Blessed Are the Merciful

I’ve been following the case of a young woman who in an episode of severe postpartum depression stabbed her toddler son and then herself in January 2014. (Her son survived.) She has been in prison awaiting trial for the past year. Just this morning she pled guilty but mentally ill to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child, and was sentenced to 5-10 years in prison plus 20 years of probation and no contact with her son. I know her personally, although not well, and have been writing to her for almost a year. Before this happened, when we were participating together in the same activity, I never would have guessed that she suffered from postpartum depression. She always seemed like a highly intelligent and articulate young woman who spoke lovingly about her young son. Since she has been in prison, her letters to me have confirmed my initial impressions – she writes about books she’s reading, poems and stories she’s writing for her son, Bible studies she attends, classes she’s taking at the prison, and the progress of her case.

Her situation reminds me of a case from 2001 that was even worse, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. She too was suffering from postpartum depression. Then there is the local woman who repeatedly attempted to abandon her baby recently, but was finally caught by an observant passerby. Fortunately, the baby was not harmed. This mother also suffered from mental illness.

I am not condoning the actions of these mothers. When innocent children are involved, I understand the instinct to condemn, and I agree that children must be protected. But I don’t condone the attitudes of some who have responded to news articles about these and other mothers. This morning, when a local news station reported on its Facebook page that the young woman I know and have been writing to had pled guilty but mentally ill, there were some who were understanding and compassionate in their comments, but others were hateful and nasty, calling her evil and saying she should rot in a cell by herself for the rest of her life. I almost cried as I read the comments (and I’m grateful she probably doesn’t have access to stuff like this in prison). Andrea Yates, who is serving a life sentence in a mental hospital, has requested permission to leave the grounds for supervised events with other patients. However, because of pressure from the public, judges have never granted permission, and she remains the only person at the mental hospital who has never been allowed to leave the grounds.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are familiar to most people. The one that comes to my mind in this context is “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” There is a certain quid pro quo going on there – if we want to receive mercy ourselves, we need to show it to others. The prophet Micah named three things that God requires: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. When Jesus was attacked by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” thus critiquing the Pharisees for putting the letter of the law above showing mercy to people, even undesirables. Mercy, lest we forget, means “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”

Sometimes it is hard to balance the kind of justice required by the criminal justice system (or the kind of justice that requires people to take responsibility and accept consequences) with mercy that understands the possibility of mitigating circumstances and takes them into account. When mental illness is clearly involved, however, it seems like it is even more important for the balance to tilt toward mercy. Recovery from mental illnesses like depression is possible; people do get better, and they can receive treatment and stay well with good medications and talk therapy. Despite this, however, the stigma against mental illness remains, making it difficult for people to ask for help when they need it.

So often these days it seems like there are many who don’t want to show mercy; instead, they want revenge, retaliation, retribution, and ongoing judgment. In our rush to judgment and condemnation, do we forget that sometime we ourselves might need to rely on the mercy of others? Do we forget the simple truth of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you (or to paraphrase it a little: treat others the way you would like to be treated).

Ever since I received a letter a few weeks ago from my acquaintance in prison telling me that her hearing was scheduled for today, she would be found “guilty but mentally ill,” and there were those in her family who thought she should be sentenced to life in prison, I’ve been mulling over the meaning and implications of “blessed are the merciful.” I’ve thought about what it means to show mercy in everyday situations as well as larger more difficult circumstances. Never having been the victim of a violent crime myself perhaps makes it easier for me to suggest that mercy is a better response to her and others like her than retribution and revenge. I can’t know for sure how I would actually respond if one of my family members were physically harmed or killed, but I can prepare my mind and heart to be more likely to want to be merciful and kind, to try to understand what happened and why, to be able to forgive, to look for restorative justice possibilities rather than retributive justice that feels like it simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Pondering History, Torture and Violence

Dale and I recently went to see the movies Unbroken and Selma, both based on true stories. Both have been criticized for the way they have retold history: Unbroken for leaving out a significant part of Louie Zamperini’s whole story, and Selma for inaccurately portraying President Johnson as being unsupportive of civil rights in general and the Voting Rights Act in particular.

