Category Archives: faith

Signs your local coffee shop is now managed by Christians

I sometimes work from coffee shops. Like when my house is being insulated and there’s drills and sawdust everywhere.

Starbucks in not my favorite, mostly because after 15 seconds inside, I smell like burned espresso for the rest of the day.

I don’t usually go for the ultra cuddly coffee shops with the overstuffed couches and “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” novelty signs on the wall, because they usually only have one plug and the internet doesn’t really work.

So yes. I go to the slightly pretentious, Creative Class joints where the baristas have amazing tattoos and the internet is fast, and everyone is on a Mac. (I’m not on a Mac these days, for the record).

Coffee Shop in Key West

Coffee Shop in Key West

I have three or four where I go regularly. One because Lewis loves it, once because it’s convenient, one because they have the comfiest chairs, and one because they have my favorite chai latte EVER.

I hadn’t been the Best Chai coffee shop in a while. And today when I came in, I noticed some subtle, but distinct changes. I worked for a few hours, noting little things that seemed oddly familiar, but out of place.

Then I put the pieces together. I could be wrong, but I think Best Chai coffee shop is now under the management of Christians. I thought of other Christian coffee shops I’ve been to. [Note: Christian ministries often run coffee shops as an outreach. I’m all for it. Giving people a place to gather is humane and generous, and coffee shops have been that place since the Belle Epoch, maybe earlier.]

Coffee shop in DC

Coffee shop in DC

Christian coffee shops are warm and welcoming. They are also usually a haven for neuvopuritans and emergent types. Emergent is probably the dated term, I don’t know what the anti-establishment Christians are called now. I’m out of the biz, so I’m losing my jargon. But they are the Christians who are doin’ their own thang with Jesus. I like them lots.

So yes, I like other Christians and their coffee shops. But I show my love by caricaturing and gently mocking, as my family and closest friends will tell you (go ahead and tell me how not okay that is). If we can’t laugh with ourselves, we’re doomed, folks.

These were my clues that Best Chai had been Christianized:

1) There were more lovely, benign, sepia tinted pictures of Italy on the wall. Before Christian Management Best Chai was more…starkly contemporary. Christian establishments don’t like stark. They are okay with sleek, industrial, etc. They don’t like stark. I have no idea why. So they will usually add something universally pleasant to the otherwise minimalist decor. And for people who have never driven in Italy, ridden the bus in Rome, or paid for a bottled water at the Vatican, Italy is the very definition of “Universally Pleasant.”

By comparison, at Comfy Chair coffee shop, the art on the wall is borderline disturbing (I love it). Lewis’s Favorite coffee shop is stark. Convenient Coffee doesn’t have any art. They have a chalkboard.

Coffee shop in Austin

Coffee shop in Austin

2)  There was a child screaming and throwing herself around on the floor while her mother had what appeared to be a meaningful conversation 10 feet away, ignoring the amazing volume of her child’s screams. This only happens in places where mom’s feel like families are valued enough that she won’t be judged for the absolute din her child is creating.

Sorry lady. I love families. I love kids. But my thought was most definitely, “Um…deal with that, please. It’s making my unborn child twitchy.”

3)  There’s a big note proclaiming that they will be closed Dec 25- Jan 1 because they value family and community and they want their staff to be able to participate. Every coffee shop I’ve know to be run by Christians has had weird hours. They take care of their employees, so no one has to work the weird hours, like, say, 3-5 pm on a Sunday or 1-4 on a Tuesday. I have absolutely no problem with this. Except on December 28 when I want a cup of Best Chai.

4) There is a man with a voice far too loud to be appropriate in doors, with a salt of the earth accent talking to the baristas and the people in line with him. Again, clearly he feels confident that he is not being judged, and the baristas are not simply tolerating him. They are engaging and smiling at him. This is welcome behavior here. I have to put in my earbuds because things he is saying keep working their way into my emails.

“Dear Client,

Just wanted to let you know that your wife’s mother’s scone recipe will arrive as scheduled to your hotel in Witchita Falls on December 25th.”

My client will be thrilled, as he actually requested a bottle of scotch delivered to his hotel in Buenos Aires for his anniversary on January 5th. (the details of this statement have been altered slightly to protect my client’s confidentiality)

Coffee shop inside Cloud in London.

Coffee shop inside Cloud in London.

5) The playlist is something like this:

“When We Were Young”- Lumineers

“Little Lion Man” – Mumford and Sons

“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – Sufjan Stevens

“Timshel”- Mumford and Sons

“Brackett, WI”  – Bon Iver

Something else by Sufjan Stevens

“Big Parade” – Lumineers

“Hallelujah” – the Jeff Buckley version

“Awake my Soul”  Mumford and Sons

Something explicitly Christian that I’ve never heard before

Something by Derek Webb

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” – performed by the giant Hawaiian guy with the lovely voice.

And finally the entire Babel album.

First off, I have zero complaints. I like almost all of those songs. As my co-worker so aptly worded it, I’m into “folk revival” music. However, almost the whole playlist has this heavily emotive anthemic quality that ranges from the vaguely spiritual (Mumford) to the overtly Christian (Come Thou Fount is a hymn…like from a hymnal). Christians love that stuff! Give me something I can FEEL!!! Better yet, give me something I can analyze.  I’m not sure how the Lumineers and Bon  Iver ended up on the list, except that I have to assume that the list was made by someone with similar taste in music to me…and I would totally put them on the list.

