Wednesday, December 17, 2014

writing wednesdays: email or phone?

Which do you prefer? Emailing or talking on the phone?

I don't mean you have to always pick one or the other. Most of us need and do both. But if you had your druthers, which would it be?

One tends to suit the introvert more. I'm sure you can guess. But there's more to say on that topic, and you have to dial Peace Garden Writer to get the skinny. I hope you will!

Monday, December 15, 2014

meaningful mondays: o holy night

"It is just about time to change things. It is just about time to say: Fine, it was night, but let the night pass, and let us decide now for day. Let us decide with a determination that comes directly out of these terrifying experiences, out of these lived connections, and that is therefore completely unshakable, even in the midst of instability." - Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., a German Jesuit priest condemned to death by the Nazis in Berlin, Germany

I am filled up with joy on this Gaudete Sunday, the Sunday of JOY!

There is darkness yes, so much darkness, and yet we are there, now, when a light pierces the black. And it is a light so bright that nothing can diminish its warmth, beauty and goodness. Nothing.

Sunday night, we were privileged to watch our two daughters perform with their high school choir's 2014 candlelight Christmas concert, "My Soul in Stillness Waits." Even the words in the program alone were enough to move me, without one single note of music. But when the music came? I was moved, and my heart set right.

One of the first songs, "Muusika," asks a question:

"It must be somewhere, the original harmony, somewhere in the great nature, hidden. Is it in the furious infinite, in distant stars' orbits, is it in the sun's scorn, in a tiny flower, in tree-gossip, in heart-music's mothersong, or in tears? It must be somewhere, immortality, somewhere in the original harmony must be found: how else could it infuse the human soul, that music?"

What a beautiful, deeply meaningful time of year is Advent, which leads into the climactic moment of Christ's birth -- God's touchdown in our misery-ridden world.

Recently, someone on Facebook asked what my favorite Christmas song is. I have a couple, but the one that has been in my heart the longest is "O Holy Night." One year, quite a while ago now, I sang the solo for this song at midnight Mass. And nights like Sunday night bring it all back in a most beautiful way. Time stands still and I go back; back to the night of my solo, and then further back yet, to the night a babe was born who turned the world upside down in the most awesome way possible.

Do we realize how blessed we are to have this as our vision? I dearly hope we have not forgotten. Our yearly celebration of Christmas is a reminder. Let us not forget. Let us not lose sight of what we are moving toward!

The blessing of Sunday evening was enhanced by our two daughters singing, our Bishop John Folda on piano, a string quartet, a hand-bell choir, our very incredible choir director, Rebecca Raber, and a few other extras. (Listen to O Holy Night here.) Now, if I can just hold this night close to help gently illuminate the path in the crazy days ahead.

Q4U: What song sings in your soul this Advent?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

second-chance sundays: marriage gives couple second chance

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec 6, 2014.]

James and Sawain Williams, June 2014/Special to the Forum

Faith conversations: Marriage gives couple a second chance

By Roxane B. Salonen

FARGO – On June 19, Sawain and James Williams looked up and saw nothing but gray skies.
Then they looked at each other and smiled. Nothing – not even a few raindrops – could spoil their special day. After all the storms they’d come through, this would be a piece of wedding cake.

“It rained the whole week leading up to it, and there was heavy drizzle all afternoon,” said their friend Gerri Leach.

Those preparing for the Williamses’ wedding had to “sweep the puddles off the concrete” at the main shelter at Trollwood Park in north Fargo, she said, where the couple would say their wedding vows.
But just after the nuptial exchange, the sun peeked through – perfectly timed for a marriage that had “second chance” with a divine brushstroke written all over it.

“It was like a dream come true. I felt like a princess,” said Sawain, 24, beaming in remembrance.
The couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Sonya, was the only family in attendance, and many who helped with setup were former jail inmates, or “returning citizens,” who had come straight from a treatment facility.

Yet angels surrounded, even if some wore slightly bent wings and halos.

“This really was the whole ministry and community celebrating with them what God had done in their lives,” said Leach, executive director of Jail Chaplains, which hosted the wedding in conjunction with the group’s annual Second Chances Picnic.

