Remarks at Chukkers for Children


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This evening I had the privilege of speaking at the Chukkers for Children event, sponsored by Anadarko and benefiting Bynum School. You guys have already heard some of these stories, and maybe the audience had too, but I told them anyway. Here were my remarks:
 
Good evening. My name is Clark Moreland, and my son William is a student at Bynum School. William is twelve years old, and in many ways, he is your typical pre-teen American boy: he thinks he knows everything, he’s eating us out of house and home, and he finds it necessary to tell us every time he passes gas. Or for that matter, when anyone does. And it’s hilarious. He loves his younger brother Sam, but he loves his dog, a 100-pound black lab named Chief, even more. Two stinky adolescent boys and a big dog…I tell ya, God bless my wife, she lives in a frat house.
 
But unlike most boys his age, William has Trisomy 21, a genetic disorder and type of Down syndrome which copied an extra 21st chromosome into every cell of William’s body. As my friend Jared Blong likes to say, Will is turbocharged. He does nothing in moderation. He relentlessly pursues his will (he was aptly named), without any pretense or hesitation. He sets his heart on a goal, and no one will stop him. And he loves, fiercely.
 
William was diagnosed with Down syndrome when he was eight days old. We learned of his diagnosis in the neonatal unit of the hospital where William would spend the first three weeks of his life, hooked up to heart monitors and a feeding tube. The doctor, who didn’t have much of a bedside manner, bluntly delivered the news, coldly apologized, and walked away as we fell apart over William’s crib. But before she departed, she mentioned that one of the typical characteristics of people with Down syndrome is “low muscle tone.” I’m sure she told us about other developmental delays or symptoms, but that’s the one I remember, only because of how wrong her prophesy turned out to be. William is the strongest person I know. I don’t just mean his personality or will; he also has tremendous physical ability. The kid’s a tank: he has the broad-shouldered build of a swimmer and the wiry energy of a gymnast. Maybe I should teach him polo? Regardless, he loves physical contact. When Will hugs you, he hugs you. And this brings to mind a story.
 
This year we moved into a new, two-story home, in a sort of swanky neighborhood. I admit I was eager to make a good impression on our neighbors. I didn’t want them to find out too soon that, in fact, the circus had moved into town, and I was the ringleader. But my plans were soon thwarted. About a month after we moved in, one evening we were finishing up baths for the boys, when the doorbell rang. Upon answering, I discovered a middle-aged man who introduced himself as our next-door neighbor. “Oh, I’m so glad to meet you. We’ve been meaning to come over and introduce ourselves.”
 
“Yes,” he replied, “I don’t quite know how to say this, but did you know your dog is on your roof?”
 
“What?!”
 
I turned and in astonishment I saw our 100-pound black lab, standing on a steeply-pitched roof above our garage, next to a window that someone had left open. He was barking at…I don’t know, the moon.
 
“Chief!”
 
He knew he was in trouble. He scurried back to the window and squeezed his fat butt through, just as I heard Samuel cry from the other window, “Hey Dad, did you know the dog is on the roof?”
 
And at that very moment, I heard the door open. In that split second, I prayed, “Lord, please let Will have underwear on.”
He did, though that was all he had on. William passed by me and went straight for the neighbor. “Hi there!” he said in a cheerful voice. “Hug please?” Our poor neighbor didn’t know what hit him. Had it been an NFL play, Will would have been called for unnecessary roughness. As he recovered, with Will’s arms still around him, my neighbor chuckled and said, “Well, welcome to the neighborhood.”
 
Jesus take the wheel.
 
But I’m happy to report that our neighbors have come to love and accept Will. I’m not surprised. William was born and raised in Midland, and in many ways embodies the spirit of our community. We are a stubborn, self-reliant, resilient people, but we also are a generous community who protects and cares for those who need it most. I’ve been to enough of these events to realize that the people who give are those who are already giving their money and time to Bynum and several other worthy causes. I’m supposed to be delivering the school’s wish list tonight, but before I do, may I just say thank you? We thank God for you and the support you’ve already given to our wonderful school. Midland is so fortunate to have Bynum. And if you’ll permit me, that brings to mind another story, which I tell in my book, Will: Parenting at the Crossroads of Disability and Joy.
 
