Friday, December 14, 2012

Whatever is excellent or praiseworthy, think on such things

Kids choose right now to believe in Santa. There is so much evidence against him, so many questions and contradictions and yet they choose to believe.  They will even sit on a strangers lap just because he is wearing a fuzzy red suit. They choose to think about the fun, the magic, the toys.

Whatever is true, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, THINK ABOUT SUCH THINGS.

 It's from Philippians, it's etched on my wrist, and this afternoon as I reflect on the tragedy at a local mall, and this devastatingly awful tragedy in Connecticut, I am looking at it, and I am clinging to that verse.

Life is full to bursting of tragedy, grief, pain, awfulness. But it is also FULL of good, wonderful things.  Wonderful things like makeup counter boys who helped customers escape Macy's the other day, and went back into harms way to help more people. Wonderful things like babies, born everyday.  Babies like the elephant born at zoo here.  Have you looked at an elephant, they are hilarious and beautiful and amazing, like so many animals on this incredible planet. There are sunsets and sunrises. There is so, so much good, all around us. Like a college student who spent his morning with my son's class, because he has invested himself in our family, and my son loves him, and wanted him to be his "Special Person". There are good things and good people.

So I will pray desperate prayers for peace that passes all understanding for those families, and I will hold my children tighter, but I will choose to think about the good, the praiseworthy.  I will in my fears and desperation for the pain of life, choose to believe in a good God. I will fight like crazy to be thankful for the blessings I have and to find comfort in the amazing people God has put into my life, for however long they will be there. I will choose to look for joy in this season and to pray that someday those that are mourning will be comforted and find joy as well. I will choose to think that my kids are safe in their school on Monday, because if I give into my fears they won't be any safer.

It's not easy on days like today, but I don't know how to live any other way. I choose to believe in a God that creates wonderful things, that comforts us, that chose to be with us that first Christmas.  I choose to have hope. Whatever is good, pure, right, lovely....

Monday, November 26, 2012

Levitical Tryptophan- peace through gratitude

Levitical Tryptophan- Sermon from November 25

Scriptures: Leviticus 7:11-16,  Philippians 4:4-8

We took a break from our holiday shopping and planning this week to sit down and have Thanksgiving, at least for a few hours, before Target opened at nine, right? Thanksgiving is our stepping stone from Halloween to Christmas, barely an aisle in a store, or a nod at Hallmark. Cicero said though that gratitude is the most important virtue and the parent of all others. Gratitude is important.  UC Berkeley has developed an institute just to study gratitude, the Greater Good Science Center, because they believe gratitude to be such an important key to happiness.

I wonder how much of your Thanksgiving was filled with gratitude. Were you able to squeeze it in there between the stress about cooking, or spending time with relatives?  Maybe you were lucky enough to really relax and take time to count your blessings and be grateful.  Maybe you were too anxious though, or lonely. Maybe life is rough right now for you, and you don’t feel very grateful at all. I get that. Life is rough, it is unfair.  I think about the survivors of Hurricane Sandy. So many are still without homes, power, any semblance of their normal lives.  How was their Thanksgiving? There is sickness, death and destruction out there, and it’s hard sometimes to be thankful for anything in the midst of that. It’s hard to imagine a God worth thanking even. How could a loving, benevolent God allow that to happen?

 The truth is, there is so much wrong and unfair about the world, about life. Bad things will always happen, and quite often to good people, but there is also so much good, tremendous, unbelievable good. God set up a way for the Israelites to focus on that good too, that we see in Leviticus, and throughout scripture after that, to help us train our brains on the good, and practice gratitude. So let’s take an adventure into one of the very seldom studied, very odd books of the Bible and see what we can learn.

The laws and practices talked about in Leviticus were instructions given to the Israelites to help them have fellowship with God and reconnect with him.  The Israelites have been wondering in the desert, God freed them from Slavery, but in all of their weary travels they are forgetting that.  They are focusing on the bad and getting into trouble. Their nomadic life is hard and brings all kinds of health and hygiene issues, and they are having trouble. So laws are set forth, and practices put into place by the priests, the Levites, to help the people regain fellowship with God and be healthy and have a better quality of life. Some of these laws seem very odd today; we don’t practice most of them. Many don’t apply outside of the context when they were given, but we can still learn from them, and the practices put forth in this chunk seem to bare a great deal of similarity to our own Thanksgiving traditions.  I read this portion of Leviticus and thought it was quite remarkable, so I’m taking you along for the ride.

First you need to understand that the sacrifice and offering mentioned in this passage are very, very unusual, for several reasons. One, this was not a required sacrifice; they did not have to do this.  There was no atoning for anything with it, it wasn’t due to anything they had done, to make them clean again. Two, everyone could be a part of it.  You could actually eat what you sacrificed, not just the priest that was crazy. You could also bring friends and family to share in this meal with you.  Women and children could be a part of this. Third, it included leavened bread.  You should gasp there because that is some crazy stuff. Leaven was not allowed in the grain parts of the sacrifice.  It was symbolic of being unclean of having sinned, and was not allowed. In this sacrifice however, they were to have three types of grain offering, including fancy, leavened bread. Do you see why I was so fascinated by this passage? This is such an unusual sacrifice, and what is at the heart of this seemingly “opposite day” way of doing things, gratitude.  It was all about offering a sacrifice of praise and gratitude, and it was called the fellowship offering. This is actually the first time we see a communion meal, the word Eucharista is here, where we get Eucharist, which is communion. Mind Blown, I know. This is the first communion meal, in the midst of all of these regulations and instructions; we have a celebration of thanksgiving meal, for everyone, including sinners, because we included that leavened bread.  I LOVE this. Leviticus is exciting you guys. It shows us where we can find fellowship, unity, celebration, in gratitude.

