An Old Fashioned Scream into the Void

It would seemingly be easy for me to enjoy my life here in France and stop caring about what’s going on in the United States. Several people have suggested this, and it’s advice I desperately wish I could take. However, I can’t seem to stop caring about what might happen to my family and friends. You could say I cared too much about the Syrian war and refugee crisis. How can I look away now that it concerns everyone I spent the first 33 years of my life with?

I don’t think so highly of myself to imagine I could change a single mind, but here I am, about to make a desperate plea to find compassion and not abandon logic.

A global pandemic should never have become a partisan issue. With all the misinformation and distrust on the internet, it seems some people have over-corrected, wandering off to find sanctuary in the most blatant of lies. As death tolls rise, it becomes increasingly insensitive to deny the virus’ power. Imagine losing a loved one to cancer and then having to hear millions of people spew propaganda about how much of a hoax cancer is, making you quite the sucker for believing in it.

Most every developed country leaped into action, locking down, reopening slowly with masks and disinfectants enforced. These places were able to reopen their economies at the beginning of the summer, bounce back, and develop a plan for getting kids back into school by fall. France, for example, had two very intense months of lock down, then slowly reopened, new phases rolling out every three weeks, and here we are with the rest of Europe, coming back from vacation and gearing up for a new school year, albeit, with masks on.

Meanwhile, the US continues to have the most alarming fatality rates. With half the population trying to quarantine, and the other half trying to save the economy, both are suffering. No one is getting anywhere. Everyone is frustrated. It’s quickly spiraling into a mental health crisis.

At the same time, a second civil rights movement is underway. Anyone who once shook their head at the many Hollywood movies depicting slavery or segregation, must now take a hard look at which role they are playing in this current plot line.

I believe all this segregation and systemic racism (meaning, the system is designed to be racist whether you feel you personally are or not) has led to many American’s ability to remain oblivious to the plight of minorities.

If you don’t know any black people, you could be convinced they’re dangerous.

If you don’t know any Muslims, you could be convinced they’re terrorists.

If you don’t know any Latin people, you could be convinced they’re… I don’t know, what ridiculous things do people say about Latinos? Something, something, they brought you your favorite kind of cocaine at their own expense? Get real. And also learn the differences between each Central and South American country. You don’t confuse Germans and Greeks, do you? Latin Americans are as diverse as Europeans. You probably don’t even like to be confused as someone from another US state.

Again, part of this is the product of a systemically racist society, steeped in segregation, but also the main problem could be you don’t have any friends that don’t look and sound exactly like you.

Hindsight is 20/20, and I now believe it was the grace of God toward refugees that America stopped receiving them, funneling them primarily toward Europe. I’ve seen, first hand, just how effectively France is able to help people get back onto their feet, working, paying taxes, buying homes, and starting to dream again. The refugee resettlement program in the US is abominable, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, especially someone who has already suffered so much.

It’s laughable to me, that right now the most offensive thing Republicans can call a person is “socialist”. While no system is perfect, what is wrong with one that allows citizens and residents to benefit from tax dollars? (Side note: Socialism is France and other wealthy European countries with hearty middle classes. It is not Russia, China or Cuba. Go check your political science notes from high school). The US tax rate on certain groups can be just as high as in socialist countries, but US tax monies are used to fund things besides health care. Things like bombing poor countries and helping Saudi Arabia exterminate the people of Yemen, for example.

While I don’t agree with everything the Democratic party stands for, I was very encouraged by the few speeches I watched from the Democratic National Convention. We have the chance to redirect this locomotive, which is currently steaming straight for a cliff. One with middle ground, allowing us to remember what we liked about each other. I saw about as much of the Republican National Convention as I could stomach before my IQ started dropping. It’s important to at least try to listen to the other side.

If you’re someone who feels this is still just a toss up vote between two unappealing options, please understand that one side is a career politician, while the other is a failed experiment. People wanted to know what a celebrity with nothing to lose could look like for our country, and the answer involves a lot of obstructions of justice. Plus a devastating amount of violence, unemployment, sickness and death. Can confirm, the rest of the world is shaking their heads.

Please, for the sake of my nieces and nephew, vote out the lunatic that turned us on each other. This is not a toss up, this will  mean life or death for many more people (and before you argue the lives of the unborn, just know that abortions go down under Democrats because of increased access to contraceptives).

Try to listen. Have a heart. Don’t burrow into a self preservation mode built out of fear. The Democrats are not trying to take your amendment rights. No one is doing that. This is a false narrative. Use your brain.

Writing this could be a massive waste of time, but it feels semi-therapeutic. Sometimes the only logical explanation to all the lunacy roaming about, is that the LORD has decided to blind eyes, and deafen ears, for the purpose of fully extending His judgement on a place in due time. For the sake of the children, please turn around. We ALL can find something to repent for.

I’ve felt myself growing judgmental and angry. I don’t want to be this way. I want to REPENT and go back to seeing silver linings and calling out the best in people. I bet quarantine regulating our social lives to the absurdity of social media has caused us to lose touch with the reality that even in dark times, babies are still born, neighbors still help each other, and unlikely friendships are still formed.

I might have just majorly offended some of my conservative friends. Maybe it’s because the majority of my real, day-to-day interactions are with friends who find themselves in these vulnerable groups. Muslim, Latino, black, disabled, displaced… these lives MORE THAN MATTER. It is an atrocious thing to have to say, and even more appalling to find it’s somehow considered debatable. They matter just as much as anyone’s, but since they are not treated as such, we must continue to fight.

Don’t become “color blind”, instead, look to see the beauty and fullness of diversity. Use your power to protect and uplift. Do for others as you would hope they’d do for you. Listen. Reject the fear-mongering which pulls us toward self preservation, and seek to uphold the “greater good”.

And, for the love, wear a mask. I can’t see my family until you all get a grip.

An Enneagram 7 Faces Her Trauma

As I’ve mentioned in previous writings, this quiet season in Italy has created opportunity for overdue introspection. After hearing from many friends about the Enneagram, I thought it might be time to take a longer look at what it means. Reading and listening to different resources on the topic (such as the Typology Podcast) helped this visual learner personify the implications of what everyone has resoundingly told me from the beginning: I am a SEVEN.

Referred to as the Enthusiast, many of you will not be surprised by this description. Sevens are known to be eternally optimistic, curious, adventurous, bold and often non-committal. I do my best work when I have to improvise and my constant craving to grow and learn sets me up to be a “Jack of all trades and master of none.” These are the obvious indicators.

What more people don’t realize, is a seven’s tendency to ignore their own trauma. I bounce back from things very quickly. At least that’s what I tell myself, and what others observe. My optimism in the midst of pain, grief and disappointment meant believing God was knocking something I cherished out of my hand in order to give me something better. This turned into a habit of tossing all the pain, grief and disappointment into a pile, somewhere in my subconscious, where I could forget about it. Little did I know that in the summer of 2015, it would all come down in an avalanche.

In the first two years of working with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Salem, I dabbled in almost every program: Training schools, short term mission trip facilitating for youth groups, five day backpacking leadership development, international ropes course construction, marketing and hospitality. The ever increasing drive to dip my toes in everything landed me alongside some of the more outdoorsy, adventurers on staff. In that fateful summer, our campus offered a Wilderness First-Responders (WFR) course, and I was encouraged to enroll. It seemed like good advice, since I was spending more and more time in the woods, responsible for people.

Perhaps now is the time to tell the readers who don’t know me as well, that I have almost died many times. The first being, at age three, when my family found out I had a deadly allergy to nuts. We had been driving from one grandparent’s house to the other, chowing down on walnuts, when someone realized I had stopped breathing. I was rushed to the hospital.

