Friday, December 30, 2016

God of Creation

A number of years ago, I was sitting up in bed, holding my time-worn leather study bible in my hands, feeling a bit lost. I had been going through the motions of reading scripture, and studying word meanings and historical context. But, admittedly, it had been a while since I felt the aliveness of God's word in the pages. I felt a bit like a family dog, desperately digging holes in the backyard, but forgetting where I had buried the bone. I was faithfully reading the bible, but I kept coming up empty. I couldn't hear his voice.

So I sat with the book propped up on my knees, and I decided it was time to start again. Instead of digging into Jesus' words in the New Testament, or turning to the sage words of the prophets, or closing my eyes and letting the book fall open (c'mon, you know you've done it), I would begin again at the beginning. Book one. Genesis.

I said a prayer.

God, I've read this a thousand times. I don't want to read it again the same way. Show me something new. Reveal yourself to me, through your word, in a new way.

And then I opened my bible. It's not easy to describe what happened next, or over the course of the next week, but I can tell you that God met me in Genesis. He revealed himself as the Creator in a new and marvelous way.

When the Spirit of God hovered over the deep in the beginning, I saw God spreading his wings like a majestic eagle over the emptiness, his creation resting in his heart and mind before it ever was.  I pictured him with his eyes closed, taking in a deep breath, sustaining it for a moment in his lungs -- holding us there -- and then breathing out the universe.

God was there. In the beginning. And knowing all that was and all that would be, he said yes to us. I scribbled furiously in my notebook and a study begin to take shape that I would share with my bible study group in the following months.

It was way too easy to get caught up in my day-to-day life at the time, and to drag God into my trials of "Please, God, help my baby stop crying." (Remembering this feeling, I just experienced some nausea.) But it is another thing altogether to turn outward, to look into the starry night sky and imagine the mind-boggling expanse of the universe. To zoom out of our planet, out of our solar system, out of our galaxy, and into the darkness. To know that our God is out there, that he is everywhere, and that he is also with us on earth, in a home, in a room, with a mother and her nursing baby.

It was the newness I needed to sustain me.

There's a book that I'm reading right now that reminded me of that time in my life. It's so honest, so thoughtful, and so tender. I'm hesitant to even share about it, because it goes against the establishment of the church in many ways. But it is life, and it is the truth of God that sustained this man's faith. God breathed into him in a way that I could recognize. In a way that resonated with me.

Mike McHargue (aka "Science Mike" on the Internet) is a man who grew up Baptist, rejected the scriptures at a time in his adult life when his parents were divorcing, and spent two years as an atheist. He missed the idea of God, but he couldn't reconcile science and the bible, fact and faith.

Then, the book describes how McHargue has a supernatural experience that brings him back to God. He wrestles deeply with the infallibility of the scriptures, but he can see God in the waves, in the night sky, and in the experiences that he has through prayer and meditation. He recognizes that science can't explain it all, and that's where God meets him. The inexplicable and infinite God. Call it blasphemy if you want, but what it most reminds me of is Abraham getting a vision from God, or of Moses seeing God's presence in a burning bush. They built a relationship, based not on any revelation from scripture, as the written law did not yet exist, but on an experience that could not be explained away. They loved and followed the God of wonder.

The way that McHargue describes creation is what brought me to write this today. It took my breath away. He starts off by explaining the expanding universe in terms of the redshift of galaxies, and how that's a measurable expansion. And if you reverse the math, you can begin to see the origin of the universe as a singular point, called the Initial Singularity. (This is what scientists explain as the thing that existed right before the Big Bang.) "In the Initial Singularity, the laws of physics didn't exist as we know them now. In fact, back then, space-time was so compressed that matter and energy were the same thing, and the four fundamental forces of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces) were just one unified field or force. There was no light and no dark, no separation of space, matter, or energy" (McHargue 147).

Although this is fascinating, it isn't the part that got my motor running. Here's the part that brought me to tears.

"When I read about the Singularity, I think of God. We're talking about a unified energy that caused everything to be, that is beyond language and our math, beyond our very imagination. This thought drives me to a state of profound reverence and awe. I was there, billions of years ago, in that Singularity, as were all my ancestors and descendants. Every star that's been born, every star that has dies, was there, too. So was every particle that makes up every atom in the universe. All was there, together, in the beginning of everything."

