The Christmas Bell: A Reflection on Belief

Posted on December 15, 2014

christmas bellFrom time to time, I joke that perhaps I’m getting Alzheimers. This is only partially funny, I recognize, and not at all funny to those who have a family member with mental illness. But this joke is the only way I know to dissipate the anxiety I truly feel over my more mindless mistakes.

Take for example the time I walked right past our mini-van without seeing it. I was so certain Dwayne had taken it to work with Nathan’s stroller in the back, that I hauled Nathan out the door on my hip and walked right past the van parked in our driveway, never once SEEING it.

When Nathan and I returned from dropping Noelle off at school, I rounded the corner and stood nose to trunk with our mini-van. I was stunned. Had it been there the whole time? Had I truly walked past it, all the while mumbling and grumbling about how Dwayne had taken it to work and left me without a stroller?

I called Dwayne in a panic. “Dwayne!” I huffed down the phone. “I think I’m getting Alzheimers!  I walked right past the van today and never saw it! I thought you had taken it to work.”

Dwayne responded calmly, as if I wasn’t concluding the most devastating diagnosis for my mindlessness. “Christin, they have done studies on how people don’t see things they’re not expecting to see.  You didn’t expect to see the van in the driveway and so you simply didn’t see it.” I could almost hear his shoulders shrug over the receiver.

I took a deep breath, relieved. So there was scientific proof then. I wasn’t devolving into Alzheimers. Apparently, lots of people don’t see things right in front of their face, even things as big as a mini-van.

Just this past week, the college hosted a Christmas party for the entire faculty and staff at a renovated movie palace on the square. There were drinks and appetizers, cookies and hot chocolate, along with a special showing of the “Polar Express” for the children.

The kids and I grabbed our boxes of popcorn and sat at the very front of the balcony, the entire theater sprawled out below our feet.  We hovered in mid-air like this for the entire show, watching as the hero boy boards a steam locomotive to the North Pole. He’s unsure if he believes in Santa and he’s plagued throughout the story about whether or not he’ll hear Santa’s sleigh bells. When the moment of truth arrives, he stands in the main square of the North Pole amidst cheering elves, watching the reign deer leap and prance. He is panic-stricken to discover that he can not hear the beautiful silver bells bouncing along the reigns.

Suddenly, a single bell falls from the strap and rolls to his feet. He picks it up and shakes it next to his ear. Nothing. He shakes it again. Nothing. Fear and disappointment pinch his face. “Okay, okay,” he pants. “I believe. I believe!” He shakes the bell one more time and this time, it rings.

After the movie, the kids and I walked home through the mild winter evening. While we walked, our conversation turned to the other Christmas story: the one about Jesus and his birth. Noelle and I discussed why Jesus was born and what made his coming to Earth so special.

“Before Jesus came, people didn’t know what God was like,” she rattled on, climbing our steps.  “But then when Jesus came, he said, ‘This is what God’s like.’”

“That’s right,” I nodded, helping her and Nathan into the house and out of their coats.

She thought for a moment, her little face turned upward.

“Mommy? What if people don’t believe in God, though? What happens to them?”

My stomach dropped, as it often does when Noelle posits these larger-than-the-universe questions. How am I, with my puny non-theologian brain supposed to answer these questions? But then, I suddenly thought of the scene from “The Polar Express” with the sliver bell.

“It’s like that scene in the movie,” I said slowly, trying to feel my way along. “Where the little boy can’t hear the bell. Remember? He can’t hear it until he says he believes.” I glanced down to see if she was listening. Her little face was still, pensive. I pushed on. “Well, if people don’t believe in God, they won’t see Him.  Just like with the bell, the little boy couldn’t hear it until he believed it.”

She seemed contented with this answer, and so I pulled off her glasses, tucked her into bed and snapped off the light.

Since then, I’ve thought about my answer. Rolled it over in my mind examining it for any cracks, any faulty logic. The skeptic in me chimes in, “But isn’t choosing to believe in something, just a form of self-deception? Don’t we conjure and create what we want to see, even if it isn’t there?”

And of course, I have to acknowledge that this is true. Just as we may be capable of ignoring something as big as a mini-van, right in front of our faces, then we must equally be capable of creating a reality that isn’t true, just because we expect to see it.

And while this may certainly be true for many areas of life, I keep coming back to this one small fact: while so much in life may actually be empty driveways and broken bells, there is this one time when the mini-van was in deed its whole self in my driveway, steel and paint and glass right beside me, the edge of my sleeve whispering past its glossy surface. The fact that I didn’t expect to see it and so didn’t see it, did not change the reality that is was there, all along.

This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about believing and hearing and seeing. I’ve been mulling over the essence of Faith.  I’ve come away with this thought: sometimes, choosing to believe doesn’t have to mean self-deception; sometimes, it can mean opening our ears to a bell that has been ringing ever since the first Christmas night.

5 Questions to Ask Every Shipwrecked Young Adult

Posted on November 24, 2014

Stressed-young-adults-millennials-hold-question-mark-signsI’m in the middle of a radio tour for my new book, Crew: Finding Community When Your Dreams Crash. Out of these interviews, I’ve begun to articulate a few key points about my book, my story and my research.

