Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wife Rule #62: Count the Stars

I just noticed that my last four Wife Rules have revolved around food. I think it's obvious to all of us that I can blame this unhealthy gastronomic obsession on those wretched PROMISES® messages (latest gag reflex triggered by "Smile at yourself in the mirror." I tried it. It was amazing!). In an effort to bring some closure to this issue, I am coming full-circle and discussing the one and only PROMISES® message I have come across that I actually like:

Count the stars.

I have always loved stargazing. I have nostalgic memories of laying out in my back yard as a child, most of me nestled into my sleeping bag, my arms ticked by icy cold blades of grass, my face exposed to the cool night air, and my eyes staring into the starry heavens. Sometimes I would make my own constellations, or count shooting stars, or just wonder at the sheer immensity of space with its millions of tiny, sparkling lights.

Count the stars.

I have continued the tradition with my own children, except that now we lay out on the trampoline, sans grass and its accompanying dew in the morning. We typically settle into our sleeping bags at dusk, and watch as the stars appear, one by one. We scan the sky, we point, we wish, we bond, and we count.

Count the stars.

My wife was born in a rural, high mountain valley, and when we visit her childhood home we usually arrive after dark. I am consistently amazed at the brightness of the stars that first night, which inevitably catch my eye when I step out of the car to do my post-driving stretch and neck roll. I never anticipate the view I will have; the full splendor of the glowing heavens, undimmed by city lights, fills me with wonder.

The Milky Way, a peaceful river of hazy light, stretches from horizon to horizon. The number of stars seems to explode here, and I long for the old days, before we were so artificially lit up and mentally insulated from the unfathomable, gaping expanse of the universe; a time when the stars served as constant reminders of just how small we really are, technology and all.

Count the stars.

I think of the promises given to Abraham and Sarah, the ancient archetypes of fatherhood and motherhood, which all parents should look to as examples. Genesis 15:5 records what the Lord covenanted with Abraham:

"Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be."

Think of it, God has endowed His children with a fountain of life-potential that never has to end. When He asked Abraham to count the stars, it wasn't an exercise in arithmetic; it was an illustration of the infinite. It was a declaration of the endless possibilities--the eternal life--that was there for Abraham and Sarah to lay hold on, should they prove their faithfulness. And they did.

Count the stars.

I read with interest an article in a scientific magazine discussing the Hubble telescope's exploration into Deep Space--those pockets of blackness that have been believed by some to be empty. They wondered if by looking through the most powerful magnification instrument ever built by mankind, they might find the place where the sidewalk ends, where the universe runs out.

They were astounded at what they saw.

There was no emptiness, no edge of existence. They saw with their own eyes that creation goes on and on, brilliant and ordered and more expansive than we will ever be able to see, apparently without end. One of the scientists quoted in the article, a professed atheist, conceded that such a revelation has caused her to question her beliefs.

And yet, with the grandness of the scope of God's creations, "He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names" (Psalm 147:4).

Because He made them. He knows them. They are His. Just like us.

Count the stars.

As my wife and I struggle through life together, it is comforting to know that our Father in Heaven is aware of us individually, so much more than He is aware of the seemingly countless stars, which He also numbers and names. After all, every star will eventually burn out, but an eternal soul never dies. We will each outlast them all, worlds without end.

So we plod along in faith, with only hints into infinite concepts that our mortal minds don't currently comprehend. It doesn't really matter: for now, we are to work together, to do the very best we can, to prove ourselves worthy of a far greater responsibility someday, like Abraham and Sarah did.

And to remind us of our possibilities and purpose, we can always pause to count the stars.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wife Rule #61: It's a Corn Chex Life

Since I was already on the subject of cold cereal in the last Wife Rule, I thought I would continue the bold, inspiring trend, and tell you about my Corn Chex epiphany.

It was a month or so before I was to marry my wife, and I was home from college for the weekend for some reason. I woke up rather early that day and rolled out of the twin bed I had slept in since I was three, which was still covered with scratch-n-sniff stickers I had ordered from a book order in second grade. I went downstairs to the kitchen, and grabbed the milk from the fridge and a half-eaten box of Corn Chex from the cupboard.

