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The other day, a friend asked me a question, which I answered using the phrase “our neck of the woods.” But I didn’t mean Kansas. I was referring to my childhood home in California. I’d reverted from Midwesterner to a more primitive self — the self who still thinks of herself as a So Cal girl.

And yet Southern California is no more my true home than Kansas. The Orange County I remember is long gone. The orange groves became high schools and office buildings. The ranchos were leveled for homes. Even the Disneyland of my youth bears little resemblance to its current incarnation. (Does anyone else remember when the parking lot was lettered by Disney character? “Hey Dad! We’re parked in Thumper!”)

Maybe our longing for home is really a longing for something else — a sense of belonging, of being understood. We can try to recreate it, but we’ll never really find it here.

I like to think that we’re born with a dim memory of heaven, and we spend our lives trying to get back there, to that place we really knew as home. It would make death a sweet return…assuming, of course, that we have lived a life that grants us passage to heaven.

All our reminiscing, all our auld lang syne, is nothing more than a deeper craving for our true home with God. In which case Thomas Wolfe is completely wrong: You can go home again.

It just won’t be Kansas. Or California. Or anywhere, really, you can find on a map.

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What choices do you make every day that bring you closer to God?  For me, it is often a matter of spending time out-of-doors and feeling the wind on my face.  I’m not sure what it is about a cold wind that just feels right.

Perhaps you find God when you work with children, cook for a friend, or simply meditate.  Personally I think Heaven is as unique as the person who seeks it.

Take a step back from the hustle and bustle.  Listen for the voice in the wind.  Look for grace.  Feel the warmth of his love.  It is there for those who seek it.

–SueBE

My friend Alice doesn’t. I do, but…it’s complicated. Case in point: Charles Manson, who shuffled off this mortal coil this week. I was only four when the Manson murders were perpetrated, but old enough by the time of the trials to be afraid of him and his followers. And not just because they were hippies. (My parents, born at the tail end of The Greatest Generation, frequently opined on the dangers of hippies and their “pot parties,” which, in my childish naiveté, I thought involved actual pots and pans — to what end, I had no idea.)

Let’s face it, Charlie Manson was a thoroughly awful human being. Yes, he had a bad childhood, but not every person who has a bad childhood grows up to direct some of the most brutal murders ever committed. But he was no genius, either. The murders were messy, uncoordinated, bungled. The intended targets (Dennis Melcher, for one) were never killed — in both cases, the killers got the addresses wrong. They couldn’t even spell “Helter Skelter” correctly.

But that’s beside the point. The point is: Could Charles Manson be saved? Could he go to heaven? If you believe in an all-loving, all-forgiving God, this seems like a real possibility. Except for one thing: I don’t think he would choose heaven. Time after time, throughout his life, Charlie chose prison. He was admittedly more comfortable there. Could our eternal salvation depend on whether or not we choose redemption? I think it could.

It sounds like a no-brainer: Choose an eternity of happiness or an eternity of torture. But when it comes to the human equation, I don’t think it’s that easy. I think a person has to love him or herself enough to allow for the possibility of happiness, whether in this life or the next one. I’m not sure everyone is capable of that.

You could argue that Mr. Manson had no shortage of self-love, what with surrounding himself with adoring acolytes and even claiming to be the Son of God. Still, he also chose for himself repeated incarceration, when he could have had a normal life on the outside. He chose to murder his detractors. Someone with healthy self-esteem doesn’t do that. He chose to wallow in his bad beginnings. He’s just the type to spit in God’s eye when offered divine mercy.

So what does this all boil down to? Yes, I believe in hell. But I also believe in human participation in one’s own damnation. In the end, you get the eternity you ask for. That’s free will, folks. It is also an object lesson: Choose love. Always choose love. Your “forever” might just depend on it.

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” – Luke 13:24

Sometimes the Promised Land seems a lot like Best Buy on Black Friday: Just getting in the door is gonna be a struggle. After all, we’re told that the way is far from capacious — it is a “narrow gate” that can only be entered by striving. And striving requires a lot more than waiting patiently in line. To strive entails working at something, working hard. It demands focus and unwavering will. It sounds tiring.

And yet we are blessed. Our God asks us not to give up, when giving up seems the most human thing to do. And God does not leave us to struggle on our own. Our salvation has already been won, not by anything we have done, but by Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice. Christ died for us, and in doing so, provided the lifeboat we so desperately need to rise above the flood of evil and darkness. All we have to do, essentially, is not let go of it.

