Saturday, December 30, 2006

Nicknames

Nicknames are inherently weird things, I think. Some people are great at coming up with them, and others are great at having ones that stick to them, but I don't think I've ever really been either type. The closest I usually get to nicknames myself are actually extensions of my standard nickname, Jenn. Jennwith2ns, for example. There's also a fairly large contingent who call me by first and last name together as if it were one word. I have found this all over the world. I'm not really sure what it is about me or my name.

Anyway, I'm feeling a little smug right now, because last night I actually coined a nickname for someone at work, and I think it might stick. Her name is Aline (pronounced Ah-LEE-nee). Last night New-Manager-Hillarie called her "Miss Aline," but it sounded like she was about to say "Miscellaneous." Now those of us who were there call her MissAlineous. Everyone said, "Wow, Jenn! That's great!" Except for MissAlineous, of course. Too bad for her.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Quiet

All the Starbucks customers seem to be happy that the holidays are almost over. Everybody spent the season getting stressed out. Except for me, I guess. I bought all my Christmas presents when I was in Costa Rica back in October, and my homemade Christmas cards were actually done about a month early, too. This has never happened before. I'm not really gloating. But I was pleased.

I don't think the season was very stress-free for my parents, though--maybe particularly for my mother. She had to change her flight home and come back three weeks earlier than planned, and then work on all these funeral preparations. Then my dad came and he had to write a sermon for it. Then David and Emmylou came, and try to spend time with both our family and her brother's family and go to the funeral, too. It wasn't even a very relaxed time for me. I am tired, I'll admit it.

But it was pretty great having them all around--especially having Mom around for extra weekends. I've gone on and on about my wonderful grandfather, but my more immediate family is at least as wonderful. Mom, for example, invited one of my friends over for a semi-impromptu lunch after church one Sunday, and then held her own in a two-hour religio-philosophical interview with him. This is impressive not only because it's not as if she didn't have enough to do, but also because the friend grilling her is quite possibly one of the smartest people I know. (I leave this assessment open to revision, but only because somehow I seem to know a lot of insanely brainy people.)

Dave and Lu left after the funeral on Wednesday. Mom and Dad left today. Roommate-Sarah has not yet returned from her parents'. The house is very quiet. It's kind of nice, in that I'm tired and I like quiet. But none of my family are very loud usually--except Dave, when he's watching a movie that strikes him funny. I miss them.
A Celebration of God’s Glory in Memory of One Who Loved Him

That was what the front of the programme said for Grandpa Madeira’s funeral. Even though he went Home a month ago, the funeral wasn’t until Wednesday. I know. It’s kind of weird. Everybody thinks so.

But it kind of makes sense, too, when you consider that there were three hundred people who came through the reception alone. I have no idea how many attended the actual service, but the church where it was held—the church Grandpa planted decades ago—was packed. If the service had been before Christmas, probably a lot of those people would not have been able to make it there.

Sometimes I’m in awe of my relatives. One guy who isn’t even related to us and I’m pretty sure never worked with Grandpa drove up from the Carolinas to attend the memorial service. A lot of the people who used to work for Grandpa years and years ago came, even though he’s been out of the pastorate for a long time and most of them work in big huge churches in the Midwest and you would think they would have better things to do with their time. An elderly Haitian pastor cancelled a speaking engagement because he said, “My best friend has just died, and I want to be at his funeral.” It’s kind of a dizzying realization that somehow I got lucky or blessed or whatever enough to be the granddaughter of a Great Man. (I actually can say I was even luckier to be the granddaughter of two, but I didn’t know my other grandpa as well, and he went Home right around the time this one’s Alzheimer’s started making itself known.)

The thing that made him great, though (and he would never have considered himself to be so) was how present God Himself was in Grandpa's life. He was kind of quiet (except when snoring or laughing). He prayed a lot. He just wanted more than anything else to do what God wanted of him. Even when he got Alzheimer's--even at the very end when he couldn't even talk anymore--he was different. Alzheimer's patients often get belligerent. Grandpa never did. Sometimes he cried. More often, he smiled. That's the glory of God IN someone who loved Him. It boggles my mind that God can be so present in regular old human beings. People like Grandpa remind me that He can--and He will if we ask for it, apparently.

It was great to hear people reminiscing about how much Grandpa loved (still loves) Jesus and how much he loved people—how loved we felt around him. It’s inspiring to realise that people got to know that Jesus loves them because Grandpa did. I was struck with the thought that here we all were, hundreds of us crammed into a church because we had known and loved and been loved by this bald guy, and really, even though we could cry in missing him, we weren’t really mourning him. We were celebrating that God came here at Christmas and died and returned to life at Easter so that we could live undyingly with Him. We were celebrating that Grandpa is getting to know that for real now. And maybe we were crying a little bit because we haven’t experienced that fully yet ourselves.

But we still experience it a little. Even though we all start dying as soon as we’re born, there’s life, too. At the end of the reception, the cousins got together for our traditional “Crazy Cousin Picture.” We take one any time we see each other. At first we were nervous that people would think we were being disrespectful. Then we decided that, since we weren't. It would have made Grandpa chuckle. Maybe, out there, wherever "there" is, gazing on the face of Jesus whom he loves, he still gets a glimpse of his crazy grandkids. Maybe he still chuckles.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

They said . . .

Here are some thoughts I didn't come up with myself, but they seem related to mine and struck me as very true:

The first one is from a novel based on a true story, about a young man who is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan:

"It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me to bury a boy such as William K."
--What is the What?, Dave Eggers

"We’re thankful for this time of year. It reminds us that the unlimited God took on the very limits that rob human beings of our own feeble glory—and then broke those limits."
--my brother

It's is unquestionably true that Starbucks Christmas mix CD's that we play in our stores get a little old, because there aren't as many Christmas songs as there are Everything-Else songs. But on the other hand, I noticed on Christmas Eve, there really are a whole lot of beautiful Christmas carols, even beyond the familiar ones. And they're deep and rich or just plain delighted and all of them sound like a winter-coloured party. I read somewhere else (Crossing Borders by Rodney Clapp, to be exact) recently that Christians would regain Christmas as our holiday if we regained our sense of the enormity of Easter. I believe this is true, but I don't think that means it's bad to try to celebrate Christmas for all it's worth in the meantime.

"Sing, daughter of Tziyon [Zion]; rejoice! For, here, I am coming; and I will live among you," says Adonai."
--Zechariah 2.10, CJB

That's a lot to sing about--that God would play by our rules so seriously. That not only would He submit to rearranging our messes according to the brokenness we instituted, but also submit to the form He had given us, and live here with us. That someday He will fix the world and live with us, not just by His Spirit, and not just in His pre-resurrection body, but in a way we have never imagined.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy

Yesterday was happy. Or maybe I mean I was happy yesterday. I've been happy kind of a lot lately, but yesterday was probably exceptional. I worked an opening shift and at 5 a.m. was physically jumping up and down and talking like a small child to New-Manager-Hillarie. If you know me at all well, you'll know that even if I occasionally lapse into baby-talk to be stupid, jumping up and down is just not something that comes easily to me.

All the customers were really nice, too. The most annoying thing was one of them not getting the jokes I was trying to make with him. But that's not really that surprising; the surprising thing may have been that everybody else did get them. I also got to dispense fun-facts-that-have-nothing-to-do-with-Starbucks, such as the etiquette of eating with one's fingers in North versus South India. The customer receiving that information was, I think, startled and impressed.

In the evening, 33 people converged on my house for soup and bread, provided by Roommate-Sarah, my mother, and me, and for cookies provided by themselves. There were lots of cookies. And lots of people. Everybody knew somebody, and everybody had somebody to talk to, and two people invited themselves to my church, and nobody seemed to get bored. (Hopefully they won't get bored when they actually come to church, either.) Also, it was kind of freeing to be able to wish everybody a Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays, because even if not everybody there believed in Christ (as Christ, the Saviour of the World, I mean), everybody there was celebrating Christmas in some fashion or other. Incidentally, New-Manager-Hillarie (who was unable to attend due to previous commitments) is Jewish but gave all of her staff Christmas cards with lottery scratch tickets in them. I won $2, which was the price of the scratch ticket. But I didn't pay for the ticket, so I guess I am $2 richer, though I have yet to cash it in. Do they tax you for $2? If not, with that money I can almost buy two short cups of Starbucks coffee on a day when I am not working.

After getting up at 3.45 that morning, I still managed to stay up until midnight, and I was still happy. And tonight, when I get home from work, Brother-Dave and Sister-in-Law Emmylou will be here. Hurrah!

I hope you're having a happy Christmas season, too.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Less Personal Disappointment

It is hard for me to describe exactly what I mean by feeling relieved to know that the world is broken. Particularly because I already know it. But as I’m sure you know, there’s knowing something and then there’s knowing it. (I just wanted to see how many times I could use derivatives of the same verb in one sentence.) That Sunday, listening to how other people were disappointed, I felt for once as if the disappointments weren’t because God secretly likes to play games with us (although the book of Job might make it look like it).

