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Thursday, June 5, 2008

When They Call

I was afraid of losing our first child, even when she was healthy and near, even before we lost her. I suppose it's natural to fear for them the way we do. It's why we grit our teeth and force a smile when they wave to us from slippery stones in the middle of the creek, or when they get on their bellies and launch themselves as high as they can on the swing, because we know they have to risk themselves if they are ever to be happy, yet we are afraid.

I do a lot of teeth-gritting and smiling. A long while back my dentist made a mouth guard for me, because I was grinding my teeth away in my sleep. I suppose I'm gnawing on all kinds of things in my dreams. The worst dream is the one that bleeds into wakefulness, the one where you hear them calling, only you are inside and they are somewhere out there, and then you wake with your heart pounding in your throat so you can't breathe, and you listen past the sound of its beating in your ears, because maybe they really are calling you, maybe they really have slipped outside into the darkness.

My wife found Isaac down by the creek one morning this week. I was already gone to work, and the sun was just working its way into the sky. He was tromping about in the tall grass on his short white legs, searching for me. It never occurred to me that maybe they fear for us, too. It makes me feel loved and heartbroken all at once, because I think, when I watch them sleep: The fear will settle over you soon enough, little ones.

But I suppose there is no loving, in this world, without fear — at least not for busted-up people like me, and maybe for some of you, too. So we hold them close, and they squeeze us back, and we are thankful for these days and nights when we can keep the darkness safely at bay. We listen for their voices all the same, and we pray they know we'll always be there, that we'll always come running to their cries, as far as our legs will carry us.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The City Where Nobody Smiles

I had business in Las Vegas the last couple of days. Las Vegas is probably my least favorite city. The conference I attended was lodged in Harrah's, which meant that no matter where I wanted to go, I had to wade through rows and rows of slot machines, colonies of Keno players, and other assemblages of people who have come from all walks of life to have a good time.

The thing was, not a one of them was smiling. There were young couples, groups of gawking frat boys, middle-aged Italians, elderly singles being pushed by their offspring in wheelchairs, or perhaps hobbling along on walkers. Men and women of all ages, manners of dress, languages and dialects. All had flown to Las Vegas, the sleepless city, the city that knows how to keep a secret, the city of lights and fortunes, and every blessed one of them looked like someone awaiting execution.

Perhaps people have more fun at the shows and restaurants. But you can get better versions of each in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, heck, even Atlanta. No, what sets Las Vegas apart is the gambling, and perhaps the prostitution. Millions of people visit every year, and I wonder, does a one of them find what he is looking for?

Do they even know what they seek?

Which I suppose can be asked of us all, not just the poor souls sitting numbly in front of those cold machines with the pretty, pretty lights. The answer, I think, is that we are seeking something that will fill the great Empty.

It runs right through the middle of you, this emptiness, and though every good writer has tried to describe it, and though we all know it is there, we are most of us terribly afraid to think about it, which is perhaps why a place like Las Vegas can exist at all.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Friday, March 14, 2008

Sound Familiar?

From Walker Percy's 1957 article, "The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry":

"We all know perfectly well that the man who lives out his life as a consumer, a sexual partner, an 'other-directed' executive; who avoids boredom and anxiety by consuming tons of newsprint, miles of movie film, years of TV time; that such a man has somehow betrayed his destiny as a human being."

The crisis for psychiatry, Percy went on to say, was that in treating human yearning for significance as a symptom of some underlying mental illness, it actually contributed to man's separation from creation, by alienating him from his purpose.

Not that the long line of therapists and psychologists in my own past haven't been helpful. Love you, guys. But I wonder if Percy wasn't on to something that modern America doesn't want to hear, which is that the yearning can't be entertained or purchased or medicated away.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Small Places

One of last week's nights I woke to what I thought was a child crying outside our house. This is one of my fears, that my child will wander out the door in the middle of the night and walk away, more lost with each stumbling step, and I will sleep even as he calls for me, and I will sleep until it is too late.

I rose from the bed, certain one of my children was outside in the misty black. I went from one window to the next, trying to see him, until I woke more and realized I ought first check their beds. Each boy was where he belonged. Who was crying outside my home? Who is this lost child?

I know I have been hearing things at night. I lay back down, wide awake. I heard the sound again, only now I recognized it was the sound of Isaiah sighing, filtered through the baby monitor. I lay awake for a while, thinking about how sounds modulate in darkness, as if the dark itself is a material that distorts them.

This weekend I ran alone. Usually I have two boys on bicycles hovering about me, and a third in a baby jogger that I push before me, against which I whack my shins when I take overly long strides. I ran alone, and I listened to random music, and underneath that I heard the sound of my own heart and breath, and underneath these was the steady thump of my feet.

I came home, still thinking about the nature of sounds, and stripped to my skin, and dived into the pool. I pushed the air from my lungs until I sank to the bottom. I lay there motionless in the silence, until my lungs could stand emptiness no longer, and then I came up for air. I clung to the side of the pool and breathed. Above me in the trees was an enormous spider web, spun with thick silvery line. It looked like a flattened vortex, or perhaps a malevolent eye, or maybe it was just a spider's web.

Have you ever been alone, in the quiet of yourself, and been at peace? I felt that peace then, for no reason, the peace that surpasses all understanding, floating naked and alone in cool water. There are nightmares, yes, but there is also peace.

The calm was soon disrupted by William Isaac. He stood on one leg at the edge of the pool, working off a recalcitrant sock that was the last piece of clothing between him and skinny-dipping with Dad. He jumped in to me, and then we splashed about until one, then another brother, wandered out to find us. Soon we were all swimming like otters.

In his poem, "Word for Worry," Li-Young Lee writes: "When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder/ Do his father's kisses keep his father's worries/ from becoming his?" Sometimes, when I tuck a child in bed and pray, I lay my head on the pillow beside him. Sometimes he will kiss me when I do this. Whenever this happens there is peace, which is always in the smallest places. I suppose we hear it best when we listen past the noises, to a whisper that must be God's.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


If you've ever had people put their hands on your head and shoulders and pray over you, then you know what it is like, sometimes, to read the words some of you write to me.

Caleb has been reading a great many history books. Last night he asked if I have ever been beaten with a whip. Not thinking, I told him I have been beaten with a belt, but not a whip. He was suddenly sad and quiet. "Really?" It was a wounded voice. I got down close to him, so that I could feel his breath on my face. "I will never do that to you," I whispered. "I know," he said.

Sometimes as a parent you feel like a wall. One side of you is hard chipped stone. The side facing these little ones is smoothed, its cracks spackled as best you can manage. Sometimes your child will run a finger along one of those cracks, and when he does this you know you can go on standing, no matter the weight, until he is strong and ready to beat back the world with his own muscle and bone and faith.

The outside of the wall that you are is always cold, but the inside, this is where there is warmth, because of them. Last night I supervised Eli as he practiced "Frère Jacques" on the violin. We don't have the words, only the music, and so when he asked me to sing it I had to improvise, because neither my childhood nor seven years of French seem to have taken in any wholesome way:

Frère Jacques
Frère Jacques
Some French words I don't know
Some French words I don't know
How 'bout you?
How 'bout you?

Eli giggled. I like when he giggles, because he is my wistful child.

Isaac is rarely wistful, but he knows that he has exasperated me with the constant waking. It seems I'm not the only one in the house who can't sleep. Last night, instead of coming to my bed, he went into my bathroom and shut the door. I opened the door to find him curled up on the floor. I picked him up and he settled his cheek on my shoulder. I carried him through the dark house, praying that he won't have nightmares, that he comes to me because he misses me, and not because he is haunted by something on the other side of sleep.

I placed him on his bed and tucked the sheet around him. He looked up at me, his fuzzy lamb held tight to his chest, and he smiled. It was a peace-filled smile. I kissed him, and he closed his eyes, and he was asleep before I left his room. His sleep, like that smile, was peace-filled.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Nightmares

Sunday night brought a nightmare, one I used to have as a child. In this nightmare you are awake, it seems, and you can see the bedroom as it will be when you finally do scream or gasp yourself from sleep: black and gray shadows, the soft frail light of the moon or perhaps a streetlight trickling through a gap in the window shade, even your hand rising from the bed, weakly pushing or pointing at the presence that you can't see but which you can feel as it approaches. In this dream there is always a sound; sometimes it is a growl, or a harsh laugh; once it was a lion roaring. This time it was three loud knocks, as if the presence wanted permission to enter.

You try to scream in this nightmare because you know the dark thing is coming, but you are breathing syrup. You can feel it draw near, and sometimes it brings a shadow, but other times everything looks the same, which is somehow worse, because the feel of it makes your skin shrivel, and you think that if only you could see it then perhaps you could scream and then you could wake up.

Then I did wake up, only this sense of something dark and malicious didn't lessen, and for the first time since I was a child, I had to keep myself from screaming even after I was awake. I closed my eyes and whimpered all the names of God I could remember, thinking the sound of them might drive it away, this darkness that forgot it is supposed to depart when I wake. The names didn't work, and so I stood from the bed, shivering and electric, and left the bedroom for fear that if I lay there another moment I really would scream.

When I was a boy and I dreamt this, sometimes I wouldn't wake, and the presence would lift me from my bed, and carry me through the dark house. It was always dark, everything dark, and I would try to twist and scream but I was always paralyzed, which is how a creature about to be devoured by a spider must feel. I used to believe that if I went to sleep in the tightest possible ball, then the nightmares wouldn't come. I would wake sore and stiff, but safe — passed over.

I don't remember when I stopped sleeping that way, or why the nightmares stopped. For the longest time I was afraid to go into a dark room, because in some of my dreams that's what would happen, I would walk into a dark room and then all the lights in the house and the world would extinguish, and then it would come for me, that darkness blacker than the absence of light. Eventually I was able to go into dark rooms, and then I forgot the nightmares for a time, though every few years they come for me.

Sometimes I wonder if there is something buried beneath my skin, and if this is how it tries to escape. Maybe all those years of curling myself into a ball was actually holding it in. But as I lay in that place between a dream and sleep, first trying to scream and then trying not to scream, I felt like prey, not a cage. Maybe things inside can devour us, so that we become the Ouroboros, feeding forever on ourselves. Sometimes I worry that the writing causes this, when I go into places that are best left sealed like tombs. In The Book of Nightmares, Galway Kinnell writes:

learn to reach deeper
into the sorrows
to come — to touch
the almost imaginary bones
under the face, to hear under the laughter
the wind crying across the black stones

I wonder if I will ever look full in the face that darkness that sometimes comes in a nightmare, and if the terror of it will melt my bones. I slept in a ball last night, my wife's arm around me. She knows that her presence sometimes keeps the nightmares at bay. I will sleep in a ball again tonight. Gradually, in days or perhaps a week, I will sleep like a man who isn't waiting for something to return for him.

Until it does. Then I will whisper the names of God, and pray that they are enough, and that whatever haunts me will only ever come to my room, to my side of the bed. You can endure anything as a parent, I am learning, because even in the worst of it you are grateful that it is you.

posted by Woodlief | link | (13) comments

Friday, July 13, 2007

Jesus Wept

I've realized lately that my patience with bureaucracy and hypocrisy and politics has nearly reached its limit, which is unusual for me. I like to think that as a student of organizations I have more patience with them. But as I lay in bed yesterday morning, wishing it was Saturday instead of Thursday, pondering the immediately relevant portion of Adam's curse (By the sweat of your face you will eat bread), I remembered that I needed to put on my charcoal suit and dark tie. I remembered that I would be leaving work that afternoon to go to a funeral. I remembered that for all my self-pity, it wasn't me burying my daughter that day.

The funeral was filled with beautiful young people, a testimony to the widespread admiration for the departed young woman, as well as to the shock of death when it intrudes so early in life. We all watched the coffin carried in, followed by the family, and it struck me how a funeral is arranged much like a wedding. Indeed, her mother had prepared a wedding cake for her, to be served at the reception afterward, since there is to be no wedding for this girl on earth.

We stared, until her father left the group and walked slowly to her coffin, perhaps to whisper something to her, or to pray; I don't think any of us know, because all of us — or perhaps just the fathers — averted our eyes. Some things are too terrible and sacred to witness.

Her cousin played the piano and sang two songs so sweetly that I don't think I'll ever listen to them again, because the professionals who recorded them never sang them as well, can't impart to them the immediate meaning that he did, glancing at his cousin's coffin as he cried and sang the words.

I don't remember anything either of the presiding pastors said, except that the grieving were exhorted to rejoice. I think if I ever preside over a funeral, I will begin with John 11:33:

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to Him, "Lord, come and see."

Jesus wept.

The head trained in theology tells us the one we love is in heaven, but our heart and flesh cry out because she is gone. The heart learns the mysteries of God at a slow pace. Do you want to know what Jesus would do at a funeral, were he again on this side of Heaven's veil with us? Jesus wept.

Perhaps I didn't forget what the pastors had to say but simply ignored them, much as I admire each. It was the father I wanted to hear, and for whom I prayed as he made his way to the altar to give the eulogy for his child. He honored her memory and name greatly. I was ashamed, listening to him speak out of a place of heartbreak and courage, to recall that only hours before I had wallowed in my bedsheets and my self-pity, bemoaning my miserable lot in life. Any day we do not bury someone we love is a good day. This is what I was reminded of yesterday.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sickness and Health

I realized, as I lay in bed at 2:30 a.m., my head splitting, wondering if I needed to take my feverish wife to the hospital, that I haggle with God. I don't know if God haggles back. This makes me a bad Presbyterian, that I don't hurry past those passages in the Bible about Moses convincing God not to slaughter everyone, or Hezekiah weeping until God agreed to let him live longer, with my highlighter poised to illuminate any verse that appears to imply predestination.

I don't know if God haggles back because I never live the counterfactual. Last night, for example, I was praying that we didn't both have meningitis (because this is what I do, I take the symptoms and attach them in my mind to the worst possible disease, and then I get a stomachache worrying about it). I was also praying that the children, especially the baby, wouldn't get sick. Then I remembered how I've often prayed if someone has to get sick (because in my mind bad things are hot potatoes in God's hands, and they have to be dropped on someone, somewhere), that it be me and not our children.

So there we lay, sick, all of our children sound asleep and healthy, and it struck me that maybe the haggling had worked. Then I thought that can't be right, because I'm a Presbyterian, after all, and if Presbyterians are nothing else, we are absolutely right about all the small and large points of theology, which is why it will be especially surprising when most of us are on the back row in Heaven, having been so excited about our theology that we forgot to evangelize and give up our wealth to the poor. And that will be really awkward for some Presbyterians I know, let me tell you, though not for me, because I know that in my case just to get past the gates will require a great deal of luck providential blessing, and quite possibly a clerical error predestined divine intervention.

But the point is that as I lay there in misery and fear, I realized that I only ever thank God when things are really good. This seems akin to only thanking your wife for the meal she cooked when it's a nine-course French dinner. Not, of course, that I think of God as a woman, because as a good Presbyterian I know that God is a white Republican man who opposes immigration and will condemn you to the lowest plane of Hell if you vote for Hillary. But don't let that defeat the analogy; I think you see my point: I don't often thank God, not really, for most things that are blessings. This is because I am caught up in my personal vision of extreme satisfaction and comfort.

How humbling, then, to read this by Oswald Chambers after my healthy and happy children dragged my carcass out of bed this morning:

We utilize God for the sake of getting peace and joy, that is, we do not want to realize Jesus Christ, but only our enjoyment of him.

I suppose God doesn't need to haggle. I suppose I take that view when I center myself in the universe, with him as my recalcitrant Sugar Daddy. What a miserable universe it would be, if that were all it amounted to.

We finally fell asleep for a little while, somewhere around 4 a.m. We're both still miserable, but the children all seem fine, so we'll go ahead and count it all joy, as the good book says, the sickness and the health, and remember that other glorious passage in the Bible, the one we often overlook: It came to pass. . .

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Monday, July 9, 2007

Seeking Home

The word home has a connotation both immediate and distant. A home is intimate, that place where we belong, where they let us in the door whether we deserve it or not. As something one does, home has traditionally been distant, implying that one is going to it, or that one is being remotely guided to it.

