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Finding My Faith

Old swing on sunny day - AKB

This blog has been many things since I started it. It was, for a time, a way to promote my novel. It’s been for fact-checking, for political informing and for random musing. And lately it’s been about religion and it’s impact on the world at large.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the part that religion has played in my life. I was raised by parents who claimed Mormonism as their own but who rarely attended  a service. When I was eight, I was baptized into the Mormon church by my paternal grandfather. After my baptism a group of missionaries from our local temple began coming to the house to do studies with my sisters and I. They would teach us out of the Book of Mormon, take us to church and talk about what it meant to be a Mormon. I learned few things from them that stuck with me over the years but that was my first real experience with religion.

Many years later – when I was still in high school – I met and started dating the man who would become my husband. He was raised in a strict fundamentalist Southern Baptist family and, when we became serious, it was just assumed that I would renounce my Mormon upbringing and join their faith. I did it without a single look back.

In hindsight I realize that so many of the things that I was taught during the 11 years I was married to my ex-husband were harmful to my spiritual health. In the church we attended for the first several years we were married, women weren’t allowed to pray out loud. They weren’t allowed to hold high position in the church. Children were expected to be seen, not heard and there was Hell to pay if you were a child and acted up in church. In our personal lives, my ex-husband would get angry if I expressed strong opinions (women were supposed to be quiet and bow down to their husband’s wishes and opinions). He strongly believed that it was a woman’s place to take care of the kids and the house and that a man’s sole purpose in the family unit was to be the financial provider.

I was taught by the church that gays, unbelievers and anyone who wasn’t Baptist were going to Hell and that the only way to get to Heaven was to pray constantly, read your Bible and attend church three times a week. Works didn’t mean as much to these people as how many Bible quotes you could memorize. Men were revered, women were invisible, children were to obey, completely and without question.

My ex-husband and I separated four years ago and, for the first time, I found myself able to make my own spiritual choices. It was overwhelming and I found myself faced with a crisis of faith. I knew that the things I’d been taught my whole life didn’t sit well with me. I knew that I didn’t believe that only Mormons or only Baptists were going to Heaven. I didn’t believe that all non-believers were going to Hell or that being gay is an abomination. There weren’t things I’d been taught. They were things I knew, deep down in my heart, weren’t right. And so I floundered around for awhile, trying to find my own faith. Trying to discover what it meant to me to be a Christian.

A couple of months after my husband left, I heard a sermon by Bishop John Shelby Spong on youtube. Listening to his words, hearing him speak, it was like he was looking into my heart and speaking the words that I hadn’t even figured out how to speak to myself and that sermon set me on the path to finding my faith.

I realized that I don’t believe any one specific religion had all the answers. I don’t believe that any one specific religion had dibs on Heaven, that Heaven is an exclusive club that only certain people can get into. I believe that the way you treat others is more important to God than the way you pray, or the holy book you read or how many verses you have memorized. I believe that God is bigger than any dogma, any religion, any belief system can comprehend and that we need to look to every faith to find the truth because every faith contains a kernel of that truth. I don’t believe that being gay is a one-way ticket to Hell because God is love and love is beautiful, no matter what skin it wears. I don’t believe that you have to go to church and sit in a pew and listen to a man preach for an hour in order to be a good Christian and that fellowship means much more than going to that brick building on Wednesdays and Sundays and being with people who think the same way you do.

I believe that in order for us to grow in our faith, we have to reach out to those who don’t believe the same way we do. We have to be willing to look for the answers, to look for God, everywhere, in every face, in every faith and in everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or background. We all have a place in the kingdom of Heaven and nobody is more worthy of that grace than anyone else.

If I have to label myself as something, I will label myself as a progressive Christian but separating myself from organized religion has opened me up to a whole new world of spirituality that transcends labels. Religion, to me, has become a way to get to know my fellow man – and through them, my God – in a way that I never have before. I now look at God as my friend more than a benevolent being that I can’t begin to understand. I see God as someone that I go to for advice, someone that I know will listen to me in my joy and my sorrow, in my good times and my bad.

I’ve been many things, spiritually, over the years and I’ve done much exploring of my faith. That exploration has led me here and here I have finally found my peace. It’s been a long journey and one that I’m grateful for because it has helped to shape me into the faithful person I am today. Hate has no place in faith. Neither does bigotry or exclusion. We are all children of God and we all have a place with our creator. We just have to cast off the chains that bind us and open ourselves up to God, no matter what form he may take in your life.

 

 

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When You Lose Someone You Love

mourning

I lost my mom on May 27th, 2014. Her death was sudden, unexpected and staggering. People talk about loss and the pain you feel when you lose someone but you will never really know, you’ll never really understand, until the loss is your own.

