Movies 2014: The Best and Worst (of what I saw)


I saw 57 movies that were released this year.  Despite my best efforts to keep up, I’ve missed a lot of high profile films, including some that might have made my Top 10 (most notably Boyhood and Whiplash). The list below is the best and worst of what I saw, but my list may shift over time as I catch up on the movies I missed.  Thus ends my disclaimer.

1.  Calvary
Calvary 1The Passion of Father James….director John Michael McDonough (In Bruges) created the most spiritually powerful movie of the year, a potent depiction of a man of faith in the crucible of suffering.  Brendan Gleeson is an Irish priest in an increasingly post-Catholic Ireland, ministering among people who hold him in contempt because of his office.  That one of them is also planning to kill him for the earlier sins of a pedophilic priest seems only a more extreme version of the treatment Father James endures in the course of his ordinary work.  Calvary is a packed with religious symbolism,  and the parallels between this week in Father James’ life and Christ’s journey to the cross make this much  more than a suspense thriller.  I should add that Gleeson’s performance is perhaps my favorite of the year.  He’s brilliant as an ordinary man being asked to carry the sins of the whole church.

2.  Force Majeure
force-majeure-posterWhat happens when you’ve been caught  in your worst moment – of weakness, cowardice, selfishness?  How do you come back from that?  This Swedish film begins with a happy family on a ski vacation, and a near disaster becomes the catalyst for dealing with that question, and more.  Force Majeure is a darkly funny comedy that deals not just with a suddenly-strained marriage, but our often unspoken ideas about masculinity and gender roles.  Director Ruben Ostlund shows real insight into how we behave with each when we are ashamed, disappointed, struggling to forgive.  By the end of Force Majeure, everyone is given a chance to fail and be restored to community.

3.  Life Itself
life itself 1I’m a life long fan of Roger Ebert’s film writing – and toward the end of his life, his more personal writing.  He was the subject of a documentary in those last years, from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams); and the film does a superb job of telling not only the story of a famous career but of a life deeply lived, right to the end.  Ebert opened himself up to a sometimes shockingly intimate record of his physical decline, but he never  seems pitiable.  There’s too much humor and light in both his eyes and the words he taps out as long as his body will allow.  Life Itself is also a deeply moving tribute to the relationship between Ebert and his wife, Chaz.  No drama or romcom this year could compete with the love story in Life Itself.

4.  Ida
ida 1One of the quietest films of the year, hands down.  Ida is about a young novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) in 1960s Poland.  She’s been raised in a convent but before taking her vows discovers that she’s Jewish, and has one living relative, an aunt (Agata Kulesza) – a hard living Communist party insider.  Together Ida and Wanda go on a journey to learn what really happened to the rest of their family.  The black and white cinematography is stunning, and with limited dialogue the expressiveness of the actresses faces carries the weight of the  movie.

5.  The Imitation Game
THE IMITATION GAMEIt’s the sort of prestige project that sometimes collapses under the weight of its subject matter and star power, but The Imitation Game  largely avoids that trap.  Benedict Cumberbatch gives a rock solid performance as mathematician Alan Turing, and highlilght his work in cracking Germany’s Enigma Code in World War II.  The Imitation Game may amplify Turing’s role for dramatic effect (it was more than a one man show, after all), but it rightly draws attention to this little-known piece of wartime history.  It also draws attention to the vile treatment Turing endured because of his homosexuality.  The contrast between Turing’s service to his government and how he was persecuted by the same left me outraged at the end of this film.  That’s not a bad thing:  we need reminders not to let history repeat itself.

6.  Guardians of the Galaxy
guardians of the galaxy 1Guardians of the Galaxy was the sort of pure cinematic fun-fest that some of us remember experiencing with the first Star Wars trilogy.  And sometimes, that’s all you really want in a movie, right?  Fun?  Guardians offered memorable characters, action, humor and a terrific soundtrack, and was a movie you could enjoy with the whole family – as I did.  This was Chris Pratt’s breakout year, and I’m sure he’s given thanks many times for the opportunity to star in a vehicle that was so very easy to love.

7.  The Lego Movie
lego movie2Another Chris Pratt performance as Emmett provides a sweet, silly center to the chaos of The Lego Movie.  The visuals are spectacular, it’s indisputably funny, and packed with a surprising amount of social commentary.  I also appreciate the redemption offered to the “villain” at the end of the story.  The Lego Movie also has an astounding cast – from Will Arnett’s spot-on Batman, to Liam Neeson’s Janus-voiced Good Cop/Bad Cop, to Alison Brie’s manic Unikitty.  And let’s be honest:  “Everything is Awesome” was the best cinematic ear worm of the year.

