Finding God in a Walk on the Beach

It is 6:30 in the morning, and I find myself in a hotel room at the beach with five relatives sure to sleep another three hours and a baby who refuses to sleep another minute. So I get ready quietly and do the only thing I can think to do—take the baby on a walk.

I have never been to Myrtle Beach before, and so I don’t know exactly what to expect, but we soon find the boardwalk and begin to walk briskly along the concrete pathway. In a couple hours I know it will be teaming with tourists, venders, beach bums, and families of all races and origins. But for now it is empty save the few die-hard joggers eager to beat the day’s heat.

IMG_1419

This means I can talk playfully and giggle at my sweet little boy without too many awkward stares, and so I start to engage in the kind of one-sided conversation mothers around the world all must know.

Me: “Look, Sam! We’re at the beach! Aren’t you excited?”

Sam: Big grin, smile, coo.

It doesn’t take long for our dialogue and my thoughts to shift from the material to the spiritual.

Me: “Sam, can you believe that the same God who made your precious little body also made this big, enormous ocean? Aren’t you a little miracle? Isn’t God’s love amazing?”

Sam: Big grin, smile, coo.

Suddenly, the melody of a song comes to my mind, and I began to sing its words to my baby:

“Christ is risen from the dead/ Trampling over death by death/ Come awake, come awake!/ Come and rise up from the grave/ Oh, death, where is your sting?/ Oh, hell, where is your victory?/Oh, church, come stand in the light/ Our God is not dead/ He’s alive! He’s alive!”

Singing this song brings tears to my eyes. It reminds me of the first time I heard those words. It was Easter Sunday of this year, the day Sam was baptized. For the past week, my life had been turned upside down. I thought I had been prepared—as prepared as possible, at least—for the birth of my second child. Nothing could have readied me for the events of March 25th, 2013.

After a day of excruciating and unproductive labor, I had to make the painful decision to have another C-section. By this point, my mind and body were exhausted. I spent the entire surgery squeezing my eyes shut to block out the bright lights of the OR while trying unsuccessfully not to vomit, a task made more difficult by the oxygen mask being pressed over my face. “Is he out?” I asked at one point. “Yes,” someone said. My husband’s eyes were filled with worry. “Why isn’t he crying?” one of us asked. We were both thinking it.

From the very beginning, we knew something was wrong. His color was not pinking up. In fact, he was turning blue. His body was not getting oxygen. There was something wrong with his heart.

I didn’t cry in the recovery room. Instead, I felt the most remarkable feeling of reassurance. I later learned that my husband had been convinced our son would die. He revealed to me that he had already started to think about where he would bury him in the little cemetery plot by our house. But in those first uncertain hours, this knowledge came to me: “He will be okay. He will live. It will take a surgery to fix what he has, but he will make it.”

For what seemed like an eternity, we waited for the paramedics to prepare Sam for transport. The hospital I’d delivered in lacked a NICU, but there was one across town. The doctor wisely decided that instead of being transported to Roanoke Memorial, Sam needed to be taken to UVA Medical Center as soon as possible. Before he left, I was allowed to reach through the little plastic circle and touch my son’s hand. It would be another four days before I could hold him.

Still, I didn’t cry. I wouldn’t cry until the next night, when I heard a baby crying. Somewhere another mother was holding her newborn. Why was I stuck here recovering from my surgery, unable to even hear my baby?

Once I was able to join my husband at UVA, we were filled in on the particulars of Sam’s condition. He had been born with a congenital heart defect called transposition. His pulmonary artery and aorta were switched, resulting in a lack of oxygen-rich blood to his body.  They had stabilized him by putting a hole in his heart to allow the blood to mix, but it would take a day-long open-heart surgery to correct it.

