Saturday, December 28, 2013

Our DIY Bathroom Renovation: Timeline & Photos

April 20, 2012: First bath time with a one-year-old and two-year-old in your new home. Realize you can't fit both kids in the bathroom with the door shut, and you can't put the kids in the bathtub with the door open. Make do while other more important projects get done around the house

May 20, 2013: Fall in love with a laundry chute bathroom cabinet at Ikea. Decide it's time to renovate the bathroom.

June 4, 2013: Buy discount tile at the Habitat for Humanity Restore, with the intent to re-tile the bathroom. Impulsively buy enough to tile the hallway too.

June 24, 2013: Buy a $40 toilet at the Habitat for Humanity Restore.

July 28, 2013: Attend a Home Depot workshop on how to install tile. Be inspired! A pro who's been doing it for 30 years says, "It's easy!"

August 11, 2013: Pocket door kit arrives, ready to be installed in an open frame.

     1. Google "Open frame."

     2. Just go for it.

August 15, 2013: Order the door jamb to complete the pocket door frame. 

August 20, 2013: Door jamb arrives. Put giant box behind couch. Leave it there.

September 15, 2013: Drywall the gaping hole in the hallway from the pocket door frame installation.

September 30, 2013: Remove the vanity and sink. (Put a bottle of hand sanitizer on back of the toilet tank.) 

October 14 - November 21, 2013: Plaster and texture the drywall in the hallway. Paint the hallway with leftover paint from the bedroom desk DIY project.

Plaster and texture the drywall in the bathroom. Paint the bathroom with new pretty paint from Home Depot. 

December 2, 2013: Get the door jamb box out from behind the couch and open it.

     1. Curse that you could've bought scrap pieces of wood at Home Depot for a quarter of the cost of this "online kit."

     2. Curse that it doesn't actually fit the door frame.

     3. Buy scrap wood at Home Depot to finish the pocket door jamb.

December 5, 2013: Remove the toilet.

December 6 - 9, 2013: Kids stay at Mommom & Poppop's House.

Celebrate your 5-year anniversary with a non-stop around-the-clock tiling party during Icepocalypse 2013. 

Some highlights:

     1. Fit a 150-pound wet saw in the backseat of a Passat.

     2. Park a block over and haul a 150-pound wet saw up the hill to your house, because the street is iced over and cars can't make it through the neighborhood.

December 12, 2013: Install a toilet for 3 hours. (Google & rig your way to a working toilet. Voila!)

December 15, 2013: Go to Ikea to pick up the amazing laundry chute that you saw there 6 months ago. They no longer carry it. Find amazing bookshelves that are even better, cheaper, and already put together in the "As Is" section of the store, and buy those instead. Pick up your traumatized 3-year-old from Småland.

"They wouldn't let us play in the ball pit!"
December 16 - 19, 2013: Complete all the finishing touches. Bathroom looks amazing!

December 27, 2013: Escape to a B&B for the night to celebrate!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Meaningful Life versus Health-Insured Life

A few years ago, I stopped in my boss' office to drop off some papers, and we began discussing new legislation under debate in Congress, the beginnings of the Affordable Care Act. 
When I mentioned it seems many people choose jobs just for the security of health insurance, he laughed and said he hoped that wasn't the case for me.

And I responded how any insecure, new, secretly pregnant employee would around the person who signs her paychecks: laughed nervously and agreed.

But I continue to think, as Obamacare begins to unfold, and millions of Americans gain access to comprehensive health insurance (and possibly health care): how many people have given up dreams, for the sake of health insurance?
We grow up hearing how important it is to become something meaningful. My preschoolers alternate between future vocations as firefighters or priests (more similar than one might think). And we talk all day about the importance of teachers, youth ministers, and all those who mentor our kids in karate, music lessons, and dance.

I was a sell-out: an unapologetic, steel-faced sell-out, in the choice between a meaningful job versus a livable wage. But by "livable wage," I don't mean high income, because we've survived happily on low wage jobs. I mean the one thing that up until possibly 2014, you have to work 40-hour weeks at a for-profit company to access: health insurance.

The pursuit of health insurance has made us more than just hardworking business casual drones: it's reprogrammed our national work ethic. Which companies can afford to provide the best health insurance? Those who make the most profits. We subtly adopt the attitudes of these pedestaled companies: our goal in work is no longer a self-expression of our talents or a self-giving toward the good of our communities. We become motivated by profits and benefits, instead of life and inspiration.

