Tuesday, December 27, 2011

O, Holy Child of Bethlehem

It’s always been a portent moment for me when the nurse places one of my newborn children on my chest. It’s been a moment of meeting—but not for the first time. Any woman who’s been pregnant will know that you know what the particular child is like before they’re born. After nine months, you know them well. Julia pushed back against my poking her, almost as if she wanted to play. Adam rolled over, in one huge roll, about every three hours, like a tidal wave in my belly. The moment when that little body was placed on my chest, and I felt the weight on my breastbone, my words were always something to the effect of “Well, hi. There you are. Welcome.” Finally, a face to put with the person I had come to know under my ribs. A helpless, wrinkled, red face, and squirly, squirrely body, just beginning, just the promise of a life.

Mother’s pride aside, objectively speaking, there’s not much to recommend a newborn baby, especially if it’s not yours and it hasn’t been born by C-section. The head’s a little crushed, maybe even pointed. The fingers and toes, while perfect, can look alien. The legs are so skinny and slightly bowed from being curled up around the head. The belly’s distended. The eyes are swollen shut. And the hair can be outrageous. Then, for the first month, the baby doesn’t really do anything except cry, eat, sleep, need to be changed. Repeat every two hours; three if you’re lucky.

You don’t know when they place those seven-pounds in your arms what that little body will turn into. I didn’t have any idea that Christian, who once thought he was a dog for almost a year, when presented with the choice, would choose not to participate in team practice on the Sabbath. I had no way of knowing that Seth’s skinny, and I mean, baby bird skinny little body would hold a heart that will play on his hands and knees, even now at 14, quite happily, with a three-year old for hours. Could we have foreseen that Adam would notice? He notices need, hurt, unkindness, loneliness, and is troubled by it and wants to solve it. When they place that little body in your arms, you can’t possibly see the grandeur of the spirit that you and your husband created a body for. At least, I didn’t see it. When they were born, I couldn’t see the fullness of any of these four. I couldn’t see their glory, their power, their strength, their brilliance and beauty. I couldn’t see what being their mother would make of me. They were just babies.

Yesterday morning, I was driving down the diagonal after enjoying a very peaceful seven in the morning Christmas shopping expedition to University Mall. As I rounded the corner and came down into Provo, I was thinking about what to say this morning. The thought came to me, “How fitting that He, Christ the King, comes to us as a baby.” A wrinkled, turkey-legged, alien-fingered baby—if he was like just about every other baby ever born, with not much to recommend him, and more work than apparent reward in the beginning. Was it possible to know that in this baby, “the hopes and fears of all the years were met in him tonight?”

Some of those who saw the baby Jesus knew him for what he was—the glory of the people Israel. In Luke Chapter 2, Simeon, a man “just and devout” had confirmed to him through the Spirit that he would not see death before he “had seen the Lord’s Christ.” About 5 weeks after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord. Simeon took the baby in his arms and blessed God, saying: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace . . . for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people. Simeon was not the only person to know the baby. Anna, a prophetess, who spent her days in the temple fasting and praying, saw the five-week old baby, and “in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord.” But most of us don’t have those eyes to see. We see only a baby, or the promise of the good news.

We don’t know, until we have lived with Christ and his gospel of peace, of repentance and forgiveness, of good will and compassion, the full force of his power and glory. We cannot possibly know the blessings of repentance, the joy of human love, the power of obedience and priesthood. We cannot see what the Father, through Christ, can make of us, if we will. I believe it will not be revealed, unless we are willing to let the Christ child enter our hearts; not Christ the King, but Christ the baby. There’s something about a baby, its important little weight, its trusting grip that moves us, that creates a wanting in us to keep it with us always.

I once wrote to Seth, while his body was just a zygote in my womb, that I was so grateful to find out he was there. I explained to him that his father and I had prayed for another child, prayed so hard that every day turned into a prayer. That months, then years had passed without the answer we wanted. That our wanting had turned into waiting. Then, quietly, softly, without trumpets or brass bands, Seth had taken up lodging. I told him I hoped he would stay, that he would grow strong and healthy. I promised him that I would do all I could to keep him with me.

