Present Ghost

Telling stories



When we live stories we should hate


One of the most memorable stories in the Bible for me comes from 2 Samuel 12, when Nathan, a prophet, goes to David to tell him an important story about an unjust man.

David, appalled by this man’s wickedness, swears he will punish him. That’s when Nathan finally clues him in:

“You are the man!”

The story about the evil man is about him, and what David perceived as a report of an impersonal crime committed somewhere in his kingdom reflected reality in his home, and sins in his heart.

We can read all day about racism and white supremacy and think it distant, but if we never ask how it would be possible that God might also send us prophets to reveal that we, too, are guilty, then we miss something. We are destroying ourselves.

Continue reading “When we live stories we should hate”

Our music was both elegy and anthem



“I want to know what this means,” he said.

We sat in the driveway with the car in park, and he turned up the radio.

“Who is this?”

“It’s R.E.M.”

My dad told me he liked the band and that he’d heard the song so many times before and liked the music. Now he wanted to know more about the words.

In the passenger seat, I squirmed. Even though I could have shared the answer I’d read in online articles and music magazines, I told him I didn’t know.

Before turning off the ignition and going into the house, he told me he’d started listening to music a little closer.

I’d noticed. Within the past couple of years, he had obsessed over music he experienced for the first time. Anyone in his path could be held for at least 20 minutes listening to Pink Floyd on laser disk or whatever Christian goth metal copycat was on the radio at the time. If he turned up the volume just loud enough, he might be able to surround you with his feelings so that you might understand and share the experience. On a trip to Nashville, Dad beat the steering wheel and dashboard so emphatically to a song that he scared my boyfriend, who was used to playing and listening to music very loudly.

Dad was either 61 or 62 when he started asking questions that may have come 15 years too late.

Continue reading “Our music was both elegy and anthem”

My Last Fairy Godmother, At the Snack Machine


Holy things and folk tales favor threes, but I can’t be so tidy by writing about having three fairy godmothers. The third candidate transcends the title, because for me, she acted as neither fairy nor mother: she was more like God, and I met her in the lobby of a car repair shop in Waco, Texas.

A year had passed since I had met the woman in the grocery store. Since then, I’d gotten married and moved an hour away from the school I was attending in order to split the traveling distance with my husband, who was also in graduate school at a university an hour north of where we lived. I told myself that we were decadently poor because we were electing to pursue post-baccalaureate degrees when we were certainly qualified for jobs that would earn us as much money as we make now. We were choosing this. Even though I knew this, that didn’t comfort me when I was cursing and grinding newly hatched roaches that climbed up through the cracks of our kitchen table leaves with my bare fist. If I hadn’t been staying late nights on campus to tutor Japanese businessmen in English just so I’d have enough gas money to make it home, I might not have been able to drop into bed too tired to care about whether or not that something tickling my leg was merely my husband’s long leg hair, or if it were one of the thousands of cucarachas that overran our apartment.

Between us, my husband and I were driving almost a thousand miles a week. To cut costs, we couch surfed in the homes of gracious friends several nights a week through our first year of marriage. We’d pack a couple days’ worth of food, our backpacks for school, and our duffel bags, kiss (or not kiss, depending on how things were going), and say our goodbyes. Despite our efforts to save money, our cars suffered and required more maintenance than we could afford. Only a couple weeks into this schedule, my car broke down while I was at school and I had to stay a couple extra days until I could pick it up from the shop and drive home for the weekend.

As I was thumbing through some women’s magazine in the waiting room of the repair shop, a petite woman walked in with an already-open snack-size bag of Cheetos and a Big Texas Cinnamon Roll in one hand, and a perspiring can of Hawaiian Punch in the other. She selected a seat catty-corner to mine. She set down the punch and Cheetos and tore into the cinnamon roll.

I eyed the snacks, covetous and judgmental, wishing I could taste the sweet, sticky plastic gum of that obnoxious honey bun, or the salty Styrofoam taste of Cheetos—neither item I would ever allow myself to buy.

She caught me.

Seeing more skinny-girl censure than hungerlust in my stares, she said, “You’ve got a cute little figure. I let mine go a long time ago.”

Although I knew I had been judging her junk food, I was truly hungry that day.

“Actually, I was just looking at your food. It looks really good.”

I told her that I commuted a lot and always ran out of food before I could get home because I ate everything I packed and I didn’t want to buy anything. That day, I’d had a brick of ramen, a handful of nuts, and some wrinkled fruit.

“Do you want something?”

Feeling embarrassed, I told her no, and we moved on to talk about Texas heat in July, her concerns for her young daughter, school, and my being a newlywed.

Suddenly, she left the room without excusing herself.

While she was gone, I thought about how her eyes shone a strange celeste, beyond the usual borders of the iris. I couldn’t think of it long, because she returned with another Big Texas bun in her hand.

She held it out to me:

“Take it. Get it away from me.”

If I could have laughed, I would have; but I cried. When I couldn’t stop sobbing, the quiet elderly woman who had been impassively glancing through a stack of Woman’s Day magazines exited the room.

At last I could talk between hiccups and gasps, and I asked her if she’d ever had one of those days that are just so bad that you can’t explain them.

She nodded.

“Well, you just made my day so good that I can’t explain that either.”

“Honey, we all need those days. There’s someone watching out for you.”

She pointed up.

I kept crying and shaking my head in that car care center lobby as I unwrapped the gift and began to eat.

We continued to talk, and she wanted to know if I knew Christ, and if it were personal. I was glad to tell her that I did.