I hate health insurance. It's not health care. It doesn't want to be health care (though some of their commercials can be deceptively convincing against that point). Health insurance organizations are for-profit companies, who make profits specifically by NOT providing health care. My family, and thousands of others across the nation, has discovered an alternative healthcare co-op that more than meets our needs. But explaining the self-pay co-op system to an ER billing specialist is like paying with traveler's checks at 7-Eleven.

Access to health care is tied to employment, so all of the good-for-nothin' lazy welfare bums are motivated to work, or so people keep telling me. But I don't think the amateur theorists who push this idea realize how many low- and middle-class families work very hard, often with both parents in the rat race of corporate America, and still don't have access to health insurance, the golden key of access to healthcare.

Sure we can get emergency treatment at the ER, which means stabilizing you enough to push you out the door and back to the sidewalk -- hope your ride comes soon, no you can't use our phones. But preventive care and basic healthcare should not be luxuries for the wealthy.

So I've joined the ranks of professional paper-pushers, and comfort myself with the idea that I'm pushing meaningful papers that support good work.

But I continue to wonder, what would happen if health care weren't tied to employment?  There would be a renaissance in entrepreneurship, the arts, non-profit endeavors, and teaching. Without the fear of medical bankruptcy or insufficient healthcare, I believe Americans would discover new and greater freedom, to choose work that is diverse and significant.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Top 10 Ways Kids Make Life Easier

1. Door-to-door salespeople don't want to come in your home. 


2. You're the last person anyone calls for help. 

"Hey, in the Austin caravan last weekend, my car got a flat, so I left it in Hillsboro. Could you drive me down to pick it up? Oh, we'll need to take all the kids with us for three hours in the car and stop every 30 minutes for potty breaks? I think my other friend said they might be able to help..."

3. Long, awkward conversations end before they get long and awkward.

You know those one-sided conversations with someone you just met who mistakenly thought you'd be super interested in the polymer building blocks of food-grade plastic storage containers? "Emergency texts" from the babysitter are always a valid out.

4. Weird personal questions can be avoided. 

"So, havin' any more, or are ya done?"

"Well, my kids are getting antsy, I need to go now. Let's pick this up again soon, stranger!" 

5. Someone will answer your weird personal questions for you. 

"Mom said she doesn't need any more little monkeys in the house." 

6. You're too old to act like a baby over long check-out lines, but your kids aren't. 

After 4 minutes in the check-out line, I stop singing "Twinkle, Twinkle," and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," and just let the kids wail. Usually another line will open pretty quickly. 

7. Property taxes plummet. 
Did you know... the Appraisal Board can lower your property value and as a result your taxes owed, based on an overview of damages? (i.e. the missing drywall where a kid skateboarded into the wall, the water damage from a kid leaving the window open in a rainstorm, the patio door shattered by an errant soccer ball)

8. Kids think anything you do is hilarious.

"Peek-a-boo!" "...and this little piggy cried, 'Whee-whee-whee' all the way home!"


9. Uh, uh, uh...

I tried to make this a Top Ten list, but after weeks of wracking my brain, I've got nothing. Let's be real here. Kids bring messes, ER trips, and exhaustion. I'll grant that they make life more crazy, hopeful, fascinating, loving, and fun, but easier? No way.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

What An Uninsured Emergency Room Visit Looks Like

I panicked and called 911, because it was 5 o'clock in the morning, and my husband had run to Walgreens for something to help alleviate this intense pain. Massage, heat, cold, baths, Pepto, Motrin, and Phillips had done nothing. I imagined an exploding appendix.
Our family joined a healthcare co-op of sorts that shares medical bills among members. It's a novel and appealing idea, though the claims process can be gritty. 

Here's a picture of our medical bills for a 4-hour early-morning stint to the Emergency Room, followed by our co-op experience:

Ambulance: $725.00
Discount: 0%
Total Paid: $725.00

The City of Carrollton does not contract with any health insurance companies, so their ambulatory services are out-of-network for everyone, nor do they offer financial assistance based on ability to pay.

For us, this means we can't negotiate a discount based on the discounts they offer insurance companies. It also means our middle-class household of four doesn't qualify for a break on the total.

For most residents of Carrollton, who carry traditional health insurance, this billing structure means paying toward an out-of-network deductible, which is usually significantly higher than the deductible for in-network providers. (A deductible is the amount of money a person pays out of pocket before insurance covers anything.) Once a person's out-of-network annual deductible has been met, the out-of-network coinsurance is also significantly higher, with the patient usually being responsible for 30-50% of the total bill.

