And Coming...

"She-Bear in the Beautiful Garden" is an allegory for children of all ages, written and illustrated by Ellen Gillette. Order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or at

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


I really never thought it would come to this. Not in my lifetime, anyway. But increasingly, letters to the editor, columns, Facebook posts, Internet articles and blogs, television commentary, etc. etc. ad nauseum seem entirely content with “defining” Christianity by what this or that person said or did. And
whether that person is an elected official, Hollywood celebrity, or the Pope, everyone who says he or she is of the Christian faith gets lumped in, expected to take the lumps – because let’s face it: the commentary on Christianity is growing more negative every year.

Which Jesus prophesied it would, by the way.

Jesus who? When I was growing up in the Bible Belt of North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains, just about everyone I knew went to church. We knew who Jesus was from Sunday school and insipid paintings. We would hear stories about missionaries going to islands of cannibals or into the thickest parts of the rain forest or climbing the highest Asian mountains to reach people who had never heard the Gospel, had never heard the name of Jesus and it was magical. Can you imagine? They’ve never heard?

Now it is 2013 and there are people in the United States, long considered the gold standard for Christianization, who have only heard the name of Jesus as a curse word. Have only heard the term “Christian” used derisively, primarily in the media.

Prolific novelist, professor, and apologist C.S. Lewis, perhaps best known for the Narnia children’s’ series that have found their way onto the silver screen in recent years, was also a radio personality in the 1940s. His radio material was geared to an agnostic, skeptical audience, eventually appearing on bookshelves as the classic Mere Christianity, which I heartily recommend. I’m not an apologist, certainly not a scholar of any merit. What I am is a learner, and along the way, I have learned this: I believe that God exists, that he created this universe and perhaps a million million more universes for his own purposes, almost all of which about which I have no understanding.

On planet Earth, the gem of our sun’s solar system, I have come to believe that one rule was given; one rule was broken. Unity between Creator and created was broken. From there, various seekers of truth were educated, called, anointed to lead other seekers of truth in becoming reunited with their Creator. A complex and impossibly difficult-to-follow Law was communicated for two reasons: one, to give people a way to God, things to do and sacrifice so that they felt they had a chance with him; and two, groundwork for something far more efficacious in the future.

At the right time, God found the circumstances and climate in which to appear as a man, as vulnerable
and powerless as he could be, in the form of a human baby. We call this Christmas now, but then, it was just a young couple marveling that shepherds were bowing in their infant son’s presence. Later, astronomers or kings or whoever they were from the East warned them their son was in danger. Still later, he grew up as a carpenter. For only three years, after beginning his life’s purpose, announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand, he spoke to people throughout the land of God’s love and forgiveness. He did not call people to change or obey, but to follow. Some did, and from the original handful, the whole of Christianity today has been born.

Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh. Therefore, he was eithe
r telling the truth or he was the biggest scam artist known to man. There is no room for a “good man” or a “good teacher” or even “a prophet of God.” His words are clear: follow me and love me as God incarnate, or forget me altogether. He did nothing to try and add to his numbers, unlike modern western churches that continually add new programs or build enormous buildings hoping to increase their numbers. If anything, Jesus made it difficult to be his follower. At times it seems he went out of his way to confuse his listeners.

You have to really, really want to follow to do so. And even then, you have to accept the fact that those who have taken the name of Christian have, historically, done and said things so contrary to Jesus’ own teachings that it boggles the mind.

I am a Christian. Raised in the church, I realized as a teenager that I was completely convinced that God exists, and that Jesus was God in the flesh, sent to die on the cross of Calvary (that was that groundwork I alluded to earlier, with the Law) as the final sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, once and for all. We’ve been forgiven. The way has been made clear. It only remains for us to each decide whether we believe it or not.

I’m not a good Christian, mind you. I do not reflect an accurate picture of Jesus’ perfection, or God’s transforming power and love. I’m not even particularly nice much of the time. I sin regularly and at an appalling rate. But I also believe that the shed blood of Jesus is more than enough to cover those sins, which leads me, every time I fall, to thank God for his grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and to pray for wisdom and strength to continue to grow as his child.

So the next time you hear about some whacko Christian saying God hates gays or liberals or Muslims or pushing some political agenda…I hope you’ll remember this one lone voice piping up at Christmas time saying, um, no. That’s not true. That’s not true at all. 

God loves his creation so much that he came to live among it, clothed with fallen, frail flesh but living without sin so that he could give his life as a pure sacrifice for all – at once satisfying God’s justice and mercy, all in one fell swoop.

You don’t have to believe in God. He believes in you. And he will do everything he can to convince you that he exists. And beyond that, that he loves you. The life we live on Earth, whether a hundred seconds or a hundred years, is the snap of the fingers compared to eternity - an eternity created for those wish to spend it with their Creator. Those who don't wish it, are not forced to be there. He leaves the choice to us.

Are there troubling issues? Absolutely. Things I don't like about God's ways? Sure. Things I despise about Church and Christians? Yeppers. I even wrote a book about it: Baaad Sheep - When God's People Let You Down ( But I am stuck - if God exists, why should I expect him to comply with my wishes, or my idea of him? He is GOD. It makes perfect sense to me that I wouldn't understand everything, or even like everything, he does. 

