Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ten Painful Prayer Lessons

"Never pray for patience," my mother once told me, "or God will give you something so terrible that you will need it."

Was this the divine version of "If you want to cry, I'll give you something to cry about?"

No, it was more like "No pain, no gain" or "It hurts to be beautiful." 

And here's how it hurt (for me, at least).

  1. When I pray for God to do mighty deeds, He lets me fail a few times so that I know He did it, not me.
  2. When I pray to be a peacemaker, God throws me between warring factions.  After all, that's where peacemakers are needed.
  3. When I pray for God to get the glory, He lets the world see my mess.  That way they understand it wasn't me that made something of myself.
  4. When I pray for faith, God disables all avenues of assistance so that I have to trust only Him.  Only then do I see deliverance.
  5. When I pray for God to change my neighbor's heart, He begins working on mine.
  6. When I pray about the things that made me angry, God replaces that anger with sorrow and a desire to help and love those I once despised.
  7. When I pray to be able to forgive, God gives me something to forgive.  Forgiving is not fun.  Sometimes I need to do it again and again.  And again.  But with each time comes more love.  And more love.  And more love.  And then the addendum...
  8. When I pray for greater love, God sends me more difficult people. 
  9. When I pray for more gratitude, God sends me things that are more difficult to be grateful for.  And I learned that the garment of praise really does lift the spirit of heaviness.
  10. When I pray more, I care less and less about the difficult path ahead and more and more about holding the Guide's gentle hand.
That said, my oldest is praying for a dragon, so the painful lessons might not be over yet!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”
14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” ...
Joshua 5:13-14 (courtesy of
I have purposely waited until Memorial Day was over because our soldiers--and all soldiers--who fight to protect others and their rights deserve our unqualified respect and honor.  I do not want anything I say here to be taken out of context.  But I have something very important to say to American Christians, particularly ones whose churches make large nationalistic celebrations and preach charged, politicized sermons.

We are citizens of Heaven first.
Our leader is the Lord of Heaven and not any man.
Therefore, do not worry about what man may do or what the government may say.
Seek the Kingdom of God first. 
The question is not whether God is on our side.  It is whether we are on His.

Let us not worship at the altar of national pride or national fear.  Let us come before our Maker in reverence, awe, and confidence that He is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.  Let us know that He so loved the world (John 3:16), that He cares for it (Matthew 10:29), and that He does not discriminate (Galatians 3:28).  And let us begin to act that way.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

God Loves Baby Gates

On Wednesday, I had to apologize to a parent.

"I am so sorry.  I thought your son was going to hurt someone, and I yelled to stop him.  I made him cry.  I'm so sorry."

I won't forget her uncharacteristic response.

"Oh, noooo," she said, drawing herself to her full height, her eyes flashing as she peered past me toward her son. "I know my child.  Thank you for not letting him get away with it."

And that stuck with me.  I, too, have thanked teachers for keeping my children to a standard.  My kids have issues.  They are not bad kids.  They are hyperactive, creative, and occasionally strangely inflexible due to sensory issues which literally make their brains incapable of rationalizing until the problem stimulus is adjusted.

And the whole thing reminded me of Psalm 139, so often quoted in reference to abortion.  But that's not the part of the Psalm that most sticks with me.  The part the most resonates to the core of my being is this:
You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Now, mothers don't have divine omniscience, but we certainly search our children, and it does indeed begin pre-birth.  What was it I ate that kept that child up (and kicking) all night?  Didn't I know that everyday at 2:30 I would need to pat my eldest's little butt that was protruding forward in the gap under my sternum between my ribs?  After about ten minutes of patting, he would settle down and presumably fall asleep.  The whole pattern was destined to repeat once he entered the world, and I had already discovered that the butt pat was the key.  Eight years later, we have an exercise ball where he can bounce (on the butt of course) and calm himself down (one of the sensory issues I mentioned above, in fact).  I did know him.  I searched him to know him (although I wasn't originally seeking to discern his patterns out of love--it was more to alleviate pain).

And what about that whole sit and stand and perceive thoughts from afar?  Almost every mother can tell you what her child will be doing in a certain situation.  Take last fall when the men were repairing a roof in the neighborhood.  My little one asked, "How did they get up there?"

"I think they climbed the ladder on the other side of the building," I answered.

The little one began to sprint around the house.

"Don't think of climbing that ladder!" I yelled.