This may necessitate some striving.

My fingers, pickled, pink,
slip, grow lax, open on air.
I lose my grasp on You
over and over again.
My hand longs to close
over sparkly things
that catch my eye, toys,
distractions. I reach, waver.
Gently, you retrieve me.
Lead me back, O Lord.
Winnow my wants
that I might make
the narrow gate.

As a child, I imagined a world of eventualities for myself. I would be a famous writer (of course). I would probably live in New York, because that’s where writers lived (or so I believed). When I was terribly young, I accepted the fact that I might marry and have kids, because that’s what people do. By the time I was teenager, however, I’d changed my mind: I would never marry and never have kids. I was a product of the late ‘60s and ‘70s — a proto-feminist, cultural daughter of Ms. magazine and Free to Be, You and Me. I was woman!

The one thing I never expected became the thing I got — a love story of the grandest and rarest sort. I met my (now) husband shortly after my 20th birthday, and married him at 23. We have, in many ways, grown up together. After 31 years together, we are still ecstatically in love. My husband is my best friend, my “happily ever after.” He is one of God’s greatest gifts to me.

Until we were well into our 30s, strangers would ask if we were newlyweds; we still walk hand-in-hand everywhere we go. When I finish a slice of pizza, he cuts me another of the exact size and proportion that I am craving — sometimes comprising just the crust — and when I cut him a quizzical look, he says, “Well, duh!” or “Like I’m a separate person from you!” We engage in mental telepathy on a regular basis, crack each other up with inside jokes that bewilder outsiders. We don’t socialize. We don’t go to parties. We prefer each other’s company over any other in all the world.

I know this is a terrifyingly rare and fragile gift. The idea of losing him, ever, leaves me breathless. I’ve sworn him, on many occasions, to a pact in which I get to die first. Ideally, however, we would die within moments of each other, when we are quite elderly, having lived out one of the world’s greatest romances. You know, the kind of thing they used to write up in newspapers, the sort of phenomenon that still makes a splash on social media.

I can also honestly say that my husband has brought me into closer relationship with God. His decision to convert to Catholicism (having spent most of his life as an agnostic) reengaged me with my own faith, made me fall in love with the Church all over again. My husband encourages me to follow my heart — to give money to strangers, even if they turn out to be disingenuous, to serve a community of women religious despite their geographical distance from us, to pray for other people because he believes my prayers are strong ones. I once heard a priest remark that the primary function of a marriage is to make sure one’s spouse makes it into heaven. If I ever achieve such lofty heights, it is due at least in part to my husband. (Though my mother deserves a big shout-out here, too. Thanks, Mom.)

A former co-worker once dismissed my marriage as “boring,” as compared to her “rollercoaster” of a union (which ended shortly thereafter). I tried to explain it to her: How I married Owen because he is a good person, and, as Socrates once explained, true love can only be love of the good. Good is enduring. Good is of God. Can a marriage really be both sacred and sanctifying? Yes. Yes, it can.

Happy birthday, honey.

Our Gus died this week. He was a common-looking tabby with uncommonly sweet green eyes, filled with the same uncomplaining gratitude as his mother’s, a stray named Elsa whom we also adopted and lost too soon. But I suppose all death feels too soon; Gus was a senior citizen by kitty standards. Still, we were not prepared for the tumor that quickly overtook his lymph node, growing monstrously in a week, and slowly choking him to death.

Gus was unbelievably kind-natured. He could not sleep alone; he had to be snuggled up against at least one other member of our household, and preferably several. He liked nothing better than to be petted, to bump his striped head against a person, or if necessary, any random soft thing. They say cats are loners. Gussie was proof positive that people say a lot of wrong-headed things about cats.

Although I love autumn — as do so many of us — I find that quite a bit of mourning is associated with this time. So many people I know have lost someone dear to them during these months, and the falling of the leaves, the dying of the light, all remind them of this loss. My friends Alice and Gina lost their mothers in the autumn. I lost my father, as did my friend Maureen.