And because I recognize my own imperfections, even as I know that I sincerely believe in him and in Jesus Christ EVEN WHILE committing sin, I recognize that it is completely understandable that other sinful saints will say and do the most ridiculous,  horrible things. Embarrassing, but hardly surprising. We are all seeking truth. We haven't arrived. The worst of us think they have, think they have the corner on Truth, think they can fit Jesus into a nice little package or paranoia and ignorance, but he just won't be hemmed in. Imagine the audacity, the pride of that thought: Box the Creator of universes in? I think not.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013

Friday, November 29, 2013

My Idea, Released

Are you comfortable? This may take awhile. Of course, I used to write a new post for this every two
weeks, but that was a long time ago. I've been lucky to get out one a month, and I don't believe in luck. So there you go.

I have lost a lot of charms during my lifetime, the kind that hang on necklaces. I had a pretty silver circle with my initials on it. A gold one received in high school that may be around here somewhere - I gave it to my mother years ago, and then she gave it back, so it should be in a drawer but Lord only knows. Several from my sister, not because of any Freudian thing but because she has given me more gifts and therefore the odds were better that I would lose a certain percentage. I don't have a great track record with such things.

I could make excuses that we've moved around a lot and that my things have been rifled through in my absence, but the fact remains that I haven't taken good enough care of some things (and people) for which I honestly care deeply.

This week, there was a lot of turmoil and drama and I went outside to (1) get away from it and (2) pray about it in a quiet place. While I was sitting on a marble bench in the front yard, I had a revelation. My IDEA of what a happy family should be had crossed a line, maybe from the very beginning, but certainly at some point. There is a tired - but true- saying in Christianese that says "Jesus is either Lord of all or he isn't Lord AT all." In other words, whatever is number one in your life is God (or god, as the case may be).

I made having a happy family that looked and acted as I thought it should, for years I think, a god. Maybe not The God I Worshipped, but right up there. And that's wrong. We can have good ideas, great ideas, even GODLY ideas, but if we start holding them up above all else, if we let the ideas control us, turn us into people who try to rein everyone into the roles our Idea has cast them in, then we need a good talking to out on a bench at night in the rain.

Did I mention that it started raining while I was sitting outside?

Anyway, I cried over this incredible failure on my part to trust God (who has, repeatedly and consistently, proven himself completely trustworthy) with this vital part of my life. I was so busy wailing and gnashing my teeth over the failure of our family to be My Idea of A Happy Family that I'm sure I added to the unhappiness, to the problems, to the turmoil. I repented on the spot, asked God to forgive me, and then went that all-important step further: I released My Idea of A Happy Family to him, to do with as he will.

Jump to today, when I frantically looked for a charm that fell off my bracelet. (You didn't think I'd start with charms, if there was no connection to my point, did you?) I'd been wearing the charms on a charm holder around my neck instead of one at a time, but the charm holder was getting heavy. I got a bracelet and took it to Ye Olde Jeweler (that's not the real name, but it's the oldest jewelry store in town, where I got my ears pierced, where my mother bought the gold hoops she gave me on my wedding day. She worked at a jewelry store before she got married and knew a good one when she saw it) but they disappointed abysmally. I picked up the un-attached charms and the bracelet after a full month of inactivity, and decided to put them on myself.

Apparently my attachment skills are not perfect. I found one in the car this morning and purposed to fix it. When I laid out the bracelet to begin I saw, to my horror, than another one was missing, one of my very favorites. Most of the charms represent things from my childhood or motherhood but this one represented me now, represented my passion for writing. A tiny silver typewriter, center stage on the bracelet, gone. I crawled around the floor with a flashlight looking under things. I crawled around a long time. I made several trips to the driveway and to the car.

Finally I gave up, releasing the lost typewriter into the cosmos. Not that I was going to give it up entirely, of course, because I really liked it. I found its twin online and ordered a replacement, figuring that if I find the original, I will love having two typewriters hanging on my bracelet, but I'm certainly not going to do without one at all.

What does my charm bracelet have to do with my idolatrous notions about family? I think it is that attachment to things and people we love is important. We need to take care of them. I know that I had taken care of my bracelet. Knowing I hadn't soldered the jump rings as a jeweler would (I assume) I was especially careful not to catch the bracelet on anything. All week long, since I attached the charms, I have been conscious of the fact that I must use care. And I STILL managed to unhook two, and lose one, presumably, altogether. A failure in bracelet protection.

I've been a failure at creating and maintaining My Idea of a Happy Family, too. There are the relatives who won't talk to me despite attempts to reconcile. There are the ones who hold grudges for things that were said or done long ago. There are those who no longer need me or particularly want me, at least a good bit of the time. There are those from whom I have needed to distance myself a bit, so that they can grow up. People have moved, and moved on, and that is as it should be. While I focused on lots of Good Things, I've neglected the Best, at times. Not all of the time, but here and there

I don't mean to paint a dismal picture - we had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner yesterday with many of the family sitting around the table, missing those who couldn't be there. We're a mess, perhaps, but a mess that loves each other. We're stumbling along, but we're helping one another, too. Many, many things, and people, and relationships, to celebrate! But as a unit, we don't look like My Idea of a Happy Family all of the time. Actually, not any of the time! And that's okay. It's not our job to look like YOUR idea of a happy family either! Maybe your idea is the white picket fence, Mom, Dad, two kids, a dog and a cat. That's not my idea, but whatever yours is or mine is, it's probably not the reality we live with every day.

This isn't about beating myself up or feeling guilty. There are too many variables involved where families are concerned. There have been times when I was doing all I knew to do and doing it right, and others were dropping the ball, so to speak. I'm not perfect - not a perfect daughter, wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, cousin, niece, mother, grandmother, you name it - but neither is anyone else perfect in their particular roles in my family. I own my mistakes. I don't own theirs. And we aren't one is perfect, anywhere, anybody.

