Monday, September 17, 2018

you . . . you . . . ME!

Lately, we've been reading a number of children's books about pride: Mustache, King Hugo's Huge Ego, and Yertle the Turtle. They're funny because they're ridiculous. They're also rather true.

I don't mean that once upon a time a king was so full of himself that his head inflated to the size of a hot air balloon, or that the ruler of turtles once stood on top of all his fellow turtles so that he could see his vast territory. I mean that we get fat heads, and we like standing on top of each other.

I do it multiple times a day. I see someone with more or less than me, I compare, and then I come to the conclusion that either I'm better than they are, or they must think they're better than me.

Really, it's impossible not to notice the differences between myself and others. Some houses are nicer than mine. Some women are more beautiful than me. Some mothers are not as organized as I am. I have more kids than most. I haven't experienced as much hardship as some. And my kids are better behaved than so-and-so's.

The comparison isn't the problem. It's the conclusion that possessions or knowledge or skills make me better than others.

It's a loathsome quality quite easy to spot in others. It's what made Disney's Gaston say, "And don't I deserve the best?" And it made the evil queen try to kill Snow White to remain the fairest of them all. It caused General Ratcliffe in Pocahontas to sing, "My rivals back home, it's not that I'm bitter, but think how they'll squirm, when they saw how I glitter." Then of course there's Scar, Jafar, Shere Khan, and Ursula who all attempted murders in order to be on top.

In children it's quite easy to spot because they say it so blatantly. "I got a donut and you didn't." "I can jump farther than you." "You're saying it wrong!"

As adults we hide it a bit better.

Aloud I say, "Oh, is this your first baby?" but in my heart, I say, "Aha! I have more experience than you in mothering."

Aloud I say, "How nice that you get to travel to Hawaii!" but in my heart I say, "Must be nice to have so much money that you can travel around and vacation wherever you like! You probably think you deserve it!"

Aloud I say, "Thanks, that's an idea," but in my heart I say, "How dare you tell me what to do as if you knew how to run my life better than me!"

Aloud I say, "Oh, are they having marital troubles?" when in my heart I'm say, "They haven't figured out how to do marriage as well as Phil and me."

It's priding myself on how much I've learned about pride and thinking, "I wonder if so-and-so has learned as much as I have about pride. They sure could use it."

It's a sickness alright. A sure way to turn myself into a me-monster inside-out. Brian Regan's stand-up comedy The Me Monster says it quite well. It's pointing at everyone else and saying, "You . . . you . . . you . . . ME! See that? See the difference?" And the cure can only start when I recognize that I'm sick. That doesn't mean saying, "Yes, I've got a pride problem," But recognizing it in the midst of the situation.

This is rather difficult to do because making myself out to be better than others feels so good. It's actually a salve to my feelings of insignificance. If I can prove that I'm better than someone, then I must have some value. So the cure to pride must also be the cure to feeling insignificant. And feeling insignificant runs deep down into my heart.

The cure must be more than a bandaid of positive thinking. It's not enough to just stop feeling insignificant. We have to actually BE significant. And significance is something that's given rather than seized.

Think of it as a bunch of toys sitting on a shelf trying to prove to one another who is most alive. The Teddy bear and the porcelain doll can argue all they want, but until the good fairy comes along and taps a toy with her magic wand, they all remain motionless and dead on the shelf. Or think of it as a crowd of blue-collared workers arguing who'll look the nicest at a presidential party. But until the president actually invites them to the party, it doesn't matter that they wear tuxedos or tutus.

If all of us here are born mere humans, then only someone who is more than human can lift us out of our simple, common humanity into something greater.

I think you know the rest of the story.

But in case you don't, yes, Jesus died to lift us out of our humanity. But asking him to save me one day won't cure me of my pride everyday. Hence, my problem.

It's asking him to save me today, and then believing that when God looks down at me, he sees Jesus and says, "You're good enough." To believe that Jesus has made me good enough is to stop thinking that I need to be better than someone else.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Comstock Chronicles: Arguing in the Car

Today was a special day for the children. Rose went to Auntie Celia's house for lunch, book reading, and flower arranging. Lee had Grandparent's Day at Hoover Elementary. They also had a slumber party at the Stevens' house after school.

The children's overnight backpacks were already loaded in the car when I went to pick up Lee. However, Rose still tried to pack several additional purses as well as her foam sword and golden belt that she uses like Wonder Woman's lasso. I told her she could only bring one toy and somehow she managed to convince me to bring along a stack of artwork, a school worksheet, and five little acorns stuck on popsicle sticks instead of the toys.

While getting in the car, she asks for help seeing as her hands are full. I take her stack of papers and put them on Lee's booster seat.

This of course creates a problem when we pick up Lee. In a panic, Rose calls out from the back seat, "Mommy! You forgot to move my papers!"

"I can't reach them," I tell her. And besides, it is too late. The traffic attendant has called Lee's name through her megaphone, and he comes trotting down the grassy hillside in front of the school to our car. He opens the door and drops Rose's papers onto the car floor.

I brace myself for an explosion. But instead Rose leans over baby Benny and says, "Look Benny! Look who's here! Your favorite brother! Aren't you so happy to see him?"

To which Lee replies, "Rose, that's rude to say that. Mommy, today we watched a movie in my class. We watched two movies. Peter Pan and a truck movie. And Grandma and Grandpa Stevens came to my class and I had lunch with them!"

"Lee!" I exclaim. "What Rose said was not rude. She was welcoming you."

Rose bursts into tears. "Mommy, I want Grandma and Grandpa Stevens to go to my school! Why didn't they come to my school?"

Lee goes on, describing the movies he watched in class. Rose continues to cry.