Some say animals don’t belong in heaven; they have no souls. I cannot countenance such remarks. I think animals know God in a different way than we do, perhaps a more primal way — which is not to say a lesser way. In fact, they may know God more intimately than we can ever hope to. And I cannot believe in a heaven that does not include our pet friends. The day after Gus died, my husband wrote me the following message: “I like to think that when Gus-Gus isn’t teaching “Headbutting With Love” seminars and chasing featherstrings for hours without getting winded, he is snuggled in the middle of the biggest catpile ever.” It helped. But nothing can take away the pain right now. And nothing should. Every life should be mourned, however small, however furry.

Gus taught me that to be loving is a life’s work. And a darned good one, at that. I just hope that his passage was quick and painless, that in an instant, he found himself in that great catpile in the sky. In this season of death, sweet whiskered friend, I pray you found safe passage.

The Third Gate,jpg

“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” Music programmer Keith Hill’s claim that listeners tend to tune out when female artists’ songs are played on the radio created controversy. “Biggest bunch of bull I ever heard,” tweeted Miranda Lambert. Hill portrayed himself as the ultimate media expert and insisted that he was simply stating the facts according to metrics. What a blustery blowhard! I thought. He oughta go jump in a lake!

On the news this morning, there was a story about a civil rights leader and professor who identifies herself as African American, but as it turns out, she’s actually white. She’s no longer in contact with her family, so I found it telling that it was her parents who called the media to share this information. Well! She’s got issues! I said to myself, shaking my head.

But God caught me, right in between two “tsks” and set my heart right. These are people who don’t feel as if they are enough as who they actually are, so they’ve tried to re-invent themselves. Perhaps in this persona, they’ll be listened to and afforded respect.

Over the years, I’ve compared myself to others and wished I could be a better:

□ Mother   □ Sister   □ Writer   □ Friend   □ Citizen   □ Believer

But time and again, I was reminded of this universal truth:

I’m me. God made me. That’s enough.

Of course, if you look around, it becomes clear that not everyone knows this.

Veterans fume at instances of “Stolen Valor” – people who have never served in the military, walking around in uniform so that others will respect them for their “service.” Some believe that filming these imposters and posting it on YouTube is justified, but mistakes happen, as in this case of a senior citizen – an actual veteran, wrongly accused of stolen valor.

Many feel that it’s right to publicly shame those doing the wrong thing. But, what happens if you’re wrong and now it’s you doing the wrong thing? And even if you’re right, what if this person has mental health issues? What if they’ve never felt good about themselves their whole life and just wanted to be someone else, anyone else. What do you win if you shame them on camera?

There are three gates, like filters to put your words through before they ever leave your mouth, according to the great poet, Rumi.

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it necessary?
  3. Is it kind?

The third gate is the one that holds the key. If a person in pain is pretending to be someone else, maybe they’re trying to leave that struggle behind. Mistakes and missteps shouldn’t mean a life sentence. The kindest thing we can do for a hurting world is to get on a hotline to heaven and pray for its healing, and leave the gavel where it belongs: in God’s hands.

Lent is nearly over. Holy Week is finally coming into view over the crest of the hill. Our slogging days are almost done.

Most of us think of Lent as a trying time. By the time you get to the end of it, you ought to feel pretty beat up — rent in two by anguish for your sinfulness; exhausted — spent — by self-denial. Not me. I’m flying high these days.

The watchwords of Lent (notably, wait and watch) can place us in a state of cautious anxiety. But let’s look at them another way. Wait and watch! A miracle is about to happen! Jesus is about to defeat death with a spectacular roundhouse punch. And then, guess what? We all win. (Say it like Oprah:) You get a resurrection! And you get a resurrection!

It’s as if a complete stranger won the lottery, then offered you a huge cut for no particular reason. We don’t deserve life after death. Nothing we can do in life can make up for our sinfulness. And yet, in the end, we don’t have to do anything. Life eternal is handed to us. All we need do is follow Christ. He is the ultimate generous lottery winner, only he didn’t do it through luck — he did it through humiliation, suffering, blood and death. He did it so we don’t have to.

Let us spend the last remaining days of Lent basking in a love so big, death could not contain it. As the line goes in one of my favorite movies, “I’ve got wings and I’m going to heaven…baby!” Won’t you join me in celebrating?

The winter of Ash Wednesday
becomes the spring of Easter.
And we like, like lilies,
turn our heads
Godward
inexplicably saved
from our greatest foe.
We shall not be cut down,
but grow ceaselessly
in heaven’s green forever.

