Losing My Baby

I used to lose my son when he was little. I wasn’t a negligent mother at all. In fact, I had to force myself periodically to loosen my grip and not smother my children. I was a child in the days when there was no twenty-four hour programming on television at all, much less for children. Children played outside. All of us from the neighborhood would range up and down the street, in and out of everybody’s yards; we would stay out till we got hungry. I’m sure parents in that era were aware that children could be snatched because they taught us never to accept a ride from a stranger, but it didn’t seem to be an overarching parental preoccupation. By the time I had my own children, however, the world of parenting had changed. Stories of abducted children fueled the news, and it was easy to keep children inside with video games and cable TV. Finding the balance between allowing my children to do what God intended for children to do–play–and keeping them safe was something I had to work on.

I first lost my son at my brother’s wedding when he was only about fourteen months old. My brother’s church had bought a small apartment complex next door and used it as their educational building. The wedding reception was in the courtyard of that facility. It was a great place for children to play and was contained, so I wasn’t particularly worried. But I suddenly realized he wasn’t near me and looked around in alarm. Eventually I looked up and saw him at the top of a flight of stairs, grinning proudly. It was an outside staircase, with a steel frame and concrete risers and nothing but air in between the risers, gaps that were plenty big enough for a fourteen month old to slip through. I will never know how he got up there unnoticed and in one piece. I rescued him and held him on my hip for the rest of the evening, squelching his sense of adventure in favor of mundane safety.

When he was two, we were in my grandmother’s yard in Corpus Christi, and suddenly no one knew where he was. Grandma’s yard was only fenced on three sides, so I knew he must have wandered into the front. Grandma lived on a dead-end street, so there wasn’t much traffic, but there was a very busy street only a short walk away. I panicked. Everyone in the extended family searched desperately for about five minutes, and then my father found him inside my car. My little boy had climbed inside and shut the door behind him. Being a resident of a small town in which most people don’t bother to lock their cars in the driveway, I had left the door unlocked. Somehow he got inside. He must have thought it was a new game, the way we dashed around shouting his name. At any rate, he had a delightful time sitting in the driver’s seat like an adult, watching everyone else perform for his entertainment. Again I kept him safe on my hip for the rest of the evening.

When he was three, I lost him at the zoo in Tyler. We were in the fish house, and again I realized that he wasn’t with me. I dashed about, asking everyone I saw if they had seen my little boy. Nobody had noticed him, so I was terrified that someone had snatched him. A zoo employee saw what was going on and called in a lost child alert on his walkie talkie. Immediately, men and women in zoo jumpsuits appeared from all directions and began looking for him. About ten minutes later, someone found him on the other side of the zoo. When the man brought my son back, he was happily swinging his hand, oblivious to the ruckus he’d caused. Again, I carried him for a long time.

A few days ago, my grown-up son moved to Seattle. Seattle is a long, long way from Texas in every way: geographically, culturally, and politically. It had been his dream for years to leave Texas. He wants to have a few adventures while he’s young and single. I can relate to that. I had a brief adventure working at a campground in Wyoming when I was eighteen. I had a wonderful time, but it wasn’t a perfect summer for me. I made a huge dating mistake, and my work schedule didn’t allow me to attend church. I was working with college girls whose idea of a summer adventure involved lots of sex and drinking. By the end of the summer, I was ready to go home. I missed being part of a church, and I missed having Christian friends. I broke up with the man I had unwisely dated for a while and experienced crushing remorse for having hurt him. I don’t want my son to experience the same negatives that I did when I left home for a while, but I know he has to live his life. He has to make mistakes and learn his own lessons. I’m battling fear just as I did when he was little. I can see a hundred different ways that something can snatch him, and I can lose him.

He flew to Seattle on a Friday. We left the house at 2:30 a.m. and arrived at Love Field in Dallas by 4:00. We walked inside with him to get his boarding pass and check his bags. We watched him enter the security labyrinth, which at that time of day was short. Then we had to go back home. My husband had to drive his bus route at 6:30, and we both had to teach. I would’ve liked to stay and watch his plane take off, but we just couldn’t. We were inside the airport no more than fifteen minutes, and then my son was gone. I was reminded of the proud baby at the top of the stairs, the grinning toddler in the car, and the little boy happily swinging the zoo employee’s hand. The same unadulterated delight was evident when he left for Seattle. As I taught my classes that day, I got occasional progress reports on his journey in the form of texts. He sent a stunning aerial photo of Seattle encircled by clouds and mountains. I smiled and cried at the same time.

When I was a new mother, exhausted and stressed out, my Granny told me, “This is the easiest that it ever gets.” She was right. I started out with my son safe on my hip and spent the next few decades losing him slowly.

When Right Feels Wrong

When I was young, I took great delight in being extremely limber. With no effort or pain, I could flop down into the splits. I could not only touch my toes with no problem, but I could bend down so far that I could place my hands palm down on the floor. In fact, I could cross my ankles and place my hands palm down several inches behind my ankles. And it didn’t hurt; it was, in fact, physically exhilarating to stretch myself out to such an extent. I could even perform these feats until I was in my early thirties, after giving birth three times. Somewhere during that decade, though, without my being aware of it, I lost my flexibility. I started having issues with what a doctor labeled, without making the slightest attempt at anything resembling scientific discovery, “tendinitis.” The first time it was my right elbow. I was told not to use my right arm very much. I had three children under the age of four, and I’m right-handed, so he might as well have told me not to breathe very much. The elbow slowly got better over a period of several months. As my thirties progressed into my forties, I got “tendinitis” in most of the joints in my body: both elbows, both wrists, both ankles, both knees, both big toes, both thumbs, my left pinkie, and the slowest to heal of all, the hip adductor muscles on both sides concurrently. At one point, I had myself tested by a neurologist, which we couldn’t afford, but I was desperate enough to do it anyway. He performed an ANA (antinuclear antibody) test, which checks for the presence of an autoimmune disorder. That test came back positive. He also tested me specifically for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, which both came back negative. As a later doctor put it, I have an “unidentified autoimmune inflammatory disorder.” I already had that figured out.