6) The guy  working at the table next to me keeps referring to people on the phone as “Brother” and embraces both people who come to sit with him for a meeting. He’s also white and over 25. Very very white. Very over 25. The only white men I know who refer to each other as “brother” and openly embrace in public are employed by the church or in a fraternity. (no comment on the amazing similarity in some cases)

I must say that the presence of clergy is not an immediate sign that a place is managed by Christians. Clergy love coffee.

7) The barista is someone who once, in a former life, invited me to church.

So, here’s to you, Best Chai coffee shop, and your new Christian management. You’re doing a great job. It’s good to know that when I have a screaming two year old, there will still be somewhere for me to grab my favorite chai and a deep conversation.

Something New and Good: Our God Sunshines

When I was really little, my new-Christian-mom and I listened to a lot of praise music in the car. Most of her favorite stories about me come from these times.

Once, when I was about 3 or 4, we were listening to a song called “Our God Reigns.” I was singing along contentedly, and then stopped and looked concerned.

“You know, Mommy, sometimes our God sunshines too.”

It’s a cute story, and I was probably just talking about the weather, but it’s also telling about something that would continue into adulthood.

FAM trip 442

The tradition I grew up in, the Reformed nuevo-puritans, is not about a sunshiney God. Their God thunders, really.

He loves you…in spite of how totally wretched you are.

The heart is an idol factory.

The cross was a reminder of what you deserve.

All biblically accurate. That’s the kicker. God has this dark and stormy side. And we love that side. It’s the side that stands up for the oppressed and has the final say against injustice! We’re sinners too, and God sees that. But one true thing does not a whole self nourish.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk about sin and idolotry. It was that I wanted to talk about something else sometimes. Just sometimes. I wanted some hope.

My spine hurt from the constant game of limbo. How low can your self-esteem go? It’s not low enough until you feel like a worm.

And that mentality had a way of working itself into every area of life. Marriage between two Wormy Sinners is a bloodbath. Wormy Sinner Parents raising Wormy Sinner Children was a jungle fight. Wormy Sinner Communities are messes. Sure does make you want to be in that club, huh? Don’t you want to be reminded what a Wormy Sinner you are in all of life’s most happy moments?

But in my head, there’s a well-trained voice that says, “That’s correct. That’s accurate.”

Maybe so. But knowing myself, and my tendency to obsess…what do I want to obsess on? God’s goodness or my badness? (Spare me the theology talk about how it’s our badness that show us how good he is and vice versa.)

So (among other reasons) I gave myself some distance from the I-am-a-Worm Club.

FAM trip 592

It might take me the rest of my life to really believe that God sunshines, and that I can just bask in that without self-flagellating. It may take the rest of my life, but I’m going to do it. With the help some good, honest “God loves you” preaching. I’ve needed it.

But recently, I really missed the nuevo-puritan’s revamped hymnal, so I bought some CDs and revisited the days when I used to listen to worship music in the car. I had to laugh though. Even the titles of the praise music reveal a slight preference for “hard truths.” There are a lot of titles like “Come and Mourn,” “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” and “Come Ye Sinner Poor and Wretched.” Not all, just more than you’d expect.

In the end, the nuevo-puritan revamped hymnal has not left me high and dry. If I had to pick an anthem for my slow and halting return to the disciplines of grace, it would have to be this more eloquent expression of my childhood assertion that God sunshines:

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

Source: http://www.hymnal.net/hymn.php/h/706#ixzz2iaVfpBVU

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Something New and Good: Baby

So…three years of marriage, and still I have not experienced the bloodbath I’d been afraid of before I got married. Lewis and I have yet to go to bed angry. I’ve never wished he would just go away. I’m not bragging. I’m the girl who had a panic attack two weeks before her wedding because she was afraid that marriage was going to be a 50+ year battle with untold casualties. No bragging rights here.

I’m saying that marriage has been wonderful beyond my expectations.

But now…a baby on the way. And the voices are back, telling me life is about to get really, really hard. So many were these voices that I put off getting pregnant for as long as I could without pushing poor Lewis over the edge. We are happy. We have balance…why upset it? Why invite what, according to a lot of people I know, is the most emotionally draining and difficult thing they have ever done?

Because it’s time to believe that God makes all things new.

People love to tell you how you’re going to mess up your kids, just like your parents messed you up. They like to tell you how you bring all of your baggage into parenting. They want it to be freeing, to tell you that you don’t have to be perfect, because nobody is perfect. They want it to remind you that you need grace as a parent.

I get that, and I appreciate it.

And it’s true that we’re born sinners. Sure thing.  Got it. My children will not be perfect. I will not be perfect.

BUT, here’s the deal: New life. What could be more of a picture of God’s grace that is new every morning than an actual. NEW. LIFE.

This baby will not come out cynical and jaded. She will not have years of baggage yet. She will be fresh and new, and her experience of the world, the church, and family will be her very own.

This baby, to me, is a celebration of hope. When I feel like so much has been ruined or twisted or corrupted, an entire new person will exist in the world who knows nothing of that. And maybe she will experience her own pains, but she will also have her own joys and see God’s faithfulness to her in her own life.