Pigeons, I have read, find home even when they don't know where they are, by relying on magnetic fields, and the sun. Some of us have a sense of not belonging in this place where we find ourselves, and of home being somewhere else, such that we can feel it though we don't know the way. We hold out hope that, like those pigeons, some mysterious force will draw us home. The pigeon has the sun, and the Christian has the Son, and I think a great many other people who don't know where they fall on the pigeon-Christian axis hold a quiet hope that something will emerge for them too, guiding them to a place that is not here, because in the old ways of using that word home, the verb implied the absence of the noun.

The verb form of house, meanwhile, is immediate and impersonal. When we say something is housed, we mean that it is sheltered now. There is no seeking in relation to house, and no intimacy either. The house is where we keep our things, including our tired skin and bones. It is what we settle for when we can't go home.

I recently learned that home has the same root, in the old pathways from which our languages emerged, dusted themselves off, and were immediately slaughtered for the sake of newspapers and corporate annual reports, as haunt. This is fitting, I think, because our home — that place we are tuned to seek — haunts us. Home is the place we yearn for even when we have never seen it, or perhaps have only seen it in glimpses or dreams.

It is best not to get too comfortable with this place, for eventually we will be called home, and how sad would it be, do you think, to cling to here for fear of there? Home is where, for some of us at least, people we have loved wait for us, which is perhaps why it haunts us. We have grown accustomed to the use of haunting as something dreadful, but it can also be something lovely and melancholy, especially when one is haunted by visions of home.

We weep for ourselves, when the people we love go home. We weep with sadness that we are left here for a time longer, and with joy that, for those we have lost, home is no longer what is sought, but what has been found.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Monday, June 18, 2007

A Father's Day

Father's Day morning, the Wife brought me homemade blueberry muffins in bed. I sat reading short stories and eating blueberry muffins, and it was blissful. Soon I heard them conspiring outside my bedroom door, the little ones and their mother the ringleader. In marched a little troupe of celebrants, each bearing a gift. They perched themselves around me on the bed, each clamoring for me to open his gift first. They gave me a big bucket of bubble gum, some metal collar stays, a Hemingway-style pocket journal, and a cheerful little book published in 1902, titled The REAL Diary of a REAL Boy, by Henry Shute. It's written in the language of a schoolboy, and has entries like this:

December 15. Micky Gould said he cood lick me and i said he want man enuf and he said if i wood come out behind the school house after school he wood show me and i said i wood and all the fellers hollered and said they wood be there. But after school i thaught i aught to go home and split my kindlings and so i went home. a feller aught to do something for his family ennyway. i cood have licked him if i had wanted to.

I love old books, the feel and weight and texture of them, and the knowledge that they were born when people read, and when they read something more intelligent and edifying than Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlum.

We went to church and happily it wasn't a sermon about how none of us men are good enough as fathers. After that we went to our favorite Wichita restaurant, and I had a Dr. Pepper and didn't feel the least bit guilty about it. Later that day there was more short-story reading and then a run with the boys, Caleb and Eli on bicycles and Isaac in the running stroller and me doing the hard work in between wheezing at them to look both ways before turning onto a street, and to be extra careful because that SUV coming at us is being driven by a teenager, and for God's sake to look up at the road and not down at how fast their feet are pedaling.

Later that evening we had my favorite meal: hotdogs and the Wife's extra-special macaroni and cheese. As an added bonus her grandmother, who is visiting, made me creamed corn. Still later, I attempted to make The Perfect Tom Collins, according to a recipe I found in The Wall Street Journal, but I put in too much gin and then tried to compensate with more soda and sugar, but then that threw the squeezed lemon into too small a proportion and so by the time I was done it was something more like a soggy sugared pine tree than the perfect anything, but liquor is liquor and it tasted especially good because I bought the gin the next county over, because Wichita forbids alcohol sales on Sundays, unless one happens to own a restaurant or bar, which likely inclines one to contribute generously to city council members, who in turn are more likely to stick by their moral position that alcohol should not be sold on Sundays.

One day, in heaven, I'm going to sip a Tom Collins with Jesus on a Sunday, and we're going to have a good laugh about blue laws.

Still later, some friends and I watched a man movie, although it wasn't really because there was far too much kissing and love lost for my taste, but the moral of the story was good, plus more than one bad guy got skewered, so it was certainly a good use of two hours.

Around midnight I realized that while I may be an okay father, I am a very bad son, because I didn't call my father or stepfather. I'll try to remember how easy it is to be swept up in the chaos and bliss of being a father to all these young ones, so that my feelings aren't wounded when they are too busy being fathers to be sons.

I lay awake for a time after the house was completely dark and silent, thinking thank you over and over in my mind, whispering it to God. And he must say I know when we thank him for our children, because he is a father too. It is good to be a father. More fathers should try it. If I can get this right, I keep telling myself, the rest of it doesn't matter. Be a good husband. Be a good father. The rest of it fades away almost as soon as we are cold in the ground. Help me get this right. That's what I whisper to God in between the thank yous.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Least of These

We've been adopted by a kitten. She's a scrawny black creature who darted out of the bushes a few days ago, mewling and shivering, afraid of all of us but desperately hungry. Now we have a dish for food and water which the boys keep full. The kitten stays mostly in the thick bushes beneath the pine trees beside our house. I suspect she believes that she's actually a house cat now, given that the boys seem to spend a good portion of their time in those bushes as well, building forts and getting covered in sap that makes their hair stick up at odd angles and leaves them smudged like they've been working in the coal mines. The kitten is still skittish, though last night she crawled into my lap as I sat outside. Not that I like her, mind you. She's a cat, after all, and I don't like cats.

This kitten has me thinking that maybe "the least of these" is different creatures for different people. For those of us who prefer the poor and wretched to stay on their own side of the tracks, the least of these fits the traditional profile. For those who bathe themselves in the misery of others, laboring in soup kitchens and shelters, perhaps the least of these comes disguised as the repugnant hypocritical religious type who wants nothing to do with the poor. Maybe the least of these, if you are a dedicated liberal, is Jerry Falwell. Perhaps, if you are a hard-core conservative, the least of these is Hillary Clinton. Maybe for some of us the least of these is a scraggly cat who promises only to scratch our children and tear up our running shoes before getting hit by a car and introducing the littlest ones in the family too soon to death.

There's no telling, is there, who or what will cross your path once you start opening your door to strays, be they cats or people. I know a few people — a precious few — who seem to have spotlights over their homes, calling every broken-down drunk and homeless single mother and three-legged dog in the county to their doorsteps. I used to think it was their circumstances that were peculiar, that they just seemed to be always happening upon those in need. Now I see it's more the case that we all cross the paths of those in need, but we've trained ourselves to ignore them. We wall them out, whether they are the hurting, socially awkward people in our own churches, or the desperately poor people south of our national border.

I'm the best wall-builder I know. I don't know why a wisp of a kitten makes me think about that, any more than I know why sometimes I start humming "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," or why I sleep with the blankets drawn over my head, even when it's hot. Maybe I think, as I watch her lap up the dish of cool water, of all the people whom I've denied water. Maybe I wish people were easy as kittens. Maybe I see myself in the shivery black thing that hides in the bushes and shrinks from touch.

I like to think that in letting the kitten adopt us, I'm teaching the boys to care for those in need. I want to believe they will never deny water to the thirsty. These are the things you ponder as you guide their little souls to the author and perfecter of faith, praying you don't cause them to stumble before you've handed them over.

The kitten, meanwhile, is slowly taking to them. When they are sitting on the ground she prances up to them in that sideways manner of skittish creatures and pounces on their hands or shoes. For their part, the boys are learning not to practice their manly animal-trapping skills on her. Instead they make kitty noises and stroke her sap-covered fur. I think they'll make good protectors one day. Good givers of water.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Monday, April 23, 2007

On Wisdom

Caleb is learning to play chess. I realized this weekend that he often thinks three moves ahead. I will not lose to a seven-year-old. I played in a tournament once, and lost to a fourteen-year-old. That was humiliating enough. The first time I realized there are people smarter than me — people who simply have more horsepower in their brains — was in graduate school. My roommate, Jay, was a Harvard math major, and had perfect GRE scores. We would play chess, and he would ponder every possible permutation, and make no mistakes. I couldn't beat him. His brain worked that way with everything. I've met students and professors from numerous universities since my graduate school days, but I've never met anyone smarter than Jay.

Some people seem smart, because they've read and retained a great deal. That speaks more to an encyclopedic function in their brains, I think; they are like human filing cabinets. They can tell you in what book Herodotus describes the cold-hearted Xerxes as he surveys his men sailing to their destruction, they can even tell you what Xerxes is reported to have said, and how he wept at the grandeur of that sight. But they can't tell you what it means, the pathos and sentimentality and repugnance of it. They can only tell you when and where Xerxes met his defeat, and what scholars have written about what the Hellespont meant for Greek civilization and military power. They are parrots less than thinkers.

Jay was one of those people, however, who could not only retain information, but process it. He was an original thinker, armed with a sheer computing power that I realized I could never match. It is a humbling thing, to have pleasant illusions about oneself so decisively dispelled. I'm reminded of that humiliation as I play chess with Caleb, and see how quickly he absorbs the concepts, how in a short time he has already learned that he must control the center, and use his pieces in combinations. Toward the end of a game yesterday, as we sat head-to-head on lawn chairs in the late afternoon sun, after he had lost so many pieces that the end was beyond question, he made a sudden bold attack on my king with his bishop, supported by his knight.

This is how he will be, I think, smart and dangerous and surprising. It gives rise to a new fear, not that I will be shown less intelligent than I thought, but that I will fail to help him temper his intelligence with wisdom. Jay had wisdom about the ideas and concepts floating about the intellectual world in which we dwelled for a time, but he lacked wisdom about the deeper things, as I did, as did everyone I knew in graduate school, as do most of the people I know today whom the world considers intelligent and wise.

It turns out that horsepower alone isn't enough, that wisdom, and the discipline that flows in part from wisdom, are required. These are learned things, and my job is to help my sons learn them. That realization in itself is more humbling than living with a genius, or three little boys who show every sign of emerging smarter than me. It's humbling because I realize I'm simply not up to the task, if imparting wisdom means giving them what I possess.

What is the extent of my wisdom, thirty-nine years into a life in this world? That the heart of man is dark, that I know nearly nothing, and that I can't trust my instincts to do anything but betray me. My wisdom is in knowing how little wisdom I possess, and sadly, that in itself is more wisdom than what is held by most men I know, at least those outside my church.

But where can wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Man does not know its value,
Nor is it found in the land of the living.

But that is where we look, isn't it, in the land of the living, meaning within ourselves and our lives, in the little things that we think we learn by accumulated experience, which likely as not serve instead only to confirm the delusions we have cherished from the beginning. If it's left to me to dredge up the wisdom my sons will need in order to be something more than intellectual processors, then I will fail.

Then He saw wisdom and declared it;
He prepared it, indeed, He searched it out.
And to man He said,
'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that
is wisdom,
and to depart from evil
is understanding.'

This is why we pray for our children, those of us with enough wisdom to realize how little wisdom we possess. This is why we read the second chapter of the book of Proverbs and speak it to our sons and daughters, pray it into their skins if we have to, because we know that what they need is beyond our power to give them. This is why parents, if they are more than simply humans who have procreated, are humbled creatures, because only in humbly seeking wisdom at its source can we help our children obtain it.

This is a portion of the art and labor of helping our children become something better than us, part of the generational effort that those in the covenant understand, while those outside it have trouble even making sense of these words. It is why we say that when we are fools we are wise, and where we are weak He is strong, and why all of it seems like nonsense to those who are lost but think they are secure, while we who are secure work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

So are you working it out today? Your children are watching, and they will do as you do. What do they see? I hope in me my sons see the unwisest of men seeking after wisdom that will never come from within. I hope they learn humility more easily than I have had to learn it, am learning it still.

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Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Storm

The two younger boys crept into our bed in the black morning, driven by a snarling storm. They curled into me, shivering, as if I am a safe harbor. There is no keeping out the storm; this is what I thought. The cool peaceful evenings line themselves up between the vibrant days, and we forget the storm until it is upon us, and then we remember that there is no hiding from it, because it knows where every living one of us dwells. These little ones have not been so long removed from the raw stuff of nature to forget the primeval violence of the world. We chuckle at how they cower, but they are right to fear the storm. We are the foolish ones, to think our roofs and walls protect us.

They shivered into sleep beside me, thinking I have some magic, and me full of wakeful fear, knowing too, before a shave and a newspaper help me forget, that only magic will keep the storm at bay once it comes in all its fury. And we have no more magic, none of us, so we chuckle when these children cringe at the thunder, and tell ourselves that we have conquered the storm.

We lay in that bed, and I listened to their breathing, their peaceful breathing, and counted the seconds between the flashes and booms, as if math will make the storm disappear. The storm drifted away, but it is always just on the horizon, perhaps doing its own counting. Maybe it has some final number in mind, and we, meanwhile, think that this number is infinity, when it surely is something much smaller, much closer, with only our children sensing how close it really is.

No man can hold back the storm, little ones, not even your father, shivering as he is beside you. You'll read this before you truly know, because you can only know it when your own children lay shivering beside you, thinking you possess magic that has left the world. Then you will know it, deep in the bones that forgot, until that moment, the primordial fear, and you find yourself whispering a prayer only half-believed. You whisper that prayer, and in whispering it you know that you have no magic in you to protect them. This is why we pray so seldom, and often weep when we pray, because we've lost hope before we've begun.

So you whisper that prayer, little-ones-now-fathers, and the growling storm thunders louder, and your soul cringes, attuned as it is to the destruction of the flesh, forgetting its own eternal nature. The heart and the flesh cry out because their days are ending, but this soul, this cringing, faithless soul, is made of some resilient matter that even the hungry storm cannot devour.

There is no stopping the storm when it is finally unleashed; this is the reply to the prayer you will find yourself whispering one black morning, as your trusting children sleep beside you, believing there is magic beneath your skin. But there are only the strange equations — loss equals gain, death equals life — and they are founded in a math deeper than that with which you counted back the flashes and booms.

This is the conversation you will have with God, as your own children curl into you, not knowing that once you curled into me, and that in all the years between, you have not found the magic to hold back the storm when it comes. This is what comes to you for your whispered prayer, this quiet promise that the storm cannot destroy all. It is not the answer you will hope for when you whisper your prayer, but it is more than enough.

So sleep beside me now, little boys, and I will fight back the storm until my flesh fails me, as all flesh does. It is a blessing that all flesh fails, because otherwise our souls might never struggle free. Knowing this I protect you nonetheless, because that is how fathers are made. That is why we die one day, so the world can go to work on you in its turn, that you might learn the painful lesson, which is simply that all flesh fails, and that this is good, because there is something underneath the Lord has made. You cannot see it, but I think I catch a glimpse as I watch you sleep, and I think it must be inside me too.

One dark morning, when you hold your own children, and are filled with fierce love for them, know that I have loved you the same way, and that this is why God calls us his children, that no matter how many heresies spill forth from preachers and priests, we might remember he loves us with more ferocity than any storm, even the storm that bides its time.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Shape of Eleven

She would have been eleven today. I would have made her favorite meal, which is spaghetti, and we would have had cake, probably something with pink frosting, and I would have eaten a slice even though I gave up sugar for Lent, because if God understands anything about us, he understands this. I would have looked at her across the table, an island of grace amidst her unruly brothers, and maybe caught a glimpse of what she would look like as a mother. I would have kissed her goodnight, the way I always did, and perhaps I would have lingered in my hug, breathing in her smell, because I think something in me understood, before we lost her, that you never know how many days you will have with them.

Eleven is a curious number, if you look at it, if you sit at your desk and scratch it on a pad and stare at it because you can't find any words in yourself. And if you think about how you can't find the words, you remember what the writer you admire most said to you, that writing is actually very easy, that you just open a vein and bleed. And so you rip the bandage off the wound, and through the sting of it you see that the shape of 11 reminds you of two people standing, a mother and a father, perhaps, and they are waiting. They are looking into a future they cannot see, and they are waiting as if in a line, as if in both their small minds is the question, "How much longer here?" They wait in line and they quietly ask God this question, but very quietly, because to want it to be finished, so often and so fiercely, is a sign that you are broken.

The shape of 11 reminds you, if you look at it, of two people, a mother and a father, maybe, who have a space between them, a space that once was filled, only now it is empty, and though they reach out in their numbness, it is such a great distance to cross, the emptiness called she was here, or only daughter gone, that you wonder if they will ever close the gap, these separate ones. And when for a time the space disappears, and they are one again, it is indeed a miracle beyond the powers of any mathematician, to make one out of two divided by nothing.

