31 for 41: Jonathan’s Creator

Dear Donovan,

When I was training to be a Prepared Childbirth Educator, I attended an annual conference of the International Childbirth Education Association.  During the conference, I attended a session about best practices right after a baby is born.  A wealth of scientific information was presented about the benefits of skin-to-skin contact, leaving the vernix on the baby for a few hours, and allowing the baby to nurse right away.

There was a woman in the session who had been a labor and delivery nurse for decades.  Both she and I stayed around after the session for an ongoing discussion.  I have no doubt that this woman truly cared for the well-being of mothers and newborn babies.  Still, this woman became overwhelmed as she thought about all of the years she had spent doing what was thought to be best for newborns, only to now be considering that maybe what was done in the past was not actually the best care for a newborn.

I would not fault this woman for her actions at all, as of course, she was acting on what she thought was the best scientific information available at the time.  Still, I have never forgotten the sound of her bitter tears as she left the room that day.  There was a lesson for me to be very careful about how I base my actions on the latest scientific body of knowledge.  I never want to weep bitter tears because I, in arrogance or carelessness, failed to question a set of so-called truths that were handed to me.

A family member once told me her story of giving birth in the 1960’s and immediately being given a treatment to dry up her milk supply.  The latest science of the day assumed that manufactured formula was a superior option, and this woman was not even given the option to decide for herself how she would like to feed her newborn.

When I lived in Bolivia for a summer, my project team members and I received specific training on Bolivians’ mistrust of the scientific claims of “developed” countries.  While the Nestlé Corporation can provide you with a very diplomatic explanation of their activities in Bolivia, the experience of the local people there was that they had been convinced that Nestlé baby formula was better for newborns than breastmilk.  Wanting to give their babies the best, Bolivian mothers lost their own milk supply while struggling to purchase the formula.  In addition, needing water to mix the formula, and trying to dilute the formula to make it last longer in the absence of other options proved problematic in an area where water contamination was known to be a huge public health issue.  Hiding behind scientific claims, Nestlé increased its profits while many Bolivian babies died from malnutrition and diarrheal diseases.

From these stories and many more like them, I draw two conclusions that I will never apologize for or back down from, regardless of what labels some may assign to me.

1. No matter what information is presented to you as scientific truth, a pure scientific approach absolutely allows you both the right and the duty to ask probing questions. 

After your search, you may certainly concur with the information presented.  Let your agreement be because you reviewed a corresponding and cohesive data set for yourself, however, rather than blindly accepting what was handed to you.  If the presenter of information does not want to be questioned, or even attacks you for asking honest questions about the claim, then beware.  At best, he is a lazy scientist or knows that the data set is not completely coherent and/or reproducible.  At worst, he is a liar.

2.  Whenever you are asked or expected to accept a scientific claim, conduct a “motives” check.  

Some may call you a cynic or a conspiracy theorist, but history has demonstrated that it is indeed a wise practice to consider who might stand to gain power, profit, or placation from a wide acceptance of a scientific claim.  Again, you may find the claim to be logically consistent, empirically adequate, and experientially relevant (Ravi Zacharias).  Doing the motives check, however, can help to guard you against being someone’s fool.

One of the things that I loved about being a science teacher was that students’ questions would ultimately lead to a question that science cannot answer.  It is a part of our human experience, and when we arrive at that point, we must turn from science to theology.  In my position as a public school teacher, I maintained my professionalism by just always encouraging students to keep asking questions.  I assured them that a journey for truth is an important journey, and I stand by that.

Now, I can try to give you multiple Bible verses written hundreds of years ago that reveal an understanding of the universe and the human body that no scientific discoveries could have matched during that time.  The only explanation can be that the men who wrote the words were instructed by the Creator.  I do not believe that I am supposed to do that in this letter, however.  Ask me, and I will give you examples.

More importantly, however, is that you live in a unprecedented time where you have Hebrew and Greek word translations and the largest set of empirical data ever compiled, all at your fingertips through high-speed internet service and an expensive cellular device.  You need to do this work for yourself.  Contrary to the spirit of the day, I do not want you to believe what I say just because I said it.  I want you to engage in your own study.  Of course, it can be difficult to sift through material and determine what is factual.  Still, I am reminding myself as well when I say to you that when we stand before God, we cannot say we did not have the means to search for truth.

Because I do not fear or avoid the ideas of people who do not believe as I do, I would like to offer you these thoughts from the brilliant mind of David Berlinski, a self-proclaimed agnostic:

“Has anyone provided proof of God’s inexistence? Not even close. Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here? Not even close. Have our sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Not even close. Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought? Close enough. Has rationalism and moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral? Not close enough. Has secularism in the terrible 20th century been a force for good? Not even close, to being close. Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy in the sciences? Close enough. Does anything in the sciences or their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational? Not even in the ball park. Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt? Dead on.”

I share these profound words with you to point out that even as you strive to be a pure scientist in your beliefs and actions, be warned that science can never answer the question of your purpose on this planet.  If you sincerely seek God on this matter, you will find your answer.  Also be warned that those who only hold to atheistic evolution and a refusal to accept any moral absolutes are in danger of quickly finding a license to hurt others.  If they choose not to hurt others, they still find themselves impotent to tell others that their harmful actions are wrong.  On this note, some would argue back that religion has also been used as a license to hurt others.  I would agree, and this is where I would differentiate between false religion and a true faith in and obedience to the Creator who loves His creation…. but that’s for another letter.

