Giving Up My Rights

Photo by engleek
Photo by engleek

Long gone are the days when people simply gave up ice cream or meat for Lent. Modern observers of the season abstain with far more creativity than ever before, giving up such things as Facebook, television, wearing jewelry, caffeine and Sudoku. This year, I find myself part of that trend – though I gave up something far less tangible. Some may consider it weak or a cop-out to give up something so difficult to measure, but if nothing else, giving up my “rights” is changing the way I think.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel compelled to admit that practicing my typical Lent abstention – relinquishing my daily (and I do mean daily) intake of chocolate – held far less appeal this winter as I adjusted to a gluten-free diet. One more dietary restriction seemed almost unbearable. Contrast that with the cross of Christ, and um…yeah…you could call me a wimp, shallow, selfish. And I wouldn’t argue with you.

At the same time, giving up my “rights” hasn’t been quite as easy as you may think…especially if I am honest about my progress. One reason I didn’t want to commit to such a fuzzy agreement – aside from feeling like a hack – is the difficulty in measuring success. Give up chocolate, coffee, even Facebook or Sudoku, and if you try hard enough, victory is yours. Even a mediocre will can power you through 46 days of self-denial. But forego your rights and you’re doomed to fail.

What do I mean by giving up my “rights”? To some of you, what I am about to say is going to sound ridiculous…absurd…wrong even. After all, rights are part of the fabric of America, where each person is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thank you, Thomas Jefferson. Those are just a few of a long list of rights we claim to protect in this, our land of liberty. America has been a champion for civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, the right to vote, the right to privacy, the right to speak and think freely. And I daresay the list is growing. Though we do not all agree as to which rights should be afforded government protection and which should not – such as the rights of the unborn or the right to insurance coverage for contraception – most of us believe passionately that people possess inherent rights no other human being or government should violate.

It would seem, then, that championing the rights of people, especially cultural underdogs, cannot have a downside. I mean, seriously, how can you go wrong with that? By stepping off the narrow path of unalienable rights, into the murky abyss of entitlement. That’s how. Yes, I said it: Entitlement! But don’t leave yet – I promise, NO politics in this post! Ugly political buzzword that it is, entitlement has insidiously snaked its way into human hearts since the dawn of creation. “Hey there, Eve. Sure you can eat that apple. If God can have it, why can’t you? Go on, take a bite. Why shouldn’t you have what you want?”

Perhaps the better question is: why should she get what she wants? What is her claim? She has none. She can’t even use the trusty old territorial defense, because she wasn’t even there first! Sad as it is, we are no different than Eve. Do any of these statements sound familiar: “How dare he cut me off in the middle of an intersection!”  “Who does she think she is, leaving me to clean up this mess?” “What? No apology? I at least deserve an apology!” “When do I get a day off?” “Why is his life so much better than mine?” You may not say it out loud, but I bet those thoughts – or something like them — are rolling around inside your mind, bouncing off the inside of your skull like belligerent toddlers, demanding compensation. That’s often what it’s like in my head.

But what is my claim? What are the grounds for my appeal? You see, we’ve become so bent on getting what we deserve that we’ve lost sight of the fact that we actually deserve nothing. There is no cosmological agreement, penned in stardust or stamped on the sky, even suggesting that we have a right to anything – life, food, shelter, love. Nothing. Everything good, anything good, that we have is a gift – whether the Garden of Eden or the crocuses in my flower bed. So then what right do I have to uninterrupted sleep, a painless childhood, a master bathroom, freedom from back spasms, lower gas prices, the guy in front of me at least matching the speed limit, an apology or to be understood? Not one.

I can hear you now. “But wait, what about those unalienable rights endowed by our Creator?” Let me clarify. Life is a gift from God, as I see it, and for that reason I believe that one’s “right” to life goes only so far in that no other human being can lay claim to it, interfere with its freedom or its pursuit (not necessarily its attainment) of happiness. But to out and out insist I have a right, of my own accord, to my life is absurd in light of the fact that I did nothing to gain it, and ultimately can do nothing to retain it. My life, in the truest sense, does not belong to me.

So here I am. And there you are. Two happy accidents some might say. Or, in my opinion, two very unique works of art, created by the Artist Himself. If it is the former, then we have no claim to anything. No common reference point for demanding anything at all. Just two selves, imposing selfish demands. If it is the latter, then our only claim is that we belong to the One who made us. Anything He deigns to give us – or not give us – is entirely up to Him. Period. Whether we like it or not, that is reality.

