Let me start by saying that this is not a 'ghost story'. As a Christian, I don't have any interest (or business) in ghost-hunting. But, I do think there are a couple of life 'nuggets' here. I can explain at the end.....here's the story:
My mom was a dear, sweet lady. Loving, yet quiet and reserved – a lot like me (yeah, right). She held deep religious beliefs and lived by those her whole life. My mom always encouraged me and let me know that she valued and loved me. That’s not to say that we didn’t have some awful times – ah, the teenage years – but I always knew my mom loved me and I loved her.
My mom was not much of a disciplinarian; that was left to my dad and, actually, to my grandmother who cared for me as my mom was one of the few moms working outside the home back in the 60’s (at least, in our little Midwest town, she was). On those occasions when I behaved badly, which usually involved my ‘mouth’ opposed to my fists, my mom always seemed hurt and disappointed in my behavior, rather than angry with me. She had a quiet way of scolding me in a manner that let me know she was not pleased, but also included a reminder of how “pretty” (physically? spiritually? regardless, I loved it) I was to her. She would say, “You’re too pretty to act that way”, when I had my little ‘attitude’ for not getting what I wanted. Or, she would say, “You’re too pretty to talk like that”, when I used ‘un-ladylike language’ (I never heard my mom say a cuss word in her whole life). She said this phrase with such regularity, it kind of became a joke between us. “I know, I know, mom, I’m too pretty to do that”, I’d say before she could, when I knew I had transgressed.
I miss my mom. She passed away 15 years ago from Alzheimer’s disease.
A few years ago, I was in the hospital for what I guess would be considered a pretty serious illness. Sparing all the gory details, let’s just say I was hospitalized for 6 days, tube down my throat, major surgery, lots of fun. I can remember lying in that hospital bed on about day 4 thinking, "Man, I really must be sick". My husband was a rock star, rarely left my bedside the entire time. My family members all came to see me in the hospital (my sister, upon seeing me, making a comment that I looked like !@#$ - true to our lovingly competitive relationship).
One of those hospital nights, my husband had stepped out of the room, at my encouragement, to get a bite to eat in the hospital cafeteria (yum). It was one of the first times since my admission through the ER that I was in a hospital room by myself. I lay rather lifeless and flat on my back, as I had done for many days. I didn’t have the strength to sit or stand - it would have been nearly impossible anyway, with all the tubes and wires tethering me down. Even though I was somewhat apprehensive about being alone in this now not-so-strange environment of the hospital, I felt relaxed and peaceful in my dark room with only the glow of monitors for light, and the distant and newly familiar sound of nurses and patients out in the hallway.
My husband returned to my room after only a few minutes away, apologizing for not bringing me back anything to eat (nervous humor). “You doing OK? Have any of the nurses been in to check on you while I was gone?”, he asked, leaning down to kiss me on the forehead. “No, but the lady in the bed next to mine stepped over and spoke to me” I told him, gesturing toward the curtain beside my bed that divided my hospital room into two. My husband paused, with a perplexed look on his face. “There’s nobody in the other bed. There hasn’t been another patient over there”, he informed me. “Yeah there is”, I said. “It’s an older lady with white hair. She was wearing a nightgown and she stood at the foot of my bed and spoke to me”. Thinking maybe I was mistaking one of the nurses who had come in to check on me while he was gone, my husband asked, “Well, what did the woman say?” I paused for a moment, re-envisioning my visitor, with her comforting presence and kind words. I then answered, “She said to me, You’re too pretty to be this sick”.
Was it Imagination...Hallucination...Medication? I don't know, and it doesn't matter. I learned a couple of things here:
First, we never know what we might say to someone in our life that sticks with them forever. We need to make sure what comes out of our mouth is valuable and edifying.
Secondly, I think (hope) that God does allow specific moments in our life when we can receive direct encouragement from someone we love who has left this planet ahead of us. It's not a ghost thing, but it is spiritual.
We hear a lot about the value of "quality time" spent with kids (and grandkids). And this concept fits nicely with the chaos of modern life, for sure. But, I'm thinking "quantity time" is a tad bit underrated, and here's why.