Most famously, my appendix ruptured when I was eleven and I was misdiagnosed as having colitis. On the fifth day of poison filling up my body, my mom refused to be sent home from the hospital, and insisted they do more tests. Upon the inspection of an ultrasound, doctors discovered what had happened, and realized I was totally septic. I was in-and-out of consciousness and they weren’t sure they could save me. My surgery was delayed in favor of someone who had just come in with an appendix about to burst. When I was found to be still alive, afterwards, they took on the task of saving my life and spent six hours in massive surgery, trying to wash out my little body. The following weeks of draining, packing the massive wound in my abdomen, drugs, antibiotics, and a bought with C-diff, were horrific. Twice a day, my poor family had to hold me down, screaming, as they changed dressings and helped me learn to walk again. Even now, I can’t recount these events without crying.

Throughout my teen years and into my twenties, the incidents kept piling on, probably due to my thirst for adventure and optimism for trying new things:

A snowboarding accident where I sprained my neck.

A car accident, resulting in an ambulance ride to the hospital, almost asphyxiating on my vomit as I was strapped down to the board.

More car accidents and more whiplash.

Hypothermia, the first time being so bad, my body dropped a couple degrees and became susceptible to getting there easier three more times.

A horseback riding accident, being thrown from a retired barrel-racing horse (pictured above) that was spooked and launched me onto gravel. Whatever this did to my pelvis and lower back resulted in scar tissue which still exists almost ten years later.

A concussion. Make sure you have your helmet securely fascinated before rock climbing!

And a host of other sketchy situations and close calls.

Meanwhile, I had sworn off doctors. My distrust of them from the appendectomy and hospitalization left me determined to walk things off. The thing which eventually pushed me see a doctor was access through Obamacare (thanks, Obama), and that nut allergy which, after 27 years, was increasingly life-threatening. After my first, full-fledged experience with anaphylaxis, I realized I was way overdue for an epinephrine prescription.

With all this trauma, neatly tucked into the deep recesses of my mind, my optimistic seven self listened to all my new friends who believed I could take the WFR. Boy were we wrong.

This intensive ten day course was taught by a man who was pretty high up in America’s first-responders world. His decades of experience had calloused him, as survival would need it to, and he used a lot of flippant humor when discussing what to do with a victim. As he explained each possible emergency: hypothermia, anaphylaxis, triage, whiplash, head, neck and back injuries, my first-hand experience with all of them began to wind something inside of me tighter… and tighter…

On day three, I snapped. I snapped in a way I had never snapped before. A full fledged breakdown, crying hysterically and inconsolably. I could feel everything. I wanted to strangle the instructor as he plowed through a responder’s need to sometimes “play God” about who to save in a triage situation. Obviously this man cares about people, or he wouldn’t bother with this work, but in that classroom, I didn’t feel like he cared about anyone at all. He represented every thoughtless choice that had brought me to within an inch of my life.

This eruption of emotion shocked nearly everyone around me. My seven self had always re-framed my past harrowing experiences in a stand-up-comedy way. I didn’t realize that, as a seven, my most basic desire was to know someone would take care of me. Suddenly, my middle child syndrome came raging to the surface. Is anyone looking out for me?

These assertions weren’t fair, but so are almost all our hidden pains. Unless we bring them into the light, truth doesn’t have a chance to identify itself.

The anger I felt reminded me of how my parents watched in horror as their sweet, tender hearted eleven-year-old yelled at her nurses. If came up later that year, at a family meal, when some of them started crunching walnuts onto their salad and I shouted, “why do you still eat those around me?!” They quickly apologized and corrected, but truly hadn’t known how much it bothered me until that moment.

A perfect storm. My curiosity gets me into dangerous situations. My insatiable social life opens me up to a Russian Roulette of food possibly laced with nuts. My aversion to experiencing pain excused me from staying in uncomfortable situations. While I learn many sevens live their lives one side-step of deprivation or pain at a time, mine is heightened, because all my deepest fears have already been realized. I’ve felt the excruciating pain which often doubles as a preamble to death. I don’t want to feel it anymore. I don’t want to be so adventurous anymore. I want someone to grab me before my impulsiveness falls into another pit.

Last September, I was in Naples with my church for a twenty year celebration of our partnership with our sister church there. By the grace of God, my assigned roommate was my dear friend, and also registered nurse, Kimberly. One night we all went out for “the best gelato in town” and I ordered a flavor I thought was safe, since I’d had it before. It wasn’t. One tiny decorative piece had one tiny bit of hazelnut in it. That evening I experienced the worst pain I have felt since I was eleven. Thankfully, Kimberly was there with an epi-pen, medication and expertise. My body had gone into full anaphylactic shock. Muscles were cramping, systems were shutting down, but Kimberly got me through it. I thought I was going to die.

The next day my body was still struggling to re-boot. I couldn’t eat anything but bread and couldn’t get enough Pepsi, even though I normally do not drink soda. My arms and legs didn’t want to move. All I could do was sit. As I began to consider the coming months ahead, living alone in Italy, a new level of fear began to creep in.

As a fun side effect of these traumas, my body was becoming sensitive to more foods. I think it has given me chronic pancreatitis, among other things. My normal, insatiable thirst for a stacked social life was quenched by the fear I wouldn’t be able to explain my allergies and sensitivities to new Italian friends wanting me over for pranzo. All my missions training said, “eat whatever someone offers you! Don’t be rude!” So I cheated in the other direction and didn’t pursue situations which would lead to someone inviting me over. I decided to be all-time host, in order to ensure a safe kitchen, free of cross contamination.

Because what would happen if I ate nuts again and there was no Kimberly around?

As I listened to Typology Podcast, and learned from the experience of fellow sevens, I heard a common theme: We don’t do a good job letting people know we need help. We need people to ask us if we’re okay, but we also need to get better at recognizing and admitting when we are not okay. Ignoring this fact is how we lose people like Robin Williams and other comics who excelled in hiding their pain.

Part of why I hadn’t been introspective until this season, was because I didn’t want to face the pain, grief and disappointment lurking in the corners of my mind. It was way past time to do this.

After the hysterical meltdown of 2015, I had a couple counseling sessions, but only scratched the service. I shoved those feelings back down and threw myself into leading a training school outreach to Armenia, then into the refugee camp work in Greece. People started to notice a difference in me, over that time. I was becoming more serious, less goofy, stressed, and more committed. While at once, some close to me worried for my tender heart wading into the atrocities of the refugee crisis, I knew the dam had already been broken. My avoidance of pain had reached it’s limit. Now all I wanted to do was sit in it, and be there for people who needed a friend, a safe meal, a refuge.

I more readily allow myself to swing between my stage, comedy-spewing self and my deeply acquainted with grief self. I’m learning to be a healthy seven. A healthy Bethany Rae.

The name Bethany means “house of poverty and affliction”, but as my dad points out, my middle name Rae indicates light in those places. While I’ve always had a dream of owning a home where others can feel safe and loved, it’s been pointed out to me, many times now, that I am that house. No matter where I live.

All this revelation reminded me of the movie “Saving Mr. Banks”. (Spoiler Alert) It is about the woman who wrote Mary Poppins. She had a very tragic personal history with her own father, and there is a point in the movie where Walt Disney tells her, “George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” That movie makes me sob, because of how it captures so much of who I am.

God has given me a power, by His Spirit to redeem things, but in order to do so, I need to acknowledge the pain.

A special thank you to everyone who has ever taken care of me, changed their menu to accommodate me, yanked me out of the street before getting hit by a car, etc. Also, my mom for refusing to take me home from the hospital all those years ago. God has used you all to preserve my life until now. He isn’t finished with me yet.

Goodbye, Isosceles

In the summer of 2013 I got a concussion during a spastic attempt to rock climb. Those who have experienced concussions can attest to the fact that you feel crappy during a concussion, but you’re also pretty confused about what’s happening. It’s not until the next day that you truly begin comprehending how horrible the feeling was. More so, the subsequent day, you realize you had still been feeling terribly that day after. It’s probably a known scientific fact somewhere: we can’t perceive the depths of our own sickness until we look back at it from a position of health. This is why interventions exist.