And the shape of 11, if you look at it, is like a lonely 1, staring at himself in the mirror, like a father who shuffles into the empty room and cries out, only no matter how much he shouts there is only the mirror, and he standing in front of it, remembering that this is where she would stand, right here, and he would put clips shaped like butterflies in her hair, and marvel at how she could look like him, and still be so purely different and lovely.

The shape of 11 is the empty box, it is arms raised to heaven, it is the repeated number on the walls of the prisoner scratching out his existence, denoting one more day, and one more day, each carrying him closer to the opening of the door, the end of the separation.

The shape of 11 is two flags staked into the bloody ground, side by side, and two people, a mother and father, just maybe, who say, "this is our life, all of it, the blessing and the curse, and here we will stand until it is finished." And if you look closely, you see that it is good ground, this place where they stand; it is sprinkled with blood, but it is overgrown with life, and so it is good ground. It is proof that joy and tribulation can co-exist, life and death, peace and suffering, and only because there is something on the other side of that mirror, the life more abundant, the reunion, the setting right of all things wrong.

But mostly, today, the shape of 11 is the two dreams, what might have been, and what is to come. Happy Birthday, Caroline.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

For Lily's Parents

Parents Waiting

It is strange,
In the face of this hungering dark,
That we persevere
In giving life to these lambs,
Who don't know better than to accept with hope,
Having yet to understand what awaits.

This is not our home.

If they knew, they would rejoice,
And perhaps ask why
We celebrate their arrival,
And weep when they depart,
Returning to sleep, awaiting the call
Of what is better than we know,
Where they wait for us, until the dark has fed,
And we learn that it was they,
Not us,
Who first found life.

Tony Woodlief

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Unexpected Gifts

The date began delightfully enough. We went to a healthy restaurant specializing in Mediterranean dishes, meaning that there was a three-minute wait, as opposed to what would have been an hour wait at the wretched Olive Garden. At the end of a wonderful meal of Orange Roughy stuffed with spinach and other good things, the waitress informed us that another table was paying for our dinner.

I knew who it was, because we'd run into him and his wife on our way in. Along with his former partner in crime, he is the best leader and manager I have ever met. You've never seen his name in a paper or a Harvard Business School case study (which may well be proof that he's competent), nor has he received an ounce of recognition from the upper management of his own company, but I've seen him work miracles with manufacturing facilities, simply by harnessing the knowledge and passion of the employees.

Suffice to say that he and the other person I won't name (for fear of sending trouble their way), are my first and only business heroes. I've learned more about management from them than all my other sources of education combined, and for some reason they seem to enjoy my company as well, even though I take much more from them than I give.

So, my friend and hero paid for our dinner. On top of that, the way the waitress announced our good fortune made us sound like celebrities to the people sitting near us. An excellent way to begin the evening.

Then it was on to Barnes & Noble, which proved to be a profound disappointment. I've realized that I just don't care to pay top-dollar for a hardcover book any more. I found the book I was set on getting (see the previous post), but who wants to pay $24.95 for a big ugly hardcover book (especially when it's retailing for $16.47 and free shipping, provided your order is more than $25, at Amazon)? So I put it at the top of my Amazon wishlist, where I will salivate over it until it comes out in paperback, at which point I'll buy and likely read it in one sitting.

There is one exception to my newfound no-full-price-for-books rule, and that's when it comes to books in the Everyman's Library collection. I could try to describe them, but just look at this vivid (and true) description from Knopf:

"...printed on acid-free natural-cream-colored text paper and including Smyth-sewn, signatures, full-cloth cases with two-color case stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers, and European-style half-round spines."

Do you remember Tim Allen's show, "Home Improvement," and that ape-sound he would make when he got worked up about tools? Insert that sound here.

So, I'm in love with the Everyman collection, even though I only have two: Marcus Aurelius's Meditations and George Orwell's complete essays (this last courtesy of my beloved mother-in-law). When I strike it rich I'm buying "The Everyman's 100", but until then I will peruse and covet and drool over and occasionally actually buy them, one at a time.

With that in mind (the coveting and drooling), I asked the nice lady at Barnes & Noble how many books they have in stock under the Everyman imprint. "One," she told me.

"Are you sure?" I asked. She swiveled her computer screen around so I could see for myself. It listed one: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. Oh well, I thought, Barnes & Noble is trying to push its own, cheaper, paperback classics series, so I can hardly fault it for choosing not to entice the buyer with the clearly superior, albeit more expensive, Everyman option.

So I began to wander the stacks. Right away, I found the Everyman edition of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Then Bleak House, by Dickens. Then another title, and another. How could this be, I wondered, when the Barnes & Noble computer had only just snidely blinked at me with its one recorded Everyman title in stock?

So I took up counting the number of additional Everyman titles in stock in their adult literature section (because the Everyman collection, you see, encompasses religion, philosophy, and children's literature as well). Final count: 15 titles. The Barnes & Noble computer was off by a factor of 15. Fifteen hundred percent variance.

I think you see the problem. It made me think, how many of us even trust information given to us by the computer systems, websites, or personnel of large organizations any more? When was the last time you actually believed the "on-time" status of a flight listed on an airline's website? Who trusts the Home Depot employee when he tells you over the phone that they don't have that much-needed router bit in stock? I don't know about you, but I don't even bother to call a store any more, because my experience is that it's a coin toss as to whether what they tell me actually holds true.

And yet, organizations spend billions, collectively, on information systems every year, from the lowest end (the idiot teenager picking his nose by the phone), to the highest end (my favorite trend: fancy new government websites that are loaded with everything except answers to questions like, "How much, really, do we spend per pupil?" or "What are all the offices I need to get permits from before I start my business?"). All that money for information, and nary a lick of it seems to go toward providing what it is that we really need, which is reliable knowledge.

But I guess that's a critique of more than just information systems, isn't it? We are surrounded by sensory inputs, and yet we seem to be losing our grip on the things that lead to wisdom.

In the end, I came home without buying a book, but I already had two lovely books that were far better than what I'd set my sights on. The wife, you see, had slipped them onto the seat of my truck. The first was a hardcover book of English poetry classics. The other was a small hardcover early edition of Robert's Rules of Order, inspired by my recent failed bid to throw a monkey wrench into my homeowners association juggernaut.

And isn't life that way, sometimes? We think we really want one thing, but once we get close to it, we realize that we didn't really want it so much after all. And only then do we realize that we already have something far more precious. It's not necessarily as flashy or exciting or new as what we thought we wanted, but it's precious nonetheless, because it's bound up in the things of our lives that matter most to us.

I didn't get what I wanted last night. Instead, I received the kind gifts of people who are far better than me, and who care for me nonetheless. I don't see how it can get much better than that, do you?

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

P'u-Hua Fei Hua

A flower and not a flower; of mist yet not of mist;
At midnight she was there; she went as daylight shone.
She came and for a little while was like a dream of spring,
And then, as morning clouds that vanish traceless, she was gone.

Po Chui
Translated by Duncan Mackintosh
Rendered into verse by Alan Ayling

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Saturday, June 3, 2006


I found myself on a train to the Atlanta airport weeks ago. There was an aggressive panhandler in my car, the kind who stands right up in your personal space and holds out his hand while mumbling about money for food. He walked like a chicken, his head bobbing and feet shuffling as he went from seat to seat, pecking with his outstretched hand. Unlike in, say, D.C., most of the people, themselves dressed little better than him, dug into their pockets to offer change. His right pocket acquired a hefty chink, chink as he walked.

He stopped next to a young man of maybe 25, dressed in jeans and work boots. The man had a baby boy in a stroller with him. The young man offered the panhandler his work gloves.

The beggar's face registered what a rooster must look like when he confronts a raccoon. "What's that for?"

"So you can get a job."

"I been looking for a job."

"Well you ain't looking hard enough," and with this the young man gestured at his fellow passengers in their work boots and fast food outfits and hospital scrubs, "because all of us have one."

"I been down at the temp agency since six o'clock this morning."

By now everyone was watching, most with amusement. The young man looked at his watch. "It's four o'clock. How come you ain't still there?"

"It ain't easy to get a job. I need to eat."

"What you need to do is stop drinking." There were chuckles and nods and some of the black women made that "Mmmhmm" sound that captures life and truth in all its splendor and sadness. The beggar had lost his home-field advantage to this man with work gloves and a little boy.

"Well, yeah, I have a problem. I'm not perfect. Ain't nobody perfect."

"You don't got to be perfect, you got to stop drinking and get a job and stop asking all us for our money."

There was laughter now, not ugly, but the kind you might encounter at a family reunion, provided you have the kind of family that won't hide the fact that they think you are a fool or a mess but who will easily tolerate your presence regardless. But the beggar wasn't going to get any more money in this car.

He reached out his hand to the little boy, to give him a little fist bump. The boy responded, and then the panhandler shook his hand. The dad pushed his hand away, as if whatever had afflicted the bum was contagious. It was an easy gesture, like brushing off a fly, or wiping a nose or one of the thousands of movements a parent makes in a lifetime to guard and guide a little one.

The doors opened, and the beggar shuffled out. Everyone returned to their quiet conversations or looking out the window or, for many, tilting their heads backwards or forward or against a window and closing their eyes. The young father played with his son's hands, calm and gentle and bone-tired.

I wanted life to go well for him, and for his little boy. I found myself praying for them both, praying for the first time in too long, asking God to give this man every blessing I have received and squandered, every kindness I have repaid with indifference, every strength I have parlayed into weakness. I prayed as if the good things are limited and I had been given too many, because I have, and here was someone who maybe would do more with them than I.

I don't know why God persists with me, and sometimes I wish He would stop. I wish He would just move on, rush into someone else's life with the storm or the whisper and shake the dust of this barren garden from His sandals. And still He is here, on a fool's errand, leaving me no ground to claim hopelessness in anything, for He remains, with the absurd grace of Heaven, hopeful for me.

We find grace at the bottom of our shame, once we have wept at our own transgressions until we have no more tears, past the silence that follows, into the laughter at the sheer lunacy of it, this knowledge that there is no separating, that He of infinite knowledge is infinitely, mercifully forgetful.

So the prodigal son returned, scarred by the world he pursued, to a father who saw only the broken flesh of his flesh limping through the gate. The son, hoping to be blessed with the lowest servanthood, was instead to be the guest of honor. Rather than recrimination there is restoration and beyond this, a celebration.

It makes no sense, to the point that I marvel how anyone who knows shame could imagine we have manufactured grace to soothe our souls, for a fiction must be, at some root, believable. Grace, however, is inexplicable, wildly at odds with nature, thoroughly unbelievable.

And yet I believe, to the point that I ask Him to stop, as if I could cause one less stripe on the bloody back, shorten one of the nails by putting an end to this impossible venture when He in stubbornness will not.

I remember squeezing drops of nourishment through my daughter's clenched teeth after the doctor told us to let her starve, not out of faith, but because I could not give up on her life. I suppose it's something like that.

There's a reason Christ told us to call His father "daddy." Any man can father a child, but only a daddy persists past reason, binding himself to his child even though it lead unto death. Only a daddy sees the son return after shaming him and thinks not of comeuppance but of killing the fatted calf, for the presence of his child makes his home complete.

So He pours the living water through these clenched teeth, and I know that He will no more stop than I would, than that daddy in work boots would leave his son on the train platform, even if you told him the boy will only break his heart. It's how daddies are made.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005


William Isaac's namesake passed away Saturday night. Sergeant Major William Stroup lost both parents as a child and spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and foster homes. He parachuted into Normandy at age 24, killed people who needed killing, saw his friends cut down around him. He raised four children, one of whom was kind enough to have my future wife.

My wife has always been a good judge of character (with one exception) and he was one of her favorite people. As we prepare for his funeral I find myself wondering: how did he capture the heart of a little girl so completely, the heart now in my hands, the heart I've often mishandled? The answer, I think, is that he always believed her, he always made her feel safe, and he never let her leave his sight without telling her she was loved.

It's humbling to think on, and it's my prayer, in between prayers for the wife and children and grandchildren and friends now mourning him, that the same can be said of me one day. And Lord please give me the time to get there, and forgive the time I've wasted.

In her grandfather's final weeks my wife and children spent a lot of time with him while I worked in DC. Though he was worn down and in pain from the cancer that finally took him, he would sit at the organ and play and sing for the boys. Isaac was responsible for some of his last smiles, and he was responsible for many of Isaac's first smiles. I have no idea what they'll look like when we're all on the other side of the veil, but I'm sure I'll recognize them from the crooning.

Every few years he would drive across country for a reunion with the survivors of his battalion, and now their dwindling numbers are one smaller. He never had a big house or expensive car, and like most of us he had no fame. But he did his part to banish some of the darkness from the world for a time. He will be dearly missed by everyone who knew him. Would that the same could be said of all of us once we've departed this earth.

Go with God, Bill, rejoice in your new life. And try not to hog the piano up there.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Fourteen Years

Fourteen years ago this evening, the Wife became, well, my wife. She could have done better, though I don't think she knew it at the time. I've certainly given her cause for buyer's remorse. Talk about perseverance -- that seems to be the theme this week, no?

I remember her coming down the aisle, in the loveliest, classiest wedding dress I had ever seen, and have ever seen since. Her eyes sparkled, mostly because she was crying. This was touching at first, but it pretty much continued for the next two days, so perhaps it was a down payment of sorts, on all the hurt I would cause in the years to come.

But she came up to that altar, and she gave me her hand, and even though I had only an inkling of how undeserving I was I took it, and we were made one. She was so beautiful that day. Since then we've laughed, screamed, cried buckets, and often just . . . endured. Life hasn't been easy for her, for us; fourteen years can put a lot of scars on the soul. So I was amazed when I watched her sleeping this morning and realized, as if seeing her for the first time, what fourteen years has somehow become on her face, in her most unguarded of moments.

Somehow, despite the struggles, despite the worry and hurting and just plain working our way through the years, she is more beautiful today than when she walked down that aisle fourteen years ago, my angel in white.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2005


I keep finding tender purple pansies growing in corners of my yard where they were never planted. Stubborn and fragile, cheerful without cause, they remind me of Caroline. Purple was her favorite color. She used to help me plant the pansies every fall, or at least I think she did, because too many of the good memories are so faint now. In a storybook a father would remember everything, but it's not true; you lose things no matter how desperately you cling to them. In a storybook there would be new memories replacing these fading ones; in a storybook she would still be here.

When the wind hits the leaves just so, I feel her hair blowing against my face. When the sun touches the ocean in the late afternoon, I see her smile. When her brothers giggle, I hear her laugh, and in their prayers I hear her whisper. She is still here, just not in the way I would like.

I can wait. I'm stubborn too, like those flowers out of place. I can wait.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Wounded

On its surface, the Terri Schiavo battle is a tangle of conflicting histories, medical opinions, legal opinions, religious opinions. Beneath the surface, it is the latest skirmish between those who want to stop our practice of terminating inconvenient life, and those who want to sustain the right to do so. It is also a tribal conflict, and some are engaged not because they care deeply about the outcome, but because they see an opportunity to spew vitriol at the other tribe.

I'm not a neurologist, I don't know her husband. I can't claim any legal expertise that would allow me to discern whether this is a bad case that could make bad law, as Molly Ivins writes (which presumably means someone else wrote it first). I don't think I'm "incapable of making moral distinctions," as Ivins paints some opposed to the slow starvation of Terri Schiavo. It's a good line, to be sure, especially funny coming from a plagiarizing hack who would denounce the Almighty himself if she thought it would help her tribe at the polls. Perhaps her accusation is true of some on the Hysterical Right, but I don't think it's true of me, or many others who believe that what's happening in Florida is a shame and a tragedy.

The shame stems from the fact that Michael Schiavo betrayed his wife years ago. That's an ugly truth, and I don't say it with self-righteousness, because many men far better than me have fallen away from their wives, under far less stressful conditions. But that truth remains, and it is relevant, because the entire case for starving Terri Schiavo hinges on the post-abandonment remembrance by this man that his wife -- the same woman on whose behalf he sued to secure money for long-term care -- actually doesn't care to live in such a state after all. The heady willingness of many on the Left to embrace this contention unquestioned, simply because it serves their end of thwarting nefarious pro-life forces, redounds to their shame.