I’m sure that when she’s two and rolling on the floor screaming…or thirteen and rolling on the floor screaming, I will be glad for the wisdom that prepared me for her humanity. I’m sure I will be glad that someone warned me that I can’t be the perfect parent. Lewis and I are both first children, and we’re having our first child. We will win the award for most neurotic house on the block.

BUT, that is not what sets me free. That is not what makes me feel new and good. What gives me hope is that God makes all things new. And there is something new happening here (between my abs and my bladder) and it has the potential to be good. Not the kind of good that doesn’t need Jesus, but the kind of good that brings him glory. This little girl has her own story, and Jesus loves her. And I have every reason to believe that her difficult toddler/teenage years are nothing in comparison to the person God is already making her to be.

sonogram

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Trying to Prepare a Wedding Toast, Part I

Prologue: Right before I got married, a lot of people started telling me about how difficult marriage would be. So many, so frequently, that I had a panic attack on the floor of my fiance’s kitchen, two weeks before our wedding.

Ah the carefree days of dating...before the harsh realities of marriage. (Not really...this is still what we look like.)

Ah, the carefree days of dating…

What I thought marriage would look like.

What I thought marriage would look like. (Saturn Devours His Children,by Goya)

Part I: People Say Marriage is Difficult

My friend Liz recently got engaged to her main squeeze of five years, Jason. I am beyond happy for them, and ecstatic to be part of their wedding. I’ve been thinking about how I will toast them.

The happy couple.

The  soon-to-be-married.

It got me thinking about marriage, about falling in love, and about that panic attack.

People really like to tell you what marriage is like. Rarely do they realize that they are universalizing the most personal, intimate, unique experience of a person’s life. But we humans love nothing more than to make manuals for doing things right, except maybe selling those manuals.

Don’t buy anyone’s manual for marriage. Unless you are their clone and you are married to their spouse. (If that’s the case, then you need more help than a manual can give).

“Marriage” the institution has some set rules, sanctioned by God, etc. No cheating. Love them. Serve them. You only get one spouse at a time, preferably for life.

“Marriage” the experience…that’s different for all of us. Manual-makers really want to codify it. Marriage is magic, or marriage is mundane. Romance is necessary, so work to maintain it. Romance completely insubstantial, so don’t worry if its lacking. Things will be difficult, but that there’s a universal prescription for making them wonderful. For each and every one of you. You can’t all wear the same size pants…but one size fits all when it comes to the complex intertwining of adult human lives, histories, families, jobs, and dreams.

Contrary to the manuals, best I can tell, every marriage is very different. We make the same commitments.  We have the same responsibilities…but that’s about the end of the sameness.

Sameness ends here.

Sameness ends here.

People have great advice. Great insight into situations. Heed wisdom, seek counsel, by all means. Be teachable and curious. But if anyone starts telling you how marriage is going to go, and what to do about it, slam the manual shut. They just don’t know. After 50 golden years of their own marriage, they still don’t know yours.

Your marriage is unique, because your life is unique.

The experience of marriage is all about the two people involved and how they relate to one another. It’s a different kind of wonderful for every happy couple (and a different kind of miserable for others). For me, it’s laughing at puns, and dropping off cookies at Lewis’s office. It’s having someone to cry to who thinks that every injury against me is completely unjust (and then helping me see how maybe I’m  making things a bigger deal than they really are…). It’s having someone to go home with on the best nights and the worst nights.

This sums up the general vibe of our marriage.

This about sums us up.

We also have our own peculiar difficulties. For instance, I am intense, and he is sensitive. He is persnickety, and I too am sensitive. Going to IKEA is a guaranteed standoff in the “basic white pendant lamp” department. We are people, sharing a life. And an interior design scheme.

Life-sharing is difficult when life is difficult. I said once, at the outset of a dating relationship, “I know I want to date this guy. But I don’t know who I want to lose a child with. Who to go with me to put my parents in a nursing home. Who to go bankrupt with.”

Life is 100% full of people, who do people-ish things and make human messes. Life has tragedy and stress. But if I summarized my life for you every day by saying, “Life is difficult,” and never spiced it up by saying “Life is rewarding,” what would you call me? A pessimist, you would call me a pessimist.

Life is way to big to be summed up in one word, and so is life-sharing. In an ordinary (the kind you have to stay in; there are other kinds) marriage you will always have ample choice of adjectives. Don’t be afraid to be thankful.

And that’s the closest thing I can think of to a universal antidote for the difficult parts of marriage: be thankful. I would be more doubtful about it, if the Bible hadn’t said it first.

The turning point in most of  Lewis’s and my conflict is when we consider the alternative: What if I didn’t have you? While making the decision about whether or not to spend money on upholstery might be simpler without him/me…who would snuggle with him/me on the reupholstered couch?

Florence and Lewis snuggling on the couch

Florence will snuggle  on the couch…which is why it needs to be reupholstered.

Marriage, the experience, can be the symphonic masterpiece with big bold moments of trust and honesty. Of vulnerability and devastation. But you have to continually maintain that thankfulness that you are on the stage, in the music. Because if you don’t– if you look at the sheet and freak out because you might mess up, or long for that bubbly Top 40 hit–then, yes, you will probably have the kind of marriage that gave me a panic attack.

Dr. Henri Krabandaum, a wise and radical man, once said to me, “I tell every young person, if you love someone so much that you would marry them, your first impulse should be to tell them never to marry you. Because you know the grief you will cause them.”