IMG_0875

Sam was baptized on Easter Sunday with a little vial of sterile water in the NICU at UVA because we were not sure he was going to make past his surgery on Wednesday. Except, for some reason, I was. I had faith in the doctor, one of the best pediatric cardiac surgeons in the country. But I knew that it was the power of prayer that had gotten him this far, and that God would take him the rest of the way. We later learned that the transport truck had broken down en route to UVA and a 2 hour transport had taken 4 hours. When Sam arrived in the NICU, he had been more dead than alive, his oxygen saturation hovering in the single digits. But already thousands of people were praying for him from around the country, including our community in Roanoke, the students at the University of Dallas where my sister is a student, and the students at a small school in Minnesota that my mother had hosted for a football game.

Sam’s surgery was a success. He made an amazing recovery and is a great baby. We decided to call our son Sam (his first name is William) after learning that it means “God hears us” and reading this passage during his surgery: “And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart, and all those signs came to pass that day (1 Samuel 10:9 KJV).” In the bible, Samuel’s mother was barren. She prayed to God for a child, and when he answered her prayer, she dedicated his life to God’s service.

IMG_0903

When I heard the words to that song in church that Easter morning, tears streamed down my face uncontrollably. I wasn’t crying because I was worried for my son’s life. I was crying tears of joy and hope at Christ’s resurrection. God’s Son died and came back to life. In a similar way, I knew my son was going to be given a second chance at life. The reality of Easter hit me so powerfully that morning that all I could do was cry.

Which brings us back to the beach. Sam has already dropped off to sleep, lulled by the constant motion of the stroller and the salty sea air. He doesn’t see me crying all over again in gratitude for his life as I sing these words, to myself now:

“Christ is risen from the dead/ Trampling over death by death/ Come awake, come awake!/ Come and rise up from the grave/ Oh, death, where is your sting?/ Oh, hell, where is your victory?/Oh, church, come stand in the light/ Our God is not dead/ He’s alive! He’s alive!”

For the second time since Sam was born, I am overcome with the experience of God’s amazing power and love. I realize that if we could ever really comprehend the blessing of God’s love and his incredible gift of life, we would be too overwhelmed to even go about our days.

I remember my dad telling me a story about his friend’s three-year-old son seeing the ocean for the first time. The child was so filled with awe upon gazing at the seemingly infinite sea that he dropped to his knees and lifted his tiny hands upward in a gesture of worship.

IMG_1422

Religion comes naturally to children, just as worship comes naturally to mankind. You could almost say we are programmed for it. The earliest human societies painted designs on caves and carved figurines out of stone. Even atheists and secularists who cannot abide the thought of worshipping a deity direct their worship elsewhere—the state, the environment, science.

You cannot stand gazing out at the beach—observing the curvature of the Earth, feeling the wind and Sun and water—without experiencing the Spirit on some level. Perhaps the millions of people who flock to the shores each summer are actually seeking spiritual renewal as much as material relaxation. Perhaps they are pilgrims without even knowing it.

Proving God’s existence is like proving the existence of wind. You can feel it and see it working on people and objects, but you cannot observe it in isolation. The wind is the Holy Spirit, calling us to the water’s edge. God’s love is vast and eternal like the ocean, connecting all things. And Jesus Christ is the Sun, whose brilliance warms our bodies and souls and whose resurrection renews our hope each day in rising.

IMG_1364

Advertisements

Lessons on Liberty from Egypt

“Is that the Salem Fair, mommy?” my five year-old son asks. The flat screen in our living room broadcasts roaring crowds gathered in Tehrir Square, Cairo, as fireworks explode in the night sky.

“No, sweetie. It’s Egypt. They’re getting a new government. Again.”

The timing is ironic, but perhaps instructive. As we prepared to celebrate our nation’s unique commitment to freedom and its 237-year anniversary, we watched the Egyptian people demand the ouster of their democratically-elected president Mohammad Morsi on the 1-year anniversary of his rule. The military obliged with a coup.

egypt1

The coincidence of these two events teaches us an important lesson about liberty. Namely, freedom is more than the ability to vote for the person who will control your life for a set period of time. Democracy is not synonymous with liberty. The only reason we cherish the former is its ability to help us secure the latter. Democracy is but a means (and an unreliable one at that); liberty is the end.

