Friday, October 27, 2017

Obligatory Halloween Blog

Last week we brought home pumpkins and carved them with the kids. Now, a week later, they are rotten, and I have to throw them away. I thought they would last longer than they did in our former, rainy climate, but I guess hollowed-out pumpkins don't do all that well in 80-degree weather. And I guess that next year, we'll be painting them instead.

I did look surreptitiously at my neighbor's porches to see if any of them had carved pumpkins, too. At first I assumed their absence was because this is an Adventist town, and we're all too pious here, but now I wonder if it's just that they knew better than I did.

It's Halloween time, and Halloween is a delicate topic in Christian communities. We all relate to it in different ways. I have lived in places where the church celebrated by bringing out the cautionary pamphlets, and refused to have a church social in October, lest someone get the wrong idea. I've gone to harvest parties, and I even remember, as a kid, being sent out to gather canned foods for Community Services on Halloween night (we usually got as much candy as canned goods). Of course, for the last many years, I've been able to avoid the issue altogether by getting completely exhausted with Reformation Day events.

I liked the holiday as a kid. I usually made my own costume, like the year I sewed fabric cat ears (made out of shoulder pads) to a headband and wore black. Or when I borrowed a tacky bathrobe and slippers, and put my hair in rollers. One year some friends and I went out trick-or-treating, and one had elf-ears on, and got constantly asked if she was Ross Perot.

But I have to admit that Halloween has changed since I was a kid. I don't remember lawns strewn with bloody body parts, or black-cloaked figures on porches that move when you tripped their motion sensors. The scary has gotten scarier, as the holiday-decor sales numbers attest. In fact, you don't get off the hook by not celebrating Halloween. When my kids see it on lawns, or in stores wherever we go, I have to deal with it.

And this is my real beef with Halloween. As a good Adventist, I teach my kids about the state of the dead--that death is like a dreamless sleep. And I ought, by that virtue, to be free from dealing with bedtime fears of ghosts and zombies. My kids should believe there's nothing scary in the dark, and go to sleep when they're supposed to. 

Instead, I have to explain.  I have to tell them this is pretend. People made this up, and they put out all these decorations for fun. Why is it fun? I don't really know.

I have some theories, though--theories I don't try to explain to four-year-olds. Perhaps all of this pretend darkness is fun, because it can be controlled. Because there is real darkness out there, real horror, and real evil, and it doesn't go away when it's time to change to Christmas decor.

And that's the reason why I don't bother having a strong opinion about Halloween. It's because there are real scary things in the world to worry about instead. As Christians, we know it better than anyone else.

The face of my own mortality is terrible enough. But then there are abuse, and oppression. There are the nasty things that people really do to one another, both in body and in spirit. Because there are parents out there who can't give their children enough to eat, and children growing up believing they must be bad because of what someone else did to them. Because men and women are wrestling right now with the cold sweat of addiction, or trying to survive in a culture that will never acknowledge them.

Because the evil isn't always on the outside, knocking to get in. And because we all suffer from sin, even before we're old enough to commit it.

Christians know what actual darkness is, and we know the source of the light, too. Kids in costumes don't count, and stage blood isn't enough to blip on the radar. We have no need to be afraid of witches or werewolves. The kind of evil that's made up, or at worst, imitation, isn't really the problem. Paul tells us we have bigger things to fight.*

So I don't have any judgment to offer on what you do on Halloween.  You can go to a harvest party, or meet the neighbors with hot cider out on your lawn.  You can stay indoors and keep your lights off. It won't really matter, if you're about the real business of the faith. What makes us Christians isn't what we say about the play darkness, but what we do about the real.

You and I are called to look the real darkness of the world in the eye, and bring the light to it. And this is all that really matters.

As for me, I plan to try again with the pumpkins, but I'll wait until next autumn, because I'm cheap. This year, my ten-year-old wants to go trick-or-treating with a friend. I got out her Reformation Day costume, and she's going as (Bloody) Mary Tudor. I think that ought to be terrifying enough.