At the same time that the inflamed joints began to bother me, I also began having issues in my back and neck. The first time my back “went out,” as people around here put it, I was pregnant with my third baby. I bent over to put my toddler in the car, and I felt a searing pain slice through my lower back. That experience has repeated itself over the years more times than I can number. The worst was when I was about forty-five. I bent over to pick up a sock, and when I stood up, I felt the explosion in my lower back. I missed three days of work plus a weekend, and when I went back to work, it was still too soon. People always ask me, “What did you do to mess up your back / neck?” They assume I must have been moving boulders or lifting baby elephants over my head. But usually it’s something innocuous, like picking up the sock. Sometimes, I just shift in my chair.

I have long suspected that the inflamed joints and delicate back are both symptoms of the same problem and that the solution might be dietary. What that dietary solution might be, I don’t have the expertise to ascertain. But I believe it’s possible. In the last year and a half, I’ve all but eliminated IBS and an occasional blood sugar imbalance by cutting out all sugar and drastically reducing the amount of wheat in my diet. The only solution that medical science could offer me for those ailments was a lifetime of taking drugs that would only ameliorate the symptoms while putting more chemicals in my body. I didn’t see that as much of a solution. I don’t know if the rest of humanity felt the earth shake when I made the decision to stop eating sugar, bread, and all processed food, but it was certainly a momentous day in my life. It was only possible because the Holy Spirit led me to do it, and God strengthened me to go through with it. When I have the time, I read several health blogs. Someday, I’m going to come across the solution to the inflammation and back problems.

In the meantime, I see a chiropractor. I’m under the care now of someone that I like. He approaches my care scientifically and is happy to explain to me what he’s doing and why. Before, I’ve been under the care of chiropractors that I didn’t feel were doing me much good and weren’t inclined to share the science of what they were doing, so I’m glad to have found someone with whom I feel comfortable. I came across him several months ago in a crisis. One of my dogs was apparently possessed by a devil one morning; she was running around the house in a frenzy and crashed into me hard. She hit me on the left shin and threw me off balance. As I fell, she continued to plow into me and torqued my lower body to the right. I knew I would have a big bruise on my left shin (and I did), but the more pressing problem was pain in my lower back. My most recent chiropractor had moved out of town, so I had to find someone new. I asked some colleagues at work and found my new chiropractor. It took a few weeks to get myself in to see him. By then, the pain in my back had subsided, but I went anyway. He was appalled at the state of my pelvis. “You’re not feeling any pain right now?” he asked incredulously. I told him I was a little stiff. Apparently my dog had done more damage than I suspected. My pelvis was twisted far forward on the left and backward on the right. I had gotten used to it. He adjusted my pelvis and spine and neck and gave me strict orders not to twist. I never realized how much twisting I do until I was told not to twist anymore.

That evening, when I was leaning over the sink to brush my teeth, I noticed that I felt out of balance. It felt as if I were twisting to the left and had the right side of my pelvis jutting forward. When I looked down, though, my body was straight. I had become so accustomed to being out of balance the other way that being straight felt wrong and being twisted felt right.

Ged tells us in Proverbs 14:12 that “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” In Isaiah 55:8, He says “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.” As humans, we think we know how to live, but we don’t. All we’re capable of coming up with on our own is to be good more than we’re bad, and if there is an afterlife, then we get to go to the good place instead of the bad. We think we need to hang onto what’s ours and protect it. We think we’re justified in not forgiving someone who does something heinous, especially if it’s done to us. We think we have to pursue our own happiness and self-fulfillment, even if it destroys our family. We think that when life isn’t fair, it’s okay to feel sorry for ourselves and pout. All of these ideas are backwards. The only way we can ever enter into heaven is through the blood of Jesus, because not one of us could ever be good enough to deserve it through our own efforts. God tells us to be generous and give liberally because if we hang onto our stuff with a death grip, then He can’t bless us. We have to forgive those who wrong us because God forgave us first, and we’re not above God. If we put our own happiness before the welfare of others, we’ll never be happy because we only find fulfillment in helping others. We have to be thankful for what we do have rather than focused on what’s gone wrong, because life will always be unfair, and if we’re waiting on perfect circumstances to be happy, then we will only experience transitory happiness and always be at the mercy of an enemy that hates us.

In Romans 12:2, we’re told to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” What feels right to us is wrong, and what God tells us to do goes against every human instinct we have. The only way we can ever retrain ourselves to see things God’s way is to immerse ourselves regularly in the Bible. All educators know that humans learn by repetition. That is how we learn about God’s ways, too. We read His instructions to us again and again. If it’s something that God has us working on, we should read it every day until we get it, even if it takes years to get there. And God is perfectly fine with its taking years. He measures our success not only in the victories themselves, but also in the process of submitting to Him and working with Him to accomplish what He wants for us.

