Sunday, June 19, 2016

FATHER

They divvied up her children among her sisters. She lay unconscious in her hospital bed, a blood clot in her lung and another in her heart. “Prepare yourselves,” the doctor said, and so they devised the plan; this child would go here, and this one there, and on down the line.
Days earlier, in a moment of rage, my father had thrown my mother down the stairs.  She lay there in a heap until she regained herself and crawled up to bed, exhaling into her pillow until she drifted off.  She was pregnant at the time.  When she shocked everyone by recovering, and insisting that her children remain with her, they tried to get her to abort.  “Let’s just see what happens,” she told them.  Months later my sister Ann Marie arrived.  I think she received an extra measure of goodness and tenderness because of the journey she and my mother shared when they descended that flight of stairs.
The other day I spent a few hours with a young friend who had run away from home.  Frustrated and tired, he recounted the anger he felt toward his father.  Ironically, he was angry at his father for being prone to anger.  When I brought this to his attention, he pursed his eyebrows and raised his fist to the air and declared that I have no idea what it feels like to have to live with this kind of anger. I listened.  And then, when he finally let me get a word in, I stopped him.
“I do.  I do know how it feels. You don’t know my past, and you cannot tell me what I know and what I don’t. I know how it feels to watch your mother’s blood run down her neck; to see your brother chased through the kitchen with a baseball bat, or a knife. I know the sound of a fist on the door, on the table, on the flesh.“
He stopped cold, his rant cut off by compassion. His eyes softened and he whispered regret. “Really?  I didn’t know.”
My father was a confusing force in my life.  I know he loved me. I know it. And yet I can hear the voice of  Marianne in the Jane Austen novel Sense and Sensibility, looking back on her relationship with Willoughby.  “I can tell you he really did love you,” Elinor tries to comfort her sister Marianne, to which Marianne responds “But not enough. Not enough.”
Perhaps the most noble thing my father ever did was abandon us.  Because he walked away and never returned, my mother lifted her head to the light and squared her shoulders and on we went, united in our shared history and future.
A handful of years later the man who would be the father to my four children would enter my life and rewrite the definition of father for all of us.  It took me many, many years to understand and embrace the fact that David will not fight with me.  It has taken me as many years over again to understand that David will fight, that he does have a passionate heart and a devotion to causes worth fighting for.  He simply won’t fight with me. For years it made me frustrated. But now, nearly four decades into marriage, I feel the blessed assurance that he is on my side, that he is true and faithful.
Sometimes I try to jump out of myself and into the imagined lives of my children.  I feel their sorrows and their joys and their weaknesses and their marvelous strengths…at least as far as I know them.  And always, in those moments of empathy and imagination, I feel that underlying current of a father who believes in them, who loves them without condition, and who supports and champions them in their honorable choices. That current of fatherly faithfulness runs like blood through the veins; constant and steady and enriching. 

Perhaps it is the contrast that makes my David shine on Fathers Day.  It’s the heart swell that follows the heartache.

Monday, March 28, 2016

40. BRAIN FREEZE (CALVIN)

I have a thing for Slurpees - those frozen confections of the Coke variety. I'm sorry to admit this. I wonder if excessive submission to Slurpee temptation has affected my brain.  You know, too many brain freezes?

