An “aha” Moment

What happened was: I realized I was no good at music.

In spite of years of training, the fact remained that my bow-arm shook when I played my violin in public. No matter how many hours of practice I put in on the Bach A-Minor Concerto, I couldn’t play it on stage. No matter how many years of intense, focused, daily work, I could not perform. I failed in key on-stage situations numerous times. I kept on because I love an audience, but no matter how much I loved being in front of a crowd, I stank at it.

Once, when my sister and I were doing music for a little church—she singing, me playing—yes, I did: I poked her in the head with my bow. How do you do that?

Once, in a college talent show, I forgot the duet half-way through. We started over. I forgot it again at the same place. We were contenders in classical music. We placed in comedy.

Once, for a different talent show, I begged God to keep my bow arm steady. He did. My legs shook like crazy, and I wondered through that piece (that blasted A-Minor again!) whether it was better to have an arm shake and stay standing-if-embarrassed, or to go ahead and fall down in a big pile of wobbly legs and shattered dreams.

Singing was a little better, because when you sing, it doesn’t matter if your hands shake. I did quite a lot of church music during my twenties. I was Anna The Orphanage Director in a children’s musical the name of which I can’t remember, but it’s about Jesus coming to town and has this memorable line: “Don’t take any wooden denarii!”

My singing days ended when I got to Greenville, because Special Music there has a doctorate in voice performance, and yes, I’m still a little bitter about that, but the fact remains that the people who do sing there do sing better than I. Plus they do that lifty thing with their eyebrows.

Now that I think of it, the aha moment could have been when I saw the concert master of the Elementary School orchestra rip into his music like he was Isaac Stern. I don’t know where Scott Moore is now with his music, but he was better at 11 or 12 than I ever was. He probably thinks the A-Minor is for babies. He probably thought so then.

Then my daughter went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, and everything I ever knew about music was wadded up in a little ball and set on fire. Those kids are freakishly talented and lots of them go to Juilliard. They go to Curtis. You can’t compare yourself to them. It’s like comparing your husband to George Washington: sure, he’s sweet, and he’s good with the kids, but he’ll never be on a quarter.

Still, there lingered the idea that I could have done something with my music. So I taught children a lot of music—to the extent that the teacher next door told me to knock it off with the piano playing and get on with the academics. I hear some kids still remember all the verses to “Goober Peas,” and I’m darned proud of that. I suppose that was my great contribution to music: Goober Peas has been preserved to another generation (all four verses), and let’s not forget the Presidents Song, which I’ve taught from when it ended “Ford and Carter and Reagan,” and I know people who still stop there, at least in principle.

I sang the National Anthem at a basketball game once. A capella. The trick with this is that you have to start really low, but if you’re too low, those bottom notes sort of get lost. But if you don’t start low enough, my friend, you are going to be in real trouble with the rockets’ red glare, ask anyone. Ask me.

Another (earlier) singing triumph was when our little college “music ministry” group sang Sunday service at the San Diego Marine Corp Recruiting Depot, otherwise known as Boot Camp. All the guys (women marines train in South Carolina) come to chapel. So there’s a thousand Marines out there and I have a solo that starts: “I will meet you in the moooooorning, just outside the Eastern Gate!” It’s about the Second Coming, but from the hoots and hollers, I’m thinking those boys weren’t clued in. “Keep your lamps all trimmed and buuuuuuuurning, lest for you it is too late!” I was eighteen, give me a break. One of them asked me for cigarettes after, but (go figure) I didn’t have any.

Condi said she gave up aspirations of concert piano-ing when she realized she knew the whole repertoire, but she couldn’t play it. To feel the music. To live in the music. To be at peace with the music and work with it, interpret it, express it. Heck, I couldn’t even figure it out half the time, and when I did figure it out and polish it up and get up on stage to perform it, my right arm fell apart, my brain turned off, the music I’d memorized refused to be recalled.

Darned, blasted, and heck in the same piece…maybe I’m still a little conflicted, huh? Crud. Shoot, I wanted to be a singer.

I turned to the typewriter. Or, rather. I continued typing stories and let the music go. I had always written stories, some good, some not so good. Some published, some sitting in a drawer. . . .one sitting in an envelope waiting for nerve and postage.

