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October 15, 2014 / nicolespokane

Impeded Streams

stream with rocks

by Liz Mitchell

One of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, said, “The impeded stream is the one that sings.” I’ve been thinking about the dimensions of such a statement. What are impediments? Failed relationships, unemployment, stilted finances, abuse, poverty in all its forms. The list goes on. Some impediments I know intimately. But how do they make me sing?

When water flows freely, high and fast, it doesn’t create much sound. It sparkles in the sunlight, catching rays and reflecting them back to the sun on ripples that speed along the sides of river banks. If you’ve ever been in the ocean and in deep water, you know it’s pretty quiet out there. Unless a storm blows up, the water is still and hushed, even if it’s teeming with life beneath. Water, on its own, doesn’t say much.

But if I throw rocks into that riverbed and listen, the water begins to speak. It crashes against the rocks, seeking a way through, around, or over them. It gurgles through the cracks, splashes down the back side, swishes between those rocks and the bank. In its excitement, it might pull a dry leaf off the grass above and hurry it along its path, creating crackling applause. And that still, quiet ocean? Try putting a shoreline in its path. What miraculous sounds are unleashed when waves meet the sand? Booms and crashes, splashes and fizzes, white foam curling around your toes and salt spray clinging to your hair and eyelashes. It sings, that ocean, once it’s met its greatest impediment.

I’ve sung a few times, too. I sang when my mother told me of her diagnosis of breast cancer. I had no idea she’d found a lump. No idea she’d spent that Christmas waiting and waiting to hear back. A few weeks later, in January of 2008, she told my father, brother, and me that she had Breast Ductive Carcinoma, Invasive. Our family, which normally ran smoothly, encountered not just a rock but a mountain in our path. We didn’t see it coming. We could see no way around it. We would have to go through it, singing.

Just as the water in the river seeks to push through the cracks between the rocks, we sought to push through man’s diagnosis with God’s healing power. We called up every prayer warrior we knew and asked them to lift their voices. We laid our hands on my mother and we called down heaven, tearing open the veil between the two worlds and asking for what was possible to become what was. We stood by her at her doctor’s appointments and at her bedside when she had a lumpectomy. We loved her and sought to support her in every way we could throughout her journey, as she endured thirty-three radiation treatments and five years of a chemo pill called Tamoxifen. My mother, whose last mammogram came back clean and perfect, now considers herself cancer free. And she’s still singing.

I sang, too, as my husband and I felt like it was time to have our second child. God had spoken specifically to us that his name would be Benjamin, that he would be important to the Kingdom of God on earth, and that it was time for him to be born. But month after month, those promises were unfulfilled. Eighteen unfulfilled months went by before I began taking a fertility drug called Clomid. If you’ve ever longed for a child, you know that desperation is not a normal feeling of hope. It crowds your waking mind with its immense weight and pressure, drawing your attention to itself over and over again, continually rubbing raw the same wound. Six months of Clomid and six more unfulfilled promises dashed against that rough-edged wall of infertility.

At that point I needed a break. I couldn’t do one more month. I was tired of beating myself against the rocks in my path. I’d pushed through their cracks, singing until my voice was hoarse, rubbing myself raw with the sands of disappointment, anxiety, fear, and anger. I wanted God’s promises to be fulfilled. I wanted my Benjamin. But after six months of surging hormones, my thyroid called it quits and I felt my body slide downward into sickness. I ached. I cried. I stared at my mountain. But my doctor, who dealt with bodies in messes just like mine all the time, put me on thyroid meds. My body, still responding to the previous six months of meds, awakened to both and within a week, Benjamin was on his way.

Since his birth, God asked us to have another child. I fought Him because I didn’t want to go through the same process of infertility, drugs, hope and hopelessness, for months on end. But finally I agreed. He knew my fear and He took care of it. Nine months after I made that decision, our second daughter, Hazel, was born. And on that day, God sang, too.

When I am an impeded stream, I pray more. I seek more quiet time with my Daddy God. I worship and praise and hunt Him in His word. The fast paced routines of my days are interrupted, turned sideways, and I am poured out in a new way. Like water through the rocks, I sing. And my Savior listens.

After earning her undergraduate degree from the University of Evansville, Liz Mitchell taught adult education for two years in her hometown of Madisonville, KY, followed by ten years in public high schools as a Spanish teacher. During that time she also earned an MFA from Murray State University. Liz currently lives in Fairview, TN, with her husband and three children. She blogs, juggles mommy chores, and writes fiction when the planets align and she has free time. Liz has a piece coming out in an upcoming anthology from Family Fiction.

Photo’s from here.

October 7, 2014 / nicolespokane

To Build A Church

national community church

by Morgan C. Feddes

church \‘chərch\ n. 1 : a building for public and especially Christian worship 2 : the clergy or officialdom of a religious body 3 often capitalized : a body or organization of religious believers

– The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

– 1 Corinthians 1:2-3

When you tear down your church every week, it makes you re-examine your view of your Church.

For more than twenty years, this, to me, was church: rows of wooden pews in a sanctuary with thin, worn cushions on the seats, never very comfortable; at the front, a wooden pulpit, often with a cross carved into it; behind the pulpit, a pastor, typically in a suit, sometimes with a tie, and always male; behind the pastor, an organ, with pipes soaring to a vaulted ceiling, belting out the four parts of a song from the Psalter Hymnal as the congregation followed the organist’s lead.

