Thursday, June 30, 2005

When it's better to be a lamb

"If you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always," Illinois Senator Barack Obama's step-father told him when he was a boy.

“But always better to be strong. Always.”

Let's go back to the sexual harassment that I recounted in yesterday’s blog. The next day I went to church and prayed desperately. I didn’t know what to pray and my prayers seemed like rain falling on granite. The event became one more in a series of humiliations that were part of becoming disabled.

The immediate shame of each event dried and crusted and I went on with the task of surviving as one of the weak of the earth.

In the same way that I brought to our marriage gritty joints that were prone to sudden flares of pain, I also brought humiliations.

“Men take advantage of weakness in other men.”

Of course, part of me was strong. At the end of my freshmen year I was elected president of my university’s Inter-Varsity chapter. I remember my shock. What did the other students see in me?

One of the reasons Sarah was attracted to me was that she could take care of me. She’s a nurse and part of her loves being a care taker. When we had our first child Sarah suddenly had someone else who needed her care even more than I did. We had a rough stretch as I figured out how to handle physical tasks that she had been so willing to do before--like washing my hair.

So I entered our marriage as a leader and someone others felt free to take advantage of.

One Christmas after our second daughter was born I decided it was time to revisit the shame of the dorm. It had always been hard to talk about. Molested by a man? And I wasn’t even sure it had happened, since I was asleep. That Christmas, something in me said that it was time to stop running away from the shame.

I began writing about it in my journal. Soon I was furious at God. Weak, I had allied myself with God and yet he hadn’t protected me. What good is God if not for protection? And all semester long I had tried to stay pure. I had thrown away the picture of the naked woman they put in my King James Bible. I had said no to the drunk co-ed who wanted to get in bed with me. Once they had blocked me from entering my room to get my suitcase to go home. When I got back from home they asked me what I thought of the porno magazines. But there was no porn in my suitcase when I got home. They swore they had put it in there. I was sure God had evaporated the porn to protect me.

Then they got me while I was sleeping.

I raged in my journal. Eventually I wrote what I had concluded about the event: I was ruined for life.

Those words rang like the distant tolling of a church bell at a funeral. Ruined for life. Journal in hand I looked at those words. They were exactly what I had concluded. Ruined for life. Then a little voice inside me asked: Was I really ruined for life?

I was married. I had children. Not exactly ruined for life. I was living the life I had longed for ever since I was a little boy. Then I remembered another phrase, this one from a song we sing at Plow Creek: The lamb who was slain has begun his reign.

I wrote that phrase in my journal--the lamb who was slain has begun his reign--and it set off a geyser of joy.

Yes, that was it exactly. I was like a lamb in the dorm, an innocent lamb that was molested. But that was not the end of the story. I knew the original story, Jesus of Nazareth going through a day of humiliations ending in his death. He too was molested but his story didn’t end there.

It isn’t always better to be strong. Sometimes it’s better to the lamb who was slain who has begun his reign.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A cripple and an orphan

Sarah married a cripple and I married an orphan.

As I wander through this vacation blog thinking about sex and trust "cripple" and "orphan" have been floating through my thinking like a pine cone caught in the current of a stream.

I guess you can't talk about trust without talking about weakness. Sarah and I have built trust on a foundation of weakness.

"Men take advantage of weakness in other men," Barack Obama's Indonesian step-father, Lolo, said. "They're just like countries in that way. The strong man takes the weak man's land. He makes the weak man work in his fields. If the weak man's woman is pretty, the strong man will take her."

The above quotes are from Obama's memoir about growing up with a white mother and an African father who returned to Africa when Obama was age two.

Growing up African-American is an exercise in coming to terms with weakness. My son-in-law is reluctant to hold my daughter's hand in public because he could be shot.

When I became disabled at 17, I became deeply acquainted with weakness. Other men took advantage of my weakness.

Not only was I disabled but I was religious and sexually naive. When I was a freshmen at a university the other men on my dorm delighted in explaining sex in all it's variations to me whether I wanted them to tutor me on the topic or not. One day one of them asked what I'd do if a woman wanted to get in bed with me. "Think about it then," I said.

That night they smuggled a drunk co-ed into my room (this was long before co-ed dorms), woke me up, and hooted and hollered as she asked to get in bed with me. I kept refusing her request.

My weakness was like a scab that had to be picked by others in the dorm. Another night I woke briefly from a deep sleep, dimly aware there were men in the room. I slid back into exhausted sleep.

The next day I heard two men talking, one obviously ashamed about something. "You should have stopped me," he said to the other.

Suddenly I realized they were discussing something that involved me. "What are you talking about?" I asked.

"You don't remember?" one asked in disbelief.

"No, I don't know what you are talking about."

"Boy, you must have a Freudian block."

I will never forget the shame that flooded me as I realized that I had likely been molested while asleep. I was too ashamed to press them for the facts.