So, yes, I have a violin in the closet. The bridge is out and the strings are unstrung. My four younger children have never heard me play. But the joy I get when I hear my child laughing, and I go in there to see what’s so funny, and I see he is reading my book, well, can you beat that?

A THOUGHT on Sexism in the Pre-Show

At the theater I usually go to there is a lame pre-show advertising loop that I have seen so many times now, I can do the marketing for them: the Chinese food place has good-luck coins available on request. The Music Store has been family owned and operated since the 1970s. The Auto Mall will give you a free lift to the theater while your car is in the shop (I always go to the movies when my car is in the shop for a couple of hours, don’t you?). Then there’s this: the Broadstone Marketplace will solve all your problems this Valentine’s Day! They’ll give you a handy list of what to buy your significant other!

Yes, I know it’s way past Valentine’s Day and you know this too, but the movie-ad guy is a little slow, so this ad is up there killing me every time it goes by.

Here’s the offensive part. A list comes up. It has two sides: FOR HIM and FOR HER.

You know where I’m going with this, but humor me and we’ll all feel better.

The FOR HIM list is a list of ten or twelve restaurants. Ribs. Steaks. Wings. Every delicious thing you can imagine.

The FOR HER list goes like this: European Waxing, Jenny Craig Weight Loss, Dental Implants, Optometry, Fitness Club, Hair Care, Spa.

Are you kidding me: Optometry? Now there’s a romantic Valentine’s Day gift.

But never mind that. The point is that the women are supposed to feel blessed if they are given a gift certificate to an establishment that exists to let them know they aren’t perfect, that they need to do better, while the men get to eat steaks.

Women are supposed to feel good about being deprived, poked, prodded, waxed. They aren’t actually supposed to enjoy eating food. In fact, one gets the idea the woman will have her face threaded and the hair torn off her legs and will then sit and gaze lovingly at her man while he he-mans that 12-ounce sirloin down his throat and grunts at her to pass the salt, Baby.

I personally know men who think this sort of thing is funny and that women who are offended are just too touchy, but there is a word for this sort of nonsense: EVIL.

No girl, no woman, should ever believe that her goal in life is to try harder and ever harder to make herself more and more physically attractive so that a man will want her. No girl or woman should think that to be a woman is to be deprived. No woman should ever feel that she must subject herself to painful procedures in order to be desired. Or to feel that in order to be beautiful, she must live a hungry life, that she should not allow her real self—her ordinary self—to be seen and known.

That a human being designed the ad in question, listed the items on it without having his conscience bleed all over his brain, is beyond understanding. This in California, America 2011.

A THOUGHT on Hospitality for the Socially-Challenged Christian

Please, I beg you, don’t ask me to come over to your house. It puts me in a position of saying no. Believe me, I used to say yes, but now I come right out with it: “I’m so sorry, I don’t visit.” I might as well also admit this: I don’t entertain either.

You don’t visit? You don’t entertain? What is the matter with you? Don’t you know you’re supposed to exercise hospitality or you’re not a good Christian?

Yes, I know, and for many years this bothered me. It bothered me enough that I went places. Shopping with the girls. Dinner parties. Drop-ins. I drew the line at “Dinner Eight,” which was a program at church whereby four couples or three couples and two singles (fun!) would be all matched up and each family would host the group until everyone had had a turn.

Yes, I’m aware that most people love this sort of thing. Most people can’t wait to get together with a group of families or couples from church, the bigger the better, the more the merrier.

Go ahead, shoot me, but just thinking about this gives me hives.

No, I don’t have agoraphobia, but I want to be home most of the time. I don’t want to go out. I don’t enjoy it when I do. I come home and have to recover for a very long time, sometimes for an entire day. Ibuprofen is often indicated, certainly pillows and quiet music.

The truth is, I gave up all attempts to achieve social normalcy when I realized that Paul probably isn’t talking about “Dinner Eights” when he mentions being hospitable. Here’s the clue: “some have entertained angels.” Work it out yourself, I’m just saying, Paul isn’t telling me I have to do the American social whirl in order to meet the requirement of Christian hospitality.

Paul is telilng me to be kind to strangers, to bring orphans into my home, to give water to homeless people when it’s hot out, to send money to the Red Cross when there’s a disaster, to support a little boy named Christopher who lives in a hut with his grandpa in the Central African Republic, to go to court with my friend when her husband leaves her with four children and no money, to meet a friend at Starbucks to share our hearts and have a cup of coffee.