My friend, standing beside me, began, "He wouldn't...."

"Awww, Mom!" the little one shouted, throwing his backpack on the ground.

"Oh, yes, he would," I said.

And I knew he would because we mothers know these things.  We know when they have used toothpaste and when they have brushed with only water solely by the number of seconds the water has run.  We are, indeed, familiar with all of our children's ways, which brings me to the most profound part of that passage:

You hem me in behind and before.
Was I the only one scrambling to keep children from scaling balconies, climbing out windows, descending into creeks, and generally tempting death multiple times an hour?  Do you know how this line, this idea that the Creator of the Universe does the same for us, calms me?  And do you know how it turns the whole abortion argument, the whole consequences argument, the whole they-are-condemned-to-hell argument on its head for me?  All of those things may be true, but the Lord of Creation created the mother contemplating abortion, the sinner, and the unrepentant just as surely as He created the Psalmist.  In fact, I really believe that God allows us to read the Psalmist's words:

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
    Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
specifically because those are not the thoughts of God.  And how would I know this?  Well, does it sound like the God who told Abraham to wait more than 400 years for the promised land because "the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure" (Genesis 15:16)?  Or the God who said, "And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals” (Jonah 4:11)?  Or the God who said, "Do not despise an Edomite, for the Edomites are related to you. Do not despise an Egyptian, because you resided as foreigners in their country" (Deuteronomy 23:7)?  Or more importantly, the God who sent His son to die for our sins?  We are the ones who jump to anger and revenge, not God.  He is slow to anger.  He lets us read the Psalmist's cry for revenge precisely so that when we come to the Psalmist's plea:
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.
we understand that even though the Psalmist does love God, there is an offensive way in him, just as we all have offensive ways, offensive ways that are just as clear to God as the Psalmist's are here.  And He "hems" us in.  This chapter has completely changed how I see myself and those around me.  I don't pray for judgment, and I don't worry as much about the unborn babies.  I pray for hemming in.  God loves baby gates even more than I did.  He catches His children far better than I ever caught mine.  And He knows His wayward children, even better than I know mine, and loves them more than I could even imagine, which is a whole lot.

Thursday, April 25, 2013




I looked up and immediately shaded my eyes.  From his perch in the crook of the great flowering tree outside the door to Atherton Hall, Sam was busy calling me.

“Hi, Sam,” I said.

“Damn!” He contorted his body through the branches toward the ground.  “I was hoping you’d think I was God.”

Sam was a typical little-brother type.  He had a knack for poking people and getting a rise out of them. I am a typical older-sister type, immune to most poking.

One evening while Sam was busily riling up conservative fundamentalists in our scholars dorm—an easy enough feat since, in my opinion, you can’t spit on the Penn State campus without hitting a conservative or fundamentalist or both—he asked me what I thought.

While I may hold some fundamentalist views, I tend to apologize for apologists.  I take the view that we should stop trying to explain God because we just don’t know—and, to be honest, I wonder, especially around liberal intellectualists like Sam, why anyone would want to follow a God who was so mundane he could be completely understood and explained.  Part of my draw to God is that he knows more than I do.  I like it that way.

So Sam asked me, “Do you really think that God answers prayers?”

And so I said, “Yes.”

“When?” he wanted to know.

“My brother,” I answered, going into the very long, not-coincidence-laden story of his adoption.

“Fluke,” Sam said.  “What else?”

“Coming here,” I said, going into the story of how I knew I had ended up where I was supposed to be.

“Come on,” Sam said.  “I want something more concrete.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Here’s concrete—and unorthodox—but this is how God works with me.  In everything.  Just like this.  I try to do it myself, like I did this morning with my socks.  I look everywhere.  I look where I last put them.  I look where they’re supposed to be.  I look where they’re not supposed to be but where I’ve just been and might have left them.  I look in places that they might fit but no one has looked into possibly since the erection of the building.  No socks.”

Sam looked at me like I was crazy, and I now had the attention of the room.

“So I finally pray,” I continued. “’Lord, please help me find my socks because my feet are cold and I’m going to be late for class.’  And I hear a little voice, just in my head, like. ‘Open your eyes,’ it says.  And there, in front of me, where I had already looked, are my socks.”

“That could be anything,” said Sam.

“It could,” I say.  “But it always works that way for me.  If I don’t pray, I go sockless.  When I pray, there they are.”

“You really hear a voice?”

