Better than Redemption (Bourbon)

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This past Christmas, my church co-hosted a Christmas party in Long Island City. Our good friend Cici, owner of the Mighty March Liquor Store in Elmhurst, donated three cases of wine to the party. (My dad, a staunch Nazarene until the day he died, is probably giving me judgmental glances from heaven right about now. Nazarenes, who are both teetotalers and cessationists, don’t even get “drunk” in the spirit, much less on a good Chardonnay.) As a thank you, and to prepare for my in-laws’ upcoming visit to New York, we bought a few bottles of red wine. My husband had also – I can’t remember why – decided he wanted to drink bourbon.

So what else is a good Christian wife to do when she sees a bottle labeled “Redemption” but tell her husband to buy it? I’m pretty sure that’s what John Calvin would do, right? (Martin Luther, of course, was a beer guy.) Not that I had to flex many of my persuasive powers: As I said, he was on a bourbon kick for some mysterious reason. (For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to dwell on Redemption’s problematic claim that it’s a “true reflection of ‘America’s Native Spirit.'”)

Now, my experience with hard liquor is very limited. My husband is a scotch drinker, but scotch to me tastes exactly like a band-aid smells – rubbery, sharp, and with a whiff of bodily damage having taken place somewhere. Bourbon doesn’t rate much better with me, although the smell is more nail polish remover than plastic adhesive. So believe me when I say that the only reason I chose this particular bottle was its name. (There’s probably some sub-SAT level analogy there – choosing a book : its cover :: choosing a liquor : its name. Alas, I think analogies have been scrubbed from the SAT, which means millions of high schoolers are now illiterate in the mysterious symbology of analogies. Which I think was one of the rejected tracks from Schoolhouse Rock?)

Not that it matters, since I have no idea what a “good” bourbon should taste like. My husband seemed to like it okay, although he quickly moved on from straight shots to making Old Fashioneds with Angostura bitters. He hasn’t chosen to re-purchase Redemption, though. (That sounds like the boozy equivalent of re-committing yourself to Jesus, which, to my recollection, every good Nazarene does at least half a dozen times a year.)

Last week, I visited Wilmore, Kentucky, home of Asbury Theological Seminary, for a conference. Since Kentucky is the birthplace of bourbon, it only made sense to pick some up as a souvenir for my husband, whose Redemption had long run dry. (The puns are endless.) While my traveling companion Larry and I were hunting down a liquor store on the way to the Bluegrass Airport, three different people recommended Woodford Reserve as the best local version.

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The people at Woodford Reserve, besides having apparently thoroughly mobilized the airport-adjacent population of Kentucky on their behalf, are conscientious folks. I couldn’t even click on their website without putting in my birthdate to prove I am above legal drinking age. I am more than a little confused by this precaution, given that the limit for legal consumption of html is somewhere around infinity. Their website also helpfully informed me that their bourbon has zero caffeine, zero carbs, zero protein, zero sodium, and zero sugar and is friendly to butterflies, watercress, and native white pond lilies. Except for the part where it can cause inebriation, lead to poor romantic choices, and smells like I should be scrubbing my toenails with it, this makes it no worse for your health and arguably better for the environment than Diet Coke.

My husband likes the way the Woodford tastes, too. He said it tastes like “burning velvet.” (My oldest daughter says this would be a great name for a band. She’s too young to have heard of the Flaming Lips.) Asked for a comparison to Redemption, he thought for a second and said, “The Redemption had the burning, not the velvet. And not even as much burning.”

So there you go, folks. Better than Redemption, and with more burning. Do with that what you will.

(P.S. I made gentle fun of the Nazarenes here, but I grew up with them and consider them my family. I jest with love.)

 

 

The Dandelion Days of Summer and God’s Unconditional Love

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If you have allergies like I do, and like my kids do, the arrival of warm weather in New York is like a birthday party and a mildly horrific movie wrapped up into one. We love the sunshine, taking out bikes and scooters, shrugging off the coats and sweaters. We love far less the itchy, swollen eyes, stuffy noses and clogged throats, eczema, sneezing, and chemical dependency on every over-the-counter remedy in the known universe.

