Chapter 1: The River

As I announced last September, I published a memoir, The Rivers of My Life, about my childhood as a blind person, and my faith journey. At the time, I was hoping to sell books, trying to resurrect my dream of writing for a living. But given the pandemic, and the busyness of school, I never ended up participating in any art crawls or bookstore events to market my book. Then, this summer, perhaps inspired by the increasing level of societal conversation about identity as it relates to race and gender, coupled with my own anxiety about life, I have found myself thinking a lot about my identity as a person with a disability. At this perfect moment, God led me to Shake the Dust, an incredible podcast published by KTF Press, a company that seeks to “leave colonized faith (White American Folk Religion) for the kingdom of God.” It just so happened that the first podcast episode I found was a conversation the hosts (one of whom is blind) had with Amy Kenny, a devout Christian, and a Shakespeare scholar who happens to have a rare neurological condition which makes it painful, and sometimes impossible to walk. In 2021 she wrote a book called My Body is Not a Prayer Request which is part memoir, part Bible commentary, part history lesson, on how ablism is pervasive in society and the church and completely at odds with God’s way. After listening to this interview, I knew I had to read the book. It was not available on Bookshare, but I found it on Audible. I was so inspired by this book that I found the publisher’s website for this book and wrote the author a letter. I didn’t expect a response because like any commercially successful author, she probably receives a lot of letters. And at 1,130 words, I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if the published deemed it too long to even read or pass on to the author. But to my delight, she responded a couple days later–I don’t think it was a generic form letter–thanking me for the positive feedback, and for sharing some of my personal story. I fully expected the book to convict the church for failing people with disabilities, just as it has historically failed people of color, and it did do this, in a thoughtful, compassionate way. What I didn’t expect was that the book would convict me. As I mention on the home page of this blog, I do not have life figured out. That takes an entire lifetime. Thus, this blog chroniles my meandering journey through life. A similar theme is expressed in my memoir, where I compare life to an ever-changing river. What this means is that attitudes about my faith as it relates to my disability, attitudes I have written about here with such conviction, were actually unhealthy attitudes influenced by a culture of ablism, attitudes which the author explains have seeped into our thinking without us even realizing it. These attitudes, I realize now, may have unwittingly contributed to my anxiety and lower self-esteem, and prevented me from fully appreciating and seizing upon the abundant life God wants for me here and now.

 

I am drafting an essay reflecting on this book, but before I publish it, I thought you readers deserved to read my full memoir to fully understand my history. I have always believed that people need to be open to considerations more important than money, and I believe God will provide opportunities in the future to simultaneously advance his kingdom and earn enough income to support myself. But for now, I am sensing that this memoir should be free, as it may encourage others, and understanding my history is important context for my reflections on Amy Kenny’s book.

 

I have also made this memoir available on Substack because this platform seems to be the trendy online platform for writers right now, and because they facilitate the creation of podcasts so that people who may not have time to read long-form writing like mine can listen to it. Part of the memoir I recorded using a text-to-speech app, as I was overwhelmed by the idea of reading it all in my own voice. But most of the memoir, I ended up recording myself, as I recognized that an artificial voice could not do justice to emotional dialogue scenes, or the emotional nature of some of my thoughts. So if you would like to listen to my memoir, it is available as a podcast here.

 

The River

    I think I heard The River, sung by Garth Brooks for the first time when I was in sixth grade. I always appreciated it for the beautiful sentiment that it is, and would stop whatever I was doing when it came on the radio to soak it in. But now as an adult, I have a much deeper, firsthand understanding of how true the sentiment of this song really is.

    Some people have concrete, well-defined dreams, like the toddler who is a tennis prodigy, but I think most of us don’t have such clearly defined dreams. Our abstract dream is simply to find a fulfilling life with financial security to meet our practical needs, and a meaningful career that meets our spiritual need for a sense of purpose. We may study an area of interest in college, but after that, we are left to the mercy of an ever-changing river influenced by currents of economic conditions, chance encounters or unexpected circumstances which inspire us, and sometimes force us, to pursue a path we never imagined. We make mistakes and try to learn from them. We let opportunities slip away. There is so much we have no control over, so we are really all vessels that must ride the current of life wherever it takes us. Rough waters are inevitable, but with the good lord as our captain, we can handle whatever comes our way.

    I feel compelled to reflect on the river currents that have shaped my life now because at the time I am writing this (August 2021), I have pretty much been in quarantine for a year and a half. It is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, an international crisis that has permanently altered the course of many people’s rivers in ways never imagined when 2020 began. I am one of these people. I don’t want to minimize the hardship this pandemic has caused. At the time I am writing this, over 600,000 families are grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. Small business owners who put their hearts and souls into their businesses, had to close at a moment’s notice, and many will not have the means to come back. For over 400 years, Black Americans have had to endure adversity far greater than anything I have experienced as a blind person, adversity which this pandemic has exacerbated. But in my case, the pandemic is the current that inspired me to pursue an exciting new course, one which God had been whispering to me about for a long time, but one which I might never have been brave enough to pursue if not for the pandemic.

    In this collection of essays in the pages that follow, I will share the story of my life’s river so far. In Part 1, I will focus on how I navigated childhood and school as a blind person. In Part 2, I will focus on my faith journey. These two rivers of academic life and religious life were somewhat separate out of necessity, but are merging more and more as I progress through young adulthood. I have not always recognized that the good lord was trying to be my captain, and when I did recognize it, I wasn’t willing to give up control of my vessel at first. But now, I feel a wonderful sense of joy, hope and renewed purpose in my life. I recognize that even in this exciting new course, rough waters may come, and I recognize that in this ever-changing tumultuous world, the river’s course could change again. I suppose the only way to fully understand the river of one’s life is for a writer to wait until the end of his/her life to write a memoir like this. But I believe the adage is true that it is not the destination, but the journey that counts. I hope readers will find inspiration in reading about my journey so far, and that perhaps, it could change the course of someone else’s river for the better.

 

    May 13, 2012 is as perfect as a day can possibly be, the kind of day that when you step outside for the first time to let the dog out or get the newspaper, you sigh an “Ah!” of contentment. Instead of rushing back in to the house to cook your breakfast or start checking items off your to-do list for that day, you decide there’s time to stand there for a minute and just breathe deeply, letting the special freshness of the air unique to Spring permeate your lungs and regenerate your soul. Most of the bugs either have not woken from their winter slumber, or are too busy to think about getting right in your ear and startling you out of your reverie, so you can stand in total peace and serenity, just letting the warmth of the sun envelope you and the gentle breeze caress your face, and listen to nature’s amazing orchestra of birds and the sweet chime of distant church bells. There are church bells because May 13 is also a Sunday, which only accentuates the already beautiful day, as Sunday for our family is a day of church, family time and rest to celebrate a week of hard work. But this Sunday, the peace in my soul is due to more than the sabbath or the beauty of Spring, because this is the day my family and I celebrate not merely days of hard work, but years. It was commencement day at Carroll University.

    “You ready to go?” whispers a student volunteer, tapping my shoulder.

    When I used to daydream occasionally about what this moment would be like as a child, I imagined myself jumping out of my chair and running up to the stage, barely able to contain my joy. My child mind couldn’t imagine a greater joy than conquering college which grownups told me was “very hard” and then never having to go to school again if I chose. In reality, mixed in with the joy in ways I never expected is a sentimental feeling that compels me to savor the moment as an adult rather than rush for the prize like a child. Solemn and dignified, I stand up, adjust my dress and gown that sweat has caused to cling to my skin. Gilbert, my sweet guide dog, a yellow lab who will forever retain the innocence and exuberance of a child, follows suit as I used to imagine I would, jumping up, wagging his tail and wanting to run ahead. He is also wearing a cap and gown, courtesy of the bookstore staff who absolutely adored Gilbert! The bookstore received free samples of gowns from a vendor that were inappropriately short for a dignified graduation ceremony at a Christian university, but with just a little altering by the staff, one of these gowns ended up being a perfect fit for Gilbert. I grab Gilbert’s leash in my left hand, adjust his mortar board which has slipped sideways on his head and find the elbow of the student volunteer with my right hand.

    In most previous special milestones that involved walking down an aisle from first communion to high school graduation, I wanted and was encouraged by my teachers to walk up to the stage by myself to show I was just as capable as everyone else. But in my high school graduation, despite practicing the route with my long white cane several times after rehearsal three days earlier, there was an unplanned obstacle in the way that day that I wasn’t sure how to get around. In an uncharacteristic moment, Mrs. Hobson, the aid I had worked with for almost eight years and the most fierce advocate for my independence, ran onstage with tears in her eyes and guided me around the obstacle, so the awkward moment didn’t last long. But for this celebration, the culmination of the first leg of life’s journey, I wanted absolutely no unpleasant surprises, no awkward moments to tarnish this perfect day.

    The volunteer and I take our place in the alphabetical procession and as we inch our way toward the symbolic moment of transition from the first leg of life’s journey to the next, I find myself thinking back to freshmen orientation.

 

    “In four years, you will walk across the stage in commencement,” said a faculty member to us nervous freshmen seated on rows of plastic chairs set up in the airy, carpeted ballroom on the second floor of the student union where I would return for a career fair, a banquet and many convocation events in the next four years. “Commencement seems like a long way off now, but trust me. These four years will go fast,” she continued, “so I urge you to make the most of them. Get involved on campus, take advantage of the academic opportunities we offer, study abroad. The memories you make and the connections you forge here will shape the rest of your life.”

    “They are talking about college graduation already?” I remember thinking with a laugh to myself. I hadn’t even been on campus for 24 hours and already I was almost woozy with the exhaustion and stress of adjusting to the culture shock of college, and caring for myself and a new guide dog in an unfamiliar place, and the real work, the school part, hadn’t even started. “At this rate, if I survive to walk across the stage at Commencement, it will be a miracle,” I had thought.

    “Here’s the rail,” the volunteer whispers, placing my hand on the metal rail for the stairs that lead up to the stage. For a brief moment I stand frozen.

    “Go up,” she whispers nudging me again. With that, my thoughts snap back to reality as it hits me that there is no line ahead of me. How did that procession happen so fast? Then again, how does college, how does life, happen so fast? The handle of Gilbert’s harness clicks as I lift it and tell him “forward” and we walk slow and dignified up the narrow stairs. The instant my feet hit the stage, “Allison Michelle Nastoff, magna cum laude!” echoes triumphantly through microphones all over the lawn outside Main Hall where four years of memories and a lifetime of love and support are assembled. Is it just me, or does the professor reading the names, a biology professor whom I met when an American Politics class I was in collaborated with one of his classes for a video project my sophomore year, pronounce my name more slowly, more deliberately than the others? Then it occurs to me that perhaps all the graduates are thinking the same thing about the reading of their own names. The challenges I overcame to get to this stage may be more obvious to observers, but everyone graduating with me overcame challenges to get here, even if those challenges amounted to nothing more than the universal college predicaments that do not discriminate, like having to stay up all night finishing a project that was more involved than anticipated.

    Some of you reading this are likely thinking, “but the usual challenges of college pale in comparison to getting through college without sight. I could never do that!” In fact, you could fill in this refrain with every stage of my life because all my life I have heard this sentiment from well-meaning people who cannot imagine living without sight. To them and by extension to you if you are one of them, I hope that if you take away one thing from my story, it will be an awareness of the fact that you only have access to and therefore can only fully understand life from your own perspective. So if you have never lived with a disability, it is difficult to imagine how you would cope with it. In fact, I shouldn’t be preaching because I have felt the same sentiments toward people with other disabilities I am not familiar with. But in terms of the disability I am familiar with, I can say that while the obstacles this disability presented may seem unimaginable to you, for me, someone who has lived with this disability for as long as I can remember, they weren’t perceived as obstacles at all, just a normal part of life. The dictionary defines normal as “conforming to a standard; usual, typical or expected” and believe it or not as “(of a person) free from physical or mental disorders.” Society likes words and people to fit in to neat definitions, but this definition should be scrapped in my opinion because I have a physical disorder and yet I feel normal. There is no neat definition for normal. It means something different to everyone, depending on the perspective of life you were dealt. With that being said, I hope that none of my peers in my graduating class minimized the challenges they overcame upon seeing Gilbert and me step on to that stage. Disability or not, everyone’s normal presents them with challenges. The reading of my name sounds slow and deliberate because as my mind flashes back to the challenges I overcame to earn this moment, my mind yearns to savor it, but I hope everyone else savored their own moments too because everyone earned them.

    After my name is read, a large-sounding contingent of people greet it with joyous but dignified applause. My face is bursting at the seams with a smile as I am handed the smooth leather diploma cover, a beautiful keepsake and tangible reminder of this joyous milestone.

    “We would also like to acknowledge Gilbert,” the crowd explodes with cheering and thunderous applause that almost drowns out “who attended every course required for graduation.” Then the President of the college hands me Gilbert’s diploma, a giant bone. He wags his tail and tries to get to it first, as he knows it’s for him. I know of blind people who requested that their dog not be honored like this in their commencement ceremonies, and perhaps it is contradictory to my lifelong efforts not to draw attention to myself, to show everyone that I am normal. But Gilbert was so beloved by everyone, and such a blessing to me, especially in the early difficult days of college when he served as a therapy dog, goodwill ambassador and guide dog, that I couldn’t resist the offer. Maybe he didn’t do the same level of work I had to do to graduate college, but that didn’t mean his work was any less important in my eyes, and he did attend every course required for graduation. So what if he slept through most of them!

    After posing for a professional photo before exiting the stage, the student volunteer directs me back to my seat.

    As a child, I was always baffled by the phenomenon of how the eager anticipation of a special event like Christmas, a birthday or choir performance builds up in your mind for the longest time, but then is over in an instant. This phenomenon used to make me sad when I lay my head down on my pillow after these special days, perhaps with the feeling that I was so wrapped up in the build up that when the moment actually happened, I didn’t savor it as completely as I would have liked to. But this isn’t the case as I return to my seat today, my moment of recognition having passed. Perhaps it is because I have become more introspective since my childhood and took care to make sure I savored my moment. But beyond that, I think with maturity, I understand more completely what adults always said in speeches given at every milestone. Graduation may signify the end of one chapter, but it also signifies the beginning of a new one. Maybe I shrugged these statements off because at every previous milestone, as nervous as I was about starting a new chapter in a new school, it was only that, a new school. The chapter was already written. But today, with my formal education complete, it occurs to me that with the end of this chapter, the pages are blank. There will be no school next year and I don’t even have any job prospects lined up. The rest of the book is mine to write now, and the possibilities are endless. Any lingering melancholy about the end of this chapter is overshadowed by the eager anticipation of chapters to come.

    As I listen to the remaining names being read, I recall a conversation my parents and I had just a few weeks earlier around the dinner table.

    “I have no idea what I am going to do after graduation,” I had said nervously, “maybe I should have applied for grad school or jobs this semester, but I don’t know what I would study and none of the few job postings I have seen in my field interest me. All I know is that I want to try my hand at living independently soon, support myself financially and be a contributing member of society.”

    “You know, people like to view life as a neat linear continuum where you move from one thing to the next. But from my experience, I have found that life is really more like a river,” Mom said, “sometimes you’re just happily floating along. Sometimes a current takes you somewhere you never expected, and sometimes you hit sandbars. But if you just take one day at a time and let life unfold, everything works out the way it is supposed to.”

    I think I kind of brushed off this analogy that day because I wasn’t in a philosophical mood, but I am in a reflective philosophical mood today and as I sing Carroll University’s theme song loud and proud with my class to conclude the ceremony, I fully appreciate what a perfect analogy the river is to life.

    Every time I have graduated from one school and transitioned to another, I felt as if my life jacket, made of dedicated, wonderful teachers and a building I had come to know well was being stripped from me and I would have to swim on my own. The waters would be rough in the beginning of the transition, but before long, I was comfortable in a new life jacket of new dedicated teachers and a building that felt like home. After my high school graduation, I feared that the college waters would be roughest of all, as my life jacket was even stripped of the peers I had grown up with, and the support of two aids, Mrs. Hobson and Mrs. Reich who had stayed with me all through school. But now I realize that even in college when I thought I would really need to swim on my own, the foundation of my life jacket, the unwavering love and support of my family stayed firmly in place.

    The waters of college were choppy at first too. On my first day of class, Mom said she would come and meet me outside the campus center after breakfast just to make sure I got to class smoothly the first day. Over many hours of practice with the guide dog trainer, which I chronicle in my 2014 book Paws that Changed my Life, I felt confident about the route, but appreciated the peace of mind of having Mom follow behind me at a distance in case I ran into trouble so that my first day started out on a positive note. It turned out to be a good thing she was there because as soon as we crossed the street from the campus center, Gilbert and I were greeted by jackhammers and a torn up sidewalk! No one had thought to tell us that construction would block our route the first day of school. We had not trained in noisy construction situations, so Gilbert and I were both caught off guard. I ended up having to drop the harness handle and take Mom’s arm so she could guide us around the construction, and every day that first week, she would have to meet us before and after class to get us to the dorm and back. She also ended up having to come to my dorm room and read my textbook chapters to me for awhile because they were not available electronically at that time, and Disability Services did not have the print books scanned and ready on time for the start of the semester. Given these circumstances, and the fact that getting myself and Gilbert ready in time for an 8am class in the dorm setting was proving to be stressful, my parents and I came to the decision that it would be easier for me to live at home and commute to college. Since the dorm room was non-refundable, I kept it my freshman year as a place to rest between classes or do research since my computer equipped with a screen reader was set up there. But at Christmas time, we brought my computer home, and although I maybe could have tried again the following year, given how expensive a dorm room is, and given that we had settled into such a smooth routine commuting to school, we decided it made more sense to commute permanently. Carroll University was only half an hour from home, and a few of my friends were commuter students as well. But being a commuter student made it much more inconvenient to fully participate in the social life of college. Sometimes, thinking about this still makes me a little sad. But overall, I still had a wonderful college experience. I made a few really good friends whom I met with regularly for lunch, and the bugs were eventually ironed out with Disability Services. Before long, I was thriving in the waters of college, which felt like home now. Every diploma I have held in my life, but especially the one I hold today, and even Gilbert’s very presence, proves that everything really does work out the way it is supposed to.

    Mrs. Reich, who was my Orientation and Mobility instructor from kindergarten all the way through high school, thought a guide dog would make crossing streets safer for me because I had a tendency to veer when I walked. A guide dog would keep me walking straight so I wouldn’t veer into traffic. But given complex underlying medical conditions, and the fact that I have always struggled with directional bearing–my parents say this is genetic–Mrs. Reich did not like the idea of me going to a residential guide dog program where I would have to live independently for a month, and then basically have to start my training all over again when I returned home because I would have a very difficult time applying what I learned on the streets of New Jersey or California, to the streets of Wisconsin. But for most of my childhood, these residential programs were the only option for getting a guide dog. But it just so happened that as I was entering high school, one of Mrs. Reich’s friends started loosing her sight to a genetic eye condition. She loved dogs and yearned for the independence a guide dog could give her as she adjusted to this progressive condition, but she had small children at the time and did not want to leave them and go to a residential program for a month. It occurred to her that there were likely many blind people in similar situations, unable to abandon family or career responsibilities to train for a month at a residential program, or people with other conditions that would make living at a residential facility difficult. So in 2005, she founded Occupaws Guide Dog Association, which would serve Wisconsin residents–now Occupaws will also serve people in border states–by completing guide dog training in the client’s home environment. Gilbert and I were the second team to be trained by Occupaws, the first being the founder herself. At the time, my faith wasn’t what it is today, and I called it luck, perfect timing. But the older I get, the more I believe there really are no coincidences.

So as I process out with my class to the joyous beat of bagpipes and drums, instead of succumbing to anxiety over the uncertain waters ahead where my life jacket is stripped even of the certainty of a new school routine, I decide to let myself be at total peace, trusting that wherever the river of life takes me next, I will find a comfortable new life jacket and navigate the waters with the confidence and grace of a sailor who has successfully conquered rough waters all her life.

I need My Rumspringa (Part 2)

I was on track to set out on my Rumspringa August 29, 2008 when my parents helped me move into the college dorm. I gave Disability Services the textbooks I needed months in advance, and after three weeks of guide dog training, Gilbert and I could expertly navigate the routes to the dining room and all of my classes. Mom offered to come to campus and just observe our walk to class the first day, just to make sure I had no trouble. It was a good thing she did because when Gilbert and I crossed the street from the dorm, we were greeted by construction trucks and jackhammers. No one told us they planned to start major construction the first day of school on a significant portion of the sidewalk Gilbert and I depended on, and we were both frightened by the noise of the jackhammers. My textbooks weren’t ready until several weeks into the semester either, so my parents had to come to campus every morning to help Gilbert and me navigate the construction, and then meet us after class to read textbook chapters to me so I wouldn’t fall behind. I lived exactly one week in the dorm before my parents and I decided the routine was exhausting and it would be much easier to live at home and commute to college. I kept the dorm room that first year as I think it was nonrefundable, and once the textbooks were ready, it was a nice place to rest and study between classes, and I would spend the occasional Saturday there if there was a weekend event I wanted to participate in. But for the most part, I lived at home, and sophomore year, we decided not to renew the dorm.