“Yes.  Kind of.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

So Sam started calling me at odd intervals, trying to trick me into believing he was God.  He finally gave up after a year or more.  Of course, my real trouble has never been mistaking Sam for God but mistaking my own conclusions for God’s voice.  I don’t think God really cares about my socks.  I mean, he might, but really, I think he cares that I know I can’t do it myself.  And I think he cares that I know the sound of his voice and know that he’s listening.

Bearing the way God and I relate in mind, you will appreciate this story.  Recently, after some silence from God on some rather big topics, I wasn’t altogether serious when I prayed, “And Lord, no one is going to take me seriously with this falling-apart purse.  But I don’t have the time or money to do something about it right now.  So if you want someone to take me seriously, you’re going to have to take care of the whole purse issue.”

The next morning, as the bus pulled away from the bus stop, my friend turned to me and asked, “Hey, do you need a purse?”

I walked home with three brand new purses.  Three. 

Of course, I didn’t immediately thank God for them.  Instead, I prayed, “Really?  Really? You listened to the purse prayer?  What about the house?”

I just heard laughter.  Someone’s listening after all.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Somewhere today, there is a scooter that will stay empty.  There is a sink that will escape the toothpaste drops that had so plagued the lady of the house.  There is a mom who can blow kisses that no little boy will dodge.  Somewhere, an eight-year-old boy is not coming home.

But the most important thing to remember is that the eight-year-old boy who doesn't come home is not really only one eight-year-old boy.  All over this country, all over this world, little boys are not coming home.  Mothers and fathers rock as they did when they carried their new little baby, only this time their arms are empty and they are the ones crying.  The boys may have been taken in many ways.  Yes, one boy was taken by an as-yet-unnamed bomber, but others have been taken by car accidents, cancer, and other diseases.

No one misery lessens the other.  No one life is more valuable, no loss more more sorrowful.

The difference is in the attitude of those surviving.  Some will be terrified.  They will feel out of control, helpless, lost, alone.  I have been among them at times.  I have held my blue baby in my arms and screamed to God for mercy, knowing full well that I have no control over the situation.  I have wept those tears.  I have watched other parents, other spouses, other families and friends lose.  Lose. Lose. Lose.

It doesn't matter if the loss is caused by a madman, a rampant disease, or a genetic defect.  It doesn't matter if it happened intentionally, accidentally, or in due course.  It only matters that it happened, it hurt, and you couldn't stop it.

Terror happens when you feel alone and powerless. 

Terror is a lie.

We are not alone, and we are not powerless.

Take yesterday as an example.  Yes, we missed that bomb, but those victims were not alone.  Bystanders came racing forward to help, to carry them to safety, and to comfort.  Nor was the community powerless.  The hospitals were flooded with people donating blood.  Individuals in the area offered accommodations to those who needed them.  Restaurant owners opened their dining rooms and offered their food to anyone who needed it, regardless if they could pay.  Some of those who helped were victims also, people who had suffered great loss themselves, like Carlos Arredondo.

The same is true of other tragedies in life.  There are others who have faced the same circumstances, who are willing to come alongside us, hold our hands, and guide us through.  No one likes walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but we need not walk there alone.

You see, this is the very important part.  We are not alone.  We are not powerless.  Failure to understand these basic facts leads not only to our own terror but to the committing of terror.  Look at the other acts of terror committed on Patriot's Day.  Did Timothy McVeigh bomb the Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building for fun?  No.  He did it because he felt alienated (alone) and unable to change the problem within the system (powerless).  If the fires at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco were really set by the Davidians, as has been alleged, were they set because the Davidians felt powerful?  No.  Absolutely not.  They were set because they were alone against the perceived enemy and powerless to prevail.

So let us not be afraid.  Let us continue to reach out.  Let us love our neighbors and treat them as fellow travelers in life instead of as possible suspects.  Let the thoughts of our hearts, the words of our mouths, and the works of our hands prove that we will build our community rather than tear it down.  Then we will not only alleviate our own terror, we will prevent its perpetuation.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Raising my *precious*

About a month ago, I was awakened around 5:30 by barking coughs from my sons' room.  The little one (the usual cougher) was sleeping.  It was the big one. 

"I can't breathe," my eight-year-old rasped between hacks.

I dragged him to the bathroom, propped him up on the toilet lid, and turned on the shower. The steam quickly fogged my glasses and the mirror.

The big one shook his coughing head vehemently.  "I don't want a shower!"

