Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Writer of Things Nobody Reads

For several years after earning my undergraduate degree in English and professional writing from Portland State University, I worked as a technical writer. Whenever someone asked me what I did for a living, I would proudly say, “I’m a technical writer.” And more often than not, the reply would be: “You’re a typewriter?” Haha – I guess I was a bit of a mumbler before I became a professional speaker (teacher).

Do you want to know what a technical writer does? I wrote proposals, press releases, instructions, and manuals – I was a writer of things that nobody reads. Do you doubt that bleak assessment? I’ll challenge you to look for your VCR manual – or that wonderfully colorful booklet that came with your cell phone. Did you read them? How about the instructions of Microsoft Word or Excel? Those booklets are full of really useful information and techniques that would revolutionize your world (if you’re as geeky as I am).

There is another instruction manual that is undervalued: the Holy Bible. I used to try to read it, but it really frightened me to do so, because I would come across something that struck fear in my heart (something I was failing to do or doing that I shouldn’t be). I would read a few sentences and close it with a quick (and heartfelt) prayer of repentance for whatever I had just become convicted of.

In my late twenties, when I decided it was time to finally plough through the Old Testament, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe some of the laws and rules. I was confused and sometimes even horrified. I prefer to stay in the New Testament, going to the Old Testament for Proverbs and Psalms and getting my OT stories from Veggie Tales movies (I wish I were joking about that) and church sermons from men who’ve spent their lives studying the scriptures.

Seven years ago, I challenged myself to spend more time in God’s word than worshiping the television. Rather than spend four hours a day in the word (I wish!), I stopped watching television. I still don’t spend enough time in God’s word, but the more time I spend with God (reading and praying), the better my days go. I know that God’s word is true and useful and relevant and having experienced the blessings that come with walking in communion with God, it’s something I want more of.

Are you having a bad day, week, month, or year? It’s time to open the instruction manual. It won’t always make your problems go away, but getting an eternal perspective will do wonders, as does the peace that comes from time with the best friend a person could ever want.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Steve Spencer: The Dad He Didn't Have to Be

Today's guest blogger, Steve Spencer, is a trust administrator by day and a fiction writer by night. His blog can be found at

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My dad was born 26 May 1921, probably at home, in the middle-of-nowhere in Itawamba County, Mississippi, second oldest in a family that would eventually be eight.  He may have had a third grade education.  I never saw him read anything but a newspaper.  He could write well enough to get by; sign his name, keep his ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) logbooks back when they were books, multi-part carbons with line graphs and drivers could lie on them to cover up the fact they drove all night from Memphis, TN to Waco, TX.  As far as I know, the only fun things he did that didn’t always involve me was grow peppers & tomatoes, and watch a baseball game.  I don’t know his favorite team, but it was the South before cable got big, so it was probably the Cardinals or the Braves.

When Dad was 16, his father died of pneumonia.  At the time, it was deadly; nowadays,
you go to the doctor, get pills and go home.  His older brother was already out of the house, so it fell to my dad to provide for the family.  In depression-era rural Miss’ippi, that meant farming.  No, not farming, just picking.  The only farmland he ever owned was a thirty-by-fifty plot in our back yard.  So he enlisted in the Army, making corporal before being discharged with a low-percentage disability due to a training accident.  To my shame, that’s about all I know about his early life.  But he was a veteran, at a time when being in the army ran the risk of the bone-numbing cold of Bastogne, or the mosquito-infested tropics of the southeast Pacific.  He came home, got a job, married my mom; and bought a house, a car, and a Chihuahua.

At age 44, he and Mom adopted a roughly-six-month-old named Steven.  I don’t know what my original middle name was, but he gave me his; Arnold.  I hated that name.  I grew up in the mid-seventies, with Green Acres on TV.  When I graduated high school, I refused to let them say my middle name, calling me “Steven A.”  He was there, in the audience (Mom was too sick that day to go).  He never said anything, but I sometimes wonder if that hurt him.

They brought me home (I was already in the family, a grand-nephew or some such) and the Chihuahua was pissed!  He’d been the baby until I came along.  Mom said he used to snuggle up against me and growl.  Mom had babysat kids before, but they always left and I was staying.  I’m sure he thought: “I don’t know who this thing belongs to, but they need to come get it.”

