Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Today would’ve been my mother’s 76th birthday. If she were alive, I would call her and apologize for not sending a gift in time. I was always chronically late sending her gifts, because I suffered from “gift anxiety” brought on by my inability to compete with Mom’s incomparable talent for gift giving. She had a gift (for gift giving)—the ability to pick out just the right thing, the sensitivity to know what would make the recipient most happy, the uncanny knack for surprise. But I didn’t inherit that gene, so I usually succumbed to defeat, sending belated flowers or picking out some item that she probably didn’t need and never used.

Yet, I realize now that, in spite of my gift-giving inadequacies, I managed to give my mom one present that endlessly delighted her: grandchildren. I am the only fertile one amongst her progeny, my sister being a Poor Clare nun and my brother being a happily married father of multiple cats. Thus, Nathaniel and Eliana received her undivided grandparental love.

My mom took every opportunity she could to be with her grandchildren, flying to Abilene even though she was terrified of airplanes. When we went to Albuquerque to visit, she cooked for weeks ahead of time filling her freezer full of all sorts of goodies for the kids—cookies, orange rolls, baked spaghetti, apple pie. When we arrived in the driveway, she came bursting out the front door, covering the kids with kisses and hugs. She kept a treasure trove of surprises for them, so that each day of our visit they were presented with a new game, or bubbles, or books, or crayons. Saying goodbye was always so difficult—I could see the joy ebb in her eyes as visibly as a cloud covering the light of the sun.

Tragically, cancer robbed my mom of her favorite gift. It cruelly cut short the time she had with her only grandchildren. She didn’t live to see Nathaniel finally get his two front teeth (lost prematurely in a driveway toy car accident). She never heard him play in a piano recital or see him become one of the top ten readers at his school. She missed hearing about Eliana’s first day in Kindergarten, and she’ll never know that her granddaughter can ride a horse, play soccer, and sing beautifully. I grieve more over this than anything else: that my mom will not see her grandchildren grow up.

Happy birthday, sweet Grammy Mary Kay. We miss you.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Marfa Lights: A Mystery

Seeking out the Marfa Lights was my husband’s idea, inspired by an animated short in the DVD Cars where Mater is tormented by “Ghost Lights.”

So, off we went, leaving our RV parked in the Davis Mountains, traversing mostly flat terrain—perfect for mystery hunting. After dinner in the Ghost Light Mecca known as Marfa, we made our way to the Marfa Lights Observatory. Yes, they have an actual observatory on the highway between Marfa and Alpine, complete with an official Marfa Lights plaque, an architecturally intriguing restroom (orb-shaped, just like the lights), and a viewing deck with complementary binoculars.

We pulled in about an hour before sunset, and we were all alone.

I was, of course, a skeptic. I figured that Marfa Lights were about as real as the Roswell Alien Autopsy, but I was having fun anyway. Pretty soon another family showed up, and the kids played tag until twilight. As the sun made its way downward, more and more people arrived, and they all looked pretty normal. There were some nervous giggles, and people shared stories about the Marfa Lights. One lady had seen the Marfa Lights when she was nine years old; she had made the pilgrimage back.

As we peered across the horizon in the growing darkness, a hush fell among the onlookers. Someone said, “I see lights over there!” We all squinted and tried to decide if this was it—the Marfa Lights experience! But, alas, they were stationary—just lights from a nearby ranch.

Time passed, and the kids grew restless. I was beginning to think that the whole trip had been a dud, when Kelly said, “Look over there!” Sure enough, just above the red blink of a radio tower was a glowing whitish orb. It hovered for awhile and then disappeared, reappearing in a different place in the sky, much to everyone’s delight. More lights appeared and so did goose bumps all over my skin. With each appearance the crowd grew louder and more jubilant—“I see one!” “So do I!” “Look, over there! Another, and--oh look! Another!” We were mesmerized, all of us--a community of disparate pilgrims brought together by the inexplicable.

The kids grew tired, so we piled in the truck and headed back, weary believers who had seen the Marfa Lights with our own eyes. We discussed possible reasons for the phenomenon. Surely there was a plausible explanation—car lights from the nearby Presidio Freeway, mirages caused by temperature changes, St. Elmo’s Fire. But people have studied these things for years, and as the observatory plaque indicates, the mystery of the lights remains unsolved. My husband said, “I hope they never figure it out.” “Why?” I asked. “Because that would ruin it—what makes it special is the fact that no one can explain it.”

I think that’s true for more than Marfa Lights. We live in a world increasingly devoid of mystery. We have an insatiable need to explain, to resolve, to drain life of mystery. I think it’s due, in part, to our scientific world view. What the ancients ascribed to God or the gods, we, in our sophisticated and altogether modern way, attribute to natural and very un-mysterious phenomena.

Now, I’m not saying that we should live in ignorance. I don’t believe that God sends hurricanes to punish people in New Orleans, nor do I endorse the very biblical concept of a flat earth. What I am saying, though, is that, in our well-intentioned attempts to explain everything, we divest ourselves of a sense of mystery.

And what of mystery in our church experiences and theology? We have a tendency to try to make spirituality systematic and God tidily unambiguous. We do our religious devotions each Sunday, not expecting the unexpected, but instead happily content with the familiar. We theologize about God, categorizing the deity into simplistic syllogisms or haughtily proclaiming decisive truths. We paint God in broad strokes of black and white instead of varying shades of gray. God and church are neatly packaged so as not to offend or frighten or invite questioning, and mystery is stifled by our throttle-hold need for control.