Wow, a thousand words just to establish some sort of reality as the basis of my Lenten whims. And I haven’t even gotten to my point yet! Ah well. If anything in the piece interests you at all, whether you agree or disagree or have no idea what I am talking about, I humbly ask that you consider how often you demand your rights. What are those sneaky little entitlements that have found their way into your mind and heart…robbing you of contentment and joy? Then, perhaps another day, I can entertain you with tales of the challenges and lessons I’ve experienced upon grudgingly giving up a few rights I cannot even claim in memory of the One who surrendered every right due His name.

© Nichole Liza Q.

Hungry Anyone?

If anyone had told me a month ago, that my next favorite book would be about a futuristic society that punishes their citizens with high-tech, Hollywood style gladiator games, I would have thought they were crazy. But when my cousin showed me The Hunger Games movie trailer on his phone at Christmas, I was hooked before I even had the book in my hands! My daughter and I spent two nights reading it aloud to each other, alternating chapters. Shouting when it was time to trade the book, “Hurry! Give it over!” or if the person reading paused to catch her breath, “Keep going! Read! Read!” On the last night, we stayed up until 2:00 a.m. sustaining ourselves with granola and chocolate just so we could make it to the end. Which of course was only nominally satisfying….because it is a trilogy!!! We devoured the next two books in a matter of days.

A book that keeps me up at night is one thing. Lots of books keep me up at night. So how do I know if a book’s really gotten to me? If, when I get about 50 pages or so away from the end, I stop reading, because I just don’t want it to be over, don’t want to let the characters go. When I pick it back up, I take my time, savor those last few pages. Even with my daughter waiting anxiously to talk about the final book that she’d already finished, I read the ending slowly, mourning its passing with the turn of each page.

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, hardly lacks attention on the blogosphere. In fact, I may be the last blogger in the world to write about it. That’s why I am not going to give the standard review, critique the book or conjecture about whether this trilogy is a rip-off from a Japanese novel with a similar plot, as apparently some have suggested. (The one thing I have to say regarding those rumors is that good writing requires hard work, creativity and talent, and while these books might not rise to the level of classic literature, they are riveting. That doesn’t happen by accident.)

For those of you wondering if you should read the book, I will offer these general thoughts: Many people may be turned off by the overall concept, the graphic violence or the complete lack of anything spiritual in such a dark world, but the novel itself isn’t dark, like say The Golden Compass. The Hunger Games trilogy is about hope and the power of life to endure, spring up even, in the most neglected of places. If your kids read it, I suggest you read along with them so that you can discuss it together. My daughter and I are still talking about it!

So why am I really writing this post? What do I have to share of any real substance? Well, perhaps nothing more than to say this book confirms the relevance of Christianity’s message and the power of its imagery even in our post-modern world. I am not suggesting The Hunger Games is a Christian book or even that the author was using Christian themes. In some ways, I think Collins was avoiding religion altogether. Why else would she have created a society who faced death every day, but spent so little time thinking about the afterlife or searching for meaning? Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! Just acknowledging that some of the treasures I found hidden in this book were likely not put there on purpose.

*Spoiler Alert* The next several paragraphs contain some spoilers. I tried not to give away too much, so I think you could read it without ruining the books or movie, but proceed at your own risk!

First, I find that the premise of the story – that a higher power, The Capitol, rules over the masses by deceiving, oppressing, enslaving and dividing them, causing them to fight one another instead of their real enemy, the sinister President Snow and his government – is not all that different than the spiritual battle depicted in Christianity. Are we not being deceived on a daily basis? Are we not oppressed by doubt, fear, self-righteousness, pride and resentment? Do we not war with one another, if not with swords and guns, then with words and emotions?

Then, there is the love story. Peeta, who represents hope, practically oozes all things good and light. He is a baker, an artist, a natural leader and a man willing to sacrifice his own life for the one he loves, Katniss. In fact, at one point he dies and – wait for it – comes back to life. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to spell this one out for you, but the material’s too good – I can’t not write about it.

