Less Attitude. More Beatitude.

Dear Will:

I was in elementary school—couldn’t possibly tell you what grade. But let’s say I was eight or nine—just old enough to know better, but probably too young to realize it. You know that age when boys are just starting to notice girls but they have no idea—NONE—how to interact with them? That hair-pulling, pencil-swiping, name-calling phase when their basic instincts are not just wrong but WAY wrong? That age.

It was a school night, and my mother was not happy. Not angry, really, but sooo disappointed. (That part you don’t forget.) She had just gotten off the phone with the mother of one of my classmates, a quiet, blond girl whose name I can’t recall. Earlier that day, on the walk home from school, in a simian display of prepubescent manliness no doubt meant to impress some other kid, I had done something vile, said something cruel, acted belligerently toward the little blond girl. Later, through many tears, she had reported the incident to her mom.

Confronted by my own shocked, disenchanted mother, of course I got defensive. “It was a JOKE,” I bellowed. “She’s just being a baby.” This lame attempt to deflect responsibility for my own crude behavior only added to my mother’s deepening sense of disappointment. She shook her head in disbelief. “Peter,” she said, “you were raised better than this. We don’t treat people like that. Not ever. You know better.” Her words pierced me, and the shame was overwhelming. But shame was not my mother’s ultimate purpose. She had a boy to raise and a lesson to teach, with high expectations she surely had learned from her own mother years before. And so in spite of my strident objections, we then drove to the blond girl’s house, and my mother stood, arms folded, as I scuffled my way through a mumbled, mortifying, lesson-teaching apology.

I hope that girl has long forgotten that after-school encounter, but it has now been more than 50 years and I cannot forget. Thank God for a mother who refused to let her son become a bully, a rude, confrontational, self-absorbed reprobate more inclined to cruelty than compassion. But more than that: Thank God for a mother who taught me to try to be more like Jesus—more inclined to kindness, unselfishness, good cheer, and virtue. Less attitude and more beatitude. The gospel she taught in our home is about radiating pure love and goodness, and while we lived it imperfectly, she always wanted it to be clear what we were striving for. In simple terms: She envisioned a son with whom any girl could feel safe while walking home.

Perhaps you, yourself, have been there: You’ve felt the shame or delivered the disappointed correction. Or both. Perhaps you remember what it was like to be that other kid, afraid of what might await you on the journey home from school, the kid sitting at the tiny desk in the tiny chair just wanting to be liked or simply left alone. And perhaps years later you’ve sat at that same desk in the same awkward chair, hoping (praying) that in the parent-teacher conference the teacher says, “He is so nice to the other children” or “She is such a delight to have in class.”

Most of us, I think, want those selfsame things for our children. Kindness, generosity, honesty, fair play—these are simple virtues we expect of our kids from the earliest age. And yet if you pay attention to grown-ups these days, it’s hard to miss the belligerence and aggression that dominates social media and the public square, with name-calling and bullying modeled by some of our most prominent citizens. How did this become OK? I can’t possibly be the only one called out by a mom for such conduct. Doesn’t it seem wrong that we now tolerate in adults behavior we would never put up with in a nine-year-old?

Well, we shouldn’t. We mustn’t. For our kids’ sake. As my mom would say: We were raised better than that. Weren’t we?


Her Name Was Faye

Dear Will:

Recently my work has required me to attend meetings held inside of one of the local hospitals. We sit around a typical conference table in a conference room that would otherwise be typical were it not for the fact that it is contained within a building that also holds gurneys and monitors and people in surgical scrubs.

Sure—once in the room, you would never know; but to get to that room you go past a reception desk, down a hall, around and past doctors and nurses and an occasional patient. You pretty much can’t miss the fact that you’re in a hospital. Which is no big deal except that (as you may recall) I spent so much time in hospital beds a couple of years ago.

I won’t rehash it all here, but in the Fall of 2010 I was hospitalized four times in three months—in three different hospitals for three separate conditions. I’m fine now, but I surely wasn’t then. I felt pain like never before while suffering a full range of personal indignities and traumas. Words like awful and horrific don’t begin to capture the nature of my physical plight. Not only would I never wish to relive those three months, I wouldn’t want to even pay them a brief visit.

In other words, I’m not the sort of person who could ever again look upon a hospital dispassionately.