*Ephesians 6:12

Friday, October 20, 2017

Tale From a Fire Zone

My world is on fire. The wildfires grew faster than my sense of reality could keep up. We'd had heavy wind all day on Sunday, and as I went to bed it grew to monstrous speeds.  So I wasn't alarmed when I woke in the night to the strong smell of smoke.  We'd had weeks of smoke from distant fires back in August.  While a sane person would have been ready to call the fire department and evacuate the house, I just chugged water to sooth my raspy throat and went back to sleep.

It wasn't until morning that I discovered it was a problem.  My local Facebook group was all over the news of wildfires in the region, threatening places we actually go.  Monday is grocery day, but I didn't go because the road I take was closed, and I didn't want to crowd the detour with all the displaced traffic.

K's school sent a message that they still had power and would be open--my first hint that the power was out beyond the college property on which we live.  She went to school, but within an hour, they sent us a message that, due to the lack of internet and cell network, we were free to pick up our kids if we wanted to. I took the twins and got her, not because I didn't feel safe, but because I like her home.

College classes went on, but J got messages from students who couldn't come in.  In all, about a third of his students never made it to class. It was getting smokey again as evening arrived.

Tuesday was a crazy mix of boredom and alarm.  The little airport just behind us was now home base for CalFire.  We listened to helicopters landing and taking off all through the day. Facebook started spitting out testimonials--stories and pictures, aerial views of the remnants of neighborhoods, buildings flaming red against the black sky. The college market promised generators and other emergency supplies were on the way, but the gas station was out of regular fuel. People wore dust-type masks on campus to filter the air. Meanwhile, I kept the kids inside because of the smoke, and struggled to keep them entertained.

There is a kind of barrier in our minds, I think, between normal life and real serious threat. We live day to day with the assurance that we will be fine.  There's no particular reason we think that, except that we are fine at the moment. The danger has to reach a certain threshold before it breaks through the wall and, as they say, "the (stuff) gets real." I've been in danger plenty of times. I can count on one hand the times my mortality became a living thing in front of my face.

I'm not sure exactly what pushed it over.  It might have been the weight of the photographs--most haunting was an Adventist academy I hadn't even known about until it was gone. The fire wasn't even two days old. How could something so sudden be so permanent?

But probably it was when the college sent word that it was cancelling classes for the rest of the week, so students could leave. The fires had threatened the two closest towns--one was evacuating.  Now there was a chance of losing our escape routes if certain roads closed. And now it was about me and my family, too.

The winds were set to pick up again that night. We went to bed not knowing what would happen, and woke to hurriedly check Facebook. The smoke smell was thick again, even in the house. We decided to leave.

It wasn't really evacuating. Sort of pre-emptive evacuation, and sort of taking a 5-day weekend. We decided over breakfast, and managed to drive out about 9am.  The kids gathered their clothes, and put toys in their backpacks, and I loaded up snacks for the car ride.

And then I got to the hard part.  What else should I take? I had the laptop and the phone charger. I pulled the files that had our documents for the car and our house, and the kids' birth certificates. I packed up the cat, his food, and a makeshift travel litterbox.  Then I stood alone in my bedroom, and looked at my things, and tried to decide to bring anything else.

My stuff.  I waited a long time for it. We'd moved in early August (so most of it had been packed in July), and a moving truck had finally delivered it at the end of September.  I remember my relief at seeing it--real couches to sit on, small appliances for cooking (I missed smoothies), other clothes. Real plates, and kids' books, and yarn to knit. (And this is where I thought maybe we shouldn't have had it moved yet, since it could all burn up.) It had seemed like a treasure trove at the time.

I stood and looked at it, and thought of all the free space in the minivan. What should I bring? My best yarn?  My collection of costumes? (too big to fit) A favorite decoration? The scrapbooks were all still in boxes in another building. Try as I might, I couldn't think of anything. It would either be here when we got back, or not. I took one book, and my current knitting project.