I didn’t like being told that my only recourse for relief from IBS and blood sugar imbalances was to take drugs for the rest of my life, and I was glad when God showed me another way. I resisted it for a long time, though, because I loved sweets and bread. But once I obeyed and put aside the foods He told me were hurting me, I soon began to feel better, and I lost the craving for the things He had me give up. I had thought it would be a lifetime of depriving myself and wishing I could have the things that were forbidden, but in actuality, I don’t miss them at all. I don’t like being told that I have to keep from twisting for the rest of my life, and that eventuality, my joints and bones will degrade to the point that the chiropractor can’t even make me better again. I know that God will tell me what I have to do to reverse and repair the inflammation in my joints and pain in my back and neck. There is every possibility that I won’t want to do what He tells me, but I do know that if I obey, I will get the same result as when I gave up sugar and bread. God is smarter than I am. He knows what will make me healthy and happy and fulfilled.

Not twisting is not the answer to my back pain. Not twisting is a prison. It looks like the best solution to the world, but I’m convinced there’s a deeper healing for me than that. We should scour the Bible for God’s instructions on how to live. His way is the only way that will bring about the good life He wants for us, whether it be a healthy body or a happy family or financial prosperity. I’ll keep not twisting for the time being, because right now that’s all I have. (I’ll try to not twist–I constantly forget and do things I was expressly told not to do.) I’ll also continue to retrain my mind every day by reading God’s instructions to me so that as I live out my life, I can continue to behave more and more in God’s way and less and less by the wisdom of humans.

 

God, You Got Some Splainin’ to Do

“Have you ever wondered . . .?”

It’s a simple phrase comprised of only four words, none of which are individually terrifying. Yet when I say them to my husband, his face takes on a look of guardedness that one usually associates with a politician who is being interviewed by a journalist who is trying to skewer him, as if he has to anticipate the next question and produce a response that will forestall the imminent skewering. When I see the deer-in-the-headlights expression on my husband’s face, I plow on, ignoring his discomfort, and present my pondering for his opinion. Sometimes I just need to hear myself voice one of my ideas even though I know he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for it. Over thirty-three years of marriage, we’ve both learned that my mind goes places that many people’s minds do not, including the nimble mathematical mind of my husband. He teaches AP calculus and statistics, so he’s certainly not an intellectual lightweight. In fact, he does to me what I do to him, only mathematically. When he decides to practice teaching some bit of calculus to me (which he does at least monthly), I nod my head and say things like “Uh-huh,” and “Right,” and “Sure,” while I’m thinking about something other than calculus. Anything other than calculus. I try to keep my eyes from glazing over. It’s best if he does it when I’m driving the car, because I have an excuse for not giving him my undivided attention. So we’re both guilty of bouncing unappreciated ideas off the other. But I also bounce my ideas off God. My pastor has taught us that prayer is really nothing more than talking to God. So God gets to hear all my wonderings, and they neither frighten Him nor cause His eyes to glaze over.

One thing I want answers about is certain things that I have to deal with here on my corner of Earth (and I have a list). Why do we need chiggers, fire ants, and tarantulas? What is the purpose of poison ivy? Why must we endure temperatures in excess of one hundred degrees or less than thirty? In the same calendar year, helping my daughter move in to her dorm at ORU, I was treated to a chill factor of about 0 degrees in January and a whopping 113 in August. Why, God? Well, I do know this much. In Genesis 1:30 it says that God “saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” What this means, I believe, is that God declared “very good” the functioning ecosystems He had put into operation. Everything worked together well. Every creature and plant had a purpose in the larger scheme of things, and nothing was left out. So if that is the case, then there is a purpose to chiggers, fire ants, tarantulas, poison ivy, and extremes of temperature. I’m sure biologists and ecologists could inform me about some of the things I listed. We know too that after Adam sinned, God’s beautiful creation became cursed. Before the fall, it seems that all creatures were vegetarians. So my mind wonders whether, after the fall, God had to change our teeth? Humans now have the teeth of omnivores, not the teeth of horses. Or did we always have omnivore teeth because God knew we wouldn’t be able to resist temptation? Is it possible that chiggers were not originally blood suckers? Did they originally eat nectar, like bees, or leaves, like grasshoppers? And it says that it had never rained, but that a mist rose up and watered everything. Was there always weather, or was the planet at first a lovely, placid place without extremes of temperature and natural disasters? If there was no disease, then was poison ivy originally not highly allergenic, or have we changed to become sensitive to it? I’m sure some theologians could enlighten me on the prevailing thought pertaining to those questions.

Believe it or not, I really want the answers to these questions. I actually do occasionally wonder about these things actively. It has long been my intent to ask God about them when I get to heaven. (God, you got some splainin’ to do.) But I don’t really know what heaven will be like. I don’t think that God won’t have time to answer my questions. If we’re going to be there for eternity, then eventually He can get around to each one of us. Or will it be that when we arrive, we will be automatically infused with all of God’s understanding? Will we know all the secrets of the universe? Compared to God, we’re all just one small step better than being as “dumb as dirt,” but will people who were extra stupid here on earth have to be that way for all eternity? That doesn’t seem fair to me. Perhaps when I get there, I simply won’t care about the questions that have intrigued me all throughout my life. Perhaps I’ll be so filled with joy and satisfaction that I won’t need to know. I doubt it, though. I’ll get a new body someday, but I think that the innate characteristics that make me who I am will remain. God crafted me carefully and thoughtfully, and I am exactly as He wanted me to be, so why would He change those things about me when I get there? I think I’ll still have a curious nature, at least about the things that I find inherently interesting. I don’t know if I’ll ever care much about calculus, and if God could ever make me interested in economics, then there would be incontrovertible proof that He is indeed a miracle worker.

I also intend to find out the answers to all the mysteries that have intrigued me. I will learn all about the Kennedy assassination and why the Polynesians carved those big heads on Easter Island and who the mysterious white-skinned, blue-eyed native Americans were that the French explorers encountered in Missouri. I want to know if there was any factual basis to the legend of Atlantis. I want to know if there really is a Loch Ness monster or sasquatch. I want to know what happened to Amelia Earhart and the lost colony of Roanoke. I want to know what the perfect diet for human beings is because nobody seems to really know, although lots of people think they do. (I know, it will be too late to benefit me in this life, but I really want to know).