I am amazed at all that humans have achieved through scientific advancements.  I am personally so thankful for CT scans, ultrasounds, prenatal vitamins, the combustion engine, EpiPens, and air conditioning technology… amen!  Part of my satisfaction with teaching Math to middle school students is in appreciating the role of mathematics in our ongoing pursuit of scientific truth.  What a gift we have in the improvement of our quality of life through science.

When I worked with a surgeon in the Dominican Republic one summer, I once observed a Cesarean delivery where I saw a look of alarm on the surgeon’s face just after she delivered the baby.  She handed the silent bundle to another doctor, and I was ordered to go with him.  In the next room, I looked on in fear as the doctor worked on this baby who was not breathing.  After what seemed like about ten minutes, but was probably only one or two minutes, the baby started crying.

That is another cry that I have never forgotten.  When I processed the terrifying incident later, I reflected that had the baby needed a pediatric cardiac surgeon or a helicopter to get it to that surgeon, there was no such resource to be found in that mountainous location.  In the United States, we have so many gifts of science for the preservation of life.

I believe in continuing our pursuit of scientific advancements.  Because of what is at stake, the pursuit must remain pure in its motives and its methods.  Never apologize for being a man who questions motives and methods.  Make sure that your questioning is not from a place of arrogance or belligerence, but rather is grounded in a sincere desire for humans to be helped and not hurt.

The picture that accompanies this letter is one of my favorite pictures from your youth.  You are sitting at the glass of the Chimpanzee Exhibit at the NC Zoo, hanging out with Jonathan.  The One who made Jonathan also made you.  Do not blindly accept any theory about the relationship between Jonathan and you.  Seek the truth.  The Creator will make it clear.

Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:  For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:  Colossians 1:15-16

For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.  John 5:46

I love you forever,

Your truth-seeking mama

31 for 41: Like a Medicine

Dear Donovan,

When you were in preschool, you used to ask me to repeat the same three jokes over and over again as I drove you to school.  There was the one about the chicken who came to the library, the one about the horse trained by a preacher, and the one about the duck asking for grapes at the hardware store.  You also loved it when I pretended that your Scooby Doo stuffed animal was helping me drive you to school.  I made Scooby silly so that I could make you laugh.  I was willing to tell the same three jokes all the time because it delighted you.

I have written to you about many serious subjects.  I would like to take a moment to remind you to laugh.

Laughter exercises muscles and can help your lungs release residual air.  Laughter reduces cortisol production.  Laughter produces beneficial brain waves.  Laughter prompts an increase in the release of “soldier cells” of the immune system from the lymph nodes.  There are quite a number of scientifically proven ways in which laughter improves physical and mental health.  And long before humans knew about cortisol and T cells, the Creator of the human body had already given the advice that having a cheerful heart is good medicine.

A 15-year Norwegian study suggests that, as a man, your risk of death by infection is decreased by 74 percent if you maintain a hearty sense of humor in your life.  I remember hearing a story about how young patients’ white blood cell counts would increase after a visit from Robin Williams to their hospital.  There are just so many examples, backed by scientific data, to prove that laughter should be a part of your routine to maintain good health.

This is why I love watching bloopers.  I love clean, silly jokes like “What is a pirate’s favorite letter?”  Sometimes when I need a brain break from work, I pull up “The Dentist” skit from the Carol Burnett show, just to have a laugh.  I love watching you play with the twins, and your silly antics to make them laugh helps their hearts and mine.

We are not expected to be happy all of the time.  There is a time to be sad, a time to cry, and a time to sit with others when they are passing through storms.  Even when we do not feel like laughing, though, we can still possess a joy and a hope that are not dependent upon outward circumstances.  The neat connection is that when we have this joy and hope on the inside, it lends itself to more cheerfulness on the outside.   “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance” (Proverbs 15:13a).

I smile a lot.  I smile at people I do not know as I walk through Walmart.  Some people smile back.  Some look at me like I am crazy.  I keep on smiling.  I would not do it if it were fake.  The smile on the outside is an indication of joy on the inside.  Even when I am fighting a dark battle, I do not have to concede my hope.

I smile because I am grateful that I am still alive.  I smile because I have so many things in my life for which to be thankful, including three beautiful boys.  I smile because I love people and want to be a source of positivity and support in other humans’ lives.  I smile as an outward indication of that hope that is in me.  If I am miserable and do not have joy, then why would anyone want the Jesus that I say lives in my heart?  “Joy is the proof that what we have is real, and that it satifies” (Adrian Rogers).

I want you to have joy.  I wish for you to have lots of laughter in your life.  I want you to have fun.  Let me suggest some ways for you to have more fun in life.

Maintain a clean heart.

Do what you are supposed to be doing.  Do not do things that you are not supposed to do.  Tell the truth and live honestly.  Try to not hurt anyone, but if you do, make it right with that person.  Avoid conflict with your loved ones.  In summary, let nothing between you and your Maker.  King David lost his joy when he let things come between him and God, which is why he had to ask “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation” (Psalm 51:12a).

Keep good company. 

Be nice to everyone, but choose your close friends carefully.  If a guy friend doesn’t know how to be sincerely gentle and thoughtful to his mom, little kids, and puppies, then he’s not good company.  Do not become entangled in others’ unhealthy or immoral ideas of how to have fun.  “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed”  (Proverbs 13:20).

Help others. 