The first is: Young adults are facing very real social and economic obstacles that their parents never had to face.

Secondly: How do we, as those who love a young adult, or ourselves a young adult, walk with someone who is currently shipwrecking on the rocks of adult life?

I’ve come up with a list of five questions based on my research in young adult identity development to ask every young adult struggling with the very real challenges of modern American life. These questions can help move them beyond the black and white thinking of adolescence and into the more individuated stages of self-authorship. Big thanks to Marcia Baxter Magolda’s work. Much of my research comes from her studies. You can read all about her books here.

Here are the questions:

1. What do you need right now? 

This question forces us, the companion, to stop and listen. Sometimes, we come at our young adult’s problems with all sorts of fixes, but we will never help them get anywhere as long as we are focussed on what we want to tell them. The key is to stop and listen to what they think they need.

This question offers a second perk in that it forces our young adult to reflect on their own state of being. Being able to say what they need entails a level of critical thinking and self-awareness that helps move them toward reflection and self-authorship.

2. How are you taking care of yourself right now?

Again, it is so, so important to help our young adults begin to think critically about their own stories. Sometimes, when we are shipwrecked, we are tossed around on the waves of distress and stop taking care of our most basic physical and emotional needs.

Forcing our young adults to step back and look at themselves through the lens of this question helps them to start owning their mental and physical health. From there, they can start to turn outward and solve the problems that are stacking up around them.

3. What things about your shipwreck can you control? What things are beyond your control?

Once they’ve begun to take care of themselves, now they have the mental, emotional and physical reserve to start addressing the problems, and obstacles facing them.  The next step is to come to terms with what they can control and what they can’t. Once they can break down the obstacles in this way, the overall mountain of the problem can start to look more and more manageable.

The point here, as their Good Company, is not to fix what is out of control for them, but to collaborate with them on what they can control.

4. What are you keeping as important to the “essence” of you during this shipwreck?

And here is the coup de grace of all questions. We ask our young adults what they are doing to preserve the “essence” of themselves because the entire point of being good company is to help them become Self-Authored. Marcia Baxter Magolda coined this term and has done years of studies around helping young adults learn to become self-realized adults. Some amazing books of hers to check out are: Authoring Your Life and Making Their Own Way.

5. Who can you identify as supportive partners in your Shipwreck? What are they doing that’s helping you own your own story?

Finally, no young adult can make it through their twenties and early thirties alone. While they may feel totally isolated and abandoned, this can often times be more a result of their physiological responses to difficulty and distress than actual reality.

First of all, they have you! You’re there asking them these wonderful questions, but also, they need to think critically not just about their own well-being, and self-authorship, but who they are inviting to walk with them on this journey through shipwreck to home.

Why I Chose To Make My Daughter an Outsider

Posted on October 10, 2014

Given my background as a missionary kid, I thought sending Noelle to Spanish Immersion Elementary School would be a no-brainer. I didn’t realize that in the process of helping her gain a multi-cultural experience, I’d be introducing her to some of the toughest parts of my own childhood — being the outsider.

My latest article over at NY Times, Motherlode is here.

Enjoy the read!Hola

Everything Nailed Down is Coming Loose

Posted on October 9, 2014

wood-and-nails

“I was 27 when I stopped reading the Bible for a year. I didn’t stop for the reasons you might think. I wasn’t rebelling. I wasn’t necessarily doubting my faith. I quit because my spiritual mentor told me to do so. It’s important to understand the circumstances that led to her somewhat radical piece of advice.”

This is the start of my latest article out in Wesleyan Life today. You can subscribe to Wesleyan Life and get the hard copy or go here and read it on line. My article appears on page 22. http://wesleyanlifefall14.easyviewer.net

Enjoy!

letting-go

And Nathan Walked By …

Posted on August 22, 2014

Today I arrived early to pick the kids up from school.  I’m anxious, these early days of school, to get my hands on them.

I’m hungry to hold them and listen to them talk, to touch them and make sure they’re okay.  After six hours away from them each day, imagining what they’re doing in their new classes, all those new little faces bobbing around them, all the new experiences, the new challenges of being a grade older, I want the concrete, tangible presence of their voices telling me everything I’ve missed.

I plopped myself down on the bench outside the front doors and checked my phone. Ten minutes early.

Just then, a string of little bodies wound its way down the sidewalk from the playground. They have recess right before dismissal, and I watched as the teachers lead the long line of children back to their classrooms.

I watched, attentive, wondering if Nathan’s class was in the mix.

“Are you Nathan’s mommy?” a little voice reached me. I looked to my right and spotted Allegra.  She had pulled away from the line, toward me. I smiled and nodded. Allegra and Nathan were in daycare together, and now they are both attending preschool together.

“How are you Allegra?” I asked.

“Great,” she said matter-of-factly, her big brown eyes studying me.

“Allegra, come on,” the teacher called, and Allegra stepped back into the thin stream of bodies moving past.

Suddenly he was there, right in front of me — my Nathan.

