Tag Archives: sin

God Bless America: Weight and Light

God Bless America: A song-turned-slogan, sometimes performed at sporting events; an attitude; an expectation.

In China, I learned that you can be homesick for a country. That in addition to missing family and friends, you can miss landscapes. Air. Earth.

I love the romance of wanderer. I imagine myself with a backpack and a worn pair of TOMS, walking the earth. I want to be girl who can pull off dreads and a sweet bandana; I want skin that is porous enough to absorb the beauty of a thousand different cultures.

But during my year on the other side of the earth, I learned that I am rooted.

I sought out fragments of home with a kind of desperation. I ate crap just because it had familiar labels. Snickers bars. M&Ms. Entire cardboard tubes of Pringles. Every week, on our night off from teaching, my husband and I took the train 45-minutes to Jiaxing to eat McDonalds. I gained a lot of weight.

I missed neighborhood playgrounds and blocks of cheddar cheese. Signs I could read and hair stylists I could communicate with and thin, frozen pizzas. Garage sales. Quiet coffee shops. The same twenty rotten pop songs looping on the radio.

The Century Mart down the road from our school with its big plastic bins of chicken feet and its cardboard boxes of “milk” did not do it for me. I wanted Target. Cub Foods. The big-box stores of America that we rage against except when we don’t have them.

In China, I understood that you are not just from a country. You are part of it. It is part of you.


Tomorrow is the 4th of July, and Pinterest is a blaze of red, white and blue. Food coloring! Frosting! Stars and stripes and sparklers and handmade pom poms. Little individual flags on sprinkle-covered cake pops.

Americans everywhere will dress their children in red, white and blue and Instagram them eating corn on the cob, watching a parade, waiting for the fireworks.

When I say I am American, I mean it in the best way and the worst way. I am the good and bad of it. The quiet and loud. I am humble roots, pulling up, up, up by the bootstraps. Working hard. Earning my keep.

But also, I am brazen selfishness, taking for granted things others only dream of having. Overeating and overspending, every day throwing away uneaten food.

It is in me to be brave, to fight for the oppressed. It is in me also to take. To elbow and push to get what I want. I come from those who led slaves to freedom under the cover of night; I come from slave owners, who believed it to be their God-given right to own other humans.

I was raised in the wild beauty of freedom and democracy. I grew up among finger paint and outdoor recess and Ducktails on television. Every year I wrote an essay titled “What I Want to Be When I Grew Up,” and I understood that anything was possible.

But I tend to use those Big Dreams to excuse me from the hard, daily work of love. I have an unbelievable amount of resources, and more often than not, I use them to make my life easier instead of to alleviate the suffering of others. I am free but often live as if I am not. I have the right to “pursue happiness,” and so I chase it, this phantom thing. I let myself believed that I deserve it, that it is the most important thing.

I am asking always for blessing. I forget that I’m already blessed.


There will be a parade. The Shriners will drive by on their little carpets, wearing those little hats with the tassels on them. There will be marching bands and horses and politicians flinging candy. The whole thing will be hot and sticky. It will smell like sunblock.

We celebrate the day that a country was born, and you don’t need to look farther than your TV to see that the whole thing is hopelessly flawed. Just notice the angry political commercials and commentaries. Look at the signs and slogans; listen to the monologues.

But then, we’re all hopelessly flawed, each of us carrying the weight and the light of our own country. The fireworks explode against our life’s landscape.

Night darkens into day, and we who run free in the wide love of God have a choice: to give into fear or to be brave; to take or to give, to dream or to do, to hate or to love.

We can demand to be blessed. Or we can be the blessing.

Prayer Request

Prayer Request: A need or situation brought to the attention of a group of Christians so that they may pray for God’s intervention.

I am an expert at making it sound spiritual.

I have learned to wield words, to stack them around myself like a fortress. I know how to paint it so that my own failures are besides the point. The point is, of course, that jaw-dropping thing that he did. That asinine thing that she said. The way they hurt me.

The trick is to place all kinds of spiritual modifiers around it, the simplest being Please pray for [insert name] because [insert perceived failure here].

There is a way to pack so many words around a sharp fragment of gossip that I can convince myself that it’s not judgment but insight. Holiness. Some form of love.

I might say, I know she’s just living from her brokenness, but…. I might say, I’m feeling wounded because… I’ll probably try to work in grace somehow. I need grace to love [insert name of particularly tricky person here, plus each and every sordid detail of the story.]