In light of this, I am pleased to announce, during this last month I have found myself in a happy season of well rounded health. It reminded me of a random anecdote from sophomore year health class. Dom Giancola, my funny, beef cake, Italian, baseball coach health teacher drew an equilateral triangle on the board, and explained how true health is only realized when three areas of your life are equally strong: Physical, emotional and social. Then he drew a series of scalene triangles which represented a persons varied commitment to different aspects of their health.

A few times in life, I’ve considered how, at best, my health triangle is isosceles with a very long social line. This became my own standard for true health. But now, in this strange season of joy and peace, I have reached a new conclusion: Giancola was right, and I’ve never truly been healthy.

Has anyone ever had to admit a personal ideology was founded on a random song lyric you loved in adolescence? For me, it was the opening line in a Dexter Freebish song called “Leaving Town”: Oh, your reputation so golden, you’re never lonely and you’re never home. 

Any past roommate can attest to the fact: if we live together, you will see me the least. My greatest fear has always been loneliness. Throughout a vagrant adult life, I’ve managed to maintain an overactive social calendar. Coffee dates before work and a systematic Rolodex of dinners every night of the week.

This pace of social life had inevitable repercussions on my physical health. First, there was no time to exercise. In some seasons, I’d find a work-out buddy, but if that commitment fizzled–at all–on the other person’s end, I wasn’t about to exercise alone. Second, constantly eating out, or in another person’s home, results in little to no control over diet. As my physical health slowly declined–due to stress, but more on that later–I needed to cut out more foods. The problem was, my pride made me mortified to announce myself as a picky eater, so I often opted for a stomach ache rather than appearing high maintenance.

Over the past few years, I have slowly attempted to pare down my social life. Quality over quantity. This insatiable appetite for meeting new people was going to kill me. I was turning thirty, and it was way past the time to start investing more in the friendships I knew would last. The last year I lived in California had gotten so out-of-control-socially-busy, I had to admit to myself that all my interactions with friends had become surfacy, lightning-round, catch-up conversations. All this moving had pulverized any possible continuity, so there was rarely a friend who could notice destructive patterns.

Still, I made it a point to never be “alone with my thoughts”. What, on earth, was I so afraid to uncover?

Two years ago, my worldview rug was pulled out from underneath me. I had waded into one of the most complicated and heart breaking humanitarian crises of my generation and didn’t come out in one piece. So much of my westernized brainwashing was uncovered and I became anxious for the first time in my life. “If I’m this brain washed, we’ve all got to be, and now I don’t know how to talk to people about it.” At this current juncture, the internet is teeming with proof that many people my age have had a recent “deconstruction process”. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.

Quite obviously, stress has horrible affects on our bodies, so naturally, as my anxiety crescendo-ed, so did the physical damage. I started getting these horrible stomachaches. It was high, like an ulcer, but then also weirdly a terrible mid-back ache. I couldn’t tell if my back ache was hurting my stomach, or my stomachache was hurting my back. After most meals I felt impaled–straight through–and didn’t know how to stop it.

Without health care, and with a strong observation that most my friends were beating auto-immune diseases by diet, I started cutting out different things. This took me all the way until last month (November 2018) when Mindy Kaling posted a pancreatic cancer awareness info-graphic. This is what had tragically taken her mother. I knew right away I didn’t have the cancer, which usually kills you within 6 months and gives you jaundice. I was not yellow and had suffered for over a year and a half, very much still alive. The thing that jumped out at me was this symptom of a high stomachache that was also a mid-back ache.

Now, while I still haven’t seen a doctor, I can report that since I started following a diet for chronic pancreatitis, I HAVE FELT AMAZING. Not only that, I’ve lost weight in a healthy way.

Moving to Italy to obtain dual citizenship was a very brave thing for me to do, because it faced my most dreaded fear: being alone. I have been more isolated in these months than I ever dreamed I would be in my life. Instead of panicking, I let myself cry about it a bit, then got to work on all the things my busy social life never allowed me to do.

One, has been cooking for myself a very nutrient rich, lean, fruit and vegetable heavy diet. Another has been the necessity to walk everywhere every day. Walking is amazing. It’s almost as if we were created to travel that way. It is a weirdly powerful cure for all types of anxiety symptoms. I’ve been forced to be alone with my thoughts, sort through them, and find healing.

I am very blessed to have a wonderful support system and access to the internet. A few of my closest friends also find themselves in new cities, dependent on long distance friendship whilst they seek out new, local friends. We are able to share and invest in each other, and it has become a strangely rich time for me, socially.

I’m over here living the introvert’s dream. I’m sometimes lonely and I’m usually home. For those of you familiar with Meyers Briggs, I’ve always tested 100% extrovert, when Meyers and Briggs are quoted as saying, “anyone who is 100% anything is certifiable” (okay, that was more of a paraphrase). I’m starting to see the credibility there.

While I’ve learned to enjoy the quiet, simplicity of an introvert’s wonderland, I am still energized by good conversation. I need these daily phone calls from my friends. I’ve also struck conversationalist gold upon discovering the podcast, Armchair Expert. I love how these dialogues mirror those of mine with close friends; vacillating between light-hearted pop culture references and poignant vulnerability.

I am finally able to write, which is something I’ve always felt the LORD nudging me to invest time in. I recently dug up a novella I wrote when I was seventeen and am excited to see if I can dust it off enough to maybe publish it someday. There are three other unfinished novels on my drive besides that one. This excites me.

I believe this season is vital in preparing me for what’s next in my eventual move to France. European bureaucracy has been a real foe, but I’ve learned to beat it by releasing my need to control how timely things happen. Once I decided things would take as long as they were going to take and it wasn’t going to ruin my life, I became next-level victorious. This season is also familiarizing me with the very real struggles of daily life and loneliness for fellow immigrants, whom I hope to be a friend and refuge to.

Forced to simplify my life, it has become okay for a meal preparation or grocery shopping excursion to take up a sizable chunk of time. As many of you know, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Europe and the US every three months for awhile. My anxiety always increased during my time in the US, and one such breaking point was finding out about smart phone applications that did your grocery shopping for you. In France, I’d spend a good amount of the day tootling along on public transportation to the butchers, then the produce market, then the super market, then back home in time to make dinner for guests. This gave me a lovely sense of productivity. When I found out that you can punch in your grocery list and have someone fling it into your car as you drive by, something inside me died. My whole day was reduced to five minutes. This made me anxious, because I know how busy American life is, and how necessary this service feels. It also made me sad for my friends who have to use this on account of the day being so otherwise full. I know my tendency is to fill empty spaces and I wonder if I would feel compelled to create extra tasks for myself if shopping happened so quickly.

All this to say, I want to be an encouragement and not rub people’s noses in something that feels impossible for them. I’m not going to pretend to understand the pace of a mother’s life, but I want to suggest a kind of intervention that says, “slow down and let go.” Time doesn’t have to be this heinous overlord. Walk places. Find the people you can be vulnerable with, but also laugh about shared opinions of television shows.

Last night, I rewatched “Wisky Tango Foxtrot” and for those of you who have seen the movie, there is a scene where the US military is trying to find out if the Taliban were the ones bombing a well they dug for a village in Afghanistan. Come to find out, the women had been bombing the well with old soviet mines, because prior to the well, the best part of their day was walking to the river together to gossip and catch up. Sometimes we think making things easier and faster is better, but I think more often than not, we are robbing ourselves of a sweetness.

I keep trying to think of what someone could have told me to bring me to health. Maybe nothing. The LORD probably had to put me in a situation that confronted my deepest fear. In any case, draw the kind of triangle you imagine your current life to be, and don’t settle for isosceles.

The Feisty Female In The Man’s World

After scratching the surface of this topic in my last post, Losing My Religion, I’ve spent some time talking with friends and thinking about this topic–being a woman in a patriarchal theology–in more depth. Additionally, of course, going back to the Bible to investigate what is truly being communicated.

