My Cycling Angels

My wheels are my wings plaque

Reviewing the best bike rides of my life

Today I would like to thank my cycling angels, the people who fostered my love of biking, going way back to my first years out of college in New York City.

I’m thinking of Ray who hoisted my bike and his onto a moving train (the Hudson Line) for my first real biking adventure. I’m not sure where we got off the train, but we were clearly north of the city on streets that were entirely rural and mysterious.

Then came an urban cycling adventure, thanks to Jeff’s invitation, that was equally as fascinating: The Five Boro Bike Tour, “Boro” being short for “borough.” In one day an endless flow of bikers ride through all five boroughs of Manhattan. I remember having a headache through the whole thing due to missing coffee that morning and not wanting to break out of the flow to buy a cup, but I had one of the best days of my life nonetheless.

Years later, on the other side of the country, my friend Amy introduced me to the Cinderella Classic, a bike tour that winds through the beautiful rolling hills east of San Francisco. It’s for females only, but men are graciously involved in a supportive role. For example, the men feed us…a lot. They feed us breakfast, snacks, lunch, and a post-ride soup that is amazing. With all the nourishment received along the way, the 65 miles is easier than you’d think.

In between these two tours, came a few seasons with a Hoo Koo E Koos mountain bike, probably the first mountain bike for many. My husband and I biked on the fire roads in the Tahoe National Forest (getting lost which made for an eight-hour adventure); we frequented the Shell Ridge Open Space; and we spent one gnarly weekend navigating the canyons of Nevada City. Oh, those were the days…until I flipped over the handlebars on a steep decline and decided I wanted to go back to roads that were paved and more civilized.

A decade slipped by without biking when I finally called my friend Emily, an avid cyclist, and asked where I should buy a new road bike. I wanted to get fitted properly since this bike would probably be with me the rest of my life. (I don’t buy toys often, but when I do, I keep them a long time.) She directed me to a quirky shop in Pleasant Hill. A few hours later in the shop, I fixed my eye on a hybrid bicycle. Hybrids were gaining popularity at the time and seemed good enough for me. As I was nearing the purchase, angel Emily showed up. “I thought you might need some help,” she kindly said. Her boyfriend came too and they casually wheeled a Bianchi over to me. “Try this one,” they said. I took it for a test ride and my eyes were opened. I remember hearing, “steel is real,” and putting something like $2,000 on my credit card. This is now my prized possession.

The day after I bought the Bianchi, I called up Laura, the last cycling friend I would like to thank. “A group of us are riding this Saturday.” She beckoned, “Join us!” I showed up at the appointed place and Laura casually asked me, “Is thirty miles okay?” I had no idea if it was okay; beyond my little test ride, I hadn’t ridden in years! But the group of cyclists were eager to get going, so I put on a good attitude and said I’d try to keep up.

It was tough, cycling Skyline Boulevard, Grizzly Peak and Wildcat Canyon. Scary. Every time Laura shouted “Car back! Car back!” I thought she was saying, “Road rash! Road rash!”

But I made it through without crashing and was happy the ride revealed what I could do. We all need exercise and a little adventure in our lives. I’m grateful to those who have encouraged me along the way and hope to inspire others to sign up, team up, and enjoy discovering what you can do.

Relating to roses

Roses created for humansI used to care less about roses. They were too formal, too corny and cliché. That was before I knew better. Now I am renting a house surrounded by roses of all kinds and colors. Being in the East Bay of California, roses have three long blooming seasons. They are bare for only a few winter months. But even then, their twisted branches are appealing, full of character and Twisted branches of rosebushpotential for bearing another round of roses. This is a bush right outside our kitchen window; its rapid transformation to full bloom has been fascinating to watch.

I do not believe roses are just a happening of nature for the purpose of appealing to and repelling something else in nature. Do you know that their thorns do nothing to deter creatures in the natural world? The thorns seem to be there for the purpose of analogy and storytelling. The rose is a gift, especially to us humans, and to receive it as such is to enjoy its beauty all the more. The neighborhood deer, greedily chomping on baby buds, doesn’t care about its beauty, and the itty bitty insects certainly don’t see the whole picture, but we do…and it’s gorgeous.