I'm struck by how cavalierly we throw about this notion that death is so easily chosen. Perhaps it's an easy choice in abstract, and so it becomes simple to project such a choice onto others. I suspect that many of us who bravely declare the many conditions under which we'd rather be put out of our misery, however, would in fact cling more desperately to life than we realize.

The unshakeable fact is that we'll all get to find out for ourselves one day, no? If you were to be Terri Schiavo's place, on which side would you like the world to err?

The tragedy is that Terri's parents simply want their daughter back from the man who promised to care for her, but who backed away from his promise. It appears that they can't have her.

It must be horrible, it must be maddening, and everyone who approaches this debate should keep that fact fixed firmly in his mind. Neither this, nor any case of euthanasia, nor any abortion, is directly about any of us onlookers. It is first about the life that is deliberately extinguished, and second about the wounded who are left behind. It is only about us in the indirect sense, insofar as our action -- or more likely inaction -- contributes to the state in which we find ourselves.

There will be many tears when Terri Schiavo breathes her last. Some will be genuine, some will be fake, some will be hysterically generated by people who have overly invested their emotions in someone else's tragedy. Then most of us will move on. You and I will go back to our lives, Michael Schiavo will go back to his new woman and kids, his attorneys back to their other clients. But Bob and Mary Schindler will be left without a daughter, and they will know that it might have been different.

posted by Woodlief | link | (23) comments

Friday, March 18, 2005


A few things. First, a logic check for the guy who tried to muscle his way into my lane this morning. Despite plenty of opportunities to merge like the rest of us, you chose to wait until the last possible second and then jerk your car at me like we're jockeying for position in the Daytona 500. You're driving a shiny new Porsche Boxster. I'm driving a 1992 Honda Accord that I've driven so long I can thread it between the lies in an Al Sharpton speech. Who did you think was going to win that battle?

Second, if any of my readers are ever feeling low on hope and energy, I encourage you to acquire a copy of Third Day's Offerings, and crank up the live version of "Consuming Fire." A warning -- it's not soft and soothing. But do you think in Heaven we're going to be singing "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" like a bunch of bloodless white Methodists?

Hell no.

Yes, I'm feisty today. But in a righteous, let's-burn-this-motha-down way.

So while I'm in this mood, let's talk about something, Christians. My agnostic friends, please just come along for the ride -- it may offer a little insight into this wacky cult of minivan-driving, homeschooling, getting up early on Sunday morning tribe that horrifies yet fascinates the sophisticates at the New York Times. Plus it helps us Christians remember that the world is watching.

A popular reference in evangelical Christian circles is Proverbs 27:17: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." We want this, for the men in our community to help one another stand strong in the face of a world that either mocks our faith or demands that we mute and mutate it into a harmless hobby.

But consider this, Christian men, as you think on your small groups, your book clubs, your mentoring relationships. What are you sharpening for?

Here's the thing -- we spend a lot of time reading the right books, learning the right verses, having our 6 A.M. accountability group meetings, all of it to get razor-sharp for . . . what? If you believe that the scriptures are truly theopneustos -- "God-breathed" -- then you have to consider why the Almighty settled on this particular imagery. Iron sharpening iron. Why do we sharpen iron?

To cut something. To kill something. To separate one thing from another.

It seems to me that too many of us -- and I am at the top of this list -- spend our precious free time diligently sharpening, sharpening, sharpening, and we never look up from our grindstones to ask where the battle is.

I've got a terrible secret to share with you. The battle is right here in our midst. It's the child who has been seduced into believing that his self-worth comes from the praise of the ungodly. It's the single mother who feels only the scorn of the very same Christians who would have cursed her had she aborted. It's the wife who reads the end of the fifth chapter in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and wonders why her husband is blind to the words. It's a world that equates our worth to our income, and to evaluations from people who won't be singing "Consuming Fire" beside us in Heaven.

But we're too busy sharpening to fight.

Here's another secret: if we wait until we're sharp enough, we'll whittle away the years until there's nothing left. We have armor, and we have a sword.

You know of what I speak, and you know that this sword is sharper than anything we could manufacture. It is the sword that separates light from dark, truth from falsehood, clean from unclean. It's been granted to us, and it should be an awe-inspiring gift. So why don't we use it?

Try this today: look at the world as a raging battle. Now survey the tragedy of an entire army of men professing to be on the side of light, yet all of them too busy earnestly sharpening their swords to engage the enemy. So are we surprised that our churches have become places that bore our young men to sleep and distraction? They are hard-wired for battle, and we give them a safe, perpetual training camp. No wonder they turn their passion to sports, one of the few remaining idols not only tolerated but nurtured in Christian circles.

Isn't it better to be beaten down than never to fight? Do we really believe that when we are weak, He is strong? Do we really believe any of the things we hear on Sunday morning? Beyond belief, are we convicted?

Don't talk to me about sharpening iron any more. Tell me about your battles.

posted by Woodlief | link | (18) comments

Monday, March 7, 2005


Sometimes when people learn that I have three boys, they say something like: "don't you want a little girl to go with all those boys?" I remember when we thought we were in the worst of Caroline's dying, after she couldn't speak but before the pain made her scream for hours, I would stare out the window at the cars driving by. I would look at the people inside them, some smiling and talking, some yapping on their cell phones, some simply placid and alone. They drove to schools and baseball games and restaurants, and to homes without sick children.

I hated all of them. How can they go on like life is normal, I thought, when our life has been torn from us? It was a silly, selfish thought. But I don't blame myself for having it, any more than I blame strangers for not suffering in that moment. We think silly, selfish things when it seems like the world is bent on crushing us.

I read somewhere that most people are never more than eight feet from a spider. Spiders are ubiquitous and secretive. Suffering is like that, everywhere and hidden. We have lost people we love, we have frittered away time and dreams, we have discovered betrayal where we expected love, we have been abused, we have been despised, we have been suffocated by indifference.

Suffering is often a very personal thing, and in a world of acquaintances and transactions we grow blind to the fact that all but the most unfeeling or narcissistic among us endure it. But they do. Often it passes, sometimes it lingers.

Sometimes it returns for a visit, and I've learned that if you don't let it in for a while it lurks outside your door, peeking in the windows, whispering things you don't want to hear, until you've medicated yourself with distractions and blocked out every good thing just to keep from hearing, from seeing.

So it's best, I've found, just to let it in. Then you learn that time has dulled its sting, and you can actually bear the company. And then you discover that while you were keeping it at bay, you were keeping away the very best parts of life as well. It is the last trick in suffering's bag, the last thing it can rob from you -- the blessings you have now, your time to drive down the street and smile because life, for all it can take from you, brings gifts of grace and sweetness.

Caroline would have turned nine years old today. We would have had a party, with cake and ice cream and presents. Her little brothers would have been underfoot, singing "Happy Birthday" at the top of their lungs, hopelessly, desperately loving the beautiful girl with brown curls and eyes like chocolate, eyes like her daddy's.

Hopelessly, desperately, the way I love her, the way I miss her.

Happy birthday, Caroline Elizabeth. You are beautiful.

posted by Woodlief | link | (19) comments

Monday, February 7, 2005


I've been sick, the kind that lingers and begins to make you wonder if you will ever feel good again, or if instead something ghastly has hold of you. Nothing does, says the doctor, just a combination of fatigue and virus and various peripheral complications. I hate the feeling of physical weakness; it puts me out of sorts. I suspect I will be quite graceless at dying.

I was afraid because the weakness wouldn't leave me. I imagined I had some disease of the heart or blood, and that soon I would be the subject of hallway whispers and conversations between doctors quite unable to help but constitutionally incapable of admitting it.

I used to be afraid of death. Every visit to the doctor was tinged with fear that he would find another lump in my throat that didn�t belong, only a lump unlike the first one, a lump not so easy to cut out. Every clean evaluation was like a reprieve.

When we lost Caroline I began to look forward to death. Then we had a baby, and another, and another. I guess ancient fears have ways of re-attaching themselves. Now I don't fear my death for me, but for the family I would leave behind.

It's funny -- a family has a way of forcing spiritual maturity on those capable of such a transformation, and this maturity is a precursor to courage, and yet family can make such cowards out of us. Missionary trip -- are you crazy? I have children to look after. Go deep-sea diving? You must be out of your mind. Go pester one of those ubiquitous, shiftless, childless college grads for a partner. I have a family to protect.

No wonder so many men are increasingly comfortable with sending young girls to do our fighting for us -- all of us with families are too fearful of What Might Happen.

If you believe that death is the absolute end of you, then you do well to fear it -- more so than you will realize until that day. But many of us proclaim something very different, and yet look at how we arrange our lives. Nearly every waking thought is bent on either eliminating risk or cultivating distractions from it. We who believe in a Creator profess a dependence on Him, but we don't behave as if it's true.

Or maybe it's closer to the truth to say that we know it's true, and we hate it.

I remember sitting in a jet sent by my former employer to fetch us back from the clutches of Children's Hospital in Chicago. Our last real hope, they almost killed Caroline before telling us what they knew before we arrived, which was that she was going to die. Our pastor had flown up so that he could fly back with us, and I remember telling him that every hope had been removed one by one, so that now we sat in the palm of God.

"There�s no better place to be," he said. I knew I was supposed to believe it, but I didn't.

When we have no other hope, we face the possibility that His plan won't be ours. Sometimes He lets worldly dreams go unrealized, and tragedies happen, and illnesses rage. To trust Him is to abandon your plans.

This is a hard thing to do. It is doubly hard when you have been wounded, and you know that He could have stopped the wounding.

I think of my children, and how they trust me so completely. Sometimes that trust leads to wounds, and not all of these are for their good. Sometimes they are hurt by my stupid words or actions or inattention. And yet they trust me with abandon. With complete abandon.

"For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." I've been thinking about that, as I reflect on how I run to Him when I am desperate, yet when I am wealthy and well I devote my time to building a kingdom where He isn't needed. I find that I become Peter in the hours before the crucifixion, knowing Him but pretending otherwise.

So I am praying now that I will be Peter on the Sea of Tiberias. This is the chastened, broken man, the one who carries the knowledge that he abandoned his friend in his moment of greatest human need. And then Peter sees his risen Savior waiting on the shore, and rather than cling to safety this time he plunges into the sea, to be with Him all the sooner.

We leave much behind when we do such a thing, but maybe that isn't so bad. In fact, maybe it's the best thing we could ever do.

I want to find out.

posted by Woodlief | link | (20) comments

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Path

With a sigh she was gone, five years ago tonight. Somewhere in these last years it became true that the time since we lost her is greater than the time we had her. I've come to measure the years by this date -- what has happened since she has been dead four years? And five? I find myself doing an inventory, an accounting of how I've spent the months. Am I better or worse? Are we past holding on? What's still broken?

I stopped screaming at God this year. I don't believe anymore that he killed her to punish me. I don't worry that if I'm not good enough he'll take my other children. These thoughts all sound crazy to most of you, and they feel crazy to me as I write them. I can't explain to you how I could have believed them so deeply in my bones, yet I did, and now I don't, and to me that's a miracle I never expected.

My wife taught me what grace means this year. My children helped me see how God's love really can be unconditional. I don't deserve them, and they certainly deserve better than me, especially my wife.

But here we are together, and another year has passed. I'm going to go downstairs now and make blueberry muffins. Then we'll dress the children in warm layers, load up our hiking gear, and set out for Old Rag Mountain. At the base my wife will put Isaac in a sling across her chest, and I'll put on a backpack into which I can place Eli when he's tired of walking.

Then we'll set out for a place where we planted flowers a year ago, just off the trail, at a turn in the path. We'll say a prayer, and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and remember. Somehow I went down the wrong trail last year and got lost in a thicket of my own design, and with my precious family I aim to go back and find the right path once again.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, October 15, 2004


Ever put off writing a letter until you have the time to make it really special? Then the next thing you know, eight years have gone by, the person you were going to write to hates you, and you can't remember what you wanted to say in the first place?

So I've been meaning to write a long post about the new boy, post a picture, and so on. It ain't happening any time soon. So let's just hit the main points for now.

The child is like a teenage boy -- he parties all night, sleeps all day, and is obsessed with breasts. Given that I'm an up at five in the morning kind of guy, this doesn't wear well on me. The wife, on the other hand, has some kind of estrogen Superwoman thing going on that enables her to nurse him every ten minutes at night, reorganize the garage and work in the yard all day, and still look breathtakingly beautiful when I get home.

Everyone asks us: "how are the other boys adjusting to their new brother?" The answer is that they are France and he is Lichtenstein, which means that they mostly talk to and about themselves, but occasionally remember he exists and stop by for a visit.

Eli has struggled a little, however. The second day we had Isaac home, Eli came into our bedroom where my wife was sitting on the bed nursing the baby.

"Mommy, will you hold me?"

"I can't hold you right now, sweetie." Quietly he turned and left the room. A minute later I peeked into his bedroom and saw him curled up in his little rocking chair with his blanket under his arm and his fingers in his mouth, listening to music.

"Are you sad, Eli?"

"Yeah. I can't fit in dat bed."

"Come here, baby." He toddled over to me and I cradled him in my arms. He sighed, that long low sigh we all make when we finally get to hug someone we love and have missed terribly, or when we slip into bed after a miserable day.

We talked about the random things that occupy a child's mind, him looking up at me with his cheek against my chest, and for a little while he was the baby again. Then he wiggled out of my arms and tackled me, ready to give the little boy thing another go.

I worry all the time that I'm not giving them enough of me. They crave my time; they soak it up like thirsty plants. Caleb still talks fondly about when we spent a few days putting flooring in the attic. It was a hot and miserable job from my perspective, cutting boards, dragging them up the stairs, and gluing and nailing them down. But Caleb had a blast in his little tool belt and yellow construction worker's hat as alternated between whacking boards with a hammer and decorating them with his little brush and watercolor paints. I wish I could see the world through his eyes more often.

The other night one of the boys started a rumor, which spread to the other one, that I was going into work in the middle of the night. I know this because they opened my bedroom door at 11 p.m. and marched to my bed like a delegation from some tiny country of wee people, demanding to know whether I in fact was getting ready to go to work.

"Do I look like I'm getting ready for work?"

"I don't know."

"I'm sleeping, babies." They just stood there quietly in the dark, but I could feel them staring at me suspiciously. "Now let's go back to bed." Of course this required a Daddy escort, because while they were brave enough to come down the hall to check on me, they couldn't quite muster the courage to make the return trip on their own. Then there was the tucking in, the requests for sips of water, the additional questioning about exactly when I planned to go to work, why I have to work at all, and whether they could have chewing gum in the morning.

"Daddy," Caleb asked me a few weeks ago, "why do you have to work?"

"So we don't have to live in a shoe box."

Fast forward a few weeks. "Daddy?"

"Yes, buddy."

"Do you have to work tomorrow?"



"Uh huh?"

"I want to live in a shoe box."

They are an observant, literal little crew with keen memories. Just the other day I caught Eli chomping on something at eight in the morning. "Eli, are you chewing gum?"

"No, I'm Eli."

It's often frustrating in the moment, but it makes me smile when I write it down. I should smile more often, because one day all I'll have left is what I've written, and what scraps of memories remain in my mind. But I'll be able to watch them, God willing, experience what I'm enjoying and enduring right now. I hope I prepare them well.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments

Monday, August 23, 2004


It was Nana to the rescue this weekend, thanks to the impending William Isaac's desire to see the world sooner than fits the doctors' schedule. With two boys, a wife on bedrest, and an upcoming board meeting, let's face it: I need back-up.

Thank goodness for my mother-in-law. Now, I understand that's not a sentence uttered frequently in English, or any other language. Go ahead, Google it. I'll wait.

Like I said, it's not a common utterance, especially among men. But most men don't have my mother-in-law. She cooks, she cleans, she plays with the kids, and she only fusses when I try to bus the table after dinner. She even makes me chocolate chip cookies.

I love Nana. With her riding shotgun, I was able to keep the wife relatively immobile, which is difficult to do even when the doctors give strict orders, which my wife interprets as "loose guidelines," or perhaps more literally as "impossible rules delivered by pinheaded compassionless automatons whose overriding concerns are prompt payment and lawsuit avoidance."

She says "to-may-to," I say "to-mah-to." In any event, we survived the weekend. Caleb pitched in, too, helping me make beds. Now, my philosophy of bed making is that it's a clearly inefficient use of time. You figure five minutes to make the thing and two to unmake it, and you're on the hook for 49 minutes a week. That's 42 hours a year -- a full work week. Think about what good you could do with 42 extra hours a year.