It’s Levitical Tryptophan. You meat eaters just had your turkey; you have to be familiar with Tryptophan. It’s an amino acid and it’s found in more than turkey. It’s in chocolate too, and some other dairy and protein rich foods.  It helps the body chemistry and is part of the serotonin process. Serotonin helps make melatonin, for sleep, but it also helps with our moods. When serotonin levels are not right we can have illness like depression.  Some have used it to fight depression even.  It is not as effective as a sleep aid or depression fighter as other things, but we all seem to have this sense that it is.  There is this myth that tryptophan calms us and lulls us to sleep. So let’s go with that.  What God is giving us here in this crazy book of Leviticus is tryptophan for our souls; only it is actually really effective.

Paul picks up on this in Philippians.  He calls us to not be anxious about anything, but to rejoice, and when we are anxious to pray, and then give thanks.  We present the things we are worried about, with thanksgiving, and then what, the peace of God will settle in our hearts.  Let’s look at the message version of this scripture.
Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
Don’t worry about anything we are told, rejoice, and pray. Give thanks, and think about the good things. That isn’t always easy to do. That is hard, especially when life is tough.  We are being told though to take a new direction when we are experiencing life, don’t dwell on the negative, accentuate the positive as the old song goes. In that we will find peace.

Uc Berkeley’s institute backs this up with science.  Thankfulness really does cause us to be happier people. In fact those that kept a daily gratitude journal were 25% happier. They find it helps in three main ways to focus on being grateful. The first is, it gives us value. By recognizing that we are grateful to someone, we are recognizing that they incurred a cost for us, so we could benefit. That realization says that they must value us to incur a cost. Second it helps us socially; there is that fellowship part of the offering. We are connecting to and acknowledging people around us.  Third it can shape our thinking and make us more positive, sounds just like that last part of Philippians. When we are seeking out things to be grateful for, everyday, we start seeing things everywhere to be grateful for.  There was a study of Tetris players, that video game where you fit the blocks into the spaces. They had people play Tetris for hours upon hours, and when they quit playing and walked around they started seeing Tetris shapes everywhere, in everything.  When we get into the habit of being grateful, we will find so much more to be grateful for. We will see the good. We will find more happiness there.

My mom really lived this out for me this past summer. She was diagnosed with breast cancer after a lumpectomy was performed on some odd looking cells. It scared us all a lot, but she just kept telling us all to be grateful.  She focused on the fact that the cancer was caught very early. She had to endure weeks of radiation that caused painful burns but in regards to the cancer she remained relatively positive, and helped us all do the same. She chose to be grateful.  That’s not to say she didn’t have bad days, she didn’t get frustrated, because she did. Overall though, she got us through and got through because she chose to give God and offering of thanksgiving rather than wallow in the negatives.

We come to this place to worship a God we can be grateful for and give or thanks to. We may not understand why he doesn’t always intervene on our behalf in the ways we want him to.  We may get angry when he allows bad things to happen to good people.  We have to have faith though, and see the good that he has done. He gave us Jesus. He sacrificed himself for us.  Jesus knows what it is like to go through the lowest of lows. He lost friends, he lost his own life.  He cried out to God in fear and frustration, but he could see the bigger picture.  He knew how it was all going to work out and he focused on the positive.  He came to bring light and life to the world, and we will celebrate that in the advent season, these next few weeks. Our gratitude comes not just from the blessings in our life, but from the source of that life, the source of love, God.  He is trying to tell us in Leviticus, through Paul in Philippians and most of all through the life of Jesus, that he loves us, and if we come to him we can find joy and peace.  If we focus on him, he will be right there to show us the good, the great. He doesn’t promise it will be instantaneous though, and he doesn’t promise a life free from the bad things in the world.  We have to have faith in his promises of peace and grace.  We have to have faith that we will find it.  He may allow trouble to come our way, but he doesn’t make us walk through it alone and he promises us that.

Can we find gratitude in the midst of our struggles?  It’s easy to be grateful on a good day, for things right in front of us that scream good, and fun, like dogs or kids, or sporting events when our teams win, but can we do it in our struggles? So often we can accept the bad parts of something, if we can easily see the good.  We have a four-month-old Great Dane puppy, Theo. His brain and bladder aren’t well connected yet, and often on his way to go outside he leaves a trail down every one of our carpeted steps. He is a 50lb toddler and leaves a big trail, yet we love him and enjoy him, and accept the challenges that come with him, because God made him so adorable, and so silly. We take the good with the bad all the time in sports too. Your team may lose nearly every game in a season, but you continue to watch, having faith and waiting for that day when they win, and when they win, you rejoice, don’t you? Why can’t we take the good with the bad in life too, and focus on that good? When illness hits can we be grateful for the healthy days, for the doctors, for the people who are there for us. Can we find gratitude for life itself? Can you find something besides your paycheck to be grateful about the job that you hate?

Can we find unity and fellowship in the things we are thankful for?  We see churches split all the time; we see our political system split, because we focus on the negative, on our disagreements. Can we as followers of Christ come together here at MPC and bring and offering or praise? Can we sacrifice our own opinions on certain issues, or interpretations on things, our need to be right? Can we lay those things at the alter of God’s grace and love and celebrate together that which we are grateful for. We have a loving God; we have a loving church family, bursting with wonderful people.