Yesterday I followed four-year-old Calvin up the stairs to his bedroom. As we climbed, he reminded me that we were going to make little minions out of polymer clay.
“Oh yeah, that’s right,” I said as we stepped onto the landing. 
He turned to me and said, “Gummy, I think my brain is better than yours.”  He said it somewhat apologetically, like he was sorry this was the case but we would just have to live with it. 
“I know, Buddy.  Good thing I have you around,”
I think on some level he felt a prompting that such a statement might not be socially prudent.  He tried to explain: “I mean, things just stay in my brain. So many things.”  He pursed his eyebrows as he said this, and I was tempted to take him in my arms and tell him I was so sorry.  It has been obvious to us since he was very little, talking in full paragraphs at 18 months old, that he had a gift for communicating. And with that gift we also learned that he had a memory like a magnet and life was just a pile of tiny metal shavings.  Poor boy.
Fortunately for Calvin - the master of logic and memory who is trapped in a pre-school body - he has Beth for a sister.  
Beth is two.  Her passions are the color pink and princesses. She is fearless and funny, and she adores Calvin. Today the two of them ran around the back yard of their home in Spokane, (where I am visiting) in search of the Easter eggs their daddy had hidden. By the time they had collected all the eggs my heart was just a puddle on the back porch. Beth would spy a purple egg up in the branches of a tree, and Calvin would reach up, grab it, and put it in her basket.  When Cal found an egg before Bethy did, she would squeal “Good job, Bud!”  It was almost unreal how sweet they were to each other, and how joyful they each were for the other’s success.  I wondered silently if these were the same children I had taken to the play place in the mall last night.
Tonight as Jordon, Annie and I sat talking at the close of this Easter Sunday, we were recounting the joys and challenges of these treasures God entrusted to their care. We were recollecting Calvinisms through the last few years. Then Annie lamented: “I’m worried… I mean seriously worried… about Calvin’s spiritual future.” When I asked her why, she replied that he was just so logical.  And intelligent.  She was worried that he would try to find logic in the gospel of Christ and…well, that it  might come up short.  So many adversaries of the Word use words to explain Him away.  Beth, well, she’s all heart.  People with heart and a propensity for goodness find easy access to direction from the Holy Spirit.  But the minds of scientists are frightening to us who are feeling-based. Today when we were reading a book about dinosaurs Calvin commented that perhaps he would be a scientist when he grows up. That powerful left brain can do marvelous things.
I’ve been pondering Annie’s words tonight, while I whisper prayers for her and Jordon and Cal and Beth.  I’m thinking about some of the most intelligent people I know.  People whose left brains (the side of logic) are well oiled and purring inside their heads. I’m married to one of these. And the Spirit reminds me that this man, who is brilliant, wipes the tears from his eyes in movies, at church, during Hallmark commercials  and even ball games far more than I do!  In fact, next to Dave, I feel like a calloused Neanderthal. 
Not that I know anything about the human brain and its functions, or even that much about the feeling heart.  But it is apparent to me that logic does not have the intrinsic power to override feelings. We tend to categorize things, and people, saying they are either logical or passionate. I believe we do ourselves a disservice in this.  So I am telling myself to cut it out! Quit categorizing!

I want Calvin to know that his brain, which is for sure better than mine, is no more important than his heart.  His Momma is a perfect example of the power of the heart to work hand in hand with the brain.  She is gifted in her work, highly respected in her field, and renowned for her technique as a therapist in Speech Language Pathology. But her sweet spot, the place where she hits home-runs in life, rests in the tender part of her chest. Let your heart lead you, little man, and then your brain.

And speaking of brains, I’ve heard we humans generally do not use our's to their full capacity. Not by a long shot. I’m thinking that if we are only using a portion of our brain's potential, that there is much we are not able to understand, and perhaps are not yet supposed to understand, that will one day be available to us. One of the things that intrigues me about my David is that he is not bothered by unanswered questions.  If his heart is at ease, he is not disturbed that his brain does not comprehend certain things.  He believes, without apologies, that the Lord will fill in the blanks in His own time.  For a man with a brain that makes it impossible for anyone to beat him in word games, he sure has a simple kind of faith. 

Calvin, there will be things you will not be able to figure out down the road. Maybe even tomorrow morning. Let that be ok. Trust that God knows how it all fits together, and that one day He will share it with us when we are able to understand it.

I see myself in 1000 years or so, looking back on major questions I have about my church, my life, and the many weaknesses I have that I cannot overcome. I see my brain, which by then may be functioning closer to capacity (having been removed from the "brain freeze" of humanness),  understanding what is not logical to me now. I see myself saying “Duh, why didn’t I think of that back then?”
For now, because I am basically a four year old spirit in a senior citizen body, I have chosen to trust that even though I don’t understand certain things, Someone does.  And He has asked me to trust Him.

