Friday, January 20, 2012

Unto Us a Child Is Born: Flash Mobs and New Years (Solar and Lunar)

NOTE: The names in this post have been changed to protect the identity of those mentioned from those who don’t already know them.

Eight days before Christmas, I was in line at the grocery store and the man ahead of me, busily supplying gift cards to the cashier for activation, commented that he couldn't stand the mall crowds, the holiday traffic, and the flash mobs.

I definitely agree with some of the comment. In fact, I hate ALL traffic and might be content if I didn't need to drive again. But I had recently been to the mall, and while I didn’t like being bowled over by cell-phone-yacking teeny-boppers-turned-soccer-moms, ignored by overworked and under-enthused salespeople, and bumped into by busy, stopping-on-the-way-home dads, I enjoyed the light in the eyes of the children I passed by and the occasional adult lovingly caressing an object—clearly not for themselves—in the anticipation of their beloved’s surprised response on receiving it.

And as I reconsidered what the man said, I sincerely pondered the flash mobs, particularly of this flash mob:

Surely, the angels’ appearance to the shepherds was one of the most spectacular flash mobs ever. And if I had witnessed it, what would I think? I doubt I would believe it. I might be in too much of a hurry to stop. If I recounted the experience to my doctor, she might put me on an anti-psychotic and tell me to avoid stress.

But not every unexplainable event is discountable.

Three years ago this month, my lovely friend held in her arms for the first time her sweet, if screaming, newborn son—shiny, eyes closed, full head of hair, and did I mention loud? When the baby was presented later at the church, I had never seen a father as proud as her husband nor a mother as lovely as Faith. Of course, Faith looks pretty awesome all of the time, but motherhood had made her even more radiant. “It’s the exhaustion,” she said when I told her how good she looked. “But it’s not really that bad. He just eats every two hours.” And while I know that’s completely normal for a newborn, and all mothers who breastfed nod along with me, I have never heard another mother say, “It’s not really that bad.” In fact, most women I know believe siblings come to be out of amnesia and accidents. We do not knowingly put ourselves back into the rounded and then deflated state with our full cognitive abilities working. We forget. But Faith, ever Faith, never complains, never says a bad word, never dashes a hope, or breaks a heart.

Originally, my family was assigned to Faith and her husband, who were the deacons, to look after us at the church we attended in Daegu. But I learned quickly how much more than a deacon Faith was. And while I was impressed by her kindness and energy, I didn’t become close to her immediately or even slowly. Our friendship would develop much later over the phone and internet.

During the time she and her husband served as our deacons, my little one would begin having seizures—approximately half a dozen between Christmas Day 2007 and the Fourth of July 2008 (also my birthday). After that summer seizure, the doctors simply recommended very frequent checkups, the immediate use of antibiotics for any flare in the throat or ears, and frequent dosing of antipyretics at the first sign of any discomfort or change. Following this advice controlled the little one’s seizures for the next eleven months as my family and I got to know Faith and her family a little better.

Then, on my little one’s birthday in July, another seizure struck. I was interviewing a student who was about to join our program. My husband called to tell me that the little one had begun convulsing at the daycare as my eldest sister-in-law had been picking him up. She was going with him to the emergency room in the ambulance, and my husband was coming to get me. I tried to convey what was happening to the mother of the student, who just did not seem to understand. I could not move her out of the house with any sort of speed. I was in my shoes, at the preparation area of Korean apartments, holding the door open, and still she wandered around the main room asking questions about the camp’s curriculum and her daughter’s ability. Later, when I rather resentfully asked my husband to apologize to her (I still thought she should have moved faster), he asked, “Why? She thought it went great. She had no idea you were hurrying her out.” I sighed.

When the little one finally saw the ER doctor, my husband promised him a toy if he could stop crying and be brave. The waterworks miraculously evaporated, and the little one asked, “Will you buy me an ambulance?” Following the doctor’s advice, we stripped him down to his diaper and sponged him off again and again. We spent his birthday in that ER, where, once he was finally no longer being stabbed by a resident trying to draw blood and had been given fever reducers, he happily pranced around among the other patients, offering them pretend kwaja (cookies) from under his clear umbrella. At 3:00 AM, they finally discharged us with antibiotics and antipyretics. Relieved, we drove home, only to find that our oldest son had a 104 fever as well.