As I read, I remembered God hovering over the emptiness in Genesis. The Spirit of God (literally, Ruwach Elohiym or "Breath of God") moving in dynamic force to release the creation. For me, this scientific theory of the entirety of what can be known or seen in the universe in a mystifyingly compacted state is not contrary to my faith. Instead it is a beautiful picture of us all huddling there together, in a small marble of substance, with our God holding us inside himself, and then as we explosively move forth from the singular being of God, we are breathed out and released by his Spirit to expand over an unfathomable range.


Thanks, science. Just like McHargue, my faith has been deepened today.

Book Info:
McHargue, Mike. Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again through Science. New York: Convergent, 2016.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Death of the Dictionary?

When I was in elementary school, I remember learning math facts. 4 + 4 = 8, 3 x 4 = 12, etc. We would have timed tests, 3 minutes for 50 addition or subtraction problems, 5 minutes for multiplication. We would complain about never needing to know this anyway. We could just use a calculator! The teacher smiled knowingly, and said smugly, "When you are older, you won't always have a calculator handy in your pocket to help you out."


Less mathy, but with a similar nostalgia, I recall a set of 1978 World Book Encyclopedias at my house, and how incredibly proud I was to show them off to any visitors. We had ALL of the knowledge, here in our house! I would sit on the floor with the L volume in my lap, looking up lions and Louisiana and leather and Abraham Lincoln. So much to know!

All of that is at our fingertips, now. All of it can be found in seconds.

I had this notion the other day, and no matter how old and curmudgeonly I may sound saying it, I'm going to say it.

I miss encyclopedias. I miss the necessity to go to our local library on a weekly basis. I miss card catalogs and the wonder of stacks and stacks and stacks of books. What did they all contain?

But I get the most panicky about the death of the dictionary. I love words so much. I never look up only ONE word. There is always the page browse, searching for other unknown words. The words that surround the word, the words on the next page. The language of origin and the root word, on which so many other words rely. Words are my friends. Like anecdote and deference and diatribe and ambivalence. I tuck words away in my heart, like escutcheon and flummox and defenestrate (thank you, David, for that gem). On many an occasion, I have just opened the dictionary out of curiosity, to see what new words I might find there.

And there's the thing about digitizing everything. We are losing the collateral or adjacent or auxiliary learning. The learning because you're already there. The expanse of knowledge, by being in a place where there is always more to know. The stuff you learn about, when you're learning about other stuff. 

That's the part that I'm lamenting.

So much of our learning is get in, get what we need, get out. The Internet is efficient! We want to know; we find out. Mid-conversation, we look things up.

Admittedly, I am part of this changing tide. I ask Siri for definitions, now. I look up facts. I get in, get what I need, and get out. But I am looking back to the World Book Encyclopedia on my lap in my room, and I'm so thankful that it was mine. I am looking at my American Heritage dictionary, held together with duct tape on its breaking spine, and thanking it for all the good times. And, if I am truthful, I have a sinking feeling about this move forward.

I can't help but worry that part of our human curiosity is being deadened by the quick access to knowledge any time, any where, in the convenience of our pockets.

The Internet is awesome, in the truest sense of awesome. It's so vast and so filled with amazing things. I am ready to appreciate it. But even as Dorothy left the magical place of Oz to return home, I too must realize my beloved books can't last forever. They can't all come home with me. It's time to say my farewell to my old friends, with whom I've had so many adventures. Goodbye World Book Encyclopedia. Don't cry. You'll warp so dreadfully. Goodbye, library stacks. I'm going to miss the way that you smell and provide hiding places for wonderment and fascination. Goodbye, dictionary. I think I'll miss you most of all.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Inspired Again

When I began my freshman year at Bowie High School in 1992, I had lived in the state of Texas for a total of four days. I walked into school with my older brother at my elbow, and the promise of a new start at a new school.

English class was where I was home, having considered myself a writer since my third grade teacher told me I was. Because of late registration, I couldn't get into an honors class. So, on the first day of freshman year, I found myself standing in the doorway of Mr. Cavallaro's classroom. The population seemed a mix of little mousy kids and second year freshmen. And Mr. Cavallaro... well, I didn't even see that man coming.