Since I’m a Christian but also an educated person, I want to know the truth about how everything came to be. I want to know if God allowed the universe (and planet Earth) to evolve slowly over billions of years before creating humans, or did He do it all in six literal spans of twenty-four hours? The older I get and the more I ponder, the less likely the second option seems to me. I’ve heard heaven described as a place that’s outside of time, like a different dimension. It sounds very science fiction-y, but it’s an explanation that works. Where is heaven, anyway? In the Bible, it’s usually described as being “above” us, but that was before we understood planetary rotation. Which direction is “above” from the Earth? If heaven is a place that’s outside the boundaries of time as we experience it, then “time” did not exist until God made the universe, and twenty-four-hour “days” did not exist until He caused our planet to spin on its axis as it revolved around our star. (I do not, however, see any biblical justification for the argument that humans evolved from a lesser creature or that God took a lesser creature and made it sentient. He made us as we are, and he said His creation was “very good.” I have no explanation for carbon dating, though some creationists do. Sometimes we just have to have faith, even when it means looking foolish to the scientific establishment.)

My husband’s least favorite of my “Have you ever wondered…?” themes is the “what ifs.” What if George Washington and his men had been captured on Long Island at the outset of the Revolutionary War? Would I be a British citizen right now? Or would we have gotten our independence later? The idea of independence would have been a difficult genie to force back into its bottle. What if Neil Armstrong had actually run out of fuel and crashed onto the surface of the moon in July of 1969? He was only seconds away from doing so. What would our country be like right now without the cachet of having landed on the moon? What if John Wilkes Booth hadn’t been successful in assassinating Lincoln? Might the plight of African Americans over the next century have been less than what it was if Lincoln’s plans of moderation for the purpose of healing had been carried out? If Reconstruction hadn’t been such a horribly bitter pill for the South, might they not have turned their anger toward the entire African American community? What if Jack Ruby hadn’t killed Lee Harvey Oswald? Would we all have known the truth about JFK’s assassination all this time? Oswald clearly had no compunctions about talking and never intended to be a silent martyr. What if Paul had ignored the Holy Spirit and gone to Asia rather than Europe? Would Islam have spread north and west rather than east and south? If we look at the “what ifs” of history as divergent paths, as some science fiction writers like to do, then the number of possible permutations in the progression of history has more zeroes than I can even imagine. But perhaps God will satisfy my curiosity about some of them.

God isn’t threatened by our questions. He isn’t even threatened when we question Him, as long as we don’t turn our backs on Him. When we walk away from faith in Jesus as being the Son of God and our only redemption from sin, it’s apostasy. Our questions are fine as long as we don’t start putting faith in our own minds and ability to reason rather than the Word of God. Genesis chapter 1 says that God created everything in six days, but it also says in 2 Peter 3:8 that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” So perhaps to God, a billion years is as one day as well. Although I deeply want to know the answer to that question, I won’t let my desire to understand things that are “above my pay grade” derail my faith. Jesus told us that we have to come to God as a little child. In what way? In self-centeredness and whininess? No, little children will believe what they’re told. (That’s why I never taught my children to believe in Santa Claus.) In Hebrews 11:6 it says that “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” The word “impossible” doesn’t mean “hard”–it means “impossible.” Asking God to help me understand the horrible things I see and experience in life is exactly what I ought to do. He wants to help me understand. But questioning the truth of the Bible in the face of the horrible things I see and experience in life is dangerous ground. It’s the first step in becoming apostate. I can ask God any question I want as long as I accept the answer I find in the Bible. If I discard the Bible’s answer for something I would prefer the answer to be, then I’ve put my own opinion above God’s.

I truly do hope that someday all my questions about history’s mysteries and the universe will be answered. Until then, I will keep wondering about them, and I will keep doing my best to trust in God.

Our Only Anchor

I am a coach. I do not, however, coach a sport. I was the kid over whom, when they chose players for volleyball, the captains would argue. But they argued as to who got stuck with me.

“I had her last time. It’s your turn.”

“No, I had her last time. Besides, her friend is on your team. They should be together.”

“No way I’m taking both of them.”

No, I coach a competitive academic team–two of them, in fact. In Texas, we have the University Interscholastic League, UIL for short, that governs every extracurricular activity in the public schools. When I was young I was told that Texas was unique in the nation in having it. I don’t know what’s out there at this time, but UIL in Texas is inextricably entrenched in public education. In the spring, there is a series of competitions (district, regional, and state) in quite a few academic fields. I am the coach of our school’s Social Studies and also Current Issues and Events teams. When we meet to study, we frequently follow rabbit trails, topics that are tangentially related to what we’re supposed to be talking about. Those rabbit trail discussions are some of my favorite moments with the kids. Last year our Social Studies topic was World War I, so it was altogether predictable that we had the discussion of how the draconian war reparations forced upon Germany by France led to the rise of Hitler and fascism in Germany.

I reminded them that Hitler was legally elected to the position of chancellor more than once by the German people. He didn’t stage a coup in Germany. The German people put him in power, and the majority of them supported him. I couldn’t resist giving my team the same pearl of wisdom I’ve bestowed upon my own children on more than one occasion when talking about Hitler and the Nazis: as a Christian, it’s important to know what the Bible says, because from time to time there will be seducing voices out there that will try to mesmerize anyone who isn’t actively resisting them. How do reasonably moral people let themselves become convinced that the root of all their troubles is one ethnic minority? We hear that the average German didn’t know what went on in the camps, but they did know that Jews were being arrested and sent to the camps. They did know that their property was confiscated. They did know that they were singled out for harsh treatment. Were there no Christians in Germany who thought it was bad? Of course there were. But there weren’t enough. Most people let themselves be so angered over their hardship that they listened to a voice that told them they were in reality the super race. They wanted to believe it, so they did.