At a pivotal moment in their relationship, when they are far from home and in danger of dying, Peeta gives Katniss a locket with pictures of her mother, sister and best friend, Gale. Gale, like Peeta, is in love with Katniss; however, Katniss is unsure of who she loves, unsure if she is even capable of love. While Katniss doesn’t know what she wants, Peeta is unwavering in his love for her. When she needs him, he is there. When she pushes him away, he loves her from afar. When she’s at her worst, he loves her anyway. As they look at the pictures of her family and Gale, Peeta offers Katniss his life, asking her to let him die in her place – he wants her to live, to be happy, to marry Gale and have a full life, even if that means giving her up, giving everything up. That, my friends, is sacrificial, selfless love – the truest form of love there is.

Do humans universally long for this kind of love? A love that sacrifices oneself to save another? If our music, movies, plays and books are any indication, then we must. Images of heroes surround us – heroes that can save us, from loneliness, grief, pain, danger, self-obsession, self-loathing, even death. So it should come as no surprise that so many people love these books. Whether we know it or not, the story stirs something deep within us.

Finally, as a baker, Peeta literally feeds and nourishes people in a starving community. This, I imagine, was no accident on the author’s part because he is ultimately the one who satisfies Katniss’s deepest hunger. I can’t help but smile a little at his name, which is actually a homonym for a kind of bread eaten by millions of people the world over. But I wonder if as Collins was writing Peeta, she considered the One who truly satisfies.

We, every one of us, are part of a Hunger Game. Only this is no game. This is real. Look around you. Think about it. Why are you here? Who’s really in control? Are you still a slave to the unseen powers of this dark world? Do you know who your enemy is? Are you hungry? Starving for the truth? Desperate for something…or someone to satisfy your soul?

He’s out there, you know. Your Rescuer. The One who said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” is all the food your starving soul needs. And He’s the only chance you have of getting out of this arena alive.

© Nichole Liza Q.

A Palace in Prison

There’s all sorts of prisons, aren’t there? There’s the jails with barbed wire, armed guards, barred cells and the clamor of convicted felons. There’s the places where prisoners of war are isolated and tortured. There are work camps and slavery for the persecuted, imprisoned for their religion, beliefs or ethnicity, stripped of all dignity, starved, beaten and forced to do labor their weakened bodies can barely endure. These are the prisons with walls and gates and guards and masters.

But there are other prisons too, where the walls are not so easy to see. Where one knows the gate is locked but she can’t find the door. Where the torturers are people or memories or hurts he can’t escape, the walls are circumstances she can’t change, and the clamor is the voices in his head that tell him “this is all there is”, that tell her “hope is hopeless.” And there’s the prisons of our own doing…the things that isolate our hearts…pride, selfishness, unforgiveness, arrogance, control…I could go on.

Lately, I’ve been studying the book of Genesis – mostly the life of Joseph, son of Jacob. He was familiar with all sorts of prisons: brothers who hated him, the pit they cast him into, slavery into which they sold him, an Egyptian jail for a crime he did not commit, the constant demands of his eventual high position in a country that tempted him daily with its worldliness. These are the prisons Joseph knew.

As I study, I also find myself taking special notice of Judah, for it is through his line that the messiah, Jesus comes. It is not through Joseph, Jacob’s favored son. Rather, Jesus comes through Judah, a broken and blatantly sinful man.

Judah was the son of Leah, the less-loved wife, the wife who wasn’t favored. And so he also was a less-loved son. As an adult, Judah carried the guilt of selling Joseph into slavery then deceiving and bringing suffering upon his father. He lost his first two sons, his wife and then unwittingly impregnated his bereaved daughter-in-law from whom he had unjustly kept his third son. Judah had a few prisons of his own.

One difference in these two brothers is that Joseph, whether caught in the web of his brothers’ hatred, held captive as a slave or serving time in a dungeon, was, in his spirit, a free man. We can see it in his devotion and loyalty to the Lord and the people he served, his integrity, diligence, kindness, grace, mercy and complete trust in God’s plan and goodness. Joseph is not imprisoned by his circumstances or his emotions. He seems to know a wonderful truth: that the walls that hold his body in can not crush his spirit.

Eventually, toward the end of Genesis we see a transformed Judah, who offers his own life to save the life of his brother Benjamin and to prevent his father from enduring any further suffering. We see a Judah who is free from selfishness, envy and bitterness, freed because his concern for another finally outweighs his concern for himself. He looks physical captivity, slavery and even death in the eye and seems to say, “I’ve known greater prisons than you!”