That’s the kind of hospitable I can be. But please don’t ask me to dinner. I’m so sorry, I just can’t make it that night.

PRAYER FOR JAPAN

Lord, have mercy.

I imagine a woman who eight months ago learned she was carrying her first child. Now she is trapped somewhere in the Northeast, wondering if help will come before the baby does. Wondering if the next building she hears crashing down will be the one she is in. Wondering why her husband hasn’t come for her yet.

Lord, have mercy.

I imagine a child alone in a building surrounded by bare land scraped-clean by rushing tons of water. He’s not actually alone, because there are bodies lying around. One is his father, another his mother.

Lord, have mercy.

I imagine the heroic men and women at the nuclear plants risking their lives by staying on the job, working desperately, attempting at all costs to avoid catastrophe in the middle of catastophe.

Lord, have mercy.

I imagine whole families, huddled together without power while the winter freeze comes down, comes in. There is no food. A son struggles to breathe—his inhaler is nowhere to be found and the air is full of smoke.

Lord, have mercy.

I think of Oska, worrying in the States. She’s from Sendai. Her parents are missing.

LORD, HAVE MERCY:

You who walked your people through the Red Sea on dry ground, dry this ground.

You who brought fresh water out of a rock in the Wilderness, bring fresh water to thirsty millions.

You who calmed the sea, calm this sea; steady this land.

You who gave sight to the blind, give insight to desperate scientists hard at work in a compromised nuclear plant–what love is this–that their people may live.

You who form the winds by Your breath, blow radiation out East to the sea, not South onto the great cities.

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, we lie on our faces before You and humbly ask, Is this not enough?

Lord, have mercy.

A THOUGHT for the Christian Man Whose Wife Suffers from Infertility

Hello Brother.

Your wife asked me to write this because there are a few things she just can’t tell you. Don’t worry, she loves you madly, and you’re not in trouble. You’re just like most guys, so that when your wife says “nothing” or “you know” when you ask what’s wrong, you say, “oh,” or “not that again,” and off you go. You might be longing to engage her in the conversation, or you might be sick of it, but you can’t bring yourself to get down to a deep conversation about it. I’m here to give you a little information.

The fact is, your wife has been aching for a baby for a long time now.

She suffers from baby hunger. This isn’t like a regular desire for something—such as a new pair of shoes, a new house, or moving closer to home. Those things come and go. This is a constant, profound hunger, and there’s something you need to know: hunger doesn’t go away unless it’s fed. It can’t be ignored, set aside, or toggled off. There’s no such thing as “forget about it and it will go away.” (There is, however, the mental tactic of pretending you’ve forgotten so that you can trick your body/mind into thinking you don’t care so that you will become pregnant. Irrational, yes, but entirely normal.)

Whether she’s still telling you this or not, it is true that every month when she is disappointed anew, her heart breaks. The recurring timeline goes like this:

For the first part of her cycle, that is, while she’s bleeding, she understands that it isn’t God’s will for her to be pregnant right now. She tries to convince herself that it isn’t all that important to her. She sees that it might not be important to you. After all, did you take her on your lap last time and let her cry it out? Did you say anything? Or did you try to avoid the topic? Worse, did you make light of it, toss off a trite bit of “I guess it’s not God’s will then”? Did you by word or action make her feel that she ought not to care about this, ought not to hurt, or at least ought to be quiet about it?

Well, those few days pass. A couple of weeks go by. Now it’s that time of her cycle that in other women is known as the “fertile” days. But for your wife, sir, they are known as the desperate days. Desperately wishing she didn’t have to notify you of the dates, wishing you’d take more interest in the timing, because the timing has to be right. Then, for the remaining two weeks, your wife is consumed with a desperate hope, a longing she can only keep inside her by intense self-control. She wants a baby so much, she thinks about it constantly, practically every moment, certainly every hour.

It’s possible that if you ask her, “Are you thinking about a baby again?” she might say no. Ask it a different way, “Honey, do you want to talk about babies?” is a nicer way to hear her heart. She may not bring it up all that much anymore, especially if she’s been suffering from infertility for several years already. You see, she knows by now that you don’t want to see the tears anymore. She also knows whether you’re defensive about it—whether the word fault might have entered your brain.

