All I Want for Christmas

One of my New Years Resolutions is to perfect a calm state of being. To me, calmness comes from a complete and pure faith in God.

Unwavering.

Unswerving.

Unafraid.

I want to cross a sea while threatened by towering walls of water on either side of me.

I want to be betrayed, thrown in a pit, enslaved, jailed, falsely accused, and imprisoned.

I want to stand firm in the furnace, flames engulfing me.

I want to stand in the den, staring into the face of a lion.

I want to see Christ at the right hand of God, standing for me, as stones are thrown.

I want to be crucified upside down with a smile on my face, dying in ecstasy, filled with the purest love for Him.

I want to be able to suffer.

For Him.

It’s such a strange desire, one that does not make sense unless you understand what suffering can do.

It can free a nation.

It can save a nation.

It can make you stronger.

It can overcome fear.

It can overcome death.

It can redeem you.

Suffering many times springs from selfless sacrifice. Sacrifice many times springs from selfless love. God so loved man that He sacrificed His one and only son. Christ so loved us that he willingly sacrificed himself. That sacrifice ensured his suffering but ensured our salvation.

So yes, it might seem a strange resolution and a strange request, but if I could have one gift for Christmas, it would be to suffer for Him with joy.

Well that and a new couch.

Merry Christmas!

Calm

via Daily Prompt: Calm

Only Pillars of Salt

 

I grew up with Bible stories – Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, God parting the Red Sea for Moses and the Israelites, Samson and Delilah, David and Goliath, the wall of Jericho – but the one that has resonated with me most since my divorce is that of Lot’s wife.

If you remember the story, Lot parted ways from his uncle, the eccentric Abraham, and decided to move to the city of Sodom. Eventually it was revealed to Abraham by three men (two angels in disguise and our Lord Jesus) that Sodom was going to be destroyed by God because of their grievous sins.

Most Badass Angels Ever!!

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Abraham, being the great negotiator that he was, convinced God to spare the city if ten righteous men were found. So the two angles disguised as men went to Sodom and naturally, Sodom being the cesspool that it was, were soon accosted. Lot hid them in his house and when the angry mob came to Lot and demanded that the two angels be handed over, Lot refused and offered up his two virgin daughters.

I have to pause for a minute because that part is incredibly enraging. Who offers their daughters to be raped by a bunch of men to save two strangers? When I was younger, this was one of many instances in the Bible that embittered me against the Bible and Christianity.

Women are clearly abused and treated very poorly in many parts of the Bible, and as a woman I find it repulsive. But when I came back to the Bible a couple of years ago, I realized that God never told Lot to do that. The Spirit was not encouraging Lot to do that. That was all on Lot.

Just as God never told Abraham to pass off Sarah as his sister when they entered into foreign lands. The idea that God sanctioned Abraham’s lie that could result in her being placed in a harem and raped is horrific. Thank goodness God never did. That was all on Abraham. Just as God never directed Abraham to sleep with Hagar. That was all on Sarah and Abraham. I guess it’s kind of encouraging that such a flawed man can be so favored by God. Gives the rest of us hope.

Anyhow, I suppose the point is that a majority of the bad things that happen don’t happen because of God but because of man. We are just lucky enough he helps us clean the mess up afterwards.

So where was I? Right, Lot and his family. When ten righteous men could not be found in the whole city of Sodom, its fate was sealed. But because Lot did the right thing (sheltering the angels not offering to sacrifice his daughters) his family was led safely from the city. And as they were fleeing, as fire hailed down from the sky, they were warned not to look back.

Lot’s wife looked back, and because of that, she was turned into a pillar of salt.

This is a picture from The Jehovah Witnesses’ Bible my mother bought for me when I was four. I don’t think she realized it was a JW Bible…

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When I was little this fascinated me. What a strange punishment. Why salt? Why not just strike her dead? When I was little, it was a mystery, and the bottom line was when an angel speaks, you’d better listen.

As a woman approaching her middle years, with a wealth of experience filling my coffers, I understand it a little differently. Many people argue whether these stories should be taken literally or figuratively. I mean, it is a little hard to imagine a woman turning into a pile of salt, right? To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter which way you want to take it. The meaning is there either way.

After my divorce I was devastated. I was tormented by all of the mistakes I had made. What if I had done this differently or that. What if I had listened in the first place and not married the man to begin with? But it was not just the bad memories that caused me so much pain. It was also the memories of the good times. The times when our family was together, the times when there was laughter, and unity, and intimacy – times I would never again be able to experience. I had lost them all.