Lately, though, I find myself spending some Sunday mornings alongside other volunteers in building our church and then tearing it down again.

To clarify: I attend National Community Church, which meets in seven different movie theaters throughout DC, Maryland, and Virginia (aka the DMV; this is the home of the government and all its acronyms, after all). For a few hours each week, we convert some theater lobbies and screens into places of worship, complete with spaces for Sunday school, nursery, prayer, and fellowship. Then, after the end of every service, the praise bands pack up their instruments, the various items used to build church go back into their storage containers, which are then wheeled into closets, and church is disassembled until the next week — usually in a bit of a rush, so that moviegoers can head in with their buckets of popcorn to catch a Sunday matinee.

This is not where I saw myself just a few years ago. My first experience of regularly attending a church that didn’t meet in a church didn’t happen until I was a senior in college, and even then, I never thought about the implications behind a Church without a church. Mostly, I assumed churches in the city had to make up for the lack of space afforded to those, like me, who lived out in the country. They were meeting in a school because they had to have church somewhere, not because it was the ideal location for that part of the Church.

This assumption stemmed from the stark divide between church and life that I had in my head for years. My home church was built in the 1960s; most of my adolescent years centered around its Sunday services and Wednesday night youth groups (at least until high school, when the youth groups moved to Sunday nights). The sanctuary’s decorations may have changed from season to season, but the building itself was always church. I may have brought my faith out into the wider world to be a witness to Christ’s light (or at least I was supposed to), but to my mind, the wider world didn’t usually make it across the threshold into that space unless it was through a sermon illustration. There was a division between worlds, and ne’er shall the twain meet, or so I thought. (Looking back with the 20/20 vision that hindsight affords, though, I can say this wasn’t through any fault of my home church; it was all me.)

These days, though, I’ll occasionally find myself among the popcorn-munching moviegoers watching the latest summer flick in the very theater (and once, the very seat) where just hours before I’d spent watching a recording of one of NCC’s lead pastors preaching the latest sermon. The two worlds are meeting, and though I laugh when it happens, it doesn’t strike me as unusual as I would have thought just a few years ago.

I’d like to say that this comes after a long, completed journey toward realizing the impracticalities and inherent dangers of separating very important aspects of myself and assigning them their certain spaces. But I’d be lying because it isn’t fully complete. I can say that it has come after a long and joyful (though not always happy) journey toward recognizing both the all-encompassing love of Christ in every aspect of my own life and the fact that everything — inside the church and out of it — comes from God.

It all revolves around my new understanding of what it means to be a Church. You see, I’ve come to realize that capital-C Church is not about a building, nor the people who meet in it, nor the process in which its built. Capital-C Church is what Paul says in his opening to the Corinthians: Church consists of the people “called to be [Christ’s] holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.”

For someone who went to a Christ-centered school literally from kindergarten through college, this should have seemed obvious from the get-go; perhaps it was and I just missed it for the first couple decades of my life. Still, better late than never. This is especially true as I live out my new life in Washington, D.C. — a city that revolves around a constant cycle of transition and change. Sometimes, the Church meeting in a typical church doesn’t work. In a city where people are constantly coming and going for one reason or another, a church like NCC — built around the idea of being “in the middle of the marketplace,” among other core convictions — is suited for being built up and torn down each week. It keeps all its members mobile, just like the rest of the city.
And most importantly, it reinforces the fact that Church — the capital-C Church — isn’t meant to be separated from the rest of everyday life. It isn’t a facet of life to be compartmentalized, only drawn out for certain occasions. Instead, it’s meant to be who we, as the capital-C Church, are as a whole: sanctified and called by Christ, whether we’re sitting in wooden pews or squeaky movie theater seats.

Morgan C. Feddes hails from Montana and now resides in Washington, D.C., where she works for the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. In the recent past, she’s helped get a small-town cafe off the ground in Montana, worked for Christianity Today in Illinois, and spent some of the best years of her life at Whitworth University in Washington state, where she graduated with a degree in English in 2011. She blogs over at The Isle Full of Noises and occasionally tweets @morgan_feddes.

Photo of Michael Knox band is from here.

September 30, 2014 / nicolespokane

On His Seventh Birthday

birthday boy

by Polly Hollar Pauley

On my son’s seventh birthday this summer, we breakfasted out, per his request, and then spent five hours at a local vineyard enjoying music, feasting, and visiting while we celebrated our dear friends’ wedding anniversary. We were surprised when the entire crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to our son.  I watched him in wonder during the song; as the huge chorus of voices rose and everyone smiled at him and sang, he seemed to enjoy it in his shy, half-smiling way.  Tears stood in my eyes.

Only a few short years ago he never would have been able to handle that situation. From his earliest colicky days he seemed like an unusual baby, but even after his colic faded he was intense. He reserved his sweet, gummy smiles for a select few, and everyone else got what we dubbed “the serious face.” Sudden laughter or loud noises resulted in meltdowns, even in the middle of a church sermon.

I grew used to removing him from social situations; he and I would hang out in an empty room, reading books.  I remember sitting on the floor of a Sunday School room at church one Sunday, puzzling over why my child seemed to flip out so readily at the innocuous sound of laughter, and praying that God would teach me to parent him for who he was.  My husband and I honored his obsession with flags or basketball goals, his panicked fear of balloons. We tried to be gentle with his temperament. 