A couple of years ago, we took a family road trip to the Midwest to see my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, play at Wrigley Field. When you’re the parent of pre-teen boys, your summer vacations are organized around places where baseball is played and food is served. We had two requirements for stopping in a town as we travelled up the Mississippi River Valley: (1) it had to have a park, and (2) it had to have a Chick-Fil-A. Everything else was optional.
 
But when we finally made it up to Chicago—Evanston, to be exact—we discovered that northern Illinois is not as enamored with Chick-Fil-A as we are out in West Texas. But they do have pizza, and boys are usually okay with that choice. My sweet wife, Carrie, had never had genuine Chicago-style pizza before. So we searched for the nearest pizzeria to our hotel and were directed to a place called Lou Malnati’s.
 
And that’s how we met Matthew.
 
Matthew is the maître d’ at the restaurant. I happened to be wearing a T-shirt that day from Bynum, celebrating March 21 (World Down Syndrome Day), which said, “Keep calm: It’s only an extra chromosome.” As Matthew was seating us and handing us menus, he said, “I like your shirt!” Carrie and I just looked at each other and smiled.
 
A few minutes later, after we had settled in and had our order taken, he came back over and said, “May I ask, does your son have Down syndrome?” Carrie said yes, and Matthew introduced himself. Then he turned to Will and said, “Hi, my name is Matthew. Did you know we share a disability called Down syndrome?”
 
Will replied, “Swimming pool?”
 
(I don’t know why he said that. But thank God for hotel swimming pools. Add that to the list of travel requirements for our family.)
 
We talked for a few minutes. Matthew asked whether we have “programs” for Will where we live. We replied that we are blessed to live in a community with Midland Children’s Rehab Center, or the SHARE respite ministry. But of course, what mainly came to mind was Bynum. Even in Evanston, a college town of several thousand people in a metropolitan area of millions, schools and quality educational programs for people like Matthew and William can sometimes be few and far between. I came to realize just how extraordinary Bynum really is.
 
We probably wouldn’t have said anything to Matthew had he not intervened in our lives. Wherever we go, Carrie and I are always keeping our eyes open for people with Down syndrome. Usually it’s me, nudging Carrie at a restaurant or a park and whispering, “Does that kid have DS?” We never just go up to a person and say, “Hey, do you have an extra twenty-first chromosome?”
 
But Matthew can do that, and I hope someday William will also be an intervener, a man who could step up to a young kid and say, “Hey, we share a disability.” I love the way Matthew phrased it: they share Down syndrome. What an incredible bond that must be. The rest of us are only looking in from the outside.
 
Even so, we can do our part. As we look at the wish list, I would point out a few items that caught my eye. Notice under “Community Based Instruction” how we are looking to get Bynum students outside of the school walls. I love how many field trips Will gets to go on. Not only is it good for students with special needs to learn social skills, it is also good for the rest of Midland to see, interact with, and even be served by these precious gifts from God. Can you imagine the joy that a lonely grandmother gets from seeing William walking up to her door with a Meals on Wheels delivery? But transportation and gas are expensive, folks.
 
Likewise, we need families to step up and support their neighbors who require tuition assistance. My heart breaks to think of it, but I know (and I say this as the son of public school teachers, and am myself a professor at a public university) I know that there are kids with special needs in Midland who ought to be attending Bynum School, but cannot afford it. I’ve won several teaching awards, but I’ll tell you, I can’t hold a candle to the talented, innovative, loving teachers that serve my child. There are kids in our city who need what Bynum offers. Imagine how you could change an entire family’s destiny by helping pay their child’s tuition.
 
And my goodness, have you seen the magnificent art work that students in the Mneme program have painted? We have one of William’s Mneme paintings hanging next to a Matisse print in our house, and I guarantee you, most people can’t tell the difference! Or the beautiful poinsettias that Bynum sells every Christmas. William has some of that West Texas farmer in him, and you ought to see his face light up when he sinks his hands in the dirt, and watches a seed grow into something more. A garden is a magical place.
 