Hebron Emergency Physicians: $1,403.00
Discount: 50%
Total Paid: $701.50

I was thrilled when we received this bill. I'd heard so many stories about hospitals offering great self-pay discounts to patients without health insurance that I thought this was the all-inclusive medical bill from Baylor Carrollton.

There was a 50% discount offered, if paid in full online, so I logged in, paid up, and thought everything was covered.

As it turns out, this was a bill for the doctor who poked his head in the door to say, "Hey, you're scheduled for a CT scan."

And then 90 minutes later: "Yep, it's a kidney stone. Call this other guy for follow-up."

Our three-sentence-seven-hundred-dollar relationship ended there.

Baylor Medical Center at Carrollton: $6,522.09
Discount: 78%
Total Paid: $1,400.42

So this was the actual bill for a private closet in the ER for four hours. Granted, it included two doses of morphine, and at the time, I would have happily paid much, much more.

I did the compulsory call to their billing department, requesting the same discount that they negotiate with health insurance companies. But they said discounts were only provided if I submitted a financial aid application.

Now, I don't consider our family impoverished by any stretch of the imagination. We have spending limits, naturally. But we also have food, shelter, clothing, and plenty more. Somehow, after filling out the financial aid application with our income information, Baylor Medical determined we are 80% indigent. 80 percent! If our family falls in the bottom 20% of wage-earners, then we are a blessed nation indeed.

Medical Imaging of Dallas: $917.00
Discount: 49.6%
Total Paid: $462.00

I called Medical Imaging when I received this bill, because I thought there was a mistake. In the line items of my Baylor Medical bill ($6,552.09), I'd seen a $4,000 charge for a CT scan. I knew I had already paid $701 to the doctor who told me the results, so surely this extra thousand-dollar bill was some kind of duplicate.

The billing representative who took my call was so helpful, tired, patronizing. "Yes, the hospital charges a technical fee for use of their equipment, the doctor charges a general fee, which includes telling you the results, but we charge a professional fee, which actually interprets the results."

I offered to join the assembly line of payees with an interpretation fee to communicate to the patient the ridiculous billing process to follow, but she just laughed awkwardly and asked for my credit card info.

I sent them an email asking about discounts for self-pay patients, and the responding representative said they could bring the total down to $641.

When I called in to pay the bill, the rep who answered said there was no record of the email I received and no note on my account. Luckily, my appalled disbelief at their traceless recordkeeping resulted in silence instead of profanity, because she then said, "But I can settle your account for $462."

Go figure.

Texas Urology Carrollton: $205.00
Discount: 37.1%
Total Paid: $128.80

After being discharged, with lots of hydrocodone, but sadly, no morphine, I received a referral to a urologist for follow-up. The doctor wasn't available on short notice, but I got an appointment with the physician's assistant.

As a self-pay patient, they offered a 20% discount, so I actually paid $128.80 for this appointment. (Two months after this appointment, I received a bill for an additional $82.20, and it's good I called for clarification, instead of blindly mailing my check in their self-addressed envelope. As it turns out, the balance due was a mistake, and our account was already paid-in-full.)

After looking at my CT scan, the PA found the doctor to see about scheduling some intervention. He had the urgent, technical speech of a man with a medical degree, but I was able to piece together the following about my situation:

They preferred to do a procedure with sound waves to break up the 6-mm kidney stone, but their outpatient clinic refuses patients without traditional health insurance. So they decided to schedule an operating room, anesthesiologist, and x-ray at the hospital to do an invasive procedure with a scope instead.

Luckily, the hospital also refused to schedule me until a payment plan was set, by which time, I sourced people who had the operation and strongly advised against it, and so had changed my mind about any intervention.

Unfortunately, this all happened after the pre-op lab work was ordered and completed.

Clinical Pathology Labs: $171.00
Discount: 20%
Total Paid: $136.80

Basic Metabolic Panel: $64.50
Pregnancy Test, Serum: $65.00
Complete Blood Count: $41.50

There's actually a note on the bill that says, "Perhaps your doctor did not tell you that a specimen was sent to us... and that you would receive a separate charge. Should you have questions concerning results of the test, please call your doctor."

It made me feel better that apparently it's a thing for doctors to order tests and not call their patients with the results.

In Closing:

As the kidney stone shifted, the pain lessened significantly, and the side effects of a low-functioning kidney set in. Five weeks, gallons of water, and countless home remedies later, the kidney stone passed!

