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.

A Little Girl Named Liberty

I recently mentioned in passing to my students that when I was young in the sixties and seventies, we didn’t have twenty-four-hour programming on TV, and of course there were no videos. We just had to watch whatever the TV people decided to put on the air. And there were only thirteen channels that we could get in our town. My students were shocked and horrified. It certainly does seem primitive now, but we didn’t know anything different then and therefore didn’t miss what no one had thought of yet. But God used that old technology to impact my life when I was a girl of fourteen or so. I was home sick for several days in a row.  I think it must have been in December because there were lots of excellent old movies on in the afternoon. Then, as now, the networks reserved some of their best stock for holidays. One day I saw The Sound of Music, and the next I saw Shenandoah. Both of these films were highly regarded in their day for any number of things from thematic content to quality of production to high caliber acting. But what I took away from those films on those two days was something entirely different.

We’re told in Psalm 37:4 that if we delight ourselves in the Lord, then He will give us the desires of our heart. Usually this is interpreted to mean that if we focus on God and put Him first, then He will reciprocate by giving us things that we want. I see nothing wrong with this interpretation of the verse. The verse before it tells us to “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness.” Verse 5 says, “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall being it to pass.” The part about God giving us the desires of our heart is sandwiched in between the verses that tell us to trust in the Lord and let Him bring things to pass. However, another interpretation of verse 4 is that if we delight ourselves in the Lord, then He will give us the desires He wants us to have. While we’re focusing on Him and trusting in Him to lead us and take care of us, He will deposit the things in us that we need to have for the life He wants us to have. Most likely, if a person doesn’t have a desire to go to Africa, then that’s  because God doesn’t have it in His mind for that person to go to Africa. So while I was home sick at the age of fourteen, God put a particular desire in my heart through the watching of The Sound of Music and Shenandoah.

While these two films do have some obvious similarities about war, and a father protecting his family in the context of war, the thing that God used on me was the fact that both these men had large families. Captain von Trapp and Charlie Anderson both had seven children. I was particularly impressed with the scene in Shenandoah when the family went to church and filled an entire pew all by themselves. As it so often does when the Holy Spirit is depositing something in me, it felt as if I was physically hit in the chest by something. I wanted a large family. Somehow, the number seven seemed too large for me, but five seemed just right. As it says of Mary, I “kept those things and pondered them” in my heart because being an intelligent girl, I knew that proclaiming I wanted to have five children would only worsen my social problems at school. I proceeded with my life, quietly confident that I would one day have my large family.

I met my husband on move-in day of my first year of college. We started dating soon after. We got engaged about half a year later and married sixteen months after our first date. We were  compatible in so many ways: we both loved good movies, we were both musicians (we met at band practice), we were both Spirit-filled and considered our relationship with God the single most important thing in life, we were both pursuing a college education. It never occurred to either of us that with all that compatibility, we might have different ideas about the family we would have together. I assumed that because God put me with him, then he must have the same desires that I did about having a large family and my being a stay-at-home mom, and he assumed that because I was pursuing higher education that I wanted to be a working mom who had the standard American two children. We were both appalled when, a few years into the marriage, we learned what the other was planning. To his credit, my husband said, “Well, let’s have three.” I recognized even then that was a big step for him, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I didn’t want to force unwanted children on my husband, for his sake and for theirs, but I felt like I had been robbed of something that was mine, and it was something IMPORTANT. I was supposed to get five.

When we started our family, we had three stair-step children, each twenty-two months apart from the next. When I was in the hospital with Number One, the Holy Spirit dropped it into my soul that Number Two would be another daughter, and Three would be a son. That’s exactly how it happened. I was a stay-at-home mom, which was challenging financially because my husband, like me, is a teacher, but I wouldn’t have traded being at home with my babies for all the money in the world. I don’t condemn working mothers, but staying at home with my children was one of my heart’s desires, and I will always be grateful that I was able to do it. I mourned the loss of the others, though. I seriously did mourn for those other children, for about two and a half years.

Mourning never lasts forever, and eventually I came out on the other side of it. I looked around at my life and realized that it was ridiculous to hang onto all the baby paraphernalia that I was never going to need again (we were living in a two-bedroom house), so I decided to have a garage sale. The garage sale was both to get rid of stuff I didn’t have room for and to move on with my life; it was about being grateful for the wonderful children God had blessed me with rather than focusing on the ones I didn’t get to have. I sold it all. And then, three months later, I got pregnant while using an OTC form of birth control.

I was in awe that God had done that for me. Something I had wanted so badly that it was a physical yearning, that I had had to lay aside and had shed tears over, God gave to me out of the blue. But I was afraid to tell my husband. I was terrified that he would be unhappy about it, and I couldn’t bear for him to be unhappy about the existence of our child, even for one second. We had been down the pregnancy road before, though, and he figured it out without my saying anything. And he was thrilled. Number Four was a beautiful and perfect addition to our family.

When she was little, I had taken her to the pediatrician, and there was a brand-new mother in line in front of me. She told the girl at the window, “I have Liberty _____” to see the doctor. Just as it did when God put a desire for a large family in my heart, that name hit me forcefully. I thought, “Oh what an amazing name for a little girl. If get to have another daughter, that’s what I’m going to name her. And we could call her Libby!”

Time passed, and I never got another child. Eventually, somewhere in my forties, I realized I no longer had the desire for another baby. I will probably always wish that I could have had Number Five when I was young enough for it to make sense, but I got over feeling sad about it long ago. I now have grandchildren, so there are little ones in my life again. Last summer, my oldest daughter announced that they were expecting a third child, much to their surprise. I could relate to that. When my daughter announced the baby’s name, I was astonished. You see, I never told anyone, no human being, that I had decided to name my future daughter Liberty and call her Libby. So when my daughter chose the name Liberty, with nickname Libby, for the new baby, it brought me to tears.

God, looking at the entirety of my life, put it in my heart that day at the pediatrician’s office what the name of the next baby girl in my life would be. She was just going to be my granddaughter instead of my daughter. Someday when Libby is old enough for the conversation, I’ll tell her about all of these things. She’ll have a hard time conceiving of her grandmother ever being fourteen years old, but that will be the best thing about it. I can tell her that even when I was a girl, in the days when we just had to wait for what came on TV, God looked ahead and saw her and put the two of us together. I didn’t get to be her mom, but I do get to be her Mimi, and that’s just as wonderful.

God is serious about blessing us. He wants to give us things that will make us happy. Jesus said in Matthew 21:22 “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” The word “whatever” means “whatever.” Jesus also said in Matthew 7:11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” So we can ask in confidence that our loving Father wants to give us good things. But, even better, we can also rest in the knowledge that God Himself will put desires in our hearts for things that He knows will give us a fulfilling and rich life. And best of all, if there is no desire in our hearts to do a certain thing, even if it’s a thing that is highly esteemed in Christian society,  then we don’t need to feel any condemnation over the lack of desire. God will send us in the direction He wants us to go through the desires He plants in us sovereignly. We sometimes might not be able to see what He’s up to until a bit of time has passed, but when we do understand, it’s a beautiful moment. My granddaughter Libby is three months old today. She’s amazing and wonderful, and my life is full.