It’s been a year and a half since my Mom passed away; since her heart ripped apart and she was snatched from us in between one breath and the next. And there are still times when the pain is so enormous that it steals my breath. There are still times when something good will happen to me, or something bad, and my first instinct is to call her and tell her. I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away. There are still days that I miss her so much that I can’t fathom how I’ve been able to go on.

One night, about a month after my Mom passed away, I sat at my computer, completely overcome by my grief. I sat here, sobbing, trying not to wake everyone up because I didn’t want to share my grief, I just wanted to let it out. And I wrote this:

When you lose someone you love, it leaves a hole inside you. A gaping, weeping wound in your heart where that person once was.  There’s sadness and there’s grief and you don’t feel like that hole is ever going to heal. When you lose someone you love, it feels like the whole foundation of your life is shaken, like your world is cracked and there’s no repairing it. When you lose someone you love, it feels like you are a boat whose mooring has been cut; a boat that’s being tossed around on stormy waves with no land and no help in sight. When you lose someone you love, a piece of you dies as well.

            In the weeks after Mom passed away, there was so much to do. There was going to the hospital to see her and feeling the ice pick in my heart all over again seeing her lying there, cold and still and never again to kiss me on the cheek and tell me she loved me. There were funeral arrangements and long talks with case workers and social workers and lawyers (Mom was my nephew’s sole guardian and now we had no idea what was going to happen to him).  There was going to the house to pack up all her things and move them to my sister’s house until the family could go through them because Dad just couldn’t look at her stuff anymore. There were calls from well-wishers that I had no interest in taking and messages from people I had no desire to talk to giving us condolences we didn’t want. No amount of condolences in the world were going to bring my mother back and that’s all I wanted.

                At her funeral, I refused to let the preacher from the funeral home speak. He didn’t know my mom and I wouldn’t let him stand there and pretend like he did. So my sisters and I, while my dad sat on the front row and cried, stood in front of Mom’s coffin where she lay in her jeans and the “I love someone with autism” t-shirt that my sister had gotten her for Mother’s Day just two weeks before, and we gave her eulogy. That was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, standing up there and trying to sum up my mom in just a few short sentences. I almost didn’t get through it, but somehow I did.

                That became my motto in life in the days and weeks and months following Mom’s death. I almost didn’t get through it, but somehow I did. And then the things that I didn’t think I could get through started to come faster and faster and faster and I didn’t have time to dig myself out of one crisis before the next one hit. 

                And suddenly, everyone was looking to me to be the strong one, to make the right decisions, to be there if they needed anyone to talk to. Suddenly, I was expected to step into the role that Mom had always played. The role of peace-keeper and shoulder when someone needed to cry and ear when someone needed to vent. I was so busy being strong for everyone else that I didn’t have time to grieve. And when things calmed down a little, I had so much grief pent up in me that I was afraid that if I let it out, if I started the flood, that I would never be able to dam it up again. So I held it inside just a little longer and just a little longer until keeping it inside was the only thing I knew how to do. And then it turned to anger.

             It was huge, this anger, and it was uncontrollable and it was just looking for an outlet. As the anger grew larger, so did my sense of free-fall. I knew that if I let this take over, this thing that was trying to eat me alive from the inside out, that I would never be able to rein it in again and so I fought it. I fought it so hard that I felt like I had nothing left to fight it with and then I hit another reserve of strength I didn’t even know I had and I fought it a little harder.

                But no matter what I put into the battle, I felt the anger taking over and it started to leak out. I had no choice; it was so huge I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I began to lash out at those who I cared about most – my kids and my fiance. I yelled at the kids for no reason and I made them cry. I was so easily irritated that even the slightest thing would set me off. The anger was so huge that the sound of them laughing – the wonderful, amazing sound  of my children laughing – made me angry. Why should they be happy when I was so incredibly miserable?

We know from a young age that we’re going to outlive our parents. That eventually the time’s going to come that we have to stand over them as they’re lowered into the ground but you can never prepare for it. And I was completely blind-sided by the anger I felt. Anger at the world, at the universe, at God, at everyone around me. Why was she taken from us? From me? It was so unfair, I wasn’t ready, I would never be ready.

It took me many long months to put my anger aside, to wrestle it into a place in my mind where it wouldn’t destroy me and everyone around me. I still struggle with it, with the pain and the sadness and the depression and some days are better than others. I still dream about my Mom almost nightly but it mostly doesn’t cause me pain anymore. Now I look at it as a way to talk to her, to laugh with her, to BE with her, even if it is only in dreams.

I know the pain will eventually fade. That sooner or later I’m going to have more good days than bad and I don’t know whether I look forward to those days or not. But for now I guess I’ll get up in the morning and I’ll pull up my big girl panties and I’ll slog through the grief to get to the other side. Because I know there is an other side. I just have to find it.

             Those we love never go away. They walk beside us every day. 