It was one of the last bowls of Corn Chex I would ever consume on my parents' dime.

So there I was, sitting in my parents' kitchen, in my parents' house, dressed in pajamas my mommy bought for me, eating Corn Chex that belonged to my parents, and I started thinking. Really thinking. All this thinking, incidentally, resulted in the Corn Chex growing soggy in my parents' bowl at an alarming rate, because of being doused in the milk which also belonged to my parents.

I was thinking about everything my parents provided for me. The Corn Chex. The milk. The bowl. The spoon. My bedroom. The house. The electricity, and gas, and water to the house. The subsidies they provided to my college expenses the last few years. Even the auto insurance I currently "borrowed" as a qualifying student under age 25.

I realized I had been relying on my parents for a long, long time. I had no idea how to manage a household. I had never even paid bills--my roommates took care of that and I reimbursed them. True, I had made many trips to the grocery store, but I was used to only spending for one. One, One, One.

Now it would be Two, Two, Two. And then Three. Followed by Four. Maybe followed by More.

All at once I panicked. Really, I did. I panicked, right there in the middle of the Corn Chex. How would I, working part-time for a university teaching assistant's wages, ever be able to take care of a wife, much less kids? How could I feed them? How could I clothe them? How could I provide shelter for them? How could I possibly ever hope to do what my father had done in providing for me and the rest of his family all these years?

I realized I was chewing gold. Golden, expensive corn, shaped into little moisture-trapping squares. Evil little squares that caused the Chex to get prematurely soggy, so if you dared to even pause to think during breakfast, you would have to throw out the soggy bowl and get a fresh one, resulting in more profit lining the pockets of the filthy, money-grubbing corporate executives that dreamed up the Corn Chex shape in the first place, the guys that were going to bring me and my fledgling family to financial ruin, possibly within months.

Then my father entered the room. This heroic idol of mine, this Man of men, who had given me over twenty years of a pleasant, carefree life. A life where any money concerns that may have existed never once crossed into my consciousness to disturb my peace. A life I felt I should provide for my future family, but had no idea how I possibly ever could.

"Dad, can I ask you a question?" I pensively asked. And thus began an important father-son chat about family, finances, and the future. Dad shared with me a little secret, that twenty-something years ago he had once had a Corn Chex morning himself, or something similar to it. He encouraged me to have faith, to have confidence, to square my shoulders to life and be a man and that I would find, miraculously, that I could meet the demands placed upon me. He expressed his confidence in my ability to do it. He provided an immeasurable amount of comfort to a very frightened, uncertain young man that morning.

I wish I could say that I have never had a Corn Chex moment since then, but in reality, life is more complicated and uncertain every day. I have come to realize that life is an unending series of Corn Chex moments. It's designed that way: to test us, to stretch us, to force us to make the choice, over and over again, to square our shoulders to whatever it is that currently has us worried or worked up, and go forward in faith.

Perhaps my biggest misunderstanding during my Corn Chex morning was that I had to battle it out alone. But like my father was there for me that day, I now have a wife who is there for me every moment of every day. She is always there, to tell me she believes in me, that she knows I can do it, that I am not alone. She comforts me. She strengthens me. She bolsters my confidence. She fills in my gaps. We work together to solve the problems in our lives. We plan, we study, we talk, we ponder, we strategize, we pray, and we dream together.

We even eat our Corn Chex together, on our own dime.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wife Rule #60: Just Pass the Cheerios

Everyone knows that toddlers and their Cheerios in church are a Great American Icon, like Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot, like a baseball fan and his ballpark frank, like senior citizens and their Milk of Magnesia.

And if you don’t happen to know that, it’s only because you have never had the spiritually fulfilling experience of being trapped during a sermon holding your sleeping infant, while your toddler, lingering just out of arm’s reach with a wicked twinkle in her eye, dumps her entire Ziploc baggie of Cheerios out in a slow-motion stream, smiling at you all the while. Pat-a-pat-pat-pat-pat-paaaaaaaaaaaaat goes the stream of Cheerios, followed by the inevitable celebratory tap-dance of joy: crunch crunchity-crunch.