“It was so joyful, with everyone working together,” Leach said. “We had a praise band from Bethel (Church) there, and someone who loves to decorate cakes donated the cake, and another from Detroit Lakes (Minn.) donated the bridal gown.”

Leach had come up with the idea to combine the wedding and the event. After all, if not for Jail Chaplains, the union would not have been.

“If I hadn’t started going back to those programs,” James admitted, “I know I’d be back in jail or dead.”

Broken pasts

Both James’ and Sawain’s lives speak of broken pasts that have led to a hopeful future.

James, 30, grew up on a poverty-filled, drug-stricken reservation in Wisconsin to a police officer father who liked Jack Daniels and wrought anger onto his mother, according to James.
After a while, he just couldn’t bear it.

“I moved out at 13 onto the street,” James said, adding that he lived for months in an abandoned storage unit. “I joined gangs and sold drugs until I moved here.”

Things were so corrupt in Wisconsin, he said, that he even sold drugs to cops. “When I’ve gone back to visit, I’ve seen kids in Pampers hustling drugs there, too.”

Back then, God was the farthest thing from his mind. After all, if such a being did exist, James figured he’d never forgive someone who had seen and done the things he had.

At 23, James moved to Fargo to start over, but his bad habits followed him. After several stints behind bars, he eventually became acquainted with the faith-based programs at the Cass County Jail.
And for the first time, he began to feel hope and unconditional love.

“I knew I had to change and I couldn’t do it without God.”

After serving his time, James started working at a local restaurant, where he met Sawain. On the outside she was beautiful, but inside, wounds from her own past festered.

Originally from Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Sawain came to America at age 11 with her parents and two sisters, first to Connecticut, then Michigan, and eventually to Fargo when she was 18.

As a child, she said, she was beaten “like a man.” It was part of the culture. Even at school, the students were at risk of being slapped or hit with bats by their teachers.

“The first day of school here I said, ‘Mom, no one beat me up today at school. How amazing is that?’ ” Sawain said.

She was drawn to a Christian Bible study offered by Youth for Christ “because they had doughnuts,” and she liked doughnuts.

The experience piqued her interest in Jesus, she said, and when she moved into her first apartment, she found a single Bible in the otherwise empty rooms. “I started opening it up, and I prayed one night, ‘If you’re real, show me a sign.’ ”

That night, Sawain had a vivid dream about Jesus that overwhelmed her.
“That’s when I found God,” she said. “With my parents, I used to pray a lot in Islam and read the Koran and stuff, but Allah never reached out to me the way Jesus has.”


Despite their newfound faith and bringing a daughter into the world, both James and Sawain experienced another major setback.

When James ended up incarcerated once more and lied about it, Sawain went off the rails, turning to drinking as a way to cope with her anger.

“He was going through his dark times, and it put both of us 10 steps back,” she said. “I started doubting God, blaming him for all this, but that wasn’t right.”

Eventually, their hearts were pierced again, in a good way.

“For me, it was the Holy Spirit,” Sawain said. “He opened my eyes. There were so many times when I doubted God, and then there would be a reminder, ‘You can’t go back, you can’t do this again.’ ”
James said it took nearly losing Sawain and Sonya to help him realize his old life needed to go.
“I even tried to commit suicide,” he said.

During his relapse, he ran into Mike Sonju from Jail Chaplains, and with his help, got turned back around.

“The Lord helped him see what it was like not having us and me what it was like not having them, and it opened up both of our eyes,” Sawain said. “I realized after going through what I did that my mistakes were just as bad as his mistakes.”

No longer dwelling on past hurts, Sawain said she wants Sonya to have the kind of childhood both she and James were denied.

“It’s definitely a God thing, what’s happened,” James said, as Sawain nodded.

“Their story really shows how we as a society can make a difference and stand in the gap for those who might by nature be disadvantaged,” Leach said. “That’s really what Jail Chaplains is all about.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

meaningful mondays: the gift of dance

It might be hard for many to appreciate just how big this gift was for us.

Our youngest son, dancing in this year's Advent program -- a program that has been launching our Advent season in a most beautiful way for the past 12 years or so. Some of those years, our children have been background participants, and other years they've had larger roles.

