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Archive for the ‘Questions’ Category

I’m doing okay

Just in case you read my middle-of-the-night panic-laden post earlier this week, I wanted to let you know that I’m doing okay. I did not wake up to a frozen face on Tuesday morning.

That doesn’t mean that the fear that I’ll experience paralysis again has completely evaporated. It’s still there, buried underneath all the other stuff that has risen to the top of the “To Worry About” list. It will be back at some point.

I wish I never had to worry about it ever again, but I know better.

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When I was 33 weeks pregnant with my first son in 2006, I developed a condition called Bell’s Palsy. It’s facial paralysis. They don’t know what causes it, but one of the major facial nerves is affected, causing the muscles on that side of the face to droop. In my case, the left side of my face was affected. I couldn’t move the left side of my face or blink my left eye for several months.

Yeah, it was bad. It didn’t hurt, which was about the only good thing. I couldn’t taste salty food very well, because the taste buds on the left side of my tongue were affected. I couldn’t close my left eye, so I had to tape it shut at night. And the worst: I couldn’t smile. I had always thought I had a great smile, and then I no longer had a smile at all. And I didn’t know if I’d ever be the same again.

I have almost no pictures of me with my son in the early days of his life. I felt so horrible about my face that I just couldn’t allow myself to be photographed. Even as I shunned the camera, I mourned the absence of photos of me with him. I sobbed over not getting the chance to be photographed beaming over my newborn son. I couldn’t smile over him at all.

It was, to put it mildly, not a good time in my life. I did a fair amount of “why me”-ing. Of beseeching God to please just restore my face. Of praying and crying. For someone who’d had a relatively easy life, it was about the closest to “a dark night of the soul” that I’d ever had.

My face improved when my son was a couple of months old. The left side of my face stopped drooping so much. The left side of my mouth began to move a little bit again. And by the time he was four months old, I could blink again. But I never regained my regular face again. It has stayed a little asymmetrical. I cannot raise my left eyebrow, for example. So when I am surprised or shocked, I can widen my eyes, but only my right eyebrow goes up. It would be cool to be able to raise only one eyebrow sometimes, but I wish that I could raise both when I want to.

Even so, I was delighted to regain even a lopsided smile. I am careful now to put my “good” side toward the camera when I have my picture taken. I am used to making such small concessions. It’s not really a big deal anymore.

Last night, however, the area around my left ear near my jawline began to feel funny, sort of sore. Remembering that I’d experienced some mild ear pain before the Bell’s Palsy set in, I began to worry. Tonight, the ache began to feel a little worse, and I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s just fatigue, or maybe I’m getting sick, or something. Earlier tonight, I was in bed, but I started to feel nervous again, so I got out of bed and carefully inspected my face in the mirror. I couldn’t tell if anything looked different, but I felt that ache and imagined that my face was starting to sag a little. I worried that the left side of my face was feeling a little stiff. I worried that Bell’s Palsy was coming back.

So I paced around the hallway for a few minutes, freaking out. I panicked that if I went to sleep, I’d wake up with a paralyzed face again. I took a few pictures of my face with my camera and studied the images, trying to decide if I could detect any changes.

Finally, I just sat down to write. This is what I do. I write. I write to remember things. I write to process things. I write to ask questions. I write to work out answers. And right now, I’m just writing to stay calm. My sons and my husband are asleep, as they should be. I am just trying to stave off a full-blown panic attack, wondering if it’d be too selfish to ask God to please spare my face this time.

And honestly, there really is nothing I can do about this, except for pray. There is no cure for Bell’s Palsy. There’s not even much of a treatment for it. A round of corticosteroids, but that’s it, and it doesn’t always make any difference. And it’s late. Even in my late-night panic mode, I’m not going to call a doctor and ask for him to call in a prescription at this hour. So, until around 8 or 9 a.m., it’s just me and this computer. And God. I think God is here. I hope so.