Our healthcare co-op, Samaritan Ministries, will actually cover all of these bills. (You can follow this link to a post about how Samaritan Ministries actually works. Our family pays $405 a month, and our deductible is $300 per claim, which was waived in my kidney stone issues, because we negotiated discounts of at least $300 from the medical providers.)

So all of my complaining isn't so much about the cost of my inaugural kidney stone experience. I'm just frustrated and concerned for the millions without access to health insurance, who are then also without access to healthcare.

Since health insurance in the United States is provided by employers for full-time employees, my family doesn't qualify for any of the comprehensive plans. I work part-time, and my husband is listed as a "contract" employee with the company for whom he's worked six years. He used to regularly work full-time hours, but with the sweeping overhaul of the Affordable Care Act, intended to provide healthcare (re: health insurance) to all, his hours were cut to just below the minimum requirement for employer-sponsored health insurance.

Our only option for traditional health insurance is to purchase directly from the insurance companies in the private market. Needless to say, without the clout of a large pool of participants or appeal of a significant corporate account, the private health insurance companies hold all the cards. There's no such thing as negotiation or patient advocacy in this market, and in consequence, not a single private health insurance in Texas covers the basic family healthcare need of maternity. For real. (This changed after the Affordable Care Act took effect. Now every health insurance plan covers maternity.)

On a final note, the premium/deductible ratios are such that one might be culpable to the sin of gambling just for playing the health insurance game. It would at least seem wiser to buy a Texas Powerball Lottery ticket.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

It Must Be Okay. The Government's Doing It.

1. Statistically, the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime.

2. It's more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life.

3. The five countries carrying out the most executions in the world: China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States of America.

4. Studies indicate there is significant bias in the application of the death penalty

You're more likely to end up on death row if you kill a white person than a black person, and black defendants are more likely to get the death penalty than white defendants. I can't help but feel more people would be up in arms if I reported, "Women are more likely to get the death penalty than men," or "Christians are more likely to get the death penalty than atheists." For some reason, different prejudices weigh differently on our national conscience, and the undeniable racial bias in our application of the death penalty is much too easily dismissed, or worse, accepted.

Picture Source

5. Many claim those on death row are career criminals who just plain "deserve to die." And also, who cares about the details of their particular situations, "it doesn't change the fact that the world is just better off without them." 

Do we not realize, these are the same dehumanizing arguments used to justify abortion and euthanasia, especially of those who veer from the norm of our mental or physical expectations, those who are weak, disabled, or sick? In every person, always, regardless of past or present situations, is hope, is potential, is the opportunity to love and be loved. To write off just one person begins the process of writing off any one person.

6. If we can protect society by a sentence of life in prison without parole, then the only remaining reason for someone to support the death penalty is revenge.

7. Revenge sucks. It is not sweet. Even less so when exacted with prejudice, an exorbitant amount of money, and no additional provision of public safety.

Picture Source

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I'm More Than Just A Southern Catholic in Denial

Sometimes I really miss the Baptist church where I grew up.

There's something great about spending away a whole morning in Sunday School and worship service, then Sunday School again, only to return a few hours later for Bible Drill (that's a real thing) and choir practice, with every activity on the calendar unquestionably accompanied by a well-staffed, loving nursery for babies and toddlers; Vacation Bible School that transforms every hallway and classroom for acres, adult courses covering everything from The End Times (that was a popular one) to the Israelites in Exile (not so popular) to The End Times II (popular).

4th-6th grade Bible Drilling: "Attention." "Present Bibles." "Deuteronomy." "Begin." 
And that's how it's done!
 Picture Source
And then the whole church goes back for more on Wednesday nights, after a good Southern meal (of course) served up from the full-scale cafeteria. It's interesting that First Baptist even had a full-scale cafeteria and dining hall; it's not that the church doubled as a school during the week. I think Baptists just have their priorities right in the "if-you-feed-them-they-will-come" approach to evangelization.

Good food, good meat, good Lord, let's eat! Picture Source

If I were to choose a church just based on awesome community and dynamic opportunities for growing in faith at every age, I'd be right back at the open doors of First Baptist Carrollton.

When people find out I'm a Catholic who loves Jesus and loves my Church, I get the feeling they assume one of two things :

     1) She's a Catholic in Denial. (She doesn't know how awful Catholicism really is.)

     2) She's a Catholic in the Bible Belt. (Catholics in the Bible Belt are really just Baptists with crucifixes; they're not real Catholics.)