We have just one year left after this one before our youngest moves on to middle school, and when that day comes, these programs likely will be part of our memory only. I will miss them, and miss my young kids looking out into the crowd, searching for their mama as my guy did here.

The combination of knowing we're nearing the end, mixed in with how hard a year it's been with our teenagers, and the fact that a good friend of ours is the hardworking choreographer for these annual events, made it especially emotional this time around.

I didn't cry. Well, maybe a tear sneaked out right at the end during the signature piece, which leaves most of us moms a happy mess (see link below).

But mostly I was beaming inside, because in a very real way, our son's part in dancing in this event was a beautiful piercing of light into a dark, dark world; dark out there, but at times in these last months, dark inside our home, too. And by dark I mean that it's been hard at times to find any kind of sustained surface peace. I find the deep-down peace to be fairly constant.

I do live with such joy most of the time, and it's sincere, but we've been handed our fair share of trials, and right now, we seem to be moving through some of the most perplexing of them in terms of our children and their futures. It is not easy, even though God always provides just enough grace for us to move through it.

So given that, I can barely hold back how my heart leaps in moments such as the Nativity Advent Program; this year, through our son's participation, and in the finding of little surprises like his Advent artwork in the hall near his classroom as I passed by on the way to the bathroom.

In about an hour, this same son will lead the prayer of petitions at the school Mass for the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He practiced last night and has his part down well. And then this coming weekend, our daughters will perform in the high school candlelight Christmas concert, another yearly event that I always anticipate with great eagerness. I know that by the end of it all, my heart is going to be aptly filled, and oh so ready to receive Christ.

What a blessed life, through it all, in glad praise of our good and faithful God!

(To see the whole dance, go here. And here for the "Lights of the City"finale.)

Q4U: What has been your light in the darkness this week?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

second-chance sundays: former atheist teaches longtime believer

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on Nov. 29, 2014.]

Living Faith: Former atheist teaches longtime believer

By Roxane B. Salonen

I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of those who stumbled upon God for the first time in their adult years.

As a “cradle believer,” I’ve only experienced life with God in it. My mother pasted into my first scrapbook photos from my baptism day on Sept. 12, 1968, and I’m grateful for the reminder that from the beginning, I was marked for God.

But I’m also slightly envious over the zeal of the adult convert who sees the world of faith as totally new and remarkable.

We all need an occasional reminder of how fortunate we are by the gift of faith, and I’ve found the stories of former atheists a sure way to stay inspired.

My latest “atheist convert” read comes in Holly Ordway’s book, “Not God’s Type: An Academic Atheist Lays Down Her Arms.”

Ordway’s story attracted me in part because, I figured, as a literary academic and story lover, she’d approach her journey from a relatable and thoughtful perspective.

We also share some of the same heroes: J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Not only were these men expert storytellers, but their tales come framed in a decidedly faith-filled worldview.

Within the first 10 pages of her book, Ordway shares thoughts that plagued her as an atheist, including wondering whether abortion and infanticide were any different.

Her atheistic perspective led her to ask, if a functioning mind and body are what make a genuine “person,” do the lives of the profoundly disabled or the mentally handicapped have any meaning at all?

Following that line, she also wondered whether we have the right to live once the mind is gone, and whether euthanasia of the disabled was a sound option.

At that point, Ordway became unsettled.

“I was aware that there was something badly wrong with the reasoning that led to ideas like this, but I preferred not to think about why.”

Her “consciously articulated views” relied on the premise that God doesn’t exist and life contains no ultimate meaning. And she concluded that atheism consistently lived out leads either to self-deception or despair.

Self-constructed meaning, Ordway concluded, “is only a stop-gap; it is real only in the sense that a stage set of (Shakespeare’s) Elsinore Castle is a real place.”

One can suspend disbelief while “Hamlet” is being performed, she said, but eventually the curtain falls and one must leave the theater.

“What’s to be done when Helping Others, Doing Good Work and Having Friends are recognized as paint and canvas and trick lighting?”

Ordway leads the reader through her thought process toward her eventual belief, including realizing how much of her imagination had been fed by Christianity well before she’d ever considered God as reality.

