Paper Clip Miracles: The Children’s Holocaust Memorial

While I am a regular congregant and chorister at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the deep south of Louisiana, I have sung for my “other church family” at Temple Gates of Prayer. The setting of the season of High Holy Days is a perfect time to share with you a miracle – that to me, just goes to show (again) how much God can do with the smallest, simplest things.

 

Over two months have passed since Joshua and I visited the Children’s Holocost Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. I can still barely find the words to write about it.

 

This amazing memorial is at a middle school in the mountains of Tennessee, northwest of Chattanooga. Friends Diane and Vickie suggested we visit there after we’d spent time with the sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee. I’m glad I had that dose of peacefulness to strengthen me before visiting the memorial, which still has me in awe.

 

Over the years, the 8th grade classes at Whitwell Middle School have learned about history, prejudice, and the holocaust through this amazing project that has changed hundreds of thousands of hearts and lives.
 
Whitwell pause sign

Sign at the entrance of the Memorial.


 
“You should go see this,” said our friends. “It may not be open right now, because it’s at a school, but you could at least try” and they tried to describe the Paperclip Project. In the end, Diane sent us off with a DVD that we watched later that evening.

 

Neither Bubba (Joshua) nor I said a word as we watched this nearly 2 hour long documentary. (We are never at a loss for words.) As the credits rolled, we said in unison, “we’re going.”

 

I will quote the Whitwell website to give you an idea of the Memorial:

 

“In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust.  The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance.  As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students.  Six million was a number that  the students could not remotely grasp.  The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination.  The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper.  She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project.  After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.”

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The students began collecting paperclips, with the goal of 6 million paper clips. After a slow start, the idea exploded, with help in part from a German journalist husband and wife team who were working in the United States.

 

Over the following years, the students collected over 30 million paperclips from all over the world. In 2004, a documentary film was made (the DVD that Diane loaned us).

 

The project expanded exponentially, and became much more than just a class exercise. The project came to change the entire town, and impact everyone who has seen it.

 

The day that Bubba and I went was a quiet summer day, and Whitwell is off the beaten path and away from the tourist attractions of Chattanooga and Nashville. The town and school are not diverse in population, which is initially one reason why the school chose to learn about the holocaust. In addition to learning about history, there were lessons in tolerance to be learned as well.

 

We found the school, nestled on the outskirts of town. The gates to the schoolgrounds were wide open, and they were beautiful gates with artistic butterflies incorporated into their design. As we rounded the bend in the driveway, I began to wonder aloud where the memorial (which, we’d been told, was in an authentic cattle car – yes, one of those) might be near the school, behind the school, or…
No need to wonder:
 
Whitwell LS for blog

Still, no words.


 
We drove up in silence. The car sat on a length of track, which rested on limestone. A wheelchair friendly ramp led to the open door of the car. Butterfly bushes were planted nearby, and mosaic butterfly stones and sculptures were around the car, as was an iron fence.
 

 
On a granite monument, we read the words of the poem, The Last Butterfly:

 

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto. 

 

This was written by Pavel Friedmann, dated 4.6.1942 . Pavel was born in 1921 in Prague, and was deported a couple of weeks after the poem was written. He was murdered in Auschwitz in September of 1944.
 

 
After spending a long walking in silence around the outside of the fence, Bubba finally spoke.

 

“Want to go inside?” he said. “But it’s locked,” I replied. “We can get the key. Look.” He pointed out the sign on the gate that I’d missed; the key was available at a local grocery.

 

We drove into town, sharing few words. The grocery was on the main thoroughfare, and I pulled in next to a motorcycle. “I’ll get it,” I said, grabbing my wallet. After all, they would want some ID, right?

 

“Hi, is this where I get the key to – “ the young lady smiled, said “yes m’am, here you go” and handed me a key (on a giant paperclip keychain). I stopped in midsentence.

 

“Do you need an ID, or do I need to check it out, sign anything?”

 

“Nah, just remember to bring it back when you’re done.”

 

Wow. Thank you. I got back in the car, unused to this simple, honest, open greeting.

 

We drove back to the Memorial. I walked over to an area near the parking lot, with stones lining a drainage ditch, and selected a small, smooth one. I walked along the sidewalk, and also selected a piece of limestone. We unlocked the gate, and stepped in.

 

Whitwell CCar 1
I don’t know how long we stayed . There was no sense of time. I walked around, finally getting the nerve to touch the cattlecar. It had been cleaned, repaired, and “disinfected.” The car had been used for the most nefarious of work, bringing innocent souls  to the slaughter of the camps. Blood, tears, secretions of body and of spirit were soaked into the wood. After the war, it had been adapted to use for hauling grain.

