short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bad Things and Good People

Note: This piece was published in Blest Atheist in part and excerpted here a couple of years ago in part. Since then, I have given much more thought to the question why bad things happen to good people, mainly because the question is raised so often by the high school kids in my catechism class. The fuller analysis of my demand to God upon coming to faith to know why my children were born with birth defects if there were a God who could have prevented but chose not to is provided below and will appear in my forthcoming book, A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God.

Read the Book of Job! More than a thought but less than a voice, the words slammed into my consciousness in a manner I found four years later described in Jeremiah: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, like a hammer shattering rocks?” (Jer 23:29). I accepted these quiet but compelling words at face value and then surprised myself by following them instinctively, without examination.

While the response to my question came immediately, the answer took days to understand. I knew that Job was somewhere in the Old Testament. I found a Bible on line and read the pages.

On first reading, the meaning of Job escaped me. Well, there is the expression, the “patience of Job,” but I did not think that the message I was supposed to be getting had anything to do with patience. After all, how does lack of patience explain why children might be born with handicaps?

So, I read the Book of Job again. I read about all the torments and testing, about how Job remained faithful through all the tests. I did not think that was the message I was supposed to be getting, either. That, too, did not explain why my children would be born with handicaps. My children are not torments. They are delights.

So, I read the Book of Job a third time, paying attention to how Job’s friends exhorted him to turn his back on God, but instead he turned his back on their advice. This, too, did not seem to be the message I was supposed to be getting for I had neither blamed God nor believed in God at the time of my children’s births. It seemed I would need the proverbial patience of Job to ferret out whatever message I was supposed to be getting.

So, I read the Book of Job a fourth time and began to feel much empathy for him, especially in the loss of his children. I noted well that I had been spared such pain even in the case of Doah, whose first two years took the form of a dance between life and death and life again. An understanding was beginning to emerge but not one that I could articulate. Just one more time and perhaps I would understand!

I read the Book of Job a fifth time, and then I finally got it. It was not the concept of patience that I needed to understand, nor was it a test whose requirements I needed to meet. No, it was the concept of agape (unconditional love) that I needed to develop. No matter what was taken from Job or what he had to endure, he continued to love God. What the message of Job said to me at that time is that God's presence in our lives and what happens to us and those we care about are separate things. God has promised to be with us if we allow it. What happens to us, on the other hand, is often a result of free will with which God does not usually interfere. My children’s birth defects, in a parallel way, were an unfortunate combination of genes, resulting from the free will of two people who chose each other as marital partners. Even with the animal kingdom, God allows genetics free play. God could have chosen to intervene but did not do so. There likely are reasons for every bad thing that befalls us where God does not intervene, and there likely are reasons for my children’s birth defects. Certainly, my being unaware of the reasons does not mean that they do not exist. Just as likely, were I aware of them, I might not understand them. Scripture tells us that God’s thinking is as far above ours as the sky is from the earth. The reasons, in any case, are irrelevant. Our love of God must be as unconditional as is God’s love for us. What happens in life—the bad things and the good things—cannot be conditions for whether or not we love God. They are tangential. I understood that God was not to blame for any of the bad things that happened to Job or to me, but God has been omnipotent at turning the bad, once it happened, into good.

The reading of Job began to answer my question as to why God could exist and not intervene or why it might even be better to allow the birth defects to occur, as counterintuitive as the latter may sound. My children’s value is not defined by their birth defects but by what they do with their lives, how they help others, what they contribute to the world, i.e., not by what they cannot do but rather but what they can do and do do.

There was one more thing. God protected Job. It did not seem that way to Job because Job was not in on the agreement that God had made with Satan. Satan could take things away from Job and then, later, God even allowed Satan to torment Job physically. Job, however, was never in danger of dying. His life was always in God’s hands as so many times have been my life and the lives of my children when I, like Job, could not see what was transpiring.

As I came to know God better, I began to understand the story of Job in new ways. One important thing that I now understand that would have made no sense in the beginning of my walk with God is that God does not owe us anything. God does not owe us a life without trouble. God does not owe us peace and tranquility. God does not owe us intervention at any particular point in our lives or at all. God sometimes assuages our pain because God wants to. That assuaging is an act of grace, not an entitlement.