I believe I was clinically depressed during my sophomore year in college, after returning to the States from Bolivia.  Taking Organic Chemistry and Physics at the same time did not help, along with all the pressure I placed on myself.  I decided to sign up to be a big buddy to a local elementary student.  At a time when this could still be done, I met my assigned student for the first time at his first grade classroom, and was asked if I could take his sister as well.  I was informed that that their mother was in the hospital because her boyfriend had assaulted her the night before.  I took both young kids to a local playground, and we all laughed together.  It was medicine for them after a horrible night, but it was medicine for me as well.

Spending Friday afternoons with those two kids, giving them an escape from their environment for a bit, truly is what helped me to emerge from my depression.  This is not a replacement for treatment of some chemical imbalances.  Still, looking beyond yourself to spark joy for someone else and gain perspective can often be a great remedy for gloom.  Contrary to what some people try to prove, living only for yourself is not much fun.  That type of life quickly becomes empty.

See God’s hand. 

Regardless of what is happening around you in the world, there is both excitement and comfort when you learn to notice how God is working.  I love stories like the one told by the missionary who needed $800, but was instructed by God to not tell anyone of this serious need.  After a waiting period, the missionary received two phone calls in the same day, each from a person telling him that God told them to send him $400.

This is not a man who was getting rich off of the donations of others.  He was living with his wife and small children in a dangerous location, with only the most basic of necessities.  God provided what he needed.  I know of so many other stories like this, of modern-day miracles that show how God delights to work in the details to prove His care for us.  Trusting that care and watching Him work is a fun way to live!

Be ready to die.

Adrian Rogers explained this well:  “Man is the only creature who knows he’s going to die, and he’s trying desperately to forget it. Fear of death keeps people in bondage. But Jesus came to deliver you from that fear. You’re not ready to live until you’re no longer afraid to die. If you’re a child of God, He will be with you. The child of God can smile at death.”

If you are prepared to smile at death, then you can have a life full of smiles and laughter.

Finally, I want you to know that I treasure the memories of the times when it was just you and me, and you would put on a comedy act just to make me laugh.  I shielded you from adult worries and tried to make sure you were happy, but there were times when you thought it was your job to make me happy.  I love your heart, but please know that you have always brought me great joy.

You have a gift for making others laugh.  Use this gift as you are given opportunities to do so, as it can be a much-needed treatment for others.  Live a clean life, for those who try to have fun in unhealthy ways receive the opposite outcome.  Fill your life with joy and laughter.  Take your medicine!

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.  Proverbs 17:22

I love you forever,

Your mama

31 for 41: Fight or Flight

Dear Donovan,

I can imagine that learning how to be a good man can be tough.  There are so many difficult decisions to be made.  When is telling what you know about someone the right thing to do, and when is it snitching?  When do you step away from a situation, and when do you stand your ground?  When do you tell someone their Duke shirt is ugly, and when do you just let it go?  Okay, well maybe that last one is not so hard to decide, but you get the point.

When it comes to the issue of deciding to run away from something or to prepare for a fight, I want you to know that there are some things you absolutely should run away from in life.  For example, “The sin of immorality is not one we are instructed to fight—it is one we have been told to flee” (Adrian Rogers).

See also:

Flee also youthful lusts”  2 Timothy 2:22a

 “Flee fornication”  I Corinthians 6:18a

“But thou, O man of God, flee these things” (referring to the love of money and the works of false teachers) 1 Timothy 6:11a

It is not cowardly to run from the things that would lead to a world of hurt for you and for others.  A wise man stays as far away as he can from paths of pain and destruction.  Whether it’s a get-rich-quick scam, a chemical that will destroy your body, or a woman who wants to pull you into an unhealthy relationship, my advice to you is to be like Joseph and run!

There are times, however, when a fight is justified.  I have already written to you about taking a stand for principles and for people.  In those instances, engaging in a figurative battle can absolutely be the right thing to do.  Now, I would like to address when it is right to engage in a literal physical battle.

Stay with me for a quick word study.  If I say “Lo quiero” in Spanish, a possible translation is “I love him.”  If I say “Lo amo” in Spanish, that also translates to “I love him.”  Simply stated, without providing context, two Spanish words only have one equivalent word in the English language.  A further study of context, however, reveals that when I said “Lo amo,” I was referring to my deep, romantic love for my husband.  When I said “Lo quiero,” I was referring to my love of cheese which, although quite strong, cannot be equivocated to my love for Brandon.

When people are trying to use the Bible to support an argument, or even to disprove the legitimacy of the Bible, many miss the academic necessity of careful word study from one language to another.  Let’s be very careful, then, in our application of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13).  The particular word “kill” here, from its translation of the Hebrew “ratzach,” speaks of murder.  It is not an umbrella meaning to signify that there is never, ever a justified use of force to end a life.  The context of this commandment confirms the value of human life by ordaining that we act in a way that preserves human life.  

In an ealier letter, I shared with you that I was sexually assaulted as a young child.  Let’s suppose that the man who hurt me was still living and I confronted him.  Under the commandment to not commit murder, I would have no moral right to end his life.  For me personally, I would not even want to physically harm him in any way.  “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

In this scenario, let’s say, however, that this man begins to attack me to try to end my life to shut me up.  I would absolutely have the right to use all necessary force to preserve my own life.  Let us never confuse the difference between killing and murder, for when we do, the innocent are not safe and murderers go free.    

When Brandon and I trained in Tae Kwon Do, we were equipped with multiple ways to do just enough to get away from an attacker.  We were never taught to do as much harm as possible when we are able to outdo the attacker.  There must be a balance between justice and mercy.  That is the balance you must find when and if the time comes for a physical fight.  You absolutely use force to do what is necessary to protect your own life or to protect another, but you should never abuse your power.  If you do, you have reduced yourself to the level of the lesser man.