He didn’t see me.  He was transfixed instead by a leaf on the ground. He stopped, just two steps away from me, knelt down, touched the leaf, his little face a study in concentration.

The bright blue line of his sneakers creased the white cement, his plump little calves curved above his socks.  My boy. I know that hook of his nose, the purse of his lips, the smell of the skin just below his ears, the feel of his apricot hands in mine.

Breath slipped between my lips. I stopped myself from saying his name, calling out to him and sweeping him up in my arms. If I did that, the spell would be broken, the moment gone.  Besides, he needed to go into his classroom, get his bag and get ready to leave like everyone else.

Still, I wanted him to turn ever so slightly to the left, to see me sitting there, waiting for him, always waiting for him.

“Nathan, keep going,” a teacher coaxed. He stood quietly, stepped back in line and kept going. He never turned. He never saw me. He just walked by.

hymn

A Modern Vintage Faith

Posted on August 18, 2014

What we separate from, we find anew. ~ Dr. Robert Kegan

I have this old battered piano book of hymns.  My parents bought it for me when I was eleven years old.  We were living in England at the time as missionaries working with the Afro-Carribean church that had immigrated to the United Kingdom early in the Century.

I loved that hymnal with its white cover splashed in blue and purple font. I couldn’t play the songs very well since I was still learning piano, but I treasured the book. I sat it on the spine of our keyboard and worked my way through the pages.

I recognized the hymns between the pages from our days in church before we moved to England, hymns like: “I Surrender All,” “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” and “The Lord Liveth.” Reading over those words, humming their tunes as I plonked out the melody on our Panasonic keyboard took me back to our little church in Lexington, Kentucky and the Sunday evenings my sister and I sat curled over the pews scrawling pictures quietly.

During those Sunday evening services, I learned how to entertain my little sister.  I drew mazes and word games, created little activity books for her to solve.

In our new home in England, our church sang different songs.  Songs they carried over from Trinidad and Tobago.  I learned how to play the tambourine during worship. I watched mesmerized as the bodies of the older women clapped and bumped to a syncopated rhythm I could hardly fathom.

I liked these new songs, but I was sentimental, even at a young age, and homesick for a country where we ate Big Macs and Mac ’n Cheese.  The white hymnal with its wire coil binding held all those memories and more.

My experience with church music morphed as I grew older.

Right after college, Dwayne and I moved to Los Angeles and started attending a hip, artistic church in a dance club in downtown LA called, Mosaic.

The first time I set foot in Mosaic, the soles of my shoes stuck to the floor — residue from the indiscretions of the night before. Each week, volunteers from Mosaic swept through the dance club to clean it up before we gathered for church.

We sat in folding chairs on the dance floor, a massive disco ball hanging silent above our heads.

Because we were in the heart of the talent capital of the world, our worship bands were comprised of professional musicians, traveled from all over the world to LA to launch careers.

Our bassist looked like Steve Tyler with slashed jeans, long hair, and craggy features.  Our worship bands transformed worship songs into chart-topping hits.  And because our pastor wanted Mosaic to be a hotbed for creativity, he openly encouraged our worship leaders to write their own songs.

As a result, many of our songs were original, never sung anywhere before.

My experience with worship had swung from ancient hymns carried by the voices and hearts of generations of believers, to the other end of spectrum: brand new songs birthed by our voices and raised hands.

For my part, I didn’t miss the hymns all that much.  They felt stuffy and old-fashioned, out of touch with my life.

My mother told me once that my great Aunt Helma spent her life studying hymns each morning during her devotions.

I used to open a hymnal every now and then, when I wasn’t sure what to read in my Bible, and run my fingers over the black and white staves, the notes jumping like dots from the page.

I read lyrics like “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

With these words conjured images of my Aunt Helma, sweet as she was, yet weather worn and wrinkled, her hair tied up in a bun, no make-up, long skirts, high collars.

I struggled to connect with this part of my heritage, to understand it’s significance to me.

In LA, I was miles away from this history, and free for the first time to explore my faith outside of my family’s influence.

I remember one Sunday at Mosaic, we did church on the roof of the dance club.  We sat underneath the LA sky, the city-scape peeling away from the rim of the roof.  Above, stars twinkled through smog, below the basin twinkled with man-made lights, as vast as the stars above, all the while cars streamed around the freeways wrapping us up like veins of neon red and white.

I stood on the roof, the sky above, the city below, the music all around. I felt my heart open in ways I’d never done before during worship. I raised my hands with abandon, danced like the Caribbean women I admired in my youth.

My days of dancing worship on the roof of a dance club are long gone. But I still love to worship. Now we go to church in a vibrant, bustling community.  We sing a smattering of choruses with a hymn woven in here and there.

In the same way, I too have learned to integrate my past with my present. My faith grows back into my childhood, even as it grows forward.

After dinner sometimes, when the kids run off to play and there are those sacred moments when nobody needs me, I pull out that white hymnal with it’s rainbow letters (I have it still), place it on the ledge of our piano and play with the practice of grown-up fingers:

“All to Jesus, I surrender.  All to him I freely give. I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live…”

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