But even this is hard to describe, because on the one hand, the correspondence I had developed with Brian (whom I have decided just to call Brian, because it’s both less cumbersome and less obstinate than calling him “Previous Commentator”) felt very intentional. By which I don’t just mean that I decided to write him and he decided to write back. There was something about it that felt very God-orchestrated. It didn’t seem like some random thing that God had just allowed, but rather something He had planned.

When my cloud castle came first came crashing down around my ears (who knew clouds could hurt so much? besides being so wet?), I was very irate about this. If God planned the correspondence, then He must have planned the disappointment, and that's just mean. Now, though, I'm more okay with the idea of His intentionality behind this, but only because of the equal certainty that the world is broken. A world where my friends David-and-Heather want to share God’s love overseas, but they get denied by the organisation they want to serve with. A world where T wants to teach, and she gets the runaround for two years and finally has to settle for an assistant’s job. A world where Chris wants to use his many talents but a two-year life-glitch keeps him stuck at MacDonald’s (which should not, by the way, be compared to working at Starbucks, because I actually wanted to work at Starbucks, but I don’t think he really wants to work at Mickey D’s). A world where someone of whose bone and flesh I think I am doesn’t recognise me and feels he has found his missing rib in someone else.

From the broken-world angle, even if God orchestrates the circumstances, it seems He mostly does it within the confines of the brokenness we humans chose back at creation. It’s like He limits Himself to those parameters. It’s like a glimpse of why and how He can mourn when we mourn, and yet cause the source of our mourning. Right?

I think it’s going to take me months (at least) to be able to verbalise all this. But here is a little more of what I mean:

I believe that God is sovereign. I believe He has ultimate control of the universe. I believe His will will ultimately be done. On the other hand, why would Jesus tell us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” unless sometimes it wasn’t? God's will is going to be done all right, but maybe not as it is in Heaven every time. (Praying for God's will takes on a slightly different shade when I think about it this way. It seems a little less passive and timid.)

So, for example, it might be God’s basic will for everyone to find a soulmate. (I didn’t used to believe that, but now I do; I may explore that one more later. Or not.) But the world is broken, so not everybody does. God could, of course, come in here and fix all our messes, and He does fix some of them, and He redeems all of them. But if everything were an immediate happily-ever-after, first of all we wouldn’t grow (as the Tanzanian taxi-driver intimated in October), and secondly He would be overriding our free will and depriving us of the dignity of choice. And the choice, back at creation, but also by every God-denying act each of us commits (or thinks, or says) every day, was for the world to be broken.

At Christmas people who think about such things, think about Jesus, and how God confined Himself to human form and human limitations. When we read the Gospels we see Jesus working supernaturally, but we also see Him not knowing everything immediately, and needing revelation and power from His Father and Spirit. I always thought that was the only way and time God limited Himself for us. But now it occurs to me that He’s been doing it since Adam and Eve decided not to trust Him. It’s not that He can’t break into our world and fix everything. It's that He doesn't. It’s that so often He limits Himself to the boundaries we set, which means that He has to be a lot more creative in order to get His will done.

What this implies to me for my particular situation in November is something like this: It may be God’s desire for me to meet and marry a godly man. It was surely His will for people to join in that sort of Christ-revealing relationship generally. So the desire for that kind of relationship is in me, and it is good, but it does leave me vulnerable.

It’s not like God wanted my pain. In that sense, the disappointment isn’t personal. He wasn’t, as I had first suspected, chortling over what a funny trick He had played on me—again. The world is broken, and we all get disappointed—even in things that seem like they should be God’s will. And maybe this is because most of the time, God plays by the rules we set (which is ironic, since I have some difficulty playing by His).

But He bends the rules, too, because He can make something beautiful out of anything. God would have known that Brian and I were not the right people for each other, but He also knew that I would learn things about Him and His will and myself and the strength He’s been building in me over the years if I corresponded with Brian for a little while. If I got my hopes up. If I got my hopes dashed. I’ve learned a lot from this kind of disappointment before this one. I didn’t think there was anything more to learn from it—and quite honestly, I didn’t want to find out if there was.

Too bad I had to. Or maybe too good. Because if it’s possible to say this humbly (which it probably isn't, and just the fact of my saying it may show just how unbelievably flawed I still am), it’s starting to dawn on me that maybe the beautiful thing that God is making out of this particular disappointment is . . . me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Verbotomy

District-Dan (my district manager, I mean) recommended that I check out the following site:

www.verbotomy.com

It is so cool. If you like words, that is. I recommend you check it out while you wait for me to continue philosophying (philosophising? philosophizing? Why is this confusing me so much right now?) about how broken the world is.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Happy St. Lucia Day

Make sure you find yourself some cardamom bread to eat and some candles to wear on your head. (If all else fails, rolled up index cards with gold tinsel work pretty well.)

This afternoon Roommate-Sarah has been giving piano lessons, as she does. During the first one, the mother and little brother of her student sat in the living room (because, oddly enough, the piano is in the dining one) and watched the Charlie Brown Christmas special on videotape. This was noteworthy 1) because I love the Charlie Brown Christmas special, and 2) because of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” Although the video volume was very low, from my vantage point in my room at the top of the stairs, near neither it nor the piano, I was able to hear that the young girl having her piano lesson started playing “Hark” about two seconds before the children in the show started singing it. They caught up and finished the song before she did, all the while singing about a half-step lower than what she was playing. It was very bizarre. But by the time I realised that my brain had been trying to follow both, the children singing had gotten to the words, “God and sinners reconciled,” and I stopped. There’s a very old-fashioned and unpopular thought for you, but it pretty much sums up the point of Christian holidays. Something about getting things to harmonise and flow at the same tempo. I think this has something to do with the thoughts I’ve been exploring lately, but I don’t expect any direct connexion will be uncovered today.

Anyway, to, um, “hark” back to the thornbush post that obviously made everyone so uncomfortable that I didn’t get any emails for about a day, there I was on the cusp of November, terribly out of sorts. The Sunday of that weekend I went to church and found out (again) what it’s for. There’s definitely the worshipping God bit, but I was still kind of mad at God, as you may recall, so that day the Christians-are-really-all-family thing (a.k.a. the community of believers) was the best part.

That Sunday I hadn’t had enough sleep, and I felt abysmal. I went to church and said a whole bunch of rageful things about God in a quiet way to some friends. I meant those things, too. At least, I meant that sometimes it seems like God is sadistic. But as the day went on and the more I talked, the less I felt any of it. And part of the reason was this:

I heard other heartaches, too. It wasn’t like anyone was saying, “You think that’s bad. At least you didn’t actually meet and start dating. Let me tell you what happened to me . . .” But stories do tend to elicit stories, and through the course of the day I found myself listening to more stories than I told. Here I am, stuck in a life that has not turned out as I wanted or envisioned (in this specific case, or more generally, I had to admit to myself). But so, it appears, is everyone. Everyone is disappointed about something.

The world is broken. And I feel so much better knowing that.

Not that I didn’t know it before, of course. And not that I felt better because I was subconsciously thinking, “If my life stinks, so had everyone else’s better.” It didn’t even make me feel better in the sense of my managing to guilt myself into feeling that everyone else’s lot in life is far more dire than mine (which I’m sometimes very good at doing). What it did do, though, was make this one particular disappointment feel a lot less personal.
Persistent and Anti-Social Feeding by Pigeon-Rights Activists . . .

. . . has nothing to do with anything else I plan on saying today, but I would like to point you to the article from which I derive this title:

http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/12/12/uk.pigeons.reut/index.html?eref=rss_world

I’m not sure on which side of the issue it discusses I fall. I remember well the tree outside my House-With-The-Yellow-Door in East London, which then-Roommate Beth and I dubbed “Trafalgar Square” because whomever parked a car under it ended up regretting it in about five minutes and washing it some short time later. Still, it’s hard to imagine the real Trafalgar Square without its airborne rodents. (I use the term loosely. Please don’t anybody try to tell me that birds can never be rodents.) Sometimes the things one loves about a place are the things one hates about it. In any event, one doesn’t read a phrase like that one every day, and I had to share it with you in all its glory.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Usual Thornbush

Once upon a few months ago (maybe nearly six by now), I met this guy. Except I didn’t actually meet him, because we live too far away from each other, but I was quite taken with him anyway. I won’t go into much more detail than that, because it will likely both bore you and make you uncomfortable, and plus the only words I can use to describe how I thought about him at the time come out in clich├ęs like, “He understands me better than any other guy I’ve ever met.” (You can read this to yourself in a high-pitched, squeaky, mocking voice if you like. That’s how I do it.) Assertions like that are, in themselves, probably incomprehensible to some degree, maybe even meaningless, definitely cheesy.