Philip Brooks writes, “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given, so God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of his heaven . . . no ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.” I see that moment of the Christ entering our hearts like the moment we see our children for the first time, when our hearts open and they become part of us forever.

The message for me this Christmas is that if we will allow the Christ child to enter our hearts, we begin a journey that will reveal to us Christ the King in his power and majesty. By the Christ child, I mean the simple truths of the gospel. It’s not a fancy, impressive theology. It’s quite simple: love your Father in Heaven; love your neighbor; do good to those around you; repent; repeat. Just like taking care of a baby. If we will allow his simple truths, that because he was born, we shall be saved from our sins; that he is the light of the world, to lodge in our hearts, we can be new creatures in him. It might not be right away. Just like raising children, the process takes time. But the first step is opening our hearts to the Christ child to see that the “peace and goodwill” promised by the angels does, in fact, come first through the baby who lay in the manger, and then through the man who hung on the cross.

Phillips Brooks wrote a fourth verse to O Little Town of Bethlehem that captures for me the prayer of my heart this morning: “O holy child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in; Be born to us this day; We hear the Christmas angels the great, glad tidings tell; Oh come to us, abide with us; Our Lord Emmanuel.” May we open our hearts and give room for the precious weight of the Savior in our lives, take that holy child and his promises to our breastbone just as we cradled our own children in their first hours, and live with him, grow up with him into peace and goodwill.

Title: from, O Little Town of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Wrestling with Angels and Demons

I will completely upfront about this: My daughter, Julia, went to high school with Brandon Davies.

I remember watching Brandon run up and down the court at Provo High, when it looked like he had borrowed his grandfather’s size 17 feet, socks and shoes, and was trying them on his 6 foot 4 inch body for a Halloween skit. In my mind’s eye, I see him sitting in the hot tub, lounging around the pool, and hanging with Julia in the Courtyard of Provo High. I see him shooting hoops with six-year-old Adam in Gym 1, tolerating a rug rat who couldn’t even heave the ball up to hit the net. We watched the Super Bowl together at my brother-in-law’s house and Brandon plowed his way through carne asada, guacamole, and more Sweet Tooth Fairy cupcakes than is healthy.

Brandon’s a sweet and gentle soul. We don’t really make them any other way here. Adopted by a single mother, he’s been raised by committee and community and incredible resilience in Provo, Utah. Having won the gene pool lottery, and grown to 6 foot 9 inches with the wingspan of an albatross, and the demeanor of a golden retriever, he plays basketball for BYU. Make that, played basketball until two days ago, when he was suspended for having violated the Honor Code at BYU. He is, at most, barely 19 years old.

For the totally disconnected from current events, the BYU men’s basketball team is currently ranked third in the country. Prior to Brandon’s public whipping (thought the village stocks went out along with Puritan witchhunts), commentators and bracketologists had the Cougars possibly securing a No.1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Within hours of BYU administration making the announcement that Brandon was suspended, it was national news. I looked up from my workout on Wednesday morning to see film of Brandon as the background for the ESPN morning show. I was horrified. I still am.

Brandon is, for me, the blemished lamb sacrificed on the altar of policy and public relations. I am utterly unable to find any genuine concern for the individual amongst the decision that purported to save Brandon Davies’s soul and BYU’s reputation by dismissing him from the third-ranked basketball team in the nation in the final week of the season. In the process, they blindly, callously exposed this poor child to the scrutiny of millions.

Could they not see what would happen? Are they so without imagination as to not realize that this man-child, with the gentle heart and soul, would be analyzed, dissected, speculated about, and run up and down every talk show and online chat board? Are they so committed to procedures and consistency that it is impossible to contemplate a kinder, gentler way to discipline, one that takes into account the totality of the circumstances? If that were their child, would have they acted so ruthlessly? Does God really require such sacrifice?

Honor Code Office and other suited officials, meet me in the lobby of the Kimball Tower or whatever glass building you take refuge in these days, to explain this process. You have no clergy-parishioner privilege that would preclude you from answering such questions. Explain how it is—without divulging any personal information—that such a decision is arrived at. What harm would there have been in waiting until the end of the semester, waiting until Brandon can privately make his penance?