As it turns out, I'm actually just a regular ol' Catholic, and all the stuff that comes along with it.

I see our empty pews. I see the rote and tired faces of people meeting their Sunday obligation. I see the disconnected faces of our teenagers, trailing hopeful mothers. I hear our soprano folk music and cliché preaching. And the crazy thing is, I saw all of this before joining the Catholic Church. No, I'm not in denial.

There's also no denying that a healthy dose of Southern culture is planted deeply in every aspect of my born-and-raised-and-still-living-in-Dallas-Texas life. But still, to be clear, the Catholic churches out here aren't just re-baptized non-denom meeting halls. We still have all the noteworthy Catholic stuff (i.e. Communion every day, consistent teaching authority on faith & morals, home base in Rome, intercession of anyone in heaven, the whole history of liturgy and prayers). Southern Catholics aren't just Protestants masquerading as papists. 

Sometimes I like being the token Catholic among Protestants. I especially enjoy the quizzical eye squints and confused raised eyebrows, all of it quietly processing, "But wait, you love Jesus too?"

I don't think it's that there are so few Catholics who know and love their Savior that Protestants are remiss to run into them. It's more of a language barrier, built by quasi-experts from a disorganized brick pile of today's vernacular, Old English, Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, and whatever else people can pull into the what-would-Jesus-say debacle. Since Evangelical Protestantism was my first language, I dub myself a pretty good translator.

For some reason, when it comes to talking religion, we get all 7-year-old defensive with each other.
When Catholics say, "I love the liturgy and Communion of Saints and stained glass windows and prayer and candles and kneelers and pipe organs and oh, most especially, the Eucharist." What they also mean is, "I love God and everything that leads me to Him." To be clear, don't read into the fact that stained glass windows get listed before prayer.

Nonetheless, it still makes my heart sink whenever someone says, "You're the first Catholic I've talked with who's ever really known what you believe." 
I get what they're saying. I see the disconnect in our Catholic sanctuaries. Our beautiful architecture and art and ancient liturgy proclaiming the Gospel of a God who loves, who humbles himself to become human, who is crucified as one of us, who resurrects and opens heaven for all people. And yet, so burdened by a world moving too quickly, many of us never get the chance to slip into the quiet escape of our hearts, to encounter this God who surrounds us.

In a strange way,  I have to credit the Baptist church I so love for the reason I'm Roman Catholic today. It was in the Baptist denomination I learned to love Jesus above all. I learned to love and believe the Living Word of God in the Bible through the rote memorization of Bible Drill. I learned it's worth it to invest Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings and any opportunity into learning more and more about God and his encounter with creation throughout all of history. And I began to love sifting through all of these wonderings with friends.

And then someone asked what the early Christians believed, the ones dying for their faith in the decades following St. Luke's Acts of the Apostles*. Someone asked me about authority, and if Jesus left his followers with a democracy or with a Bible. And restless questions stirred up so insistently, so obsessively and unbiddingly, that my soul could no longer find its rest in passionate preaching, soul-filled songs, or welcoming community.

In Catholicism, I hear the painful public speaking. (Do our seminaries even offer homiletics?) I see the bureaucracy and administrative nightmare of just trying to get your kid a sacrament or re-living the abyss of a painful civil marriage through an appeal for annulment.

But here's what I can't walk away from: you can receive a Sacrament, passed hand by hand through the centuries to the very touch of Jesus in Baptism or at the Last Supper; you can experience the freedom and healing of annulment.

When I needed Christ, He met me in a silent sanctuary with an open door. He didn't hold up an empty cross and tell me to get over my issues. He had me look upon the pain of crucifixion, to begin to understand that sometimes, life is suffering. And even so, in this suffering, especially in this suffering, He ceaselessly comes to us as the Resurrected Christ in Communion, every hour of every day around the world.

No matter how much the preaching sucks, or the music can't resurrect out of the folk era, or the lack of childcare for parish events drives home a despairing lack of volunteers, I know that I know that I know that Jesus has the words of everlasting life. 

And I've found, at the heart of all things Catholic, is Jesus. 

*Humbly corrected by a cradle Catholic friend asking why I gave credit to St. Paul for the book of Acts: "Don't you mean St. Luke's Acts of the Apostles?" Yep, that one. Thank you!