This was a turning point for me. I suddenly recognized two things. First, that the root problem behind the seizures was controlled but not gone. And secondly, as I looked at the clothes we had just bought for my little one, my youngest son had not grown at all in the eighteen months since the seizures had begun.

Everything I had ever read about failure to thrive came back to me, and in desperation, I took him to the church for prayer and anointing. Many surrounded us and laid hands on that child. Faith was among them, now a mother with a six-month-old son. I still didn’t know her well, but even at that time, I felt her heart—God’s heart in her. And I felt a connection that we would be needing one another. Perhaps it was God’s sign to me then of what was coming.

We spent another year in Korea and thought we had the seizure problem licked.

Until Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving. At 2:00 AM Chuseok morning, the little one convulsed uncontrollably. Depositing our eldest son with the younger of my two sisters-in-law, my husband and I sped with the little one to the emergency room. Let me tell you, once the danger is past, it’s kind of funny staying in the ER on a holiday because the most random of injuries come in. Parents, distracted by their holiday responsibilities, ignore children, or worse, put them in the charge of their older siblings. “Yes,” one mother abashedly explained to the attendant. “He and his brother thought it would be fun to try jumping over the wall from the roof.” Neither was seriously hurt, thankfully. Once again, after blood draws, antibiotics, and antipyretics, we were sent home, and as we drove down the highway and I looked at the cellphone to call my in-laws and tell them we were coming home, I noticed the date. “Happy birthday, honey,” I said to my husband, and we both knew that our present was the beautiful, still-breathing boy sitting in my lap.

This was the year of the Swine flu, which arrived, surprisingly, two years AFTER the Golden Pig Year which comes every half millennium or so on the Chinese calendar. It’s supposed to be lucky, but you’ve got to wonder. Because of the little one’s response to fevers (seizures) and because both the swine flu and its vaccine for young children were accompanied by high fevers, we were advised NOT to have the children vaccinated and to pull them both out of school during flu season—October to March. That meant that the children were supposed to stay home or in open areas and should refrain from going to any enclosed places with lots of people. No church for us then, and it was a long time before I saw my friend Faith again.

Then, on one Sunday morning in December, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to go to church; I just had to. This was a problem because my little one also has separation anxiety and panic disorder although we didn’t have the label for it then. Simply put, when I left him, the little one would freak out and eventually make himself sick. So, I couldn’t just leave him and go to church on my own. Eventually we decided that I would take just the little one and go to the afternoon service where there were very few people and little chance of the little one picking up anything. So we went. When we were done, I began to walk to a place to get a taxi with little one when my husband called and said he was in the nursery with our oldest son talking to Faith and playing with her baby.

Faith left before I got there. We said goodbye to a few people and got into our car and began the ride home. Sure enough, though, there was Faith carrying her son on the side of the road. We picked her up, and it turned out that this weekend only, we were going in the same direction. Her in-laws live just a few miles from mine. We dropped her and the baby off and were heading home when we noticed that she left her wallet on the central console of our car. So, after a lot of calling, we finally got Faith’s cell phone number and called her to set up a return of the wallet.

It was not a coincidence. I would never have gotten her cell phone number otherwise. We didn’t go to church again until just before we left for the States, and I haven’t actually seen Faith since that time. But that number connected us. And the next day she discovered that that beautiful screaming child that she had held eleven months earlier, the one who had played “meh-rong” with my children (a game in which children stick their tongues out at one another) in the car on the way home, had ocular cancer.

God works in funny ways. We don’t always see Him. He doesn’t come in ways that we expect, and He doesn’t necessarily do the things that we want. But He comes.

Even though Faith and I were separated, sometimes I would just know she needed something. I remember texting a verse to her one day and having her text back, “How did you know? Our son was just admitted to the hospital again.” Later, she would know about me, giving me a call in America just when I would need it. This continues, back and forth, to this day.

Yes, God comes. Sometimes, He comes creeping in small ways; other times, He’s everywhere.