My son changed me. He made me a better person, which I desperately needed—without knowing I needed it, of course.  I was humbled by the fact that he was out-of-the-box; I was forced to give up on what I thought he might do and what the parenting books said he should do, and I instead became a student of this particular child. When he was two years old we were told he may never communicate properly; the deliverer of this news was grim, not encouraging. We decided to use the “label” as a tool to help us help our son live in the world, but we never have defined him by it. 

Our son has changed.  His communication skills have exploded. His interests are still intense and consuming, but he can transition from one interest or activity to another without a problem.  (For the record, at the age of seven, his top three interests are limousines, jellyfish, and confetti, with Andre Rieu’s orchestra, drawing, and building orchestra and theatre sets trailing closely behind.) I view his laser-focus as a gift; it helps him see something and then re-create it in multi-dimensional form. His artwork is lovely.  Social situations take navigation and guidance, but he is becoming more natural at spontaneous social interactions. He is coming into his own.

All this is simply to say: a child is a gift.  And, this child is my gift.  Twenty-four hours of labor, urgent surgery for me the week after his birth, countless sleepless nights (years of sleepless nights), colic, unusual diets, inexplicable tantrums, late-blooming language—none of it can possibly hold a candle to the thousands of moments of joy and happiness and beauty that these seven years have brought to us. I would do it all over again, many times, to see him splashing in the cold Appalachian creek in slanting sunlight or running in the ocean surf at dusk, to watch him dashing ahead of me down our dusty country lane or jumping in the good mud puddles that form after a heavy rain. 

I keenly feel the passage of time, because there are only 11 more years before he begins his own life as an adult.  There’s an urgency to the flipping of the calendar; there are so many things we wish to impart to him, to show him, to enjoy with him, before he is grown, from how to bait a fishing rod to how to roll out cinnamon rolls, how to iron a shirt and how to stop everything and just gape at the sunset, and how to love someone for who they are, not who you think they should be.

Seven years ago I had no idea who I was holding in my arms—who was this person, and who would he become?  I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of a baby, so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even bathe him myself the first few weeks of his life. I was terrified that I would drop him.  Seven years later I am overwhelmed with radical gratitude because I was given this artistic, loquacious, witty, shy, clever, creative boy—and the gift of spending my days with him. 

Polly Hollar Pauley’s poetry has been published in The Hollins CriticCider Press Review, Artemis, and The Allegheny Review.  She lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her husband and children. 

Photo from Amanda Reardon photography.

September 22, 2014 / nicolespokane

Life Drawing

watercolor-lake-constance-immenstaad-shore-kleckser

by Caroline J. Simon

I sit cross-legged on the ground by the lake at Oxbow, painting the stump in front of me. I capture the grace, bulk, and heft of the stump with a few deft strokes, as I have been taught.  My pallet knife layers stroke after stroke of raw umber, burnt umber, browns, and grays, mimicking rough bark.  In the upper right quadrant of the painting, I brush smooth, short horizontal warms, the reflection of the dune spreading across the lake’s still waters from the opposite bank.  I use some of these same warms for a few of the places where the sun touches the matte surfaces of the bark.  I throw just one or two cerulean echoes of the lake water onto the trunk.

All week my teacher has been trying to get me to loosen up.  This stump-portrait is loose.  But she wants me to “see” and paint what I see.  What do I see in this stump?

My teacher is sitting on a shaded porch with someone, rocking and talking. “That stump is nuclear,” she says as I hold up the canvas on my way back to the painting barn.  I hear this as damning. Ambiguous “praise” at best.  I look at the canvas again, for the first time seeing resemblances to the old Trojan Power Plant on the Columbia River. “So, okay then. Try to make the foreground have that same over-the-top quality.”  I nod.  I mull over her comments as I continue toward the barn.

I sat down by that stump in defiance, willfully intent on painting an Idea.  “Though its stump grows old in the ground, at the scent of water, it will bud.” I came to Oxbow grieving.  I was manufacturing an icon of hope.

***

I am laying down line after line.  Contour drawing, it is called.  This is the fourth of six life drawing exercises that we are doing this afternoon in the meadow at Oxbow.  It rained this morning.  The sun is warming the damp from the morning’s rain, making the air smell green.  Our subject is a young woman who spends most of her time on the kitchen crew here.  I am trying to be a good student.  Look.  Let the lines define not just the shape, but the weight, of what you see.  Look mainly at the model.  Glance at the paper only to set your pencil back at its starting point.

I hope my hand and eyes are obedient.  My “monkey mind” is not.  While my hand moves, my thoughts chatter away.  “How does she stay so still?”  Her back and neck arch as she reaches her arms behind her, resting her hands on a high stool.  Her head is back.  We have only fifteen minutes for this exercise.  Earlier, when she was seated in a chair, we got thirty minutes to do an ink and brush sketch.

“How does someone get a tan like that?”  Three inch circles are dotted in even patterns over what would have been covered by a one piece bathing suit. “Did she pose outdoors in body paint recently?”