And I cried. More than I ever thought possible. I was so tired of crying I split in two. And I kept hearing that voice. Don’t look back. But how could I not? And so I looked back and I cried. I looked back more and I cried more. And the more I cried, the more Lot’s wife filled my mind. My fellow woman, my sister, tell me. Show me. Teach me.

No, I am not a pillar of salt. I still have arms that move, that can embrace my children, stroke my dog, wave to a friend. I still have legs that can run, that can chase my daughter up the stairs in a game of tickle monster. I have eyes that can blink as the sun stares down, that watch as the clouds in all of their beauty pass by overhead. I am not a pillar of salt. I am still alive.

But every time I look back, my body is suspended as my mind and heart become stuck in a past that can never change. And as the tears fall down, over and over again, I can taste it. I can taste…salt.

I suppose I understand the message behind the story of Lot’s wife now. It was not simply a story about weird punishments you can expect for being disobedient. Like any good father, there is always a lesson in the punishment. The lesson her story has taught me is that there is no life in looking back. It is better to leave behind that which God has taken. As tempting as it is to look back and catch a glimpse of what was, to reminisce about what could have been, and to decipher exactly the reasons it was destroyed, there is no life there.

There are only tears.

There are only pillars of salt.

Flee

via Daily Prompt: Flee

I Have a Little Shelf

I have a little shelf that holds my treasures.

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No one would think twice about the items on this shelf: a Lego figure of a famous Harry Potter character, a piece of wood, a cross, and a card. To the outsider they would seem rather ordinary. But to me? Well they are things I treasure; they are pieces of me – the good, the bad, the things that make up a life.

The cross was given to me two years ago by a young man who worked with me at the farm. He was a gay Christian and needed a place to stay for a week. As a thank you he bought me the cross as a gift and is a reminder of Jesus’ command to love one another regardless of politics, religion, race, gender, or sex.

The Lego character is that of Professor Snape. After my divorce my children and I discovered the Harry Potter movies and watched them straight in a row. The moment Harry dropped Snape’s tear into the pensieve and the true measure of his love for Lilly was revealed, I fell in love. Professor Snape epitomizes that unconditional love and devotion we all seek yet seems an impossibility.

I’m not sure why I love the piece of wood so much. Perhaps because it’s so random. It will always remind me of the constant surprises involved in raising children and the joy in the real and unscripted that can only be found in the company of those small creatures.

The card is from the man, my therapist, who guided me through that first year after my divorce and helped me sift through all of the broken pieces of myself. It came to me two years after our last meeting and is the confirmation of what I felt but never said. In the hours that unfolded through the weeks of one year, feelings were birthed. Though for obvious reasons those feelings will never be explored. They will simply remain on my shelf, a reminder that there was once a man who cared for me.

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The little wooden box was given to me by a dearly beloved cousin the day I left VA eighteen years ago. Inside this box contains a past I cannot let go of yet, at least not entirely.

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Inside is a tiny, painted, wooden duck. It once was packed in a small blue chest with tiny, painted, Easter eggs and bunnies, along with Easter grass. It was a gift I sent to the boy, who would become my husband and ultimately the great devastator of my life, when he was in the Navy and out to sea. I loved to love him then. I destroyed the rest of the figures and threw the chest away but could not bring myself to destroy this last remaining one…at least not yet.

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The next treasures are the checker pieces from the original checker/backgammon board game my ex-husband and I played on. Nights we spent sitting criss-cross on the bed drinking wine and discussing my uncanny ability to always triumph in backgammon. Eventually our first-born son took control of the game when he was a toddler and the pieces became his bread. They are a reminder of soft baby flesh and sweet imaginations.

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Then there is a fragment of a Willow Tree figurine my mother gave me after my first son was born.

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I will always believe there was potential for my marriage, as painful as that is and perhaps delusional, if my husband had ever really wanted it. But he never did and it was not until the end of our marriage that I realized I had unknowingly held such a deep contempt-laced hatred for him for so very long. One night, years before he finally left, after I had a miscarriage, I threw this figurine to the ground breaking it into pieces. The only part that remained was the swaddled infant. I held onto it as a reminder of the baby I lost and that no matter what, I had to get her back; I had to have another child. I did have another child and she has been my heart for seven years.