Fire is revealing. The wildfires didn't burn my home, and although they're still there, they're getting contained. But their presence in my world is instructive. When my sense of reality caught up with the burn paths, when the barrier in my mind finally gave way, things didn't look the same. The scope of value changed.

I have things of value--clothes I like, costumes I've made, expensive yarn. But instead I packed extra food for a cat with bad manners, one who was not going to make the trip better. (And, who was more likely to survive the fire than my stuff, since he has legs.) I walked past my wedding dishes and small appliances, and packed the kids snacks.

 And I didn't do it because I'm so unmaterialistic. Trust me, I love my stuff. It's just that some things are important and some aren't.

And we all know it.

The local Facebook community had no trouble with the idea. They advertised space in their homes for those who needed to evacuate.  They volunteered clothes from their closets, or food from their gardens.  They watched each other's homes, and looked after neighbor's pets. My favorite story was the one about the English department's adopted gray feral kitten, dubbed "Gandolf the Stray." Someone advertised looking for a humane trap to catch him, so he wouldn't have to be left behind. We got treated that night to a pic of his blue-eyed cuteness cowering in a corner, indignant but safe. Four days later, his rescuer posted a video showing a much happier cat, curled in a cardboard bed, graciously allowing a human to pet him.

So all that stuff the forestry people tell us is true--fires can do good things for us, as well as destroy. I don't want to speak lightly--thousands of people are suffering now because of the devastation. People have died. The spiritual carnage of loss is just as real as the charred homes. But we can do something about it.  We can take care of each other, if we remember what's important.

We're back home now. Classes have started again at the college, and I've finally made my grocery trip. Life could go back to normal. And I could forget. The barrier in my mind is easy to rebuild. But I have to fight to remember. I need to remember how it feels to look at my life in the light of the wildfires.  I need to remember what's important.

Whether we notice or not, we are all living in a world on fire.

God calls us to notice and serve our neighbors. When it comes down to it, we all know there is nothing in life worth protecting as much as the lives around you. We know, when we remember.

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.

That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."

2 Peter 3:10-13

Photo Jeff Chiu/AP

Friday, October 13, 2017

A Tribute--To My Friends Who Popped Popcorn to Watch Annual Council

I have to give my church's General Conference President credit--the long and formal church governance meetings have ceased to be boring under his leadership.  It's been six years since the conflict over ordaining women broke onto center stage again, and church entities first went toe-to-toe on it. I can remember, early on, joking with a friend of mine about watching the meetings online for entertainment.  And yes, popcorn figured into our plans.

But lately, the entertainment value has shifted into a genre I don't watch for fun.  I still tune in, but it feels less like watching a football game, and more like a public execution.  Or maybe it's just a poorly paired boxing match. I see my team put up a fight, but there is no real hope.

This year, of course, we were all a little surprised when Annual Council came out as, essentially, a draw. The action being considered was sent back to a committee to be considered further, and likely returned to the floor next year. Probably all the church was in consternation trying to figure out who won.

And this is my first peace offering: I know my distress over watching is because my team is losing. Sure, I think the refs are biased (the refs are, after all, playing for the other team).  I see unfair calls, but it's the final score that matters most to me.  So when I see my friends on social media popping their own popcorn to cheer for the other team, I need perspective. I need to consider what it feels like to be them.

 I have a terrible truth to share. I don't want it to be true in this case, but I am afraid it must be, and the popcorn is my reminder.  It's this--we are usually closer to our opposition than to anyone else.

This is how I learned that:

A few years ago I was in a, let's say "interpersonal conflict" with another church volunteer.  It was new territory to me--I haven't had many of these before.  We were working together on an event, and it felt like every time there was a conflict, we were on opposite sides.  Actually, we were the opposite sides.  It was starting to feel personal.  While I was sure I was being honest in my opinions, I wondered if she didn't like ideas just because they came from me.

Finally we came to an impasse. There was a certain job we both felt best qualified to do.* We were both getting pressure from different sources to do it.**  It was intense.  For days, I went to bed, and couldn't fall asleep because I was too wound up, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.  I wanted desperately to distract myself.  I woke too early and couldn't get back to sleep.  I had no appetite, but I ate junk food, looking for something to feel happy about.

