Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God; the LORD is One.
Last night we gathered, the girls and I, first around the table (which is where the best fellowship and most sacred moments happen, even if the table is a kitchen island and the meal is waffles), and then around each other:
sprawled on the couch, the chairs, the floor;
settled under blankets of woven wool, quilted blocks, sweatshirt material;
surrounded by Bibles, journals, pens, markers, paper, all manner of glorious things.
And we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
Just six verses.
Just one hundred words.
A lifetime of truth and wisdom and grace and exhortation.
We read it, listed it, drew it, sorted it, organized it, prayed it, considered it, breathed it.
And then summed it up thus:
Hey! Listen! All of me must LOVE allof God and LEARN all of his word and LIVEallof his truth and love
in all the ways
in all the places
at all the times.
Exactly one year ago, things changed at Purdue University. Today, I wonder just how lasting that change really was. Do people still remember? Do they still mourn? Does the shocking reality of what happened on January 21, 2014 still run as high, long, wide, and deep as it did in those first days? For a few, no doubt yes. For most, assuredly no. The daily realities of life have settled into the space where the shock once was. That’s to be expected. Else how would life carry on?
But there is one reality that must not be forgotten – one reality that can begin to make sense of last year’s pain – one reality running so much higher and longer and wider and deeper than any other that we dare not forget it. (The following post was first published January 21, 2014.)
It was sunny today at Purdue. Sunny and snowy. Sunny and snowy and freezing. Sunny and snowy and freezing and beautiful. Which is to say, it was a day pretty much like every other wintry day on campus the past two weeks.
Except that it wasn’t.
At 11:00 a.m. when I walked across Memorial Mall, I was struck by the peaceful stillness. By some footprints in the snow. By a brilliant sky. By the hushed atmosphere. Even on this typically busy, bustling day at a Big 10 campus, there was a measurable sense of calm and comfort. Things were much as they should be.
Except that they weren’t.
At noon when I walked back across Memorial Mall, nothing had changed. Not visibly, anyway. There were the footprints. There was the brilliant sky. There was the hushed atmosphere. There was the sense of peaceful stillness amidst the busy, bustling crowd.
And then, ripping through the stillness, slashing through the peace, there was an emergency siren. Screeching. Wailing. Shrieking. On and on and on and on. And the unexpected text message: “Shooting reported on campus. Bldg Electrical Engineering; Avoid area; Shelter in place.”
What place is this? Where am I? Have I stepped into another time and place? Because, you see, these things do not happen here. In other places, perhaps. But not here.
Except when they do.
It has been a devastating day. Someone’s son has died. Someone else’s son has killed. Both families are forever changed. It is one more bitter reminder that we live in a very broken world (all of it), among very broken people (all of us).
That’s right – all of us. We are all broken. Entirely, very, thoroughly, quite broken. That truth manifests itself in different ways, to different degrees, and not just in the midst of tragedy. It is a truth easier to ignore than acknowledge, easier to deny than accept, easier to protest than admit. Nonetheless, we are all – each and every one of us – in need of a Savior who loves, forgives, and transforms broken people.
Which he does.
The sun shone brightly today on a very dark and desperate place. Can you see it there, powerful and radiant?
And tonight, the light of thousands shone brightly on a very sad and wounded place. Can you see it there, brave and hopeful?
Both lights – sun by day and candle by night – are glorious, comforting, indescribably beautiful.
But they are nothing – absolutely nothing – when compared to the one light that really matters, the one light that is truth, the one light that is life, the one light that is love, the one light that is hope, the one light that saves.
“I am the light of the world.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not – and will not ever – overcome it.
Oh, sweet Jesus – we need your love, your compassion, your grace, your humility. Mostly, we need You. Each and every day. Today (and every other day, in truth) is a fresh reminder of this.
[My continued thoughts, written on the third day – January 23, 2014 – are here.]
Exactly 21 years ago today, at 12:34 in the afternoon, Alisa Ruth arrived on the scene two weeks before anyone expected her, the first-born child of my sister and her husband. With her first breath, she officially gave me the title of aunt, which is a wondrous title indeed.
From 600 miles away, I got the joyful phone call from my brother-in-law. “She’s here! She’s lovely! She’s wondrous! She’s a miracle!” I talked to my sister for just a few minutes. Already she was in the rocking chair, nursing her firstborn.
600 miles feels like from here to the moon when it separates you from your sister and your newly arrived niece. I wrote in my journal:
My sister is a mother. Her husband is a father. I am an aunt. A new baby IS! We celebrate!
What is it about new life that is so entirely overwhelming? So utterly breathtaking? So infinitely miraculous? Technically, it’s just another person, on a smaller and less-advanced scale, that for at least a few moments is quite wrinkled, crinkled, slimy, mewling, and flailingly awkward. Anyone who has either given birth or been present at a birth knows this to be true; true but of no consequence because a child lives; breathes; is.
Newborns are my spiritual grounding point. If ever there are doubts about God’s existence or questions about God’s presence or confusion about God’s power or worries about God’s providence, there is this to fall back on: new life; babes; the first breath of being.