The other week as I tromped to the drug store in search of antihistamine eyedrops with my son (13) and younger daughter (6), I was struck by how utterly and completely themselves they both were. Deise (pronounced “Daisy”) was in ecstasy over the dandelions populating our neighbors’ lawns. She wanted to pick all of them and bring them home. She kept saying, “They’re so beautiful! Look how beautiful they are!” Daniel, however, was impressed neither by his sister’s enthusiasm nor by its objects. “They’re weeds,” he pointed out. “They’re an invasive species and they’re bad for the rest of the plants. You shouldn’t pick them.”

 

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If you know my kids at all, these reactions typify their personalities. Deise lives in an enchanted world of play clothes and pretend. She’s been sleeping at night in a multicolored tent in our living room, surrounded by the stuffed animals that “I love so so much, even though I know they aren’t real.” I took her to her piano lesson not too long ago and the trees by her teacher’s apartment were in full bloom. She was enthralled and spent time gathering not only tree blossoms but more dandelions. She named each one of her blooms: Blossom, Berry, Cherry, Pitter, Patter, Packer, Mrs., Droopy, Goldilocks, and Bitter (because it was small). She also picked up individual petals from the ground and gave them the catch-all name “Hatchling.” She is the embodiment of joie de vivre.

(Her names reminded me of the classic children’s book Make Way for Ducklings, with its eight siblings Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.)

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Daniel, my chess player, mathematician, and pessimist, is interested in facts, strategy, and planning for worst-case scenarios. (Also, Marvel comics.) When Daniel looks at a dandelion, he sees not “scope for the imagination,” as Anne Shirley would say, but an invasion waiting to happen. His response to dandelions is to leave them alone lest anything worse come to pass.

(Sophie (16) wasn’t with us that day, but if she had been, she would’ve had a snippet of a Broadway song and a playfully sarcastic comment for all parties. Her spiritual gift, like her father’s, is snark.)

What I felt as I watched Daniel and Deise respond so differently to the same environment, and even as I waded in to stop them squabbling over their different perceptions, was an overwhelming wash of love, acceptance, and delight in them, exactly as they both are. And I also felt God’s love for them – unconditional, perfectly knowing, perfectly celebratory of their uniqueness, gifts, and potential.

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I think this is how God loves each one of us: whether we are imaginative and sunny or rational and gloomy, an Anne Shirley or an Eyore.

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Sometimes I think we are afraid that he has rankings in his head, that he prefers one type of personality or one set of talents over another, and that whoever we are is far down the list. But the truth is that God delights in each one of us exactly as we are. Zephaniah 3:17 tells us that:

. . .  the Lord your God is living among you.
    He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

If your insecurities are snarling at you today, spend some time meditating on this Scripture passage and letting its truth sink in. You are as beloved by God as the brightest summer bloom. You bring God joy! What could be more beautiful and freeing than that?

Imaginative Prayer and “Sticky Faith” for Kids (Book Review + Podcast link)

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I reviewed this book about a year ago, but I’m reposting because its author, Jared Boyd (also my spiritual direction teacher!), is being interviewed on a podcast with the Missio Alliance, a fellowship of churches and other organizations dedicated to the health and vitality of the North American Christianity. You can find the interview, “How Imaginative Prayer Helps Children Connect with God,” here:

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One of the main insights from the book Sticky Faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids, by Dr. Kara Powell and Dr. Chap Clark, is that how parents practice and talk about their faith with their kids is crucial to passing on authentic faith. If parents hope to cultivate a Christian identity in their children — one that survives the tumultuous teen and questioning young adult years when young people are “discovering who they are and making the commitments toward who they want to be” — they have to do more than just go to church, pay their tithes, and send their kids to youth group.

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The authors’ research, conducted under the auspices of the Fuller Youth Institute and Fuller Theological Seminary, concludes that “it’s never too early” to start building faith that sticks into your children. To do that, parents need to go beyond teaching Christianity primarily as a system of “do’s and don’t’s” and obedience, and instead help kids experience what it is to know and trust Christ. Practical ways to do this include: surrounding your child with a Christian community (mentors, peers, family) that will dialogue honestly about even difficult issues and doubts; using rituals and celebrations (like prayer at birthdays) to reinforce identity; focusing on character growth rather than behavior; and modeling a relationship with God.