I was and am still horrified at the shortsightedness of an administration that would expose this child in such a way. It’s humiliating enough to make your slow way to a bishop’s office in the back corner of the church house and pretend you’re there to talk about Tithing Settlement or an Ecclesiastical Endorsement. But to have your attempt to make a right way through life exposed to millions because the policy manual calls for a certain action, and calls for it now, is horrific, medieval and certainly not Christian in any shape or form.

I’m sure I can anticipate the justifications that were made: These are sacred funds; these are the rules; these are the promises each student makes when they sign the Honor Code; he signed the agreement saying he wouldn’t do whatever he did. (And I don’t know what it is or care, for that matter. But one thing I do know, there’s thousands of other freshman at BYU who having those same learning experiences.)

1) Sacred funds.

I publicly promise that my tithing funds can be used in the education of 19-year old boys who are making their way through life, learning how to use their bodies and minds for good, making and admitting to mistakes, making those adjustments that turn them into more reasoned, seasoned and disciplined adults. The same sacred funds are, after all, used to pay for the treatment of pedophiles, porn addicts, abusive spouses and parents, and gamblers (many of them BYU students and alum) through LDS Family Services. I don’t know of any more sacred way to use these funds than to make a place of education where a teenager can be taught and mentored along his way to adulthood with space and tolerance built-in for error. I’m sure there are others who feel like I do: our sacred funds can be used to pay the tuition of those children who don’t quite know how to be perfect yet. Here’s hoping when they are the bishops and branch presidents of the next thirty years, they will show an equal compassion and tolerance for my children and grandchildren’s frailties and flailings.

Just in case you’d actually like to use my tithing to build a chapel in Voortrekker’s Rus, South Africa, make a separate fund, like you did with the Perpetual Education Fund. Call it the “sinning-but-hoping-to-get-it-right-one-day” scholarship fund. I’ll put my money into that. I’ll make a special contribution every month, writing it in under “Other” on the Contributions slip. I’m sure my children will fit into that category when their time comes to be a freshman in college.

2) Have a policy; can’t make an exception blah blah blah!

Policies, procedures and rules are lines in the sand. They can be altered, redrawn, or erased altogether. Policies, and especially procedures, are just best attempts at making principles flesh. Rules are ways to make us feel safe about ourselves. If we follow the rules, then we know we’re in the right way. Neither policies, nor procedures, and especially not rules, are set in stone; all are of our own making. They have not been revealed, nor are they engraven on tablets of gold. There are always moments in which rules are suspended—even God’s lower laws give way to the application of higher laws when miracles take place.

In bankruptcy law, when a debtor petitions for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, the court determines whether to confirm the repayment plan by looking at the totality of the circumstances. There are a myriad of factors the courts can look at to determine whether to grant a petition, and not every factor has to be considered. Sometimes, courts get lazy and fail to really look at the totality of the circumstances. They apply several factors in an analysis that looks more like a formula than a really in-depth analysis. The holdings of those courts which take a short-cut in their analysis can be sent back for a review that considers the total circumstance of each, individual debtor. Using a totality of the circumstances analysis, the outcomes are not easy to predict. Each outcome is individual to the petition.

It's far easier to apply an equation. But the law does not allow it. It's hard to perform a totality of the circumstances analysis. It requires the judge to put thought and effort into the deliberation, to examine without preconception, and to allow for individuality. Seemingly inconsistent decisions will need to be defended, if appealed.

I promise you, the rest of the world is able to live with the ambiguity and differing end results that a totality of the circumstances analysis brings. I would expect different treatment, even if just in timing, for Brandon Davies than for Tiffany Rogers, age 18, from Sandpoint, Idaho, majoring in Math, and living in Liberty Square, who lines up every home game for admission to the All Sports Pass student section. Tiffany doesn’t have to figure out her life in the public eye. She can sleep with her boyfriend, indulge in online gambling, cross-dress, snort cocaine, get raving drunk or even, evil of all evils, get a tattoo or a second ear piercing in Park City, then make her confession to her bishop in the make shift bishop’s office in the Testing Center. She will not be exposed; not held up for examination. Not discussed on every sports channel across America, and at the circulation desk of the Law Library.