For all of our human progress and advancement and development, we cannot create new life; we cannot knit together a new soul; we cannot bestow the breath of being. Ever. This is definitely not of our own making. This is certainly not of nothing’s making. This is of God’s making.
And so in my family that day, there was joy. Rivers and oceans of joy. Mountains and moonscapes of joy. Joy overflowing the dancing shores of our collective selves.
But less than two hours after her first breath, I answered the phone again, and this time instead of uncontained joy, I heard inconsolable grief – sobbing, speechless, overwhelming grief.
Trisomy 21. Down’s Syndrome. Heart condition. These words, and others I don’t remember, spilled out from rivers and oceans of grief, mountains and moonscapes of fear, despair overwhelming the battered shores of first-time parents. Already, nurses were gently lifting Alisa Ruth out from her mother’s arms, towards a NICU that would be her home for the next several weeks.
600 miles feels like from here to eternity when it separates you from your sister and your newly arrived niece who is unexpectedly more beloved and precious than she was just moments ago.
They told me that my sister sobbed; that my brother-in-law went blank. I know that the tears and the emptiness, at their very core, were not primarily about Trisomy 21 and Down’s Syndrome as much as they were about having held and adored their daughter for what must have seemed like mere seconds before she was whisked away, out the room, down a hall, into a Unit.
From 600 miles away, I wrote in my journal:
In a split second, all has changed. Alisa Ruth of K-12, senior prom, marriage, motherhood is gone. But Alisa Ruth herselfis still here – a miracle indeed.
Those first few days were a painful muddle for me – the aunt, 600 miles away. For my sister and her husband…I cannot imagine. So many painful questions. So many difficult decisions. So many things to learn. So much responsibility to shoulder.
Alisa’s heart – the physical one – was not healthy. She needed surgery soon, and would need more as she grew. But other than that, she was a wonder. In a NICU filled with dangerously premature underdeveloped children, she looked misplaced, so big and strong was she. When I held her in my arms the first time – 600 miles are but a small skip when a niece awaits – she took my breath away. Fearfully and wonderfully made she absolutely was.
As so often happens when difficulty explodes into the very center of life, neighbors brought food. Friends ran errands. Relatives wrapped strength and hope and joy around the family-now-of-three. Hope settled over the land of home-and-work-and-hospital, hope that spilled directly from the fount of Christ’s love.
At one week old, Alisa had heart surgery that went very well. The doctor was confident and reassuring.
At two weeks old, she was recovering and gaining strength.
At three weeks old, things took a sharp turn.
At three-and-a-half weeks old, I wrote:
Things are critical. Meningitis. Pneumonia. Collapsed lung. Heart recovery. More. Very little is going right in her body. My sister – whose perspective is shockingly clear – said, “I can handle the Down Syndrome and the heart problems. That’s how she came to us. It’s all this other stuff I can’t handle.”
“That’s how she came to us.” Meaning, “That is my child. That is my flesh. That is my love. That is my Alisa – just as she is.”
Sometime during those very difficult days, someone said to my brother-in-law: “But didn’t you know she had Down Syndrome beforehand?” implying (even just writing these words makes my soul rage) that if they’d known beforehand they could have done something about it beforehand and avoided all this pain and heartache.
Silence, you! Do. Not. Speak. Be silent! BE SILENT! You speak the words of a fool!
Avoiding pain and heartache is not the point. Avoiding pain and heartache is less than living. Avoiding pain and heartache is for people who run from all that matters. Life is pain and heartache. Love is pain and heartache. Joy is pain and heartache. The cross is pain and heartache. How dare anyone suggest that avoiding pain and heartache is worth the price of a life.
Did God plan this? Allow this? Will this? I do not know. Is He here? Watching? Caring? Holding tightly? I do know – yes. Always yes.
At four weeks old, Alisa was still fighting with all the strength and courage she had. Valiantly. Bravely. The nurses said so. My sister told me so. I know it is so. I do not doubt that in every breath she took, the Spirit’s strength poured through her soul.
At four weeks old and a day, after fighting as hard as she could, Alisa’s strength was gone. She breathed her last breath in her parents’ arms, right where she belonged.
I was not there, but I have watched that moment many times over in my mind. I see my sister and her husband more broken than I can imagine, but also more firmly held in the arms of God than I can comprehend.
Just a few years ago, my sister said to me, “Yesterday was the first time I didn’t think about her at least once.” I was stunned. How could I not have known that even after 10, 12, 15, 17 years, her first child still fills her heart?
Just last year, my brother-in-law said, “After 20 years, it still hurts, but it stings less.” I was silenced. How could I not have known that even after 10, 12, 15, 17, 20 years, his first child’s short life was still very real?
Just as importantly, he also said this:
God is good.
A mother’s love is extraordinary.
“No” is an answer.
It’s okay to scream at God. He can take it.
Tell your children “I love you” every chance you get, even if you aren’t feeling it.
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be very cruel holidays.
To some people, a crying baby on a plane or in a restaurant can sound like a symphony instead of an annoyance
If a friend is going through something tough, don’t ask what you can do. Just pick something and do it.
Family and friends are important. They’ll be there when you need them. Keep those relationships healthy.