My point...yes, there really is that when we see an issue of pride (My Idea vs. God's plan at work in the universe) there needs to be release. We can frantically try to hold on, as I did while I crawled around the floor looking for my little lost typewriter, or we can come to point of release, as I did sitting on the bench. "Okay, this is what I've been doing wrong. I'm sorry. Please forgive me, please fix it." That doesn't mean we do without, however; it means we get a new start. I can approach the family I have with more grace than when I wanted them to fit into a space that wasn't really made for them (even if it was a really nice space).

I can order a new charm. I can extend grace to others who have their own flawed concepts of what our family should look like, what I should look like, people who don't always take the best care of the things and people they genuinely care for, just like me. And I can trust God to create order out of chaos, joy out of sadness, fulfillness out of emptiness, his plan as opposed to mine.

Maybe this is all too convoluted, too much thinking for a Friday night. But that's okay, too.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Why "Breaking Bad" Could Be Real, But "The Walking Dead" Could Not

The title sums up the subject matter pretty succinctly, I think. Breaking Bad, the ten-time Emmy AMC that just recently completed its five-year run with an outstanding, dare-I-say-perfect final episode, could actually happen. It made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the highest rated television series of all time, so obviously the writing and acting were top-notch. But it could also be true.
award-winning television show on

There are, as we all know, high school chemistry teachers. I don't know how many there are in the United States. In 2010 there were about 25,000 secondary schools and 33,000 private schools. Let's say half of those included high school grades, 16,500.

That's 41,500 high schools, most of which would have chemistry teachers. Or at the very least, science teachers. Out of those, it's completely believable that some would be diagnosed with cancer. And it is completely believable that out of those, there might be a few who would be tempted to go out with a bang, make some fast cash, leave their families a legacy. Possible that former students would convince them to cook meth, and possible that - given the right personality and ego constraints - the teachers would strive to make the Best Meth Ever.

Would these few gain the notoriety of a Walter White/Heisenberg? Probably not, but it's possible. Would any one teacher team up with someone so dysfunctional and lovable as Jesse Pinkman? Again, possible. Possible to have a family member in the FBI. Possible to have a pregnant wife and disabled son. All possible. Possible to have the greed and easy money change the teacher to the point that he (I don't see it as probable for a female teacher. I apologize if this sounds sexist. Just my opinion.) changes in ways he never anticipated, becoming as violent as the violence provoked by the meth he cooks so skillfully.

All possible. Which made "Breaking Bad" so addictive. We watched, hoping that Walter White would stay true to himself and to his family but also hoping that he didn't get caught. By the time the series ended, we knew that justice had to prevail. The final episode expertly tempered justice with mercy - Walt died, but not from a long, painful final battle with cancer. He died, but saved Jesse's life. He died, but also provided for his family's future. Jesse escaped, to change into the good young man of which we came to believe him capable.

Hank and Mike and some others we would have liked to see survive didn't make it, but again, not only possible but extremely believable. You can't get mixed up in the crystal methamphetamine industry without some serious consequences. Skylar, Walter White's wife, was conflicted - also believable and possible - but she emerged virtually unscathed. Well, except for being a widow, losing a brother-in-law, knowing she condoned and connived right along with Walt, etc. etc. etc.

"The Walking Dead," however, as well-written and as well-acted as it has been and continues to be, is a fantasy.

"Could there be zombies?" my grandchildren ask.

"No," I answer. Aside from medical science, which is also on the side of my argument, the Bible says that it is appointed for men to die once, followed by judgement (Hebrews 9:27). If a person could die, but not really, this wouldn't be accurate. \

But, you say, there are a few instances in the Bible where people didn't die, they were just taken into heaven. What about them? There are, actually, two occurrences. Enoch "walked with God and was not, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah was taken up into a whirlwind on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:8). BUT many scholars believe that the two witnesses John prophesied about in the book of the Revelation (chapter 11) are Enoch and Elijah. They get killed. Their one time.

We live, we die, we face judgement. According to the Bible, those who trust in the saving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, live forever. Given the choice between being in heaven where there is no pain or suffering, or returning to earth as a flesh-eating zombie, I doubt anyone would want to leave the golden gates. And those who are in hell, while I can see why they'd want to return to a better place (earth), maybe scare a few folks, etc., would they return in such numbers? And escape any heavenly plan to thwart them in the form of angels? Demons, or fallen angels, could certainly take the form of zombies - that's the best bet, in my book - but I think they would have more power than slowly trudging along in search of flesh. If the zombies had fire coming out of the nostrils, or had superhuman strength, sure, but television's walkers sort of schlep along. No demonic power in the lot.

Those who don't die in faith, theologically speaking, experience a sort of "forever death", eternal separation from God. The current pope, Pope Francis, has said that all good people will inherit eternal life, not just Catholics. I'm not a Catholic, so I'm hoping he's right. Not just for me, but for a lot of good people I know who haven't (yet) made a decision of their wills to believe in Jesus. They're still at the "he's a good teacher" stage of seeking truth, but I have hope.
At any rate, there are probably many more reasons why zombies are figments of the imagination and not scientifically or theologically possible. That's just the one I used with my grandkids. They make for a great story, but naaah. I don't think so.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013

Friday, October 18, 2013


September happened, but for various reasons I never got around to writing a blog. Not even one, when I'd like to do two a month. When I was a weekly newspaper columnist, I loved the feedback from raising hackles and pleasing readers (depending on the subject matter or the frame of mind) on a regular basis. My daily poetry blog ( is a challenge and a joy, but that's no excuse for not being a better caretaker for this one.