What I’m really saying of course is, it’s not my fault. Something has happened that’s left me feeling slapped across the cheek, and instead of turning the other one, I am wandering around, showing the mark to anyone who will take the time to look. See what they did?

I am not talking here of the deep wounds, of the secrets we keep, of the stories we need to tell to be made whole. There are times when the details are necessary, times when the guilty parties need to be named.

I’m talking about something different – those daily, unavoidable ways that we fail each other. I’m talking about the times when I’m pent up with pain and anger and I’m venting for the catharsis of it, for the justice of it, for the sympathetic nods and dropped jaws around the prayer circle.

And I know how to make it sound righteous. I phrase the request just right so that they rally around my anger, and I feel lifted, carried by their empathy. But after the porch light is turned off and the plates have been cleared, I am left alone with my own heart, stripped bare like winter branches.

Gossip is a kind of loneliness. Well-dressed as it may be, justified as it may feel, it never leads to healing. We are healed only when we reveal our own dark hearts to one another, our own failures, our own ugliness. We join hands, our love for each other joined to the infinite love of God, and it becomes a kind of river. All of our empty, broken places are covered by it.

The best model for group prayer that I have seen comes from Discover the Life, a reader for small groups by Neal and Judy Brower. Theirs is a call to honesty without advice or judgment. Rather than buffering our failures with the rotten circumstances, the jaw-dropping details, we keep it basic. Not I am angry because…; simply I am angry. Will you pray for me?

There is something beautiful to me in this idea of stripped-down story, cutting through the causes to the deepest, hardest truth. There is something organic about coming around one another’s emptiness not to fix it, but to cover it, and I want to know that kind of healing, that kind of love.

I have been around the evangelical world a long time. I know all the best words. I am an expert in making it sound spiritual, in saying it just right.

Now I want to learn the quiet courage of saying it true.

Safe for the Whole Family

Safe for the Whole Family: A popular slogan for Christian radio stations who filter out questionable content to guarantee a safe and sanitized environment. (This is arguably the main impetus behind much of “evangelical subculture”: creating a safe place, protected from the muck of “the world,” for Christians to live in.)

The salesman is young and blond and clearly uncomfortable in his dress-shirt and tie. The suitcases he carries are heavy with vacuum components, bulky in his arms.

He coughs, sniffles, apologizes. He’s getting over a cold he says. Around his left eye, I can see the faint raised outline of a fading black eye.

The salesman is quick and matter-of-fact. He pulls metal parts from the box and assembles the vacuum in one fluid motion as he gives a running monologue of the features of this fabulous machine. He uses phrases like lifetime guarantee. Like the last vacuum you’ll ever have to buy.

He is doing a quick demo, then whipping out the used coffee filter to show us the dirt content of my ledges, my walls, the creases where the floor and the wall meet.

Vacuum this area the best you can, he tells my husband, only to use his fancy, shiny model to prove what we are missing with our ten-year-old Hoover: sand, dirt, shredded bits of broken carpet knotted into miniature tumbleweeds.

He looks at me pointedly, this young boy. Do your kids crawl around on this floor? He says it gravely, holding the coffee filter out so I can see what is at stake here.

I try to stop the weird little laugh that bubbles up, but it’s no use, because my kids were actually eating leaves off the lilac bush today, and I had to pull wads of green mush out of their mouths.

Dane is every day catching some new slimy critter, and for all the scrubbing, I can’t seem to get the dirt out from under his fingernails. Liam is tasting grass and sand and various rocks, and this guy is holding up a little coffee filter of dust, and I’m thinking, Oh buddy, you have nooo idea.

And who can say what is under all this? What dirt we drag in from the outside world? Who knows what lodges itself in the fibers of our family? We wash and vacuum and at the end of the day throw those boys into the tub, but the dirt is in the air itself. It’s hitchhiking in on our skin. It’s invisibly working its way down into our carpet.

But there is this thing that the vacuum guy wants to sell me and it’s the same thing that the Christian culture has been selling for years: safety. A clean environment, free of contaminants. You put up these barriers to keep dirt out, and you hunker down with your dear ones. You use the $2500 vacuum and you clean the hell out of things.

I heard recently at the round table of my parenting class that the influx of allergies in recent years is partially due to over-sanitizing. That there is a purpose to all of this dirt, that these germs make our children stronger. That without it, their bodies turn in on themselves, become intolerant of even good things.

And it makes me think about the wild gray of parenting. It’s this ambiguous combination of protecting and releasing, of holding on and letting go, of discipline and freedom, and none of it is clean or sanitized or easy.

