31 for 41: Come and Go

Dear Donovan,

A man once told a story of traveling with a business partner.  He was a believer in Christ, but his friend was not.  Riding in a taxi from their hotel to an event, they passed by an abortion clinic where a protest was taking place outside of the facility.  There were signs with bible verses, but the people holding the signs were not acting Christlike.  When the taxi driver was finally able to pass through the commotion, his business partner turned to the Christian and said, “If it were not for you, I would hate those people.”

That statement often sounds in my ears.  Much damage has been done by people who called the name of Christ, but who did not understand or accept the nature of His kingdom.  When people point out the immorality of and harm done by hypocrites, I would say that Jesus completely agrees, and had very strong words for hypocrites.  Read one of the harshest chapters in the entire Bible, Matthew 23!

Those who seek to discredit Christianity often highlight injustices committed in its name:  Crusades, Inquisitions, European and American witch hunts, support of slavery, and violence against Jews and Muslims.  In response, I would exhort you, as I have done in other letters, to study history!  In each of those historical occurrences, the motives behind the unChristian methods were about acquisition of resources, consolidation of monarchical, social and/or economic power, and/or the unholy love of money.

Those who twisted the Scriptures for their own purposes were not following the orders of the Christ they claimed.  When Jesus said, “I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), He was not referring to social world peace on Earth at that point in history, nor of a physical sword for violence against others. His peace is offered for the eternal soul, and the weapon He spoke of was a spiritual sword, as His message ultimately divides all humans into two groups.  When He spoke of a literal sword, it was to tell Peter to put his away so that the will of the Father could be done (Matthew 26:52).  That will was not to conquer lands or nations, but to conquer the hearts of people.

Let me paraphrase some remarks by Ravi Zacharias on this issue:  Jesus never sought political power.  He never sought to use the sword to silence the enemy.  His method was to conqer through love.  That method is slower than the way both religion or anti-religious groups would do it.  When an atheist kills, it is in keeping with his worldview.  When a Christian is hurtful or violent, he is in violation of Christ’s teaching.  Never judge a belief by its abuse. (end paraphrase)

To follow Mr. Zacharias’ advice, let us judge Christianity in history by those who truly lived it.

I look at the life of David Brainerd, a man who lived in the wilderness, survived on moldly bread, and sacrificed his health to take the story of Jesus to Native Americans.  He did not try to conquer their lands, but instead worked to secure their lands.  He did not try to sell them alcohol, but instead tried to help families battling excessive drinking.

I look at the life of Betsey Stockton.  She was born a slave, but once granted freedom, chose to live out her convictions, traveling with missionaries to Hawaii.  There, she championed the cause of the education of the local children, learning their language so that she could teach them English, Latin, Algebra, and History.

I look at the life of William Wilberforce, who used his social position, his talents, and his money to fight for an end to the British slave trade.  He lobbied other governments to end the slave trade, and called for an end to the institution of slavery altogether.  He imported his Christian values into his work to reform hospitals, asylums, prisons, and refugee care.  He was opposed and threatened, and he suffered illness, but he kept going.  

I look at the life of Amy Carmichael, who risked her life to help little girls escape a life of prostitution in Hindu temples.  In spite of living with severe pain, she cared for hundreds of unwanted children.  She respected their culture through actions such as dressing in Indian clothing herself and giving Indian names to rescued children who needed a name.

I look at the life of Elisabeth Elliot, who obeyed God when she took her three-year-old daughter to live among the same Auca people who had killed her husband.  Her husband had died trying to make peaceful contact with some Auca men, in the hopes of later being able to tell them about Jesus.  Before that contact, he and the other men who died with him had already determined they would not fight back if attacked.

When James Calvert and a group of missionaries set their course for the Fiji Islands in 1838, knowing that some of the people there practiced cannibalism, the ship captain tried to turn them back, saying to Mr. Calvert, “You will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages.”  Mr. Calvert replied, “We died before we came here.”

True soldiers of the Kingdom of Christ are individuals who have died to self and have accepted the Savior’s call to go tell others about His offer of love and forgiveness.  They are not after money or power or recognition.  Like Jesus’ first disciples, they are fishers of men, women, and children.  True Christians want nothing from others, but only want the greatest gift for them.  

Do true Christians use the name of Christ for engorgement of their own wealth?  Oh no.  We are debtors to all, responsible for living righteously so that we may earn the right to share the good news with others. (Romans 1:14)

Do true Christians interpret Bible verses to achieve oppressive political, social, or emotional power over others?  Of course not.  We are to proclaim the power of Christ’s resurrection, and be prepared to share in suffering so that others may experience His power.  (Philippians 3:10)

Do true Christians take advantage of the human search for love, acceptance, and forgiveness in order to gain prestige and popularity?  No.  Like John the Baptist, we say “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

Are true Christians trying to earn their way to heaven by works on Earth?  Nope.  “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9

In the front of my Bible, I have a phrase written that I heard a preacher once say was a summary of the entire book:  “Come, and then go.”  The Bible invites us to come to the Son of God, who is pictured in each of its 66 books.  This theme stays congruent although the books were written by many different authors, on three continents, over a time period of about 2,000 years.  Each author’s inspired words point to Christ in some way.