"You're not getting a shower," I said, still squinting in the sudden brightness of the over-the-mirror lights.  "Just breathe in the steam."

He did his best to breathe it in, but his lungs seemed unwilling to open their gates.  In spite of the croupy bark of the cough, I started to bet that this was asthma.  So, having an albuterol inhaler from his brother and knowing that he'd been treated with albuterol in the past, I gave him two puffs.

Moments after the first puff, his cough became productive.  Fifteen minutes after the second puff, and his breathing was near effortless.

But we had a new problem.  Albuterol makes a person jittery.  It raises their heartrate, increases anxiety, and makes it very hard to sit still.  Apply those side effects to a child that's already hyperactive.  Can you picture my living room at 6:00 AM?  If you're visualizing the walking dead in close quarters with a ping pong ball on crack, you've done a pretty good job.

Two hours later, we were at the doctor's office.  The big one was still very hyped up.  It was hard to catch what he was saying as he announced to the receptionist as I was signing in, "I'm BJ and I'm home sick today because I can't breathe and Mom says that means no video games and only educational shows like math ones and National Geographic and I hate that breathing medicine and Mom says I don't have to go back to school today even if I can breathe now because she doesn't trust it and do you have a bathroom because I need to use it now and it's really hot in here did you know that?"

They led us back to an exam room quickly, which was good because it was easier to contain the ping pong ball in there, even though it meant that he hit the walls more often.  Divested of his winter coat, he was freer to move and was over the chair, under the chair, spinning on the doctor's seat, checking out how the computer cords wound through the garrotte and plugged into the power bar, and hanging off the end of the examination table to study (upside down) how the sanitary paper was wound and attached.

"Where is he?" the nurse asked as she entered the room.  I pointed below the table where the big one had locked his body up underneath.  He jumped out.

"Gotcha!" he shouted as he danced around her.  The nurse tried to face him for a bit, but after rotating a time and a half, she gave up and just turned her head.

After originally doubting my reports, the doctor did confirm it had been asthma, and, somewhat exhausted after our visit, he sent us on our way visibly relieved.

And so began a beautiful day spent with my sick-at-home eight-year-old.  We read together (Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs and Scene of the Crime), went over math facts (multiplication), and watched those educational shows on TV. 

"Do you remember the first time I ever watched Mythbusters?" he whispered in my ear.  "It was magical."

And that moment--the one I was spending cuddled with my son, not the first time he watched Mythbusters--was magical.  And I enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.

But it also brought something home to me, something that I fight all the time both with myself internally and externally.  It is so easy for me to apply descriptors to my son:  the big one, asthmatic, hyperactive, ADHD, boy, fantasy-loving.  And sometimes the labels seem to take a life of their own, either demanding special treatment or special griping.  But in the end, what is most important for me to remember is that these descriptors do not even come close to encapsulating my son.  While they help me to deal with aspects of his personality, I don't ever want that ping pong ball on crack to be confined by the walls of the house or the restrictions of a label.  And I need to draw back from them as often as I possibly can.

When all is said and done, I am raising my precious one, and that is the only thing that matters.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sometimes You Just Need to Laugh

I don't usually do posts with pictures, but this one requires pictures to understand.  It is the story of my life.

A year or so ago, my big one went to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and walked out with the most beautiful picture of himself from the sketchbook picture machine.

See?  Amazing.  Beatific.  Somehow the machine captured his fleeting angelic side which now has permanent residence on our refrigerator door where I sigh every time I put away the milk.  Could I really be this blessed?

So this past December my friend scheduled her daughter's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese and invited us.  Immediately, I made up my mind to acquire more of these inspiring portraits, which also happen to be nearly instant at approximately two minutes from start to finish and reasonably priced at two tokens apiece.

So away we went.  I instructed both boys to stop by the machine at some point during the party and to bring their pictures back to me.  The big one immediately complied, and this is what I got.

Once again, it was gorgeous.  My active, bouncing, perpetually noise-making son had been reduced for one breathtaking moment to the air of open-mouthed wonder and curiosity that generally fuels his frantically roving, weaving, diving, heaving body.

I reminded the little one about the machine.

He didn't want to waste his tokens there.

"Fine," I replied.  "I'll use some of these."  I snatched a few from a cup of extra tokens that my friend helpfully proffered.  I motioned for the big one to follow.

