In Debt to Our Trespasses

For the first nineteen years of my life, I attended Methodist churches in which we possessed ‘trespasses’ needing to be forgiven, according to the form of the Lord’s Prayer we regularly recited. For all but three of the years since (I’m now sixty) I’ve attended Presbyterian churches where the ‘trespasses’ had become ‘debts’. I’ve been confessing debts twice as long as trespasses. And yet…

Some months ago I was sitting in my study troubled by many things and seeking to pray. I prayed, as I am prone to do in such times when I don’t know how to pray, the Lord’s Prayer. In the intensity of that moment, I found myself praying for the forgiveness of my childhood Methodist trespasses and not my adulthood Presbyterian debts. Praying from within the context of desperation, those childhood liturgical forms welled up from deep within me where they had been disciplined to reside until needed most. Liturgy has an ability to shape the young and formative mind in powerful and lasting ways.

I was reminded of this in a comment by journalist James Fallows, not a particularly devout man if his blog and other writings are any indication, and yet he says this:

“I spent my youth hearing the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer repeated roughly one zillion times and still feel they are my main guide to the proper shape and pacing of a sentence.”

Somehow our youthful liturgical exposure is formative in ways that transcend the merely spiritual.

And yet, we’ve persuaded ourselves that children get nothing from public worship. I beg to differ.

To Love Psalm 127

After our third child was born we thought our family had found its natural limit. That was before we discovered there were ways to have children AFTER the wife has a total hysterectomy.

After the fifth was born and hauled home in our VW Vanagon, I joked that the proper translation of Psalm 127:5 was ‘blessed is the man whose Vanagon is full of them’. And suddenly, there was a sixth and an eight passenger van.

I joked. For many, this verse is no joking matter. It us the centerpiece of disappointing controversy and deep sorrow. And it is the psalm I preached on this past Sunday.

Psalm 127 can be dicey territory for a preacher. A friend knowing that I was heading into ‘quiver-full’ territory emailed me, “I hate that quiver-full verse. I cringe every time I read it.” It’s no wonder she would. An entire industry of guilt has arisen around it.

In the sermon (which you can hear here when it is posted) I did not address directly the ‘have-as-many-babies-as-you-can’ corruption of the psalm that some have made popular. I was not avoiding it. It’s just that this is NOT what the psalm is about. The psalm is about the rest that comes to those who belong to God, which makes the guilt inducing application of the psalm particularly troublesome to me. Along the way, I made these interpretive points:

  1. Just because a text mentions a thing does not mean that the text is about that thing.
  2. This psalm is about blessing, not command.
  3. This psalm is not about how we do a thing, but how we view a thing.

The application of the psalm is in verse 2: God grants rest. He grants rest through his justifying us in Christ. In Christ, we are blessed. In him we find sleep without restlessness because what matters most to the wandering soul is to know he has a home and that he is at peace with God.

The fallen human impulse is to seek to justify ourselves, to seek to make ourselves somehow worthy in the eyes of those who matter to us: parents, employers, friends, the world, God. We find what matters to those we wish to please, and we try to provide the success, talent, looks, money, houses, children, or whatever else is the currency of justification in order to gain the acceptance we crave. But that is all vain – for what matters is not what we do but who we are, and we are, through Christ, his. Rest only comes when we embrace that. That is what the psalm is about.

The reference to children in this psalm is not the application of it, but an illustration of the point that the things we think we produce to earn favor we can never produce. They, like success, security, and whatever else we crave, are a gift from his hand. This passage is NOT about children. It is about rest, relief from the agony of self-justification.

We are told that children are a blessing and that it is therefore imperative that genuinely godly people not do anything that would limit the blessing of God. That is the guilt trip mapped out for couples who consider limiting the size of their families.

Of course children are a blessing. So are, in this psalm, houses and security. So are, elsewhere, food on the table and crops in the field. We set limits on blessings all the time. We are not animals acting upon impulse and bound by biology. We are men and women created in the image of God. We have wisdom; we understand prudence.

A large or small family is not an emblem of godliness in either direction. Every couple must exercise wisdom and prudence in these decisions, and they are best made with good counsel in a healthy community. I will in fact remind couples who are making these decisions to think carefully about the anti-child bias of our culture that we as Christians easily imbibe. But there is no biblical mandate commanding every or any couple to have as many kids as the wife’s body can produce.

To impose one vision of ‘the good-life’ and to invoke spurious biblical justification for it is deeply irresponsible. It causes people who love Jesus and who want with every fiber of their being to glorify him in every area of their lives, like my friend, to battle a guilt they need never feel.

