Thursday, April 30, 2009

Repentance which leads to salvation

I was at a small group last night where we talked about how the church’s job is not to show the world how to be holy. Our job is to show the world how to repent. In Psalm 51 David is repenting before God from his sin with Bathsheba. He cries out appealing to the mercy of God:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your Presence
And do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.

It is in this moment, when David is on his knees, begging for mercy, at the lowest point of his life—this is when he can say:

Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
And sinners will be turned back to You.

The turning of sinners comes through David’s own repentance. How often I hide my “messiness” from all but the closest few. I think I have to act with a standard of holiness in order to convince others to follow my God, but perhaps the thing the world needs most is to see me in my broken places, to have me acknowledge my full humanity, and then have them see God accept me all the same. The world may not be convinced until they see the church upon its knees before the throne of God.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I love the stars because I have to be still in order to see them. Somehow the expanse of what I cannot understand filled with pinholes of light thousands of years away has the power to empty me of myself and replace my chaos with calm.

This weekend I’m in the middle of writing a long critical paper. I’m wading through articles and struggling to understand big words that I constantly have to stop and look up. It fascinates me, but at the same time it is too much. My brain is aching. And when I finish this paper I have another waiting its turn to be written. So I don’t have time to be still, but I think this is the moment when I need it the most.

I just came in from lying on my back, the grass beneath me, the stars above. One calm moment is giving me the strength to keep reading, to keep writing, to keep using my dictionary.

I think I love the stars because I can’t gaze at the heavens and keep my eyes on the world around me at the same time. The stars force me to be calm because to find them I cannot think of anything else. They allow me to forget, for a moment, all that seeks to weigh upon my soul. They lift, not just my burden, but me. They are beautiful, patiently waiting to be noticed.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Violent Reckoning

I put together this first draft of an essay for a class this morning. Next week I will conference with my professor and discuss its strengths and weaknesses, but I wanted to get some feedback from another audience first.

Violent Reckoning

The doorframe was broken. It lay in pieces on the living room floor. The deadbolt was exposed. The computer from the office was missing, the back door left ajar. Upstairs in the loft, my thirteen-year-old sister, Jessie, was hiding behind the futon. Alone and frightened, she hadn’t moved for hours. Violence had entered our home.

On March 18, 2009 a car crashed into a ditch alongside a gravel road just half a mile from my home. The driver was inebriated. He stumbled down our driveway as my sister watched from the window. She locked the doors and hid while he broke into our home. A few hours later Jerrod Altevogt was taken into custody for burglary and attempted sexual assault of a woman he had been with. He never knew my sister was in the house.

The night of the break-in I was in Tennessee, far from my home in rural Nebraska, but I felt violated when my mother called me with the news. Home is sacred, the place I want to be safest from the world, but Jerrod proved it was not invincible. Calloused hands breached my sanctuary with evil intent. Crime statistics took on a name, a face, a story.

Violence is no longer what happens to anybody other than me. I and my family are not immune. Criminal headlines in the news are not so easily set aside. In small ways I have felt the victims’ pain, lived their fear. At the very least, I live with the understanding that there is little preventing their story from becoming my own.

My sister knows this reality too. As she hid behind the futon, panic and confusion assaulting her heart, all she could do was send up a silent prayer of desperation. Please God, don’t let anything bad happen to me. Even when the intruder left, the silence hung dead and threatening around her until my mother came home. For hours and days following, her mind replayed the scenario over and over like the sound of a skipping CD. She imagined what could have happened, what it would have been like to be found, to be the victim of a sexual assault.

I know my sister’s fear. It came to haunt me when I was only fifteen. The sheriff called to warn my parents. The authorities had picked up a man named Brian for stalking a female college student, and he mentioned my name during the interrogation. But they let him go for lack of sufficient charges, something I couldn’t understand. Why were men like him allowed to roam the streets and violate my sense of innocence and safety? Like my sister I replayed scenarios over and over in my mind: where he would find me, when he would take me, how he would use my body to satisfy his erotic pleasure, and whether or not I would live to carry his child. The threat never materialized, but the fear of his intent violated something more fragile than my body.

It has been years since I have seen or heard of my alleged stocker, and the deadbolt on the front door has been fixed, but my sister and I both carry the scars of our fear. I can’t leave windows uncovered at night because I imagine Brian’s eyes watching me. Jessie cannot pass over the bridge Jerrod crossed to get to our home without remembering the night she watched him come. Every time a car follows me for more than a few blocks at night, my heart races until I watch it turn off the road. Jessie doesn’t walk into the office without realizing that Jerrod once stood there. The immediate danger is past, but the experience remains to make us question: How do we live in a world pervaded by violence, a world that threatens our safety?