Neither Gilbert nor I actually liked dorm life all that much. Gilbert seemed depressed by the lack of space to run around. Since I had to share the bathroom with other girls, I had to carry all of my toiletries to the bathroom and back each morning, and while I might have gotten used to this routine if I had held on a little longer, I found it made me so inefficient and slow in the morning I barely made it to class on time. I also found the furniture at home to be way more comfortable, Mom’s home cooked food so much more delicious. My struggles were unique to my disability, but I remember my siblings sharing struggles of their own when they first lived on their own. But they stuck it out. With each passing year, I kick myself harder and harder for not sticking it out. I could have waved down someone to help Gilbert and me get around the construction that first day, and then called the trainer and ask him to come back as soon as possible to train us to navigate the construction site. (I also should have figured out the proper channels to write someone an angry letter for not bothering to tell us that the sidewalk we trained on almost every day for three weeks was going to be ripped up.) I could have marched my textbooks down to Disability Services and demanded they pay someone to read them to me until they got their act together. Instead I just gave up, despite having a motivating aid from fifth grade through high school who always encouraged me to “never, never, never give up!” And now I am paying the price with this dormant virus of depression and anger.

I recognize that I am blessed to have the parents I do, and to be able to live with my parents, a blessing brought into sharper focus by the pandemic. As I have mentioned before, during the pandemic, I witnessed so many friends and relatives who lived alone spiral into depression and anxiety. Right from Genesis when God looks upon Adam and said “it is not good for man to be alone,” the Bible is clear that humans need community, and I really do enjoy living in community with my parents. When we have lively dinner discussions about politics, or Mom and Dad tell me nostalgically about old TV shows, or when we hear a song from their youth on the radio and they laugh when the song makes me laugh (“Everybody loves a clown so why can’t you? Clowns have feelings too”) I feel warm inside, as I am well aware that if I lived on my own I would likely be eating and completing household chores in lonely silence much of the time. I also don’t take for granted that my parents cook delicious food that is beyond my cooking comfort zone. I make a really delicious batch of bean soup in the crock-pot each week that is my lunch, and I would like to expand my crock-pot repertoire to cook things like chicken stew or turkey breast in a healthy gravy for dinner. But I don’t feel comfortable cooking meat or vegetables over the open flame of a grill, and food prepared on the grill is so delicious! I don’t take for granted all of the tedious but essential chores my parents handle that would fall entirely to me if I lived on my own, such as sorting and washing my laundry so that all I have to do is put it away, filling up my pill box each week with the medications my medical conditions require, shoveling snow in the winter, cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floors. I don’t take for granted the fact that my parents paid our undergraduate college tuition when many parents who are financially able to do this require their children to work and pay their own way. Thus, unlike so many of our peers, we won’t have to make student loan payments until we are practically senior citizens, thus setting my siblings and me up for a much less stressful life. There is no access to public transportation where I live, but my parents were happy to drive me to college and to work every day, as well as any social events I wanted to attend. Today, they drive me to choir, about a half hour drive, every Tuesday during the school year, without complaint, even in cold, nasty winter weather. My dad started getting massages at the gym and he thought they might help my headaches. I loved the idea, but didn’t want to pay for them out of my own money because it seemed too frivolous for me, but my parents are willing to pay for them, in addition to the monthly gym membership to go swimming. Given Celiac Disease, I have to avoid gluten, but I also choose to avoid dairy, red meat, and starchy complements (at dinner) for health reasons. But my parents patiently adapt meals for me, helping me find the riced cauliflower to substitute for mashed potatoes, or making a portion of a casserole without cheese. My parents model Christ in their unconditional love, and in showering me with blessings I do not deserve, exacerbating my flare-ups of depression and anger with a sickening layer of guilt. I know these feelings are irrational, not only because of how much my parents bless me, but also compared to the 99 percent of the world’s population who have real hardships to be depressed and angry about. But I don’t know how to “snap out of it.” Donald Trump’s spectacular display of narcissism which has played out on TV the past six years is painful to watch, but what is even more painful is the fear that I might be just like him at times.

My blindness was caused by a brain tumor that damaged my optic nerve when I was about seven months old. Because the brain tumor also caused paralysis and a loss of muscle tone on my right side, and because I had to be taught how to crawl and walk, skills that most children learn by watching others, I attended a special preschool program for blind children where I received intensive physical therapy. Mom told me that physical therapy was the only time I cried a little in preschool, and I especially hated crawling. But the physical therapist said that crawling is an essential developmental milestone that cannot be skipped. Perhaps the same could be said of the Rumspringa. I remember my siblings behaving much the same way I do today their final years of high school, begging my parents to trust them to stay home, fighting over the pettiest things. But the Rumspringa matured them, and now when they come to visit, it is an idyllic time to laugh, play games and catch up. Things they used to fight about are now a distant memory, or are in proper perspective, a source of light-hearted teasing instead. But because I skipped my Rumspringa, or more accurately, did not persevere through my Rumspringa long enough to allow it to refine me, I feel as though time froze at sixteen or seventeen years old even though I am now 32, and I all-too-often behave accordingly.

From what I have written so far, you might understandably think that my longing for my Rumspringa is based entirely on superficial and petty motives, just to get away from the family, to be unsupervised, out of reach, never pressured to take a trip ever again, but it’s really not that simple. It’s not about the trips. Sure, I can see myself opting out of a trip or two, especially if they are ten days long and I have just started a new internship or job. I could also see myself, for a trip or two at least, taking full advantage of being a separate entity from my parents and coming along on the trip, but on my own terms, booking my flight home from New York City Saturday afternoon rather than Sunday evening so that I have a day to rest, and allow my blood pressure to recover, before going back to work. The dread of prolonged time on-leash causes the most intense flare-ups, but other things cause twinges of depression or anxiety too. Every time I find out that one of my peers got married or is expecting their first child. Every time I go visit one of my siblings and they take the lead, showing us around their community. I am happy for them, but deep down, I long to know what it would be like to be the leader, to show my family around a community I just moved to instead of always being the handicapped, tag-along kid. Every time my parents discuss the reality that they are aging.

My parents said I always have a home with them (as do my siblings if they ever fell on hard times). But given the reality of the natural order, there will most likely come a day when my parents will no longer be with us, and a day could come years before that when they are alive but in a condition where they are no longer able to assist me. If I have never had to manage completely on my own, will I know how to manage when this day comes? My dad has alluded to my siblings looking after me, and if this means them calling every day to check in, I’m all for that. And these calls would be mutual, as we are all human and will need comfort and support from one another. But I don’t want to be the handicapped little sister who moves in with a sibling, especially if by that time, I am established in a community and a career. I feel like I ought to experience living on my own while my parents are still healthy and can guide me through the learning curves, just as they guided my older siblings.

When I expressed some of this anxiety as part of a discussion thread for the spiritual formation class last year, a wise student with more experience in ministry responded that God puts us exactly where we are for a purpose. God often brings this comment back to mind when I am feeling depressed or anxious, and it does make me feel a little better. When I was 18 years old, I didn’t fully understand my medical situation, especially the tendency for my electrolytes to get off-balance when I am sick. Nowadays, I am aware of the symptoms when my sodium is low or I am dehydrated, but I did not know this could happen to me the first time I passed out the day after my 20th birthday, or when I had a seizure due to low sodium in 2017. If I had been living on my own, I would not have known that I was in trouble, and might not have been found until it was too late. I don’t take for granted that perhaps God kept me at home with my parents to protect and preserve me. By keeping me at home, God also ensured that I would be able to perform to my fullest academic potential, graduating magna cum laude, an achievement that would not have been possible if I had to manage on my own at such a young age. Most importantly, while this purpose isn’t entirely pleasant, God’s work does involve pruning to ensure that the lives of his followers produce good fruit, and by keeping me with my parents, God forces me to confront my hypocrisy, teaching me that the character of a chaplain is first cultivated in the family.

It just so happens that my church is doing a series on the fruit of the spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22. And in God’s perfect timing, the focus of last Sunday’s sermon was on peace. It was almost scary the degree to which God spoke to me through this sermon. The pastor even shared a story about something his own father said that caused him anxiety, a father whom he has a wonderful, loving relationship with, just as I have with my father. This sermon was convicting in a loving, compassionate way. The pastor explained that the definition of true peace is “confidence in God’s goodness and wise control over your life.” The opposite of peace, anxiety, occurs when we want to be in control of our lives, even though we often don’t know what we are doing, or what is best for us. We might attain a superficial definition of peace by trying to control our own lives, but this behavior will never lead to authentic, lasting peace, and will ultimately strain our relationships and rob us of the abundant life God intended for us. We can invite God, through prayer, to transform our anxiety into peace by helping us confront the brokenness of this world (which includes hurtful things said to us by people we love), confronting our own selfish desires, which the apostle Paul refers to as the desires of the flesh, which are completely contrary to, and incompatible with the desires of the spirit, and the devil’s schemes. Therefore, I am in a calmer frame of mind with this post than I was in writing Part 1. I definitely need to spend more time in prayer, when the virus flares up, but even when it is dormant because prayer is a discipline that does not come naturally in this fallen world, and because prayer isn’t second-nature for me, I don’t have the wherewithall to start praying when the virus flares up.

I know that in the past, I have committed to prayer and fasting on this blog, and then did not end up following through. In the case of fasting, my failure to follow through has been mostly the result of anxiety about feeling hungry, possibly not feeling well, and being cranky as a result, especially since I am prone to migraines, and on Fridays, the day I planned to start fasting, I often accompany my parents to the gym to swim laps while they attend a water exercise class. But another contributing factor is occasional comments like the one from my sister mentioned in Part 1. After such comments, in my flare-up of anger, I find myself thinking, “I ought to start fasting to prove to my family that food does not motivate me anymore,” clearly an impure motive. First of all, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6, we are not to be like the Pharisees when it comes to disciplines like prayer and fasting, broadcasting our piety for all to see. We are to practice these disciplines secretly, only for an audience of one, God. I am not an expert theologian, and Scripture does not address my specific situation, but I think it is reasonable to assume from this teaching that I will have “received my reward in full” in this life by bragging to my family that I was capable of fasting (Matthew 6:17). (I am just realizing as I write this that writing a reflection on my first experience fasting, something I planned to do if I managed to follow through, might also deem me a modern-day pharisee. As such, if I ever do actually get my life together and let God transform me, I will definitely write about this, but not the specifics of my spiritual disciplines.) We also discussed in my Spiritual Formation class how the purpose of fasting is not to engage in asceticism for its own sake, as this can lead to self-righteousness and pride. The purpose of fasting is to draw closer to God. But now that I am realizing that anxiety is at the root of both my fear of fasting, and my depression and anger toward family, I am hoping that if I can let God transform my anxiety to peace, fasting may be a natural outgrowth of this in the near future.

Last week’s sermon has been an incredible source of peace for me this week. I did not have a single flare-up, and yesterday I even read about the house where we will be staying in Hilton Head, progress since even casual mention of things we should pack for the trip when my brother came to visit a few weeks ago filled me with dread.

Incidentally, the next fruit of the spirit in Paul’s list, and thus the sermon for tomorrow, will be on patience, and I have no doubt this sermon will also be convicting, as I think impatience undergirds my anxiety. Even though I have seen God at work when I was patient, I still have difficulty trusting God to unfold my life one day at a time and not worry about the future, not give into fear that I will never feel like a full-fledged adult, that I skipped a critical rite of passage, and that this will thwart my ability to fully thrive in life.

I have made progress in that as I finished Part 1 last week, I had angry/desperate visions of returning from Hilton Head and proceeding full-speed ahead in arranging for my Rumspringa by Summer 2023, neither soliciting nor accepting input from anyone. Without doing any research or visiting campus housing to assess the vibes, I planned to live on-campus at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois to complete the courses for the Chaplaincy degree which are not offered online. (In June, I applied for a remote call center position with a company whose mission is employing blind people, so accessibility would be built in. This job is authorized for residents of Wisconsin, Illinois or Minnesota, so the job could move to Trinity with me and allow me to finance my Rumspringa. But I have yet to hear back from them.) Now, while I cannot say I have ruled out Trinity, I am willing to listen to God’s whisper. The spector of a looming recession is dominating the news cycle now, so it is possible the remote job may not work out after all, perhaps a whisper from God. I am open to the idea of chaplaincy programs available online, or at a university closer to home. I might even enlist the help of a pastor to pray with me, make sure I am making decisions with a clear head, not based solely on my selfish desire for independence, and related to that, perhaps offer objective agenda-free advice on where God may be calling me, and what kind of education would be best suited for this calling.

But it is too soon to know if I am truly at peace, ready to surrender to God’s will, or if the virus is just dormant this week, no comments or situations that caused my anxiety to flare up. Today, I wouldn’t say my desire for a sort of Rumspringa is quelled, but it has cooled from a volcano of anger and desperation to a mellow curiosity over what it would be like to experience, in the words of one of my favorite songs from the Dixie Chicks, “wide open spaces, room to make a big mistake, new faces.” But as thrilling as this concept seems, I also “know the high stakes” especially given my medical situation. So while I cannot quite say I have totally surrendered to God’s will, I may be making progress toward trusting that God knows what he is doing, knows what is best for me, even if it is completely at odds with the “desires of my flesh.” Please pray that I can continue to make progress in this area, and that I might have the wherewithall to pray for God’s peace when the nasty virus of depression and anxiety flares up again.

I Need my Rumspringa (Part 1)

Hello readers. I hope you are all enjoying summer. For the most part, I am, but I have to confess I have been a little irritable lately. Part of this I think is due to the heat and humidity. Perhaps because of climate change, it seems like heat and humidity gets to me, even in the house with the air conditioner on. But two other factors have made me irritable the past several summers. Actually, these factors aren’t exclusively limited to summer. Like a dormant virus, I can be fine for months, and then something will happen that triggers this irritability. It can be triggered in the winter, but it really seems to flare up in the summer, perhaps because my patience is lower due to the heat and humidity, but I think another factor is that in the winter, it is more socially acceptable to be the introverted homebody that I am, and also because winter cultural activities that do require leaving the house (choral concerts, symphony orchestra performances, musicals) appeal more to my interests than the summer culture. I have wanted to write about this for years but struggled to find the words. I wanted to be completely honest, but in a way that was mature, thoughtful, respectful, as I do live a blessed life and I don’t want to hurt the feelings of my family whom I love dearly. The situations that can trigger me are on the surface so petty and selfish that even I am embarrassed by them, and this makes me feel even worse. But I think simmering beneath the surface of all these triggers is anxiety about how it seems like I am not where I should be in life, that I am not where my older siblings were when they were my age, that my siblings and peers are growing up and changing without me and I will always be the unemployed or underemployed handicapped child living at home.

On Saturday June 18, the day before Father’s Day, I accompanied my parents on a day trip to visit my brother and his wife who live in a friendly small town about an hour and a half away. Other than going to church and the gym to swim a few times, I had hardly left the house in recent weeks. Choir was over for the summer, and it had been unpleasantly hot and humid, not to mention that I am an introvert who feels most contented off-leash at home. Sure, I spend a lot of time “hulled up in my room” but when I am in my room, I am not playing mindless video games, or immersing myself in online communities that promote hate or q’annon conspiracy theories. I rarely even engage with my social media accounts anymore, especially since I became more aware during the pandemic of the degree to which news feeds are manipulated by algorithms to keep users addicted and angry. When I am “hulled up in my room” I am reading a thoughtful book or article from respected magazines like The Atlantic or The New York Times, listening to thoughtful podcasts like Throughline and Shake the Dust,taking online seminary courses, or writing. I also enjoy coming out of my room to sit around the table with my parents at mealtimes, and I look forward to interacting with friends in choir, at church and at the gym. In other words, while I do enjoy being at home, I AM NOT A HERMIT! Anyway, that Saturday, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to be on-leash for a day. My brother and his wife enjoy coming to visit us, but it had been almost a year since I had visited them, and that day we were given a respite from the heat and humidity, the perfect day to stroll through their local farmers market enjoying wonderful aromas from food vendors and listening to local musicians. My brother’s wife also mentioned taking a local riverboat tour, and I enjoy boat tours. The sighted people enjoy the scenery while I enjoy an informative, and sometimes entertaining narration of the sights, and not through an annoying headset. Sometimes, I don’t even give my full attention to the narration but just enjoy the feel of the breeze on my face and the sound of the lapping water. But as we were heading out of town, Dad called Grandma on the car bluetooth to check in with her as he does every morning. When he told her where we were going, she asked, “is Allison with you?” When Dad replied that I was, she said, “Good, I’m glad to hear she’s getting out.” I love my grandma, but I couldn’t suppress a sigh of annoyance/exasperation. Fortunately I was in the middle bucket seat of our minivan, behind Mom who was sitting up front, and the bluetooth really only picks up sound from the driver and the passenger in the front seat, so hopefully she didn’t hear it. A month earlier, Grandma generously bought me a pair of New Balance shoes for my birthday, but when I insisted on efficiency in the shoe store–I have a “get ‘er done” attitude toward shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, whereas Grandma loves to shop and could have made a whole day of it–she expressed concern that I was going down the path of another mentally ill acquaintance who hardly ever leaves the house. It is true that I was among the introvert who embraced and enjoyed the pandemic restrictions that encouraged staying home, and there are a lot of activities I am invited to but take a pass on: going out to eat (except for a few trusted restaurants), museums, shopping, sporting events, outdoor music festivals where the music is amplified unnecessarily loud in the tents and where outside the tent, people are blowing second-hand cigarette smoke in my face. I have always declined these activities, but I suppose since I am no longer employed outside the house and choir is over for the summer, the amount of time I stay home is more pronounced. But even pre-pandemic when I worked outside the house three days a week at the Social Security disability lawfirm, spent three hours at church most Sunday mornings to attend an apologetics discussion group before the worship service, attended a women’s Bible study with Mom and a neighbor/longtime family friend on Tuesday mornings, went to choir rehearsal Tuesday evenings, went swimming at the gym most Thursdays, attended several excellent plays at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater with my parents, and occasionally participated in social events with a group of young adults from church on Saturdays, Dad still had the nerve to call me a hermit on a couple occasions. I distinctly remember one of those occasions being when we were watching a news story about someone who really was a hermit in the unhealthy sense of the word. I know I should give Grandma and Dad the benefit of the doubt. When I was in elementary school, I used to ride along with my dad to Indiana to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Sometimes my teenage siblings came along, but oftentimes, they stayed home. During these years, Grandpa’s health was failing, so he slept most of the day. After making him lunch and giving him his medication, he would go back to bed, and Grandma would take me shopping at the mall, where she introduced me to all the salespeople whom she knew well. Even then, I found trying on clothes to be a little tedious, but I was more compliant because I loved being the center of attention, and Grandma enjoyed lavishing me with this attention because she loved shopping, but had only sons, and I was one of only two granddaughters (the other being my sister). Perhaps she just misses the little girl I used to be. Perhaps since I am the baby of the family, Dad also misses the little girl I used to be. In addition to the aforementioned trips to Indiana, just the two of us, I often accompanied him to the bakery to get donuts on Saturdays, or to the carwash. I enjoyed this one-on-one time with Dad, and before acquiring adult interests, being at home was actually boring, especially since my teenage siblings hated my favorite kid shows. He has also told me that all his life, he felt tied down, first by the family hotel business, and then by an office job for 40 years. For him, true freedom and relaxation is getting in the car and going somewhere, anywhere, and he just wants me to be “holy, healthy and happy.” He cannot imagine that I am happy spending as much time as I do at home. When the virus is dormant, I can give family this benefit of the doubt, but when the virus flares up, all Christian clarity seems to go out the window.