Obviously, filmmakers have to make creative choices about what to include out of all the material that is available to them. It could be argued that it was a secular choice in Unbroken not to dramatize Zamperini’s Christian conversion at a Billy Graham rally as the ultimate reason he remained “unbroken” after everything he had been through. His conversion and healing from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, along with his decision to forgive the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him, are a significant part of his total story, so I understand why it is frustrating to many Christians that these details were relegated to a brief sentence on the screen at the end of the movie. But the movie still stands as a powerful testimony to the ability of one person to withstand great hardship and survive. Plus, to be fair, Louie’s conversion story takes up very few of the 528 pages of the original book on which the movie is based. (And yes, I highly recommend reading the book!)

In the case of Selma, I think it’s really important to recognize that this is history being retold creatively from the point of view of African Americans. I don’t know enough about the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to judge how accurately or inaccurately it is portrayed. However, I also don’t find it hard to believe that Johnson was not always as supportive and helpful in the moment in the civil rights movement as his significant role in ensuring passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 would ultimately suggest. As I’ve listened to and read severe critiques of the movie for what is seen as an unfair distortion of LBJ’s record on civil rights, I found this perspective particularly helpful: “These critiques are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized and shaped in large part by African-Americans… . Selma is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led by black women and men” (from Selma Backlash Misses the Point, by Peniel Joseph on NPR’s website).

I can be as much of a stickler for historical accuracy as anyone, but I also know that American history has been recorded primarily by whites (actually white males), which is itself a distortion of certain truths. Rather than criticize the movie for retelling history a little differently than many of us in the dominant culture learned it or think we remember it, perhaps we ought to try to understand why it is being retold this way and how it helps enrich and enlarge our understanding of history.

It is difficult to view movies like these and not be reminded again of how cruel human beings can be to each other. Unbroken details the horrific torture meted out in Japanese prison camps during World War II and Selma reminds us of the awful violence the white majority inflicted upon African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These days, as the news is full of beheadings, bombings, massacres, rape and torture happening with regularity in many parts of the world, I ask myself: “How can people do such things? Why? What creates the conditions that make it okay and even virtuous to treat other human beings like that?”

We might be tempted to dismiss the violence as being perpetrated mainly by radical religious fundamentalists/extremists (who are often but not always Muslim) and having nothing to do with those of us who are American Christians. But it’s not that simple. The U.S. Senate report released late last year documents the torture done by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in 2009 soon after I started this blog (but before anyone knew about it!), I posted a brief piece called “Whether Torture Works is Beside the Point.” I was reacting in part to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center: “White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.” Following the release of the torture report in late 2014, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 69 percent of white evangelical Protestant Christians believed that the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists (using techniques that have been classified as torture) was justified. The numbers are even worse for non-evangelical Protestants (75 percent) and white Catholics (86 percent). I find this profoundly distressing.

Christians also have to deal with the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention the slaughter of Native Americans, the racial violence perpetrated during slavery and into the present, domestic violence, and so on – all justified in part by various interpretations of the Bible. It is clear that being Christian does not always equate to a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.

In the middle of writing this, two items passed through my Facebook feed. One was a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian teacher and speaker with no allegiance to any nationality, caste, religion, or philosophy: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.” The second was a cartoon published on January 17, 2015 in The Economist. The cartoon depicted two dogs standing in the middle of a bunch of dead bodies and piles of rubble. One dog says to the other: “It all started with an argument over whose God was more peace-loving, kind and forgiving…”

I confess first of all to not knowing what to make of either item, given my belief that following the Jesus of Christianity should make one less not more violent. Secondly, in light of the history of the world and what’s happening in many places right now, I have to admit that there is a whole lot of truth contained in the quote and the cartoon. I’ve been asking the question about what makes people able and willing to do such awful things to each other, and along comes the Krishnamurti quote offering an answer that makes a lot of sense but also upsets much of what I have always believed. Does being a Christian really make a difference?

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed it did, basing the movement of nonviolent resistance that is depicted in the movie Selma in part on the teachings of Jesus. So on this Martin Luther King Day, I’ll end my rather rambling and inconclusive reflections with this quote from his essay, “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”: “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.” 