That a psalm written to encourage rest becomes ‘cringe-full’ multiplies the tragedy. I want to reclaim this psalm for the exhausted who need rest. That would be just about all of us.

An Idealized Child

Our sorrow is often a measure of the distance between our idealized vision of reality and its actual form. So it was that in the days of the Old Testament prophet Haggai, when the foundation was laid for the new temple, that as some rejoiced, others wept. They wept when the awareness dawned that their idealized vision for the temple was not going to be matched by reality.

This is the cause of so much sorrow in marriages. A husband or wife brings an idealized vision of their spouse and of marital bliss into a relationship that cannot be matched by reality. When the distance between the reality and the dream becomes unavoidable, sorrow sets in.

So, could it be that many of our children feel an almost telepathic sense of disappointment from us, their parents, because our idealized vision of what we think they should be is unattainable for them?

So many parents are certain that everyone else has children who are more compliant/intelligent/athletic/cooperative/accomplished than their own. And the more pervasive this idea, the greater the gap between this idealized vision of their children and the reality of who those children really are. By so doing, many of us can miss the beauty that is our children.

Those who have children with Aspergers Syndrome, or know those who do, will especially appreciate the honesty and insight of this article, written by journalist Ron Fournier. His conclusion which is valid for every parent is this:

I learned that while Tyler was not my idealized son, he was the ideal one.

For our children to know such acceptance from us, their parents, should be our deep, compelling desire. When we can love the children God has given us, and not the idealized image which they can never attain, we will give them the greatest gift we could bestow.

Rainbows for Caitlin

I know that some of you were moved to pray for Caitlin and her family by my previous post. Now I would ask you to pray for her family, and if it seems appropriate, to weep for them and for the brokenness of this world and the pain of death. Caitlin passed away this past Sunday. I would encourage you to read her mom’s testimony here. But I know that many of you won’t click through, and so, to make it easy, I will copy and paste it here. And as I type, it is raining.

It is Florida’s dry season

There is a joke about Florida’s seasons. Florida has 2: a wet season and a dry season. The wet season runs from April-October, and the dry season runs from November-March. They are just that. It rains every day during the wet season and not at all during the dry season.

So imagine our surprise when God winked and threw us a couple rainbows and some rain in the last several days.

Sunday morning, as I woke next to Caitlin, on the make-shift bed we had relocated downstairs, I knew the day was going to be different. Although she begged for me to take her to church, I knew we would not get there and that she was failing us.

I will not weigh this post down with details and specifics, because death is not beautiful or glamorous as some have described it. I will tell you the beautiful part of this story however.

We held Caitlin in our arms, while family gathered around, and at 3:24 on Sunday afternoon Caitlin took one last breath and died.

We cried some more, and said goodbye. And then, as if God rolled out the carpet for her to travel to heaven, a rainbow appeared. That means, moments after each of her family members said goodbye it rained (for only a few minutes) AND produced a rainbow….in my heart I want to believe Caitlin took the hand of loved ones, and unafraid, she skipped up that rainbow and right into heaven with only one look back to wave and say, “It’s ok mama! I promise I’m not scared! I can skip again!”

Again, without details of the day, I will fast forward to several hours later. We let go of the shell that had once contained Caitlin’s incredible spirit. We kissed those uncharacteristeric chubby cheeks, and the no-longer crooked and droopy mouth, and we placed her body into the care of the funeral home.

As they drove away I started thru the house and out the back door to retrieve the other children from a friend’s house. As I got half way thru the backyard, the sky opened up, and it rained. I stood in the rain with a friend who was walking with me. Honestly, I think we were both paralyzed with shock. Turning our heads toward the sky in stunned silence, we put up our hands and shrugged our shoulders because words weren’t necessary. As our feet hit the back porch of our other friend’s house just a few yards away, the rain stopped.

We gathered children and sent them running thru the backyard for some dinner. Again as we reached the halfway mark in the joined backyards, it rained. It rained harder and harder until we reached the door of my back porch. It rained for 3 minutes and was done. Another wink? How can it be anything but a wink.

Then, finally, after a day of being surrounded by family and friends, and Jeff and I dealt with the tasks of funeral home and church service arrangements, we arrived home yesterday afternoon. We were greeted with a dozen excited and shouting adults and children. Apparently, while we were out “arranging”, at exactly 3:24, a rainbow, ever so faint and light, appeared in the backyard of our home.