8. Still Alice
still alice 1How do you make a movie about early onset Alzheimer’s that isn’t unrelentingly depressing?  Still Alice manages, in part by exercising remarkable restraint.  Julianne Moore plays a linguistics professor who finds words slipping away as Alzheimer’s progresses.  It’s a terrifying journey, but Still Alice handles it with quietness and control.  Alice tries to hang on to her sense of self, and her husband and children do their best to love and care for her at each step along the way.  That’s what most families in this situation do, after all – the best they can.  Moore gives a great performance as a woman whose sense of identity is bound tightly to her intellect.  Even when speech leaves her, the longing to communicate burns out of her eyes.  Kristen Stewart is also a standout as the daughter who loves her mother well by treating her losses with respect.

9.  We Are the Best!
we are the best2The second Swedish film on my list – the Swedes are killing it this year!  We Are the Best! is the episodic story of an all-girl punk band in 1980s Stockholm.  But these girls are very young (13, 14) and the idea of having a band is a whim.  Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Clara (Mira Grosin) are not musicians, but they eventually recruit a schoolmate who is, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), and manage to play at least one concert.  The performance itself turns into a riot, the sort of thing that makes the truly punk heart proud.  We are the Best! is the best depiction of adolescent friendship that I’ve ever seen:  the wild devotion, the petty jealousies, the threat posed by crushes on boys.  It’s also very insightful about what it’s like to be young and an outsider, the way that teenagers try to craft identities to feel less alone in the world, and includes a respectful treatment of Christian characters.  None of this is handled heavily, though:  We Are the Best! is buzzing with energy and flat out funny.  (And “Hate the Sport” is the second best ear worm of the year!)

10.  Chef
chef 1Jon Favreau wrote, directed and starred in this little movie that slowly built both buzz and a satisfied audience this year.  Favreau plays Carl Casper, an impassioned chef who finds himself suddenly unemployed.  The loss of his prestige job leads to a new, if initially humbling, approach to his career, and a deepened relationship with his young son.  Chef has real sweetness to it:  imperfect but loving relationships between parent and child, an ex-wife who is not a monster, friends who care enough to push each other toward change.  It also has a rousing Latin-flavored soundtrack and foodie scenes that will leave you salivating.

The Runners-up, 11-20

the-skeleton-twins-2014-1Every one of these is worth your time and attention.

11.  The Skeleton Twins
12.  Inherent Vice
13.  Obvious Girl
14.  Gone Girl
15.  Nightcrawler
16.  The Edge of Tomorrow
17.  Snowpiercer
18.  Rich Hill
19.  Noah
20.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Worst of the Year

god's not deadJust don’t bother…none of these are worth your time.  I realize my number one pick will alienate some of my Christian friends who enjoyed this movie.   I’m sorry.  I tried.

1.  God’s Not Dead
2.  Into the Storm
3.  Dracula Untold
4.  Earth to Echo
5.  The Taking of Deborah Logan

My Favorite Performances of 2014

tilda-swinton-as-mason-in-snowpiercerTop 5, Make that 6, Female Performances

1.  Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer (I hear she was also terrific in Only Lovers Left Alive)
2.  Jenny Slate in Obvious Child
3.  (Tie)  Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza in Ida
4.  Julianne Moore in Still Alice
5.  Mira Grosin in We Are the Best!

nightcrawler 1Top 5 Male Performances

1.  Brendan Gleeson in Calvary
2.  Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
3.  Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice
4.  Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins
5.  Andy Serkis in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What about you, readers?  What did you see and enjoy in 2014?

Posted in art, media, movies | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Scripture in the hands of an angry woman

Young man reading small Bible

It’s been a long time.  When last I wrote it was summer,  I was glorying in my new running habit, and I was looking forward to my first 5K.  I’ve now done three 5Ks and I’m trying to figure out the best way to keep running through winter weather.  And boy, are we already having winter weather.

Running is the least complicated thing  about my life, which is part of the reason I enjoy it. You run, or you don’t run.  That’s pretty much it.  There’s not much nuance, not a lot to analyze.  Given my tendency to over-analyze, this is a gift.

But elsewhere in life, I keep doing that thing I do.  I try to solve unsolvable world problems inside my head.  I set arbitrary deadlines by which I plan to settle issues that have confused me for years.  I demand from myself absolute clarity or else.  “You hear me, soul?” I say.  “Get your act together!”