My wife does not share this philosophy. Apparently, bed-making is VERY IMPORTANT TO A WOMAN. So important that I twice caught her trying to make the thing. So I shooed her out and called on my oldest son, and we assembled the bed. Everything went fine up until the decorative pillow part, for which I have no flare. I know this because for the first few years of marriage, the wife thought I was playing a joke whenever I tried to be helpful by adding the pillows.

Caleb also knows it. As I added the pillows in some semblance of symmetry (why do they sell odd numbers of matching pillows?), he shook his head. "Dad, you are doing that so, very, wrong." With an exasperated sigh he corrected my work. I'm proud to report that his arrangement looked no better, though he was satisfied with it.

The next morning the wife and I lay in bed listening to the boys play in their room. My wife has them trained not to leave their room, except to use the potty, until one of us comes to get them. This is a very good rule. Nothing gets your day off to a bad start like being awakened by a two-year-old stepping on your groin as he walks across your bed to get to his mama.

We could hear them giggling and tumbling around, and I thought: this is heaven. Then the wailing began. In came Eli. "Caleb pushed me down."

"Caleb!" No answer. "Caleb!" Still no answer. The boy had suddenly gone deaf. "Stephen Caleb!" Apparently he was banking on my sloth to save him. "Stephen Caleb Woodlief! Get in here right this minute!"

Finally a head peeked into the room, framing a face far too innocent. "Yes?"

"Come here, child." Slowly he entered the room. "What did you do to your brother?"


"Then why is he crying?"

"I don't know."

"He pushed me down!"

"Caleb, tell me the truth."

"Well, I don't think I want to tell you, because then I might get a spanking."

It's very hard to sustain the grave visage of a parent about to dole out justice at moments like that. Once the chuckling was over, I pulled him close, and we talked about telling the truth, even when we don't like the consequences.

I've noticed that when I'm having those gentle, instructive talks with one of my boys that I like to hold my forehead close to his, with his head in my hands. Each of them in turn likes to tug at my beard while he listens. It's a moment framed by our frailty, as I try to impart to them the lessons I've only learned through failure, and they stroke my rough face, as if sampling the life into which they are being propelled all too fast.

I think we have only a few such opportunities while their hearts are really open to us. I imagine that if you could count them; the number would seem small when held up against all the times they will be tested and found either well-trained or wanting, protected or wounded. We squander so many of those chances. The rest of the time, they learn by watching us.

That's an even more frightening thought -- that the life of someone I love so dearly will be profoundly shaped by my actions and, just as important, my inaction.

What other mission compares to this? What other calling has as much eternal importance? The job? Don't deceive yourself; you'll be forgotten within six months of leaving. Your publications? Most likely irrelevant within a generation, if ever they were relevant to more than a handful of people. Your money? Talk to someone who already has plenty, search his heart, and see if any happiness you find there comes from the zeroes in his bank account. Admiration of others? The crowd is no more loyal than the wind.

Most of us leave our families each day to pursue one or more of these things, and many of us forget that they are but means at best, and we make them our life's purposes. But when we feel death coming to collect our bones, do we ask to be surrounded by our money, our books, our contracts and co-workers?

No, we want only those we have loved. And if there are none we have truly loved, perhaps we realize what those around us already know -- that ours was a wasted life. The same is true if the ones we love have no desire to be with us. The first is a measure of the heart, the second a measure of resolve. Can I love anyone more than myself, and have I given of myself to them? These are far more important questions than anything that can be gleaned from a resume, no?

Funny, how we spend all of our emotional energy on things that matter so little, and think so little about the things that matter most.

So, before you charge into the week, take a moment to consider why you are charging. Who do you love? Who loves you? Where are you going, and why? Worth asking now rather than later, don't you think?

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Friday, July 23, 2004

His Heart

It's late, and Caleb should be asleep, but instead he's awake and in our bed, curled up in my arms. We talk about his day, and about the difference between a beard and a moustache, and about pizza. He's so little in my arms, and getting so much bigger each day.

Sometimes I see him as he will become, and I'm excited about the life he'll live, and sad that one day he'll leave us. I feel in those moments the fiercest love, so strong that sometimes it makes me cry, like now. I wipe my eyes, because he wouldn't understand how tears can come from happiness and sadness all mixed together in a good way, in a way that makes you understand in your heart, maybe for only a few seconds, how only a few things in life are important at all, and how vastly important those few things are.

"I've got to go to the doctor," he says, "so he can see if I have Jesus in my heart."

"I believe Jesus is there."

"Yeah." A smile. A hug around my neck. "Sometimes my heart is broken."

"It is?"

"Yes, but then Jesus makes it all better again."

Mine too, little man.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Friday, April 9, 2004


"He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.

But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him."

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Sunday, March 7, 2004

The Indian Princess Year

I haven't written much about Caroline for the past year. I felt like I should just be done with this. So I put all my energy into other writing. But she is always there, lingering in the back of my mind. Sometimes she is an image, sometimes she is an invisible presence, but she is always there.

There's a book to be written about her, and us, and what I think we learned, though I'm still learning it. I know there's a book because I have the pieces scattered throughout notebooks and thoughts and memories, some sweet and some heartbreaking. I wrote another book instead, though now I'm not sure why.

Maybe I figured I was still learning, that the time had not yet come to lay it all out and make sense of it. But now I see that I'm getting to a place where I can no longer avoid the last things, which when distilled are my horror over what I saw in her final weeks, and my anger at an all-powerful God who sat in silence while it happened.

I suspect I will only get through those last things by writing about them. Counselors don't work, prayer doesn't work, and avoidance has only wrecked things. Of course the first two haven't really failed, because I haven't really tried them, not wholeheartedly, anyway. Instead I've focused most of my energy on the last strategy. And the wreckage is darn near total.

Many times since last March 7th I've thought one thing, which is that this was supposed to be the Indian Princess year. I remember learning about the Indian Princesses from a friend whose daughter was seven at the time. It's a club where dads and their little girls get together and sing and play games and do all the fun dress-up stuff that girls like, but with enough of a frontier flavor that dads don't feel like complete sissies.

I wanted Caroline to be an Indian Princess, but she was only three, and the minimum age was seven. I remember thinking that I didn't want to wait four more years. I didn't understand waiting the way I do now.

So last year was supposed to be the year I took my Indian Princess to play with her little friends, and the year I looked at her in amazement over the fact that she could sit for an hour and just read (homeschooled kids are smart that way, you know), and the year she helped me cook, and the year the beginnings of a mommy could be seen in her as she helped mind her brothers.

Instead it was another year of wondering if she's the same age in heaven or if they grow older there, and wondering if she misses us or even remembers us. It was another year of wondering if the way heaven works is that you look back over your shoulder and see the people you love passing through the veil behind you, so that separation is only a moment in God's time. It was another year of remembering her laid out on a gurney as they rolled her out my front door, and waking up in the middle of that first night terrified that maybe she wasn't really dead but lying awake in a cold room at the mortuary, crying for her mommy and daddy.

It was another year of knowing that I don't have an Indian Princess; I have a dead daughter, and God let it happen.

But I also have a loving wife and two sweet little boys, and in between the times that I worry I will lose them, too, I am thankful, I swear I am. But I can't figure it out. Why answer every prayer but that one? What purpose did it serve, not just that she died, but that she died like that?

I demanded a miracle and didn't get one, and I'm mad as hell about it. That's the nature of selfishness. It's so much easier to love God when he doesn't let us hurt. And now I'm supposed to trust him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding, as the proverb goes.

You think when you lose your child that you'll dream about her all the time. I've only dreamt of Caroline a handful of times in the four years since she died. I dreamt about her this morning, on her birthday. We were at the end of her days again, the time when she couldn't move and even her mouth was clamped shut because of the tumor. The doctors wanted us to let her starve to death. Their children weren't hungry, so far as I know.

In those last weeks I would hold her in my lap, with a roll of paper towels and a couple of cans of vitamin drink on the bedside table, and I would slowly dribble the drink between her clenched teeth, and then wipe the spill from her face. It took about four or five hours a day to feed her, because only a few drops at a time would go in.

There I was in that place again, only something changed in the middle of it, and Caroline was gone, and it was me being fed through a mouth that refused to open. In my dream I knew it was God holding me and doing the feeding, though now I don't know how I knew this.

I've only recently begun to understand grace -- how a perfect and mysterious God can forgive transgressions like the ones I've committed. I understand it by looking at my own children. No matter what they do, I will always love them. Somehow, for some reason, God looks at his children that way. I can't fathom it, but I think that's how it works.

And yet somehow he lets us suffer. This is a mystery that I can't unlock, perhaps because it isn't mine to figure out, at least not here. I feel his grace around me, and I see his blessings, and yet I carry this wound that won't seem to heal. I'm not sure if that's because I won't let it, or because I've not yet cleaned it, for fear of what that entails.

Let it go or dig into it -- there's a dilemma for you doctors of the soul out there. Sometimes it seems like there are so many of you, writing books and drifting over the airwaves offering solace, and yet I don't want to hear from anyone who has all his children healthy and happy on this earth. Talk to me about God working all things together for good when you've put a child back into the ground.

There is no comfort in leaning on my own understanding, because it leads me back to that anger. Instead I try to live the 42nd Psalm. "Why are you in despair, O my soul?" When we ask this we ask it not of ourselves, but of the God who, as Bebo Norman wrote, sometimes can't be found. "I will say to God my rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?'" If David could ask it, perhaps I can too, and God will forgive me for forgetting that he surrounds me even when I cannot feel his presence.

I only meant for this to be a couple of lines about Caroline on her eighth birthday, and now look what I've done. There's more here -- a book, in fact, but not for this place, and not today. So enough for now.

Happy birthday, Caroline.

My Indian Princess.

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Friday, March 5, 2004

The Passion of Christ

I saw the film nearly a week ago. I've carried the images around in my head, sometimes willingly, sometimes unbidden. Some I savor, and some make me cringe still, and I realize in this the power of the witness, that the eyes are windows to, and therefore into, the soul. Sometimes what they take in etches itself on our hearts for good or ill, as a blessing or a poison.

This film has been called both, of course, and I'll leave it up to the yammering heads to sort out their truths. I've been talking to people about writing these last few weeks, and I've had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that the calling of the writer who is a Christian is the calling of every Christian: to answer Pontius Pilate.

It was Pilate who offered the sophisticated query that we hear echo through our schools and cultural centers, the query of the raised upper lip, the query of one who has made himself a god: "What is truth?"

So there is debate over the truths of this film: does it dress up a lie, does it besmirch Jews, is it the harbinger of religious oppression, and so on. The question hidden in the throats of many doing the asking is this: does it dethrone me as god?

And the answer is no. We are all cast down from our thrones in due time, but no mere film will do that. But it does force us to consider Pilate's question. What is truth? How can we, who are natural liars from our early years, ascertain it?

Biblical scholars talk about the mysteries of the Bible, which I think in many cases is code for the things that don't fit the neat theological constructs into which they've tried to cram their Creator. But he will not fit our constructs, of this I'm sure. See, even the worst of liars like me can recognize Truth. This to me is a mystery, a beautiful, grace-filled mystery.

So I want to share a little of what I saw of Truth in this film. This is a selfish want, one borne of joy and heartbreak. I expected to cry when watching it, but I did not expect that I would weep when I did. It wasn't the torture, or the crucifixion, horrible though they were. I think some Christians obsess over the physical component of what happened that day in the prison and on the Hill of the Skull. They detail the brutality and its effects on Christ's body like coroners, to the point that is borderline pornographic. They speak as if the physical torture was the point.

But it wasn't the point. Instead the torture was man's brutal, ignorant participation in getting to the point, which was innocent blood interposed between wrath and guilt. The film makes clear that the torture was horrible, and obscene, but surely that pain paled in comparison to the moment when Christ looked up to his father and cried out "Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?" only to receive . . . silence. And then the cold clutch of death gripped him. Surely this was the real horror, for who would not endure torture to avoid it?

So what brings tears, to me at least, if not the torture? I didn't expect it, but Mary. The quiet, desperate endurance of a mother witnessing horror descend upon her child -- this I cannot bear to see without weeping. I know why: because I've seen it before, for four months in 1999, in the face of my wife.

I've thought about it from God's perspective, as I've cried out to him over the years: my God, my God, why did you let this happen to her? I'm learning of late that I'm still angry at him. Dreadfully, sickeningly furious. But my anger subsides when I think on the fact that he knows what it is like to watch his child die a wretched death, twisted and tortured. He knows what it is like to see in his child's eyes the weary, woeful realization that in his hands there will be no release from the painful bloody path to death.

But I forgot about Mary. I cast a wary Protestant eye at the prayers to her, the reliance among some Catholics for her intervention, almost as if they believe it was she up on that cross. It wasn't, but surely she felt as if she was. In the film she says to her dying child as she looks up at his almost unrecognizable body, "flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart." Mary didn't die for my sins, but surely on the day my life was bought at Golgotha, Mary died a waking death.

We are not yet at the heart of it, though, because the message is neither the torture nor the death of Christ. In one sense these things comprise his Passion, but there is another sense to that word as we use it in English. I realized this as I witnessed the scene that broke my heart, the scene that I want burned into my mind until the day I am released from this earth.

It was a flashback to a sandy pit. We witness it from the ground, through the eyes of an adulteress as she stares up at her righteous rulers, heartless men with heavy stones in their hands. They are preparing to kill her for her sin, and by law she is guilty and deserving death. Then she sees sandals step between her and these men.

It is her Savior, and mine. He boldly interposed his body between death and that woman and me and millions. This was, and is, his passion. We are his passion; that is the point.

That is Truth. May it set you free.

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Thursday, February 27, 2003

Our Neighbor

Charles Dickens wrote of children: "I love these little people; and it is not a slight thing, when they, who are so fresh from God, love us." Fred Rogers was loved by millions of children, and his life was no slight thing. He has left us today, and the world is much poorer for it.

I suppose one day I will have to tell my son, who watches tapes of Mr. Rogers with a gaze of adoration that few others receive so freely. But not soon. Mr. Rogers is still very much alive to my son, who believes him when he says in a hundred little ways: "God loves you, and so do I."

We love you too Mr. Rogers. Rejoice in your reward.

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Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Forty Million

Thirty years ago on this day, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the writers of the U.S. Constitution intended for citizens to have a right to terminate a baby inside the womb. The justices opted for the clinical-sounding term advanced by abortion advocates, "fetus," which is Latin for "baby," and in two court decisions they effectively eliminated the right of elected state legislatures to prohibit the practice. The plaintiff in the more famous of these cases, the "Roe" in Roe v. Wade, has since denounced the practice of abortion, and embraced Christ. Abortion clinic workers are fond of wearing buttons that say, "trust women." I assume this does not extend to Norma McCovey.

In the intervening thirty years, roughly forty million abortions have been performed in the United States. This number should give pause to even the staunchest abortion-rights advocate. He should also pause in the face of two additional facts: 1) mothers who see their babies on ultrasounds are less likely to abort than those who do not have ultrasounds; and, 2) abortionists refuse to ask their clients to have ultrasounds. (Note: The pronoun gender in the previous sentence is grammatically and descriptively correct; young single men are the demographic group most thoroughly in favor of abortion.)

If abortion advocates are wrong, they are complicit in the murder of 40 million children. If abortion opponents are wrong, they are complicit in the rescue of 40 million children who by some metric were better off dead, or whose claims to life were outweighed by the desires of their mothers to be free from caring for them. An error by the latter group imposes stark inconvenience and some health risk, both of which can be mitigated; an error by the former imposes mind-boggling infanticide.

Americans rightly have presumptions and measures to protect life in instances of uncertainty. A man must be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before being sentenced to death for murder. We require independently verified written consent before honoring someone's "do not resuscitate" request. We require assessment and proof from family and psychologists before committing someone to an asylum.

In the area of abortion, however, we are willing to make a presumption that the advocates are correct, despite the implications of being wrong, despite the growing evidence that babies from the earliest weeks are sentient beings, despite the reality that women with complete information and other options overwhelmingly choose not to abort.