People walk back and forth on the path behind her, on their way to the dining hall, the pottery shed, to hike the woods.  Some look at the model.  Some look at us looking, look at us drawing.  Look.  Draw what you see.  “Where has she gone?”  Her eyelids droop.  Her body drapes in unselfconscious repose.  “What would it be like to be her?”

***

It is our last session, the “gallery walk.”  All students have displayed our week’s works along the painting barn walls.  One of the MFA students has painted a nude on a five foot by five foot canvas.  The model stares straight ahead at the viewer.  This is no “come hither” look.  These eyes demand, “What’s up with you?”

“Why did you choose to paint your nude with glasses?” asks Dave, a public defender from Chicago.  A serious amateur painter, he’s done some very interesting pieces this week.

“She was wearing glasses,” several women say in unison.

When the “gallery walk” gets to my section, the teacher focuses on an odd shaped, incomplete, eight-inch acrylic sketch I’d made sitting in the woods.  The classmate who’d spent all week talking, making the rounds and looking over shoulders had seen this scrap Wednesday and said, “Can I have that?’  So I’ve tacked it up. Within the trapezoid the sun flitters through the trees, falling on the leaves and bracken on the forest floor; slivers here and there of cobalt sky showing through the birch, maples and ash. Thinking of this as a preliminary study for some later, finished, work and wanting to get done before I was consumed by bugs, I’d rushed.  Trees, leaves, breeze, rustle, light, sky, the occasional whine of a mosquito.  Stillness.

“Best work you did this week,” says the teacher, tapping it with her finger.

 

Caroline J. Simon is a philosopher and administrator at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA.  She is the author/coauthor of five books, including Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity and The Disciplined Heart: Love, Destiny and Imagination. The latter book uses literature to explore the nature of love. She paints from time to time and has recently become intrigued with creative nonfiction as a vehicle for exploring topics that outstrip the capabilities of academic prose.

Image by Michael Arndt is from here.

September 15, 2014 / nicolespokane

Faith, Belief, and the Reporter’s Paths to Truth

belief

by Erica Salkin

There’s a growing body of research about media and religion that suggests reporters struggle to cover issues involving faith. Some say it’s because journalism has long been aligned with political life, leading media professionals to believe they should not get involved in issues of religion (on the “state” side of church/state). Others believe it’s a hesitance to appear to take sides between competing lines of religious thought – dueling truths, so to speak.

To me, the biggest challenge appears to lie in journalism’s commitment to verification and source skepticism. The drive to get a second source, to get confirmation before embracing a “fact” to be “true” is near and dear to a profession that strives for objectivity. How better to check your biases than to force you to verify that which you already suspect is true?

That approach to truth, though, doesn’t work well with faith. There really isn’t any second-sourcing the word of God. Perhaps the best way to envision the difference is this:

One of the oldest journalism adages:

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

One of the first phrases learned in Sunday School:

“Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

Understanding the tension between journalism and religion makes me read articles that touch on faith with new eyes. For example, at the end of July, Slate.com ran an article titled “Is Religion Good for Children?“ In it, Mark Stern explores two studies that suggest “exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction.” Children ages 3-6 from religious backgrounds and nonreligious backgrounds were told three different versions of the same story, with one version featuring a biblical character performing a miracle with the help of God, one version describing the same miraculous event but with no reference to God, and the third telling the story “realistically” with no miracles and no God.

Stern describes the results as follows:

“Children raised with religion thought the protagonists of the miraculous stories were real people, and they seemed to interpret the narratives—both biblical and magical—as true accounts. Secular children, on the other hand, were quick to perceive that these stories were fictitious, construing them as fairy tales rather than real-life narratives. They had a far keener sense of reality than religious children, who failed to understand that magic does not exist and believed that stories describing magical details such as ‘invisible sails’ could be real.”

The studies came to the conclusion that children who are raised on stories of faith have “wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.” On first read, that sounds like a good thing. People who question the impossible are responsible for innovation, exploration and discovery. After all, “ordinary causal relations” would say that an airplane made of metal and weighing thousands of pounds could not defy gravity and fly from Spokane to Denver, and yet I did just that last month because a pair of Ohio brothers believed the impossible could happen.

Stern doesn’t read that the same way:

“When you’ve been told that a woman was created from a man’s rib, or that a man reawakened three days postmortem little worse for wear, your grasp on reality is bound to take a hit. Religious children are told these stories from an early age, often as though they are unquestionably true.”

Here’s where I see Stern’s reporter instincts following the research on journalists and religion. The ability to accept and embrace stories of miracles without authentication or validation seems unrealistic from a reporter’s perspective. What Stern misses, however, is that the “verification” of stories of faith, including miracles, is faith.

Faith is not the same as “belief” – if you believe something to be true, you can pursue verification to confirm that belief. That is the essence of journalism. But faith is self-verifying, a knowledge of a fundamental truth that doesn’t need another source to confirm it. Faith is not naïve or a failed grasp on reality. It may not fit neatly into the journalist’s paradigm – after all, a miracle is a miracle because it defies conventional explanation – but that does not make it any less of a stable and real part of a person’s view of the world (not just their world, but THE world in its stark and real majesty).

One does not need to share in faith to accept that it plays this role in many people’s lives. Such acceptance would, however, bring a new lens to a story such as Stern’s. Instead of “failed to understand that magic does not exist,” this story might have discussed how children raised in religious households “see miracles where others do not.” It reframes the issue in terms of what the children see, rather than what the reporter does not, and lessens the bias by recognizing that reality-by-verification is not the only path to truth.

