Archive for July, 2008

Sew Amazing

Hey gang–sorry I’ve been MIA; my in-laws were staying with us and we were having a great time together. But now I’m back, and my time with them has armed me with more insights that I’d like to share with you.

This week, my mother-in-law (I’ll call her Anna) and I set in on the task of sewing a skirt. The scene is this: Anna, a life-long, talented seamstress, and myself, who is often afraid to mend a pair of socks because I’ll end up making them a lumpy mess. My last skirt attempt ended in something that may as well have been a burlap sack, only it was a burlap sack that was 16 sizes too big. Come to think of it, a burlap sack may have been quite cute in comparison. Needless to say, I’ve never worn it.

Yet there is something so comforting about being guided by the loving hands of a mentor. Anna patiently led me around the fabric store, showing me how to pick out a simple yet fashionable pattern (sorry, no more sack skirts), how to find proper material for my particular pattern, and how to find all the doo-dads and whatchamacallits that go with my particular skirt of choice. Armed with a beautiful, silky black and white fabric and an armload of zippers, hooks, thread, and other interesting skirt accessories, we bought everything we needed and took it home.

My original plan had been to have a wonderful bonding experience–which it certainly was–but I didn’t anticipate being so darned nervous about messing up. For example, the material, silky and beautiful, also ended up being slippery and tricky to handle. Anna modeled how to pin and cut the fabric, but when it came time for me to take over for her at the sewing machine, I worried that I would mess up all of her wonderful preparation. And, actually, once or twice I did. But my saint of a mother-in-law just lovingly took out the bad stitches and gave me another shot at it.

When it came time to put the final touches on, Anna noticed that the pattern had been designed poorly, creating an uneven hem. I would have been content to deal with a zig-zag hem, but Anna would hear none of it. No–she masterfully worked with scissors and pins until she polished it up to be a hem that would equal any professionally made piece.

Finally, when it came to hand-stitch the hem, we shared the job. She got it started, then I took over. After a while I noticed that my hem was looking lumpy and jagged. Uh-oh–attack of the lumpies again. I looked pleadingly at Anna, who smiled and said, “Oh, yes, well–don’t worry, this part of the hem is really tricky.” Kindly, she ripped out the lumpy hem, doing  more sophisticated stitches to help me pass the tricky part. Then, to help me stay out of trouble, she pinned the rest of the hem to guide my path. We finished the skirt, rejoicing in the work that had taken us about 10 hours to complete, and as she boarded the plane to go home I had the skirt packed in my gym bag so I could wear it to church that night.

Why was this a spiritual experience? In addition to being able to spend time with a wonderful woman, I found myself reflecting on what it meant to be in the capable hands of a master craftsman. How similar it is in our relationship with God; God modeled the steps we should take, God takes over the difficult parts and guides us through the rest, God gently rips out the poorly sewn stitches and gives us another chance to make things right. When the pattern of our lives has rough edges or has taken the wrong direction, God restores proper boundaries and helps make our paths straight. And when the work is done, God rejoices with us, leaving us with the fruits of our co-creation. God lets us hold on to those fruits as reminders of God’s awe-some capacity, as well as our own immense capability when we are open to being guided.

I love that God gifts us with these metaphorical experiences through relationship with others. Thank you, Mom, for providing the experience written here–and by the way, I had two people compliment my beautiful skirt at church that night! 🙂

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Getting comfortable in the discomfort

Much of my focus in my own sense of spirituality comes from my sense of potential. What is the potential with which God created me? Am I living up to that potential? This is one of the most fundamental aspects of my living, breathing, embodied spiritual life; you may have recognized this perspective in my other posts as well.

They are difficult questions to ask oneself, and even more difficult to answer (most of the time because we don’t want to acknowledge the real answer). But it’s an important exercise to practice. The goal, then, does not parallel the typical American media-driven facade of what a person should be–otherwise known as ‘perfect’–but rather examines what each person is doing with what they’ve been given. This includes talents, opportunities, family situations, job situations, finances, church involvement, prayer life–virtually every aspect of one’s life. Are you using what you have to deepen your relationship with God and others, to contribute to the greater good in this world, and to honor yourself as one created in the image of God? Some people aren’t even conscious about these things on a larger scale, let alone on a daily basis, so this would be a first step: becoming conscious.

It’s so easy to walk through our lives in a daze, especially with the fast pace of our current society. How often we exclaim, “Wow, this year went by so fast,” or something to a similar effect; we are so busy, our lives seem to whiz by us–and we’re observers, rather than participants! Once one is truly conscious about his or her own role in daily life (and the world), becoming an active participant in one’s own life is the next step to fulfilling one’s potential.