Dwell on the positive. Dwelling on the negative just sets you up for more negative.
I wholeheartedly agree with what Asaph said in Psalm 73:28.*
I can’t choose what circumstances come along in life, but I can choose how I will respond to them.
God is good.
Today is Alisa Ruth’s birthday. She would have been 21. She would have been a wonder. She was a wonder. By God’s infinite love and grace, she is a wonder. I celebrate you, sweet niece, over and over and over again.
*But as for me, how good it is to be near God!
I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter,
and I will tell everyone about the wonderful things you do.”
(All images from The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 2012)
Two winters ago I (along with millions of others) planted myself in a movie theater to watch the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. For several years, I’d included the book on my English syllabus (Purdue University). My students – many of whom had never read the book previously (or even heard of it – how is that possible??) responded to the story in various ways. [Note 1: my rather old-fashioned pedagogy requires students to arrive at class with a comment, question, or discussion starter – based on that day’s reading – written on a 3 x 5 card. In cursive, preferably. Extra points for using a fountain pen.] [Note 2: I’m not big on deconstructing a text to death and then discoursing in a lofty and snooty and philosophical manner about things that are killed by loft and snoot and philosophizing. I’m big on reading – carefully, enthusiastically, intentionally, thoughtfully, and joyfully – and letting a book be what it is, not what I or some dead French philosopher says it should be. But that’s just me.]
Last week, I stumbled across some of those old-fashioned 3×5 cards in an old-fashioned file drawer and enjoyed a few moments of old-fashioned reminiscing.
“I wish Bilbo and gang wouldn’t act so irrationally. Just do as you’re told!”
“I’ve gotten so attached to the dwarves and Bilbo that I may have shed a tear when Bilbo was saying goodbye. Is that normal?? I can’t believe I teared up over dwarves and a hobbit. They’ve changed me.”
“I wish Tolkien could read The Hobbit to me before bed every night.”
“STAY ON THE PATH!!!”
“I got so upset when they wandered off in the woods that I literally threw the book and didn’t pick it up again for several days. Why, Tolkien, why??”
“These dwarves have taken a terrible beating so far. Between giants, spiders, and being locked in barrels, they deserve a break – and TREASURE!”
“As terrible and disgusting as he is, I always just want to give Gollum a hug.”
“Why do the ponies always have to die??”
Who knew that 3×5 cards could be so enjoyable and that college students could be so endearing? But then, this:
“I really wish that Fili and Kili didn’t have to die. And this is going to be such a sweet movie.”
This, from an A+ student, who really loved the book and really can’t be blamed for having such high cinematic hopes.
But the movie wasn’t “sweet” – regardless of how you define the word – and not because it diverged from the written narrative extensively (which it did) but because in making it, Peter Jackson did that which an adult should never ever do: he stole from a child. From all children, actually.
While sitting in that theater two winters ago, I soon gave up on jotting down all the ways the cinematic experience strayed from the textual (and authoritative) narrative and instead got out my phone (yep – I was that person) and started frantically texting all my Tolkien-loving friends who were planning to take their kids to the movie that night, because, you know, children’s book, duh.
My text: Leave the children at home! Really! Truly! Just do it!
I fumed as I typed because, well, this was not a children’s movie. (And yet people brought their children anyway. What is wrong with people?) And if children couldn’t (or shouldn’t) go to see The Hobbit, then what was the point? (Besides the money, that is.)
Not surprisingly, I skipped installments two and three because, as my students rightly observed, The Hobbit is a story that should be read to children – or by children – at night. And also adults. Of course. Indeed. And though readers of all ages should rightly shudder at the thought of goblins (pony-eating horrors that they are) and Smaug (gentle and tame dragons are a freak of postmodernism) and Wargs (blerrgggh), we should still be able to sleep peacefully because the book is ultimately joyful and entirely eucatastrophic* in a way that honors all readers, and especially the children.
The movie – not so much.
“I hope the movie gives off the same happiness that the book does,” wrote one of my students on his 3×5 card just a month before the release date.
Um, no. It does not. Not in part one. I suspect not in part two. And definitely not in part three where two-plus hours of a large-screen brutally vivid battle does not do justice to Tolkien’s genius of appropriately describing for children, on just a few pages,** the Battle of Five Armies – “and it was very terrible.” (Chapter XVII) Based on reviews I’ve read, neither does it do justice to Tolkien’s genius of narrative construction, which is just so very sad.
I’m a firm believe that the book – any book – is always better than the movie, just because (which isn’t to say that movies aren’t ever good or wonderful or brilliant or delightful.)
But when the movie exists in its present form only by way of being rudely, violently, and quite childishly wrested away from its intended audience – an audience that gives the story its very essence – then things have gone too far. They have perhaps gone there, but then failed to come back again.
Please, please, please – stop it, stealers. Really. Truly. Just write your own stories.
**I recently read this comment in an online forum: Did Fili and Kili die in the book, too? They are by far the greatest characters in the movie, yet I don’t have the heart to read the book since it is to[sic] long.
You could read the entire book, cover-to-cover, in less time than it takes to watch the entire movie conglomerate, credit-to-credit. Really. Truly. Just read it, already.