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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Anne Lamott: Funnier Than Phyllis Diller But Not As Pretty (II)

Having Normal Friends
I took our German Shepherd, Hosanna, on a walk today and saw a bumper sticker that read: Normal people scare me. I felt badly because most of my friends are kind of normal—except for Jim, Bill, and Johnnie Walker. No, he’s a real guy. His father had a weird sense of humor and named him after the scotch. In retrospect, it was a highly appropriate name for him. He and I want to start a youth wrestling program at our church. Oh, yes, and there’s also Rob. Jim, Bill, and I picked him up at the off ramp of the 55 Freeway and Katella about a year ago. He had a sign that read: Will work for beer. God bless. He seemed so authentic that we couldn’t resist. I think the “God bless” got us. Anyway, Rob started coming to our church and we made him the Treasurer. Now he lives in Villa Park and drives a Porsche Boxster. We’re investigating.
For the rest, however, my friends would be classified as “normal”—pretty much. But when you’re sixty most of your friends are too tired to be “cutting edge.” I tell you all this because Anne Lamott doesn’t seem to have any normal friends or relationships, which is probably the reason the liberal left media loves her. The second chapter of her new book is entitled “red cords.”
Here’s how that chapter begins: “I wear something on my wrist that one would not expect a Presbyterian woman to wear: a thin red cotton cord that was blessed by the Dalia Lama, and given to me by my Buddhist friend Jack Kornfield.”[1] She’s right. As a “Presbo” myself (my other weird friend, Darrell coined that term), I’ve never actually seen a Presbyterian woman wear a red cotton cord on her wrist that was blessed by anyone, let alone the Dalia Lama.
Jack is a friend that the media left like for you to have. He’s a Buddhist, who is very Jewish, and who also “seems vaguely East Indian, smooth and brown, and gives off a light, spicy, ancient smell.”[2] It sounds like Jack is a Buddhist Jew who works at a local AM/PM store, eats too much curry (which gives him that spicy, ancient smell [read: he reeks]), and is on a sugar high from drinking too many Slurpees, but that’s not the case. My normal friend from India, Edwin, sells designer suits to Bush. As much as Ms. Lamott hates our President, she probably wouldn’t like Edwin either. Edwin is a nice guy—normal.
But back to Jack the Buddhist, Indian, Jew. About him Ms. Lamott writes, “He teaches his students, and has taught me, to slow down, breathe, and take care of everyone, which is of course the same message Jesus taught…”[3] He also moonlights teaching Tibetan throat chanting. That’s not true. I just made it up—about the Tibetan throat chanting that is. Listen, taking care of everyone is strenuous, because once you’ve taken care of everyone, you rarely have a place to put them. You see, Jack the Buddhist, Indian, Jew is a lot like Jesus. One of the cornerstones of Jesus’ teaching was breathing. His people wouldn’t last long without breathing. Somewhere, when you read between the lines of the Greek text, Jesus says, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! Oh, yes. Also, don’t forget to breathe!”
Most of us think of breathing as a requisite tool for living. Ms. Lamott, however, admits: “Breathing has never been my strong suit. I’ve never been very good at breathing.”[4] Obviously, she’s done okay so far because she’s still alive. When she was younger—she’s really old now and just can’t seem to get over the fact that she’s fifty—she would hold her breath until she passed out. She was two when she did that.[5] We don’t need to worry, because once her little tantrum was over, the natural reflex of breathing just kind of kicked in automatically and what she wasn’t very good at came kind of naturally.
Her father used to pull the same stunt when he lived in Tokyo with his parents who were Presbo missionaries.[6] He was traumatized by his parents or maybe “he was just a little angry.”[7] I can imagine. It’s hard to find Jewish friends who teach breathing in Tokyo—or have access to curry powder. If you’re following closely, you’ll realize that not only was Ms. Lamott’s father a little angry, so is she.[8] But anger has to have an object, at least when most of your friends are normal. For Ms. Lamott, too, her anger has a recipient. In fact, it’s the same recipient from chapter 1: George W. Bush. She explains, “I feel that we began witnessing the end of the world in Super SloMo once George W. Bush became president, and some days it takes everything I can muster not to lose my hope, my faith, and myself.”[9] I would suggest the Bible and prayer to help in such situations, but somehow that just wouldn’t cut it I fear—feel; think; whatever.