Tiffany is not Brandon; Brandon is not Tiffany. And BYU is bigger than both of them, and can embrace and allow for difference in the application of the principles of confession, repentance and forward progress. Like the ark that crosses the Jordan, the gospel of Christ and the university that supposes to embrace its principles does not need the steadying hand of consistency, of rules to make sure that the university is not caught harboring fugitives from perfection on its sporting teams.

3) The Honor Code

The Honor Code does not make BYU unique. BYU is not the only university with an Honor Code. For example, Haverford College, a liberal arts college with Quaker roots, has one. It’s administered by the students, and created each year by common consent in an all-student caucus.

Perhaps what makes BYU unique is the heavy handedness with which the Honor Code is wielded, like a Sword of Damocles. Do you know that it’s a violation of the Honor Code to take the shopping carts off the Creamery premises? The Creamery is a little corner market that abuts the residence halls. The signs attached to the carts actually threaten to turn the offenders into the Honor Code Office! For using carts to take groceries home.

The Honor Code system and the application of punishment as it now functions at BYU deters the living of an honest, seeking life. It encourages lying, covering up and living with deceit by any BYU student, or faculty for that matter, who represents the university in any capacity. I can imagine that athletes, performers or any other student who is excellent in any way, soon realize that they will have to keep their normal, course of life errors and off-track moments to themselves for the four years it takes them to graduate from this university.

While they’re here, they’ll have to keep their stories straight and their issues under wraps. Any other honest attempt at reconciliation is sure to meet with the modern-day equivalent of a public whipping and then banishment from the village. Sort of like a shunning really. (Dwight would be proud.) So, athletes, dancers, cheerleaders, and Vice-Presidents carry with them the effects of sin—the remorse, the self-doubt and loathing, the inability to completely move forward without looking back—until they leave. The hope is that they still feel to make right once they have left the institution that, out of any institution, should have allowed them to do so within its walls. After carrying the heavy load for so long, it starts to feel normal, the way life is. It’s hard to imagine a different, better way.


The God I know, and the one I hope Brandon knows, is a God of exceptions. Not only is He exceptional, defying predictability and process, He makes exceptions. His prophets, whom he continues to use as prophets and kings, commit adultery. His disciples, even the one upon which he builds his church, deny their Savior. His people try his patience and build golden calves. Yet, he stays his hand. He is not a God of rules or of consistent outcomes. Perversely, we, who call ourselves his people, take pride in an external, consistent application of the law.

A certain woman, taken in adultery, was brought by the Pharisees before Jesus. They told him, with what I am sure were very earnest faces, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” We all know what Jesus said, as he drew and redrew lines in the sand.

On hearing his reply, each man, “being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one.” I can imagine the weight of the stones the scribes and Pharisees had secreted in their pockets suddenly became very heavy. If I were one of those Pharisees, committed as I would have been to the strict observance of the law and the avoidance of any contact with things gentile or unclean, I would have looked for some private corner in which to empty my pockets. It would have ruined my public image to be seen relenting in the “strict observance of the law” and avoiding the application of the “multiplicity of ceremonial rules” to which I normally devoted myself.

And while I am emptying my pockets and counting my own sins, the crowded village square empties until it is no-one but Jesus and the woman. In a motif as old as time and as timeless as every act that ever wanted righting, Christ and the woman have an intimate exchange about her heart and his perception of her and his faith in her ability to move on: “Go, and sin no more.”

The conversation is as these conversations should always be: just the two of them. No Pharisees, no scribes, no press, no public whipping, no stoning, no flagellation.

Surely there was a better way?

[There is no song that reflects what I feel. Perhaps a funeral dirge, with a lone bagpiper, piping my sorrow and disillusion]

Monday, February 21, 2011

Let Me Ride on that Long Black Train

“Between stimulus and response there is a space.”

Standing in front of the shoe racks at TJ Maxx blows my brain. I act like somebody under the influence. Somehow when I get in front of shoes, new shoes, all in my size, in so many different colors and shapes and feels, my heart beats faster, my face breaks out into a smile all on its own. Without even knowing what’s happening (isn’t that the language we all use when we want it not to be our fault?), I’m taking off my tennis shoes and pulling up my sweatpants to try on the Naughty Monkey electric blue platforms. (And with what am I ever going to wear those? The turquoise bustier?)