Dad worked at Schering-Plough for 13 years, running the machine that made Di-Gel tablets.  In the days before OSHA, the room he worked in was a fog of chemicals, scarring his lungs and plaguing him with breathing problems for the rest of his life.  I saw him gasping for breath many times as a kid.  He had a nebulizer before they were cool.  After he left Plough, he drove an OTR truck hauling metal cabinets for Sandusky Metal Cabinets.

I never played catch with my dad.  He didn’t know how to be a kid.  He never got to be one himself.  Not to say he ignored me.  We fished, we camped, we watched rasslin’.  And he never had a problem telling me he loved me, and I knew he did.  In my early 20s, when I finally hit teenaged angst, we had plenty of arguments.  He actually kicked me in the butt, once.  In hindsight, I wish I would have tried harder to understand why he fought with me, maybe we wouldn’t have argued so much (not that it was a lot, but for all practical purposes “Spencer” = stubborn).

So why do I write a Memorial Day message about someone whose death had nothing to do with his service to our country?  Because his death had nothing to do with his service to our country.  Because he came home.  Everything I just wrote about us was possible because he came home.  How many stories like this never happened because someone didn’t come home?  Mine did.  In part, because theirs didn’t.

Happy  Memorial Day. And happy birthday to my dad, who would be 92 today.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Lost Babies

Have you seen the Discovery Health show, “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant”? Well, apparently it happens. And not just to very obese women. Also, not only to women who have never had children. I don’t get it. I knew I was pregnant every time. I’ve been pregnant four times, but only have two living children. Not the best odds.

I was in graduate school at George Fox University when I lost my first baby. Well, it would’ve been my second baby. I was taking birth control pills, but I still just knew I was pregnant. I had that unmistakable feeling about it and I was right. The same week, whether related or not I’ll never know, I threw my back out. It was painful and I went to see my doctor right away. While talking with the doctor about my back pain, I mentioned that I had a feeling I might be pregnant. She seemed skeptical (not likely while taking birth control), but ordered a blood test to put my mind at ease. She also wrote a prescription for a muscle relaxer and prescription-strength ibuprofen. I asked if it was safe to take on the off chance I was pregnant, and she assured me it would probably be fine to take that early in my pregnancy.

I picked up my prescriptions, went home, and took the pills. I remember sitting on my hot pink bedspread and feeling the pills kick in. The relief was immense. The next day I received a call from the doctor’s office: I was pregnant. I should stop taking the medicine immediately. I stopped: my back pain was already better. Being very excited about my pregnancy and life in general, I took my toddler son to the zoo with another mom friend and her daughter. It was a great day, except that I didn’t bring a stroller and my son couldn’t make it around the zoo without being carried a significant amount of the time.

I woke the next morning with severe cramps. A trip to the bathroom confirmed that the baby had passed. I was in shock. I didn’t think this would happen to me. I didn’t even consider it. I had already posted pictures of my son wearing a t-shirt proudly displaying the words: “I’m Going to Be a Big Brother!” I had made arrangements with my advisor to do my student teaching early so I could deliver my baby and still graduate with my class. Everybody knew I was pregnant. I wouldn’t be able to grieve privately. And my doctor ordered daily blood tests to confirm the pregnancy hormones were decreasing. I left every blood test in tears – this was how I learned I was pregnant, now I had to do it to confirm all traces of the pregnancy were out.

I remember driving the next week: it was a gray, raining May evening in Oregon. As my car approached a bridge, I couldn’t help thinking how easy and neat it would be to veer to the right. End the pain. Stop the self-loathing and self-blame about my baby. I should’ve listened to my intuition and not my doctor. I blamed the doctor too, but mostly I blamed myself. If I hadn’t taken those pills… If I hadn’t carried my son around the zoo … would my baby still be growing in my womb? I would never know.

A few months later, still taking the pill, I became pregnant again. It was a second chance. And I did everything differently. I avoided any medicine, even over-the-counter. I stopped drinking coffee. I ate meat at every meal, trying to ensure my body had the iron and nutrients needed to sustain a pregnancy. I didn’t carry my son, no matter how much he whined for it. And then it happened again. I felt numb about the second miscarriage. In a strange way, it proved to me that there was nothing I could do to stop it – in that second case at least. It gave me some peace to think that maybe the first pregnancy ended because it was never meant to be. I will never know.

A year later, I became pregnant for the fourth and last time. Seven weeks into my pregnancy, I found blood. I thought it was over. It wasn’t. I spotted throughout the pregnancy. At twenty-four weeks, my doctor began giving me weekly shots to stop the labor – I spent the last twelve weeks of my pregnancy fighting labor and two centimeters dilated. My perfect baby girl was born on her due date.