Democracy unconstrained by the rule of law—i.e. a Constitution that limits the powers of government and protects the rights of minorities—is no more than mob rule. It is violent, temperamental, and fundamentally unstable. This sort of unrestrained democracy inevitably results in tyranny, as it is incapable of providing a secure foundation for either the economy or society to function. The crowds that once danced in the promise of their own power soon turn it over to someone—anyone—capable of restoring order and normality.

This cycle is not a recent phenomenon, as this excellent 10 minute video illustrates. It goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. The most infamous example is the French Revolution of 1789, when the same mob that stormed the Bastille also suffered under the Reign of Terror and cheered the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

When we really think about it, what we value in our country is the rule of law, not the rule of the majority. In a democracy, the fate of the likes of George Zimmerman would be determined by a national poll. Instead, he gets a jury trial where the burden of proof is on the prosecution and guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In an absolute democracy, 51% of the people can vote to confiscate the private property of the other 49%. Ben Franklin put it best: “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.”

1democracy

Our founding fathers understood the difference between a republic and a democracy, wisely choosing to give us the former. They knew that monarchs, despots, and princes are not the only ones who can trample man’s liberty. A group of men—even an elected one—is more than capable of that.

The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” How do governments protect these freedoms? With laws. The word “democracy” is nowhere mentioned in the entire document.

To understand what all this means for Egypt, let’s look at what has happened over the last couple years. Here’s the super-condensed version: Hosni Mubarak was an autocrat who used the power of the military to suppress dissent for 30 years. He grew increasingly unpopular largely as a result of his inability to deal with a poor economy. Caught up in the “Arab Spring,” the Egyptian people took to the streets and demanded Mubarak step down, which he eventually did. Power was turned over to the Egyptian military until elections could be held. Despite the fact that Islamists had not been the driving force behind the anti-Mubarak protests, they managed to gain over 60% of the Parliament and the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood attempted to present itself to the West as democratic and moderate, even fooling our own president. But their history and professed ideology prove otherwise. The goal of the Brotherhood is theocracy, not democracy. Their credo is: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.” As this article by Michael Totten shows, the Brotherhood is committed to radicalism and unwilling to compromise with liberal elements in Egyptian society, to the extent that they exist. Here is one telling excerpt:

“The Western worldview is not very popular in Egypt,” Egyptian journalist Mohamed Ahmed Raouf told me. “They watch American movies, they drive American cars, but they don’t accept Western culture or values of democracy, pluralism, and enlightenment. They don’t accept it. People have to be open-minded, and that’s not the case here.”

Hala Mustafa, a liberal intellectual at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told me the Muslim Brothers grotesquely distort the words “freedom” and “democracy.” “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights,” she said, “but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.”

Morsi and the Brotherhood are Anti-Semitic and hostile to Israel. “We must never forget, brothers, to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews,” Mr. Morsi declared in this video. Egyptian children “must feed on hatred; hatred must continue,” he said. “The hatred must go on for Allah and as a form of worshiping him.”

Hillary Clinton, Mohammed Morsi

Now does that sound more like Thomas Jefferson or Adolf Hitler? (Hitler, by the way, was democratically elected. That didn’t stop him from ordering the executions of 11 million people, and it didn’t stop us from opposing him. If only the German military had overthrown the Nazi party, the world would have been spared the most costly conflict in terms of human life in the history of the planet.)

So, what should the United States do? Continue to support Morsi, as President Obama did up to the eleventh hour, just because he was “democratically elected?” Accept military rule and the jailing of Brotherhood leaders? Just phone it in, golf, and go yachting, like Obama and Kerry? For the moment it seems that we have settled on the genius approach of appearing to support everyone and no one, thus alienating both the pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi camps. If there is one thing both sides agree on, it’s that they are anti-Obama. Both sides suspect the United States of sabotaging their interests.