My sister took the initiative to plan a family vacation in the near future. We have not managed to get the entire family together since Thanksgiving of 2019. Since then, both of my brothers have gotten married, and my sister and I have yet to meet the wife of my brother who lives out in Oregon. Their jobs have kept them too busy to make it to Wisconsin. While I am not a fan of traveling, I will concede my sister is right that our house isn’t big enough to comfortably host our growing family. My sister was worried about having only two bathrooms for nine people. (It was hard enough sharing two bathrooms with six people growing up). I would have to share my bedroom. My sister, to her credit, took my feelings into account, and instead of planning a vacation that would require sharing a tiny hotel room with snoring family members, navigating subway trains, and having to find gluten free restaurants, my sister realized that the perfect vacation for our adult family, and one that would meet all of my needs too, is a beach house vacation in Hilton Head, South Carolina. She was familiar with the beach house concept from her husband’s side of the family, and said that these houses have big fancy kitchens, so we would not have to seek out gluten free restaurants, and in fact, cooking and eating dinner together is part of the beach house experience. Furthermore, we could all choose our own leisure activities during the day, or find plenty of privacy to work from home, which she and her husband would most likely be doing, so there would be nothing wrong with me staying in my room and doing school work. My sister and her husband actually lived in Hilton Head for a few months in 2020 to escape the pandemic which was ravaging New York City, and while she has found it difficult to work remotely from other destinations due to crappy hotel Wifi, she said she had no trouble with the Wifi in Hilton Head. Each couple would have their own bedroom and bathroom, and since I do not have a partner yet, I would get a bedroom and bathroom all to myself! “I don’t rough it,” she told me. She has had some really bad hotel experiences too. On the surface, there is no rational explanation for not entirely looking forward to this vacation. I should not only be looking forward to it, but recognize what a privilege it is that my family is fortunate enough to take such a vacation that 99 percent of the world’s population can only dream of. But this was the summer I was toying with applying for a residency program at a local church to supplement my seminary studies with real-world church ministry experience, and if accepted for the program, I planned to contact Occupaws about being matched with my second guide dog. But the beach house rental contracts are for a full week, and since my sister convinced my parents to drive so that they could bring beach toys and board games that would be too difficult to fly with, we would really be away from home more like a week and a half, and the dates that worked out best for the rest of the family would be basically close to the beginning of the school year which corresponds with the beginning of many church ministry programs. When I asked hypothetically if I could stay home, or stay for a shorter duration should I be accepted into the residency program, my parents basically said no, but assured me that there is nothing wrong with informing an employer of pre-planned vacations upon hire, and that people do this all the time. Maybe so, but given that I would be missing the first or second week of ministry programs, the fear that I would be at an awkward disadvantage when I returned consumed me, and I decided not to apply. I also feel like the family doesn’t fully appreciate that given the 70 percent unemployment rate for blind people, I need to begin a new job with an even more pristine work reputation than would be required for a typical candidate. And I wasn’t sure that introducing a guide dog I had barely begun to bond with to the entire noisy family in an unfamiliar setting would be wise either. I hate that I think this way. I am aware of the irony of wanting to work in a church setting when my thoughts in my personal life are so far from the Christian walk of self-sacrificial love. I am aware, from many sermons and from my Spiritual Formation class that when pastors make their career an idol and neglect family relationships, their career, and their mental health ultimately suffers. I hate that “what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19, TNIV). I have to say this is one of my favorite Bible verses. Knowing that even the apostle Paul struggled with this is the only reason I haven’t given into despair and hopelessness about my hypocrisy.

One career path I have been considering is chaplaincy because when I worked at the Social Security disability firm, I really enjoyed talking to people battling serious conditions like cancer, and while I wasn’t allowed to explicitly share my faith, I remember thinking that if given a little formal training and a context where I could share the Gospel, I would love to make a career of ministering to these people. But just after Christmas, the dormant irritability virus flared up again when my parents wanted to go to Indiana to visit Granny who now lives in a nursing home. None of my other siblings, or any of the cousins for that matter, would be there, and I really wanted to enjoy some peace and quiet at home to just write or maybe read a good book after what had been a busy semester. But my parents took it as a given that I would be going to Indiana, and got really upset when I tried to tell them I wanted to stay home. To be fair, when Mom saw how glum I was, we had a constructive discussion in which she confessed that she was worried about leaving me home alone overnight given my seizure in 2017. She would have let me stay home on that trip, and I was allowed to stay home without an ounce of pressure on a subsequent trip in May, but I ended up going at Christmas after all because I hadn’t visited Granny in-person since the Christmas before the pandemic, and I also heard a facetious voice from God in my mind drawing attention to my hypocrisy, “so you want to be a chaplain and sit at the bedsides of sick people, but you cannot be bothered to visit your own grandma in the same situation? Excellent career choice! And is compassion really genuine when you are being paid for the time spent at a patient’s bedside?” True compassion is cultivated when it is self-sacrificial and unpaid, which is perhaps one of the many reasons God put us in families. The greek word that translates to compassion literally means “to suffer with” and by sitting at Granny’s bedside talking to her while Mom helped her cut up some chicken they brought her for dinner, I hated feeling powerless to do anything to make her situation more enjoyable, but was moved when just being there and talking to her seemed to lift her spirits.

By the time my sister came to visit at the beginning of June, I wasn’t entirely thrilled about being away from home for a week and a half, and postponing the start of life with a new guide dog and the launch of a new career by a year, but once again, through reflection on my own hypocrisy, I was slowly coming to terms with it. In fact, I should know well from past experiencethat as cliche as the saying is, everything really does happen for a reason. Maybe I would be better prepared for the residency if I took one more year to complete a couple additional courses. Maybe God has an opportunity in store for me that is a much more appropriate fit than the residency would have been, and he orchestrated this trip, and my corresponding hesitancy to apply for the residency to slow me down so I wouldn’t miss his better plan. And then we were sitting down to dinner and while I don’t remember the exact larger context of the conversation, it had nothing to do with the Hilton Head vacation. As part of the conversation I casually mentioned that I might have to splurge and treat myself to some Brad’s crunchy kale. This snack is one of the few crunchy processed snacks I still allow myself to eat because all of the ingredients are healthy, but they are so ridiculously expensive I only order them once or twice a year. But when I said this, my sister said she could get me some in Hilton Head and that would be something to look forward to on the trip. And with that, I had a flare-up. I couldn’t shake a grumpy, glum mood the rest of her visit. First of all, it’s not as though this snack is a special treat only available in Hilton Head, in the same way that alligator stew is unique to New Orleans, or at least I have never seen it on a Midwestern restaurant menu. The crunchy kale is manufactured in Pipersville, Pennsylvania, and Mom or Dad could drive five minutes down the road and buy a bag from Pick ‘n Save. (I only order them because I feel less guilty eating them when I have bought them with my own money, and because I can get a case of 12 bags.) But more importantly, I love my sister, but with this comment, I sensed she still thinks of me as the little sister she used to babysit who could be bribed with candy.

After the farmers market that Saturday with my brother and his wife, Dad found a lunch place where I had a wonderful gluten-free salad garnished with sunflower seeds and topped with chicken, and then we came back to their house where I enjoyed a fresh peach while they sliced up some pies they bought from an amish vendor at the farmers market. As they raved about how delicious the pies were, the perfect analogy came to me, the perfect words to express what I think I need, the thing that might finally slay the dormant virus. I need my Rumspringa.

The amish community has strict rules regarding dress, simple living, moral conduct. But around age 16, amish youth go through a rite of passage called Rumspringa, a german word that translates “running around.” During this period, they are permitted to leave the community, see what it is like to live in the outside world (“dress english” drive cars, use technology, even experiment with alcohol and drugs.) After this period, which generally lasts around two years, youth must decide whether they want to be officially baptized into the amish community and live by its strict rules for life, or whether they want to live in the outside world. If they choose to live in the outside world, they are shunned, which is viewed by the community as an act of tough love.

Of course, this is far from a perfect analogy to my situation, but when youth in Western societies go off to college, strike out on their own as my older siblings did, I think you could call this a sort of Rumspringa. All of my siblings have expressed interest in spending more time with family recently, humbled by the pandemic no doubt and also because they are all married now and have reached a point in life where they are ready to settle down. But there was a period of a few years where they fell off the family map. They would generally call every couple weeks, or if we hadn’t heard from them in a couple weeks, my parents would call them for a welfare check, but they did not go to Indiana to visit extended family for holidays or summer reunions, which didn’t seem to concern my parents, and there were periods when my parents and I didn’t see them in-person for months at a time. When they did come home, they were changed people, especially my oldest brother and sister who moved further away, as they were exposed to new people, cultures and ideas. The summer after fourth grade, my parents took most of the family to Washington D.C., and over Spring break in fifth grade, most of us went on a Caribbean cruise. I say most of us because for both of these big family vacations, my oldest brother was in college, living in an apartment downtown doing his own thing, and did not come with us. I don’t remember my parents being upset by this at all. The cruise was a lot of fun, especially the day I got to kiss a dolphin in Nassau Island. The week of museums in Washington D.C., not so much. (I would not have wanted to be left home alone for a week from D.C., even if it would have been legal. I would have just liked even one day in a swimming pool instead of a museum). But on these first couple trips without my oldest brother, I remember being struck with the realization that, “wow, we will all grow up and be off doing our own thing like him someday.”

Reflecting on the Gun Violence Epidemic (Part 2)

Even if sensible gun regulations are implemented, I have heard multiple experts say it will be awhile before we notice a reduction in violent crime because there are so many guns in circulation, but even if we could hypothetically pull all guns out of circulation today, someone intent on killing people could find another way. The thousands of years of human history before the invention of modern guns was plagued by violence committed using bows and arrows, swords, wild animals, stones, and of course, the cross. In my community just before Thanksgiving, a disturbed individual killed six people at a Christmas parade by intentionally plowing through the parade with his car. Early Christians permanently transformed Western society, ending the practice of gladiator rings, starting the first orphanages for unwanted children, and the first hospitals, and caring for the poor and the widowed, and in so doing, opening the eyes of many metaphorically blind people to the value of all human life. But until Christ returns and transforms hearts, there will always be people who reject him, a rejection that is externally reflected by conduct that does not value every human life, and thus, there will always be violence. But just because we mortal humans have no hope of completely eradicating violence by our own power does not give us permission to just throw in the towel, let the world crumble around us and just hunker down and endure life until God takes us to heaven. Scripture is clear that we should do what we can to seek the “peace and prosperity of the city to which I (God) have carried you into exile” because when it prospers, we also prosper (Jeremiah 29:7). For context, this verse is part of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah addressed to Israelites exiled to Babylon. False prophets had told them that this exile would be very brief and they would be able to return to their homeland quickly, an assurance which encouraged the Israelites not to get comfortable, or settle into the new land. Jeremiah’s purpose is to correct this disinformation, as God told him the exile would last seventy years, so the people should settle down, plant crops, marry, have children, and seek the peace and prosperity of their new land. But the concept of exile is a recurring theme in the Bible, and the New Testament teaches that all who wish to follow him should think of themselves as exiles. This world which has for the most part rejected Him, is not our true home. Yet it is his will that we live here awhile for the purpose of shining light into the darkness, drawing people to us by the way we live our lives and thus ultimately drawing lost people to Him.

 

For my American church history course this past semester, I had to read a monograph and write a critical book review. The book I chose to read was “The Color of Compromise” written by Jemar Tisby. In the opening chapter, Jemar Tisby recounts the horrific bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham September 15, 1963 which killed four young black girls. The following day, a local white lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr. gave a speech at a luncheon at the all-white Young Men’s Business Club where he stated that it really doesn’t matter who planted the bomb because i a sense, “we all did it.” This speech resulted in death threats to him and his family, to the point that he ended up closing his practice, moving away and starting a new career in civil rights law. But Jemar Tisby praised this lawyer’s bravery and willingness to speak the truth which would become the overarching theme of Jemar Tisby’s book, which is that “the most egregious acts of racism, like a church bombing, occur within a context of compromise” (Page 18). Every crude racist joke, every use of the n-word, “provided fertile soil for the seeds of hatred to grow” (Page 18). I agree with Jemar Tisby’s argument, and I believe this idea of complicity could be applied to gun violence as well. I believe Christians today have the capability, the privilege, and duty to continue reforming society just as the early Christians did. I don’t have all the answers as to how we could do this, but I think an excellent place to start would be for professed Christians to recognize and work toward ending our complicity with the violent culture. First and foremost, I think this means studying Scripture to make sure we aren’t practicing Christian nationalism, which isn’t really Christian at all, as a key feature of Christian nationalism is the conception of Jesus as a white American image of rugged masculinity. The modern conception of masculinity shames boys for crying when Scripture states that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died (even though he knew that God would resurrect Lazarus on his behalf) and Peter wept bitterly when the rooster crowed and he had denied Jesus three times, just as Jesus foretold he would. I am sure there are even more instances of men crying in Scripture that just aren’t coming to my mind right now. Christian nationalism hijacks the God of the Bible by reshaping and reducing him to an idol of our own imagination. One of the books I want to read this summer is “Jesus and John Wayne” which my church history professor briefly mentioned, and after reading this book, I am sure I will be inspired to write another blog with new insights on this subject. But I think I understand the issue enough to say with confidence that although there was a great deal of warfare in the Old Testament, Jesus is supposed to have transformed our hearts to seek peace, and to recognize that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). To that end, I believe all Christians should follow the example of Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses who are pacifists. Even if our country is directly attacked, Christians should bow out and leave even defensive warfare to the secular world, recognizing that this country, determined by man-made borders is not our true home, and it is more important to pledge our allegiance to God by valuing all human life and leaving justice to Him.

 

Scripture permits the killing and eating of animals, and thus I think hunting is permissible. No one in our family carried on the hunting tradition after Papaw passed away. We are people who prefer the modern sanitized convenience of buying our meat from the grocery store and not having to think too much about where it came from, but I had a friend in college whose father killed a deer every year during hunting season and stored the meat in the freezer, which fed her family for months. There is nothing wrong with this. (As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning that respect for all of God’s creation mandates we only take what we need, which precludes hunting animals for the sole purpose of displaying their heads as trophies.) In any case, you do not need an assault weapon to kill a deer, and in fact when describing the power of an assault weapon to me, Mom once said if you shot a deer with such a gun, you wouldn’t have any meat left to eat! Christians should only own guns for hunting purposes, or for people living in rural areas to kill aggressive wildlife (as a last resort if more humane measures have proven ineffective, or the animal displays clear signs of having rabies). In my personal opinion, there are countless recreational activities that are more constructive than going to a shooting range, but I don’t think there is anything unbiblical about this activity done in moderation, and gun ranges could be useful for people to practice shooting if they haven’t been hunting or needed to kill an aggressive animal for awhile. But if recreation is your only reason for wanting a gun, why not just rent a gun when you get to the range, and return it when you leave? That way you can enjoy an afternoon of shooting for pleasure, and then go home and sleep easy with no worry that your gun could be stolen and used in a crime, found by a child or accessed by yourself or a family member someday in an impulsive act of desperation during a difficult season.

 

Christians should be the most passionate proponents of gun safety to ensure that their guns do not take human life. All Christians should follow Papaw’s lead and hide their guns so thoroughly that your children grow up not knowing where they were kept, and keep the bullets completely separate from the gun. Of course, this would make it difficult to use the gun for defense against an intruder, but if Christians are truly fearful of harm coming to them or their families at the hands of another human, they should carry something like mace to temporarily hinder the perpetrator until law enforcement can arrive and arrest them, which both respects the value of all human life, and avoids the irreversible mistake of being startled and accidentally killing a family member you thought was an intruder, a heartbreaking tragedy which occasionally makes the news.

 

Although I believe this is a fringe view, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t address the rationale of some that ownership of powerful guns is necessary because they may potentially need them in the future to resist a tyrannical government. It is tempting to mock such views, but I am trying to empathize by considering that at some point, we all have wild ideas, idealistic visions, especially in youth. I liken this view to when I was a teenager whose interest in journalism was sparked by Buck Williams, the brave journalist in the Left Behind Series who left his secure life at a secular newspaper to accept Christ and expose the truth about the anti-Christ even in the face of persecution. I glowed with pride my junior year of high school when I got an internship at a local newspaper where I was treated like an adult, given my own byline for a couple of real news articles and even assigned to report election results back to the editors in a 2007 local election. I couldn’t wait to graduate college and then save the world, expose lies, hold corrupt politicians accountable. But when I graduated college, the journalism landscape and the economy had changed, and I could not find a job in this field. This is not intended to be a pity party though because I realize now that even if I had landed a dream job in a news room, I really wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the world. I mean, look at how much ink was spent, how many television documentaries were made in 2015 and 2016 on Donald Trump’s complete lack of integrity and yet other forces prevailed and he was elected as our 45th president. Look at how many heartbreaking interviews journalists have conducted with grieving parents after a mass shooting, and yet many politicians are still steadfast in their unwillingness to pass sensible gun legislation. I am not saying that journalism has no value. If we didn’t have dedicated journalists to expose Donald Trump for who he is, more people might have been charmed into voting for him due to simple ignorance. If journalists didn’t interview grieving parents or survivors of gun violence, the public would have been largely ignorant about these tragedies too and therefore would not have mobilized to organize marches to demand action from legislators. But journalism must be kept in proper perspective. I had to accept that even the most brilliant and dedicated journalists are no match for the powerful forces of this fallen world. Similarly I think, a few individuals with assault rifles would in reality be no match for the capabilities a tyrannical government would have: truly rigged elections, if there are elections at all, kangaroo courts, virtually inescapable surveillance, bombs, chemical weapons. We all need to abandon childish fantasies and recognize that we mere mortals really cannot change the world, at least not by conventional methods.

 

Even in Jesus’s day, when people started to recognize that Jesus was the messiah they had long waited for, they had idealistic visions of him riding into Jerusalem, overthrowing the oppressive Roman empire and establishing himself as an earthly king. They had difficulty accepting the far less glamorous reality that Jesus had to be crucified and die to fulfill Scripture. We need to show mercy to Lauren Boebert instead of laughing at her (as difficult as that is) who joked at a recent Christian conference where she was invited to speak that if Jesus would have had multiple AR-15s, he could have stopped his government from killing him. From her tone it is obvious she is joking, but given the extent to which nationalism has hijacked Christianity and caused people to idolize guns, I personally think she is only half joking. But we should think of her as one of many lost sheep whom nationalism and the gun lobby have led astray. The truth of course is that Jesus actually did have a comparable (superior really) celestial equivalent to the AR-15: as the son of God, he could have called on his father in heaven who would have sent “more than twelve legions of angels” to slay his persecutors and save him (Matthew 26:53). But Jesus said his crucifixion had to happen so that Scripture could be fulfilled and our sin could be forgiven. In the same way, I think we were meant to imitate Jesus by patiently enduring any persecution that may come from a tyrannical government, and to resist not by drawing guns, but by simply living righteously, drawing people to us, and therefore to Christ by our radical, countercultural lifestyles just as the early Christians did.

 

Speaking of a radical, countercultural lifestyle, this is the perfect segue to my final idea, perhaps the most controversial, but I think the most important means of reforming hearts in our society. I believe violence could be reduced if violence wasn’t so casually interwoven in our culture: our music, movies, toys, video games, even true crime podcasts and television programs like Dateline. The community where my mom was raised was on the right track in strictly prohibiting children from pointing toy guns at one another. But perhaps it is time to go further and stop marketing toy guns to children, encouraging nonviolent “good guy” play instead such as fire trucks to put out pretend fires and rescue innocent people, or encourage children to imagine cops-and-robbers scenarios where they arrest the pretend robber and march him back to a pretend store to return what he stole, instead of just shooting him. I remember my science teacher from sixth grade explaining to us that candy cigarettes were first created by the tobacco companies as a marketing tactic. Smoking real cigarettes does not appeal to very young children, but the companies knew that if children had happy childhood memories of candy cigarettes, some of them would be drawn to real cigarettes when they grew up. I believe the same rationale could be applicable with toy guns. Even though most children who play with toy guns won’t grow up to kill real people, I think our culture could benefit from re-imagining childhood play, especially for boys to make sure that at least for the next generation, children do not even subconsciously associate violence with happy memories and carefree play.     

Even I am complicit in this violent culture. I don’t watch violent movies, but not so much due to moral superiority, but the simple fact that the racket of gunfire on TV almost gives me a headache. (Several war movies are available with audio description, so I could follow these movies if I wanted to). I don’t play video games, but that could merely be because as far as I know, video games are entirely visual. But I love old country songs, especially the gunfighter ballads of artists like Marty Robins. They are beautiful musically, and the stories they tell are fun to listen to, and sing along with. I am not obsessed with true crime as some people are, but I do enjoy watching the occasional Dateline murder mystery. Of course, most adults who watch true crime shows or enjoy singing along to gunfighter ballads would never even think of committing an act of violence in real life. But as far back as August 2019 when I was inspired to reflect on what daily life might look like after the restoration,I started to wonder if we might look back on our former lives and shudder about how much time we spent being entertained by murder mysteries. This thought returned in my reflection on our country’s gun violence epidemic, and I have come to the conviction that our consumption of violence as entertainment devalues human life. I know that if someone in my family was murdered, I would be pretty upset if my family’s tragedy was made into a TV show that millions of people might enjoy cozy on the couch, maybe with a bowl of popcorn on a Friday night, enjoying the suspense as to who might have killed my family member, or whether the jury will find him guilty or not guilty. And when I am walking on the treadmill singing along to Marty Robins about the stranger with the big iron on his hip, it is all too easy to get lost in the music, Marty Robins’s rich voice and a joyful melody that evokes romanticized images of the wild west and forget that the song is about an outlaw coming to take the life of someone’s son, brother or father. Given the alarming increase in violence, and even the increasing global instability, Christians should take the lead in living radically, eschewing media that has a negative influence on the subconsciouses of people of all ages and backgrounds, media that associates violence with suspense, bravery, justice, honor, or anything other than the senseless taking of the life of someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, mother or father.

