Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why God Allows Bad Things to Happen

Freakin' Angel readers, many of you are familiar with the story of Ann Bates, Ann's Love Builds, and a newly opened medical center in Ghana with her name on it. It's been an amazing journey from the pain of loss to a celebration of Ann's life in the form of a place of healing. So appropriate given that Ann was called to be a doctor during her time here on earth.

I know Ann had a few friends who would describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, yet I heard from one of them that Ann's victory over cancer at three different times in her life nearly had her believing in God. But Ann's death can easily take non-believers back to square one, asking the question that even the most faithful Christians ask: "If there is a God, why do bad things happen to good people?" I'm not going to try to tackle that one on my own, and thankfully I don't need to because my friend Kim Graham, felt called to put into words:

"My Thoughts on Why God Allows Bad Things to Happen"
by Kim Graham

This week was a week spent in the shadow of hearing first-hand from my friend Theresa about the hospital being built in Ghana in memory of my friend Ann. And while there was great joy in having Theresa (and the entire team) arrive safely back at home, it also meant being aware - again - that my beautiful, smart (she was an ER doctor at duPont Children's Hospital for crying out loud), wonderful friend Ann - whose son Nick is the same age as Hope, isn't here to watch his lacrosse games, sign his report cards, spend her afternoons getting frustrated with him in some way or another and then lean over his sleeping head at night and give his forehead a kiss. (That's Nicholas in the picture, holding the soccer ball...and his new Ghanian soccer team that formed when he delivered soccer balls to each classroom at a school in Berekum in memory of his mom.)

So with that already in my mind, a bunch of other news found its way to my prayer list this week. I went with my husband to his uncle's funeral on Monday - a man who had suffered greatly and whose family is still facing heartbreaking challenges. A dear friend's father has had his (and his family's) world turned upside down within the past ten days with the discovery of a significant cancerous tumor. Another friend asked for prayer for a friend of hers - a dad in his 30s - who collapsed from a stroke and died. I spent my hair appointment giving condolences to my hairdresser (and friend) whose mom passed away just before Christmas. Finally, we found out this week that a preschooler our family knows has been diagnosed leukemia and is in treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

So yes, it was time for me once again to deal with the most asked theological question in all of history: why does God - who claims to love us - let bad things happen?

I'm not a theologian by any stretch. There are also people on my Facebook friends list who have dealt with trials and struggles and sadness that I can only imagine - and those hurts are very, very real. In the worst moments - the moments when the rest of the world has stopped and you have to remember to breathe and the minutes seem like hours and you're not sure what "normal" will look like ever again - in those worst moments, these answers are not going to be quick fixes. But when the time is right, and the heart is ready, they might be worth some consideration. So here goes (in no particular order and, to be honest, they kind of overlap with each other):

1) Love. Bad things happen because we love. Generally speaking, we think something is bad if it causes us hurt. If we didn't love, we wouldn't care and if we didn't care, we wouldn't hurt...and then nothing would be "bad." But nothing would be joyful either. Or hopeful. Or tender. Or sweet. Here on earth, one has to exist in order for the other to exist as well. Maybe God doesn't allow for bad things to happen. Maybe He had to choose between making us cold, unfeeling robots that merely existed but protected from all hurts; or creatures capable of great love and connection but vulnerable to any number of hurts. Which choice shows the greater love?

2) This isn't the world we were created to be in. This is my go-to answer for any number of situations. If you believe what the Bible says, our souls literally were not designed to function in the world as it is today. They are designed to flourish in Heaven - a place best described, I think, as the removing of the bad part of #1 and just having the good part. Being able to love and love greatly with the promise of no kind of hurt - ever. Think about that for a moment. Think about what it would look like if we all loved without the fear of hurt. Without the obstacles of the walls we built up to protect ourselves. Without the worry of rejection. Without having to ever say good-bye. Without ever being lonely. It is, truly, almost unimaginable.

3) When bad things happen, we get a glimpse of #2. I'm not saying this is WHY bad things happen, but if we choose to see it, we can see glimpses of the loving community in #2 when they do. Sometimes a tragedy happens and someone is forced to ask, "If God loved us, why would He let this happen?" It's an understandable response. But the other question could be "Why would God let this happen and leave me to suffer all alone?" God sends us comfort, if we look for it. I have seen it many times. Friends of mine go through situations that make me think to myself I would just crawl in my bed and never leave...but they are the first to say how loved they felt, or how cared for they felt...how they got a glimpse of the community we are promised in eternity. And while they would never wish for the tragedy to happen again, they are grateful for the blessings that come after it. Thank God there are blessings after it...because otherwise, life would truly be miserable.