But first, a back story. I’ve spent much of my life at war with myself.

ON ONE HAND

I grew up in a very affirming environment. My parents were wonderfully encouraging and always praised me as a comedian, writer, tender-hearted person and influencer. At church, I was often placed in some form of leadership the moment I was old enough to turn around and do so. As a grade-schooler, I volunteered in the church nursery. As a Middle schooler, I helped lead worship for 5th and 6th grade Vacation Bible School groups. As a High schooler, I occasionally helped with the Middle schoolers and was also dubbed a student leader.

Me being a student leader in high school is a saga for another time. In general, I was coached to “watch my influence”, since my attitude was incredibly contagious to others. I cannot tell you how that followed me throughout my life, or tell you how many times I’ve been classified as a “rebel-rouser”. Those above me either immediately needed me on their team, or tried to shove me down. Which, as a young person, is very confusing.

I became very self-aware about the parables of Jesus which challenged people to always invest their talents (Matthew 25:14-30). Stewardship is a major concept among Baptists, and I knew I needed to find a way to steward my gifts as a leader and influencer.

ON THE OTHER HAND

Baptists don’t have a ton of job openings for women. As previously mentioned, neither did my Bible college. In fact, they had less. My home church liked to joke about this “silencing of women” by tongue-in-cheek calling it “sharing” when a lady graced the stage at our church, but they still had many wonderful role models for me. Ladies who studied the Bible and ventured onto the missions field, even whilst single.

One of my mentors, Dr. Mary Wilder, became a surgeon in Portland back when it was unthinkable for a woman to do so. She even had a professor fail her solely because she was a woman. He’d be damned if he was going to see a woman graduate on his watch! She went on to turn down a lucrative job as a neurosurgeon and became a doctor for women in Pakistan. Since my mind goes blank and my blood stops flowing when I see blood, becoming a medical missionary was not an option for me, no matter how inspired I was by her life. I appreciate that Western Seminary brushed past “silencing women” in order to make her a professor in later years.

Bible college was rough. The very institution preparing me for a ministry career was simultaneously telling me I had no future in such a field, due to my gender. This, honestly, made me panic a little. I never felt like God was telling me to hush up, but my religious leaders were telling me this was exactly what the Bible teaches.

I tried to wiggle, but didn’t find much room. I had no desire to be disrespectful or insubordinate. In general, the men in authority over me were usually pretty cool and humble about it. Some obnoxious, male students, who were younger than me and also newer believers, were a different story, as they loved to corner me in the student lounge and question my salvation. I liked to make them all kinds of nervous.

I tried not to despair. I spent the next seven years working part time jobs with flexible schedules so I could still volunteer my time to serve the church. Hollywood video, Starbucks, a Martial Arts Academy, Peet’s Coffee, waitressing… While I enjoyed many aspects of these jobs, mainly the people I got to work for and around, I always carried a crushing guilt that I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. I wasn’t a good steward.

On more than one occasion, I tearfully cried out to God, “Did you make a mistake by giving me these gifts, by making me a leader, and then also making me a woman?”

In the fall of 2006, I had moved back to Portland for a year. All the kids I had grown up with at church had been consistently calling me for advice in the three years I’d been in California. I wanted to go home and help them not need me so much. I haphazardly started a college group that fall. Just a group of us, meeting at my house since we didn’t have any other midweek structure set up. I remember the first week, it was me and 8 guys. I suddenly felt in trouble as their 16 eyes looked at me to lead them. “Why me?” I asked, to which they unanimously responded, “Why not? You’re the oldest and the only one that’s been to Bible college.” I’m pretty sure when I did return to California the following year, I never told anyone I had started and led a group of guys while I was away. It had blossomed, in those 9 months, and by the time I left, was becoming much more, with a sort of committee of leadership. Under that leadership, it grew into what they renamed (from “CG” aka College Group) Sycamore and someone else will have to tell you how many new people started coming to our church, because of it, and how many marriages came out of it.

Now that I’m a full-time supported missionary, I see just how simple good ministry is, and just how insignificant titles are. We’ve all got to do the best with what we’ve got, and who knows what God can do with it.

In the summers, I’d usually come back to Oregon to work at a summer camp. There I felt alive. I was writing comedy sketches each week, I was leading teams and I constantly had a microphone. I don’t need to be ashamed of the fact that I am alive when I have a microphone in my hand. I used to be afraid to admit that, but not anymore. Public speaking is a major fear for a lot of people, but it isn’t mine and I think that’s significant. On one such summer, I got an old youth ministry colleague from California to come up and guest speak. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say when he saw me running a show. He nervously joked to my camp director that he had never seen this side of me and I must have been “hiding my light under a bushel all those years”. I wanted to punch him, but “haha good joke.”

Working with Youth With A Mission has been a breath of fresh air. It is way more empowering for women, and we are equally pushed to reach our full calling/potential. Finally, after ten years of looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find my place in this world, I found it.

WHAT ABOUT THE BIBLE HAND?

Good question. Many people glean their theology about women from the letters of Paul. Once again, I need to give a shout out to the Almost Heretical guys for doing a great series on gender. They’ve helped me navigate these passages with that podcast. Also, its wonderful to hear Nate speaking as one of my former fellow college students. He mentions how he always used to hear jokes about the “placement” of women, with zero push back. Knowing his new perspective, from a further study of the Scriptures, is all kinds of vindicating. Let’s jump in.

Paul wrote thirteen letters which were later canonized into what we now call the Bible. The letter to Romans has become a center-stage-star in the creation of Christian theology, because it was written to a general audience, of Jew and Gentile believers, whom Paul hadn’t met. These are his blanket statements. In relation to women, he doesn’t launch into roles, but he does send a few greetings at the end (Romans 16) to some women whom he calls fellow workers. Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Junias, Julia, Nereus’ sister, and maybe some other names here that I don’t know are feminine.

In Galatians, which is also a bit blanket statement-y because Galatia is a region, not a city, he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28). I think this notion is expanded upon in some of his more specific letters to people he personally knows.

In First Corinthians 11, Paul goes into this speech about head coverings. He points out, in our (mostly translated by men) English translations, what looks like a hierarchy of headship. Man is the head of woman, Christ is the head of man, God is the head of Christ. Maybe a better translation is source. Woman was sourced from man’s rib. Men were spoken into existence by the Word of God, aka Christ. God is the source of His Word, aka Christ.

In the Corinthian context, women of nobility, and married women, wore head coverings. Prostitutes and female slaves were actually not legally allowed to wear them. Thanks Caesar. Not wearing a head covering reminded everyone that a woman was sexually up for grabs. They could get raped without consequence. When Paul tells them that every woman in their church is to wear a head covering, he is telling them to break the law in order for people to see them as honorable and off limits.

In the west, we look at that and take it as a subversive thing, when it’s actually quite the opposite. Think how even nuns, orthodox women and Muslim women wear head coverings. It’s large in part to show that they are honorable and off limits. In the surrounding chapters of First Corinthians, Paul is giving them instructions for meeting together and its for everyone to bring prophesy (teaching) in an orderly fashion, in order to give outsiders a correct opinion of God.

In First Timothy and Titus, Paul has been taken to be setting up church officials with titles. This could be a misunderstanding, if a church gathering is an orderly equal sharing of prophesy. The word deacon is the Greek word for servant and the word elder is the same word as older or elderly. Paul could have been setting up his expectations for the people in their communities positions. The lists of expectations for an elder and deacon are very similar, once again, ascribing nobility to the “least of these” and pushing elders to be good examples. Right next to those are expectations for women, older and younger, and you’ll see some crossover there too. Temperate, teaching what is right.