When we reached the machine, I turned around and realized that only the big one had come.  Fine.  I wanted a picture with the big one, too, so the two of us posed together.  Since he turned his body at the last minute, it was not as lovely as the big one by himself.  Instead of the camera catching him with his mouth open in wonder, it caught him ready to snare a bug with his tongue.

Still, this version of the big one is also fairly accurate.  So we added the picture to the pile and went in search of the little one.  We caught him steering a pirate ship.

"My turn isn't up!" he protested, even though we could clearly see the "Continue?" countdown blazoned across the screen.

"Yes, it is!" the big one cried.  "You are such a liar!"

"I am not!  I want to play!"

"Tough noogies."  I interrupted the two, grabbed the little one by the elbow, and steered him toward the machine.

"Can I be done?" called the big one now grasping the pirate ship's wheel himself.

"One more picture and you're done," I told him.  Moaning loudly, he traipsed after us.

We arrived at the machine, and the big one dutifully sat down.  The little one squirmed and attempted to twist his elbow from my grip.  I forcibly plunked him on the seat next to his brother only to discover that the red "picture" oval that marks the camera's area of focus is too high for the little one when he's sitting down.  When he's standing up, however, his forehead is cut off by the upper limits of the oval.  I tried to adjust him to a knees-bent stance.  Meanwhile, he tried to escape toward me.  His escape was aided by his brother, who decided to use his head in the same way that a steer does during mating season.  With great force, he pressed his skull against his brother, trying to force him out of the circle.  I intervened, shoving my hipbone against the little one's head, preventing his escape and pushing the big one's head in the other direction with my right hand.  With my left hand, I gripped my little one's left arm and attempted to keep him the right height for the camera to catch him.

Do you know how long two minutes can be with all of that going on?  But the picture turned out okay.

If I hadn't told you, would you really have noticed my hip and right hand?  I did manage to keep my left hand out.  One of three is still better than none, right?

The picture dropped into the little receptacle, and the big one grabbed it out to check that he had really made it into the picture (as if the red oval was somehow lying) and promptly dropped it on the floor before racing off to play.

Now I may have neglected to mention something important.  If there is something to be kicked, stepped on, or in any other way easily touched by foot, my little one will kick, step on, or otherwise touch it with his foot.  So the instant that picture landed on the ground, all I could think of were footprints.

I immediately snatched it up, held it between my fingers to prevent wrinkling, and used that same hand to pin the little one to the back of the machine for his solo picture.  The solo picture dropped into the receptacle, and without the big one there to remove it, stayed there.  Without looking at it, I seized the little one by his waist, hauled him onto my lap, and deposited our last two tokens for the final picture.  Despite his squirming and face-making, the picture didn't turn out half bad.

Who am I kidding?  The computer even agrees with me.  I've tried turning this picture in all the image editing software I have, and Blogger still won't upload it right.  I'll never show that picture out in public.  But it does live in my purse because I have no picture covers in my wallet and no pictures on my phone.  No one has ever asked me to see a picture of my boys, but now I don't feel like such a bad mother.  At least I carry their pictures with me now--even if they're not pictures I intend to show.

But now that the whole ordeal was over, I shuffled my picture with the little one to the back and looked at the little one's solo picture for the first time.

I had had no idea that my hand had made it into the shot.  With the white background of the paper, you can easily see my fingers woven back and forth, although it's not at all clear why I've done it.

Sometimes a picture really does say it all.

Friday, January 11, 2013

This I Pray

Two days before the school sent letters to the parents suspending the current parent-child lunch policy in response to security concerns following the Sandy Hook shooting, I had lunch with my little Star Student in the elementary school cafeteria.  As lines of children looped around us, eventually "settling" themselves on the bench seats of the tables (as if six-year-old butts ever really settle anywhere), we opened our lunchboxes, surveyed the contents, and asked God to bless our lunches.  Together.  About two feet from the principal, which AJ's friend was good enough to repeatedly point out to me.  "That's our principal," she said with a mouth full of ham, cheese, and goldfish-shaped bread.  She leaned closer and hissed, "Scary!"

It was really rather hard to greet this warning with alarm, especially after the principal looked at her, smiled, and asked, "How is your lunch, K____?"

She smiled the missing-toothed grin of first grade and moved the mouth of her goldfish-shaped sandwich to answer, "Chewy."

It was all very first grade and very normal.  And that's partly my point.

I have read a number of rants on not having prayer in American schools and on the government keeping us from being Christian.