Be assured readers that I fully intend to practice what I preach. Last night, I deleted two Marty Robins gunfighter ballads that came to mind right away, as well as some modern country songs depicting violence that I have enjoyed. These include “Goodbye Earl from the Dixie Chicks which narrates the story of two friends conspiring to kill an abusive husband and live happily ever after, as well as “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” and “Beer for my Horses” from Toby Keith which both glorify violence and are also glaring examples of white American folk religion. I am already thinking of a few more songs that I will be deleting right away after I publish this. The only ballad I kept is a Johnny Cash song, “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” The song tells the story of Billy Joe, a restless young man who wants to leave the farm, but his mother pleads with him “don’t take your guns to town, son.” This plea is the refrain that haunts the entire song. He assures his mother that he is a man now, and rides into town giddy but also nervous. To calm himself, he enters a bar and orders his first strong liquor, but when another man in the bar laughs at him, he is filled with rage and reaches for one of his guns, but the stranger draws his gun faster and kills Billy Joe. The melody and tone of the song is somber. The instrumentation at the beginning and end of the song sounds like a funeral bell tolling. In short, the song does not glorify guns. It is a heartbreaking, cautionary tale.

Yes, this is radical, and I know some readers might understandably charge that I am going overboard. But the inspiration for this radical idea came from another brilliant quote from Dallas Willard later in his chapter on the power structures of this world. According to Dallas Willard, “The tyrants, satanic forces, and oppressive practices of this world play upon our “merely decent” lives as a master organist dominates his or her instrument but is wholly powerless without it” (Spirit of the Disciplines, Page 234). What I believe Dallas Willard is arguing is that while your average normal, decent person claims to abhor evil acts such as an elementary school shooting, these “mad individuals” are a product of our culture, and while education, or church attendance, or new laws may have a small degree of positive impact, we cannot truly get to the root of the causes of evil with superficial solutions that allow us to go on living our lives as we always have. The only effective treatment for the disease of evil in our world is character transformation. Of course, universal character transformation will not occur in this country because we are not (and never were) an exclusively Christian nation, and we certainly do not want to live in a man-made theocracy of forced conformity as history has proven this system comes with hypocrisy and evil of its own. (I will be elaborating more on this in the near future given current events). But true Christians can no longer afford to go to church one hour a week and give lip-service to our belief in Christ, and then come home and plunge right back into an angry culture of hate and division that glorifies violence, as too many Christians, especially white evangelicals do today. I believe Christians today could take the lead in bringing about significant positive change in our world, just as the first-century Christians did, but this can only happen if we live as Jesus commanded, in this world but not of this world. Dallas Willard is no longer living, but I get the sense that if he were alive to comment on current events, he would call for Christians to make this radical change of lifestyle.

Even if there is a widespread movement of radical character transformation led by Christians, the loss of innocence is likely here to stay. It breaks my heart that active shooter drills are standard practice in elementary school, and I cannot promise future sons, daughters, nieces or nephews that their elementary school is an impenetrable fortress. But it is my hope that I can at least tell them that we have made progress, that violence is not as prevalent as it used to be, that we are working toward a more perfect union, not in the nationalistic sense, but a more perfect union with Christ.

Reflecting on the Gun Violence Epidemic (Part 1)

Hello readers. I am sorry it has been so long since my last post. I really hoped to write something at least once a week now that I am on summer vacation, but somehow–I am still not entirely sure how–I irritated my sciatic nerve, and was in so much pain for a couple weeks, and sleepy due to a muscle relaxer an urgent care doctor prescribed, and the increased use of ibuprofen he recommended, that I didn’t feel like writing. I feel so much better now. I am almost back to my normal activity level although if I bend over too long or trip over something, I can feel the nerve throb a little. Mornings are also still a little humbling to the point that I find myself singing a line from a Garth Brooks song, “I’m much too young to feel this damn old” as the nerve is so stiff from sleeping all night, and possibly being a little dehydrated (which the doctor said causes muscles to contract) that I am limping for the first couple hours until the muscles have absorbed some ibuprofen and had time to wake up. But the doctor said given how large this nerve is, it takes a good month for such an injury to heal, and Thursday will be the one month mark.

 

In other news, I earned an 84% on my human dignity research paper, not the greatest grade, but not the worst either. But as I mentioned, this paper was personal for me, so the score doesn’t really matter to me. I am still waiting on the feedback, and once I receive the feedback, I still plan to share my essay here, but in the meantime, recent events have inspired me to contemplate another issue that I also think is relevant to the topic of human dignity. I wish I could have published this in a more timely fashion, as the Uvalde tragedy has already receded from the news cycle. But as I have discussed before, I like to put a lot of thought into my posts. I like to give my writing my best–as in, not making myself write when I am not feeling great unless I have to meet a school deadline–and especially regarding this subject, I wanted to make sure my post wasn’t a collection of partisan talking points, but a balanced and thoughtful commentary.

 

The personal conviction I defend in my research paper is unashamedly pro-life. But unfortunately, recent events have compelled me to re-iterate a position that I have mentioned frequently in this blog, which is that politics and true Christianity cannot mix. In other words, it has been disheartening to witness the same politicians who pass strict abortion laws to protect unborn children do nothing to protect children from being murdered at school because they are so beholden to the gun lobby. As numerous blog posts on Red Letter Christians have pointed out over the years, an authentic pro-life conviction would oppose not just abortion but unrestricted access to guns, (especially assault rifles which were originally intended only for battlefield settings), racist policies which have subjected many people of color to contaminated air and water, even cuts to medicaid and other social welfare programs that millions of children depend on for food, shelter and healthcare. A few years ago, an adamantly pro-life relative raised the argument that we might get to heaven and lament to God that we never found a cure for cancer, and God might say, “I created the person who would have found the cure, but you aborted them.” As hyperbolic and sensationalized as this argument is, it does have an element of truth. We will never know the potentially wonderful contributions aborted children might have brought to the world. But we will also never know what black children in Flint, Michigan could have achieved if their brains hadn’t been damaged from lead poisoning, or what poor children across all races could have achieved if they had access to proper nutrition, healthcare, housing and quality education. And we will never know what the children of Columbine, Parkland, Sandy Hook (and so many other schools I cannot even remember them all), and now Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, could have achieved if they had not been murdered by disturbed individuals with no business holding guns, but who all purchased their guns legally.

 

As I have mentioned before, my parents did not believe in any kind of censorship. I was allowed to read whatever I wanted–I even read The Da Vinci Code in eighth grade–and I was never sent out of the room when a television show was prefaced with “viewer discretion is advised.” For the most part, I look back on this and recognize it as a beautiful privilege that I still thank my parents for, as I feel this exposure to the real world, and this intellectual freedom has made me more open-minded and prepared for the world than some of my sheltered, Christian peers. But I have light-heartedly told my parents that the one thing I might do differently is not let my children watch shows like America’s Most Wanted. The host of that show John Walsh, made it his life mission to help law enforcement track down dangerous criminals after his six-year-old son was kidnapped and murdered. To that end, the show would recount the crimes of dangerous fugitives, sometimes in graphic detail, even reenactments, give viewers pictures of the suspect and information on where and when he was last seen, and invite them to call an anonymous tip line if they have any information that might help police. The reenactments of crimes, especially when the victims were children were disturbing. Sure, I couldn’t see what was going on, but in college, I had a friend who said she found old-fashioned movies that didn’t depict murder in graphic detail but left the details up to the imagination scarier and thus more entertaining than modern movies. I don’t think I mentioned my experience watching America’s Most Wanted, but perhaps a similar principle applies, the difference of course being that I wouldn’t call my experience entertaining because the reenactments depicted real crimes. Most nights, I wasn’t afraid to go to bed after this show which aired at 9:00 every Saturday night because the crimes were often domestic violence, or retribution for a bad drug deal, horrible situations of course, but situations my child mind didn’t worry about because the monsters who committed these crimes would have no interest in coming for me. But every now and then, the show would feature criminals who kidnapped children or broke into people’s homes and murdered them just for the thrill of it. Knowing that there were people capable of such senseless evil in the world was terrifying, especially when John Walsh said, “he could be anywhere tonight.” Could he be in my closet? In the basement waiting for the family to go to sleep? My parents assured me that these crimes are extremely rare, and that coupled with the fact that our house is difficult to find even for bus drivers and repairmen given that we live i a somewhat secluded suburb, and the fact that a criminal would have a very difficult time kidnapping me since I was always holding onto the arm of a parent or older sibling when I left the house, all of whom were physically fit and would be able to protect me, meant I was usually able to put things into perspective and fall asleep quickly.

 

I was nine years old and in third grade when Columbine happened. I think my siblings were disturbed by it because instead of watching cartoons or Jeopardy as they usually did after school, I came in from the bus to hear the television tuned to the news. They must have heard about it at school, since two of my siblings were in high school, and my brother was in seventh grade and starting to think about high school. But I was able to cope by dismissing it as something that happens in the big scary high school. I didn’t have to think about high school for five years. Almost all of my peers were naturally respectful and kind, and much of the curriculum at Burleigh was devoted to life skills, including treating one another with respect. There were a couple bullies in the before school daycare I had to attend two days a week who did not apply these lessons, but they were the garden variety kind that stole toys from me and excluded me from games. I never feared being a victim of violence, even from them. It never even crossed my mind that a gunman from the outside could enter an elementary school. In my mind, Burleigh Elementary School was a fortress, a warm, safe brick building surrounded by a tall fence and filled with vigilant staff who took safety very seriously. Once in first or second grade, I heard a story on the news about a crime committed on Burleigh Road, but my parents explained that Burleigh Road is a long road, and the location of the crime was nowhere near Burleigh Elementary School. We had monthly fire drills, with each teacher meticulously counting to make sure we all made it out of the building, and we had an annual tornado drill. One day due to unusually fierce wind a few months before Columbine, the assistant principal announced that recess would be indoors out of an abundance of caution due to power lines located relatively close to the playground. When I was in elementary school, the idea of an active shooter drill was not even a concept in my imagination. In my child mind, and even in my young adult mind, elementary schools were sacrosanct, even for serial killers, and in the infinitesimally unlikely event that a gunman did take interest in Burleigh Elementary School, they could never penetrate the fortress. This innocence and sense of safety was of course shattered by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. I couldn’t find the words to blog about it then, but as I watched the news coverage of that horrific event, I found myself imagining myself as a first or second grader coming home from school, hearing of this event and being terrified to go back to school the following Monday because if such evil could take place at that elementary school, it could happen at Burleigh Elementary School. It was interesting listening to the advice of a child psychologist on how parents should respond if their elementary school-age children become aware of the Sandy Hook tragedy. The expert advised saying something to the effect of, “One very bad guy got into that elementary school, but police got him. You are safe.” This may have placated me enough to return to Burleigh Elementary School the following Monday morning, but I still think my innocence, my impression of Burleigh Elementary School as a sacrosanct, impenetrable fortress would have been shattered. Looking back on my childhood from an adult perspective, I realize with a cold chill that as safety-conscious as the staff at Burleigh Elementary School was, I think they had the same sense of innocence and invincibility that I felt. The idea of a gunman barging into an elementary school was just as unimaginable to the adults.

 

On another occasion when I was in second grade–it might have been my oldest brother’s Catholic confirmation–some members of the extended family gathered at our house and my big ears caught the adults in a conversation about guns. I don’t remember the exact context, but as an adult, I think I can reasonably infer that the conversation must have been around perplexity as to why there was more gun violence even in 1998 than when they were growing up. Anyway, I remember Mom saying, “everyone owned guns where I grew up. My dad owns guns.” This shocked me to the core. Papaw, my paternal grandpa who loved little children and looked forward to rocking me to sleep when I came to visit? Papaw who had more difficulty speaking because of Parkinsons but whom my mom said was always soft-spoken, whom she had never heard raise his voice? That Papaw owned guns? Given all of the stories of gun violence in the city that I picked up on the news, I thought only bad guys owned guns. I always felt completely safe at Granny and Papaw’s house, but now I wasn’t so sure. At the time, Mom consoled me by explaining that he never used them, except to go hunting occasionally. Furthermore, there was absolutely no chance that I would find them while playing and accidentally shoot myself or be shot by a cousin because he kept them so thoroughly hidden that she did not even know where they were. He also kept the bullets completely separate from the gun.

 

As I got older, I would learn that Papaw was a member of the NRA, but when Mom was growing up, the NRA was unrecognizable compared to what it is today. The NRA promoted the value of gun sports like hunting, but also took gun safety very seriously, even supporting gun regulation. It wasn’t until the 1980s that conservatives re-interpreted the second amendment as granting the absolute right of almost anyone to own any type of gun, when the wording of the second amendment suggests that the Founders’ intentions when drafting this amendment were far more narrow, only granting the right to keep and bear arms to the extent necessary for a “well regulated militia.” Like most men of his World War II generation, Papaw did not register his guns because in every country the Nazis occupied, they gained control partly by obtaining gun registration records and then going door-to-door confiscating all registered guns. But although that generation fiercely defended their right to bear arms, gun safety was baked into the culture. In addition to following all gun safety procedures, especially keeping the bullets completely separate from the gun, my mom recalls that when they were playing, they would get in trouble if they pointed a toy gun, or even a stick that they were pretending to be a gun at someone. They could point toy guns in the air and pretend to shoot space aliens or imaginary bad guys, but never each other. This rule surprised me when Mom first mentioned it, but it makes sense. Habits, thoughts and attitudes start to form at an early age. Of course, even most children who point a toy gun at their friend won’t grow up to kill with a real gun, and I am sure there are people who grew up with a strict culture of gun safety whose hearts turned to evil. I am not naive. I recognize that every generation of human history has been plagued by violence. But even if strict rules for children won’t ultimately change the human heart, I can appreciate the value of engraining in children that guns are serious business. All this is to say that as I have been reflecting on yet another elementary school shooting, I am beginning to come to the conclusion that guns in and of themselves are not the problem. The problem is a culture that glorifies violence, raises boys to feel ashamed if they express any emotion other than anger resulting in a lack of empathy which commonly leads to violence, and idolizes guns to the point that too many people treat real guns like toys.

Charleton Heston’s famous quote does have a grain of truth to it. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But because of our culture which has led to a nation with more guns than people, we do need to pass sensible gun control legislation because right now, guns are too accessible for people who want to kill other people, or themselves. (While this post, and the news cycle focuses on mass shootings, we should not overlook the fact that most gun deaths are suicides. According to a very compelling episode of The Bulwark I listened to recently which featured a former NRA lobbyist turned whistleblower, suicide is an impulsive decision, so experts believe many people who commit suicide with a gun may not have done so if guns were not so readily available.) I am sure Papaw would have supported a ban on assault weapons, weapons originally intended for the battlefield setting, red flag laws, background checks and a waiting period before someone can purchase a gun. Another reform I think would be valuable which gets less media attention is a requirement that all gun owners must complete an in-person gun safety course, pass a test and obtain a license. The license could be permanently revoked if it can be proven that the license holder knowingly gave a gun to someone who did not have a license and the gun was used in a crime, or that the license holder did not follow proper protocol securely storing a gun that was then stolen and used in a crime. If such a law were implemented, I recognize that it could seem inconvenient and unnecessary for people like Papaw who grew up in rural Kentucky, and learned from responsible relatives how to handle guns safely from a young age, as guns were necessary to hunt and protect livestock from predators. But as gentle and compassionate as Papaw was, he would have been heartbroken by today’s gun violence epidemic, especially the elementary school shootings, so I think he would have considered the inconvenience a small price to pay. After all, you have to go through training, pass a test and get a license to drive a motorized vehicle, which can become a deadly weapon if operated negligently. I don’t think it is at all unreasonable to implement similar requirements to own a product specifically designed to be a deadly weapon. I can understand how mandatory gun buy-back would feel threatening, even to responsible gun owners, but I think more voluntary gun buy-back initiatives (maybe with a bonus incentive for every assault rifle turned in) could potentially avert tragedy by encouraging relatives of people at risk of harming themselves or others to dispose of their guns, potentially averting many tragedies by getting at least a few guns off the streets. I personally am inspired by the work of organizations like Presbyterian Peace Fellowship who take literally the words of Isaiah 2:4 where it is prophesied that in the last days, people will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” by melting down guns that people surrender and turning them into garden tools.

 

Laws are important in our fallen world to maintain order, and in fact, Christians have a duty to submit to all laws that do not conflict with God’s laws because “the authorities that exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1). The passage and subsequent enforcement of laws are a necessary first step in restraining our violent human nature. Death by any weapon would be equally tragic for the families affected, but if we could at least ban assault weapons and get as many of them as possible off the streets via buy-back programs, forcing a potential shooter to go with a less “efficient” weapon, the death toll would not be as horrific by the time law enforcement arrived, and for survivors, the wounds would not be as grievous. But as I have discussed before, laws alone cannot change the world. Neither, by the way, would equipping more “good guys with guns.” In his book “The Spirit of the Disciplines” which I read in my spiritual formation class last year, Dallas Willard has an excellent chapter on the disciplines and power structures of this world. He opens this chapter with a quote from Leo Tolstoy which I believe is very appropriate for our time. According to Tolstoy, “men are so accustomed to establish and defend their existence by violence, by bayonets, bullets, prisons, and gallows, that it seems to them as if such an arrangement of life were not only normal, but were the only one possible. Yet it is just this arrangement and maintenance of the commonwealth by violence, that does most to hinder people from comprehending the causes of their sufferings, and consequently from being able to establish a true order.” In other words, I think if Tolstoy were alive today to weigh in on our gun violence problem, he would view ideas like arming teachers as well-intentioned perhaps, but woefully misguided and unimaginative. Rather than succumbing to hopelessness, implicitly accepting bad guys with guns as an inevitable reality that can only be mitigated by more violence from good guys with guns, Christians ought instead to be at the forefront of solutions that address the root causes of violence. For example, it almost always comes to light that the young men who commit school shootings were bullied or felt marginalized as children. Perhaps some of the time spent preparing for standardized tests could instead be devoted to discussing the importance of values like empathy, kindness, inclusion, accepting everyone as they are. Perhaps there could be classes or camps specifically for boys to reimagine masculinity, allow and encourage boys to express a full range of emotions and learn constructive ways to manage negative emotions before they fester and lead to violent outbursts of anger. Of course, such solutions would not eliminate violence completely. Sociopaths prove that empathy cannot be taught, and I am not so naive as to think we can eradicate evil in this world with empathy lessons when Jesus said that wickedness will persist until the end of the age (Matthew 24:6-13). But I believe such measures could reduce the prevalence of gun violence. But more important than the statistics, such measures could potentially rescue men who could have easily gone down a path of violence and show them a better way. This would go much further toward a vision of true peace that all Christians should long for than succumbing to a superficial peace that relies on good guys with guns.

Another Successful Semester of Seminary School

Well readers, as usual, the semester kept me so busy that I wasn’t able to write here. But overall, it was a successful semester. This past Monday was my first full day of summer vacation! My Systematic Theology professor gave us until this upcoming Saturday to submit the final research paper, but I was so close to having it finished this past Saturday that I decided to stay up until 1am Sunday morning to just finish it! The reason it took me so long is that the paper required footnotes, and unfortunately the BrailleNote uses a simplified version of Microsoft Word that does not delineate pages or have a feature to insert footnotes, so I have to use the iPad where it is harder to “see” what I am doing. Only after I meticulously typed all 28 footnotes, it occurred to me that the paper was only 8 pages. Given that my essay came to 3,300 words, it seemed like it should have been at least 10 pages. The paper was required to be between 10 and 12 pages. Sure enough when I checked my BrailleNote, I found that for some reason, many paragraphs were not double-spaced, even though I thought the default setting of the document was double-spaced. I corrected the paragraphs, but then realized I would have to re-type the footnotes. Otherwise the paper would look sloppy as the footnotes wouldn’t match up at all to the pages. I had worked so hard, and was so proud of this paper that I knew my conscience would bother me if I knowingly turned in a sloppy-looking paper, and as I have been told in other contexts, like it or not, it is a visual world, and no matter how intelligent and accomplished you are otherwise, a sloppy visual presentation (such as leaving the house having made no effort to comb your hair) is the only thing people will notice. I didn’t want my paper to be the equivalent of that, with a sloppy appearance distracting the professor from the message. But I persevered, and when all was said and done, the paper came to 12 pages.