We do this for the sake of convenience, and because too many of us are cowed by the screeches of self-anointed advocates of women's health and rights -- people who know little about the full meaning of womanhood, who obfuscate the evidence that abortion is harmful to the mental and physical health of the women they claim to represent, and who cannot state a case for this manufactured right that extends beyond their narrow view of female happiness and entitlement.

If community has any meaning, then every one of us who has ever sanctioned this act is guilty of bloodshed. Every one of us who calls himself a Christian, but who has failed to speak out against this evil, and to offer comfort and support to women who feel driven to such an act, every one of us is guilty too. Perhaps ours is a greater affront to God, because we carry the responsibility to bring truth and light into a darkened world. By turning our backs on mothers in need, we fail at both.

Forty million, and counting.

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Friday, January 17, 2003

Time Outside the Walls

Reading the raging debate on abortion at Megan's site got me thinking about time I've spent in front of an abortion clinic. Having been in favor of abortion rights, and now against them, I know the arguments, and they are tiresome. How can we conclude that a mass of blastocysts is human. How can we pretend that the fetus, which has arms and legs and fingers by the time it is large enough to extract, isn't human. How can we assign women to back alleys. How can we sanction murder.

And so on. Most of these arguments dissipate when one stands on a street corner of an abortion clinic that contains its own incinerator, and watches the smoke drift lazily from a pipe atop the roof.

The facility belongs to George Tiller, who for a brief time was at the center of the famous "Summer of Mercy" over a decade ago, in Wichita, Kansas. Someone eventually shot him, and now he wears a bullet-proof vest. He provides partial-birth abortions for a significant fee; he is one of the few remaining abortionists who does so, and women from surrounding states flock to him. His facility takes up a good portion of a city block, nestled right on the edge of small homes on a highway access road. Across the street is a car dealership, and sometimes they wash the ash off their vehicles. I wonder if it occurs to them what they are doing.

The contingents are fairly small, other than during a small attempt to revive the Summer of Mercy a few years ago. Although there are plenty of people on both side of the debate, with different claims about faith and non-faith, at the abortion facility most of that disappears. The people in the fenced parking lot, who are there to make sure nobody trespasses, and to usher in cars carrying mothers, despise God. The people on the outside believe they are called by God to this place.

I can say this about the people on both sides because in the many days I spent there, I talked with most of them, or heard their conversations. The people inside the fence call themselves escorts, and they wear bright orange vests or shirts labeled such. They scream at the Christians who step up to the arriving cars in an effort to give the occupants literature, or to talk them out of entering.

The people outside the fence do three things. Some of the women have the job of approaching the cars, always on the mother's side, to make eye contact and to talk to them. Their job is to be gentle, never to cajole. They operate under the assumption that many mothers don't want to do this. Next door to Tiller's facility is a Christian medical clinic -- they offer free ultrasounds, counseling, medical help, and adoption support. The goal of the women is to convince the mothers to go next door. Sometimes they are successful, which infuriates the escorts. I cannot reconcile this fury with their aspiration to the title "pro-choice."

Others, including the men, take various places along the sidewalk beside the building and pray, or sing. A few walk back and forth on the sidewalk, timing their walks so that the entering cars have to wait the few seconds that give the women time to get the mothers' attention.

The last function entails a significant amount of verbal abuse and threats, but little real danger; only once was I nearly harmed while doing it, and that by Tiller, who purposely cut his Jeep sharply to clip me with his side mirror. He is a hero to those on one side, a demon to most on the other. He is at various times both to at least some of the women who have paid for his services.

I've never spoken a word with him, but I've been close enough to look into his eyes. I don't think many people realize how much you can tell about someone in those few unguarded seconds of visual confrontation. There are a handful of his escorts who have the same expression, which is of deep, abiding hatred. Occasionally there are people outside the fence who have the same expression. Each side has people, I suspect, who will be surprised to find themselves in Hell.

Some of Tiller's escorts have been active in this fight for years, migrating from facility to facility across the country, to wherever the opposition seems greatest. Likewise for some of the Christians on the outside. A few of them have known each other for years, and have relationships of odd familiarity.

The long-time servers on the escort side are also, at Tiller's, the most hateful, and so sometimes they dredge up bits of knowledge they have collected over the years about their opponents ("Hey Donna, too bad you couldn't hold down that job"). The long-time servers on the Christian side interact with the opponents they've known for years as high school teachers do with well-known juvenile delinquents ("Now, Susan, you know better than that").

It is too easy to get sucked into arguments there, and it took me a while to learn that some of the people inside the fence want exactly that. I learned simply not to talk to them unless necessary. Most of the people outside the fence have the same attitude, though occasionally someone new arrives, and feels compelled to convince the escorts that what they are doing is evil. Most of the escorts have heard all the arguments before, and they can usually make mincemeat out of someone like that.

What they hate is for the Bible to be read. So, we took to reading the Bible. I'll never forget the day I first saw this done -- dozens of people in unison read the same passages of Scripture.

Behold, the LORD'S hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear.

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

For your hands are defiled with blood . . .

The response was like something out of a vampire movie, the most hateful escorts literally writhed with fury. The rest made a few attempts to shout down the crowd, then to joke among themselves, and then they simply fell quiet.

It is appropriate for Christians who oppose abortion to simply rely on God's word. If they are right, then it is his word that persuades -- not logic, or even data, and certainly not recrimination, especially towards the mothers. They are the victims that live ("For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up," goes the psalm). The clinic next door to Tiller's also offers post-abortion counseling, which keeps its staff busy. This is not a service Tiller provides. It is not a need, in fact, that the self-anointed women's groups even recognize. But it exists, and to it, again, it is the Christians who are called.

I was by no means one of the stalwarts at Tiller's. My involvement was heavy for a time, then lighter and lighter. It is heartbreaking to be there, and I often felt the deepest sense of fear and foreboding while walking that sidewalk. Those who believe in the existence of God believe in the existence of spiritual warfare, and it is at its strongest in this place. It is a fearful place to be, mostly for the mothers.

I'm sure people reading this who favor abortion rights are thinking that this fear is a result of the activities of the Christians outside the gates. Having someone gently ask you not to harm your own child only creates fear if you know in your heart that this is exactly what you intend to do. Hearing someone read the Bible only creates fear if you suspect in your innermost being that the words are true. So in speaking truth, I suppose that the Christians do create fear.

Nothing I write here will convince anyone that his views are wrong. Much of it runs counter to the accounts of people on the other side, who portray abortion opponents as violent, argumentative, threatening. Some of them are. I can only speak to what I saw in one place, a place where I believe evil is done. And that is why the Christian opposes abortion, because he believes that it is evil. It is a version of passing one's children through fire in service of the modern idols -- career, convenience, sexual freedom.

There are Christians, to be sure, who believe that abortion is not evil. The pastor of a local church offered the service, upon request of the parents, of baptizing the corpses of infants killed via partial birth abortion inside Tiller's facility. He was a strong supporter of Tiller for years, and remains one, though his church has since defrocked him, not for sanctioning murder, but for committing adultery. Some taboos still remain, it seems, even in the Methodist church.

Likewise, there are a handful of liberal pastors who support Tiller. Their theology is that of liberation, not the risen Christ. Those words make the irreligious uncomfortable, which is fine. One need not accept the doctrine of Christianity to recognize that calling oneself a Christian is not equivalent to holding to the tenets of Christianity. So while there is a minority of self-professed Christian leaders who support what happens behind Tiller's walls, the majority, presumably, does not.

I say "presumably" because the majority of Christian leaders remains shamefully and wickedly silent. Their own reading of Scriptures makes clear that Tiller commits murder, yet they remain silent, for fear of drawing the ire from their country club parishioners. Who wants to organize prayer at the abortion facility when there is a youth soccer league to be organized? And so goes the bulk of modern Christian institutions into irrelevance.

But there are the steadfast few, God bless them. They go to that place every day, with their Bibles and their water bottles. They stand or kneel and pray outside those gates, faithful that one day God will eliminate that blight from their city. I am a pessimist by nature, so I believe they are wrong to expect this. But I have seen them rescue some children and their mothers from that place, and I have seen their faithfulness in the face of verbal abuse and police harassment and general disdain from fellow Christians who prefer not to soil themselves by associating with fanatics.

More important, God has seen it too, just as he sees what goes on inside those walls, and those of us who do and say nothing.

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Monday, January 13, 2003

The Witness

I mentioned some time ago that I embarked on reading Whittaker Chambers' Witness after seeing a silly jab at it in "The Marathon Man." I'm nearing the end (it's an 800-page book), and the sections describing his early efforts to alert the Roosevelt administration about Communists and Soviet agents in their highest ranks stays with me. Some excerpts (from the Regnery edition -- I doubt there are others, for while powerful, it's not like Chambers' book could ever equal in the eyes of today's publishers, say, Cornell West's ruminations on the racism inherent in Starbucks coffee labeling):

"I saw that the New Deal was only superficially a reform movement. I had to acknowledge the truth of what its more forthright protagonists, sometimes unwarily, sometimes defiantly, averred: the New Deal was a genuine revolution, whose deepest purpose was not simply reform within existing traditions, but a basic change in the social, and, above all, the power relationships within the nation. It was not a revolution by violence. It was a revolution by bookkeeping and lawmaking . . .

Now I thought that I understood much better something that in the past had vaguely nibbled at my mind, but never nibbled to a conclusion -- namely, how it happened that so many concealed Communists were clustered in Government, and how it was possible for them to operate so freely with so little fear of detection. For as between revolutionists who only half know what they are doing and revolutionists who know exactly what they are doing the latter are in a superb maneuvering position.

At the basic point of the revolution -- the shift of power from business to government -- the two kinds of revolutionists were at one; and they shared many other views and hopes. Thus men who sincerely abhorred the word Communism, in the pursuit of common ends found that they were unable to distinguish Communists from themselves . . . For men who could not see that what they firmly believed was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see what added up to Communism. Any charge of Communism enraged them precisely because they could not grasp the differences between themselves and those against whom it was made." [emphasis mine].

This to me captured exactly what I observed on a much smaller scale, and with much less than Chambers had at stake (for the Truman administration was moving to imprison him, in order to protect Alger Hiss, and thereby itself), during my years of undergraduate and graduate schooling. The people on the left with whom I tangled were generally in one of two camps: those who sincerely felt for the poor and sick, and who had no understanding of how free markets are not in general a cause of such conditions; and those who were motivated by hatred and envy of the wealthy (or white, or both).

The latter are the executioners of Stalin's era -- they know little of the system they advocate, but support it because it enables them to put bullets in the brains of enemies, the list of which ever grows. The former are the busy worker bees of Socialism, many of whom, in the countries where Communists came to power, eventually found themselves at the mercy of the executioners, precisely because their strong sympathy for the downtrodden rendered them incapable of silence when it dawned on them that they served monsters rather than saviors.

Arguing with either class was generally fruitless, because neither was very interested in either the morality or the long-term physical consequences of what they advocated -- one did so to assuage guilt or pain over the plight of others, while the other did so to settle grievances. Chambers has a nice encapsulation that I'm sure will resonate with many of you who have fought the good fight:

". . . as we left the meeting, one of the non-Communist girls, a young socialite of an old and good family, and an M.A. or a Ph.D., marched upon me. She was ultra smartly gowned and booted. But her studiedly cool and intelligent face was working in lines of most unintelligent anger. 'How dare you,' she asked with the voice of Bryn Mawr but the snarl of a fishwife, 'how dare you call us Communists?' It was no use to explain to her that what I had said was, not that she and others like her were Communists, but that they were non-Communists who were letting the Communists lead them by the nose. . . Scores of her kind, just as impeccably pedigreed, socially and culturally poised, also staggering under M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, and just exactly as witless, were to howl for my head in the Hiss Case."

Some of what Chambers wrote about the fellow travelers of his age applies with striking perspicacity to the fellow travelers of our age, namely those who make common cause with the various flaks and grievance artists who are front groups for Muslim terrorists, their suppliers, and other murderous totalitarian thugs. An excerpt:

"They were people who believed a number of things. Foremost among them was the belief that peace could be preserved, World War III could be averted only by conciliating the Soviet Union. For this no price was too high to pay, including the price of willful historical self-delusion. . . Hence like most people who have substituted the habit of delusion for reality, they became hysterical whenever the root of their delusion was touched, and reacted with a violence that completely belied the openness of mind which they prescribed for others. Let me call their peculiar condition which, sometimes had unconsciously deep, and sometimes very conscious, political motives that it would perhaps be unmannerly to pry into here -- the Popular Front mind."

Chambers, of course, wrote in an age where it was impolite to dub these folks with the title that many on the non-mainstream Internet have now aptly given them -- idiotarians. I like his term "Popular Fronters" because it captures their collectivist mentality. The term "idiotarian" is individualistic, and doesn't in itself explain what we now see, like the spectacle of Greens and liberal Manhattan Jews and the anti-Semitic French making common cause with one another to excuse Muslims strapping on shrapnel bombs to climb aboard Israeli schoolbuses. This is not merely a collection of Simpletons, but a coalition of Simpletons steeped in the very deep error that they are in fact quite thoughtful. They have merely embraced an amalgam of grievances and inconsistent rebuttals and told themselves they have a philosophy. Individually, of course, they are idiots. But collectively they are very much the Popular Front about which Chambers wrote years ago. Fortunately, we have more avenues by which to attack them, while the profound wrongheadedness of their forebears leaves their positions -- in the media, in the academy, in Hollywood -- eroded and themselves less credible.

At the same time, I think we are missing something. As Chambers observed, one cannot be a witness against something alone; one must be a witness for something. We are good at showing that the idiotarians well deserve the moniker, and we champion liberty and markets as valuable means to human ends, but I wonder if these ultimately satisfy. We still face a yawning spiritual void that was the essence of the totalitarian project from the beginning. Chambers believed that this was the real battle -- it was not between Communists and anti-Communists, but between Communists and Christians, for the soul and passion and hope of mankind. Would he put faith in himself, or in God? It is an interesting and pertinent question, I think, regardless of which one chooses.

I, of course, side with Chambers:

"The idea that man is sinful and needs redemption has been subtly changed into the idea that man is by nature good, and hence capable of indefinite perfectibility. This perfectibility is being achieved through technology, science, politics, social reform, education. Man is essentially good, says 20th-century liberalism, because he is rational, and his rationality is (if the speaker happens to be a liberal Protestant) divine, or (if he happens to be religiously unattached) at least benign. . .

Men have never been so educated, but wisdom, even as an idea, has conspicuously vanished from the world."

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Tuesday, December 24, 2002


The following words were written by a prophet called Micah, between 750 and 686 B.C.:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.

Therefore He shall give them up,
Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth;
Then the remnant of His brethren
Shall return to the children of Israel.

And He shall stand and feed His flock
In the strength of the LORD,
In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God;
And they shall abide,
For now He shall be great
To the ends of the earth;

And this One shall be peace.

Nearly 700 years later, according to Luke:

"Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.'

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

'Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!'"

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Friday, October 18, 2002

On Remembering

I like being a father. The other day I was holding Eli, and with his soft little fingers he was stroking my ear. I turned to give him a kiss and saw why he was being so attentive; he was simply trying to hold the ear in place while he endeavored to steer his wide-open mouth -- with its two sharp teeth -- onto it. So much for boys and gentle.

Caleb is starting to exercise the child logic which when coupled with an expanding vocabulary is amusing. A couple of days ago my wife tells him she's "a little frustrated" with his behavior.

"You're not a little frustrated, Mommy, you're a big frustrated. I'm a little frustrated."

He likes to watch a videotape we have of his sister. He calls it "The Caroline Video." Occasionally he asks, "where is Caroline?"

"In Heaven," we tell him.

Tomorrow evening will mark the third year since she went there.

The funny thing about some kinds of memories is that they respond to our desire to avoid pain by making themselves scarce. I don't know how the brain works, but I think sometimes this isn't healthy; they store up like water under pressure, and sooner or later they find a way out. What makes the whole process difficult to manage is that when you try to let them out at a safe rate, to "work through things" as therapists and soap opera characters like to say, they all try to come out at once, which only increases our urge to shut them in.

But we can't, and eventually we have to get comfortable living with the memory of what we've already lived through. It's taken me about two and a half years to figure this out, though I suppose it's common knowledge for some.

I think my remembrances are subtly changing. Where before I would turn the worst parts over and over in my mind, letting the sharp edges gouge new holes, now my mind is drawn increasingly to the moments of grace amidst them.