At four in the morning I storm out of bed, because I’m sleeplessly worried about a client issue, and I snap at Lewis, “Just go back to sleep!” while I slam drawers and doors looking for my bathrobe. On that morning, Dr. K is talking directly to me. I hear his voice booming in my subconscious.

He loves me on these days.

I can be hard to love.

And then, sometime later when I’m feeling ashamed, Lewis tells me, “Life is better now that I have you.”  He says “now that I have you” like we met last month, instead of 3 years ago.

So yeah, marriage is hard. The way sports or music performance is hard. But we’re still the rookies who are just so thankful to be on the stage that we wear every drop of sweat like a diamond. And that is what I want to maintain, the thankfulness.

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Something New and Good : Easter and Earth Day

“Give me something I can touch.”

It started in London at a St. Paul’s Ash Wednesday Service. There was something sobering and meaningful about feeling the ashes smeared across my forehead. That was actually the first time I paid attention to the tangibles of the faith.

After that I paid more attention to communion as well. The taste of wine and feel of bread. The cold pewter of the common cup against my lower lip. Faith often doesn’t feel real. We need something, even a small and symbolic something, to touch.

This is me, very happy, with St. Paul's behind me.

This is me, very happy, with St. Paul’s behind me.

Another famous English church experience was responsible for my awakening to a love of liturgical worship. Evensong at Cambridge Cathedral was a profound moment of worship not based on warm feelings or sentimentality. It was my first real experience of a sacred moment that had very little to do with my personal feelings, and much more to do with the sights, sounds, and air in the space.

Lent is when I feel my faith the most. Not “feel” emotionally, but “feel” in the Pat the Bunny sense. With my fingers. Christians aren’t supposed to need that. We’re supposed to be all about the “evidence of things not seen.”

But I need something I can touch. I can touch the earth.

Evolution is the ape in the room when faith and nature meet for lunch. When we force the choice between literal 6-day Creationism and Neo-Darwinian materialism, we must either close our eyes or deny our souls.

So many Christians opt to keep their eyes closed, or to fight data with dogma. We allowed the twentieth century to galvanize our faith into this cumbersome, rigid, behemoth must be authoritative on any matter, or it will shatter into a million pieces. So suddenly the Bible bears the burden of being a science text book.

The finch shares my popcorn.

The finch shares my popcorn.

Or we take the Don Draper (and now Peggy Olson) approach. “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” We can’t make nature jive with the Bible, so we just turn our attention elsewhere. We make the earth a lesser thing.

But I see things. I hear things. I feel things with my nerve endings, not just my emotions. I see things with my eyes, not just my reason.  I want a faith that fearlessly affirms discovery and understanding of the things we can touch, as much as the things we cannot.

So it was especially appropriate this year that I ended up in the Galápagos, “evolution’s workshop” for Easter…or Pasqua, as it became.

I had ignored Lent this year, coincidentally. For the first time since my British awakening, I did not give anything up. I did not seek out Ash Wednesday or Maundy Thursday. My intangible emotions were in full revolt against all things sacred.

Then, in a twist of divine brilliance, work sent me to the Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island for the holiday. My hotel was down the street from the Darwin Research Station. Darwin’s finches shared my Easter lunch.

And I was forced to answer the question: can I simultaneously believe in what is happening here and what happened 2,000 years ago? Here they are observing evolution in the beaks of finches. Can this possibly jive with a risen Jesus and a spiritual world?

Watching the magnificent frigate bird with his red ballon gular sac, and the Galápagos Prickly Pear Cactus Tree with its uncanny structure, I considered the Easter story.Why was it so important that Jesus rose physically? Why not just send the Holy Spirit from the cross and skip straight to Pentacost?

Because our physical selves matter. The physical world where we see flowers, hear birdsongs, and taste ceviche. Someone else understood that too.

“Give me something I can touch.”

Thomas. Had Jesus not been there with physical wounds, Thomas would have been lost. Thomas’s needs are more familiar to me now than ever. In a sense he was saying, “I’m going to need something more than their words. I’m going to need something more real than the physical realities of death. Give me something I can’t deny.”IMPORT March 2013 073

Jesus has not been as obliging with me as he was with Thomas. Instead he gave me Galápagos Easter. If every time I touch the earth I do not have to go to war in my soul, then I can live without touching Christ’s wounds.

The moment I was set free to the natural world I can’t deny and the faith I cannot bear to lose, it was as though the earth burst forth in song. Sun glinting through the prickly pear tree looked like the Cambridge Cathedral. Leaves and dirt and water felt like the ashes on my forehead.

I, for one, want a faith that goes to the Galápagos without fear of being dismantled. Rather than a porcelain mastodon that must stay safe and polished, I want a dynamic sapling that stretches and grows toward the light as it soaks up nourishment from the earth.  I want to celebrate Easter and Earth Day – when we celebrate the things we can touch.

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Something New and Good : Requiem

 My sister and her husband were living in my grandparents’ old house. The alarm, which had not been turned on for literally over a decade suddenly went off for no apparent reason. It was loud (which upsets my sister), and it was relentless. My brother in law tried turning it off, dismantling it, and disconnecting it, and still it screamed.

Suddenly he turned, and there was my sister, who had been outside calling relatives to try to figure out the alarm code. She was holding heavy duty scissors and wearing her game-over face. With no pause for discussion, she took a handful of the freshly exposed wires and cut straight through them. The alarm stopped. She handed the severed hardware to her husband and walked away. The alarm is turned off in a permanent way.