What about us in the United States? Do we have anything similar in our history? Of course we do, because we are humans. This year our Social Studies topic is the Constitution. One of the Supreme Court cases we are required to study is Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the “separate but equal” doctrine that didn’t fall until the Brown v. the Board of Education decision (1954). So in the year 1896, the highly educated Supreme Court justices, whose job it was to interpret the Constitution so that Americans didn’t have their rights unfairly abridged, thought that it was fair to make a man sit in a separate rail car because he had one great-grandparent who was black. But in 1954, a different set of highly educated Supreme Court justices concluded that black children’s rights were unfairly abridged if they were required to attend a different school than white children. Which set of justices was correct? In 1896, the majority of white people thought their justices had it right. There was a lot of opposition to the 1954 decision at the time, but now most of us think the Brown v. Board of Education decision was right. But who was really right? The decisions contradict each other, so if one accepts the idea that there is such a thing as absolute truth, then one was right, and the other was wrong.

Who decides such weighty matters? Is it the Supreme Court? Are the justices capable of being completely uninfluenced by the temperature of the time in which they live? I would say no. In fact, I would say, “Heck no!” Is it the majority of the people, then? (After they have been influenced by a relatively small group of powerful entertainers and journalists with an agenda?) The majority of Germans thought Hitler was right at the time, but not many people think that now. So if morality is decided by people, what happens when people change their minds? What if, in another fifty years or so, the majority of people in the United States decide that “separate but equal” is really the way things need to be after all, and all ethnic minorities are kicked out of public schools? That sounds outrageous. But recently, the Supreme Court decided in favor of same sex marriages. A few generations ago, that would have been unthinkable. What if, in the future, the Supreme Court decides that if a man’s sexual proclivities make it absolutely necessary for him to have sex with little boys, then that is his right, and it can’t be abridged? What if, in the future, the Supreme Court decides that punishing children in any way is inherently damaging to their psyche, and it can no longer be done? What if, in the future, the Supreme Court decides that women who need to express themselves by walking around naked have the Constitutional right to do so? These possibilities are no more far-fetched than the idea of desegregated schools would have seemed to Americans of 1896.

As Christians, what is our response to sweeping societal changes or political juggernauts? We have to know what the Bible teaches. It’s our only anchor in a stormy sea. People don’t know what they’re doing, despite their high opinions of themselves. Without the Bible, life is nothing more than trial-and-error at best, or might-makes-right more often than not. There is no ancient “wisdom” that’s on the same plane as the Word of God, nor is there any modern “enlightenment” that can supplant it. Sometimes following God means hiding Jews in the attic or being willing to be branded a hatemonger when standing in opposition to popular opinion.

I hope my Social Studies kids remember my words someday when they have to make a life decision about what they believe and why. The world is in a state of volatility right now that seems reminiscent to me of the world just before World War I, and in my opinion neither candidate for president is up to the job of dealing with it. The future may hold some nasty surprises for everyone, but especially for those of us who want to follow God. The four who were with me in the room at the time were a varied lot. Although I’ve never specifically asked them about their beliefs, I’m pretty sure that one of them believes a lot like me, two are more traditional Protestants, and one is Catholic. None of those labels will amount to a hill of beans in heaven. I just hope that none of those boys (or my own children) will, when old, look back and wonder “How could I ever have gone along with that?”

 

Moldy Cake

“Mom, did you know there’s a moldy cake in that cake thing on top of the china cabinet?” I looked up at the cake saver, a decorative clear glass dome on a pedestal, and sure enough, it was displaying the last slice of my son’s birthday cake, splotched with blue-green fuzzy mold. After it was brought to my attention, I remembered having put it up there after the party to keep our megadogs from knocking it over to get to the chocolate orgy inside. Although I was somewhat concerned about preventing the dogs’ overdosing on chocolate, I was more intent on keeping the cake saver intact. I promptly forgot all about it until my daughter came home from college for the weekend (several weeks later) and noticed it. I was glad it was a family member who called it to my attention and not someone else.

I now have to take back all the snarky thoughts I’ve entertained over the years concerning my husband and the birthday cake in the trunk in the trunk. When my husband was a freshman in college, his mother sent him back to school with the uneaten portion of his birthday cake. He had his father’s trunk from his stint in the National Guard in the trunk of his car and put the cake in there for safekeeping. On the drive from San Angelo to Abilene, he completely forgot it was in there. His birthday is in late March, so the cake remained in the trunk in the trunk until he went home for the summer, something like seven weeks. It’s one of the family stories that has been repeated gleefully (and with snarky smugness on my part) ever since. But now I’m a cake offender, too.

