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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Where have all the ribbons gone?

Thirteen years is long enough for memory to stale.

But it can’t erase video footage. 

For twelve years, I have remembered 9/11 by reliving it. I planted dozens of flags with the College Republicans on campus until my thumbs blistered, I viewed dramatizations with my family, I held the steel beam of the World Trade Center inside the 9/11 memorial pointing to NORAD at UCCS, I wrote poetry to encapsulate that skipped heartbeat at the first reports.

Everyone grieves differently. National grieving and memorials are complicated. But where is the dividing line between remembrance of lives lost and repeated infliction of a past horror? When do we let go of pain?

“Never Forget: 9/11/2001” is a well-meant slogan, but is also quite nebulous. How are we to never forget? And what are healthy ways to grieve and remember?

Technology now enables humans to re-experience a traumatic event in precisely the same way that they first lived it. Most Americans experienced 9/11 via televised broadcasts on a major news network. So replaying the footage each year allows us to relive the trauma – literally. 

This year, I avoided the newscasts, remembering in my heart alone. But at dinner in the campus pub with my best friend, one glance at the television screen regurgitated all my preteen shock at the first plane hitting the tower. I wasn’t sure if I was about to sob or vomit. 

Where have all the flowers gone? I think they took our old quieter traditions of remembrance with them. Yellow ribbons, photographs, gold stars on WW2 deployment flags, toy cars left at children’s tombstones. Empathy for others' pain is essential, and while modern society may seem calloused, less obvious ways of commemorating loss should not be discounted. True memorials are built in the heart. As J.K Rowling is so often quoted, “the ones that love us never really leave us.”

If I die in a terrorist attack, or natural disaster, or even in a car accident tomorrow, I don’t want to be remembered for how I died. I want my life to be remembered – the beautiful and crazy quarter century I had. If my last moments are painful, I don’t want my loved ones to obsess over them. I want them to “remember when we'd / stay up late and we'd talk all night / in a dark room lit by the TV light” (Skillet). All those little breaths strung together that constitute being alive.

We do the 2,977 people who died on 9/11 a disservice when we generalize them as “the fallen” or “the victims.” Each one had lives and families diverse enough to make a synesthete’s head swim in color and sound.  

Perhaps Christians often view remembering Jesus with communion almost the same way. We think about the torture in the last 12 hours of a 33 year life, as Cynthia Jeub recently wrote. I only realized this similarity recently when listening to a song in an Easter play from my childhood. During the last supper scene, Jesus sings:

“The time is near that I must leave you.
It hurts me so that we must part.
But just as we have remembered,
Remember our moments together.

In all you do,
In all you say,
Remember me,
Remember me.

Remember how amazed you were
the day I turned the water into wine?
You had not known me very long,
yet you believed I was sent from God.
Those were such good times,
Those were such good times.
Remember, remember.

Remember how we laughed so long
the day that 10 lepers were healed?
They were so happy to behold.
But only one had returned to thank you
Those were such good times,
Those were such good times.
Remember, remember.”

Although wine and bread representing body and blood are mentioned in some of the closing verses, the song emphasizes the life, not the death. If I actually love Jesus, wouldn't I want all of his life? Not just the end? And if I want to honor the 2,997, wouldn’t I listen to how their family members and friends remember them?

Next year, I think I’ll read some biographical sketches of people who died on 9/11, google some photographs. And skip the video replays.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Lighthouse Girl

There was once was a little girl, raised in the Village.

The Village was a utopia, walled off for protection and insulated from the world. Even the families in the girl’s section of the Village did not see each other very often, but lived peaceably, like hermits, in accordance with the Code.

When the girl grew to be a maiden, sometimes she crept through cracks in the wall and explored the countryside. 

She gradually even made friends with the woodland folk, discovering new ballads and gypsy dances banned in the Village.

One day, the elders of the Village told the girl that absolute obedience was the only way to honor her parents and the Code. But the girl had dreams, and this meant soul death.

So one night the girl left the Village forever.

Her friends on the outside helped her travel to the coast, where she built a lighthouse with bricks and mortar and timber they brought. That section of the coast was so rugged that the deaths on its rocks were legend. Other attempts to build lighthouses had not survived.

The girl maintained it for years, weathering many storms. Her friends visited often to encourage her and the prosperity of the lighthouse, but sometimes she was lonely. Her friends started to call her Lighthouse, shortened to Light.