So what about you and me? What kind of prisons are we living in? Are you stuck in a job you hate? Do you feel trapped in family wrought with bitterness and distrust? Is your body giving out on you? Maybe your depressed.  Or lonely. Anxious about money. Is someone you love hurting and you feel helpless? Or perhaps you’re wondering how you’ll ever say good-bye to your first child as they head off to college?

Then there’s the spiritual prisons. In one way or another we are all in danger of being trapped by our decisions to put other things before God. I find myself asking: What do I trust more…my ability to earn a salary or God’s faithfulness to provide? What do I work for more, the approval of people or God’s approval?  How do I know I am valuable, because others say so or because God says so?

Through the study of Joseph and some great conversation with our couples small group, I realized, in a new way, that even when I feel trapped, my spirit is free. Free to worship the Lord, free to do what is right, free to serve and love and dance and pray. Surely this is not something we can do on our own…but with God all things are possible.

A couple of months ago I was thinking about my “pit” (see The Pits) and wondering about God…why is he so willing to enter my pit…to reside there with me. Then He gave me a sort of picture: I saw Jesus climbing down into my dark, dirty pit. He was surrounded by earthen walls with bugs, cobwebs, plant roots…you name it…but nothing He touched made Him dirty. He was light and golden and perfectly clean. Why? Then a word popped into my mind “Incorruptible.” Jesus in incorruptible. God can be with us in our prisons and remain unchanged, pure and good. The God that rules over all of heaven is the very same God that meets you in your pit. He doesn’t shrink himself for you or compromise his God-ness. Even when He took on our sin his life was pure. And whatever situation we are in, His life – his incorruptible life – that well of grace, mercy, strength, courage, joy and peace – is available to us.

There are many books and sermons and essays written about Joseph’s life with titles like: “From the Pit to the Palace” or “Prison to Palace”. But that’s no longer how I see it. No. Joseph didn’t leave the pit for the palace. The palace was in the pit with Joseph all along. “The Lord was with Joseph,” Genesis 39:2. Every day, in all situations, Joseph’s heart knelt before the throne of the Lord. And he was free.

© Nichole Liza Q.

Dragon Suit

Lately, our pastor has been talking about the Frog Prince. He’s been telling us that we are all frog princes and princesses, but we have been kissed by our Savior and redeemed from the swamp. When we exhibit selfishness, pride, self-righteousness – any sin really -it is as if we are crawling back to the swamp and trying to climb back into our slimy frog suits. Well, I don’t know about you, but my suit of shame looks a lot more like the thick, tough, scaly skin of a fire-breathing dragon.

In one of my favorite books, C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace, a whiny, selfish, arrogant, greedy, lazy and altogether annoying boy, unknowingly seeks refuge from a storm in a dragon’s lair. The sight of the dragon’s gold, silver, jewels and other spoils, immediately fuels Eustace’s pride, sparking his lust for possessions, position and power. He soon slips a piece of the dragon’s hoard on his arm, puts some diamonds in his pocket and impatiently waits for the storm to cease.  Then he drifts off to sleep, having no understanding whatsoever of the danger of sleeping in the home of a dragon.

Shortly after waking, Eustace realizes his mistake. He was most certainly in danger, but not as you may think. You see, the dragon of that lair had died a sad and lonely death earlier that day. Instead of suffering a dragon’s assault, Eustace wakes to find he has become the dragon. “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” (p.97) A horrible but merciful result. He was consumed, though not eaten, crippled but not destroyed.

For days Eustace suffers in fear and loneliness, is humbled by his own hideous form and eventually is completely changed by the kindness shown to him by those he previously despised and treated so terribly. Eustace comes to know his own weaknesses, see his own faults, feel his need for companionship and eventually, learns to put others before himself.  It is after this internal transformation occurs that Aslan appears visibly to Eustace. And it is then that Aslan, with Eustace’s permission, does what Eustace could not do for himself. He digs his claws deep into Eustace’s thick dragon flesh and tears if off, then he throws him into a spring of healing waters, dresses him in new clothes and frees him to a new life. As Lewis writes, “The cure had begun.” (p. 104)

What an ordeal? After he is healed and free, can you ever imagine him wanting to put on that dragon suit again? Of course not. But I do it all the time.