Another thing to note, is Paul specifically speaking to Timothy, who was in Ephesus. He’s got some pretty strong words for the ladies, but it must be understood in the context of their cultural tendency to synchronize with their culture (just as we also do) which was based around the worship of Artemis: the goddess who protected women during childbirth. Giving up Artemis, as many were doing (Acts 19), was making women afraid to have sex with their husbands and deciding not to remarry as young widows.

All to say, we need to watch how we allow our own culture dictate our understanding of the Bible. My study of this is not extensive, and I welcome questions as long as it comes with a genuine personal responsibility to engage with the the text and historical context as well.

The point is, Jesus was all about us choosing humility–the lowest seat at the table–in order to be exalted by someone else. I’ve seen some excellent examples of humble Christian male leaders, and a lot of very gracious ladies who have endured a lot of sexism in the name of complementarianism. I’m not saying women are good and men are bad. I’m saying, we need each other. It wasn’t good for Adam to be alone and it probably still isn’t good for Adam to do things alone. Let’s see if we can do better and stop oppressing women in the name of God.

Losing My Religion: 5 Experiences Which Pushed Me to Reread the Bible

It’s time to talk about the theologies which have been percolating in my mind and heart as I’ve continued studying the Bible in various cultural settings. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up in a marvelous church in Portland, Oregon and a major reason I can still call them marvelous, is that they’ve never been intimidated by my questions. There is an underlining sense that the God they serve is big enough to withstand questioning.

I experienced God from a young age. He speaks to me and has always been a close companion, emboldening me to leave a wonderful community in order to go where He led. I didn’t know exactly what theology had sunk into my developing brain until it was challenged by the microscope of church ministry, missions and Bible college.

I’ve identified five major experiences that made me question my understanding of the gospel. Maybe you can relate to at least one.

ONE: Disrespect of Women

Something I’ve never quite been able to shake, was just how horribly the men at my Bible college treated women. It was very manipulative and covert, but certainly demeaning. There weren’t many ladies, to begin with. At one point, I was the only woman in a cohort of twelve. The faculty never meant it to be this way, and always scratched their heads about why so many guys at the school managed to be a-holes. I propose: some of this thinking trickled down from the top.

For instance, the college held strongly to the belief that women can never teach men. This was displayed by the fact there was only one female professor and only girls could take her class. It was also reiterated in that women could, graciously, take the communications course, but guys had the option to walk out when a woman practiced a presentation. Although the theology classes preached a kind of equality guised as complementarianism, the fruit was many males feeling superior to females. We gals were probably just in Bible college in hopes of marrying these gentlemen, so it was only good and fair for them to be mean to those of us they didn’t see as possible mates, in order to not “lead us on”. So thoughtful.

Throughout my time attending this school, I had 10 different roommates. Only one married a guy from the college, three married Christian guys in other states after dropping out. The rest left town, a little bit pushed out of the community, mostly for choosing to date a non-Christian guy who was actually nice to them. Those are not great statistics.

Why is the fruit of applied “Biblical Theology” so detrimental to women? I rolled my eyes and spoke out against much of this, but of course that got me in trouble. Eventually, I served a silent, discipleship-of-women-only role throughout the school year in California, and secretly spent summers emceeing a major camp in Oregon to scratch that itch: functioning within my God-given gifting.

Because these two cultures claimed the same Bible and had different rules, I had to wonder: who was more correct?

TWO: Excommunication

This also happened during my time at the California church which ran my Bible college. There were two major instances of excommunication from the pulpit and both of them royally sucked.

The first was of a dear friend, who had started struggling with homosexuality. He had come forward and the pastoral staff met with him regularly for a few months. Then, when he wasn’t “getting better”, unbeknownst to him, they announced in all four services that he was an unrepentant homosexual and we were all supposed to cut ties with him. The goal was that he would miss the fellowship so bad he would come crawling back and give the whole thing up.

I was his friend, and God has always taught me to love unconditionally, so when I kept being friends with him, I got in a lot of trouble with church leadership. I was undermining the whole operation!

The second was a woman who had become very close with my cousins, as one had lived with her and her family for the year I wasn’t around to be a roommate. This woman’s husband was the missions pastor at the church and had been caught in a form of infidelity, which was, of course, announced to everyone. This mega church made our town really small, and our friend had to leave to escape the shame. When her husband decided he was repentant, the pastoral leadership came around him to “restore” him, then looked to his wife to see if she was going to take him back. She had since moved on with her life, and this decision to follow through with the divorce got her excommunicated as well (they had weirdly decided to crack down on divorces that year).

This whole kerfuffle made me look deeply into Matthew 18:17 and ask, “what is going on here?!” since it had been extensively cited as the validation for treating people this way. “If he refuses to listen to even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” All things aside, aren’t we still supposed to lovingly and graciously pursue Gentiles and tax collectors?

THREE: Christian Nations

The United States regularly boasts of being a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. I didn’t notice it until I traveled to other countries, but I realized this often breeds a mindset where Christians in those countries put themselves in the shoes of the Jews in the Old Testament narrative. Suddenly they can mow over pagan peoples like Israel mowed the Canaanites. There’s a racial superiority dynamic at play. Suddenly they can claim promises of eventual military victory. Suddenly they are “God’s chosen people” in a way which is unequivocally married to their nationalism. Suddenly someone is Christian because they’re American, like how someone is Catholic because they’re Italian, or Hindu because they’re Indian.

It makes sense until you have multiple nations claiming the same identity, but all have different expressions of what it looks like to be a Christian, which is largely informed by their national history, instead of Biblical exposition.

I was never formally taught church history, but researched it on my own after living awhile in Thessaloniki, Greece. You can read more about what I gleaned on syncretism in this blog post.

Christians in Oregon are much different from those in California, or Texas, or South Carolina, or Mexico, or Brazil, or Argentina, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Italy, or France, or Armenia, or Greece. Part of it can be a cultural swing away from Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic roots and some of it has a lot to do with the denomination of the missionary who got there first. The Baptists, Assemblies of God and Presbyterians have left noticeably different marks in their international church plants.

Unfortunately, and I feel it’s important to point it out, much of this proselytizing has roots in colonization. “We must first make the savages {insert nationality of missionary here} in order for them to properly adopt Christianity as their religion.”

Well folks, there is no nationality in the kingdom of God. In fact, it is international (every tribe, tongue and nation) by nature. So if your theology only makes sense in your nation’s context it is, at best, incomplete. That was when I began to aggressively remove American tradition from my faith. Otherwise, it cannot apply, or be good news, to the foreigner.

FOUR: The 2016 Election

I hope I don’t lose some of you here. It’s been a rough time, largely because of how divisive it’s been. I hadn’t engaged in much political talk leading up to the possibility of electing Biff Tannon (I mean DT) as our president. I grew up Republican, because my parents were, and hadn’t really questioned it. It’s too easy to make fun of “those crazy liberals” right? Until the moment my political party–deeply rooted in a love for money and the belief that anyone can create their own wealth (from the privileged perspective of the white middle class who have inherited at least some of it)–became personified in a sleazy, racist, sexist businessman, and those crazy liberals started pleading for their lives.

Most Republicans I know, in the more compassionate PNW, voted for DT begrudgingly, focusing on the issue of abortion. Others liked his brass rhetoric and ideas to close our boarders.

At the time, I was heavily invested in the refugee crisis; feeling the call to help, serve, love and be a good neighbor in a divine calling way. So then, It was alarming to get a kick back from “fellow believers” who venomously insisted on keeping those terrorists (Muslims) out of our country. That was when I decided to move somewhere I could be around them. People called me brave. I tried to bite my tongue.

In the fallout of DT’s America, we’ve seen a lot of things happen: Sure, a hike in the stock market (loud cheers from lovers of money), an empowering of bullies, a caging of children, an increase in gun violence, a persecuting of civil rights movements, a removing of health care from the poor and no statistical change for abortion.

As an American Evangelical Christian, what shook me the most was seeing people like Franklin Graham, whom I had grown up respecting, praise this President. This assaulter of women. Franklin is an evangelist! He’s supposed to share the “good news”! What exactly does he think the good news is??