One friend was a girl-pirate who was once raised in the Village like her, but they had met beyond the walls.

Another village girl had become a spy for a local Baron. She took shelter in the lighthouse and lived with Light for many moons.

All three of them knew an older girl who escaped a failed utopia several years before. This girl had been cursed by her own Elders and turned into a mermaid, forever chained to the waves and spume. She shared the birthname of the girl-pirate.

The friends often wondered about their kinsmen in the Village, and hoped someday many more could be free from the well-meaning tyranny of the Elders. The four swore a solemn pact against injustice in the land.

A cyclone rolled across the waters one night, spewing hailstones like vomit. The lighthouse girl manned the tower, keeping the light alive. In her telescope, she spied the signal of a small boat foundering on the waves. Two passengers, one with gold hair and one with the hair of a raven, rowed and bailed water to no avail.

Despite the peril, the three friends, followed by the mermaid, took a larger ship. They rode out toward the lost girls, just before their rowboat crashed against the rocks.

Light, the girl-pirate, the spy, and the mermaid embraced the lost girls on the beach and welcomed them to safety. Light helped them to warm inside by the fire and dry their clothes. The lost girls told the friends that they fled another section of the Village, inspired by their love for one another, because their Elders had banned their friendship.

The four friends all knew the value of friendship, and told the lost girls to stay together, no matter what the Elders said, and to explore their newfound freedom.

Soon the spy-girl left on a clandestine mission for the Baron, and couldn’t send letters to the lighthouse girl.

The girl-pirate took the lost girls rafting, teaching them how to navigate currents and giving them sea legs.

Light helped the lost girls find a trade in town with a basket-weaver, but their spirits were wild and young, and they joined a band of traveling gypsies, squandering their earnings on trinkets.

Midsummer gales brewed out in the gulf, and the lighthouse was empty again except for Light. She was lonely once more, yearning for her old friends and for new refugees from the Village. She often visited the mermaid down in the tidal pool on calm, starlit evenings to plan new adventures.

One day, the girl-pirate came to the lighthouse girl and said she couldn’t stay on land anymore. She was bound for faraway oceans and adventures far from the Village.

Light hugged the pirate and cried. They walked down to the docks together.

Light told the girl-pirate how much she had learned from her. She knew how to tie sailor’s knots. She could brew herbal mushroom tea from the Orient. She could debate the Elders now if they confronted her and told her to tear down the lighthouse.

Deep in her heart, Light knew how much the pirate yearned for the sea, how the land was ebbing away at her friend’s spirit.

The lighthouse girl said the girl-pirate needed to sail. It was time. And she understood.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Mars Hill Church's Good Friday film: Review

For centuries, churches have used various mediums in attempts to recreate history, to relive the past.

But the crucifixion is most frequently reenacted, with vivid detail. From medieval Passion plays to modern productions like New Life Church's The Thorn to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ...we as the audience revisit and revisit and revisit the torture of Jesus.

I have seen many forms of the story - theater, film, and dramatized radio theater. Although the same story is retold each time, the techniques employed by the scriptwriters, actors, and directors can potentially lend a new perspective and freshness, but breaking into this niche is difficult.

Mars Hill Church, a megachurch based out of Seattle, made their own Good Friday film in 2010, and released it onto the web for download in spring 2011. Curious to see what the filmmakers did with the story, I watched the 30 minute short last week.

The opening is chilling. A small child swings in the dust on a rope, then pauses to look at three empty crosses, embodying lost innocence. Mark Driscoll, senior pastor, gives an introduction, also sobering. He encourages viewers to continue "somberly, as if you were watching a funeral."

Mars Hill produced the film through Universal Studios, with a makeup artist from The Passion and No Country for Old Men, which was evident in some of the film techniques, such as close ups of Christ's hand gripping dirt in Gethsemane and then releasing it, or flashforwards to the impending scourging. The gory detail is unflinching, especially the scene in which Jesus' bloodied body falls into the mud after the beatings.

Yet despite attempts to draw the audience in with detail, the acting falls short, rendering most of the special effects meaningless, particularly with the casting for the main character. The actor portraying Jesus fluctuates between stoicism and bitterness, lacking love. He foretells his death and betrayal at the Last Supper nearly emotionless. He is angry and disappointed with Judas and Peter, defensive with Annas and Caiaphas, enduring torment with strength, but without love, which is the essence of the real Jesus. The gruesome beating in a torch-lit underground dungeon reminds the audience of a sinister horror film, in stark contrast to the scourging scene in The Passion where Jesus whispers to his Father that his "heart is ready" even as the torture begins.