A few weeks ago I had a brief encounter with someone* with whom I have unresolved conflict. After the initial conflict, many, many months ago, I sought reconciliation, confessed, asked forgiveness, and, like a good, little Christian girl, attempted acts of grace and service toward her, after all of which I thought “And now we move on!” Well, not exactly…because every volley has two sides and she isn’t playing.

Technically speaking, I did all the right things. I did my best to obey God and follow the formula, and I truly believe that, at least at first, my heart was in the right place. What did I get in return? No forgiveness. No apology for her part in the conflict. And, because I cannot completely remove myself from her circle of influence, I continue to be hurt both directly and indirectly. So now what? Well, you know the answer…I must persevere, return evil with good, forgive seven times seventy. I must have the humility and long-suffering of Christ. OK God! Yes! I can and I will!

Um….just so long as I never have to talk to her again.

Doesn’t that sound like a heart full of grace? Of course, that was not a conscious thought, but apparently that little, self-righteous qualifier lurked somewhere deep inside me.  You see, I thought I had it all under control – then I had to talk to her. It seems that every time I see her, hear her voice, try to have a conversation with her – let’s be honest, at the mere mention of her name  –  little green scales emerge all over my skin. Tell-tale streams of smoke rise past my eyes from out of my nostrils. I feel the heat from a lick of flame on my lip and quickly clap my hands over my mouth. But to no avail! Before I know it, I’m breathing fire, burning up everything in my path, devastating the landscape and, in the process, singeing my own eyebrows! So now….I could be wrong…(feel free to challenge me!)…but that doesn’t quite sound like forgiveness to me.

For some time, I, like Eustace, was ignorant, blinded to my own form. Until that fateful day a few weeks ago. One encounter. One brief encounter.

Now ours was (at least for me) a difficult conversation about the practical logistics of a concrete matter carrying emotional weight. I chose my words carefully for all of it, saying hard things that needed to be said as succinctly as possible. Then, during our short-lived exchange, something she said struck a certain nerve…a prideful nerve, no doubt. And there it was: The Moment. I had a choice. A moment of pause.  A moment to decide how to respond. A moment that would later, in the hands of God, serve as a mirror to my heart.

Perhaps the worst part is that I didn’t lash out in an uncontrollable, emotion-fueled rage. At least that would seem like an unintentional mistake. No. I stopped and thought about it. I chose my words carefully, considering the tone, effect and consequence. I didn’t spew fire like a wild mythical creature. Rather, I burned with the steady aim of a surgical strike. So masterful, I thought I was. For a second, I was satisfied, relieved even, at having finally made myself known. “Take that!” my attitude told her, “Ha! No more of you walking all over me!”

In another part of Dawn Treader, Eustace-the-dragon, before he even understands what he’s doing, ravenously eats the carcass of the dragon that died earlier that day. It is an ugly scene, but as Lewis points out “though his mind was the mind of Eustace, his tastes and his digestion were dragonish. And there is nothing a dragon likes so well, as fresh dragon.” (p. 100) And so it was with me, the formerly caring, concerned, compassionate, forgiving, long-suffering child of Christ, now just a hideous dragon feasting upon the flesh of another dragon!

Though I don’t wish this experience on another, I imagine there is quite possibly a recovering dragon or two in my reading audience. Those of you will understand what happened next. For starters, my stomach churned and my body ached. Everything about me felt wrong. Then, just like he was lifting up a mirror to my heart, the Lord brought The Moment before my eyes again and again. The first time I noticed that I was a little rough. The next that perhaps I was a bit beastly. Then, eventually, that I had indeed, with dragonish thoughts in my heart and mind, become like the dragon.

How did I let myself get here again? Oh Lord, I’m sorry! Take it off, take this dragon suit off me! And so, again, I endure the pain of confession and repentance so that I can be stripped and freed from that scaly skin, healed by the waters of life and dressed in new clothes, clothes suitable for a God’s child.

Looking back now, I see not only how damaging, but also how ridiculous my actions were. You can imagine that as someone who considers herself a writer must feel, when the Lord reveals to her how ridiculous, immature, pathetic and even nonsensical were the “carefully” chosen words of her “surgical strike.” They were words of nothingness, word fit only, perhaps, for the great debates of jr. high bathrooms across America. Oh, for heaven’s sake, it’s actually embarrassing!