I felt trapped. I wanted to drop the project--the emotional cost was too high. But I had to fulfill my commitment. So I prayed about it as honestly as I could.  And then I cornered her one evening to suggest a compromise.

She didn't like it.  I could see her anger grow while I talked.  So I wasn't surprised--actually kind of relieved--when she let me have it after I finished. I don't know how long it took--maybe ten minutes. I had to stop myself, over and over, from framing replies in my head, while I listened.  And I'm glad I did, or I would have missed something important.

While she vented her anger, she told me how miserable her life was because of me.  She was having trouble sleeping.  She didn't want to eat.  She was miserable all the time because she couldn't get it out of her head.

I was supposed to feel guilt, or maybe anger, but strangely, I started to feel relief.  Even joy. Finally, FINALLY I was talking to someone who understood me.  She knew--she knew what I was going through. She was still wrong, of course, but I loved her anyway.

We compromised, and I promised I valued her.  But I couldn't really explain my feelings, and I understand if she thought I was faking it to make peace. We certainly didn't start agreeing because of it.  But it changed the way I saw her, and I still love her.

We are closer than we think to our "enemies."  That's good and bad news.

First the bad news. On one side, it means that who goes out and pops popcorn is less about having a purer character, and more about who is winning.  That's what it means to be polarized.  The same things happen to us when we feel pushed into a corner, no matter which corner it is.  We start talking just to our own side.  We let off stress by laughing at a caricature of the other side. We start to give an ear to fear-mongering. Maybe worst of all, we hold a double standard, using the same bad logic we condemn in others. And we justify ourselves because of how bad this image is that we have made of our enemies.

That's the bad news.  But there's good news.  There is someone out there who understand us, even if it is from the opposite side of the mirror. They, too, care enough to get involved.  They, too, feel enough conviction to try. They, too, want the organization or project or cause to succeed.

And they feel the pressure, too. For every fear of a church take-over by the supressive barefoot-and-pregnant crowd, there is someone else insisting it will be taken over by militant, secular, anti-moralists*** The world looks a lot different from the other side of the stand-off.  The problems look different, the proportions are all rearranged.  And I realize, in my saner moments, that if I believed that view of things, I might say the same things, want the same things.

This is what it means to be polarized--the conflict pushes us further and further toward the edges, further and further apart. Until we realized (if we ever do) that the poles bend, and we have come back together, staring at one another through a mirror, opposite but equal.

But that's not where we have to live.  I think there's a path forward for our church, but it isn't out at the edges.

We are a church family.  My experience of being in families says that we don't usually "solve" our arguments.  We live together in spite of them. We make allowances, and we put up with things we don't like, because we still love one another.  Because our relationships aren't based on the arguments, they're based on things we value more, things we have in common.

So this is my tribute to my friends on the other side:  I get it.  Maybe not your convictions, but your experience.  We didn't want to be in this together, but we can't help it.  And it turns out we have a lot more in common than it seems.

It's my hope, too, that we will get a chance to figure that out. I hope we can swim back upstream from the poles to which we've been relegated. I hope we remember how to be family.

For my own part, I intend to practice listening to you, even when I know you're wrong. And maybe we'll get a chance to remember all we agree on, after all.

Come over any time.  We'll pop popcorn.

*This is the most unbiased way I can explain the situation. Rest assured that it felt much more complicated at the time.

**Of course, I didn't know about her pressure then.

***What these people would want with a church, I don't know, but that's really not the point.

Friday, October 6, 2017

What's Going to Happen After Annual Council?

I get to watch this year's Annual Council from the hot seat.  This week, as leaders of the Adventist church's world divisions decide what to do about unions that ordain women the same way they do men, (in spite of stern warnings,) they are talking about me. In August, we moved to California,  the Pacific Union.  I like being in an ordaining union, but I know that when the other shoe falls, we're sitting right underneath it.