I’m here to tell you, if you have a disposition like mine, this is a bad path.  I’d been feeling depression-free for months until I decided to get all my questions sorted out.  I would determine precisely what I believe about sexuality, about the nature of the afterlife, about the interplay between human freedom and divine action, about the character of God himself.

Set aside for a moment how arrogant that sounds.  I wasn’t trying to settle those questions for the whole world, or even for the whole church.  Just for myself.  And I figured I would go back to the Bible and read, read, read, read, read until it was all clear.

I love the Bible:  I’ve written about that before.  I love wending my way through its poetry.  I love its weird nooks and crannies.  I love the rich diversity of characters, love spotting myself in its stories,  most of all love the Jesus I find there.  But when I come to the Bible making demands of it, insisting that the text and my brain are going to uncover the final God’s-honest-truth answer to the questions that plague me….as I said, it’s a bad path.
I wasn’t treating the scriptures or myself with any tenderness, but slave-driving both of us.  I didn’t get the results I wanted, and that made me angry.  I started to see new things in the scriptures that puzzled or troubled me (old things, really, but seen through strained, anxious eyes), and that made me angrier.  I had friends reading with me, trusted friends who love me and who wanted to help me on my quest.  But when they weren’t bothered by what bothered  me in the text I became angry at them, too.  Anger turned into hopelessness.  I started to panic, afraid that I would feel  this way forever.

I finally stopped cold in my reading.  I told one of my friends, “All of my thoughts are leading to dark places.  I can’t trust my own mind right now.”

I’m starting to understand that this is what it is to live with depression lurking right under the surface even in good times.  Sometimes it rises up without warning, but at other times I am careless and I give the darkness power over me.  This was one of those times.  There is a line in “To Kill a Mockingbird” –   “sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another” – and I’ve always pointed outward when thinking of that danger.  Fundamentalists, using the Bible like a bludgeon.   Misogynists, racists, homophobes,  quoting scripture to reinforce their oppression.  But this time it was me, turning the Bible on myself, forgetting that this book is not an end in itself.  It’s not “Life: The Desk Reference”.  I forgot what Jesus said to some Jewish leaders who seem to have had similar blind spots:  “You study  the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,  yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

So I stopped raging through the New Testament, demanding that it give me my answers.

I’ve discovered recently that Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote some pretty dark sonnets.  He was an English poet and a Jesuit priest, a man who seems to have channeled his passions into profound devotion to both God and the natural world.  Without going too deeply into Hopkins’s life story, he did experience deep emotional valleys and wrote his “terrible sonnets” out of those times.  I’ve been reading a few of them, and one in particular, Sonnet 47, felt as if it had been written for me, especially these lines:

My own heart let me have more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet….

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile 
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what…

That is the place I came to, of needing to take pity on my own heart, of stopping my own tormented mind from furthering tormenting itself.  I had to “call off thoughts” in order to make space for comfort.  Oddly enough, I found that comfort in the very place I’d found my torment.  I went back to certain places in the Bible the way a child asks for the same lullaby they’ve heard a thousand times.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.

My questions aren’t bad questions, although they are sometimes, perhaps, the wrong questions.  My hunger for absolute clarity pushes me away from love, makes a sentence like “God is love” seem childish and simplistic.  But Jesus welcomed little children, and what matters may be simpler than I understand.   John Wesley, who could plumb the theological depths with the best of them, wrote that “there is nothing higher in religion-there is, in effect, nothing else; if you look for anything but more love, you are looking wide of the mark”.

And so I’m letting myself by rocked again in that quiet place of loving and being loved.  “Return to your rest, o my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.”

I’m not telling anyone to quit searching for the answers to their questions.  I  also know myself well enough to believe this is only a temporary respite for me.  I’m a questioner, a seeker, an over-thinker. But I’m also learning my limits.  I don’t, can’t, know all the answers.  I will live with confusion.  The answers I have and the answers I don’t have will sometimes seem inadequate not only to me, but to those around me.   My “tormented mind” will torment itself until confusion turns to despair, if I am not careful with myself – and even careful with the scriptures I love so much.

For right now, until I feel restored and in my right mind, I’m going to “call off thoughts awhile” and rest.  I’m going to know and rely on the love God has for me, the way I did when I was a child.  If all I ever sort out is that I want and need that love, and want and need to give it to others, that will have to be enough.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, mental illness | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

She runs

running-feetI have been sedentary all of my life.  My idea of a good time as a little girl was to sit on the front porch pouring over a stack of National Geographic magazines, or perhaps cutting paper dolls out of the Sears catalog.  My only regular physical activity was walking in circles around a tree in our front yard – something I did while making up stories in my head.  I wore a groove around that tree, and I suppose that walking counts for something, as exercise goes.  Mostly, though, I take it as evidence that I was a quirky little thing; the sort of child who rocked back and forth , and thumped my head against car seats just for the sensation, and chewed my hair – and walked in a tiny circle around a tree for hours on end.  I was a weird one.