But there is more—a lot more. “One out of six women in my area is now being diagnosed with breast cancer.”[10] That might be true. I know that it’s also true that one out of six men in my area is being diagnosed with prostate cancer, but I’m still breathing. In fact, I’ve known four “normal” people in the last year in my congregation who have had it. They were—at last check—still breathing and not grousing. But breast cancer is nothing compared to the big possum that’s been coming into Ms. Lamott’s driveway “lately, worried and waddly.”[11]
This just in: opossums tend to walk with a waddly gait! Ms. Lamott is deeply concerned because she’s heard “that the stress hormones possums produce are off the charts.”[12] I lie awake at night worrying about that myself, but that is not the least of Ms. Lamott’s worries. She ponders the possum’s fate and gait and concludes, “I suppose that if I had two penises and still fainted a lot, I’d be stressed to the max, too.”[13] All of a sudden I think I’m reading The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. I’m sitting by the pool reading this drivel and my wife is concerned because I’m falling out of the chair laughing. Most of us in Southern California have been exposed to a lot, but I must confess that a woman worrying about having two penises is—well, unique.
It’s a good thing that she has her anointed, blessed red cords around her wrist. Even so, if I were Ms. Lamott, I’d be performing a visual inspection of my “lady parts” each morning before coffee. At the first sign of a slight protrusion I’d been at the doctor. Fortunately, Jack the Buddhist, Indian Jew “knotted a number of blessings” in Ms. Lamott’s cord when it tied it to her wrist.[14] That will keep the evil spirits at bay.
Ms. Lamott’s pastor, Veronica, let her preach the sermon at her church recently and she used her “red string as an audiovisual aid.”[15] Very helpful. Her first point was to walk around “letting everyone see it.”[16] Ohhhhhh. Ahhhhhh. Then she launched into a meaningful exposition of Rahab in Joshua 2. The spies visit this woman who is a big time prostitute. They don’t stay at the Jericho Travelodge for a couple of reasons. First, it didn’t exist (that’s my reason) and second, because “half the men in the town” will be at Rahab’s.[17] Apparently, unlike Ms. Lamott and the waddly possum, Ms. Rahab didn’t mind having more than two penises.
After the spies contracted STDs from Rahab, something happens to the prostitute. “Rahab feels something in her heart that tells her to align herself with the people of God.”[18] This is truly miraculous because other parts of her anatomy are so busy it’s a miracle that her heart could tell her anything at all. But, like Ms. Lamott, Ms. Rahab “was desperate, and so she listened to her heart.”[19] Yep. That’s the message of Rahab and the spies all right. In her desperation, God shows up, not merely to help Rahab breathe better but also because “‘God’ could be considered an acronym: gifts of desperation.”[20]
Here comes the punch line of the sermon: “The main gift is a willingness to give up the conviction that you are right, and that God thinks so, too, and hates the people who are driving you crazy.”[21] Put in more understandable words for the man and woman in the pew with normal friends: “Something spoke to Rahab through her heart, or through what Mel Brooks, in ‘The 2000 Year Old Man,’ refers to as the broccoli: ‘Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.’”[22]
A good biblical case can be made for the fact that when the spies visited Jericho, that the city was having a broccoli bumper crop year. What Rahab mistook for the “gift of desperation,” otherwise known as God, was actually the voice of her broccoli telling her how to eat it. Either the Lord God Almighty or her broccoli “gave her the radical conviction that she should be cared for.”[23] It’s a toss up. Rahab choose for broccoli and her name ended up in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5). The silly old author of the letter to the Hebrews was so confused that he attributes her broccoli experience to faith (Heb. 11:31). Obviously, the author had never heard of postmodern, beyond, through meta-broccoli narrative.
I’m probably being too hard on Ms. Lamott though, because she admits that she tries “to listen to God’s voice” inside her but her “sense of discernment tends to be ever so slightly muddled.”[24] Really? You don’t say? I hadn’t noticed. She might try listening to the voice of God in Scripture in order to un-muddle her slightly muddled sense of discernment. I’m twenty-one pages into the book and I’m convinced Ms. Lamott could not pour urine out of boot with page after page of detailed instructions.
When God wants to get Ms. Lamott’s attention, however, “She (God—RG) clears Her throat a number of times, trying to get me to look up or inward—and then if I don’t pay attention, She rolls Her eyes, makes a low growling sounds, and starts kicking me under the table with Her foot.”[25] Wow! Are we certain that it’s God? Satan is also a feminine noun in Hebrew. When you have normal friends you don’t get to hear God clear his throat or see him roll his eyes, hear him growl, or feel him kicking you under the table with his infinite foot—which, by the way, is one big, honking foot!