I wondered a lot this week about those people in the path of hurricane Sandy. I sought out news articles on how they were spending their thanksgivings, and I found a wonderful piece for a blog on the Huffington Post by a priest who was leading a church in Breezy Point, in the borough of Queens in New York. We heard a lot about Breezy Point. It was wiped out. The whole town was flooded, and large portions of its homes were destroyed by fire.  These people had already been through so much with 9/11 as many of them were police and fire fighters and now this.  One of the places that did not flood was Father Sean Sukeil’s church, Saint Thomas Moore. People fled to the church for safety that night, but in the aftermath they also gathered there to give thanks. Here is what the Father had to say about thanksgiving. “After the hurricane passed, the worst was not yet over. The following day, residents who did evacuate started to return to the neighborhood to survey their homes. For me, as a newly ordained priest of only four months, it was a paralyzing experience. This was not something I was prepared for. It will be something that I can never forget. I felt helpless, and there were no words that could be of comfort to the people in the midst of this destruction. Many people were thankful to God that no life was taken the night of the storm and that everyone in the community was safe and accounted for. Thanksgiving came a little early this year for all of us in Breezy Point. The Sunday after the storm, residents packed St. Thomas More Church, filling up the pews, the side aisles and out the main door, giving thanksgiving to God. Some families' homes were burnt to the ground. Every person, in one-way or another, had damages and lost property. Yet, everyone made time to attend Mass on Sunday. It was a candlelight Mass because there was no power. It was a very moving experience for the entire community. It was vital to this community. We needed to come together and pray. This Mass was a turning point for us because the worst was now over. People's hearts were filled with deeper faith and a renewed sense of hope as we now begin to rebuild Breezy Point. Our hearts are broken, our homes are destroyed, but our faith is strong. As one of the pastors of the community, I encourage the people to not lose faith, to not lose hope. This tight-knit community's foundation is built on faith. Breezy Point is now a community of hope, and the symbol of this hope is the statue of Mary, which did not burn down in the midst of the devastation. Many people have asked, is it possible to be thankful in the midst of crisis and adversity? Our human nature screams "No!" yet God whispers "Yes." This year, Thanksgiving takes on a new meaning for all of us. We have so much to be thankful for: the gift of human life, the first responders, the volunteers, the different faith traditions, all of those who have donated food and clothing, families who have taken others in during this time of great need… We are thankful this year because of the differences people have made in our lives after Hurricane Sandy. For us in Breezy Point, thanksgiving takes on a new meaning and a new dimension. For us, it is now not only a holiday weekend, but also it is an attitude to live by. We now live in Thanksgiving!” (The Blog Huffington Post, 11/21/2012 “Thanksgiving in Breezy Point after Hurricane Sandy”)
They live in thanksgiving. It couldn’t have been easy for them.  There were so many things vying for their time and attention in those moments, so many needs.  They could have been fighting over scarce resources too. Instead they gave a sacrifice of their fears, their worries, their anxieties and frustrations.  They laid them aside and gave an offering of thanks.
I encourage you to find some levitical tryptophan of your own. To listen to these words of Paul and to make them part of your life. Give your worries over to god and rejoice with thanksgiving. Berkeley’s center has a gratitude project where you can sign up to journal on gratitude everyday. Do that on your own, or sign up for the study.  But don’t just be thankful for puppies and touchdowns, dig in deep and find things to be thankful for in that which you struggle with the most. Challenge yourself to think differently as you fix your gaze not on the awful, but on the wonderful.  We are coming into advent next week, a time where we are supposed to practice joy as we reflect on the awesome gift of Christ. So reflect with gratitude.
Colossians 3:15-17 says this, 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Can we get an "Arthur" episode that talks about The Brain's OCD?

I was asked in a job interview a couple of questions that led to me talking about our battle with depression, OCD, and Anxiety.  I was then later asked in a follow up if I thought those things hindered my job, would prevent me from working, and one of my references was asked the same thing. I wonder, if it would have come out that I struggled with asthma, would the same questions have been asked? If I had talked about Valentine having diabetes or some other life long health complication, would it have been a factor in deciding whether or not I could be employed? My guess is no.

Because we struggle with illnesses deemed "mental" we seem to fall in a whole different category, one that is filled with stigma and shame. That is unfair and a gross mischaracterization of what we deal with.  I hate the word mental, and all it stands for in our current society. The illness of depression, anxiety, OCD, and the others are physical, no matter what Tom Cruise would like to say about it.

You can google and research the actual goings on of these diseases in the brain, I'm not going to get into that. I will just share with you, the very physical aspects that we deal with. For the sake of comparison, I will match it up with asthma, as that is something I have dealt with since I was younger, both through friends and also from my own experience with what it does to my body.