I was also terribly clumsy, and self conscious about it.  Khoury League softball, which I tried in second grade, was childhood hell.  Every P.E. class seemed like medieval torture.  I never learned to do a cartwheel, got my nose broken by an errant softball, was the slowest runner in every race, the weakest rope climber, the most rhythm-less square dancer.  P.E. often ended in tears, and at least once a near concussion when, compelled to try the vault in high school, I smashed my head against the metal base.  I remember dizzily trying to get up off the floor while the girl assigned to spot me stood over me and said – lazily, it seemed to me – “I couldn’t catch you.”

In college I tried to take the least physically intimidating P.E. classes.  Gun Safety turned out to be an excellent choice, Archery less so.  I didn’t have the strength to pull the bow back the way I should, and mostly just succeeded in bruising my arm.  Aerobics was somewhat manageable.  Fitness was a total drag, despite my being skinny enough to have just 11% body fat.  We  were required to run a mile to pass the class and I remember surviving it only by quoting poetry the entire time, the words synching up with my stride.  “She walks in beau-ty, like the night/Of cloud-less climes and star-ry skies…”

Basically, I’ve had a complicated relationship with my body.  I’ve never enjoyed it, really, aside from the usual ways in which most of us enjoy our bodies – eating and physical intimacy.  And while I’ve never been terribly overweight I’ve seen myself as not fit, not graceful, not at ease with myself.  “I live inside my head,” I sometimes say – and honestly, it has often felt like I’m a brain carried around inside this awkward, ungainly, increasingly worn vehicle.

Only twice before have I found activities that defied my image of myself.  In high school I went on two ski trips and found, bizarrely, that I both loved skiing and took to it easily.  Unfortunately, I never skied again.  More recently, perhaps 7 or 8 years ago, I took a yoga class at the Y and enjoyed it.  The more I did it, the stronger I felt.  I even started to think of myself as the sort of person who goes to the Y and does yoga, which is different than the sort of person who never does anything besides read books, watch TV, and occasionally fall down the stairs.  But then I slipped out of the habit, and the fees started to bother me, and somehow…..I quit.

When I passed my 49th birthday a few months back I started thinking how wonderful it would be to reach 50 in good shape – and yet the very idea seemed impossible.  It was like wishing that I’d wake to find myself 6 inches taller, or with perfect vision.  Being physically fit seemed completely outside of my control.  I mean, if I hadn’t changed from my usual sedentary self in 49 years, what were the odds I would change after that?

And then Mr. Right asked me if I wanted to try C25K with him.  Initially I said yes just because I wanted to encourage Mr. Right.  I worry about his health sometimes and I thought his running was a great idea, so off we went.  I ran for the first 45 second interval and thought, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”  I was more out of shape than I’d realized.  Even the modest Day 1 of the program was more than I could manage.  So I did Day 1 again, and again.  I think it was the third time that I was able to do all of the run/walk intervals as directed.

It’s been two months now, and as God is my witness,  I look forward to getting up early in the morning and running.  I am sometimes shocked by what I’m able to do, and I feel ridiculously proud of myself for having stuck with it.  But the best thing is how I feel when I’m running.  I’m an excellent fretter, you know, but I can’t fret when I’m running.  I can’t even really think through the day ahead.  All I’m aware of is the music I’m listening to, and my own body:  the feeling of air going in and out of my lungs, my feet hitting the road, my arms in motion, the breeze in my face.  It’s fantastic.  I feel alive.  I feel like this vehicle is a gift.  This body can do things!  It can get stronger and faster and leaner!

I’m running my first 5k in September, and I can’t wait for the childish glee I’m going to feel when I cross the finish line.  But even without a race I’ve won a victory.  I don’t feel like a clumsy lump anymore.  I don’t see myself inevitably becoming weaker and achier and more sedentary with each passing year.  Maybe this is silly, maybe it seems premature, but I see myself as a runner.  And I’m going to keep on running.