The rose’s fragrance, color, incredible design, and even its thorns are here for us to muse over, delight in, and use in creative ways, even to the point of cliché. I’m not a scientist, but as a designer, I can say that the design of this plant, whether it burst into being or evolved over time, begs for the acknowledgement of a Master Artist who is giving and—not to overuse the word— beautiful. In celebration of this Easter weekend, lets fully receive the gifts that surround us. Look into the face of a rose—or other thing of beauty—and take it in. Know it’s intended for you. And don’t forget to say thank you.

Gravity and what is prayer?

scene from Gravity movie

I’m happy to have seen “Gravity” just a few days before the Academy Awards. If I could cast a vote for it, I would. Here, I would like to call attention to one little line in the movie. The one where our main character says, “I would pray…but nobody ever taught me how.”

For a long time it has bothered me that screenwriters, directors, and other powers that lie behind the big screen give us catastrophic situations with no “Help me God” in the midst of them. Anyone who has had a brush with death knows an honest portrayal of such situations would often include a call for help from a higher power.

I have come to understand this missing ingredient in movies in this way: a simple bowing of the head is a powerful thing. If a character prays, even if he is in the background, all eyes would go to him and the trajectory of the movie would be thrown off. But maybe there’s another reason. Possibly nobody ever taught the movie people themselves how to pray and they just don’t know what to do with it.

Which brings me to Gravity. What a precious scene. Sandra Bullock has never played a more beautiful part. I dare say that in her humble admission that she would pray if she knew how, God is rushing in. (I won’t mention the fun, mystical experience that happens next in case you haven’t seen the movie yet.)

Prayer is just a word for communicating with God. It is basically an invitation for God’s presence and direction in your life. Sometimes it involves talking or thinking in sentences. Sometimes it’s turning to Him in silence, then waiting to see if an inspired thought comes to mind. (Contrary to rumors, God is encouraging, not condemning.) If you like writing like I do, you can try writing your prayers. Think of Anne Frank’s honest, vulnerable letters to “Dear Diary” but address them to an attentive God instead.

C.S. Lewis said, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” But even then, in the end, if you are tethering from an air hose in outer space, you can pray. I just taught you how.

What is a father?

I am not exactly the best person to answer this question, but in light of the points made in my previous post regarding the main character of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

Being a father is a financial obligation, of course. A father should see that his children are cared for in terms of their basic needs. It’s wonderful when the man can take care of the mother’s financial needs too, but she often works herself and sometimes makes a bigger portion of the money needed to support the family. Does this make a man less a father? No, but it does mean that he can’t rest on his laurels and consider his job done. This may be a good thing, because being a father is an obligation of caring which is demonstrated in a variety of ways.

GrandfatherMy grandfather was a large man with a bigger heart. Every morning he would ask if we had slept well and try to engage us in a little conversation. In the evening, he would ask if we had enough to eat and if we needed anything before going to bed. As he watched us grow (he had 14 grandkids), he tended to our individual strengths and habits. I was studious, often reading at his house, so he would bring me water and remind me that mental activity needed hydration. When I showed interest in the restaurant business, he took an afternoon off work to drive me around town and share his perspective on various eating establishments and what contributed to their success.

These may be little things, but they reveal a man who paid attention to his family and tended to it. Incidentally, I never heard my grandfather raise his voice. His presence was already big; he didn’t need to. He had our respect because we knew he cared and we were frequently surprised by how much he understood about us. He was paying attention.

Now I realize it’s easy to romanticize a grandfather. I’m sure he made mistakes in his day, but in an age when men are often excused from certain parenting duties because they don’t “multitask” well or because their wives are becoming so financially competent, I think of him as a fine example of a father who pays attention to the needs of his family, does his best to see that they are met, and doesn’t avoid the unpleasant issues. (I could add to this picture my husband’s spiritual leadership, as well as positive aspects of my own father’s parenting, but that will have to be another post.)

When I think of fathering in today’s world, I get angry at the media that portrays kids being terribly rude to their parents, dads in particular. After my daughter, as a young teen, watched certain sitcoms, there was a noticeable decline in her attitude, making the job of parenting much harder. I mention this to say that there are outside forces that threaten to tear up any family in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, which reminds me of another adjective a father should have to his name: protective. It is right for a father to protect his children from unhealthy influences when it is in his power to do so; he is not the bad guy for enacting rules and restrictions. While we are in a phase of permissive parenting, I am not necessarily advocating going back to the belt strap, but something in between: discipline that is firm (not negative and demeaning), that includes teaching, that matches the offense, and that is even creative. More importantly, I am proposing that disciplining be thought of in terms of protecting: protecting a kid from harming himself or others. Thinking in this way may clarify some of the confusion that perpetually surrounds the topic of discipline (and I offer the concept to anyone who wants to run with it).