Mr. Cavallaro was a 6'2" New York Italian, having arrived from doing 25-years to life at an inner city public high school. By some twist of fate, he wound up in this suburban wealthy neighborhood. He was irritable, salty, and more filled with life than any teacher I had encountered before. He paced the floor like a madman. He would shout and sing and act out words from books, then throw them on the floor in dramatic finality. He wanted to talk about life, and passion, and the god-awful southern hospitality. He shirked the good'o'boy administration of the school. He let students sit on top of their desks, shout out in class, and he would stop a lesson right smack in the middle if something more interesting was brought up. I remember sitting in my desk, in a near constant state of awe, asking myself, "Can a teacher do that?" If this was high school, I was in. Being in Mr. Cavallaro's class felt like being part of a strange dark society, and somehow I had divined the secret knock.

I have had so many amazing teachers and professors, and each has their place in my scholastic heart. But as I walked into a classroom again in January (after a 13 year absence from teaching), I am remembering Mr. Cavallaro with a particular fondness. I'm teaching freshman English.

Looking back, I can see him with adult eyes. He was probably unhappy in Texas; he was a rebel and a disturber of the peace. He barely eked out the required curriculum, if he did any at all. He was annoyed with our suburban middle-class goodness and innocence, from time to time, sorely missing the challenge of his inner-city New York "thugs" (as he affectionately called them). Among my cast of memorable English teachers, most of them were better at teaching English than Cavallaro. They challenged me, graded my essays with thought and encouragement, and even found ways to make the curriculum exciting.

But there is no mistaking that there was a quality of his classroom that cannot be erased with time. We were a part of it. The students helped to form it with our own ideas and thoughts and questions. When the bell rang each day, our spell was broken, and we walked out into our own worlds. We nodded to each other in the hallway, sometimes shaking our heads and smiling about the crazy antics of our teacher. He was something special.

And as I stand at the front of the room with my freshmen sitting quietly in their seats, it's Cavallaro's spirit that rises in me, and not the other sages of my English past. His is the one that says to each student, "You belong here. This is a special place where you are safe, and wonder is encouraged, and the unexpected is a delight."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Easter Ache, 2009

From The Austin American Statesman, Saturday, April 4, 2009
Faith & Beliefs

In Your Words / Susana Fletcher

Separate the biblical roots of Easter from the bunny and baskets
     When bluebonnets sprout every year and little girls wear pastel-colored frocks, I should be smiling all the way to church. Why, then, do I feel so depressed?  It's because I feel burdened about the one word on every Christian's lips -- Easter.
     My quest for biblical truth and historical knowledge smacked the ignorant Easter bliss right off my face. I'm the church party-pooper, because I've uncovered the truth: Easter was never intended to be about God nor Jesus rising from the dead. It is the pagan celebration of rebirth, the setting for worshipping the earth and goddesses of fertility. When you say the word “Easter”, you are invoking the goddesses Ishtar, Ashtoreth, Astarte, Eostre, Isis, and all whose names have been called upon by barren and expecting mothers, by lust-filled men, and by priestesses promising fertility. It's a lot to put in your basket, but the truth is easily found by a simple Internet search.
     So what is holy? When poured through the biblical sieve, and Easter baskets, eggs, and all things pagan filter out, here's what remains of our Christian holiday: the Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection. What do we call it? Actually, it already has a name -- Passover.
     According to Exodus, the blood of the sacrificed lamb saved the Israelites from the angel of death, and they were set free from slavery in Egypt. I know what you're thinking. It's a Jewish holiday. Yes, the Jewish people honor their deliverance from slavery through Passover celebrations. But Christians -- yes, Christians -- celebrated Passover for nearly 300 years, from the time of the Last Supper (a Passover meal), until the time of Constantine. Suddenly the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, makes more sense. “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Feast.”
     Taking Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection away from Passover is a disservice to the Scripture. The exodus from Egypt was a foreshadowing of the deliverance to come. The gospel of Mark, chapters 14 and 15, shows us that everything in the "Holy Week" actually occurs during "Passover Week." Jesus says in the upper room, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." He was giving them a sign. Jesus, having been one with God for eternity, was waiting for the appointed Passover to shed His perfect blood so that all could avoid the angel of death.
     Enter Constantine the Great, who, among other things, sought to conquer and unify the world under his sword of Christianity. Desiring to appease the pagan and religious demographics, he separated the celebration of the Resurrection from Passover and linked it instead to the vernal equinox and pagan celebrations of Easter. As recorded by Eusebius, an attending member of the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, Constantine clearly stated his motive: “It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded…Consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews.” Thus Constantine derailed the biblical course of the faith.
     Passover is the celebration of a sacrifice that set a people free. It was set into motion in Egypt, remembered through the ages, and proclaimed anew by Jesus the Messiah. On the night he was betrayed, He took the elements of Passover, lifted them up, and spoke the words, “Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me.” The celebration of Easter, on the other hand, is irrelevant to the Christian faith, even in it's most benign state. What has a bunny to do with the cross? But considering its pagan and polytheistic origins, should one even use the word “Easter”? Exodus 23:13 says no. “Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.” 
     This spring, I will pick out pink dresses for my girls, and force my camo-wearing boy into slacks and a collared shirt for the Passover Seder. Although I part ways from the Christian mainstream, I cling to the ancients. I see countless covered heads, spread throughout time, uttering the words that I speak today. The same words that Jesus spoke to His disciples in the upper room. I feel connected to the Scripture and my savior, the Sacrificed Lamb, in real and undeniable terms. And every year I do it in remembrance of Him.

