Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Gift of Surprises

gift surprise origI was 12 or 13 years old the year I received a guitar for Christmas. Without question, it was one of my favorite gifts ever and definitely has been the longest-lasting gift of my life. I played it as a teenager and took it with me to college. As I write this, almost 50 years later, it is sitting in my downstairs hall closet still in pretty good shape. I even get it out and play a chord or two every few years.

Part of what made this gift such a delight was that it was a complete surprise—until right before Christmas, that is. I don’t know if I ever told my mother this, but a few days before Christmas I pulled out the box of wrapping supplies to wrap a gift of my own and found my mother’s list of gifts for us kids. There it was: Eileen—guitar. I was thrilled and disappointed at the same time; thrilled at the prospect of having a guitar but really quite disappointed that I wouldn’t have the fun of being surprised on Christmas morning. Instead, I would have to fake my surprise and excitement.

I’ve been thinking about this whole idea of the surprises in our lives since I came across this passage in a book I was reading: “Not all is certainty in our world . . . . If it were, there’d be no opportunity for faith, and then it would be a very dull existence.” (Britain, Kristen, The High King’s Tomb, p. 394)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because not all of our surprises are happy ones. What would my life have been like if I had known the ups and downs I would experience? What if I had known beforehand that I was going to have to travel through the abyss of despair—and there was nothing I could do to stop it? I wish I could say I would have lived my life one day at time, enjoying the good moments and not worrying about something I had no control over. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s not what would have happened. Instead, I would have been terrified of life, worrying about every little thing that might have indicated I was sliding down that slippery slope.

Then there are those difficult things that, had we known about beforehand, could have been avoided, such as my dad’s falling down the stairs and suffering a traumatic brain injury. If I had had the power to prevent that incident would I have done so? Probably. But, more importantly, should I have done so if I could? Probably not.

This question has caused me to consider what my life would be like right now if Dad hadn’t fallen. Obviously, we would still have Dad here to be with us, particularly with Mom, although we wouldn’t have known what a gift his presence was because we wouldn’t have undergone life without him. But there are some very precious things we wouldn’t have learned if this circumstances had not come into our lives.

If Dad hadn’t suffered the brain injury and the dementia which followed, we would not have had the opportunity of seeing the Lord’s hand bearing us up in this trial. As we traveled through completely unfamiliar territory, time after time people who had the resources to help us were brought to our doorstep. (When I told one doctor he was an answer to our prayers, he replied, “You must be praying to the wrong god!”) This experience strengthened my faith in God’s interest and action in the details of our lives.

We would not have had the joy of learning charity, of loving for love’s sake and not for any reciprocal response. Saying “Love you” was one of the last interactive abilities Dad lost. Coming from him in his limited capacity to relate to others, those two little words took on a celestial connotation. However, there were many, many times when he didn’t love us; in fact sometimes he was downright mean. We loved him, and told him so, anyway.

We wouldn’t have had the privilege of taking care of him. I absolute cherish the hour and a half it took me to feed Dad his lunch one day. For some reason, he was more aware that day and remembered that he had worked with wood. Even though it was incredibly difficult to see my dad in his debilitated state—I always stopped to buy chocolate after I had been to see him—when we were taking care of him we were blessed to have been on the errand of angels.

It may seem strange to say this, but I believe this great trial was a privilege and a blessing for my dad, as well. Looking back, we can see that Dad was showing signs of dementia even before the fall. Knowing he was losing his cognitive faculties would have been my dad’s worst nightmare come to life, but because of the brain injury, he was never aware that was happening to him.

A couple of weeks after the fall, I was with Dad in the hospital and talking of spiritual things. He was completely present with me for 10 or 15 minutes, and during that time he told me, “I talked to the Lord and he said he has a mission for me. Plumb scares me to death.” I believe the greatest blessing for my Dad in all of this was his opportunity to sacrifice his own physical, mental, and emotional well-being so his family could grow and progress.

To be completely honest, even knowing the great blessings that would come to us because of this trial, I’m not sure I could have let the fall happen if I had had the power to stop it. I think that’s one of the reasons the Lord doesn’t tell us the details of our future. How many blessings would we deny ourselves and others by taking away the hard things in our lives?

Living well in uncertainty requires that we have faith, particularly faith that whatever circumstances God brings or allows into our lives are the things that will bring us the greatest blessings, even if we can’t see it for the moment. Truly, the surprises of our lives, both happy and hard, are among the best gifts God has to give.

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The Why of Hard Things

A grade cropOne of the first classes I took when I went back to graduate school was a required course in graduate statistics—I just wanted to get it over with, kind of like eating your brussel sprouts first. The course was for all graduate students, so we had everything from accounting to zoology majors. I readily admit that I didn’t really get much of what we were talking about during the class. Our grade would be based on the assignments we turned in, four tests during the semester, and the final exam at the end. Each of the four tests was a take-home, open book exam. The professor lost some of the assignments I turned in, so I copied each completed test as a backup before I turned it in. After we submitted the tests, we would go over them in class. Because I had made a copy of my test, I knew immediately which questions I missed and wrote down the correct answer for each of them.