But if I may be so bold to suggest one other way you might choose to become involved, in addition to writing a check. Come out to the school. See what your money has already bought: a state-of-the-art, intelligently designed, gorgeous campus. See how the students already love their new school: I know Will certainly does. Go visit Kara Claxton in the vocational program, and watch as her smile breaks every cynical bone in your body. Go check in on Peyton Abney: I tell you, that sweet girl will talk your ear off. I love to hear her stories. And if you’re lucky, you might even get a hug from Will.
 
You know, as we were leaving Lou Malnati’s on that day back in Evanston, I noticed a man—he looked like the manager—come out from behind a kitchen door. Matthew turned around and gave him a powerful bear hug. I was reminded of how Will loves to be held tightly; like many people with Down syndrome, the pressure on his muscles and bones gives him comfort. Then it hit me: that kind of embrace is the one a son gives a father. I know that hug. I guarantee you, however much you give tonight, if you get that kind of hug from Will, you’ll come away thinking you got the better end of the bargain, just like my neighbor did.
 
What a privilege to have neighbors such as you, interveners who share in the care and support of Bynum School. God bless you and enjoy your evening.

The Way Everlasting: A Study of Psalm 139 (Part Two)


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Click here to read Part One.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.

When we think of men who ask why the wicked prosper, Jonah comes to mind, as he does in this portion of Psalm 139 that talks about trying to flee from God’s presence. We would do well to remember both texts, when we talk about God’s presence, as if he is limited to where he can dwell. In Jeremiah 23:23-24, the Lord declares, “Am I a God who is near / And not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in hiding places / So I do not see him? Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” We expect the Lord to be in heaven, but Psalm 139:8 tells us that even in Sheol (variously translated as “the depths,” “the grave,” “the underworld,” or even “hell”), even there, the Lord sees all. Job 26:6 and Proverbs 15:11 tell us that “Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord, How much more the hearts of men!” Indeed, some men’s hearts do resemble the grave.

But the Psalmist says the Lord’s hands, even in the depths, will “lead” and “lay hold” of his servant. This adds to the previous image of a Father’s grip; now the hand is leading us through danger. One cannot help at this point but think of the Good Shepherd, with the rod and staff, guiding his sheep through the darkest valley. Why is darkness not dark to the Lord? Simply, as 1 John 1:5 confirms, because “God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” Wherever God goes, there is light, because He is Light. And His light is marvelous and wonderful, just like his knowledge. But if you’re going to truly believe that there is no darkness in God, then that must be true even when it seems like the darkness overwhelms. Even on Good Friday, when “darkness fell over the whole land” (Luke 23:44), The Light of the World still shone in the darkness, even while hanging from the cross, and “the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).

Last September, I contemplated these verses as I sat next to William’s hospital bed, where he was recovering from a tonsillectomy. The TV showed grainy videos of wind and rain lashing Rockport and Corpus Christi, as Hurricane Harvey crashed into the Gulf Coast. The rain was just starting in Houston; as we would find out later, it would stick around for a long, long time. I pondered how frightening it must have been to know that a terrible storm was headed your way, cloaked in darkness, blotting out not only the arrival of the storm, but also any assurance of the sun ever shining again.

As I laid upon a couch not too different from the one which I slept on for the first few days after William was born, the machines and monitors making similarly disturbing noises to the ones in the NICU that kept him alive for the first three weeks of his life, I wondered if another storm was headed our way, ready to overwhelm me, and if so, whether the Light would still lead the way. The waves crashed on the screen, Will’s heart monitor beeped sharply, and in between I heard the soft murmur of our Lord, saying, “Even here My hand will lead you, / And My right hand will lay hold of you.”

The Way Everlasting: A Study of Psalm 139 (Part One)


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NOTE: This is part one of a five part series of meditations on Psalm 139. It was originally published on my personal Facebook page last autumn. It has been lightly revised.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

August 17, 2006. I was giving a final exam at Midland College when the phone call came from Danielle. “Clark, Carrie’s having the baby! They’re loading her in an ambulance. You can follow us to Odessa Regional.” I dropped my stuff, said sayonara to my students, left a voicemail for my Dean, and took off for the hospital. It’s one of the few times in my life I’ve driven over 100 mph. U2’s Joshua Tree was in the CD player, and I sang “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” at the top of my lungs: “I have climbed the highest mountains, / I have run through the fields, / Only to be with you.”