And so I do.  And so should you, boy of my heart!
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This, my dears, is the last of my Lent writing for 2016.  It is currently 2:30 am and Calvin will be jumping on my bed in a couple hours. I have spilled my brains and my heart into this exercise and shared it with the people I love as a token of gratitude to my Lord for the capacity to communicate. I think it is marvelous that we get to interlace our lives and thoughts with each other. I am living proof that by communicating with others, we understand more about ourselves.


These past 40 days of writing combine to represent my hopes and desires; concepts that I wish to take with me to the hereafter, and that I also wish to leave to my posterity.  I have too much physical stuff hanging around my house (my poor family knows this!) You can toss all of it when I am gone.  But these words? They speak my heart, unedited and written most often after very long and tiring days. Forgive my mistakes and lack of literary finesse. Take whatever nuggets are useful and inspiring and keep them.  They are what I would put in your HOPE CHESTS and mine.  I love you all, and I do love my Lord.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

39. EBENEZER JEHOVAH-JIREH

Samuel returned to the battlefield.  When others would have moved on, or basked in the glory of a major battle won, he turned back, not to remain in the past, but to remember.  Against all military odds, the Israelites had defeated the Philistines and won back the Arc of the Covenant.  It was a battle of faith, and the faithful rose victorious. But Samuel knew the tendency of the Israelites to forget God’s mighty arm, and he probably wanted to build the confidence of his people (confidence is remembered success). He also knew that such a miraculous victory merited this symbol and sacrifice. So Samuel returned to the place and raised a stone, a marker, an altar, to remind everyone: “Heretofore hath the Lord helped us.” He called the memorial Ebenezar, meaning “stone of help” (Even = stone / Haazer = help).  
Even Haazer (Ebenezer)
Altars have been tokens of holy connection since the beginning of mankind.  Adam and Eve built an altar before they even had children.  And all their posterity, through generations of time, have done the same.  We worship at altars, bless bread and water, endow and seal sacred relationships, Our pulpits allude to altars, and our own beds become altars as we kneel before them.
From Creation until the meridian of time, altars were also used for sacrifices.  Literal blood sacrifices.  But that all changed with the dawn of Easter, when no more blood was required than had already been spilled in the Garden and on the Cross.
For some devout Christians it is believed that nothing can be sacrificed again, because of the great sacrifice offered by the Savior. We are saved by grace alone. Indeed, we are saved by His Grace.
While it is certainly true that no other sacrifice will ever approach that offering, I am one to believe that we are invited to offer up sacrifices not of blood, but of the spirit upon our own altars as well as consecrated altars in holy places. Christ opens the door that we cannot open for ourselves, but our own two feet carry us through.  We must be comfortable living godly lives to be able to be happy where God is.


Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, my sister Ann Marie Mullen and her husband Michael, place a stone upon their altar. They will be giving what we Mormons know as their Farewell address in church, before they leave to serve an eighteen month mission in London, England. Michael is retiring after a distinguished career in the Navy and in private practice as an oral surgeon. He is renowned for his skill and intellect.  His hands are artistic and capable.  He has also served as stake president for a decade, and a bishop in his local ward.  But this is his first mission.  He joined the LDS church when he was past the age of younger missionaries and already into his career and obligations with the US Navy. Ann Marie also leaves a career as an audiologist, and church service which includes experience as president of all the women’s organizations in the church.  They are a power couple, so to speak, and they could ride the crest of the waves they have created for a long time, clear into the sunset if they so desired.  They and Samuel,who led the Israelites in battle, could have chosen to rest on their laurels.  But they, too, choose to turn back and make a statement to all mankind and to their Lord that they recognize His help in their lives thus far, and they will sacrifice in the name of their Lord to remind others of His awesome hand.

 Truth is, if not for the hand of the Lord, neither Michael nor Ann Marie would be here.  They have both received miraculous interventions in their lives that have restored their health against all practical odds.  They have survived distresses others cannot comprehend, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit leading them.  Their success has been fodder for their propensity to overflow with generosity.  There are beautiful people and worthy organizations that would not even exist today if not for their willingness to “give back” what they feel was only theirs as stewards from the Lord.
I quiver with remembrance of the sacred time when Ann Marie sat at Michael’s bedside in the hospital, her head bowed in prayer, then rising with determination to use all her intelligence, tenacity, diplomacy and faith to advocate for him.  An aneurysm had formed in his brain, from ear to ear, and no one but his wife believed he would survive it.  And yet, here he is, years later, having miraculously returned to his career as a surgeon.  His doctors are still stunned. But his wife is not.  She did not sit by and weep.  It’s not her style.  She led even the doctors toward a solution. She herself, a survivor of cancer, knows the miracles that come when a woman puts her shoulder to the wheel and her hand in God’s.