I think we’ve all had these times, haven’t we? You’d think maybe we’d be better equipped to deal with them as we get older. Are we? Or do we just dread them more, because we know how dark it feels?

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On the way into the Y for swim lessons on Monday, my son and I stopped to let a Y staffer scan my membership card.

While we were standing there, I noticed the big basket of colorful slips of paper that is labeled “Spiritual Vitamins” and suggested that William take one for us to read together. I often take one myself, just to see what random Bible verse I might get and to see how it might apply to my current situation. Often I get a verse that I vaguely recognize, so I end up spending part of my time on the treadmill or elliptical trainer pondering when I might have read that part of the Bible and what it means. (Which is a nice little extra Bible study in an unexpected way, if you think about it. It’s Biblical lagniappe.)

But the lady suggested that we take a slip from a second basket of “Spiritual Vitamins” that are created just for children. “They’re a little easier to explain,” she said, proffering the basket.

The purple slip that William pulled out read, “If you believe you can or you can’t, you are probably right.” I read it aloud to him and said, “Yes, I think that’s true. What do you think, William?”

He scrunched up his face as we walked along the corridor toward the swimming pool and asked me to read it again, which I did. “What does that mean, exactly?” he finally asked.

“Well,” I started. “If you think you can do something, and you believe in yourself that you can do it, then you’ll get it done. But, if you think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ then you probably can’t do it because you don’t think you can.”

William looked unconvinced. For a moment or two, I wished we had gotten a nice easy-to-understand Bible version from some uncontroversial part of the Bible (which, er, is a tall order, now that I think about it). “A little easier to understand, my rear end,” I thought. But this particular bon mot had some real merit, and so I pressed on.

“It means you need to have confidence in yourself,” I said. “The best way to accomplish something is to have faith in yourself and do your best to get something done, not to just give up and say you can’t do it.”

(That wasn’t too bad, was it?)

At that point, we had reached the door to the pool area. Willliam charged inside, and we dropped the conversation. But the more I ruminated over William’s “Spiritual Vitamin,” the more relevant it became to his life–and mine.

William is trying to learn how to swim, and it’s a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process. He’s finally gotten comfortable letting go of me in the water if he’s got a firm grip on a pool noodle or something. But he’s still not yet ready to try floating on his back with me standing guard, no matter how many times I tell him that I’m right there and he’s not going to drown. Maybe all he needs to do at this point is to tell himself that he can learn how to swim…and then set about doing it.

And I need to realize that perhaps this process is just his way of doing that. Just because it’s not a completely linear way of learning to swim doesn’t mean it’s not valid, even if it frustrates his mom.

That, I think, is a good lesson for me in another way. Our faith journeys don’t always have to be linear, always-going-forward. But if we tell ourselves that we are learning, that we are making progress, and then do it…then we are. If we believe that we can, we can.

With God’s help, of course.

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No, thanks. I don’t want to see any pictures of Osama bin Laden’s body. I’ll take the President’s word for it that he’s dead and gone. If someone else needs proof, however, that’s fine. They can file a FOIA request for the photographs and study them all they want, but I don’t want to see them.

I’ve been wrestling with how to feel ever since my Twitter feed (shameless plug: I’m @JenniferLarson, if you want to follow me) told me on Sunday night that a special forces unit had managed to find and kill Osama bin Laden this past weekend. My initial reaction was just simple disbelief. “No way,” I thought. “We’ve had people looking for him for 10 years. Surely that’s a mistaken report.”

But the tweets kept on coming. And they started rolling in from reputable news agencies. It started to seem true after all. I called to my husband in another room, “Hey, I’m reading reports that they’ve killed bin Laden.” And he immediately got on his iPad and started reading, too. A half hour or so later, we watched President Obama’s speech to the nation on CNN.

“Wow,” I said. “I…can’t believe it.”