But while I’ve never learned a valuable life lesson from Milk of Magnesia yet, my wife and I did learn something profound from Cheerios in church. I have no idea what sermon was preached from the pulpit that day, but I doubt I will ever forget the lesson I learned in the pew.

You see, my wife and I are trying to be Good Parents. Don’t ask us exactly what this means, because we failed to read the job description carefully before applying and we somehow lost the instruction manual. But despite our spotty knowledge on the subject, we have learned about a few of the rules that Good Parents have to follow.

One of these is Follow-Through. Follow-Through simply means that you do what you say. Thus, if a Good Parent threatens their child that the next time she intentionally dumps out her baggie of Cheerios at church she will lose the privilege of possessing said baggie of Cheerios, then if the baggie is intentionally dumped, the baggie must go. Baggie-dump, baggie-go. Simple, beautiful Justice. Something even a child could understand.

To be honest, I don’t remember what three-year-old Dawn did that day in church to lose her baggie of Cheerios, but it must have been Serious, because we laid down the law, and she broke it, and she incurred the Consequence: her baggie was revoked.

There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the loss of the Cheerios. My wife and I were feeling proud, knowing that as Good Parents we had succeeded in teaching a lesson that was really sinking in. Cause and effect. Dawn, with her miserable, red, puffy eyes, even looked somewhat repentant. Sweet Justice.

And then, without warning, one-year-old Rachel toddled into the picture. With gorgeous, oversized eyes, a half-grown-in-toothy-grin, and pure innocence that glowed like a halo around her blond-topped, angelic face, she was a lean, mean, Daddy-melting machine.

And with heart, too. She noticed Big Sister suffering and carrying on, and quickly concocted a master plan to help. She toddled over to Dawn, and holding out her baggie of Cheerios, offered to share.

She had apparently Learned All She Needs to Know without ever having Been to Kindergarten.

I instinctively reached towards her, about to put the kibosh on her unauthorized sharing. Dawn had made a choice, and was reaping her just desserts. I couldn’t let Rachel, no matter how innocent she was, or how pure her motives were, or how much her big, Bambi eyes bore into my self-righteous soul, spoil this important learning lesson.

And then, predictably, I melted. It wasn’t just Rachel—it was a realization that burst into my heart like a flash of bright light.

Who was I to deny Rachel the right to share? It’s not like Dawn was stubbornly unrepentant. She was a penitent soul under the penalty of Justice, and Rachel came to intercede on her behalf, to offer freely what was hers to give. It was precisely because Rachel had broken no rules—because she was innocent—that I found myself unable to stop her from reaching out to give freely to someone in need. It wouldn't have been fair to get in the way. Justice seemed to demand that I allow this little mediator to pay the penalty for Dawn, to provide Mercy.

And then into my mind came thoughts of the great Mediator of mankind, the Innocent, Holy One who came into the world to save all who would repent and believe in Him. It is Mercy—a gift freely given to us by the only One who is worthy to give it—that satisfies the demands of Justice on our behalf.

And I realized further, perhaps for the first time, that Justice works both sides of this equation: it not only demands payment of the penalty of a broken law, but also demands that intercession made by a worthy Mediator be accepted as payment. When penitence is real, and the gift of Mercy is freely given by one who has done no wrong, how can it be refused?

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Mercy and Justice: it's pretty neat how they work together. It's something even a parent can understand.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wife Rule #59: Taste the Shake

Summer is finally here again.

True, it has been in the high nineties for a couple of weeks now, but I know it's summer with certainty, because tonight we made the official First Raspberry Shake Of The Season. This shake was the fruits of several days' labor. Our raspberry bushes only began to produce about a week ago at a rate of about twenty berries per day. So my kids have been learning the joy of anticipation as they have carefully squirreled away each day's handful into a plastic cup in the refrigerator for safe keeping.