Psalm 139 tells us that despite our constant search for truth, meaning, love, and purpose, the Lord isn’t searching for us. He already knows where we are. “You have searched and known,” verse 1 tells us. The King James Version gives a lovely translation of verse 2: “Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.” He winnows our path when we cannot see above the weeds. He also, we are told, encloses us behind and before; the NIV says he “hems” us. This phrase used to bother me; I don’t like being hemmed in by anyone, and I certainly don’t like the feel of a hand being “laid upon” me. One cannot help but think of a father standing at a busy intersection, gripping a child’s shoulders to keep him from jumping out into traffic. I admit, the hand of God sometimes feels like that, or worse, under conviction or discipline, like a hand squashing me down. Yet lately, I’ve found the idea of being enclosed or hemmed to be a great source of comfort. In fact, it is a wonderful notion.

“Wonderful” is one of those words that we’ve almost lost completely due to misuse. More than merely an expression of delight or ecstasy, “wonder” in the scriptures usually refers to awe, and even a questioning of God about mysteries and dark secrets: Psalm 44 and Jeremiah 12, for example, speak about the Lord knowing all and seeing all; but then they ask, if that is the case, “why has the way of the wicked prospered?” God’s way is “wonderful,” we are told in reply: marvelous, astonishing, high above us. Also, when the scriptures talk about God’s intimate knowledge (i.e., Matthew 9:4), it’s usually about God discovering the dark, evil thoughts of human hearts. The exceptions? Romans 11 and Job 42, both of which I have written about in my book about Will.

In fact, it is a wonder to me that so many of my favorite Bible stories and songs seem to have grown out of Psalm 139 and its meditation on God’s mysterious omniscience and omnipotence. My favorite band growing up, Delirious, wrote three songs (“Investigate,” “Mountains High,” and “Our God Reigns” that directly reference this Psalm). My favorite Third Day song was “You’re Everywhere.” And then “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” a gospel song about one who has “climbed the highest mountain” and run “through the fields” to find the one who “carried the cross of my shame.” Little did I know how that evening on State Highway 191 that I was commencing upon such a pilgrimage. I sped past the ambulance, and thought I was leading the way. (As it turned out, I got lost and ended up at the wrong hospital.) Little did I know, I was the one who needed to be led. I was headed somewhere high, too high, too wonderful for me.

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Part Two will be posted next week…

Father of Mercies


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“His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” – Lamentations 3:22-23

———

Sunrise.

A thin glaze of dust and sleet swept across the road. It was the color of the linoleum they used to lay in church kitchens. The gray, foreboding sky was welcome to some, after months of never-ending heat, but it didn’t promise much moisture. The landscape would turn beige, not white. It would bring more wind than anything.

Yet some of us in West Texas like to drive in that first bout of winter weather. We imagine we are northerners – from Fargo, perhaps, braving a blizzard, treating it like it’s any other day. We’ve got this, we say to ourselves, as we smile and put on our winter coats and hats, and gleefully scrape the wet snow off the windshield.

But then you remember that nobody in West Texas knows how to drive in the snow, that our tires and roads aren’t made for winter voyages, that the highway department won’t be salting the overpasses until later that night, and that you’re on the most dangerous road in the county, with a million tons of oilfield traffic bearing down on you. And it hits you: you shouldn’t be here.

Carrie had offered to let me take our Honda Pilot that morning. “It’s got the snow-traction feature,” she said.

“Nah, I’ll be fine in the truck. It’s not even below the freezing mark yet.”

After I dropped William off at school, I hopped on to Highway 158 to head to work. Suddenly, the dirty sleet turned to snow. The wind picked up. I drove into a low spot on the highway, where water collects after even the faintest of showers.