Back when I started this blog I promised myself that I was not going to write anything about my experiences involving men-and-liking-them (which I do, in case there was ever any question about that), because I thought it might make people squirm and besides I’m not really sure how much I want people knowing my business in that area—at least not until I can get paid for it. (This kind of makes me wonder if I’m some sort of emotional prostitute—but then maybe all writers are. I might have to ask myself about that some more a little later.) Still, I’ve been learning a lot recently, with the correspondence with the guy I have dubbed “the Previous Commentator” being the main and initial catalyst, and I blog about what I’m thinking about, so I guess some of this had/has to get in here after all. (I don’t feel like first-naming him, although he seems to want me to, but if you are inordinately curious and have an absurd amount of time on your hands, you may be able to find him, and references to him, on this blog.)

In mid-October we finally had each other’s email addresses outside of the website on which we met each other, and I was dutifully and impatiently waiting for him to get through a Spate of Busy-ness in far-away-land so that we could pick up our correspondence in earnest. Only, during the last weekend of the Spate, he met somebody else. In his part of the country. In person. So when I finally got his long-awaited email, it told me that he had met someone else and was planning on pursuing her.

This is and was, of course, all very logical, given distance and the fact that we still barely knew each other and the fact that surely this woman (whom I couldn’t first-name even if I wanted to, because I don’t know it) is a wondrous person and there’s very little way for Previous Commentator to know how wondrous I am via a couple emails and even a blog.

But you don’t meet someone who understands you on such a deep level every day (at least, I don’t), and I had already realised that if this dude ended up turning me down (which I knew was a distinct possibility, given all of the above), it would be worse than all my other disappointments with men because with most of them I could eventually say to myself, “Yeah, well, they just didn’t really get it anyway.” But I couldn’t say that in this case. In the end I decided I didn’t feel rejected, exactly, but I did feel not-chosen, and it was just as bad. And I was devastated.

It would be an understatement to say that I don’t react to this type of disappointment well. Most of the time, I get mad at God first. I mean, He was the one who allowed this correspondence, for example, to go even as far as it did. I had been praying through it the whole time—as I always do—and I hadn’t expected anything, really, from the outset. So it just seemed really unfair for Him to let me meet somebody like this, and allow me to get my hopes up, only to have them dashed again. I’ve had them dashed enough times that in the last few years I have resisted allowing myself to have any hopes in this area at all, and I promised myself I wasn’t going to have any ever again unless there was really good reason. In this case, I felt I had good reasons—during this time there were some startlingly uncanny answers to specific prayer related to this. (And they weren’t semi-trivial things like, “Oh, that’s one of his favourite books, too?”—although there was also that.) What were all those answers for? It seemed like an awful lot of work at prayer-answering if nothing was going to come of it. Had God just looked over here one day and said, “Oh yeah—we haven’t wrung Jenn through the relational wringer in a while. That’s kind of fun; it’s probably time for another round”?

All my upbringing and correct doctrine and blah blah blah say that God isn’t like that, but that is sure what it felt like, and I was furious with Him for almost a weekend. I hadn’t wanted to feel like this ever again. How many more times would I have to? How come things never got any better? I told myself things like, “Well, obviously Previous Commentator was not the right person,” and “Well, maybe God allowed this to happen again so that you can find out you can deal with it differently than you have before,” and “God loves you and there’s a reason for everything, so there has to be a reason for this, too.”

None of those thoughts helped any, though. They just made me madder. It also didn’t help any that Roommate-Sarah was gone for the weekend, and Starbucks-Jerry had moved away, and I was sick with some sort of cough so I was stuck in the house by myself until I had to work that Saturday night. Although it did give me the freedom to yell at God at the top of my lungs without worrying about freaking anybody out. I couldn’t help thinking wryly about the post I had written here a few days before about how maybe God likes it better when we’re having a rough time so that we can grab Him by the lapels and scream “WHY?” into His face. “He must be having a blast right now,” I thought.

Then Sunday came, and things started to change.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Language Blunder Update

I seem to have the flu, probably partly from staying up too late at night for no reason. I am rather impressed with myself for managing to keep energetic enough to work the busiest shift I can remember, with my district manager, former manager, current manager and a layer of ache separating my skin from my innards, all on hand for it.

But I have been remarkably blog-lazy lately, and felt the need to say something. The something in this case is that the DJ on the radio the other day was talking about U2's staying power or something like that, and, comparing some of their various albums (excluding the Zootopia era, which I proceeded to have a nightmare about that night), called them "equally as good as" each other. He could have saved so much time by simply saying "This album and that album are equally good." Sigh.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Happy Birfday, Grandpa













Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Customer Is Always Right

Yesterday I said to my friends and colleagues, Caroline and Molly, "This week stinks." (Actually, I didn't say "stinks," but my parents and my grandmothers read this blog.) "I want a refund."

From the customer service point of view, the whole idea that the customer is always right is downright exasperating, mostly because you know it often (usually?) isn't true. But this is America, where we can, for example, sue toaster manufacturers because we dropped a toaster--that they made, that we bought--on our own heads. Never mind that there are few good reasons for toasters to be above head-level. So sometimes I think I am, or should be, entitled to send my week back and get some sort of reimbursement. Or a new week. And by "new" I don't mean "the next one."

This week started off promisingly enough. I was getting an extra day off than usual, which is normally a cause for financial concern, but I've been doing okay in that area recently and I thought I'd use it to start getting the house ready for Christmas. Also, we normally close the store at ten, but in the new year our store will be inaugurating (drum roll, please) Breakfast Sandwiches. So some construction dudes (I say "dudes" because they were, literally, all men--I'm not being sexist) had to come in to rearrange the innards of our store so that we can accommodate this novelty, and this was going to involve our closing two hours early. Nice. An early close can be a good thing.

Unfortunately, the aforementioned dudes didn't seem to realise that if, for some reason, they decided that a particular night was not convenient for them to show up, we, the closing staff at Starbucks, were going to have to extend our shifts an extra two hours, or otherwise enact all sorts of scheduling contortions. Molly, Ben, Erika and I bore the brunt of this schedule mishandling, and I ended up covering a shift for someone on my "extra" day off, and the store was busy, and it never feels like we have enough staff on hand (because we don't, even though apparently the numbers say we do), and I was in charge of all these growing and shrinking shifts, and although the store innards were not getting modified at all, my own were growing increasingly tense, to the point where I felt like I was going to pop. (As an aside, I predict that in five to ten years, the term "going postal" will be obsolete and people will talk about "going Starbucks.")

Then I got the news about Grandpa, overarching and overshadowing everything--but somehow the shadows it cast just made everything else seem so much worse and bigger and harder, instead of as small and insignificant as it actually was. Therefore, slamming my finger in the pastry case door last night felt like the last straw. But actually, it was saying goodbye to Frank-the-Manager. He's getting a new store in another part of the state. It's not like I'll never see him again, but the timing was horrendous, and I burst into tears.

I wish there were refunds for things like this. I would like to tell God that although I know people are getting slaughtered in Darfur and Christian teenagers are getting beheaded in Iraq, I live in America, where the customer is always right, and I want some compensation. When I think of it that way, it sounds almost as petty as it actually is, but not quite. And it still doesn't take away from the fact that I feel as if it’s all a big deal.

But there’s this thing Frank called a silver lining, and which reminds me of Romans 8.28: And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them (NLT). In my experience, a lot of the good that God causes everything to work for is something I don’t see—at least not for a very long time. But here’s a little good that I’m seeing already.

Because of the shift I covered on Tuesday, which I hadn’t wanted to work, I can afford to give up my Saturday shift to someone else, so that I can spend the weekend with my grandmother, mom, and brother. I get an extra day off after all, but this way I get a whole weekend to be and reminisce with family. And I can be sad for Grandma, but Grandpa’s not dying anymore, and that's something to be thankful for.

Those things sound sort of little, too, but they also feel like a big deal. I still don't know that the customer is always right. If anything, I reckon my dealings this week were less than gracious and more like "those 'entitled' people" I'm always getting irritated with. But God is merciful, and maybe there’s something like a refund after all.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

As I Was Saying . . . Family

Grandpa Madeira died this morning. He’ll “be Home for Christmas.” He already is. Lucky. And it’s sure a whole lot better than being smothered with Alzheimer’s in a wheelchair in a nursing home.

But it’s hard. Hard on Grandma, who has spent the most recent years of her life singing to him and helping him play one-finger scales on the nursing home piano and spending most all of her afternoons loving what’s been left of a humble, great man whose final responses to her could be nothing more than a smile and a roar and tears. Hard on Mom, who was hoping to hug her dad one more time when she came home for Christmas, and now is flying back last-minute to comfort her mother. Hard on Dad, who had a great relationship with his father-in-law and now has to hold down the fort overseas by himself for a couple weeks until he comes back here to join us for the holy holiday.

But it’s a little easier, too. After years of watching a mind-numbing disease eat away at his memory and personality, words and abilities, it almost seemed to eat away at our (or at least my) memories, too. Now I feel free to remember him and who he actually was—and imagine who he actually is now, face to face with Jesus.

