Monday, September 15, 2014

meaningful mondays: the day i became a christian

For years, ever since my children were small, I've been making a big deal of their baptism anniversaries. To me, this day equaled and even exceeded the importance of their actual birthday. And so we celebrate with pie of their choice, a special meal and the lighting of their baptismal candle.

Because this wasn't a tradition in our home growing up, I haven't thought much about my own baptism date. Instead, I focused on the kids' special days. But recently, I got to thinking about my own pivotal moment of new life in Christ while perusing my first-ever photo album, and I realized anew that I, too, have every reason to celebrate my becoming a child of God.

Fr. O'Flannigan and my Aunt Aunt and me, 9-12-68
The more I grow in my own faith journey, the more meaning I find gazing at this certificate:

Why it took so long for me to fixate on this, I don't know, but suddenly I am overtaken with gratitude that my mother took the time to record this special day, certainly one of the climactic moments of my life. Her mother heart knew I wouldn't remember the day, but guessed I'm sure that someday, I might want to reflect back on it.

Forty-six years later, these photos mean so very much.

I am reminded anew that the water poured over my head...

and the the oil placed on my forehead in the sign of the cross...

along with the priestly blessing in the stead of Jesus Christ himself...

and the very real but invisible grace imparted in this moment with the words, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit..."

...combine to create the beginnings of my life in Christ. And despite all my missteps along the way, and all the fussing I've done, somehow because of this day, I have managed to find my way back to the center of love.

Catholics believe in infants being baptized for this reason. We don't believe baptism to be a moment when we can audibly profess our belief in Christ, but the one when Christ himself chooses us, claims us for His own. With the help and support of our families and Church community, this seed of grace will be watered. And then ultimately, we decide whether to continue to grow in this direction through the choices we make each day.

We can't undo our baptisms. Once we are claimed by the God Most High, that's it. We are His, forever. Certainly, we can choose to turn our backs on this Love, but He will always be waiting for our return.

Remembering our baptism is about more than a piece of pie (though, in case anyone is wondering, I chose my favorite, pecan) and a special meal. It is a thinking back on the most monumental moment of our life as a Christian.

I didn't need to be fully cognizant of what was going on. That seed of grace was planted, and over time, did grow into something that has changed my life, forever.

Thank you, Mom, thank you, Dad, for passing on this beautiful faith of hope, love and life to me. Please be assured I am doing all I can to make good on the promises you made to God to bring me up in the faith. Please pray with me that my children will feel this grace stirring within their own souls so that they, too, will feel compelled to run into the arms of Jesus and surrender to his plan for them.

Q4U: What do you know of your baptism day? How has its meaning to you changed over the years?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

second-chance sundays: potato chip aisle provides 'God moment'

[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 Sept. 6, 2014.]

Living Faith: Chip aisle provides 'God moment'

By Roxane B. Salonen

I’d plotted out my evening grocery run. I had only one item to buy, after all, so it would be a quick in and out.
Even as I parked, I began envisioning sinking into my couch at home. I was close. So close.
And then I saw her – the friend with whom I’d tried to plan a coffee date several months back without success due to similarly harried schedules.

Her face showed she was rushed now, too; this surely would be a short and sweet “good to see you” kind of deal.

But a few words into it, there between the candy and the potato chips, something began to happen, and by the time I got back to the van, my clock showed after 11 p.m.

Ninety minutes from starting, I had only one item in hand, but a full heart.

I am reliving that moment again now, remembering her with her grocery cart half-full and the weight of the world on her face, and me on a mission to make a hasty getaway.

But God had other plans. First came her update, then mine. Before we knew it an invisible force had pulled us together and was keeping us bound, unmovable, in the grocery aisle.

We were two mothers whose summers had exploded – a couple of hurting souls confounded by similar things – and we couldn’t part.

It was a “God moment” of potato-chip proportions, you might say.

