our eyes and sap our strength and sleep.
But it is also true that this weekend, we will remember the extent of our Father's power, the brightness of His glory and the prodigality of His love. In return for our tears, we will have His smiles, as we believe that He exists and rewards those who earnestly pursue him. In return for our exhaustion, we will unleash His omnipotence on behalf of the widow and the orphan. Though lowered to the floor, we will glimpse His exaltation amidst the pain and oppression we decry.

So why do we laugh on the eve of our hearts' breaking? We laugh in anticipation of this work, this scandalously unequal exchange of poverty for riches. For to us this weekend falls the work of remembrance, the work of joy - the unrivalled and holy work of prayer.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Easter from an Ancient

THE PASCHAL SERMON OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM




EARLY CHURCH FATHER 347AD – 407AD









If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.



If any man be a wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.



If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.



If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.



If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast.



If any have arrived the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings, because he shall in no wise be deprived.



If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.



If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him also be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has worked from the first hour.



And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts.



And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.



Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord, and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second.



You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day.



Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is fully laden; feast sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away. Enjoy the feast of faith; receive all the riches of loving-kindness.



Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.



Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.



Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.



By descending into hell, he made hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”



It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked.



It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown.



It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.



It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered heaven.



It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.



O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?



Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.



Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns.



Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.



For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Free Drycleaning

Over Valentine's Day weekend, my new husband and I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri. I had never been to Missouri before, ("Who would go there? It's a place called mis-er-y!" I can still hear my little sister say from many years ago), but it wasn't too bad: a broad, friendly place with snow on the ground.

We went for a wedding, our first as a married couple. At the reception, the bride and groom were toasted by the best man and the maid of honor. We've all been to weddings. We've all heard the usual offerings of meager prose and poorer poetry put forth when an honest "Best wishes" would have sufficed. But at this wedding, the maid of honor gave a startling and beautiful confession. To the best of my memory, here it is:

"I couldn't confess this to you earlier, my friend, but now that you are safely married, I can tell you this. In my capacity as maid of honor, it was my job to bring your dress with me from New York, where you had the fittings done, and where I live, down here to Missouri. On Thursday night, just before my flight, I had some pins in the dress for some last minute fixes. I pricked my finger. I didn't notice I was bleeding. But later, when I went to pack up the dress, I saw it: down the front, drops of red, like Jackson Pollock's later work. Horrified, I went online to try to find the best cleaners in New York. And on yelp.com I found the aptly named New York Cleaners. With three hours before my flight, I grabbed the dress, ran across town on the Subway, and with trembling hands turned it over to the Korean man behind the counter. He pressed the fabric down, examining the stains, and his brow furrowed. This worried me. 'Wait here,' he said, 'Let me see what I can do.' A while later, while I contemplated whether you would ever forgive me, the dry cleaner retured and held out the dress. It was perfect: without stain, wrinkle or blemish. 'How much do you think you owe me for this?' he asked, eyes merry and triumphant. 'I would gladly empty my bank accout,' I responded - though I'm a young professional in New York, and my offer would still not have been a large one. 'But,' I said, 'Tell me what you think is fair.' He cocked his head at me and looked me over in assessment. 'It's free,' he said at last, and he handed me your perfect, white wedding dress."

And that, dear readers, is gospel.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

From the Archives: Seeing Bobak in Berkeley

Written maybe early 2009? Not sure.

Bobak. Like always you were willow-thin, with skin the color of almonds, and hair black and curly as a dark lamb's. You, the most polite of boys. You used to say, "Thank you, sir," to the referees when my father, your coach, subbed you into the back row at volleyball matches, but you laughed at your opponents through the net and from the bench, taunting them in the tongue of the shah. They could not understand you. That day, though, you were walking down College Avenue. Your shadow was long in the orange light, and it crossed mine, coming up the hill towards you. The air was warm. I had not seen you since we left high school, and after we said hello I took it upon myself to spoil your afternoon by telling you that my father died, believing, as I still do, that you loved him a little. When I told you, you were very polite in your condolence, as I knew you would be, and I still wonder why I told you. You would never have known otherwise, and your afternoon would have gone on warm and beautiful in the orange light in Berkeley.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Notes from the Frozen East

Snowmageddon has entered day five? Day six? Who can count? It's all a great white drift. Trees kneel prostate under their crowns of snow, like princes called too early into kingship. Roofs threaten to collapse under the burdens, and workers walk the frozen rooflines gingerly to shovel it off. And still the snow falls.

Within, days bleed together, busy, cozy, restless. And always the beeping of Snow Cats, the scrape of shovels, the tromp and slide of galoshes through snow deep as the thigh, driven into sculptures by the wind.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Snow Day

The week before Christmas, I shoveled the driveway. That's no act of breaking news, but for me it was a first - and what a first! The sky had opened and blasted the earth with twenty inches of chilled whiteness. My roommate's car was blotted out, a vaguely vehicular hump. The stairs had ceased to be.

So in the first clear morning after the storm, when the sky was penitently blue, I began to shovel the driveway. It's sixty or seventy feet from the front door to the road. Three or four hours later, with swollen pink blisters on my hands and the sense that my bones had dried to powder with the effort, I retired inside, believing I should, mercifully, never see such a snowfall again. Not here in D.C, the capital of sloppy winters and torpid summers.

But six weeks later, and behold: the snow comes on, cold and silent and perfect, a great hand falling to hush the mouth of the world. Twenty to twenty-eight inches of it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

In. Out. Often.

Some changes come without foresight, like a car pulling out from a blind driveway. While the double-shot of adrenaline pumps through your heart, you put on the brakes and invoke your sacred loves. Only afterwards do you have a chance to assess the change wrought in you by what you never saw coming.

And some changes you see coming from a long way off, like a little town on a long stretch of open highway. Miles away, you see it, but for a while it seems no closer, just a dark pinprick that might be a bit bigger than a moment ago.

But events along awaited do come at last. My big event is here.

Today is our wedding day. Many things shall end today, and many begin. I woke long before dawn and could not sleep again. I feel calm, but charged, and alert to the end of my fingertips: alive to divine presence and all that's good to see, smell, and touch.

But with the constant, slow release of adrenaline, I often catch myself holding my breath. I make myself then take long, slow, steady draughts of air, and it occurs to me that we ought to pray in the same way that we breathe: in, out, and often.

I remember because prayer must be the breath I breathe today - especially today - because today is not, in fact, about the dress and the tux, or the cake and the flowers, or even, at its most profound depths, about the bride, the groom, or our loved ones. Today is about God. For God it was who brought two strangers on the intricate paths that brought us to the right place at the right time, and God it was who over the last months made a man and of woman of no relation into kin of soul. And God it shall be who laughs the loudest with joy to give Adam back his rib again.

In all the imperfection that mars us and the world there works a perfectly good God. Today I stand on a mountaintop where for a brief transfigured hour, the goodness of God in all of life, which we celebrate in the ceremony and the reception, is easily traced.

And to give him glory, I breathe and I pray: in. out. often. May I do so still when we descend again below the clouds.

Whatever joyous or hard thing awaits you today, breathe, dear friends, and pray: in. out. often.