 

From hauling innocents to death, to hauling food – grain. Was it on the path to being forgotten? Or was this a metaphor as well?

 

Whitwell door

 

I expected the wood to scream at me, saturated with grief and terror. Yet, it didn’t scream as I’d anticipated. It whispered, and I couldn’t quite make out the whispers. It wept. I walked around the outside of the car, the open doors eye level with me. I left one piece of limestone on the outside of the car, and saw where many other visitors had left their stones of remembrance.

 

Whitwell rocks

 

I saw life in the butterfly garden. One memorial stone was placed in honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered by the Nazis. Coincidentally, about the same time as I visited this memorial, my mother was back home, having coffee and visiting with a relative from New York – the daughter of a cousin who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
 

I finally walked up the ramp and into the car. The doors were both open, and the sides were partitioned off by plexiglass.

 

Behind the plexiglass were 11 million paperclips.

 

Whitwell not forget you

 

Clearly, the paperclips were from all over. Not all were “standard American paperclips.” There were plastic ones, differently-curved ones, from all over the world. Tucked in with the paperclips were other memorials:

 

~A vintage, battered suitcase from a school in Germany filled with letters from German students, written to Anne Frank.

 

~Kippahs from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, adorned with paperclips.

 

Whitwell kippahs

 

~Books, and a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

 

Whitwell Mourners Kaddish
~A beautiful Mezzuzah, sent from a Jewish Congregation (in Ohio, I think) was on the door of the car. God’s word welcomed all who entered, regardless of faith.

 

Whitwell Mezzuzah

 

Above the paperclips, a sign read:
Whitwell inside

Sign above the paperclips, and the suitcase from schoolchildren in Germany. My own reflection, witnessing.

 

Standing in this car, I wondered how many thousands of souls were forced to ride it, in misery and terror. Today, this cattlecar stands as testimony and reminder: Never again. It serves as a focal point for former, current, and future students who are all involved in the Paperclip Project. Students greet visitors, give tours, answer questions. The heart of this project has grown to encompass the entire community of Whitwell, and people all over the world; art blossoms at this Memorial, reflecting the desire to be a part of this reminder, this hope, this healing.

 

Whitwell my rock

 

I left another stone at the edge of the paperclips, and prayed. As much of the Mourner’s Kaddish as I could remember,  Hail Holy Queen, and the words of my heart. (After all, what else is an Episcopalian with Catholic roots who says “my other church is a synagogue” going to do?)  It’s all God, after all, and prayer is prayer. I prayed, and I listened, actually somewhat confused at what I was feeling and at what I was not feeling. One thing was certain: I will not forget. 

 

I was anticipating angst, fear, horror.
I felt horror…but also some calm, peace, hope, and healing.

 

The lives lost can never be regained. Yet the healing power of this project which grew into an international effort cannot be denied. I was left awestruck by the power of a simple paperclip and a desire to make a difference, no matter how small.
Whitwell touch
As I write, I recall reading something about a man who bartered his way to a house, starting with only a paperclip. The students of Whitwell Middle School started with an idea, and a simple paperclip. Even the smallest thing, teamed with love and vision, can make a huge difference.

 

We were leaving, and had locked up the gate when another car drove up. Somehow, we found our voices to greet the newcomers.  “Get ready,” Bubba said to them. “It’ll hit you.”

 

“I know,” replied the young woman. She told us that she was a teacher, who came to visit the Memorial every summer.

 

We unlocked the gate for them, and brought the key back to the grocery. “We unlocked it for someone who got there when we were leaving,” I told the young lady at the register. “They said they’d lock it when they left, unless someone else came by.”

 

“That’s fine,” she said.

 

“Thank y’all for keeping that key available,” I said as I left. “Being able to walk inside was – incredible.” She smiled. I had no words; it was hard enough to find those.
 
Whitwell childrens sculpture

Artwork at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial

I’ve thought of two words to describe the Children’s Holocaust Memorial: Healing Miracle.

 

Beyond that, you’ll have to visit it yourself, and I urge you to do so.

 

The Last Butterfly accessed from:
For information, visit
and

 

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Submitted to the DAR Women’s Issues Essay Competition. It received state honors (Louisiana). OK, Charlotte, here it is. 

I suppose I’ve come to that “wise woman” part of my life, even though I don’t feel wise. I am a wife, mother, office manager for my family business, songwriter, and vocalist. I am occasionally asked for advice by young singers.

I tell them that a vocalist can never replace their instrument. If it gets damaged or broken, we can no longer sing – or we must find a way to deal with the damage.

sing 1

This is the story of my own damaged instrument. Not my voice, but my ear. My advice to young vocalists has expanded to include: If you ever experience sudden hearing loss, it is a medical emergency.  I tell them about the symptoms of Meniere’s Disease.