Some of the most meaningful and memorable moments I've ever had with my kids and grands have not been at an amusement park or a spectacle on ice, but in the car ride home from school when I give my advice on how to handle a bully. While sitting on the sofa watching a God-awful kids' movie and answering a million "why" questions. Or, just holding the head of a puking kid in the middle of the night.
If it weren't for "quantity time", I would've missed all this.
While channel surfing last night (or, as I like to call it, walking through a mine field), I came across a scene in a TV series show where a self-identified "agnostic" is explaining why she is not really interested in seeking any additional insight, pro or con, into the 'God thing': "I don't need to know all the answers", she says, "because what would I do when I found them?"
Hmmm.... Well, if I were in this conversation, I would have to respond:
I didn't come to God looking for answers. I came looking for a Savior. And I found Him. His name is Jesus.
The proverbial Slippery Slope seems to be the lesson in this letter. The dangers in subtlety, and how we can land in the middle of a spiritual wreck without even knowing how we got there. And, clearly, the demons understand this better than anybody.
The dude in the story has, not completely unexpectedly, reached a level of 'adequacy' in his spiritual walk. Ok, sure, he has some stuff left to get with God about, and he feels kinda bad about that. But, he still goes to church (when he can). He still reads his Bible (OK, well, it's somewhere in the house). He wrote a check to a charity last month. It's all good (enough). And, like Screwtape says, as long as we maintain the "habits of a Christian", we will think we are one.
So, the demons' plan at this point is to just let the guy slowly slide away from God, totally on his own, just a little at a time. They're going to stay pretty much hands-off at this point - kinda like those videos from 'up North' (Southern terminology) you see on the Weather Channel when a car is sliding on the icy road and the driver takes his (her) hands off the wheel and just lets the car end up wherever it ends up. And it's usually not someplace good.
We all slide, and it's not like we don't know we're 'sliding'. In the car, we'll just ride it out. (I'm not going that fast. And I am wearing my seatbelt. I'll be OK.) Same thing spiritually: As Screwtape says, any "dim uneasiness" (aka 'sliding') we sense in our relationship with God we just deem "temporary and revocable". So, no need to over-react here. "This too shall pass" which, BTW, is not a scripture of the Bible.
And, with all this slippin' and slidin', here's what can happen next: Guilt. Not the kind that makes us fall on our face and ask the Father for forgiveness and mercy. But, the kind that compels us to trade substance for superficial (so we don't have to really deal). The kind of guilt that drives us to sort our sins into 'tall, grande, or venti' in order to make ourselves feel better. Essentially, we end up doing a whole bunch of nothing. And nothing separates us farther from God, than Nothing. And that's true whether you're from Up North or Down South.
Lord, help me to pump my brakes and get a handle on any sliding I'm doing right now. Amen.
Ok. The Kavanaugh thing. Unless you’re blessed to live an internet-free life, you know all about the current big deal with the Supreme Court nomination of this guy and accusations of sexual assault in his past. A major political situation (circus) that gets more and more ugly by the hour.
Look. I don’t know what happened or what didn’t happen in the Kavanaugh case. I wasn’t there. These matters should be left in the hands of those above my pay grade, on earth and in heaven. Yet, as this all relentlessly unfolds and unravels before us on the 24/7 news, I am finding a story within a story that has given me a bit of Christian pause. And that story is Redemption.
Now, hang on a minute. I’m not referring specifically to Kavanaugh here, whether he is ‘redeemed’ or not for what might have happened. I have no way of knowing that and, frankly, it’s really none of my business.
I’m talking here about the bigger picture of Redemption, as a Biblical concept and the basis for what we believe as Christians. I’m talking about a person, any and every person, being forgiven and transformed by God, through Jesus, because they repented from a wrong. Do you believe redemption is possible?
Well, of course I believe that, Abby. That’s Christianity 101 stuff.
All right. But, are you (am I) a practicing redemptionist? (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word). Is a redemptive heart at the core of who I am, what I do, how I think? OR….
Am I a vengeance-seeker?
Am I waiting for someone to admit their wrong to me (or say they’re “sorry”) before I can heal?
Do I consider Truth a judicial concept?
Just a little self-check moment, I’m thinking. Now, back to you in the studio.