In this life, we are all broken. We are all going to be broken some more. It's not an if...it's a when. The question for me has become not "why does God let bad things happen" but "how am I going to choose to be broken?" We can be broken like a dropped dinner dish. Sharp and shattered with no usable purpose. We can be broken like a car tire with a slow leak...we can still function somewhat but we're too broken to be dependable and broken enough to always be looking for some kind of fix. Or, we can be broken like a child's neon glow stick. The kind that are a sort of milky grey at first and you can't even tell what color they are going to be. The kind that have no purpose UNTIL they are broken. And not only broken - but shaken. That's when the light shines, when the color is revealed, when the purpose comes through.

Most of the parents I know would do anything in their power to protect their child from hurt. It's not uncommon to hear parents say "if it was only me who was sick" or "I would take a bullet for my child." It struck me as I was thinking through this that that's exactly what God did for us. He took a bullet - in the shape of a cross - to take away hopelessness. To promise us what is to come. To show how things are meant to be.

I have no idea if anyone will be reading this...it was more of a cathartic exercise for myself than anything else. I realize that there may be people who read it who don't believe the same thing I do as far as the Bible...eternity...what God has done for us. And that's ok. For me, though, this is the only way it makes sense. My prayer for all the families heavy on my heart this week is that their suffering isn't hopeless...and that miracles they never would have wished for and can never explain find them at every corner of their journey.

And that, somehow...someway...in the midst of their hurt, Beauty can be found.

Just like in Berekum, Ghana.

"Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." Romans 5:3-5

Friday, January 24, 2014

I'll Tell You What I Think of Her!

I made several important discoveries last weekend:
  • Politics and beer do not mix. 
  • Politics and your high school listserv do not mix. 
  • Church ladies can have one hell of a good time playing Bananagrams and drinking wine. 
  • Every visit to my parents' house sends me home with more stuff than I came with.
  • If "Her" is a harbinger of things to come, we're all in seriously sad shape. 
That little white thing in his ear? That's Her.
So I saw Her. The new movie with wackadoodle Joaquin Phoenix who puts on a great performance
as Theodore Twombly, a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Set in Los Angeles in the not-so-distant future,Theodore has experienced the break-up of his marriage and isn't taking it so well. But then he installs his technology's the new operating system (Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and suddenly things are looking brighter. For those of you who haven't seen the commercials or trailer for Her, you should know that Theodore develops a relationship with Samantha. 

I saw this movie with my friend Cathie who frequently muttered, "This is so bizarre." Or maybe she said "weird," or "disturbing," or "strange." Any of those adjectives fit. But I would also call it "fascinating." It's rather unusual to see a movie these days that starts you actively thinking about some major aspects of human existence. Walking out of the theater, I had a series of essay/dissertation/thesis/analysis/review topics just ripe for the picking:
  • Communication and culture
  • Human relationships in the 21st century
  • Technology and what it means to be human
  • Artificial intelligence: A bridge to artificial relationships?
  • A way with words, but unable to communicate
  • Desire and physical touch in an age of technologically-based relationships
  • When artificial intelligence evolves
  • The mysteries of the human heart
If you're looking for an essay topic for your course in psychology, sociology, technology, culture, communications, sexuality or anthropology, let me know.

Even before seeing Her, I've recently found myself giving a good deal of thought to the technological inventions of the past few decades. More specifically, I've been thinking about the cost of these so-called "advances." It's actually very easy to point to the setbacks of nearly everything we've created:
  • Cell phones = distracted drivers = increased traffic accidents (National Safety Council estimates that 24% of all motor vehicle crashes involve cell phone use)
  • Video games = sedentary behavior = increase in childhood obesity (US Dept of Health & Human Services reports that the number of adolescents who are overweight has tripled since 1980)
  • Social media/texting/email = less face-to-face interaction = a failure to authentically connect and form relationships, difficulty in recognizing true emotion (great article in Forbes magazine)
  • Constant access to wireless networks = dramatic increase in energy consumption = negative affect on our environment
  • The Internet = never having to ponder, imagine, create = scattered, superficial, distracted thought 
Don't get me wrong; there are a hell of a lot of positives to all of our inventions, and I have to admit that I'm almost as addicted to technology as the rest of the world (though I don't feel the need to sleep with my iPhone or check it every 10 minutes while I'm awake). I seriously wonder, however, what my teenage son and I would fight about if it wasn't for computers, the Xbox, the iPhone and the Internet. I guess there's always the issue of towels on the floor, clean clothes to put away, a dishwasher to empty, and trash to discard of.

What are your thoughts on the topic? If you had to give up one of the technologies listed above, could you do it? Which one would be easiest to live without?