When it came time for the final, the professor informed us that the test would not be a take-home test, but it would be open book and open note. Additionally, all of the test questions would come from the four tests we had taken during the semester. That meant that, because I had written down all the correct answers on my copies of the tests, all I would have to do for the final is figure out which test a particular question was drawn from, look it up, and write down the answer.

Easy “A.”

There was only one problem—I didn’t really learn much. I had all the right answers, but I didn’t know why they were the right answers. Consequently, I didn’t know how to apply the information I was supposed to have learned. Basically, all I had done was jump through a hoop.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only student in our Instructional Psychology and Technology (IPT) department who came away from that statistics course with a limited understanding of statistics; shortly after I took the course, the department head decided to have one of the professors from our department teach the course for the IPT students.

You might think I was nuts, but I willingly took the course again. I certainly wasn’t in love with statistics, but I wanted to develop at least a basic understanding of what it was all about. I had taken a class from the professor who was going to be teaching the class and knew that if anybody could help me understand “sadistics,” as he liked to call it, it was him

The course wasn’t a cake walk. There are statistical computer programs you can use where you put in the numbers, select the operation you want performed on the set of numbers, and the computer magically provides you with the results. However, our professor wanted us to know the “why” behind the results, so we did everything the old-fashioned way using calculators and the computer God gave us—our brains. The tests were still of the take-home variety, but they really made me analyze and apply the information. They did exactly what a good test should do—assess my knowledge and teach me at the same time. (I must mention that this professor was the assessment specialist in the department, so he was kind of obligated to come up with good tests.)

I felt a real sense of accomplishment when we came to the final exam, which was again a take-home test. The last question on the test included an excerpt from a published study, the results of which we were to use in answering the question. Like I said earlier, I really wanted to understand the “why” of what I was doing, and being a bit OCD, I took the raw numbers published with the study and ran them through the appropriate formula to see how the authors arrived at their results. The only thing was, no matter how many times I ran the numbers, I couldn’t come up with the published results. I met with the professor in his office and showed him my work and the results I obtained. He looked at the numbers for a few minutes then told me that I was right and the published article was wrong. He said he had used that study for thirty years and no one had ever checked to see if the results were accurate. Without even looking at the rest of my test, he gave me an “A” on the spot. Now this was a grade I felt good about, one which I knew I had legitimately earned.

It’s been almost 15 years, and, to be honest, I don’t remember much of what I learned about statistics, probably because it isn’t information I’ve needed to use. But I do remember the experience of working hard and the satisfaction that came from accomplishing something that was difficult for me.

I thought about this incident recently when I found out that a friend’s stomach cancer has returned and she has just months, or maybe only weeks, to live. I spoke with her the other day and was amazed at her positive attitude; she seems at peace with this unexpected and unwanted turn of events.

As I thought about this trial my friend is going through and contemplate the difficulties that have occurred in my own family, I have asked myself, “Why?” Why is it necessary for life to be so hard? What is God’s purpose in requiring us to experience the distresses of mortality?

I have no doubt that God could cure my friend if it were his will. He could have healed my dad’s brain injury and prevented the suffering Dad, my mom, and we, their children, experienced. He could take the mental illness from me and so many others who are weighed down with this and a multitude of other burdens. There is no difficult circumstance which he can’t alleviate. So why doesn’t he?

I believe God doesn’t make this life an easy “A” because mortality is all about learning, real learning. Although I got an “A” in the first statistics course I took, it wasn’t an accurate indication of my understanding. Learning, real learning, is hard and messy. It isn’t neat and clean like looking up the correct answer in you notes and writing it down in the appropriate box or feeding numbers into a computer to get the answer. God knows that it is the most trying times that teach us the most. In fact, those experiences teach us lessons we could learn in no other way; I know I would not have the same compassion for those with mental illness if I had not had a similar experience. The same goes for those who are watching dementia steal away a parent one brain cell at a time.

No one is exempt from experiencing hard things, not even the Son of God, who accomplished the hardest thing of all, his atoning sacrifice for our sins. And because he has experienced our hard things, he knows how to help us through them.

My granddaughter wears a wristband that says “I can do hard things.” I think this is one of the things the Lord wants us to learn—that we can do hard things. God wants us to learn what we need to learn to fulfill our divine potential. He gives or allows trials in our lives that both test and teach us, if we are willing to learn. We might not know or believe it yet, but He knows that, with his help, we can do hard things, for “with God all things are possible.” (Matt19:26)

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