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This folded note is the last note in a treasure hunt l made for my sons to tell them they were going to have a baby sister. I placed it in the mail box of the house we were hoping to buy along with the ultra sound pictures. Sometimes I wonder if we had gotten the house could our marriage have been saved? This note is a reminder of the possibilities that will never be.

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The next treasure is one I hate but cannot let go of. It is the second of two wedding rings. My first one meant more. I still wore it briefly after my divorce until one summer day while frolicking in the river, it was swallowed up. The second one belonged to a matching pair. It was given to me when my husband refinanced our house. It epitomizes greed, shallowness, and debauchery. Perhaps I keep it as a reminder of what can happen, how something beautiful can be tainted if not guarded.

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The last treasure is my daughter’s hospital bracelet. She was the last one as I had made the decision to have the operation to ensure l could never have children again. She marked the ending of the happiest time of my life, a time when I was a mother to small children who looked to me for everything with complete love and trust. She was the closing of a chapter. But she was also the beginning. She was the beginning of my attempt to make her life better than my own, to do for her what I was unable to do for myself. To make sure she always felt loved.

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On top of my shelf of treasures stands a doll I have had for fifteen years. When I first bought her, her head was loosely attached. Then it detached itself completely and I laid it by her feet. Eventually it disappeared entirely. What struck me about this doll is even though her dress was tattered and torn, one arm nothing more than a wire as if the very flesh had been torn from it, even though she was without a face or an identity, she was beautiful. And I could see myself in her. She is a reminder that though there is much about my life that is tattered and has been torn, though sometimes I feel like I am invisible – nothing more than a twisted wire for a head – I am so much more. I am beautiful.

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So that is my space, my special, unassuming shelf that holds my secret treasures. Masquerading as knick-knacks and an odd piece of wood, these are the reminders of a life lived – my life.

via Daily Prompt: Treasure

The Outcasts of Poker Flat: A Story of Redemption

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” was published in 1869 by Bret Harte. Harte, who lived in Northern California, was familiar with the mining camps of the West and he was a master of portraying the stereotypical characters of the West, from the prostitutes with “hearts of gold” to the stoic, chivalrous, and “coolly desperate” gambler. Harte was also familiar with the greed of the Western gold mining camps where people came to find their fortunes and explored the theme of morally-superior-white-vigilante justice in his writings. In fact, it was because of an article he wrote and published in The Northern Californian, “expressing outrage over the massacre in nearby Eureka of sixty Native Americans, mostly women and children, by a small gang of white vigilantes,” that Harte was fired from his job as assistant editor (351). It is this theme of religious hypocrisy that is explored in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”, but moreover, it is the idea of redemption through the characters as well as nature that makes a lasting and meaningful impact.

The story begins in a gold mining camp in California with the protagonist, John Oakhurst, noting the change in the atmosphere, “There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.” This line is the first indicator that the citizens are not in reality good Christians who are living the good life, but are people who for some reason have decided to put on the cloak of Christian righteousness, which Oakhurst understands to be a dangerous thing if they are not indeed Christians. Harte gives an indication of the local landscape and local morality when he describes Oakhurst “whipping away the red dust of Poker Flat from his neat boots.” In the Bible, Jesus says, “Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: the Kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11). The color red of the Californian mining camp can be construed as symbolizing the sin of the “righteous” citizens, and Oakhurst – who actually committed no sin other than being a very good gambler- is obeying the words of Christ.

Harte further illustrates the hypocrisy of the town when he writes, “It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons.” The hypocrisy in the town’s actions resemble that of the high priest, Caiaphas, in the gospels who calls a secret and illegal meeting of the other chief priests in order to try, judge, and condemn Jesus. Harte then introduces two of the other characters, Duchess and Mother Shipton, who are being banished for their profession. They are prostitutes but it is obvious that they would not be able to sell their wares if there were no buyers. There were indeed buyers and it is those guilty buyers that are exiling the two fallen women. There is yet another correlation to scripture that shows the town is not acting the part of good Christians and are in fact hypocrites. In the New Testament, a woman is brought before Jesus. By law she is to be stoned for committing adultery. Jesus does not stone her but shows her mercy. He then says, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

As the group of outcasts, which also includes Uncle Billy who is likely the only legitimately guilty person, are led out of town by an armed escort, the reader catches a glimpse of Oakhurst’s kindness when he trades his horse for Duchess’s mule. Harte then begins to describe the landscape: “A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley.” Though Oakhurst cautions against delay and foreshadows the tragedy that is to come when he warns them against, “’throwing up their hand before the game was played out,’” the group decides to stop and partake in a few drinks. It is in this amphitheater, as in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece where many tragedies were performed, that the tragedy of the outcasts of Poker Flat will be played out.