After much prayer, reflection and thought on this matter, God is revealing to me new things about myself and this particular, as of yet, unreconciled relationship. Forgiveness is difficult; in fact, true forgiveness may be impossible without the presence of God’s grace in our own lives and the power of his Spirit in us to do the forgiving. Forgiveness is especially difficult when we are not accepted; and even more difficult when the hurts keep coming. Yet this is the very heart of Christ – to forgive in the face of sin and pain, to love even when despised and rejected. And now, I don’t fret over which words to choose. Only two words will do: God, help!

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26

© Nichole Liza Q.


*Dear readers, this letter is not about you or someone on whom I am seeking revenge. First and foremost, it is about me and God. Second, I believe the information is general enough to protect her identity.  Third, the unnamed person included in this post is someone I have minimal contact with and is likely to never see or even stumble upon these pages. If she does, I pray she hears my heart and understands. If, for some reason, you think it’s you, call me. Love~Nichole

People and a Little Prose

This is one of my favorite pics of Yellowstone. Taken by Jacquelyn!

Travelling across the country wasn’t just about places, it was about people too. We met so many different individuals that I need help from my family to remember them all! Our first real conversation took place in Niagara Falls with a very friendly lady from Pennsylvania; she was travelling with her husband and teenage son and daughter. We had found a snake in the rock ledge along the sidewalk and she stopped to talk about the raccoons that run around the city in broad daylight.

In DeSmet, South Dakota, I particularly appreciated our tour guide, a dark-haired, fair skinned, college-age girl, dressed in period clothing who taught us all about pioneer living.

While at the Badlands, we met a middle-aged husband and wife who had planned to drive cross-country on their motorcycle (wow) until the husband tore his rotator cuff; so they rented an RV instead.

The next day we walked around Devil’s Tower with a man retired from the military and his 10 year old daughter, Kirsten, who live in Virginia. Every summer the two of them hook up their camper and head out for 6 to 8 weeks on the road. His wife, employed in the defense industry, flies out to meet them at the place she most wants to see and stays for a couple weeks before returning to work. Christina and Kirsten, both 5th graders, really enjoyed chatting together as we circled the monolith. Kirsten and her dad (we never did learn his name) are quite the adventurers, from rock climbing to white water rafting, they do it all! We actually bumped into them several days later in Yellowstone and met Kirsten’s mom! (See a pic of Kirsten early on in the blog.)

One night, after arriving at a hotel in Gillette, Wyoming tired and hungry, the front desk clerk, who had all her family and friends visiting her on the couches in the lobby, baked a fresh batch of cookies for us! She’s at the top of our list of favorite front desk associates.

We had an interesting encounter in Yellowstone.  A white haired gentleman saw our license plates and asked where in Connecticut we were from. Turns out he lived in Avon! (Read about him somewhere around day 7)

We also met an amiable man from Great Britain while waiting for Old Faithful to blow. He had travelled the U.S. to visit his brother in Oregon, was touring the northwest alone by car for a few weeks and then returning to Oregon to visit his niece – who, by the way, no longer speaks to her father (his brother) so he visits them separately. Ahh – family struggles abound everywhere, don’ t they?

That night our stocky, waiter, with crystal blue eyes, chestnut colored hair and full, yet perfectly trimmed beard served us a delicious meal and dessert ~ we later found out it was his restaurant. Looking for a good meal in Gardiner, Montana? Go to Rosie’s.

While stopped for construction in Nevada we got out of our cars (if you’ve read my previous blogs you will know that we were really stopped) and talked with the young couple that was parked (yes parked) behind us. They were relocating from Boston to Sacramento because the wife was beginning her medical residency at UC-Davis.

In San Francisco we shared a tour trolley with a kind, married couple and their son and daughter. They shared lots with us about the city and we eventually deduced that they were real estate agents. (The continual pricing of every house we drove by kinda gave it away.) Their four year old son would hardly look at me the whole trip, but after I gave him my blanket to keep warm (because someone had taken theirs) he developed a new fondness for me. I actually got an invite to his 5th birthday party, next January, on 17th street in San Francisco. Or was it 16th? I can’t wait 😉 Even got a high five as we were leaving the trolley!