Sometimes, there’s nothing quite like an hour in TJ Maxx trying on shoes to lift the spirits. Julia and I went one lunch time, and ended up trying on every 9.5 shoe on the rack. The more ridiculous the better: the thigh-high, black suede pointy-toed boots with ankle chains, yes! The purple Converse with 70s peace emblems, you betcha! The taupe Jessica Simpson five-inch wedge with striated gladiator straps that wrapped around Julia’s ankle and calf so that she looked like she was wearing a fish! We were guffawing when she grabbed those off the rack. Then she put them on. We both tilted our heads, and said, disbelievingly, “You know . . . those are kinda cute, actually, in a really weird way.” But, onto the BCBG zebra-striped Mary Janes with waffle sole.

When I’m with Julia, I can be the responsible parent, and leave the store with only the black Spandex sliding shorts we came in to buy, with maybe a cute black casual jacket thrown in because the one she’s been wearing for two years is now a charcoal grey she’s washed it so many times. But, when I’m on my own . . .

I know the Madden Too pumps with the wavy back detail will fit my feet like a glove. I don’t even really need to try them on. Ditto for the Madden Girl black-and-white tiger print platform peep-toe with maroon heel and a maroon leather rosette on the toe. Not so sure about the AK red square-toed with the gold buckle. Sometimes, the square toes cut across the ball of my foot. Wish I could wear those ballerina slippers from Ralph Lauren, but my arches are so flat, my feet splay out like a retired mallard who’s served lunchroom for the past twenty years. At least they did last time I tried on a pair like that. But, hang on . . . maybe . . . Nope. Still flatter than flat. And are these really Fossil biker boots in a really impractical cream? Hyperventilate . . . rip off the dove grey Bandolino puss-in-boots ankle booties.

I may be exaggerating, but not by much.

Time slows down; an hour feels like fifteen minutes. I emerge from the Maxx, sweaty, hair flyaway, slightly queasy, like I’ve just eaten Thanksgiving dinner. I always have at least two pairs of shoes I do not need but that make me happy to see on my feet clutched in my little paws.


What is it about me, when the shoe is on the foot, that I do not stay at “Oh, that looks good” and just enjoy the sight of it, and the snug feel of the leather against my instep? I just about always engage in a dialogue of commentary and negotiation. Despite my promises to myself when I pull up to the store that I will only look, I’m almost helpless when I go inside and stand in front of those racks. The colors, the designs, the shape of the heel, the gleam of the patent, the buckle design so artfully placed, and the drape of the leather on the boot. I know I’m going to buy something.

I do have that moment of mental and emotional balance, when the shoe is on my foot, and I’m looking at it in the little mirror that’s angled beneath the bench, when I see it and think, “Oh . . . that looks good.” Then the thoughts come and I’m off down the slope: “It’s only 19.99. I don’t have quite this color of orange. (How many orange pairs of shoes does a person need?) It’s only 19.99. It looks so cute. What’s one pair of shoes? I’ve worked hard this month. I can spend a twenty spot or two or three on a pair of shoes.” It’s hard to put up much of a fight when the voice inside your head is your own. Consequently, I try to limit my TJ Maxx episodes to less than one a month.

For each of us the impulse is different. I’ve shared my shoe obsession. It’s almost laughable, and relatively inexpensive. But still, at the end of a TJ Maxx binge, I feel foolish. Like I’ve been caught eating frozen custard straight out of the carton, with a soup ladle, while I lie on my bed on top of clean, crumpled laundry watching Premier League Soccer on a weekday afternoon.

There’s a definition for this kind of behavior. Health professionals define this as “impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.” It can also manifest itself in cycles of relapse and remission. That’s the definition of addiction.

The hard part about giving this a name and a set of symptoms is that then a person who likes French sandals on QVC, or crack mainlined, or Russian girls with horses, or chocolate mint chip by the gallon, or blackjack at the high roller tables, or cutting their arms above the cuff level, takes refuge in their disease. Once there’s a definition with symptoms and causes, there is no way to be other than diseased. The sufferer, or victim, or body possessed by evil spirits, has no choice other than the cycle of abstention and relapse. When, after a period of time in which we’ve been so very good and under control, the urge hits, with a renewed ferocity, to click through, or shoot up, or eat out of the five gallon bucket, or run the credit card, or reach for the blade, and we give in, it’s to be expected. All part of the disease. Abdication. Inevitable.