That’s what happened to me and God-talk.

Once upon a time, my faith was easy for me to talk about. I loved going to conferences on topics like “the church” or “the Church” or “this thing called church.” I could worship pretty freely in most settings (I say most because of my weird squeamishness in charismatic services). Nothing got me jazzed like a good theological debate or the inside jokes that only Bible students can access. I wanted to live my life in the semantic fray of those who would decide what is most important to Jesus, and what’s really wrong with the world.

And then came a concentrated series of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and disappointments that made corporate worship and spiritual intimacy almost unbearable. The language of these misunderstandings was the language of my faith. The words that hurt my feelings cut straight to my identity, because they were words of my faith. The disappointments knocked the wind out of me all the more because they were delivered in the same language I had used to pin my hopes to the church.

The words that had been my life now sound like death to me.

The music, the memes, the tropes, and the catchphrases of Christianity feel like itchy wool on the blistering summer of my heart. So it has been with a fair amount of desperation that I’ve been hunting for sounds that don’t make me cringe or want to hide. Right now, that means going to the symphony.

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I love the San Antonio Symphony for a lot of reasons. It is one of the greatly generous organizations in this city, responsible for the lion’s share of high culture in our notoriously casual cultural scene.

In addition to this general goodness, it was responsible for my deepest experience of Christmas. In its space I found some of my few moments of reverential stillness. Most recently, the San Antonio Symphony delivered a requiem for my former self (not that they had any idea they were doing any of this).

Last weekend the San Antonio Symphony, San Antonio Mastersingers, Trinity University choir, and UTSA choir performed Verdi’s Requiem, and they did so with a grandeur I had never seen from this group of hard-working and humble musicians. Trumpets in the mezzanine. Bass drums. Super-titles. My lungs were vibrating behind my ribs from the sound waves, and my soul shook somewhere deep my guts.

In the wake of the explosions at the Boston Marathon, the shootings at Sandy Hook, and Kermit Gosnell’s house of horrors, and the millions of lesser injustices we witness every day, we should all appreciate the need for songs of grief and cries for mercy. The concert was universal and personal in a way we often forget that we need. Not to compare my grief with the victims of tragedy, but simply to point out that death has many faces, and no paltry words or chords can match it.

Verdi was not a man of public faith, but he used the requiem format – a sung funerary mass from the Catholic church – to honor deceased friends and a common political ambition of a unified Italy. He was skeptical of the church, and yet the power of a private devotion wasn’t lost on him. His distrust did not run so deep that he would abandon the vocabulary of faith. Instead he made it beautiful by composing one of the finest pieces of music to carry it past the ears and into the soul, past the cynical guards who kept the words themselves at bay.

I can relate.

As I listened, four soloists and three choirs delivered the haunting words of the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, Sanctus, Lacrimosa, Lux Aeterna, and the rest until finally the Libera Me, which literally means Deliver Me. The words were displayed on supertitles, but I didn’t need them to know that this terrifying and haunting beauty was at once the death mass for who I thought I would be, and a reminder of why I’m still tangled up in this tattered and sweat soaked faith of mine.

I’m not who I was. Not headed in the same direction, not in the company I used to keep. And the gulf grows greater every day.

It’s difficult to worship. It’s difficult to talk about my faith, or to hear others talk about the faith we share. But it is not difficult to hear beautiful music. Music that makes me want to join when it sings, “May eternal light shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art good.”

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Nature’s Hallelujah: The Galápagos

As our panga neared a formation called “The Cathedral” at Cerro Brujo on San Cristobal island, I had mixed emotions. I was in awe, watching Kicker Rock appear and disappear as the waves batted us to and fro. I was also perplexed. How could anyone have ever sailed these waters and failed to realize the beauty of places like Cerro Brujo?

Blow hole on Española

Blow hole on Española

Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz

Sunrise from a balcony on Santa Cruz

During the heady moment of imperial expansion, European powers planted their flags in just about every type of soil in the world. They mined, they conquered, they spread their germs and culture with liberality across most terrains. But upon reaching the Galápagos, yet unnamed, they found nothing to mine. No one to conquer. Nothing to take home. And so they called the islands cursed.

FAM trip 465

Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal

Baby sea lion at Punta Pitt, San Cristobal

The “Islas Encantadas” of the South American pacific would suffer through the middle ages under the worldview that nature’s singular purpose was to illustrate Biblical principals to mankind. Bacon and his lot didn’t help either, because usefulness as the measure of value did not change the status of the volcanic islands, void of fresh water and edible vegetation.

Punta Pitt, San Cristobal - tuff cone formations

Punta Pitt, San Cristobal – tuff cone formations

Blue-footed boobie on Española

Blue-footed boobie on Española

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Like most places deemed uninhabitable or useless by decent society, the Enchanted Islands began to collect indecent society. Pirates, felons, and women on the run found ways to inhabit the rocks, only to be murdered, run off, or defeated by the odds against survival in one place that would not yield to man’s narrow view of dominion. No one felt their efforts more strongly than the tortoises, who were the only edible game, and were thus hunted to within millimeters of extinction.

Tortoise on Santa Cruz

Tortoise on Santa Cruz

It was not until Charles Darwin stepped onto their shores in 1835 that anyone found something worth taking home: a bag of dead finches.