FIVE: Befriending Muslims

For whatever reason, I didn’t know many Muslims growing up. As diverse as my high school was, it seemed most people were either Christian, atheist, agnostic, Sikh or Buddhist. Looking back, I am sure my Muslim peers felt they had to hide their faith. That is a shame. I had one friend who is Iranian, but what you maybe don’t know is how nonreligious most Iranians are.

Finally, in my thirties, I had the pleasure of befriending Muslims and I felt like I had been robbed, kept out of a marvelous secret. Being an Old Testament nerd, I was fascinated by how the principles of the Torah came alive in them. Most Western Christians like to throw the OT out, because it doesn’t make sense, or it was seemingly made void by the New Covenant. But even a lot of what Jesus said in His parables and Sermon on the Mount goes over our heads. Not so with these guys. The Bible was written to Middle Eastern people! They don’t have to do all the hermeneutical gymnastics I was taught in Bible college to directly apply the Bible to their lives. In fact, meeting them in Greece underlined much of the fact that the task of Paul was to try and explain an Eastern Religion to Western people. That’s why we, in the west, looooooove Paul. Even though he confuses us at times and causes a lot of misunderstandings about how to treat women.

I saw a fear of the LORD in them that I rarely see in believers. Not in the way that you might assume either. Fear, as in, “I care more about what God thinks, than what you think.” I think we, western, NT loving evangelicals miss that wisdom.

SO WHAT IS IT?

I read the Bible every day. Not out of a religious obligation, but because why wouldn’t I? The more I read it, the more I need it. God’s words and laws are right and true. There’s a reason the “Shema” (Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is instructed to be everywhere (6:6-9). We need constant reminders of truth in our daily life.

After years of pondering why these five things didn’t sit right, I’ve decided: it is because they all come down to abuses of power. Men’s power over women. Religious power over laypeople. Social-political powers over the poor and oppressed. How do these power plays have any place in a group of people who are fundamentally supposed to:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians‬ ‭2:5-8‬)

Jesus was granted all authority in heaven and on earth by proving He could be trusted with that power.

I rewatched “the Jesus film” a few summers ago. It’s an old movie from the 70s on Jesus’ life with all dialogue being direct quotes from the gospels. My main take away was, “Man, Jesus will not shut up about the poor!” He was all about meekness–strength under control–and humility. He directly told His disciples that their leadership style would be servanthood (Luke 22:26) and His major introduction into being a teacher was claiming he fulfilled Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16-21), which is good news for the poor, release for captives, and sight for the blind.

Something which has helped me put in to words some of theses thoughts, is a podcast I’m listening to called “Almost Heretical“. They’re not end-all experts, but they’ve done their research. And my spirit resonates with so much of it.

One assertion they made was how rich slave owners adjusted “the gospel” to be good news for them. It seemed to be for their slaves, but bad news for them. That’s nothing a new theology can’t fix! The idea of penal substitutionary atonement, I’m sure, isn’t that new, but making Jesus the volunteer in the court room who takes the death sentence from God, gets a lot of people off the hook. The Mosaic law theme of restitution was cut off. When slavery was “over” we “forgot it” and we didn’t have to give anyone “40 acres and a mule”. We didn’t even apologize.

Jesus wasn’t saving us from his angry dad, He was showing us a new way to be human. He was surgically removing a heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh. He was radiating the cancer, without killing the patient. He was showing us how to walk out our God-ordained roles as King’s and Queens in His kingdom. All of us. Every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus was restoring our identities and setting things right.

We, His people, are supposed to be ministers of reconciliation. Serving as unto the LORD, in all humility, submitting to His designs because He’s smart, created us, and knows what’s cancer and what’s benign.

He made Christ Jesus the judge, not any of us. Maybe it’s time we stop policing each other and answering violence with more violence.

If your definition of the gospel isn’t good news for everyone–if that pesky limited atonement theology keeps creeping in–maybe it’s time to prune it out. Even when I considered myself a Calvinist, I could never wrap my mind around that one. Too many places in the Bible indicate that Jesus died for the whole world, not just for some of us. It felt more like a forced then after a series of possible ifs.

To my friends who have lived in one culture and haven’t had to consider any of this: Think about it! Study the Word! Jesus is looking for people who can live like Him in meekness, humility and service for others.

To my friends who have experienced some of these same things and are losing your religion: Lose it! And instead, “press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3)

Cetti Family Love Stories

2018 will go down in the Bethany Cetti history books as the year I spent pursuing Italian citizenship. The possibility crossed my radar in February of 2015 when a Brazilian friend traveled with us to Costa Rica on an Italian passport. I found out, then, it was possible to trace family blood lines back to the homeland and gain citizenship. I was busy the next few years, working on other projects and figuring out why exactly I would need such a thing. Three years later, the process was in full swing. Birth, marriage and death certificates. New names, dates and information on the journeys of my ancestors. It’s begun to weave a story I am happy to continue to share. I found out it was a 5+ year wait to do this application in America, but only a matter of months if I moved to Italy and did it in person. You can bet if there is a fast and adventurous way to do something, I’m going to find it. Maybe that fact circles back to the people I came after.

Abbondio & Natalina

My great grandfather, Abbondio, left his deeply rooted family in Tremezzo, Lago di Como, Lombardia, Italia when he was 28, a wife and child in tow. They settled in beautiful Santa Barbara, California where he found employment as a farmhand, she had more children. Four more children, two of which died, and her along with the last one. We never knew much about this woman, the first wife, but I later was forced to meet her: Maria Lingeri. Her family also had deep roots in Tremezzo. It is said one of her five children was the product of infidelity, but we aren’t 100% sure which one, because Abbondio raised him as his own. A woman who left home at the age of 21 and spent her whole adult life having and caring for kids in a land where she never learned the language. She died in childbirth before she turned 30 and was buried in a humble grave along with her little girl, Mary Josephine. This mystery woman almost cost me my citizenship in all the-not-knowing-about-her. A fire, flood and earthquake swept away official records and I almost was unable to prove she died before Natalina came along. Flawed as she was, and unrelated as she may be, something felt important about telling the world that she was. As a writer and woman who feels the importance of being known I don’t want to leave anyone a footnote in their own family history.

My great grandmother, Natalina, was the response to a letter Abbondio wrote his family after the death of Maria. He wanted a new wife. This part of the story usually makes people chuckle. Does this service still exist? one man joked at me. Yes, I believe it does. All over the world. Grow up. What makes me wonder about this point, is that Abbondio was looking for an arranged marriage by his parents. Maybe he felt his chances with the local Californians were slim. Maybe he wanted something familiar. Maybe he wanted to make sure he was considered good enough for someone and not have it debated by in laws forever. In any case, the brave Natalina Fraquelli boarded a ship alone and sailed to America. She ported in New Orleans and saw so many black people she thought maybe they’d accidentally cruised down to Africa. From there, she took a train across the country, to meet Abbondio at the Santa Barbara station. They were married within days. While I don’t know much about Natalina, either, I know she had to be something to do this. To start over on the other side of the world takes a spirit of adventure. I know she only had one child, Guido, four years after they married. Neither she, nor Abbondio ever learned English, and they didn’t teach it to their son.

Guido & Katharine

Guido was in junior high before he started wearing shoes. He repeated grades in school as he struggled to learn English. He was funny and had a great work ethic. I feel I know he gained this ethic from his father, but I wonder where the funny came from. On the night he met the lovely Katharine Jean Potier, he was doing card tricks in the corner at a party. It was a thrill for Katharine, a girl with deeply Conservative Baptist roots, to see such a handsome Italian man doing such a scandalous thing as play cards. His ice blue eyes picked her observing smile out of the crowd and he asked her to dance. Scandal upon scandal! Dancing? She agreed. When during the dance he kissed her neck, she began to sweat. The next day as Guido was driving with Don Hollister, he spotted Katharine walking to school with a friend. Urging his friend to pull over, they invited to give the girls a lift. Because of a lack of space, Katharine had to sit on Guido’s lap and things got pretty official. Is it obvious I got the bulk of this story from Grandpa’s perspective? I’m sure Granny would have included different details.