Perhaps, we all could do with some goose bumps now and then—a tingling reminder of our limitedness, a humbling chill on our human omniscience, a hair-raising glimpse of that all too uncommon mysterium tremendum.

Friday, August 3, 2007

My Dad's Best Advice

The best advice my dad gave me was very simple: "Follow your bliss." Though these three words were popularized by Joseph Campbell, my dad lived them and I have lived by them.

My dad was a successful engineer at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was successful, but he wasn't happy. The 8:00 to 5:00 stiff-shirt-and-tie lifestyle didn't suit him, and though it brought in a great income, he was miserable.

My father's bliss took shape one Christmas when my brother and sister received a puppet stage as a gift. I'm not exactly sure how the events transpired, but my dad decided that he wanted to be a puppeteer, and my siblings lost their Christmas present. I wish I could've been there to hear my parents' conversation when he dropped the idea on my mom.

But this was my dad's bliss, and pursue it he did. My mom and dad saved up enough money so they could live for a year without his income, and Ron and Mary Kay Puppets was born.

My childhood was spent in the shadow of my famous (at least in Albuquerque) parents, who evolved from doing marionettes to large hand puppets. My brother created the puppets (he's the artist in the family), and my parents did a Christmas show and a spring show every year at all the local schools. The income wasn't good, but my dad was happy. By doing puppets, he got to do all the things he loved: write and play music, create drama, work with kids, and be an all-around total ham. My mom didn't go into this kicking and screaming either, she was just as talented as my dad (and just as much a ham). They made a great puppeteering team. (If you would like to know more about my parents' endeavors, see my brother's wonderful website devoted to them at http://home.comcast.net/~sday77/puppets/index.htm)

So, when dad told me to follow my bliss wherever it led, I listened. That advice took me to Hardin-Simmons for college and caused me to change my major to Bible even though there were only two other female students in the entire School of Theology. My bliss led me to Southwestern Seminary to major in Church History, and convinced me to change to Old Testament though job possibilities for Baptist women in Bible were virtually nil. My bliss has inspired me to be creative and unconventional in my teaching. It has drawn me into vegetarianism and animal theology. Following my bliss has meant never doing things the way they've always been done, never doing what's logical simply because it's logical, and always, always following my heart wherever it takes me.

Thanks, Dad, for some great advice. It has served me well.

The Ligatures of Legalism

I took a class in college called "Discipleship." It might just as well have been titled "Legalism" since, at least for me, it was an exercise in rigidity. In this class we were required to keep a Spiritual Journal and turn it in for a grade. We had to memorize a certain number of scripture verses, and, as I recall, most of the lecture notes involved steps to achieve some spiritual goal: "Ten Steps to a Better Prayer Life," "Fifteen Ways to Convert the Lost," etc.

What I learned from this class (and from much of the church-based education I have received through the years) is that discipleship is about "achieving" something, and if you fail to reach goals, you are a poor Christian (if, indeed, a Christian at all).

For me the Spiritual Journal (along with the requisite "Quiet Time") became a source of extreme frustration. The journal we were required to use listed the five steps in prayer, and you were expected to pray them in a certain order. You were supposed to begin with praise, then thanksgiving, then confession, then intercession, and finally, if you had been very, very good, you could ask some things for yourself. Prayer was all about the business of telling God how divinely good God is and selflessly telling God how to take care of others. And when it was all done, the implication was that you would "feel" refreshed and fulfilled. But I always felt defeated because I was so busy talking to God I never thought to listen.

The Spiritual Journal also specified a certain way to read the Bible. In fact, from every reading you were expected to hear God speaking a personal word to you. If you didn't glean some super amazing insight, it must be because there was some unconfessed sin in your life. Personally, I find it really hard to find warm fuzzies in the scriptures, especially when reading about lobes of livers in Leviticus (as much as I love Leviticus, I think there is something wrong with trying to force some personal spiritual revelation out of every passage of scripture). But try I did, and I'm certain that I did damage not only to the interpretation of scripture in my efforts but also demeaned my own soul in the process. Deep down, I knew that I was being false to the intent of scripture and I was denying my own intellect.

There's something to be said in favor of legalism: it puts you in control. Spirituality becomes a list of "dos" and "don'ts" by which you measure your own progress. Relationship with God is irrelevant, really, because with legalism you never really have to worry about the unexpected. Trembling in the presence of a holy God who is unpredictable and unwilling to be manipulated isn't necessary with legalism because you never sit still long enough to let God be God. Legalism is about controlling God, manipulating God by your good actions and expecting God to bless you for your efforts.

It's amazing to me that in spite of all of Jesus' teachings against legalism that Christians have spent so much of their history promoting it.

For years I have avoided prayer, fearing the silence, fearing the feelings of failure because I couldn't hear God speak. I felt like Saul who approached God all the "right" ways but never received an answer because God had rejected him (1 Samuel 28). I was certain that the sound of divine silence was the mark of God's rejection of me.

Legalism taught me that relationship with God was about getting somewhere, pursuing goals, and reaching benchmarks. And legalism suffocated me spiritually—its ligatures encircled me, choking the breath of God from my midst.

Recently I've been learning something new and amazing: time with God does not have to be goal-oriented. Prayer can simply be a time of existing, being with God. I don't have to go into it expecting God to do my bidding; I don't have to come away from it with any wonderful insights. I am discovering that in silence one can listen. And even if I hear nothing, I can rejoice simply in being in God's presence.

I am learning to breathe again.