Darwin’s gaze dignified the islands, and anyone who now gazes at Kicker Rock glowing in the sunset owes to him one of the awesome experiences of her lifetime. And the islands that were of no value to those seeking gold, God, or glory, have become a goldmine to those witnessing the glory of God. Forget the culture wars for one moment and give thanks that we have been freed to love nature for what it is.

Kicker Rock at Sunset

Kicker Rock at Sunset

Cactus finch on Santa Cruz

Cactus finch on Santa Cruz

The Galápagos, in our time, are still not a quiescent subject to the whims and wishes of man. The National Park takes precedence over tourism, agriculture, and commerce. Guides are unapologetic in dishing out the answer we think we can buy our way out of, “No.”

A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest

A guide, protecting the sesuvium, where red-footed boobies nest

Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz

Marine Iguana on Santa Cruz

Visions of Caribbean luxury are dashed on the tuff cones and chased far away by biting horse flies. Predictability is low where animals are not bated and tamed to earn big tips from schedule-bound tours. The heat is unforgiving in its season, and shade is found in as many places as is fresh water…none.

Marine iguanas of Española

Marine iguanas of Española

Yet, Darwin’s children flock like sea lions to those shores, seeking to understand the processes of nature, and its continual course of becoming. The islands attract those who are intrigued by an isolated ecosystem where predators are scarce and resources scarcer. Those who see a pond covered in sesuvium or a collapse crater and gasp in wonder. Those who marvel at the beaks of finches. There are some hallelujah’s only uttered in the language of science.

Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.

Los Gemelos collapse crater on Santa Cruz.

Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.

Sesuvium covering a pond on Santa Cruz island where tortoises seek shade.

And so as much as indignance swells inside me to the rhythm of the waves beneath me, I am also glad. I am relieved that in a moment when we ruined so much, we did not ruin everything. I am relieved that those things which we did not deem worthy of our exploitation have survived to become our treasures. I rejoice for those who did not impose a tax upon every inch of Creation. Those who bound their fortunes to the flourishing of nature.

Española

Española

Baby sea lion on Española

Baby sea lion on Española

The conquistador spirit is alive and well, I know. Standing on the dock while Lonesome George’s remains were escorted by documentary crew off to the Smithsonian, I saw the sad face of the local girl who had grown up in the glow of his renown. She will never be able to buy the plane ticket to go to the Smithsonian to pay homage. She has lost him. Naturalist eyes are not immune to the allure of the spoils.

Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.

Lonesome George on his way to the Smithsonian.

We cannot simply rest in our rapture over the rarity of this place. We must keep advocating, must keep reforming, must keep making those anti-Babel decisions that keep us off of the throne of Heaven. The Galápagos are a place where we can go to remind ourselves that we are not the measure of all things.

Red-footed booby in flight

Red-footed booby in flight

NOTE: for more light hearted detail of our trip, see the Alamo Area Master Naturalist Newsletter article.

29

My birthday, sadly, comes but once per year on January 31. And on it I do feel obligated to post something profound, or sentimental, or funny. Something reflective. Something hopeful. It’s the one day during the year when I can, sheepishly, with four words justify anything I want to without looking like a narcissist or a glutton. “Well, it’s my birthday…” So yes, I’m having cake, a second cocktail, a long lunch, and I’m going buy myself something.

Allow me to say, as my Christmas and New Year Posts may have let on, that I am so happy to leave 28 behind. My husband and close friends have said that they feel I have aged (though they kindly say “grown up”) more in that single year than the 27 preceding it. So there you have it. However, blog readers aren’t paid therapists, so that’s all you get to hear about.

There were lots of really great things last year. So in no particular order…28 reflections on a year of being 28-years-old, and one on being 29.

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1) Complain all you want about Facebook birthday wishes being cheap. No one on Facebook should ever get to whine “everyone forgot my birthday.” Even if your mother, boyfriend, and co-workers do…your third grade babysitter and 2nd cousin from Iowa who you met for the first time last year, did not. I think we are a more celebratory culture for it. Thank you FB for acknowledging the importance of birthdays.

2) I wish life was an Aaron Sorkin ensemble drama. If he’s living in a fantasy world, which he is, I want to live there with him. The Newsroom made my summer and The West Wing coming to Netflix made my winter.

3) My last meal as a 28 year old was the most amazing bbq I’ve ever eaten. We had flights of craft beers, the best brisket known to man, and Texas Toast with bacon-drippings butter. UNREAL. My first meal as a 29 year old: a grapefruit.

4) Best discovery of the year: Birchbox. It’s helped me decide to start taking moisturizing and sun protection seriously. I think my 40-year-old self will thank my 28-year-old self for this.

5) All year I tried to mitigate the effects of sedentary desk work by getting up every twenty minutes (I work from home). Inevitably so much time would go by, and I’d forget to get up and walk around. Then we got a puppy. Problem solved.

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6) Best books I’ve read this year: Cutting for Stone, The Shadow of the Wind, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

7) Writing for the Rivard Report may be the best thing that has happened to me outside of getting married. And maybe living abroad.

8)  I actually really like grapefruit, and all these years I had thought I didn’t. Good thing, I guess.

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9) It’s a shame about me and science. I think, had a few things gone differently in high school, we could have had a long and loving relationship. I’m too late in the game to make a career of it, but thankfully the MacDonald Observatory and the Galapagos are open to the public.