Faith wasn’t the only one who knew about me. Hope and I had begun to share manuscripts with each other about a year before I moved back to America. As I prepared to return to the States in 2010, our family moved back in with my in-laws. My children both have special needs of differing kinds, and my eldest’s anxiety—and the side effects it has—became fully apparent after this transition away from his home, his school, and his daddy (who was tying up business in Seoul). As his distress and violence increased to the confusion and dismay of his Korean grandparents, his brother, and me, I was at wit’s end. I was really looking forward to an international call with Hope. Alas, as international calls are wont to do, the connection fell through, and I couldn’t talk to Hope. Rather hopeless (and Hope-less), I lay down and thought about sleep. But I felt a gentle nudging. “Don’t go to sleep. Call Aimée.”

Aimée is a friend of mine from college. Before she had married, she could be immediately located by her Eastern European consonant goulash of a last name. Alas, she married and took the ubiquitous last name of her husband. And trust me, her real name is even more common than Aimée Jones. But, by a stroke of luck, we had found each other, after nearly fifteen years, a few days before, and I had her phone number.

I called. She answered. As busy as she is, that in itself was a miracle. As we began to talk, it became apparent that she had dealt with issues like my son’s. She began to give me concrete advice and to name names and label issues. She gave me something to grasp, approaches that would work, and a place to start. When I got off the phone with her, I literally fell to the floor thanking God for hearing my prayers. I had hope for the first time in a long time.

I was so amazed that I called my mom. “Would you believe it?” I asked her. “What are the odds?”

My mom, so typically my mother, did not answer my question. Instead she asked, “Is this the friend you made the quilt for?”

Leave it to my mother. I had made that quilt fifteen years earlier as a wedding present. My mom had never even met this friend, but she remembered the quilt!

“Yes,” I said.

“Well, tell her that I’ve been praying for her. For the last week, I just can’t get her and her family out of my mind.”

And so, in the complete oddness of that night, I called my friend back and left her a message. When she called me the next day, she said, “You don’t know what that means to me. I don’t know what to do with my daughter. We are having to make an awful decision right now, and I just felt so alone.”

But you see, we are not alone, and sometimes, we need to look up to see this, and to listen in order to show it.

Again, I think back to the comment about flash mobs. I’ve never witnessed one personally, but I have been a part of improv. For a glimpse of that, take a peek at Charlie Todd’s “The Shared Experience of Absurdity”:

The one thing that always strikes me about improv, being part of a performance, or being in a musical group is the conviction that we are a corporate body, that in those moments together with a single purpose, we are a part of something larger, of an energy or striving that pervades the human spirit and unites us in something bigger than ourselves. It’s easy to forget that, lost in our own little worlds. But when we, in Todd’s words, look up more, we see that we are part of something incredible.

Nearly a year after our return to America, my own world would be rocked by all kinds of things. But on the day before everything really hit the fan, I got an email from Aimée—just to say hi, a message from Hope—to say she was praying for our family, and a call from Faith—saying that she and her husband just couldn’t get us out of their minds. And so, when everything looked terrible and my children sat in the backseat crying, I turned around before I pulled out of our parking spot.

“Do you remember that God says He puts His angels around us? Do you remember that God said He would never leave us?”

The boys nodded mutely.

“Well, I’ve gotten messages and calls from my friends. They told me that they were praying for us even before this happened! Do you see? God has called out His warriors to fight for us even before we knew that we needed him.”

And I was suddenly reminded that our struggles are not against flesh and blood. No, they most certainly are not. And we, whose spirits are only encumbered by the illusion of flesh and blood, are united in ways that we cannot begin to understand—nor begin to see without listening and looking up.

Faith and her husband would face incredible trials and pain together. It would not all go as planned, and, as there always is in an illness with no definitive cure, there was talk and judgment along with the hope and love and reaching and supporting. But Faith never complained.

The week before Christmas brought that home to me. Almost a year ago--MORE than a year ago--I went to the Korean church we were attending with two Bibles in my purse. Strange as that sounds, I brought two because I wasn't sure if I was going to sit through the English or the Korean service, and my brain just does better if I can try to keep to one language at a time.

Well, because of the proximity to my separation-anxiety-stricken five-year-old’s classroom and my ability to monitor his screams through the accordion partition of my classroom, I sat in the English service. But I could only find my Korean Bible. I was just able to follow along, and it was a good thing because I knew that I knew that I knew, in the way that only a hunch or an intuition or something sub-rational is, that what the pastor had to say was for Faith and her family, now in California.