For example, last night I lay awake thinking of that night she died, and my thoughts settled at first on how tired we were in those last weeks. In my dresser I keep a little notebook where we tracked her medications during that time. It's written in columns, one for each primary medication, but I read it in linear time. One of the worst days reads: Benadryl (2:35 AM), Morphine (6:40 AM), Morphine (7:40 AM), Decadron (9:15 AM), Zantac (9:25 AM), Morphine (9:50 AM), Morphine (10:45 AM), Morphine (11:00 AM), Morphine (12:15 PM), Benadryl (12:55 PM), Morphine (1:35 PM), Morphine (2:20 PM), Morphine (2:55 PM), Morphine (4:20 PM), Morphine (5:35 PM), Morphine (6:35 PM), Decadron (7:50 PM); and then eat and shower and sleep until she needed Benadryl at 4:45 AM the next morning.

I don't know why I kept the notebook at first, but now I keep it because it reminds me of the time we lived Philippians 4:13. Eventually her strength failed, and our borrowed strength left us. On that night, after she died, we gave her a sponge bath. We didn't have to be so terribly careful because of the pain; we could just wash her like any other little girl, though for the last time. We brushed what little hair she had left, and dressed her in warm clothes. Then I went downstairs and called our pastor, and then the doctor's phone service.

"What doctor please?"


"Patient's name?"


"Your relationship to the patient?"

"I'm her father."

"And what's the problem?"

"She just passed away."

The women on the other end gasped, and then whispered, "Oh. Thank you."

Back upstairs we sat on our bed holding Caroline while all over town calls were being made, and friends who had long waited to do something sprang into action. Our pastor arrived first. I heard him walk slowly up the steps, and then he was standing in our doorway with a Bible in his hand. He didn't open it, though, he just came to the edge of the bed and took all three of us into his big arms. I never loved him more than at that moment. Then he read something from Revelation, I think ("no more tears nor crying, for all the old things have passed away..."), or maybe a Psalm, and then went downstairs to wait.

Soon after, the home care nurse came to verify that Caroline was dead, though I already knew for sure because I had a stethoscope. We showed her pictures; she hadn't seen what Caroline really looked like, before. I realized it had been months since we last heard those words which we used to take for granted: "You have a beautiful daughter." I don't think she used the past tense, or at least I didn't hear it that way.

Friends gathered in the living room, and soon the mortician was with them, and we knew we had to take her down. I carried her the way I had not in months, cradled like a baby, because the paralysis along her left side was gone now, leaving her limp. I heard some of the women start to softly cry when I appeared at the top of the steps, but all I saw was the gurney waiting by the door.

After some time I put her on its thick blankets. Underneath them was the black body bag.

"Could you wait until you're outside to zip that up?"

"We won't zip it up at all. She'll stay just like that."

The women cared for us for a while, with many "I'm sorry's" and tears. At some point we moved onto the couch in our den, where all the strength that had been propelling me for months disappeared. I heard myself sobbing "my baby, my baby, my baby," and all the women from church, now in the kitchen, grew quiet. I think it's a startling thing to hear a man cry, probably because we don't do it that often, and when we do we tend to do so badly. Suddenly I felt like vomiting, and I was shivering with cold, and my head hurt so bad I could barely see. I heard my pastor, who is also an Eagle Scout, whisper to someone that I was in shock. Eagle Scouts are good at spotting that sort of thing. Someone covered me in a blanket.

Later I called a lot of our family members, who all kept it together on the phone. In a day they would start to arrive in Wichita, and our friends would take care of them, too. Lyle Lovett wrote a song titled, "Since the Last Time," and it's about what a good thing funerals can be for the living, and hers was. The strength returned long enough for me to give the eulogy, and it felt so strange to look down from that pulpit at family spread out in front of her little white casket; I remember thinking I'd never seen them all sit next to each other before. Spread out behind and beside them was our church family, our beautiful family.

A friend videotaped the funeral for us. We asked him to; I wonder if that was tacky. I've never watched it, but I did fast-forward through it once, when I was putting together every bit of her life we captured on tape. In the sanctuary on the wall hung a woven banner, and I realized that our friend had zoomed in on it during part of the service. It reads: "O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?"

Indeed. The sting lingers with the living, but it fades, and hope shines through. That's a lesson two years and 364 days in the learning.

I think we can hear some things and believe them, but not really know them without experience. So now Paul's words make more sense than they once did: "...but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts..."

We brought Caroline's ashes and flat gravestone with us out of Kansas. Tomorrow I'll dig a place for the stone in the very back corner of our lot under the willow tree, and landscape it with flowers, and we'll put a bench back there. I think that will make October 19th a good day, which it hasn't been for a long time.

posted by Woodlief | link | (46) comments

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Parenting and Discipline

My friend Cis sent me this disturbing story about a father in Texas who used a stun gun to discipline his 8 year-old son. Apparently he kept it on a setting equivalent to a "very bad bee sting," and used it because he found it to be "the only effective method of discipline with the boy."

First, I'm sure the boy is unruly and unpleasant to be around. I'm equally sure that such behavior is the direct result, except in extremely rare cases involving chemical imbalances, of poor parenting. Finally, I'm certain that this case will become one more anecdote in the arsenal of activists seeking to criminalize corporal punishment of children.

I'm humbled because Cis asked my opinion based on her belief that I am a good father. I have two confessions to make. First, I'm not nearly the father I would like to be. Second, the fact that my children are well-behaved is more a product of my wife's work than my own. But I've learned a thing or two from her and other good parents, which I'd like to share with you. I can't speak about this in other than spiritual terms, because to me this is an essential part of our covenant with God. I think much of what I will say can be useful to those of you outside the covenant, however.

Recall that a literal reading of the book of Proverbs yields the following admonition: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him." Read that again, notice the word "hate." It is no coincidence that modern Americans have transmogrified this passage into "spare the rod, spoil the child." Spoiling children, after all, is something cute that grandparents are supposed to do. The Judeo-Christian scriptures are clear, however, that in the eyes of God, to forego discipline is to hate your child.

This is what I've found to be true both in action and consequence. The parent who does not provide steady discipline for his child is unwilling to endure the pain and hardship required to do so. It is far easier to let poor behavior slide, to give the little darling what he wants, to make him happy today, if only so he'll smile and shut his yap and let us watch the football game. The fact that this happiness is fleeting, and that one purchases it at the cost of future selfishness, is easily overlooked. It is only the parent who truly loves his child and has a vision for the child's future who foregoes short-term pleasure today in order to stem bad behavior. The selfish parent who chooses immediate satisfaction for his child (and, let's not forget, in so doing chooses immediate satisfaction for himself), creates an adult who will be perpetually unsatisfied, incapable of giving sustained effort toward achievement, and profoundly unhappy.

In short, he who spares the rod behaves, in the long run, no differently than someone who hates his child.

Of course there is that question of what one means by "the rod." The problem with corporal punishment is that, like having children, any idiot can do it. Large numbers do it incorrectly, giving the whole enterprise a bad name. Many parents provide inconsistent discipline, and spank out of frustration and anger. Their children simply learn that consequences for their behavior are undependable, sometimes yielding a payoff (i.e., the parent yields, in order to achieve peace), occasionally yielding a beating. They learn that violence is the proper response when one is angry. They learn that the representatives to them of God and law, their parents, are unpredictable and fickle. They do not learn what a good parent should teach them, which is that sin has negative consequences.

The purpose of corporal punishment is not to physically hurt the child. It is to teach him that punishment follows sin. This is, to the Christian, to people of other faiths, and to many secularists, a reality of the universe that must be imparted to the child for his own well-being. It need not really hurt or be very frequent if done properly and begun at an early enough age. Many well-meaning parents make their first mistake by waiting until their child is two years or older before beginning to discipline. Hence the "terrible twos." Many parents -- and the child development experts who abet them -- are highly skilled at dreaming up excuses for the poor behavior of their children. (A word of warning to new parents: someone who warns you that your child will suddenly become more difficult to manage when he is [insert age at which their own parenting fell apart], as if poor behavior were a physiologically determined event, is a poor parent whose advice is useless.)

If you wait until your child is two years old to begin holding him to expectations, you will have trained him to whine, wheedle, cry, scream, lie, and deliberately disobey you to get what he wants. A fool reading this is now saying to himself, "my God, this monster expects us to beat a one year-old." Of course not. Discipline can begin as soon as a child is capable of connecting consequence to action, which means it need not be painful. For example, experienced mothers will tell you that a simple method of keeping a six month-old from biting the nipple when breastfeeding is to gently thump him on the forehead. It won't hurt, but it is irritating. Soon enough he'll learn not to bite. A gentle thump on the hand of a seven month-old when he tries to grab your eyeglasses, along with a stern "No" in a deep (but not raised) voice will teach him not to do so. These practices are easily extended to other areas. By the time your child is one year old, he should understand what "no touch" in a stern voice means, and obey, even though he doesn't understand the literal meaning of these words.

This kind of discipline takes effort. Children are little high-powered observational learning machines, and any lapse in consistency sets you back ten-fold. It is hard, but it is worthwhile, because your job as a parent is not to earn $20,000 for every year in your age, it is not to have a new car every two years, it is not to have a fulfilling career, it is to train up your child in the way he should go. If you do not do this, then you are a failure. No matter what else you achieve, no matter how great is your acclaim among men, you will leave behind on this earth an unhappy and poorly equipped human being, and that is a sorry legacy. Remember that the next time you read about captains of industry and entertainment whose children are utter beasts.

That is not to say that God doesn't love you, or that he won't forgive you, but we should take very seriously this warning: "whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

But we started with a question: what to think of the man in Texas who uses a stun gun on his son? He is, of course, a failure as a father, because that kind of violence should never be what is required to gain obedience from a child. He is certainly innovative, however, which should serve him well in prison.

I think perhaps the reason so many people are quick to condemn someone like him, however, is because we need such parental villains to assuage our own guilt over raising children who are spiritually directionless, amoral, and unhappy. We fail to give them the gift of self-discipline, we hand them over to strangers in their early childhood years and to state bureaucrats in their later years, all so we can pursue our own fulfillment, and then we are shocked when neither they nor their own children are truly, deeply, happy.

And that leads to a good question to ask yourself, during what I call the 3 a.m. moment, when you are lying awake, completely stripped of the ability to deceive yourself. Are your children joyful? If you remove them for a day from their toys and their television and their supervised group activities, would they rejoice in simply being alive on God's earth? Do you even know what joy looks like? If so, God bless you and them. If not, God help you.

Finally, because no lecture is complete without a reading list, a few recommendations. The first two are small books written by Michael and Debi Pearl, entitled To Train Up A Child and No Greater Joy. They can be ordered, along with lots of other great parenting materials, at the site linked here. Another great resource is Ted Tripp's Shepherding A Child's Heart, which you can order here. Whether you are a successful parent, or a struggling parent, don't give up hope. This is one of the highest callings someone can have, and God gave you your children for a reason. Don't let them down.

posted by Woodlief | link | (27) comments

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

A year ago today, the population of Hell was increased by at least nineteen, the number of hate-filled wretches who murdered over 3,100 people on American soil. The airwaves and Internet will be filled today with people expounding on this event, some of them with dignity and insight, more with embarrassing self-centered mawkishness. I don't care to add to the overload except to say this: may we soon find the last of those who assisted the nineteen, and the last of their compatriots, and reunite the whole despicable lot with their brethren.

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; Preserve my life from dread of the enemy.

Hide me from the secret counsel of evildoers,
From the tumult of those who do iniquity,
Who have sharpened their tongue like a sword.

They aimed bitter speech as their arrow,
To shoot from concealment at the blameless;
Suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear.

They hold fast to themselves an evil purpose;
They talk of laying snares secretly;
They say, "Who can see them?"

They devise injustices, saying,
"We are ready with a well-conceived plot";
For the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep.

But God will shoot at them with an arrow;
Suddenly they will be wounded.

So they will make him stumble;
Their own tongue is against them;
All who see them will shake the head.

Then all men will fear,
And they will declare the work of God,
And will consider what He has done.

The righteous man will be glad in the LORD and will take refuge in Him;
And all the upright in heart will glory.

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Friday, August 23, 2002

Walking By Faith

This is one of those notes that starts out as one thing, but becomes something else. I hope you're okay with that. I believe I am.

I've alluded lately to a big secret. Some of you know what it is, and now I'll share it with the rest of you: we're leaving Kansas. Practically all of my work is in Washington, D.C., and so we're packing up and heading east. The movers, in fact, have been here all week, and I write this from the carpeted floor of our basement, my family asleep around me, as we camp out one last night in our home.

And I can't sleep, as I dwell on the fact that today is the last day I will own my house. That's a cause of elation for many in my position, and I suppose there's some relief we feel at knowing that half the transition will soon be complete. But there is also sadness, because this house has been the setting of our most beautiful moments as parents, as well as the great tearing, scarring nightmare that was most of 1999, the last year our daughter lived and breathed on the Earth.

I wonder if this is normal, to live in the serenity of untouchable joyous memories one moment, and in the darkest sadness and regret the next. I'm sitting in the room where Caroline used to lay down beside me while I did sit-ups, and roll her little body side to side in an effort to imitate me. And I'm sitting in the room where I fussed at her more than once to let me work, not knowing that the time to play was coming to an end so very soon. It's the room where we made up silly dances, and the room where I studied in horror the likely course of her brainstem tumor.

Every room in this house affords the ability to squint one's eyes and almost see her, almost relive being the parent of a living little girl. There's the kitchen where she sang "Jesus Loves Me" while helping her mother put away silverware, and the porch where she waited on the swing for me to come home. I can see her face pressed against the back door glass while she danced with excitement at my arrival. I can hear her knock on our bedroom door at 5 a.m., three stuffed animals and a pillow clutched in her arms, waiting to be picked up and tucked into our bed. I can still feel her last breath on my face, expelled with a sigh from her broken body as she lay in her mother's arms.

We tend to think of remembrance as something done in the mind, but the most poignant memories are those the whole body feels, when you can smell and hear and almost but never quite see what it is you haven't learned how to stop looking for. And so even today, nearly three years after burying Caroline in cold earth, I still feel an occasional surge of panic -- a father's urge to get to a child who no longer needs him. Leaving this house feels -- not figuratively, but literally -- like I am leaving my daughter.

But faith, the conviction of things not seen, intercedes. I have often wondered, in my self-pity, why I couldn't have grown up in a home like those of the children in my church, secure at such an early age in the knowledge of God's love for them. But the advantage the Christian who comes to faith after years of disbelief has over the lifelong Christian (and over the atheist) is full knowledge of both states. Faith is ultimately in the unseen, but to live in faith, well, that is a tangible matter; it is indeed the assurance of things hoped for. I have known what it is like to want faith yet to be unable to manufacture it, and to shun faith yet have it loom ever closer, squeezing out every alternative mental state. I think most atheists and most Christians get it horribly wrong -- faith can no more be chosen than can the color of one's hair.

And so I have this faith that has impinged on my life, and it helps me breathe past the moments of panic, by setting my mind on what lies ahead, when each of us is finally brought to the dark valley Caroline traversed three years ago, where we learn whether we are to walk it alone, or by the hand of a Savior. This faith tells me that though my body cries out at leaving our house, I should not despair. For the Christian, every step leads not away but toward those who have gone before in faith.

Of course this is unreasoned, self-soothing prattle to those who wait for God to justify himself by reconciling with what they believe their precious sciences reveal. The great tragedy inherent to faith and man's condition is that it can be neither reasoned out nor conjured. Those of us who truly love God, and those of you who do not, are separated by a divide that cannot be traversed by the will of man. I cannot summon words to express my thankfulness for being on this side of that gap -- and, I see now, for having lived on the other side.

Part of the joy of being on this side of the divide, and thus a source of sadness as we contemplate leaving, is that, contrary to the "me and Jesus" delusion of modern Christianity, our faith brought with it a covenant community. These people cared for us, fed us, guided us, wept with us, still mourn with us. I will never forget the Sunday morning they gathered around us, more than a hundred strong, me with my weakening child in my arms, and poured out their prayers and tears in requests that would not be granted. Like us they grew angry at a God who seemed not to hear them, and with us they learned that the same hands that wound us can care for us tenderly, and that this is perhaps God's deepest mystery. They are our family, because there are ties stronger than blood.