As if all of this isn’t difficult enough, there’s one more step. This one is the one that many people will shy away from, even if they are consciously participating in their own lives. It involves the same sentiment that surrrounded Jesus’ foreshadowing to Peter in John 21, when he says that Peter will eventually be called to where he does not want to go. Striving to fulfill our potential means stretching ourselves into discomfort. I’m not referring to a moral discomfort or to physical pain; rather, I’m talking about following the call of Jesus to the point where you know that you, as a human being, could not do it alone. It’s the point where your ego surrenders and grace takes over. It’s the moment when first-time parents step out of the hospital with their newborn child. It’s the moment when a middle-aged businessman leaves a well-paying job that he knows is turning him into a cynical, jaded and manipulative person to pursue his passion for teaching. It’s when a woman with little experience in physical activity decides she is going to commit to running a marathon.  It’s that moment when a person admits that he made a mistake, knowing that for the short term, he may lose face with his friends. Discomfort doesn’t have to be life-changing, overtly “Christian” moments; it is everyday life, amplified and lived with joyful abandon.

Living one’s potential through discomfort means having enough courage to go against the “easy” decision. But the only way to be able to do this is to already be a conscious participant in one’s own life. It’s challenging, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s the gentle yet persistent call of the Gospel.

Imago Dei and the scale

Okay, it’s time for a more personal post. It may not be the most theologically advanced, but it’s what’s on my mind right now, and I think it’s important to get the energy out there.

I’ve struggled with my weight for years. I’ve been dissatisfied with my weight since I was about 12 years old. I’ve never been obese, and in fact for a while was underweight, but by my senior year in college I had reached my highest weight–at 5’9″, I was about 40 pounds overweight.

I was beginning to fail to see my imago dei in any sense of the word. My outer appearance prohibited me from seeing my inner beauty–I just couldn’t get past it. After visiting Rome on a study-abroad program the summer after graduation, a few of my “Italy” friends and I decided to commit to Weight Watchers.

My first go at it was  really successful. I lost 15 pounds and began feeling really great. I fell off the wagon for awhile when my Italy friends stopped doing the program, but the following year I recommitted myself and lost another 10 pounds. It was at this time that I decided I wanted to run a marathon.

Training for the marathon was one of the best experiences of my entire life. At the time, my mother was going through chemotherapy, and it was extremely therapeutic for me. I had always hated running, and I gradually worked up to being able to run 30 minutes straight. From that point I joined the LA Roadrunners, a fantastic and supportive training group that meets weekly to gradually build one’s running base up to 22 miles, enough to prepare one for a 26.2 mile jaunt through downtown LA. I had so much fun with the Roadrunners; when I felt like I couldn’t go on, I imagined what my mom’s body was going through, and told myself that if she could do that, then I could do this. My running friends were so very supportive; I felt like I could do anything. On top of it, I lost another 5 pounds and my body got as muscular and slim as I had ever seen it. I felt powerful, and felt like I could do anything.

Then, everything changed. A previous knee injury finally demanded the attention it deserved, and I had a major reconstructive surgery around the same time I was supposed to be running the marathon. I never did get to finish the marathon; I think the furthest I was able to train before my knee gave out the final time was about 14 miles (the day I did that is still one of the proudest moments of my life). My knee doctor firmly instructed that I would never be able to run again due to the extent of the injury. I was devastated, and during my forced rest of my recovery, I gained back the 5 pounds I had lost training.

Then the wonderful gift of love entered my life, and my thoughts of weight loss went out the window! I enjoyed dating my future husband, eating out (including dessert), and long afternoons lounging in each other’s arms. I happily gained 5 more pounds.

The wedding came, and I slimmed down a bit for that, but the honeymoon obliterated any of that progress. Finally, about 5 months into our marriage, my husband and I both got serious about our eating habits and our exercise. I lost the 5 “dating” pounds once again.

Another knee surgery has set me back a little more in terms of what I can and cannot do exercise-wise, but I’m trying to change my perspective. I want to see the imago dei even though I still have about 10 pounds to lose. I want to rejoice in the temple, even if it is a flawed one. I was to befriend my flesh.

It’s ironic that I want to dedicate my entire life’s work to helping others develop a more holistic perspective toward their bodies, to uplift them and to cherish them, and yet I still struggle with this on a daily basis. Some would call this hypocritical; yet I feel like this makes the basis of my work even more authentic. After all–who hasn’t struggled with it in some way? My struggle just takes the form of a daily, tangible, and very present reminder in the form of my physical health and my desire to make myself as healthy as possible. Perhaps that’s the way God has planned it…that way I can never lose sight of my purpose!

I will…eventually(?)

“If not now, then when? If not today, then why make your promises?” -Tracy Chapman

“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never.'” -Martin Luther

These quotes could apply to so many aspects of our lives. For me, it’s usually chores or exercise–two things that I both love and hate to do. Why? Because I hate the feeling of actually doing them,  but I looooooove the feeling that I get after they are done. The times when things get out of control are usually the times when the mindset of “I’ll do it later” dominates my decision-making when it comes to starting a chore or going to the gym.