Anti-Obama-Signs-from-Anti-Mubarak-Protest-in-Egypt1

On the one hand, it’s hard not to see the fall of Morsi as a good development. Egypt’s wealthy Gulf neighbors certainly do. Some have suggested the Egyptian military has offered the nation a rare “second chance” at democracy. We can hope that Egypt will proceed in time along a path to real liberty and opportunity for its people, but the outcome is far from certain.

In the best case scenario, Egyptians draft a constitution this time before selecting a president to carry it out. This constitution protects the rights of women, Christians, and other minorities and guards against the type of executive overreach that Morsi engaged in, essentially declaring himself pharaoh last November. We can hope that over time the moderate and liberal voices come to dominate the culture and that society rejects the lure of Islamic radicalism. If young Egyptians agree with this amazing 12-year old boy, then there may be reason yet to have faith in Egypt’s future. We have already seen that economic realities can trump political ideologies. To many Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood was just fine in theory until they completely failed to improve the economy, making matters much worse.

The worst case scenario—unfortunately also the more likely one—is a struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that runs the risk of civil war. So long in the shadows, the Brotherhood got a tantalizing taste of power. Now that they can claim the legitimacy of having won elections, this can only embolden their cause.

But as the situation in Egypt plays itself out, we can take a moment to truly appreciate the extraordinary freedoms we enjoy as citizens of this great nation. We can pause in gratitude to our founding fathers—to Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison—and be glad they were not Napoleon or Khomeini or Morsi. We can be grateful that we live in a society founded on Judeo-Christian principles where a woman can walk through a crowded street without being sexually assaulted by a crowd of jeering men.

We can also take a moment to recall this important lesson on liberty: a democracy is only as good as the laws, the culture, and the morals of its people.

More than Just Mammals

“You and me baby ain’t nothin but mammals/ so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” So go the lyrics of the popular Bloodhound Gang song “The Bad Touch.”

As a fun little game, just imagine any film or literary romance. Romeo and Juliet. Gone With the Wind. Jane Eyre. The Notebook. Titanic. Downton Abbey. Twilight. Now substitute these lyrics into the dialogue of either the male or female protagonist moments before they experience each other for the first time.

Jack stares into Rose’s eyes and, instead of pouring out his heart, observes that her powerful sex pheromones have triggered a surge in his testosterone and dopamine levels, so they may as well do it.

titanic-jack-and-rose1       romeo-and-juliet-1968

Suddenly the stories that have captured our imaginations and awakened our souls to the possibility of beauty become vulgar and, even worse, boring. This is the result when attraction and love between man and woman are reduced to mere animal biology.

Yet this is exactly the view Megan Laslocky presents in a recent CNN piece provocatively entitled “Face It: Monogamy is Unnatural.” Laslocky derides monogamy as a “lofty but perhaps fundamentally doomed aspiration.” It is time, she argues, “for our culture to wake up and smell the sex pheromones.” What our society really needs is not a reawakening of the monogamy ideal or a renewed commitment to marriage, but rather “a greater tolerance toward the human impulse to experience sexual variety.”

Instead of putting that poison to his lips, Romeo should have asked Juliet if she had a sister.

The argument Laslocky makes and the evidence she attempts to muster in its defense is so obviously faulty that it is hard to even know where to begin. But it is important to demonstrate the shaky science and dubious morality of her thesis lest society continue to embrace this dangerous world view.

“Biologically, we humans are animals,” she begins. “So it makes sense to look to the animal kingdom for clues as to what we are built for.”

Whoa. Hold it right there. Are we really to believe that the only thing separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our above average intelligence? Put aside for a moment the biblical teaching that we are made in God’s image and given dominion over animals. Common sense is enough to show that humans are fundamentally different. G.K. Chesteron makes this case in The Everlasting Man:

“The simplest truth about man is that he is a very strange being; almost in the sense of being a stranger on the earth. In all sobriety, he has much more of the external appearance of one bringing alien habits from another land than of a mere growth of this one.