In summary, this is my charge: a father is not someone who is distant or aloof; he doesn’t play ignorant and excuse himself from problems that are uncomfortable, but rather, he pays attention and stands at the ready to care for and protect his family as needed.

The meaning of cats in Inside Llewyn Davis

inside-llewyn-davis-meaning of catsAfter seeing Inside Llewyn Davis last night, a friend and I immediately started speculating about the significance of the cats. Here’s what we came up with:

The cat reveals that Llewyn had a heart
When Llewyn seems to be a heartless person, the cat reveals otherwise. Llewyn passionately chases the cat through the village and grieves over getting it back to his friends. That said, it’s usually easier to care for animals than it is to care for people. Possibly, the cat represents how far Llewyn has to go: Llewyn shows care for the cat, but is unwilling to take the exit to Akron to find and care for his 2-year-old child, which leads me to the next point.

The cat reveals that Llewyn is careless
Llewyn is careless with his actions and words, hurting those closest to him. The cat scenes are clearly descriptive of his carelessness. Whether intentional of not, Llewyn lets the cat escape; he picks up the wrong cat; he deserts the cat in the car, and so on. Remember when the professor’s wife discovered that Llewyn returned the wrong cat? She screams at him, “Where’s his scrotum, Llewyn?! Where’s his scrotum!” This same question can be asked of Llewyn who is acting like an irresponsible kid, not a man.

Similarly, Llewyn is bothered whenever he is asked if he is Hugh Davis’ son, the reason being that he should have grown up by now into a man in his own right; he is a father himself, yet has not earn the title.

The cat represents hope
According to folklore, cats have nine lines, symbolic of Llewyn’s experience as a folk singer. Llewyn’s hope is killed, then it rises, if just a little, then it is killed again. The cat’s eventual return to his friends’ home (also a home of sorts for Llewyn) represents another round of hope for Llewyn.

The cat reveals that Llewyn has a soul
When others doubt it, the cat seems to look deeply into his soul. Most significantly, a cat seems to sacrifice himself for Llewyn in the snowy car scene. Llewyn was falling asleep at the wheel, but hitting the cat brought forth his full attention, not to mention his capacity to feel emotion again. The cat is like an angel: when Llewyn wakes up in his friends’ home, the cat is there, looking down on him with acceptance, representing love that is unmerited, undeserved.

If the cat gives grace, the man in the suit in the alley gives Llewyn what he deserves. Having received experiences of both mercy and justice, we can only hope that Llewyn is ready to grow up.

In preparation for holiday parties and family get-togethers, I’m sharing an excerpt from the book Speak Easy: Mary Lou’s Rules for Engaging Conversation by Matthew Calkins and Mary Lou Walker. Cupola Press published this book in 2010, but it’s a timeless piece and especially applicable this time of year.

Don’t Steal The Subject

“The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s observation, not overturning it.”
—Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

How often has this happened to you? You are in a party conversation, telling the story of your trip somewhere—say, camping along the Colorado River. Someone jumps in and says that he and his family camped there once too, and then he proceeds to steal the subject and tell the story of his vacation. Sometimes this is even done with a sense of implied superiority: “Oh, yes, I know that campground—but did you get a chance to explore the canyon downstream? If you had been there for another day, as we were, you might have had the opportunity.” Of course, you are internally seething, thinking—I wish your raft had overturned and you had a good soaking on that extra day!

Later we will talk about how to counter this kind of theft and smug one-upmanship with wit and raillery, but for now just think how frequently this happens. And admit that you do it, too! We all do. When we hear a story that triggers an association in our lives—whether people or places—we long to share it. Often we stop listening and politely wait for our turn—which may never come! Sometimes we rudely interrupt the current story and steal the subject. Of course, this is wrong—but so hard to resist. It happens with equal, or perhaps greater frequency, in political or other topical conversations. One idea or opinion or piece of news and gossip triggers thoughts of another, each person elbows in, and off it goes.