My asthma is mild,didn't really start to be a problem until high school, and though I rarely experience symptoms of it anymore, it still flares up. I used to treat it, when it was more serious, with medication. I knew what triggered my asthma, and I tried to avoid those triggers and used preventative medication. When attacks were triggered, I employed the steps prescribed by my doctor to deal with it. Sometimes though it caught me off guard, I wasn't prepared, or even though I was prepared it just overwhelmed me, and I was not able to fight off the attack very well. I was fortunate and did not have to be hospitalized. I had a good friend when I was younger though, that was hospitalized often. She took the steps, she did what she needed to do, but it overwhelmed her system, and she became helpless at points to fight on her own.  No one considered her, or myself weak when these things happened. No one judged us, or our families for these asthma attacks.  People felt badly that we were experiencing them, they offered help etc. Our families could discuss our asthma openly with others and learn how others dealt with the same issues.  They could seek help or unload to others about what they were experiencing with us, and we could do the same, with no shame or fear. We were obviously past the days mentioned in the old "Arthur" episode, where everyone thinks buster has some shareable disease because he has asthma. It was seen as a problem, but normal, and no one needed to hide it, in fact a lot of the kids in our classes had inhalers too.

I wish those days were here with mental illness. Maybe Marc Brown can do some special new episodes of "Arthur" for all of us.  The Brain can reveal that he as OCD/Anxiety and Depression, and we can find out that Binky Barnes struggles with Bipolar disorder. They can do a fun little cartoon that shows things misfiring in their brains, and chemical compositions not being at correct levels.  Everyone can see that it's not contagious (although we could include something about their parents or grandparents struggling as well, and we can see it's hereditary).  Then the whole gang can talk about it, learn to support them when they are struggling, and get over it.  It can be alluded to in future episodes as part of their everyday lives. That would be awesome.

Besides the physical causes of the illness that Valentine deals with, there are very physical symptoms. I have laid in bed with him, a foot away, and felt his heart pounding.  This was after a good day, after a day when there were no triggers, when he was taking his meds, and had recently been to therapy. Still the illness overtook him.  I have seen the changes in his facial expressions, heard the edge in his voice, and experienced behaviors that totally do not fit with his personality at all, when the depression overwhelms him.  There are very physical changes to how he feels in other parts of his body, his stomach, his head. All of these things can come at times when he is responsibly treating his illness. Sometimes his body just can't take anymore, or he has grown tolerant to the meds, or a trigger hits unexpectedly. It is physical.

Yet we still can't just talk about it, we can't always share.  We worry that people will think we can't function or work, but we can. He may need a sick day here or there, but so do you and I. He handles these things very, very responsibly, and he works hard to manage.  There are times when it gets bad. We get overwhelmed, so overwhelmed at times, when things are bad, and meds, coping techniques and therapy just aren't enough. He works hard to keep going, working, being there for the kids, all the while feeling like he is going to crumble.  I work hard to help him keep going, to encourage him, and to keep everyone else going in the family, while I am scared and sad for him.  In those moments it's really, really hard. It's hard to get out of bed, to get dinner on the table, to get the house cleaned. It's exhausting. Sometimes I share with others.  There are a few people I will text or email for prayer. Even then, with the exception of a couple, I vary who they are. I don't want to overburden them with something they will feel helpless to battle too. I get worried that we will be the people who cried wolf, or I will be labeled a drama queen, if I text too much. Or worse, I worry that they will start to see Val through depression colored glasses, and forget what an amazing person he is. No one shows up with casseroles or cookies to help us through this tough time, most people don't even know we are having it (this is not a plea for casseroles, we really don't like casseroles anyway).

I wish we could take the words mental illness, off of these problems. I wish they could just be classified in general conversations as illness. Health problems, like any other. I wish we could speak freely. I know people that struggle with diabetes, asthma, Parkinson's, cancer, and so many other illnesses, have problems speaking about them too. They too can be embarrassed, can worry about how people will see them, but I feel like when the word mental is attached it ups the ante. Words like crazy get thrown around, not lapel ribbons. There are so many people around us struggling with these same things, yet we struggle in isolation and fear.

When we do share, sometimes people react strongly. I always hope that if they are uncomfortable or don't understand, they will ask questions, maybe not in an job interview, but still ask. I hope they will be reassured to find out, it's not contagious, we are regular functioning people, who are quite talented and bright by the way. I hope they will still see Valentine as the amazing Valentine that he is, and me as his awesome wife. I hope life will go on as normal. If they want to check in on us, ask how we are doing from time to time, that's cool too. I don't mind friends checking in, holding us accountable even, making sure we are taking care of ourselves. That is fine. That is normal.

I guess that's what I want is normal. I want people to realize these diseases, disorders, illnesses, whatever you want to call them, associated with the brain, are physical illnesses just like all the others. They deserve no more stigma and shame than any others. Is Marc Brown still making Arthur? Can we get some after school specials, cause I really don't want to start wearing a ribbon.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Tattoo Story #6 - Emergency Tattoo

Disclaimer: I don't think tattoos that aren't well thought out (for years if you are in your 20s, months if you are over 30), are the best idea. This one was an exception. I have Val's permission to post, to be honest about what we are struggling with, to open a curtain of stigma and fear, and maybe in the next week or so, I will post more on this topic. Given the title of this blog though, this seemed a fitting way to start, while the ink is still fresh and the tattoo is starting to heal. Hopefully healing continues...

We battle an illness in our house that is chronic, can be debilitating and at times is life threatening. It’s a triple threat of OCD, anxiety and depression. I say we, but I’m just the support person. I’m not the one who has to suffer at the hand of a genetically inherited illness, that while classified as mental, has real physical causes and effects. It feels physical too. It comes with a crushing weight of fear and sadness, and though I may not be the one with the brain wiring and chemistry that is off, I feel that.