December 7 is his birthday. Apparently when I was two, I toddled around the dinner table unprompted and said, “Happy birfday, Grandpa.” He was fifty years older than I, so we always remembered each others’ ages. I feel like the lucky grandchild, because I got to live with him and Grandma for five summers in my late teens and early twenties, while I worked at a day camp run by the church he had planted. I borrowed his bike to get to and from camp. (I still have it, though I haven’t ridden it probably since then.) In the evenings I would come home and he and Grandma and I played Skip-Bo most nights. I grew to hate the game, mostly because I don’t really like games anyway, but I kept playing it, because it was a good way to spend time with them. Grandma won a lot. Grandpa would sit down at the card table with a sigh and say, with comic resignation, “Well, Jennifah,” (he loved to tease Grandma about her Rhode Island accent) “it’s time for my nightly humiliation.” He won a lot, too, but admitting that would have taken all the steam out of his mock laments. We would go for walks, too—just Grandpa and me—through Haynes Park, down to the water where all the boats were. I don’t remember what we talked about. Probably not much. He was quiet. But it was nice. We also washed the dishes together so Grandma wouldn’t have to.

He had a great sense of humour and an even better laugh to go with it. He loved the New York Yankees, for which I suppose I can forgive him, and he also loved cars. And he could sing. That was one of the last things he could still do, even after Alzheimer’s ate most of his brain away. He and Grandma harmonized together and sang “Gentle Jesus” over many a baby being dedicated to God in the church. I still hear them when I think of that song.

When we had family reunions and holidays and clambakes, and had stuffed our faces to the point of sleepiness, he’d pull out the antique milk-stool from his childhood and place it in the middle of the living room floor, lie on his back with his head propped on it, and konk out. He’d snore, and everyone would laugh. When I was in college, I had to write a sonnet as a writing assignment, and I wrote it about him:

Lines Upon My Grandfather’s Face

The subterranean rumblings, tranquil though
They were, accompanied who knows what dreams
Of joy and world-weight pain. Yet when he woke
To see our grins, his eyes showed laughter-seams
Which crinkled like dry rivulets beneath
The broad expanse of forehead crossed by lines
Of latitude and longitude. And each
Line marked a memory’s setting or a time
Which brought the furrowed wisdom to his face.
The gentleness of love and kindness crossed
The deeper rows that grief had carved in place,
Despite which, his expression never lost
A look of seventy years’ staunch content—
The strength where tears, but stronger joy, have met.

Grandma wrote us all an email about him, though, and she quoted another poem, by James Weldon Johnson, intimating that those lines on his beloved bald head have disappeared by now:

GO DOWN DEATH

Weep not, weep not, He is not dead; He's resting in the bosom ofJesus............................ And Jesus took his own hand and wiped awayhis tears, And He smoothed the furrows from his face, And the angelssang a little song,An Jesus rocked him in His arms, and Kept a-saying: "Take your rest,Take your rest." Weep not--weep not, He is not dead; He's restingin the bosomof Jesus.

Well, Grandpa, we love you. Happy birthday and merry Christmas! I can imagine they will be!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Family

Thanksgiving-leading-up-to-Christmas is traditionally a good time to get all sappy about family, so I would like to say, as unsappily as possible, that I think my family is astounding. I've known this all along on some level, particularly regarding my parents and my brother and sister-in-law (even though all of them moved out of state or country after I moved back. Their reasons for doing this are also amazing and laudable, but in order to keep the tone light, let me just say: thanks, guys). However, this year I've had the opportunity to get to know some things about some of my extended family that just make me--well, I guess proud to be related to them is the best way to describe it.

During the summer I made a visit to my grandmothers who live, conveniently, in the same retirement home. I spent the morning with my mom's mom and found out that she once followed an inner prompting to write a note to a man in her church, and that the note arrived on the day he had decided to commit suicide. Humanly speaking, that note is what saved his life.

In the afternoon I got to hear again the story of how my dad's parents helped start a Christian school in New Jersey. It started with something like eleven kids, one teacher and a whole lot of metaphorical roadblocks. Now its student body is in the mid-hundreds, and they just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary or something.

Then there was the visit to Auntie Susan, about which you know. I've always found her amazing, but going to see what she does in person was so inspiring.

And then last weekend I celebrated Thanksgiving with Uncle Ted and his family. He and Auntie Libby have gone through the wringer in the past few years, because of a whole lot of things not least of which are their daughter's--my cousin's--mystery medical difficulties. You would think they had enough on their plates, but instead they just pulled out more plates. I mean this literally, because they have also taken in two of their daughter's friends whose home situations are not currently supportive or supportable. The Thanksgiving table was full of teenagers and young twenty-somethings (and some others of us that don't fit that category) and it was fun and warm and everyone seemed very grateful.

My other aunts and uncles are amazing, too, and my cousins, and I could go on and on, but these are the examples I've seen most shiningly this year, and I just had to celebrate them. It was a happy Thanksgiving. I have a lot to be grateful for--not least of which is my family.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Weather Report

Today I had to scrape frost off my windshield. I'm not sure that I'm altogether happy about this, but let's face it--Thanksgiving feels better when it's cold. I'm sure I have more momentous things to write about than the weather (though I'm less sure what they are), but this is a busy week. So for now I'll just say--I'm thankful. For a lot of things. And I hope you have a happy--and thankful--Thanksgiving, too.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Spring Cleaning

Yesterday, 17 November 2006, the thermometer got up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, yesterday I did some housecleaning.

I'm not sure which of the two things is more remarkable.

Let me just say, though, that it felt like May rather than, as one small child in church put it the other week, "Almost-Snowing." I wore a short-sleeved t-shirt. I also wore a long-sleeved t-shirt under it, but that's only because I lacked the faith that, in November, I wouldn't be cold without it. I wouldn't have been cold without it. I cleaned the bathroom with the windows wide open, and I felt mightily confused.

Fortunately (?), today when I woke up it was only 30. And the sun's still out.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reruns

About a week and a half ago, something happened that made me think I was going to need to pull out the following poem. I wrote the poem two years ago in the throes of dying dreams and a broken heart. Although my current situation is far more disappointing, having been in many ways vastly more realistic, the poem has turned out not to be as necessary for sanity as I expected. However, in rereading it to find out if it would be, I realised that I quite like it, so I have decided to put it out here for broader consumption. You may, of course, already have encountered it two years ago, but that’s all right. You may also have forgotten that you did.

A Door in the Desert
by JAG
© 2004

I.
How did I end up in this desert?
Somebody said—
Somebody promised…
If I would only walk just a little further
And climb just a little higher
And try just a little harder…

Who was that?

I thought it was You,
But maybe it was just my longings
Trumpeting me into the wilderness
Where I sit in the mud of my tears,
Leaning against
A shut door in the middle of nowhere.

II.

My God, my God,
Why have I forsaken You
--when there You stand,
holding wide the door of Heaven
in the wilderness
where You found me weeping?
--when there You stand,
face blazing, sword flashing,
as if You
tore death to shreds only yesterday,
which maybe You did?

Your wedding invitation
Reeks of joy
From beginning to end,
But the revelry I wanted
Was smaller and meaner,
And joy mocks the seriousness
With which I take myself.

You didn’t blast through Hell,
My name carved into Your hand,
So I could stay there wearing
Mourning, and mourning
The fistful of desert
I clutch to my chest,
The treasure of bitterness
I keep for the day
When I will hurl it
Into Your glowing face
With all my little might.

But when I do,
You’ll laugh with delight,
And thank me,
Though I should be thanking You,
And fill my empty hand with Yours
And lead me through the door
You’re holding wide
I thought was shut.
And on the other side
I’ll find what I’d never dreamed to ask,
And that my new name
Carved into Your hand
Is not bitter,
But joy.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

New Rant

I haven't had a completely pointless rant in a while, so here is one: Why is it that people are currently so fond of using the word "inferred" when they mean "implied"? Books are being published with this error. It drives me crazy--right up there with "orientated." No need to add syllables, folks. "Oriented" used to be just fine, but the "orientated" camp has become so entrenched that now you can find "orientate" in the dictionary. Sigh.
R&R

It's taken me the better part of a month to describe to you that my Costa Rican vacation, which I had been approaching rather gingerly at the outset, ended up being just-the-thing. I got to see some local "reality." I got to do a little bit about it. I also got to see some great (non-human) natural beauty, too, and I got to relax. We spent my final weekend in a cabin/hotel on the beach at Jaco.

Over the mountains on the way there we stopped at Doka Coffee Plantation for a tour, for obvious reasons. Our tour guide gave us a coffee tasting first, and I impressed myself by being able to compare tastes of four different roasts and a peaberry coffee, with coffees I know from Starbucks. Auntie Susan said to our tour guide, "My niece works for Starbucks. Have you heard of it?"

"Actually," said the tour guide, "We sell 75% of our beans to Starbucks." Suddenly I remembered why the name Doka was familiar. I took an excessive number of rather geeky pictures of coffee-processing with which I will not bore you (or myself during the upload), and felt clever because I knew a lot about the process to begin with. Every once in a while one needs to feel clever, I find, even if the feeling isn't accurate.