At one point, the guy cleaning the floor had to clear his throat as he waited for us to move. Finally feeling his stare, we mumbled a collective, “Sorry,” and relocated around the corner, transfixed anew now near the center-aisle cereal display.

At 10 p.m., my husband called. “Where are you? Are you OK?” Yes, yes, all is well. Just ran into a friend. Be home soon.

How could I begin to explain what was keeping me attached to that small section of grocery-floor tile? That despite our inability to seal a connection several months back, and being worn and weary this night, God had arranged a way for us to meet anyway, right here and now?

What words could relay well enough how looking into her deep brown eyes and hearing of her trials, not as in a “woe is me,” but an “I am in survival mode right now and this is hard” kind of way, had left me no choice?

And then she became very quiet. “I have to admit, there have been times in all this that my faith has felt very weak.”

“My prayers have become pretty subdued lately, too,” I said, nodding in understanding.

“I feel guilty,” she admitted.

“It’s hard, I know,” I said, “but you can’t always be strong. I think sometimes all you can do is coast, to survive off the prayers of others, and that God’s OK with that.”

It’s hard to admit we are broken and doubtful.

“God, why aren’t you intervening here? This is too much,” we might say, tempted to shake our fist at the almighty.

She’s been there, and I have, too.

But then, as another floor cleaner whooshed past, forcing my friend to pull her cart flatly against the juice section to make room to pass, she said, very intently, “It’s crazy, though. Despite all of this, God keeps showing up.”

She shared about the many in her life who have reached out in love, and how it’s kept her buoyed even as she’s been on the verge of total immersion.

As I listened, I saw a woman who knows she’s blessed despite trial and who loves her child with a boundless love, even though right now things aren’t as she wishes.

I saw a friend clinging onto life by a thread, but one that has been fashioned by a good God who loves her and her daughter even more than she can, and who will see them both through if only she hangs on and trusts.

I saw myself.

We agreed together to keep moving ahead, to keep trusting in God, to not give up on the good ending we know will come, even though it seems so unreachable now.

Fiction author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that it is when our prayers seem to have been lost that God is most present.

“We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly,” she wrote. “We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly. There is no such thing as belief without doubt or struggle.”

It’s true, and it helps me know I can hang on one more day, and then another after that. Together, we can do this.

Monday, September 8, 2014

meaningful mondays: teresa, joan and beauty

The ironic confluence was nearly impossible to miss. Just a day after Joan Rivers passed away on September 4, we celebrated the birthday anniversary of another woman who has made an impression on the world, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

They were both in their 80s when they died, just six years apart in ages of death: Joan was 81, Mother Teresa, 87, and yet what a contrast.


I think Joan Rivers was a gorgeous woman, especially before plastic surgery. Here she is in the 1980s at a premiere of "Steel Magnolias."

I wish she could have embraced her beauty the way Mother Teresa embraced hers, not through searching the mirror for affirmation, but seeking beauty in the faces of the sick, dying and destitute all around her.

Mother Teresa was on a mission to find Christ's face in everyone whose path she crossed, and it was there, too, that she found her worth. Botox would have been the furthest thing from her mind and heart.

I don't write this as a criticism of Joan Rivers. She lived in a different world altogether, and she had her own motivations for living her life the way she did, but I think the images of these two women and their two different approaches to beauty can teach us so much.

I'm looking at myself now, and my own weaknesses, which became strikingly apparent to me this morning when I accompanied my youngest son into the elementary school "in the raw;" in other words, without a stitch of makeup -- an unplanned event.

I will admit, I feel better with my mask intact. I've become accustomed to my morning routine, and it's what I most often present to the world. But I also know it's a crutch, and that on some level I'm bound like Joan was.

What's perhaps different is that I am resisting it, internally at least, and I'm going to keep working at how I can let go of the external fixes with the goal of becoming as free as Mother Teresa, who, I'm thinking, never rose in the morning with the thought of applying mascara to her eyelashes before dashing off to go about her business.

