Category Archives: faith

50 thoughts on turning 50 #28: Signs, signs, everywhere signs

EPA award 2015

Not quite two weeks ago, I was on a deadline for my humor column and battling a solid wall known as writer’s block. No amount of thinking, free writing, talking to the dogs or crying got me and farther than a few sentences for the column that was due on April 5th.

Some writers claim that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, preaching that “butt in chair” will get the writing job done. That’s a great start. But when you have to write something coherent, and funny, writer’s block is a real thing.

So there I was, banging my head against the wall trying to finish one of the dozen column ideas I had, when I thought about going on hiatus from the humor column. I’d just signed the contract for my next book – this is a local history book with a focus on Mt. Hope Cemetery – and I was thinking that maybe trying to mix two genres was going to be more difficult than I thought. I can’t just turn on the funny; it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of mental “funny” that goes on before I sit down to write the column. I’m typically not a great multitasker, creatively speaking. I need to be in research mode full time to get the book done on schedule.

I finally got the column done, sent it to my editor – and that night learned that a humor column I wrote had won a first place Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals Award in the Humorous category. The column? “Insomnia: things that keep me awake at night”, which I wrote during another episode of writer’s block.

EPA award 002

What the judges said about my winning column. The irony was not lost on me that the column that won, while I was battling writer’s block, was a column about writer’s block.

A long time ago, in a religiously focused life, I would have taken that as a sign from God that I should not give up writing the column. And in some ways, it was a validation for me to keep writing the column while working on the book. I love writing humor, and knowing that what I write makes readers happy is important to me.

But the history book makes my publisher happy. I mean, he’s really excited about it, so the fact he gave me a contract when I pitched the book was a sign, too, right? Plus, I’m really excited about it; it feels like the right time for a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years. And I think the people I’m writing about who are dead in the graves would be excited about it, if they were able to have an opinion. (And one of them may have an opinion, given something that happened when I was walking around the grave site, talking out loud.)

But then I go back to the humor sign. What if I have writer’s block next month? And the next? What if I should have signed the contract for a different book idea I’d also pitched (which was more humor-focused)? Uh oh, did I make a mistake?

Back when I was looking for God’s direction in literally everything, I saw almost everything as a sign from God. Do this. Don’t do that. It started to feel like the song by Five Man Electric Band:

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

It led to a condition I call Paralysis By Analysis. All of these signs got confusing, to the point that I was afraid to make any decision. I mean, I want to do what God wants me to do, right? And if I don’t do what God wants me to do, He gets mad, right? But how was I supposed to know what God wants me to do? So I ended up doing nothing, or at the very least not trying new things or exploring things outside my comfort zone.

As I’ve matured, and especially as I hit my 40s and now 50, I’ve learned that you can read anything as a sign, especially if you’re already inclined to second guess your decision.

So Lesson #27? How do you read the signs? Maybe there aren’t really any signs at all, except the ones we erect ourselves.

How do you know what does God want you to do? I think God wants you to honor him by using your talents, by taking advantage of every moment life gives you, by making other people happy and seeing God in you, in whatever way that is. Do people see joy? Kindness? Integrity? Faith? Humor? Those are the signs we need to be looking for.

Theologically sound? Probably not. But as we all know, I’ve never claimed to be a theologian and my spirituality lately is a little outside the box. I am, after all, the person who walks through cemeteries talking to the people buried there. But do consider this: don’t spend so much time looking for signs that you miss the adventure.

And because I know the song is now stuck in your head, here’s the whole thing.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

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Be Nice: Do I need a receipt to return my spiritual gifts?

 

sample spiritual gifts

This is a sample of questions on a spiritual gifts test.

Once upon a time, in a religious galaxy far, far away, I took a quiz to determine my spiritual gifts. It was part of a Sunday School class at a church I’d just joined, and I was looking for some guidance about what God wanted from me.

For those of you outside the world of Christianese, a spiritual gifts test (or assessment; there are no wrong answers on a spiritual gifts test) is designed to evaluate what talents and abilities God has gifted you with to benefit the church. You might be suited to teaching, for example, or evangelizing, or serving meals, or opening up your home to people for Bible studies. It’s all designed to help a Christian grow in their faith and better serve his faith community.