How do 30 days pass without time or inclination to sit down at the computer and share thoughts that are not poetic (as in A Poem a Day) or the briefest of communication (as in a Facebook post or text)? In a word, they pass stressfully. Pull-the-rug-out-from-under-your-feet stress. Take-the-wind-out-of-your-sail stress. Feel-like-I'm-gonna-scream stress. Not all at once, but several Big Things during the month that slapped me squarely across the face, interspersed (of course) with many more quieter moments of peace and joy. 

It would be unfair, even dishonest of me to mention the Big Things, as unsettling as they were, without also mentioning the better things. Did I say the Big Things unsettled? Then the quieter moments of joy did the opposite, settling my spirit and my soul and even my breathing into a rhythm I could sustain and live with.

Now that we are more than halfway into October, some of the Big Things have yet to resolve and (as is my custom) I was becoming impatient and anxious. Perhaps I should set up a conference call. Write a letter. DO SOMETHING. That is the Protestant way, isn't it? The basis for our great work ethic? When all else fails, DO SOMETHING.

It always amazes me that with the hundreds, nay, thousands of Hallmark cards or plaques or posters or bumper stickers I've seen over a lifetime, the relative few that strike a chord and remain locked inside my picayune little brain. One perky little phrase I've seen numerous times and in numerous settings is one attributed to several different speakers: A ship is safe in the harbor, but that is not what ships are made for. The implication is that we need to step out of our comfort zones, take action, etc. etc. blahblahblah. DO SOMETHING.

Looking back at September, I'm thinking that the problem with such quotes, such sound bytes, such syrupy song lyrics, is that they don't take the almost limitless variables into consideration. Maybe the ship needs work. Maybe the crew is on shore leave. Maybe there's a freakin' category 5 hurricane brewing out in the ocean. Doing something doesn't necessarily guarantee doing the most helpful, wisest thing for the long term best of the situation or those involved.

But I was still caught up in DO SOMETHING mode and decided to try the ole' flip-through-the-Bible trick employed by countless new believers and also (if they will admit it) seasoned believers as well. It's done like this:

  1. Get into a bit of a panic over some particular decision or circumstance.
  2. Pray and ask God for wisdom.
  3. When it doesn't come immediately, pray that he will lead you through the Bible. You're muddled, human, sinful, stoopid from time to time and often hard of hearing when it comes to spiritual matters, so you assume that he's talking and you just aren't getting it. Since handwriting on the wall seems to have been a one-time event in the book of Daniel (thank you, Jesus...I wouldn't want God's admonitions to ME written on the wall for everyone to see, would you?) the next best thing would seem to be (you reason) the Word.
  4. Turn the Bible upside down, if you like, so you don't inadvertently flip to the verse you're really hoping to find that says "Smite them, O Lord!" Then read the direct word of wisdom that will either fit your needs exactly or will be so incredibly off-topic that you will throw the Bible down impatiently and fume.
By the way, when I was still in my 20s, a young mother of four on the mission field with my husband in India, I heard a wonderful sermon on the subject of having a "life verse." A lot of people seemed to know what their "life verse" was, but I was clueless. I prayed for God to show me, and I turned right to Deuteronomy 6:5:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.


No, I didn't say that. I was pleased, in fact. What's not to like about that? It's comfortably vague while being fierce in its implications.

But I digress. Today, I went the flip-through route before doing something I might regret. Doing something without thinking it through had been one of the problem variables in one situation, and I didn't want to make it worse. I prayed. I flipped....

...right to King David's psalm of thanks in 1 Chronicles 16 (New International Version):

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
    make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
    tell of all his wonderful acts.
10 Glory in his holy name;
    let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
11 Look to the Lord and his strength;
    seek his face always.
12 Remember the wonders he has done,
    his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
13 you his servants, the descendants of Israel,
    his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
14 He is the Lord our God;
    his judgments are in all the earth.
15 He remembers[a] his covenant forever,
    the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
16 the covenant he made with Abraham,
    the oath he swore to Isaac.
17 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
    to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
18 “To you I will give the land of Canaan
    as the portion you will inherit.”
19 When they were but few in number,
    few indeed, and strangers in it,
20 they[b] wandered from nation to nation,
    from one kingdom to another.
21 He allowed no one to oppress them;
    for their sake he rebuked kings:
22 “Do not touch my anointed ones;
    do my prophets no harm.”
23 Sing to the Lord, all the earth;
    proclaim his salvation day after day.
24 Declare his glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
25 For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    he is to be feared above all gods.
26 For all the gods of the nations are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens.
27 Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and joy are in his dwelling place.
28 Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
29 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering and come before him.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his[c] holiness.
30     Tremble before him, all the earth!
    The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.
31 Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let them say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
32 Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
    let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them!
33 Let the trees of the forest sing,
    let them sing for joy before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
34 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.
35 Cry out, “Save us, God our Savior;
    gather us and deliver us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name,
    and glory in your praise.”
36 Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
    from everlasting to everlasting.

Then all the people said “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.”

You are forgiven if you respond to this with a scratch of the head and a nasal "Huh?" What does that have to do with the wisdom I was seeking? Which I need? I submit to you that it has EVERYTHING to do with it.

Forget the problems, the variables, the ornery people who simply refuse to do what we what and when we want. Forget all that. Remember God. Remember what he has done. Consider what he has promised to do. And beyond that, give thanks. For the problems, the variables, the ornery people who simply refuse to do what we what and when we want. Give thanks because God is God, and he is worthy of our thanks, regardless of everything else.

I love that David ends with a heart cry for help - even kings need help; maybe especially, kings need help - but he's laid the groundwork for almost two pages of praise, piling it on, reminding God of his own greatness. By comparison nothing we fume over is beyond minuscule and yet God is concerned with even those tiny things with trouble his children.

