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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Further Up and Further In

“They say Aslan is on the move – perhaps has already landed.” – C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Today’s second-most widely read article in the Seattle Times online newspaper reports the response of two families in the greater-Seattle area who were affected by a tragic fatal car crash last Saturday.

Gavin Coffee, father of four-and-a-half (his wife is pregnant with their fifth) was killed instantly when an unsecured shelving unit fell out of a pickup truck driven by 21-year-old Brian Campbell, who was taking it to the dump. Coffee swerved to avoid the shelves, resulting in the domino-effect car crash that took his life.

At the moment the accident occurred, Coffee was talking on his cell phone to his pastor and good friend, Jon Aydelott. Despite the severity of the crash, the phone connection wasn’t broken and Jon remained on the line listening to the voices of witnesses and, later, troopers, who were on the scene.

Based on what he heard, Aydelott realized things looked serious. So he broke the connection and called Coffee’s wife, Heidi, to alert her. They attempted to get more definitive information by calling both the police and local hospitals, but because the accident was still so recent, no one had a record of it.

So, together, Aydelott and Heidi drove to the crash scene, where both recognized Coffee’s vehicle. They were told by troopers that Coffee was dead.

A tragic story, yes. A freakish accident, yes. This story personal to Bruce and me because we know both the Coffee family and Jon Aydelott.

I doubt the Coffees would even remember us. Bruce and I met Gavin and Heidi through mutual friends when we were newly married. We often ran into each other at barbeques and birthday parties. Gavin was one of those guys with twinkling eyes (even as a newlywed, I had a disconcerting crush on him), an infectious, wicked sense of humor, but a deep passion for life, God and his family.

Back then, we all attended church at Calvary Fellowship in Seattle. At the time, Jon Aydelott, who is now the pastor of City Calvary Church in Seattle where the Coffees currently attend, was one of the assistant pastors. When Calvary Fellowship had to relocate to a different facility a decade or so back, several of the assistant pastors took the opportunity to branch off and start their own churches, which eventually spread across the greater-Seattle area. Calvary Fellowship bought a building in Mountlake Terrace, several miles north of the city. Jon Aydelott kept his new church, City Calvary, in a new location in Seattle. Gavin Coffee stayed with Aydelott, and served as a youth pastor at the new church.

In a strange twist that reeks of some deeper mystery, Brian Campbell, the young man who was driving the pickup with the unsecured load, currently attends Calvary Fellowship, where both Aydelott and Coffee used to attend. Campbell aspires to be a youth pastor, just as Coffee was.

This unusual coincidence is part of what has made headlines in Seattle.

Though we haven’t seen the Coffees in probably ten years, Gavin’s death has hit both Bruce and I hard. Such an untimely, needless loss, of someone whose life situation is so similar to ours, hits hard. It is brutal reminder that any of us can die at any time doing the most ordinary things.

Driving home from work last night, with this loss still fresh in my mind, I noticed a van with ladders strapped to the top driving directly in front of me. I slowed way down, for fear one of the ladders might come flying off and into my windshield.

I don’t pretend to understand the theology of incidents like this. These kinds of things happen all the time, and never get any easier to understand. Last night I prayed that, though I might never be witness to it, God would bring good from the situation; that the devastation would be interspersed with hope.

Also noted in the Seattle Times article is the beautiful, gracious gesture of Heidi Coffee extending an invitation to Campbell to attend Gavin’s memorial service this Saturday.

Says Heidi: "Gavin had this great saying, 'Holding a grudge is like taking poison and waiting for someone to die.'” She does not blame Campbell for the accident, and neither does she want him to continue to blame himself.

From what I can tell, God is already doing something. If the popularity of today’s article is any indication, the opportunity to demonstrate forgiveness and acceptance in our strife-torn world does not go unnoticed.

I don’t lull myself into thinking that there won’t be a terribly difficult road to healing for both the surviving Coffees and the Campbell family. Genuine healing requires facing and walking through deep hurts and wounds. It takes a great deal of time and energy. And those hurts and wounds don’t ever totally disappear.

But, I believe death is not the end, as does Heidi Coffee and Brian Campbell, and there is great hope in that.

If corpses can't be raised, then Christ wasn't, because he was indeed dead. And if Christ weren't raised, then all you're doing is wandering about in the dark, as lost as ever. It's even worse for those who died hoping in Christ and resurrection, because they're already in their graves. If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we're a pretty sorry lot. But the truth is that Christ has been raised up, the first in a long legacy of those who are going to leave the cemeteries. 1 Corinthians 15:16-20 (The Message)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Other People's Kids

I really don’t like other people’s kids that much.

There are, of course, exceptions. In fact, the older I get (and the more seasoned, e.g. “beaten down”) the more exceptions there are.