The quiz usually asks questions like “I feel that I have a message from God to deliver to others” or “It makes me happy to do things for people in need” or “I often think about how I can comfort and encourage others in my congregation”. You assign it a number from, let’s say 0 to 5, for each statement, depending on how well you think it applies to you. There are no wrong answers; at the end you add up the score and, theoretically speaking, you should have some insight into how God has gifted you to serve Him and the church. Your gifts could be exhortation, giving, shepherding, prophecy, teaching, leadership. Stuff like that.

On my test, I got zero points for hospitality and serving others. Zero. Nothing. As in, I had no gifts relating to being nice or giving to others.

I don’t remember what my other scores were – I think I had some points for administration, which, given my inability to organize my own sock drawer or get my dog to sit even if I was holding a steak, should have been a clue the quiz was faulty). But overall, I wasn’t feeling very gifted. (And while there are technically no wrong answers on a spiritual gifts test, try sitting in an evangelical Sunday School class and telling the leader you have zero interest in helping other people.)

That test – or the constant desire to figure out what my spiritual gifts are – may or may not have eventually had a bearing on my involvement in organized church as a whole. I’ve never felt like I fit in, I’ve never felt as if I was needed. Well, I was needed, in a way. The minute you join a church you often are inundated with requests to serve on committees and help with projects, and while the goal is to help you grow in your faith, the reality is that in many churches, like in many other organizations, 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. Any warm body will do when it’s time to paint walls or rock babies in a nursery.

But what am I good at? Why am I here? What do I have to offer the world? What does God want from me?

Over the years, I began to understand a little better where my gifts are – both in relation to God and to my place in the whole wide world. I tell stories. I give voice to people who can’t share their own stories. I honestly talk about my failings so that other people can relate and perhaps find comfort. My writing mission statement is “Connect. Inspire. Change the world.” Big dreams for a little writer.

But as for being nice?

I’ve had my own ups and downs. The zero on that stupid quiz had to be a fluke; I’ve gone on to do a lot of serving, a lot of being nice, a lot of opening my house to strangers. And I liked it. In fact, I loved it. Then I got burned out and retreated, almost to hermit status.

So for a while, I wasn’t nice. Then I was. Now I’m not so much. Was the test wrong? Or did it ask the wrong questions? Or, and I think this is more likely, did I change as a person, going through various periods of my life when my priorities shifted and became more focused?

So here’s the first Be Nice Project discussion question: Is being nice – or generous or giving or helpful or kind – something innate, or is it something we learn? How nice do you think you are right now and how nice do you actually want to be – in other words, are you as nice as you feel you can be or should be, and if not, are you desiring to be nicer? And honest, there are no wrong answers.

My family tree: famine, poverty and religious persecution

Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland. (Photo courtesy AlanMc, WikiCommons)

As I’ve been researching my family tree, I keep coming back to one question: why did my ancestors leave Ireland?

Confession: I know very little about the country where so much of my heritage was born. For that matter, I know very little about American history, other than the major events. And I’m pretty fuzzy on a lot of them, too.

I’ve heard of the Irish potato famine but know nothing about what it was, the havoc it caused, and the poverty and hunger that drove the Irish to America.

I know nothing about the religious differences that have divided Ireland for generations; “Sunday Bloody Sunday” was just a U2 song, right? And how can Catholics and Protestants be at war in this modern, tolerant world, anyway?

Like I said, I’m clueless. And yet, the little I have learned about my family makes all of those issues in history alive for the first time.

It seems that my first Irish ancestors arrived in America in about 1847, with my great, great, great, great grandmother Mary Branagan. A few years later, in 1850, my great, great, great, great grandfather John Maloney immigrated; he and Mary Branagan would marry in 1852 in Cummington, MA and have, among other children, a son named Charles.

My great, great, great grandparents Michael and Catherine Touhey Larkin came to the U.S. in 1857; they had an infant daughter Mary with them. Michael and Catherine went on to have seven more children, five of whom lived. One of them was Annie.

On November 21, 1883, Annie Larkin married Charles Maloney, thus uniting one branch of my Irish family tree.

I have no records showing the exact dates of immigration for anyone on this side of the Irish family tree, where in Ireland they’re from, when exactly they came, or in what occupations anyone was employed while in Ireland. I know when John Maloney arrived in Massachusetts, he worked as a farm hand while the rest of the family, as they grew, worked in the woolen mills.