There was no rumble of thunder, no shout of "Eureka!" I didn't even shout, with all the people of Israel "Amen" and "Praise the Lord." 

I didn't do anything. And that was the whole point.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

You Have Something To Say

You don't become a blogger because you think you have nothing to say, but that's how I feel fairly often. It's all been said, anyway, and by better writers than I will ever be. Why would anyone care what I think? Who am I to think that I have a unique thought in my head, anyway?

A big red flag should pop up on my life's screen at that point. Robot should start waving his arms: "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" Because each of us has something to say (even if we are prone to begin a sentence with conjunctions). Our lives mean something, not just to our families and closest friends. There's no accurate way to gauge it, so you'll just have to take my word for it that you affect people far beyond what you might consider your circle of influence.

Just this week I had cause to request a meeting with an administrator at my grandson's school. He lives with us and didn't want to go to school. That's not uncommon for ten-year-old boys, but when I dug a little deeper, there was an actual reason in the guise of an unhappy classmate who'd decided to take out his unhappiness on my grandson.

As a substitute teacher, I see unhappy teenagers, unhappy tots. And the unhappy tots will eventually turn INTO unhappy teens if no one intervenes. Thus, my compulsion to sit down with an administrator to discuss a solution.

When the gentleman approached to shake my hand and introduced himself, there was a flash of recognition. Don't I know you...? And then he told me his name. He went to school with my sister; instant rapport. Out of all the hundreds of fellow students, I had remembered this man. My sister had always spoken highly and fondly of him, and it was clear that his character had only improved with time.

I bring this up because I hadn't known this man personally. Had never met him, unless he perhaps came to the house for a brief school-related reason. My sister's chance comments, however, had made a lasting impression. And before that, this (then) young man's character had made a lasting impression on her. Interaction with my sister some forty years ago affected interaction with me this week. Because I knew of him a long time ago, liked the outline of his life story enough to tuck it away in my mental filing cabinet, and when the time came, was able to pull out the outline, flesh it out a bit, start filling in details. Not many, but a few. There was a foundation laid, long before we knew we would have reason to appreciate it.

When we moved to Florida, I came across several letters/clippings from a former editor of mine. For some reason we had maintained contact, sometimes interrupted by years and years of silence, and yet there was something about the friendship - and truly, it was a stretch to even use the word - that endured. We have collaborated on a few writing projects, exchanged truly awful jokes, and I consider this once-employer-nothing-more to be one of my closest friends. Why? Because we knew each other a long time ago, liked the outline of each other's life story enough to tuck it away in our mental filing cabinets, and when the time came, were able to pull out those outlines, flesh them out a bit, start filling in details. What had, at one time, seemed major differences paled in comparison to newly discovered similarities and common interests.

Earlier this year, I received a phone call from a younger woman who read my book on the hurts we Because we knew each other a long time ago, liked the outline of each other's life story enough to tuck it away in our mental filing cabinets, and when the time came, were able to pull out those outlines, flesh them out a bit, start filling in details. A trust had been built long before, that time had not eroded.
may receive inside church walls. I hadn't seen her for years, had known her primarily as a child. She had questions,which I tried to answer as best I could. I asked a few questions of my own. She opened up about incredibly hurtful circumstances in her past, things she had never told another living soul. Why?

When I substitute for an age group that can understand the concept, I encourage them to pay attention to the details. The spelling, the punctuation, the tenses. "Your story is important! People need to hear what you have to say, and if you don't communicate it clearly, they may not get what you're telling them."

I suppose I should have been listening to those words, too. And I think I know why I sometimes feel like sounding the retreat, curling into a little ball and refusing to come out and play: the epidemic disinterest in others that I encounter more and more as I get older. People love to talk about themselves, but often show an abysmal lack of interest in anyone else. Strike up a conversation with someone seated next to you on the plane, or at a meeting, and nine times out of ten, you will hear more than you really expected, followed by awkward silence. People have forgotten how to keep a conversation going, they've lost the empathy or common courtesy to end their own answer with a question: "What about you? What brings you all the way to..."

I'll close with the antithesis to that type of self-absorbed Memememememe. I don't remember who sat down first, whether I sat down by Tom at the mayor's breakfast, or I sat down by him. We exchanged pleasantries. That I was intrigued by him was a no-brainer: he'd sailed to Florida from Michigan and rode around town on a bicycle, despite being at an age when most folks might be saving up stories about their latest ailments and appointments to share over dinner. What was not to like?

What caught my attention was that he seemed to be genuinely interested in me.

Tom Lee (and the Sock Monkey)
with grandson Adam
Before his return to Michigan, Tom treated my grandson and I and his friend to a tour of his boat and a boatyard, answered questions, brought flowers to a show I was in - in short, he became an instant, lasting friend because he is one of those people who never loses sight of the fact that his own story is worth sharing, and who simultaneously communicates that my story is worth hearing  as well (or yours, or whomever's he is around).

That's a gift, and it's one that more of us should work on cultivating. Myself, included.

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cheap Entertainment

Forbes has been tracking the wealthiest of the wealthy for almost 30 years. In 2013 they located 1,426 of the little suckers from quite a collection at the low end with only...only....$1 billion, all the way up to the Top Dog, a Mexican in telecommunications who, with his family, is worth a neat $73 billion. Billion, as in a 73 followed by not three, not six, but nine big ole' zeroes.

What do people with that kind of money even DO with it? I can't conceive of it, although I have wondered if one of them got a well-crafted, genuine, earnest letter from, say, a 55-year-old woman in Florida, he or she might sit down at some desk handcrafted by blind eunuchs who eat fire just for kicks and write out a nice hefty check. Or cheque, depending on his or her location.