They dated for the rest of Katharine’s high school years and married at the ages of 19 and 23. My dad was born two years later, the oldest of four. Guido continued to work hard, starting out as a salesman and eventually starting his own glass business. Katharine stayed hard a work at home with the family. She had a gypsy heart, and through all the hard working of her husband, announced she would be taking the kids on vacation each August whether he joined them or not. This started a pattern of travel for the family. In 1990, the two of them were exploring Europe together, the kids grown and gone, when they got word their home had burned to the ground in the Painted Cave Fire. Katharine looked at Guido and remarked, “I didn’t much care for the wallpaper in the dining room anyway,” and they didn’t hurry back.

They lived happily and generously. Granny died in 2003, leaving a brokenhearted Guido who begrudgingly lived a healthy ten extra years before allowing prostate cancer to get the better or him. He accepted the diagnosis as his ticket back to Kathy and stated, “Don’t give me a bunch of drugs and drag this out. I don’t want to finish my life constipated.” He rounded out his life by staging the epic finale to a 5 year prank he’d been playing on his best friend and taught me just how much I still had to learn about comedy.

David & Deborah

Dave met his best friend, Bob Cryder, at Westmont College. On the occasion of Bob’s wedding, my best man dad saw the beautiful Deborah Rehkopf float down the isle as the show-stealing maid of honor. He knew at that moment this was the woman for him. However, Dave is a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of guy, and didn’t make any major moves for a long while. In fact, during a well timed visit to Portland, Oregon (where Bob and his bride, Jenny had settled), Bob broke a friendship vow to never interfere with each other’s love lives and pushed Dave to make some sort of move on Debbie. She was about to embark on a 10 month missions trip. At the prompting of Bob, my dad asked if they would write each other. Mom said yes.

The following Christmas, after no conversations whatsoever about their relationship status, Dave visited Debbie’s hometown to meet her parents and ended up asking her father’s permission for her hand in marriage. He agreed, solely on the assumption my dad must be legit to be Bob Cryder’s best friend. When they moved on to Santa Barbara, visiting Guido and Kathy, mom and dad went for a walk. This walk turned into a proposal. They shared their first kiss and came back hand in hand. What had gotten in to these two? Everybody wondered.

Dave had moved to Portland to become the Bible teacher at Portland Christian High School, meaning after they got engaged they went back to long distance and planned a wedding. They married the following July and had my sister Natalie three years later, followed by me and our little sister Brittany.

Now, both sisters are married and I’ve returned to the scene of the crime: Italy. A single gal full of bravery, comedy, hard work, gypsy heart and prone to scandalize her Conservative Baptist roots. It’s anybody’s guess what happens next, but in all cases, I will be a dual citizen by 2019.

 

The Kingdom of Heaven Is…

At hand (Matthew 3:2; 4:17, 10:7). For the poor in spirit (5:3) and persecuted (5:10). Fulfilling the Law (5:19). Joined by nations from the East and West (8:11). A victim of violence (11:12). A secret revealed only to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear it (3:17). Like a seed needing good soil (13:24), a tiny mustard seed that grows to be a giant tree (13:31-32), yeast which works its way through dough (13:33), a great treasure or a pearl (13:44-45) which is worth abandoning everything else for. It is for the child (18:3) and the humble (18:1, 4).

Something I’ve always been pretty passionate about, is being a decent representation of who the God of the Bible says that He is. It started off as trying to be a “good Christian”, but this started feeling hopeless, the more I saw how syncretism turned words like “church” and “Christian” dirty. I resonated with what Philip Yancy said in his book, “What’s so amazing about Grace?”: Grace is really the only “Christian word” that has remained uncorrupted. Too much evil has been done in the name of Christianity and I’ve noticed the pattern of it usually being tainted by the earthly power its associated with.

When being Christian also means being a patriot of somewhere, it has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom is by nature, other worldly. It’s members are both heavenly and human, and the human part is made up of every tribe, tongue and nation. Being a patriot of somewhere presupposes a superiority over those from elsewhere. Such pride and exclusion have nothing to do with this Kingdom.

I’ve seen glimpses of the Kingdom of Heaven throughout my life. I see it in diverse worship teams, as people sing together in multiple languages. I see it in the childless women who, taking Isaiah 54 as a mandate, become mothers to the lonely. I find it in edifying conversations, as it becomes clear that the Spirit of God dwells within the many tents we are. I have seen it every time a person truly forgives and finds that indescribable freedom of accounts settled.

I was working in a refugee camp in Greece during the American election results of 2016 and into 2017. The hopelessness in the air was thick and on more than one occasion, we were talking people out of suicide. The day after “The Ban” went into effect, emboldening more countries to close their doors to asylum seekers, this graffiti appeared on a wall in the camp:

“I am here because the outside world rejects me.”

The reply which leaped from my spirit was, “And I am here, because the Kingdom of Heaven does not!”

Maybe I, as an American, represented a closed door, but I, as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, was at hand. The Kingdom has also suffered violence and it is for the poor in spirit. That is why they can be called Blessed (5:3).

My world was turned upside down. I experienced persecution and evil at the hands of Christians and non-Christians alike. I experienced unconditional love and incomparable treasure in Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Suddenly all titles and religions looked exactly the same and I lost interest. I now only was interested in the God of a Kingdom that was eternal, international, fulfilling the Law of love for God and neighbor, and at hand.

I grabbed hold of that beautiful grace that I needed to navigate my own anger and find forgiveness on the other side. It continues to be a slow process, because I am a slow process. I hope I can extend grace to everyone, because although I’ve seen venomous words spewed out of every kind of mouth (Republican, Democrat, Evangelical, Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Arab, European, Latino, African, Asian and Communist), I have seen compassion in all as well. Flickers of light awaken in the eyes of friends as they remember there is another option: The Kingdom of Heaven way.

It may be familiar with heartache, but it is worth losing everything to find it.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Much has already been said about the timely, and beautiful documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”. It artfully and respectfully chronicles the life of Mister Fred Rogers. A man who helped raise two generations at just the right time. A time when children started being raised by television, and little of it was dignifying to the human soul.

The response to this film has been massive, because it comes at a time in American history, when we desperately need building up instead of tearing down. It’s safe to say, I was tearing up, or on the verge of tears for most of the film, but one particular moment still resonates with me so deeply, I can’t talk about it without crying again.

But first, a little context.

I grew up in a wonderful family, surrounded by the loveliest community, and had the very rare privilege of an affirming childhood environment. This show was wonderful, safe and familiar.

As we all discover, in the arduous transition into adulthood, not everyone knows about their divinely bestowed value. At a young age, I knew I wanted to be some sort of missionary. Not the kind which condemned or demanded immediate change, but the kind that ascribed worth, listened and trusted My Creator would love people into wholeness, if only they’d give Him the chance. He’d been unfairly misrepresented after all, and remains, to this day, a topic of much debate. Is He loving? Is He full of wrath? How can we know which to expect from Him?

Over the past twenty years, my “philosophy of ministry” has taken many forms, but has always circled back to a desire to ascribe worth, and entrust people to the Lord. It has also come back to basic ideas of hospitality and being a good neighbor.

Although very bare bones Biblical, I struggled with wondering if that was enough. Through this last year, I’ve heard God affirming in my heart, that being a good neighbor is all He’s asking us to be. 

When I saw the trailer for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I cried. I already knew it was about to connect a golden thread across my messy life–weaving through years of insecurity, self doubt, mistakes, victories, performance art, education, change, travel, and turmoil–and attach firmly in the home of a beautiful childhood.