Susana Fletcher, a former teacher and University of Texas graduate, is a mother of three and occasion writer who continues to look for the biblical meaning of authentic Christianity.

I decided to post this article this year because The Statesman has let it drop out of the searchable archives. I reference this entry every year, and needed a place to put it. :)

Monday, February 25, 2013

I Wonder

Sometimes I feel so overwhelmed at the beauty of creation. At the staggering mysteries of the universe. This morning, I looked at my little seedlings of cabbage and collards and kale and romanesco sprouting in the peat pots and it made me so happy it nearly hurt. In my mind, I climbed inside the spongy soil and hugged a tiny stem and sat under a 1/4 inch leaf and fell asleep on its tiny trunk with a book on my lap. I marveled at the seedlings' bravery, waking from dry death and finding life at their core, reaching up out of the grave and moving toward light and life and rebirth. Each morning, I check their progress, cheer them on, and speak words of joy and wonder to anyone who'll listen. Look! They're so big today! Look how many! Oh, there's a new one! Come see! It's just so amazing.

I know that you think I'm a mental case. I can see it in your eyes when I tell you about things like magical sprouts or the mathematical fractals and natural tessellation found in nature or the red worms that I have vermicomposting in a closed bin in my kitchen and how I'm so excited about the hard work they do. Or when I speak about space or infinity or the strong force that inexplicably holds together every nucleus of every atom in every part of the known universe and how it just might be the hand of God that binds each one. When Paul writes in Colossians, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together," I believe that this is a literal and profound statement about how intrinsically intertwined our Creator is with his creation. And I find myself crushingly awestruck.

"When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" Psalm 8:3-4

Reading this scripture, I am laying next to the psalmist David in the damp grass, surrounded by warm nestled sheep, looking up into the expanse of the heavens with fascination, both of us nearly losing our bearings in the swirling marvel of light and darkness.

And I have come to this conclusion. Some have the gift of teaching. Some of leadership. Some of prophecy. Some of organization and helpfulness. Some of empathy.

I have the gift of wonder.

I know it is a gift because it had no origin, no beginning, no source of earning or learning or acquisition. One of my earliest memories is laying on my belly in the school yard with my feet in the air, chin on my forearms, four inches from the ground, staring at a patch of white clover weed. I remember abandoning myself to the striations of the leaf veins, the heart shaped leaves, the white flower petals that grew from soft pink legs that all came together to produce this thing, this thing of intense beauty that made perfect sense in the world but for which I had such a strong feeling, an ache that I could neither explain nor describe except to exhale slowly and say, wow.

The gift that you gave me has not been squandered. It has not waned. I still say wow, God. For the work of your hands is indeed a thing of wonder.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Struggle Virtue

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win." John F. Kennedy, 1962

My husband quotes this speech to our kids often. He shortens it to, "We choose to [do these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard." It's used as an encouragement to a child who is frustrated and trying to give up on homework/chores/project/anything. It's a pep talk of sorts, to keep them on track, to help them plod through. To bolster their resolve, in order to finish the task.