I sat on a bench to rest at the base of General Sherman’s Tree in Sequoia National Park where I met an elderly woman who lost her husband last year.  She shared with me that her travels were bittersweet because, while she was enjoying her family, she missed her husband with whom she took many cross country road trips. I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather who only lasted 4 short months after losing my grandma. This woman has been in my prayers.

In Disney, I met a hispanic grandmother and L.A. native who vowed she’ll never leave because that’s where her kids and grandkids live. Our conversation began when we moved over on the Disney Train so she could have a seat. “Wow. You guys are wonderful people! You moved over!” she practically hollered. Sometimes it really is the little things that matter. I learned she likes California weather but fears the earthquakes – and like most women, she loves her family.

In Phoenix, Doug was walking into a Wal-Mart and he said his classic, boisterous “Good Mornin!” to a middle-aged african-american woman as she passed by. “You ain’t from around here, are ya’?” she replied, “Most people around here treat me like I’m sh–!”  Doug was a bit surprised but he finally said, “Nope, I’m from the northeast and most people actually say we’re unfriendly! You have a good day!” I don’ t think he’ll ever forget that exchange.

We drove along the ridge at the Grand Canyon and there we met an african-american man returned from a tour overseas and moving with his wife and daughter to a new base. They decided to make a vacation out of it and visited the Grand Canyon along the way. Turns out he’s originally from Windsor, CT; said he hadn’t seen a CT plate in a long time.

In Amarillo, Texas, we met Bob and his teenage granddaughter, Amber. The two of them were travelling from Oklahoma City to the Red River in Mexico to go fishing and then to Denver to visit his daughter. He shared so much with us – about sorrow for friends hurt in the Oklahoma City bombings to the joy of his granddaughter’s turnaround since changing schools to the pain of recently putting his wife in a nursing home. He and she had travelled together often. Oh how my heart goes out to him.

Sitting just behind us at the Grand Ole Opry were two very friendly, elderly couples. One of which had travelled cross-country by train in 1999. We loved listening to their stories and they, the lady especially, enjoyed watching Christina. She said she missed her grandkids back home in Kentucky.

There were many, many more people that we met. Others we just observed. From wealthy white-haired women in Rolls-Royce’s on Rodeo Drive to the middle-class vacationers everywhere to the homeless man we bought a newspaper from in Nashville, (If you have a minute google  “The Contributor” a newspaper by the homeless in Nashville); from the farmers in Minnesota to the Amish couple driving their horse covered wagon in Wisconsin to the ranchers in Wyoming ; from the real estate broker in San Francisco to the man talking Christian apologetics with perfect strangers while waiting for a bus at the Grand Canyon to the retired couples at every stop to the struggling musicians in Music City. This is my America. This is your America. This is our America.

There is so much that divides us. Sometimes its the real mountains, rivers, oceans and deserts that keep us apart. Other times it’s money, class, jobs, religion or race and culture.  Then there are the barriers we build ourselves – our opinions, judgements, politics or even our busy schedules. And we always have a few mountains that we pretend we don’t see so we don’t have to climb them – the emotional separations, the personal isolation, family divisions and damaged relationships.

While on this trip my girl’s kept telling me that they want to meet their “other” grandpa – my biological father. We were driving through Virginia, where he lives, after all. 31 years since he moved away and made a new family, 9000 miles around the country and I still couldn’t bring myself to climb that mountain.

Even at the best of times, we will find something to divide us. I believe that’s just human nature. But as I travelled along roads built from coast to coast, highways that cut through cities and farmland, traversing deserts and mountains, bridges and tunnels to cross rivers and even the ocean, I thought about those things that connect us all: our passion for family, a love for freedom and liberty, a desire to succeed, a loyalty to our country, a need to be loved unconditionally, a longing for peace, security and a place to call home, a hope for a future and a yearning for something more than this…for meaning or purpose.

Connecting the American landscape was no easy task. Think of the years of back-breaking work it took to lay the trancontinental railroad, the lives lost building the GW bridge or the billions of gallons of asphalt that made our summer vacation possible. But somewhere, somebody had a vision of a country, a people, even a world, connected – despite our differences.

Where is that vision today? In America? In your neighborhood? Your church? Your family? I am talking to myself here, too. I mean, we never went to see my biological father. Even after a couple years of talking on the phone, I am not ready to see him or let him into the lives of my children. I’m not saying I want to turn around, but maybe some canyons are too wide to jump across – sometimes we need to stop and take time to build a bridge.