Friday, May 31, 2013

In the Waiting

The last few weeks I spent a lot of time sleeping, throwing up, sitting outside, trying to keep toddlers entertained while laying on the floor, and coming up with new minimalist procedures for things like washing dishes and vacuuming. I'll give you the list of symptoms, and you can guess the ailment: 

- nausea, especially strong in the mornings and evenings, induced by strong smells
- discomfort and pain in my abdomen 
- general fatigue, no matter how much sleep I get 

Pregnancy, right???

Even the EMS crew guessed pregnancy (while I was curled up in a ball on the living room floor insisting that I must be about to die because the pain was worse than natural childbirth twice): 

"Ma'am, have you taken a pregnancy test lately?"

I've taken 4 pregnancy tests in the last 4 weeks, one at the ER, and one at the doctor's office, and there's no baby here. Just a 6-mm kidney stone that is ever so slowly making its way through my system.

At this point I pause for some experiential conclusions in the pain-level feud between childbirth and passing kidney stones:

1. Childbirth: pain level of 10, but it comes in 30-second stints, with a break, an impending end, and a cute baby on the other side.

2. Kidney Stones: pain level of 9, but it JUST DOESN'T LET UP. So let's just call it a 10. But, morphine. Oh sweet morphine. 

In other news, Wally and I just might harvest poppy seeds by the tomatoes in that backyard garden that has yet to be planted... 

In the crazy world of healthcare co-ops, the place we're happily relegated by not having employer-sponsored health insurance and living in a state where private health insurance plans don't offer maternity coverage (I wish I were making that up), the urologist can't schedule me for the simple and recommended lithotripsy procedure, because it's done at an out-patient facility that won't work with patients not carrying traditional health insurance. The side effects of the alternative procedure scared me more than just carrying a giant kidney stone, so it was vetoed before the hospital even called with their $3400 procedure fee estimate (not including anesthesiologist, x-ray, labs, or surgeon), marketed as an 87% discount from their normal rate of $26,154. 

I've always feared this place, being unable to help myself, unable to go-go-go through the day, down the to-do list, so dependent on others, and waiting indefinitely for something that's mostly out of my control.

Yet I've realized, I can play catch sitting down. My boys can eat the same thing for every meal. They love to be read book after silly book. When we creep along on shorter walks than usual, they can stop to play in the dirt, roll up every poor roly poly scurrying our sidewalk, and pick up every rock that's different than the last.

I called in sick to work a couple of times, but we finally realized that truthfully, if I'm supposed to be resting, going to work and sitting at a quiet desk is the best place to be!

As Wally helps me through this, I'm experiencing love in a whole new way. He was great during childbirth, but in that, he had both a vested interest and personal responsibility (translation: he better be supportive). Passing kidney stones? He hasn't hesitated to wait with me for the pain to subside, even if he can't do anything. Even after I send him to bed, he stays awake and waits with me. Not being alone is second only to morphine in pain management.

It's always been a struggle for me to start each morning with solitude and prayer, so easily distracted by breakfasts to prepare, laundry to fold, dishes to put away. But lately, the most I can handle in the mornings is sitting in my rocking chair on the back porch, listening to birds chirp, resting in the warm breezes coming across cool morning air, and it's wonderful. 

I stopped by an intimate chapel this afternoon, and asked Jesus for whatever nugget of wisdom he wants me to learn from this season of weakness. Surely, if I can just memorize the lesson, I can leave this chapel reinvigorated, ready to return to life at full-speed-ahead!

But instead of sudden healing, I felt his words on my heart: "Charlene, I will help you be weak." 

I don't like being weak, or slow, or having a short to-do list. It's easier to hide as a woman on the go, with her life in her hand, everything under control.

Somewhere along the way, I forgot my littleness. And in this waiting, feeling too tired, too weak, and too little to keep up with the life I thought I should live, I begin to hear Saint Therese' simple reminder, that the arms of Jesus are an elevator to heaven for those too tired, too weak, and too little.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

One Teacher’s Legacy (re: Middle School Survival 101)

Mrs. Babick was anti-bullying before it was cool to be anti-bullying. We were all just trying to survive middle school, in all of its awkward painful gawkiness. Even now, when we laugh, and cringe, about the cliques of our pasts, we realize we were all so insecure that even the cool kids didn’t know they were cool.