They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Romans 3:24 (HCSB)
This Letter begins with Screwtape expressing satisfaction that the young man has now been "friended" by the 'cool people' in his social circle: those "thoroughly reliable...steady...consistent scoffers and wordlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably toward Our Father's (the devil's) house". Apparently, Wormwood has observed and reported back that these hipsters are "'great laughers", and Screwtape takes up this topic as important with his understudy.
The demons are interested in what makes us laugh, apparently, and they have divided our laughter into 4 sources or types: Joy, Fun, Joke Proper, and Flippancy. The first, joy, is a very familiar concept for us as Believers (I wrote a post a while back about joy vs. happiness), and the demons totally get that joy is a God concept. So, pretty much, they know they can never mess with our true joy in the Lord, and they hate that. Screwtape describes joy as a disgusting and "direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell". Now, if that wouldn't make you want to pursue joy, I don't know what would.
The demons are not particularly interested, from a soul-crushing perspective, in human fun, either. As Screwtape laments, fun can promote "charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils" (remember, "evils" to the demons are those things that keep our eyes on God). The only time demons have any potential interest in our fun-having is when it diverts our attention away from God and onto what we are feeling or doing.
Now, Jokes, are starting to get into the devil's territory. Let's be real -- most jokes are based on the inappropriateness of something, usually sex. We laugh at dirty jokes because we are either uncomfortable or because we just like talking about sex. And when we're not laughing and joking about sex, Screwtape says, we're finding humor in "destroying shame" - in other words, making ourselves feel better about our own meanness, cowardice, and cruelty by cracking a joke (as in "practical joke"). As Lewis writes, there's no straighter shot to damnation than when we assume we can do pretty much anything we want "if only it can be treated as a joke".
But, flippancy is the "best of all", according to Screwtape. Flippant people make a joke out of virtue - or, at least, act as if virtue is funny. This clever crowd operates under the assumption that the joke "has already been made, although no one ever really makes it" and approaches every serious subject "in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it". How convenient, I'm thinking. If you can just maintain flippance (is that a word?) about everything, then you can pretty much go through life without any meaningful values, virtues, or convictions. However, as Lewis writes, flippancy is "a thousand miles away from joy; it deadens instead of sharpens the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it" (So true. Mean Girls are even mean to each other).
So, I gotta ask: What makes you (me) laugh? What do I (you) find humor in?
What we find funny says a lot about our spiritual condition. And that's no joke.
I was on a cross country flight recently on my way to visit family. I boarded the plane and sat down next to an older lady who smiled at me even though I accidentally bumped her arm with my bag.
The lady appeared to be African-American, quite small in frame. She was seated next to the window, with her sweater cupped over her shoulders like a blanket. I noticed her dainty hands, they reminded me of my mom’s. Her fingers were slender and crooked, knotted at the joints from a lifetime of use, but still smooth and well-manicured. She wore a diamond band on her left ring finger. The lady’s complexion was the color of a golden brown Bartlett pear when perfectly ripe. She had a few freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose like pixie dust that gave her face a sparkle that matched her eyes. Her clothes were classic business that could’ve been purchased last week or 30 years ago, and her hair was neatly coiffed showing less gray than mine.
Early in the flight, the attendant came around to serve drinks, and as I passed the lady’s cup of water over to her, we began one of those typical airplane conversations. I introduced myself and told her I was on my way to visit my grandkids. She said her name was Evelyn and she was on her way to Atlanta to see her grand-niece. Her voice was clear and kind, and reminded me of my favorite teacher from 2nd grade. When the flight attendant handed out the airline shortbread cookies, I told Evelyn I would save mine and give them to my grandkids in reply to their “What did you bring me?” question. Evelyn thought this was a good idea and she would give hers to her great-niece and nephew in Atlanta. But, they would have to read a Bible verse out loud to her first to earn their cookies.
Evelyn and I began to talk about parenting and grandparenting, and how kids are different today than when we grew up. Young people today have no work ethic, according to Evelyn. They want everything handed to them, she said, and when things don’t go their way, it’s always somebody else’s fault. Evelyn spoke these words not with anger, but with truth and integrity, and a bit of sadness. She told me she had completed a career as a writer and curriculum developer for an agency in her home state. Evelyn said she had been retired from that work for 20 years. If I do the math, that probably makes her now in her 80’s. She didn’t mention how many years she had been married, but Evelyn told me that her husband died 10 years ago. Her daughter worries about her still living on her own, and Evelyn thought that was just silly.