10) I agree. Everyone should be in counseling.

11) There is nothing like working as an underling in ministry to make someone pro-union.

12) Balmorhea State Park is the greatest thing to happen to Texas.

13) I like running…I like hiking. But they should be kept separate.

14) Sometimes a side effect of something going incredibly right is the feeling that something has gone entirely wrong.

15) Non-New Yorkers have a really strong reaction against New York City because they feel like it’s elitist. Like the city has the personality of a sophomore English major with a design minor. Everyone I know in and from Manhattan is lovely and not the slightest bit elitist. But if they were, I think it would have something to do with their superior transit system, unlimited access to cultural institutions, walkable city layout, and the gold standard of public parks…times two.

NYC Highline

16) Biggest mystery of the year: why people are not flocking to the Lakes District in Chile.

Puerto Varas

CHile

17) Pets, plural, entered my life in full force this year, and I find myself enjoying caring for them. Whoever that girl was who didn’t want to be tied down…she’s long gone, and replaced with a snugglier, more motherly version who gets choked up watching “Love, Actually”

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18) It’s just not worth it to drink too much anymore. Who am I kidding? I’m not mourning some wild season of life gone by. I never liked drinking too much. I did it, but I never liked it.

19) Lewis got me a bicycle for Christmas.  I was scared about traffic, but before my year was up I navigated the Lasoya roundabout (which I avoid even in my car) on two wheels. I love my bicycle.

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20) Liz Lambert is my design idol. The diva’s in the details.

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El Cosmico

21) The meaning of Christmas hit me full force when I heard the San Antonio Symphony playing at Haven for Hope this year.

22) It’s worth it to pay for a tour guide. When we were younger, and backpacking, getting lost was a luxury we could afford. We had all time and no money. Now that our time is money and vacations aren’t 40 days long, hiring a guide keeps the vacation in the “wow, that’s fascinating” zone and out of the “I told you the buses don’t operate on Sundays”

23) I have two age spots on my cheek. They will never go away. If you hold out long enough, your don’t need to get a tattoo. Your body will start marking itself up on its own.

24) I finally like fancy dark chocolate better than M&Ms. Lewis has won.

25) Having a beer or a glass of Pinot Grigio while watching the Colbert Report is a perfect way to end stressful days. This is a downgrade from tequila and Mad Men, which was how I was ending most days 6 months ago.

26) Prospect and refuge. It explains so much, and is perfectly illustrated by our puppy, who hides under the coffee table waiting to attack our shoes and steal Wiley’s toys.

27) The fact that semi-automatics, high-capacity magazines, and other guns designed to kill people are allowed to be bought or sold in any way completely baffles me. Completely. And I don’t really want anyone to explain it to me.

28) My husband loves me very much.

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29) Everyday I am waiting for the answer to strike, as though God will throw it down like lightening, rather than unfolding it slowly like the way the sky looks before it it rains.

So this is Christmas…

Christmas came without fanfare this year. Partly because I’ve been busier than usual with work and writing. But also because certain traditions and heralds were missing. Christmas did not appear in the places I usually find it.

It wasn’t until today, Christmas Day, that I looked through the pictures on my phone and realized that Christmas came in unexpected ways this year. Some of them were overtly festive, others were the events of normal life that conveniently overlap with Advent. Like the grapefruit tree that obligingly bursts with bounty just when we need goodies to share, and I can’t muster the will to bake.

The photos to follow are not the photos of the things that go without saying, such as family, friends, food, and gifts. These are the images that I only now realize have become traditions. These are the new and surprising places that I’ve begun to find Christmas for myself.

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First off, it’s finally time to plug in the Christmas lights. Not hang them, mind you, as they stay up all year. But we only plug them in after Thanksgiving. Any earlier would just be tacky.

IMG_0104[1]It’s December which means that there might be a day or two when it’s too cold for shorts in South Texas. And something about the Christmas spirit means that when the dog gets on the couch because you haven’t gotten around to insulating the floor, you just let him be there.

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Our little house came with a fully functioning miniature orchard, which fruits in December. Once upon a time, in the days before Best Buy Gift Cards, fruit was the traditional Christmas gift. We’re bringing it back.

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We’re also bringing back the grapefruit fad diet, grapefruit cocktails, grapefruit smoothies, grapefruit upside down cake, and grapefruit facials.

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The beauty of an iPhone is that it is available at the times when you don’t think to bring a camera. Also, they can’t take it away from you at the SA Symphony Holiday Pops Concert, so it’s easier to bootleg some good snapshots (though we were only marginally breaking the rules, as the performance had not started).

I did draw the line, though, at trying to inconspicuously take pictures during the candlelight portion of the Christmas Eve service…though apparently not everyone draws the line in the same place on that one, as evidenced by the woman nearly singeing the hair of the lady in front of her while trying to juggle a smartphone and a lit candle to get a photo of her grandchild teetering adorably on the arm of his father (who also had a lit candle).  I’m sure it had 20 “likes” by the time we’d sung the third verse of Silent Night.

The SA Symphony is responsible for two moments of Christmas revelation. The one semi-photographed, and the other one I wrote about for the Rivard Report.

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Being part of the Walker Family gingerbread house contest is always a treat. Actually, being a part of the Walker Family anything is a treat, but the gingerbread contest is a favorite.  They stockpile candy all year for the event. Chance, 6, found some Halloween Candy and predicted his gingerbread domicile would win the “Scariest” award.