Posted in aging, Daily Life, memories | Tagged | 9 Comments



I grew up in a mid-sized town in central Missouri.  I suppose I felt about my hometown as most children do.  It’s playgrounds and schools and corner stores were the geography of my world.  My notions of wealth were drawn from looking at the houses around the country club.  My ideas of poverty came from delivering papers in our “projects”.  Our local celebrities – politicians, prominent business owners, the wealthy wives who starred in community theater productions – they were outsized figures in my mind.  Sure, we went to the city once in a while to go to the mall or an amusement park.  I enjoyed those attractions, but the city itself was frightening to me.  Crowded, dirty, vaguely menacing.  I loved my town and I couldn’t imagine any place being better.  It was home.

By the time I graduated from high school my hometown seemed cliquish and provincial.  On a youth group ski trip I befriended a boy who listened to Depeche Mode, the B-52s and R.E.M.  He even had a pierced ear!  Why wasn’t anyone from my hometown that cool?  I took up the timeless cry of teenagers everywhere:  “After I graduate, I’m getting out of here and not coming back!”

A few months ago I started something I called an Open Bible Study.  Open to everyone, open to a wide variety of perspectives – that’s how I explained it.  I wanted a space in which Christians of all kinds could sit together with those who aren’t Christians and talk about the Bible in an atmosphere of mutual respect.  I believed such a thing was possible, even if I’d never experienced it.  I was hungry to see if it could work.

After the first few tries, I still think it’s possible and I intend to keep trying.  But it’s not easy.  Most of the people who attend are Christians – yes, of all kinds.  We’ve got conservatives and progressives rubbing elbows and maybe rubbing nerves.  Only one brave, outgoing, non-Christian friend has joined us, but he’s been there every time.  And he’s the one who has shown me my own naivete.  “Are you trying to promote your view of the Bible, or is this really open?” he keeps asking, in one way or another.  “No, I’m not trying to promote anything, I just want to talk about the text,” I’ve replied.  “If you don’t believe any of it, just talk about it like a work of fiction.”

“I’m not trying to promote my view of the Bible.”  I said and said and said those words, and meant them.  But I was wrong.

I grew up immersed in the scriptures.  The history of Israel seemed like my own history.  David and Joshua, Ruth and Esther, Andrew and Mary – the biblical characters were my ancestors.  And as for the Jesus of the gospels, he was my dearest friend.  My head was filled not just with the stories but with verses memorized for children’s Bible quizzing.  The geography of my imagination was created by the Bible.  I loved it.  It was home.

As an adult my relationship with the Bible became more complicated.  I no longer took every story at face value.  A man surviving three days in the belly of a fish?  A global flood?  A 6,000 year old earth?  I had some serious questions about whether those stories were historically factual.  Worse, I was tangling with the moral world of the scriptures; finding what Phyllis Trible called “texts of terror.”  How could a loving God command genocide?  Why were the innocent so often punished along with the guilty?  Slavery, silencing women, capital punishment for homosexuals – are these God’s values?

Few people know how hard I tried to leave the world of the Bible behind.  I tried being an agnostic for a few years.  It didn’t take.  I dabbled in Wicca briefly, finding its feminine spirituality attractive.  But I missed Jesus.  I could leave the Bible for a time, but the Bible never left me.

I never moved back to my hometown, but I did begin to visit with more and more appreciation.  Memories softened.  I recalled all the characters I had loved:  the friends, teachers, neighbors and church folk who had poured their lives into mine.  The old downtown that had seemed so stolid in my youth revealed itself as rich in history.  I could still see the imperfections, but I was no longer ashamed of them.  I loved my hometown again.

I did return to living in the Bible, to claiming it as my spiritual home.  Maybe it was too embedded in me for emigration to ever really be possible.  What I know is that it was the person of Jesus who held me fast when I wanted to flee from the awful stories, from dark and confusing passages.  I’ve only found it possible to stay by having Him accompany through those neighborhoods.  But it’s not all grim endurance these days:  my love for the Bible has returned even in the wrestling.  Its poetry washes over me.  It’s moral complexity challenges and fascinates me.  I am moved by how often the storytellers speak on behalf of the marginalized.  It’s not just kings and patriarchs who matter in this world.  The Bible lets us feel for slaves and exiles and concubines; for Hagar and Leah and Esau.

And so…no, I can’t be objective about my spiritual country.  When I speak about the Bible, I want to communicate my love for it.  These days when I visit my hometown I want to show it off to people who haven’t been there before – to show them my favorite buildings, share my favorite stories.  We can’t be dry and dispassionate about the places and people and memories that are buried in our hearts – not even if we’ve left them behind, as I have my  hometown.