God let Caitlin throw her own rainbow. She loved them so much. She thought they were beautiful. And in the last year, when everyone joined in and made it “hers” to own as a symbol of things so much bigger than she could ever know, she was thrilled.

So I’m going to believe, that God picked her up, and said, “Let’s send a message to mommy, daddy, and everyone left down on Earth crying for you. How could we let them know that you’re ok?” It wouldn’t take Caitlin long to reply, “Mama loves rainbows!” And with that, God held her hand, and together they threw a rainbow; a tiny, fading, almost invisible rainbow.

Rainbows and rain, during the “dry” season…..best.wink.yet.

with love from our broken hearts, d

Cheering for Caitlin

Our church, Covenant Presbyterian Church in Oviedo, Florida, meets in Partin Elementary School. A student there has a sister, five year old Caitlin Downing, suffering from a fatal cancer. We’ve joined the school in ‘cheering for Caitlin’ by praying for her. This morning’s Orlando Sentinel published an article about Caitlin’s condition which gives us a greater understanding of the seriousness of her situation. I invite others to join us in prayer for this little girl.

Can FDA help Caitlin Downing battle brain tumor?

By Marni Jameson, Orlando Sentinel

Medical science moves too slowly for some, in part because the Food and Drug Administration’s job is to carefully, methodically regulate the pace.

But once in a while, even the FDA makes an exception to its own rules. Sometimes it takes just one little girl.

Caitlin“The FDA is all about science, not emotion,” said Dr. Jeff Downing, a family-practice physician from Oviedo. “I get that. The government doesn’t want wild procedures going on without science behind them. But waiting is tough because we don’t know how quickly this will grow.”

The “this” he refers to is his 5-year-old daughter’s deadlybrain tumor.

Diagnosed in January with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma(DIPG), Caitlin Downing is one of about 200 children in the United States each year who gets this type of cancerous brain tumor. Because these growths wind around the brainstem, they cannot be surgically removed.

They are 100 percent fatal; 98 percent of children die within two years of their diagnosis.

Dr. Mark Souweidane, a pediatric neurosurgeon atMemorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, has devoted much of his 17-year career to finding a cure for DIPG.

On May 1, Caitlin became the first person to take part in a phase one clinical trial for which he had just received FDA approval.

The experimental treatment involved opening the skull to create a window onto the tumor site, then delivering a cone of enhanced radiation directly to the area. This “cone of death” emits radiation laced with small molecules that seek out the tumor tissue, attach to it and kill it.

“We get a high concentration where we want it,” Souweidane said.

Initial results were encouraging. A follow-up MRI of Caitlin’s brain showed that the tumor tissue in the treatment area was dead.

“But the cone of death didn’t get the whole tumor,” said Downing, whose family practice is in Casselberry.

By September, medical scans showed the tumor was growing back.

Because Caitlin did so well with the first round of treatment, her parents wanted the procedure repeated. That, however, would require special FDA approval.

“The physicians we worked with all said, ‘We’ll submit the paperwork, but don’t expect this is something we’ll get,’” said Denise Downing, Caitlin’s mother.

So, they put in their plea to the FDA, knowing that the words “government” and “fast” don’t usually occur together.

Yet in a move that stunned everyone, the FDA responded quickly with a go-ahead, a one-time, “off-study” approval that fell under the murky heading of “compassionate use.”

Those who qualify must submit proof that they have life-threatening conditions, no other treatment options and a good argument that they might benefit, said Stephanie Yao, FDA spokeswoman.

“If the doctors thought it was a good idea, and the parents wanted the treatment, they said we could go ahead,” said Denise Downing. “It was really a David and Goliath moment, and we won. They came through.”

There was just one catch: Caitlin had to get the same dose she received during her first treatment. Since Souweidane treated Caitlin, he has doubled the dose in subsequent study patients, who have tolerated it well, and he plans to quadruple it.

However, as with all phase one trials, the goal of this study is to prove the safety of a new treatment and to figure out dosing. Subsequent trials aim for effectiveness. A double dose of this radiation treatment on a human brain has never been done. Giving Caitlin a larger second dose would be “unconscionable,” said Souweidane.

But Caitlin’s tumor has grown beyond the reach of the approved dose. So after conferring with their cancer experts, the Downings decided to try one more cancer weapon. Chemotherapycan get where the immuno-radiation therapy can’t. The Downings hoped chemo would shrink the tumor and create a smaller target.