Part of me expected to feel relieved. And I did. No matter how you look at it, Osama bin Laden was the perpetrator of horrible, unspeakable evil. Our country, our people, have suffered great pain because of his actions. He masterminded and inflamed thousands of people to continue to perpetrate evil. He was inspired by hate. He inspired others to hate. He is not around any longer to do those things, and it’s a relief to not have to worry about how a military or civil trial would play out–and whether it could ever truly bring that man to justice.

Part of me expected to feel proud. And I did. As a former Navy wife, I was proud of the Navy SEALS team members who risked their lives to carry out such a dangerous mission. I’m proud of those men for caring so much about others that they would undertake a mission that could have easily resulted in their own deaths.

But part of me expected to feel joy upon hearing the news of his death. And I didn’t. I felt great sorrow that such a man had existed and done the things that he had. I felt sorrow that Osama bin Laden never repented from the evil that suffused his soul and his actions. And I also felt sorrow that even his death could not bring back all the people who died because of him. His death didn’t bring back the people who felt like they had no choice but to jump from the top stories of the World Trade Center buildings, or the firefighters who tried to save them, or the people working in the part of the Pentagon that got destroyed, or the people on any of the four airplanes that crashed on September 11, 2001.

And part of me also felt conflicted by the great, uncomplicated joy that some people seemed to be feeling. Jim Wallis of the Sojourners wrote a post on his God’s Politics blog yesterday titled “How Should We Respond to the Death of Osama bin Laden? Wallis, who referred to bin Laden as “an apostle of hate,” wrote the following:

“[It] is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil. Violence is always an indication of our failure to resolve our conflicts by peaceful means, and is always an occasion for deeper reflection.”

And he quoted the Vatican’s official statement, which read in part:

“In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”

As a Christian, I cannot bring myself to shout and shriek and dance in the streets, even though I fully admit that I am very glad that bin Laden is gone. And I am glad. I just wish that what happened that brought us to that point hadn’t happened. I can’t rejoice in death.

Here’s another take on the situation by Andrew Zirschky titled “Bonhoeffer and Bin Laden: Why We Can’t Rejoice.”  In referring to theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by Hitler’s regime during World War II, he makes the point that we really shouldn’t rejoice in death, even death of a terrible person. Perhaps the killing of bin Laden was a matter of choosing the least evil, and I happen to think that’s the case. No one could possibly argue that it would have been a good idea to have bin Laden still floating around out there, wreaking havoc, and yet as Christians, can we really embrace the killing of another person?

Zirschky wrote:

“It is ethical arrogance that leads us to rejoice in death.  Whether you believe that responsible action should have led us to the murder of bin Laden, or whether you believe responsible action would have kept us from this, Bonhoeffer calls for a Christian response that is sober, even mournful, as it recognizes my guilt, our guilt, and the guilt of others.

Where Bonhoeffer leaves us is with ignorance at to the goodness of our actions, he calls us toward humility in those actions, ownership of both repentance and guilt in the midst of those actions, and utter dependence upon God’s grace to judge our actions. There is no room for rejoicing.”

I am praying for the people who lost loved ones because of Osama bin Laden. I am praying for the people he seduced into committing unspeakable acts. I am praying for all of us as we figure out how to respond, how to move forward, and how to discern what God wants us to do.

And so I don’t want to see any photographs of the body of bin Laden. I don’t need to see them to feel vindication or anything like that. I’ve had enough of him. Now I need to continue figuring out how to make myself right with God. Because it’s too late for bin Laden. But it’s not too late for the rest of us.

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For the past almost four years, I’ve been a member of a small group studying the ecumenical Disciple Bible Study curriculum.

One of the most satisfying parts of the entire experience–and there have been many!–has been studying the Old Testament and learning much more about the history of our faith from the beginning. I mean, we all know the story of Noah and the Ark and Moses parting the Red Sea, but there is so much more there. The New Testament is so much more vibrant, so much more meaningful, with the context of all the history and prophecy of the Old Testament behind it.