Dr. Erica Salkin is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Whitworth University. Her academic interests include media law, scholastic journalism and media as modern storytelling. The rest of her life is filled with family, good books, quality sci-fi and one spoiled cat.

Image from Spirituality & Health.

September 8, 2014 / nicolespokane

The Night of Day Nine

corey zalewski

by Corey Zalewski

I slept in the middle most nights, Jeff on my left and Monte on my right. This night was no different until Jeff woke Monte and me up at 11 o’clock. “Guys, there’s water,” Jeff said, with an unalarming note of urgency.

Still half asleep, I responded the only way I could: “What do we do?” When I sat up I realized three things. First, my assumption was wrong, it wasn’t raining. Second, Jeff should have woken us up with a couple more notes of urgency in his voice. Third, my sleeping pad, with me on it, was floating in five inches of water.

Ten minutes and a waterlogged tent later, the three of us were lying in the dirt with a tarp stretched over our faces to keep dry. Now, it had begun to rain. Great.

That was day nine of our 25-day cycling tour down the Pacific Coast. I learned a lot over 1,750 miles, one beer split three ways (to keep our spirits high), and six flat tires. Let me tell you about two of those things.

corey zalewski bikes

The first thing is simple; don’t set your tent up in the bed of a costal river that runs directly into the ocean. When the tide comes in, the riverbed becomes a waterbed and a sleeping pad becomes a flotation device. We should have known better. The three of us didn’t stretch once over the whole trip – we were arrogant in our youth. Being flooded by the tide was a rather humbling experience for us all. Not to mention our clothes and tent were wet and muddy for the next two days.

The second thing I learned came ten months after our tour. See, there was something romantic about the trip. Each day was better than the last (that’s especially true of the day following the night of day nine) and each day Monte, Jeff and I became closer. By the end of the trip we knew the preferred cadence of the other and would ride miles drafting inches apart, not saying a word, yet knowing exactly when a break was needed. The sense of camaraderie and shared experience was what brought us together and made those final days so blissful and, well, easy.

You may say that we hit our stride. And I think that’s exactly it; we fell into a rhythm. As the trip went on, we fell into a rhythm, and that rhythm was desirable not just because it made things easier, but because now –  months after the tour – I see that that is how we are supposed to live.

In Acts 4, Luke states, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (v. 32 ESV). The members of the early church were on to something when they committed to each other and fell into the rhythm of life together. Each person, according to Acts, was working for the health of the community, selling land and houses to meet the needs of others.

What I learned while on my tour was the beautiful rhythm of life with others. And further, how hard it is to attain. The rhythm that Monte, Jeff, and I reached on day 25 took climbing thousands of feet, several close calls from motorhomes and semi trucks, and an unprecedented soreness. Every mile of the tour was worth it, though. And like the tour, striving to create a sense of rhythm in my community in Spokane is worth it too. Being of one heart and soul may take more than going on a bike ride, but it is worthy of our attention and effort because through it we are given an opportunity to live among others, for others, and in Christ.

Corey Zalewski has a B.A. in marketing and an MBA from Whitworth University. Second to riding a bike, his favorite thing to do is working on them. He currently lives in Spokane and works at KellyBrady Advertising.

September 1, 2014 / nicolespokane

Being Born Again

baptism

by T. J. Pancake

I took freshman-year health class as a sophomore in high school. It’s mostly about sex, which you would think 15-year-olds would love, except that it’s all in this maximally-awkward, birds-and-the-bees kind of way. It is, essentially, the worst.

My teacher was one of those overly peppy, athletic health-nuts. For part of the class, she forced us watch NOVA’s Miracle of Life video, which walked us all the way from conception to birth in a very informational, mature way that our pubescent minds weren’t nearly ready for. I remember being warned by a friend that this video ended with footage of a real-life natural birth, which, obviously, is totally disgusting. So, to avoid mental scarring, I brought a book to class that day. Amidst the uncomfortable laughter and the snickering of the kids in the back row, I was lost in a world of fiction, where bloody umbilical cords and placentas did not exist—or at least were never mentioned.

Jesus, up late talking to this curious religious guy named Nicodemus, tells him, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

To which Nicodemus replied, horrified, “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely one cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

At this terrifying proposition, mothers everywhere held their breath waiting for Jesus’ answer because “there is no chance I am doing that again, Jesus.”

The thing about birth is that it’s nothing like the stork version that we’re told when we’re little. The one where little boys and girls just show up one day on our doorsteps, brought by this messenger-bag-toting, postal cap-wearing bird with weirdly long legs. The cute, bundled children weren’t there, and then suddenly they were.

But real birth takes time. Real birth is messy. It’s completely and unashamedly disgusting. There’s blood and other unidentified body fluids everywhere. The mom is alternating between screaming and hyperventilating. The doctors are rushing around giving orders. Then the baby comes out, confused, frightened, crying.

Yet, we watch NOVA’s video and we call birth a miracle, because we know that piercing through all of the pain and all of the mess is something inexplicably beautiful. That something that wasn’t, now is. And it took a long time, and it didn’t look the prettiest, but it’s there. A new, untainted life, waiting to take on the world.