Someone once said that at age 50, you have the face you deserve. Now, who that someone was is up to debate: Some say Coco Chanel, others George Orwell. Some give the nod to Lincoln (and change the “expiration date” to 40 instead of 50). One website even credits Joan Collins with the witticism. Me, I tend to be Team Coco. It sounds like the sort of thing she would have said, perhaps between designing chic little black dresses and scolding people about their accessory choices.

I’ve had cause to consider this quotation as I stare down the barrel at the rapidly approaching bullet that is my 50th birthday. Do people really have the faces they deserve? One could argue that money, as usual, effects exceptions to the rule — if one has a clever plastic surgeon, that is. It would also be appropriate to note that life isn’t fair, and the results of this unfairness often show up on the kindest and best of visages. When my brother was just barely out of toddler-hood, he cracked his head open after tripping on a jump rope (to be fair, my sister and I were chasing him). He has the scar to this day. I have a similar scar on my lower lip, the product of a childhood incident with a sharpened pencil and prolonged spinning. (What was I thinking? Knowing me, I was thinking the pencil was a magic wand, and I was a twirling fairy, and, well, splat…an unhappy ending.)

Truly bad things happen to good people, with surprising regularity. Still, one could argue (and I intend to) that none of get what we really deserve. Because someone took the weight for us.

Whether or not you believe in the Adam and Eve story, you must admit that we humans have been both blessed and cursed by Free Will. Given the choice, we often do awful things. Whether those things fall into the category of unlawful fruit-eating or violence against one another, it does not matter. The black mark on our souls is there from the start. Most of us do little to mitigate it.

And that could have been all she wrote. (Not me, silly. I mean “that might have been the last word on the matter.”) Except for three exceptional blessings: Baptism (to wash away Original Sin), Reconciliation (the process of confessing and being forgiven one’s sins) and — most crucially — Christ’s death and resurrection, which guaranteed for all of us the possibility of the most stunningly unearned outcome of all: An eternity with God in heaven.

No matter how unfair life is, to our faces or our fortunes, we have a miraculous reprieve available to us. Jesus suffered and died for us so we, all of us sinners, throughout the ages, could have the very best of presents: More time, the best time, time free from all the petty concerns of this earth.

So maybe I do have the face I deserve. Or not. But I certainly have so much more — the hope of heaven. And that’s a pretty good comfort to cling to, no matter what life throws my way.

It is hard to believe. It has been one year since my father died, a whole year he hasn’t been a part of. He was not there to worry about me when I had pneumonia, as he was the first time it happened, when I was 17. He brought chocolates and books to the hospital, put a warm washcloth on my arm when I complained about the coldness of the IV. He is not here now to joke that my new singing voice (I lost my upper register, it appears, permanently) sounds suspiciously like Ethel Merman’s, who he pretended to love but really loathed, setting up a premise the whole family continues to trade on. (Just ask my brother what his “favorite” movies are and be prepared to cringe.)

I often dream about the dead. These dreams are comforting and cathartic; a colleague who works in hospice thinks I have a gift. Just the other night I dreamed about my friend Tim, who lost his fight with cancer last year, aboard a sailing ship, a spyglass to his eye. He sighted me and waved, yelling out cheerfully, “I’ve got your cat!” (Our Lula Mae, who recently passed, would make a fine ship’s cat; she was clever, agile and always up for adventure.) But I’ve never dreamed about my dad, never got a feeling or message or reassuring “nudge” from the great beyond.

Perhaps we never get over the loss of a parent. My friend Kathleen lost her father during the Vietnam War. She still struggles with it. How much simpler it would be if our loved ones really could communicate with us from heaven! When greedy old Mr. Dives begs God to send a warning to his living relatives so that they will not end up in hell as he has (in the New Testament story of Lazarus the beggar), I feel a trickle of sympathy for him. The living need to know what the dead know. I think, in most cases, it would bring us great joy.

Ah, but that’s where faith comes in, right? Bridging the gap between comfort and discomfort, mourning and solace. Faith may come on instantaneously, but it is slow in its work. Perhaps this is for the best. Like a super-strong glue that does not set quickly, but can be repositioned, faith allows us wiggle room in our healing. It keeps up with us as we pass through the stages of grief, setting up only when we have reached acceptance.

I am not there quite yet. I have accepted my father’s loss, but I am not comfortable with it. Maybe I never will be. But to all of us who are mourning, I say, keep at it. We learn about those we love not just in their presence, but also in their absence.

 

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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