Men take advantage of weakness in other men.

A few years later I graduated with a Master's degree and I was hired to be a human resources director for a nonprofit that provided services for people with disabilities. Given my disability I had a hard time finding a job and the director took advantage of my weakness, starting me out at $3.50 an hour.

"If the weak man's woman is pretty, the strong man will take her," was another bit of wisdom from Obama's step-father. The strong get the prettiest girl. Imagine my surprise when Sarah, the prettiest, sweetest girl chose me, the cripple.

What I didn't know at first was that she was an orphan with a violent step-father. She too was acquainted with weakness.

Lolo went on to tell Barack, "If you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone's who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always."

I would have preferred to be strong, not to be the scab of Walsh Hall that kept being picked in the fall of 1969. But Lolo was missing something in his stark assessment of the role of power in the human community. He assumed that power comes through strength. Power through strength has a limited shelf life.

There's better path to sex and that's through weakness and trust.

Speaking of power, my battery power is about the run out on my lap top. More tomorrow, Lord willing, and the creek don't rise.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Blueberries are like proper sex

A couple of years ago a philosopher friend, Greg Clark, said, "Every time I ask you a question, you tell me a story."

I guess that's how my brain works.

Yesterday as I wandered through my blog I began to ponder why in humans sex and trust is linked like the membrane and nuclei of a cell.

So I have a story. Actually two.

Yesterday Sarah and I visited with Sarah's 79-year-old mother, Jean, and Walton, her 85-year-old friend. Walton and Sarah's father, Ralph, were best friends in a Baptist seminary in the 1940's.

Ralph was shot and killed while serving as a missionary in Ethiopia in 1951 while Sarah was still in the womb. She's been searching for her father ever since and here was a chance to here more stories about him.

Walton told a few stories about Ralph but he kept drifting off to stories about Eunice, his wife of 53 years who died a couple years ago.

Shortly before he met Eunice, Walton had broken an engagement with another woman. Then he met Eunice at a camp and sparks flew immediately. Ralph saw what was happening and he asked Walton if he was being true to his fiance. Walton 'fessed up to Ralph that he had broken his engagement.

"That's the kind of friendship we had," Walton said.

Walton met Eunice in August, they got engaged in October, and married in December. "I never kissed her until I gave her an [engagement] ring," he said. "That's the way we were."

"Did I ever tell you about the first time Ralph kissed me?" Jean asked Sarah. "He kissed me and then a week later he apologized." She paused. "That was kind of disheartening."

"Ralph was very proper," said Walton.

I can think of another word. Trustworthy.

Contrast Jean and Walton's stories with the story Alma (not her real name) recently told me. Ten years ago Alma decided to leave, Alfred, her husband of 40 years. He was an alcoholic who periodically drank and became violent towards her. Ten years ago he was drinking again.

"I was so nervous when I left him I thought I wouldn't last a week," she said. "I thought I'd die of a heart attack."

She carefully planned her escape so that her husband would not know where she was, moving half way across the country. There she bought a .22 caliber pistol. "With planes nowadays," she said, "you can get anywhere in the country within a few hours. If Alfred showed up at the door I wanted to make sure that he wouldn't get in."

For seven years Alma kept the pistol under the liner in the waste basket in her bathroom. "I always figured I'd have a reason to go to the bathroom," she said.

Alma's story tastes bitter. I can only imagine the improprieties that led to the earthquake fissures that ended their marriage.

Now Jean's story of her courtship with Ralph and Walton's story of his courtship with Eunice have a different taste. Their stories make me think of tasty good sex blooming like blueberries in the backyard.

You know trust and blueberries will keep producing for fifty years.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Considering pine cones and sex

This morning I sat under a pine tree in northern Minnesota considering the pine cones lying on the pavement at my feet and hanging from the branches overhead.

Pine trees put a lot of energy into reproducing.

Probably none the pine cones from this particular tree will take root and yet year after year the tree produces new pine cones and drops them hopefully to the earth.

Which gets me thinking about chastity before marriage and fidelity during marriage, two of the commitments we make to each other and our God when we join Plow Creek.

Shouldn't we be like nature and cast our seeds far in wide in hopes that a handfull will take root and reproduce?

Sitting under the pine tree this morning I read the following quote from Jim Wilder's The Complete Guide To Living With Men:

We have all been to school. Did anything happen there that would help you control your fears and desires? Does school help you stay out of an attractive person's pants? Did you ever pass a test that helped you to be calmer when in trouble? Did any grade you finished make you a noticeably better parent? Did you ever get a license that made you more generous?

Several years ago we went through a sex scandal at Plow Creek centered around one of our founders. Uffda. We are a rather egalitarian community who sit in a circle and make the decisions that shape our church and life together. Sarah decribed it best. After the "confession" she said it was like a bomb went off in members meeting and everyone looked around wondering, "Who can I trust?"

