Sunday, November 16, 2014

White Roses and Paper Cranes: Symbols of Beauty and the Horror Within



Walking down the cobblestone streets of Salem, Mass., I was both intrigued and a bit spooked. In every other window, witch paraphernalia was displayed – ouija boards, spell candles, black cats. The Salem Witch Museum is in an old church with the glass windows lit in red. It is dusk and the perfect setting for my visit.

Turning a corner, we walked by a historic home, graveyard and a group of tourists being led by a man dressed vaguely as a pilgrim. My friend tells me to look down. I see a row of stones, engraved with words in capital letters. Some of the stones are cracked. Yellow leaves obscure parts of the text. But I see phrases: “I am innocent” . . . She tells me these are the last words of the men and women hanged after being accused of witchcraft. It takes my breath away.

When I look up, I notice a small courtyard – again surrounded by a stone wall. There are small stone platforms jutting out of the wall – about 20 of them – encircling the courtyard. I thought they were benches, then noticed that on each one is a single white rose.

These too represent those who died, accused of being witches. One after another, silently, I walk by and read their names, the date of their death, and their method of execution: “hanged,” “pressed.” 

Some names I recognize from literature, many I do not. I want to run my finger along the words. I long to whisper a silent apology and offer a prayer, but the night has grown chilly and it is getting darker.

In only one other place have I encountered such sadness, such a clear representation of our unfathomable human ability to harm one another.

My husband, daughter, and I traveled to Okinawa, Japan, in 2007. I was supervising a trip with my college students. They were filming a video to promote a Christian school. Our trip was fascinating and we soaked in the Japanese culture, eating sushi, collecting coral and seashells, walking through rice fields and carefully avoiding slithering Habu.


On one of the first outings, our hosts took us to the World War II Peace Museum. Row after row of headstones engraved with the names of the American and Japanese soldiers who lost their lives. The monuments stretched on past our vision. We walked through a museum containing mementos from both the Japanese and the American soldiers. The museum was a visual plea for peace.

But perhaps the most overwhelming moment for me was our next stop at the Himeyuri Peace Museum, a cave where 17 Japanese nurses and 194 school girls hid under orders to never surrender. Knowing they would soon die, they left letters, speaking of their sorrow to part with the men and families left behind. Of the more than 200 women, only 5 survived. They were young, so young.


Outside the caves was a tree, covered with multi-colored paper cranes. One thousand cranes, they say, grants one wish. Visitors bring these every day as a memorial to these young nurses and there are thousands of them – so many that they weigh down the tree and make it look vibrant and alive in an other-worldly way. Pink, green, turquoise, red, yellow, orange. In another pile were yellow flowers, stacks of them.


Intensely alive and a way for those who are living to touch the past and say, “We will never forget.”

It is hard to believe we are capable of these things. We don’t want to be. We visit sites and cry and feel the pit in our stomach that people can inflict such pain on others.

And so I walk away from that Salem memorial – the memory of a faded white rose in my mind and heart.

Were they witches? Were they evil?


Or were we?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Renee Zellweger, Orual, and Me


Renee Zellweger’s face was all over the internet this week. She had plastic surgery that took away her signature chubby cheeks and ruddy complexion. She is still attractive. The only problem is that she no longer looks like the actress who charmed us in Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jone’s Diary. She is too perfect. We liked the old-version of Rene, flaws and all.

I remember having a similar reaction when Jennifer Grey had a nose job following her roles in Ferris Bueller and Dirty Dancing. Her new nose was lovely – but she no longer looked like the same woman. I would stare at her photo and think, “Really!? Wow. What a difference a nose can make!” It was almost like the original Jennifer had disappeared, replaced by this new version without her distinctive personality.

As much as I am shocked at the tendency of the rich and famous to erase their flaws, I admit I have a few that I would not mind erasing as well. For many years, I battled with being much too thin. I wasn’t the good kind of skinny, but the kind that made clothes drape awkwardly on me, the kind that meant I also was flat chested with knobby knees.

If I was rich, would I have fixed that flaw? Perhaps. My angst about my own personal appearance was all consuming in my early teens. I hated the way I looked and was certain that everybody else focused on my flaws as well. Now, as I approach the end of my 40's, I’m in a constant battle with graying hair. Thank goodness for Clairol.

All of us, and perhaps women in particular, are plagued by self-awareness, self-doubt, even self-hatred. We get consumed by the one thing that is wrong with our physical appearance, whether it is the belly that refuses to get flat or the ears that stick out at an odd angle. We worry that this is what is holding us back – as if this one feature could prevent relationships from developing or block our prospects of fame and fortune.