I’m almost certain I don’t buy that. By that, I mean the notion that relapse is inevitable. (I do buy the notion that close proximity is almost more than some can bear. That merely being in a home with the Internet is like a magnetic force for some. But inevitable? That I can’t accept.) Inevitability violates the basic tenets of agency and free will. No action is inevitable. There is always a space between the invitation and the action in which we get to decide our response. Granted, some of us have made that space so small, we’re actually Pavlov’s dog. But there is still a space.

Perhaps the hardest, gut-wrenching work of building a soul is that work that’s done in the infinitesimal space between impulse and action—denial, restraint, keeping a promise, deciding to be Lot instead of her. The hardest work is sitting in front of the computer looking at the screen and knowing that if we put our hand on the mouse and click on a few links, it will take us to what our body, our mind, even our spirit seems to be craving at this moment. Yet, we stay our hand. Or we listen to the voice in our head, which, irritatingly, sounds like the voice we love the best (our own), telling us something about just this once, won’t hurt, deserve it, horrible person, good person, useless to resist, can’t help it, how bad can it be, addicted. And off we go, tumbling down the rabbit hole into a black oblivion, from which we’ll emerge hours later, flushed, hair in an electric halo, clutching whatever version of crocodile T-straps, size 9.5 rings our bell.

Even if we capitulate, we will confess, if pressed, that there was that moment when the thought did cross our mind that perhaps this was not the best . . . . In the space between impulse and action, we hear clearly the question and we know the appropriate response. For a brief moment, we see clearly the path before us. There is a moment of repose—always—before the battle begins.

It’s before the reasons, the justifications, and the release of hormones, taste buds and chemicals flood our brains to influence us. It’s before we sit down at the computer, before we pull up to the front of the store, or open the fridge. It’s where the thought first crosses our mind. It might show like a bat flitting through on the first fingers of dusk. Or, if we’re deep in the trenches of unrestrained desires and impulses, it comes pounding on the church doors like a stranger begging sanctuary. In those moments, we might feel compelled to grant entry, giving in to the lie that there is no other way. But, if we’re honest in heart, there is always a moment of rest, in which we are neither acting nor acted upon. In that moment, we get to choose again, anew.

Title: from “Long Black Train,” by Bill and Maggie Anderson.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Take Yourself Out of Your Mind

There are certain things I just can’t do. 1) I can’t fake tan. I tried once, about 25 years ago when I was an undergrad in college. I went to Electric Beach, and stood in front of the tanning bed, just shaking my head. The entire time I was lying there, I was thinking, “What on earth am I doing? What has come over me?” 2) I can’t drive a mini-van. When it came time to get a second car, back in 1998, when we only had 2 kids, I tried. I really tried to drive a mini-van. We test drove every version on the market. Not even the apple-red Town and Country with leather seats could stop the tears. “Please Kev, don’t make me drive a mini-van. Please. Please. I just can’t do it.” 3) I can hardly wear lingerie—at least not without protest, huffing, puffing and adjusting, and whining, “This is so ridiculous. Who on earth designed this thing? There’s no bottom to it.” At which point I rip it off, and, standing naked and utterly floppy, breathe a sigh of relief, “Whew, that’s better.”

Lately, I’ve taken to wearing really bright colors. They make me happy. They make Kevin shake his head and smile. Sometimes he even laughs out loud. My church outfit yesterday was a burnt gold sweater; an orange, purple, hunter green, brown and yellow plaid tulip skirt; gold stockings, and brown and tan Poetic License shoes with a brown and purple rosette on the toe, finished off with a gold tassel. If I had a piccolo, all the children would have followed me down the aisle, out the doors and into the East Union Canal.

I don’t know why I can wear the United Colors of J.Crew, Anthropologie, and Benetton all in one day, but not the turquoise bustier. It’s just part of the picture of me I carry in my head. Somehow tans from electrical sources, mini-vans no matter how grand, and turquoise bustiers are not part of my definition of myself. They’re not how I see me playing out in my head.