How hefty? Well, for cheap entertainment, let's think about what to do with a nice round number. One million dollars. That wouldn't put a cramp on anyone's billionaire style, and it would change not only one life, but many. I like that idea. Instead of giving a billion dollars to build a library or clinic, how about a measly million to turn my world upside down?

Maybe you've seen the t-shirt that says, "Dear Lord, please let me win the lottery." I rarely buy a ticket; the odds are pitiful, and the money - regardless of what they say- hasn't done for education what it should have done. But there is that thought. I think I could handle a million big ones. A million small ones, for that matter. I would be thoughtful, prayerful, circumspect.

How would I spend, use, fritter it away? Hence the title: it's cheap entertainment thinking of such things, sort of like drawing rough floor plans for your dream home. Even if you never get it, it's fun to think about what you like and why. But $1 million is a lot to spend, and of course, to save. Hmmm.

$1,000,000 - 10% off the top for a tithe = $900,000. How quickly we dropped to 5 figures! But that's the way I was taught and that's the way I've lived, and it works. Even unchurched, godless, heartless business tycoons have learned along their financial journey that you can do more with 90% than you can with 100%, if you've been generous with that tithe. It is a principle of the universe, and if you discard it only because it is also biblical, or because you equate it with pompadoured charlatan televangelists, you ignore it to your peril. Time and time again, in a feast-or-famine construction existence as a young couple, we saw everything come together when on paper, we were headed for ruin. Paid for four babies with no health insurance. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Tithing works.

Reciprocity. Sowing and reaping. "You can't outgive God." It's true, and it's not about having the minister drive a BMW or claiming things. God gives us everything good in our lives, and asks that we give just a fraction back to build up the kingdom of God on earth. We may have different ideas about how that's lived out, but as a principle, stripped of all the peripherals, it works. I don't know why it works, or how it works, I just know that it does. If you don't believe me, put it to the test. (That's scriptural too, by the way, in Malachi 3:10.)

Where to tithe, that's a tougher question. Our old church in North Carolina, and the church I worked for there, would certainly qualify for donations, as would a local crisis pregnancy center, a few emergency fuel/food concerns. Maybe plant a few orchards in Israel, that kind of thing. Put my money, literally, where my mouth is with my most personal concerns. We haven't found a church home in Florida to date; still looking. Human nature being what it is, I would be tempted to call up a few ministers to sweetly 'splain why their church would NOT be a beneficiary, but that's just me being a little ugly.

$900,000. We have three living children, three grandchildren, three parents. How best to help them? No debts, reliable transportation, safe and adequate housing, done. The Bible teaches that it is the glory of parents to give to their children, and our parents are all tithers, thus they are not - in their 80s or there 'bouts, in financial decline. Two unmarried daughters could use stability, solvency, and a couple of fantastic weddings if and when the time should come. Our son might just get that house on the golf course he's always wanted, perhaps not fully funded, but helped along. Trusts for the grandchildren. College funds.

Let's say we spent a neat 1/2 a million that way, $500,000. That would leave only $400,000. My, it does go quickly! Maybe some new cars, better gas mileage? Cautious investments? We've rarely had enough extra money to invest, but we probably should have done without in the past in order to build up our retirement funds. $400,000 wouldn't last forever, but it could be put to work and last a really long time, especially if we're still working, saving, tithing...

And just for the heck of it, I'd enjoy sending a woman I know who is in a loveless marriage the financial means to leave, go where she thinks she'd be happy. The worst that could happen would be that she'd learn it wasn't about the location, but about herself. That would be a worthwhile expenditure.

We spent a wonderful year in India working with wonderful folks we could trust to let us know where extra money would really, really help. Buy back some child slaves. Support missionaries. Buy goats.

I think of the young woman who is so dependent on her husband that he controls everything, her behavior, her thoughts, her ties with family. With money of her own, maybe they could achieve a bit more balance at home. Maybe he would finally show her the respect she should receive.

Or the nice guy who is having trouble finding work - what fun to set him up in a business.

I'd like to take out a full page ad in every major newspaper and tell a certain vehicle manufacturer what I think of their putting what they knew was an unsafe car on the road years ago. I'd like to buy every older model of that car at fair market value and have a gigantic meltdown. Recyle the potential death traps once and for all.

Scholarships. Good causes. Making a real difference in a few peoples' lives is more up my alley than sending money to an organization. And it really wouldn't cost that much to effect lasting change, in so many cases.

Maybe David would finally take that trip to see the Grand Canyon. I'm pretty sure I would go up to Holly's Haven in Lillington, North Carolina and get highlights put in my hair, and even spring for a manicure.

I manage little mini-vacations fairly regularly for my sanity's sake, just get away from it all and breathe. I'd still do that, but instead of bopping around Florida, I'd love to see the world. Go back to India. See the Louvre. Take a ride in a gondola.

I could run for office! On second thought...

Cheap entertainment, like I said. Now it's your turn. What would YOU do with a million dollars?

(c) Ellen Gillette, 2013

Monday, June 24, 2013

Houses and Homes

As I sit here, amazed that it's already the afternoon of the Monday of a very busy week, I am also amazed that I'm calm. In a few days, we will close on the sale of the home we bought two years ago after returning to south Florida from almost six years in central North Carolina. When we moved into it, we fully intended to stay there, my husband and I, our daughter and her two children.

Things change.