I wonder how to remedy all this: Lee's uncharitable words and Rose's sorrow at not having the same special day as Lee. She'd had her lunch with Auntie Celia. Wasn't that enough?

In the meantime the traffic attendant signals to me, and I roll down my window.

"Do you have any other children to pick up?" she asks me. She's obviously confused as to why I am holding up the traffic.

As I drive off, I begin my speech. I point out exactly what I think of the children's reactions.

Lee responds with, "I'm plugging my ears."

And Rose says curtly. "You dropped my papers on the ground, Mommy!"

I breath deeply and begin to pray. What is there to say? Is there anything really worth saying? I am so disappointed about having to cut off my son's report for the day. He rarely gives me reports of his days. I do wish to hear it, but I doubt that I'll get anything from him now.

We drive down Painter and then onto Whittier Boulevard. I wonder if I should try to explain things again or if the children have already moved on.

"Mommy, how big is Benny's bottom?" Rose asks from the back seat.

They have moved on, which is good although my blood pressure is still rather high. I answer, "The size of two peaches." I get a mental picture of this and decide that Benny's bottom is probably smaller than two peaches, probably more like the cleavage of one peach, but that is hardly worth clarifying.

"I would still love to hear about your day, Lee," I try. To my relief, Lee volunteers more. The story is different this time. Different movie. Different activities with Grandma and Grandpa. I never really know what's true or not with that boy.

Rose corrects him on one point in his story, and he flares up again. "You don't know everything, Rose. You don't know how cars are made and you don't know how concrete is made and you don't know how trees grow and you don't know how big is the sky and you don't know all those things."

"I know about a lot of things, Lee," Rose replies. "I know a big word. What's that big word that I know, Mommy?"

I smile as I turn onto Colima. "Nocturnal."

"Yes. I know Jie-urnal. And I know what scavenge means. That's when they get lots of things because there's no food in the winter. And I know a lot of things, Lee. I know addresses and I know that God is big and I know that Bigwig is safe and I know lots of things."

I decide to interrupt this impressive display of knowledge to inform the children that their grandparents don't want to have two bickering children over for a slumber party, and unless they want to return home, the fighting must stop and apologies follow.

They apologize with a touch of sarcasm that I didn't know was possible in their voices. Thank God, for grandparents and slumber parties!

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Moro Reflex

Babies are not so different from adults. 

Every once in a while my baby will jerk his arms wide as if he were falling. This is known as the Moro Reflex, and it lasts for the first 3 or 4 months of his life.

It’s like his body isn't used to the world outside the tight embrace of the amniotic sac. He's not so sure about gravity and the wind on his skin. So he jerks in fear. And just as quickly as the baby jerks, he recovers. He pulls his arms in again and the scare is over. Everything is fine.

I have done the same ever since leaving the security of my parents' home where my dad paid for my health insurance and my mom gave me all the positive affirmation I needed. Quite frequently, I jerk in fear. Oh no! I'm falling!

Since Benny was born 8 weeks ago, we've had a garbage disposal kaput, an AC unit fail, a stair railing spindle fall off, a ceiling fan motor start smoking, an outlet fail, a stove's burner stop working, a plumbing back-up, a dishwasher drain leak, our air compressor break, and the stomach flu go through the house. All this on top of sleepless nights, spilt milk, imbalanced hormones, quadruple diaper blow-outs, sibling quarrels, and a crying newborn. 

So I jerk in fear! Oh no! I'm falling!

The result of this Moro Reflex in a grown adult is a lashing out, much like a small dog barking at a German Shepherd or Labrador. The little dog is trying to prove who's boss.

I feel it happening when I've lived out of the Spirit for any duration of time. I forget who has hold of me. I slip back into thinking I've got to defend myself from the world.

So when I attend a new MOPs group, I feel the need to let everyone know that I'm not a newbie, that I've got three kids, and I know something about motherhood. When I go to church fellowship group, I feel the need to phrase my contributions just right so that people will think I'm wise. When I visit with siblings, I feel the need to prove how I have more of a right to complain than they do. When I hear gender or personality generalizations, I'm spurned to prove how I'm not like the rest. I break the mold. I shall not be pigeon-holed. When older ladies tell me how they ran their homes, I feel an unspoken critique because I do things differently. 

I'm the yappy dog afraid that my territory is going to be overrun. I'm the baby jerking at every slight breeze.

The cure is not to become a Dobermann or to climb back into the womb. These are not options. The cure is to eliminate the insecurities. To be sure of my position. To not fear. 

But how can anyone do that?

I think it's done in the same way an olympic swimmer is confident in his abilities. He has won a gold medal. The author is sure of his writing abilities because he has been published. The actress doesn't fret about getting the lead because she has earned an Emmy. And the billionaire needn't fear about losing an asset or two because he's got plenty in the bank. 

We too can be secure in all things—in our understanding of the way the world works, our power to change things, and the rightness of our choices. I'm not talking about actually publishing a book about wise living. Nor do I mean waiting for YouTube to give me a trophy for having one million followers. It's the fool's rat race to try to validate my wisdom, power, and righteousness by asking or demanding that others recognize my abilities.

I'm talking about REALLY being wise and powerful and good. Not subjectively but actually. Not in the opinion of my family or a hundred friends on facebook but in REALITY.

But there's one major problem. I'm not actually wise, powerful, or good. Even if I were to win the Nobel Peace Prize, become a dictator, and have hundreds coming to me for advice, I would still have bad days and blind spots and no control of the future. 

The truth is, and I think you knew it was coming, no one is wise, powerful and good but God. He defines wisdom and power and goodness. So the only way that I can have a part of that is by ceasing to believe in myself—a very anti-Disney idea—and by linking myself to the source. 