It’s no mistake that John came, wild and woolly out of the wilderness, crying “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I don’t think John meant for the Jews to turn from sin. I’m sure there were your garden varieties of usury, adultery, hypocrisy and prideful neglect going on in the shadow of every synagogue. But, that’s small change compared to the change John asked of the Jews. He wanted them to change the way they thought, the dreams they dreamed. He wanted them to demolish the very form of the Messiah on which they had pinned their hopes. Only with a changed mind could they actually “see” this Jesus, who looked, for all they knew, exactly like “Joseph’s son.”

The Greek root of the word “repentance” denotes a change of mind. Given this etymology, at the heart of all repentance is the work of changing what’s in our head. It’s about putting in new ideas about God, about ourselves and about the outside world. Paul says it this way: “Be ye not conformed to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Ryan Bingham told me this morning to “take yourself out of your mind, away from everything [you] say you are.” It’s different words for the same idea. The change we seek starts with a repentant mind, dismantling the ideas and visions that prevent us from experiencing the truth of the life before us.


Perhaps the hardest idea I have ever had to repent of or rewire (if the word repent makes you feel too guilty) was my ideas about and reactions towards marital intimacy. That’s a cryptic way of saying, I came with baggage. It wasn’t like the first time between Kevin and I was a tabula rasa. How could it have been, if you grew to physical maturity the way I did.

In my head was a swirl of experiences, doctrines, faulty wirings, protection mechanisms, and object lessons. On the one hand, I had been taught, beginning when I was very young that “Sex before marriage is wrong.” Sex, in this case, meant any kind of touching that went beyond the one-piece bathing suit we were allowed at the time. If you did have sex, you were spoiled goods. On the other, very deviant hand, I had a brother-in-law who hadn’t heard about the bathing suit rule; nor the social taboo of taking sexual advantage of your family members. So, as a young girl, I learned to stay very, very still and not make a sound. On one level, I didn’t want this to be happening to me, but on another, my body seemed to want what my mind and heart said was so very wrong. I learned to distrust those physical feelings. I became afraid of that swelling of passion that welled up so naturally in my very young body.

A few years later, I experienced, with a giddy sweetness, teenage first love: holding hands, kissing, staying out late, leaning against fence posts and walking on walls at midnight. Young, lithe bodies, completely unaware of what it was we could be leading to, always a little breathless, always watching the clock. And always a “no, not there” ready as a response in case the hands wandered too low.

It’s a hard mental jump from “no, no, no” for twenty-four years to “yes, yes, yes.” For some women, especially those of us who’ve put protections in place, it’s not a jump we make easily. It can take years. The wires are set deep. A friend of mine’s daughter spent part of her very beautiful wedding reception in tears because she knew that as soon as it was over, she would be getting in the car with her new husband and then they would be having sex. Whatever that meant!

I had a hard time getting over the habit I had learned of becoming very still and quiet, of almost watching myself from outside of my body. I didn’t know how to ride the passion. Whenever I felt it take me, I clamped down tight, remaining completely and utterly under control. I couldn’t divorce myself from the idea that wanting sex was somehow wrong. Enjoying sex without a hard pit forming in my throat was almost impossible. I had to be either really sleepy or really on vacation—moments in which my brain turned off. The thoughts in my head were more powerful than the feelings within.


How do you put a new script in place? How to accept a Messiah who heals on the Sabbath and raises people from the dead? Instead of gathering up armies, he says he has come to “heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised.” When you have thought for so long that when the Messiah came, he would liberate you from your Roman invaders, how do you root out that idea and replace it with the notion that He comes to liberate you from your worst self? Even if you really want to believe, even if you’re standing on the banks of the river, toeing at the mud and testing the water, how do you stop the thought, which comes unbidden, as if by rote, “Oh . . . that’s just Joseph’s boy.”

I read a romance novel. You have to know that’s another one of those things that’s not part of my self-definition—me, the feminist, career-woman, weight-lifting, no hairstyling or homemaking skills person who wishes she grew up on a farm and could ride horses at a full gallop. I don’t read romance novels. Or at least never confess in public to reading them.

