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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Does a Beer do Anything to Tempt a Guy?


The Alley, at Glendale Racquet Club

            “Do you think a beer does anything to tempt a guy?”  Jasmine is wistful, looking at the next table over.  Mindy, Jasmine’s tennis partner, sitting next to her, looks over to the small round table with three twenty-something racquetball players drinking beer, and teases, “Sure!  It begs, ‘Drink me, please!’”  Jasmine rebukes herself for asking such a curious question.  She’s been so careful, especially at church, and, even more especially, at Glendale.  Until now.  What if they figure out what she’s referring to?  Or, worse, whom?  Their laughter, thankfully, suggests they haven’t.
 “’Drink me now!’” Mindy continues, “It cries out from the bottom shelf in the refrigerator!”  “Next to the orange juice!” Gabbi pipes in.  “That’s exactly it!” Kristina exclaims, “I even ask my boyfriend, ‘why isn’t the orange juice begging you to drink it?’ ‘Nah,’ he says, ‘Only the beer can talk to me!’”  As her three friends break into peals of laughter, Jasmine sighs relief they don’t appear to be on to her.  “And nothing’s ever their fault!” Gabbi continues.  “No, of course not,” says Kristina.  “Can I tell you my latest with my boyfriend?”  Please.  Jasmine hopes her face won’t show her urgency to change the subject.  As Kristina begins to share a story about her cat and her boyfriend, the waitress arrives with their pop, ready to take their lunch orders. Whew!  That was close.
Gabbi and Kristina are Jasmine and Mindy’s favorite opponents.  The foursome can usually be found at The Alley, Glendale Racquet Club’s sports bar, for brunch on Saturday, after a close match of tennis.  All four joined Glendale the same year, quickly discovered they make an ideal competitive match, and became fast friends.  None of Jasmine’s tennis friends attends Quail Canyon Community Church, nor for that matter, does anyone that she or her mixed doubles partner Davie know of.  They had both agreed to be on the look-out at Glendale, and at church, for anyone who might frequent both places.  Amazingly, as far as they knew, they were the only two who were members of both Glendale and Quail Canyon.  Jasmine prays this is still the case, or she’ll surely be found out -- especially with mistakes like that.  She wonders if it’s okay to make such a prayer.
Mindy attends a Methodist church; Gabbi calls herself a “typical Catholic,” meaning she never goes to Mass; and Kristina keeps her distance from all things church.    Reflecting on Kristina’s anti-church views, Jasmine is almost tempted to make another “mistake.”  Early in their friendship, when Jasmine first mentioned her attendance at Quail Canyon, Kristina replied, “I like Jesus.  But I don’t like church.”  She discounted her need to attend with a cliché phrase Jasmine had heard before: “My relationship with Jesus is a personal thing.”  Whenever Jasmine hears people say that, she rolls her eyes, thinks it’s a cop-out, and isn’t about to trust their “relationship with Jesus” could be too “personal.”
But Kristina’s story is complicated.  She had probably caught Jasmine rolling her eyes, so she took the chance to share her story.  Kristina was raised in what she calls “an ultra fundamentalist church,” strict home, and was homeschooled through elementary school.  She’d have been homeschooled all the way, just like her two older siblings, had she not “taken the matter into her own hands.”  For middle school, she had made up her mind: either she would refuse to do any of the homeschool work her mother assigned to her, or she would attend a regular school and work hard for good grades.  To her parents’ credit, they agreed to the latter and enrolled her in a private Christian school.  Kristina would have preferred the local public school, but the compromise was fair, and she more than kept her end of the deal, graduating Salutatorian from The Springs Christian High.  As proud as she was of her academic achievement, Kristina says she’s more proud of her real challenge: pretending all through school that she gave her whole heart to Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior. “If church makes me ‘love him with my whole heart,’ he won’t get my whole heart.”  At that, Kristina looked up to the sky and said, “Sorry, Jesus!  Hope you understand!”  Jasmine smiled, “I bet He does.”  “Thanks,” said Kristina, “Too bad my parents don’t.”