In fact, my entire family is filled with family who worked in the woolen mills. When Charles was 12, he was employed in the woolen mills; so far that’s the youngest I’ve seen but with 10 years in between each census, it’s not unlikely that some of my ancestors who are in their early 20s were employed as spinners and sewers as children or teens.

I’ve asked myself more than a few times what life in Ireland must have been like. Because in America, things weren’t all the cozy, at least looking back from the comfort of my modern home. No running water. No sanitation. A nation on the verge of Civil War. Jobs in mills were long and difficult.

And yet wave after wave of immigrants came, believing that what they would find here would be better than what they left behind. And it sounds like, in the case of Irish immigrants during this time, they were right.

In the book “Immigrants in America: The Irish Americans”, author Karen Price Hossell explains that the plight of Irish Catholics in the middle of the 19th century was worsened by British penal laws of the 17th century depriving them of the abilty to own land.  By the early 1800s, she writes, “Catholics owned about 7 percent of the land in Ireland, even though they made up mor ethan 80 percent of the population.” While the penal laws were repealed in 1829, by then the damage was done. The Catholics were too poor to buy land even if they could.

And then, there was the potato blight.

In 1845, a potato blight that had first affected England and parts of Europe  spread to Ireland. That year, about 30 to 40 percent of the potato crop in Ireland was destroyed, but the following year nearly all of the potato crops in the country were ruined.

I don’t think we realize how well-fed we are in America.

It’s difficult to imagine today that an entire country could starve because of the failure of one crop. In modern America, we’re used to going to the grocery store and enjoying a selection of fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits that are not always even in season.

But for the Irish on the 1800s, meat was a rarity and the grain and other crops grown on the estates of landlords, as well as the livestock, was exported to England. As my mother likes to say, the cobbler’s children went barefoot.

So without the potato, the people of Ireland starved. They ate grass, seaweed, the rare cabbage. An inconsistent diet; if they weren’t starving they were sick from what they could find to eat. The Irish who worked the land as tenants found themselves in increasingly dire circumstances when they were evicted by landowners who were not obligated to provide them shelter.

In short, it was a desperate, desperate time.

It’s difficult to sit here in 21st century America and imagine that the failure of crops of potatoes could send an entire country into a devastating famine. And yet, it happened.

To put this into a little perspective, Quakers in Ireland offered some relieve by opening soup kitchens; by July 1847 there were about 2,000 soup kitchens serving hot meals to three million people every day.

The Poor Law Extension Act of 1847, an extension of the 1838 act establishing workhouses for the poor,  offered shelter – all the suffering had to do was turn over their land and agree to live in appaling, overcrowed, unsanitary, disease-ridden conditions. By 1851, three hundred thousand people lived in workhouses, and there was a waiting list of many more.

Monetary donations came from the US, India and other countries and while the blight was less severe in 1847, the crop of potatoes was sparse. The famine continued in this fashion until 1850, when the blight ended as quickly and mysteriously as it began.

Hossell writes that the English has little sympathy for the increasingly dire situation, owing to the fact that the English were predominantly Protestant and the suffering Irish were Catholics. (Ah, now the conflict in Ireland is starting to make sense.) In fact, the British response to the Irish famine is charged issue, referred to as “genocide by starvation”.

It was during the years of this devastation that my family began to arrive on U.S. shores. They weren’t alone. In 1840 about 1 million of the 17 million people living in America were of Irish descent; by 1854, that number more than doubled.

For the first time I am beginning to understand what drove them here, poverty I can’t imagine and perhaps a religious persecution that suddenly clears up the conflict in Ireland.

Like I said, I don’t know exactly where in Ireland they came from, or exactly why. But given the conditions in Ireland at the time, it makes sense that the potato famine was a catalyst, at least for the earliest of immigrants. Working in a woolen mill, living in a house, not facing famine, I suppose those things were a better life despite the fact that it doesn’t seem that way looking backward.

And it explains the deep Catholic roots of my family in Massachusetts. Not like today’s evangelical Christians spreading a doctrine, but in a lifestyle way. My family is Catholic. That’s just who they were. (It also explains why it was such a big deal that, as a teenager, I make my first communion. Despite the fact that both of my parents grew up Catholic, I grew up in a loosely faithful evangelical family and as such didn’t engage in those religious rites. But how that all came about is another story for another day.)