© Nichole Liza Q.

CC Day 16, 17 & 18 – Home is…

The last three days top our list of favorite vacation experiences. We didn’t visit a theme park or tour a big city or marvel at the sights of a national park. We were with family!!! Before Thursday, we hadn’t seen my brother Ryan, his wife, Val or their daughters, Autumn and Hailey, since our family trip to Disney World in March 2009. This was also the first time we’ve ever visited them in Arizona. What a treat it was to see them in the place they call home!

When we arrived in Phoenix, our car’s thermostat read 117 degrees! Ryan and Val informed us that this is monsoon season so the air was a humid. To be honest, at 117 degrees, I am not sure I could tell you anything other than, it was wicked hot! Later that night a local weatherman reported “high humidity” with dew points in the mid 50’s. Well, now I understood! In CT, weathermen don’t usually call “high humidity” until dew points reach the upper 60’s. A dew point of 53? I’m thinking that just means I can be outside for more than 5 minutes without having to slather Vaseline all over my face. The weather is like Ryan has always described it: like opening the oven door. Even the wind blows hot. And I mean, hot!

We stayed at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa. Mile points covered two of the nights and we paid for one. This meant three nights in one place – our longest stay of the trip. Upon arrival, Doug upgraded us to a magnificent two room suite (which allowed us to entertain family) with a view of the pools. Yes, pools. This resort boasts five pools, two hot tubs, a water slide, an outdoor café bar and poolside service. We all spent lots of time enjoying the amenities and finding relief from the heat!

I had such fun seeing my “little” brother in his own home, which he and Val have decorated so beautifully. I feel a need to share with you that, in addition to nine- and two-year old daughters, they also house four dogs and a cat! Ryan and Doug find they have much to commiserate about, as men outnumbered by girls, or as they say “living in an ocean of estrogen”. Ryan and Val also graciously allowed us wash about 2 weeks worth of dirty laundry in their washer and dryer! How nice it is to have fresh, clean clothes again!

On our last day, Ryan and his ladies came over for a final swim. As we made our way into the pool area,  we found that the July 4th weekend had transformed our quiet, relaxing, sophisticated resort into something like Spring Break for Adults with Children. The place was a madhouse! Sure, it was nice having someone deliver iced cucumber water to me as I waded in the 3 ½  foot pool. However, dodging splash balls, rubber balls and footballs, (real footballs, mind you, not Nerf balls), children’s feet kicking next to my face and highly intoxicated, stumbling guests, made things a teensy bit chaotic!

For dinner, Ryan and Val took us out for a little local flavor at Joe’s Real BBQ in downtown, historic Gilbert. This counter service restaurant serves down home, comfort food such as spare ribs, chicken, ham, corn, potato salad, cornbread with honey butter, baked potatoes, mac ‘n cheese, homemade root beer, fresh lemonade and a colossal root beer float. You can’t find many, if any, restaurants like this back home. Of all the places we have eaten so far, Joe’s is one my favorites! We finished our night playing a round of Apples to Apples at their home and then saying good-bye. The usual sadness of saying good-bye was eased somewhat by the hope that we will see them all in October at my baby brother, Derek’s wedding.

Arizona was the first place I found myself thinking, “I could live here. This feels like home.” Then I realized that the reason I felt so at home was because I was with family. Being with Ryan, Val and the girls and saying good-bye has made me miss home more than any other time thus far. When we were at Disneyland I met a grandmother who has lived in L.A. all her life; she said she could never leave because her kids live there also. Isn’t that what “home” is all about? Home isn’t a place. Home is loving and being loved. For most of us, that means being with family. For some, it may mean being with your best friend, church body, neighbors or even your pets. I am blessed enough to say that I have all of the above.

As I ponder all this, I can not help but think about a better home, a greater home that calls to each of us. We are all aliens in a foreign land; restless wanderers looking for a place our souls can find peace, security and rest. In a sense, we are all homesick. If this is true, and if being “home” is loving and being loved, then the only place we will ever find genuine rest is in the lap of our Creator ~ the One whose perfect love fills every empty hole, soothes every open wound, heals every scar ~ the One whose love never fails, never wearies, never forgets but passionately endures forever. I love and miss you all and pray that today, wherever you are, your heart is truly at home.

© Nichole Liza Q.

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