But, by and large, kids I don’t know scare the hell out of me.

So it was really weird when I felt a very specific inspiration to participate in my church’s three-day summer camp, "Fit for His Work" (FFHW). Usually I flee from Vacation Bible Schools and Harvest Carnivals at a high rate of speed.

The camp ended only and hour and a half ago, and I now sit in my cozy home sipping a glass of wine while, outside, there rages a storm of autumn-in-Seattle-proportions.

Today is only August the 19th, and this afternoon we see our very first termination dust. People become very divided over the issue of termination dust (when the highest-most parts of the mountains get their first snowfall). For every adult at FFHW who cheered over the snow (which will probably melt by tomorrow), there was other adult whacking him or her across the head.

I, for one, am tickled and thrilled (though, thankfully, no one hit me over the head). There is something about the anticipation and promise of snowy days that makes my stomach happily flutter.

FFHW began at 9am this morning at the Campbell Creek Science Center, which, until a couple weeks ago, I didn’t even know existed. It is only 15 minutes from my house, and as nature centers go, it is a going concern.

It covers over 700 acres of BLM land, which is connected to Chugach State Park, which eventually turns into Tongass National Forest. It is the doorway to a wild, ranging wilderness, and though not even a mile from residential neighborhoods, is absolutely untamed outside the beautifully groomed trail system.

There were many opportunities to see wilderness-in-progress today. On one hand, due to our recent incessant rainfall, we witnessed Campbell Creek four-feet above flood stage. The water flowed more swiftly than I have ever seen a stream or river flow. During our guided nature walk, I fretted that my five- and six-year old charges would try to test me by teetering over the creek bank. (I warned one child that if he went in, I wasn't going in after him.) Though I only had four kids in my care, given their personalities, I was not being overly paranoid. Several times, one particularly wayward kid had to be forcibly dragged away from the bank and back into the protection of the group.

Which leads me to the other kind of wilderness.

Other people’s kids. They are wild and unfathomable and scary. And for me, it’s very hard to discern appropriate discipline for someone else’s kid.

My “wayward” charge ended up slung over my shoulder for part of our walk for reasons I won’t go into. But I realize over time that often when I run into a kid who perhaps lacks firm boundaries with parents, or lives in an unsettled home, when that kid runs into an adult who is more than willing to enforce the rules, the rules are often challenged.

So, because I can’t stand to see kids disrespecting adults and blatantly throw down the gauntlet, I can’t help but pick it up. Even if the gauntlet is the kid, who gets slung over my shoulder and taken for an abdomen-compressing ride. If it were my kid, there would be much more than abdominal-compression to worry about.

So. After winning a round of “Sea, Sand, and Sidewalk” (as led by “Pastor Jeff”), stitching together three craft-foam water-bottle holders, twice running an obstacle course through torrential rain, and enduring children’s Bible-songs insipid enough to inspire even a teetotaling pastor to long for a cold-one, it is done.

It was a delightful experience. Will I do it again next year? Assume nothing.

Upon coming home this afternoon, I sent Bruce off fishing, perhaps for the last time this season. He is with a friend, and they will be driving two hours in the hopes of catching their limit (six each), and then will head home late tonight.

Evan and I spent a few minutes sitting in the living room’s bay window watching the rain pour torrentially, yet again. I used a Clorox wipe to clear the husks of summer’s mosquitos from the windowsill – a sure sign that fall is upon us.

I know most folks outside of Alaska are still enjoying their balmy summers, but I am feeling a little cocky that it is fall up here. Fall is, afterall, my favorite season.

The rain has let up, and I even see some blue sky to the southwest. Sun, rain, snow, or wind – I don’t really care. One is as magical as the other, if I'm willing to "go with it".

Life always seems to present “opportunities” to engage in things that evoke a feeling of discomfort and dislike. I wish I could find elements of enjoyment and delight in all times, despite obstacles, the way I did this weekend with the kids and the weather.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

You Gotta Laugh

As if discovering my identity was stolen (or, at least, my social security number) wasn't bad enough, the battery died on the Suburban tonight. Our church was doing a VBS (Vacation Bible School) program, which I atypically volunteered to help at, and it involved transporting kids. With our behemoth Suburban, I had plenty of room. This is NOT a good time for a car-battery to die.

I was not so panicky that I forgot my friend Jeff's cell phone number. Suddenly it was as if it were etched in glowing numbers on the backs of my eyelids. Jeff is not only my good friend, but, conveniently, the pastor of my church, and as such was also involved in the VBS program. When I called him, I knew he was close by.

So he came to my rescue in the parking lot of the Alaska Club South (where we, and numerous other masochistic adults, had been swimming with 40 elementary-age kids.)

Then later at church, when it was time to go home, my car failed again.