For some reason, when we started talking about being born again, we cleaned it up. Our intentions were good. We wanted people to see the beauty of it, the incredible life change that happens when Jesus grabs ahold of a soul and turns it inside out. So, we created the two-minute testimony. Tell us how you got born again, they said. Now do it again, faster. Smooth out the wrinkles. We aimed for the dramatic. We had to show how unflinchingly un-born we were, and then how impressively born we became, all overnight, all on one, specific date, all in a Moment. We were dropped on the doorstep by Jesus, the stork.

I used to tell people that I was born again when I was five years old, on red carpet steps thinking about Jesus literally walking around inside of my heart. But something in my story didn’t feel right. I didn’t have the Moment, where I wasn’t, and then immediately I was. I just kind of always was. I think now that maybe I was being born again all those years. That I was conceived there on the red carpet steps, and then I just grew in the womb, receiving nutrients through the umbilical cord of my parents and my church. Then came those dreadful Middle School years, and it started to get painful. I realized that it hurts when you get kicked off your friend’s lunch table.

Slowly, like a train gaining momentum, I started to wonder about God. I realized that I didn’t know what happened to babies when they die, I didn’t know what the words “atonement” and “salvation” and “redemption” really mean, and I didn’t understand why God wouldn’t just show up and say, “Here I am!” And I realized that I wanted to know these things. And I was asking Him to help me out a little bit, and I started to care about other people, and I got less angry—but I sometimes still got angry—and I learned, over time, to believe that Jesus is the center of it all. It was imperfect, but it was beautiful because through all the time and all the tattered moments, I was being born as something different, something completely new.  

The problem is that we forgot that the beauty of new life is so bright that it could never be dimmed by an imperfect birth. That being born again is a process that ends beautifully. It’s a lot of not believing, then a lot of half-believing, then some believing with some not-believing thrown in there. We are not reborn in a night. We spend a lot of time in the womb, warming up to the idea of a world outside of our world, a world where God would send his own Son to bring us out into the light. And when we finally come out of the womb, it’s usually screaming and crying and terrified. All of our questions haven’t been answered and our objections haven’t been proved wrong. We just are pushed out and hope that God is there to catch us.

I don’t remember what version of the confession he used, but it sounded different than I’d heard before, older, more solemn, like a medieval rite of passage. We stood in the waist-deep baptismal, and I confessed into the microphone, “I do.” Like a wedding. And then I was plunged under the water, stormy waves spreading out from the point of my submersion. My eyes were closed. It was dark. It was quiet, except for the swish of the water.

I was pulled back out of the water to sound of clapping from the church body. The lights were brighter than I remembered them. Water was dripping down my face. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I knew I was alive. I had been born. Again.

TJ Pancake went to Cedarville University, where he studied to Preseminary Bible in preparation for becoming a pastor. Through the years, he has continually rediscovered a love for writing. He lives in Dayton, OH where he is helping to plant a church and hoping to improve his writing skills. His essay, “Against Grandiosity,” appeared in issue 9 of Mock Turtle Zine. He also loves food. Especially when it’s fried.

Image is from here.

August 25, 2014 / nicolespokane

Learning From the Ants

ants

by Kathryn Smith

Beneath my patio, a silent upheaval. Silent to me, though the ants hear it in their own way, a vibration humming their legs, a pheromone alert in their antennae.

 

The signals they give are clear: The colony has outgrown itself. A colony cannot serve two queens. The colony must divide. They leave in a cloud, what looks like exodus, swarming like their honeybee cousins leaving the hive.

 

Sometimes they war. Two colonies didn’t know they existed peacefully in such close proximity until one ant ventures too far. They fight their battles on the limestone patio, head to head, mandible to mandible. No drone warfare for these creatures. Exoskeleton as armor. No weapons but their own bodies.

 

Ants are social insects. This word, “social.” It does not mean they are good at making friends. It does not mean they have good small-talk skills. It means they only survive together, by following the rigid order of things. By following trails of pheromone signals, one scent toward food, another away from danger. Keeping others from danger and giving their bodies, if they need to, as food for the group. Working together to gather sustenance, to build a nest. Doing the work that’s been designated to them. “Social” as in “socialism.” Not as in having a lot of Twitter followers.

 

These social ants are disturbing my social life, their definition of social at war with mine. They’re bulging the cut limestone I so carefully installed, my partner and I digging out sod and then soil, tamping gravel and hauling in sand. So many wheelbarrowfuls of gravel and sand. Sand the ants now labor out, grain by grain, from between the stones we laid in a precalculated pattern, the level laid every which direction to ensure a flat surface, a place beneath the shade of volunteer maples where we’ll circle the patio chairs, set the table, and raise a glass with friends. Subterranean order undermining surface-level order. One society versus another.

 

Not long ago, I watched a deer and a raccoon face off in my parents’ front yard, a careful dance at dusk on a grassy plot. They didn’t seem to expect each other, yet both animals had grown accustomed to the human audience, paying no mind as my parents, my spouse, and I gawked at their encounter from behind a plate-glass window 10, maybe 15 feet away. You hear stories of more dangerous creatures—cougars or bears, usually—encroaching on housing developments that have encroached on the animals’ territory, the beasts threatening the neighborhood’s safety while the humans threaten the animals’ security. It is harder to coexist when the concerned species are roughly the same size, or at least proportionally close, and when they occupy the same strata, the same above-ground spaces. With ants, what we see above ground, what’s raiding my patio, is the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg of their underground nests.