 

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The Origins of Christmas

download (1)

Well, it’s that time of year again. The time of year where we put trees up in our living rooms and decorate them with pretty baubles and sparkly lights. The time of year where we wrap boxes in garish paper, top them with bows or wrap them in ribbons and put them under that tree. It’s the time of year when children wait in breathless anticipation to hear a tinkle of a sleigh bell or a whisper of merry laughter as Santa makes his visit while, downstairs, Mom and Dad sneak a kiss under the mistletoe while they put all those presents out for the kids.  It’s a time for happiness and cheer, a time when all of humankind can come together in peace. That’s right. It’s Christmas.

But why do we have these traditions? Where did they come from? How did they come to be so ingrained in our holiday celebrations?

Let’s first look at the origin of the word “Christmas”. The word “Christmas” comes from the Old English word Crīstesmæsse, which translates to “Christ’s Mass”. The earliest recorded use of the word “Christmas” in relation to the winter celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth was in Rome in the mid-4th century. And until the 4th century there was no set date for celebrating Christmas. It wasn’t until Pope Julius I set the date for December 25th in 350 AD that it became common practice around the world to celebrate Christmas on this day (1). In modern times, the practice of using Xmas instead of Christmas has popped up. While some people have decided to become offended by this – saying that this is akin to taking the “Christ” out of Christmas – this is actually a proper way to keep Christ in Christmas. A little-known fact is that the letter (chi) is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ (2).

One of the most recognizable symbols of Christmas is the tree. And whether you put up a fake tree or a real one, most of us engage in the time-honored tradition of putting one up and decorating it. But where did this tradition originate? People have been putting leafy green vegetation in their homes on the winter solstice (the shortest day and longest night of the year) for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians filled their homes with green palm rushes to symbolize the triumph of life over death (3). Early Romans marked the solstice with a festival called Saturnalia. Part of this celebration was to decorate their homes and temples with evergreen boughs to symbolize the return of their crops and fields (3). And in Northern Europe the Druids decorated their temples with evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life (3).

The first appearance of the Christmas tree as we know it is in Germany in the 16th century when Christians began bringing decorated trees into their homes. And when German settlers came to Pennsylvania in the 1830’s they brought that tradition with them. Christmas trees were seen as a pagan symbol in the United States and not considered an acceptable decoration for Christmas until the 1840’s due to the influence of Puritan religious leaders who forbade anything “pagan” from entering the sacred celebration of Jesus’ birth (3). In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German husband were drawn standing around a Christmas tree. Because of Victoria’s popularity among her people, the tradition soon caught on in England (3).

And what would a Christmas tree be without all those wonderful presents underneath? Pagans in Rome exchanged gifts during Saturnalia, most often toys, edible treats or candles. In the 4th century, after Pope Julius I declared that Christmas was the day Jesus was born and made it a holiday, Christians adopted the tradition of gift-giving and used the story of the Magi who brought gifts to Jesus on the day of his birth to separate the tradition from it’s pagan roots (4).

And, of course, there’s the jolly fat man in the red suit who brings all those presents. As most of us already know, the Santa legend is based on a real person. St. Nicholas was a Turkish monk who was born sometime around 280 AD. It is said that Nicholas gave away all his inherited wealth and traveled around the country helping the poor and sick (5). In fact, the name “Santa Claus” comes from St. Nicholas’ Dutch nickname  “Sinter Klaas” (5).

Every year we Christians begin our annual litany of the War on Christmas. We rail against anyone saying Merry Xmas or Happy Holidays, claiming that the secular world is trying to push Jesus out of Christmas. But if we look back at the history of many of the traditions we hold so near and dear to us we see that Jesus had nothing to do with any of them – in fact most of these tradition were around for thousands of years before Jesus was even born – and that most of our most sacred traditions are pagan in origin. In fact, in Jeremiah 10:3-4 Jesus warns against the cutting and decorating of trees. And it’s probably not a coincidence that Pope Julius I chose to make the official Christian Christmas celebration on December 25th, a time when most pagan civilizations traditionally celebrated their solstice holidays. The month of Jesus’ actual birth is widely debated, with most scholars torn between summer and fall (6).

The bottom line is this – whether you celebrate Christmas or Saturnalia or Yule we can all agree that Christmas is a time of joy. A time for families and friends to come together and make merry. A time to reflect on the year past and make plans for the one that is coming. So instead of trying so hard to deny the historic roots of some of our favorite traditions, let’s drop the argument and take Christmas for what it is – a time of love, joy and the hope for peace on Earth.