When considering the religious symbology of the story as well as the natural aspect, the following passage is important: “He looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above the circling pines around him; at the sky, ominously clouded; at the valley below, already deepening into shadow.” The imagery of clouds is littered throughout scripture and is usually connected to the presence of God. In fact, during the crucifixion, for three hours the sky was dark. Christ, having been innocent, was a sacrifice for the sin of mankind. When considering the fate of the outcasts, they could be seen as having been sacrificed by the citizens of Poker Flat who were gamblers themselves as well as frequenters of prostitutes. In a natural sense, it is easy to assume the increasing danger in the outcasts’ situation knowing that the story takes place at the end of November when snow is likely to fall.

When Harte introduces Tom Simson, the Innocent of Poker Flat, and his fifteen year old fiancée, Piney Wood, the reader begins to get a glimpse at the goodness contained in the outcasts, minus Uncle Billy who steals away in the middle of the night with the mules and provisions. The reader learns that Oakhurst, after having won a significant amount of money from Tom some time ago, gives the money back and advises him to no longer gamble. This is a characteristic far from the swindler that the citizens of Poker Flat made Oakhurst out to be. Mother Shipton and the Duchess transform into something self-sacrificing and angelic: “the virgin Piney slept beside her frailer sisters as sweetly as though attended by celestial guardians.” Oakhurst, Duchess, and Mother Shipton spare Tom and Piney the anxiety and fear that would surely have overwhelmed them had they known Uncle Billy had stolen the mules with no intention of sending help: “For some occult reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality.”

Then the snow comes. Harte describes the brutality of the California Sierras to a tee: “The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white- curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their slowly decreasing store of provisions for the morning meal. It was one of the peculiarities of that mountain climate that its rays diffused a kindly warmth over the wintry landscape, as if in regretful commiseration of the past. But it revealed drift on drift of snow piled high around the hut–a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of white lying below the rocky shores to which the castaways still clung.” Harte then references Poker Flat using the ironic word “pastoral.” The fact that the outcasts can see the smoke rising from the warm settlement miles away is perhaps the reason they join in the hymn that Piney and Tom are singing, not out of devotion but with defiance: “I fear that a certain defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing to its chorus, rather than any devotional quality, caused it speedily to infect the others, who at last joined in the refrain: “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord, And I’m bound to die in His army.”

It is not much later that Mother Shipton does indeed die, having sacrificed her rations so that the young Piney would have a better chance of surviving. It is with Mother Shipton’s passing that the story takes a turn for the worse. The Innocent, Tom Simson, follows Oakhurst’s direction and heads for Poker Flat on snow shows made from a saddle while John Oakhurst decides his game is done. While Oakhurst hands in his cards with a bullet to his heart, it is the picture that Harte paints of Piney and the Duchess that brings the theme home. When Piney and the Duchess truly understand their fate is death, the Duchess asks Piney if she can pray. Piney replies, “No dear.” This refusal to pray is Harte’s separating the truly righteous, in the form of Piney, from the truly unrighteous, the citizens of Poker Flat and their new found religion who surely pray every morning and every night.

Though Nature has seemed impersonal and brutal throughout the story, it is towards the end that Harte uses it in a very personal and beautiful way: “The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and settled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” Doves, or white birds, are referenced throughout scripture. They represent guilt offerings and the Holy Spirit. In many respects, the Duchess could well be seen as a guilt offering for the people of Poker Flat. And as the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ as he was baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on the two women. In this scene, the Duchess’s sins are covered by white just as it says in the Bible, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalms 51:7).

In the end, the outcasts of Poker Flat are condemned to death by the citizens of Poker Flat. But it was their condemnation that ultimately brought out the goodness in them, the parts of themselves that perhaps they had forgotten about or believed no longer existed. And it was through that goodness and their ultimate deaths that they were able to be redeemed and perhaps were able to touch the citizens of Poker Flat and show them the meaning of sin and forgiveness: “And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned.”

 

 Works Cited

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.