And as for the Bible, it’s still home.  I’m glad that my friend’s probing question forced me to recognize the truth of the matter.  I don’t want to turn the Bible into a bludgeon.  I don’t want to shun or berate those who live elsewhere, spiritually speaking.  But I suppose I’ll always, only, be able to speak about the Bible with the voice of a lover and a native.




Posted in Bible, Christianity, memories, religion, spirituality | Tagged | 6 Comments

A funny thing happened on the way to ordination….

long_and_winding_road_ahead_sign_by_pudgemountain-d5uqpuxI’ve been mostly quiet for the past few months, and there are several reasons for that.  Schoolwork saps a lot of my writing time, responsibilities at home and at church deserve my attention, I don’t often feel inspired lately….

And then there’s this.  I received some very harsh criticism early this spring.  The kind of criticism that could, potentially, derail my ordination.  I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill disgruntled blog reader snarking in the comments, or someone at church saying something that hurt my feelings.  No, this was a person outside my congregation making a full assault on my character, my theology, my vocation.  And it was directed to my denominational superiors.

Now….my superiors would probably just as soon that I keep this to myself.  But you know what?  I hate secrets.  I’ve spent much of my life being a secretive person because I was afraid of what would happen if I told the truth.  Those days are increasingly behind me.  This thing I’ve been going through, this ordeal, has been like a weight on  my chest for two and a half months now.  I will spare you all the unpleasant details, but I’m not going to treat it like a shameful secret.  I’m walking wounded, I’m confused, I’m angry and afraid, but I’m not ashamed.

The long and the short of it is that most of the accusations were completely baseless.  My superiors examined me, listened to me, and believed me on those theological matters, thank goodness.  I’m grateful that they let me answer the charges directly.  The only things that weren’t baseless were areas of legitimate disagreement within our denomination.  We’re a big tent – clearly bigger than some people would like – but I’m not outside the tent.

Of course, some have suggested that even if my theology is sound, I  “invite” criticism by engaging controversial topics.  Maybe.  I don’t know.  What I can say is that I don’t mean to invite criticism.  I’m far too big a baby to do that on purpose:  I cower in the face of disapproval.  You know those quizzes that have been all over Facebook lately?  A couple of months ago I took a “Which Buffy Character Are You?” quiz, because, well, Buffy.  The quiz said I was Willow, which made sense to me.  A friend commented and said, “I’m surprised you’re not Buffy,” and I thought, “Really?  Tough, confident, stake-wielding warrior woman Buffy?  Me?  You don’t know me very well.”

Maybe my writing makes me seem tougher than I really am.  I am not tough.  I am not a warrior.  What I am trying to be is honest about my own spiritual journey, obedient to the God who called and continues to call me, and brave enough to speak up for what I believe is right.

falling-rocks1I’m sure I’m getting some things wrong.  Fortunately, I don’t think the grace of God hinges on my perfect wisdom – or yours.  But I’m discovering that people want pastors to be answer-providers, not question-askers.  They want pastors to uphold the structure, not wonder out loud if it can be improved.  At least that’s true for some people, and when you run afoul of them – particularly if they are influential, powerful people – they can make things very difficult.

Have I ever mentioned that one of  my central prayers on this journey in ministry is this one?  “Lord, help me to tell the truth.”  It’s the last thing I pray before every interview with our credentials board, the last thing I pray before I preach.  Do I pray this because I have a special temptation to lying?  No, I pray it because I think all pastors have a special temptation to lying.  We are under such pressure to say the “right thing” all the time that we can easily put up false fronts.  There is often a large gap between the performance-self of pastors and their authentic selves.  Having been around the church all my life, I knew this going in – knew that the struggle to remain honest would soon become more intense.

The struggle is real, people!

I’ve almost given up on ordination about 20 times in the last couple of months.  I’m afraid of getting in trouble again.  I’m afraid of silencing myself to avoid getting in trouble again.  I’m afraid of giving up and disappointing the people who have supported me (most notably Mr. Right and my children).  I’m afraid of not giving up, and being co-opted by the status quo.  And the status is not quo, by the way.

I’m afraid of turning back and failing God.  I’m afraid of pressing ahead and somehow not being the minister God called me to be in the first place, even if I’ve got that ordination certificate in hand.

Road-Block-Ahead-Traffic-Safe-Community-CarolinaBeing honest today means just telling you that I’ve been through hell these last few months, and I’m feeling pretty weak and confused and, most of all, afraid.  If perfect love casts out all fear, then my love still needs perfecting, considerably.  For today, in the middle of my fear, I’m just pressing on.