Caitlin has gone through two rounds. However, both Souweidane and the Downings believe that shrinking the tumor to the point where the second, FDA-approved surgery would be advisable is unlikely.

“We are so grateful that the FDA came back with an approval,” said Denise Downing. “I just wish her tumor wasn’t so big. We either need a bigger dose or a smaller target.”

Meanwhile, Caitlin’s symptoms are worsening. Her face is puffy on one side, and she’s having more problems walking and seeing, her mom says.

“She knows her body’s not doing what it used to,” said Denise Downing. “She apologizes to me all day long, saying she’s sorry she needs my help, sorry she’s not getting better.”

When Souweidane saw Caitlin and her mom in New York two weeks ago, he saw the same spirit that had won him over from the start. “She was still her spunky self, challenging us in thought-provoking ways,” he said.

In fact, she had a question for him: “Can you get rid of the bump on my brain before I go to heaven?” she asked.

Denise Downing says she has no doubt that Souweidane and his team are on the right track. “I believe in everything this man is doing,” she said. “He probably has a cure. I had hoped that our daughter could live long enough to get that cure. But that’s not going to happen.”

Regardless, “Caitlin is a pioneer,” Souweidane said. “She has advanced science in important ways. She has not gone through this for nothing.

That said, he added, “If I could save one child’s life, it would be hers.”

mjameson@tribune.com or 407-420-5158

Copyright © 2012, Orlando Sentinel

[The Orlando Sentinel keeps articles behind a paywall. I am a subscriber, and so I am making the decision to share this article with my friends who are not.]

In Honor of Those Who Teach. Children.

Most parents send their children off to school when they are five or six, many earlier when pre-school is an option. We sent our youngest son to his first experience of school when he was eleven years, three-hundred and fifty-five days old. My wife has retired after 24 years of home-schooling.

Needless to say, it has been an adjustment for him, as well as for us. Not only has he (courageously, I might add) faced a barrage of new challenges, many never before imagined, but so have we. We are public school rookies trying to navigate a complex system to help our son’s transition to this new world be as smooth as possible.

In this process we have had several opportunities to intersect with his teachers and other professionals at his middle school. I know there are many complex issues related to education in general and public education in particular. But I also know that while the political, philosophical, and theological winds blow and the multiple degreed people debate how and why and where education best happens, there are teachers in classrooms who care about the children and young people they teach. I’ve known that for a long time, but this experience has put names and faces to that knowledge.

I’ve seen the bumper stickers with the political message “What if schools had all the money they needed and the Air Force had to have a bake sale to buy a bomber?” and ignored them. But I was surprised in our first meeting with our son’s teachers that nearly all of them in listing needs for their classrooms requested Kleenex. I realized then that if my son were to show up in class with a runny nose, these teachers would not use (non-existent) district issued tissues, but those they could beg or, failing that, buy. I understand that many teachers willingly spend hundreds of dollars each year from their own pockets to so stock their classrooms.

In the second week, my wife and I were able to have a meeting with all our son’s teachers to address some common concerns. We thanked them for all they were doing. At the end, we gave them each a cinnamon roll, and then picked up a laundry basket of Kleenex boxes and dumped them onto the conference table. In the midst of the ensuing ‘feeding frenzy’ (I don’t know what other words to use) there were expressions like ‘best parents ever’ spoken around the table.

We are hardly that. But it says something both about the needs of teachers, and their dedication, when one can make their day by giving them boxes of Kleenex. I cannot think of words with which to express my wonder at and appreciation for the good people that God has raised up around my son to guide his success.

My hat is off to all who teach. Who teach not history or English or science, but teach children.

Milestones

There are huge milestones in life, of which we are all aware. Perhaps I have missed a few, but these come to mind:

At age 35, one may become president of the United States, not before.
At 25, one may rent a car.
At 21, of course, one may buy an alcoholic beverage.
At 18, all kinds of major (!) transitions occur: voting and enlisting come to mind.
And at 16 one may drive without accompaniment.

But it wasn’t until last night when I was getting some medicine for my sick newly minted 12 year-old that I realized all the changes that happen at 12.

At 12, one gets adult dosages, pays adult movie ticket prices, loses access to the child’s menu, and graduates to the front seat.

Huge day for a special boy in our family!

The Kid Might Be a Good Deal After All (!)