This assertion is patently untrue.

We do not have teacher-led, school-sanctioned and/or -mandated prayer in schools.  But any private citizen acting in a private capacity in the school building is not only perfectly capable of praying but has the full backing of the first amendment endorsing his freedom to do so.

We spend lots of time saying, "Use it or lose it."  Well, my friends, this situation is one of those cases.  We have rights--not just rights to guns and rights to rant--but rights to assemble and to pray.  If you would really like to live the life of the sword, you can do that.  I would simply remind you that it was Jesus who said, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword" (the old interpretation of Matthew 26:52), not me.

But if we would like to keep our rights to assemble and pray, then I suggest that we use them!  The Lord clearly tells Christians, “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20) And He has so much more power than I do!  When we pray, I see things change.  I have repeatedly been delivered from danger, healed, and preserved.  When there seems to be no escape, a way is made.  When it seems I will never forgive, love comes from a place not humanly possible.  HE is the way, the truth, and the light.  And this does not mean that I think you have to be in church to find HIM.  I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that whoever seeks finds.  And I don't think it matters where they find HIM.  I think we will know them not by their congregation, affiliation, or baptism, or Christian FAITH but by their LOVE in the I Corinthians 13 sense--no matter where they come from.    

But that brings me back to our freedoms.

Do not fear, my friends.  We are clearly told, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23, emphasis mine).

You see, all I am required to do I cannot be kept from doing.  The One I answer to has made a way for me.  Why should I complain?  Why should I worry?  I either believe in HIM or I don't.  And if I believe, why should I be afraid of the government, the principal ("scary," according to "K"), or anyone else?

And that takes me back once again to prayer and assembling.  Yes, I pray on my own, but I also pray in groups, and I have to tell you that my friend is on a kick that reminded me about group prayer.  She's into flash mobs today.  And she found a terrific one:

And then she said something fantastic.  She said, "The thing I love about flash mobs is the universal joy of the people who watch one.  It's totally universal.  It's in the international ones too.  Everybody stands surprised at first and confused watching all of these weird people, and then they change and smile and laugh.  There's joy in seeing this together."

And she was totally right.  There is joy in seeing this together!

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on Christmas flash mobs.  And I'm reminded of that here in two very important ways.  First, by not praying together, we are missing the joy of seeing GOD work together.  And secondly, by not praying together, we are missing the opportunity of spreading the joy that comes by seeing a community at one in purpose and heart and joy, and wasn't that what the angels--what I consider the world's best EVER flash mob--said?  JOY TO THE WORLD! 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Follow up: The Fallacy of Using Your Words

A year or so ago, I wrote a post, Going to War in Shoes of Peace, on using your words and how it sometimes doesn't work (it's in the center of the post if you're looking).  And I posted it before everything with the neighboring child was actually done, but I never followed up on it.  So here it is.

The child in question, who has long since moved out of our little neighborhood, continued to run over other children, literally.  They would be playing, and he would run up to play and just keep going--right through them, right over them--leaving them lying crying on the ground with the occasional shoe print emblazoned on a sleeve or a sock.  Needless to say, it was a problem.

At the time that I wrote the other post, I didn't know how everything had concluded that afternoon.  Once I went inside, I was ignorant of what had occurred outside.  What I did write about were the threats the parents made (what I meant when I asked, "Are my neighbors serious or just running their mouths (which I know that they do from time to time)?").  The threats were so blatant that I actually called the school and spoke to a fill-in principal (the actual principal was on vacation), who advised me to call the police.  While I know many good police officers, it seemed to me that this situation--one that required prevention and not punishment--was not yet a job for the police, who, in my experience, can do little to prevent but a lot to punish.

And so I did what I do when I don't know what to do.  I prayed.

One afternoon a week or two later, four children (to the best of my recollection.  These are the four I remember) and I were standing in front of a neighbor's door.  I'll call the kids "Little One" (my little one), "Said Child" (the child I have been speaking about), "Cutie" (the neighbor whose house it was who is devilishly cute and just as devilishly ornery--though devoid of malice), and "Ivana the Terrible" (a neighbor from a different complex who is adorable but doesn't always make the most peace-making of choices.  To be honest, I think she could incite a riot at a prayer meeting).

Ivana the Terrible had a new toy that she was showing to the other kids.  I forget what it was.  Like all youngsters, showing the toy generally consisted of thrusting it under the friends' noses in turn at a distance of two inches and forbidding them to lay hands on it while they admire it with a necessarily cross-eyed gaze.