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I disagree, as Celeste and I appear to have reconstructed the cabin from “Deliverance.”

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Spending Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas Day with Lewis’s family (as well as the full calendar of parties in weeks prior) means that we spend a lot of time in the car during December. The only thing Wiley loves better than the ranch and home is the car ride between the ranch and home. He expresses his delight by breathing his dog breath on the back of our necks and drooling profusely.

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As 2012 fades from the calendar (as it is doing from Lewis’s new Buddha Board here), I personally reflect on it as a year I am ready to leave behind. This was a holiday with some conspicuous absences, but it was good to realize that Christmas was not compromised. Linus was still there to remind me what Christmas is all about. A King in a Manger. A long awaited thing in an unexpected place.

My Ideal Book Shelf

I’m a fan of questions like, “If you had to be stuck on an island with three books, what would they be?” And I’m a fan of the website Ideal Bookshelf, where you can have your all-star library immortalized…because the actual books are…mortal…? I guess people would rather have a drawing of their favorite books all together than just have the actual books together on a prominent shelf. Well, anyway, I think it’s a great website even if it doesn’t make sense.

But, alas, I don’t have $255 laying around to order my ideal bookshelf (immortal or mortal), so I just took some pictures of the actual books which are scattered throughout actual bookshelves in our house (some are missing, as I tend to give my books away). Ideal is a funny word, and these are not the best books I’ve ever read, nor are they the books I think everyone should read. This is more like the reference section for a study on my soul.

(I don’t mention the Bible in this list. I just think it’s in a different category for me.)

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

This was my favorite book for a long time. It introduced me to the concept of personalities and how they affected ones social, romantic and familial life. As I’ve said before, I always wanted to be a Jo. But I was such a Meg.

The Abriged version. G

Gave away the unabridged and kept the one with the great pictures.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

This was the first seriously meaty book I ever read. It was in Mrs. Stephen’s 8th grade English class. We read it slowly, and discussed it thoroughly, which is the best way to read twisty-plotted 19th century French literature. Because we read slowly, I really really savored it, in a way that I don’t know if I have done since.

Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

This was another 8th grade read. It’s still my go-to resource my tri-yearly crisis of faith.

The big questions section

The big questions section

Ramona the Pest, Beverly Cleary

My 1st grade gifted-and-talented teacher read the entire Ramona series out loud to us, one chapter per class. Ramona Quimby was my original comedic hero.

Me, Katherine Hepburn

I love golden era movie star biographies. And Katherine Hepburn was more than just a starlet. I had no idea when I picked up her autobiography that she would become one of my favorite characters in history…not just entertainment.

My Golden Era Hollywood biography section

My Golden Era Hollywood biography section, with other notable biographies scattered throughout.

Til We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

I read this at the most perfect moment. I was in a critical time of wrestling with bitterness and despair, and in it I saw both the peril of my soul and the antidote.

The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Atwood

Atwood inspires me. Social commentary, great story, and sci-fi, a genre I never thought I liked until I read The Blind Assassin. But in Handmaid she’s chillingly good.

One of the most easily identified pieces of cover art .

One of the most easily identified pieces of cover art .

Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver

This was a pick for Read the Change, and it’s not Kingsolver’s best work, but any stretch of the imagination. It gets preachy, and it’s not as tight as others. But it changed my mind about a lot of things. It taught me things that matter.

Neither Here, Nor There: Travels in Europe, Bill Bryson

Hilarious. Bryson and David Sedaris make me want to learn to write funny. Humor is so hard! Comedians and humorists are some of the most intelligent people in the world, I think. Plus, they get to tell the truth that no one else can. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make the laugh otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Manchild in the Promised Land, Claude Brown

Eye-opening in so many ways for this white girl.

My reference section.

My reference section.

The Electric Kool-Aide Acid Test, Tom Wolfe

Literary journalism rocked my world. Wolfe is funny, but not laugh-out-loud like Bryson. Not knee-slapping funny. He’s more of a shake-your-head-and-chuckle funny. Because he just gets certain things. He observes the painful parts far too keenly to do anything but wince and giggle.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Avi

I haven’t read this since 2nd grade, so it may be terrible. But I loved it then, and I love what it did for me. I still have the mental images and I still remember the feeling of being swept up in a story, which is important at that age. That’s why I think Harry Potter might have single-handedly saved literacy for a generation (no one take me to task on that, it’s hyperbole).

The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry

This was my favorite book after college, and I didn’t give much thought as to why…until I gave it to Lewis to read and he said, “This whole book is about perverse sexual situations.” Aha. Somebody was into being “edgy.” But still, really, it’s a great book.

Thankfully Lewis didn't read my "favorite book" until after he'd proposed.

Thankfully Lewis didn’t read my “favorite book” until after he’d proposed.

Matilda, Roald Dahl

Who didn’t want to be Matilda? And Roald Dahl is one of my heroes. What a talent, really. His imagination is both dark and whimsical, in proportions I aspire to attain.

The Complete Calvin and Hobbs, Bill Watterson

Gunnar, my brother, eventually shared this love with me. We can still quote the comics back and forth. The sense of humor in them is multi-layered and entertaining on most levels.

The Eames shelf of honor.

The Eames shelf of honor.

The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor

I wish I had a penny for every time I wanted to shout, “The lame shall enter first!”

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