Sex and trust. As far as I can tell trust is not part of the mix when pine cones reproduce. But for some reason or other we human beings link sex and trust so deeply that when we are sexually betrayed we seem to feel it at the cellular level.

I wonder where my thinking will go next as I explore my world (God's world?) on this vacation.

It's time to go have lunch with Sarah's aunt and mother.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The world according to Gordon Foss

I first did this post for Father's Day 2005. I keep adding quotes from my Dad:

When you get to be my age you brag it because you’re still kicking
--at age 82

Mama picked herself out an outfit for the anniversary deal.
--On a trip he and my mother had taken to Thief River Falls, MN in preparation for the 60th wedding anniversary celebration coming up June 25.

The Lord gives you wisdom so you can't believe what you've done.
--On his confidence in working out the technical details as he builds a diamond willow bed frame as part of a craft business he launched at age 80.

You get a lot of compliments and that spruces you up even if you don't make a lot of sales.
--On how he enjoys working at craft shows as part of Foss Diamond Willows.

I love you, Dad.

Friday, June 17, 2005

My people in Ethiopia

No more pastoral or Evergreen Leaders work until July 5.

I get to slow dance with time, Sarah and family.

Let my mind drift like a leaf settling gently on a brook.

In 1988 on vacation at my parents' in northern Minnesota, I began to write little parables in my journal each morning. At home I typed them up and realized--this could be a novel.

Thus was Jonas and Sally born.

Let's see what happens as my mind meanders, my body bends, and my spirit strecthes over the next couple of weeks.

Tonight I had the honor of eating dinner with my fingers, an Ethiopian tradition. My daughter Heidi's mother-in-law made ua meal consisting of several dishes with Ehtiopian names that did not stick to my brain long enough to be repeated.

As in Ethiopia we diners broke off pieces of enjara, a pliable flat bread, and used the enjara to pinch bites from eat dish. Bite by bite I ate a fine meal with my fingers.

I am ready to go to Ethiopia now, a dream I've harbored since the early 1990's. Sarah's father, Ralph Larson, an American Baptist missionary, was shot and killed in Ethiopia on November 13, 1951, five months before Sarah was born.

Ralph is buried there and no one in his family has visited his grave since his family left a day or two after he was buried.

Three years ago this summer Heidi and Woju fell in love and married a year later in a glorious Ethiopian-Plow Creek wedding.

For over fifty years our family has been bonded to Ethiopia through loss and a distant grave.

Now my people are living in Ethiopia.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The library of persistent listening

One day persistent listening will make it possible for Tiskilwa, my home town, to have a new, accessible library.

Four years ago the board (I'm currently president) set a goal of an cretaing an accessible library that will serve our village for the next fifty years.

We currently have a small library with a dozen steps to get to the door.

In my February 10 blog I was excited because a bank had offered to donate their Tiskilwa branch office to the library. But an architectural study showed that making the bank into a libray was going to cost us between $300,000 and $500,000. We could probably build an energy efficient new library for $400,000.

Last night the board voted to decline the gift of the bank building.

A couple weeks ago I visited with Bruce McVety, a former library board member, and he suggested approaching the village board about them village donating part of one of the parks for a new library.

This morning I phoned the mayor who's open to the idea but he wants to know exactly how much of the park we need.

Now it's time to listen to a consultant from the regional library system who will be able to give us an idea of how much of the park we will need.

When it's complete it might well be called a library of persistent listening because, as a board, we will have collected a ton of ideas in order to create a library that will serve Tiskilwa for the next fifty years.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

In praise of good helpers

Last Thursday I got caught in a whirlwind that I'm not ready to blog about. Perhaps later.

But now I have a power of praise story.

Last Wednesday I finished the Encouraging Path workshop at 3:00 for fifteen people from Gateway Services. I spend part of the workshop teaching about how praise helps groups thrive and then teach seven different ways you can use praise.

On the way home three Plow Creek boys came running up, wanting a ride on my wheelchair. I divided the ride home into three stages and each lad rode a third of the way with me.

They hung around our garage while I loaded my wheelchair into my van. When I load my wheelchair I roll a rug van over the van's bumper to protect it. After I loaded the wheelchair four year-old Chris reached over and rolled up the rug and stored it in the van.

"Thank you, Chris, that was very helpful." I said, suprised because Chris usually has his head down as he charges from one activity to the next. "Chris, you are a good helper, " I added.

"I'm a good helper," he announced with pleasure.

"I'm a good helper too," said Zach, his six-year old brother. "I help my parents carrry in groceries from the car."

"Yes, Zach, you are a good helper," I said. "when you help your parents carry in the groceries."

"I'm a good helper too," said five year-old Gabrian. "I help my parents carry in things from the car."

"Yes, Gabrian," I said, "you are a good helper when you carry in stuff from the car for your Mom and Dad. You are all good helpers."