And if it is just and right to do what is necessary in that moment, then it follows that a wise man should be prepared before that time comes.  There is a physical preparation, of knowing how to defend yourself.  There is a mental preparation, of being very clear on when it is acceptable to use force.  There is a resources preparation, of having the necessary tools to restrain evil when called upon to do so.  Many of us who have been confronted with evil believe in your right to a firearm in order to have a fighting chance at preserving your own life and the lives of your loved ones if you are confronted by evil.

If a person has the protection of the Secret Service or the United States Capitol Police, funded by taxpayers, and/or if a person’s home and children are protected by gated communities and armed patrol officers, that person possesses no moral ground from which to prohibit you from possessing a firearm for the protection of your home and children.  Of course, your job may not incur the same level of danger as some jobs.  Still, your life and the lives of your children are no less valuable than theirs.

We assume the cost of protecting our highest officials in order to preserve their lives.  We have measures in place before any known threat to our elected officials presents itself.  If you are not afforded the same right to have a measure of protection in place before a danger presents itself, then we have certainly taken a step backward in our nation’s 244-year-long journey toward living up to that declaration that “all men are created equal.”

When this journey was still in its infancy, President George Washington told a Joint Session of Congress in his first annual message that “A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined.”  This is a pairing of values that must be revisited.  Being armed must be coupled with being disciplined, both for individuals and for nations.  Our nation has witnessed the damage caused, from multiple sources, when an armed person is not guided by discipline and the desire to preserve life.

Armament in the absence of a moral code that sees each life as equally valuable is dangerous.  But just because some individuals possess no discipline nor moral view of mankind does not mean you should be stripped of the ability to protect your family.  Quite the contrary, it is a just reason why you should be able to equip yourself to preserve the lives of your family members.

For the things that you should run from, know the enemy before it presents itself.  That way, you will recognize the enemy right away and can swiftly remove yourself from its presence.  For the situations that you should not run from, be crystal clear on the moral code that guides your willingness to fight, and always seek to value and preserve life.  That way, whether the fight is with words or with weapons, you are justified in your actions.  A good man confronts injustice and protects the vulnerable.  A wise man is prepared to fight, but hopes he never has to do so.

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.  Romans 12:18

Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.  Psalm 82:4

I love you forever,

Your mama

31 for 41: Little Hands

Dear Donovan,

During the time that I stayed at home with the twins, I was able to enjoy watching them pop up each morning, ready for the day.  They awoke each day happy and optimistic, even before they could voice this optimism.  I cannot remember what prompted the thought, but one morning as I watched them, I tried to imagined myself as an enslaved mother in 1850 in North Carolina, watching her bouncing one-year-old begin his day.  I started to cry as I realized that, in that situation, a mother might look at her beautiful boy with this thought: “He doesn’t know that he’s not free.”

It would be so hard to look into a happy and innocent face and know just how soon happiness would be erased and innocence would be destroyed, and in the cruelest ways.  If I am teaching you to be a good man, I need you to know that there are many moms in the world today who are facing this reality in some way.

Before I tell you about slavery in the world today, let me say something about the past.  Sometimes, we like to think that we have freed ourselves from the problems of the past.  In addition, there are many battles being waged today over how to view the past.  Let me caution you to always be a careful student of history, and to recognize with humility that these are complex matters. 

On every ugly page of history, there were individuals who committed evil acts.  There were individuals who did not agree with the evil, but who did not actively work against it either.  There were individuals who actively worked against the evil.  There were individuals who risked their lives to work against the evil.  There were individuals who died fighting the evil.  Never minimize the evil.  Still, always remember that within any given population, some individuals chose personal gain and others chose principles.

You are not responsible for the decisions of others in the past, but you are responsible for your decisions now.  Use the lessons of the past to make wise decisions now.  As you do so, maintain that sense of humility I mentioned.  The self-righteous person who declares that he has absolutely no connection to any oppressive regime of the past may have to reexamine that claim if he drives a Mercedes or BMW, has a Hugo Boss suit in his closet, owns an IBM product, or drinks Coca-Cola products.  (Research companies that financed and/or profited from the Holocaust.)

Let’s stay on this topic of well-known companies, but let’s shift our focus to this year, 2020.  Many people would be shocked to find out that the handmade rug from India that they purchased at Target, Pottery Barn, or IKEA was woven by Indian children forced into labor.  They might be equally shocked to discover that the seafood they ate at a nice restaurant was harvested by slaves in Thailand.

Just the other day, I bought the twins some cute shirts at Carter’s.  Now I have just read that the Carter’s brand, along with 82 other companies including Amazon, Nike, Samsung, and Polo Ralph Lauren may all be a part of a supply chain that receives materials from the forced labor of ethnic minority groups in China.

Did you know that there is a major problem of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to procure that cobalt needed for the batteries in our precious cell phones?  And you know how I love chocolate, but now I am facing the dilemma of what to buy since I have learned of the use of child labor and slave labor for harvesting cocoa.

I do not want to eat anything or own anything that came from the forced labor of little hands.  I have some decisions to make.  As a society, we have some decisions to make.  The benefits of a global economy have come with an enormous price.  Many companies are trying to eliminate any chance of slave labor or child labor from their supply chains, but many still cannot guarantee that fact when you buy their products.

Am I willing to pay more for my cocoa to make sure it is ethically sourced?  Are you willing to settle for a different shoe brand if your favorite brand hides under legal talk while continuing to profit from forced labor?  These are the questions we have to ask ourselves.  These are the choices we are now responsible for… the choice of personal gain or the choice of principles.