I actually plan to share this research paper in my next post because for me, the research paper wasn’t just an assignment to complete, but something that became personal for me and kind of wrote itself. The topic I chose for the paper was the biblical perspective of human dignity. Just as I was starting to do my research for this paper, the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion signalling the possible overturn of Roe v. Wade brought the abortion debate to the forefront of the news cycle again, and then I came across a shocking article about how ever since 2004 when Denmark started offering universal prenatal screening for Down syndrome, 95 percent of women that receive a positive test result terminate the pregnancy. These events combined to inspire me. After submitting the paper, it occurred to me that I might receive a lower grade for not exploring the topic in broader terms, as the textbook reading related to biblical anthropology discussed human dignity regarding all races, even unmarried people who often feel excluded by churches whose ministry priorities unwittingly perpetuate a one-size-fits-all Christian life where the assumed norm is to get married and start a family. My paper focused on abortion and physician-assisted suicide–I found some disturbing information on that subject too–and argued that the Bible commands respect at the very beginning, and the end of human life. But the wonderful thing about seminary school professors, at least at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is that while professors set high academic expectations, they also encourage an integrated mindset. In other words, they encourage students not to compartmentalize their lives by turning off their brains during worship and personal devotional time, or by being so academically oriented that they fill their minds with knowledge but loose all sense of personal reverence. In fact, God gave us brains precisely because he intended for us to use them, so ideally, our academic studies should themselves be thought of as worship. Given this culture, I have been shown grace on other assignments when the professor could tell the subject was personal for me, even if it strayed slightly from the parameters of the assignment. Regardless of my grade, I plan to share this essay, but I thought I would wait until I received the grade and read the professor’s feedback–this particular professor provides wonderful, detailed feedback–as this theology course has really been akin to an intense workout for my brain, forcing me to think in ways I have never thought before, and when it comes to issues as serious as abortion and physician-assisted suicide, I want to make sure my thinking is on the right track before sharing it with you readers.

Last semester, I took a Biblical Theology course. Although preparing for the test was brutal, requiring a lot of memorization, not so much of specific Bible verses but the chronology of the Bible as a whole so that I could trace various themes from their first appearance in the Old Testament through their full revelation in the New Testament, I did really well in this course because it was pretty straight-forward. Though some of the reading involved learning about the history of biblical interpretation and how it evolved, most of the time, the only book we interacted with was the Bible itself because the primary purpose of the course was just appreciating how various themes unfold as the Bible progresses. But Systematic Theology involves a lot more interaction with outside authorities. When in doubt, the final authority is still the Bible, but the Bible is actually analogous to the U.S. Constitution. As one of my Paralegal professors pointed out in 2014, the U.S. Constitution is a relatively short document, and yet thousands of volumes have been written questioning how to interpret it. This is partly because the U.S. Constitution was written 240 years ago in a different cultural context, and as such, the Constitution could not possibly foresee every situation that would arise in real life. This is true to an even greater extent for the Bible which was written thousands of years ago over the course of multiple cultural contexts: the Old Testament was written in the ancient Near East and the New Testament was written during the Roman empire. Thus the methodology behind Systematic Theology involves not merely reading the Bible, but weighing evidence from Scripture, and studying the insights of well-respected theologians including but not limited to Augustine and Aquinas (first few centuries after Christ) Luther and Calvin (middle ages) Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (modern theologians). For example, as a preview to my research paper, one argument I address is that the Bible does not conclusively state that God considers a fetus to be a person, but passages such as Exodus 21:22-25 or Hebrews 7:9-10 have led theologians to advocate a conservative course of action given how seriously God condemns murder.

I am so glad that I took this course, as it has enriched my own faith, and given me tools to engage more thoughtfully with people who don’t understand/believe in concepts like the Trinity or predestination. But I am also glad I waited until my second year of seminary school when my brain had recovered from the atrophy caused by working a corporate job and reading nothing but magazine articles with simple sentences for five years. As it was, I still couldn’t fully wrap my mind around some of the abstract concepts covered in this course, as the feedback on my first two research papers can attest. But although this class made my head hurt, it was a good kind of pain, and in fact, even though I technically have earned all the required credits for my certificate in Christian studies, I am taking the sequel to this course in the Fall.

In addition to Systematic Theology, I also took a course on American Church History. Unfortunately, as a practical matter, history isn’t the most blind-friendly field to go into, as most primary sources composed before the computer age are preserved as scanned images which proved super-annoying to read as my KNFB reader app could not correctly recognize many letters. (I found out during one Zoom session that this wasn’t the result of an inferior app, but was because the images were grainy even for my sighted classmates.) On a few occasions, I was able to find more readable versions of these documents online, or on Bookshare, but oftentimes, I couldn’t and so would have to go through the document once to correct as many words as I could, and then read it again to actually absorb the content. But my persistence paid off and I learned a lot.

In future posts, I look forward to sharing some specific tidbits of insight I gained about this course relevant to current events. But for now as an overview, I will say that I vividly remember a day in fifth grade when I was frustrated and did not feel like doing my Social Studies homework. That day I asked my sister, a junior in high school at the time why I had to study history. My sister replied with the commonly asserted maxim that “those who fail to study history are condemned to repeat it.” Fortunately by the time I reached high school, I had matured and actually found U.S. history very interesting, but I still didn’t quite understand this maxim. I couldn’t help noticing irony in the fact that as I studied the catastrophic failure of the Vietnam war, our country was mired in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I got to college and took another history course my freshman year, irony occurred to me once again as we studied the corporate greed that led to the Great Depression just as in real time, the country was entering into the Great Recession. Though ignorance about history is certainly a factor in some cases (as in certain celebrities who choose to enter Politics), John Fea points out in the introduction of his book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” that history is complex, and the way every historic event unfolds is influenced by prior historic events. So although in some ways the war in Vietnam feels similar to the war in Iraq, the responsible historian recognizes the complexity of the past and tries to be impartial. But I personally have come to believe through this course, but also in reflecting on my previous study of the history of ancient Israel, the Roman empire, and Christian missionary outreach that history is cyclical, not in the pagan sense of an infinite cycle that ultimately has no meaning, but in the sense that in our fallen state, we seldom seem to learn from our mistakes, and usually let personal or national self-interest take precedence over doing what is right. Fortunately, God is well-aware of this shortcoming in our nature, and therefore will one day break the cycle, bring an end to human history as it currently is and redeem all of creation. But if I ever had the opportunity to mentor a younger student who questions the necessity of studying history, I would explain that when we study history, we have a much better sense of our identity and the factors that shaped it long before we were even a thought. And while much of the power to control the course of history is out of our control, as we are only a drop in the ocean of the billions of people in this world, and most of us will never be in positions of power that shape history, an understanding of the past positions us better to be on the right side of history as we go about our ordinary lives. For example, if we are familiar with our country’s dark history of racism, we are better able to recognize how as Jemar Tisby states, racism has not gone away. It has just adapted. This positions us better to recognize racism when political candidates campaign on the promise of restoring “law and order” or when a local suburban skating rink decides to ban kids from Milwaukee. A white alderman from Milwaukee confirmed and exposed the coded racism behind this policy when he brought his child to the rink and had no trouble getting in. So I suppose this maxim really is accurate in the sense that if we understand the dark parts of our history, we really can play a small, but significant (especially to God) part in ensuring it is not repeated.

In a future post, I will share some other things that have been going on in my life besides school work. But I don’t want to ruin the academic vibe of this post by launching into other topics. So for now I will close by saying that although I feel a little fried and am glad to be on summer break, and although sometimes I have anxiety about my future financial security, I cannot tell you how blessed I feel that I am able to study and reflect on these academic subjects when so many people (many far smarter than me) have life circumstances that do not facilitate this privilege. Most days, I also still have this wonderful, God-given sense that resigning from my paralegal job at the start of the pandemic and taking seminary courses is what God wanted me to do. I have no idea what my future holds beyond Fall 2022, and I will be honest and say I hate uncertainty. Just as I hate going to new restaurants if I don’t know exactly what I will order well in advance, sometimes it drives me crazy that I don’t have a life plan either. But perhaps in regard to both scenarios, God is testing me, asking me to be patient and have trust that all will work out according to his plan, and for my good.

This Christmas in COVID History

Well readers, I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a happy new year. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope December 25 was just a day of rest from the routine of life. As usual, school kept me too busy to write, but it was a successful and mostly enjoyable learning experience. I say mostly enjoyable because this semester, I got a little complacent in my preparation. Even in my undergraduate years (2008-2012) electronic books were not as ubiquitous as they are today, so as an undergraduate, I would literally head to the bookstore to buy my Spring semester books for Disability Services to scan as soon as I had finished Fall semester exams, and in the summer, my parents and I always took a day in June to come to campus and buy books so that hopefully, Disability Services would have sufficient time to get them scanned in time for the Fall semester. While Bookshare is still my first choice of sources for books, Apple devices, and even the Kindle have become more accessible, so if a book is not available on Bookshare, I have other options. Thinking that by 2021, every book under the sun would be in electronic format, I didn’t start searching for the required textbooks for this semester’s seminary courses until just a couple weeks before the start of class. To my surprise, none of the textbooks for my course on the History of the Expansion of Christianity were available anywhere electronically. Neither of the books for my Biblical Theology and Interpretation course were available on Bookshare either, but one was available as a PDF download from Intervarsity Press, and the other book, a Bible dictionary was only available on the Google Play store. Books from the Google Play Store can be read on my BrailleNote which is based on Android software, but turning the page is a three-step process, after which sometimes I had forgotten the last words of the previous page, so this made reading assignments from the Bible dictionary a little annoying. A few weeks into the semester, I actually decided that this book was easier to just listen to using Voiceover on my iPad where I could quickly turn pages by holding down the alt, and right-arrow keys. As for the textbooks for the History of the Expansion of Christianity, I submitted requests to Bookshare for these books. I lucked out in that the textbook upon which a couple of written reflection assignments were based was ready in time for the start of class, and the professor graciously gave me substitute books I could read in the event the others did not arrive in time. Fortunately, the other books arrived about a month into the semester, but it was annoying not to have all the books from the beginning, and one book in particular was especially in-depth, and I might have had a richer experience had it arrived in time for the start of the semester, but actually, just because the course is over doesn’t mean I still couldn’t read the early chapters any time. Despite this bumpy start, I earned an A in this course, and in the Biblical Theology course.

 

You would think I would have learned my lesson after last semester and gone back to my undergraduate diligence, enquiring into Spring semester textbooks immediately upon finishing Fall final exams. But the Biblical Theology exam was exhausting as it entailed several essay questions, and I about had a heart attack when after spending a good hour on the final two longest essay questions, our WiFi went out and I heard the Voiceover on my iPad say that autosave had failed. Fortunately, I was able to stop the page from loading, so I did not lose the screen where I had written my answers. My parents rubbed my shoulders and helped me take a deep breath as they reset our WiFi modem, and I copied and pasted my answers into a Microsoft Word file so that if they were lost, at least I wouldn’t have to rewrite them. My parents ultimately had to reset the WiFi twice, so a three-and-a-half hour test ended up being more like a four-hour test as a result. But at 7:30 on Friday December 10, the WiFi was restored and I successfully submitted this exam. This incident had me thanking God that as a person with a disability, I was allowed extra time for tests! After this exam, I was in no mood to think about next semester. Technically, this past Monday morning was the ninth day of Christmas, but for all practical purposes in our culture, Christmas was over, so I found the syllabi listing the textbooks for next semester which starts January 12. But to my relief, my good luck had returned, and every single required textbook was available on Bookshare!

 

After this busy semester, I “needed a little Christmas, right this very minute”, which this year ended up being a lot of Christmas. In a way you could say the theme for this Christmas for our family, and society at large, was “making up for lost time.” The following morning after the brutal test, December 11, my parents and I returned to our pre-pandemic Christmas tree farm. The selection of Christmas trees was a little slim: we found out that because of last summer’s drought, a lot of trees did not survive, and they even had to water trees by hand! But we still found a beautiful fir tree that was a little smaller than usual, but had sturdy branches for Christmas ornaments, which we did not forgo this year. Funny side story: After getting the tree into the stand and watered, my parents and I sat down for lunch and the conversation turned to reflecting on how different and yet delightfully simple last Christmas was. I pointed out that I didn’t even mind that we didn’t decorate the tree last year. “We decorated the tree,” Mom disagreed. “No, remember, you put the lights on, but we just never felt in the mood to put on the ornaments, and the branches were pretty thin anyway,” I said. I am known in my family for my excellent memory for dates and details, so Dad believed me right away, but Mom was sure we decorated the tree, until she found pictures from last Christmas on her phone. But after not holding the sentimental ornaments I made in elementary school for a year, these ornaments in a way felt more precious this year, and my favorite ornaments, the ornaments made of applesauce and cinnamon, smelled a little sweeter this year. The following day, Mom and I were able to return to a tradition that had to be cancelled last year, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Holiday Pops concert! As we have all experienced, the status of the pandemic can change overnight, but I decided to take my chances in September when tickets to this concert went on sale, fearing that given the absence of live Christmas concerts last year, tickets would sell out faster than usual. Sure enough, the day after Thanksgiving, we hear about the Omicron variant which is even more contagious than Delta, which experts said was also unbelievably contagious! But the shows were able to go on, especially because the Bradley Symphony Center required proof of vaccination, and the wearing of masks at all times. The fabulous sound of a live orchestra and chorus was even more special this year. This concert always features a female vocalist, and for the past several years before the pandemic, the female vocalist was Carpathia Jenkins. She had an excellent voice, but this year’s vocalist, Shayna Steele was even better in my opinion. During this life on Earth, I don’t think anything can top the joy of singing Joy to the World with a gym full of choral singers at Saint Olaf’s in 2006, but Shayna Steele’s rendition in which she “took it to church” could come in second place. It was a wonderful end to an extra-special concert, and although the weather was unseasonably warm, Mom and I left this concert filled with Christmas spirit.

 

Then on December 17, my choir performed a Christmas concert, our first concert since the pandemic! The choir board of directors tried to resume choir last February. At that time, most of us, myself included, chose to tune into rehearsal virtually using the Google Meeting software because the vaccine was still hard to come by at that time. (I wasn’t able to get my first dose until March 29). The church where we rehearsed pre-pandemic was still closed at the time, so for those brave souls comfortable with in-person rehearsal, rehearsal was moved to All Saints Church, a church further out in the country in a small community called Whales. To limit the number of people, men and women rehearsed separately: one week, men would rehearse from 7:00-8:00, and women would rehearse 8:00-9:00, and the next week vice versa. Masks were required at all times, and to ensure adequate ventilation which experts believed significantly reduced the risk of virus transmission, the outside doors were propped open, so those who rehearsed in-person rehearsed with their winter coats on! But while I didn’t have to freeze or rehearse in a mask, tuning into rehearsal virtually wasn’t ideal either. Those of us attending virtually could have sang along in theory, but to address the imperfections of background interference we have all become so familiar with, we all had to mute ourselves once rehearsal began, so the director couldn’t hear us to give us feedback. I couldn’t always hear rehearsal either because the WiFi signal at the church was weak and so the rehearsal would cut in and out. By the third such virtual rehearsal, I had become so disappointed with the inadequacy of technology when it came to choir rehearsal, and as a result, so disengaged that I kept dozing off, so I stopped logging in. I don’t think I was alone in this disappointment because it seemed like the attempt fizzled out, and for several months, I didn’t receive a single e-mail update from the choir board. But in September, the board sent out a survey to get an idea of the comfort level for resuming rehearsal and what precautions people would like to see. After reviewing our feedback, the decision was made to resume rehearsals at the church in Whales starting October 19. Masks were required, and although I don’t think the church required the outside doors to be propped open for ventilation this semester, I often rehearsed with my coat on because we had a couple really cold days in November and it seemed like the church turned the heat off during evening hours. But it was so soul-restoring to interact with friends and sing in-person again! I don’t know if everyone in the choir was vaccinated, as vaccination was not required, but my closest friends and I were, and on October 25, I was able to get a booster shot, so I felt as safe as I could reasonably be.

 

The first rehearsal, I wore a generic mask from a package my parents bought at Costco, which are comfortable under normal circumstances, but I found it quite annoying for singing as it would get sucked into my mouth when I needed to open it wide to sing or take a deep breath. But my best friend in the choir discovered there are masks specifically designed for singers. She bought three for herself, her husband and her son who are all in the choir, and she sent me and several other interested choir members a link to the mask she ordered. The mask was around $17, so I have been very careful not to lose it, but it has proven well worth the money, and I have even worn it to a couple concerts where I was just an audience member because it is just generally comfortable. It is a little big for my face, as it goes all the way down over my chin almost touching my neck, and it takes a little futzing every time I put it on to keep it from covering my eyes which the sighted people say makes me look silly. Mom, and my choir friend both suggested altering it, but I worry that the alterations might negate its purpose of comfort for singing and breathing, and its comfort is well worth the little bit of futzing when I put it on. After this concert, I realized I was a little deconditioned because although I walk on the treadmill every day and swim five or six times a month, standing still for over an hour singing requires a special stamina that I hadn’t adequately prepared for, not to mention that when wearing a mask, the choir director told us annunciation was even more essential. But I think the director anticipated this because although he wanted us to stand, there were chairs behind us so we could have sat down if we needed to, an accommodation that was only provided to a couple very elderly singers pre-pandemic. Fortunately, I did not need to utilize the chair, and more importantly I did not pass out, but I was exhausted! The audience was small, but so was the church and Mom said the audience pretty much filled it. Included in the audience were my parents, Grandma, and a friend who lives alone but loves to get out and about and socialize, the type of person who had the most difficult time emotionally during this pandemic. I could tell everyone enjoyed this concert, but was especially happy to see how it seemed to cheer this friend up. For this concert, the director selected the perfect mix of a few classical pieces, many of the old standards, and one silly song called The Twelve Days After Christmas, in which a girl gets into a fight with her “true love.” (This video is not my choir, but I just wanted you to hear the song).

 

Two days later, Mom, this same friend and I returned to the Bradley Symphony Center for Handel’s Messiah. I was aware of this concert, but didn’t think we wanted to spend money on two symphony Christmas concerts, especially since every other year, my choir performs this piece for a free community concert. But it so happened that on December 16, Mom met a member of the Milwaukee Symphony chorus at an exercise class, and she decided that since we didn’t get to go to any concerts last year, we could splurge this year! Mom also thought this would be the perfect Christmas gift for the friend.

 

When we arrived at the theatre and our tickets were scanned, a volunteer noticed that I was blind and asked if I would like a program in Braille! Upon skimming a recent newsletter from Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement, the organization where I had a paid internship opportunity in 2013, I was aware that this organization produced programs in braille for local events including Milwaukee Symphony concerts, but I didn’t read the article carefully and figured this was something you had to request in advance, as that is usually how it works (understandably, as braille is expensive to produce, so it makes sense that an organization would want to avoid producing braille that would not be utilized). I don’t think anyone thought to provide braille programs for concerts during my childhood, or at least I wasn’t aware of it, so I was accustomed to enjoying concerts without a program. But the volunteer said in the future I could just ask for one, as they would be available for every concert. It was really cool having the full concert experience, reading for myself the biographies of the conductor and soloists while waiting for the lights to dim, and then following along as the orchestra played each movement of Handel’s Messiah. I will be sure to ask for a braille program again in March when Dad bought tickets for a Milwaukee Symphony tribute to Motown music.

 

Handel’s Messiah holds a special place in my heart because it was the last concert my choir performed before the pandemic on March 8, 2020. We didn’t know it would be our last concert at the time. The two previous years I performed this piece, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a beautiful piece of music, but in 2020 more than any other year, performing it felt like a spiritual experience. I found myself paying closer attention to the words the soloists sang, and marveling at how the piece begins with prophecy from Isaiah anticipating the coming of Christ, then celebrates the coming of Christ and then anticipates the future when he will reign forever and we will all be changed. During the pandemic, I downloaded a recording of Handel’s Messiah performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and choir, and found tremendous comfort and joy just listening to it while writing in the early months of the pandemic. Sitting in the audience listening to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform this piece again felt like a spiritual experience. While I love the Holiday Pops concert and see nothing wrong with happy songs about sleigh rides and Santa, if I ever could only attend one concert, it occurred to me that I should choose Handel’s Messiah as this piece portrays what Christmas is really all about.