It is all too easy to hate how we look.

It is even easier to equate who we are, our identity, with our physical appearance. Is there more to us than meets the eye?

In C.S. Lewis’s gorgeous (and lesser-known) novel, Till We Have Faces, a princess named Orual is consumed by her own ugliness. She realizes from a young age that her sister is the good looking one. She is the smart one, but she is also hideous.

When she is young, her father taunts her and holds her face to a mirror – “Who would want this?” he mocks. And, she agrees. Orual eventually goes to great lengths to hide her face, eventually wearing a veil to block others from seeing what she really looks like.

But, Lewis suggests this need for transformation goes much further.

What Orual discovers in the novel, after a great deal of soul searching, is that surface ugliness is the least of her problems. As she fixates on the need to transform the physical, she neglects to realize that her soul is in need of a greater makeover.

Yes, she needs transformation, but the knife must go deeper. Orual is jealous and manipulative. She ruins those she loves in order to get her own way. She is ugly, indeed, but not just in the way she thought.

At the conclusion of Lewis’s novel, Orual is an old woman. On judgement day, she stands, naked, before the gods, and they reveal not just her ugly face, but the depravity of her soul.

Surely, this is as bad as it gets. To be revealed, warts and blemishes for all to see. But, in revealing herself and finally owning who she is – completely – a miraculous thing happens. Orual is made whole again. And, she discovers (much to her shock) that her vulnerability before the gods has left her beautiful, inside and out.

Transformation, Lewis suggests, is not purely physical. It cannot stay at the surface. As Orual learns, identity goes far deeper than our outward appearance.

So, we can change our nose. We can add size to our breasts. Yet even these changes will not ultimately satisfy our longings for perfection. We live with a residual dissatisfaction that goes much deeper. Our fixation on the physical, hints at our spiritual hunger. Perhaps we struggle to adjust and improve what lies on the surface because we fear going deeper.

When we know God and allow ourselves to be exposed, unveiled, naked, before Him, only then will we be truly transformed. From glory to glory, He's changing us indeed - not merely erasing our physical flaws, but digging deep, perfecting our true identity to reflect His image.

"And we all who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into His image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." 2 Corinthians 3:18




Friday, October 3, 2014

Farmville, Faith, and Fallen Sheep


A few years ago, McDonald’s created a promotional game targeted toward the reported millions of Americans who were playing the Facebook game FarmVille.

The press release said, “Our mission is to connect the world through games by offering consumers meaningful experiences that enhance their game play. Tens of millions of people play FarmVille daily and this unique campaign with McDonald’s…further strengthens our commitment to delivering high quality in-game brand experiences.”

Now, I must stop here and admit something.

I was one of those millions. I once owned a farm on FarmVille.

It started innocently enough. I was checking Facebook, and an update appeared on my wall. One of my friends had just expanded his farm.

“What is that?” my daughter asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Just a game some people play where you own a virtual farm.”

“I want a farm,” she said. “Do it!”

We made the fatal click.

It started with a little patch of virtual land. I could buy pretend seeds, plant them, and harvest them. Innocent enough, right? Even biblical, really — the Bible says a lot about seeds.

Then, I found out that I could expand my farm. Seek new territory. Acquire a barn and fences and trees and goats and even a hot air balloon.

Again: nothing wrong with expansion. Look at the Bible. The Israelites expanded into the Promised Land — bigger and better. Abraham went to a far off place to become the father of many nations. And all with God’s blessing! This was fun! I liked it!

My farm grew to an impressive state. I had at least 100 fruit trees and many cows. In fact, I had so many animals that I had to corral them into fences and buildings. I had to buy a seeder to plant my newly expanded fields and a harvester to keep up with the bounty of crops.

In the meantime, I was being charitable. I was even helping friends.

I was also winning. FarmVille lets you know how you are doing. I was ahead of many of my friends. I would visit their so-called “farms” — they were pitiful. Little single plots of land with wilted crops.

And I was jealous of some. A married couple I know had taken over FarmVille. Their farms were amazing and impressive. Nicely arranged. Beautiful barns. Multiple machines. In fact, once I visited their farms, my own seemed insignificant.

Then something terrible happened. My farm got completely out of control.


 In the midst of one mad milking
and harvesting session, I stopped and asked myself:
Have I lost my mind? 



I had so many cows to milk. I had so many sheep to shear.  I had so many crops to seed and plant and harvest that I could not keep up. Things started dying. My crops were turning brown and wilting before I could reach them. I could not keep up this frantic pace.