This illness sucks the life out of us sometimes. It exhausts us when it goes on for weeks at a time.  It isolates us from others as we fear what they will think of us, what label they will put on Valentine or on our family. Sometimes as we struggle to deal with it together it even makes us battle each other.  It sucks soooo bad, but there is more to our lives than this awful, gut wrenching cloud of sadness.

There are good parts of our life, really good ones. Friends, people who don’t look at Val like he’s crazy or me like a drama queen when we tell them what’s happening. Friends who may not get it, but they get us and they love us no matter how sad or scary things get. Friends who know what’s wrong just by looking at my face. Friends who clear their higher paying tattoo client schedules to fit us in and put a tattoo on my husband’s wrist, so he won’t obsess about cutting it and he can battle those horrible thoughts.

Whatever is good, noble true etc, whatever is praise worthy and excellent. It’s an edited for skin space version of Philippians 4:8. It is beautiful script but tiny, and packed into a small space, it breaks some standard tattoo rules. It isn't a tattoo for aesthetics or art, It is a tool for coping, for healing. We will think on these things. We will think on these things when the fears of suicide seem to overwhelm us.  We will think on these things when we cannot get out of bed or off the couch because there is so much sadness.  We will think on these things and we will fight like crazy against this suck.

I will fight for you Valentine Hellman, because you are totally worth it. My life is better EVERYDAY because you are in it. Everyday that I can hug you, that I can laugh about our kids, or the ridiculous new horse of a dog that you were generous enough to let me get, my life is better. Every time I get a text from you, even if it’s one that tells me you are struggling, my life is better, because you are a part of it. You amaze me with your strength, with your ability to work and provide for us even on your worst days. Everyone that meets you (well the ones that are worth your time anyway) thinks you are wonderful, and you are the best part of the Hellman family. You are sweet and creative and sensitive and kind. Your playful spirit brings wonder and excitement to our house. You may struggle with depression, but that is not who you are.
All work done by Michael Facchini
at Blackhole Tattoo (West) in Beaverton, OR
That’s why I got the tattoo too. I am on your team. I will grieve with you and I will rejoice with you, and I will never give up on you. Ever. Your tattoo faces in so that you can read it. Mine faces out, so you can read it.  I know others will read it too. I know there will be questions. I Thank you for letting me share our story. Thanks for letting me reach out for help as I support you. Thank you for being bold enough to help others find a voice too.

Actual text of tattoo: Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Tattoo Story # 5 - Trying To Be Hopeful

All work done by Michael Facchini
at Blackhole Tattoo (West) in Beaverton,OR
Along with the balloon (see tattoo story #1) this tattoo has more conflicting emotions than any other. 

Some friends had a baby last week and of course everyone was interested in the babies name. It didn't occur to me until two days later, that I have a nephew with the same name. I have never met him, nor have I met his brother. I wouldn't recognize them if they walked up to me in a room. That realization was devastating. How could I not make that connection with my own family?

While I have a few fond memories of my sister, I have a truckload of painful ones. Memories like sitting alone in the rec. room of an inpatient facility for troubled kids as a nine year old, as my parents went to yet another therapy session with her. Memories of my parents and grandparents fighting about what the next best step was for her. Memories of my niece being ripped away from us and the stable home we provided as she was taken back to uncertainty. Memories of the #2 worst day of my life #1 also being related to the balloon. 

I won't share the details of that day. I can't, a blog is far to public a place for such things. Sufficed to say it was devastating. She made a choice that ripped me apart inside.  I know that choice was not made lightly. I know that choice was born out of crushing pain, and fear that she was dealing with. I don't judge her for that choice, but it was devastating none the less. 

That day I made an unconscious line in the sand. I tried to be there for her in the aftermath, calling, checking in, but slowly, I found myself checking out too. I was checking out of my emotions for her, for whatever her future was to hold. I was locking away parts of my heart that were already bruised and battered and trying to shield them. 

I know she is not a bad person, she struggles with things I will never know about. Life has not been easy for her emotionally and there are things going on in her brain I can't even begin to fathom. I'm a sinner too, not immune to bad choices.  I am saved only by the grace of Christ, I live by grace, and she needs that grace too. I just don't know how to share it with her anymore. I don't know how to get past all the bad choices, all the things that have happened. 

All work done by Michael Facchini
at Blackhole Tattoo (West) in Beaverton,OR
I got this tattoo, not long after that day. It is always in front of me. Even as I type the wing peaks out from underneath my forearm. It is a reminder that my sister is precious to God too. He takes care of the birds, so how much more precious are each of us. It may sound silly, but it helps. It helps me to switch off the anger, the hurt, and see her as a precious child of God, free to receive the same grace and mercy that I rely on. Broken and bruised just like me.  This tattoo and the balloon it holds in it's beak are the two tattoos I have that have never healed right. My arm just couldn't hold all the ink well, and infection set in. Even when touched up by our amazing artist, they still have spots and imperfections, scars that won't disappear.  I'm sure the emotional scars will never be erased either. 