 

Three days later, I got to partake in the Christmas present my parents bought for my grandma, tickets to the Fireside Theatre to see an adapted performance of Holiday Inn. On Monday evening, I requested that we watch the original Bing Crosby movie because I had seen bits and pieces of it over the years, but never sat down to watch the full movie, and thought I would enjoy the play more if I was familiar with the storyline. Mom and I both agreed the Fireside Theatre’s adapted play was much better than the original movie. For one thing, the original movie was, shall we say, a movie of the time, with Bing Crosby performing a scene in Blackface, and the dialog of the Black maid very racist in the way it portrays the Black dialect. In fact, Mom said that at the beginning of the movie, there was a disclaimer warning that there was content in the movie that would be offensive by today’s standards. With multiple gift shops full of junk to clutter up your house, like a stuffed gnome that says “Home sweet gnome” and its discounts for senior bus groups, this theatre’s target audience is people for whom Holiday Inn was released in their heyday, so I was really curious to see if, and to what extent the play would be modernized. To my relief, the Blackface scene, and the disrespectful portrayal of the Black dialect were eliminated. A few other details were changed to make the storyline better too: for example, instead of meeting Linda in a flower shop, in the play, Linda is the former owner of the farmhouse Ted bought at a bargain price, and Linda asks if she can come into collect her belongings as the bank locked her out of the house before she could retrieve everything. For many years, this theatre had a traditional Christmas variety show, and when I was nine years old, my parents took the whole family to see it. This theatre is a dinner theatre, where a banquet dinner is included in the ticket price and served before every show, and I wasn’t fond of the food at that time because I was one of those kids who only liked a few things (chicken nuggets, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries) and the featured dinner offerings for that show encouraged guests to sample cuisine from other parts of the world. But I remember loving the show itself, and now that I am an adult, I would appreciate the ethnic cuisine more too (as long as it was gluten free of course). But in a way, symbolically speaking, Holiday Inn was the perfect choice for the first Christmas post-pandemic because the Holiday Inn is only open on holidays, so the storyline takes you through all the major holidays of the year, just as in real life, there has been a sense of needing to make up for all the holidays missed during the pandemic. So although it wasn’t exactly a Christmas show, we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

I received my second dose of the vaccine on April 20, and experts said that people could call themselves fully vaccinated two weeks after this second dose by which time the body could generate antibodies from the vaccine. So on Mother’s Day, my parents and I decided we felt safe to return to church in-person, and we enjoyed in-person services through May and June. But when the Delta variant emerged, we decided to play it safe and return to virtual church again, especially since, sadly we live in a red-leaning area where many are opposed to the vaccine and to masks. But given that we had the protection of a vaccine this Christmas, we decided to take our chances and attend the Christmas Eve service in-person as we missed this beautiful tradition so much last year. As we expected, my parents and I were in the minority by wearing masks, but to our church’s credit, the leadership strives to be politically neutral, so they had a designated section for people who wish to only sit with people wearing masks. We found this section and given our distance from other people, we felt very safe. The pastor gave a wonderful sermon, one that actually convicted me to the point that I want to elaborate on it for another post in the near future. The message of the sermon is that we will not find true happiness by seeking to change our circumstances, or trying to control everything in life (guilty!). We will only find true happiness by seeking and following Christ.

 

For the evening, we invited our friend over again because we could tell she would have otherwise been alone on Christmas Eve. We had a casual dinner of shrimp cocktail, and some delicious chicken and cranberry meatballs my parents found at Costco.

 

Christmas Day was nontraditional in that my parents and I decided to give each other our gifts in advance of Christmas. My parents gave me an updated iPhone. As I have written about in the past, I love trusty rusty things, and would have been perfectly content to continue using the iPhone 5. But unfortunately, capitalism forces you to upgrade when the vast majority of apps no longer work, and I realized using such an old phone was probably a security risk too as Apple ended support for the iPhone 5, and Apple’s updates often include security upgrades to try and stay ahead of sophisticated hackers. My mom considered my purchase of the tickets for the Holiday Pops concert her Christmas gift, but I got her a token gift of beautifully decorated truffles I ordered online from a local candy store. From the same store, I ordered my dad a giant peanut butter pie. I imagined it would be like the pie we used to buy sometimes at Baker Square which had a chocolate-infused crust topped with a creamy peanut butter filling. But it was actually a giant peanut butter cup. I had a great time teasing Dad though because he always says he likes the french style of enjoying a small portion of something really decadent, as opposed to a healthier dessert that doesn’t fully satisfy the sweet tooth.

 

“This is delicious,” Dad told me a couple days after Christmas, “But don’t get this for me again. It’s just too much, unless you can get one that is one twentieth the size.”

“It only comes in one size, but here’s an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you just slice it into twenty pieces, freeze them and enjoy for twenty days, you know, like the French probably do.” That’s when the truth came out that he has no willpower!

 

In lieu of Christmas gifts for each other, my parents decided to invest in a wonderful home upgrade. In the lower level of our house is a family room with a fireplace, a fireplace that we never used because it needed some expensive repairs, so my parents were afraid to use it. But this year, my parents decided to hire a company to make the necessary repairs and on December 9, I experienced firsthand the idyllic side of the Laura Ingalls Wilder lifestyle, enjoying the warmth and soothing sound of a crackling fire. Pa didn’t have to chop down trees for firewood because nowadays they have kiln-dried firewood that you can order and have delivered. But Dad ordered so much firewood that we keep it outside and bring in more wood from the pile every couple days, so I can still tease dad by asking, “do we have enough wood for a fire tonight Pa, or do you need to haul more in?” Dad doesn’t know how to play the fiddle either, so when we sit by the fire, we usually engage in the modern-day pleasure of watching television, although on Christmas Eve after dinner, Mom, the friend and I went downstairs and just sat by the fire chatting and laughing for hours, which felt so nostalgic and perfect!

 

Mom also picked out a couple pieces of new furniture because one of the old recliners that was in the family room broke, and Mom wanted more seating for when we have company. Dad and I like to tease Mom about it because it is not the most comfortable, and a couple times, Dad caught her in the one remaining comfortable recliner. But the allure of the fire more than compensates for the uncomfortable couch, and though I am not at all a sports fan, this past Sunday, instead of retreating to my bedroom, I fell asleep on the couch by the fire with the Packer game in the background.

 

Christmas morning was peacefully reminiscent of last year, with no pressure to do anything. I enjoyed a bowl of oatmeal while my parents read the newspaper and had their own breakfast a little later. Then Dad took Grandma to the 10:30am mass at Saint dominics, and then brought her back to our house for a ham dinner, although I had leftover rotisserie chicken from a giant chicken my parents brought home from Costco two days earlier because I am still diligent about avoiding red meat. When my sister and her husband came home for Thanksgiving, they made a really interesting and delicious recipe for brussels sprouts spiced up with pomegranate seeds, mint leaves, and a little maple syrup. Mom forgot to get the exact recipe from them, and didn’t want to bother them for it, but she found a similar recipe online which was almost as delicious. Mom said at Thanksgiving it would be a perfect dish to serve at Christmas because the pomegranate and mint gave it a pretty presentation of red and green, Christmas colors.

 

My brother and his wife arrived around 6:00 that evening, and we enjoyed chatting with them over more shrimp and meatballs, but had a larger Christmas dinner and exchanged gifts with them the following day. They went home on Monday morning December 27, and on December 29, my parents and I went to Indiana to visit Granny who now sadly lives in a nursing home. But I could tell she was thrilled to see us and that she loved the spa set I picked out for her from Bath & Body Works, complete with lavender shower gel, lotion and a spray to spruce up sheets or pillows. On the way home, we stopped to visit my Aunt Nancy who had foot surgery recently and wasn’t ready to travel yet.

 

New Year’s Eve was wonderfully peaceful. We enjoyed our Christmas Eve meatballs and shrimp so much we decided to repeat it. Costco didn’t have the chicken cranberry meatballs, but they had pineapple chicken meatballs from the same company which weren’t quite as good as the cranberry, but still delicious in my opinion. After dinner, we watched Respect, the movie about the life of Aretha Franklin by the fire. Given the pandemic and everything that has been going on, we decided to have fun and do all the superstitious things that are supposed to bring good luck, health and happiness in the new year. Mom burned the bayberry candle Aunt Nancy gives us every year, and the next day Mom made black-eyed peas. Mom also taught me a new superstition, that you are supposed to stand on your right foot at the stroke of midnight to start the new year off on the right foot, except that Mom and I both have terrible balance and almost fell on our faces! But at the stroke of midnight, we were both laughing, so I would think that in itself should bring good luck this upcoming year. On New Year’s Day, Mom and I watched the Rose Parade which we were thrilled to see wasn’t cancelled again, despite the Omicron surge. In the afternoon, we played two games of Scrabble. Mom won the first one, and I won the second.

 

Of course as I have written about in the past, the reality is that we live in a broken world, even on Christmas, and while I definitely felt more Christmas spirit this year with the return of Christmas concerts, the in-person Christmas Eve service, and the ability to gather with family and friends again, we were reminded that the pandemic isn’t quite behind us when we found out my sister’s husband got pretty sick with Omicron despite being fully vaccinated and boosted. Fortunately, we were able to see my sister and her husband at Thanksgiving, but my sister was really looking forward to going to California to visit her husband’s family, and then she planned to meet up with my oldest brother in Portland, Oregon whom she hadn’t seen since Thanksgiving 2019. But this trip had to be cancelled. Given that I am an introvert, I thought I had been handling the isolation of the pandemic well, but in December, I struggled with a bout of depression, which made me moody and caused me to lash out at my parents a few times. After each time, I would immediately feel guilty which only made me feel worse. But my parents were incredibly supportive, and Mom suspected a major contributing factor to it is simply the isolation from my peers, so I really hope that this upcoming year, I can reconnect with peers in a formal Bible study group or something, but even something as simple as inviting old friends over for board games would be mutually restorative. With the new year, which symbolizes a fresh start, I have felt more hopeful about the future. I also found myself thinking about my emotions in light of the Christmas Eve sermon, and some valuable insight I gained in the Spiritual Formation course I took last Spring. I plan to get more specific about this experience in my next post because while I am overall an optimistic person, I agree with the sentiment of a former pastor at our church who was very open about his struggle with depression, who said “it’s okay not to be okay,” and by being honest about our feelings, we can support one another, and will probably find that we are not alone. But for now, I will close by saying that despite the constant hum, the constant reminder that we live in a broken world, even during the Christmas season, Handel’s Messiah reminded me that because Jesus came, and is coming again, all depression and disappointment with this current world is temporary, and all of the events of this Christmas, from the Holiday Pops Concert, to just the mundane pleasure of sitting by the fire with my parents reminded me that I am blessed.

Announcing my Second Book

Well readers, it has been an eventful two months since my last post. The day after this post, my parents and I went to Indiana to celebrate my maternal grandma’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be the birthday everyone hoped for. My sister, knowing how much Granny loves Elvis, hired an Elvis impersonator to come to Granny’s assisted living facility for her birthday, but unfortunately, this had to be postponed because just three days before her birthday, a staff member and a couple residents tested positive for COVID-19, so Granny’s facility went on lockdown for ten days. If it weren’t her 90th birthday, we would have postponed our entire trip as well, but my parents and I all agreed it wouldn’t be right for her to be alone on her 90th birthday. So we made the trip and talked to Granny through her window. For a brief time, one wonderful staff member opened her window so we could hear her better. But most of the time, the window was closed and it was very difficult to hear her, especially when the air conditioning unit came on, so Mom ended up using FaceTime so that Granny could see us through her window, and we could hear her through the phone. When the COVID-19 vaccine first came out, Mom told Granny that she should be able to get it soon because they were prioritizing people in congregate care settings, and prison inmates. Granny, who I will always admire for finding the humor in difficult times said, “Well, I’m in prison!” I have never visited anyone in a real prison, but I have read about how visitation procedures often require the family to be in a separate room where they see their incarcerated loved one behind glass and talk to them on the phone, so as we stood outside Granny’s window on her birthday talking to her on the phone, the dark irony struck me that for all practical purposes, she really was in prison. Fortunately, the people with COVID-19 recovered, and the facility hasn’t had to lock down since. The Elvis impersonator was rescheduled for September 18. I didn’t go back to see him because I didn’t want to commit to a trip now that I am back in school. But Mom went down and met my sister, and they said the impersonator was excellent, and everyone had a blast!

On August 10, we had a storm in our area that knocked out our power for three days, in which time I gained some spiritual perspective that I will post about in the future. I also started my second year of seminary school August 25, where once again, my classes have been really interesting, especially a course on the history of the expansion of Christianity from the first century to the present. I will be posting about these courses in the near future too.

But the most exciting event that happened these past two months, and the event I want to focus on today, is that I self-published my second book! In 2014, I self-published my first book, Paws that Changed my Life, in which I recounted my experience training with my first guide dog, Gilbert. But even before this book, as early as 2012, I had been working on some essays that I dreamed of someday turning into a memoir, but I could never decide how to organize it or tie the essays together. But when we returned from Indiana, I got a huge burst of inspiration, updated and tweaked the essays I had already written, and wrote a couple more essays to tie everything together. This book does not contain the Song in my heart essay I wrote last year, although I already have ideas sprouting on how I could include this essay in a future book. But my current book is called The Rivers of my Life: Walking by Faith and Living Without Sight. The book is organized around the idea that life is like a river, sometimes smooth, sometimes very choppy, but always working out for good in the end. Part 1 begins at my graduation from Carroll University, and then flashes back to the challenges and joys of growing up totally blind. Part 2 is a testimony of my Christian faith journey, and how my faith life was a separate river that would eventually merge with the river of my whole life. Here is an excerpt to wet your whistle.

I think I heard The River, sung by Garth Brooks for the first time when I was in sixth grade. I always appreciated it for the beautiful sentiment that it is, and would stop whatever I was doing when it came on the radio to soak it in. But now as an adult, I have a much deeper, firsthand understanding of how true the sentiment of this song really is.

Some people have concrete, well-defined dreams, like the toddler who is a tennis prodigy, but I think most of us don’t have such clearly defined dreams. Our abstract dream is simply to find a fulfilling life with financial security to meet our practical needs, and a meaningful career that meets our spiritual need for a sense of purpose. We may study an area of interest in college, but after that, we are left to the mercy of an ever-changing river influenced by currents of economic conditions, chance encounters or unexpected circumstances which inspire us, and sometimes force us, to pursue a path we never imagined. We make mistakes and try to learn from them. We let opportunities slip away. There is so much we have no control over, so we are really all vessels that must ride the current of life wherever it takes us. Rough waters are inevitable, but with the good lord as our captain, we can handle whatever comes our way.

I feel compelled to reflect on the river currents that have shaped my life now because at the time I am writing this (August 2021), I have pretty much been in quarantine for a year and a half. It is the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, an international crisis that has permanently altered the course of many people’s rivers in ways never imagined when 2020 began. I am one of these people. I don’t want to minimize the hardship this pandemic has caused. At the time I am writing this, over 600,000 families are grieving the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. Small business owners who put their hearts and souls into their businesses, had to close at a moment’s notice, and many will not have the means to come back. For over 400 years, Black Americans have had to endure adversity far greater than anything I have experienced as a blind person, adversity which this pandemic has exacerbated. But in my case, the pandemic is the current that inspired me to pursue an exciting new course, one which God had been whispering to me about for a long time, but one which I might never have been brave enough to pursue if not for the pandemic.

In this collection of essays in the pages that follow, I will share the story of my life’s river so far. In Part 1, I will focus on how I navigated childhood and school as a blind person. In Part 2, I will focus on my faith journey. These two rivers of academic life and religious life were somewhat separate out of necessity, but are merging more and more as I progress through young adulthood. I have not always recognized that the good lord was trying to be my captain, and when I did recognize it, I wasn’t willing to give up control of my vessel at first. But now, I feel a wonderful sense of joy, hope and renewed purpose in my life. I recognize that even in this exciting new course, rough waters may come, and I recognize that in this ever-changing tumultuous world, the river’s course could change again. I suppose the only way to fully understand the river of one’s life is for a writer to wait until the end of his/her life to write a memoir like this. But I believe the adage is true that it is not the destination, but the journey that counts. I hope readers will find inspiration in reading about my journey so far, and that perhaps, it could change the course of someone else’s river for the better.

This book is available as a Kindle book for $5.99, although I cannot guarantee the visual attractiveness of it, especially the cover because Amazon’s independent publishing platform isn’t as blind-friendly as I wish it was. When I published Paws that Changed my Life, Mom sat next to me and helped me with the cover, but I really wanted to publish this book all by myself. For this reason, I decided to use another service, BookEmon, to create the paperback version of my book. This site is much more accessible because you can select from pre-created covers. But the disadvantage is that because I used their patented cover, I had to publish my book with them under their intellectual property terms, and I did not get to set the list price, which in my opinion is a little high when compared with similar memoirs. The list price is $17.15, and the actual price they charge is $15.44. In addition, unless you register with BookEmon and purchase a gold membership package, there is no free shipping. It is listed on Amazon, but orders are still fulfilled by BookEmon so there is no free shipping if you order the paperback on Amazon either. But I would be super delighted and appreciative to anyone who buys my book, not only because I really believe people will enjoy reading it, but also because–I’m not going to lie–a little extra income from book royalties would be exciting since I am not currently working. If you are a reader who lives locally, I am hoping to sell my books at Martha Merrell’s, an independent bookstore in my area at a couple art crawl events during the holiday season. Nothing is official yet, but I will keep you posted on that. Otherwise, here is the link to my book on BookEmon. Thank you, and happy reading!

Hindsight is 2020, Insight is 2021

In February 2020, I started working on a blog post sharing my thoughts on the 2020 presidential campaign. But then the pandemic hit, and I could not find the inspiration to return to this subject. It almost felt like it was written by someone else in another shallow world. But I just finished a really thought-provoking book called “Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive: and the Truth that Sets us Free” by Jonathan Walton. I first discovered this author shortly before Election Day when I read this article on the blog of Red Letter Christians, an organization whose mission I love, and who I have linked to before. Although 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016–76 percent in 2020–Walton contends that Donald Trump was not elected because of the toxicity of Hillary Clinton, resentment of urban elitism, or the grievances of people harmed by globalization. Donald Trump was elected because of white American folk religion, a “race, gender and class-based hierarchy that hijacks the Christian label to sanction abuse, greed and violence, and then absolve leaders who live lives contrary to the teachings of Jesus and wield power in opposition to God’s plan for the world.” The evils of white supremacy are not new. Walton traces the theological justification for it back to Pope Nicholas V in 1452 who said to “go out and plunder” and John Winthrop in 1630 who placed himself and his followers in the Israelite narrative to justify land theft, slavery and genocide. Winthrop and Pope Nicholas V likely influenced Thomas Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny, but Jefferson goes a step further, not just cutting the true teachings of Jesus out of his preaching, but literally cutting Jesus out of his personal bible. While it would be nice to think society has learned from these atrocities, unfortunately white supremacy is still alive and well in people like Donald Trump, Bret Kavanaugh and Jerry Falwell Jr. and the millions of people who support them. School kept me too busy to read extracurricular books, but I loved the insights of this author so much that I made a mental note to make his book mentioned in the author bio at the end of the article top priority on my summer reading list. The book took an even deeper dive into white American folk religion by exploring twelve lies that most Americans have bought into, and that he once believed himself. Walton likens these lies to Peter’s fishing nets, and argues that if we really want to follow Jesus, we must reject these lies in the same way that Peter put down his nets. Some of these lies I recognized and had already rejected, like the idea that America is a Christian nation because of the aforementioned land theft, genocide and slavery that founded this country, and the lie that we are all immigrants given that Native Americans were already here when the first white men arrived, and the Africans transported here on slave ships were brought here against their will. But one of the key practices of white American folk religion that I never would have thought of as white American folk religion is “the regular tithe of time, money and talent to pursue personal comfort and selfish ambition” (Walton 2019, 18). Related to this pursuit is the lie that the American dream is alive and well. I did some informal journaling after reading each section, and this lie was convicting for me. My thoughts on this are so complicated I am planning another blog post to address it specifically.

I am not sure I completely agree with all of Walton’s positions. For example, in the chapter discussing Lie 4, the lie that we are all created equal, Walton calls the church today a “theological Jim Crow” meaning decisions about how to interpret the Bible are made by white seminaries, churches sing songs from white bands, church services rarely last longer than an hour, and there is no weeping or speaking in tongues. When Walton, a black man, went off to college at Columbia University, a predominately white institution, he was made to feel as though the worship style he grew up with was not just different, but wrong, even unbiblical. He suggests that to rectify this, society should emulate the response of the early church in Acts 6, when Greek widows were overlooked in the daily distribution of food, and instead of giving 50% of the leadership on this issue to the marginalized population and 50% to the Hebrews, James (Jesus’ brother) gave 100% of the responsibility of food distribution to Greek men. Of course, it is absolutely not my place to question the wisdom of the Bible. But while this radical response worked out beautifully for the early church, I must confess I have reservations about whether such a response would be feasible in today’s world. When the events of Acts 6 took place, Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension back to Heaven were still so recent that the original disciples were still alive, and thus the church was still enjoying the afterglow of Jesus’ time on Earth. You could liken it to the phenomenon where in the immediate aftermath of a national crisis (like say, the insurrection on January 6), the fragility of life comes into sharper focus, and the country seems to come together, putting life into perspective and appreciating what truly matters. But as time passes and the raw emotions of the crisis fade from our collective memory, it isn’t long before strife and petty partisanship return. Of course, Jesus is altogether different in that while no one living today had the privilege of literally following Jesus while he lived on Earth, anyone can enjoy a personal relationship with him through prayer and study of Scripture. Giving 100% of leadership to an oppressed population could work if the people given these positions are spiritually mature and make decisions with a spirit of reconciliation rather than revenge. In theory at least, this should be a no-brainer in the church context. It should go without saying in the church context that prayer and discernment should go into every decision. But we live in a fallen world where no institution, including the church, is immune from the effects of sinful human nature, and I worry that when it comes to institutions where a personal relationship with Jesus is not a requirement to be granted a leadership position, the pendulum could swing in a counter-productive direction. For example, the establishment of unions did a tremendous amount of good during the industrial age when companies subjected workers to dangerous working conditions and meager wages, but in some cases, unions intended to call out corruption became corrupt themselves, using union dues on lavish conventions for union leaders, or instituting policies that make it virtually impossible to fire bad cops or teachers. Of course, there absolutely should be more minorities in leadership positions because our country’s past dark history of discrimination, and the systemic racism that still exists today are undeniable realities. But shortly after reading this chapter, I read a New York Times editorial which highlighted recent policies such as Chicago mayor Laurie Lightfoot’s decision to only grant interviews to people of color, or a lending program for struggling farmers that is only available to black farm owners, which amount to rectifying issues of equity through “reverse discrimination.” I’m not saying minorities our country has mistreated since our founding don’t deserve special opportunities, even reparations, but there is a fine line between reconciliation and reverse racism, and two wrongs don’t make right. I think a better approach, at least in contexts where Jesus is not a factor, would be a spirit of collaboration, where all cultures are given proportional representation, and all ideas are given genuine consideration. Perhaps I am misreading Walton and he is not advocating for reverse racism. He never explicitly uses this term, and in other parts of the book, he states that white people are also made in the image of God, and advocates for a spirit of reconciliation, not condemnation.