And finally, let me know if you've seen Her. I'd love to know what you thought.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Not So Cruel to Be Kind

One of the gifts I requested and received for Christmas was a magnifying/make-up mirror. As I grow older and face the distinct possibility probability that it's time to start applying spackle and paint on a regular basis, I thought it important that I had an accurate view of my true self. When I saw the price tag on this fancy mirror, however, I decided it wasn't worth that kind of money to see myself in what is never a flattering light. Therefore, over the weekend, I returned the high-end mirror and picked up a cheap plastic one. It requires me to squint to avoid a distorted view, but shows my flaws just the same. Let me tell you, examining your face magnified 10x is no way to spend a weekend. I nearly rushed out to the Vietnamese nail salon and apologized for assuming they were scamming me when they recommended a whole-face wax.

While self deprecation is always good for a laugh, as a rule, I'm not terribly hard on myself, though I know my blog would lead you to believe otherwise. I'd say I'm more "self-aware" than "self-critical." I'm pretty good at acknowledging my flaws and weaknesses and accepting myself for who I am. That's one of the few benefits of age. What I still haven't figured out, however, is to how to deal with the criticism of others.

The old Kim would have criticized
his misspelling of Critisize.
Criticism can take a variety of forms, from the obvious "you are so stupid," to the thinly veiled, "I wish you would think before you speak." Criticism can be blunt: "I love you, but you're really not a very nice person;" or couched in concern, "I'm worried about your children growing up without discipline." Criticism can even be communicated with nothing more than a tone of voice or the curtness of a reply. Regardless of how it's delivered, it hurts, and over time those hurts begin to scar both our sense of self and our relationships.

I doubt there's a single one of us who can claim to have never criticized another, even someone we love. But, I'm becoming more aware of its effects. Though I don't usually bother with New Year resolutions, this year I decided that I need to be kinder to others, especially those I care about. I have to decide if I'm truly offering what I like to call "constructive criticism," or if I'm finding fault "just because." I also have to consider how I'm delivering the message, based on the person on the receiving end. One of my children, for example, reacts with strong emotion to what they perceive to be criticism or "being yelled at." Being yelled at, by the way, almost never involves actual yelling or raising my voice, but that's the way it's perceived. Their reaction is usually anger, followed by profound hurt. It can be a challenge to not react in the moment so that both parties aren't frustrated and saddened by the exchange.

Our relationships might be overwhelming positive and full of love, but memories of being judged or scolded leave a definite mark. For example, I remember being criticized for things as unimportant as the cleanliness of my car or the clothes I chose to wear for Ian's baptism. And criticism (whether delivered or perceived) of the big things, like our parenting skills, cut particularly deep. To be criticized or seemingly disrespected by the people we love most leaves an ugly mark on what may otherwise be a wonderful relationship.

I think I take criticism so hard because I want nothing more than to please those who are important to me: my children, husband, parents, friends, boss, etc. I take great joy in those rare occasions when I clearly impress my spouse by adding something valuable to a conversation or managing a challenging situation all by myself (I'm such a big girl!). I still tell my parents about any success I have at work or something I manage to fix at home without my dad's help. This need for approval might be a Shimer girl thing. Even my sister -- who is considerably thicker-skinned than I am -- calls home after every performance evaluation (of course her evaluations result in bonuses worth more than half my salary). Just picking a good movie provides me with a sense of fulfillment.

Two of my favorite critics.
I might be am most likely more sensitive than the average person, but the hurt I feel when on the receiving end of criticism has opened my eyes to the negative, lasting effect I can have when I am the one dishing it out. Hence, my vow to be kinder and gentler in the year to come so that no one ever tells me I'm "not a very nice person."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Top 10 Things I Love about My Best Friend

This is a special edition post in honor of my best friend's birthday. He hates when I blog about him, but why stop now?

Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 things I love about my husband:

  1. He's really good at small talk - whether it's the guys at the parking garage or the president of a company. And it's genuine; never sleazy sales guy banter.
  2. Speaking of sales, years ago someone told me that, in media ad sales circles, she'd never met anyone who didn't have good things to say about Rob. And in ad sales, that's saying something!
  3. My parents, my sister and more than a couple of my friends enjoy talking to Rob more than as much as they enjoy talking to me.
  4. My man can dance! Just come watch him in the kitchen.
  5. He doesn't whine, blame, or make excuses, ever. You I might want to take a lesson or two from him.
  6. Rob doesn't mind running errands with the kids, packing lunches, or changing the bed sheets. Three of my least favorite things to do.
  7. He bought me Swedish fish and licorice for our anniversary, which in my mind means I don't need to worry about my weight.
  8. His first impulse is to help someone in need, be it a stranger or a friend.
  9. Years ago, when I still had stuffed animals lying around, he'd make them "talk" to me. I have fond memories of the duck banter.
  10. His faith is quiet, but he lives it better than most "vocal" Christians I know. 
Of course, he's also an awesome dad, a reasonably good listener, makes an excellent spaghetti sauce, and can get me pretty great seats at Phillies games. 