The day had managed to stay beautifully sunny and glorious much later than it had any of the other days--until we got in the car to continue our journey to the beach. The rest of the trip was hair-raising for a lot of reasons, and probably would have been worse if I could have seen the dramatic drops off the side of the road in the dark and the rain. Sarita pushed on valiantly until we got through the mountains and then pulled over so Auntie Susan could drive the rest of the way. At which point the roads became wide, straight, well-paved, and dry, almost like magic. Fortunately Sarita missed the experiential irony of this, as she fell sound asleep almost immediately in the back seat.

The beach was lovely--and that is about all I have to say about it, because we didn't do ANYTHING--except go for a walk, get pleasantly and occasionally pummeled by some waves, and read in hammocks and lounge chairs. And then it was time to go home. So--happy and wistful and rested--I did.

Monday, November 13, 2006


The Rest of the Week

As you can tell from the previous posting's photos, the day deteriorated into something akin to a monsoon, as well as some traffic of well-nigh cataclysmic proportions, due to a fountain overflow in the city or something. But the outing had been utterly lovely.

I spent the rest of the week having leisurely breakfasts with Sarita, looking at the birds that frequent the feeders in their orange tree. Then we'd usually do some random for-the-benefit-of-Jenn-the-tourist things in the late morning, heading to Carpio in the afternoons where I would help Auntie Susan again with activities mostly involving kids. There was another kid's club, louder and rowdier than the Pavas one, but no instant migraines involved.

One afternoon, I kept an eye on some children during a women's Bible study. The kids were old enough to understand that my own understanding of Spanish was fairly limited, and that my ability to reply was even more so; however, this did not deter their attempts to communicate with me. They would chatter on and on about something as long as my aspect registered any sort of comprehension, and as soon as I glazed over, they'd find something new to talk about.

Before that, though, we visited one of Auntie Susan's friends in her home. Olga and Auntie Susan have a Bible study together on a regular basis, but in this instance, Olga, who had nevertheless answered all the written questions for the study ahead of time, didn't have much time for actual study. She was understandably distraught. Some time ago, she had allowed some relatives space on her already cramped strip of land, and now they were trying to oust her from it. Don't ask me how you can get into a genuine legal battle over squatter's rights, but Olga is in one, and even though the facts and the witnesses seem to be in her favour, her relatives somehow have the ear of the judge. Olga is trying to trust God and forgive her relatives even though her already tenuous living situation is even more in jeopardy. I tried to think about if I were poor enough to live in what is essentially a tin can, and had four or five kids living in there with me, and was about to lose the can as well. But I couldn't.

I especially couldn't over the weekend. Being a North American on vacation in a developing country is weird. You can see poverty. You can even touch it a little bit. Then you can escape. Actually, if you're only on vacation, eventually you have to escape, because it's not like you have the right to live there or anything. Plus it was a holiday weekend in Costa Rica, and Auntie Susan and Sarita were going to take a well-deserved break, so we packed ourselves into the car on Friday afternoon, and headed to the beach.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Does This Story Have Pictures?








Do Not Descend Into the Crater



Even though the sun came up in all its glory on Tuesday, we weren't very surprised when we got to Poas, one of the local volcanoes, that the entire top of the mountain was socked in with fog. The guy in the booth at the entrance to the park warned us that they couldn't guarantee that we'd see anything. They probably have to make disclaimers like that for fear of lawsuit-happy and I-want-my-money-back-happy North Americans. We said we understood. When we got to the lookout point where we were supposed to see the crater, all we saw was a grey void, and a little sign perched perilously between land and nothingness, warning us to go no further.

As we stood there, however, the fog began shifting, and we could almost imagine we could see something. It felt like I imagine it would feel to look for Nessie. The monster we were looking for was breathing smoke though, so combined with the fog, it didn't seem likely we'd see much more. Then the clouds shifted again. And again. And again, until finally we could tell that we were, indeed, looking into a volcano.



We oohed and ahhed and felt sorry for the tour group who had left the vicinity two minutes before the unveiling. Then the clouds came back and the crater disappeared as before. So we set off through windy, but paved, jungle pathways, under twisted limbs, and a little higher up the mountain to see the crater lake, which was the volcano's previous location for letting off steam, as it were. When we got there, the view was just as opaque as it had been below, but once again, as we stood, the clouds shifted back enough for us to see the lake and the forest reflected in it on the other side.

We left the park with a sense of luck or blessing, and headed off next to La Paz Waterfall Gardens. It's a sort of mountain resort, but they also have a restaurant, wildlife exhibits, and a trail along which one can see five waterfalls. In spite of the dreariness, everything we saw was in living colour. Not to mention that the bathrooms at the restaurant were some of the coolest I've ever seen. Unfortunately, I chickened out of taking a photo in there, too, because the cleaning lady was in there and I was afraid of what she'd think . . .

The rest of the day can only be described in pictures. In my experience, however, blogger may heartily assert that it has uploaded one, yet leaving it invisible. I have not yet deciphered html well enough to programme it into each post by hand. And at this moment blogger has, apparently, decided that three photos are quite enough for this post. So I will show you the rest of that Tuesday tomorrow.


Across the Ravine

Across the ravine from Carpio is another, similar, settlement known as Pavas. CfC has been involved there longer than in Carpio, although it appears that at least Auntie Susan spends more of her time in Carpio. Still, on Monday afternoons, she runs a kid's club on the other side of the gorge. If we had had some sort of rope bridge (or the faith of Indiana Jones), we could have made our merry way across the chasm in five to ten minutes. As it was, we had to drive all the way out and along and around, and it took much longer.

The kid's club meets in a multi-purpose building built by short-term teams for CfC, and it started with a game of Uno. The club, I mean--not the building. It is much easier to play Uno without language than to try to teach English without it, by the way. After that, Auntie Susan taught the kids something out of the Bible, and then we played a game, during which a kid's skull collided with my jaw when we both went for the ball at the same time. I'm pretty sure the kid was okay, and my jaw only felt jarred, but my head registered an instant migraine and I had to sit out for a bit. I use the term "migraine" loosely; I have been prone to them at times, and this felt like one, but the intense pain subsided in about fifteen minutes, settling quickly into a barely-discernable, dull ache which lasted about a day and a half.

By the time we went home for dinner, I had nearly forgotten it, and was looking forward to a day off the next day. I mean, come on. It's tiring to spend a day trying to talk and listen in a language you don't actually know.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travels with My Aunt 3

It takes something like two buses to get from San Pedro to Carpio, along with a potentially detouring little walk through a pedestrian shopping area, and when we reached the clinic, there were already people waiting to be seen.

I don’t imagine that Carpio is a garbage-city the way there are garbage-cities in, say, Egypt, but it kind of is one in that there’s a giant dump right at the edge of it, to which trucks are constantly trundling. From what I could see and understand, this barrio is an area where people who are considered to be refuse live, too. A lot of them are illegal immigrants from Nicaragua. The Costa Rican government doesn’t really want them there, and won’t issue them any papers to make their stay more comfortable, but it’s hazardous to live next to a dump, so they just kind of pretend they don’t know that there are scores of tin-and-board shacks crammed with people, all right next to the waste area. Most of the people in Carpio, says Auntie Susan, still have hope, unlike in various similar settlements. They still want to work hard and earn their livings. Christ-for-the-City has a clinic in the midst of all this, and that is where she works.

I spent the morning mostly hiding out in a storage room, putting labels on bags of children’s vitamins. Children’s vitamins have this almost irresistible smell—somewhat cloying and acidic at the same time, a little dusty, and really quite awful, but did I ever enjoy taking those things when I was a kid. I was sorely tempted to open one of the packets and take one, for nostalgia’s sake. Then the bag would only have had 29 supposedly-animal-shaped tablets in it, but they could have used that one for February. However, I restrained myself, and in the late morning, Maria came to take me to The Refuge.

Maria is another worker with Christ for the City, and she teaches English to adolescent girls coming from abusive backgrounds. I was supposedly going to help her with this endeavour this day. After giving me a tour of The Refuge’s “campus,” we went upstairs and she allotted me six girls to coach in English. This was a fine idea, except that the girls she assigned to me knew the least English in the class, and I definitely knew the least Spanish. Furthermore, I am a little more familiar with a semi-immersion-based approach to language learning, and these girls appeared to be tied to their books. Which were in English. Which they couldn’t understand. Which I couldn’t explain to them.

Overall it was an exercise in futility, I think, though the girls were very patient with me, so what could I be but patient with them? Still, I couldn’t help noticing a couple of them completely giving up on trying to communicate, instead taking notes from what Maria was writing on the board in another part of the room. I returned to the clinic for lunch, feeling like I wanted to be disgruntled again—or still—but having really enjoyed interacting, albeit patchily, with those girls.

And I was in awe at the work that was going on there. It seemed like these Christ for the City people just got ideas, and then they did them. I used to want to run my own coffee shop, where we could have ESL classes and maybe a counselor-in-residence or something, as well as live music and the art of local artists, and, oh, yeah—coffee. Before that I used to have dreams of working in or running an orphanage. But I don’t know how to start things. How do people start things? And I’m disorganised. And I’m not good with administration. One thing about all the projects going on with CfC is that it seems like the people with the gifts for the ideas just turn up. So far every person I thought could and would want to help with the coffee-shop idea, for example, has moved away or I have lost touch with.