I could cling to hate as if it were a life preserver, but would it keep me from drowning? Will my fury speed the work of justice? Will it do anything to solve the problems of violence? Will it protect me from a second intrusion?

I am haunted by the faces of violence, by the hate and fear that drives them. I wonder at the depth of pain that could cause one human being to violate another. I wonder about Jerrod Altevogt and try to imagine his life. Was he so lost and without a home that he was so desperate to break into my own? What did his mother feel as she held him to her chest as a child? What does she think now? Did she ever bother to hold him at all?

Cynthia James picked up the paper on March 19, 2009 and read the article concerning Jerrod’s arrest. She remembered a day twenty-four years earlier when a woman showed up at her church with an infant in her arms, asking for money to buy diapers. The pastor gave Cynthia the woman’s name: Altevogt. Cynthia took a package of diapers to her subsidized housing apartment building. Altevogt’s name and face were seared in Cynthia’s memory when the door opened and, in an instant, the look on Altevogt’s face went from ‘who’s here?’ to absolute anger. She wanted something other than the diapers.

I can only speculate about what went on within Jerrod’s low-income home, but I cannot help but conjecture that Jerrod was born into a home with a mother who cared more for herself than the needs of her child. He was raised to take what he wanted by a mother who tried to work the system. His home was not a safe place. Could he know what he was stealing from my sister and me as he broke into ours?

Breaking down our door and stealing from our home were not the actions of a victim; they were the actions of a man who made a choice. No matter what his past or his home, Jerrod Altevogt is responsible for the decisions he made. I do not support misconstrued victimization, but I also believe in the power of compassion to heal broken lives. Justice does not require hate.

I don’t know how to coexist with violence, but I know that hate makes a sorry companion. I don’t know what to do when my safety is threatened or what to tell my sister when she faces the same, but I know what to tell her not to do. I tell her not to live in fear. Otherwise violence has won. I tell her to walk across the bridge and go into the office, to remember and learn to live beyond the memories. When I finish telling my sister, I tell myself. I close my blinds and muster the courage to drive through the dark. Injustice will not dictate my life.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Unexpected Sanctuaries

This morning I was sitting in chapel, and I have to confess I was studying. I was rapidly trying to finish a novel I needed to be prepared to discuss immediately following the service. I was focused on the words on the page in front of me, engrossed in the story, when God interrupted. Though I was sitting while everyone around was standing and worshipping, the music swelled louder than usual, wrapping its arms around my being, invading my heart with its presence. The bass was throbbing so loud I could feel it resonating within my heart. But I realized the rhythm shaking within me was not the notes of a bass line melody. It was God.

The words were singing. God is jealous for me. He loves like a hurricane, and I am tree, bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy

I closed my eyes for a moment and let the windstorm break through into my routine, blowing me over in its wake. It was only a moment. I still went on reading my homework during chapel, but it was a rich moment, a moment when my studies and my worship visibly fused, a moment that left my reading infused with something more. Oh how He loves me.

Life is full of unexpected sanctuaries. They come in all sizes and shapes, from all directions. The book I was reading this morning (The River Why by David James Duncan) in chapel put it differently. A fly fisherman states:

I stand in this sweet river, stabbing invisible golldang tippet
at the eye of this golldang fly through the strength of heaven,
light of the sun, radiance of the moon, splendor of fire,
speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, stability of earth,
firmness of rock, flow of river, song of bird, beat of heart,
filling and emptying of lungs, Christ with me, Christ behind
me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ
on my left, Christ on my right, Christ in the heart of every bird,
bug, or fish who passes, sees, touches, or bites me, Christ in every
tree, flower, cloud, blade of grass, element, galaxy, and seen or
unseen world that encompasseth me.

Every moment, every piece of creation holds the potential to become a sanctuary, something sacred transformed by God. I am so grateful that He doesn’t always wait for me to discover them on my own, but that He brings a few to me, blowing through my days like a hurricane.

Blow on wind, blow on.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Seven Stanzas at Easter"

Unfortunately for me, Easter represents the time of the semester when I often want to sit down and cry because of all that needs to be written in the next couple of weeks. My mind is tired of reading and crafting words. This weekend Amy, a good friend and a fragment of the home I miss so much, is coming to visit, so I will set aside my books and papers to pause in expectancy for the rising hope of the empty tomb. But for now words fail me. So I offer instead the words of the poet and author John Updike in honor of Easter's approach.

“Seven Stanzas at Easter”

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.