Sources:

(1) http://www.dluk.info/christmas-gift-sending-tradition-history-origin.html

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas

(3) http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees

(4) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/panmankey/2013/12/christmas-traditions-pagan-or-christian/

(5) http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/santa-claus

(6) http://www.livescience.com/42976-when-was-jesus-born.html

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Behind the Book: Islam and Christianity

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On Thursday afternoon, November 12 two suicide bombers entered a busy open air market in the Bourj al-Barajneh district in Beirut, Lebanon and detonated their bombs, killing 43 people and injuring another 239. A third bomber was killed before detonating his bomb. On Friday, November 13 a suicide bomber detonated a bomb inside the Al-Ashara al-Mubashareen mosque in Baghdad, Iraq, killing 19 people and injuring 33 more. The mosque was being used for a funeral. Also on Friday, November 13 an unknown number of assailants carried out coordinated attacks on multiple targets in Paris, France, killing at least 132 people and injuring hundreds more. The extremist Muslim group ISIS has taken credit for, or has been credited with, all three of these attacks. In two days, these terrorists killed or injured hundreds of people in the name of their God.

Many people are pointing out that these people are well within the rights of their religion to do these things; that the words within the pages of their holy book even encourage them to kill. And they would be right. For in these pages are things like this: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on the opposite sides or they shall be imprisoned…” Quran 5:33. And this: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.” Quran 8:12. The Quran is, in fact, littered with passages like this.

Taken from the perspective of someone who knows little to nothing of Islam or the people who practice it in a non-radical fashion, it would be easy to take these verses – and others like it – and the actions of these extremists and condemn an entire religion (one that makes up nearly 23% of the world’s population (1)). It would be easy for us to say that this ideology is just no damn good, a cancer on the minds of the people and the face of the earth, and should be eradicated. And this is, in fact, a very familiar thing to those of us who live here in the United States, especially since the terrorist attacks that were carried out in New York City on September 11, 2001 by radical Islamic extremists. “Down with Islam!” is a war cry that started nearly 15 years ago and still echoes through America’s steel corridors and across her amber waves of grain to this day.

But is Islam really a religion that teaches its people to hate outsiders? To kill those of us that are labeled “infidels”? As I’ve pointed out in the above paragraph there are verses in the Quran that talk about killing outsiders and casting wrath on the unbelievers. But there are also verses like this: “O You who believe! Enter absolutely into peace. Do not follow in the footsteps of Satan. He is an outright enemy to you.” Quran 2:208. And this one that encourages Muslims to show peace and love to Christians:  “…and you will find the nearest in love to the believers (Muslims) those who say: “We are Christians.” That is because among them are priests and monks, and they are not proud.” Quran 5:28. And this one that flat-out condemns the killing of innocent people: “Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely…” Quran 5:32. So it would seem that those among the Muslim faith that commit these acts are going against what their holy book actually teaches.

But what about jihad? Isn’t that an Allah-sanctioned holy war? The word “jihad” in Arabic actually means struggling or striving, not “holy war” as we’re so often told (2). Religious jihad can mean an internal struggle, such as the struggle to be a good Muslim or an external struggle to inform people of the tenants of the faith. Military jihad is allowed but only in extreme cases is deadly force authorized. Generally legal, diplomatic and political means are used before force. In the case that there is no peaceful alternative, Islam lays out strict rules of engagement: innocents must never be harmed and any peaceful overtures (surrender) from the enemy must be accepted. According to Islamic rules, not everyone can declare a jihad. The military campaign must be approved by the proper authorities and advised by scholars, who will decide if the people and religion are actually under threat and if violence is imperative to defend them (2).

Jihad is not a violent concept as it is often portrayed by Western cultures. It is not an open license for Muslims to declare war on people of other religions. In fact, as it is written in the Quran, Christians and Jews are looked upon by Muslims as fellow “people of the book” because they also worship God (or Allah, as He’s referred to by Islam). So, again, it would seem that these extremists are going outside the tenants of their faith, as extremists are want to do.

So on the one hand we have a holy book that is telling people who follow the world’s second-largest religion to kill any who don’t believe, to murder any who are “making mischief” on Allah’s people. And we have people, like ISIS, who are following these passages. And on the other hand we have a holy book that is telling them to love and accept others and to embrace other religions. And there are Muslims who live their lives striving to do just that.

The people who believe that Islam is a religion of hate and violence would have us forget – or maybe they just don’t realize themselves – that the pages of the Bible are spattered with just as much, if not more, blood than the pages of the Quran. In the Bible you can be killed for things like working on Sundays or remarrying after a divorce. Recalcitrant children can be stoned to death for disobedience. Harvesting the edges of your fields is a sin punishable by death. But the Bible also calls for the wholesale slaughter of Pagans:  “On that day of judgment,” says the LORD, “I will punish the leaders and princes of Judah and all those following pagan customs.  Yes, I will punish those who participate in pagan worship ceremonies, and those who steal and kill to fill their masters’ homes with loot…Your blood will be poured out into the dust, and your bodies will lie there rotting on the ground.”  Your silver and gold will be of no use to you on that day of the LORD’s anger.  For the whole land will be devoured by the fire of his jealousy.  He will make a terrifying end of all the people on earth.” Zephaniah 1:7-18. And in 1 Samuel 15:3, God orders King Saul to attack and annihilate the Amalakites. “Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass,” God says to Saul. And when Saul fails in this grisly task, Saul’s kingdom is taken from him by God.