That’s just who we are, I guess. Devoted family, deeply faithful to their beliefs, willing to work for a better life for their children.

In other words, American.

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Caution: influence may appear much bigger in rear view mirror

I was cleaning my office on Sunday – I’ll wait while you pick yourself up off the floor – and for reasons I can’t explain pulled out the old CD player and a box of my favorite CDs and started blasting music.

I mean, blasting music. Windows open, breeze blowing in, music pouring out.

I haven’t done that in a long, long long time, since before I crawled under my emotional rock and curled up into a ball with the dogs and dust bunnies.

But on Sunday? It was rock and roll and sing out loud and dance with whichever dog was closest to me.

I’m no musician, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the art of making music. Which, of course, is why I always felt like a fraud when I was covering music. I just know what makes me happy,  makes my blood tingle and my spirit soar. And doggone it, I love a song I can sing along with. Loudly and off-key.

What I loved about covering music was the people. I’d go to music events and pick the unknown bands to interview, especially the ones who had the time to hang out and talk, who weren’t dishing out pat, rehearsed answers about how they wanted to share Christ with their music when in reality, they just loved making music and being on stage. Which of course was often not only the more honest answer, but the one that may actually have served God the most.

So this music I was blasting away on Sunday made me think of old friends. A lot of CDs were from artists I know or I’d interviewed and remained friends with, or music that was playing while I was with friends having fun times and making memories.

But I didn’t just listen. In between listening to music and doing the cha-cha with Bandit, I actually contacted with those friends. Sent a little Facebook “I’m thinking about you today” hello.

It was awesome.

I had a discussion, for example, with an artist pal who caught me up on the band and added that he hoped big things would happen soon. I told him, “Hopefully big things will happen soon – but remember that just doing what you’re supposed to be doing might actually be the ‘big thing’. You just might not get to see how big it is until it’s in the rearview mirror.” He said that was actually encouraging.

The truth is, that was something I needed to be reminded of, too. Trying to lift the boulder I’ve been living under has been exhausting, and when I look at the work that needs to be done to clean house – literally and figuratively – I can get overwhelmed.

Which is why I am so grateful that, while at a writing conference a few years ago, someone encouraged us to create a writing mission statement to help guide us when things got overwhelming. Here’s mine:

“Connect. Inspire. Change the world.”

Nothing drastic. No plans for world peace (I can’t even manage dog peace in my own house). No specific goals to save the world or feed the hungry – although those are all tasks that happen within that little mission statement (although not nearly as much as they used to happen, which may be one of the contributing factors in my years under the rock. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

I’m reminded of that quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which I often share but will share again because it’s so darned inspiring for me (bold emphasis mine):

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

There’s nothing in there about meeting page view goals, making money, or being a literary rock star. I’m good at a few things: connecting people and encouraging people, and hopefully in the process facilitating others to fulfill their missions in life and thereby be a link in the chain that will change the world. 

So here I am, halfway through the week, feeling so flipping fantastic, so happy to have reached out to people and found them still there, to be reminded that nothing more is expected of me than to do exactly what I’m supposed to do today.

Which, if I’m reading the signs right,  means some serious puppy snuggling.

The benefits of volunteering – but you need to define volunteering

As you know, I’m working on my book idea about loving your  neighbor. Currently, I’m researching about the benefits of volunteering.

Ironically, I was also asked this week to take part in a university survey about volunteering. The questions asked me about how I’ve felt in the last week (emotions, stress, etc) and how often I volunteer.

I hate surveys like that. First of all, they didn’t define “volunteer”. I marked that I volunteer once a week, because I actually go to the animal shelter once a week. After I was done, though, I realized that I didn’t include that I’m fostering a puppy for a local rescue group. That’s a 24/7 kind of volunteering. I also am doing a little bit of networking and promoting for an abolitionist group for Freedom Sunday. That’s an hour a week.

So I suppose I volunteer more than once a week.

As for my emotions and stress level the last week, the survey didn’t ask why I checked that I might be feeling sad, blue, tired, and even aimless in my life goals.

The weather this week was wonkier than it has been all winter. Freezing cold one day, then in the 50s the next, then a foot of snow a few days later. I don’t function well in winter, but especially when we have winter, spring and fall all in the same week.