Anyway, when Ms. Lamott finished her sermon “everyone clapped like mad” and she felt “like Miss Spiritual America, with a red cord and an invisible tiara.”[26] We’re left in the dark as to precisely why they clapped like mad. It could have been either that the end of the sermon had benevolently arrived—blessed red cord and all—and the “Amen” was a deliverance rather than a blessing. Only the broccoli knows.

Coming Down Hard
Ms. Lamott’s reign as Ms. Spiritual America was short-lived though. Arriving at home from church, she and her son, Sam, had a huge fight over homework. It seems that he had a science project due the next day and had left his binder in his locker. Like any Miss Spiritual America, Ms. Lamott “spluttered and fumed in the kitchen, and stormed down the hall”[27] to her room—like a Cossack or her mother. Not that her mother was a Cossack. Anyway, she “slammed the door and started hitting it” with her fist.[28] Sam, no doubt, was impressed with his mom’s maturity. After hitting the door several times she “lay facedown on the bed.”[29] This is not a good idea for someone who is not good at breathing.
Even though it was drizzling, Ms. Lamott pulled on a raincoat and with her faithful pooch, Lily (named after the Eli Lily pharmaceutical firm that provides Ms. Lamott’s psycho-tropic drugs), retreated to a hillside near her house that can best be described as a “quiet and holy space.”[30] While there, her attention was drawn to the ubiquitous red cord bracelet around her wrist. When Jack the Buddhist, Indian, Jew tied it on he declared, “You have gotten an A-plus, Annie, for your work during this life.”[31] That’s a good thing, because Sam was going to get something substantially less for his science project. Jack is a wise Buddhist, Indian, Jewish breathing teacher because “All wise people say the same thing: that you are deserving of love, and that it’s all here now, everything you need.”[32] You’d kind of think that wise people would be a little more creative and not have to repeat the same old hackneyed phrases, but apparently wisdom has its limits.
Jack’s words are reinforced by the memoir of a Hindu writer, It’s Here Now (Are You?). Her thought, not mine. Since one of Ms. Lamott’s priest friends says the same thing she supposes Jack’s words to be true. In the midst of this introspection the quiet and holy space was interrupted by three dogs that arrived out of nowhere, followed, finally, by their owner: a normal female. The poor normal woman tried to make small conversation with Ms. Lamott and even was kind to Lily (a.k.a. Prozac). This kindness and normalcy did not amuse Ms. Lamott who describes her intruder in this fashion: “The woman sounded like someone from the shouting Loud family, on the old Saturday Night Live.”[33] Who knows? Maybe she was.
As the orphan from the Loud family moved on down the hill Ms. Lamott closed her eyes, breathed in calm, and grass; and then…”[34] I interrupt this interesting piece of information because Ms. Lamott has chosen to use unseemly language again. What she experienced next at her quiet and holy space was “the smell of dog sh**.”[35] When I was in high school, trying just to get through the day so I could play sports, I had to take English. There were times when it was hard, if not next to impossible, to come up with subjects for my essays that were avant garde enough. I would rack my brain for a suitable topic for my “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” paper, but it never crossed by mind to write about dog feces.
Ms. Lamott, however, regales us for quite some time about how she cleaned her shoes and then took a stick to get the residue out of the pattern on the bottom. Miss Spiritual America at it again. Of course, some in the Emergent Church Movement would argue: But it’s reality! Yes, it is. My rejoinder is: So is diarrhea, but I find it neither entertaining nor especially uplifting.
For Ms. Lamott, however, her entire childhood passed before her eyes[36] and she mused, “It’s a miracle that more of us didn’t shoot up our neighborhoods.”[37] The short answer is that it’s hard to shoot up anything without guns. Anyway, Ms. Lamott, who writes for goes into detail on her attempts to dislodge dog reality from her shoes. With a sigh of resignation that can be heard leaping off the page she writes, “It took forever.”[38] Thanks for sharing. But life can be a real b…really hard. When she says, “Everything gets to be too much, and I can’t breathe,”[39] I can agree with most of that—except that thus far I’ve been able to breathe in a reasonable manner.