Just as there are many violent passages in the Quran, there are an equal number in the Bible, yet we call Islam the religion of violence? Perhaps Christians haven’t done so much killing on such a wide scale in recent years as militant Islamic groups such as ISIS and that is why we Christians are so quick to look past the blood on our hands but it’s hard to see how we can move forward with all the bodies lying at our feet. From the forced conversions of Pagans in the fourth century (3),  to the Inquisition in the 16th century (in which it is estimated that over 1,200 people were killed in Italy alone) (4), to the Salem witch trials in the 1600’s, our religious history is not a peaceful one (5).  And it doesn’t stop there, fellow Christians. We can also lay at our feet the forced assimilation and conversion of Native Americans in the 17-1900’s, in which approximately 80-90% of the native population was wiped out in North America alone, leaving the death toll in the millions (6). And that’s not to mention the people who are killed by people claiming to be Christians every single day who are members of the LGBT community, minorities, handicapped or anything else that we believers perceive as being “wrong”.

And yet there are those of us, those among the Christian community, who choose to read passages like Mark 12:31 “Love your neighbor as yourself; there is no commandment greater than this”  and Ephesians 4:2 “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” and we live our lives by those passages, not by the ones of hate and blood and terror. Just as most Muslims just want to live their lives in peace, so do we. So maybe we’re not so very far apart, our Muslim brothers and sisters and ourselves. And maybe it’s time we start trying to see past our prejudices and our preconceived notions. Maybe it’s time for us to turn off the TV and stop listening to those who would tell us that eradicating an entire group of people for the actions of a few is the only answer. And maybe we should stop being blinded by our differences and start trying to see our similarities so we can all stand up, together, as one people and raise our voices to stop this threat to our humanity. Because Islam isn’t the enemy. Extremism is.

Sources:

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim_world

(2) http://islamicsupremecouncil.org/understanding-islam/legal-rulings/5-jihad-a-misunderstood-concept-from-islam.html?start=9

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_persecution_of_paganism_under_Theodosius_I

(4) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Inquisition

(5) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_assimilation_of_Native_Americans

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The Hidden Ones: My Life With an Invisible Illness

Invisible-Illness-training-Muay-Thai

My day begins just like everyone else’s. I get up at 7 a.m. get my kids up, hop on facebook and check my updates, get my kids up again, make them breakfast, help to find shoes, backpacks and hair brushes, and wave them onto the bus “Bye! Love you! See you tonight!” Then, depending on how I slept the night before, it’s either coffee, eggs and more facebook or checking emails for me or back to bed for a few more hours before I get up and start my day. Seeing me out and about, walking across the parking lot at Wal-Mart, working my job at a deli, interacting with my kids’ teachers, you wouldn’t guess that there is something lurking in my DNA that is trying very hard to kill me. Looking at me in my day-to-day activities you wouldn’t think that I have a chronic illness. But I do.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been told I had Marfan’s Syndrome. Discovered by French scientist Antoine Marfan in 1869, Marfan’s Syndrome is a hereditary connective tissue disorder that results in abnormally long, thin digits and extremities. It primarily affects the eyes, blood vessels and skeleton (1). I remember when I was 8 sitting in a doctor’s office all day long while my sisters and I got poked, prodded and scanned while we were tested for this. We were all positively diagnosed. So my whole life I’ve lived with the idea that I had this relatively mild form of a disease that caused my aorta to be slightly enlarged and my eyes to be bad. When I was pregnant with each of my three kids, I told my OB/GYN about the diagnosis and he would hook me to an EKG machine a couple of times during my pregnancy and that was that.

Fast forward to August of 2013. I mentioned to my kids’ pediatrician at a routine well-child check that Marfan’s ran in my family and she referred my son (who was the only one old enough to test at the time) to a geneticist to get tested. There was much poking, prodding and imaging and 4 months later the geneticist called me back with some strange and troubling news – my son didn’t have Marfan’s Syndrome. They didn’t know what he had. “He has something in his DNA that looks like Marfan’s but it isn’t,” is what the geneticist told me. “At this point we know that it’s going to affect his heart and his growth because it’s enough like Marfan’s for us to be positive of that but that’s where the similarity stops.” She vowed to do more tests and then hung up the phone. Over the next year I heard from her several times but nothing conclusive ever came of it.

Then came May 27, 2014. It was 9:30 in the morning and I was still in my pajamas, drinking my coffee when my phone rang. It was my mom. “Please come. I think I had a stroke. It hurts so bad.” She was hysterical. I didn’t even put shoes on. I grabbed the kids, jumped in the car and sped the 3 blocks to my parents’ house. She was already on the phone with the paramedics when I got there. The ambulance came and they took her away in a sling because she couldn’t walk. My last sight of her was her being loaded in the back of an ambulance. She died in the helicopter on the way to a bigger hospital. Her aorta had dissected. “It came apart like tissue paper,” is what the doctor who worked on her told me.