This makes me smile. A lot. I don’t know whether his research or argument is sound. But there is something about the “just enjoy your child” spirit that resonates with this Earthworm Father:

Parents can give themselves a guilt-free break. Children cost far less than most parents pay, because parents overcharge themselves. You can have an independent life and still be an admirable parent. Before you decide against another child, then, you owe it to yourself to reconsider. If your sacrifice is only a fraction of what you originally thought, the kid might be a good deal after all.

Battle Hymn of the Earthworm Father

Perfect parents scare me. Honestly I consider nearly every parent beside myself to have far greater wisdom and judgment than I, and they scare me because next to their perfections my own weaknesses, mistakes, misjudgments, and oversights seem legion. I’m working on my sixth child, who is now ten, so I should know what I’m doing. But I don’t, and I never will. And standing next to perfect parents reminds me of that.

Yesterday I was struggling with parenthood. I was lamenting how hard it is and how lost I feel. I was feeling the weight of the myriad of irreversible decisions with life altering implications. Parenting offers so little margin for error, it seems, that each decision is magnified beyond proportion.

I would not trade any of the 136 years of parenting God has given me (that’s what it adds up to) nor any of the six children who have so deeply wedged themselves into my heart. But that does not mean that it is easy. If I were to write a book about parenting, the best I could do for a title would be Battle Hymn of the Earthworm Father for all the strength I bring to the matter. Tiger Mom and Dragon Father live in a different universe.

Consequently, when I can find them, it is refreshing to hang out with other parents willing to speak what it feels like to parent. Anne Lamott has been my companion recently thanks to my wife via a friend. She puts the weight of this into words which resonate with me.

Once her seven year-old son wanted to go paragliding, in tandem, with an expert, but still off a 1500 foot cliff. Perfect parents, of course, would have no second thoughts and no inner struggle. They’d know just what to do and when and how. The rest of us struggle with such things.

“What confused me, however, what how much freedom I was supposed to give Sam. I’m unclear about the fine line between good parenting and being overly protective. I get stumped by the easy test questions….”

I feel comfortable with someone willing to say that the easy questions stump her. They do me, too. The fine lines disappear for me. I don’t know the rules.

She was told that she needed to pray about the question. I identified with her here, too.

“Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me,’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.'”

Parenting often reduces me to such simplicity.

Later, when Lamott talks about her angry response when after asking her son to go without TV for a day he turned it on anyway, I realized I’d met a parenting peer.

I wish I were a perfect parent. But if I were I guess I’d look at my children as the product of my own righteousness. As it is, God continues to remind me that they are gifts of his grace, not my own competence.

Earthworm father needs to hear that.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I Learned Dog

Clearly one of the hottest topics out there among parents priming their tots for Harvard is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, currently #10 on the Amazon sales lists.

I heard Chua interviewed on the radio a few weeks ago and she sounded kind and charming, but I’m not going to read her book. I already have enough reasons to feel guilty about my parenting disabilities. I don’t need to add another. There have been some interesting responses to Chua’s hard nosed style, so I’ll lean on those .(And await another here.)

David Brooks takes on Chua as being insufficiently challenging as a parent. She would make her daughters practice music for two hours a day and would threaten severe discipline if they came in second to anyone in anything. And, she banished sleepovers. No time for that. Curiously, Brooks does not criticize her for being too severe, but for coddling them:

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

Lane Wallace, while not addressing Chua directly, or consciously for that matter, in a post on entrepreneurial and life passion, reflects on the kinds of things in childhood which fuel the ability to imagine and create. She lists as the second factor, this:

Support and enthusiasm for trying new things. To imagine something that doesn’t yet exist and have the confidence to pursue or invest resources in that vision, a person has to believe a) that exploration and experimentation are good things and b) that [there] isn’t just one right answer. (So kids raised in regimented households tend to have a harder time coming up with highly creative visions that challenge accepted ways of doing things.)

I can’t help but wonder if the parenthesis had a target.

But the best response I’ve seen sidles up next to those of us who stumble through parenting and graciously assures us that if we are bad at this child-rearing thing, we are probably worse at dog-rearing. She notes that Amy Chua’s dog is no match for some top flight canine scholars. This author’s own dog is an accomplished teacher.

The dog who now sleeps in front of our fire is Sophie, a cross between a Labrador and a setter, who, like most of our dogs before her, has shown little interest in the niceties of human language. In fact, my ability to communicate my needs and wishes to her is quite limited.

She has, however, managed to teach me to carefully — and, I might say, correctly — interpret every bark, whine, ear twitch, needy moan and shift in posture, and to respond accordingly. She didn’t learn English. I learned Dog.

This, I encourage you to read from beginning to end.