This is a complex matter into which we are all interwoven.  I certainly do not want an immigrant worker to lose his paid job on a farm in California, nor do I want a 14-year-old girl in South Africa to lose her afterschool job that is funding her education.  We must move forward with wisdom and balance.

Still, there are some absolutes that we can proclaim.  No humans should be robbed of their freedom.  No humans should be made to work without fair pay.  No teenager’s body should be a commodity for others’ profit and sick enjoyment.  No little children should have their innocence and happiness stolen from them.

I want to remind you that you cannot help anyone if you allow yourself to become imprisoned by drugs, alcohol, money, or any other thing that can rob you of your freedom.  Guard your personal freedom very attentively, and be ever concerned about those who have lost theirs.  Extend your hands, literally and figuratively, to help the oppressed.  Be a man who works actively to protect little hands.

He that oppresseth the poor to increase his riches, and he that giveth to the rich, shall surely come to want.  Proverbs 22:16

Thou shalt not steal.  Exodus 20:15

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.  John 15:12

I love you forever,

Your mama

31 for 41: Beautiful Skin

Dear Donovan,

After you started preschool, you once came home and announced to me, “I am the only brown boy in my class.”  I wondered if you had figured that out through your own observations, or if another child had pointed it out to you.  I assured you that your skin is beautiful, but internally, I was already worrying that you might experience pain because of your pigment.

Your grandma raised me to love and appreciate people of different skin colors.  When she worked at a Perdue chicken plant with many Latino immigrant workers in the 1980’s, she taught me to respect those workers while many viewed them with resentment and distrust.  One of my caretakers when I was young was my beloved Mrs. Bryson, a Cherokee woman.  As a little girl, I had the honor of meeting the Brazilian wife of Kenneth Cates, and having their children show me the scars on their fingers from piranha bites.  And you know just how much Coach Vergil Shamberger has always meant to grandma.  I was raised hearing her stories about this black man working in an integrated high school in the 1970’s who took the time to show fatherly care to one of his white basketball players.

Through these experiences and stories, the message to me, from my earliest memories, has always been clear:  every skin color is valuable, and equally so.  I have tried to consistently give you the same clear message.  Since lots of people have lots to say about skin color, though, I want to intentionally say a few things to you on this issue:

1. Human constructions of categories based on skin color have varied over time, and still vary from geographic location to location, and by context.  Simply stated, “Race is an idea, not a fact” (Nell Irvin Painter).  If you and I could travel around the world today, visiting New York City, San Jose de Ocoa, Nairobi, Tokyo, and Wagga Wagga, we would be assigned to a unique category at each location.

A Dominican woman once shared with me her experience as a school-aged immigrant to the United States years ago.  In her words, she “looked black” in the context of the society where she lived, but of course, her language and culture were quite different from the majority of the black students around her.  Although she shared a common language with some of the other students from immigrant families, her darker skin color was a barrier to being accepted among some of those students as well.  She found herself in a very lonely spot, as she did not fit into any of the categories that had been constructed in that area.

You have had experience in this area as well, and you understand it in a way that I cannot.  I would just encourage you to be a student of other people’s behavior.  From the behavior of people who have assumed things about you or treated you unfairly because of your skin tone, take the lesson of carrying on in strength and dignity when others reveal their weaknesses.  Remember that those people are telling you who they are, not who you are.  If they have to make assumptions about your personality traits by looking at your skin, they have already proven that they are not qualified to define you, since assumptions are made in the absence of knowledge.  

This brings me to my second point…

2.  Never assume that you understand a person’s experiences in society by looking at their skin color.  Many humans are trying really hard to understand what it is like to walk in someone else’ shoes.  This is a good thing, but there are still no absolutes when it comes to understanding a person’s unique life experience.

I cannot look at a “white” woman in North Carolina and assume that, like me, she has had the luxury of not having to tip-toe through her public life.  That woman could be an immigrant from Eastern Europe who had to spend years pretending to be of a different religion just so she and her children would not be killed.

I cannot look at a “black” woman in North Carolina and assume that she is the descendant of enslaved Africans.  That woman could be an exchange student from Nigeria.  I would love to learn what women from both of these experiences have to teach me, but I do not want to ever assume that I know their stories just by looking at them.

I once heard a story of a woman who was shopping in a grocery store when another woman passed by her and basically suggested that she needed to go back across the Rio Grande.  The second lady’s argument revealed that she did not presently support immigration.  The irony, lost to her since the first lady never responded, was that the first lady is Native American, and it had been quite some years since her family immigrated to North Carolina (as in hundreds of years).

My point is this:  Do not assume that you know someone’s story.  There may be generalizations that can be drawn, but there will always be exceptions because we are talking about humans.  We are complex creatures.  We grew up in different settings.  We see things differently.  So let each complex human tell you his or her story, instead of assuming that you already know what it is.

Also, do not try to tell other people what their story should be.  I have been astonished at people who claim to be speaking up for a marginalized group, but while making their argument, they themselves try to dictate how members of that marginalized group should view things.   We sometimes have a difficult time spotting our own contradictions.  To avoid those contradictions in your own life, do a lot more listening than talking.  Receive people’s stories.  Let them tell you who they are.

And on that note, while you let people tell you who they are, you do not have to let others tell you who you are…

3.  You do not have to apologize for your skin color.

The amount of pigment in your skin was coded when 23 chromosomes and 23 chromosomes came together to form a zygote.  You had no control over that.  Apologizing for your skin tone would be the scientific equivalent of apologizing for having brown eyes or the hitchhiker’s thumb.  I will say the same thing that I would say about any person with any shade of skin.  God made you.  Your skin is beautiful.  End of argument.