What to do? Go back to the previous paragraph. Note the observation that when an association is triggered we often stop paying full attention to the person talking and begin waiting for our turn to speak. There is a huge difference between listening and waiting to speak. Try and stay with listening and set the corollary incident aside for later (if it gets lost, it is not that important). Then, instead of stealing the subject, dig deeper. Ask questions. What was the funniest thing that happened on the trip? Was there a moment of beauty so awesome that you were moved outside of your self? Has this experience changed you? Provocative questions make for good conversation. People will be flattered by the attention but, even better, the conversation may take an interesting turn. It might move beyond recounting incidents and opinions to reflection or laughter (both of which are good).

President Barack Obama once said something that struck me in this regard when he was a student at Columbia University. The young Mr. Obama said, “Everyone appreciates a kind word and a thoughtful response.”

How true. Everyone appreciates being listened to and not interrupted. And no one, it is fair to say, is fond of having their story hijacked. Learn some manners. Wait your turn. Don’t steal the subject.

For more conversation tips, the book is available at most online stores and at Cupola Press.

Art up close and personal


I love zooming in on art. Going way back, before the computer, the xerox machine was my super cool tool. As a graphic designer and illustrator, I would use it to enlarge my own little sketches, various scraps of paper, or small found objects that could be squashed relatively flat on the glass. The copier would only enlarge up to 147%, if I remember correctly, so I would enlarge the enlargements and enlarge them some more. Every step yielded something more interesting.

The closeup above is part of an illustration by Masako Dunn for the new children’s book I published, A Gift for Little Tree by Colleen Marquez. When you zoom into art like this, you get a different kind of beauty and energy than when you are looking at the whole piece. You see richer textures and colors and wild, expressive strokes. You see areas of painting that you thought were precise, but, on such close inspection, are actually quite messy.

Getting close to people brings similar results. Working on this children’s book over the past year, the author and I—good friends to begin with—got up close and personal with each other, revealing more of ourselves than we probably wanted to, as we negotiated and navigated through the fits and starts of birthing a book. But what is friendship if it’s just reserved for pleasantries and never tested?

I like the expression, “To know me is to love me.” What I think this expression means is that your love for a person deepens as your knowledge of them deepens. At least if you are open to the love. If you get close to someone and decide you don’t like the wild, sometimes messy areas that you are sure to discover, then you’ll take a step back. That’s okay, it’s your choice, it’s good to have personal boundaries, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, if you choose to zoom in and stay awhile, people and art get a lot more interesting.

Managing stress with axioms

ElephantMy mother used to say: “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” I like the Russian proverb better: “Don’t make an elephant out of a fly,” although I didn’t know there were elephants in Russia. They drink Vodka, according to a BBC News story. Another popular saying is “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Richard Carlson used the line for his bestselling book, adding five brilliant words to the title: “And it’s all small stuff.”

Is this true; is it all small stuff? Not really. What the Philippines are presently going through is not small stuff, but it’s generally true in our day-to-day lives.

My bigger question for this post is: Does it help to keep these sayings in mind? If you were to hang this plaque I designed with the cute elephant in your home, for example, would it help you calm down if you were overreacting to something? I hope so because the piece is for sale in my new Etsy store and I’m hoping it will help people “roll with the punches,” another great expression.

For me, what mostly scales down my anxieties is the combination of two things: being outside and praying, which reminds me of two more quotes. The first is: “It’s impossible to walk in the woods and be in a bad mood at the same time” I totally agree with this statement found on The other is “Why worry when you can pray?”—a phrase adapted from Philippians 4:6 and turned into a peppy song. If I could find a good quote that communicates the stabilizing effect of nature and prayer together, I’d display it everywhere around my home and office, because—even with my good strategies—I tend to panic and overact as much as the next guy.

There’s something else to mention. When I need to calm down, I ask myself an important question about the stressful situation at hand. I ask: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Sometimes the answer is not too bad and I realize I can deal with it. Other times, the answer is nasty. For example, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t start making money? I could end up sleeping between sheets of plastic and newspaper under a bridge somewhere! But then, I reason, even then, if the worst thing happened, with God’s help, I can still deal with it.