 

 

 

Cuba Revisited

Count me among those who are applauding President Obama’s recent action to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and further relax restrictions on travel, etc. More than 16 years ago, I visited Cuba as part of a delegation from the board of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Our purpose was to learn about the reality of life in Cuba with a further goal of advocating for an end to the U.S. embargo. While the President’s recent action does not end the embargo, I believe it is a step in the right direction, based in part on what I observed all those years ago. I wrote a journal while I was in Cuba and when I returned, I did a presentation for the board in which I reflected on our experiences. As I read back over those reflections 16 years later, I am impressed with how what I heard and observed then is relevant in the current environment. Here are some slightly edited excerpts from my reflections on September 18, 1998.

On needing enemies

During our discussion with the head of the Cuban council of churches, he noted that “United States ideology needs an enemy” – and he went on from there to say that Cuba was a necessary enemy right now [1998]. Of course, needing an enemy isn’t peculiar to the U. S. We also heard that the Cuban government uses the embargo to oppress the people. In other words, the government can withhold food or other goods deliberately, but then blame it on the U.S. embargo. Having enemies seems to go both ways. Both the U.S. and Cuba seem to benefit from the perpetuation of enemy status.

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Political slogans were all over the place – on billboards, painted on walls, and even on a bus!

When we visited the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, an official said he has to “psychologically divorce himself from the Cuban people’s lives.” We assumed he meant that it would be difficult for him to do his job (maintain enemy relations, perhaps?) if he learned to know the Cubans as individual people or as friends. And yet, a Cuban government official claimed that Cuba is open to dialogue and negotiation with the U.S. The only condition, he said, is that there be no conditions, but that Cubans be able to speak as equals. Maybe this was propaganda, but maybe we ought to call their bluff. Maybe, like Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having once said, we could defeat the enemy by making them a friend. Maybe that’s what it would mean to overcome evil with good or heap coals of fire on their heads (see Romans 12:14-21).

The meaning of truth

On our last morning in Havana, we visited with two officials of the National Assembly of Popular Power. While we were there, we were served beverages placed on coasters with the words “Siempre Libres” on them – “always free.” As I thought about those words and what they mean in the Cuban context – a communist country the average American thinks is quite the opposite of free – I couldn’t help thinking of Jesus’ words, “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Obviously, Jesus’ words can’t be literally applied to Cuba, but they did create an interesting set of questions for me:

1. What does Cuba mean when they say they are “always free”?

2. What is the truth about Cuba?

3. What truth(s) did we learn while we were there?

4. Whose truth did we learn?

5. Is there ever only one truth about a given thing, or idea, or circumstance?

I’ve always known that each of us sees things through our own lenses, and those lenses are affected by our genes, race, geography, economic status, religious beliefs, political opinions, life experiences, etc. The “truth” of this phenomenon seemed to be dramatically illustrated through our experiences during one week in Cuba. We heard different versions of the same situation or event or circumstance. When we went to Washington after returning, we heard the official U.S. version of the truth given us by the National Security Council. I feel like I have not yet discovered the full truth about Cuba.

All of this reinforced the importance of listening and not drawing conclusions too quickly, because there may be another side, another reality, another truth. I became convinced that there isn’t just one truth about Cuba. It is important to be careful not to generalize about Cuba based on limited experience and observation, but at the same time to be willing to speak the truth as I felt it while I was there.

Finally, a few lingering images and impressions of Cuba

  • Scan 3

    One of the vintage cars that provided some of our transportation. Left to right: Kay Bontrager-Singer, another MCC U.S. board member; the owner and driver of the car; yours truly

    Wonderful people so willing and eager to talk about their lives and share whatever was in their hearts – people whose Christian faith had sustained them through many years and difficult circumstances. [We visited the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, as well as a Mennonite house group that wasn’t officially registered with the government but at the time operated under the registration of the Brethren in Christ.]

  • Ongoing wonderment regarding the truth about Cuba; e.g., would it be good for the embargo to end [my personal view in 1998 and still in 2014], or would it upset the balance of things and make life worse?
  • Old 40s and 50s vintage American cars still running, albeit often beat-up and spewing toxic fumes.
  • A variety of modes of transportation – old cars of course, plus bicycles (some with two or three people riding them), motorcycles, side cars, multiple versions of buses. I saw no accidents or traffic jams – there seemed to be general courtesy in the streets; even car horns, though common, were polite little beeps.
  • Revolutionary slogans all over the place, but no advertising billboards.
  • Mangos, guava juice, papaya – bringing back memories of an African childhood.