But Ms. Lamott has obviously gone through a lot—and I mean that seriously. It sounds like she’s had a tough life with a lot of ups and downs. I don’t want to detract from Ms. Lamott’s woes—for they are legion and that seems to be fashionable in the Emergent Church Movement. Authenticity as a person increases exponentially if you’re a fruitcake, basket case, drug addict, and have had multiple abortions—but I do want to introduce you to another woman. This is a woman who received a child from God about twenty-eight years ago who was mentally handicapped. When that child was around twelve, she began throwing temper tantrums that would last for five hours—unceasing. The child would have to be physically restrained from hurting herself or others. Finally, after a $10,000.00 week in a hospital a team of psychiatrists and geneticists discovered that the child had asymmetrical brain waves and prescribed medications that eventually—finally—controlled the erratic behavior. That woman still cares for this child—now an adult—on a daily basis. She bathes her in the morning, dresses her, and lovingly cares for her needs.
This same woman had a four-month-old son born with severe heart problems. She was told when her son was born that he would not live longer than a year. He lived only four months. In that period of time, the woman cared for her handicapped daughter but also found time to visit and feed her dying infant son who had to be fed through a tube in his nose. Her time was divided, but she still had time to care for her other healthy children, her husband, read her Bible, pray, and to be a blessing to those around her. The day her son died, she kept a vigil by his little bed. Her heart was broken, but she trusted in the God of Scripture. She wept in her weakness but was strengthened by God’s Word of truth. She clung tenaciously to God’s promises.
How do I know all this? I know it because that woman is my wife. To many today she would not be considered “cutting edge” or “authentic,” but I want to share with you some words she wrote last week. After having gone through some very difficult times in her life she penned these words in an article she called “Torn Agendas.”
Here are some of her words: “The prophet Jeremiah wrote: ‘“For I know the plans I have for you”, says the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for a hope and a future.”’ That is the bottom line for the Christian. God’s plans are always ‘good’ plans. He will prosper us and bring us hope in them. In difficult and painful times, in times that do not make sense to us, we may be sure that God is keeping both His goodness and His promises. What He says, He does. He has the amazing ability to take the evil that touches our lives and turn it to our spiritual benefit.
When evil assails us in life, He not only grants us strength to endure it but also provides a fitting escape. He does not fail us when the going gets tough. Yet, He also knows exactly what we can endure. Though He pushes us at times, He will not crush us. He is the perfect “surgeon” whose cuts are perfectly measured. And when something is more terrible than His child can bear, He will guard him and protect him in the shadow of His wings. With His everlasting arms around us, we find a strength that far exceeds what is human. We find a supernatural, unending, unlimited power that issues forth from the very heart of God.
The pages of our agendas may change, plans may not turn out as we expected, and life may not be what we thought it would be, but God will always be God. He is the One who puts the pieces of our lives together to accomplish His purposes in us and through us. And in the rearranging process, we taste and see that the Lord is good!” I thank God that he has given me a woman like her.

Post Script
PS: My non-scientific concluding postscript to this particular article is that I wrote it on Memorial Day 2005. It was a relaxing day, spent painting the atrium floor, walking Hosanna, hitting a powerful upper body throw on my youngest son, Hans, who is a lot stronger than I, and watching a program on the Military Channel dedicated to those who gave their lives for others. Those stories were told by friends, relatives, or parents. The entire hour was very moving—at least to me.
Today was one of those rare days for me: a day when I cried—a lot, silently. My tears were shed for Americans who gave their lives for our freedoms. They were tears of thankfulness shed for those who died for my four-month-old son who died, for my handicapped daughter, for my wife, for my children, for my fellow-Americans, for me, and for Ms. Lamott. I, for one, am thankful for their sacrifice. They performed selfless acts and put their futures, dreams, and aspirations on the line and on hold for people they did not know, but for a cause that they were very familiar with and loved deeply: the cause of freedom. Every time I recall their sacrifice I’m reminded that pacifism is an ultimate form of cowardice and self-absorption and also that there truly are things worthy fighting and dying for. My prayer to the Lord God Almighty is that as long as I have breath in this body, I will never, never forget what those men and women did for me; did for us.
[1] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, (NY: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 5.
[2] Ibid., 16.
[3] Ibid., 15-16.
[4] Ibid., 16.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid., 17.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., 18.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 20.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid., 20-21.
[23] Ibid., 21.
[24] Ibid., 21.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 22.
[27] Ibid., 23.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 24.
[31] Ibid., 25.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid., 26.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid. Again, the clean family asterisks.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid., 28.
[39] Ibid.


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