Hopefully this holiday season, our paths will cross; I will meet my new nephews, and we will have grace with each other.  She will forgive me for not reaching out to her more, not taking the time to be a part of the lives of these kids, and I will look at her and not see the painful memories. I work at having hope that we will make new ones. I'll make sure to wear short sleeves, so the bird is right there staring at me. Hopefully she will find a way to fight through her fears and the obstacles in her life to make better choices, and take responsibility for the things she has done. I try to be hopeful things will change for her in good ways and she will live into the full potential she has as a child of the amazing God. Maybe she already is; her name is Hope after all. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

I'm a proud Proverbs 31 failure: Why I love A Year of Biblical Womanhood

As I gaze at Proverbs 31, the supposed Biblical list of what a woman should be, a "Biblical Woman", I realize just how far short I fall. Reading it,  I feel like a failure, an outcast a freak.  I can't rise early, I can't sew a straight line, I can't cook gourmet food, and truth be told I don't want to.   I can't be a Proverbs 31 woman. What I can do is put together one heck of a mission trip, write awesome curriculum and preach a damn good sermon. Sadly in some Christian circles that in itself brandishes me a failure. To them it's sinful for me to be in a leadership, especially if men are involved and learning from me. Even the big "hipster" churches that would welcome my tattoos and my colored hair, would never let me on their leadership team, because I have a vagina. So like many women I could easily look at what the Bible has to say to and about women, see the way the church classifies qualities of leadership, and walk away feeling more broken, hurt and confused. Alternatively I could try and conform, trading the gifts, God has given me for things that make me miserable and crush my spirit.

It's not just the circles of Christendom that cause me to feel this way. Society puts pressure on me as a mom, my family traditions too. I went straight for the epidural. I served my babies mixed drinks of breast milk and formula.  I won't wear the high heels and make up that to my mom, symbolize a grown woman. I dye my hair colors that can't be found through Loreal or Clairol, and I have gone and covered up God's "natural Beauty" with a bunch of man made art. I have never sewed a Halloween costume for my kids. My house is only ever somewhat clean, and only when company is coming. I am a womanhood failure on many fronts.

It hurts to live with that idea of failure, and it hurts even more to realize that as marginalized and discriminated as I feel, there are women that are truly oppressed and enslaved, simply because of their gender.  I abhor this, and I despair at the thought that the Christian community is part of this. I want more conversation about women's equality, I want all churches to fight for it. This is why I was so eager to read, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In this book Rachel Held Evans takes this conversation to a whole new level. I have been reading Rachel Held Evans blog for a while, and when the opportunity came to be a part of her Launch Team and read the book early, I was all over it.

Rachel Held Evans decided to challenge these scriptures and these ideas about the roles of women in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. She does not shy away from them, or let her failure crush her spirit, she confronts them head on, and tries to put them into practice, literally.  From calling her husband master, to camping out in a tent during her period, Rachel wrestles with the Biblical mandates. The results of her experiments in Biblical womanhood are quite funny, and I identify with a lot of them, especially her struggle with sewing. This line sums my sewing frustrations up, "the skills required for sewing just happen to include four things I stink at - patience, cutting a straight line, working with machinery and fractions."(p.80).   As Rachel tries to live up to the ideals that some have extracted from scripture, it makes for a very fun read, that helps you appreciate just how entertaining the Bible can be.

Rachel also examines the roles women have taken on in different faith traditions, from Quiverfull, Amish, Orthodox Jewish and more.  With grace and humility Rachel finds that there is no right way to be a Biblical woman. She also learns from the women that she once judged and made fun of, and finds practices that she actually wants to employ herself. Rather than tearing women down, Rachel celebrates their faith, even if it weirds her out. As a sarcastic, snarky person myself, it was awesome to see Rachel find beauty in the practices of many faith movements that she had once made fun of.

Rachel's husband Dan adds a lot to the conversation too. Some of his journal entries from the project are included, and they reveal a husband who struggles with these things along with his wife.  His support and the challenges it presented to him, make this book a must read for guys too.

Some of my favorite parts of the book were Rachel's profiles of women in the Bible. On careful examination of some of the prominent and also lesser known women of the Bible, Rachel finds that they were all different, all flawed, and all used by God to reveal himself to others.  She forces us to look at these women and the story that God told in their lives, even when that story is ugly.

Rachel's honest and educated attempt to wrestle with challenging scriptures was a breath of fresh air. I love what she challenges us as readers of the Bible to do "For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose."... "Are we reading with the prejudice of love, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgement and power, self-interest and greed?" (p.296). Rather than throwing Bible verses at us, she reveals what it means to chew on God's word.

Rachel also reminds us that the discrimination we face in American Christianity as women, is nothing compared to what women around the world face.  She gives an account of a trip she took to Bolivia with World Vision, and puts faces and names to these women. She reminds us that women everywhere are fighting for their lives and the lives of their children, and she calls us to action.

Rachel researched, challenged and practiced just about all of it. She saw how impossible it is to live up to these supposed Biblical Standards, but she also saw there is no such thing as one set of standards for Biblical Womanhood. In her research she releases all of us to be the women that God created us individually to be.  She doesn't hold us to a standard, rather she shows us the standards are impossible. She gives us all freedom to be Proverbs 31 failures, and to celebrate the different ways each of us lives out our faith. I cannot say enough good things about this book. Whether you are a Christian or not, it speaks to our insecurities as women and forces us to confront the ideals and traditions that have been handed down to us. It is hilarious, inspiring, humbling and quite simply fantastic.