 

 

Home for Christmas

As a child in boarding school, I always looked forward to going home to the mission station over the longer Christmas break. We had fun with a variety of seasonal celebrations at school, but I wanted to be home for Christmas to be with my family and enjoy the traditional missionary get-togethers, gift exchanges and mission church celebrations.

After boarding school, the next time I was away from home in the months and weeks leading up to Christmas was in 1968 during my first year of graduate school at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. As a survivor of boarding school accustomed to being away from home for extended periods of time, I was completely unprepared for the severe attack of homesickness I experienced in those early weeks of grad school. Stuck in Idaho all alone with no one I knew, it seemed like December couldn’t come soon enough. I needed and I desperately wanted to go home. Quitting grad school would have been an option, I suppose, but I never seriously considered it because it would have been humiliating to admit defeat. After all, I had survived boarding school and I was just a child then. One way I coped was by buying my roundtrip plane ticket home as soon as I could scrape together enough money – probably sometime in October. Somehow knowing I had that ticket in my possession helped me persevere through the homesickness. The numerous letters I wrote and received from my mother and college friends scattered all over the place along with the busyness of adjusting to graduate school and teaching freshman English Composition also helped.

Then in the last days heading into the holiday break, winter hit the Pacific Northwest and snow was forecast for right around the time I was supposed to fly out of Spokane, Washington, about 80 miles north of Moscow. I was in a panic. After having saved that plane ticket all those weeks, desperately hanging onto the knowledge that I would be going home again, I could hardly bear the thought that my travel plans were in danger of being disrupted. The day of my flight was snowy. I worried that I wouldn’t even be able to get to Spokane and would miss my flight east. So I took an earlier bus, figuring that it would be better to be in Spokane than stuck in Moscow. I was operating on instinct and out of desperation, rather than with any rational plan in mind. The bus didn’t go to the airport, so I had to find transportation from the bus station to the airport. I think I took a cab, but I don’t remember for sure.

I arrived at the airport many hours ahead of my flight. As the afternoon and evening progressed, flights were delayed and then delayed some more. The Spokane airport in those days was pretty small, with nothing to do, plus I was all alone and an introvert besides. I paced the airport repeatedly, trying to fill the time. I don’t remember striking up conversations with anyone, except perhaps to ask whether there was any new information about when our flight would leave. The evening and night dragged on interminably, and my anxiety continued as I wondered if and when I would get home. Finally, sometime in the wee hours of the next morning, my plane finally took off, and I made it home (although I don’t remember how I let my parents know when I was arriving in Harrisburg).

At the end of the Christmas break, during which I spent much-needed time with family and friends, I made the return trip to Moscow. While I was gone, Moscow had severe cold weather, registering a record-breaking 50 degrees below zero on December 30. When I returned, my plane was not able to land in Spokane due to snow, and continued on to its final destination in Seattle. The airline put all the Spokane passengers on a bus across Washington back to Spokane, but I still had to find a way to Moscow. I hitched a ride with a carload of other students going back to school; I vaguely remember that some of them may have been going to Washington State University which is just across the border from Moscow. I didn’t know the students, but a kind of camaraderie had probably developed during our long bus ride, so I must have thought it was okay to trust them to get me to Moscow safely.

The winter of 1968-69 still holds the record for the snowiest in Moscow, with almost 110 inches of snow, more than 55 inches coming in January. (Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to confirm what I had long suspected, in this handy chart of snowfall in Moscow, Idaho since 1892-93!) In my memory it snowed every single day in January – sometimes just a little, other times a lot. My apartment was a 20-30 minute walk from my office and classrooms on campus, and I had no car, so I trudged back and forth to school every day in the cold and snow. I don’t think classes were ever cancelled due to snow that winter, unlike these days (at least here in central Pennsylvania) when even the threat of bad weather prompts numerous cancellations.

I had been attending the Church of the Nazarene ever since I arrived in Moscow in September, but had not really connected with anyone during the first semester and before I went home for Christmas. That January, however, after I returned, one of the church families began inviting university students who attended the church to their farm home on weekends for sledding parties. There was no shortage of snow for sure! I joined the group and at those sledding parties finally began making friends. In fact, the daughter of the family hosting the parties who was also a student at the University of Idaho became one of my best friends in Moscow; we still exchange Christmas cards 45 years later even though I have never made it back to Moscow to visit. Whether it was because I made it home for Christmas and felt fortified by renewed connections with family and old friends, or because I began making new friends during those sledding parties, or some combination of the two, I was never homesick again, thoroughly enjoyed my final year and a half in Moscow, made more friends, and was sad to leave after I graduated in June 1970.