Jasmine knew Kristina would understand her story too.  Maybe too much.  Wishing not to get scarred by Kristina’s cynicism, she resisted her temptation to spill the beans.  She pondered whether she could still “love Jesus with her whole heart” and not go to church.  She had been willing to trust the possibility for Kristina, but for no one else, least of all herself.  Now she was seeing it in a new way.  Could it be possible for her too?  Could she hold a strong bond with Jesus away from church?   
Jasmine found herself surprisingly pleased that she was about to find out.  Even her husband Tim had taken the news admirably.  Sure, he was dismayed, and she was working to regain his trust, but Jasmine was grateful he was secure enough within himself he wasn’t letting her indiscretion ruin their marriage.  Nor was he even upset with Davie.  He admitted he was a little flattered the youth pastor had taken a liking to his wife.  When she reported to him the order of her exit, he replied, “Isn’t this between us?  You, me, David, and his wife Pam?  Why does the church have to get into  it?” 
“Because David’s on their staff.”
“OK, so they can check in, but they don’t have to kick you out, do they?” 
“I don’t think so.”
“Her I’m the one who should be mad, and they’re the ones over-reacting.  I didn’t know our church was run by such jerks!” 
Jasmine was startled.  She had never heard her husband talk like that about anyone, least of all church leaders.  He had always respected them, and now he was red in the face and calling them names.  She had been sweating over what his reaction to her news would be, and she had imagined anger like that, but directed at her, not them.  Now she was silently smirking that he was instead enraged at the church.  Could the church’s harsh treatment have helped to deflect her husband’s anger against her?  If the eviction had been a favor, a chance to find out first hand if she could “love Jesus without going to church,” and even a deflection of her husband’s anger, then why was she still so bothered by it? 
It really wasn’t the blackball that mattered.  It was the implication gushing out of the elder’s words, tone, body language, and aura.  It was his “prayer” that wasn’t in any way a real one.  That prayer disturbed Jasmine so much she replayed it like one of those unshakable radio jingles, and she had the interaction and the prayer fully memorized.
“Don’t return to this church or contact Pastor David ever again,” commanded John Prager, the head elder.  Jasmine could almost hear his thoughts: How does this happen and why am I stuck with the job of dealing with it?  She was tempted to reply: Because you signed up to be an elder?  And accountability is what elders are called to do?  Instead, Jasmine took the safe road: “I came here to ask for accountability.  I thought I would be receiving prayer.”   The elder smiled, “Don’t worry.  We’ll keep you accountable.  You did the right thing by coming to us.  Just stay away from church, make no contact with David, and you’ll be just fine.”
Then, to placate her, he put his hands on her and prayed.  But in place of a prayer of thanksgiving for taking a wise course to move forward in truth, love, and purity, it was quite a different sort of prayer.  “Our Father in Heaven, thank You for bringing this young lady to us.  We pray You will forgive her.  In the Name of Your Son, help her to flee youthful lusts.  Cleanse her heart, purify her mind, and transform her by the renewing of her mind.  Thank You for your great mercy upon this repentant sinner, Lord.  Amen.”
Mr. Prager – she had always known him as “John,” but Mr. Prager seemed more appropriate now – shook his head, sighed, shook his head again, and muttered, “Women.  Always the thorn.  Always the tempters.  I'm sure that was St. Paul’s thorn – women.”  Why was he assuming she had tempted him?  Does a beer do anything to tempt a guy?  If a guy’s tempted to drink, do they call up the beer can, look sternly in judgment at that can, and tell that beer can where it can no longer go? 
Why hadn't she had the courage to ask that question of the church elder?  No, like a wimp, she stood there silent.  The elder then looked at her and spoke the last words she had heard spoken by anyone at Quail Canyon:  “You’re just like Eve.”  