Three weeks after my mom passed away, my aunt – my mom’s sister – had her first dissection and her first emergency surgery. A month later, she was in the hospital again with another dissection and another emergency surgery. All these sudden, violent dissections in my family got my geneticist to thinking and she ran another test on my aunt’s blood while she was in the hospital. It came back positive. She ran the same test on my son. Also positive. Over the next several months, many members of my family were tested, many came back positive, including me and my oldest daughter.

We all had Loey’s-Deitz Syndrome. Loey’s-Deitz Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder similar to Marfan’s Syndrome only it primarily affects the heart and blood vessels. LDS (as it is commonly referred to by those of us who suffer from it) was discovered in 2005 by Dr. Bart Loeys and Dr. Hal Deitz. Essentially Loey’s-Deitz makes the walls of the blood vessels and arteries thin and prone to aneurysm. Patients with LDS also suffer from problems with the musculoskeletal system (they are often prone to osteoporosis and scoliosis, even at very young ages), skin (LDS patients often have almost translucent skin) and gastrointestinal systems (LDS patients are prone to a wide variety of digestive issues) (2). Most Loey’s-Deitz patients have a life-long limit on how much weight they can life since lifting significant amounts of weight can put undo stress on the blood vessels. LDS patients are required to undergo annual or semi-annual imaging of multiple types to check for aneurysms and to monitor existing aneurysms. Women who are positive for LDS are advised not to breastfeed since breastfeeding releases hormones that make the connective tissues – already too loose in LDS patients – to soften further, increasing their risk of aneurysm and dissection. This disease affects us in big ways (we can’t to any kind of exercise except light cardiovascular because the risk of falls or getting hit with projectiles, therefore triggering a dissection, is too great) and small ways (no roller coasters that will get our heart rates up too high or movies with a lot of jump-scares). Many of us are going to be on blood pressure medication for the rest of our lives and many of us have had to make permanent diet and lifestyle changes because certain foods and medications can negatively affect the way our bodies work (no antihistamines or regular coffee, or instance). Heart surgery at some point to repair aneurysms – often multiple surgeries – is a given with Loey’s-Deitz patients.

In my own life, the changes were almost immediate. My two oldest kids – who both tested positive for LDS type 2 (3) were both on their school soccer teams at the time of their diagnosis. It killed them to have to stop playing. Because of my new lift limit, there were certain duties at work that I was no longer able to perform. And my kids and I all started going to see a cardiologist every 6 months for endless rounds of tests. We’re now a year into this and my son – who is 12 – has developed an aneurysm in his aorta that is right on the edge of needing surgery and my daughter – who is 10 – is already on blood pressure medicine. I had my first heart surgery on June 23rd, 2015. I had a 5-inch section of my aorta replaced and my aortic root replaced with a mechanical one. Now, for the rest of my life, I have to take blood thinners. I’m 31 years old.

Back before my diagnosis, I was one of those people who saw someone park in a handicapped space and walk in, completely unimpeded and thought “Why do they need a handicapped sticker? They look fine.” I was one of those people who would see a young, able-bodied person on an electric cart and I would scoff. “Get off that, you lazy bum. That’s for actual handicapped people.” But now, especially since my surgery, there are days when I’m so tired just the thought of walking into Wal-Mart to do my shopping makes me want to cry. There are days when I’m in so much pain that I feel like I’m 80 and that electric cart is a blessing. My days now are filled with playing “To Go To the ER or Not” with every little tingle and twinge because you never know when that tingle or twinge is going to be the one that kills you. I wish I was exaggerating. I’m not.

But I’ve learned something since my diagnosis. I’ve learned that I’m stronger than this disease. I’m stronger than that which is trying to kill me. Every day when I manage to get out of bed, every day when I get dressed and go to work, every day when I stand long enough to do dishes or fold laundry. Every time I load the kids in the car and drive the 2 1/2 hours to the doctor, I get a little bit stronger. And that strength is what carries me through the bad days when I just can’t bring myself to get out of bed or go to work. When I just can’t.  And in the end, that strength is what gets us through.

                                 “Fate whispers to the warrior “You cannot withstand the storm”

                                            and the warrior whispers back “I am the storm””

Sources:

(1) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/marfan-syndrome/basics/definition/

(2) http://www.loeysdietz.org/en/

(3) http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/loeys-dietz-syndrome

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Is God Allowed in Schools?

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We’ve all seen it. The meme that inevitably pops up on social media after a mass shooting  or some other random and tragic act of violence at a school and sticks around for a few weeks like a bad cold. “God, why do you allow such violence in schools? Because I’m not allowed in schools anymore. ~God” or something of the like.