We all know it's not going to be good. The talk lately is that the "nuclear option," a hostile takeover of the Columbia and Pacific Unions, is not likely, although it is still hoped for by some.* But there's no question they will be voting some kind of retaliation. There is no written church policy forbidding it, and never has been, but the ordaining unions have been called "out of policy" for so long that the narrative has stuck.  It is certainly stuck in the minds of those who get to vote a church response.

I can't change that.  Trust me, I've tried.

I remember in 2012, just after the Union votes, I was literally barefoot and pregnant (with twins), gathering information to email to an unnamed Division President on a friend's request, before the "censure" vote that year. In 2015, I stayed up after the kids went to bed at night to help work on the book Questions and Answers on Women's Ordination so it could be published before the General Conference session. I don't regret my efforts, but they didn't exactly change the course of events.

I have no say in what happens at Annual Council.  But I can say what happens afterward.  I have no vote this week, but that doesn't make me powerless.  I don't know what the church leaders will do exactly, but I know what I'll do.

I'm going to stay here. Right here.

I don't know how I'm going to feel about it all, but I plan to stay in the Adventist church. This is why:

1. This is my faith.-- I may not agree with church leadership--hey, I might not even follow. But it was never about policy.  I'm not here for the organization, I'm here because of the faith.  The ideas I value most are at core of Adventist doctrine--loyalty to Scripture over creeds, the God who loves us, and saves us based on his own merit, not ours. A God who offers rest (Sabbath), who values our free will enough to die for it, who has the answer to all our pain (Second Coming).

2. These are my people.-- I belong to a local community, and they are my church. In fact, I've been to a number of local communities where I have belonged.  I know there are local churches where I might not fit in. It's okay. There is no one person, not even a committee, who gets to determine what Adventists must be. The body is bigger than those voices. I won't give up a real, living community because of a committee of people I've never met.

3. This is not the end of the story--Churches change.  This one has been worse in the past, and it will be better in the future. I don't know how long it will take or how hard it will be to pick ourselves up off our faces from this crisis. It will depend on other people's choices how far in the hole we get. But we've dug ourselves out as a denomination before. We'll do it again. There are better days, and more benevolent leaders, ahead.

So I have a plan for what happens after Annual Council. This is what I'm going to do:

1. I'm going to recover.  I don't know how long it will take.  I don't know how I'll feel. Luckily, last year's Annual Council has prepared me--I know at least that I can recover from a bullet-wound to my church loyalty. Time helps.  So do walks outdoors, a blanket and a tea-mug, music, and time with friends.

2. I'm going to worship. My faith isn't built on the work of committees of (mostly) men in suits. It rests on the generous and profound grace of God. It's about this Jesus who loves me personally, and who's promised to come back and fix the messes. The equality of men and women is only an outworking of the gospel. I plan to spend time submerged in that gospel, to remember why it matters, as well as what matters most.

3. I'm going to love my church. It's been a stressful ride for all of us. (In fact, it's probably been worse for those on the other side of the question.  It was they, after all, who had to the worse conspiracy theories to fear.) It's now when the church family needs one another most. So I'm going to stay engaged, nurture friendships, listen, and pray. I'm going to remember that my "church" is not out there somewhere, it's right here.

4. I'm going to keep working for what I believe. This isn't the end of the story. I think the church's rosy future is still a long way out, but I can work toward it. I'm going to preach when asked (and I might go and offer). I'm going to write and speak what I believe.  The idea of equality is getting stronger, in the world as well as the church. I'm not going to give up on it.

This is my plan. I don't know the future, but I've decided to be in it. I'm choosing to control the one thing I can--my own actions. Maybe I'm a lightweight, but I'm going to swing that weight toward the better elements of my church.

That's my nuclear apocalypse--I mean, Annual Council--survival plan.  I plan to survive (and get to better days somewhere--perhaps far--on the other side).

I hope you will, too. I could use the company.

*I have friends who talk about prepping the popcorn and snacks to watch the live feed. I think they're hoping for a fireworks show. Who knows? Maybe they will be just as disappointed as I am.