When she believed me, she told me that one day when she was taking a walk, God showed her that His creation was beautiful. She noticed this little purple flower along the sidewalk that was so intricate. She said she’d never thought about how we unknowingly trample ones just like this, never realizing how complex and delicate they are.

“It’s strange, though,” I said. “It’s so much easier to realize when we do that to nature than when we do that to people—and that’s really messed up. It’s much, much harder to forgive.”

Her face changed and she quit talking. I swallowed the last bit of the bun and waited.

After a significant pause, she shared with me that she’d been to prison for 18 years for being an accessory to murder in a gang-related setup.

I didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t wait for me to figure it out, either.

She looked at me directly and told me that I was the daughter of the Living God, and that I might need to spend some more time with Him.

“You,” she said, “are a part of a very peculiar people. Don’t forget that.”

I’m sure I told her I knew that. She told me her name and just when she was giving me her number, the mechanic paged her to let her know that her truck was ready.

We parted, and when I was driving home, I called my husband.

“I saw God today.”

“I said, I saw God.”

“You mean you saw someone who reminded you of God?”

“No. I said I saw God. And she said she’d murdered somebody.”

“Okay. You’re going to have to explain this.”

To Be Continued…

Sluts and Sadducees

My husband says I fixate on ideas or pieces of conversation for a while, and I can’t stop thinking about them. And I don’t purge the ideas. I process them by talking incessantly and writing. In the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about holiness, and how it relates to my life. I ask myself, “Have I been very good at it?” And the answer is, “Probably not.”

If I went back to the origin of the thought, it started about six months ago. Last Christmas, I was in Ohio running around my husband’s neighborhood. (Why that’s important, I do not know, other than I find it interesting that I’m always thinking about God when running or taking walks. But I won’t waste time trying to draw a metaphor here. It’s too cliché.) I thought about how the contemporary church likes to point out the problems of the heartless Pharisees and praise the humility and willingness of the sinners to repent of their misdeeds. Pastors will draw comparisons to “churchy” people pointing fingers or turning aside from those in need, and it’s easy to agree with them because it’s an obvious problem within a community of believers when people can feel alienated because they’ve made mistakes that everybody knows about and they don’t know about throwing on some costume jewelry and mildly frumpy clothing or they have too many tattoos to hide in order to make themselves a little less noticeably different from the lifelong church community.

Judgment of others in the church certainly pervades many congregations, but I see a really deceptive message that sneaks into a gospel of grace and forgiveness. Most people in churches probably know that grace isn’t Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card so you can keep racing around Boardwalk without giving sin or self-examination another thought. But I worry about giving too much credence to having had it hard or elevating past sins as necessary to get “where you are.” What is even worse is assuming that because one person may have sinned greatly that somehow they are deeper or better (yes, let’s admit we compare ourselves to others in how we view their “walks of faith”).

What happens then? The prostitute and tax collector become Pharisees of a new kind. They are counting the coins they toss into the box, showing everyone that there are only two, and the prostitute becomes prone to telling the virgin that she knows little of the world and the true nature of man. The reality is that sin, in any manifestation, cripples individuals and ripples out from one act to hurt others. Although God can use anything for His purposes, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences or that we and others affected by use would have been better off had the sin not been committed.

Because I’m writing to process, I suppose I can switch to this thought: perhaps we’re still tripped up on law, and that’s why this inversion happens when we try to respond to the teaching. If Christ meant what he said when committing adultery meant looking at a woman with lust or that it is not what goes into a man’s mouth but what comes from it that makes him unholy, then we’ve got to quit separating sluts from Sadducees.

Quantifying and qualifying sins because some are more visible than others creates the us-versus-them problem.  Christ was looking for wasn’t lewd or greedy people to set straight. He was looking to save those willing to be saved; and telling someone to “go and sin no more” has less to do with behavior modification and far more to do with correcting the position of the heart in admitting that the relationship between God and humankind must be restored. Anymore, Pharisees of the world aren’t necessarily the law-abiding citizens. They’re any of the people who think they’ve got it covered with their own sets of morals and theories about how to live.

As for who to define as sinners? That’s just an easy way to address everyone.

Sin isn’t an easy word to digest because we don’t like to be told we’re innately “bad.” That’s the way it’s been taught for centuries—almost as if we bear children with murderous thoughts just curling inside their newborn noodle brains. It’s taken me awhile, but I don’t think that’s how it starts. Our nature is to be one with God, and if that is so, we are not by design “evil” as much as we choose to do evil by living outside the will of God.

My husband can describe this in more philosophical terms with historical context, but if the focus weren’t getting our behavior right and were more about glorifying God, then maybe the rest would follow a little more logically because Christ wasn’t a miracle worker for the sake of making good society or nice people. Redemption isn’t safety or good habits or kindness. It’s getting close to God because we’ve admitted we need Him and want Him back, acknowledging that there’s a claim and call on our lives to reflect Glory.

 If that is the goal, the self-centeredness of legalism or hedonism shouldn’t even appeal to us. In consequence, holiness  might lose some of the stigma it is associated with in more popularly used (and unnecessarily promulgated) words like religiosity and churchianity if people could see that spiritual purity germinates in a state of mind* that presents itself in lives that strive to honor God, reserving the judgment of others for the God who judges them too as well as living lives that please Him.

 *Use heart or soul if that makes you feel more comfortable, but I don’t draw the distinction unless I’m referring to a philosopher’s definitions.

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