I must rush to say that I am not trying to oversimplify the issue of race relations, nor in any way minimize the evil of racial injustice.  It is indeed evil for a person to decide in their heart that, because of someone’s skin color, that person is somehow less human and less deserving of respect, protection, and opportunity.

I cannot say it better than this, so let me just quote Billy Graham:

“Why is prejudice wrong? One reason is because God created the whole human race, and every human being bears something of His image. The Bible says, ‘From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth’ (Acts 17:26). When we hate someone or dismiss them as unworthy of our concern, we are refusing to see them the way God sees them.
But prejudice is also wrong because Christ died for people from all races and all backgrounds–and He did so because He loves them all. How can we do any less? The Bible tells us that Christ will be praised in heaven, ‘because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ (Revelation 5:9).”
This is not an attempt to dismiss skin color or people’s experiences.  I believe in celebrating unique qualities of individuals.  I also believe in being self-aware of my own position within a given social construct.  I am very aware that I have always had easy access to band-aids, baby dolls, and princess movies that reflect my skin tone.  I am aware that many of my friends have not had that same access, but they have wrestled with the messages contained in that lack of access.
Be that man who tries to put yourself in others’ shoes, so to speak, to see things from their perspectives.  With your friends, be a man who creates the conditions in which people feel safe to share their stories and be themselves.  On your job, be the man who places a premium value on the voice of the one who is different from the rest of the group in some way.  Rest assured that your skin tone is exactly as it was intended to be, and does not grant you any more or any less value than others.  Speak up when others forget that.

Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:  But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. Acts 10:34-35

…for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart. I Samuel 16:7b

I love you forever,

Your mama

31 for 41: Birds, Bees and Big Dogs

Dear Donovan,

When you were a little boy, you loved the show “Wild Kratts.”  You loved learning about animals.  I tried to support you in your animal studies with frequent trips to the zoo and a small fortune in animal books.  There were bugs in jars, toads in the bathtub, a three-generation cat family, Mojo the gerbil, Jasper the snake, and the salamander that got away.

You and I are alike in our love for animals, and I would like to say a few things to you about loving animals and our relationship to nature.  I want to talk to you about the birds, the bees, and big dogs.  You will be relieved to know, however, that this is not the typical birds and bees parent talk.  You’re welcome.

Birds

One of my favorite writers, Vance Havner, grew up in the mountains of North Carolina.  I was delighted to discover that, like me, he loved to watch birds.  Somehow, knowing that fact about such a wise man gave me confirmation that watching birds can be a wise thing to do.  The book of Proverbs offers multiple examples of animals that have lessons to teach humans, if we only take the time to study their behavior.

That “taking the time” part is congruent with Mr. Havner’s thinking on walking through the woods and watching birds.  He encouraged removing oneself from work and people, taking the time to rest and reflect while surrounded by God’s creation.  “If we don’t come apart to be with the Lord, we will surely come-apart” (referencing Mark 6:31).

I will not try to give you a comprehensive essay about the lessons we can learn from animals.  I am still learning myself.  But know this:  A wise man knows how to quietly observe animal behavior and consider the applications for his own life.  Jesus told his disciples to consider the birds of the air to learn about trusting in God’s provision (Matthew 6:26).  I try to consider the birds often, and I hope you will do the same in your own life, both figuratively and literally.

Bees

I cannot find the original source of this story, but I have never forgotten hearing it while watching one of the greatest television shows ever, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.  It was the epidose in which a new teacher hurt children through her harsh punishment methods.  As his response, Reverend Johnson told this story, and here is how I have stored it in my memory for years:

In a kingdom, there was a village where many children had been born.  One day, the king visited the village and announced that he would be leaving his own young child there for protection, until he could return.  No one could know, however, which child was the king’s child.  The king made it very clear that upon his return, he expected to find his child happy, loved, and thriving.

The people of the village needed to guarantee the well-being of the royal heir.  Indeed, their lives depended upon it.   There was only one choice to make, then.  Every single child in the village was to be treated as if he or she was the king’s child.  When the king did return, he found an entire village full of children who were happy, loved, and thriving.  He also found a village full of adults who had their priorities straight, and who lived their lives with the best interests of the next generation in mind.

The lesson for me in this story is that I should treat every single human as if he or she is the King’s child, for indeed they all are.  Each person I encounter was created by God.  According to that thinking, then, my care and consideration should also extend to the other things that belong to the King.

The earth is the Lord‘s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Psalm 24:1).  The animals, the forests, the oceans and the mountains all belong to the King.  Therefore, I should be respectful and careful in my actions that affect our environment.  This is why we do not litter.  This is why we plant trees.  This is why we support conservation programs at the North Carolina Zoo.  This is why we obey our state’s fishing regulations even when no other human would know if we did not.  This is why we rescued that injured bird and took it to our local Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

All of the animals, landscapes, and bodies of water that we enjoy are gifts from God.  We are called to be good stewards of these gifts.  We are to regard these gifts in their proper place, and never worship the creation instead of the Creator (Romans 1:25).  Still, we have a responsibility to take care of what God has given to us.

Similar to how the villagers’ lives depended upon taking care of the king’s child, our quality of life depends upon how we take care of each other and our environmental resources.  The next generation will absolutely be affected by our level of care for what God has provided.  This planet will be preserved until God’s plan is fulfilled, but in the meantime, the principle of reaping whatever we sow will continue.