C. S. Lewis (The Problem of Pain) points out that we would not ever expect pain to be assuaged were we not to believe in a loving God. It is the concept of a loving God that creates the “problem of pain” for us because we assume that a loving God would not want us ever to feel any pain. I now understand, however, that any assumption that it is God’s will that our lives be free of hassle, pain, and even death is a wrong assumption. When we assume that a loving God would want to heal us of all our illnesses, prevent the loss of our relatives at too early an age, or destroy all our enemies, we fail to understand that every intervention, every assistance, every gift is a grace. Our God-given compassion for our fellow man tells us that human intervention is good. Perhaps that is our basis for assuming that God’s intervention would be good, but we are not privy to the kinds of knowledge that God has. Nor are we capable of seeing and understanding the human condition in the way that God does. We are told in the New Testament that the way of the cross is both necessary and good, and St. Pio specifically points to this way as essential to our spiritual development: “In order to grow, we need hard bread: the cross, humiliation, trials, and denials.” Yet, it is the way of the cross that we attempt to avoid when we demand to know why bad things happen to good people. Might it not be arrogant to believe that any one of us should be exempt from the pain and suffering that comprises the human condition? I would posit that we don’t deserve children without birth defects. We have not earned a right to no pain. Rather, as St. Paul told the Ephesians, “we are all by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Some may experience little pain, thanks to God’s mercy. Others may experience much pain, also thanks to God’s mercy. I did not come to understand this continuum of mercy until I had passed through a series of metanoias.

Further, simply by asking the question why God would allow us to experience pain, we separate ourselves from God — another understanding that took a long time to settle in among my logic-driven neurons. Bonaventure suggests that God does not observe our suffering from afar but rather suffers with us from within, that out of an abundance of love, God is drawn to those who suffer. In one of my favorite books, The Humility of God, Ilia Delio beautifully provides a touching description of this co-suffering:
Suffering is . . . the place of transformation. It is a door by which God can enter in and love us where we are. . . As Clare of Assisi realized, God bends down in the cross to share our tears out of a heart full of mercy and love . . .

The power of God is the powerlessness of God’s unconditional love shown to us in the cross. God is the beggar who will not force his way into our homes unless we open the door. . . . God shares in the brokenness of the world out of the abundance of divine love.
Suffering, then, perhaps should be welcomed. “Tribulation is a gift God gives us,” St. Thomas More tells us, “one that he especially gives his special friends.” St. Rose of Lima concurs, “Without the burden of afflictions, it is impossible to reach the height of grace. The gift of grace increases as the struggle increases.”

Was my question answered? Not completely. I still did not know for certain why God intervened to save my children’s lives but not to prevent their birth defects. I have come, however, to understand that knowing is not important; trusting without knowing is paramount. Knowing can be detrimental to a relationship with God. One could take the Israelites as an archetype in this respect. When God let them know things more fully, they turned away from God. Likewise, when Adam and Eve began to know, they strayed. So, I accept not knowing as an inherent condition for real trust, a strong relationship, and deep conversion.

In his homily recently, a visiting priest told the story of three people who went to learn from a guru. The guru asked them why they had come to him. One replied that he had heard of the guru through local people and wanted to learn from such an august man. The guru sent him away. The second replied that she had looked around to see who could teach her what she wanted to learn and in this way had discovered the existence of the guru. He sent her away. The third stammered out that he really did not know how he had heard about the guru or what he really wanted to learn. The guru replied, “You’ll do.”

Clearly, to the guru, not knowing was not only acceptable but also desirable. Some day, if I continue to accept the not-knowing part of my relationship with God, perhaps I, too, will hear the words, “You’ll do.”

I like to think that perhaps this is what happened in the case of my children. Perhaps God looked for parents who would love them just the way they are and fight for them to be everything they could be without questioning the reason for their infelicitous combination of genes and said, “they’ll do.” I like to think that even though I was an atheist and Donnie an agnostic, God thought that we just might do.

God entrusted some very special people to us: children with wide smiles, great love for people, and needs that have allowed people with whom they have come into contact to help them in ways that have been mutually rewarding. Because of their ability to bring smiles to others, I call our children God’s rainbow makers. Just like a broken sprinkler gushes more water onto a parched field, God’s rainbow makers sprinkle more water onto parched souls. The thought that God blessed and entrusted me with these rainbow makers entered my head only after a very long pondering of the experience of Job. Realizing the extent of God’s trust in me has engendered within me a reciprocal trust in God.


Excerpted from A Believer in Waiting's First Encounters with God (forthcoming), copyright 2011.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011: Life after War

I would invite readers to go to the following article, written by a member of Give an Hour. It tells the poignant story of a war veteran, hopelessly lost to drugs and despair, trapped in post-traumatic stress disorder and with few resources to help (most petered out before she could recover). The story seemed too appropriate for Memorial Day not to share. However, since it seems to be copyrighted, I have decided simply to include the link and urge you to take the time to follow the link and read the story; you won't regret it. You can find it here: I Served My Country...and Wound Up Living in My Car The veteran is Jennifer Crane; the author is Lynn Harris. If you can help GAH through a donation or through spreading the world, you will involve yourself in a very worthy cause. Visit the GAH website for more information.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Send a Card

Everyone likes to receive personal mail. Everyone likes to know that someone is thinking about him or her. it must be a very sad thing to live alone and day after day receive little more than junk mail. Even one card with a personal message can brighten a day or a week.