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fiction, cont: He's betting on your passion


I hadn’t set out to teach fifth grade.  It happened like everything else in my life: by following a detour sign.  I followed a detour sign to my husband.  I followed a detour sign to Davie.  I followed a detour sign to teach fifth grade.

My dream was to teach high school drama and direct the high school’s show.  Of course, most high schools offer only one or two theater or drama classes, so the drama teacher also teaches English.  I thought I had hit Lady Luck with a high school gig of drama, musical theater, three sophomore English classes, and Theater Director.  Theater Director came with a little extra pay.  But that was just for the two main performances.  Little did I realize how much more it involved.

Overwhelmed with grading essays proving the cliché true – Johnny really can’t write – running the theater program, and taking on an abundance of “optional” extra performances, I finally had a face-to-face with our Principal.  “You could skip the cameos at the middle schools, the community centers, and even the Performing Arts Center your predecessors so diligently worked to set up,” he said, “but you might not recruit enough students and you might lose funding for the drama program.” 

“That doesn’t sound ‘optional.’  Can my pay be increased for this not-quite-optional ‘optional’ work?” 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Greene, it can’t,” he replied.  He never calls me “Mrs. Greene.”   “We welcome and encourage your choice to continue the extra commitments developed by your predecessors, but we don’t require it, and we don’t have the funding to pay for it.” 

“So let's say I skip the optional extras and we lose students and funding?”  “You need at least fifteen students in each drama class to keep it.  If you fall below that, we’ll cut the drama class, and if you lose funding, you either work on an extra low budget or do some fundraising.” 

“Doesn’t the school want to make sure that doesn’t happen?” 

“We hope not, but don’t worry, you’ll still have a job with us if it does.”  He added with a smile, “we have plenty of English classes that need a teacher.”

Then it came.  A whisper of mystery.  On occasion, and never when I’m expecting it, a whisper comes – one not from my own mind with a message from a frequency off my radar.  The voice is soft and feminine, but who, I know not. When one comes, I call it a “whisper of mystery.”   I’ve learned not to tell too many people about them.  Even Christians who should believe in the Holy Spirit sometimes don’t trust my whispers.  They can’t discern the Holy Spirit from less trustworthy voices in their own heads, so they think I can’t either.  The Bible gives us a clue, though, in I Kings 19:11-13, when Elijah needed to discern the voice of the Lord.  The Lord was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire; He was, instead, “in a still small voice.”  Those loud, commanding voices we sometimes hear in our heads are probably not the Holy Spirit.  But if we hear “a still small voice” that is loving and nudges us into a loving direction, then we should do what Elijah did: wrap our face in a mantle and come listen to the Lord.  Some people would still say, “Well, that was Elijah, a great Hebrew prophet.  You’re not Elijah.”  So I’ve learned to keep the whispers of mystery to myself and share them only with people I can trust.  I hope I can trust you because my story’s not the same without the whisper of mystery that arrived in my conversation with the principal at that moment:  He’s betting on your passion.

I knew this was a whisper I should trust.  They’ve come since I was a little girl, and one of them saved my life.  I was eight.  My family and few other families from our church went camping by a lake.  A few people brought inner tubes and we took turns riding in them along the lake.  Off a ways, the lake narrowed and became more like a river, but it was still a gentle river, still safe, or so I thought.  When it was my turn, I was with two other kids, both older than me, twelve, and friends.  So I was a tag-along, and they left me trailing behind them.  I thought I was still following them when I reached the part that narrowed into the river. The water was so refreshing, the sky so blue, and the air so fresh from last night’s rain, I didn’t mind they left me alone.  I stretched out in my inner tube floating down the river.  Then a whisper of mystery came: Hang off to the right.  Get out by that tree.  By then, I knew the whisper and she was already my friend, but she irritated me with this instruction.  I didn’t want to get out yet.  I wanted to keep floating, but I thought since no one knew where I was, I could get out and then take my inner tube up a bit and get back in, so I obeyed her.  When I made it out and to the tree, I saw what lay before me about thirty yards ahead on the river: the start of a rocky, whitewater adventure I would never have been prepared for; then, another eighty to hundred yards beyond that came the nightmare scene: a waterfall.  Why hadn’t they told me there was a waterfall?! 