I’m not Buffy or Xena or She-Ra.  I’m not Deborah or Jael.  I’m just Sharon.  I’m shaky and uncertain about the future, but I’ve known the grace of God that comes through Jesus, and it is life to me.  I want to share that life with other people, and I want to remove every obstacle that stands in the way of the gospel sounding like the good news that it is.  And I want to do that as myself; honestly, openly, with my questions and concerns, even when that “invites” criticism.

That’s it.


Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments


supriya988aHer name is Supriya.

We chose the name before we knew her.  I found it on a list of Indian names, with the meaning “deeply loved”, and I thought, “What could be more perfect than that?

We were a quiet little family of three:  Mr. Right, our young son, and myself.  After years of trying to get pregnant again we decided it was time to focus on adoption instead.  This was no “Plan B”, since it had always been our intention to adopt eventually.  We just had to rethink “eventually”.

She came first as a name and photographs, medical reports and developmental updates.  She was more an idea than  a person, until she came off the plane in the arms of her escort.  Impossibly tiny for three years old; so beautiful; so overwhelmed by the crowd of people cheering and weeping and fussing over her.

supy airportShe cried and cried as I held her for the first time.  And then in a moment that was simultaneously breathtaking and heartbreaking (for me, at least), Supriya reached for her new daddy, snuggled into his arms and went to sleep.

She spoke Marathi fluently, but only for a short time.  Within a week or two she went quiet, listening.  And then, just a month or so later, she started speaking English as if she’d always known it.  Just six months after her arrival in the U.S. I took Supriya to a preschool speech screening.  “She’s got a few sounds that are a challenge to her,” the speech therapist told me.  “She could probably benefit from speech class.”  I replied,  “That’s fine.  I think she’s doing really well considering that she’s only been speaking English since November.”  I remember the speech therapist stammering in surprise:  she had no idea.

I was a timid child, and one who gave up easily on difficult tasks.  Supriya was the exact opposite.  It took me a long time to  learn not to say, “You’re too young,” or “That’s too hard for you.”  Over and over Supriya proved me wrong.  The tiny girl flying across the monkey bars, tying her shoes, riding her bike, blowing bubbles with her gum.  She might try and fail fifty times before succeeding, but it didn’t stop her.  She was irrepressible.  Unsinkable.

supy dedicationSupriya was outgoing, joyful, and gorgeous.  We couldn’t go anywhere without her drawing attention.  Sometimes this worried me, as she never knew a stranger.  During our first Cornerstone with Supriya she wandered off twice.  Once, we found her hand in hand with a woman we didn’t know, trying to locate us.  The other time we found Supriya happily munching on cookies in the lost child trailer.  We feared for her, but she never feared for herself.

In first grade she started soccer.  Because we are in soccer country,  many of the girls on her team had already been playing for a year or two.  Supriya’s coach was reluctant to let her play much, since she was a beginner.  Finally I approached him.  “She just wants a chance,” I said.  “She’s a quick learner, but how will she learn if you don’t let her play?”  He took her off the bench far more often after that conversation and soon Supriya had found her one true love – soccer.  When I asked her to choose a pseudonym for this blog, just for fun, it was inevitable that it would be soccer related:  Striker.  We typically called her Supy by that point (pronounced Soupy), and at soccer games this was often transformed into “SUUUUUUUUUP!” when she scored.  She was one of the smallest players on every team, but she was fast and she was resilient.  Those early years of little girl’s soccer were full of timeouts as crying girls were carried off the field after collisions.  It never happened with Supy.  Over and over we watched her get knocked down and bounce up again; take ferocious hits and shake them off.   We thought she was invincible on the field until, suddenly, she wasn’t.

supy easterIt was the fall of  her sophomore year of high school and she was playing on a select team.  During a tournament game in Kansas City Supriya’s legs were swept out from under her and she came down head first onto the turf.  She briefly lost consciousness, but no one really knew how seriously she’d been hurt.  Diagnosed with a concussion the next day, Supy dutifully sat out of soccer until the doctor told her she could return a few weeks later.  The return was too quick, I think.  None of us were taking it seriously enough.  Supriya loved soccer so much that keeping her away from it seemed unthinkable.  We ignored the fact that the headaches never quite went away.  She felt ready to play, and we let her, after insisting that she wear head gear.