As I read through Jared Patrick Boyd’s new book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child’s Spiritual Formation, I immediately thought back to the lessons of Sticky Faith. In his introduction, Jared invites busy parents to slow down, to recognize and live out their importance as the most important influences in their children’s spiritual development. He writes:

As a father of four girls one of my greatest desires is to pass on to them a deep understanding and awareness of the experience of God. My hope is that they would feel connected to God and the story God is unfolding in their lives and in the world around them. Will they see themselves as part of God’s story? Will they feel close and connected to God as they navigate decisions that come their way and pursue risks on the horizon? Will they say yes to all that God is inviting them into?

Jared’s language and spiritual practices are steeped in the Ignatian tradition and borne of out his long experience as a contemplative practitioner, spiritual director, and teacher, as well as his pastoral ministry in the Vineyard, an association of evangelical churches explored at length in Tanya Lurhmann’s When God Talks Back. Lurhmann’s psychological and anthropological study of the Vineyard and its practices of listening and prayer leads her to conclude that connectedness to God, while full of mystery, is a learnable skill.

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Taken together, Sticky Faith and When God Talks Back (not to mention the larger backdrop of Western Christianity’s well-documented and ongoing failure to pass on faith to the younger generations) provide strong rationales for exactly the kind of imaginative prayer experience and sustained spiritual formation that Jared’s book is meant to guide parents and children through.

Over the course of a year, the book explores six theological themes: God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus is the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God. Each theme is divided into 7 weeks, with six weeks of imaginative prayer sessions followed by a week of review.

Each (non-review) week is further broken down into repeated sections. “Connection and Formation” introduces the theme for the week, through a theological reflection, poem, perhaps a story. Next, a “Q&A” provides a brief catechism to help children remember the theme. The “Imaginative Prayer” is the heart of each week: a guided prayer, rich with imagery, sensory information, and metaphor that invites children to enter into an experience with God that they can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. The “Q&A” is then repeated, to emphasize the theme that the child has now experienced in their own imagination. Each week concludes with reflection and devotional prompts for “For the Parent or Mentor” and a reminder for children to journal (write or draw) for twenty minutes, based on a question that will lead them to reflect on their life that week — not “just” the spiritual formation part — in light of the explored theme. The review week wraps everything up by bringing back all the creedal questions (catechism) from that section and through suggested activities and questions.

As a sometime homeschooling parent, a professional educator, and a writer of curriculum, one of the things I appreciate about Jared’s book is how thoroughly it’s planned. Each activity is nested within the credal theme for the week, which is nested within the theological theme for the section, and everything is meant to contribute to the larger goal of the intertwined spiritual development of children and parents. As an example of Jared’s attention to detail, each imaginative prayer script is timed down to a range of seconds! Jared has also created a Conversation Guide for teachers, for those churches that want to bring to book to a Sunday School classroom in partnership with parents. (It’s a supplement to, not a substitute for parental involvement.)

One of my favorite imaginative prayers in the book is Jared’s picture of Jesus coming to defeat the power of sin. He asks the child to imagine a deep cave filled with seven giant faucets, all spouting different-colored water, one faucet and color for each of the deadly sins. Together, the faucets fill a cave that is “dark and murky and smelly.” The child is asked to imagine a wheel that will turn all the faucets off. It’s too heavy – the child can’t turn it. But Jesus steps in and turns the wheel right off, and instantly the cave fills with clean air, with sweetness and light. In this and many other instances, Jared’s metaphors are concrete, vivid, and fresh, and I believe will help children — and their parents and other spiritual mentors — understand, experience, and remember abstract theological concepts in a new and “sticky” way. Jared’s focus on building a shared theological vocabulary to go with a shared experience of God also lays the groundwork for many years of faith-building conversations between parents and children, between siblings and Sunday School peers, and between each member of the family and God.