The official release date is next Tuesday, but you can already find it on Amazon, and in some stores.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sticks and Stones, Jesus and Vaginas

"This CD has three songs that don't say Jesus, I want my money back", "They said butt on this cd, I want my money back", "they said sucks on stage, I want my money back for this T-shirt", these are all things I heard while working my husband's Christian band merch stand. Never mind the fact that we were touring the country in an Econo-van, spending our nights listening for hours to teens all over the country trying to encourage them, and have some good, "clean" fun. The guys in the band, us wives, we weren't Christians apparently because we didn't say the right words. Maybe they had never read the canonized holy scripture, that does not contain the words God or Jesus, the book of Esther. Words it seems are very important to Christians, and if you say the "wrong" words, or you don't say the "right" words, well, you don't get to be in the club anymore. It doesn't matter what the message is or how hard people are working to share the love of Christ, if the words are wrong, it's invalid. This CRAP infuriated me then, and it infuriates me now, and yes I know crap is an unacceptable word for Christians.

Now the exclusivity of acceptable words and Christians' ideas that they have the power to judge something Christian or not, is rearing it's ugly head again, over the word vagina. Rachel Held Evans wrote an amazing book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she examines what it means to live out the words that scripture has in regards to women, literally.  I'm halfway through her work, and it is a wonderful examination of scripture that has been used to hurt and subjugate women for years.  Words used out of context.  Rachel examines different cultures within Christianity and how they live these words out, and she does so with grace, gentleness, and humility. She also does it with honesty and correct anatomical language, she says the word vagina. That word apparently disqualifies her work. The Christians at Lifeway have decided that her book cannot be carried in their stores because of the word vagina. They seem to care more about the offensiveness of that word, than the discrimination women have faced because they were born with a vagina.  The message of Rachel's book is lost to many because of a word.

Censorship in the vagina-gate form, or in the form of not accepting something as Christian because it doesn't say Jesus, is hurtful and has no place in Christian community. Worrying that we are going to offend someone in our presentation of the gospel just because we used a word, is limiting what God can do and is doing through us. I do not try to create controversy when I speak in front of groups of people, be they groups of youth or a congregation of people on a Sunday morning. I speak the message that God and I have wrestled with, the words he has laid on my heart.  I speak honestly in the language that comes naturally to me.  When speaking to certain groups, I do try to be sensitive to those that are hearing me. I try to know my audience and present my message accordingly.  I do not want my message to go unheard because I offended someone. If a word like crap slips out, or sucks;  I expect some grace, especially from a Christian audience. If I mention the problems of homelessness, the environmental crisis, people terrorizing abortion clinics, or my tattoos, I don't expect to be censored, and yet I have been.  The entire content of my message was lost due to these things, I was branded liberal by some and unchristian by others.  It seems we Christians have little tolerance for words or each other.

Jesus used a lot of words, they are the red ones in that book in the hotel drawer, in case you were wondering.  He used words that shocked his audience, because as a "rabbi" he talked in everyday language, so that every person could see and understand God.  He used words that turned his audience's way of thinking upside down, like when he said, "blessed are the poor". The words that Jesus said were not okay to say, were the ones used against another person, to hurt them. Calling your brother raca was elevated to murder. Elsewhere in scripture we are encouraged to use only words that build one another up and encourage. Jesus also talked about not judging. His emphasis seemed to be not on the words used, but how they were used, were they used hurtfully?

 A major Christian chain deciding not to carry the book of someone who has spent over a year researching scripture and earnestly trying to live it out with grace and humility, because they used the correct word for a part of the female anatomy, is hurtful.  Christians should be more offended by the fact that people are treated differently or badly because they have a vagina, than the word itself. This form of exclusivity is bullying.  It is saying, "you don't talk like me, so you don't fit in here, you are out". It's equivalent to sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting, "la, la,la" because someone is saying something you don't want to hear. When, when will we Christians be able to focus on living out the words of Jesus, and not the words we hear or don't hear from our family of God?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tattoo Story #4- It's got nothing to do with luck

All work done by Michael Facchini
at Blackhole Tattoo (West) in Beaverton,OR
As the phelbotomist put the blood draining needle in my arm on the claustraphobic bus turned blood bank, she asked me if 13 was my lucky number.  I get asked this question on a regular basis, as I knew I would. I have after all, an orange and yellow star emblazoned on my arm with a 13 in the center. That 13 has nothing to do with luck though, and everything to do with a good choice, covenant and a God who can get you through anything.

13.5 years ago, I made one of the best choices ever, I married Valentine. He made the same excellent choice in choosing me.  We continue to  make that choice everyday, and have for these 13 plus years.We had a whirlwind long distance relationship prior to that day in May, but we knew for certain that we had chosen well. Val and I met in line for the bathroom at a show that some friends were playing, and he happened to be in the opening act. We realized we had a lot of fun together. We could make each other laugh with our twisted, sarcastic, bitter humor. We enjoyed a lot of the same things, and we just loved to be together, though we were hardly in the same state. So we didn't wait year and years to get to know each other, we just knew and we dove in and made a choice. We got to know each other very quickly as we traveled in a van with 7 other people for much of the first years of our marriage, sharing a bench seat together. We moved in and out of various apartments.  We finished college, started our careers and most importantly, or life changing, had two kids. Over the years we learned a lot about each other, some good, some bad, but somehow we always managed to have fun.We made a good choice, but it wasn't just a choice.