In today's computer age, it is quite easy to send an email. And an e-note is always welcome, at least in my in-box. One can also send cards via email with personalized messages, and those are welcome, too. However, there is still little that can surpass the ability of a handwritten card to put a smile on someone's face.

When my best friend, an elderly Russian lady, and I first became close more than ten years ago, I would send her holiday cards. Holiday cards, however, are sometimes near perfunctory, and so they have less significance than spontaneous cards.

I found out the value of the spontaneous card when I once offended my friend. I sent her an "I'm sorry" card. When I saw how much she appreciated that card, I sent her friendship cards and encouragement cards and "just because" cards. Over time, I began to make up reasons to send cards, and when I traveled, I looked for new cards from exotic places to send to her. Mostly, I looked for original friendship verses. I would bring back extras to send to her on the weeks that I was home.

I love her very much, and she knows it. She has a house full of cards to prove it.

She loves me very much, and I know it. She frequently comes to my rescue, shares important information or experience, and helps me out in all sorts of imaginable and unimagined ways.

I have also sent spontaneous cards to employees. I sent them as congratulations for accomplishments and special events, as thank-you notes for work well done, and as encouragement during periods of stress. Sometimes, instead of cards, I send a handwritten note or flowers. The message is the same: Some has noticed and cares. That is a pretty powerful message.

Years ago when I moved from a large house to a recreational vehicle, I had to eliminate a large number of accumulated possessions. While weeding through (and weeding out) things, I came across scores of cards from former employees who had reacted in kind: congratulations, thank-you notes, and cards of encouragement. I found a place for them in my smaller quarters. One does not "weed out" things of such value.


Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes I published, copyright 2003.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Use Wit to Solve Problems

Wit, in both senses of the word--quick thinking and humor--can do much to turn a difficult situation into a solved problem without encountering a lot of emotional stress. Wit can be used in very many situations. I know because nearly daily I end up in a problem situation.

One day, for example, as I reached the turnstile at Rosslyn metro station outside Washington, DC, I realized that I had forgotten my fare card on the train seat. There were machines aplenty--turnstiles, telephones, add-fares, but no way to get another fare card. Hm...

Figuring that humans would solve my problem better than machines, I approached the metro agent and asked, "What evil befalls a person who is foolish enough to leave her fare card inside the train?"

He laughed and said, "Well, that happened to be about 12 years ago, and I have been here ever since."

"Oh, my goodness!" I responded. "Your family must wonder what ever became of you!"

"I guess they must," he answered, and opened the gate. "I'd better let you go back to yours so that they don't wonder the same."

My dilemma seemed to bring a little fun into his day, and his witty retort gave both of us a laugh. Of course, with a friendly relationship established, he had no choice but to let me out. So, we both ended up with some laughter--and a problem solved.

My daughter, Lizzie, has used this technique well, especially with police officers. She really is a good driver, but things just seem to happen to her.

Once, as she was driving along, minding her own business, a furniture truck in front of her dropped a mattress onto the road. Thinking quickly, she detoured around the mattress and emerged onto the road on the far side--safely, she thought. Whap! She was rear-ended by the driver behind her who had ploughed through and over the mattress and into her. Instead of getting upset, she reacted with humor. When the officer on the scene asked her what had happened, she replied, "I was fine with the required, but unmarked, detour, but the guy behind me failed to turn right at the mattress. I guess he was tired and needed to hit the mattress."

Another time, she was exceeding the speed limit by a bit. At that point, she noticed red flashing lights in her rear-view mirror. As a young female driver, she was often stopped for various and sundry things by young male police officers, and after some laughter and flirting, they always let her off. This time, however, it was not a sundry thing. She clearly was in violation of the speed limit. She pulled over, and the police officer approached her car.

"Were you aware of how fast you were going?" he asked.

"Not until I saw you," she replied honestly.

After he finished laughing, he gave her only a verbal warning. Released (again) on a laugh!


Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes I published, copyright 2003.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Match the Words to the Situation

Finding an effective treatment or cure for a problem means identifying the right medicine. My grandmother used "pink pills" (wintermint drops) as a disciplinary measure (bribe) for kids with imaginary illnesses. Therefore, we would all develop an imaginary illness from time to time. My mother used sulfur and molasses any time any one of her children developed a cough. That stuff tasted horrible, but it was a magic cure. None of us would dare cough within hearing distance of her.