As the days get up to 26, 27, 28 (or 36, 37, 38, as the case may be), she can hardly stand the wait. In the end, her hope is so intense, she may get jittery, distracted. She may imagine she feels different this time. Then, hopes are dashed. Crushed. And it starts over. Month after month.

I have been rooting around for an analogy for a long time, so that I could say, “This is as if __________ happened to you every single month for years,” but I haven’t found it yet. Still, let me be so clear on this, brother, because having children is at the very core of your wife’s sense of being. It has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with your other children, if you have any. She needs a baby like you need to feel like a man. It is her essence.

Nor does this longing mean she is not trusting God to fulfill her. Do you trust God to fill all your needs? Yes, you do. At the same time, you get hungry and thirsty. You feel needs. You long for things. You seek success. God does not tell us not to have desires: He tells us where to take those desires—to Himself, not to be dashed, but to find their fulfillment within His holy will. Nowhere in Scripture is the desire for a child seen to be anything but holy and right. Wanting to have babies is a good thing. She is not sinning.

Look at your wife as your dearest friend, the one for whom you work, the one who powers your ambition, and your dreams for the future. Look at her and see that she has a deep authentic need.

I want you to help her get that baby. “I’m trying, Lady!” you just shouted. Well, maybe you are, and I hope you are. But let me give you a few sisterly pointers to help you understand a little better how to do this. First of all, you must cuddle her up and tell her that you are sorry she hasn’t gotten pregnant yet. You must do this very gently and not in a hurry. If she has been pregnant, but has miscarried, you must tell her how devastated you are by that. Then, I want you to ask her how you can best help her. Maybe she needs to cry in your arms for a long time. Pray with her for this one thing specifically: that God will give you both a baby.

Now, when the tears are dried, I want you to say, if you haven’t: “Let’s go to the doctor and both get checked, and see what can be done, okay?”

I just heard you say you didn’t have the coverage or the money to pay for these expenses. You paid your car payment last month, didn’t you? You’d work extra to get yourself a motorcycle, or a fishing boat, or a whatever-you-want, wouldn’t you? Work a little overtime for her on this. Do this.

Or perhaps you said, “I know it’s not me—I have other children!” See, there’s that fault thing again. The truth is, if you haven’t been checked recently, you don’t know for sure. Do this for her. “It’s humiliating.” Stop that, sir. Think what it is for her, and be thankful stirrups don’t come into it for you. No one is sticking metal instruments into you and saying, “Now this doesn’t hurt.” Be a pal and get checked.

Then, perhaps in the same conversation, ask her: “Do you want us to start looking into adoption?” You do this. She might not be ready, but she might be. Could you take some time and look into costs for her? Different agencies? Tax credits? State stipends? Don’t make her do all the legwork and paperwork, although if you tell her, “Go,” she might just plunge in with her whole grateful heart.

Please understand that this is not about you. When Elkanah said to Hannah: “Am I not better to you than 10 sons?” he was fooling himself. That’s like asking a hungry person why he’s upset, since he has a perfectly good pair of shoes on. It’s like asking a person shivering in the cold why he’s upset when he has a bag of Doritos right there. The two are not the same. Husband does not equal baby any more than baby equals husband. They don’t fill the same need. The answer to Elkanah’s question is, “Um, no.”

Don’t worry—you’re going to love that baby when he or she arrives. That little one is going to call you Daddy. You are going to be willing to walk over hot coals or into burning houses for him. You’re going to willingly lay down your life every day of your life for her. You will also have the joy of knowing you gave your wife the one thing her soul desired: she will be that child’s mommy.

(For the dear brother and sister who both long for babies, but have miscarried—oh, this is sorrow upon sorrow, and a hope deferred that devastates the heart. I am going to discuss it separately in another Thought.)

A THOUGHT ON CANCER: WHY I HATE IT, WHY YOU SHOULD TOO

Could we all just stop with the “troubles are a blessing” nonsense, specifically the “cancer is a gift” nonsense? I’m sick to death of this.

Here’s what happens. Someone gets a cancer diagnosis. It’s a Stage 1 tiny encapsulated tumor. The surgeon operates, says, “We got it all! You don’t even need radiation!” The person I’m going to call Victim One says, “Praise the Lord! I value my life so much more now! I’m thankful this happened, because now I know what’s important. So it’s actually good that I had cancer!”