As I pondered how I could have done such a thing, I was reminded of a few similar incidents in my past that involved other foods. When I was in college, I bought a whole coconut on a whim while grocery shopping. I had no idea of how hard it is to get inside a coconut. I tried banging it with a hammer, which dented it a bit but didn’t crack it. I then tried to drive a nail into it, which I thought would eventually make it possible to pry it open somehow. That didn’t work either. It kept rolling around as I tried to hit the nail. I believe I did more damage to my fingers than I did the coconut. I don’t remember how the coconut ended up in my car, but it did, and there it remained, under the seat, until the odor of rotting food reminded me of its existence. Perhaps two years later, when my husband and I were renting our first house, I bought a carton of eggs that had a slightly cracked egg. Money was very tight for us, and I’m stubborn. I didn’t want to waste that egg, so when I unloaded the eggs from the foam carton they came in to the built-in egg holder in the refrigerator door, I put the slightly cracked egg in there, too. I didn’t realize that the egg white would seep out of the egg and glue the eggshell to the plastic egg cup, making it impossible to remove the egg later without breaking it. So for a reason that is as unfathomable to me now as why I carried the coconut back to my car rather than just throwing it in the trash, I left the cracked egg in the egg cup until it was time to move out of the house. Then I realized my folly, because we had to clean the refrigerator in order to get our deposit back. By that time, the egg was rotten. It was one of the nastiest and most difficult things I’ve ever had to clean. From the egg incident I learned to always check inside the egg carton before putting it in the shopping cart; I also learned that egg whites are one of the strongest natural adhesive bonds in all creation.

While I can attribute the coconut and egg disasters to my inexperience, the more recent moldy cake showcases a more alarming tendency. I walked past the china cabinet many times every day after my son’s birthday party. I never looked up there to notice that cake. Nor did my husband. Nor did my children who are in the house a lot. My daughter who lives in another town saw it. Why did none of us look up there to notice it? I can take several lessons from it.

First and least important, we should get an objective third party to proofread things for us. When we proofread our own writing, our mind frequently sees what we intended to write rather than what’s actually there. Since I didn’t expect to see a decomposing cake up there, I didn’t.

Spiritually speaking, we should look up, not down. When we look at our feet all the time we can’t see God. Of course, God doesn’t really have a location. When the Bible tells us to look up, it’s a metaphor, and it was understood as a metaphor even to the ancients. But it’s a very good metaphor. Looking down is associated with depression and defeat, both literally and metaphorically. We should look up often because that’s when we can see solutions to problems, and we can see that God is there. When Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, he looked up and saw the ram. When the Syrian army came to kill Elisha, he prayed for Gehazi’s eyes to be opened, and he saw the angelic army on the mountain (above).

Also, we shouldn’t take our blessings for granted. The china cabinet is something I inherited from my maternal grandmother, and I treasure it. At least I thought I did. I apparently didn’t really look at it appreciatively for weeks. In its familiarity, it was relegated to the same status as the trash can. We should take the time to really look at the blessings God has bestowed upon us and give thanks for them regularly. I once heard in a sermon, “What if the only things you wake up with tomorrow are the things you thanked God for today?” In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he describes the “perilous” end times; one of the hallmarks of that era will be widespread unthankfulness. We can take a stand for God just by being thankful.

Finally, we shouldn’t let the familiar blind us to developing problems. We should examine ourselves regularly so as not to “neglect so great a salvation.” My pastor cautions against excessive “navel gazing,” but we should look at our habits occasionally to see if we’re headed somewhere it would be better to avoid. People who weigh themselves frequently are more likely to stay near their desired weight than those who don’t. People who examine their hearts regularly are less likely to go off track.

I’ve dealt with the moldy cake, both physically and metaphorically. Both were unpleasant jobs. Physically speaking, I’ll probably wash the cake saver multiple times before using it again. I’m so glad that my spirit has already been cleaned up. For those of who have been Christians a long time, it’s easy to forget the wonder of salvation and grace and to feel neglected by God when everything isn’t going as we would like. But we should always keep them in the forefront of our minds–they’re too precious a gift to let them get moldy.

 

 

I Am a Crotchety Middle-aged Chihuahua

Last night my dog bit the hand that feeds him: mine. He’s a crotchety middle-aged chihuahua. I tried to pick him up, but he didn’t want to leave what he was doing and snapped at me. He’s snapped at me before, but he’d never drawn blood before. Now my hand is swollen and painful. I’m having to spend money to treat the wound. All my plans for today were shot because my dominant hand no longer has an opposable thumb. I couldn’t style my hair or apply make-up this morning, and since preparing my healthy meals requires two hands with opposable thumbs, I’ve had to eat food that isn’t good for me. I’m still angry with him and haven’t said one nice thing to him since he bit me. In fact, at this moment, I am seriously considering putting his cute little face in the classifieds and seeing if anyone would like a crotchety middle-aged chihuahua.

It occurred to me that, just like my dog, I snap at God for things that He doesn’t deserve. I’m so glad He doesn’t want to give me away. When I bite His hand, He just keeps loving me. In fact, He knew in advance that I wouldn’t always be enraptured with Him, and He chose to die for me anyway. Not only does He keep loving me, but He also doesn’t want me to wallow in guilt when I mess up. He tells us in Hebrews 4:16 to “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may find mercy and obtain grace to help in time of need.” It’s the best deal that’s ever been. For doing nothing, we get everything, and when we fail, we simply go back to God and let Him dust us off so that we can try again. I’ll probably eventually forgive my dog, although I’ll be wary of him for a while. But with God, forgiveness is instantaneous, and He doesn’t pull back from us for fear of another bite. God’s love is perfect. Sometimes, either because we were taught the wrong things or because “the deal” just seems too good to be true, we expect God’s love to be more like ours. Our human love frequently has strings attached. The closest most of us can come to loving God’s way is how we love our children. There is nothing my kids could do that would make me stop loving them. God’s love is that and so much more. I am a grateful crotchety middle-aged chihuahua.