One example of this can be seen in the alarming disappearance of honeybees.  The scientific answers for why these critically significant insects are disappearing–pollution, pesticides, lack of access to food, stress–can be linked to human vices–greed, overconsumption, carelessness, lack of balance and cooperation, loss of a social structure where the young receive training from the invaluable expertise of the older, and the refusal to choose long-term rewards over short-term pleasures.

The honeybees were provided to us for a very important purpose.  We are foolish if we do not seek balance in order to take care of the King’s gift.

Before I leave this topic, the political scientist in me must mention this:  Any government system‘s form of economics can devastate an ecosystem if the principle of stewardship is betrayed for profit and power.  Be a good student of history.  Find out why the acid rain is so bad in Mexico City.  Research the Flint Water Crisis.  Look up the shrinking of the Aral Sea.  Find out why millions of Chinese people died from famine between 1959-1961.  Study the cost to our own community for decades of pollution of the Deep River.

Be a man who upholds the principle of stewardship.  Be a man of long-range vision rather than short-sighted schemes.  Be a father who is willing to make sacrifices so that your children will have rewards.  Be concerned about the disappearance of both the honeybees and the pursuit of balance.

Big Dogs

You know I love big dogs.  You know that I want to rescue a German Shepherd, an Irish Wolfhound, and a Great Dane, and call them Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  You know that losing our Hans was devastating to me.  Did you know, however, that we are instructed to return even our enemy’s animal if we discover it has gone astray?  Or that if you discover the fallen donkey of someone that hates you, you are supposed to help the donkey get up?  (Exodus 23:4-5)

I see several guiding points here.  We are to respect other people’s private property, even if they hate us.  We are to give of our time and energy to help animals we encounter that are lost or in distress.  We are to consider how valuable an animal may be to another person, and seek to return the animal to the person when it is our turn to do so, just as we would want done for us.  Caring for a person’s animal is a way to care for that person.  We are called upon to care for others in this way, and not just those who are nice to us.  As Brandon says, “God doesn’t let us get by on this one since we don’t ride donkeys anymore.”  The same principles still apply.

Big dogs can appear to be ferocious, but you know that sometimes they are the biggest scaredy cats of all the canines.  They are vulnerable, they depend on us, and they want to please us.  With big dogs and with people, never take advantage of those factors.

Protect the vulnerable.  Provide for those who depend on you.  Give careful attention and patience to those who want to please you because they love you.

Don’t ever be so busy that you can’t take a few moments to watch in awe as an eagle soars above you, or to sit and study bluebird parents taking turns bringing worms to their babies.  Be a good steward who knows how to make a water source for bees, and who also knows how to create balanced plans for the future.  Be kind to people, and be kind to their beloved pets.

The heavens are thine, the earth also is thine: as for the world and the fulness thereof, thou hast founded them.  Psalm 89:11

A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast.  Proverbs 12:10a

I love you forever,

Your bird-watching mama

 

 

 

 

31 for 41: Shifting Piles

Dear Donovan,

I like nice things.  You know I am a self-proclaimed clearance shopping professional.  When I spot something I like in a store, I see lots of possibilities for its use.  In addition, I quickly and firmly attach sentimental value to items that are given to me.  These traits can be useful, but they can also lead to a cluttered life.

We each have inconsistencies in our life to address.  For me, there has existed the inconsistency between wanting to live simply but having too much stuff.  I can say that the level of ease or difficulty with which I could release personal possessions has been closely related to where I was in my healing process from early trauma.  As I have fought other battles, I have also tried to become an organized person who does not have an unhealthy attachment to possessions.

Along this journey, one day I was doing an online search for ideas about how to organize household items, and these words seemed to jump at me:  “You cannot declutter your life by shifting around your piles of stuff.”  

It was a hard blow to someone who likes to hold on to her stuff.  I knew it was true, though.  Even though our house was always clean, I knew that if I wanted to have an organized life, I could not just keep trying to move around all of the things I own until I found the perfect way to store everything.  Some things would have to go.

So I say the same thing to you.  You cannot declutter your physical space in life unless you are willing to let go of some of your possessions.  Otherwise, you collect more and more over time until your possessions hinder your enjoyment of life instead of enhancing it.

Similarly, you cannot declutter your mental and emotional space unless you are willing to let go of some things.  Releasing harmful clutter like bad habits, resentment, negative self-talk and worry can bring freedom and fullness of life.  Both the tangible and intangible possessions that we value and hold on to vary from person to person, but I will leave you with two quandaries that many of us seem to share:

1. You do not need everything that you want.

I want chocolate Oreo milkshakes a lot.  There are days when I want to stay in bed for hours and watch Hallmark Christmas movies.  I can find at least $50 worth of merchandise that I want on any given trip to Marshall’s.  Just last night, I may or may not have downed a Cajun Filet biscuit, seasoned fries with honey mustard, and a gloriously tall sweet tea in less than 10 minutes, not because I needed it but because I wanted it.

For many things that I want, obtaining them will mean that I am not doing what is best for myself or for my family.  I remember hearing a story about a young boy riding with his governess on an open seat of a horse-drawn buggy, while his father and mother rode in front of them.  The mother, trying to enjoy a leisurely ride, was perturbed by the sound of her son’s whining, and without looking back, asked the governess what was the matter.

“Your son is upset because he cannot get what he wants.”

The mother quickly replied, “Then just let him have it.  I am tired of hearing him fuss.”