Here’s Victim Two. Stage 2. There’s a non-encapsulated tumor and some lymph nodes are involved. They do surgery and then they blast away with radiation that leaves Victim Two sick, exhausted, and depressed. But, perhaps there’s remission. Maybe the tumor doesn’t recur. Again, someone may offer praise to God for the cancer because it heightened awareness of her need for Jesus and made her focus on Him and His great love for her. Perhaps her family was re-connected after a lengthy estrangement. Good came of it, so it must have been a blessing.

Let’s cut to the chase and leave Victim Three out of it.

Victim Four. Inoperable. Chemo contraindicated. Terminal. A matter of time. And so, for however long it takes for the tumor to grow, to assault the lymph system, to spread to the liver, the lungs, the brain, Jesus works in sanctifying His child and making her fit for heaven. Then she dies. And someone will say, “I’m thankful for the cancer, because it brought our family closer together and made her more like Jesus, more than perhaps she would have been had the cancer not come.”

Blasphemy.

It wasn’t the cancer that brought her close to Jesus. It was Jesus who brought her close to Himself. Do not give unto a messenger of Satan—an illness caused by the Fall, exacerbated perhaps by poor nutrition, or by bad choices, by environmental pollution, by shoddy medical attention, by primitive meds, by failed protocols—the name “blessing.” Do not take the Lord’s name in vain by saying, “Cancer is a blessing.”

Cancer is a curse. Cancer brings sickness, pain, heartache, and death. Damn cancer!

Rejoice that in the situation where you or a loved mother, father, sister, daughter, friend gets a diagnosis, you can cry out to the Father for help. Rejoice that within the bounds of the trial, you do not have to sin by denying God, by losing hope, by jumping out of a window or in front of a train. Rejoice that the Father—who Himself is Love—works within the trial to bring families back together, to draw His own child close in to His own heart. Give glory where it is due—it is due to God alone, who can work within the most hateful circumstances to bring glory to Himself and sanctification to His children.

But do not dress up the cancer and call it good.

It is not the cancer that brings a man to salvation when he realizes he is not long for this life. It is the Holy Spirit who graciously leads the man to see his mortality and that Jesus Alone is the answer to the need of the dying soul.

It is not cancer that makes a dying husband look into the eyes of the wife he is leaving alone and say, “It’s all right, Sweetheart. You’ll be okay.” It is the comfort of the Holy Spirit energizing a man to give voice to the truth that Jesus is enough for him as he dies and enough for her as she lives.

We are assured by the Word of God that death—the last enemy—will be wholly and entirely defeated.

In the meantime, let us pray against cancer in all its forms: from the smallest skin cancer to the most raging life-stealing Stage Four Destroyer.

Let us pray for the men and women who labor year after year in medical and pharmaceutical research that a cure will be found. Why do you smile? Do you think it impossible that a cure can be found? Of course there is a cure—we simply have not discovered it yet. My friend, do you fear that your child will die of smallpox? Do you lie awake at night afraid your child will fall into a pond and contract polio? Do you worry lest yellow fever steal your dearest friend? Those enemies were not less formidable. They were not less deadly. And they are gone. Pray for a cure.

Raise money, raise awareness, race for the cure! Do what you can within the context of your life to seek destruction for this enemy. The next time a prayer request is given for someone with cancer, stop the meeting—there is no reason to gather any more requests: PRAY fervently against the cancer with all your hearts. A brother or sister is in physical distress, in emotional anguish, and we are pencilling down the request and saying, “Okay, what else?”

Whatever you do, do not tell a friend that cancer will bring him closer to God. Tell your friend that God will meet him in his need. That Jesus is there with him. That our High Priest who suffered in all points as we have suffered—who bore our sins in His own body on the cross—will carry him. And pray with your dear brother or sister that the love and goodness of Jesus will be palpable in every moment, during every treatment, in every despair, and even when friends and family trickle away and don’t really want to come around all that much anymore. There can be great loneliness in cancer. Pray against it. BE THERE against it.

No more soft words about this beast from hell, this life-destroying, family-crushing disaster.

As there is no glory in cancer, there is also no cancer in Glory: so we may pray that there be no cancer on earth as it is in Heaven. May God be pleased to grant this mercy.