I juggled singing with job and family life. I sang with my blues band, at my church, at our local Jewish temple, and with my music partner in our Gospel duo. God makes each of us an instrument, and I did my best to learn to use and care for my musical instrument. Call me “Queen of the Earplugs;” I treasure my ears.

sing 2

Earplugs don’t help with allergies, though. For years, I’d have occasional bouts of clogged ears and dizziness during high allergy seasons. One December day a few years ago, my ears clogged.

I thought it was allergies, or possibly I’d caught my husband and daughter’s virus. I had things to do at the office and two sick ones to care for. I knew what this was, took ibuprofen and antihistamines, but it got worse.

I couldn’t hear anything clearly in my left ear. While it had been several years since my last “spell,” I’d had a severe dizzy day recently, so I saw my ENT, who was familiar with my history. I expected the usual cortisone pack, but this time he looked at me with concern when I told him this had lingered for three weeks.

I knew from his expression that something was different this time. This should have run its course by now, he said. He prescribed cortisone and an antifungal.

“When will my hearing return?” I asked.

“Let’s wait and see what the medication does,” he replied.

I took what felt like a never-ending course of cortisone and Valtrex.

After a month of medication, Dr. Robert ordered an MRI. Fortunately, there was no tumor, but no answers either. I went to the audiologist for a baseline audiogram. There was nothing but noise and pain in my left ear. Results? My right ear was good, but my left ear showed a profound hearing loss. I took a copy of the report home, filed it away, and cried. I cried me a river, as the song says. How ironic.

sing 3

I told only family and closest friends. I quit scheduling band gigs; even with earplugs jammed into my ears, I was afraid to take any chances. Meanwhile, a bizarre group of sounds had moved in where my hearing used to be: Tinnitus. In different keys. All at once.

Dr. Robert had told me that we needed to wait a year, as there was a chance that my hearing would return with time. Meanwhile, I had this invisible, sudden, crippling loss that I couldn’t even talk about or escape. After asking my husband to repeat something for the third time one evening, he voiced his frustration. “Are you DEAF?” he cried.

I fell apart.

“YES, I AM.” I replied. “In one ear. Half of everything I hear is GONE.” He felt terrible. So did I.

I began telling a few people about my loss. I was shocked at some of the responses.

“Well, I guess so, all that loud music you play!” A laugh. “I could have told you THAT was going to happen!”

Really? I’m the one wearing earplugs, remember? I have the small band that is known to be considerate of noise levels.

My response was anger. Then, there was the well-meaning advice about earwax, about this doctor, that diet, this treatment, etc. No, a cochlear implant would only destroy the way I hear music.

That year was one of adjustment, resignation, and hope. In many ways, I had to relearn to sing because I had to learn how to hear again. Our brains are wired for stereo, and that was lost to me. I quit going places where a large group of people gathered because I could no longer discern voices in a conversation. I quit going to movies and concerts and any live presentation because they were hard to follow. Everything was a wash of noise, coated with a blanket of anxiety and occasional panic.

I considered hearing aids, although I had no idea how to pay for them. We had two children in college. This was hope, though: One day, I can get hearing aids. 

I longed to hear in stereo. I wanted the safety of knowing where a sound originated. If someone called my name, I had no idea of where to turn. I don’t know where a siren or horn is coming from in traffic.

I wanted to hear music in stereo.

When the year was up, I went back to Dr. Robert and the audiologist. I was hopeful, as Erica, the audiologist, had successfully fit my father with hearing aids. I was determined to put up with whatever adjustment was needed. Surely no hearing aid noise could be more obnoxious than tinnitus!

The testing was similar to a routine audiogram. Erica explained that the noise and sounds and speech I would hear in the headphones would be adjusted just as it would be with a hearing aid, so we would find out whether or not a hearing aid would help me.

Whether or not? I hadn’t realized there was a chance that this wouldn’t work.

Today’s hearing aid technology is phenomenal. From what I knew about audio engineering, the ability to adjust amplification of specific frequencies in a device so tiny was nothing short of a miracle.

Unfortunately, this miracle was not to be mine. No amount of amplification or adjustment made a difference – only physical pain. I sat in Erica’s office and sobbed as she held my hands and offered tissue, understanding, and honesty. The cilia, the microscopic hairs of the inner ear that enable us to hear, were dead. No diet, supplement, medication, procedure or technical device would restore them. I faced a life in monaural, but at least I had one functioning ear.

She also offered a tentative diagnosis: Meniere’s Disease. My decades-long history of periodic dizziness was a clue. I’d had several particularly violent dizzy periods in months preceding the hearing loss. During the worst dizzy periods, I always spun to the left. I had become so used to a dizzy period during high-allergy months that they just became a part of life, diagnosed previously as “Benign Peripheral Vertigo.”