So there I was, sniffling my way through a perfectly done documentary, when it happened. They began to set up Mr. Roger’s reaction to September 11 and my heart dropped. I was suddenly afraid of what he might say. We were all so scared at that time and wrongfully demonized people I now love so dearly. God has led me to a life dedicated to being a good neighbor to Middle Eastern peoples, who are displaced now because of events the United States thrust into motion as a response to 9/11. 

What was he going to say? Well, spoiler alert, he said this.

I’m just so proud of all of you who have grown up with us, and I know how tough it is, somedays, to look with hope and confidence on the months and years ahead. But I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger: I like you just the way you are. And what’s more, I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe, and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods. Its such a good feeling to know that we’re lifelong friends.

He’s proud.

He knows it’s tough.

He is grateful for the ways we continue to bring healing to many different neighborhoods.

Many have said this film makes them want to turn around to be the good person Fred Rogers always believed they were. I, myself, feel challenged to charge ahead as he did; addressing confidently the issues we face today, with kindness. Not as an opportunity to tear down, or point out how wrong other people are, but in hope; always defaulting back to the divine value God, Our Creator, placed on each and every one of us.

In these days, which again feel so dark, he has re-asked us to be what the Lord has also called us to be: light. We can create more beautiful days in our neighborhoods.

The Eventual Enormity of Little by Little

As I begin to process the last months and years of my life, a theme has emerged. I’m beginning to see fruit which only comes from doing the same little things over time.

This is a very obvious concept, which I’m sure older generations may roll their eyes at or graciously nod along to. My generation is all about instant gratification, big impacts and immediate results. This could be attributed to a lot of things, namely our short attention spans, impatience, and how quickly everything changes. We seem to only have “this one shot” a lot. Sometimes we see those immediate results, and other times we get discouraged that nothing is happening. Consider this a pep talk to myself and my peers: big things happen over time when you’re daily faithful with the little things.

Last Fall, when I was first in France (feeling a ridiculous amount of pressure to change the world in 3 months or something), I was suddenly distracted by how profoundly impacted I am by the family who pastors my church in Portland.

Dwight Steele is our senior pastor. His wife, Genny, masterfully plays the piano for service. His oldest son, Randy, is the associate pastor. His middle son, Terry, teaches one of the bigger Sunday school classes. His daughter, Debs, leads worship. Their spouses are also very involved. You get the picture.

There hasn’t been one major event that made all the difference, but this family has always been there. Every week. Year after year, for over 30 years.

Debs taught me piano every Wednesday after school and also naturally became a mentor. From one pastor’s kid to another. Both Terry and Randy stepped in to being our youth pastor at different points during my 6 year–8 youth pastors–streak in junior high and high school. They were simultaneously, much needed continuity.

They’ve always been there. They’ve always loved me, encouraged me, and spoken truth. Pastor Dwight’s tender heart and love for Scripture has always impacted me. A lot of it used to go over my head, as I played MASH with my friends in the second row, but I grew steadily under his faithful teaching.

Five years ago I joined YWAM. The first three and a half years were a whirlwind of back-to-back intensives: facilitating week-long mission trips for youth groups, staffing 5-day wilderness backpacking leadership courses, staffing 6-month discipleship training schools. Full throttle, overdrive, making the most of every day we had with these students. It was great and also exhausting. Hats off to everyone in YWAM who has been following this schedule for years.

When God called me to Europe to be a good friend and neighbor to people coming from the Middle East, I didn’t know what all it would look like, but I liked the idea of a marathon pace over the previous sprints.

The word in Arabic for “little” is شوي pronounced shway. Put two together and شوي شوي becomes the word for slowly. Little by little. When I learned this word, God told me this was going to be my word. How was I going to learn Arabic? Slowly. Shway shway. How was I going to learn French? Slowly. Petit à petit.

Two years ago, Carly and I started putting our daily quiet times in blog form. We were just doing it, and hadn’t really considered what would happen when we covered the whole Bible, because that seemed like a huge undertaking. But we did it, because we stayed faithful to doing so every day for two years. Shway shway.

This completing of the Bible acted as a great encouragement that fruit can be visible over time. I mean, why even use the fruit analogy if you don’t want to presuppose that things take time? The average tree takes 4 years to begin producing fruit.

As I prepare to return stateside after this last stint in France, I won’t be returning with any epic, grandiose stories. But I can truly say my life over here is budding. Each day builds on the last. Most nights I have the pleasure of having friends over for dinner. I’m meeting new people, strengthening old friendships and taking time each morning to ask God how to love and serve the people around me in a way which glorifies Him.

I hope someday, a few people can say they felt loved, encouraged and served in the way I feel loved, encouraged and served by the Steele family.

I challenge my fellow man to think about what sort of impact you want to make in the world. Find something you can do a little of, every day. Don’t get overwhelmed by how long it may take, leave the timeline up to Him. Just keep at it.

شوي شوي

Step One: Decide It’s Funny

This has a real potential of coming across vain, but I won’t be bothered. Many people have suggested I write a book about my life. I’ve considered it, more recently, and created this blog as a channel in which my creative juices can flow.

I love memoirs, but only ones written by comedians. The first book I ever bought with my “own money” (aka allowance), was Mark Lowry’s “Out of Control. For those who don’t know him, He’s a Conservative Baptist comedian, singer-songwriter, most known for writing “Mary, Did You Know?” Since I also grew up Conservative Baptist, he was an early role model (along with one Kimberly Shivers).

Being “a comedian” is weird, because it starts innocently enough: a bunch of people calling you funny, followed by a personal decision to take that somewhere. You could say I “got my start” doing mission trip reports at church. I found myself on stage, microphone in hand, hundreds of people watching and subsequently laughing harder than you’re supposed to laugh in church. I was alive.

I only ever experienced mild stage freight, as a kid performing piano recitals. That was nerve-wrecking, because I have not-a-lot of control over my hands. The day I added singing to recitals, I discovered all nervousness left once my hand was preoccupied with a microphone.

So let’s say my future memoir is decidedly funny. Life is a mixed-up thing, and writing about it can present a lot of angles to choose from: Do I write about my numerous near-death experiences? Do I write about theology? Do I write about vagrancy and the many cities, states and countries I’ve lived in? This all sounds serious. I am serious, thoughtful, observant and funny. Can it be all those things too? Why not, if I’m all those things? How can I do it? How can I write the true me? Probably start by not overthinking it.

Ah, overthinking. My nemesis. Overthinking makes me anxious and certainly less funny.

During, what could be referred to as, a “peak” in my comedic life, I was emceeing a summer camp. Specifically, Camp Tadmor, summer of 2007. That was the year Andy O’Hara was my co-Emcee. We could read each other’s minds, on stage, and improvised everything. Our only prep was scrounging through costumes, backstage, saying, “I’ll wear this, you wear that, we will do this, and GO.” The only times we didn’t have people doubled over in laughter was when we over-planned.

I’ve read both of Mindy Kaling’s books: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and other concerns) and Why Not Me?, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please!, Ellen’s Seriously…I’m kidding, and Tiffany Haddish’s The Last Black Unicorn. (I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, Bethany, call the Oprah book club! You read 6 books!” To which I’ll say, “Yeah yeah, and I didn’t finish 3 of them, I’m too social to read, okay?!”) What I found, is a surprising sadness in each of their stories (Especially Tiffany Haddish, oh my gosh, that woman’s life is heinous). Life is sad, and comedians want to talk about it, but their first defense and processing filter is comedy. Life is only tragic if we can’t find these silver linings of laughter by the grace of God.

So I’v laid a few ground rules:

  1. Don’t take yourself seriously
  2. Don’t get preachy
  3. Ascribe worth and honor to people

We shall see where this goes. In the meantime, tell me about your favorite comedians and what you connect with them about. Let me know if there’s a certain story you feel I need to tell. And, if you’re having a rough day, decide it’s funny.