In my undergraduate communication courses, we talked about how life experiences cause people to form personal, and very often unconscious biases that affect how we view the world and can even affect research if scholars aren’t conscientious. Walton and I definitely come from different life experiences. He is a black man who grew up in Broadnax, Virginia, where his family, like most in this small town barely earned enough to make ends meet. I grew up at a slight disadvantage what with the brain tumor that destroyed my optic nerve when I was about seven months old leaving me totally blind. As I discussed last summer, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in August 1990, just months before my brain tumor diagnosis, so I have never known life without the protection of this law. But I have still faced occasional resistance when asking for accommodations because just like with the Civil Rights Movement, just because laws are passed granting protection, laws cannot change hearts overnight, nor can they heal the emotional scars of those oppressed. Just as black Americans still bare the emotional wounds from slavery, lynching, red-lining, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration, people with disabilities still collectively bare the emotional wounds of “ugly laws”, institutionalization, forced sterilization, lack of access to education and inaccessible buildings and public transportation that prevailed in our society not that long ago. There are still very few people with severe disabilities in leadership positions, and the unemployment rate for blind people is 70%.

But in addition to the new protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was fortunate to grow up in a comfortably middle-class family and attend an affluent school district that was willing and able to provide all of the support I needed. This privileged foundation allowed me to get into and succeed in a private liberal arts college where I graduated magna cum laude in 2012, which laid the foundation for the smooth experience I am enjoying now as I take graduate level seminary courses. My search for employment has been a little bumpier, as I have noticed the business world is a lot more skittish about accommodating people with disabilities than the academic world. Nevertheless, with the help of a job coach, I managed to cajole a Social Security disability law firm into hiring me. Although the first couple years were rough, the company found the right position for me in 2017, and I thrived there for three years, and would probably still be there if it weren’t for the pandemic.

Growing up, I took my race completely for granted. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I was introduced to the concept of white privilege. But since then, in light of all the injustices faced by people of color from police brutality, to income disparity and difficulty accessing healthcare, I am becoming more and more aware of the fact that even though I am also a minority population given my disability, the fact that I am white has made my path a little easier in our current society. So I hate to admit this, but while I absolutely believe on an intellectual level that people of color deserve reparations and increased access to leadership positions, my first thought when I read Walton’s suggestion that our society adopt the Acts 6 model was “it was hard enough for me, a white person with a disability to get a job. If I have to contend with my disability, and reverse discrimination by employers, my prospects of ever finding employment again are hopeless!” I don’t think Walton would condemn me for having this first thought, and I know God doesn’t condemn me. Walton acknowledges that some of the values espoused by white American folk religion are so entrenched that even he bought into some of them. Over the past year of reckoning, prompted by the shocking and senseless murder of George Floyd, I have read several articles discussing how you can be a decent white person who agrees with Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of a society where people are judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, and who is horrified by racist rhetoric from hate groups and some politicians, or the brutal murders of unarmed black people by police over the most minor infractions, and yet still carry unconscious racial biases because racism is so engrained in the fabric of our society. Perhaps I am complicating Walton’s message too much. Although Walton speaks out for all marginalized populations (anyone who isn’t a wealthy, white, Protestant male), his primary focus is on racial prejudice, and the tension of being disadvantaged on one hand because of a disability, and at the same time privileged because I am white, was way beyond the scope of his book. Even so, from this chapter, I came away with the sobering personal insight that although the idea of a career that involves activism on Jesus’ behalf fills me with passion, perhaps I need to spend more time in study and prayer to make sure I am not clinging tightly to a net of white privilege which could be impeding my ability to fully follow Jesus.

But now that I have been honest about this plank in my eye, I want to address the speck of sawdust in the eyes of American Christians collectively, which is the “marriage of God and country” (Walton 2013, 18). It is this problematic marriage, which Walton contends, and I agree is at the root of the unbiblical views so many American evangelicals have bought into.

I will never forget the evening of February 26. Just a couple weeks earlier in my Old Testament survey course, we had covered the book of Exodus, including the scene when Moses returns from Mount Sinai where he had received the Ten Commandments from God to find that Aaron had fashioned a golden calf which the Israelites were worshipping. In the discussion forum for that week, I wrote about how it is important that Christians today recognize the full scope of God’s commandments. As an example, I cited Exodus 20:4 when God says that the Israelites are not to make for themselves an idol. It is natural for new Christians to assume that this commandment doesn’t apply to us because today we don’t literally make gold statues to worship. In fact, I held this view myself as a young Christian. But if the full scope of the commandment is appreciated, an idol can be anything we prioritize over God. In my case, it has been food. For other people, it can be money, or career success. But on the evening of February 26, I was watching the news, which was covering the CPAC convention, where Donald Trump was scheduled to speak that weekend. In anticipation of his arrival, someone sculpted a gold statue of Donald Trump which was wheeled out onto the stage, where some people were shown kneeling reverently in front of it! I couldn’t help laughing at first at the dark irony of this, but the ramifications are no laughing matter. This event came back to mind when I read Walton’s discussion of how one of the tenants of white American folk religion is deification of its leaders, and again in the chapter on Lie 5 which confronts the lie that America is a great democracy. In this chapter, Walton discusses how the founders never intended for America to be a true Democracy, and in fact even wrote of the perils of Democracy. What the founders actually intended was a Democratic Republic. If America were truly a democracy, the outcomes of the 2000 election, and the 2016 election where George W. Bush and Donald Trump lost the popular vote, yet still became president due to the electoral college, would not have been possible. The term Democracy comes from two greek words that can be translated “power to the People”, whereas Republic comes from two latin words meaning “people of public things” which in our country are laws. The United States is sort of a Democracy in that we elect our representatives. But due to voter suppression, lobbying, the influence of dark money, partisan gerrymandering and the electoral college, the results of elections don’t always reflect the true will of the people, and Walton contends that although John Lewis advocated voter rights to give people access to power, voting only gives people the illusion of power. This false hope, kept alive by propagating the myth that we are the greatest democracy in the world is an essential component of white American folk religion. Walton argues that the election system in America isn’t broken, but is working exactly as the founders intended, ensuring that the voices of wealthy white men are elevated, and the voices of minorities, women and the poor are suppressed. I don’t fully agree with this hopeless view, not because what he says about our current election system isn’t true, but because I don’t think he gives enough credit to the growing uprising of citizens speaking out against voter suppression, campaign finance laws that favor corporations, and partisan gerrymandering. I have even heard more serious debate recently about abolishing the Electoral College. Sure, our founders may have intentionally designed a system that favored wealthy white men, and there are still a sizable proportion of people fighting tooth and nail to keep it that way. But I see reason for optimism when I hear about the increasing number of people trying to change the system. But this hopeless view of our election system is only a small part of a wonderful larger argument Walton makes that is spot on. The expectation that Americans put their faith and trust in our flawed system without question essentially makes America into an idol.

One of my most memorable Bible studies with my Jehovah’s Witness friends was when we discussed this very topic. It saddens me that Christians have a visceral, negative reaction when Jehovah’s Witnesses are mentioned. Of course, some of their theology is flawed. Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own translation of the Bible, called the New World Bible. It is for the most part in line with mainstream translations, yet differs in a few significant places, such as John 1:1 which in the NIV Bible reads “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” but in the New World translation reads, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God.” They believe theirs is the more accurate translation, and use this verse to reject the idea of the Trinity. But I felt vindicated when in my New Testament survey course first semester, one of the assigned reading was Craig Blomberg’s book “Can we Believe the Bible?” This book explores in an academic manner why we can trust that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, despite challenges that have been raised, such as the fact that we don’t have the original manuscript, or the fact that there seem to be numerous variations, even outright contradictions. But Blomberg also mentioned that he read the sacred texts of other religions too, including the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. While none of the texts for these other religions touched his heart like the Bible, he wanted to be open to “truth from wherever it might emerge” (Blomberg 2014, 220). Actually, intellectually speaking, the truths related to how we should regard our relationship with earthly government is the same for mainstream Christianity and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In both Bible translations, John 18:36 is rendered identically. In this verse, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is no part of this world, and both religions technically speaking teach that by extension, we should not give our allegiance to this world either. In both translations, Romans 13 is rendered identically. Earthly governments are ordained by God in that they are necessary to maintain order in this current system, and therefore we are to submit to the laws of whatever earthly government we are living under, so long as they don’t conflict with God’s laws. But no nation-state, including the United States, is divinely ordained by God, and even if the United States was a true democracy, all systems of earthly government are in opposition to God’s kingdom. But what inspired me about the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they actually practice what they preach. They strive to be neutral when it comes to politics, and therefore they do not run for office or even vote. They teach their children not to participate in saying the pledge of allegiance at school, and don’t even celebrate holidays like July 4, because such actions would amount to worshipping country. They do not serve in the military because they may be given orders that conflict with God’s law which says that all human life is sacred and all people are made in the image of God. I thought Walton beautifully conveyed the same truth that my Jehovah’s Witness friends put into practice when he said, “This expectation of unwavering hope and trust connected to a set of actions such as pledging allegiance, standing for an anthem, and honoring politicians and military personnel regardless of their integrity sounds less like a country and more like a religion” (Walton 2019, 81).

The only point on which I disagree with Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least at the present moment is that I think it is important to vote. I am open to the idea of potentially no longer feeling compelled to vote if we can get to a future where both candidates are basically decent people, but in our current climate, even Walton suggested that voting Donald Trump and those who share his vision for America out of office was an important means of engaging in social justice, which should be a natural response for any true follower of Christ (Amos 5:23-24, Matthew 25:31-46). The Bible makes it clear there is no hope fully establishing God’s kingdom on Earth by our own power, but at the same time, Scripture indicates we shouldn’t throw in the towel. We should live lives that seek to bring a taste of God’s kingdom to life in the here and now, and this kind of life includes engaging in social justice.

When I started the post back in February 2020, I admit I was really excited about the 2020 presidential race, partly because of the energy in the air where I live. I live in Milwaukee which was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to host Democratic National convention, but also because I had an idea for the perfect campaign slogan, even though I didn’t have any interest in volunteering with a campaign. But my idea for a slogan was “Hindsight is 2020.” Even though Donald Trump’s ineptitude and complete lack of compassion or integrity was obvious to me from day 1, there were people who wanted to give this unconventional candidate a chance. But I had heard that many people who voted for him in 2016 regretted this vote in hindsight, so 2020 was the opportunity to correct our course.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure about Joe Biden at first. He was 76 years old, and although Mom said he was much healthier physically than Donald Trump, on a couple instances during debates, I thought his age showed as he didn’t seem fully with it. I feared Donald Trump would eat him alive. I was really rooting for Mayor Pete Buttigieg because although he was very young, you could tell he was very intelligent, not only in just his understanding of policy on all fronts, but on the way he answered tough questions from reporters carefully and thoughtfully. I also liked how, although getting Donald Trump out of the White House was a priority for him, he was already thinking about a long-term vision for America, long after Trump was but a memory whereas it seemed as though, at least until the pandemic, most candidates, in my perception seemed too focused on the short-term, just getting elected. I was confident that Buttigieg could eat Trump alive on the debate stage.

I must say I also really liked Marianne Williamson. She is Oprah’s spiritual adviser, and although she is technically New Age, not Christian, she draws inspiration from diverse spiritual leaders including Jesus, and her life’s work has been centered in convictions such as forgiveness, love for all people, and surrender to God’s plan which are Christian principles. At first, I must confess my first impression of her was that she was a little off her rocker. But the longer I listened to her, the more I admired the way she responded to debate topics from a spiritual lens as opposed to a practical, policy lens like the other candidates. For example, in the July 30, 2019 debate, she said that instead of talking about policy that could be implemented to ensure better access to health care, we should be talking about the root causes of people getting sick to begin with. But I also recognized she didn’t stand a chance because although she was the complete opposite of Donald Trump in terms of love and compassion for all people, she was similar to Trump in that she didn’t seem to have a solid grasp of policy on a practical level. In other words, I think she was too spiritual for the job. Perhaps she was idealistic, seeking to realize God’s vision for society, not understanding that this is impossible under the current system.

But by March 2020, I was fully onboard with Joe Biden. I think the March 29 debate with Bernie Sanders was a turning point for Biden when he really seemed to find his footing, and his ambitious agenda as president has proven he cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be called “Sleepy Joe.” Of course, I understand the criticism that he is another old, white man. But he has appointed a very diverse cabinet, and is seeking to implement policies that address the inequity that has persisted in this country for too long. After four years of a narcissistic president who treated the office like a reality television show, it is so refreshing just to hear Biden speak and realize that we have an adult in the white house again.

But I also recognize that Joe Biden is not Jesus. I wish that he would raise the cap on refugees, and some of his past decisions, such as the Crime Bill in the 1990s which really caused harm to communities of color prove that he is a fallible, sinful human like all of us. So although I voted for Joe Biden, I would cringe if I heard of people worshipping a gold statue of Joe Biden at a Democratic convention.

Conservatives like to lament the decline of Christian influence in America, especially among millennials and Generation Z. But speaking as a millennial who personally knows too many fellow millennials who lost patience with Christianity. Too many supposed Christians they encounter are nothing like Christ due to their idolatry of political influence, and of America itself. I think the noble attempts of churches to have outreach ministries for youth and young adults are well and good. But I contend there is no hope of that dreamed-of Christian revival conservatives talk about in America until evangelicals walk a walk that is a little closer to that of my Jehovah’s Witness friends, recognizing that true Christians cannot marry God and country, and that America is not the divinely ordained, best hope for the world.

Is Not Life More Important Than Food?

As I briefly mentioned in my previous post, the first half of a Spiritual Formation course I took last semester focused on getting to know God by practicing means of grace, which are spiritual disciplines like prayer, solitude and fasting. Much of our discussion on this topic was centered on Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines. As long-time readers of this blog know, just before Thanksgiving 2018, following a shocking weight reading at the doctor’s office, I decided I wanted to respond in a manner that went beyond the superficial efforts of most Americans to lose weight by not making merely a physical commitment to weight loss, but a spiritual commitment to health. I was going to take seriously Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 to honor my body as a temple to the Lord by only consuming foods that were healthy. As for foods which I enjoyed so much that portion control was difficult for me, I was going to abide by Matthew 5:29: “if your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.” So I gave up altogether peanut butter, Larabars, red meat (including pork), chips/crackers, traditional desserts and cheese. Since unrefined, whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice, and starchy foods like potatoes are beneficial if limited to one serving a day, I allowed myself to eat one serving of these foods a day, but only at breakfast so that my body would have the whole day to metabolize it. I limited my consumption of refined sugar to one square of Ghirardelli 92% dark chocolate which is just 60 calories and less than 1 gram of sugar, and because it is high quality, intense chocolate, I can eat just one and be completely satisfied. Instead of rice or pasta at dinner, I ate riced cauliflower or zucchini noodles. Other than one visit to a favorite vegetarian restaurant where I gave into the crackers and hummus they brought out as an appetizer, and one week just before Thanksgiving 2019 when I had such a craving for pumpkin pie that I ate two pumpkin pie Larabars that had been sitting on a shelf in my bedroom that whole year, my new lifestyle was a raging success. The mood of my 2019 annual physical was much different than 2018, as my doctor congratulated me on losing 40 pounds!

Just a few weeks before the 2018 doctor visit, our church challenged the congregation to a day of prayer and fasting, a challenge I did not accept. I have occasionally had to fast for medical tests and procedures, so I knew I was capable of fasting, but I absolutely hated fasting even out of medical necessity. Just knowing I couldn’t eat made me anxious so that all I could think about was food, and when my siblings who did not have to fast made food, it smelled even more delicious than usual. I could not find the motivation to fast for nonmedical reasons. As I reflected on my shocking weight the afternoon after my 2018 doctor appointment, this unembraced challenge offered by my church came back to mind, and it occurred to me that I had let food become an idol. By eliminating unhealthy food from my life, I truly believed I could break free of the grip food had on my life. To a small extent, this has proven true. Even before making my commitment to healthy eating, I was aware of science which proved that optimal health is 80% dependent on what you eat, and only 20% on how much you exercise. In other words, even if you run say, 10 miles a day, you still cannot eat whatever you want with reckless abandon. But I was so addicted to my eating habits that I deluded myself into believing that if I was fanatical about exercise, I could offset the unhealthiness of my diet. So I made sure I got on the treadmill, set the speed to at least 4 miles per hour and walked for at least 30 minutes each day, even if I wasn’t feeling well. When my parents and I took walks outdoors in the spring and summer months, few things infuriated me more than a neighbor stopping us to talk, or when we went to a park, my parents wanting to stand at an overlook and listen to the sound of the river or watch the ducks. I had to keep my heart rate up, and if I stopped too long, I felt like I would have to redo my walk on the treadmill when I got home because this walk wouldn’t count for exercise. I am still very diligent about getting aerobic exercise, as exercise is important for optimal health. But because my diet is healthy, I have the freedom to be less fanatical. I am not as staunchly opposed to skipping the treadmill occasionally, or walking at a slower pace for less time if I don’t feel well. When taking walks outdoors, my smile when neighbors stop us to talk is genuine, and I can truly appreciate the soul-restoring sounds of the river and the ducks. Back when I was addicted to the typical American diet, my stomach was often upset after meals, but the way I eat now, an upset stomach is a rare occurrence, and I cannot help gloating a little when the rest of the family who has not found the will to break free of the typical American diet complains of stomach upset on an almost daily basis. Because I don’t allow myself to indulge even on holidays, I am not consumed with guilt or despair in January over all the weight I gained over the holidays. But in the course of prayer and reflection during my spiritual formation course, and recent events this summer, God has brought me to the sobering realization that the freedom I have experienced by eating healthier has only been surface-level, superficial, like pulling up the stem of a dandelion, but failing to remove the root. The sobering truth is that food is still an idol in my life.

I started to recognize this truth in week 6 of the Spiritual Formation class, when the discussion forum prompted us to share our past experience practicing a spiritual discipline discussed in our assigned reading from Dallas Willard. I decided to post about my struggle with weight, and my decision in 2018 to abstain from favorite foods. Although it didn’t fit neatly into the spiritual discipline of fasting because it wasn’t a complete fast from food, in my mind, especially in the early days when all I could think about was how much I craved these foods, I viewed my radical decision as a spiritual discipline. But our reading also warned that even good things like family relationships, ministry success, or physical fitness can become idols, meaning they are given unhealthy priority over our lives that can cause us to stray from God. In my post, I expressed the recognition that my commitment to health which started out as a spiritual discipline may have become an idol in my life, citing as evidence the fact that although I mostly looked forward to the end of the pandemic and a return to normal life, I dreaded the prospect of social engagements, and travel for fear that my hunger, or the fear of being socially awkward would get the better of me and I would slip up and return to unhealthy habits. Another insightful classmate replied that perhaps my anxiety around health was due to a deeper insecurity, or fear of losing control, and suggested I spend time in prayer about this.