He cannot sleep in his own skin; he cannot trust his own instincts. He is at once a creator moving miraculous hands and fingers and a kind of cripple. He is wrapped in artificial bandages called clothes; he is propped on artificial crutches called furniture. His mind has the same doubtful liberties and the same wild limitations. Alone among the animals, he is shaken with the beautiful madness called laughter; as if he had caught sight of some secret in the very shape of the universe hidden from the universe itself. Alone among the animals he feels the need of averting his thought from the root realities of his own bodily being; of hiding them as in the presence of some higher possibility which creates the mystery of shame.”

We are the only species that is truly self-aware. We are the only species to significantly alter our environments and create tools to adapt to new ones. We are the only species to create art. We are the only species to worship a higher being.

Yet Laslocky smugly references the mating habits of penguins and prairie voles as evidence that humans should just give up on this whole monogamy thing. Apparently, only 3 to 5% of mammals are monogamous. But what percent of mammals urinate and defecate indoors? What percent of mammals wear clothes, paint landscapes, or build furniture? I can only assume Laslocky is not inclined to meander about the streets of New York in the nude, relieving herself in full view of the public. Yet if we are to employ her logic, this behavior would be more “natural” than having one mate.

animal_love8     animalskissing

Even if humans were just highly intelligent mammals, would it really make sense to let birds and prairie voles serve as our moral guides? Should we tolerate rape because male bears don’t wait for the consent of female bears? Homicide because black widows kill their men after mating?

What makes us human isn’t that we lack the same chemicals and receptors of the animal world. It’s that we try to control and temper these urges, using our reason and God-given free will. It’s not that choosing to do right is easy. It’s that we have a choice to begin with. Laslocky’s error falls into the broader categories of materialism and determinism that have wrought such havoc upon the world over the last few centuries. We humans are not just the sum of our biological parts. We are not just bodies. We have a spiritual nature; we have souls. For all our love of animals, it is still an insult to call a person one.

Like so many others before her, Laslocky succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating that we humans are fallen beings. We generally fail to live up to our ideals. She draws attention to the likes of Kristen Steward, Jude Law, and Bill Clinton as evidence. Monogamy has always been hard for most people, she claims, male and female. In recent years, it has been made that much harder by our longer life spans and decision to marry for love rather than security. So since fidelity is so hard, let’s just abandon the pretense altogether. At least that way we could dispense with all the hypocrisy.

Again, the logic is so bad, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Imagine a defendant sitting on the witness stand. He admits to raping a woman or killing an enemy over an insult, but pleads to the judge that it is just so hard not to do these things. Just look at the animal world where chickens peck each other to death. Look at the history of humanity and all the murders that have taken place from Abel to Julius Caesar to Abraham Lincoln. He can’t really be expected to control his actions when testosterone is such a powerful hormone.

Are we really ready to accept this defense? Or is it reasonable for society to expect individuals to exercise self-control and restraint?

The fact that we fail to live up to our ideals is not cause to abandon them altogether. The world is bad enough with most people attempting to limit their biological inclinations to acting only on those that conform to the moral restrictions of their society. How much worse would things be if those restrictions were abandoned and people were encouraged to just do whatever felt right at the time?

Unfortunately, we don’t have to do much imagining. That world is already upon us, as the federal government sees fit to use an “educational” website to instruct girls aged 10 to 16 on birth control, gay sex, and “mutual masterbation.” After all, teenagers have hormones, and we can’t expect them to use reason and morality to control their bodies. Best to just hand out free condoms and hope for the best. The result of this relativist and materialist thinking are the premature loss of childhood innocence, emotional damage and heartbreak, STDs, and unintended pregnancies. In the adult world, adultery leaves behind broken families and a less productive and moral society in its wake.

Laslocky claims to be monogamous herself, but bases her more “tolerant” views on a “healthy respect for science.” What they reflect is a lack of respect for history, traditional morality, and common sense.