“Jazzie!  Jazzie!  Where are you?!”  I turned back and saw my dad racing toward me and I called back, “I’m here, Dad!  I’m okay!”  He raced to me like a sprinter at the finish line, picked me up, twirled me around, hugged me so hard I almost lost my breath, planted a big kiss on my cheek, and then hugged me again.  Then he let the two twelve year olds give me a hug too.  Their faces were pale, ghost--like, and one of them, head bowed, croaked, “We are so sorry,” and the other one nodded, head also down, eyes big, and face white.  I nodded, “I’m okay.”  Dad looked at them and said, “I hope you two have learned a lot from this,” and they both nodded back.  The first one spoke up again, “Jazzie gets our s’mores tonight. We are really sorry.”

I ate four s’mores that evening.  Then, lying in my sleeping bag, listening to the crickets and reviewing the image of the waterfall, I prayed thanks all night long to my whisper of mystery.  “I promise,” I vowed to her, “I will always listen to you.”

I’ve kept my promise too, and even if that was the only time she actually saved my life, she’s saved me in lots of ways lots of times.  So I knew I needed to listen to her.  What did she mean? He’s betting on your passion?  Like most of her messages, I was mystified by the meaning and had to puzzle it over.  The principle’s last words were expressed with simple objectivity and a smile, “We have plenty of English classes that need a teacher.”  He spoke it as if he didn’t care one way or another if we lost the drama program.  So, whisper, are you telling me he does want the drama program?  Anytime I call for the whisper, she doesn’t come.  She comes only when I’m not expecting her, and whenever she feels like it, so I knew she wouldn’t answer my question, but that doesn’t stop me from asking.  I turned it over in my mind again: He’s betting on your passion.  He must want the drama program, and he wants me to do everything in my power to make it strong.  He’s “betting on my passion" that I will do just that.  He doesn’t want to pay me.  He wants my passion to pay me.  Maybe my passion should say “no”?

A week later, my husband came home from work where he works as a Child Protective Services case worker, across the street from Jefferson Elementary School.  He often joins some of the teachers at lunch at the Crescent Café next door.  “Do you think you’d ever like to teach fifth grade?” he asked when he arrived home.  Where did this question come from?  “Fifth grade?  You know I’m endorsed for secondary.  I don’t have an endorsement to teach fifth grade.” 

“That might not matter.  Jefferson Elementary just lost all of its fifth grade teachers, and quite a few of the other teachers too.  Eight teachers, including all three fifth grade teachers, started the day together with a joint proclamation that they will not be renewing their contracts for next year at Jefferson Elementary.” 

“You’re kidding?  Are they that mad about the fence?” 

“They’re that mad.”

We turned on the local evening news and one of the fifth grade teachers was being interviewed: “We’ve been calling for a reasonable plan to prepare for terror emergencies, but the school barricaded our grounds like a prison.”  Then the Principal was interviewed: “We understand the teachers’ concern in light of last month’s shooting threat, but this is the most ‘reasonable’ solution we have right now.  We hope they’ll change their minds.”  “And if they don’t,” the reporter asked, “will you be able to hire eight teachers by August?”  The principle nodded, “We have a beautiful school; we have wonderful children; and we feel confident we can recruit strong, qualified teachers."  

Standing in front of the fence for an ironic jest, the reporter closed the story, “If you are looking for a teaching position, beautiful Jefferson Elementary is hiring.  I’m Rachel Snowden reporting to you from Colorado Springs.”

Rachel Snowden.  I knew a Rachel Snowden.  In fifth grade.  I looked at her again.  No, she couldn’t be the same one.  But it was a sign -- a neon, blinking detour sign.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Just like Eve: Introduction


Big news!  After four years of putting my husband through Grad school for his advanced degree, I now have time to re-activate my blog!  Bigger news: I'm now writing on the same themes as fiction.  Here’s my first snippet:

“Don’t return to this church or contact Pastor David ever again,” commanded the  head elder, shaking his head and letting out a sigh.  I had just been blackballed.  He then "prayed" for me and closed with the last words I heard spoken by anyone at my church: “You’re just like Eve.”