Plus, we’re trying to get Bailey into her big girl crate. Talk about stress. No amount of volunteering is going to make me feel better. Wait, caring for Bailey is technically volunteering.

The 2010 United Healthcare/Volunteer Match Do Good, Live Well study found that volunteers have less stress, feel better about themselves, and generally get a lot of positive benefits from doing good for others. And I would totally agree with that.

But a survey like the one I took this week doesn’t capture the reality of my volunteering. Saturday at the shelter, for example, was nightmarishly stressful – but I love it. I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but that one day of the week I’m there, I know that not only am I helping people adopt animals, I’m also helping the staff. It’s both draining and fulfilling.

The daily stress of caring for a foster puppy is a whole other matter. LOVE this puppy. Love, love, love her. But I also have two grown Border Collies; three dogs is just too much for me and our small house. And a puppy requires constant supervision. That kind of volunteering is actually wearing me out right now – not because I regret fostering the puppy. Quite the opposite. It’s just that a puppy is a lot of work.

Interestingly, the United Healthcare study found that giving more and doing more doesn’t necessarily mean feeling better or happier. In fact, there’s a plateau at about 100 hours a year.  It’s called “compassion fatigue” – and the effects can be severe fatigue, distancing from close relationships, and even depression.

Been there, done that. For several years, I wore myself completely down “doing for others” – because “volunteering” can also be driving people around, and listening to people unload their problems, and other non-typical volunteer activities. I ended up physically and spiritually drained. Then I learned the most wonderful word in the English language: “boundaries.” Although I don’t know that I’m actually recovered completely.

But that’s a story for another day.

Illegal immigration, children focus of moving documentary “Which Way Home”

I just finished watching the Academy Award nominated documentary called “Which Way Home”, which profiles children migrating from Central America and Mexico to the United States with dreams of a better life.

For some, it means finding a parent who left to find work in the States and never came home. For others it means escaping an impoverished or neglectful homelife.

While the film doesn’t focus on child trafficking, you don’t have to look too deeply to understand how children can essentially disappear off the face of the earth at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. Promised entry into the States, some are handed from smuggler to smuggler, and if they’re lucky taken into custody by immigration before something horrible happens to them. A few make it to their destination, alive but scarred physically and emotionally.

Others simply fend for themselves, hopping trains that take them further and further north towards to America, where cities gleam and jobs await, and the prospect of crossing the desert while avoiding immigration – and death – is just a fairy tale.

 But it’s estimated that the Border Patrol apprehends 100,000 children trying to enter the U.S. Children, not adults. No one really knows how many children make it to the U.S., give up and go home, or die in the desert.

Watching the documentary, I was left unsettled. I’m all for enforcing immigration laws, but there’s a human side to every political issue that needs to be handled with compassion. Sending a child home to parents who abuse him isn’t necessarily the answer. But what can person could do? Sponsor a child looking for a better life? I don’t know. I don’t have the answer.

If you get time, check out “Which Way Home.” I watched it on Netflix via my Roku. You can see the trailer and learn more on the film’s website. I’d love to know what you think.

“Enjoy God/Coke” inspired fashion (if you can call it that)

Matthew Paul Turner, over at Jesus Needs New PR, posted a picture that made me look twice: a runway model sporting a  spandex mini-dress with a Coke knock-off “Enjoy God” message.

Ironic, isn’t it? Skimpy mini dress, Christian knock off on the trademarked slogan? Turner had the picture under the tongue-in-cheek headline, “Proof that Christians influence culture!”

The dress is by from designer Jeremy Scott’s Fall 2011 collection, which is clothing, I guess, in the sense that the outfits are made from some sort of material and people are wearing them on their bodies. Here’s another selection from the collection:

Scott told Style.com writer Matthew Schneier that fashion “shouldn’t be a church that you pray to”. Which, of course, makes the dresses completely hilarious, because they shove our noses right into our own stinking pile of Jesus junk commerce.

We wanted people wearing t-shirts with the Christian-inspired slogans we ripped off from popular products, like this one from Christian t Shirts Planet:

 Well, here you go, the message “Enjoy God”, on the runway for all the world to see. Doesn’t seem so holy anymore, does it?