Also, the actor playing Jesus looks like any guy off the street randomly wearing a tunic. Even though I have my own conception of what Jesus looked like, I can accept an actor of any description playing Christ if he is rooted in the role. But this Jesus doesn't have the passion to adopt the part.

Perhaps this lack of love is partly due to the focus of the film. Driscoll says in both the introduction and the church blog that the viewers should realize "the cross is something done by us: we murdered God. Then on Easter Sunday we remember that the cross is something done for us: God died in our place to forgive our sins." While both statements are true, I think we need to not divide what we did to God and what God did for us into separate events - the two are concurrent and inseparable.

The Mars Hill film also attempts to distinguish itself from its predecessors by focusing more on theology than history. According to the Christian Post (Apr. 1, 2010), Nick Borgardus, the media relations director for Mars Hill, said, "Whereas The Passion may have tried to tell the story with chronological and historical accuracy, we’re trying to make the theological weight of the event – the substitutionary death of the Son of God in our place for our sins – as vivid as possible." Yet theology is not a cold, hard exercise. Theology is logic-based, but because of its focus on spirituality, it is inherently emotional. 

When love is removed from sacrifice, the sacrifice becomes a nauseating, guilt-ridden experience . As Paul wrote, "Without love, I am nothing." When the center theme is removed from a central event to a life philosophy, only dead men's bones are left.

The biblical Jesus knew pain in its deepest forms, but he never lost love. The Mars Hill Church Jesus seems to have lost the meaning of his sacrifice. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Once upon a time, a little girl sat in a field releasing the fuzz from seeded dandelions and watching the wind gather the wisps into the sky as it tousled her hair. Sometimes, she danced with the wind, her blue skirt swishing to synchronize with its rhythm.

One day the whimsy of her dance led her to a crater blistered with brambles and dagger-length thorns. She stumbled over the precipice into the midst of them. Her dress tore, and her skin scratched.

A herdsman from the village nearby heard a child crying. He looked down and saw her caught in the briars. He leaped down into it, wincing as the thorns tore at him, but he struggled toward the girl.

When he reached her, he half-smiled and reached out to pull her up. But she was crying so much that his face was blurred, and all she could see was the blood covering his clothes and hands. Shrieking, she drew back from him, wounding herself further.

Finally, she let herself be carried out of the thicket. The herdsman tried to soothe her, singing her a lullaby. All she could hear was the painful undertone in the song.

By the time they returned to the dandelion field, the girl had cried herself to sleep. The herdsman laid her down under a tree, cleaned her scratches with a damp cloth, and kissed her forehead. And he went back to tend his flock.

The girl awakened the next morning. Glancing at her scabs, she sobbed again, remembering the herdsman’s wounds. She sat in the field all day staring at the dandelions. She had lost the dance.

In the evening, she crept back to the edge of the valley, grasping at the brambles.

She separated out the thorns from the stems of the plants, clenching them in her fist.

If she hadn't fallen into the crater yesterday, she wouldn't have cried out, and if she hadn't cried out, the herdsman wouldn't have come, and if the herdsman hadn't come, he wouldn't have bled. It was all her fault.

She used the thorns like claws across her arms. Surely she must hurt, because she hurt him. Only her own blood could satisfy this.

Every night for years, she returned to the crater. The bleeding was never enough. The craving to satiate the guilt was as fresh each night as the one before. Sometimes the coyotes came out to follow, nipping at her heels, licking up the warm blood dripping from her wounds.

She thought she must be an outcast, even though the villagers never mentioned it to her. A word or sharp look made her tremble, thinking they blamed her. Surely everyone knew what she had done to the beloved herdsman.

She sometimes would see him or other men leading their flocks over the distant misty hills. He tried to approach her on a street corner a few times, but she shuddered and turned away, lest she see his blood. The blood. She could never forget the blood.

But the coyotes never left. They became the girl’s companions when she felt like the village hermit. They walked with her when no one else would.

The girl grew into a maiden. A lonely maiden, wearing a ragged blue gown that barely covered the dried clotted mess covering her arms and legs.

One night at the crater, she returned to the top with her fist full of brambles. A coyote was waiting for her. She could smell him. He would lick her wounds before he'd let her pass by. She wondered when he'd just lunge for her throat and the pain would end. Coming over the edge, lantern light fell across her form and she shrank back into the shadows.