There is much more to say, but not tonight. We are moving, and soon we'll be within driving distance of the beach, and the mountains, and real barbeque (if you haven't been to North Carolina, this won't make sense to you), and Cheerwine, and Carolina football. The grandparents will finally be able to squeeze their little darlings to their hearts' content, and we'll relearn what it's like to drive on roads that have curves in them. We'll live on the hallowed ground where Bobby Lee whipped some respect into blustering Yankee generals, and do our small part to retake the Capitol from people who have long ago forgotten the purpose of the U.S. Constitution.

Many good things lie ahead, and we are thankful for these, just as we are thankful for the things we leave behind. We live joyful sorrow, which is the blessing bestowed by hope, which is itself the child of faith. I have on my wall a picture of Caroline, standing next to a beautiful purple clematis flower on a vine intertwined through the latticework of our deck. This year all the vine's flowers were gone by late July, the consequence of living in heat and drought. But early this evening, as I walked out onto the deck, I saw my wife standing below, crying. On the vine amidst the hulls of flowers long since blown away, a single purple flower had emerged.

It is these little things that sustain many of us, like a gentle voice singing with quiet persistence through man's self-obsessed din. Thus in myriad ways are faith's roots grown, often out of sight, until its fruit springs forth and surprises its possessor most of all.

And so you can see, I began by writing about leaving our home, and ended by talking about faith. But for some reason I am convinced that all the words fit, just as I am convinced that there are enough here for now, except for these, which are not my own:

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us . . . let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross . . ."

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Wednesday, August 7, 2002

The P-Word

I remember watching Game Two of the 1995 World Series and deciding that Bob Costas is gutless. I came to this conclusion because Costas went out of his way, as Cleveland pitcher Dennis Martinez warmed up on the mound, to avoid describing a key part of Martinez's ritual. Martinez is a Christian, and he used to pray before beginning a game. So, while several million viewers watched this man bow his head, pray, and cross himself, Costas mumbled something about his "moment of silence," and his "time of reflection" before the game.

I'm reminded of this as I read about New York City's planning of ceremonies to commemorate the first anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. The Washington Post and The New York Times dutifully report that New Yorkers will reflect, remember, commemorate, memorialize, hearken back, and eulogize. They will light candles, read names, honor the dead, celebrate the living, sing songs, cry, read speeches, and have moments of silence.

But in this flurry of activity nobody, apparently, will pray. Instead, houses of worship will be encouraged to ring their bells, like the happy, unthreatening nuns in The Sound of Music.

I'm fairly sure there will be prayer, if not from the podium, then from the throngs of citizens too unsophisticated to have abandoned their childish faith in deity. I'm equally sure that, should some dignitary let slip the G-word, or -- heaven forbid -- the C-word, considerable Internet bandwidth will be absorbed on September 12th by the lamentations of atheists with bruised feelings debating which aggrieved them more: the previous day's religious displays, or the Presidential Inauguration. What's funny is that while there will be prayer, major news outlets seem afraid to mention it in their laundry lists of activities to be engaged in by mourners. This goes for two television news broadcasts I heard on the same topic.

Do they really not know that average people pray, or are they simply afraid to say so?

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Wednesday, July 3, 2002

"Ethics Without Human Beings"

I came across this essay (via Curmudgeonry) by New York Times columnist Bill Keller, explaining the decision he and his wife made two years ago to abort their malformed child. It is thoughtful, and clearly painful for Keller to have written. It is also profoundly wrongheaded.

Keller directs an obligatory slap at pro-life advocates (what he calls the "anti-abortion lobby", i.e., not real people), calling them shameless exploiters of the "illusion" that "tadpole-sized fetuses" are "full-grown infants." Of course it wasn't a tadpole that was extracted -- kicking, by his wife's account -- from her womb at 20+ weeks, neither in size or substance. It wasn't a tadpole they thought of as their son, and whom they named Charlie. But in reducing pro-life activists to hardhearted defenders of miniscule fetal abstractions, Keller can sidestep their claims.

He next attempts to bring God into the matter, in the fashion of those who acknowledge His existence but prefer to treat Him as an inscrutable abstraction. So he explains that his wife, who "clings more firmly to her faith" than he, turned in desperation to the hospital's Catholic chaplain. The chaplain never returned her calls, so she resorted to a nun of her acquaintance, who advised her to "think about what God would want, not what the church would want."

What God would want. The God who said "You shall not kill." The God about whom the psalmist wrote, "You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb." The God who said "Deliver those who are being taken away to death." The God who keeps the psalmist's promise, "My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up." The God who said in anger, "You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols."

Of course that is the God of the Bible, and perhaps I should no longer be surprised that a nun would be unfamiliar with him. Barring personal revelation or reference to Scripture, her advice amounted to: "follow your conscience," which Keller freely admits sublimating to his "reason" on this topic, such that he calls himself and his wife sentimental fools for thinking of the fetus as their child.

And so they aborted the baby, after agonizing over their decision, and with the best of intentions: to prevent suffering, to protect the mother's health. I've never faced that choice; I can't claim greater strength. But I do claim greater clarity, which is precisely what Keller says this experience has made him suspicious of -- the moral clarity of those who "seem to offer a kind of ethics without human beings."

It's all so fuzzy, you see; it has to be, because clarity raises the horrible possibility that well-meaning people, like the Kellers, like thousands of other families who face similar decisions, may well choose what is evil. We can, after all, do evil without intending it, and harm others without wanting to. I have. So have you.

What's curious is Keller's contention that pro-life people who claim moral clarity on this issue practice "ethics without human beings." This is precisely the point of dispute: abortion rights advocates argue that there is one less human being in the equation than do pro-life advocates. This isn't ethics without human beings, it is quite the opposite -- an ethics that demands we recognize as human what abortion advocates label "fetus", a clinical term intended to dehumanize, to convince a woman that she is not a mother, and that the heartbeat in her womb is not that of her child.

I suspect what Keller means by "ethics without human beings" is a well-justified feeling that many pro-life advocates don't sufficiently account for the suffering and fear attending parents who face delivery of a dead or deformed child, or which confronts a single woman who considers raising a child on her own. The same opinion is equally justified, as he implies, of abortion rights advocates who resist evidence that abortion is physically and psychologically harmful to women. Empathy is what's needed, and it is short supply on both sides of this issue.

In this Keller is strongest; it is encouraging to hear an abortion advocate challenge Planned Parenthood to "live up to its name" by counseling parents who may want to keep their children. Though he doesn't acknowledge it, pro-life ministries have made great strides in the same direction, offering medical, financial, and spiritual help to women who twenty years ago could not have expected such compassion. The more people on both sides offer loving guidance and assistance to these women in need, the fewer abortions will occur. This is one reason, unfortunately, why I don't expect Planned Parenthood, or the legions of full-time abortionists with which it is allied, to take up Keller's challenge.

All told, Keller's article reflects considerable evolution for an abortion rights advocate, as he indicates: "I've often wondered what we'd have done if the decision had been less stark -- if the doctor had said 50-50 [chance of survival for the baby], or if the gamble had been on something known, on Down syndrome or one of the severe crippling diseases. Would we have had the strength to ride it out? The fact that I think of this as something to aspire to is itself a change of heart."

Sadly true, and I would credit Keller with courage for admitting it, if I believed he might confront opprobrium for confessing that at one time he did not see this as worthy of aspiration. I doubt, at least in the circles of Times writers, that such opprobrium is forthcoming. This is a topic about which clever people reason away their instincts. But in Keller's words: "no amount of reasoning about the status of this creature can quite counteract the portrait that begins to form in your heart with the poetry of the first heartbeats."

The reasoning can only take effect, it seems, once the heart has stopped beating, and after the sting of what was done has dulled with time. Then one can write an article asserting that there really are no moral absolutes. But in Keller's article even this facade crumbles. It is demolished in the heartbreaking words of his wife, who wishes that they hadn't known of their baby's defect:

"We would have lost that baby, but we would not have killed that baby."

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Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Let the Children Come (Provided Their Parents are Suitable)

CNN hosted this interview with a woman whose part-time career as a stripper has led her 5 year-old daughter's private Christian school to threaten expulsion. This is one of those stories where everyone involved needs a good kick in the pants.

Let's start with Mommy. She claims she took the job to pay, in part, for her daughter's tuition. Fair enough, although I wonder if there weren't other ways to raise the $400/month tuition, given the impressionability of little girls, and the general obligation of a mother not to signal to her child that removing one's clothes for money is something desirable.

What grates is not the mother's reliance on a variation of that classic stripper's story, "I'm doing this to pay for school." It is, instead, this reply to the interviewer's question whether she might have anticipated that a Christian school would have problems with her behavior: "I understand that line of work is not understood by a majority of people . . ."

A show of hands, please; how many people don't understand what a stripper does? I've noticed this tendency in morally marginal professions; practitioners assert that what they do would be rightly perceived to be within societal norms, if only people understood it properly. I remember watching a talk show years ago on which a pornographic film neophyte explained that she hadn't actually engaged in sex for money, that it didn't "count" because it was just acting, and that people not in pornographic films just don't get it. The fact that practitioners need these cognitive screens, of course, is prima facie evidence that they are, in fact, violating social norms of which they are otherwise fully cognizant.

And now for the school. This touches a nerve because there is, in my city, a popular Christian school that does not accept children of unbelieving parents. I know a woman, a Buddhist, who would very much like to enroll her child in this school, and who says further that she doesn't mind at all that they would teach her child Christianity. The doors, however, remain closed to this child, and to others who would most benefit, if one takes Christian teachings seriously, from its services. (This does not appear to be a question of limited space, by the way; this parent would gladly pay to have her child taught there, yielding funds for additional capacity if needed.)

So the school where the stripper's daughter is enrolled has in their midst a child whose parents are divorced, and whose mother removes her clothes for paying strangers. I would think that it would stick in their throats, this admonition of Christ: "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these." But perhaps he was not speaking of this child, or of my Buddhist friend's child. Perhaps Jesus really meant to say, "Let the children come to me, so long as their parents are believers and steady contributors to my churches, preferably white and upper middle class, with a penchant for soccer and ski trips, and a tendency to vote Republican."

I suppose we shall all find out in our own time. Were I in charge of these Christian schools, however, I would like to err on the side of letting in the "wrong" sorts of children. I don't think Christ will look so kindly on those who let his lambs go unaided.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2002


I have an apartment over my garage. The illegitimate and ill-behaved children of the girl we gave a home to for several months had pushed out the screen on the door, so last night I went up to fix it. My two year-old, Stephen Caleb, demanded to accompany me, having grown tired of splashing about in the rainboots that come up to his knees, the kind with toes that look like frogs. So up we went. And while I was working, he slipped, rolled under the railing, and fell to the ground ten feet below.

All I could think, as I saw him lying face down in the dirt, was: Are you taking this one from me too? Then I was down the steps, and somehow -- somehow -- he was standing up, caked in mud, crying. I picked him up and rushed towards the house, frantically feeling for a bone at an odd angle, or gushing blood, expecting any moment that he would lapse into unconsciousness, all the while praying please, please, not again. Please.

And he was fine. He should have broken something, or had a concussion. He could have landed on his head, or on the bricks six feet away. But he didn't, and I found myself wondering yet again why things happen, why some innocents are lifted up by God's own hand, and others allowed to die a death they don't deserve. Once again I return to the only answer, which is that there is no answer, at least none that matters.

A hallmark of those who have not suffered greatly is their Shakespearean quest for Meaning in the suffering of others. I had dinner some weeks ago in the home of a friend who by all accounts should be dead, whose body is painfully scarred by a dreadful car accident a year ago. During our conversation another friend, someone I respect a great deal, pointed out to him how much his suffering did to bring our church closer together. I saw his face change slightly, an outward sign that the inner wall is going up, the wall that someone hurting sometimes has to build against those who want to help, but who cannot.

We have some need, especially American Christians, it seems, to see the scales balanced in our lifetimes, to see every hurt counterweighted by good. But the scales only seem capable of balance if it's not your body, your marriage, your child lying broken on the tray. The truth is that the Bible we look to for proof that God is the Great Accountant says exactly the opposite, that in this life there will be suffering for many, and that it won't always make sense:"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways," declares the Lord.

A verse that I think is often misinterpreted, meanwhile, is that Presbyterian favorite: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." There are Christians who trot this out at the worst times in the lives of their brethren, as if this can be some comfort to a wife wiping drool from the mouth of her husband incapacitated by stroke, or to the parent of an autistic child. This verse serves for some Christians as a charm of sorts, warding off evil.

But its words don't promise that we will understand the purpose of a suffering in our lifetimes, or, should we discern the purpose, that we will judge it worthwhile. "All things work together for good." Notice that this does not tell us that every single thing by itself will produce good, nor that any resulting good will be manifest in the weeks or months following the affliction. The words instead describe a totality that many of us cannot see or understand, at least not here. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts..."

So some people have to suffer greatly, and don't get to know why. What's more, usually there is no "why" great enough to be worth it. This is a revelation that can only be borne by anguish. But that does not mean that our hope is worthless. We are not promised a balance of joy and pain while mankind dwells in sin, but we are promised peace: "The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all." For some, deliverance only comes with the last breath of a broken body. But peace is possible, even in the midst of affliction.

And very often, joy is possible as well. Sometimes children fall and are broken. But sometimes they get up, and we get to hug them, and help them smile again, and remember that a God who would give them to us in the first place must love us after all, even if we don't always believe it. Especially then, I think.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

On Forgiving

I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness, about what it means for someone who has wronged another to have the audacity to ask that person to put down his rightful claim of vengeance. It's not in our nature to forgive, yet somehow it is in our nature to ask for forgiveness. We are programmed to ask for a miracle, for someone to overlook that which is evil in us in order to repair what was once good. Dag Hammarskjold wrote:

"Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is made clean again."

What a wonderful, terrible thing to know that we all have that ability to create or deny a miracle to those we love, or at times to those we don't even know. It is wonderful because there are so few ways to give, with our fumbling, sinful hands, something of everlasting value to another human being. It is terrible because when we deny it, especially to someone who loves us, we turn our backs on the opportunity to be, if only for a fleeting moment, like a Savior.

So those of you who are harboring a grievance against someone you love, no matter how much you are in the right, no matter how much you are hurt, remember that to which your love has committed you:

    "What power has love but forgiveness?
     In other words
     by its intervention 
     what has been done 
     can be undone. 
     What good is it otherwise?"
               * William Carlos Williams

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Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Religious Fervor

From the wonderful Media Research Center comes this exchange on CNN's Inside Politics regarding Attorney General John Ashcroft's recent speech to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters:

Judy Woodruff: "Attorney General John Ashcroft, Margaret, yesterday described in a speech, the war on terrorism in religious terms. He talked about how it's grounded in faith in God. Is this appropriate language for the Attorney General?"

Margaret Carlson (of Time): "...[Ashcroft] has a history of using his bully pulpit, as Attorney General, as a pulpit. He has prayer sessions every morning in his office. He doesn't agree, apparently, with pluralism, that he believes that there is one form of religion ... and it should be practiced as an official matter of state."

How about Carlson's command of the English language? Apparently neither the ability to think nor speak is necessary to give commentary on CNN. And what a curious definition of pluralism, this notion that diversity means people can't talk about their faith. What does Carlson expect him to do -- hold a Buddhist chanting session every Wednesday, just to offset all the Jesus talk? The man's not a Unitarian, for crying out loud.

Somehow we've developed this belief that not talking about God in public is the neutral position. But there is, of course, no neutral position. There either is a God, or there is not. Not talking about God in our government, schools, and entertainment media (and, truth be told, in many of our churches), is akin to declaring that he doesn't exist. If that's the position that Carlson and others want to take, then they should have the by-God guts to say so.

Claiming that allowing him into those spheres somehow violates "pluralism," on the other hand, is just plain dishonest. Their vision of pluralism is a state in which all uncomfortable views (on God, abortion, evolution, etc.) have been shunted aside in favor of the neutral, "objective" views. But that's the opposite of pluralism. Pluralism, in other words, means affording people to space to espouse their beliefs, no matter how wrongheaded we think they are. As long as Ashcroft is upholding the Constitution, pluralism means you just have to live with his voluntary prayer meetings.

But pluralism is the last thing Carlson and her ilk have in mind. It's a convenient catch-phrase, akin to the university notion of "multiculturalism," in which people look different, but think, speak, and vote the same way.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)