There is dirt embedded in every bit of it – our own selfishness, our own wrongness, our own baggage is deep in the carpet they crawl on.

The world is infused with pain and with evils of all shapes and sizes, and they will encounter it, our children. It will get under their fingernails, on their toes. And in the end what I want most to do for my children is to teach them to walk well in a world that is sharp and hard and broken. I want them to love bigger, to love stronger, to be able to stay healthy when they encounter dirt of all kinds.

I don’t know what that looks like exactly. But I think that the Gospel in action is not really about sanitizing or about collecting unseen dirt in coffee filters. It’s about a Love big enough to cover all that lies beneath the surface.

The vacuum salesman makes three strategic calls to his boss, bringing down the price by a full thousand dollars, but still we shake our heads. He puts away the vacuum attachments, the hose, the heavy metal base. Sighs.

When he opens the door to leave, invisible dirt particles fly in. They will work their way down into our inferiorly-vacuumed carpet. They will stay there, possibly until next time I get roped into a vacuum sales demo. There will be dirt, and we will teach our children, as best we can, to walk tall over it.

Easter Weekend

Easter Weekend – The three days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday – that form the climax of the story of Christ.

Good Friday

The service is split into seven parts, and there are candles and readings and costumes and art. I’m equal parts compelled and exhausted.

Last night, we drove the seven hours from Minnesota to my childhood home in the Chicago suburbs. We arrived at 1am and then waited another hour for the kids to spiral back toward sleep.

At church, hours later, the view looks the same as it did in high school, though the faces are mostly unfamiliar. My mind is wild. It lights on the moment – the dancers, the reading – then flits away, seized by some sudden memory.

When the last candle is extinguished and the sanctuary is bathed in darkness, I feel trapped by the quiet. I am wondering about my kids, tapping my toes, needing them like crack cocaine.

It is heavy, all this talk of sacrifice. A Father gives up his Son for love and it feels like despair. It makes me desperate for their dirty cheeks, their snotty, open-mouth kisses.

Holy Saturday

A book I read once on the liturgical year called this the quietest day. The emptiest one. The worst has happened, and God did not stop it, did not even come, and you are left holding nothing in your wide open hands.

I am not quiet today. Instead, I’m laughing with my two best friends from high school. I have a wine glass in one hand and a felt mustache on a stick in the other, and we’re all posing photo-booth style for the camera.

It is Holy Saturday, but also it is her bridal shower, my friend and old accountability partner. She is tall in her designer shoes, radiant in her white pencil dress. Her accent is lightly British after so many years in London, but I still remember what her belly-laugh sounds like at a high school sleepover.

The first time her mom was in the hospital, the three of us went to the high school variety show, I think, to avoid it. And no one can really say how that old car, Penelope the Beast, ended up hitting that tree, but there we were, shaking on the side of the road – our first Saturday of the soul.

There were more, of course. First heartbreaks. Second ones. That long, mid-twenties Emptiness when we met to drink strong margaritas and to feel grace, stronger still.

When she stands to thank us all for coming, her voice catches in a way that reminds me that even in these happy days, there is an element of emptiness. There is the long, cold split of the ocean between one place and another.

When she stands, my mind briefly lights on the disciples all those years ago, and I think, We are scattered still.

Easter Sunday

In high school, we made a party out of it: an all-nighter followed by an early drive to Glencoe Beach. We huddled in sweatshirts at the shore of Lake Michigan to sing, pray, wait for the sun.

But this morning, my first thought is not He has Risen!, but rather they have. The baby monitors are buzzing with their early-morning voices – babbling from the one, a drawn out Mommm! from the other.

I imagined that if I paid attention to these Holy days, Easter itself would come in like a crescendo. A burst of light. I imagined my heart would be wild with the joy of it all. But the day passes, a little tired, a little understated.

My kids are too young to understand it. Dane drops his boiled eggs hard into the dye and they crack straight through. He wants to dig for worms with Papi instead of hunting for eggs anyway, and I want to take a nap.

We start the long trip home in early evening, and the boys drop off to sleep before the sun is gone. And maybe I missed that moment this morning when the sun came up, but I am watching it disappear, lighting the fields around the interstate.

And suddenly, that seems right. The sun comes up on an empty tomb, but the story doesn’t end there. It circles around, begins again, and you have to learn to live it all anew. You wake to resurrection. You have to learn to live there.

The sun sets over the fields, and the stars come out one by one over Wisconsin. We drive the dark road home, lit quietly from within.

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