What I mean is I must stop banking on my own understanding of how to parent or how I think others ought to improve themselves, or how I think my life should unfold. And I must stop expecting I'll be able to muscle through things and stop assuming my bank account has me covered. And I must stop using my daily behavior to decide whether I'm a good person or not. I must stop insisting on other's badness in order to believe myself good. I've got to give it up. 

Always its a giving up in order to make room for something better. In this case its a giving up to take on Christ's wisdom, strength, and righteousness.

Certainly, isn't that what we mean when we say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved?" It's believing that he is wise and strong and right in our place.

It's saying, "It's okay that that person didn't understand what I meant. The Lord knows my troubles much better than any person could."

"It's okay if I don't agree with that person's advice. I don't have to convince them that their words are not for me."

"It's okay that no one in this room knows me or my experiences. I am known by God and he has said I'm good."

"It's okay that I can't pay attention to Lee and Rose right now because I'm taking care of the baby. God will show them a love much greater than I ever can."

"It's okay that I don't know the source of my angst. God knows and will reveal the cure in the right time."

"I don't have to show that person that I'm right. God's guiding them just as much as he is me."

"I don't need to fear public school. The Lord is in control of my children's education."

"I don't have to worry that I don't know the proper responses to my children's behavior. The Lord knows and he is offering to guide me."

This isn't some sort of cop-out or a shirking of duties. This doesn't let me off the hook for trying my best to parent or keep house or earn a living. It means, though, that I do these things without fear. I do them in constant prayer, remembering that I'm not acting in order to protect myself or prove myself or convince others that I'm alright. I do them with the quiet assurance knowing that my medal has already been won, the book already published, the Emmy earned, the cattle on a thousand hills are His.

And He is mine.

"That's it. You're not 'doing' anything; you're simply calling out to God trusting him to do it for you. That's salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it right out loud: 'God has set everything right between him and me!'" (Romans 10:9-10 MSG)

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Comstock Chronicles: The Fair and Fireworks

The children came home from Grandma and Grandpa Stevens' house yesterday bubbling with excitement. They had gone to the Orange County Fair on Sunday, and they each made their experiences known to me in their separate ways.

Rose, while hopping up and down in front of my face, told me about the butterfly pavilion and the cotton candy and the bus ride and the corn bins. Her eyes were big and round. Lee made mention of his ice cream and the butterflies as well, but I learned what really fascinated him when we came home and the children played in the living room while I organized their toys.

Rose played Mommy to Benny. She laid her knitted blanket across the couch cushions and asked me to put Benny here and there for her to wrap.

Lee gathered his blankets and pillows into piles and re-enacted the fireworks and explosions that grandpa showed him on the computer.

"Do you know what this one is going to do?" he'd ask me.

"Do you think this one is going to hit the ground?"

"Watch how fast this one is going to go!"

"This one is going to be really fascinating."

"Which one do you want to see next?"

"Uh oh, this one is exploding the house!"

"The children are crying, 'Encore!' so we're going to do it again."

Benny listened to their little voices as he kicked on the couch. Rose sang and spoke sweetly to Benny. She doesn't seem to be suffering from big sister jealousies at all. She wants to take Benny places and show him off, kiss him goodnight and request to see him sleeping.

Lee too seems unfazed by the addition of the new family member. However, I wonder if he will soon notice that his customary partner in crime is smitten with someone else. I suppose he will if his fireworks upset the baby.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Comstock Chronicles: Bath Time

It was bath day. It had to be bath day. Someone had to get clean. The children smelled like a combination of chlorine and sunscreen dusted with a fine layer of dirt from the backyard. Several days worth of deodorant have accumulated in my armpits, and my front is sticky with milk drips. Then, there’s the baby, Benny. He’s got milk and sweat in his neck rolls, as well as a paste of baby powder beneath his diaper. 

Benny is chosen. 

While the children are at school, I scrub down the kitchen sink and fill it a few inches with warm water. I gather the sponge, baby soap, hoodie towel, clean diaper, and lotion, and wonder why I don't keep these things under the kitchen sink to make this procedure faster. However, because I can’t think of how to make room under the sink for these supplies, this idea falls by the wayside.

Benny does not appreciate being chosen for a bath. I acknowledge that I shall appreciate it more than he. However he poops in his bath, doting the water with bright yellow floating blobs. And shortly after I dry and lotion him, he spits up down his chin and neck and onto the collar of his clean polo shirt. 

Tomorrow, I shall bathe myself, although the fact of the matter is I would rather organize a bookshelf or sort through my unused clothes than cleanse myself. In the meantime I will smell Benny's hair frequently and enjoy the soapy clean scent.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Postpartum Blues Pep Talk

Let's calm down for a second and get a few things clear. Your life isn't ruined. Things will get better.

Let's also get another thing clear. There are no prizes for doing this alone. Your great-great-grandmother may have given birth under an olive tree by herself on the five-mile-walk to the hospital, and after cutting the umbilical chord with her sewing scissors, she may have returned home and fixed your great-great-grandfather's dinner, but she didn't win any prizes for it. And in fact, your great-great grandmother's children—i.e. your great-grandma or grandpa—probably grew up with some issues because of it.

Next, let's rid your vocabulary and your thoughts of the word "should." Throw it out! All the "should's" need to go. No more:
- You should breast feed. That's the best.
- You should have professional pictures taken. They grow up so fast.
- You should be a put-together hostess for all visitors that come to see the baby.
- You should be back on your feet within a few days.
- You should know what your baby wants if he or she cries.
- You should be so excited about your baby.
- You should let family hold your baby if they ask.

Finally, let's practice asking yourself a very simple question: what do I need? This is what people mean when they say secure your own oxygen mask before securing your child's. It means see to your own needs first. You are no good to anyone dead. This isn't being selfish. It's taking care of what you've got. So . . . what do you need?