When my husband decided we should put our house on the market and downsize, we didn't know how long it would take. A couple relocating from the Gulf coast of Florida came over, liked the house, and presented their situation. They were renting here temporarily but needed to be out by a certain date. Could they lease our house until their west coast house sold? It would mean our finding temporary housing quickly, but the terms were good for both parties, and we agreed. Biiiiig move, most belongings into storage at my husband's parents' home and our grandson and us into an upstairs apartment. Daughter went to her own place with granddaughter...then to another place, with granddaughter moving in with great-grandmother. Lots of changes.

My sister helped us unpack boxes at the apartment, saying she was always impressed with how quickly we turned a place into "home" with pictures on the walls. It reminded me of what our base director in India had said when the whole group of us relocated during our year there, back in 1987. She came in while I was putting up curtains. "I knew you would be doing that first," she said. "It already looks homey."

No curtains were put up at the apartment, however, and it's just as well there was no need, with the vertical blinds. We've only been here a few months, comfortable months in which we've enjoyed the quiet neighborhood, the lack of mowing in the Florida heat, the amenities of pool and gym nearby. And now we're moving again.

Our buyers' home on the west coast sold in record time. David's father passed away. His mother and sister decided it was time to downsize, move into a condo with no maintenance, less stress and strain. The timing was good, and it feels right to be buying their house, a house that has been the scene of so many happy celebrations over the last two decades, keeping it in the family.

In a few days, we close on the sale of our house and on the purchase of the family home. A few days later, my mother-in-law closes on the sale of the condo. She's excited, says it felt like home when she walked in, a place she could be happy in. My sister-in-law likes it too, although there is a concern about whether or not the HOA will allow her dog. We are all praying, all of us except our dog Angel, who likes Twiggy very much, I think. (Angel is currently living there, while we are in the apartment, and won't have to move at all.)

Which has me thinking about what makes a house a home. Curtains? Pictures on the wall? Belongings set about just so, accumulated over a lifetime? Beloved pets underfoot?

In one sense, I have moved so often that I've become skilled at acclimating myself quickly. I've had to give up things, extras we didn't need and couldn't pack, in the 25+ moves I've made in my lifetime. the 20+ in our marriage. I've gotten good about, as my sister pointed out, getting photos up and knickknacks around to give a just-moved-into house that "lived in" look.

But I've also learned to detach. It's not about the house. What I thought would be the last house we ever built or bought...finally!...has never lasted, in fact. So I've given up on the idea of a dream home, the one with the master bathroom just like I want or the perfect neighbors or all the grandchildren growing up together on the same land.

At the same time, the idea that it isn't where I live that's important has settled into my heart.

If you're thinking that I am about to say it's all about who I'm with that's the key, you're wrong. That's important, obviously, but I'm learning to get even more personal than that.

My contentment with being in this apartment or that house, or THAT house, is not where I am or even with whom I live on a daily basis, but how I live. I've learned...and it took a long time...that I have a responsibility to myself as well as to others. Maybe it sounds pious to say we should always put others first, but I disagree. Only if we truly love ourselves do we have the ability to love others. Jesus said it, not I! Loving God is always the number one focus, but after that, he said in Mark 12:31 that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

You've probably heard the cliches: JOY means Jesus, Others, You. Put others first. Etc. Etc.

Note that Jesus put the order differently. God is God, so those of us who acknowledge his existence must also acknowledge his preeminence. After that, yes, we love others but only to the degree that we love ourselves. "AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF." That "as" is important. Jesus put us second, not third. Out of our awareness of God's love and work in our lives, we are equipped to reach out to others.

Unless we love ourselves, we lack compassion for others. We lack the confidence to realize others need our input and communication. We lack the humility to recognize our need for them. Without a healthy, godly love of ourselves, we set ourselves up to be used, abused, manipulated, disappointed, drained dry emotionally because we gave, gave, gave, and didn't stop to think that we don't have a bottomless well. It has to be filled before we can offer anyone else a drink.

So I've learned a little bit about staying filled. Spiritually, it's a lifelong process. We never arrive at spiritual maturity, and if we think we have, we'd better watch out. Something or someone will soon come our way to set THAT little misconception to rights! We pray, we praise, we read, we study, we learn, we grow closer in relationship to the Lord, we fall away, we sin, we repent, we pray, we praise, etc. The cycle continues until we die.

Physically, we need to take care of ourselves. No one else can do that but us. What we eat, what we think and read, how we spend our time and energy, whether we exercise enough or not...these are things over which we have complete and sole control. No one else is to blame that we're overweight or not taking our medication properly. No one else will see we get enough sleep or rest or activity.

Emotionally, what each of us needs to be healthy will vary. The main thing is to realize that we can't depend on one person or one thing to provide every drop of what we need to stay afloat. I heard one man talk about having lots of baskets. Maybe you like the "baskets" of crafts and fishing and having several close friends as well as your family. Or you're a performer who gets affirmation and gratification from hearing the applause in addition to staying physically fit and nurturing a few close relationships.

Perhaps your career is your main basket, meeting many of your emotional, as well as financial, needs. Whatever works for you....but don't expect what works for you to be what works for someone else. And don't expect to have a line of people waiting to rave about your particular methods. This is what YOU need. If you're understood and supported 100 percent, great! If not, sometimes you have to gently remind others that "this is what I need."

My husband and I were talking about this not too long ago. There is pressure all around, especially among Christians, I think, to fit someone else's concept of the perfect couple, or the perfect marriage. We take the ideals of the Bible and think (1) they are attainable and  (2) we need to impose them on others. Ideals are ideals. If we could be perfect out of sheer willpower and the desire to achieve, we wouldn't need Jesus! Our kids aren't perfect! Our grandchildren aren't perfect! Our lives aren't perfect!