When I was going through the dark days after my first miscarriage, I found a poem that brought me comfort. I can’t find the poem now, but the gist of it was that if it weren’t for the baby who didn’t make it, we wouldn’t have the baby we know and love. The daughter who followed the two miscarriages has been such a blessing to our family. She is a sweet and loving child. A friend to all.

As we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend, I want to acknowledge the hurt and pain of parents who have lost their babies and children. I experienced the loss of two children I never got to meet – I can only imagine how much harder it would be to lose one (or more) whom I had held, nurtured, and loved.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dear Jesus, Please Save Me From Your Followers!

Twenty-two million Americans say they’re Christians, but do not go to church. Why? Too many have been hurt by people in churches – by other Christians. It’s a fact that is flaunted by atheists. Christians can be hypocritical, judgmental, mean-hearted people. Why would someone want to have anything to do with that?

When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Mark 2:17

Christians are not perfect. We sin, we make mistakes, and we often do it again. We are the ones Jesus came to help. You are the one Jesus came to help and to save. Please do not give up on Jesus based on your experience with some of His imperfect followers.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: The Devil in Pew Number Seven

The Devil in Pew Number Seven, by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo, is a memoir about growing up as the young daughter of a small town minister. In the tiny little congregation, a man (who always occupied pew number seven) decided that he hated her father and wanted him out. Not just out of the church, but out of town. And he would stop at nothing to see it happen: "Dead or alive, crawling or walking." The family lived for years under constant attacks, threats, and fear from this man, their neighbor.
Rebecca’s father modeled forgiveness and praying for his enemies throughout the entire ordeal which included bombings of their home and surrounding property, threatening phone calls, and eventually a shooting which took the life of Rebecca’s mother. In the wake of her mother’s death, the widowed preacher spiraled downhill and soon died, leaving Rebecca and her younger brother as orphans.

The author’s descriptions of the fear she experienced and lived with as a very young girl built throughout the story, but the ending was the most unexpected event of all: forgiveness. She offered forgiveness to the man who had terrorized her family and caused the deaths of her parents. After he was released from prison, she allowed him into her life (she was, by then, an adult) and the two made amends. The “Devil” even arranged, while incarcerated, to pay for her and her younger brother’s college education.

I highly recommend this book to any who have experienced injustice. Because you simply cannot read this book and feel all the empathy and sympathy for this family and not be completely affected by the reconciliation that occurs. I was blown away by this woman’s story and by her depth of faith, love, and compassion.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Child-Free Mother's Day

Today is Mother’s Day, but we’ll be celebrating my son’s birthday. That’s okay with me. We celebrated Mother’s Day last night with a nice dinner at Red Lobster – and left the kids with a good, responsible mom friend. One of our invited guests questioned the “no kids” clause on the invite: why no kids? It’s Mother’s Day.

Wouldn’t you want to spend Mother’s Day with your kids? Well, I have so many answers for that. First, it’s the way I was raised. It was a Follower tradition for parents to have a child-free day on Mother’s Day. Teenage girls were asked to babysit so couples enjoy the day with other couples – or alone. It was always a privilege to be asked to watch someone’s children on Mother’s Day.

It’s nice for us moms who spend the rest of the year catering to the needs of our children and families to have a nice dinner that we didn’t have to prepare. It’s nice to not worry about cutting up food for little people, wiping their faces, dealing with picky eaters, or being outnumbered. It’s a treat to have a grown up conversation.

Do I want to spend Mother’s Day with my children? Of course I do! I became a mom the week of Mother’s Day and this day will pretty much always belong to my firstborn. And there’s nothing I love more than to see my children filled with excitement and joy.

To all the mothers, mothers-to-be, empty-nesters, and especially moms who have lost children: may your day be filled with peace, joy, and blessings. And, a special shout-out to the person who has loved me and cared for me more than any other mortal person: happy mother's day Mom!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Something Positive Post: She Made It!

I’ve been accused of presenting an imbalance of information when writing about the FOC. I have written several blogs about the good things Followers do for each other, and today I am presenting another positive aspect of Follower life: bridal showers.