Start with the basics: healing, eating, sleeping, and relationships.

If you had a vaginal delivery, your body has undergone a huge ordeal. It needs attention. The same is true of a C-section but I don't have the list of doctor's instructions for that because all my babies were vaginal. Review the ones they sent home with you. For vaginal:

1) Go to the bathroom when you need to. Yes, even if that means putting the crying baby down.
2) Change your pads every time you go to the bathroom.
3) Use the witch hazel and Dermoplast.
4) Take the pain meds the doctor recommends for afterbirth cramping.
5) Take stool softeners or drink prune juice to avoid additional complications. Foods high in fiber are a good idea too.
6) Use the water spray until you no longer need to wear pads. This will help avoid a yeast infection.
7) Walk slowly.
8) Sit and lay down frequently.
9) Nap often but when you lie down, don't think, "Yes, I can finally take a nap," but rather, "How nice that I get a second to put my head down." This way, if the baby wakes you up five minutes, you won't feel robbed.
10) If possible, stay in bed for a week. Yes, that means NOT cleaning, cooking, or chasing toddlers. Reading, watching TV, or crocheting are acceptable activities. This means hiring a cleaning lady for a month, filling your freezer with quick and easy meals, and bringing in a baby sitter. It doesn't matter how you do it so long as you do. GET HELP.
11) Record and give thanks for small steps in the healing progress. For example: wore a smaller pad, didn't need to take pain meds, tingling feeling in bottom wasn't so bad, carpel tunnel didn't prevent me from opening my water bottle, stitches have officially disintegrated, took an hour nap, etc.

If you're breast feeding, don't beat yourself up at the slow progress. Just like any sport, some people take to it naturally. Some don't. Take care of yourself in the process.

1) Take warm showers to relieve pressure.
2) Drink, drink, and then refill all your water bottles.
3) Take advantage of available products to ease your nursing such as Soothies (cool gel pads for sore nipples), lanolin (soothes, heals, & protects sore nipples), nipple shield (gives a layer of protection between nipple and baby), pump, haakaa (suction cup that catches extra milk), nursing pads (keeps leaks from getting onto clothes).
4) Go to a nursing support group or talk weekly or, even better, daily to a lactation consultant, La Leche League lady or experienced friend about how it's going.
5) Create a peaceful happy place to nurse: somewhere where you won't be staring at dust bunnies or the laundry hamper. Put on music that makes you happy. Give yourself a reward for getting the baby latched on: a piece of chocolate or a favorite show to watch.
6) Record and give thanks for small steps in the process. For example: latch was not as excruciating as usual, bleeding stopped, lanolin is available, pumps were invented, the baby is swallowing, nursed without a nursing shield, mastitis is better, formula is available, Soothies relieve the sting, nursing pads to catch the excess, a washing machine to clean all the milky clothes, soiled diapers proof of progress, etc.

Since you're already writing lists of blessings, start one about the baby's progress as well. Jot down anything that's a blessing: umbilical chord fell off, baby smiled, first diaper blow-out, slept four hours in a row, he went cross-eyed, his little curling toes, sharp nails, cute outfits, etc.

Now about relationships. I don't think I need to convince you that relationships with other women are important, especially relationships with other moms. However, it's possible that in the bustle of feedings and mid-night wakings, you may have let relationships fall by the wayside. It's time to continue those. TALK TO SOMEONE. At least once a day. And your husband or children don't count. You wouldn't go a day without drinking water. Don't go a day without talking to someone. It will help you feel like a human again and not just a zombie cow.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, let the old you go. Chances are you had lots of ideas about what sort of mother you would be. Let that die. You had no idea. You were naive and starry-eyed and idealistic. The goals you had for yourself and the expectations you had for others were part of an old childish version of yourself.

Say this with me now, "I was silly. I get it now. On to finding out what sort of mother I shall be in the real world."

By the way, if you find yourself hiding in a closet, not eating, or neglecting your child, do call your OBGYN and tell them you think you may have postpartum depression. Sometimes we need some extra help.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

How Benny Came

We reached a record breaking temperature of 114 degrees in Whittier the day before I was induced. Grandma and Grandpa Stevens' air conditioning stopped working, and Rose came down with a stomach flu that had her throwing up for the next twenty-four hours. Under the care of my mom, Rose shared her sickness with Jacob, Jessica, Jane, and Terri while Phil and I were in the hospital.

After much deliberation and prayer, Phil and I scheduled to induce a week before my due date. Seeing as Rose's birth was a whopping hour and forty minutes start to finish, I didn't want to be stuck at home with children when I went into labor with baby #3. Plus, this baby was sitting heavy, pressing on nerves, and causing frequent contractions that hindered all activity.

It was time. We drew up plans on what to do for every scenario, but we certainly didn't want to use those plans.

The doctors were of the same mind, so after confirming that PIH had a bed for me Saturday morning, we walked— er waddled into the hospital at 7 am. I'd been dilated to two and then three cm in the last several weeks and now was 60% effaced. The nurses all believed things would go easy for me.

On our way out the door
Regardless, I believed that this labor and delivery would be the hard one, the one where things didn't work out. Certainly, God wouldn't allow me to have three smooth labor and deliveries. Certainly, this one had to be hard, where something went wrong. I suppose I don't know God as well and I think. I keep bracing myself for calamity. But things went as smoothly as possible.

After a check in and answering a few dozen questions—no, I'm not allergic to latex, no, I don't smoke, yes, I understand the risks of an epidural—the nurses started me on the first dose of an antibiotic that needed four hours to get into my blood stream.  Phil and I rested, watched Fixer Upper, and read quietly while we waited. Both the older nurses, Lynette and Karen, were impressed to see Phil and I were reading real books. A little D.E. Stevenson and Lois L'amour passed the time nicely.