More than once, I’ve admired the Jewish faith for maintaining the rituals that mark their holy days. As Christians, I feel like we’ve let go of a lot of our faith heritage in some ways; we don’t always remember or reflect upon where we came from and what that means. It’s not that I am suggesting that we go back and begin living by the law prescribed in the Old Testament; I’m not. But I think we can learn a lot more about our faith and our faith traditions by remembering how it developed.

While we may not actually celebrate Passover, we surely must remember it. The Last Supper, after all, was a Seder meal. When we refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” that’s an allusion to the sacrifices that the Jews made to God so that the angel of death would pass over their homes.

Passover begins next week; the first full day of Passover this year is Tuesday, April 19. To that end, I interviewed an old high school friend of mine, Beth Marler, because she and her family have recently started honoring some of the Jewish holidays like Passover in addition to the Christian holidays.

Beth said that she discovered, while studying the Old Testament, that God told the Israelites to observe certain days so they would remember what God had done for them.

“God knew that humans are quite forgetful, and indeed, the Israelites routinely forgot what God had done for them,” Beth told me. 

Beth noted that, no, she’s not Jewish. So it’s fair to ask why she believes she’s been told by God to remember and celebrate.

“I don’t know that I”m not a descendant of one of those brothers [of the 12 tribes of Israel],” she said. “I think it’s very possible that I am. Don’t know, but could be. Look how many decendants of Judah (modern day Jews) there are.”

But beyond that… “I want to REMEMBER what God has done,” Beth said. “I also want my kids to REMEMBER what God has done.”

So she and her three young daughters do things like make special treats for Purim, blew a shofar (ram’s horn) at Rosh Hashanah and put up tent for the Feast of Booths. And this year, they will try honoring Passover for the first time.

“I may try to cook a lamb,” Beth said.

Pretty thought-provoking, isn’t it?

The title of the fourth year of the Disciple curriculum is “Remember who you are.” Perhaps it will help even more of us in our faith formation if we think more about where we came from, theologically speaking.

Now, someone recently mentioned to me that, when doing this sort of thing, it’s important to stay true to the remembering-who-we-are part, and not cross over into the co-opting-another-faith’s-traditions territory. I completely agree. And I think Beth would agree, too.

It’s important to frame the observance with the context. My church hosts a Seder meal each year to educate church members about the origins of Passover–and how the Last Supper fits into that context. It’s all in the approach and the intent.

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I have found that one of best places and times to have a really good conversation with my older son is in the car on the way to and from school.

That’s when we find ourselves talking about all sorts of things. William likes to pose questions that he’s been pondering, and we often have really wonderful discussions as a result. In the last few weeks, we’ve talked about a range of topics, including whether the Loch Ness Monster is real or not, how ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was sort of like the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, and why Godric Gryffindor would have needed a sword if he was a wizard and all the wizards had wands.

A few days ago, he hit me with another good question.

“What’s underneath the Earth?” he wanted to know.

“Underneath the Earth?” I repeated. “Well, there’s space underneath, as far as I know.”

“But what’s underneath that?” he persisted.

Ack. A few months ago, William had asked me what was beyond outer space. (Readers of my family blog might remember that conversation.) I sort of stumbled around for awhile before finally resulted to that tried-and-true resource of all modern parents. Nope, not the Bible.  That’s right. As soon as I could get to a computer, I turned to Google. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much of anything useful. I think I told William something about how the universe is still expanding outward, but we don’t know really what’s out there for sure. I read to him a little bit about how there’s gas, plasma, dust and some other molecules in space, but that didn’t really address the heart of his question.

His question, of course, is really: “What’s out there?”

The funny thing is, I don’t think it really bothers him that no one knows for absolute certain what’s out there. He’s curious, yes, and he wants to learn more, but young children are accustomed to the fact that there is so much they just don’t know. And it doesn’t bother them. As far as he’s concerned, heaven is “up there” above us, although I don’t know how he logistically reconciles that with outer space. But he does somehow, and he’s comfortable with that. I remember when I used to think that heaven was just “up there,” too. I kind of wish I still did. It becomes more of a tricky existential concept as we become adults, though. 