“I delighted in the stories of King Arthur’s knights and the quest for the Holy Grail without knowing that the Grail was the cup from the Last Supper,” she writes, noting that she had no idea that the Chronicles of Narnia had anything to do with Jesus.

And yet “images from the stories stuck with me, so bright and vivid in my memory, as if I had caught sight of a real landscape, had a real encounter, with more significance than I could quite grasp.”
Indeed, how much of our own imaginations are sprinkled with a faith underpinning without our even recognizing it?

Eventually, Ordway acquiesced to the reasonableness of a good and loving God, and in doing so, experienced an epiphany.

“Now it made sense why the world was both so beautiful and so broken; two pieces that I had never before been able to fit into the same puzzle,” she said.

The world is beautiful, she said, because the creator made it so; and broken because we, in our pride, turned away from that good God and made a mess of things.

“And because his goodness includes respect for us as individuals, he did not force us back into relationship with him,” she said, “but instead allowed each of us, graciously, to come to him of our own choice even while giving us the grace that enabled us to make that choice.”

Preach it, soul sister, and thank you for so perfectly articulating our common story so we stodgy, longtime believers can relive it through newly enlightened eyes.

Finally, and above all, welcome, welcome to the kingdom of love.

Friday, December 5, 2014

faith & family fridays: the fruitful pause

"Life may be brimming over with experiences, but somewhere, deep inside, all of us carry a vast and fruitful loneliness wherever we go. And sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inward in prayer for five short minutes." - Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (p.93)

I think of this time of year as a big, beautiful pause, similar to what Etty described in her diary written in Amsterdam, before she had to tear away from the life she'd known to work, and then die, in a concentration camp.

I've been reflecting on Etty's beautiful ruminations this week, and couldn't help but call that excerpt to mind as I contemplate Advent and what it means to me, as well as how I can make the most of it. It's strange, because so much about our lives centers on doing, plotting, moving, but now, we are called to pause, even if only for two deep breaths, or five short minutes of "turning inward in prayer."

For the past five years or so, I've had a great help in getting Advent aptly launched, having been invited to partake in an Advent by Candlelight event that has been offered annually by several parishes in town. One of the first times, I was a speaker, and several others, a musician. Those times were blessed with the chance to give, but it's also very beautiful to be a simple recipient, like this year.

The evenings differ each time, but always involve hanging out at a table with other women in a room of beautifully and uniquely adorned tables soaked in an ambiance of candlelight with music (like this), dessert, and an inspiring message and contemplative reflection.

Nothing was going to stop me from being there this year as in the past, and having had a highly tense afternoon with the kids, I was so ready. In fact, knowing this evening was on the horizon seemed about the only thing that got me through that tense hour in the van, a hormonal teenager causing me to grip the steering wheel as a stress headache began to manifest. 

And that room, that candlelit place of peace, given the chance to shed it all if only for a while: bliss. Etty has it right. We can hardly avoid the busy, but the moments of reprieve, however slight, mean everything. Without a chance to pause and restore, we have nothing to give.

And we must give. We are made to give. Giving is what God has done for us and, in turn, what we are compelled to do for others in order to live vibrantly.

"This much I know," Etty later wrote, after learning that someone she cared about had been selected to leave for the dreaded camps, "you have to forget your own worries for the sake of others, for the sake of those whom you love. All of the strength and love and faith in God that one possesses, and which have grown so miraculously in me of late, must be there for everyone who chances to cross one's path and who needs it."

Such a selfless statement. Often, I think, the world interprets the pause as selfish, when in reality we need the pause to give ourselves time in between one necessary task and another in order to breathe, and therefore, garner the strength to, once again, give.

I guess what I'm saying is: pausing is not an option. Pausing is an imperative. Etty knew it, even in the midst of an uncertain future, which had her proclaiming, "We now live side by side with destiny...and nothing is how we learned it from our books."

Indeed, a day longer, and even one more breath, is not guaranteed, so let us pause as we can to have the strength to give when the time for that comes, as Etty did so well.

Q4U:  How do you settle yourself to pause in order to give again?