"Jeff!!!," I beckoned. Again, to my rescue he came. Good man. Thanks, Jeff!

And, I avoided a nervous breakdown without supplemental seratonin.

Meanwhile: I'm sort of famous at church right now.

With a great deal of help from my own lips, already many church-folk know that my social security number was "borrowed." I got a lot of sympathy and comments like, "Wow, I didn't know things like that really happened." Yeah, until 11am this morning, neither did I.

(Did I mention, via the police, I need to get a piece of paper that I need to carry with me at all times indicating that I am not the other person with the Texan criminal record? And that I need to get a mug-shot and fingerprinted with the Alaska authorities? Sigh.)

Elaine jokes I am the poster-child for the value of background checks. It can be a safeguard in the same way monitoring one's credit history can. Apparently, at our church there is some resistance to the idea of background checks. This is not a surprise. Who wants to live in a world where background checks at church might be deemed expected and ordinary? I certainly don't. But, people, that is the world we live in, whether you choose to accept it or not.

The funniest comment made to me tonight came from a guy at our church whose wife recently got released from a year-long stint in prison for fraud and embezzelment. He told me that, upon hearing of my travails, he commented to his wife, who is still in a half-way house, "Those darn criminals." He said it to tease her. He meant it very tenderly and lovingly. I didn't know how to take it (and I consider myself more out-of-the-box than most at my church). (This is a wonderful couple who has handled their family's ordeal with a divine level of grace and honesty.)

So, its been a day. I'm working on Beer #3, and just starting to relax. But the reality is, despite feeling tired and stressed, I have a strong sense of God's presence in all these events. I might have gone on indefinitely not knowing about the identity theft. The first infraction happened in 1989 - 17 years ago! The most recent infraction on the report occurred in 1999. So while I've been happily getting married and having babies, some poor soul has been desperate enough to steal that which belongs to others in order to survive.

But for the error made in one keystroke by the church administrator, I might have continued on in ignorance. (She had desperately wanted to call me and tease that she'd found something horrible during my check; little did she think she'd actually find something.) I always joke that ignorance is bliss. I would much rather have spent the whole afternoon blissfully lost in a book than be on the phone all afternoon with various federal and state agencies.

But would the ignorance of what is, in fact, reality, be preferable? I might go years and years continuing to live happily oblivious, and then have things catch up with me in a catastrophic way. Whether I am aware of my social security number's use in criminal records or not, it continues to exist with the imminent potential to profoundly influence my life.

I believe there is a reason for the timing of these events. I could have ignored the things that happened today; blown them off. But sometimes a door opens, and even though what lays across the threshold looks uninviting, you go through anyway. A small mess can lead to a much bigger one, down the road. You go through the door and start cleaning and clearing - by faith.

It is the bee-in-the-sewer-pipe theory all over again: just because you don't see it, it doesn't mean it isn't there. You flush a dead bug, and while it may seem to be gone forever, it does continue to exist, riding through sewer pipes as it decomposes. (Only a very few of my correspondents are familiar with this experiential analogy of mine, so don't expect to recognize it.)

As far as the dead car battery - again, Providential timing. Knowledgable help was readily available. Inconvenient, but in the end, there was resolution and satisfaction.

I wonder what fun new adventures lay in wait tomorrow?

Stolen Identity

Just when I thought I was getting more in touch with myself, my identity goes and get's stolen.

Yes, I have inadvertently been sharing my social security number with a criminal in Houston, Texas who has over a dozen aliases.

After conversations with the Social Security Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, the Anchorage Police Department, Alaska State Troopers, and the Alaska Bureau of Investigation, I am little closer to answers.

What I have been forewarned of is this: if for some reason this person "borrowing" my social has a warrant out for her arrest, and I up here in Anchorage were to be pulled over, I might be arrested.

Hmmm. Interesting concept.

So, I could be ferrying the kids to the library and maybe go a bit to fast to make the light at 36th and New Seward, and get pulled over. Then, with my four kids watching, be arrested then and there. Yikes.

How it came about is divine. Our church is doing routine background checks on people who work with children. My report would have been clean, except that Elaine, the person administering the check, "accidentally" typed my birthdate in wrong by one number. And suddenly all this criminal history came up.

Now, keep in mind this hasn't seemed to touch our financial records. Nothing is amiss with out credit cards or my credit report. The only way this was found out was by a background check and a entry error. But the problem is real, as evidenced by the reaction of the representative with the Social Security Administration. Clicking her tongue and sighs of "my goodness" were enough to set my heart 'a-racing. And every phone call ended with each genuinely sympathetic person saying "Well, good-luck with that."

So, I guess identity theft is real. Bruce speculates this person may be in the U.S. illegally and borrowed my southern California-issued social and birthdate.

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