The Peripatetic Pagoda

What a world of endless wonder is childhood. My Bammaw’s house was, to my little girl eyes, an especially fascinating wonderland. (When I was a toddler, I couldn’t enunciate “Grandma,” so she was “Bammaw” to me for years.) The house was small, situated on an out-of-the-way street in a modest neighborhood in Corpus Christi, Texas. The street elevation was nothing special—just a small pier-and-beam frame house with a few trees in front and a ligustrum hedge beneath the bedroom windows. But inside, on every horizontal surface was displayed the most amazingly eclectic collection of tchotchkes. And on every wall hung all manner of artful things, from photographs to mirrors to string art. Bammaw’s collection was steadily built over her lifetime. By the end of her life, a stroll through her house was like a lesson in the changing aesthetics of the last half of the twentieth century. She had an artist’s eye but no formal training. And she wasn’t proud. Many of her things were kitschy in the extreme, but they appealed to her, and so she brought them home to reside among the more dignified pieces. When my brother and sister and I would arrive for our biannual visit (the week following Christmas and two weeks during the summer—we were there to see our father, but he never had appropriate accommodations for us, so we always stayed with Bammaw and Pappaw), I would unpack first, and then I would always wander from one room to the next to look at her lovely and quirky decorations.

The one piece that always pleased more than any other was a long (like a banner) depiction of a Japanese pagoda. It was clearly made from an art kit from the early sixties. Even though I was too young to articulate “early sixties” and give a description of what art from that era looked like, I could feel it. It was, after all, the aesthetic of my formative years. The pagoda was outlined in black string that was glued to the background, and its roof with upturned eaves was made of shiny gold mosaic tiles. Off to the side was a graceful cherry tree in bloom, again outlined in black string. The inside of the trunk was thousands of tiny brown glass pieces glued on. The leaves were mosaic tiles that looked like leaves, and the blooms were little pinkish-red glass flowers. It was, to my mind, the quintessentially quirky Bammaw-esque piece of art. But the other thing that made the pagoda special was that it moved. Bammaw had many pieces that had never moved in my lifetime. The little green-painted scallop shell cactus was always on top of the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. The Pike’s Peak and Oklahoma state fair collector’s plates were always above the sink in the kitchen. But the pagoda moved around, always in the back part of the house. When I grew up and Grandma was old (I stopped calling her “Bammaw” when I was eleven), I began to think that I would someday like to have the pagoda when she was gone, as a way of remembering her.

On a visit when I was well into my thirties, when I was a mother of four myself, Grandma asked me if I would like to have it. I was thrilled. It was as if she had read my mind, or as if God had put it into her heart. You see, I had never asked for it. But then Grandma went on to explain how she had acquired the pagoda. It seems that my mother and father, in the first year of their marriage, while they were expecting me, I guess, made the pagoda together. Grandma said that when my parents split up, she felt she couldn’t throw it out because it was something they did together. She felt she should keep it as a remembrance of when they loved each other because a marriage was a sacred thing. But at the same time, since her son had made it with a woman he was no longer married to, she felt like she couldn’t put it in the living room. So she hung it in the back hallway or one of the bedrooms. I was terribly disappointed to learn the pagoda’s history. Something I had always loved became permanently tarnished in my estimation. I could no longer think about it with the wonderment of a child; I could only see it as a fallen, damaged thing. The pagoda went from being a happy symbol of my childhood to being a symbol of the pain I felt over my parents’ divorce. I think Grandma was relieved to pass it on to me after all those years of angst over whether to keep it or get rid of it.

So I took the pagoda home and laid it on a shelf in my closet. Interestingly, Grandma not only passed along the pagoda itself, but also her angst over whether to keep it or donate it to charity. Like her, I would like to honor my parents’ marriage because, as she said, marriage is a sacred thing. Also, as the child of their painful divorce, I would like to have a memorial to the love that my parents once had for each other. At least I suppose they did. They split up when I was six, and my only memories of them together are of them arguing. Upon contemplating the pagoda one day, and inevitably my parents’ unhappy marriage and even unhappier divorce, I had a moment of epiphany in which I realized that throughout most of my life I had looked upon their getting married as a colossal mistake and that my existence was just the result of that huge blunder. As an adult, I know it’s not uncommon for children to internalize guilt when their parents divorce. Nowadays, many couples go to great lengths to assure their children that the divorce has nothing to do with them, that they did nothing wrong. No adult ever said anything remotely like that to me. I guess it hadn’t occurred to anyone yet that children might need to hear it. I thought I had dealt with the divorce aftermath and learned to see myself as independent of it, but apparently some bad thinking was still lurking behind a corner in my mind. Even though I would like to have a visual confirmation that the marriage was a good thing in some way, it seems morbid to keep the pagoda around as Miss Havisham did with the ruins of her aborted wedding. Therefore, I too experienced ambivalence, thinking one moment that I should throw it out and the next, feeling as though I should display it. After all, it has a significance to me that transcends its history—it still reminds me of my Grandma, and even more so now that we share a kindred spirit of uncertainty as to what to do with it.

I think God has directed me to take the raw materials off it and make a new picture from them because it’s what God does with our messy lives when we come to Him through the blood of Jesus. He takes the ruins of our potential, rearranges things into the way they ought to have been all along, and makes a beautiful life. Or at least that’s what He wants to do with us. Our cooperation—really, our focused co-laboring—is indispensable to that happening. With God’s help I put aside my childhood misery over the divorce a few decades ago. I’ve forgiven both my parents for putting me through a hard time. And I know now that I am more than just part of a mistake that a man and woman made long ago. The best memorial to the family we once were is my brother and sister and I, not a kitschy art-kit pagoda. Isaiah 49:1 says that “the Lord has called me from the womb.” Psalm 139: 16 says, “Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they were all written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Whether or not it was a mistake for them to marry, I am something good, and I was always part of God’s plan. I’m grateful to my Grandma that she kept the pagoda for all those years just so God could use it to teach me that though my parents’ marriage didn’t make it, I did.