And so, because they survived the battle so far, they place this stone upon their altar. Their “going forward in faith” is a form of “turning back in thanks”. And their altar? While some would think of their beautiful, gracious home in Granite Bay, as a worldly edifice, to me and all those who know them well, it is their altar.  It’s there they raised their two devoted children, whose love of their family is only surpassed by their love of God.  It is where Michael laid his hands upon the heads of many servants, young and not so young, setting them apart as missionaries.  It is where Young Women gathered around their kitchen island and learned to make bread.  It’s where Seminary students feasted around their large dining table and learned the Gospel of Christ every weekday morning at 5 am, with Ann Marie teaching and feeding them.  It’s where tears were shed, and joy illuminated every window.  This is the altar they raised, in their desert place.  It’s where their battles were fought and the ones that mattered were won.  Now they dedicate it, and leave it for a short while, knowing it will stand as a reminder to anyone who passes, that God showed His hand there. They leave with a song in their hearts: Here I raise my Ebenezer. Their exit is a polish upon the stones of that altar.

Ann Marie and Michael aka Elder and Sister Mullen: You have already left the figurative shore. You are walking into the water, like the Israelites at the River Jordan, trusting God will part the river and lead you safely through.
Soon, on the other side…across the pond…you can raise this marker:
Jehovah Jireh (The Lord will provide)

Ebenezer Jehovah Jireh:  “”Hitherto hath The Lord helped us; and for all coming need, The Lord will provide.

God speed, daughter of my mother and brother of my heart!
 ________________________________________

During the season of Lent I make the personal commitment to write every day.  I’ve done this for the past eight years, as a token of devotion and thanks to the Lord for giving me a brain that works (usually). I publish these writings here on my blog, unedited and splattered like wet paint, as a way to share them and to keep them for myself and for my posterity.  This year I have decided to ruminate on thoughts, ideas, habits and miscellaneous personal practices I would like to put in a figurative HOPE CHEST to take with me into the rest of my life and the life beyond. Besides that, there are bits of advice I would like to tuck into the HOPE CHESTS of my kids and grandkids.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

38. THE DIVINE GIFT OF CREATION

I can understand about every fourth word Beth speaks. She has long, involved, animated conversations non-stop, and she doesn’t really care if I am in on it.  She has been pretending for hours, in the same room as her brother, who has been building Lego creations on the table beside her. She stirs a pot of Star Wars figures as she sips a cup of JarJar Binks tea, sharing it kindly with a plastic giraffe and a stuffed manatee. She has just shuffled over to my side, singing this declaration: “Time for din-ner.  Pizza!  Pizza ready!” I take a little bite of the invisible slice and thank her. 

She has discovered the Magna-tiles Calvin is now playing with and a fight ensues, resolved this round with a win by Calvin, because Beth can be distracted by princesses. She lines them up on the coffee table. Fifteen minutes later there is a wedding. This is the unlikely pair:

 I watch Beth and her brother pretend, and because it is a sacred time of year, and our hearts are tenderized by recent events, I see in it a manifestation of divinity.  It strikes me with great force that we are alive, that we share time and space with particular people, and I can see layers upon layers of purpose in all of it. I watch two-year-old Beth of the golden imagination frolic through the world of her imaginings, and I am reminded of this quote by our prophet, Thomas Monson:

"God left the world unfinished for man to work his skill upon. He left the electricity in the cloud, the oil in the earth. He left the rivers unbridged, the forests unfelled and the cities unbuilt. God gives to us the challenge of raw materials, not the ease of finished things. He leaves the pictures unpainted and the music unsung and the problems unsolved, that we might know the joys and glories of creation."
Beth has not yet discovered her limitations. Maybe it is more accurate to say that her limitations have not yet discovered her.  She is blessed in her innocence to be emotionally free to pretend and imagine and create.
 