"Little girl."

The voice.

"Little girl. Don't be afraid. You aren't lost, are you?"

She trembled and clenched her teeth. Of all the villagers, he especially she could never face. Not with her scars.

He reached down for her hand.

"Come on. It's all right."

The coyote snarled in the brush nearby.

"Wait here." She heard his sandals crackle against the dry grass, and the swish of his club.

His footsteps returned, and he peered over the ledge down at her. "It's safe now." He smiled.

She dared herself to glance into his eyes. "Thank you." A girlish whimper.

She let him pull her up into the lamplight. They both sat down, each looking off into the distance. Her gaze wandered to the herdsman sitting beside her, to his rough cotton robe, to his ragged sleeves.

His arms. So many white echoes of pain. But just echoes. No blood.

Without thinking, she traced one of them lightly with her finger, then drew back. "I'm sorry."

He turned to her. His eyes twinkled in the dim light. "No need to apologize."

Pulling her arm closer to his, he drew it into the light. "Those look painful," he said as he traced the dark crimson lines on her arms.

One wet drop fell onto the lap of the blue gown.

"You know," he said, "If a little girl fell into the crater tomorrow, I would pull her out.”

The sob couldn't be stifled. She looked down, eyes memorizing every hole and rip in her dress. His arm wrapped around her shoulder like a winter's cloak, warm and safe.

“I carry my own lambs high above the thorns when I pull them out of the crater. I can handle being scratched, but I don’t want them to bleed,” he said.

Tears trickled, refusing to be shoved back. At last, she relaxed and lay against his shoulder.

He plucked a dandelion head and handed it to her. They blew it out together.  And dandelion seeds floated past in the moonlit breeze, the wind gathering the fluff up into the stars.

He spoke again, his hand held out towards her. “Would you like to dance?”

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Self-injury: A Worldview

“Told I talked too much
made too much noise
I took up a silent hobby—

― S. Marie

Self harm. When the darkness inside at last leaks out and mars your body.

The reasons most people give for hurting themselves are complicated and diverse. Verbalizing the pain, punishing and satiating guilt, desiring control, a grasping to keep out the numbness.

My years of personal self-injury were mostly guilt-driven. As a preschooler, I saw an Easter play and believed that I needed to hurt myself for hurting Jesus. Every year, the repeat of the same drama I desired and dreaded so much drove deeper into my heart this need to crucify myself.

Little girl me thought that Jesus had to obey His father in the Garden of Gethsemane and die for me because she was a child and had to obey her parents. Surely it would be wrong not to, and Jesus couldn’t sin. Therefore, little girl me believed Jesus was like this abused child that was forced to sacrifice Himself for her. She couldn’t understand free will. That Gethsemane was not about “I must” but “I choose.” That His love could never be forced.

So self injury was more than just cutting. The bruises in hidden places and perpetual scabs all around my fingernails were just a symptom of an underlying issue. The proverbial iceberg that sunk the Titanic. An entire worldview lay under the icy waves.

When you believe that you are worthless, that you deserve to be punished and denied love, this perspective seeps mercilessly into every area of your life.

Self harm can be subtle. Some of my closest friends have said that they don’t deserve friendship or to even simply enjoy life.

“Aren’t we supposed to be focused on the next life and not enjoying this one? I don’t have to have friends. I’ll just be alone.”

“Why I am so stupid?”

“I don’t want to inconvenience the waiters at IHOP because I’m in a wheelchair. I don’t have to have pancakes.”

“Wouldn't you eventually get over it [my suicide]?”

The words from our conversations drip like blood. Emotional wounds seeping silent tears. They don’t see that every person’s unique genetic composition and personality combination makes them irreplaceable.  John Powell explained it like this: “You have a unique message to deliver, a unique song to sing, a unique act of love to bestow. This message, this song, and this act of love have been entrusted exclusively to the one and only you.”

The voices in our heads telling us that we are worthless are lies. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life. Abundant even in the little things. Enjoying hot, syrupy pancakes with friends. Late night laughter. Life contains hardships, but we don't have to seek them out. My friend Cynthia Jeub recently wrote that we don't need to live like we were born to be martyrs.

I can live free, and be “free indeed.” I have not been denied love. I am (and YOU are) so loved.

P.S. Me and Pastor Mark Adams from First Baptist Church of Beaumont who used to play Jesus in the Passion Play. I went back to visit last month.