I learned about Meniere’s Disease, and saw my history written in what I found. Dr. Robert’s suggestions to address the vertigo were basically the same as for Meniere’s, but I felt defeated as I learned that no one knows the cause of the illness, and there is no cure. My years of periodic spells, interspersed by periods of feeling normal, had a name. Interestingly, it affects more women than men, and the possible causes include infection, allergies, head injury, stress, fatigue, migraines, respiratory infection, and an autoimmune response. I wasn’t too surprised that women experience Meniere’s more than men. It usually affects one ear, but sometimes attacks both over time. I cannot dwell on that. It is critical for me to maintain my balance, and I mean that metaphorically as well as literally.

balance

Balance.

It’s not always obvious that I have a hearing deficit, but an astute observer will notice. I’m getting better at lip-reading. In music, I seek the right position to hear what I need to hear in order to sing. In any group seating situations, I tell the person on my left “I’m deaf in this ear. If you say something and I don’t respond, it’s because I didn’t hear you.” I’ve learned to deflect the still-painful topic of hearing aids by saying “it’s a sensorineural hearing loss, which cannot be fixed by a hearing aid.” I’ve learned that such queries are usually out of concern.

I also tell others that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency, even if you’ve had it before and you think “oh, allergies.” I also tell them about Meniere’s Disease.

On the positive side, the dizzy spells have mostly stopped; this, too, is typical of Meniere’s. As for singing, I’ve had to hyper-focus my sense of pitch, which has strengthened my vocals. I’ve heard of other vocalists who have experienced a similar hearing loss who have quit singing.

I can’t not sing. I have found a new way of listening, and a new way to focus on the experience of singing. It is a whole-body expression, as you must feel the vibrations and melody in your body. Your mind, throat, ear, mouth, lungs must know how the notes feel as well as how they sound. Perhaps it’s similar to the heightened sense of hearing that some vision impaired people have; I am partially deaf, so I have an enhanced sense of certain facets of singing that some take for granted.

Cedartown680

How can I keep from singing? At a Women at the Well concert. Photo by Rev. Kemper Anderson, at St. James Church in Cedartown, Ga.

About three years into this journey, my music partner and I were preparing to go on a short tour of several churches in the mid-Atlantic states, performing our original Gospel program about Jesus’ women disciples. We had recorded several of the songs from the program, and I longed to re-record some vocals and add harmonies.

Singing overdub harmonies is a challenge when you have only one functional ear. I managed by notating the harmonies, placing the headphone behind my one good ear, and forging ahead in spite of fear deep in my soul. What if I couldn’t do it?

But I could, and I did. A few days later, after the vocals were mixed, we shared the tracks with a friend. Danny is a gifted pianist who tours worldwide and has done a lot of recording and harmony vocals. He knows of my hearing loss, and was floored when he heard the harmonies.

“That’s a miracle,” he said, “that you could do that.”

It is a miracle, and one for which I am profoundly grateful. I still ache over the loss, but on the other hand, I now sing more sacred music and chant. Sometimes frustration still rises to the surface. That’s when the words and music of the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing sustain me:

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing

            It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?                      

Those rascally quanta!

This morning, Fr. Matt delivered a sermon that had several of us standing outside after church talking about it. Now, that happens…but this one really struck a chord. It was on a subject I’ve thought a lot about (and alluded to, just a bit, in previous posts) but it’s so nice to know that I’m not the only one wandering into what I’m calling the “physics of prayer.”

Like most of us, I hung onto my concrete childhood concepts of prayer. Asking God was like asking mom or pop.

girl praying

Somewhere in high school, I listened to my inner self that said that prayer could be something more, and could be found throughout everyday life…and of course, my cynical teen self didn’t buy everything from religion class, either. For example, I had never bought the Roman Catholic Doctrine of Transubstantiation. (Perhaps I had an overzealous religion teacher or two. Or three.) And when I heard the my catechism teacher explain that “Jesus could never deny His mother anything, so pray to Mary” I thought that was pretty much along the lines of “if daddy says no, go ask mama.”

As I reached young adulthood and attended a Jesuit university, my concept of prayer expanded to, well, “hanging out with Jesus” and trying to listen to the quiet voice of the Divine. The Zen courses I took at Loyola helped with that (as did my physics and philosophy classes), and partly because of Zen, the book The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav appealed to me. I finally read it in my late 20’s.

dancing wu li

Now, why hadn’t physics been like this in high school and college? The concepts were fascinating, and made actual sense. Yes, on the “macro” scale everything is totally different from the teensy-tiny-itsy-bitsy quantum scale. Those rascally little quanta! Just when you’re not looking, there they go…. but I digress.