Just like Eve.  I had heard those words before.  I was eleven.  Our Sunday school class was studying the story of Noah’s flood.  “You see,” the teacher said, “The entire world was filled with wickedness.  The scripture records that ‘every intent’ of every person on earth – except for one – was full of ‘only evil’ and that every human, except for one, had corrupted the earth.’”  He then asked us what may have made Noah different, unique in the human race of his generation as a good man.  One of my Sunday school classmates said that maybe he wasn’t selfish; another said that he may have been willing to share his things with his friends; another said that maybe Noah didn’t litter all over the earth and pollute it like the others. 

The teacher nodded at all these responses.  I was unsure whether Noah really was unique, even whether he really was good.  I couldn’t quite pinpoint why, but I somehow felt that he wasn’t good. 

Francine raised her hand and offered her answer: “Noah was obedient.”  To this, my teacher grew a wide grin, and said, “Exactly, Francine.  The scripture records this is exactly what made Noah so special: He obeyed God.  Let’s look at what the Bible says in Genesis 6:22: ‘Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did.’  While every other person on earth was disobeying God, Noah obeyed him.” 

So the teacher encouraged us to obey God and to memorize two scripture verses about Noah for the following week: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8) and “Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did” (Genesis 6:22).

It was then that I understood what disturbed me about Noah: he obeyed God.  That was it!  So I raised myy hand and asked, “If Noah had found favor with God, why didn’t he use his favor to ask God to save the world?”  The teacher looked at me stunned, even disturbed.  But I didn’t know I was stepping out into dangerous, inappropriate territory by asking questions in Sunday school.  I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong by wanting to know why Noah obeyed, so when the teacher remained silent, I thought I’d better clarify my question, you know, make it blunt: “Why did Noah let God drown the world?”

The entire class went silent.  Each student looked at the teacher with eager eyes for an answer.  Each wanted to know the same thing: why had Noah let God drown the world?  The teacher was flummoxed.  The lesson that he had intended to instill upon his class was the lesson of obedience, but now my insolence was about to undermine the entire lesson with its opposite: disobedience.  I was suggesting that it would have been better if Noah had disobeyed God!  That it would have been better for Noah to supersede God and put forth Noah’s own, human notion that the evil world should remain.  The way I had phrased my question dug deep with prickles under the teacher’s skin: “Why had Noah let God drown the world?”  The question suggested that little, human Noah had authority over God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  How insolent of me to think that Noah “lets” God!

“Who created the heavens and the earth?” teacher asked me.  “God,” I replied.  “Why was Noah special,” teacher asked Francine. “Because he obeyed God,” replied Francis.  “Right,” said teacher to the full class.  Then, without answering my question, he turned to me and said with tinge of scorn, said, “You want the knowledge of God, and the power of God, and you want to disobey to get it.  You’re just like Eve.” 

He took a deep breath with the resolve to salvage the lesson I had fairly well bombed for him and asked us all to recite the memory verses: “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Thus Noah did; according to all that God had commanded him, so he did” (Genesis 6:8 and 22).  After we obediently recited these verses, he took another breath to keep as calm as he could and then closed: “Now, everyone, keep reciting these verses for next week, and we’ll begin next Sunday with each of you reciting the verses.  Most of all, remember to be just like Noah and not just like Eve.

I felt the pierce into my heart at those words “not just like Eve,” that pierce of condemnation, condemnation I couldn’t even grasp or understand.  Why had I been so condemned?  What had I done wrong?

I did not know.  And, yet, I felt fully condemned, and ashamed, and I buried it.  I buried my condemnation, my shame, and my memory.  And I had forgotten this moment in my fifth grade Sunday school class -- until now.
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