I'm not quite there. I am in the world and need to figure out a balance. I don't think it's wrong to want to present oneself in a way that instills confidence. At the same time, I'm going to keep challenging myself on this point, because we have so many influences all around us, every day, that lure us toward more fixes, and there should be a healthy limit to the lengths we go to to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

Joan Rivers was the ultimate example of what can happen when we get carried away by trying to manipulate the exterior beyond what is reasonable or fair to ourselves.

God rest her soul. I truly hope and pray that now she is free and understanding how much she was loved all along.

Let's learn from her. Let's see what we can do differently, day by day. Perhaps we can take a hint from Mother Teresa, aiming to focus less on what we see in the mirror and more intently searching out beauty on the faces of those around us who are in need and begging for us to respond in love. We don't have to go far. As Mother Teresa pointed out many times, it often begins right in our own homes.

Q4U: How has our culture's concept of beauty challenged you? What lengths are you willing to go to challenge back?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

second-chance sundays: spiritual u-turn prompts summer ESL program

[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 August 30, 2014.]

Austen Dames, at left, works with students at Master’s Heart Ministries’ English as a Second Language program, housed at Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Fargo. Special to The Forum

Faith Conversations: Spiritual U-turn prompts summer language program

By Roxane B. Salonen

WEST FARGO - As a fourth-grade teacher at South Elementary here, Sarah Stanley likely will ask her students the question most instructors pose at year’s beginning: “What did you do and learn this summer?”

Their answers will pour fourth, and as they do, it’s a given that Sarah will be thinking back on how her own summer turned from burden to blessing.

“God redeems everything for his glory,” she says, speaking about the most recent spiritual U-turn in her life, and how she moved through it.

This past spring, when Sarah and her husband, Mike, learned they were expecting a baby, and that it was due to arrive in August, they were overjoyed. It would mean forgoing a long-awaited mission trip to Africa, but a child would be worth it.

Then the baby died, and their summer calendar suddenly began to look very different, with three months of open spaces, painfully reminding them of their loss.

Even as she grieved, an idea came to Sarah, she says, and within a relatively short amount of time, she’d set in motion a program to help New Americans learn English and encourage them in their Christian faith through the summer.

“I don’t believe we had the miscarriage so this class could be,” she says, “but … I could have had a really sad summer. Instead, God said, ‘See Sarah, this is kingdom-building, too.’ ”

In a symbolic way, Sarah did end up giving birth – through her efforts to lead up the Master’s Heart Ministries’ English as a Second Language program, housed at Bethel Evangelical Free Church in Fargo.

And with assistance from a volunteer team, which transpired rather quickly and miraculously, according to Sarah, she brought new life to many who’ve come here from somewhere else, often fleeing from dire circumstances.

Ultimately, that life returned tenfold.

“So often, it seems, us white people think we have to step in and save the day and the New
Americans are just receiving, receiving,” Sarah says. “Maybe in some cases that’s true, but not with the people we worked with this summer. I was blown away by how much I received.”

In fact, Sarah says she’s been mourning summer’s end. After all, the program’s meant not just to build language skills but relationships, too.

“I have loved the freedom to go and spend time at these people’s homes,” she says, noting that she recently shared a meal with some of the participants, whom she now considers good friends.

Then, Sarah breaks into a story about Gakwaya, one of the participants. “When he started class, all he could say was ‘Hi,’ and he would nod and make motions,” she says.

But one day after he’d been coming to classes for a while, Sarah saw him walking outside near the church, so she ran out to greet him. In broken English, he asked her how she was and how her family was doing. “I just wanted to cry right then,” Sarah says, recognizing the progress in language. “I mean, that is huge.”

Steph Haugen, one of many volunteers who helped organize and carry out the initiative, says it was a privilege to be part of the program’s launch.

“Sarah just loves Jesus with her whole heart, soul and mind, and she loves people, so it was a joy for her to spend her summer doing this and making an eternal impact,” Haugen says. “Her smile just oozes out of her and is contagious.”