They administered the first dose of Pitocin at 11:30 am and allowed me to have an epidural shortly after. The anesthesiologist, Dr. Cola, was chatty, relaxed, and clear about everything he was doing. Some electric-feeling discomfort down my legs prevented him from inserting the epidural as deep as he usually does, but the drug still put my legs to sleep. I "labored" then until about 4pm waiting to feel the urge to push. The contractions weren't so terrible that I couldn't talk through them, but I did count to twenty each time to mark the end of each one.

The contractions were coming one on top of the other when the nurse came in to turn down my Pitocin intake. She checked me at that point and said the baby was just hanging out ready to come. She said she could feel the hair. Ew.

As if ordering a pizza, the nurse called in Dr. Williams who after arriving suited up in a full body garb while we chatted calmly. It was all so different from when Rose came, when nurses where rushing in and putting an oxygen mask on me and somewhat frantically pulling equipment out of the closets. No, this time everything was done as if we were just having tea together. Phil and I and Dr. Williams chatted in between pushes. And in ten minutes Benny was out. Born at 3:24 pm weighing 7 lbs 7 oz.

A filmy-white slippery little boy. I can still hardly believe he was ever inside of me. He cried for a short spell and then calmly looked around as he lay on my chest.

We settled on Jonathan Benjamin Stevens because we both liked Benjamin. Previously the children had favored Benny because that's the name of the youngest boy in The Box Car Children. But to prevent our boy from having the initials B.S., we agreed that Jonathan was a sound first name.

The hospital allows a great length of time to bond with the baby after birth. In fact the baby wasn't measured or weighed for several hours after delivery. A bath didn't come until 6 hours later. This has changed since Rose was born. I guess the hospitals have discovered that keeping baby with mama is best.

Phil and I enjoyed some privacy and peace in the AC of the hospital for the next two nights. About twenty people came and went getting Benny's birth certificate, performing a hearing test, circumcision, taking vitals, temperatures, meal orders, bringing water, meals, medication, drawing blood, ripping off the IV tape, helping me to the restroom, etc.

I have always been impressed with the hospital meals. Just for dinner they gave me a tray with a main course, soup, dinner roll, coffee, cheese cake, canned fruit, and juice. Phil took advantage of his one free meal a day until Monday, when the staff informed us that they'd officially discontinued that perk as of an email that morning.

After double checking Benny's jaundice levels and getting wads of paperwork about this, that, and the other, we were wheeled out of the hospital around noon Monday morning with our new little package in hand. The two volunteer ladies who wheeled me to the curbside were all a twitter over the new baby, and soon Rose and Lee would be too.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Lemmings, Cliffs, and Gravity

I’m of the belief that God is involved in everything. I don’t think he set up the laws of nature, such as gravity, momentum, and centrifugal force, and then let things go like a wind up toy. I think he upholds and maintains everything. 

He not only put the sun in the sky, but his power presses gravity inward on the sun’s core to continue the nuclear fusions that keeps the sun burning every hour every day. He not only made water, but he continually holds the oxygen and hydrogen bonds together to prevent their separating. He is always loading electrons with the power behind electricity. He is always propelling the celestial bodies. He is always pumping energy into every plant and animal cell. Without his hand upon every aspect of our world at every moment, the world’s natural laws would stop working.

However, God also made mankind with a power somewhat like his own to influence and change the world. This means that God causes our choices in the natural world to be effective. He actualizes our choices, so to speak. For example, when we lie, God respects our choice and instead of silencing our words, he sees to it that the sound waves travel to those who are listening. When we raise our hands to strike someone, God contracts our muscles to operate according to our ill intent. And when we decide to turn away from the Lord, God continues to fire the neurons in our brains that make this rebellion possible. He both made us and makes our refusal of him possible. That’s what it means to have freewill.

This doesn’t mean that God causes our evil to happen. Evil is our decision to operate contrary to God’s laws. The results of our choices—broken bones and broken relationships—are how God causes our choices to have effect. It’s like God saying, “I will not change my gravitational laws if you choose to jump off a cliff. I will respect your choice and continue to be the force behind gravity even if that means killing you.”

I think that’s why God says things in the bible like: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV). And “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6b ESV). And “The Lord of hosts has sworn, ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand,’” (Isaiah 14:24 ESV).

Yes, I realize this means that God doesn’t just allow pain and suffering. He causes it. Pain and suffering are evidences that God continues to uphold his laws so that both our good choices and our bad choices have effect.

So when we eat too much, God expands our fat stores to accommodate for the excess. That’s how he made the human body. When we miscalculate the load factor on a bridge’s pylons, God maintains gravity’s pull on the bridge until the pylons crumbles.  And when people get caught on the bridge when it breaks, God bruises or breaks according to the strength that he set for our flesh.

This doesn’t mean that God enjoys our suffering or that he is out to get us. “For he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33 ESV). Rather, God causes the pain because he wants us to be beings with power instead of ineffective soft dolls.

Thus, things like cancer and plane crashes and volcanoes and bombs are not actually evil. To say these things are evil is like saying that the spankings or time-outs that we give our children are evil. No, the consequences are not evil; it’s the choices themselves that are evil. The consequences, horrific as they may seem, are evidence that God respects our choices. They’re also evidence that we aren’t using our power properly, and that though we have power, we’re still under the ultimate power of God’s laws. We cannot escape the consequences of what we’ve chosen. 

Certainly, the world wouldn’t be this way if we’d respected God’s laws. For just as we—and by we I mean mankind—fail to respect gravity and thermodynamics and load factors, we also fail to respect the moral laws that God established. The first one being: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16 ESV).