I was getting physically stressed by FarmVille — by my virtual farm.

I knew this was crazy. In the midst of one mad milking and harvesting session, I stopped and asked myself: have I lost my mind?  Am I really worrying about a virtual farm that does not even exist? Do I need this stress in my life? I am a busy woman — I work full time. I am a mother. I have a long commute. I don’t have time to be a pretend farmer!

I knew I needed to stop.

Stopping was easier than I imagined. With one simple touch of a button, my farm disappeared. And with it, went my stress. I couldn’t believe how easy it was just to end the madness, just to walk away.

In keeping with the farming metaphor, I think of Isaiah 53:6. The text says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  I had indeed gone astray. This was not my intent when I built my farm. It was supposed to be fun! It was just some little silly thing to do with my daughter. How had it gotten out of control?  The New Living Translation says, “All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own.”

My experience with FarmVille has a parallel with my own life. My life can, at times, be much like that game. It can easily get out of control. Like Isaiah so clearly states, I leave God’s path and follow my own.  Leaving the path is not really a conscious decision. It starts with many, many good things.

I am success-driven. I like to be recognized for doing a good job. But personal ambition can have a bad result when I accept a position or responsibility I do not want, simply because it brings me prestige or honor or money. I leave God’s path when I become secretly jealous of a colleague who gets recognition. I leave when I consider an opportunity that would not suit me, simply because it would mean I am successful.

Although I try to be content, I tend to want more. More stuff. More out of life. More money. When will we, like Solomon, recognize the vanity of this never-ending cycle of life? This mistake is common. We are not alone in our chasing after the wind.

The McDonald’s rep says that tens of millions of Americans play this game. Tens of millions! Why?  I think it is because FarmVille reflects our dominant culture. We want to do more, to be more, than what we are or, even, more than what is best for us.  We encourage our kids in this direction, too. 

Children today lead incredibly busy lives. They are participating in so many good things — but have we gone overboard? They are asked to join clubs. To play sports. To prioritize academic achievement.

As adults, we want to be the head of the PTA, in charge of that church committee, a leader in our workplace. And with each responsibility we add, our frantic life spins a bit faster.  This pursuit of success can easily spin out of control.  These successful lives we pursue can get so busy, so overwhelming, that individual experiences lose their meaning. In our effort to build our bigger and better farms, we forget about the pleasure of growing one plant. God calls us to put an end to this madness. He wants us to be counterculture.

I readily admit it. I tend to be one of those sheep. But there are ,moments in my life when I have felt the call to stop and question everything. How do we hit delete when the game of life gets out of control?

It starts with a prayer for help. We need help to stop the cycle. We need help to make changes to our busy, crazy lifestyles. We need help to renew our minds and our hearts. We must recognize that no matter what our title, no matter how great our achievements, we are merely sheep, and we are in desperate need of a Shepherd.

- Originally published in Catapult magazine - 1 Sept. 2011. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

In the Waiting Room - My GUEST POST on This Odd House


My friend and colleague, Kelli Worrall, has a beautiful blog titled This Odd House. It is a little bit about their beautiful Craftsman style home, but more about the people who live within it. Kelli tells the story of how they adopted their two children. She tells about growing up with parents suffering with disabilities. She writes about life and brokenness and hope with heartbreaking honesty. 

This month, I have the joy of guesting on her blog. She is hosting a series about "waiting." The topic struck home because I am in that place. I am waiting and trying, desperately, to be patient.

Lately, it feels like my life has been all about waiting.
Our house has been up for sale for 90-plus days. We are waiting, hoping, praying for a buyer.
About five years ago, we started to talk about moving from Indiana to Florida. The move could bring us closer to my husband’s brother and to my mom and her husband who had recently adopted the “snowbird” lifestyle. The decision made practical sense in many ways.
Living near family would be helpful for us since my husband’s mom, who lives with us, is 86. While she is in good mental and physical health, we have been more worried about leaving her alone when we travel.
Plus, the fact that the weather in Chicago has been earning polar nicknames cemented our decision. How wonderful would it be to not have to wear a winter coat that looks like a sleeping bag? Or, to throw out our snow shovels and thermal gloves? Or, to go on outside walks all summer long.
So we made plans.
I prayed every morning as I drove to work. “Please God, if this is the right thing, make it happen. Please let me get the right job. Please let the move transition smoothly and care for all the details in a way that YOU think it should happen.”
For a while things moved smoothly ahead. While I did not get the jobs I applied to, I found that my current employer would let me work remotely in a new position. We sold my husband’s classic car, a boat, and a camper. We fixed up the house, downsized and put it on the market. We were steadily moving forward.
And then, everything seemed to stop. No sale. No offers.