It doesn't always work.

Our kids give up quickly. They are easy to come to me and say, "Mom, I need your help," when they don't really need my help. They get frustrated when something seems too big, too daunting. And while I may have been quick to come to their rescue when they were younger, I am starting a weaning process that should have been done years ago. I want my kids to view struggle not as a weakness or failing, but as a strength. After I heard THIS NPR STORY, it reaffirmed something that I knew to be true. In the west, we put so much emphasis on our natural ability, on our inherent skills, rather than the process. We say that a kid is good at something because they are smart, or athletic, or artistic. But if they can't do something, we allow them to push it aside in favor of something they can do.

I think of kids who are forced to play piano (not so common as it used to be). They hate it, they complain, but they do it. They are made to practice, practice, practice. And then, guess what? They can play the piano. I think about scientists who work for years and years and years on the same problem, daily putting in their hours for a solution and coming up empty at the end of the day. I think about artists who don't whip up a painting in 30 minutes, but work for months and years making sure it is just right. Thomas Edison said it perfectly, "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Struggle should be a natural part of the learning process.

There is so much in the scripture about hard work, too. There's a bunch of Proverbs that summarize to this: The more you work, the better you'll eat. And then there's this one in the second testament:"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters." Colossians 3:23

God told Noah to build an ark. He told him how. But He didn't do it for him.

God told the Israelites to build a temple. He told them how. But He didn't do it for them.

Jesus told His disciples to go and make disciples IN EVERY NATION. That's a load of work. And hard. And dangerous. But He left them with, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28:20

If I am to make people who will go forth from my house into the world, I want them to be brave. I want them to persevere. I want them to change the world.

And I don't want them to call me and say, "But Mo-ommm, it's too haa-aard."

Just as my friend Jen put it HERE in her blog about raising brave and dangerous (in the good way) kids, so I also want my kids to have the skills to see struggle as a part of life, to view adversity as an opportunity to overcome.

Academically, I want them to flourish. In life, to persevere. In faith, to learn patience and value struggle and accept the big big challenges from the Lord. Not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

In the Quiet

I've been fake-reading a book (listening to an audiobook) called, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Now, before you go ahead and state the obvious, I KNOW I'm not an introvert, okay? My Myers-Briggs personality is ENTP, with Extrovert right there at the beginning. But I'm married to an 'introvert'. (You can stop rolling your eyes at the thought of Billy being shy.) He's an introvert in the cerebral sense. He's a thinker, and prefers the solitude of fishing and hunting, and craves routine, whereas I prefer community and urban life and spontaneity. I'm pretty sure that two of my three kids are introverted. Again, NOT SHY. Read the book.

I'm starting to understand the value of introspectivity. We have so little time in our over-scheduled world. We fill it the second we get it. FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, StumbleUpon, WordsWithFriends, SongPop, texting, [insert your own vice here]. And we don't allow silence. Since moving just out of the city, I've found myself with a little extra time. Not much, but a little. And once I get past all the time fillers, I find silence waiting for me to call, like a long lost friend. I've been reading more. I've been thinking more. I've been sitting in silence more.

And now I'm a teensy bit addicted to silence. It's so important.

It's where I work out how I feel.

It's where I remember.

It's where I create.

It's where I meditate and pray.

It's where I listen.

It's where I breathe.

As I embark upon 2013, I want to make space for more silence. I want to go against my extroverted-must-have-human-interaction tendencies, and embrace my inner introvert. It starts with some mild solitude, but I also hope that it spills into other areas of my life. That I will allow time to think before I speak. That I will allow time for my children to have silence. That I will let others lead conversation, and think about what they're saying and not what I'm going to say next.

It's important to see the balance of these personalities. Just as we force introverts into the open, into social situations, into business presentations where they stretch themselves to meet the social expectation of extroversion and interaction, so we extroverts must see the value of the other side, must allow ourselves to look inward, to enjoy silence and routine, and find things there that we didn't know we had. That we hadn't ever allowed for. To find ourselves... the quiet.