Very soon, the mother was startled by the pained wail of her son.  Whirling around in her seat, she asked the governess, “What happened?”

The governess extended the child’s hand to show the mother the whelp of a bee sting.  “I let him have what he wanted.”

There are so many adults who can tell you stories of how glad they are now that they did not get what they once desired with their whole heart.  So guard your heart, and be very careful about the things you decide that you want.  It can be very hard to free yourself from physical things that you already purchased.  It can be even harder to recover spiritually from pursuing what you want instead of what God wants for you.  

2. You do not want everything that you need.

There are many times when I do not want to exercise or mop the floor or drink water instead of that glorious sweet tea.  But being a disciplined, successful person will require you to go to work when you do not feel like going.  Maintaining healthy relationships will mean saying you are sorry when you do not want to but need to.  Taking care of your body will mean choosing the cucumber instead of the cookie dough.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this human experience a long time ago:  “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” (Romans 7:19).  There will be times when it is hard to do what you need to do.  Do it anyway.  And as for the things that pile up that you do not need, you will waste a lot of time in life if you just try to manage the piles by shifting them around.  Do not be afraid to declutter.  If you seek God first, He will make sure you have all that you need.  

Finally, I want to say to you that it is okay to hold on to special things.  One of my most prized possessions is the bargain store light-up crystal cube that you gave me for Christmas when you were in elementary school.  You had earned “classroom cash” and really wanted to buy something for yourself during the classroom auction.  Instead, you used your hard-earned currency to buy that cube for me.  It is a treasure to me, and something I hope to never lose.  My wish for you is to have the treasure of a clean, balanced life.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.  Matthew 6:33

I love you forever,

Your sweet tea-loving, semi-organized mama

31 for 41: The Beach

Dear Donovan,

I love going to the beach.  I love the sand, the salt, the birds, the wind and the waves.  I love the beauty and power of land meeting water.  I enjoy the absence of manmade things.  I consider all of the energy and life contained in the area that my eyes can span. It is both simple and profound.

Whenever I return to that point where the waves begin, it is a celebration of being alive to enjoy it.  You see, in between many of my life’s visits to the ocean, there were battles with suicidal thoughts.

This struggle with suicidal thoughts began when I was in elementary school, not surprisingly around the time that I experienced sexual assault.  I will not write all of the details in a letter, but there were moments of terror as a little girl.  There was loneliness as a middle school girl.  There was depression as a high school girl.  There was a need to avoid stairwells and balconies in college.

Just as with the sexual assault, I voiced this struggle to no one.  And again, it was not because I was not loved.  I had wonderful, loving parents.  I had a happy and healthy home.  I had the community of an extended family.  I had wonderful teachers.  I had the love of my church family.

Still, I had this battle.  Had I taken my life as a young girl, there would have been no warning signs.  I did not get into trouble at school.  I kept my curfew.  I did not drink, smoke, or do drugs.  I did not cut myself.  I maintained high grades, participated in school clubs, and volunteered at the hospital.  I gave a speech at my high school graduation as valedictorian and class president.

I rarely ever mention that last part to anyone, as I never want to seem prideful.  I choose to mention it now, however, because I want you and other people to truly understand that some people are battling for their life even though you never get an indication of it from outward appearances.  That’s why Grandma always taught me, and I taught you, to be nice to people.  You do not know what storm someone may be passing through.  And even if a person gives you some indication of the storm, you usually never get to know all of the dreadful details.

My storm would subside for months and then rage again.  I did not want to hurt anyone by ending my life.  There were just times when I felt hopeless and worthless.  I truly considered that the people I love might be better off if I were not living.  In the place of logic, there were lies.

I won’t try to explain it all here, but let me tell you this:  Satan is a liar.  He is the Deceiver who tells people they are worthless, hopeless, helpless, and better off dead.  It is a lie every single time.

I can remember one year at youth camp when Preacher McLeroy preached for several nights from the verse “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: (Matthew 12:31a).”  He declared that all types of sin could be forgiven.  Admittedly, I thought it a strange topic for young people who were just starting out in life.  On that Thursday, several teenagers opened up about how they had already been convinced that they could not be forgiven for things they had done.  Satan is a liar.

Of course, God knew what those teenagers needed to hear.  In your life, there will be many people around you who need to hear the truth.  Those whose bodies have been violated and broken need to hear that healing and love are still possible.  Those who have hurt others need to hear that forgiveness is still possible.  Those who have lost so much need to hear that God can restore what was lost.  Those who survived when fellow soldiers did not need to hear that it is not their fault.  Those who think they have nothing need to hear that God can be Everything.

You will face your own battles in life, so let me state this clearly:  There is no version of life on this Earth in which my life would be better without you.  God has a plan for you, just as He has given an immeasurable value to each life and its potential.  When you face your darkest moments and your greatest doubts, hide in the Rock.  Remember that your value is not contingent upon how you feel or how you view yourself.  As is true for every human, it just IS.  I am proud of your accomplishments, but your value and my love for you just IS… no matter what you do or do not do in life.  You are my beloved son.  Do not ever remove yourself, in any way, from my life.

I love these words of a hymn writer who attempted suicide even as a Christian:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning Providence, He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain; God is His own Interpreter and He will make it plain.”  William Cowper

I am so thankful to God for preserving my life.  Until God chooses for me, I have absolutely no desire to leave you, Brandon, and the twins.  I have the hope of many more trips to the beach.  I want to tell God “thank you” as I watch your children play in the waves.

The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.  Psalm 138:8

I love you forever,

Your beach-loving mama