Suddenly, the power of prayer and prayerful intention that I’d learned about and tried to practice in some fumbling way started to make some weird sort of sense.

In his sermon today, Fr. Matt spoke of this. He spoke of quantum entanglement. Put simply, quantum entanglement is when two particles interact at some point and then are separated…except that they can never be truly separate again. Their quantum state is such that they can no longer be described separately. It is as though they have a “forever connection,” and that connection is not dependent on space or time. (That’s my 2 cent summary of quantum entanglement; just don’t ask me to do the math.)

quantum formula

No, please do not ask me to do the math.

So what does this have to do with the power of prayer? Well, think about it, because at the very foundation of who and what we are is energy, and we are all “entangled.” Each encounter we have with another human being has an effect, however slight, on our spirit. How can it not?

I remember having this mind-blown feeling when I first learned about quantum entanglement. This meant that intercessory prayer had a legitimate foundation beyond “I don’t know why it works, but it does work.” Here was an explanation for the power of prayer, especially of group prayer and group intention.

My inner cynic/skeptic loved it. For the first time in my life, I realized that Transubstantiation seemed possible. Intention is critical. I’m not going to wander down a rabbit hole of discussion on under what exact circumstances Transubstantiation may actually occur. I’ll use the all-encompassing answer that I learned from the Sisters of Mercy: “It’s a mystery.” (This is why I prefer the explanation that Christ is uniquely present in the Eucharist.) Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum theory, said something along the lines of “all the stuff we think is real is made up of stuff that isn’t real.” That’s not “new age woo-woo,” that’s a Nobel Prize winner. In physics.

niels bohr

Niels Bohr. (Image from famousscientists.org)

We don’t know exactly how the power and intentionality of prayer connects to quantum mechanics. There’s really no way to measure for this connection, either, unless you subscribe to superdeterminism, a group of theories that says that everything is determinable. Taking the quantum physics thing a step farther, Bell’s theorem says that basically…there’s no way to measure absolute outcomes in this quantum landscape because you can’t know all the variables; in other words, free will. (Take THAT, superdeterminism! It occurs to me that I am skating dangerously close to discussing Predestination and the paradox of free will. Physics, theology…is it really that different?)

Free will. Mystery. (Let’s not forget the Uncertainty Principle.) Starting to sound familiar?

No matter what we pray for, we – and the one(s) being prayed for – are dealing with free will. How do things happen? How are prayers answered? Why do we see those mind-boggling flashes of coincidence that Jung called synchronicity (meaningful coincidence)?

How many times have we been thinking of someone when they called us? How many times have we been reunited in a completely unexpected way with someone we haven’t seen in decades – right after we were thinking about them? I experienced synchronicity just yesterday when, at a luncheon, the keynote speaker used the very same quotation I was planning to use in my summary remarks.

I’ve written of some synchronistic events that clearly had a “God touch” to them. There’s the story of finding Nancy’s lost earring, and another one about finding my singing bowl.  I wrote about the power of joined intention at Pentecost.

I recently picked up another copy of one of the God Winks series by Squire Rushnell. I love his books about synchronistic God-winks. A departed friend, Janette, used to call such synchronicities “cosmic post-it notes.” These are those odd coincidences that let you know you’re on the right track (or gently steer you onto the right track).

christ project

What is the right track? Well, we all have a “Christ project.” (I used to hear it called “God’s plan,” but I really like “Christ project.”) How can I become more fully a part of the Body of Christ? This is my Christ project, and those God-winks are like…well, little cosmic post-it notes that remind me about my Christ project, and remind me what I’m supposed to be doing.

rascal quanta

Somehow, through quantum entanglement and through the ripples of energy sent forth by our actions, thoughts, prayers and love, we get back on track when we wobble. We hold each other up, and help each other out.

Following the terrorist bombing in Brussels last spring, I wrote about the power of prayer. News media was sneering about calls for prayer, but I posited that the need for prayer is real. It always is, and always will be; for through prayer we are entangled with others, and entangled with God, working on our Christ project.

We often use the term “quantum leap” thinking it is a huge jump. Well, it’s actually a miniscule jump on a subatomic level, but it results in a jump from one energy level to another. How does that fit with prayer, with being a part of the Body of Christ, and with our Christ Project?  I’ll leave you to ponder that – that, and the nature of those rascally quanta!

 

The Gift of Skepticism

My faith is not blind.  It is perhaps too wide-eyed, too skeptical, and on occasion probably a bit too snarky.  I have tested many a belief against the cold bright light of rational thought. My cynicism has been a rocky road, and I have admired many people of deep faith and have wished that I, too, had the gift of faith.