When God told Adam and Eve this, he wasn’t testing them or threatening them or sharing his personal preferences. He was explaining to them how their inner machines operated. And the human machine operates best through relying on the Lord for our understanding of good and evil. The tree’s fruit, real or symbolical, was the choice to acquire a moral understanding with or without the Lord. We chose to acquire it on our own, and God respected our decision. It was like God said, “If you prefer your own good over mine, I will respect your choice and not force you to be on my side. Though it grieves me, I will let you feel the consequences of living without me.”

It would be nice if the Lord could just intervene against his own laws. But just like he doesn’t stop gravity to save us from death, he doesn’t stop the consequences of living a life apart from him. That would be robbing us of our choice. It would be like God saying, “I know you’ve chosen to have your own good, but I’m going to make you choose mine anyway.”

Unfortunately the solution isn’t as simple as changing our minds. See, we are all rather like lemmings that have thrown ourselves off a moral cliff. It doesn’t matter if we change our minds mid-fall. We can’t stop the plummet. Even for the one who decides he or she is going to be really good, they’ll find that they keep slipping up. They can neither act perfect nor be perfect. And by definition, that’s what God’s moral law asks of us. If we wish to be with God, we must be with him in all things.

Perhaps you wonder why God can’t just forgive us the little slip-ups we make everyday. But that is for the same reason that he doesn’t stop gravity whenever we disrespect it. To do this is to take away our power to influence the world. To just forgive us the slip-ups is to take away the consequences of our actions. Suddenly, our choices don’t matter anymore.

No, God cannot undo the laws of gravity to save us from our plummet. But he has inserted one more factor into the mix, and that is the option of falling upon his son who then absorbs the force of our poor choice. That is the only way to prevent moral death.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Hip-Hop Performance

The house is quiet except for the whir of the air conditioning. My mom has taken the children for the night, Phil is still at work, and Katie, our live-in help, has flown to Washington to find a wedding dress with her mom. It's one of those rare moments when the house is my own and I can play my Celtic music loudly. I'm not responsible to feed anyone but myself, and as Phil is going out with Mike Posey for dinner, I'm looking forward to the long evening alone.

There's rejuvenation brought about through the company of other women. And there's rejuvenation through good food and rest and stretching. But the rejuvenation in being alone is entirely different. It's why I set my alarm for six on Saturdays and Sundays. It's those sweet moments of silence in the house before I hear the toilet flush and our bedroom door open, before Mary Poppins starts to play in the living room or a squabble breaks out over what items may be brought to the upper bunk.

Quiet. Stillness. Solitude.

Perhaps it is all the more sweet because it is so rare. Even when both children were at school, I would buzz from one activity to the next, attempting to accomplish as much as I could in the short hours that I had. That was not rest. But this is. I've got to keep off my feet. I've got to keep the contractions from coming. At least until tomorrow when I'll be 37 weeks and the baby is no longer considered premature.

I will use the time to remember and record.

In the garden the corn is growing over our heads. I dust the silks with the tasseled tops every few days to pollinate the corn. We've also got green beans and sweet peas that the children snack on before meals. The other day the two cronies were sitting beneath the tall bush beans' canopy while seeking out the pods. They also graze on the baby fennel and the mint. I can smell them when they walk in the kitchen door.

The backyard has become a dust bowl thanks to Lee and Bigwig's activity. Bigwig pushes the dirt out from his burrow, and Lee clears it away to load his dump trucks or make mud slides or pile it on top of the cement pad. Phil helped me switch the compost and rabbit hutches' positions in the backyard so that the yellow slide can fit back there, making room for our summer pool in the courtyard. The slide, however, has become a new surface to pile dirt. That boy comes inside covered in a film of dust. He would much rather take hole digging classes than Hip-Hop/Jazz classes.

I had to tear him away from his digging project last Tuesday to wipe him down for his and Rose's first dance performance at the Whittier Community Center. The children were not too certain about being dropped off in a new place with no familiar faces in order to do something that they only partially understood. I suppose I don't blame them.

Rose was jazzed about her lipstick and princess ponytail and powdered face. In fact, she got ready an hour earlier only asking for my assistance when she blew baby powder in her eye thinking that's what I meant by "We're going to put powder on your face." Lee was another story. In true Latapie fashion, he wore a black shirt backwards to hide the graphic. Two safety pins held up his pants and I'd colored the rubber edges of his shoes black with a sharpie. I thought he wouldn't be able to tell the difference but he was definitely worried about taking off his red blazer in the humid backstage lest someone see the surfing macaroni graphic on the back.

Phil and I watched a few dozen dancers perform: tap, jazz, contemporary, ballet. Each time a teacher led a row of tiny dancers onto the stage under cover of the blue stage lights, I teared up. Must be the pregnancy hormones; however, an elderly lady in the restroom told me, "No, that's just being a mom."

Lee and Rose danced to "Move Your Feet" for not more than 5 minutes during which the audience was in stitches and I was in hysterical tears. Lee stood there like a deer in the headlights and Rose flapped her hands around until the lights went out and Rose convinced Lee to get into their final pose. The house lights came on one more time to show off their pose before the stage went dark again. Phil turned to me while the audience applauded, "Well, our kids are good at other things."

True. They're good at inventing games. They're good at playing together. They're good at helping each other clean up their spaces before dinner. They're good at identifying plants. They're good at sleeping all night. They're good at eating their vegetables. They're good at listening to long stories and sitting for longish car rides. They're good at holding their breath under freeway overpasses. They're good at quoting Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and The Boxcar Children and The Trumpet of the Swan. They're good at kissing my tummy and asking questions about the baby. They're good at folding their clothes and putting them in their drawers. They're good at buckling themselves into the car and climbing trees. They're good at hugging me goodbye, which is a new development of late, and they're good at forgiving after bickering.