The Family Man

My son-in-law gave me a hug for Mother’s Day before he went onstage to play his guitar. He’s the lead guitarist in our praise and worship band. I love watching him play. Most of the people in the church don’t know where he’s come from and how amazing it is that he’s playing guitar in a praise and worship band. But I know. His mother walked out on him when he was twelve years old, and he hasn’t seen or talked to her in years. His father was very hard on him while he was growing up. Not surprisingly, he got pretty messed up for a few years. He’s somewhat shy and an introvert, just like me. So when he hugs me on Mother’s Day, it’s a tiny bit awkward for the both of us. But I do so appreciate that he does it, and I’m very proud of him. I’m proud of him for not giving up on God, and I’m proud of him for venturing outside his comfort zone to hug me. And I’m so grateful that God heals our hearts and “sets the solitary in families” (Psalm68:6 NKJV). When Father’s Day comes, I’ll return the hug and tell him how thankful I am that my grandchildren have such a great daddy.

Happy birthday, little brother.

My youngest brother would have been forty-four today, but he died when he was forty. I wish I could say I remember with fondness all the happy times we had together, but there weren’t very many of those to remember. My brother suffered from a low IQ, only a few points above the official beginning of mental retardation, and later, from paranoid schizophrenia. On an episode of Criminal Minds, the experts said that it’s rare for people to suffer from both things at the same time. I’m sure the writers of Criminal Minds routinely simplify the complex workings of the mind so that laypeople can understand what’s going on and so that the episode will fit neatly into an hour with commercial breaks. If that snippet is true, then my brother was the unlucky rare person who did have both afflictions. Most of my memories of him aren’t happy or positive. Now that he’s gone, I can’t ever try to make things better and be a good big sister. He’s just gone, and all I have left of him are conflicting emotions of great happiness and great sadness.

I’m happy that he’s in heaven now. Despite his problems, he did pray the sinner’s prayer. Now he knows no pain, and (I believe) he’s no longer unintelligent. My grandparents, who tried so valiantly at the end of their lives to make a way for him, are there and can see that everything turned out all right in the end. But I’m also filled with a sadness that three and a half years hasn’t ameliorated in the least. I’m sad that his life was so hard. I’m sad that I was such a failure at being his sister. I’m sad that my mother and my grandparents had to deal with my being such a failure at being his sister. I’m sad that my children saw me being a failure at being his sister.

Oh, being his sister was very hard–I’m not full of blind self-blame in that area. The truth is, when he was an adult, he frightened me, and I had my own children to protect from his fits of rage. The truth is, I was working in excess of sixty hours a week, and driving across town to spend time with someone who frightened me seemed like too much. The truth is, he was the poster child for the abortion people who say that a life full of pain and hardship shouldn’t even happen. He contributed nothing to society and was supported by the federal government and frightened the people who should have loved him the most. But he was my brother and I loved him, and I will always wish I had done better.

I’ll have the rest of my life to deal with those emotions. My regrets for the myriad ways I didn’t come through for my brother still hide just below the surface of my graced-up self. I know better than to nurture regrets. Regardless of what they are, all our failures are under the blood of Jesus and forgiven. To hold onto guilt is to negate the work that Jesus did on the cross. Either the blood is sufficient, or it’s not. And if it’s not, then we are, as Paul said, “most to be pitied.” I’ve forgiven myself for just about all my other failures, but I haven’t even begun to chip away at the iceberg of brother-regret. All those emotions are still a dark, ungraced, ugly mess.

Years ago, Pastor John Hollar said in a sermon that true humility is to believe about ourselves what God says about us in His Word. The Word says that I am righteous because of what Jesus did for me, not because of anything I do myself. Therefore, despite my spectacular failures as a sister to my handicapped brother, I am righteous, and I was righteous when I was doing the failing. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to say that and feel it. For now, I say it in faith.

Happy birthday, little brother. Hug Granny and Granddaddy for me. I’m so very glad that you’re happy in heaven, and when I get there, we’ll have lots of good times together.

Low in the Gravy

“Low in the gravy lay Jesus, my savior. Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord. Up from the gravy arose with a mighty triam for his foes…” When I was still too little to read a hymnal, that’s how I heard the old Easter hymn. Of course, the hymn actually says, “low in the grave he lay” and that he arose with a “mighty triumph o’er his foes.” I have to confess that when I learned the real words to the hymn I was a little disappointed. As a child, I had trouble dealing with the gruesomeness of the crucifixion, but lying around in a coffin full of gravy–that was something I could sympathize with. I felt so bad for Jesus. And when he rose out of the gravy, I felt a thrill of victory. As for the “triam,” I had a visual image of something akin to an EMP blast that flattened all the foes. (I did ask what a foe was, but somehow didn’t think I needed to ask about the triam.)

Years later, I was driving my four children to church on a Sunday, and my seven-year-old daughter asked from the backseat, “Mom, what does y-e-a spell?” She was reading to her little brother from her Gideon New Testament she’d received at school. I don’t know exactly how they managed to give out the Bible in public school, but she had one. Now, she had a nice children’s picture Bible that we had bought for her, but she was excited about the little New Testament. Probably because it was bright orange. I told her what y-e-a spelled and heard “Yay! Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I managed not to laugh and praised her for her excellent reading.

Children sometimes misunderstand verbiage because they’re inexperienced, but that doesn’t mean God can’t work in their hearts and minds. Even though I didn’t understand the words of the hymn, I still had the right idea, and my daughter’s version of the twenty-third psalm is, to this day, the best I’ve ever heard.