To all who come to Christ, the command that follows is to go tell others about Him.  For some, “to go” means to serve on a local or foreign mission field.  For others, it means to finance and support that work.  For all of us, it means to live in such a way that others will want to come.  For all of us, it is about eternity, and not about temporary gains on this Earth.

As you go out into the world, you will meet people who truly have been hurt by those who abused the name of Christ.  Be sensitive to those injuries.  Strive to be a man of whom others can say, “He’s the real deal.”

Think of Kenneth Cates, and how his life story is one of modern-day miracles and the increase of the true Kingdom of Christ along the Amazon River.  Never have I met a man so humble, so disinterested in wealth or accolades.  And perhaps never have I been in the presence of one so powerful.  He never had need of government financing, an army, a college degree, or a bestselling book in order to accomplish all that was done.  His life demonstrated that when you are fulfilling Christ’s commission to go, you have His power.

Be a man who lives out the command to go and tell others that Jesus loves them.  Tell them that there is nothing to earn and nothing to pay.  Just invite them to come.

And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.  Revelation 22:17

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.  Matthew 28:19-20

I love you forever,

Your mama

31 for 41: Choosing a Bride

Dear Donovan,

When you were little, I always tried to make Christmas morning extra special for you.  It’s the reason I would pay close attention when you watched toy commercials or talked about the play things that you liked.  It’s the reason I braved Walmart at midnight on Black Friday, and the reason I once stood in line outside of GameStop at 5:00 am to get a special blue Nintendo DS package.

I planned, I saved money, I didn’t purchase things I would have liked for myself… all because you are my son and I wanted to give you good gifts.  I possessed the desire to give you what you want.  Since I am your mother, and lived with you and studied you, I also possessed the ability to select things that you wanted.  I also chose many things for you that you never asked for or even knew existed, but since I knew you so well, I knew you would love them… and you did.

I want you to now consider that, even though I tried my best, my efforts to give you good gifts can never match God’s gift-giving skills.  Talk about having the desire and the ability to give you good things… the One who created you knows exactly what will provide you with joy and fulfillment, and He has all power to make it happen.  “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”  (Matthew 7:11)

Some people forget this truth when it comes to selecting a husband or wife, or struggle to trust it.  It certainly is such an important decision, one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.  For that very reason, many struggle to trust God instead of their own thinking.  For that very reason, though, a wise man will allow the One who designed him, and who knows the hearts of all women, to make the best match.  

Many have found out, in the worst ways, that their own thinking on this matter was flawed.  As your mother who wants you to have the wonderful gift of a wonderful wife, I do not want you to make the mistake of choosing the wrong one.  I would like to offer seven questions to ask yourself about any woman whom you consider to be a potential partner for life:

1. Is she a true believer in Christ?    Be ye not unequally yoked (2 Corinthians 6:14a)

2. How deep is her beauty?  Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised.  Proverbs 31:30

3.  How far does her love reach?  Does she possess the qualities of a Proverbs 31 woman, who works hard and gives unselfishly because she loves her family and loves her neighbors?

4.  Is she content and controlled, or is she contentious?  It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.  Proverbs 21:19

5.  Does she seek to love you in the ways that you want to be loved?  Two people can both work hard to show love to each other, but both can still feel unloved if their partner is not willing to try to speak their love language.  (Love) “seeketh not her own” from 1 Corinthians 13:5

6.  Are you prepared to love her, for the rest of your life, as Christ loves his Church?  Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it. Ephesians 5:25

7.  What do multiple healthy, balanced, trusted adults, who love you deeply and unselfishly, think of her?  Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.  Proverbs 11:14

There is another summary question, and it is this:  “Is she the one God has chosen for you?”  The One who created you understands you better than anyone else.  Trust His care and timing for this crucial matter.  It will affect your happiness, your future children’s happiness and development, your finances, your career goals, your circle of friends, and your own spiritual state.

The Song of Solomon proves that marriage is intended to be beautiful, intimate, and fulfilling.  Just like I delighted to see your joy on Christmas morning, my desire is to see you happy and fulfilled in a healthy, loving marriage.  I am speaking from experience when I say that God can give you above and beyond what you thought you wanted or needed, if you trust His giving.  There is no perfect woman, but there is the perfect woman for you if you let God choose her.

Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.  Psalm 37:4

Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing, and obtaineth favour of the Lord.  Proverbs 18:22

I love you forever,

Your mama

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.


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.


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