"I wanna touch it!" cried Said Child, advancing toe-to-toe, and perhaps actually toe-on-toe, with Ivana.

Cutie intervened, "No!  It's hers!"

Said Child tried to grab the toy.  Little One stepped up.  "She said, 'No!'"

Said Child whirled, pushing Little One, intentionally or not, to the ground.  Little One's head missed the brick wall by millimeters.

"Sto-o-op!" Cutie wailed.  "Back off!"

Said Child advanced toward Cutie, who fell backward into a deck chair in front of his door.

That's when I, who had been momentarily stunned for the 15 or so seconds it took for all of this to happen, stepped in--literally.  Squeezing myself between Cutie and Said Child and assuming Momma-Bear Stance (drawn up to full height, chest puffed out, feet shoulder width apart, arms akimbo), I said in my sternest tone, "He asked you to back off."

"It's everybody's porch," intoned Said Child.

"But you are inches from his face in front of his door.  This is his space.  Back off."

Said Child retreated three inches.

"That's not backing off," I said.  "Keep going."

Said Child moved a foot or so away.

"Not enough.  You go play by your own door."  Never turning away from me, Said Child walked backward a few yards down the porch.

"You can't keep me here," he said.

"No, but I will absolutely tell your mother if I find you here again after you've been told to leave Cutie alone."

At this point, Ivana the Terrible, who had actually been cowering behind my back, decided she might like me.  We've been friends ever since.  Little One, who saw the action was done, now decided that his hands hurt more than he thought and started to cry.  Cutie stood up from his chair and puffed out his chest, a young lion naturally asserting dominion over his territory.  I dusted Little One off and started to lead him home across the parking lot.  I glanced back and, no surprise, saw Said Child advancing on Cutie.

"I still see you!" I called.  Said Child retreated.  In spite of the December chill, I kept the window open till dark that day, occasionally crying out, "What did I say?" when Said Child advanced on Cutie.  I didn't bother with Ivana.  I knew from experience that Ivana could take care of herself.

But I knew the time had come.  I had to talk to The Parents.  Again.  I prayed a whole lot that afternoon.  I even asked a couple of others to pray.  I decided to try The Mother since the last time I had initially spoken to The Father.  I watched out the window for The Mother's car.  I saw her come home.  I saw her husband leave.  I decided to wait 45 minutes or so to give her some down time. 

With my children settled in front of their favorite show and with one more prayer on my lips, I headed across the parking lot and knocked on the door.  Said Child opened it.  He was busy shedding his clothing.

"Is your mother home?" I asked.  The Mother bounded down the steps at that moment and gasped.  "Said Child!  You can't do that!  Go get dressed!"  She turned to me geared for war.

My heart was suddenly moved toward her.  You see, that's what God does and what I'm not capable of doing.  "Mother," I said, and I think she could hear the concern, kindness, and absence of judgment--that God had suddenly wrought in me--in my voice.  "I need to talk to you about something, but I don't want to be in your face and I don't want to be here at a bad time.  If you need some time right now, I can come back later.  I just really need to talk to you."

After all, I know what it's like to have kids who act up and act out (have you read Dancing in the Rain?).  Who am I to judge?  We are all hanging in there together.

The guardedness on The Mother's face melted.  "Just give me a minute," she said.

She closed the door for a few moments and then reappeared.

"Is this about Said Child?" she asked.

"Well, yes," I said, "But I don't want you to change him, and I don't want to complain.  I am having some problems, and I want your advice on what you think would be the most effective and beneficial way to handle it."  Those words were God's, not mine, because I don't think that way.  And it was apparently what she needed to hear because she leaned back and listened.

"I have a rule with my kids," I continued, "That they are not to touch Said Child.  They're not supposed to hit anybody, but especially not Said Child.  I have explained that Said Child just wants to play and doesn't understand that he's rough and sometimes hurts.  They are supposed to tell him when they think he's being too rough and to get me to stand outside or to come in if he doesn't stop."

The Mother started, "Oh!  He shouldn't be doing those things..."

"I understand," I interrupted.  "We have issues in my house, too.  It's a learning experience, and changes are slow.  I'm not trying to change Said Child.  I am just trying to make playing safe."