We'll soon see how good they are at being the big kids in the house.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Problem of Pain

To the one who says, “I cannot reconcile a loving and merciful God with all the pain and suffering of this world. If there is a God, he is either wicked or weak.”

I wish to ask: Do you mean that a merciful God would intervene in painful circumstances, or do you mean that he would protect us from the consequences of our choices? Perhaps you mean that a just God would protect the innocent while allowing the wicked to suffer. Or do you mean that God should stop natural disasters from hurting innocent people?

If you mean that a merciful God should intervene in painful circumstances, such as preventing fire from burning our hands or falls from breaking our bones, then it sounds like you wish the laws of nature to be different. That this world should be incapable of hurting us. No sharp edges. No precipices. No blinding lights. No wild animals. Soft. Blurry. Tame.

But I don’t think we want a world without danger. I think we want a world where we know how to properly interact with danger. One without accidents. 

I don’t think we want a world without velocity. We want a world without miscalculations. We don’t want a world without problems but a world where we know how to solve the problems.

But perhaps that wasn’t what you meant. Perhaps you meant that God should protect us from the consequences of our choices. That if we drive impaired, our vehicles should turn into styrofoam. That when we try to gossip, soap bubbles come out of our mouths. That intercourse won’t work with multiple partners or if it does work, that it never passes on an STD or unwanted child. That bullets should evaporate when shot at humans, and that money spontaneously combusts when it’s exchanged greedily. 

But if our poor choices have no consequences, then we have lost the power to choose entirely. That's like saying you can eat cheese or you can eat beef, but the beef isn't beef at all. It's actually cheese made to look like beef. Can we really choose the beef at all? No. 

Similarly, if all our choices circle us back around to painless results, we are not really choosing to steal or kill or slander at all. We shall have no concept or right or wrong for we haven't the ability to choose. 

No. I don’t think we want a world without choices. We want a world where everyone makes the right choices.

Let us suppose then that you meant that God should only allow pain and suffering to happen to wicked people. Then, I must ask, who is wicked? Certainly not you. You’ve done nothing terribly wrong. And what you have done has been for good reason. The time you screamed at the children was because you hadn’t slept well. The rift in that relationship wouldn’t have happened if so-and-so wasn’t so hard to get along with. And what’s so wrong anyway with buying things that bring joy? You can’t be held responsible for the way those products affected the environment. 

I don’t mean to make anyone feel guilty. I mean to show that everyone has their excuses. The drunk driver just wanted to be accepted by his friends. The sex trader was sexually abused as a child. The gossiping diva was told she was worthless and ugly. The woman who drowned her children was locked in a closet for the first three years of her life. The ladder-climbing CEO was dominated by a controlling father. The school shooter was shown more hatred by his peers than a Jew by the Germans. 

We always have an excuse. Some excuses are more obvious than others. Some are wrapped up in generations of destructive patterns. And who is to say which excuses are valid and which are un-excusable? Only an omniscient being would know that. And his judgements might not look good to us because we can't see why he's making them.

I think that’s why so many people think this universe is meaningless. Not because there isn’t a reason for suffering, but because we don't know the reasons. A truly meaningless universe would look like cats raining from the sky, and gravity not working and flowers spilling from our mouths when we speak. No rules, no trends, no consequences, no relationships. That is meaningless.

This world is not like that. When we make poor choices, we see the results, great and terrible as they may be. And those choices have a ripple affect on all those around us. We have the ability to not only affect our children but our children's children's children. A dictator has the power to affect millions. There's no way to escape the influence of those around us, and to take away our power is to turn us into dolls.

And that brings me to the last thing that you might mean.

Perhaps when you say pain and suffering, you mean things like earthquakes and famine, things not caused by man’s choices. If God is good, why does he allow disasters to occur? 

While such natural phenomenas are violent and seemingly random, a study of weather, tectonic plates, and ocean currents might make sense of it all. In fact if we hadn't severed our relationship with God in the garden long ago, who's to say we couldn't understand and control the powerful forces of the earth? Perhaps you might think me crazy, but I think that was what we were meant to do. But because we gave up that power in the garden, we cannot tame it now.

I think I hear you saying, “That was their fault, not mine. Why should I be have to suffer for their poor choices?” 

But that’s like asking if we can be something other than human, or if we can have our power taken away from us. It's like asking if a branch of a tree can be unaffected by the rest of the tree. If the roots take in poison, the rest of the tree will suffer and continue to spread it. No, it wasn’t the branches fault that the roots took in poison, but the branches cannot be saved from the affects of the poison unless grafted into another tree. One with good roots.

And there I must leave off because as long as we shake our fists at the only tree with good roots, we shall not want to be grafted into it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

How I Lose My Faith

I seem to be losing my faith quite frequently these days. And by losing my faith I don't mean my salvation. I mean my daily reliance on Jesus. 

For example, when I ask God to change someone and I see no change despite fervent prayer, I grow impatient and lose my faith. Turns out I had been believing in a God that would change people the way I thought they ought to be changed, a God fashioned after my own liking with my ideals and my plans. I feel suspended over thin air, realizing the platform on which I was standing is not there anymore. I feel God is not there anymore, and indeed I am right. That god, the false one, was never there.

This is how our faith is tested, and by testing I mean the same thing as a mathematician testing a coordinate to see if it is the solution of a function, or graphing a set of coordinates to see if they fall on a line. Or—if the mathematical illustrations mean nothing to you—it is like baking the dough to see if you’ve added enough yeast, or trying out a new medication to see if it helps the rash go away.