I asked Evelyn if she traveled often and this opened up a book of stories from her library of memories. She told me about traveling all over the United States, just too many cities to count. Then, Evelyn began to tell me about a trip she took with her sister in the late 1980’s to China. It was a dream vacation to a place that Evelyn had always wanted to go. She spoke at length and in vivid detail about her trip to China like she had been there just yesterday. She painted pictures with words of the ornate Buddhist temples and the opulent shrines and monuments in Beijing. But, Evelyn seemed most enamored with the people of China as she admired their grace and dignity living under the pressures of their closed society. She described how their Chinese tour guides seemed grateful for the interaction with outsiders, yet nervous about staying on-script and making sure that the tourists didn’t ask too many questions or observe things they weren’t supposed to. Evelyn giggled as she told me about slipping away unnoticed from the tour group once to explore one of the temples on her own. She hoped she didn’t get her tour guide in trouble with his superiors with her rebellion. Evelyn reflected on telling her sister, as they observed the constricted daily lives of the Chinese citizens, “These people are not going to stand for this for much longer”. Enter Tianenman Square. Was Evelyn prophetic? Perhaps. Empathetic? More than likely, as Oppression is a distinct and esoteric club.
Look, I could never know, and I don’t pretend to know, what it meant to be an African American female during Evelyn’s time. But, I do know that she would have every right to be bitter and hateful for what she has lived through. Yet, there was no acrimony in her words, no resentment, no malevolence. All I saw in Evelyn was strength and wisdom and grace.
I said goodbye to Evelyn at the end of our flight. I never saw where she went in the airport, I never saw her great-nieces and nephews meet her. I guess I wanted to see that movie moment when it all came together, all wrapped up in a neat little package. Life rarely happens that way, don’t I know. But, two hours on an airplane with Evelyn taught me that you can be strong without being hard, wise without being judgmental, and beautiful no matter what.
Gray hair is a glorious crown; it is found in the way of righteousness. Proverbs 16:31
My sons are now dads, which makes me a (super cool, way-too-young-to-be) grandma. A couple of my grandsons are entering the teenage years right about now. So, I was talking to one of my sons the other day about how teens will try to push the limits with the parents, how you gotta keep showing them whose still boss, all that, and something I heard way back in Psychology 101 came to mind: Elephant training. Stay with me here....
That chain they hook around the elephant's neck to keep him or her from running away from the zoo, the circus, whatever. Well, you know, an adult elephant could yank that chain right out of the ground any time they wanted to. But they don't. You know why? Because their keepers started putting that chain around their neck when they were young and a lot smaller, while the chain still had a pretty good chance of holding. So, not being particularly knowledgeable on physics, the elephant grows into adulthood believing that chain still holds them, so they never even try to get away.
So, as we're talking, I expertly share this phenomenon with my son, brilliantly applying the elephant story to parenting children - while they are young, maintaining parental authority so they won't question it when they get to be teenagers. Am I a wise sage, or what? But, wait...
A little while later after that conversation, it hit me: the elephant story isn't just about parenting, authority, or animal psychology. There is a spiritual application here!!!
Do you see it?!! In our childhood - literally, when we are young and also in the 'childhood' stage of our faith - we get taught and conditioned to believe certain things. We have bad experiences, people hurt us, life punches in the gut, we mess up, the Enemy convinces us that lies are truth - all forging a "chain" of fear, confusion, or bitterness around our neck. And it stays there and drags us down, over and over and over again. Just like the elephant, we keep that chain around our neck because we don't know (or don't believe) that it can be broken!!!
What chain are you still wearing from your childhood? For that matter, what chain are you wearing from yesterday?
You know you don't have to wear it, right? Jesus broke that thing a long time ago. And, if knowing that's not enough to make ya wanna hoop, holler, and run out into the street and slap somebody, I don't know what would! (Well, OK, forget the slapping somebody part, but anyway).
Oh, and BTW - if the elephant story is a myth, urban legend, or whatever, don't tell me because I really want to like it.
1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man,
I put aside childish things. (HCSB)