Once I engage my faith in such a way, it (my faith) gets stronger, and I relax. Asking yourself the worst-case-scenario question and employing your faith for the answer, is like coming out of a strenuous workout at the gym: you feel stronger; you are stronger. What’s more, you feel calm, you are breathing deeply, and you’re in much better shape for facing that elephant—or fly, whatever the case may be.

Missing my big eater

BfastMy daughter is a high school senior and is taking the SATs at this very moment. Last night, she asked me to get up early and make her breakfast before she left for the test. So I did. But sadly, the eggs weren’t fresh, the cheddar cheese was moldy, the milk was all gone, the yogurt was past its expiration date, the bananas were brown and mushy, the bread was stale, and even the jelly was yucky. I made a terrible smoothie with the expired yogurt, it was just awful. My daughter did not complain, but she didn’t eat much.

The problem lies with the absence of my son who is now in college. He helped us eat things up quickly and required that I shop every few days, if not every few hours. He was the one who was eager for my meals and kept me energized to stock and restock the kitchen. He even bought me a cool yogurt maker so we always had fresh yogurt. When his teenage appetite began to wane a little, he got a manual labor job that brought it back up to snuff. We miss him!

But there is hope. My daughter just got her license last week, so it’s time I send her to the grocery store. She’ll buy items of questionable nutritional value, I’m sure, but at least it will all be fresh. I’ll stay here, in my cozy home office, writing, designing, and enjoying my sweet freedom from all that tedious shopping. Besides, I never was good at it. I usually lost my grocery list by the time I reached the produce. Where do all those lost grocery lists go? For all the ones I’ve lost, I never found a list by someone else, stuck in between the cucumbers or among the soup cans. Often, I would arrive home without the very item that prompted the shopping trip in the first place. I suppose that’s why I had to go so often.

But now that is all behind me…well, not really. My daughter will be home any minute and will need a lunch and dinner packed for her day-long choral event and we don’t even have paper lunch bags. She will tell me she is too busy to shop, and frankly, she is. If I have time to blog, it means I have time to shop. Sigh. Maybe I’ll go to Trader Joe’s. At least they will serve me an itty bitty cup of coffee to enhance the experience.

I never met a Jazzercise instructor I didn’t like

Instructor150pixelsOne of the best things about my Jazzercise class is the lack of mirrors. We don’t watch ourselves. Instead, we watch the instructor whooping it up on stage and imagine that we are performing as well, when, in reality, we are only swinging ourselves around half as much. Sometimes, I watch other people in class, too. I never notice anyone else looking around, but I suppose it happens. There’s a particular woman who has a sense of rhythm to die for. Actually, there are at least two. One woman exerts a modest amount of energy, but is all style. The other gives it everything she’s got and is also all style. I try to mimic them, but due to the lack of mirrors, I can’t tell if I’m succeeding.

I’ve never met a Jazzercise instructor I didn’t like. In addition to energy and style, they have personality. Our main instructor is fun because every now and then—without missing a beat in the routine—she starts giggling. I have a suspicion she is chuckling at me for trying to swivel my boyish hips around, but there’s no real evidence for this. After she giggles, she makes a joke like she just thought of something funny. Once she blurted out, “Life begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.” I am still laughing about that one. But don’t worry, it’s just a joke, we all love our kids.

The worst part about jazzercising is when—right in the middle of a dance—we are told to turn and face the side of the room, then the back, and then the other side. Being directionally challenged, this upsets the apple cart for me, and I forget my steps. Or possibly, I forget my steps because I lose sight of the instructor. Help!! But others don’t seem to mind. They even let out a loud, happy shout as they turn to the back of the room. I need someone to explain this to me. Why exactly are we shouting? In any event, I am getting better at all this turning around, and suppose if I attended class every day (like some impressive people), I would appreciate the variety.

Speaking of variety, the music played in class is fantastic. I love it. One night, I looked up the video for one of the songs we danced to because I was so enthralled with it. This was a while ago, and, if you must know, it was “If I Was Your Boyfriend.” Well, my daughter heard me from her bedroom and shouted, “Mom, is that you listening to Justin Bieber!?” I’m not sure if I scored points with my daughter at that time, or not. Later, I referred to the young musician as Justin Beaver, which reassured her of my ignorance.