Instead, I have the gift of skepticism.  I tend to “overthink,” to chew things up in my brain and consider them from many points of view.  Some great minds sharing this characteristic find careers in writing or philosophy.  The rest of us become garden-variety neurotics.

Today is Easter, the greatest celebration in Christianity, the foundation of our faith.  Christ died for our sins, and rose from the dead.

AAEaster-Morning-Empty-

I will admit that for many years, my skeptic brain had a problem with that “rose from the dead” part.  “It’s a mystery,” the priests said.  “It’s faith,” the sisters said.  I felt guilty because I thought it seemed…a bit unreal.

I no longer feel that way.  Skeptic that I am, I believe in the Resurrection.  Not because I am blessed with the gift of faith, but because I am blessed – or cursed – with skepticism.

As much as I love to read about the subject, I cannot know how things were 2,000 years ago. Human nature, though, doesn’t change.  Fear, joy, courage, are pretty much timeless.

And you know what?  Something happened on the first Easter morning.  Something really big, really outrageous, mind-bending, life-changing, world-flipped-upside-down-thing happened.

AA Easter_Christ_is_risen

You see, anyone who had followed Jesus was in hiding.  Jesus was a criminal – a political one – and had died the most gruesome, painful, torturous death in the Roman world (which was pretty much everywhere).  Anyone associating with him or carrying on his message ran a very real risk of meeting the same end.

Do you have any idea how many “alternate theories” of the Resurrection I’ve come across?  It was a vision….mass hypnosis….hearsay….the evangelists were trying to sell the Jesus idea…etc.

Well, an urban legend is one thing.  Telling people that “this guy Jesus was dead, and now he’s ALIVE – I’VE SEEN HIM” under pain of death is something else entirely.

The evidence is plain as day, in the stories of the Resurrection, and in the fast spread of Christianity.  Sure, Paul helped – a lot.  But would Paul have been persecuting Christians in the first place if the sect hadn’t become such a big threat so quickly?

Then, as now, people love to hear and to spread a wild, outrageous story. (Even in pre-social media times!) However, people will abandon a wild story if faced with a choice between truth and torture.  Think about it: It doesn’t matter how much you might think something is true – you’re gonna wind up denying it if you’re faced with something as unpleasant as crucifixion (or stoning).

But the early Christians didn’t.  Jesus appeared to many after his resurrection, and, for want of a better term, they freaked out.  Wouldn’t you?

The actions of Jesus’ followers – to spread the news about his resurrection in spite of what could (and often did) happen to them – is this skeptic’s evidence.  The unstoppable Jesus movement is still alive today. I pray that we may all be infused with the love and passion of the early Christians who knew the Good News and were unafraid to share it.

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A Rule of Life

I recently decided to begin the path to becoming an associate of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee, Tennessee.  I met members of this order of Episcopal sisters through friends Diane Moore and Vickie Sullivan, and last spring, Joshua and I performed at a fund-raiser at University of the South for their Organic Prayer Intern Program.  We stayed with them for several days, and were wrapped in their hospitality and the rhythms of their convent life.  I wrote about the time in this post.

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In the garden at Community of St. Mary

As an associate of this Benedictine community, one writes one’s own Rule of Life, based on Jesus’ great commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

A Rule of Life.  I’ve been wondering about what exactly that might look like for me.  My initial responses to writing such a rule were akin to making New Year’s Resolutions – which I don’t make, by the way.  I exercise regularly,  my eating habits tend to be somewhat cyclical but generally healthy, and I usually have some inspirational reading at hand.

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Peace. Pax. At the Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman, Alabama

Then I thought a rule of life might resemble a Lenten discipline.  Well, maybe it does, but not of the “give up” type – at least, I hope not, because (with one notable exception) I haven’t given up anything for Lent in years.  I focus on doing something instead of not-doing-or-having something. (The one recent exception was when I gave up whining for Lent.  That was powerful, and had some long-lasting consequences.  A good thing.)

Then, inspiration came.  Back in January, I went on retreat with a retreat leader I’d met before, Pasha Hogan.  The retreat was hosted at a friend’s home, my friend Lyn who hosts the Sacred Center.

One thing that came clear for me during the retreat was that I really tend to put myself down.  “I don’t deserve it” is a mantra that I know is left over from childhood.  “Deserving” is ridiculous, anyway, in the face of divine grace and mercy – we don’t deserve any of that, but we get it anyway.

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I don’t deserve this scene from the yard, but I am grateful for it.

Who, then, do I think I am to think that I am apart from that?  Am I so specially dreadful that I am Uniquely Undeserving? Just who do you think you are?!?! Do you think you are in a special class of wretchedness?