Using the appropriate medicine for an illness has a parallel in human relations. It is called matching the words to the situation. Sometimes they need to be soft, and other times they need to be direct. They always need to be in a language that can be understood.

My youngest son, Doah, whom we stole from a Pennsylvania hospital (we shall call that place Renboro Hospital) where he was dying from a subglottic stenosis, treated with a tracheotomy, and where the doctors angered us with their arrogance, was finally cured in Cincinnati. However, we were warned that while his airway would grow quickly, for several months it would be marginal and that Donnie (husband), Lizzie (oldest daughter), and I should keep our CPR skills current for those times when Doah might stop breathing. So, although we expected periods of apnea and knew that getting through these few months was the only way to get get Doah to the point where he could consistently breathe without a tube in his trachea, the apneic episodes were always unwelcome occurrences.

The first apneic episode after our return from Cincinnati resulted in my doing 15 minutes of CPR before Doah began to breathe again. While we were en route to the hospital, Donnie driving and I doing CPR (faster than waiting 20 minutes for a volunteer ambulance crew to be assembled), the local small-hospital staff contacted the Life Flight helicopter to fly Doah to, sigh!, Renboro Hospital. Even though Doah was breathing on his own by the time we reached the local hospital, he was whisked to Renboro.

Of course, we were not allowed on the helicopter with Doah, so we arrived somewhat later than he did. When I walked in, an ENT resident was sitting beside Doah and reading the ten-inch file on him. When he learned who I was, the doctor lectured, asserting that all the Renboro Hospital procedures had been correct, that I was an impatient parent who had erringly taken my child to another hospital, and that clearly Doah had needed a tracheotomy and still needed one because he had scar tissue in his larynx. He told me that an operating room was being readied as we were speaking. I explained the opinion of the doctor in Cincinnati, who had not replaced the tracheotomy when Doah had accidentally removed his breathing tube in his sleep: The problem was not the old scar tissue in the larynx but the new scar tissue caused by the tracheotomy that was now interfering with Doah's breathing and that if everyone were just to leave him alone, he would outgrow the problem. (We sure loved that doctor in Cincinnati! Dr. Robin Cotton is his real name, and he has a large fan club, formed of the parents of all the children whose lives he has saved.)

The Renboro Hospital resident patronizingly pointed to the laryngeal area. In condescending tones so typically used with parents, he said, "Right here is where the scar tissue is, and we must put in the tracheotomy again."

I was very tired from the CPR, the 45-minute drive to the hospital, and the late hour. Further, Donnie was still parking the car so I was alone with this insolent, obtuse (my opinion), and impolite doctor-in-training. At that point, I chose to talk to the resident in a language that he could understand quietly and calmly and, therefore, effectively.

"Doctor," I said firmly, "this baby does have subglottic anomalies, but the area of gravest concern is the site of the tracheotomy itself where there has been a significant build-up of granulation tissue." (Comfort with that language comes from my study of Greek and Latin--and much time spent reading medical journals.

The doctor looked at me for a minute or so silently. Then, he picked up Doah's chart and walked off with a monosyllabic comment, "Oh."

I fell asleep beside Doah, not waking up until morning. At that time, Doah was released without further discussion of another tracheotomy. We finally got Renboro Hospital to do it our way!


Excerpted and adapted from a collection of vignettes I published about real-life events, copyright 2003.

Note: Also posted on The Clan of Mahlou and 100th Lamb.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Plant

Another goodie from the Internet, sent by my brother:

A successful business man was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his Directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.

He said, "It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you." The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued. "I am going to give each one of you a SEED today - one very special SEED. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO."

One man, named Jim, was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed.He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost and he planted the seed. Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow.

Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing. By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn't have a plant and he felt like a failure.

Six months went by -- still nothing in Jim's pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn't say anything to his colleagues, however, he just kept watering and fertilizing the soil - he so wanted the seed to grow.

A year finally went by and all the young executives of the company brought their plants to the CEO for inspection. Jim told his wife that he wasn't going to take an empty pot. But she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick to his stomach, it was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right. He took his empty pot to the board room. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful -- in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor, and many of his colleagues laughed. A few felt sorry for him!

When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back.

"My, what great plants, trees and flowers you have grown," said the CEO. "Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!"

All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He ordered the Financial Director to bring him to the front. Jim was terrified. He thought, "The CEO knows I'm a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!"

When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed. Jim told him the story.

The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, "Behold your next Chief Executive Officer! His name is Jim!"

Jim couldn't believe it. Jim couldn't even grow his seed.

"How could he be the new CEO?" the others said.

Then the CEO said, "One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds; they were dead - it was not possible for them to grow. All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you. Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive Officer!"

About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.