So I’m working at Starbucks, and I know there are things going on there, behind the coffee as it were, that God is doing. But you know—sometimes I just wonder why I’m not working with girls who live in one-room tin sheds and whose older brothers abuse them.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Travels with My Aunt 2

The next morning was Sunday and sunny. Which I thought odd, for rainy season. By the end of the week I had observed that “rainy season” in Costa Rica apparently means something like “constant rain and fog in the mountains, and rain everywhere else only between 3-9 p.m.” But at the time I was a novice.

I peeked around the curtain, which was making a half-hearted effort at keeping out the sun, and saw . . . the back of the house . . . and the top of the orange tree . . . and the mountains . . . and a church, whose bells were joyfully calling people to worship. It occurred to me that maybe after a while those bells, which were probably only exquisite-sounding to someone like me who didn’t hear them every day, might have had the general feel of a school bell telling kids to sit down and be quiet, after a while. But I, for one, was going to enjoy them.

Auntie Susan, Sarita and I were going to church, too, but not the one with bells. Not the one Auntie Susan and Sarita normally go to, either, it turned out. I had been getting all geared up to attend a lively Latin American service where I understood one- to two-thirds of what was going on and didn’t know any of the songs, but I’ve done that before, so I was kind of looking forward to it. However, my two hostesses had long wanted to visit one of the international (i.e., English-speaking) churches in the city, as one of their colleagues will soon be attending there and they wanted to check it out. I provided an excellent excuse.

The church surprised me by seeming both familiar and totally out of place. After leaving the highway, we meandered up a dirt road, past people staring at us from the windows and doors of their corrugated tin shacks, and into a parking lot at the crest of the hill that was better-paved than any of the roads I think I encountered on the entire trip. In the middle of the parking lot, as if it had landed their like a UFO, was a modern, North-American-style church building, surrounded by potted plants—and some unpotted ones surrounding the perimeter of that parking lot.

Walking inside, I felt like I had not left the States at all. But I had—I knew I had. I had just spent over eight hours on a plane the day before, hadn’t I? Plus it was October and I was actually warm, instead of pulling out sweaters. I spent the morning in a state of cognitive dissonance, wrestling even more with my feelings of the night before. If I wanted this vacation to be convenient and comfortable and all about me, why was I so cranky about the North-American-ness of this service? Not to mention that I was supposed to be worshipping God with these people He had made to be my brothers and sisters (whether I knew them or not). It was, in a way, irrelevant what my preference was. The point was—well, God. What was my problem?

After church we got in the car and drove up one of the mountains, even though it had begun raining up there (according to the Law of Rainy Season), just in case we might be able to see a good view of San Jose from up there. I'll let you decide whether or not we did.

Upon descending again, Sarita steered us to a steakhouse for lunch. I was famished, but I think even if I hadn’t been, I would have wolfed down that meal, in spite of its enormity. If David and Emmylou had been there, they could tell you about it in much more descriptive detail than I. But let me put it this way. Only once in my life have I had a meal that was so delicious that it made me cry. (I’ve had plenty of meals that were so spicy they made me cry, and they were good, too, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.) This meal was a close second.

The rain was coming down fairly uncompromisingly even in the lowlands when we got out of the restaurant, but we set off for Cartago after that anyway. I’m not sure how a Catholic country can have something like a “most Catholic city,” but apparently in Costa Rica, Cartago is it. The basilica was packed with people at mass when we got there, so Auntie Susan and I scurried with our umbrellas from the car to the doorways and peered in at various angles for a while, before heading back to the house for supper.

Auntie Susan said I was going to the clinic with her at Carpio the next morning, and that we needed to leave by 7. I was okay with the timing, since my body-clock was still two hours off. But I was nervous about the clinic and English classes.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Travels with My Aunt

In this version of the story, the narrator (that's me) is definitely the sketchier of the two. Also, my aunt is actually my aunt. Apologies for anyone who hasn't read Graham Greene's book by that title, and was planning on it. Of course, if I were really sorry, I wouldn't have said anything . . .

My flights to Costa Rica were two of the pleasantest airline experiences I have had in years, and even the layover in Dallas was well-nigh enjoyable. Nice airport they've got in Texas. I mean that part of Texas. So far the only part of Texas I've ever seen--or really care to, at this stage of my life. Even still, I was a little out of sorts when I landed in San Jose. This had more to do with what was going on in my head than with external circumstances.

This, more or less, is what was going on in my head:

I'm in Costa Rica. It's warm, but it's raining. Why did I come to Costa Rica in rainy season? This is my vacation. I went through a whole lot of hassle with these tickets, so this trip better be good. I don't want to have to do anything. But I'm going to stay with my missionary aunt and I said I'd help out. How can I help out? I'm only here for nine days and I only hablo un poquito de espanol. Plus, I don't want to help out. I want to lounge around for an entire week and I want this to be all about me. I want to see pretty scenery and go to the beach and maybe get tan for the first time in probably fifteen years, even though I should never get any sun at all because my dad's side of the family has a history of skin cancer. I don't want to mess with any poverty.

Also:

What is wrong with me? I'm supposed to be a missionary, too. I thought I was going to spend my entire adult life in a country where I did not originate. I thought I was going to help poor people. I thought I was going to save the world. Now I spend my life serving specialty usually-caffeinated beverages to yuppies (and one guy who lives in his car, and one bearded lady) and people who used to be yuppies (even if the "y" no longer applies) and I'm disillusioned by it but I've absorbed enough of the culture, apparently, to be self-absorbed and not want to have to do anything inconvenient when I'm taking a break from the culture I've absorbed that I'm sick of. (Don't try to decipher that last sentence, unless you think like me--which, fortunately for you, you probably don't. Just take it as an indication of how my thoughts work, especially when I'm disgruntled.)

Basically, I was feeling a distinct lack of compassion and motivation, and also feeling guilty for the lack.

Auntie Susan and her roommate Sarita have been sharing lodging and working among the impoverished for decades. They arrived, smiling, at the airport and bundled me into their rickety Honda, and I felt even grouchier. These two amazing women represent to me a fate I both admire and dread. They are well-adjusted, mature women, neither of whom have ever been married. They have, nevertheless, deep and purposeful relationships and a sense of community. (At least, it seems that they do.) They love Jesus and follow Him intentionally and are changing the world--their little corner of it. Describing all the nuances of just how that awakens simultaneous longings and terrors in me would be too complicated and boring for anyone not living inside my head, but you can probably intuit the overall reasons behind my internal reactions.

We drove through San Jose for what seemed like ages and probably was. I discovered, in my brief time there, that it is a large city for such a small country, and that there are no quick trips anywhere. Furthermore, the potholes in the country at large make Auburn's roads look like well-funded highways. I wasn't really thinking of the potholes that night, though. Mostly I was just gaping out the window as Sarita trundled the car along and Auntie Susan in the back seat told me what I was looking at. The city was busy, and both foreign and familiar. I could understand what I was reading on the signs--sometimes because they were in English, but sometimes because I seem to have more Spanish packed away in my subconscious than I realised. They kept telling me what things meant, and most of the time, I already knew. San Jose seemed like a place I had never been before (even though I had, when I was 2 and 5), and also like all the cities I've seen all over the world.

Finally we reached the part of it called San Pedro, which was more residential, and then we arrived at Sarita's house. We were barked at by Canela and Chipis, the two slightly-larger-than-large-furry-slippers dogs who take up residence there, dodged the raindrops through the garden to the door, and entered the warm and homey interior. Dinner was ready and waiting, and I was still hungry for it, even though I had eaten about five times already that day. I don't know why traveling makes me so famished and exhausted, when I don't actually do anything all day. Plus there were fresh avocados. And Auntie Susan is a good cook.

After we ate, my body said it was 11.30, even though there it was two hours earlier, so I went to bed.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

A Preface Regarding Relatives and Insects

I suppose you can't really have a preface in the middle of a work. But I feel the sudden and immediate need to explain the nomenclature I will presently be using to refer to my aunt in the ensuing narratives.

When I turned five, my friend Mark scoffed at me because I still called my parents "Mommy" and "Daddy," names which he said, with great authority, were baby-talk. We were five-year-olds now, and far beyond the need to add diminuitive endings. Please!

I remember feeling rebuffed and very insecure about that for months--maybe even years--afterwards. These days I typically call my parents "Mom" and "Dad," only occasionally reverting to the more "babyish" terms. However, I still call all my aunts "auntie." I can't get rid of it. They probably wish I would, and sometimes I wish I would, which is why I feel constrained to defend it now. I think a lot of it is habit. For example, even though my high school band teacher told me after I graduated that I could call him "Franz," I still find it easier to refer to him as "Mr Kuder." And it remains a struggle for me to refer to my college faculty advisor as "Kent" instead of "Dr Gramm," even though I used to visit with him and his wife casually when they would come over to England with an entourage of undergrads.