Somehow, none of that seemed to matter in Mrs. Babick’s room. She didn’t notice that sometimes the preps wore track pants, and that was totally poser of them (unless the person was your friend, and you had told them that you thought it’d be okay if they opted out of tapered jeans that day). She didn’t care that the band kids all wanted to sit together in her classroom; in fact, she may have had us fill out that extracurricular interests sheet on day one just to make sure her subsequent seating charts were completely irrational and mean random. (Whiny junior high voice: “But why can’t I sit by my best friend? She’s like, my only friend in the whole world, and if I don’t sit by her in computer class, I’ll never make friends with aaaanyoooone!”)

Mrs. Margaret (Peggi) Babick

When other teachers shut their doors with a sigh of relief at the end of the day, Mrs. Babick kept her door open, and stood in the hallway, greeting the mess of students that had survived another day of hell middle school. Under the stress of heavy backpacks and all the mood swings that define middle school, we knew that if we could just route ourselves down E-Hall, there was a good chance of getting an encouraging, understanding smile from Mrs. Babick.

She had a way of making all of us feel equal, important, and like what we did mattered. During our word processing unit, Mrs. Babick had us write thank you letters to teachers at the school. The way she made us spell check and grammar check those documents, you’d have thought she were an English teacher. I remember her saying, as she proofread my letter one final time, “You know, this letter’s going to mean a lot to this teacher. I bet she didn’t even think you noticed.” And 17 years later, her words still remind me to speak up in appreciation for others’ good works.

As if decorating her own classroom weren’t enough, Mrs. Babick posted a spirit board in the hallway, and kept it bright with a new theme every season. If you wore school colors on Friday you got to sign your name to the wall.

To this day, I can’t understand how, in the same year that I got braces, while having giant glasses, frizzy hair, and thrift store clothing (before “vintage” was trendy), Mrs. Babick made me feel cool. One month, I even got red and white alternating bands on my braces. I was probably the biggest dork in all of middle school. But that month, I got to sign Mrs. Babick’s spirit board every single week.

You can't see it. But that's a sunflower clip in my hair.
I remember running back over to middle school after my first week at the giant high school down the street to tell Mrs. Babick that no one cared if we chewed gum anymore, and I thought my geometry teacher was cute. Somehow, she acted genuinely interested.

We’ve stayed in and out of touch over the years, but I’ve always looked to Mrs. Babick as an example that one person at one point in time can make a long-term difference in the life of a student.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Protestant Unintentionally Explains the Mass

Who I am, spiritually, is just droplets of the great faith and love for God that I've always seen and admired in both my parents.

The whole Catholic bomb could have really shaken up our family unity, but much credit's due to my parents' ability to hear me out, know my heart, and support whatever road leads me to Jesus.

Typical Catholic altar proclaiming Christ crucified, celebrating Christ resurrected [Picture Source]
So during Holy Week (the week before Easter for our non-liturgical Protestant friends among us), my mom offered to watch my kids while I joined my dad at a Seder meal, hosted by the Presbyterian church they're attending. Always fascinated by our Jewish roots, and loving the opportunity to share common ground with my dad, in our common faith, I was in.

Steven Ger, Director of Sojourner Ministries, hosts Seder meals to help Christians experience the Jewish Passover meal as Jesus would have observed it at The Last Supper on the evening before his crucifixion and death.

I knew attending this pop-Christian experience of the traditional Jewish Seder meal would be fascinating, but given that it was hosted by a "fundamentalist" theologian at a Presbyterian church, I wasn't expecting something so, well, Catholic.

Tell me if I'm crazy here (nicely, in the combox), but the whole time Steven was leading us through this Last Supper experience, I kept nearly falling out of my chair at one reference after another to the Mass, and I just can't get over how a Protestant can explain the Mass so beautifully and unintentionally. 

At this point, Catholics are probably shaking their heads asking, "Come on, Charlene. Surely you've heard the Mass culminates in Communion, instituted at the Last Supper?" 

Well, yeah, of course. But this was a PROTESTANT describing the MASS and not even realizing it! I couldn't take it. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, "THIS is a Seder Meal? We do this every week! We do this every DAY! Come with me, and you can see it!!"

Nonetheless, I'm seated right by the podium, and Steven is on a roll with a captive audience, so I briskly scrawl notes from his wealth of knowledge and keep my "Amen's" to a polite Southern Baptist murmur.
[Picture Source]
The Seder begins with a matriarch of the church lighting two candles on a small table set beside the podium. We see in this the symbolism that the Light of the World came into our world through a woman. 

Seder literally means "order" in Hebrew. It's a Jewish ritual of prayer, readings, and eating the Passover lamb. Let me do a quick break-down of the Mass for anyone that's not familiar with it: prayer, scripture readings, and eating the Passover Lamb.