You see, we all of us have a particular image of God in mind when we say our prayers or think of the one who purchased our salvation at the price of his son’s blood, and that image must be refashioned after every disappointment, sorrow, and fear. Without the refashioning, we either begin creating a god after our own likeness or we turn our backs on God entirely like the prodigal son did. 

But perhaps the prodigal son is actually closer to God than the one who continues with his false religion. The prodigal knows his will can’t bend to God’s so he runs away to spend his, and by his I mean God's, resources as he wishes. On the other hand, the one making a false god believes his will is God’s. The prodigal is not far from realizing how inadequate he is without the Lord; the one in a false religion thinks he, unlike all those sinners, is pleasing the Lord.

As for the man who sees that he is suspended over thin air, who sees that he is believing in a false god and chooses to discarded that image, he is transformed by the renewal of his mind, and through testing he discerns what the will of God is (Romans 12:2).

Let me cite another scenario in which I lose my faith. Phil and my back-house studio is vacant. We have a laundry list of action items to complete before the next renter comes in June. We don't have this month's rental income supporting us. Phil’s and my cars both ended up in the shop, and at the start of the month I was too sick to do any work. Phil and I are overwhelmed and exhausted. We don’t know how we'll complete all our work or stay out of the red financially. I grow anxious and short-tempered. I lose my faith. 

Or here is another example: I attended an interview with the principal of Lou Henry Hoover Elementary where Lee will be attending kindergarten next fall, and I was shocked and distraught to learn that the principal wished to put Lee into first grade instead of kindergarten because I held him back last year. I exited the meeting frantic and angry, and went on a rampage rudely venting on school district employees in an attempt to get what I wanted. I lost my faith. 

In the first situation, I feel inadequate to the tasks at hand. In the second situation, I was feeling unjustly treated and afraid of the future.

How frequently I lose my faith that a situation is within God’s scope, that he is prepared to take care of these things too, that he is the one to bring about justice and to give good to his people.

Not too long ago I was reading Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis, a gal who fresh out of high school felt called by God to serve in Uganda. Her service there lead to founding the non-profit organization Amazima, adopting thirteen girls, and residing in Uganda permanently. During a fund raising trip to the states, she became overwhelmed with worry about her girls back home.

“I had become so concerned about how I would continue to provide for the children that I forgot I wasn’t even the one who was supposed to do it. I’d been so busy working to raise money that I forgot to ask God for it.” (Davis, 126)

“I keep forgetting to ask God first to heal me, to fill me, to guide me, to rejoice with me. I have to set aside ‘time to pray’ in the morning and at night instead of being in constant communication with him. In Uganda because I was so physically ‘poor’ I was completely dependent on God and spiritually as wealthy as ever.” (Davis, 122)

Reading this was a spotlight on my faithlessness, not only because I hadn’t brought my financial and parental fears to the Lord, but because even in prayer, I was expecting the Lord to deliver in a certain way. Was my faith placed in what God would do or in God himself? I wanted the Lord to help us complete our tasks and supply the extra money and get Lee into kindergarten. Could I still have faith in God if we didn’t finish on time, if our accounts went into the red, and Lee wasn’t permitted into kindergarten?

“You know that under pressure your faith life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. Don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed not deficient in anyway” (James 1:3-4 Message).

Again, in what sort of God did I believe? Was it in a God whose plans matched mine, one who gave me all I wanted, a false god fashioned after my own desires? No, I knew that God was not bound to orchestrate events according to my will.

It's a tell-tale sign that my prayers are faithless when I pray them in fear. I beg God, “Please, do this! Please, please, please. I need this! I must have this! I don’t know what I’ll do without this!”  These are the sort of prayers said with no faith that the maker will take take of me. I am “like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8 ESV).

I lose my faith. 

Again, I have three options: transfer my faith onto the real God whose plans might not be to my liking, flee from this God and his undesirable plans, or follow after a false god. Too frequently I choose the last option. I decide to shoulder the burdens on my own with the belief that God doesn’t care or God helps those who help themselves or that God will step in once I’ve proved my worth. But this is not the God of the bible. It's one created after my own flaws. God cares. He is able to do anything if I trust him. And he is not waiting for me to prove my worth. Chances are if I complete all my tasks myself, I will probably then believe I have earned God’s favor and that now God owes me some easy living or a bit of entertainment or a night's rest without a child interrupting my sleep.

I do not mean that by giving up my hopes for the future and renewing my faith in God that I then sit back and wait for God to get Lee into kindergarten and prepare the studio for the coming renters. But I do mean that any effort I make is done with a newfound rest and delight. I am no longer fretting and fearing that if I don’t do things right, I won’t get what I want. I know the responsibility of making things happen “correctly” is not up to me. There is no fault upon me if things don't go as I like or in a socially acceptable manner.

I take each task every day—scrubbing the studio floor, ordering curtains, selling items on ebay, requesting recommendation letters from Lee’s previous preschool teachers—with prayer. “Lord, is this the task you would have me do today or should I rest to heal from my sickness?” “Lord, please help me be open to Lee going into first grade.” “Lord, should I focus on selling items on ebay or trying to paint the studio?” “Lord, is it really necessary that we re-grout the shower and if not, help me to be at peace with the way things are.”

That is what the Bible means when it says to walk by faith and not by sight, to live in Christ, “to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you,” (Philippians 2:12-13). 

By the way, Lee was permitted into kindergarten after an entrance test, letters of recommendation, a local school council meeting, and several months of suspense. Phil landed five side jobs and I discovered that Mike Hamilton's Kenner Star Wars action figures that he'd given me to sell were worth hundreds. And while Phil and I have yet to finish preparing our studio, we are taking one task at a time, in faith.