Nah, I’m just your regular garden-variety wretch, thank you very much.  No special treatment here, just Standard Salvation.

I joke about the fact that in my growing up and college years, I had more religion classes and Religious Studies courses than most do unless they take holy orders.  I joke that it made me lose my religion!  The truth behind that joke, though, was that I felt so much focus on the fact that my mere existence was something to be ashamed of. That made no sense, because our human nature is to be – well, human – and therefore prone to mistakes.  Hopefully, this makes us learn from experience.  I was confused, as I would also hear that we were made in God’s image.

At some point, I started over by accepting only one premise: God loves us. God loves me. From that healing starting point, my faith and spirituality grew.

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On the path.  (Natchez Trace)

However, I realized that I sometimes just pay lip service to accepting forgiveness. I still need to forgive myself for not being perfect, AND forgive myself for expecting myself to be perfect!

So, my Rule of Life.  I based it on an adaptation of some things Pasha shared with us on retreat.

Just for today….
I accept myself as I am, allowing Divine Love to work through me
I am my own compassionate witness
I allow myself to make beautiful mistakes.
I ask for and receive Divine Help and Grace.

This may sound all about loving self, but I think it’s a total package – loving God, neighbor, self. If I don’t create time for my spiritual and creative life, I am only “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  That segment from Paul’s letter is usually interpreted to be about loving neighbor and God, but I wonder – now that I think about it – if he wasn’t including love and caring for ourselves. How can we love God and neighbor as ourselves if we don’t love ourselves?

Accepting myself as I am, and accepting God’s forgiveness and help to do better, I become an open channel for Divine Love to work through me.  I feel gratitude. I feel blessed and want to share blessings with others.  As a beloved child of God, I recognize others as being the same, in spite of our differences. As a beloved child of God, I recognize that my body and mind and talents are all Divine Gifts (as is our earth).  We care for God’s gifts out of joy and gratitude, and share our talents and time from the same love-filled heart.

I invite you to do the same, just for today.  Accept and love yourself as you are, allowing Divine Love to work through you.  And see what happens.

Lighting the fire

It’s the last few hours of 2016. It’s been a drizzly day, and I have a pot of blackeye peas on the stove for tomorrow. Fireworks, various pyrotechnics and fires in general have long been a family tradition around the turn of the year, and this year has been no exception in spite of the rain. Long before the “garden firepit” came onto the scene, we built fires in the backyard.

Each Christmas saw my brother and me heading to the hardware store or fireworks stand to carefully select penny skyrockets, roman candles, and other goodies. Firecrackers were best suited for blowing up crawfish castles (the small chimney of mud that remains above ground when crawfish set up housekeeping). We still enjoy fireworks, and in recent years have undertaken a bonfire tradition.

There’s something primal about a fire, this momentary return to the light as the days grow ever-so-slightly longer. We in south Louisiana don’t have to deal with long periods of darkness, but even so, we love our bonfires, campfires and fire pits. A friend made a fire kettle that is suspended from a tripod. Spent ashes fall through the hole, and fresh wood is added to the top. In the fall and winter, we often hang out around the fire in the evenings. I find myself soaking up the peacefulness – or engaging in discussion about anything from theology to politics to history or philosophy – you know, the fun, lightweight stuff.

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Cast iron firepit, site of many lively discussions.

Yesterday we had our end of the year bonfire. (Said bonfire can be any time we have enough wood, energy, and dry, cool weather around Christmas / New Year / Epiphany. If those things don’t converge, we don’t have a bonfire.) David (husband), Greg (brother) and Bubba (music partner/friend) outdid themselves in the planning and execution.

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Scrap wood used for shipping is bonfire fuel.

The plan was to start it burning at the top so that it would burn evenly and not collapse too soon.

Fireworks (bottle rockets) were strategically placed along the top, pointing in safe directions. Firecrackers were tucked inside. Of course, our bonfire site is in the open, well away from anything that could catch. Fortunately, south Louisiana isn’t the tinderbox situation that exists in some areas.

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My brother, always the ham.  I don’t blame him for being proud of this one, though. They added a “porch,” decorative top and bottle rockets prior to lighting.

Gumbo, potato salad, mulled wine, family and some friends made it a great way to celebrate the return of the light. I can’t help but think of how many families and communities since the dawn of time have celebrated the promise of renewed light with a fire. (Power tools only a recent invention, too!)

 

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Starting at the top of each section.

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Whoosh!! If 2016 was a good year, celebrate!

This past year was a good one for some, a bad one for others, and a mixed bag for most. Each year, regardless of how the year has been, we celebrate the return of the light at Christmas. We turn inward during the dark of the year. We can either join the fear of the dark, or celebrate the light.