Even without prayer, I knew this classmate hit the nail on the head. I don’t remember being a control freak as a child. I think it started in July 2012 when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and suddenly I couldn’t just eat whatever. Going on vacation, or just going out to dinner, things I used to do without a thought, now required careful planning. Even as a teenager before I had dietary restrictions, I was beginning to dislike traveling because of the way it made me feel as though I was a dog on a leash, dependent on and controlled by others. But after my Celiac Disease diagnosis, my disdain for travel intensified because packing all of my own food is a pain, and sometimes isn’t even feasible, and every meal in a restaurant is fraught with unknowns and potential risks. Over the years, we have cultivated a list of trustworthy places including Chipotle, Bonefish Grill, and Cafe Manna (the local aforementioned vegetarian restaurant). But on vacation, these places often aren’t available, or sometimes even if they are, someone in the family will object, craving spontaneity, not understanding that I cannot think of anything that make me more anxious than walking into some random hole-in-the-wall place on the fly and asking about gluten free options, especially when English is not the first language of the staff, as is often the case in tourist places like New York City. I will say that since my commitment to eating only healthy food, one source of anxiety/paranoia has been removed when I eat out. Back when the priority was pleasure, I would order gluten free bread or pasta whenever possible, but could never fully enjoy it because of the niggling paranoid fear of a mistake, or plate mix-up. I read a horror story of a chef who didn’t believe Celiac Disease was a real thing and would purposely just give everyone gluten pasta, but the fact that I only saw one such story confirms such egregious conduct is rare, and I still believe most people are decent and well-intentioned, so any mistake or mix-up would most likely be completely innocent. But nonetheless, the immune system doesn’t care about motives or intentions, so I could never fully exhale until the following morning when I woke up without a nasty migraine. But now that I no longer eat simple carbs like bread or pasta, a huge contributor to my former weight problems, I only order naturally gluten free meat and vegetables. Even a few crumbs of gluten can cause a reaction, so I still worry about cross-contamination, or a soy sauce mix-up. But at least I don’t have to worry about accidentally eating a whole plate of gluten pasta. But trying new places without at least a couple hours notice to scope them out online still gives me anxiety because of the potential for cross-contamination, so while everyone else looks forward to vacations, this is one reason I dread them for weeks in advance, and breathe a sigh of relief when they are over and I am back home, independent and in control of my meals once again.

Then, as was the case with everyone, the pandemic reminded us how quickly life can change, and how little of it is actually in our control. In my case, I never intended for my position at the Social Security disability law firm to be a life-long job. In fact, for the past year or so before the pandemic, I had been contemplating going back to school, but for the time being was enjoying the smooth sailing of life and the financial security this job provided. When all of a sudden it was no longer safe for me to go to the office, and no one had answers as to when it would be safe again, I think I took even more comfort from the routine of home life, set meals at prescribed times. At least this was one area of life I could still control.

But my suspicion that food might still be an idol in my life was confirmed when I came to Dallas Willard’s section on fasting, which he argues is one of the most important ways to practice the self-denial Jesus required of those wishing to follow him (matthew 16:24), and which Dallas Willard therefore recommends for Christians today as it “reveals to us how much of our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating” (Willard 1990, 166). I was immediately convicted, but just like in 2018, I once again found myself thinking, “I’ll pass on that discipline, thanks” and “Thank goodness practicing the discipline of fasting isn’t required to pass this course.” It also occurred to me that because I hadn’t gotten to the root of my food dandelion, the stem was starting to grow back in the form of small lapses in diligence regarding even my surface-level commitment to physical health.

I vividly remember March 17, 2020, just a couple days into that surreal week when everything changed. That day, Mom and I were both glued to Facebook, curious as to how friends and family were coping with this strange new world. Mom saw jokes from a few people that before the lockdown was over, they would gain the COVID 19, as they found they were eating to cope with the boredom and anxiety. “That won’t be me,” I found myself thinking smugly. And for a few months, it wasn’t. Even during the strange time of supply shortages at grocery stores and long waits for grocery delivery, I never went a day without salad, bean soup, and plenty of other fruit and vegetables. I have re-introduced natural peanut butter, one of those foods that caused me to sin, because it has nutritional benefits and is found in many of Dr. Fuhrman’s recipes, and I realized I could save quite a bit of money by stirring two tablespoons into my oatmeal two or three days a week rather than getting my serving of nuts from nutrition bars every single day. I would just make sure to only touch that jar on oatmeal days, and after stirring exactly two tablespoons into my oatmeal, to promptly put the jar away! In other words, I would practice self-control which is actually a fruit of the spirit that should be cultivated rather than avoided. But my commitment to avoiding red meat, cheese, simple carbs and traditional desserts has never wavered.

But gradually, I began to backslide in other ways, eating servings of chicken that were far larger than the recommended deck of cards, or snacking when I was not really hungry, just bored or tired after an afternoon of studying. Two weeks ago when my parents and I got dressed up for a cousin’s wedding, the first dress-up occasion since my brother’s intimate, pandemic wedding last August, we all came to the disheartening realization that our clothes were a little tighter, and decided summer was a good time to re-join the gym where Mom and I enjoyed swimming, and where Dad used the elliptical and weight machines before the pandemic. I had not checked my weight since my annual physical December 31, a purposeful decision as my obsessive compulsiveness is bad enough without letting myself stress over every little fluctuation in my weight as is the case with some people who weigh themselves often. But I was curious to get a baseline now that I was swimming again. To my disappointment, I had gained the COVID 12. This was humbling, but did not send me into despair. I was still nowhere near the 186 pounds of November 2018, or even the 168 pounds of 2015 when the job developer implied that my clothing was not flattering. My seminary education also helped me understand on a deeper level that although the Christian life requires effort on our part, the fact that we are saved by grace means God still loves us even when we make mistakes. I just needed to re-commit myself, remembering that God never intended for food to be the source of all of our comfort and pleasure.

My attempt at frugality by letting Mom help me chop up onions and peppers rather than buying them dehydrated was also completely negated when last summer, I became addicted to crunchy kale. Until then, the only processed snack I allowed myself to eat was roasted seaweed, which is very low in calories, high in nutrition and much less expensive. I discovered crunchy kale, and came to love it as a unique, flavorful, healthy snack in 2016, but even then when I was riding high on having a credit card for the first time and earning my own money, I realized this could become an expensive habit and put the kibosh on it after ordering two cases. But perhaps because pandemic life lacked uniqueness and flavor, I craved it in the form of crunchy kale, and quickly fell into a routine of rewarding myself after an afternoon of studying by cracking open a bag of kale chips at 5:30 with the same delight as normal people might crack open a bottle of whine. Another spiritual discipline Dallas Willard discussed in week 6 of my Spiritual Formation course was frugality, and with a sinking feeling in my stomach, I thought of my crunchy kale addiction which cost $4 a day, and realized I was failing pretty miserably in this discipline too!

But the final nail of confirmation that food is still an idol in my life came when I was invited to our cousin’s wedding. There was no reason for food to have been a source of anxiety for me at this event. There are several relatives on that side of the family who also have Celiac Disease, so the mother of the bride who planned the wedding took this into account. The invitation gave us two dinner choices, chicken piccata which the venue said could be made gluten free, and salmon which was naturally gluten free. The invitation also had space to indicate dietary restrictions. I chose salmon, not just because it was naturally gluten free, but because it is something I like to eat whenever available anyway because it has health benefits. For a while, I didn’t give the food at the wedding another thought. But a few days before the wedding, I began having second thoughts. What if there was a miscommunication and the venue did not get the message about my Celiac Disease? Sometimes, I will bring along a can of soup or some fruit as a back-up plan to events in case things go wrong, but it would be tacky to bring my own food into such a formal event: in fact Mom and Dad probably wouldn’t have even ben willing to facilitate it. Why didn’t I just RSVP that I couldn’t come to the reception, but would come to the wedding mass at the church, my first inclination before remembering that this side of the family is familiar with Celiac Disease, and seeing the well-thought-out invitation. I knew I couldn’t in good conscience back out of my commitment for such ridiculous reasoning, so I ate two apples when we went home for an hour in between the ceremony and the reception, and mentally prepared myself for the possibility that if things went wrong, I would just smile and eat nothing, knowing that I could eat a late dinner when I got home. I didn’t want to stay late at the wedding anyway and planned to ride home with my brother and his wife who didn’t want to stay late either.

My anxiety about attending my cousin’s wedding reception would have been understandable if I didn’t normally over-focus on food, and was merely anxious because it was my first formal event post-pandemic. After spending over a year hardly ever leaving home, anxiety about returning to normal life has been common, and I have seen multiple articles from psychologists about how to adjust. The problem is that my over-fixation on food is nothing new. As I write this, I am having a hilarious flashback to an incident when I was in first grade. At that time, an itinerant teacher pulled me out of the regular class for an hour each day to practice reading braille, and at the end of each week, I was rewarded with M&Ms, my favorite candy, based on how many pages I read that week. As I was leaving the resource room to return to class after a reading session Monday or Tuesday one particular week, I remarked casually, “I cannot wait for M&M day!” to which the teacher sighed and said something to the effect that I needed to get excited about things other than food. I was kind of taken aback by this remark and didn’t say anything in response. Nowadays, I would love to go back and respond with something funny like “you need to realize I come from a family that loves to eat. The family joke is that our favorite word is buffet. You started working with me when I was three years old, and at that time, as you know, I had an aversion to the texture of most foods. So I would have thought you would be happy that I enjoy eating now, and that I am fully assimilating into my family, a clear indication that the hard work of you and all the teachers on my preschool team paid off!” But in all seriousness, this teacher was on to something. Nowadays, I do live in eager anticipation of more than just food: I get excited over an upcoming choir concert, or musical we have tickets to, or feedback from a professor on a paper I am proud of, just to name a couple examples. But there is an element of truth in that I do get anxious and over-fixate on what I will eat, especially when I cannot be at home, in my controlled environment.
At the same time I was acting all spiritual writing this post about how by abstaining from favorite foods, food would no longer be an idol in my life, I was dreading an upcoming trip to New York City that March. Despite the fact that the highlight of this trip was going to be seeing Hamilton on Broadway, an incredibly generous gift from my sister and her husband, I begged and pleaded with Mom and Dad, to no avail to just let me stay home and see it when it would eventually come to Milwaukee, especially after the unsuccessful attempt to send some Fuhrman soups ahead to my sister’s apartment. In my mind, by the time of that trip, I will have come so far in my healthy lifestyle, well on track to loosing weight and feeling awesome, only to be derailed by meal after meal in restaurants where I may not always be able to find a healthy option. In 2019, one of my friends from the young adult bible study group I used to host at my house invited me to a New Year’s Eve party at her house. She offered to pick me and another girl up about 3pm that day to hang out and set up for the party, with everyone else arriving right in time for dinner. Instead of fully focusing on the fact that instead of falling asleep before midnight at home as I usually did on New Year’s Eve, I would be celebrating the holiday with friends, I was agonizing over meal logistics. She wanted to pick me up too early to eat dinner beforehand, and I couldn’t think of a tactful way to ask what she planned to serve. I could try just skipping dinner if she had no healthy options, but then I might start getting a headache and feeling cranky and I felt socially awkward bringing my own meal. I ended up bringing my own meal of chicken and riced cauliflower, which my friends seemed totally fine with. When the host picked me and the other friend up, we stopped at Aldi’s for party food, and everyone loved my idea of a vegetable tray with hummus for dipping, so I felt like I was sociable, partaking in the party food without compromising on health. So it all worked out, but looking back, I am ashamed at this anxiety which made me hesitant to enjoy a party with good friends, especially since during the pandemic, life circumstances changed for all of them, and I don’t know if we will ever get together like that again. Last August, my brother and his wife had an intimate pandemic wedding at their house, with only immediate family in attendance. Again I wasn’t the only person in attendance with Celiac Disease, so my brother and his wife decided that after a brief ceremony, they would order Chipotle one of my trusted places because they are very accommodating for food allergies, and it is something everyone likes. I should have had absolutely no reason to worry about food then right? But in the days leading up to the wedding when I should have been focusing on the joyful occasion of my brother entering a new chapter of life with a wonderful woman, I was worried that with such a large order for nine people, Chipotle would mess something up. I wasn’t actually worried that it wouldn’t be gluten free, as the only gluten item Chipotle serves are their flour tortillas. I was more worried that all the burrito bowls would come with cheese and/or sour cream, or worst of all, that they would give me brown rice or white rice by mistake instead of riced cauliflower when I only eat grain for breakfast, and prefer to portion it myself as restaurants give you way too much. All of these events went relatively smoothly. For my brother’s wedding, Chipotle did not make any mistakes. For my cousin’s wedding, everyone was given salad with cheese on top, but Dad was able to get most of it off mine, so I only consumed a few trace shreds. The salmon was delicious, and the venue got the message about my Celiac Disease, even noting it on the name card at my table. In New York City 2019, I was a little perturbed because since the Fuhrman soups could not be delivered, we bought ingredients at Whole Foods for Mom to make bean salad, but she couldn’t find my sister’s measuring spoons to measure out dressing as she did when making it for me to take to work, so she just poured until it looked good. This sent me into a bit of a panic because who knows how many extra empty calories of oil I had eaten by not measuring! So I made sure to be extra diligent for the other meals. But as it turned out, even if I did eat extra empty calories in oil, I guess it didn’t matter because with all of the walking we did that weekend, I lost three pounds!

The week before my post to the discussion forum, the assigned reading from Dallas Willard’s book discussed the history of monasticism during the dark ages. Although Jesus, and Paul saw value in ascetic practices like solitude and fasting, they believed in a sensible ascetism that was not about earning merit, penance for sins, rejection of the world or hatred of the body, but “effective and full enjoyment of active love of God and humankind in all the daily rounds of normal existence where we are placed” (Willard 1990, 138). Willard argues that the Protestant Reformation over-corrected for the extreme, and unbiblical monastic practices by rejecting the idea of ascetism altogether. But ascetism, when practiced in a sensible way and with the right motivation behind it, is extremely valuable, even necessary to grow in spiritual maturity, in the same way that physical training is necessary to become skilled in any sport. In fact, when writing to Timothy about the importance of spiritual discipline, Paul uses the Greek word gumnaze, from which we get the word gymnasium. Another parallel Willard draws between athletic training and spiritual training is that just as an athlete must practice what they are not good at if they really want to excel in a sport, growing in spiritual maturity requires practicing precisely the disciplines that we struggle with. In my life, this means I don’t need to practice solitude. I love it, relish it, sometimes even wish my parents would go on vacation so I could have more of it. But prayer and Scripture meditation are disciplines I struggle to stay diligent with, and I have never even attempted complete fasting when it wasn’t medically necessary. When I made my radical commitment to healthy eating in 2018, in my mind I really believed I was making a spiritual commitment, especially when 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and Matthew 6:24 where Jesus says that no man can serve two masters, came to my mind. But because I struggle to stay diligent with Scripture meditation and prayer, these verses are where my Scripture meditation stopped. If I would have read just one verse further into Matthew 6, I would have read, “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. IS NOT LIFE MORE IMPORTANT THAN FOOD, and the body more important than clothes?” Therefore, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the discipline quickly took precedence over the spiritual. One of the strange monastic practices of early church history that Willard recounts was the practice of proudly keeping track of the number of years they had gone without seeing a woman. I laughed out loud when I read this, but then it occurred to me that I had been proudly keeping track of the years I had gone without eating junk food. So what I am guessing started as a well-intentioned effort by these monks to live a celibate life devoted to God, or avoid the temptation to lust, because of lack of interaction with, or misunderstanding of the Bible, soon devolved into self-righteousness and pride in themselves for their commitment to the discipline itself, which is far removed from the way God wanted us to live. In a similar manner, what started for me as a well-intentioned effort to honor God by not defiling the body he has given me with junk food, soon devolved into an attitude of spiritual superiority (also known as gloating over how good I felt) and pride over my commitment to the discipline itself because I overlooked the importance of sustained interaction with God through prayer and Scripture meditation. In other words, I was just as spiritually immature as the monks of the dark ages! That was a humbling revelation!

And although my thoughts revolved around healthy food rather than junk food, because I have never fasted voluntarily, my sense of peace still revolved around the pleasure of eating. All of this has brought me to the inescapable conclusion that I need to start a regular habit of prayer and fasting. Some people who practice the discipline of fasting fast from both food and drink. In my case, given that I have medical conditions that can cause my electrolytes to get out of balance, and because the Bible advocates for sensible ascetism, I would allow myself to drink water and pedialyte. Starting July 9, I am going to institute Fasting Friday. I came up with this plan, not only because it is catchy and may help motivate me, but because Friday symbolically is the perfect day for such a discipline as Jesus was crucified on a Friday. Even though I feel as though my faith is better nurtured in the nondenominational church than the Catholic church, I always admired Grandma’s dedication to her faith. She told me that when she was growing up, her parents did not ever serve meat on Fridays, not just on Fridays during Lent as is the custom now. Her parents also would not allow her to go out on Fridays, which pretty much precluded her from attending school dances and such, because they believed Fridays should be spent at home reflecting on Jesus’ death. While I disagree with these practices, especially not allowing teenagers to go out on Friday nights, the principle behind these practices is intriguing, and came to my mind when contemplating when I would fast. (This Friday, my sister, her husband, my brother and his wife will be here to celebrate July 4, and since fasting should be accompanied by prayer, it would be more sensible to start when there is nothing going on and I can engage properly with this new discipline.) In the video lecture for the unit on these disciplines, the professor recommended starting small, perhaps skipping one meal at first. So my plan is to eat a normal breakfast at my usual time, skip lunch, and then eat the soup and salad I usually have for lunch at the usual dinner time, which will equate to about ten hours of day-time fasting. Eventually, I would like to work up to 24 hours of fasting, which I am capable of because I had to fast that long before a surgery in 2009. Between meals, I will engage in Bible study using study guides I downloaded from Intervarsity Press. At lunch, I will take a break for Pedialyte and to talk with Mom and Dad while they eat their lunch, so as to practice being sociable, not somber while fasting as Jesus commanded in Matthew 6:16.

Some could understandably argue that in sharing the details of how I plan to fast on this blog, I am no different than the self-righteous Pharisees who prayed on the street corners for all to see. To guard against this temptation, I have always strived for full transparency in this blog, just as the Bible is credible precisely because it does not spare the ugly stuff, like the fact that David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle, or that Paul oversaw the execution of Christians before his conversion. In that spirit, remember my previous post when I said I would start the discipline of daily Bible study time June 1? Yeah, that lasted exactly one day. On June 1, I downloaded a study guide for Genesis, and on June 2, completed one lesson. And then I just let the days get away from me without making this study time a priority. Unfortunately, I have always been the kind of person where unless I have had a wake-up call of life-threatening magnitude to kick me in the butt, or a course grade is at stake, I am terrible at committing to a discipline. But I am going to try again July 1. I will be fully transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly about my fasting experience, even if I end up chickening out on the whole idea again altogether. But I really hope and pray that I don’t chicken out, that I will take this spiritual wake-up call as seriously as the 2018 medical wake-up call. Hopefully by being transparent about my journey, I can help others who struggle with food idolatry as well because while I have seen a ton of Christian resources related to alcohol addiction, or immoral sexual behavior, even greed which is idolatry of money, I have not seen a lot of Christian resources addressing gluttony and/or food idolatry.

While reading Dr. Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live in preparation for his radical six-week diet in 2015, he warned that our bodies, which were accustomed to the modern American diet, would experience symptoms of withdrawal. I started this diet on Sunday January 18, 2015, and the following morning woke up with a nasty migraine reminiscent of the ones I used to get when I ate gluten. Ideally, Dr. Fuhrman advised not taking pain medication if possible as all medications are toxic to some degree, and the whole point of the six-week diet, especially the first couple days is to allow the body to detoxify, but I absolutely had to take my excedrin because it was one of those headaches that was so bad I felt like I would throw up or pass out. So I had a cup of sugar-free applesauce, took my medicine and went back to bed for a couple hours. But even though I didn’t fully detoxify, once my headache went away, I felt amazing! Even though I could not have possibly lost any weight in just 24 hours, I already felt lighter, and I didn’t realize until that day when my stomach was silent that it had always been a little rumbly. This feeling lasted the entire six weeks, and to a large degree returned when I re-committed to health in 2018. I don’t anticipate experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms because I have gotten through fasting for medical reasons without getting a migraine, and actually, I fast for about twelve hours between dinner and breakfast most days. The only difference is that I will be awake for this fast rather than sleeping most of the time. But I do anticipate experiencing spiritual withdrawal symptoms, such as the inability to concentrate on Bible study because I am “starving” when in truth, I know that I am absolutely fine, but find peace and pleasure in the routine of eating lunch at lunchtime. While I am not looking forward to the withdrawal symptoms, I am looking forward to hopefully maturing spiritually. Dallas Willard says that because of the pervasive role food has in our lives, those who practice fasting regularly find they are able to cope with, even cheerfully endure suffering and depravation of all kinds. I am excited to see how this discipline might indirectly change my entire personality for the better. But mostly, I want to get to the point where I can be invited to a wedding or a friend’s party, and my first thoughts center on the joy of the occasion not, “Darnit, what are they planning to do for food?” Intellectually, I know that life is more important than food, but I want to get to a place where I truly believe this, and live accordingly.
Reference
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. HarperOne, 1990. (276 pp.) ISBN: 978-0060694425.