Mary and the Unexpected

Another post featuring something I wrote many years ago that still resonates today….

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Something else Mary didn’t expect – the flight to Egypt. I bought the olive wood carving in Palestine and the stone carving in Vietnam during my travels with Mennonite Central Committee.

If I had been in Mary’s place, I wonder how well I would have coped. There she was, a normal young girl in Palestine, engaged to be married. She figured she knew how her life would be – marriage, children, taking care of the home – nothing unusual. She knew what to expect. Even if her life wouldn’t be exciting, at least it would be predictable.

But predictability flew out the window the day the angel came. One day she was looking forward to marriage to Joseph, and the next she was pregnant, but not with his child, and not because she had done anything. She was just there, minding her own business, being a good girl, and behold, she’s pregnant! How would she explain that to her friends, her parents, her fiancé? What had she done to deserve this major disruption to the nice little life with Joseph she had planned?

Fortunately, Joseph had his own encounter with the angel, so instead of dumping her, as most men in his position would have done, he stayed. With this crisis over, the pregnancy went on normally – until they had to travel to Bethlehem. By this time, Mary was very pregnant, and a trip to Bethlehem wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. But she went (what choice did she have?), and while she was there she had the baby – not in a clean room in the best inn, but in a dirty stable with the cows and sheep. I can imagine Mary thinking, “Why me, Lord? If I had to get pregnant like this, couldn’t I at least have had my baby in comfortable surroundings?”

In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, he says that after all the excitement over Jesus’ birth, Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I’m sure she must have done a lot of “pondering” over the years. When Jesus was lost in Jerusalem and responded so nonchalantly to his parents’ concern after they found him, Mary didn’t understand. When he left home to begin his ministry, he was always in trouble with the religious leaders, always saying outrageous things, having his life threatened, being followed by huge crowds of people, even shutting her out sometimes. This son of hers was different. No neatly packaged life for her. I imagine myself in Mary’s place, thinking, “Why can’t he be like everyone else? Why my son, Lord? I had such plans for him.”

And then he died – cruelly, undeservedly, humiliatingly. Mary’s firstborn son was hung on a cross to die. She hadn’t planned on his birth, and she certainly didn’t plan for him to die this way, so young, with so much work yet to do. More pondering, thinking, “Why, Lord?”

But I’m putting words in Mary’s mouth. I’m projecting my own feelings onto her situation. I’m reaching out of my need to control what happens in my life, not to have things happen unexpectedly. I want a neat package with no loose ends. I’m not sure I would have responded to the angel the way Mary did – afraid, but open to what the Lord wanted, even if it meant disrupting my entire life.

Lately, I’ve been inwardly screaming at all the disruptions to my plans, my full schedule, my life. Too much to do and too little time. So many demands, so many choices to make. I don’t want the unexpected, but of course, the unexpected always happens. Most of the time, however, the unexpected doesn’t change the whole course of my life, like it did for Mary. And rarely does the unexpected have such momentous consequences, like the birth of the Messiah. What if it did, though? How would I react?

“May it be to me as you have said,” Mary said to the angel. Her life – and the world – was completely changed, and all she said was, “Okay, whatever you say.” Could I say that? Could I imagine the serendipity of the unexpected, or am I too busy and too tightly scheduled to recognize the signs of something wonderful? Mary’s acceptance of a life which wasn’t the neat little package she expected challenges me this Christmas. I’d like to be more open to the possibilities of the unexpected.

 

Reprinted from “Phoebe’s Journal,” in the Evangelical Visitor, December 1987, pp. 30-31.

 

Searching for Perfection

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Our 2014 tree

Earlier this month, Dale and I picked out this year’s Christmas tree, and brought it home, only to discover that its flaws weren’t quite as easily hidden as we thought. I lamented what felt like our failure to choose a perfect tree, but then I remembered a column I wrote almost 30 years ago, when I wasn’t yet 40 and our children were still young. The piece was part of a series of monthly columns I used to write for my denomination’s periodical, and it reflected on our family’s search for our Christmas tree the previous year. What I said then is a good reminder now.