Here's the rest of my blog- and be sure to read more from Kelli on This Odd House.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Secret to Being a Nerd


Certain activities belonged to “nerds” – and wanna-be-cool high schoolers avoided them like the plague.

I was in the Marching Band – nerd heaven. Plus, I was skinny, wore braces, earned excellent grades, was hopeless at sports, and refused to break rules. Card-carrying nerd, for sure.

But, as an insider nerd, I knew a secret. We were not all the same type of nerds. Even within marching band, people were not all one variety. Louise was a hard-core determined flute/piccolo player who wanted to gain a spot in a professional symphony. Smart and determined, she simply seemed focused. Our trumpet player was also a jazz aficionado. Brian wanted to look and sound like Chuck Mangione, so he was often seen sporting a fedora and carrying his flugel horn.

At Thornwood High School, the theatre people were on the verge of nerd-dom, but some managed to be deemed socially acceptable. Certainly the Mathletes or Dungeons & Dragons Club were card-carrying members.

The word “nerd” was not used until the 1950s. The first use, of all places, was in a Dr. Seuss book. Although, the concept of a person who didn’t quite fit into the mainstream has always been present. For years, that one person who stood out has been called an “oddball,” a “geek,” “square,” or “drip.”

Like Marty McFly in the movie Back to the Future, nerds are often portrayed as extremely intelligent, socially awkward, and oddly dressed. The stereotype developed of a nerd with taped, horn-rimmed glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors. In the 1980s movie, Revenge of the Nerds, these stereotypical nerds decided they’d had enough and took on the popular crowd.

For most of us, high school was a highly-pressurized time to fit in. From what my daughter says, it still is today. That is why stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister are incredibly successful. “Blend. Blend. Blend,” they seductively whisper. “Wear our perfume. Flash our label. Maybe then you can avoid nerd-dom.” Anyone who avoids sports – a nerd. The girls who don’t want to be cheerleaders – nerds. The labels can be oppressive.

But, as Whil Wheaton (newly-crowned King of the Nerds) said to a crowd at Comic-con. Being a nerd just means following what you are interested in. 


Actually, we are all (even those sporting a jersey or cheerleading skirt) unique. Some of us just keep it more under wraps. We may want to know everything there is to know about [fill in the blank]. For me, it was vintage fashion and books. I loved reading and authors and traveling and times of the past. Nerdy? Probably.

Even at age 16, I knew I would rather wear a 1940s gabardine jacket, than anything I can buy at the mall. Unusual? Certainly. But, as I grew older and moved on from high school to college to graduate school, I realized that the nerd label gradually disappeared. Suddenly, I was smart, determined, one-of-a-kind.

At the end of an episode from the animated series Freakazoid, they explain that nerds have huge potential:

..most nerds are shy ordinary-looking types with no interest in physical activity. But, what they lack in physical prowess they make up in brains. Tell me, who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who makes all the top grossing movies? Nerds. Who designs computer programs so complex that only they can use them? Nerds. And who is running for high public office? No one but nerds. ... Without nerds to lead the way, the governments of the world will stumble, they'll be forced to seek guidance from good-looking, but vapid airheads.

If you still have any doubt, look what nerds have achieved. Ivy League colleges are filled with card-carrying nerds. They have revolutionized, invented, dreamed, and succeeded. Bill Gates – the world’s most accomplished nerd – changed the world with his inventions. John Greene – whose novels fly off the shelves and movie made millions – is a self-proclaimed nerd.

When you get older, I can assure you that the nerd label slips gradually away. As you earn your degrees, leave behind lockers and backpacks, you find out that you are delightfully quirky, unusual, determined, focused, and (gasp!) often, extraordinarily gifted and smart.

My daughter is at a convention this weekend filled with teenagers who are slightly, well – okay – hugely, obsessed with anime and comics. To an outsider, to other high schoolers, they may all seem like nerds. But I know their secret. Beneath the crazy costumes (that took hours and hours of dedicated work to create), this hotel is filled with interesting, quirky, young people who aren’t afraid to swim against the stream.

That takes guts and courage. These “nerds” will go far.

Long live the wonderful, unique people who are labeled as “nerds” in school. May they fly their freak flag proudly, refuse to conform, and ever shine.