Fortunately, for Beth and four-year-old Calvin, they are being raised and nurtured by creative parents. Yesterday, as Calvin and I were chopping vegetables for dinner, Jordon came in from the garage. “Hey buddy, do you want to see how this stove I just made works?”  He had cut a metal water bottle into three pieces, drilled holes around the perimeter of the base, then inverted the top piece into the bottom. He poured some denatured alcohol into it, then he and Calvin lit the fuel. The flame worked its way out the sides, through the drilled holes.  We set a pot of water on top of that 3 inch stove and it boiled water in two minutes. Later Cal and I made these Storm Trooper marshmallow men and created these gory looking strawberry shortcake Imperial Storm Trooper desserts. Lucky Cal and Beth; theirs is not a pre-packaged world.

I grew up in a home where the whole house was filled with raw material.  Our poor mom! My brother George was particularly good at taking raw materials and creating something other than Mom might have wanted out of them. Now the work of George’s creative efforts has changed the way our world works, quite literally. But that’s another chapter.

 Tomorrow we will boil some fresh white chicken eggs in water. We will set a handful of small bowls on the kitchen table, fill them with water and vinegar, then drop colored pellets in each one.  Each of us, from three generations, will dip those eggs in the dye and create whatever we want; plaids, rainbows, plain bold colors or soft pastels.  We may draw pictures in wax before we dip them, or we may add stickers and glitter and such.  I’ll tell my treasures that we are like those eggs.  What is inside, the embryo of godliness, is in all of us.  But the Lord gave us form, and knowledge, and the right to choose as His first and best gifts to us.  And He says, as he sends us off to earth still pure and white; 
 “Go now. Color yourselves however you want.  But do not forget who you are inside.”  
I love coloring Easter eggs because it reminds me that we are blessed with the power and the right to color ourselves in whatever manner we choose. Still, however desperately we want to become something different and unique, we are all embryo of something magnificent. As much as we might like to take credit for what we have made of ourselves, we were first living creatures created by someone else.

I am of the opinion that all of us who have ever lived had some role in the creation this planet; some small task we were given in the design and creation of our earth. Wise parenting dictates such opportunities for children of a household.  When I was PTA president we wanted to create a greater sense of unity among the students, and a deeper respect for the school.  So we gave each student responsibilities; planting flower bulbs, sweeping sidewalks, painting the bench out front. Involving them in the creation gave them ownership, and the combined ownership gave them a greater sense of unity. The urge to create is part of the divine in all of us, and when we use that gift we are invited to access the godliness inherent in each of us. 

I am conscious of the possibility of using creation for ungodly purposes.  In fact, it’s a pretty foolproof way to determine how divine a gift is when you can see it being used to deflate, demoralize or destroy goodness. Just about every form of art rides the golden pendulum, swinging from profoundly inspirational to frighteningly evil. Music…visual art…theatre, dance, film, literature… they have all been used to build up and tear down mankind with the same measure of passion, energy and funding. If you’re dealing with serious temptation of struggle, consider it a compliment.  It means your potential for good is equal to the pull the devil is putting on you.

My hope is to remain true to the God given gifts of creation planted in me before time began. And it is my hope for you as well. Whether you’re composing a tune in your head, gathering a string of tasty words together, stirring up a recipe, mapping out a delightful outing with your children, or designing the bulletin board outside a classroom, the gifts you use are divine. We are invited by the ultimate Creator to enter His workshop and use His tools.  That’s an awful lot of confidence He must have in us.
 ________________________________________

During the season of Lent I make the personal commitment to write every day.  I’ve done this for the past eight years, as a token of devotion and thanks to the Lord for giving me a brain that works (usually). I publish these writings here on my blog, unedited and splattered like wet paint, as a way to share them and to keep them for myself and for my posterity.  This year I have decided to ruminate on thoughts, ideas, habits and miscellaneous personal practices I would like to put in a figurative HOPE CHEST to take with me into the rest of my life and the life beyond. Besides that, there are bits of advice I would like to tuck into the HOPE CHESTS of my kids and grandkids.