Last December, when we went on our annual family pilgrimage to cut a Christmas tree, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities between our search for the “perfect” tree and my own tendency to expect perfection in myself and others.

Searching for the perfect tree can be a real ordeal. The tree has to be tall enough so we can cut off some of the lower branches for extra decorating greens; it has to be the right shape (not to fat or squat or spindly). We don’t want bare spots, yellowing needles, dead branches, crooked trunks, or cockeyed spires. Of course, it’s almost impossible to satisfy all these conditions in one tree. So we settle for something less than perfection.

The funny thing is that once we get the tree home and decorate it, we are almost always happy with our choice. Is that because we rationalize away its flaws, or because we accept and appreciate the flaws as part of the unique character of that tree, or because we become blind to the flaws as we concentrate on the beauty?

IMG_0470

One of my favorite ornaments – made by Derek in third grade

I think there’s some of all of that. Having made our choice, we make the tree work for us. We put the worst side toward the wall, hang the larger ornaments in the holes, pick out the dead needles, and trim off protruding branches. The result is not something fit for the Christmas issue of Better Homes and Gardens, but it is our tree, made special by our loving touch and our collection of ornaments, each with its own history and special significance.

I also have high expectations for myself, my husband, children, parents, and friends. I want things to be as perfect as they are in my fantasies – sort of like I always look for the perfect tree to match the one I have pictured in my mind. By always expecting or wanting something close to perfection, I set myself up for failure, disappointment, guilt, and disillusionment, because just as there are never any perfect Christmas trees in the field we go to, there are no perfect people either.

Where do I get my notions of what constitutes perfection? Why do I have such a need for perfection? How do I balance learning to settle for less than perfection with continually reaching to be better than I am right now? These are all questions I wrestle with constantly.

For one thing, I make the mistake of comparing myself and my life with other people, and inevitably, given my tendency toward low self-esteem, I pale by comparison. I also think that perhaps I have fallen prey to the television and movie industries that often paint unrealistically glowing pictures of life and thus feed my fantasies of the way things “should” be but aren’t – in my life anyway. I’m not as patient and loving to my children as TV mothers often are; my husband doesn’t whisk me away to exotic places when things get boring at home; and I simply can’t be the immaculate housekeeper/successful career woman/super mother and wife that populate many fictional towns.

On top of all this, I think that my indoctrination with so-called “Christian perfectionism” has set me up for somehow believing that if I make mistakes, do something wrong, or don’t live up to everyone’s expectations, I am not a good person. When Jesus said, “Be perfect,” I’m almost certain he did not mean that anything less than absolute perfection is unacceptable. His relationships with people clearly show that he accepted and loved them even when they failed or behaved less than perfectly. While he did not condone bad behavior, he loved people unconditionally and extended his grace to them, forgiving them for their imperfections and failures and inviting them to change and grow. Many Christians don’t seem to be that forgiving with either themselves or with others.

The Christmas tree analogy helps me put my need for perfection in perspective. Even though I always look for the perfect tree, I can settle for less and be very happy. I learn to see the imperfections as things that make the tree unique and special. In fact, I soon forget all about the flaws and begin to notice the beauty. I really don’t need perfection in a tree, in myself, or in anyone else, to be content. It feels good to let myself off the hook of needing to be perfect all the time, and to experience the resulting joy of liberation.

 

Reprinted from “Phoebe’s Journal, ” Evangelical Visitor, February 1985, p. 28.

 

A Thanksgiving Post About Writing and Books

Rather than take the usual route of expressing my gratitude during this Thanksgiving season for family, friends, health, enough food, a comfortable home, meaningful work, and so on (all of which I am thankful for, in case anybody wonders), this year I would like to thank those whose written words have challenged and inspired me. As something of a writer myself, I confess to being just a little bit jealous of people who are able to use the English language with great skill, spin carefully crafted stories that keep me in suspense, teach me history while I’m reading a great story, help me think through difficult issues, articulate points of view with clarity, conviction and compassion, and help me laugh at myself and the often absurd world in which we live. Beyond the jealousy, however, I am grateful for them.