As he introduces the Passover, a 3500-year-old Jewish tradition, Steven laments how Christians have lost their sense of ritual, only celebrating Christmas, Easter, and Mother's Day. I laugh, remembering the much ado over Mother's Day at the First Baptist Church of my childhood, a monopoly of winners each year and an undercurrent of fierce maternal competition. 

In his dismissal of Christians' ability to celebrate religious holidays, however, Steven overlooks a 2000-year history of our liturgical calendar. It's only in the last few hundred years that many Christians stopped celebrating solemnities and feast days and the many seasons of a year that call us to remember our God and our salvation, culminating not in Christmas, Easter, or Mother's Day, but in the Feast of Christ the King, looking to our hope of a New Jerusalem when every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more.

Steven Ger, speaking at the podium, with the Seder meal set up beside him.
Just as I dismiss the similarities between the altar at Mass and the little table with white linen table cloth and lit tapered candles that Steven has set up, he begins with the opening prayer of the Seder meal: "Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe..." And I nearly fall out of my chair. 

We pray that prayer! All the freakin' time! (Can I say that -- "freakin'" -- in reference to the Mass?) Seriously though, that traditional Jewish prayer from the Passover, it's in every Mass, several times. 

Moving on, Steven explains that the Seder meal includes four glasses of wine (though in reverent Protestant fashion, we stuck to Welch's finest), based on the promises of God in Exodus 6, verses 6-8. He lifts a chalice of wine and begins, "Blessed are you, O Lord, creator of the fruit of the vine..." 

I can't help myself. At this point I'm going nuts. Our priest says that! At every Mass! We pray these same prayers!

I get over it, sip the wine, jot down more notes, and keep listening. 

At every Seder, there's a bag of 3 compartments, and a piece of matzah bread is placed into each pocket. The matzah in the first and third compartments are bypassed, but the bread in the middle is broken in two, half is placed back in the pocket, and the other half is hidden in a linen napkin, to be found later during the meal and eaten as a symbolic dessert, the last morsel of food tasted. To Steven, this is a foreshadowing of the revelation of God as a Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, is broken, buried (hidden), and then resurrected (found).

Matzah Bread
After hiding the matzah, Steven emphasizes the meal cannot begin without retelling the Passover story, and he begins the Genesis account. As I hear the familiar story, my mind drifts to the scriptures read at Mass, traditionally beginning with the Old Testament, then the Psalms, the New Testament, and culminating in the Gospel, each day.

Steven shares with us that every Jewish person at Seder believes they were personally redeemed from slavery at the first Passover 3500 years ago. He draws us to ponder, do we as Christians, truly believe we were personally redeemed at Christ's death and resurrection? When we participate in Communion today, are we present to Christ's sacrifice, once and for all, 2000 years ago?

As the Seder explanation continues, Steven picks up a bone from the table, and explains that animal sacrifices ceased in 70 AD, when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Without the temple, there can't be a sacrifice, and so, on each Seder table is placed the shank bone of a lamb as a memorial of the whole lamb. He leads us to reflect on John the Baptist's words at Jesus' baptism: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."

And my mind drifts back to the liturgy of the Mass, where "Lamb of God" is proclaimed over and over and over:"Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us," echoing the heavenly worship described in the book of Revelation, which refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God 28 times.

It's important to Steven that we understand how Jesus' words in scripture are part of the Seder meal: "When supper had ended, Jesus took the bread." Steven explains that this would be the second piece of matzah that had been broken and hidden at the beginning of the meal. We begin to see its fulfillment as a pre-figuring of Christ. 

Before Steven begins to repeat the blessing that Jesus would have offered, I anticipate his words, recognizing now that the familiar prayers of Mass are an echo of this ancient rite: "Blessed are you O Lord who brings forth bread of the earth," into the familiar words of the consecration. "Take this all of you, and eat. This is my Body, which will be given up for you."

An expert storyteller, Steven calls us to remember Jesus' humble birthplace in Bethlehem, and reveals the Hebrew translation as bêth lehem, "House of Bread." We see our Savior is the Bread of Life. 

Steven lifts the third chalice of wine, "This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." And it's all so familiar, but so new. 

Father Kyle preparing Communion at our wedding
We end the Seder meal with a toast, both the traditional toast for the hope of a restored temple, and a new toast for the hope of an eternal restoration in God's presence: "Next year in Jerusalem!" and "Next year in New Jerusalem!"