But I wouldn't believe it. I refused to look up and refused to listen.

Even though when I got home, there was my English Bible RIGHT BESIDE my Korean Bible in my purse. I didn't think of it as a miracle or a message that I could only find the Korean version. I thought I was deluding myself that the message was for Faith. And I thought I should clean out my purse.

Yet the words kept surfacing to my conscience. Again and again, I refused to believe, refused to write that message, refused to look up at the message of the angels in front of me.

Only when I was praying with a friend, who knew nothing of these other friends, and she began praying for Faith’s EXACT SITUATION did I realize that if I wouldn't let God use me, he was going to use somebody else.

So I sent the message. It was a message of hope.

That hope suffered a great blow Easter week when Faith learned she was pregnant just three days before her firstborn returned to the arms of his heavenly father.

And then, eight days before Christmas, she called me. Just hours after the man’s comment about flash mobs, Magnolia Love had come into the world. Like Christ, she was a promised child. And yet, she was almost missed--even by the doctor. If her father hadn’t rushed into the hall and dragged the nurse back in, he would have caught Magnolia himself.

If the angel chorus wasn't the biggest flash mob, then I don't know what is. But, like me, not everyone responds to the angels. Samson's father thought the angel bearing word of his son-to-be's birth would kill him (Samson was not known for his intellect, and we know why...). Not everyone sees—or perhaps we do our best to ignore them. The servant of Elisha feared the king until Elisha prayed his eyes would be open to see the angelic guard surrounding them.

And when Faith called me, she said, “Do you remember what you said to me a year and two days ago? That I would yet praise the Lord in the land of the living? This is that promise.”

And I, facing my own tribulation at that moment, was reminded of how sometimes God comes knocking in our lives. You can call Him what you will. You don't have to call Him God.

But He will find you. And I don't mean like a stalker.

Like flash mobs, like improv, I just mean that He will meet you where you are—in the world, not necessarily the church or the theater.

I mean that He is there. I mean that the whole world, everything we do--moment to moment--is like one giant flash mob of God crying out His love to us. We don't always see it. We don't always believe it. But it is absolutely there. Especially when you think that it isn't.

And sometimes, we are called to be a part of it.

So it was important that I was obediently a member of the flash mob to Faith a little over a year ago. She needed to see God. And, in return, she was a member of one to me a year later, when I needed to know God was there.

We are called to look up, or we will miss it, to be a part of it, or it will pass us by.

And it was appropriate that I took the boys and a family cousin out for a drive that very evening to look at the Christmas lights. A local family invites members of the community to walk through their yard and enjoy their decorations, including literally HUNDREDS of life-sized wooden cartoon characters (one is a Sylvester the Cat that I made as part of the art club in high school. I am shocked and amazed that it has lasted all of these years!). After we had walked through the yard to everyone’s enjoyment and the boys were escaping, we got into the car and just drove around the area, presumably to enjoy the nylon inflatables and flashing lights. And I believe our cousin did enjoy them.

My children, however, were not tuned into the lights.

“Mommy! This is not the way home!” the big one hollered.

“But just look at these lights! And did you know that penguins could fly airplanes?”

“Did we have to go up a hill to get here, Mommy?” the little one asked. “I don’t remember any hill.”

Our cousin giggled. She, at least, was enjoying the trip—both the goofy lights outside and the goofballs inside.

“Here,” I said, heading down a cul-de-sac. “Just look at this nativity. It has all the animals AND purple neon palm trees.”

The star blinked over the manger as I slowly eased the car around the curved end of the road and head back out. In the back I heard a deep sigh and turned around to see the big one with his head in his hands.

“I told her we were lost!”

But all was not lost. We did make it home, much to the relief of my eldest son. Nor was the evening completely lost on them.

Last week, the little one asked me, “Mommy, do you remember the bunny that was up on the hill that was on the way home that wasn’t really the way home? Do you think we could find him again?”

And while, no, I don’t think we can find the bunny for the little one, we reflect the light of the Lord to the world, twinkling like stars in the universe and pointing the way to the Savior who still waits.

Look up and see. Stand up and shine.