 

The ants aren’t really a threat. A nuisance, an annoyance, a thing that bites, a bite that stings. But no, not a threat. Nor are they threatened, these insects with a foothold in every continent but Antarctica, their 22,000 species making up a fifth of the terrestrial animal kingdom. In terms of biomass, there are more ants than there are vertebrates. (How do we even know that? I imagine entomologists piling ants on a scale, calculating how many per ounce, how many per cubic inch.) What does this teach us about being social, about co-existing as species that share this Earth? I am neither scientist nor philosopher; I am a person, a specimen homo sapiens, who likes to observe things. (Introverted and so by some estimations antisocial, though not by the ants’ definition.) I like to crouch to the earth and watch the ants at war, their grappling in twos and threes. It may seem morbid, but it’s not the killing I’m drawn to. I like to imagine what it would be like to act wholly on instinct, to not think your way out of doing what the signals around you tell you must be done. Perhaps I think the ants can teach me how to live less fearfully. Or maybe they live only by fear.

 

Has anyone ever quoted William Stafford to talk about ants? Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” ends with these lines: “the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” Ants and their clear signals bring these lines to mind. I wonder what we can learn from them, from the ants, how we could better navigate the darkness that surrounds us by being clear with one another—whether working or warring, feeding or exiling. Ants are no model for peace, but in their clear signals, they create a model for honesty. Our life, like the ants’, is lived together, so perhaps we could learn from them to live deliberately as social creatures, working together as fully as they do—humans among humans, humans among hymenoptera among some 8 million Earthbound species, one body, many, many working parts.

Kathryn Smith received her BA from Whitworth in 1999 and her MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2004. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Rock & Sling, The Cresset, Floating Bridge Review and RiverLit, as well as local anthologies. She sometimes thinks she might have been an entomologist were it not for the existence of earwigs.

Ant image is from here.

 

August 18, 2014 / nicolespokane

The Transcendence of Digital Play

video-games-desktop-wallpaper

by Ryan Stevens

This year saw the launch of Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s Playstation4, which have currently sold a combined total of over 13 million units. Last year, consumers spent an estimated $21 billion on videogame products, and the industry as a whole is the second fastest growing media segment in the world, valued at over $86 billion. In spite of the explosive success videogames have demonstrated over the past five years, the stigma that surrounds the players is still hanging around.

When asked about what videogames entail, many people still have the ridiculous image of an overweight, Dorito-stained thirty-year-old sitting alone in a dark basement of his mother’s house playing some sort of violent shooter. Even those who recognize such a stereotype to be absurd still describe videogames as socially ostracizing or unhealthy. This mentality is a troublesome notion that can be easily remedied by providing a little perspective.

Putting the monetary weight of the videogame industry aside for a second, let’s consider the social ramifications. Gaming is no longer a minority group of outsiders who play alone in front of their television. In fact, 59% of Americans play video games, and nearly two thirds of players are doing so with others, either online or in person. The social element of gaming has even led developers to increase the output of multiplayer games, to the extent that the feature has become the standard. There are even contemporary games such as Titanfall and Destiny, for example, that take place entirely online with other human players. More importantly, this multiplayer community is not comprised entirely of total strangers, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The majority of gamers play with either a family member, a spouse, or with close friends, and 58% of parents play games with their children. The number one cited reason? It’s fun.

While games used to be male-dominated, even this aspect of the stereotype is being rebuffed, with current gender ratios of gamers nearing 50%. Games have extended into every age demographic, and though the average console owner is just above 30 years old, games are enjoyed (and marketed towards) children, teens, young adults, parents and even the elderly.

Curiously, the massive influx of gamers from every demographic is still not enough to deter critics who claim that videogames are overly violent, insufficiently monitored, or a generally unimaginative and passive experience. The truth is that the violence in videogames is no greater than that of film or television, and the rating system has advanced to compensate. Ratings extend to cover all the same age groups as movies, with the vast majority (88%) containing content equivalent to a G or PG rating. What’s more, over 90% of parents monitor what their child plays, and over two thirds of parents place personal limits on their child’s content usage. On the opposite end of the spectrum, artistic development for games has undergone monumental improvement, employing teams of writers, cinematographers, visual effects artists, and creativity directors to create games that are as stunning visually and thematically as they are fun to play. This influx of imagination has even led to national magazines like IGN, which rate games based on the experience they provide the player, which necessarily includes categories like visual depth, immersive gameplay, character complexity, storyline quality, and even sound and musical score.

Games have not only transcended the ugly stereotype that plagued them, they have left any credibility it had in the dust. Games have the complexity of film, the entertainment value of television shows, the intelligence benefits of books (including literacy rates), and have become more social than all three. They represent a colossal component of US and global economies, and have become a creative outlet for young and old, men and women, parents and children alike. Regardless of whether or not we find videogames personally enjoyable, it’s high past time to stop criticizing gamers, and start understanding why they picked up the controller in the first place.