Occasionally, Jazzercise instructors sing along with the music. I hear that getting certified as an instructor does not require voice lessons. But who cares? It keeps the hour interesting. Besides, I noticed even Justin Bieber doesn’t sing as well when he’s dancing.

How to pick a church

Five things to consider when picking a church

Church in Fairfield, CTEveryone, at least in the United States, is free to walk into a church to observe its service, which usually, but not always, takes place on Sunday. The purpose of this article is to help you feel comfortable visiting a church for the first time and to give you tips for assessing whether or not it’s a place you want to visit again.

I am primarily addressing those who have little experience in this area. Maybe all you know about church is what you’ve seen on TV and the movies, and you wonder if church is really that bad (it’s not). Maybe you attended a wedding in a beautiful chapel and would like to check it out. Maybe you just started a family and, with a newborn in your arms, you realize there’s more to life than you ever imagined. Maybe you recently moved to a new town and want to meet people. I will not judge your motivations here; I just want to help you assess what you find.

Before I continue, please know that churches today respect your privacy. While other organizations are getting increasingly intrusive, following you around with their targeted advertising, most churches will not contact you unless you ask them to. Even then, you may not be contacted—lots of churches are understaffed! So don’t worry about anyone expecting anything out of you at first; just relax and enjoy yourself.

One more point. The following tips are made with Christian denominations in mind, because these are the churches I know personally and can attest to their open doors. In my relatively long life, I have attended Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Quaker, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, Methodist and Covenant Churches. My background for writing this article is simply as a regular person who has taken the time to find a great church wherever I live. I hope to encourage others to do the same.

Five things to consider when picking a church:

1)     MUSIC. This is not the most important aspect of a church, but it is usually the first thing noticed. Lots of singing, maybe a choir, a band, or some incredible guitar picking. Don’t expect to love all the music, but it’s a definite plus if you like most of it. Churches tend to lean toward traditional music (hymns) or contemporary (think drums and synthesizer), but many do a good job of presenting a variety, which is important if you’re looking for a church with a spouse or friend who has different tastes than you.

2)     MISSION STATEMENT. Listen for the church’s core beliefs. If they do not become obvious during the church service, ask for a brochure or snoop around the church’s website. While the church’s beliefs are very important, it is possible for you to be a part of a church and have a different view. It doesn’t make you a hypocrite. You just want to make sure you can respect the church’s beliefs and are open to learning more about them.

3)     OPPORTUNITIES TO SERVE. Would involvement in the church provide you with opportunities to serve your neighborhood and beyond? Find out by listening to the announcements or by asking someone after the service. A healthy church gives to others in addition to nourishing its own.

4)     THE SERMON. The sermon or message should provide something meaningful to contemplate. But for this to happen, you need to be mentally present. No daydreaming. Do your best to pay attention and ask yourself, “What part of this message is intended for my ears and what am I going to do about it?” When you ask yourself this question, most sermons will be worth your while.

Still, you may have a preference for a certain style of speaking. Some pastors, for example, are more intellectually challenging, while others are entertaining, using analogies, real-life stories, and media to support their teaching. Within one church, there could be a variety of styles, depending on the number of pastors or the nature of the content to be communicated. You may need to visit a church more than once to determine what suits you. As you do, be easy on the pastor—his/her role encompasses much more than public speaking—and don’t forget the part that you play in the process.

5)     COMMUNITY AND CREATIVITY. When you show up for the first time at a church—no matter how welcoming the place is—you may feel like a stranger by the simple fact that you are one, so leave yourself out of it for now. Instead, watch how others interact. Do you see people connecting? Do you feel a sense of authenticity and camaraderie? In addition, do you see evidence of creativity? A church, after all, is made up of unique individuals and should thereby contain elements of unpredictability. Maybe a little kid reads the scripture; maybe the music director makes a curious joke that gets everyone laughing; maybe an odd-looking woman with an enormous red hat wanders down the aisle and sits right in front of you…who knows? Welcome the surprises; they are usually positive signs of a vibrant church.

Five things NOT to consider when picking a church:

1)     SIZE. Don’t let the size of a church draw or deter you. You may go to a big church and feel lost, but keep in mind that most big churches offer smaller gatherings to foster relationships. Or, you may go to a small church and wonder why the place isn’t filled up, but keep in mind that everyone who is there may be involved and loving it. If the church appeals to you based on the points previously mentioned, don’t worry about numbers.