So how, as I return to the schedule of a graduate student, which will require a large amount of discipline, do I refuse to let my “not nows” dominate my actions?

Those of you reading should know by now that I appreciate a holistic approach to my life. Thus, in order to not procrastinate as a student, I need to make sure that it’s not a habit in the rest of my life. That means doing chores when they need to be done, and it means going to the gym…yes, even when I don’t feel like it.

The past few days I have been making lists of what I’d like to accomplish the following day, and so far it has been working pretty well. There’s something very satisfying about that thick black line of ink etched through my list of things I’d like to accomplish. I’m also trying to consciously choose to say, “yes, now” instead of “nah, later.” When does the excuse of being tired really mean being tired, rather than “I just don’t feel like it so I’m going to convince myself I’m too tired to do it”? I’ll never write my first book with that kind of attitude. Just like I’ll never have a clean house, never lose that last ten pounds, and never learn Hebrew. What an unsatisfactory outcome to an extraordinary life!

Besides…once I’m through exercising and cleaning house, I can get on to the real fun stuff…like blogging!

True Freedom

This July 4th got me thinking about freedom. Freedom is the buzz word around this time of year, when Americans play songs on the radio about freedom while loading potato salad onto their plates and chatting around the barbeque. But I started thinking about a different kind of freedom; I couldn’t help but acknowledge the awful and wonderful power that we as humans have be granted as a result of our free will.

Often times, I hear people wonder about why there is evil in the world. I particularly hear this argument when people are talking about God–why does a good God allow such evil? The answer, I believe, is found in our own freedom.

God doesn’t force us to love Godself, or to do the right thing, or to be kind to our neighbors. No, God created us with the gift of free will, and because of that, there is inevitably evil. It is oversimplifying to say so, but I think it is a worthwhile thing to ponder anyway: evil’s roots come from our very human choices to turn away from what God would want us to do. This can create chain reactions of consequences, so much so that innocents suffer evil at the hands of people they will never meet–possibly at the hands of people with which they will never even share a time period. Some choices cause evils to be passed on through generations because of psychological damages, or through poor political decisions, or greed. But, in my opinion, it all comes back to the collective free will of humanity.

The Bible (and Spiderman) tells us that with great power comes great responsibility. This is not only true for individuals, but for our entire human family. Everything is connected; we must take responsibility for our daily individual choices, work for just and moral choices within our own circles of influence (family, coworkers, students, etc), and continue to be in constant dialogue and self-check about the choices we are making as political and religious bodies. 

Evil may be present as a result of our choices…but of course, the same goes for goodness. Responsibility is the price we pay for freedom.

Another angel watching over…

Early this morning a young boy died. He was seven years old.

He was a boy whom I knew from singing with his mother in a church choir, as well as his father from various events that I participated in at the university. This boy never spoke a word to me–not because he was a shy or rude child, but because he was born with such severe special needs that he couldn’t utter more than a few grunts at a time. He barely could fixate his eyes on anything, and he remained in his stroller/wheelchair the whole time I knew him. Nonetheless, his parents doted on him as if he was the homerun hitter for the local little league team; they cooed over him, stroked his face, spoke to him softly throughout Mass. The love between parents and child was obvious, and as I grew to know them, the love between child and parents was as well.

I knew that throughout his life he suffered a lot from physical challenges; not just the obvious ones, but from other problems that kept him in and out of the hospital for surgery numerous times a year, every year. His parents would tell us that the hospital PICU staff knew them all quite well. Still, the love kept all continuing on, making a family out of what some say was “so unfortunate” (I know this because I have heard people say this about my own special needs brother, who has needs far less severe than the boy I speak of now). Love made the family whole. Love made the family more “normal” than most, despite what one may perceive. Love, love, love.

Last night as we awaited news of his inevitable death, my husband knew of my need for consolation–he always does. He knows what I need usually before I even know it. And so we took a drive down the coast as the sun slowly dipped down into the water and the horizon shed the last bit of light to our world for the night. Inside I mourned the sun’s disappearance, the death of this day, a day which is like any other day, except to that family in the PICU last night.

It made me wonder the same question I return to in times of loss: why does it have to hurt so much, this mortality, this inability to hold on to a moment? I don’t doubt why it has to be; without mortality we wouldn’t value things in the same way, just as we wouldn’t appreciate the moment if we had assurance of a certain lifespan or knowledge of when death will come. I know these things.  And I know about refiner’s fire, and spiritual growth, and faith, and all of the answers that all of us in ministry use to explain away pain. But why does it have to hurt so much, Lord?

As my husband and I drove home, I knew that the next time the sun rose, it would be with one less soul on earth, it would be with less physical pain, it would be with heartache. On the radio, a mournful cello wove its tones in and around the rest of the strings, lamenting the heaviness it carried with each note. “It’s beautiful,” my husband said softly, and I agreed, although I wasn’t quite sure what I was saying was beautiful–the cello, the deep blue sky, or the ascent of another little angel to meet God.