Victoria Babingui, a mother of two young children from the African Congo, showed up faithfully every Wednesday to take part. While learning English through picture blocks, dry-eraser-board demonstrations and praying with her tutor, she also learned Bible stories, which were incorporated into the lessons.

Meanwhile, her children were occupied in another room with other kids, also learning about God and their new country.

“We had both a kids’ program and child care, so not only could the students bring their families, but the volunteers could utilize that, too, so a whole family could actually volunteer together,” Sarah explains. “That’s a part of the program we definitely want to bring back.”

In a phone text message to help with the language barrier, Babingui says she is grateful for the program for many reasons, including the chance to meet the woman she calls “my sweet sister Sarah.”

“In this world you can have a rich, smart friend, but if she doesn’t have God, it’s zero,” Babingui says. “God is a fortune, and my sweet friend, she is a woman of God, she loves God, she serves God … and she is a missionary because she is bringing the word of God to all nations, black, white and yellow people.”

But Sarah says she’s the fortunate one.

At one point in the summer, the volunteers learned it was Babingui’s birthday, so they brought a bouquet of flowers to class for her. Babingui, however, wanted to gift them, and prepared African donuts, sambusa and lasagna for everyone to enjoy.

It brings Sarah back to a time several years ago when she had a chance to do mission work in Mozambique, Africa. “No matter what (the African people) have, they’re always willing to give it,” she says. If they have little, they will give that. If they have much, they will give that.

And, it seems, what comes around goes around.

Just days before the first day of school, Sarah sits at her kitchen table admiring a bouquet of flowers – purples, pinks, yellows and red – representing her beautiful summer.

The gift came from another of the program participants, a young African woman who, in light of being orphaned, is now mothering her five siblings. “Even while needing to be blessed, she chose to bless others,” Sarah says, in awe and gratitude.

Friday, September 5, 2014

faith & family fridays: duped!

As a mother of teenagers, more often than not these days I feel like I've been duped.

So this past Sunday, when the Scripture was read from Jeremiah 20:7-9, I was drawn to it like a fruit fly to a juicy, freckled banana:

"You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped." 

(Ouch. Yep. That's me, thinking this parenting thing was going to be some sort of lovely dream with a few bumps but mostly sweet satisfaction along the way. Right.)

But it doesn't end there. Let's dig that knife in a little further now.

"You were too strong for me, and you triumphed. All the days I am the object of laughter; everyone mocks me."

(There go those eye rolls again. Yes, I know them well.)

"Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage is my message, the word of the Lord has brought me derision and reproach all the day."

(All that I have lived for, every sacrifice, seems to be biting me in the leg about now. The payoffs seem so far away.)

And so what to do? Well, that's right here, too, believe it or not. The supposed solution to all this madness.

"I say to myself, I will not mention him. I will speak his name no more."

(Uh-huh, the old cover one's ears with one's hands so as to ignore, and if that doesn't work, how about the silent treatment? It's so tempting, isn't it? And it works, for a while, but then...)

There's always a but...

"But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it."

And there it is. I'm sucked right in, all over again; pulled in by a torrent of love against my will. Against my will, no matter how many eye rolls I must endure, I am in this for the long haul; in this family, here as a mother even while the subject of constant derision by those I have helped love into existence and poured my life into so they might have life. I am helpless against the force of God's undeniable goodness, mercy and justice, and all the hope it offers, over and over again, calling me anew each day, over and over again, though so often I want to instead cry out, "This is too much. This is hard. How long must I endure it?"

I am like a toddler then, not understanding why, and yet running to my mama, my papa, because love is the thing I cannot deny myself, even when so much about it doesn't seem to make sense and doesn't add up. This force more powerful than anything I have experienced keeps me coming back, despite uncertainty. The silent game falls short, for I cannot deny God's goodness. I have agreed to follow Him and He has agreed to take me up on that,

I'm too far in, too far gone, too bowled over by love, even when that love seems to bring nothing but heartache. My only recourse, then, is to keep moving forward, further into the unknown, straight into the middle of the confusion and everything beyond my control, to a place of total surrender...again...and again.