2)     DIVERSITY. Churches would like to be diverse, but the truth is, people tend to go to a church where they find similar types of people. Also, it’s kind of hard for a church to be diverse if it’s in a neighborhood that isn’t diverse. So please don’t base your opinion of a church on this matter alone. That said, if you can add to a church’s diversity, great! You will contribute more than you know.

3)     INSTANT FRIENDS. I’ve heard people say that they stopped going to a church because they went for months without meeting anyone. Well, to be honest, Sunday services are not that conducive to making friends. You’ve got to do a little more to get to know the people. The best way to make friends and really experience a church community is to get involved in a service project, class, or other event where relationships have a chance to gel.

ChurchWindow4)     THE BUILDING. As an art student, I’ve seen and studied beautiful churches all over the world. The windows move me most. I’ve gone to churches with expansive windows that open to the sky and churches with tall, arched windows of brilliant stained glass. Presently, I attend a church with no windows. We meet in an old movie theater. But that’s okay, because the people are more important. A building can set the stage for a spiritual experience, but along the same lines of not judging a book by its cover, try not to judge a church by its building.

5)     PERFECTION. A church is made up of people, and since no person is perfect, no group of persons will be perfect. Far from it. Perfection does not exist on this side of heaven, so if a church has ample strengths, don’t worry about the little things you don’t like.

Despite imperfections, churches have much to offer, including, of course, support for growing closer to God. The tips above are suggestions only: you may walk into a church and know immediately that you belong, or your spouse may have a strong pick and you follow along. Since God is omniscient, in all seriousness, you can actually get to know Him anywhere. As the book of James says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” But I do hope you find a church where you want to get involved. It’s worth the effort.

The Truth in The Butler

The ButlerMost movie trailers give away too much, so I tend to watch them after a movie—to relive its poignant moments—rather than before. That’s why I went to The Butler last night expecting to see an intimate, fairly accurate look at the life of an amazing man; a celebration of the person who served eight presidents in the White House and was virtually unknown until the Washington Post did an article on him.

The Butler, as I will call him in this article, was a real person (his real name being Eugene Allen), but it turns out that the movie doesn’t try too hard to be accurate with his story. In real life, for example, the man had only one son; in the movie he had two: one fought in Vietnam and the other—completely fabricated—became an activist.

I usually don’t like scripts that mess so much with the known facts, but I’m pondering this one. The movie uses the Butler to tell a bigger story: that of the civil rights movement. The Butler, as dramatized in the movie, experiences a ton of loss. I am happy to tell you that his real life did not include all those terrors, and, no, he was not informed on his birthday, right after his wife brought out the birthday cake, that his son was killed in the war. But maybe there’s a reason for piling up the pain on this one man. Scriptwriters know we can better understand anything from a simple concept to a entire era if there’s a human face to it. And here we are, in our comfy chairs with just two hours to understand a whole lot of suffering. The Butler helps us get it.

In the beginning of the movie, when the Butler is a young boy, his father tells him, “This is a white man’s world; we are just living in it.” The boy grows up and learns how to survive in such a world. He works hard, supports his family, and earns respect — from the presidents of the United States, no less. It’s an understatement to say his life is better than that of his parents.

But one of the Butler’s sons wants even more and choses the life of an activist. This scenario must be a reality in countless families coming out of oppression: parents advancing the cause through patient, respectable work, while the children won’t settle for such slow progress. The movie portrays the tension between father and son well, with amazing scenes that juxtapose the Butler’s delicate routines in the White House with his son’s dangerous encounters on the streets. We feel for the son who doesn’t understand that his father’s gentle march toward liberty allowed his children to grow up strong, healthy and ready for the next step. We also feel for the father who fails to understand that his son isn’t all much different than he; both suffer inside, both want a better world than that of their parents and both are incredibly courageous.

The acting of the main characters in this movie is stellar. The casting of the presidents is fun, although you can guess which ones are portrayed negatively, while one in particular has a glow around his head. That’s Hollywood. Most movies, we should all know by now, mess with the truth.

But in this case, there are deeper truths that make up for it: the painful truth, for starters, that evil and wretched injustice exists; but also the truth that courage, reconciliation, and love exist—and if you get to live as long as the Butler, you’re better inclined to see these greater truths prevail.