But one day, about eighteen years in, I was at the library prowling through the stacks. I must have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Romance section, which merges with the Mystery shelves. On one of the display shelves, there’s this book, some kind of historical romance. On a whim, I pick it up, see that it’s one in a series, find all the books in the series, and then shove them face down between two hefty tomes of non-fiction I’ve also selected. I choose the self-checkout so that the clerk doesn’t see me taking home pastel-colored paperbacks with images of pearl necklaces or swans or a Regency folly. (I also took them back through the drive-through book drop so that I wouldn’t be seen carrying them back into the library.)

Guess what I met in the pages of those Easter-basket books: a new script. I finally read the words that showed me a better way to react to the feelings of passion and arousal. The women in those books didn’t freeze up. Perhaps at first, because of course that’s what a morally respectable Regency lady does, but even in the freezing, she’s admitting that she enjoys the feelings that are surging through her, that she wants his hands on her, that she wants to feel his body against hers, that she wants to touch him.

When I first read those passages, I had to stop and read them again, not quite sure of what I was reading. Then I had to stop because my idea of a woman inside of sex had been blown apart. Here was a good woman who welcomed those feelings, who didn’t feel the need to repress them and to knock down the hands that moved towards her. I had never seen a different way of being other than my own. I had never had that conversation with anybody before. The intimate, spoken word doesn’t come easily to me. (I think it would be a conversation more easily had if I were slightly drunk; a little less inhibited. Seeing as I don’t drink, that options not really open to me.)

Maybe I’m just really slow on the uptake, but, for the first time in my life, I could see another way of being inside my own body. I must have read a dozen of those romances in about a three week period. (I’m a very diligent student). As I read, I repented, in the truest meaning of the word, of the idea I carried with me of myself as a sexual being. I removed the idea that had taken root at such a young age that sexual arousal was something to fight against and to ward off. In its place, I planted, very tentatively at first, the notion that sexual arousal was to be welcomed, embraced and moved into. At first, the old feelings of restraint would well up inside me, the old wiring working like it always had. But, I knew, because of what I had read, that restraint and closure weren’t the only reactions available to me when I became aroused. I deliberately chose to feel another way.

It has made all the difference, replacing this tightly held but incorrect idea, with something I never before had supposed.


What other ideas are there, grasped tightly in our monkey fists, that if let go, would open up avenues of experiences we haven’t yet supposed? I’ve thought of a few, centered around the triumvirate of God, self and community:

  • In order to be a “good” member of my church, I must be completely satisfied with all it contains. Or, conversely, in order to be a “good” church, it must satisfy all my needs.
  • Blessings come only because of my obedience to the commandments.
  • God watches me with a critical eye.
  • I am a bad person—because I only tolerate, not full out love, some of those around me; because I tend to examine before I come to know, and for some ideas that process can take years; because I don’t know all that I should know; because I don’t care to know some things; because I can no more get excited about the Adult Session of a regional church meeting than I get about matching socks.

About two years ago, at the age of 42, just past the Benjamin exit heading north, I had a realization. I was driving home from Colorado with my family, having spent the Fourth of July weekend with the cousins in Boulder. Kevin was driving. I was slumped in the passenger seat, mulling over I don’t know what. Out of nowhere, like the dew, an idea settled in my chest: “I am good. I’m a really good person.” I thought about why I was a good person. I was honest, kind, hardworking. I was compassionate, generous, committed to my family and to keeping my promises. I was thoughtful, tolerant and enthusiastic. I embraced difference and tried not to let my weaknesses get in other’s way. I loved this earth, its Creator, and worshipped my thanksgiving.

I looked across at Kevin and said, in a voice that must have sounded a little bewildered, “You know, I’m a good person. I’m a good person.” He looked at me with this puzzled expression, “I never thought you were a bad person.” “I know,” I replied. “But I did.”

I had thought, because I did not automatically want what I was told to want, because I questioned what others took upon themselves so easily, because I tended to tilt my head and narrow my eyes when some spoke or acted around me, because some commandments were hard for me, that I was somehow rotten at the core. I didn’t see then what I know now: that my particular feet and mind and heart would always journey in this particular way.

Once again, it has made all the difference, replacing this tightly held but incorrect idea, with something I never before had supposed.

Title, “Change Is,” by Ryan Bingham.