We made a covenant. We made a covenant with ourselves and God that we would stick by this choice for good or bad. It is a sacred promise. Thankfully, we both made the same promise and commitment. Whether times are fun or not, we are in this together, till death do us part. We work at this choice, together. There were no easy years, every year had it's own joys and struggles.  Each year on our anniversary though, we both knew we had made the right choice in making this covenant and choosing each other. We are committed to that choice too, whether we happened to like each other at the time or not. Marriage is a choice, every day, to live with and submit to each other. Some days we are good at that, a lot of days we aren't, but we still choose each other. Some see that choice as a shackle, but to me it is freedom.  There is freedom and peace in knowing that I get to spend the rest of my, or his life with him, with the person I want to be with most everyday.  No matter what, unless it's death or debilitating brain injury, we have each other. Why would I not want to be with the person who loves me most in the world? We entered into this contract together and we both take it very seriously.

The God that we entered into covenant with has our back too.  He keeps up his end by helping us through, and between the two of us, we can usually see how he is working in our lives. He is there for us, so it's not just us alone. We have a third party, and intermediary, someone to turn to, when that other person is driving us nuts, or when neither one of us has the strength to encourage the other.

Work on the right done by Michael Facchini
at Blackhole Tattoo (West) in Beaverton,OR
On our tenth anniversary we got the sugar skull tattoos.  Sitting in a tattoo shop as two artists give each person a tattoo at the same time may not be romantic to a lot of couples, but that is part of what makes us perfect for one another.  To us it was special, it was a one of a kind (they match but they are each different) reminder to each of us, that we made the right choice for till death do us part. We had stars put on for every year of marriage, and each year we celebrate by adding another.

Our thirteenth year was particularly difficult. Deaths, Illness and floods made for difficult days together. Just as we would clean up the mess for one thing, we would get slammed by something else. At the end of the day though, that same sick sense of humor would get us laughing, and God brought friends to our rescue on more than one occasion. We survived all of it together and we wanted to celebrate that with a special star, a victory star.

I made a great choice over 13 years ago, and our marriage has nothing to do with luck.  I have an amazing husband who loves me.  I never make the bed, I leave messes behind me as I go about the business of workaholic youth pastor, and I continue to tattoo my body.  He may not like the messes, but he puts up with me, and he loves each new tattoo I get. While they turn some people off, well, let's just say for Val it's the opposite. He loves me, he makes me laugh, he fathers our children well, he works hard to provide for us no matter how hard, or annoying the job may be. He perseveres through depression and anxiety to be there for us.  He also gets ridiculous tattoos so that when he is old and decrepit we will still have something to laugh about, he lets me put swings up in the kitchen, encourages the addition of my dream dog/horse to the family and allows painted chalkboards on the walls. He encourages me to be my best self, he challenges me, and he makes me laugh, just about every day. I didn't get lucky, I made a damn good choice, and so did he.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

With great power comes a HUGE amount of responsibility...

Pardon the almost Spiderman quotation, but I can't get it out of my head. There is this huge responsibility that weighs on your shoulders as a parent, that strikes fear in your heart and it has nothing to do with your powers to provide, but with your child's powers to do things in the world.  You wait, and wait for this baby, hoping and dreaming and decorating.  Then you bring the baby home, and sometime between the feedings and the diaper changes you think to yourself, "My God what have I done," and it's not because you are tired and sick of diapers, it's because you realize you now have to help mold this person to be a good member of society, a decent human being, and you suddenly doubt your ability to do that. What will they do?  You may be confident that you can sleep train, and potty train your kid, but can you really teach them to make good choices, to treat people well?  Typically then the icy feeling of fear grips your chest, but luckily you are so sleep deprived, it doesn't keep you up at night, at least in the beginning.

I got that jolt of icy fear recently as we brought a new baby into our home. Ted Theodore Logan (by the way it's from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) who we call Theo, is a Great Dane puppy.  He is not a human baby, we can put him in a crate and leave the house, his diet is simple and while he has issues sleeping through the night, and we are cleaning up his crap, he is easier than a kid.  Never the less, that fear gripped me like it has not done before with our other dogs. Unlike all of our other dogs, Theo will outweigh us.  He will be taller, bigger and stronger than Valentine or myself.  So we have this HUGE responsibility to mold him into this gentle giant.  Luckily, as with our kids, genetics are on our side.  He is predisposed to being a decent, nice dog.  His 200 lb. dad sauntered up to us very gently and leaned very lightly into me as my kids pet him and hugged him.  Still though, we have to train him, we have to practice good behavior with him, we have to show him the ropes. We have to give him structure and discipline.  Again, this will probably be easier than it has been with our kids.  We will be able to better control his environment.  He won't be going into the world very often without us, and certainly never unescorted by a chaperone.  He might be easier to deal with than our kids, but that sense of responsibility and that cold icy fear are there. He will be a very powerful dog, and it is our job to help him learn to use that power responsibly.

As I think of trying to help my kids, and my dog learn to use their powers wisely though, it causes  me to question my own.  I have great power, but do I use it greatly?  I get to speak into people's lives, especially young people, on a daily basis. People find out very quickly when I meet them, what I do, so they know that I follow Jesus.  Do I show that well?  Am I a good example?  Do my actions and words accurately depict a good image of Christ?Do I use the influence given in good ways?  AAGH, the icy fear is creeping back into my chest. Luckily it isn't only up to me, I am not alone.  I have God with me, I just need to listen to him.  I have a community of other believers in my church, my friends, my family, to hold me accountable, to help me to be the follower of Jesus I need to be. Just as with child rearing and dog training, thank God, I am not alone. Still, am I being responsible with my great power?  Are you?  Is there structure and discipline in your life of faith, are you training yourself well to follow Jesus, are you listening to him? With great power comes great responsibility...