That spring Supy realized her dream of playing varsity.  At the end of the season, in a play off game, she got involved in a scramble near the other team’s goal.  Someone’s arm swept up and knocked her head gear off; someone else hit her and knocked her to the ground – too close to the ball.  Aiming at the ball, the goalie kicked Supy in the head.

supy headgearShe called me from the bench; weeping, nauseated, terrified of what this might mean.  We hoped, we prayed, that she’d quickly bounce back from this concussion, too.  It wasn’t to be.  What was ahead was two years of migraines, light and noise sensitivity, mood swings, difficulty sleeping and focusing at school.  Visit after visit to the neurologist ended with Supy being told to wait; no soccer yet.  She and I both left some of those appointments in tears.  She was watching her dreams evaporate.  I was watching my daughter lose hope.

I’ve watched Supriya lose her home country and her birth language,  boyfriends and best friends, but nothing seemed to hurt her as much as giving up soccer.  I worried that she wouldn’t bounce back this time; that finally something bad enough had happened to leave her lying on the turf, too injured to get up again.

supy and tessI was wrong, of course.  She slowly found her bearings in a post-soccer world.  She took up piano, got her driver’s license, started working part time.  Her confidence returned, and with it her fantastic smile, her sense of humor, her boundless energy.  The little girl who could take a hit and turn it into a somersault on the field did the same with her life.

supy graduationShe graduated from high school this past weekend.  She was one of the tiniest girls in that swarm of caps and gowns.  We had trouble keeping track of her in the crowd after the ceremony:  she had so many people to talk to (she’s still never met a stranger).  She’s even recently started playing soccer in an adult league, the after effects of the concussion having finally subsided.  She asked Mr. Right and I for our permission and after reminding her of how serious it would be to get another concussion, we told her the decision was hers to make.  She scored in her first game and came home so full of joy over playing again that we knew we’d made the right decision.

Supy wants to be a social worker.  There’s no soccer scholarship for college, as we once hoped there would be, but she’ll find a way.  I’ve learned my lesson.  I won’t tell her that anything is too hard for her.  She’ll only prove me wrong again.

supy city museum

Posted in adoption, Daily Life, family, memories, parenting | 6 Comments

Has endless winter ended?

budsI’m hopeful.

I can hear a flock of birds outside my kitchen window and it’s supposed to get up to 70 today.  Maybe spring has come to stay.

One of my dearest friends is coming to visit tomorrow, along with her fabulous daughter, so that we can spend the weekend at Comic Con together.  Her daughter is going to Cosplay as Kaylee from Firefly, which makes me want to stay in close enough proximity to absorb her coolness.

In a few weeks Mr. Right and I are going spend the weekend in Nashville so we can catch a Steve Taylor concert.  This. is. awesome.

Cheesy is running track for the first time this spring, with a local private school.  She’s currently doing the long jump, triple jump and the 100 meters.  She’s also doing Tae Kwon Do two days a week, and has recently earned her yellow first belt.  It’s been fascinating to see her sense of herself change as she’s become more physically active.  She’s happier, more confident, more focused.  Maybe I should try exercise…

B. Lake finally finished with wrestling season and is also running track.  He just got new track shoes, a color of fuchsia not found in nature.  But he likes them, so who am I to judge?

Baph and Striker are working at the same Applebee’s.  Baph is a cook, and loves it.  Striker is a host and has found the perfect job.  It mostly involves her smiling and talking to people, and if you know Striker you know how much that suits her.

And Bee…well, Bee is still sweet and funny and easy to be around.  I believe the proper word is “companionable”.

As for me, I’m hoping that my own endless winter is also ending.  Jesus has been very present lately as I’ve been sorting things out, both vocational and personal.  But then, the vocational is personal, and I’m starting to think that my ministry will always be tied to my weaknesses as much as my strengths.  So I can teach:  big deal.  Lots of people can teach.  But my particular bundle of joys and failures and enthusiasms and longings – that’s mine, uniquely.  And sometimes it connects with other people and their own unique bundles.  We’re like Venn diagrams; not overlapping perfectly, but enough to recognize and share some things that matter.

And oddly enough, that’s satisfying to me these days:  connections, openness, truthfulness.  Giving and receiving grace.  If that’s all I ever get to do as a friend, as a pastor, as a parent, as a spouse…well, that’s not half bad.  Maybe approaching 50 means that I’m okay with not setting the world on fire.  Maybe I can define significance in a more modest way.  I am letting go of some ambitions, clearing them out of the way so that new life can spring up from what has been, I must admit, pretty barren soil lately.

We are deep in Lent, everything outside is still bare and brown and muddy.  But spring is finally here.  Resurrection is coming, and I am not finished.

Posted in aging, Daily Life, family, Lent, religion, spirituality | 7 Comments