"But," I continued, "we have a new problem.  A few times, Said Child has pushed Little One.  Little One is too small to defend himself against Said Child.  It's normally on grass and not a big deal.  But today, Little One almost hit his head on the brick wall.  I don't know what to do other than tell Little One to push back.  Do you have any ideas?  I don't think that Said Child means to hurt Little One.  But Little One's going to get hurt, and I need to prevent that.  Do you know a way that I can communicate this to Said Child so that he understands, his feelings aren't hurt, and he doesn't feel like a bad kid?"

The Mother nodded.  She was quiet for a moment, then she said, "Let me try to talk to him a bit, and I'll get back to you."  She started to go in and then paused.  "I'm sorry he pushed your son."

"It's not your fault, Mother," I said.  "I know you're trying.  We're all in this together."

She went in, and I went home.

The next morning she came up to me at the bus stop.  "I think he should be a little better now," she said.  "And I also wanted to say you were right when you came up to our house and told The Father that it was dangerous for Said Child to play outside that day.  Another kid beat him up.  Bad."  Then The Mother went on and on about The Other Child.  She is not the only mother to have gone on about this Other Child, but at the same time, she didn't recognize (nor did some of the other mothers) that her (and my) child contribute to Other Child's behavior.

She began intervening more, and I spent more time outside.  I tried warning more, not just The Mother, but every mother if I saw a problem coming.  I tried to be more involved in preventing.

And, in many cases, it worked.  The Mother and I became friends.  She and The Father gave Little One a bike to use until he was tall enough for a big one, and they offered to help with a number of other things.  When The Father got a great job that included rent on a house, I was happy for them.

The thing was, it wasn't just my words that solved the problem.  My first words did nothing to prevent Said Child from being beaten.  The only staying of action happened through physical intervention.  Thinking that The Mother's words to Other Child's Mother were probably enough for Other Child's Mother, I chose not to talk to Other Child's Mother.  Perhaps I ought to have.  There would be other problems for Other Child, and perhaps they could have been prevented.

But in each case, Other Child had used his words in the presence of adults before laying hands on any other child.  When actual actions were taken on the part of others--when I physically stood between Other Child and Said Child, when I physically stood between Cutie and Said Child--then things changed.  It was never the words alone.

I cannot overemphasize this point enough:  Words only work if they are heard and followed by action. 

Yes, I needed to warn The Mother.  But more importantly, I needed to watch, call, and stand between.  Yes, I needed to talk to The Mother, but I don't think it was my actual words that made any difference.  It was the absence of judgment and the honest concern for the well-being of both Said Child and Little One.  And I don't think it was only her talking to Said Child that made a difference; it was her presence outside, her watching him, her intervening, the two of us together agreeing on fairness in front of all of the children playing outside.  Intervention made a difference, not words alone.

And I want to make abundantly clear, Other Child also had issues.  Other Child repeatedly has responded to others with violence.  But Other Child also has a history of protecting children.  Other Child often takes responsibility for others, walking dogs, escorting little ones home.  No child is perfect, and we all agree on that.  But neither is any child--any human--worthy of demonization, and I think we forget that often.

But I bring up Other Child because he would later be punished by the justice system for later violence, as is often the case with violence.  But it was not surprising.  And not just surprising because it was Other Child.  It was not surprising because I had heard Other Child say that he couldn't handle the situation.  Not just once.  Several times.  I heard him ask the bus driver to be moved.  I saw that the request was ignored.  I know that he was given an assigned seat and so moving away was out of his power. 

I heard his words, but I did not act.  I wish I could change that.  Another child was later hurt, and Other Child was punished formally before officials.  Other Child is also a victim here--a victim of adults who heard and did nothing. Yes, the end might have been the same, but then again, it might not have.

If I had done something, not just listened and seen that the request was ignored, maybe both children could have been spared what happened.  I am not averse to punishment, but I don't think it has many reforming attributes.  And I am all about prevention and reformation.

So when I saw trouble coming again--not with Said Child or Other Child in particular, but with several children.  I didn't just talk once, and I didn't just listen.  I kept talking.  I found support in official places, and those people got the right people on board, and they took action.  And I make sure I am there.  Once again, I truly believe presence, a physical reminder, is the most efficient enforcer.  I see you.  I won't shut up, and if you want to cause trouble, you're going to have to go through me.  No one has tried to go through me. 

No, things are not perfect.  But no one is currently sitting in judgment.  Community is working.  But it takes more than just words.