We do the best we can with the needs we have, the gifts we have,  the circumstances we have. We don't have to answer to anyone else for what that looks like, either. To put it bluntly, ain't nobody's business.*

So, I'm gearing up for the current move, and feeling content in the midst of boxes and vacant walls. I have some old-fashioned notions about the woman of the house working to make her family's environment attractive, peaceful, and pleasant, and I've got my work cut out for me with this move, just as with previous ones. But while I'm at work, I will be scheduling plenty of things along the way that will take care of me. The happier I am, the more at peace I am, the more fulfilled and satisfied I am with life in general, the better able I will be to do what I need to do for others, turning a house into something more than a house. A home.

* Which reminds me of a Wittenburg Door interview some years ago. The Door was a Christian satire magazine that's no longer around, unfortunately, and I don't recall who they were interviewing, but Dr. James Dobson's name came up, to which someone, either the interviewer or the interviewee, commented that he wished Dobson and his organization would "focus on your own damn family." Since then, I've seen the phrase advertised as a bumper sticker or catch phrase for telling Christians and Christian groups to stay out of peoples' lives and let them live as they please. I find great merit in this suggestion. We'll never convince someone to change, anyway, unless they want to change. Beating them over the head, judging, and telling them they have to do things our way will never work. Never.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Waste of Perfectly Good Water, if You Ask Me (Which You Didn't)

Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The king was sheltered near his hometown during a battle. Thirsty, he mentioned casually that he missed the waters from the well near the city's gate.  Three of his most trusted warriors left more or less immediately, broke through enemy lines, drew water from the well, and returned with it. When they presented it to the king, he rewarded them handsomely and drank deeply from the container before offering them a drink as well.

That would make sense, except that's not the way it happened, at least in the case of King David of Israel. Only the second king, he was battling the ever-stubborn Philistines at the time, holed up in a cave outside Bethlehem, his old stomping ground. According to the New International Version of the Bible in 2 Samuel 23:15, David longed for water and said, "Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!"

David had Mighty Men, around thirty of them, the strongest and bravest among the strong and brave. But there were also The Three, whose exploits were phenomenal. The Three (or some grouping of three, at any rate) heard David, left the cave without telling their plan (apparently) and as soon as possible, returned with the water for their king. And David poured it out on the ground.


"Far be it from me, LORD, to do this!" he said. "Is it not the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives?" And David would not drink it (verse 17).

Sermons...a lot of sermons...have been given, dripping with the awe and majesty of noble gesture, of treating the sacred as sacred. You can find them online. You've probably heard a few. You can also find academic works comparing this "legend" with the history of Alexander the Great- oddly, although Alexander lived long after David, one scholar I read decided that Alexander's story somehow disproved the biblical account, instead of the other way around, or the notion that two kings might come up with the same response to a similar situation.

My question is, what was going through the minds of The Three? And what is my take-away? Apparently God went to the trouble of making sure the story was preserved for thousands of years, and apparently there would be a reason for this.

David was a poet, a musician, a man of emotion and passion. I understand that he was so moved by the sacrificial plan of his men that he was overwhelmed. I get that. It would have been humbling for others to risk their lives on a chance comment. But if I were one of the men, I think I would have preferred that he say, "Wow! Thanks, guys!" and taken a nice long gulp before offering me a sip after all the work, but that's just me.

The Old Testament can get tedious. Maybe the New Testament has some light to shed.  This is Jesus speaking, from Luke 12:
   35“Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit.36“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks.37“Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them.38“Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

On the other hand, here is this from Luke 17:
 7“Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’?8“But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’?9“He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he?10“So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”

Huh? I thought I said Jesus' words would help. 

They do, if what we take away is the fact that God doesn't always do things the same way. And he almost never acts the way I would, or you would. That is comforting to me. Critics of Christianity (and they are Legion, often with good reason) say we have created an object of worship in our own image. Au contraire! If I were conjuring up a god to worship, he would be more consistent, more attentive to my personal preferences. The fact that God IS so dadblame hard to figure out, frequently doing things differently than I think is appropriate, gives me more confidence that while he is God, I am not. It's my pleasure to receive life from him, and blessing, and forgiveness, and guidance, and grace, but he is the one who has it all to give.

Paul wrote this, in I Corinthians I:

18For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
20Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.22For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom;23but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness,24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.25Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
    26For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;27but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong,28and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are,29so that no man may boast before God.30But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption,31so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTSBOAST IN THE LORD.”

There's a lot there, but in a nutshell: God pretty much operates opposite to our natural thinking. We try to put him in a box of Right and Wrong, and he comes from way out in left field with something Right that we've always thought was Wrong. Or points out that something we had so prided as Right is actually, for this time and for his purpose Wrong. Or we're convinced he acts in order to gain glory and then allows a catastrophe that has people complaining about him more than ever. Or he just pisses us off one day, and we have to laugh at the notion of our little picayune minds being pissed off at the creator of universes upon universes. And then he convinces us that for all our picayune thinking, for all our stupid deeds or selfish thoughts or sinful plans, he loves us still.

Was David right to pour out the water? Was he being over dramatic? Ungrateful? Honorable? All in one's interpretation. But he was the king, and he could do whatever the hell he wanted to. There is no indication that the men pouted, or rebelled, or jumped on him and shoved his face in the damp earth of the cave, or even worshipped God for their wonderful king.

God acts, or doesn't. That's what is important. Not our response, or the opinions of people. We can save ourselves a lot of trouble if we get to the point where we say, "Oh. Okay. Odd, but...okay. Now what?" We overthink things. Overspiritualize. No real good comes of this, in my opinion.