So imagine my surprise last month when the sliding doors parted and I made my way past the receptionist and headed down that antiseptic hallway toward the conference room: Rather than feeling uneasy or nervous or sick to my stomach (rational alternatives, for sure) I felt oddly instead as if I were coming home. Even as it was happening, I was thinking, “OK, this is really weird.”

It has given me pause, as we say. Looooooong pause. Even as I write you this letter, I think back on my 90-day ordeal with bemusement as I recognize that I can laugh and joke about the pain and the scars and the multi-syllabic diagnoses while feeling tender emotions about everything else. I’ve said before that God shows His hand in the midst of our trials, but I think there’s something more at play here. And I think it has something to do with moments like this:

There was a day during my second hospitalization—this one an emergency, 10-day stay in a remote community hospital. I spent most of that stay with a tube up my nose and an IV (dinner!) in my arm. As the days (and pounds) slipped away, I became increasingly aware of an unpleasant stench that I couldn’t escape. On this particular day, an older nurse’s aide entered my room—a Polynesian woman who gently, wordlessly lifted one arm, then the next, as with warm soap and water she bathed my rancid body. With tenderness she scrubbed my shoulders and crusty face, changed my gown and sheets. The kindness embodied by that gentle act renewed my spirits and moved me to tears.

I was cared for by dozens of wonderful, angelic nurses and aides during the Fall of 2010, blessed women and men who did so much for me that I couldn’t do for myself. They changed my socks and emptied my bedpans and checked my vitals and brought me medications. They were among the kindest, sweetest people I have known. Although I can still recall many of their faces, today I can remember only one by name: a matronly Polynesian woman who without being asked and without a word washed me clean. Because of her and those like her, a hospital now feels to me like holy ground.

Her name was Faye. God bless her and all she represents.


Photo by Eduard Militaru on Unsplash

God Always Shows His Hand

Dear Will:

It’s been quite an autumn.

It started with the prostate surgery in September. Everything seemed to go well, but about a month later I was in the ER for what turned out to be an “incarcerated bowel” (four feet of my intestines had escaped the stomach cavity and quit working). That required a nine-day stay in a remote hospital, most of it spent living on nothing but IV fluids and ice chips. And then for good measure I returned to the ER last week because I have developed a deep vein thrombosis, which is a fancy way of saying I have a blood clot in my leg.

Not fun. After going over 40 years without hospitalization, I have been in the hospital three times in less than 90 days. It has been painful, boring, frustrating, and (most of all) humbling.

At times, I’m sure, God comes to us when we call for Him in a moment of crisis. I have seen, however, that there are times when He actually goes before us and is waiting there for us when the crisis arrives. I can’t begin to tell you how often and in how many ways He showed His love for me in the midst of my suffering. God always shows His hand in such circumstances, and you don’t have to look very hard to see it.

Most often, His hands were the hands of friends and family, kind nurses and diligent doctors. The light in my hospital room always shone brightly because the love of God was there, expressed by the unexpected visit from a ward member, a note from my Seminary students, a simple act of kindness from a nurse’s aide. It was a profoundly moving experience to see, day after day, that He was watching over me and sending His children to me to let me know.

Do not get me wrong; I would not choose to go through again what I have been through these last few weeks. But having been through it, I remain very grateful. What a blessing to have my life touched in so many ways. How much wiser and more compassionate I will be in the future as I interact with others who likewise find themselves with physical or emotional challenges.

When I returned from the hospital at the end of October and sat down for the first time in 10 days with my family for dinner, I could not hold back the tears of gratitude that we were reunited. It might seem a small thing, but it was profoundly important to me. Consequently, when we were gathered around a Thanksgiving meal just a couple of days ago, I gave added thanks in my heart for the privilege and blessing of being together in that way.  I also feel blessed to have modern medicine, capable doctors and nurses, health insurance and an understanding employer. And above all, I have felt a deep gratitude for my wife who has somehow managed to keep the family operating even though I have been a heavy burden throughout what has proved to be an extended convalescence. Her compassionate service to me has often brought to mind the baptismal invitation that we might “bear one another’s burdens that they might be light.” Thus inspired, I am determined to go and do likewise.

I do not share all this to invite your sympathy. Rather I do it as an affirmation that God loves us and watches over us, and even when times are hard He is there for us and with us, every step of the way.