Have you been to a bridal shower? I’ve been to hundreds, and that’s not an exaggeration. The main event, the entertainment, consists of a time of blessing the virginal young bride. The bride and most of her bridesmaids stand on the pulpit in front of a long table overflowing with beautifully wrapped gifts, large and small. A card table stands at the end of the gift table and holds a basket full of cards stuffed with well wishes and money.

A young lady, one of the bridesmaids, sits at the card table. It is her job to record the gifts on each of the cards, so the bride can later send out thank-you cards. On the other side of the scribe, another bridesmaid stands at the microphone and reads out the names on the cards as the gifts are opened. A very sweet tradition is that many ladies will make beautiful gifts for the new bride, and when one of the homemade items is held up, the caller will say, “and she made it” and the five hundred or so ladies of all ages break into an appreciative applause.

Little girls, selected by the bride, serve as package carriers. They wait in line on the steps to the pulpit to receive the gifts and carry them down the benches to the left of the stage (where young boys and bachelor men sit during church services). The gift opening can last well over an hour.

One of the most exciting gifts are the ones the bride and her friends got to shop for themselves. In the weeks before the shower, bridesmaids will take a collection from ladies who want to donate money (en lieu of bringing a gift), and then take the bride out to pick out several nice outfits to start off her married life.

After the gifts are opened, the bride gives a thank you speech and welcomes the guests to enjoy the delicious food set out on the long tables in the back room. The girls and women visit, walk the isles of gifts admiring all the nice things the bride has received (especially the handmade items), and enjoy the wonderful banquet of food. The food provided at Follower events is impressive. Dozens of women volunteer to bring dishes to contribute special recipes, sweets, various snack foods, bowls of punch,  cheese balls, and vegetable trays.

It is one of the nice traditions and passages into adulthood to honor a young woman who has saved herself for marriage.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Born Holy

I was born holy on Crystal Court in Oregon City. “Born holy” because my parents had been “saved” through the full submersion water baptism they received by the preacher Walter White. White’s baptism held the key to salvation, the Followers believed. White or a man like him – called by God through visions, confirmation, and outwards signs such as speaking in tongues.

The children of those White baptized were said to be “born holy.” I didn’t understand where that phrase came from and eventually I came to believe the Oregon City group had adopted the phrase to convince the generations who came after White’s time that they had hope through their lineage.

Oregon City, I later discovered, was not alone in their belief about the offspring of the “saved.” The Idaho FOC believes that when a parent is “saved” through baptism, their children – those born and those who will be born – become holy.

Setting aside the notion that baptism is what saves a person, I was interested to know where this idea came from. As it turns out, it’s biblical.

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now they are holy.

1 Corinthians 7:14
According to this verse, a believing spouse offers spiritual protection to their unbelieving husband/wife, and their children are “holy” through the belief of one or both parents. I had always thought that all children, regardless of their parents’ beliefs or spiritual standing, were considered innocent until the age of reason – somewhere around age eight or nine.

My interpretation of this verse is that these “holy” children are actually children by age. We cannot stay children forever. Each of us must become accountable for our own lives and our own children.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How's Your Prayer Life? #NationalDayOfPrayer

Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In every thing give thanks:
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Today, May 2, is the National Day of Prayer. I love that we have this day. It’s a great reminder to stop and prayer – or keep going and pray. Pray all the time.

When I was a child, my church would kneel in silent prayer. Only I didn’t know it was a time of prayer. By the time I was old enough to ask questions, age seven, I sat away from my parents and with my peers during services. We kneeled like the adults, but the girls I sat next to didn’t seem to know any more than I did. We would make finger drawings on the oak benches and watch each other. For some reasons (maybe I was sick), I sat with my parents once during church and proceeded to play during the silent prayer, when my mother leaned over and whispered that I was supposed to be praying.

I didn’t know how to pray, other than repeating the words my dad (and sometimes one of my brothers) would recite before meals. It went something like this: “Dear Lord, thank you for our food and raiment. Forgive our sins. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” The same prayer, word-for-word. That’s all I knew.

And I had never heard a woman pray aloud. It took quite a bit of coaxing and encouragement from other believers before I could pray aloud. I still don’t prefer to do it in front of others, with the exception of my children or female friends. But, I have learned a lot in the past two decades about how to talk to God, through prayer.

I’m still learning and I sometimes forget to pray for a couple of days. And then I get a reminder when things start spinning out of control. God’s calling.

How is your prayer life? How did you learn to pray? Do you struggle with talking to God or are you a “prayer warrior”?