But does praying in schools actually keep faculty, staff and students safer? Since 2005 there have been several shootings at religiously affiliated schools:

  • On October 2, 2006, 32-year-old Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA, separated the boys from the girls, bound and shot the girls, killing 5 of them and injuring 6 more. (1)
  • On March 6, 2012, 28-year-old Shane Schumerth, a teacher who had recently been fired from the Episcopal School of Jacksonville in Jacksonville, FL entered the campus and killed Dean Dale Regan before committing suicide. (2)
  • On April 2, 2012, 43-year-old One L. Goh, a former student at Oikos University, a Korean Christian College in Oakland, CA, ordered nursing students to line up against a wall and opened fire, killing 7 and injuring 3 more before being taken into custody. (3)
  • On January 7, 2013, 27-year-old Kristopher Smith was killed in the parking lot of the Apostolic Revival Center Christian School in what was believed to be a retaliation killing. The suspect was never caught. (4)
  • On October 4, 2013, 2 students at Agape Christian Academy in Pine Hills, FL were injured after a fight broke out and another student pulled a gun and began firing. The suspect fled by car and was never apprehended. (5)
  • On January 15, 2015, 37-year-old Michael Riley pulled a gun and fired at 2 teenagers he was arguing with in the parking lot of the Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, WI. During the altercation 3 bystanders were injured. (6)

The evidence would seem to point to the fact that praying in schools does not bring God to lower some protective shield over our schools. And, as history would prove, just being a religious person does not automatically make you less likely to kill. After all we Christians slaughtered millions of people in the Crusades and thousands more in the witch hunts in Europe (not to mention the 80 or so people we killed right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A) just to name a few of the mass historical slaughters that can be laid at the feet of believers of God. Not to mention the number of domestic terrorists in modern times that have claimed Christianity as their own.

So why do people keep using that phrase “Put God back in schools!”? The answer to that one is easy. Because of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. For those who may not be familiar with this, it reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

So let’s break down the part of this that has to do with religion, since that’s what we’re talking about here.

Part one: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” What that means, in a nutshell, is that the government of the United States cannot make any law that promotes a specific religion. This part of the Establishment Clause is often referred to as the separation of church and state, meaning that no person who works for the government – i.e. Congressman, the President, public school teachers, judges, postal employees, county clerks, etc. – cannot, in their capacity as a government official, promote any one religion.

Part two: “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” This gives you – a private citizen – the right to freely exercise your religion however you see fit. It means that you – as a private citizen – can practice whatever religion you want, in whatever way you want, whenever you want and nobody can stop you. And that includes your kids while they’re at school. That’s right, your children have a constitutional right to pray, read their Bible, even lead a prayer or Bible study group of other students on their school campus, during school hours and there is nothing that anyone can legally do to stop them. In fact, there have been several instances in which teachers or staff have tried to stop students from practicing their freedom of religion, the school or staff were taken to court and the student won the suit.

But when you become an employee of the government – in any capacity, if your paycheck is coming from any government entity – then you are no longer a private citizen when you are at work and you, while you are at work, are no longer allowed to publicly practice your freedom of religion. That being said, if you are a teacher and you want to pray before you eat, go ahead. But don’t ask your students to pray with you because that is you – as a representative of the government – promoting a specific religion. If you are the principal of a high school and a group of parents ask you to lead the prayer at a graduation ceremony you – as per the constitution of the United States – are required to step down because that is promoting a specific religion as a government official. But if you want to lead a moment of silence instead in which everyone in the audience is able to pray however he or she wishes, then you can do that and be within your rights. Of course, if you work for a religiously affiliated private school than you no longer work for the government and you can pray with your students all day long if that’s what you want.

So is God still allowed in schools? Absolutely. Because God is wherever those who believe in him are. Just because you, as a teacher or a principal, may not be allowed to lead your students in prayer does not mean that you can’t still worship. Just because you can’t preach and spread the gospel from your desk does not mean that your religious rights are being stepped on. And maybe us being forced to practice a more quiet religion would be good for some of us. Maybe, by being made to turn inward for our God fix for just those few hours a day, we can find something more meaningful, something deeper than what we had before.

Sources:

(1) http://lancasterpa.com/amish/amish-school-shooting/

(2) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/09/us/shooting-shatters-jacksonville-prep-school-campus.html?_r=0

(3) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oikos_University_shooting

(4) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/01/08/school-shooting-florida/1817149/

(5) http://www.wftv.com/news/news/local/teen-shot-agape-christian-academy-pine-hills/nbF7Q/

(6) http://www.jsonline.com/news/crime/milwaukee-man-charged-in-wisconsin-lutheran-high-school-shooting-b99431381z1-289512441.html

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Sin and the Modern Christian

what-is-sin

Lately we’ve heard a lot about sin. With the recent Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states and the leaking of videos that seem to show employees of Planned Parenthood selling fetal tissue to the highest bidder and the Pope turning the Catholic church on it’s head sin is all over the news; you just can’t seem to get away from it.

But what is sin, exactly?