There are other reasons for my use of the word auntie, though. I think it has to do with auditory asthetics. I hail from a region of the country where aunt rhymes with words like gaunt and flaunt and taunt. There is, after all, a u in it. To this day I fail to see any good reason for talking about the sisters of one's parents as if they were small black or red insects which most people pay money to exterminate. (Then again, maybe it's because all my aunts are very very cool.) Let it be known here, moreover, that if and when my brother and esteemed midwestern sister-in-law have children, said children are welcome to call Peggy and Kelly "Ant," if these women so desire it, but let's have none of this talk of my being called "Ant Jenn."

But the thing about the pronunciation of, er, that word, is that it affects how the following name sounds, too. For example, "Ant Susan," if you were going to call her that, sounds "better" than "Antie Susan." But to me, "Aunt Susan" sounds funny, too--incomplete, as it were. I don't know what it is--maybe just subjective--but to me the name has a better flow as "Auntie Susan."

That is all a very long way of saying that in future posts about Costa Rica, I will be referring to my Costa Rican aunt as "Auntie Susan," and I hope nobody scoffs.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Not Computer-Savvy

I couldn't get the photos added into yesterday's blogpost, so I added them into a new one and posted yesterday's text into it, finally deleting yesterday's. This is okay, but it means you might think you got something new to read and you didn't (except this). Also, sorry I deleted your comment, Mom.


Still Not in Costa Rica

The morning of my departure dawned gloriously sunny, and it occurred to me that although I was taking a trip to a tropical country, I might regret the timing. The leaves around here were shaping up to be pretty spectacular; I had spent the last few days before taking walks surrounded by blue sky and fiery leaves, and dodging acorns, which, by the way, can be rather threatening little objects. I wanted to write a blog incorporating the phrase “the land of falling acorns,” because it sounds so romantic but really just means if you park your car outside, you can expect a lot more dings in the roof the next morning. Only at the time I was embroiled in the women/church/leadership issue and didn’t feel up to it.

In the meantime, I was heading to a warmer country that was having its rainy season. This entire year has been a rainy season here, really, and I wasn’t too sure how happy I was to be giving up some actually-sunny days. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride to the airport. The cab driver was a Tanzanian with dreds (is it “dreds” or “dreads,” by the way?) and that accent that makes every utterance sound wise, whether it is or not. He was both voluble and aphoristic, and we talked about missionaries and faith and materialism. At one point when I said I had been a missionary in London, he said, with the sound of one raised eyebrow in his tone of voice, “But aren’t we all children of God?”

I said I thought we were. But I also said that not all children relate to their parents. If God’s everybody’s Father, well and good, but He gives us the choice to actually relate to Him or not. There’s been a rift between us, and He sent us Jesus to reopen communication. Still, we don’t have to accept the offer of peace. (In thinking about this later it occurred to me that if we reject the offer of peace and God forced us to come to live with Him in Heaven anyway, it would be like being forced to live at home with parents we hated, I think.)

Tanzanian-Cab-Driver tentatively agreed with that, and then pointed out that most people just go to God when they’re in trouble. I agreed, too, and observed that, if they do that and things don’t go well, they blame God.

“Yeah,” he said. “But really, for God there is no ‘bad time.’ It’s all just equal to Him. It might seem like a bad time to us, but to Him, we’re still learning something and we weren’t learning it under normal circumstances.” (Brian H will be relieved to know that he did not follow this up by saying, “It all good.” I kept waiting for him to, but he didn’t.)

It did sort of hit me, though. I mean, I don’t think that’s completely right, because I think the Bible is sort of a diary of God’s pain, and I think it’s pretty clear that a lot of His pain is closely tied into and a result of ours. (A thought which is pretty intense and crazy in its own right.) but on the other hand, it does seem like that would explain a little of why He allows the stuff He does. On some level, maybe He really doesn’t see things as “a bad time” or “a good time” the way we do. Maybe to Him “a bad time” is when we’re so comfortable we take our lives for granted, and a “good” one is when we’re grabbing onto His lapels, screaming “WHY?” into His face at the tops of our lungs.

Still mulling this over. Still being hit by how unlike “my ways” God’s ways are . . .

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"The Costa Rica Narrative" Will Return After These Messages:

Does anyone know anything about a secret society whose sole purpose for existence is to see what it will take to completely gross out a Starbucks barista? Today a more or less normal-looking young woman came in and ordered a venti blackberry green tea coffee-based frappuccino. Not only do I have a hard time imagining how blackberry, green tea, and coffee could be good all in one swallow, but the colour combination is truly revolting. The colours being combined (with ice, in a blender) are berry-purple, grass-green, and milky-coffee brown. The ensuing product is something reminiscent, both in colour and texture though not temperature, of the contents of a baby's diaper after you have begun feeding said baby pureed vegetables. (Patti's-boyfriend-Adham says, "'Baby-Diarrhea' was never a colour in my Crayolas." Well, of course not. It shouldn't be a colour in Starbucks beverages either.)

I would consider this an abberration, except this kind phenomenon has happened before, though usually with less disastrous visual effects. For example, a peppermint caramel frappuccino doesn't really appeal to me, either. I poured the overflow of that one into a cup after I made it, and I tasted it, just to be fair. It didn't taste any better than my imagination had predicted. Then there was the guy who ordered an iced tea with a shot of espresso in it.

Anyway, I think that Starbucks employees are pretty remarkable people for being able to make such things with a straight face, but if you're bored sometime, with money to burn and no desire to actually enjoy your beverage, you might try to see if you could make one wince.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

When Your Airline Itinerary Gets Changed Five Times . . .

. . . you have to wonder if God is trying to tell you something.

(I know. I've been saying things like that a lot. More on that later, mayhap.)

Ever so many years ago, Grandma G made the extremely generous offer of flying any interested grandchildren down to Costa Rica to visit her daughter Susan (the aunt of said grandchildren). At the time, I was living in London and jetting around for ridiculously low prices to random Eastern European countries to visit former au pairs who had, after participating in my church’s ESL classes, returned home. All that to say: at the time, I wasn’t really very interested. Don’t ask me how anyone can be uninterested in a free trip to anywhere, but there you have it.

Last March, I was talking to Andrew’s-sister-Janice about the tropics and suddenly remembered the offer. It also finally dawned on me that maybe this was too good to pass up. Particularly because it costs a lot more to get to Eastern Europe from here. Fortunately, Grandma G was overjoyed to have someone else take her up on it.

I didn’t want her to have to pay too much, though, so I searched the web for the-cheapest-tickets-I-could-find. The good thing was, they turned out to be pretty cheap. The bad thing was, it was because the itinerary was shared by two airlines flying people around at deeply inconvenient hours of the day and night, via completely irrelevant locations like Philadelphia. I didn’t really think through all the repercussions of these details until things started to go wrong.

The first thing that went wrong was that United Airlines tried to ditch their leg of my return journey, leaving me stranded in irrelevant Philadelphia. (Apologies to people like Bryan and Bay and Lloyd Alexander, but you have to admit that Philly doesn’t really help me in the getting-to-Costa-Rica-quickly department.) Almost the last thing to go wrong was that United Airlines, who, over the course of three months, endeavoured to wrest me from their passenger list time and time again, finally succeeded. In the interim, I made numerous very long phone calls to very determined expedia employees and my tickets got changed five times. Moments before the final change (which happened a day and a half before I left), there was a nerve-wracking episode where it looked like I would have a pair of completely useless tickets, leaving from and returning to . . . where else but Philadelphia?

In case you haven’t guessed this by now, I do not live in Philadelphia.

In the end, though, I got to fly my whole trip on American, who behaved admirably throughout the entire ordeal, at much more human-appropriate hours, allowing for things like sleep and breakfast. But you can imagine that by the time I got on the first plane at 11 a.m. on the 7th, I was wondering if there wasn’t more to this trip than vacation.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Clueless

I finally managed to unleash a modicum of controversy with the last of my posts, although most of it went to my email inbox rather than the comments section. People should stop being so timid. I figure if I'm airing half-baked thoughts on here all the time, maybe a few others would keep me company, but never mind.

Anyway, the so-called controversy wasn't really the type I was expecting, and essentially boils down to, "What does 'head' mean in this context anyway?"

Here's what I have to say to that:

I don't know.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More WiM

Today a friend of mine said, “You’re a challenging person to know.”

I’ve often wondered about that.

In this case, though, I think the guy who said it meant it as a compliment. I think he was trying to say that I challenged him to think about life and God—and maybe Christians—in a different way. At least, I hope that’s what he meant.

But it’s yet another thing that’s been making me think about my role as a female servant of Christ. I’ve heard it said that it’s okay for a woman to tell a man the good news about Jesus, but once he starts to believe in it, it had better be another believing man who takes it from there. Apparently there’s no authority in the message about how we can be saved from our sins—but there is in all the nitpicky details that come afterwards.