I have no choice. After all, I cannot imagine the alternative: doing this very same thing but without Him.

Yes, I've been duped, and I've no one to blame but myself, and many to thank for leading me here. For I believe with my whole heart, and every day I have said, and every day from here on out I will continue to say, repeatedly, "Jesus, I trust in you."

And so I will. To the end, and to a day when all will right itself, and love will saturate my weary bones, and I will sigh, and surrender one very final time to love.

Q4U: Have you ever been duped?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

writing wednesdays: words from 1968

It's been 46 years since my mama cut out this little square of newspaper and pressed it into my very first "scrapbook."

All these words in our lives help tell our story. This was the "once upon a time" in mine.

My brief pondering on the topic is over here today on Peace Garden Writer.

Peace be with you!

Monday, September 1, 2014

meaningful mondays: kiss from God (reunion with a friend)

I've known Christina for several years now, but it's only been recently that I've been in her physical presence and gotten to know her in the flesh. Christina was the driving force behind our writers' adventure in the Deep South this past summer. I gave an account of those travels earlier here while they were happening, in June (including this one).

It was hard bidding farewell to Christina and Karen, my two travel comrades, when we parted the end of June, but less daunting knowing Christina, a Wisconsin native, would be moving West in August, and hoped to plan her journey around a stop in Fargo.

This weekend, it came to be. As planned, Christina, along with her cat, Ginger, who is moving with her, and her parents, Dan and Jean, who are helping transport her belongings, ended their second leg right here in Friendly Fargo.

Now, as much as I love Fargo, it's not a frequent destination for much of the world. It wasn't a final destination for Christina and her parents, either, but their reprieve here was such a blessing to me, and coincided on a weekend when my own mother is in town visiting for my birthday.

Christina and I deliberated some of the top choices for eateries in Fargo and ultimately, I pushed for Santa Lucia based on location, food excellence and atmosphere.

From the review I heard the next morning on the way to church, the expectations were met and exceeded. It was a lovely evening with the six of us, and oh so yummy!

I even received a little surprise -- a card from Christina...

...And a variety package of Lindor Truffles. (I'm not saying for sure but they might be gone already, though if so, I must insert the deed didn't happen singlehandedly).

Seeing my lovely friend's face once again, enjoying a meal with her once again, and attending Mass with her once again was like a little kiss from God.

And you know what? I'll take it. Because these are the things in life that make all those in-between times that drain and drown the soul not only tolerable but livable and hope-filled.

After Mass, I introduced Christina to the Healing Room at our church, where I was anointed for the first time by our priest on Friday (as mentioned here).

What made it especially beautiful for both of us is that St. Raphael, whose hand is extended to us from above in the painting behind, has become a very special part of our friendship. Not only is St. Raphael the patron saint of travelers -- and it has been traveling through which we have been bound -- but he also had a very special place in the heart of our heroine, Flannery O'Connor, who kept him near throughout her illness, which ultimately claimed her life at 39.

Our friendship and journeying together seemed to come full circle in this moment, and in some ways, made this goodbye easier to take. In fact, when my birthday rolls around tomorrow, Tuesday, it's going to feel very strange, because I feel like the celebration has already happened. The blessing certainly has.

Another confluence is that Christina, 27, is heading to the same place -- with so many unknowns before her but a lot of excitement and hope -- where Troy and I headed in a similar fashion when we were at the shining age of 23 and newly married, our lives unfolding before us. We are grateful to have helped be part of the sendoff, and I know for certain she will bring a light to the West.

God be with you, sweet Christina. St. Raphael, be with you. Flannery, be with you. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, be with you. You're going to do great!

Q4U: What special guests have you received recently?