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And if 2016 was a bad year, torch it!

The other day I was in a store, browsing some after-Christmas discounts, and a woman walked by and said “you see a lot of stuff left this year – that’s because no one has any money! People don’t have any money!” I recognized her frustration, and her fear. The repercussions of low oil prices have rippled through Louisiana and beyond, leaving thousands without jobs. For many, unemployment benefits have run out. Some are relocating against their will. Many are fearing this darkness, as well as the darkness elsewhere in the world. We turn to faith and the promise of Christmas.

And we light a fire, whether for warmth, light, or just fun. In doing so, we connect with ancestors of long ago and not-so-long ago as we watch the flames, knowing that light will always dawn again.

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Light awaits.

It is the season of light and miracles. We are still in the “12 days of Christmas” as we move towards Epiphany. This year, the first day of Hanukkah coincided with Christmas Day. I pray on this New Year’s Eve that these ancient celebrations of light and miracles bring positive changes, peace and the ever-growing light of love to all.

Armor of God

I recently met a lovely woman, V, in a centering prayer group. The group meets during my workday, but I attend occasionally when I can slip out for a while. While the group attendance fluctuates, we stay connected through the internet. I, a newcomer, have been welcomed with love, open arms and many emails.

During the recent flooding here in south Louisiana, several group members’ homes were flooded; V’s was one of them.  I’d only met her a few times, but my heart went out to her, as to so many.  Flood recovery is a wet, stinky, moldy, yucky mess and there are no words that accurately describe it. Part of the process of post flood repair is replacing soaked sheetrock.  The ruined parts are cut out, exposing the studs and timbers beneath. An email went out with a request from V to send scripture verses that would be written on the exposed beams before covering them again.

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I thought of the V’ahavta:

 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. ~Deut. 6: 4 – 9

Favorite verses were shared, then an invitation – Monday, we’ll gather at her home to help write these verses on the exposed beams.

Monday arrived, and a small group of us had gathered.  We waited, but V never appeared.  One member tried calling, but got her voice mail. Well, phones and voice mail had been very messed up since the flooding, and we just thought that something had come up or AT&T had freaked out. Plan for another day.

Later that afternoon, I heard a news story on the radio that a car had crashed through the wall and into a local post office.

My phone began buzzing with emails.  V wasn’t at her house because she had been at the post office when the car crashed.  She had been pinned between the car and a desk, both of her legs broken.  We stormed the gates of heaven with prayer, waited for news of her surgeries – and continue to pray.

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Then, in the middle of this, I read a blog post from Beauty Beyond Bones; she is a young woman with a history of an eating disorder.  Prayer and Divine help got her beyond the bleakness of her deadly illness and into recovery.  In her post, she described how her identity had been stolen recently, and spoke of Ephesians 6 – about putting on the full armor of God.  Sometimes you need it!

What is it with these obstacles that fall into the way when one is seeking to fulfill Divine Purpose?  Is it “Satan trying to mess things up?” Or is it something within one’s self, deeply hidden in the unconscious mind that fears and hinders forward movement? I have heard both explanations – and all in between.

If I look at the first option, then “it’s not my fault.” It is something completely beyond my control, and I am a helpless, powerless victim.

If I consider the second, “it’s ALL my fault, but I don’t want this!” Yet on some deep unconscious level I must invite failure. I am responsible for my own downfall.  Gee, I have a lot of power, don’t I?  (haha)

Neither extreme makes much sense to me. It is probably the oldest question ever asked: Why do bad things happen to good people?  Well, we don’t know.  Sometimes, sh*t just happens.

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In spite of everything, God’s world is still a beautiful place.

Perhaps instead of trying to figure it out and control the outcome, we can just roll with the punches.  When you think about it, no matter what you believe, your response can be the same:  Get up, show up, keep going. Don’t stopPut on the full armor of God, and lean on the Spirit which is greater than us and keep going. You – alone – will sooner or later run out of steam, but if you tap into God’s love and power, you have an infinite source. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to risk it alone.

Somehow, some way, it will work out – and usually in a way that surprises us.  It may not be the way we would have chosen, but sometimes we have an outcome that is more amazing than we ever could have imagined.

Why do bad things happen to good people? I know I won’t get the answer anytime soon, and I’m not even looking for it anymore because I don’t think we can understand the answer (at least not in this lifetime). We cannot understand with our minds, but with our hearts and our souls.  Such things are of faith, and not of reason. I am inspired and deeply moved by faith such as V’s.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~ 1 Corinthians 13: 11 – 13

Faith. Hope. Love. This is what the armor of God is forged of.  Put it on, and – like V, and  Beauty Beyond Bones – keep going.