Sin, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is an offense against religious or moral law. Sin as defined by the Bible is a transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4). Most Christians look to the Bible to know what is sin and what is not and there is no shortage of sinful things in the pages of the Bible. Within those 66 books, you can find a multitude of things that God himself, Jesus or the disciples speaking for God considered a sin. Here are examples of just a few:

  1. Adultery (Exodus 20:14)
  2. Divorce (Matthew 19:9)
  3. Disobeying Man’s Law (Romans 13:1-5)
  4. Working on Sunday (Exodus 20:8-9)
  5. Getting Tattoos (Leviticus 19:28)
  6. Harvesting the edge of your field (Leviticus 23:22)

These are, of course, just a small picking of the things the Bible considers sinful. Several of these, including divorce, adultery, and working on Sunday are considered bad enough that the perpetrator can be put to death. Yet in today’s world, many of these things are common-place, even widely accepted. Let’s take divorce for instance. In the United States 73% of the population identifies as Christian(1) while in that country there is a 53% divorce rate(2). In Romania, 99% of the country identifies as Christian(1) and the divorce rate is 28%(2). And in Iceland, 95% of the population identifies as Christian(1) and there is a 37% divorce rate(2). But surely if the Christians in these countries were interested in living a sin-free life as outlined in the Bible, the divorce rates would be much lower, right? Apparently not since we don’t see many good Christians picketing outside of courthouses here in the good ole’ U.S. of A. demanding that divorce be made illegal.

Another thing that we, as Christians, have just learned to accept is working on Sundays. Many of us work in a field where you can request that you don’t work on Sundays but there is little to no chance that that request is going to be honored. And tattoos? Again, I don’t see any picketers outside tattoo parlors demanding that they be shut down because they’re not biblical. And in an economy like the United States where farming and food manufacturing make up 14% of all manufacturing employees and 10% of all US employment(3) it makes no economic sense to only plant or harvest the centers of fields so we’ve let that one slide as well.

Here in the United States the sin of the hour, despite all these other things that we should seemingly be worrying about, seems to be homosexuality. Does the Bible talk about homosexuality? There would seem to be a couple of verses in the Old Testament that speak to it, namely Romans 1:26-28 and Leviticus 18:22. Yet why does this particular sin deserve more hate, ridicule and judgement than the others I’ve listed above and the approximately 600 other sins that the Bible lists in it’s pages? Especially when same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states and should therefore be covered under #3 on the list above? Why have we latched onto this one sin when we’ve chosen to let so many others slide?

Perhaps it’s because we feel that this is still one that we have some control over. We can’t really tell our employers that we refuse to work on Sundays or we risk losing our jobs. We can’t only plant parts of our fields or risk taking a financial loss so we feel that dictating the lives of others is an acceptable way to cover our Biblical bases. Or perhaps it’s because we wish to show others that we do still care about the sins in the Bible by choosing one that we feel God felt very strongly about and speaking out about that one. After all, homosexuality is mentioned 6 times in the Bible (divorce is mentioned 22 times but who’s counting?).

So it would seem that today’s Christians have a problem of Biblical proportions. To sin or not to sin, that is the question. Christians today cannot live a completely Biblical life, following all the mandates set forth by the writers of the Bible for what is moral and what is not, because many of those mandates just don’t fit in with our modern world. We no longer have the option of not working on Sundays or killing our kids when they’re bad (not that I’d want to). We don’t expect a man to kill his new bride on their wedding night if he finds out she’s not a virgin. In fact, if he did he’d probably be facing the death penalty himself.

So how do we, as modern Christians, decide which sins we need to worry about and which we don’t? To answer that question I believe we need to turn to the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus spoke many times about loving our neighbor, about not passing judgement on others and about taking a good long look at our own sins before judging the sins of others. One of the most famous examples of this can be found in John 8:2-3 and John 8:4-11. A woman who has been convicted of adultery is brought before Jesus. Adultery is a crime punishable by death and the authorities want to see if Jesus will condemn her for her crimes and carry out the punishment (crimes and punishments that are very specifically outlined several times in the Old Testament) or if he’ll forgive her. Jesus said to the crowd gathered “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (the punishment for adultery was death by stoning). Nobody picked up a stone and the crowd dispersed. Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more.

So is Jesus specifically telling us to just let people continue sinning here? Maybe. Or maybe he’s telling us that forgiveness is more important than pointing out and punishing other people’s sins. Maybe he was showing this woman a grace that no other would have shown her and, by showing her that light, he brought her closer to God. And maybe that’s what we, in this modern age, need to be doing more of. We need to be doing more forgiving, showing more grace, and focusing less on the sins of the people we come in contact with. Because it’s through that grace, not through our condemnation of their sins, that we’re going to bring people closer to God. And isn’t that the whole point of Christianity in the first place?

Sources:

(1) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_by_country

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_demography

(3) http://ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy.aspx