I thought about this last week when Dale and I went to hear Anne Lamott speak at a stop on her tour to promote her new book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. Anne has been one of my favorite writers ever since someone pointed me in the direction of her columns at Salon.com many years ago. I loved her irreverent and honest take on Christian faith – her ability to say what many of us think and feel but either wouldn’t have the courage to say or wouldn’t be able to say half as well, along with her willingness to be brutally honest and vulnerable about her struggles in life and in faith. I soon discovered her books of essays on faith, such as Traveling Mercies. She writes fiction (which I don’t like as well), and she’s written honest and very funny “memoirs” about the first year of her son’s life and the birth of her grandson (co-written with her son). One of my favorite books about writing is Bird by Bird, her book of “instructions on writing and life.” I am thankful for people like Anne who write about faith and ordinary life in ways that make me say, “Yes, that’s exactly how it is. That’s just the way I feel. I wish I’d said that!”

In my dreams, I have sometimes been writing my version of the proverbial “Great American Novel,” but it’s never going to get beyond the dream stage because I’m quite sure I don’t have it in me to write good fiction. That becomes clearer to me every time I read another particularly well-written piece of fiction, such as two novels I read the past several weeks. I am in awe of the way Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch is able to write convincingly from the point of view of an adolescent and then young adult male, how she crafts a suspenseful story that keeps the reader thoroughly engaged while also exploring such difficult and wildly diverse issues as post-traumatic stress disorder and the underworld of fine art theft. (OK, so the book got a little long, but who’s counting pages?!) I love Alice McDermott’s simple but eloquent use of language in her portrayal in Someone of the ordinary life of a woman who isn’t famous or accomplished in the traditional way we think of those qualities but who is “someone” special to those who care about her.

Good fiction, besides telling great stories and introducing us to memorable characters, also instructs and teaches history. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian writer of Americanah, I learned how African immigrants in America often view race issues, how life is different for them as blacks than for African Americans who have lived here for generations. Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings tells a story of slavery from the point of view of a slave and her owner, one of the real Grimke sisters from South Carolina who eventually joined the abolitionist movement. Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin artfully uses a real photograph taken during the Great Depression to imagine the story of the woman in the photograph. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders revives a true story of heroism from the time of the Great Plague in 17th century England by putting us in the mind of one woman who lived through it. Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage may be one of the most horrific novels I’ve ever read, but it was also one of the best. The subject matter – life inside a Burmese prison where torture was routine – was painfully difficult to read, but the novel was beautifully written and taught me much about not only conditions in Burma/Myanmar in the early 1990s but also how one individual can choose to transcend the unspeakable cruelty that others inflict on him and still show kindness to others.

I’m certainly grateful for writers of good fiction, but I’m also grateful for those who do painstaking research to shed light on an issue or a particular time in history, or who tell their own or their family’s stories. I think of Katherine Boo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which she wrote after three years of interviewing people who lived in the Annawadi slum on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport. Or the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, which describes in excruciating detail the way the criminal justice system has been structured to lock millions of African Americans behind bars and turn them into second-class citizens for the rest of their lives. Or To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, which describes a senseless war if there ever was one (World War I) and those who fought it and resisted it. Or Sonia Nazario’s account in Enrique’s Journey of a Honduran boy who braved incredible danger to follow his mother to the United States – a book that has particular relevance and poignance in the midst of the current debate about immigration reform. Or Kimi Grant Cunningham’s story in Silver Like Dust of her Japanese grandparents’ internment in a camp during World War II, shedding light on a particularly shameful part of our history.

This wouldn’t be complete without mention of all those who write thoughtful and articulate pieces on current issues, who challenge my thinking, and who remain respectful and kind even when mean-spiritedness and divisiveness seem to rule the day. Some of them I know personally and some I’ve come to know by reading their columns or blogs. Thank you! And then there all those individuals who have responded to my requests to write for the various publications I’ve edited over the years and who have graciously submitted themselves to my editorial pen. I’m even thankful after the fact for some who took issue with what I did to their writing because they helped me learn how to build good working relationships and become a better editor.

I couldn’t wait to learn how to read when I was a child, and I have been reading ever since. I can’t imagine life without books and writing. Reading has enriched my life in so many ways, and has definitely made me a better writer and editor. While my writing doesn’t begin to compare to that of the writers I’ve mentioned above, I learn from them, and occasionally some of what I learn actually makes its way into what I write. So this Thanksgiving, I say thank you to all the wonderful writers whose work I’ve already read and whose books and articles I’ve yet to discover.