Sources

http://videogamevoters.org/learn-more/top_10_gamer_facts

http://www.esrb.org/about/video-game-industry-statistics.jsp

http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/esa_ef_2013.pdf

Ryan Stevens will be blogging for R&S about film and social tendencies. As he describes it: “This would include an analysis of how ‘film people’ are viewed and how they behave (and how to behave around them), or a commentary on the ways we look at film vs. how we ought to look at film.  I tend to find human behavior both fascinating and like to look at why we do or think the things we do and think. I’ll also likely include revelations about life and faith from the perspective of someone with depression.”

Image above is from here.

August 11, 2014 / nicolespokane

Living In the Shadow

fault-poster

by Pierrette Stukes

 

These two teenage, giggling girls kept appearing before me. In the ticket line, as my husband and I bought our movie passes, they flipped their long tresses with one hand and scrolled their phones with the other. They were there in the ladies’ bathroom, checking their makeup in the graying mirror, scrolling their phones. And again, as we made our way into the theater, they bounced along and scrolled their phones.

I sidestepped, exasperated, to let them find their seats first and whispered to my husband, “let’s sit on the opposite side of the theater,” in a tone only a middle-aged woman with no children could adopt. I chose two seats in those short rows on the outer edge of the theater, hoping to get away from everyone. Not so—the theater filled up with mostly teenage and middle-aged women and a few men, like my husband, who patted my knee periodically as I sobbed my way through The Fault in Our Stars (2014).

I am a fifty-four-year-old, post-menopausal woman with a PhD in English Literature who has read the young adult Twilight series and seen all five of the movies, more than once. (What are the odds that there are more of me?)

My husband, Bo, has more refined tastes. He’s the Redbox movie chooser. We had the privilege to watch the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Late Quartet (2012) and to witness a rare, late-career performance by the stunning Julie Christie in Away from Her (2006)—both superb films that I recommend to every living person for their treatment of the long-arc of sometimes neurotic, sometimes noble life in the shadow of death.

We are eclectic in our movie tastes. We’re mesmerized by the psychopathic violence of Michael Madsen’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs. We try to see the annual summer Tom Cruise blockbuster; we like to go to the theater to see Cruise movies because we get a rush from the vocal crowd gasping at the over-the-top explosions and daredevil antics.

We had never heard of The Fault in Our Stars. We did not know the movie is a closely-adapted film of a young-adult novel written by John Green and published in January 2012 to much acclaim. We did not know the narrator, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is a sixteen-year-old-soul who is living and dying with cancer and an oxygen tank.

We do know we like the work of the intense, yet restrained, Laura Dern, the only actor in the movie we had heard of and who portrays Hazel Grace’s mother. And we do know I would rather sit with my cousin, Robbie, who is dying with courage and grace, than do anything else. My husband says that I am obsessed with death.

~~~

In 1998, my mother-in-law, Gertrude, died of uterine cancer. She turned ninety two months prior to her death. But when someone counsels, “Well, she had a long life,” you want to throttle them. Or, you at least want to have a wise, yet subtle, rebuke ready—about how the tenacity and verve of life itself demands to keep living, regardless of the seething, chronic ache in the bowels left by failed radiation.

Hospice taught us to care for Trudy: to prepare oatmeal when she could eat; to lie gently to her when she wailed, “I do not want to die. I do not want to die. I do not want to die”; to wash her translucent skin, crumbled from decades of life, when her body surrendered and began its inevitable dying process. Hospice taught us to lean into Trudy as she died, to lean into death.

For our Sunday matinee, Bo proposed Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow (2014), a dystopia of apocalyptic proportions. In this Cruise summer repeat, his character is trapped in a closed-loop of samsāra, even as he learns from each incarnation some essential skill to defeat the other-world aliens.

But Bo preferred The Fault in Our Stars. His sales pitch: Cruise’s summer movies usually rock the box office, but that long weekend, The Fault in Our Stars was defying the movie gods. That opening weekend, Edge of Tomorrow took in $28,760,246 and The Fault in Our Stars$48,002,523.

The title of the movie comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (1.2.135-40)

The speaker is Cassius, the prime fomenter against Caesar. Cassius is trying to rankle Brutus to rise up, to be the master of his fate, to not surrender to the fate of the stars.

Hazel Grace and her boyfriend Augustus, who is also dying from cancer, accept their fate with dignity. After young years spent in hospitals and in remission, they stop striving to beat the impossible odds with brute force. They surrender.

Surrender is a spiritual stance. It is what the Rev. Jean-Pierre de Caussade meant in his classic 1861 The Joy of Full Surrender, when he concludes: “When God lives in the soul, it should surrender itself completely to [God’s] providence.” We live fully, with joy, when we accept the reality of our own deaths.

That weekend, America did not want to be reminded, again, that we are living in an historical moment of horrific violence against human life. Instead, those giggling girls led America into the shadows of the theater. They were Psyches walking willingly into the unknown of the other-world. I am sure they turned off their phones, too. I did, severing willingly, if only for 126 minutes, the thin thread connecting me to the banal life of Twitter feeds and texts.

Pierrette Rouleau Stukes has published creative nonfiction in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology, The Rose, Crack the Spine, and The Big Roundtable. Her essay “Swimming” was awarded first place in a regional creative nonfiction contest. “Tilted Toward Life” was nominated for the 2011 Best of the Net for nonfiction. Her short-short story “Between the Lines” and her essay “Misinformation Effect” earned an Honorable Mention in New Millennium Writings.

Movie poster image is from here.

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