And while we’re on the subject of tricky teleological questions…William also asked me around the same time if we would understand everything about God (that we don’t understand right now) when we get to heaven. I told him, honestly, that I don’t know.  Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Maybe it will be enough just to be in the presence of God. Maybe our questions will be satisfied just by that. We won’t even know that ’til we get there…wherever “there” is.

As confounding as they can be, I like that he’s asking these questions. I like that he’s asking me, even though I have to tell him that not only do I know, but I have a whole series of my own questions that I’m asking. But I’m trying to raise my son to  know that it’s okay to ask those questions. 

In church, we talk a lot about the mystery of faith, and I think we have to grapple with that. And for me, at least, grappling involves asking a lot of questions and pondering the possible answers. It looks like William may be taking that route, too.

***

What’s the trickiest question your child has ever asked you? How did you respond?

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Every year, the question comes up:  “What should I give up for Lent?”

It’s a common practice among Christians, giving up something for Lent. It goes along with the whole penitence aspect of the time period. You give up something. You sacrifice. At least theoretically, you are supposed to give up something that means something to you. It’s not really that meaningful to give up running if, in fact, you’re not a runner. It’s not that big a deal to give up chocolate if you rarely eat chocolate.

I fully admit that I almost never give something up and make it all the way through Lent. Some years, I cave halfway through Lent. Some years, I just don’t even try to give something up.

About 10 or 15 years ago, I decided to try something different. I decided to take up something good during Lent, rather than give up something. I tried to drink more milk. Yes, you may be laughing at me right now, but I was sincere. I knew I needed to drink more milk, and it seemed like as good an idea as any. It was still a sacrifice in some small way to drink a big glass of milk each night instead of the Coke that I really wanted.

Three years ago, my Disciple class decided to institute a class-wide Lenten discipline: we would all stop and pray at noon on Fridays during Lent. Even though we would not be together, we would find a sense of community in knowing that we were all praying at the same time.

It almost becomes an endurance test for some people. Or a point of honor for making it all the way through, like the people who power through those Couch to 5K programs. I know some people who fast at certain times during Lent. I know some people who commit to praying every single day for the period of Lent. I know some people who try to give up complaining, hitting the snooze bar, drinking wine, using Facebook or watching television. I have one friend right now who is deliberating whether she should give up Chick-fil-A or Coke this year.

As of yesterday, I still didn’t know what I was going to (try to) do this year.

But today, I had a few free minutes, and I was spending them browsing in a small gift shop called Obelisk, which is located in the Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville. Obelisk carries handmade jewelry by Freshie & Zero, one of my favorites. I spotted a modest silver cross necklace, and then it hit me. That’s what I needed. That cross necklace.

A number of people at my (very Presbyterian) church have been talking about ways to be more visible with our faith recently. One church friend wears a cross every day during Lent. She does it because it’s not something she might ordinarily do. Often we Presbyterians aren’t very outwardly demonstrative. We don’t want to offend. We aren’t happy-clappy. We don’t wear t-shirts from the Christian bookstore. We are often thoughtful, intellectual and restrained. We do things decently and in order. Those aren’t bad things, not at all. But they do often translate into a quieter, less visible faith.

And that is me, all over. I have friends who are not Christian, and I have never wanted them to feel uncomfortable around me because I am Christian. And part of that stems from the bad rap that some people who call themselves Christian have given the rest of us. I haven’t felt very comfortable wearing a cross because I haven’t wanted others to think that I’m one of those people, the ones who do not represent the Christ I believe in. 

Well, how else am I going to let others know that there are people like me who are Christian, if I don’t give them a sign? Even if–especially if–it makes me feel a little vulnerable and uncomfortable being that upfront?

So here’s my sign. I wore my cross necklace out of the store. I will be wearing it every day during Lent. And hopefully beyond.

* * *

If you are Christian and you’re reading this, what are you doing to honor the observance of Lent? Please leave a comment!

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