Happy Birthday, Rob!
I may not be "the prettiest girl in the whole wide world" anymore,
but I'm still the luckiest.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Making Christmas Merry in Mexco

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the good fortune to be in Riviera Maya, Mexico with my family -- Rob, the kids, my sister, her husband and son, and my parents. While my sister has been taking these Christmas vacations for years (she doesn't love us enough to come home from Denver for the holidays), this was a first for me and my clan. We left on Christmas morning, having opened what was supposed to be a very small number of gifts the night before. (Rob has trouble following directions and had way too many presents for me -- granted, I had asked suggested casually mentioned each item in the weeks leading up to the big day.) Despite having worshiped at church (those of you who did not witness MPC's 5 p.m. children's service missed out on an Oscar-worthy freakin' angel performance), gathered with friends for a couple hours of merriment, and exchanged gifts at home on Christmas Eve, it stopped feeling like Christmas the minute we reached Philly's airport. Arriving in Mexico did nothing to add to the spirit of the season. Maybe it was the signs that read "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Gift." I guess you have to give them credit for openly stating what is the true meaning of the holiday for many people.

Photos by Abby MacPherson
Once at the Riu Palace resort, my spirits were slightly buoyed by the Christmas tree and the manger scene in the lobby (and the Corona I had on the ride there probably helped, too), but as the day progressed I had serious doubts as to whether I would again take a trip over the holiday. The palm trees, clear blue water and 80 degree temperatures just didn't feel right. However, by the time my sister and her family arrived the next day, I had settled in quite nicely. It's amazing what you can deal with when you're forced to adjust to new surroundings. I know; you hate me right now.

Lest you think it was all sunshine and rainbows, I should tell you that it rained for most of one afternoon and a couple of evenings. Plus, Rob and I ended up sharing a bed with a teenager. Fortunately, we knew him or that would have been extra awkward. (The resort's definition of a suite differed from mine.) But besides that, there was no little family drama. The kids didn't rarely got on my nerves. I didn't fight with my sister at all. And having given up dairy products on the advice of my physician, I didn't even find myself doubled over in the bathroom at any point in the trip! The wine was lousy, but the pina coladas were drinkable, and I even discovered a new, more adult beverage -- the Caipirinha.

Other highlights of the trip included amazing sugar donuts at the buffet, surprisingly good pancakes, and mimosas every morning at breakfast. Oh, and the warm, magnificent water of the Caribbean Sea, a snorkeling expedition complete with sea turtles and a large stingray, and colorful sunrises and sunsets weren't too shabby either. As for entertainment, well, we brought along our gift for words, with the youngest family members delivering the biggest zingers. Here, in no particular order, are the most memorable lines from Viva la Vida 2013:
Nana, your arms are squishy; you need to work out. -- William, age 5
Ian, you can come to the pool with me because you're my friend and my cousin. -- William
I play the pan flute. -- Ian
It's like shooting fish in a barrel. -- A nationally competitive rifleman who then proceeded to miss his first three target shots with a BB gun during the resort's daily competition. (Side note: Ian turned out to be quite the marksman! He won the competition on our last day there, making Pop Pop very proud.)
Is B-E, "beh," a word? -- Ian, while playing Bananagrams
I'm not tired, just resting here on Pop Pop
I'm not tired, I'm just rubbing my eyes -- an exhausted William
They're in case I need to climb over something. -- Abby, in response to why she was wearing gym shorts under her dress
I don't like Abby so much anymore. -- William, after he and Abby had a "disagreement" over sand castle building.
Ten years ago I would have had that. -- My dad, upon missing yet another beach volleyball strike
I was looking for olives. -- William, when asked why he took so long at the buffet and came back with an empty plate
Fun Kim is coming out tonight! -- Brother-in-law Rob in response to Kim ordering a second drink
There's a fun Kim? -- Abby, in response to Uncle Rob
Ah yes, good stuff.

I told Rob that this whole Christmas vacation thing may prove to have been a bad idea, because I just know I'll the kids will expect to go somewhere every year. He said we'll just have to tell them that that's not going to be the case. And boy, was I were they bummed to hear that.

The trip concluded with a lovely six-hour stay in the Cancun airport when our flight was delayed, but we still made it home in time to bring in the New Year with friends. Happy New Year to you and yours!

Toes selfie