Tonight the cup reached the magic half-full mark, and the shake was on! While the kids watched eagerly, I carefully gathered ingredients. Three large scoops vanilla ice cream, a half-cup milk, and one large banana, brown-speckled to sugary perfection, went into the blender first. Next came three scoops of raspberry and lime sherbet, carefully extracted from the rainbow sherbet to avoid orange flavor contamination. Then a big, juicy peach, just slightly overripe, followed by a large cup of crushed ice to thicken the mixture.

And then comes the defining magic ingredient, the cup of fresh raspberries which was hand-picked with joy all week long, by four enthusiastic shake connoisseurs. These are always added very last, and blended at slow speed with great vigilance to ensure that the blending is just long enough for the berries to sink down the thick vortex in the center of the blender. I turn it off immediately when I see the deep purple pigments penetrate to the edges. This ensures that many individual packets of blood-red juice will remain intact, chilled to perfection and broken only by teeth and tongue as the shake is slowly sipped and savored.

And that's just how a homemade raspberry shake was meant to be eaten: slowly, carefully, deliberately. You see, it's more than just the fresh raspberries that sets this shake apart from your typical soft-serve, artificially-flavored, fast-food imitation. Those shakes are meant to be served in Super-Sized cups and gulped down quickly before your mouth has a chance to taste and your stomach has a chance to tell your brain that it's overstuffed.

No, in a homemade shake, the cups are small and rich, for the raspberries are not the only source of flavor. Each small sip should rest on the tongue, and if you pay attention, you can discern all the components. The distinctive scent of creamy vanilla. The sugary background flavor and velvety smoothness of the banana. The hint of tartness and texture from the peach. The sweetness of the sherbet. And the delightfully round raspberry seeds, each wrapped in a tangy burst of intense flavor that lingers on the teeth long after the sip is swallowed.

Kids somehow naturally know the proper way to enjoy such a masterpiece as a homemade raspberry shake. Their lives are slower, their pleasures simpler, and their rewards fuller. Unfortunately, it seems that as we grow older, taking the time and effort to enjoy such delights becomes more challenging. There's always some thing that has to be done, some place to hurry off to. We resort to fast food and empty calories.

But tonight, we sat at the table together for a long time, with little sound except sips from straws, smacks of cold lips, and satisfied sighs.

I have noticed that my relationship with my wife is similar. When we first started dating, joyful anticipation dominated our thoughts. Every step we took together, like individual berries dropping into the cup, was exciting. Small incremental progress towards our Big Goal was enough to keep our spirits high.

So we planned carefully and gathered the best ingredients for our future that we could find. And the culmination of our efforts, the initial blending of our lives when we married, was like a dream. We were two young kids, savoring each sip of the raspberry shake we had made together, enjoying it fully. We could taste the fruits of our careful preparations, and it was effortlessly wonderful.

But as time went on, we both noticed that it took more and more conscious thought to enjoy each other the way we used to. We probably resorted to fast-food togetherness at times, merely surviving as the chores stacked up, the bills multiplied, and our easy time, our effortless enjoyment time, slipped away.

But there's good news: we have redoubled our efforts in recent years. We try to work together whenever possible. We pay through the nose for babysitters to allow us our alone time. We stay up a little later, just talking and being together in the quietude that only settles on our house after the kids fall asleep. And most importantly, we try to consciously recognize the goodness we have together, to taste the individual ingredients that make our lives together so rich.

As I have savored our relationship, I have noticed that there is much more depth and richness to my wife than I realized at the start. There are more than just raspberries in this shake. I sense the mighty strength that comes through her devotion to God. I see how her selflessness has blossomed in the service of motherhood. I understand so much better now her tremendous talents in leadership. I marvel how she excels both in producing and appreciating art and culture, making our home a lovely place to live and filling our lives with richness.

And as for Love, the defining ingredient, the one I knew we could never do without: I can say that our love for each other runs deeper, entwines us tighter, and ennobles our spirits far more than it did at the start. True, the easy times are in the past, but they were by no means the best times. After ten years, we understand what life together means now, and we have learned to savor it, to taste it, to appreciate all of its ingredients.

Just like a raspberry shake.