I don’t really get that. There are definitely good and valid reasons for men to work with men and women to work with women in the church. I myself can attest to certain relational dynamics that can sometimes come into play and sometimes undermine the good that is meant to be accomplished when I’m talking to a guy about something as intensely personal as my relationship with Jesus—or as Jesus’ desire to have a relationship with him. But those are reasons of chemistry, not authority.

I also still staunchly and whole-heartedly believe that the Bible is very clear about the husband being the head of the household (though equally clear that it isn’t an indication of value, and that such headship had sure better not be domineering and overbearing). I have pretty strong opinions about marriage, and that it’s supposed to be the primary demonstration of what Jesus’ relationship with His Bride, the Church, is supposed to look like. (This is also why I have such strong views about sex being kept only within marriage.) Christ is obviously the head of the Church. But I don’t think a husband’s loving leadership in a family is any reason why women shouldn’t have roles of authority, with men, in a church. If Christ is the head, the Church is still the Bride, no matter who’s leading the local expression of it.

It seems to me that drawing lines about where women can lead (in evangelism, in children’s Sunday school—‘cause all those little boys aren’t men yet) gets pretty arbitrary. And sometimes racist. Why can women be missionaries in countries that aren’t the USA and lead men of another race, but they couldn’t serve as elders in their sending church?

Furthermore, I think it completely belies Paul’s paean about equality in Christ that comes blazing out of Galatians 3 (as quoted in the previous post). If we say a woman can evangelise but can’t preach to Christians, then it sounds an awful lot like we’re saying just the opposite of what Paul is saying there: that it’s only apart from Christ that everyone is equal, but that with Him there are levels of value. But that’s not what that verse says, and it’s not how Jesus treated women, and it makes it pretty hard to explain the women mentioned as being in leadership in the early Church. I still don’t totally understand the verses in Timothy and Corinthians about women not having authority. I still think that explaining them away with plausible scenarios is—well, plausible, but not necessarily the reason those verses are in there. But those are two passages against the rest of what I see in the New Testament—and the Old, too. It seems like traditionally, the Church has tried to rigidly keep two passages few people even claim to understand very well, while explaining away Galatians 3 and the entire rest of Scripture.

I guess I still wouldn’t say I understand this issue very well. But I’m no longer abdicating from it. And I’m willing to err on the side of women in leadership because I think there’s more evidence for it than against it.

None of this has anything to do with the trip I just took to Costa Rica (except for the fact that my aunt Susan and her friend Sarita have been stalwart women of leadership in Christ down there for decades), but I’ll tell you about that soon enough.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

WiM

I should never say I'm going to write here "tomorrow." It is now tomorrow (from yesterday’s perspective), and I’m too tired. I don’t really have anything to say. Whatever I do say is going to be unwieldy and will either make readers say, "Well, duh, Jenn—finally!" or "Let's have nothing more to do with that godless woman." Or maybe just, “Huh?”

But I promised. It’s just probably not going to sound as much like an epiphany to you as it did to me. What the sudden brightening of the ideological (or whatever) lights-formerly-known-as-dim revealed, was that I think women can pretty much fill any role in the church that God calls them to. And that might just be leadership.

You might think that the reason I have come to this conclusion is because I want to become a pastor or something myself. The thing is, I kind of think I already am one. I don’t know that I’m necessarily very good at it, but I might be better at it than I am at most things. If “pastor” means “shepherd” and implies someone who cares for and tries to encourage the spiritual well-being of a group of people, then I’ve been doing that for years.

So maybe I’m just trying to make excuses for something I’m already doing, that I don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Well really. Maybe I am.

But here are some of the things which finally sank into my resistant, traditionalist skull. If God didn’t intend to involve women equally with men in bringing His goodness and His good news to the world:

1. Why, of the few women mentioned in the Old Testament, are they all portrayed as having some sort of authority? Deborah obviously comes to mind—she judged a whole nation. But the “fate” of Esther’s entire people was dependent on her taking charge in the way that she could. Even the slave girl who told Naaman that there was a prophet of the true God in Israel who could heal his leprosy, gave a man the amount of good news she was privy to.

2. Why did Jesus treat all the women He interacted with, with tremendous, culture-bending respect? Why did He let Mary sit at His feet and listen to His teaching? Why did He bother transforming an entire Samaritan village by using a (rather dubious) woman as the go-between? You could say, well, she happened to be there, and given the dynamics between Jews and Samaritans, it was probably unlikely He would, say, have managed to schedule a town meeting. But I don’t think Jesus is really the grasping-at-straws type, and if you want to talk about unlikeliness, what actually did happen in John 4 is right up there. If He really cared that much about not having women be His messengers, I’m guessing He would have found some other way to do that.

3. Why on earth did God make a woman be the first bringer of the complete Word of God to earth? Really, Mary was the first evangelist—the message just happened to be a whole lot more tangible in her case. And furthermore, why were women the first people who got to tell the story of the Resurrection?

4. What about the women mentioned in Acts and some of the letters who were clearly leaders in their local congregations? What about Philip’s four prophet-daughters? (How, exactly, is prophesying different from preaching? If you want to get nit-picky, you could maybe say that one is more spur-of-the-moment and intuitive, and the other involves study, but the function is still basically the same.) Why do these women get considered exceptions? And if there really is something wrong with women teaching and leading, why were there any exceptions at all?

5. What about this: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3.26-29, NKJV)?

My guess is someone could say that passage is about spiritual and relational status with God, not about roles. But if we’re all equal in relationship to God, and in value, and in standing—if we’re all equal heirs—why should we not all be equal participants? It seems like if the above is really true, we absolutely should be. It would be disobedient not to.

There’s more I want to say, and I don’t promise to say it tomorrow, but I do promise to say it one of these days. But you didn’t really want to read more than this tonight anyway.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Dimmer Switch

What would have been my latest post, had I not been so rudely interrupted by credit card theft, was very instructional. For me, I mean. (Given that this whole blog undertaking is an essentially self-centered one, I guess that’s all that matters, right?) I forgot that I kind of like to pick fights, and that, although I still hate it when other people act entitled, I have a strong sense of entitlement-that-shall-remain-nameless (meaning, I rarely call it entitlement) myself. Probably as a function of these propensities, I found that post very entertaining to write. What it failed to do was give me the disclaimer/platform I was hoping to employ for this current one. Oh well.

I’ll just go with this:

About a week after starting to blog for the first time, I had a moment of epiphany. I can’t exactly describe what brought it on or how, but the overall feeling left in its wake was that I had been standing in a room. The lights in this room were controlled by a dimmer switch, and for the last ten years or so, someone has gradually been turning the switch up. Then finally, on September 1st or some such date, whoever has been dawdling with the light fixtures cranked them up the rest of the way.

This probably isn’t a tremendously accurate assessment of what has happened, because I daresay the lights could keep getting brighter and I could think differently about this again in a couple of years than I do now. But that’s what it felt like. And for now, I will say that I think my views on “women in ministry” (hereafter acronym-ized as WiM) have changed.

At some point shortly after college, I was involved in a Christian singles group in Nannyfield, New England (seriously, everyone there was a nanny or a teacher; I was the former), and at one point the topic of WiM came up for discussion and debate for a couple of weeks. I don’t really remember what the prevailing views were in the group at large. All I do remember about it was actually thinking about the topic in some depth for the first time in my life, and deciding I was more conservative about it than I had been acting for the previous, unstudied part of my existence.

Only then I moved to the UK for five years, and the church there was very insistent that women could serve in any role in the church that men could. I didn’t agree, but I was forced to think about it some more, because one of my best friends there got ordained and is now one of the pastors, and I felt very uncomfortable about it. She and I were able to discuss my misgivings once, early on, and then after that we pretty much avoided the issue, because neither of us was going to convince the other and we valued our friendship too much to want to argue about it. Or something like that.

Actually, after that I essentially abdicated my voice in the discussion at all. I didn’t like the idea of women as senior pastors. And I thought the passages in the Epistles where Paul makes pretty strident comments that women shouldn’t teach or have authority over a man were too direct (albeit confusing) to ignore. I thought the usual arguments—that those instructions were directed at specific congregations containing unruly women—were sort of cop-out excuses. I mean, really. How can you ignore something as blatant as “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent” (1 Timothy 2.12)? He doesn’t say, “those trouble-making women you’ve got over there,” or anything. It’s not like I like those words. But I had no intention of ignoring them or sugar-coating them.

On the other hand, even I could see that Jesus upgraded women’s status in society—at least in His society. And I could see from the book of Acts and even some of the Epistles that women did stuff at church besides just be quiet and listen. I couldn’t ignore or manure-coat that, either.

The whole thing has left me very confused for the better part of a decade, and I finally decided that I just wouldn’t voice an opinion or a belief at all. And when it actually came down to practical life-application, I just voiced and lived by my preferences. At least I was honest enough with myself (and usually, I think, with anybody asking) to know these were just my preferences. I wasn’t claiming I was actually doing or thinking things biblically. But “biblically” wasn’t helping me very much, because I couldn’t work out what it was, so I just wimped out.

And then . . . I decided my blogpost was too long and to tell you about the actual epiphany tomorrow. Are you in suspense?
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