I hit a patch of ice, and my tires locked up. I started to skid. What are you supposed to do again? Turn into the skid? How hard do you tap your brakes? The truck turned sideways, and then slowly drifted to the middle of the other lane. A yellow dog school bus was coming the opposite direction. Was it empty except for the driver? Or did it have children on it? I tried tapping my brakes. Nothing. I tried steering back into the other lane. Nothing. The bus didn’t look like it was stopping. Maybe it couldn’t stop. It was 100 yards away, now 75, now 50.

Mercy, God. Mercy.

———

Sunrise.

We moved into a new house in March. It is our dream home. We regularly comment on how lucky we are to live there. We love the staircase that leads to a second floor, which, if the Lord wills, would be a place William could call his own one day. We love how the house is covered by a million-dollar live oak tree in the front and Chinese Pistaches in the back that will turn maple red in the fall. We love the big kitchen with the big cabinets and the big island table in the middle, where our family and friends can stand around and drink coffee in the winter, or eat peach cobbler and Blue Bell in the summer, and laugh and cry and hear stories about the beautiful tapestry the Lord is weaving through our lives. We love it all, and I confess that sometimes I pray the Lord lets us keep it until we die.

But we did have one concern when we bought it. The house sits a block to the east of one of the busiest thoroughfares in Midland, Midkiff Road. Now, the traffic noise isn’t all that noticeable. We actually enjoy being conveniently located near Murray’s Restaurant and H-E-B. No, our concern was about William wandering out on to the road.

But we installed a security system that alerts us every time the front door opens. The back yard has a high fence and there are locks on the gates. William hadn’t tried to escape our old home for several years. So I told Carrie, “It’ll be fine.”

A month or so after moving in, we sat down one evening to supper. We were eating early, since I had a deacon’s meeting later. At that meeting, we were going to review the requirements for serving as a deacon in the Lord’s church. Right before supper, I had been reading 1 Timothy 3:12, which says, “A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.” I wondered whether Paul had ever met a person like William; surely he would give me a mulligan on managing my kid.

William snubbed the supper Carrie had made, as he usually does, and went back to Sam’s room. Carrie, Sam and I sat down to watch an episode of Planet Earth 2. It was about wild animals surviving in large cities. We enjoyed our supper and laughed at the monkeys in India that steal food from street vendors. Then I checked the time – only fifteen minutes before the deacon’s meeting began.

“I had better go. I’ll go tell Bubba to eat his supper before I leave.” I walked by the front door on my way to Will’s room, and my heart froze.

The door was wide open.

I looked in Sam’s bedroom. Curious George was playing on the TV, but Will wasn’t watching. I went back outside and looked in the bed of my truck, where William sometimes likes to hide. Empty. I ran upstairs, yelling “William? William?!” Nothing.

I bolted back to the front yard and looked down the street, towards the green, winding curves of Seaboard Ave. Then I turned west. Midkiff.

I jumped into my truck and started driving. My pulse quickened. I drove to the park. He wasn’t there. I drove down Stanolind Ave. He wasn’t there. Then I turned to Midkiff. And I saw traffic on that busy road was backed up half a mile. I knew why.

There had been a car accident in the turning lane: a minor fender bender, but a woman sitting in one of the cars was crying. A police officer was talking to her. Then I saw another police officer on the other side of the road, standing around a group of people. A large man was holding a kid in his arms.

Mercy, God. Mercy.

As I pulled up, I rolled down the window and yelled out, “That’s my son!” I turned into the alley and jumped out. “William? Are you okay?” The man handed him to me, and William grasped me as tightly as he ever has. He was not hurt, but clearly frightened. The bystanders glared at me.

The police officer was friendly but rightfully suspicious. “What is he doing out of the house?”

“I don’t know. He just bolted…Did he cause this accident?”

“No, I don’t think so. I think the accident happened before he came over.”

“Where did you find him?”

The large man who had been holding Will said, “He was just walking down the middle of the street…barefoot.” The bystanders glared at me.

The police officer asked a few more questions, and then said, “Well, I don’t think there’s any reason to issue a citation. I see that he is…special.”

“Yes.”

“You should put a latch on the front door to keep this from happening again.”

“Yes.”

The bystanders glared, and then walked away silently.

To say the least, I missed the deacon’s meeting that night. But a few nights later, at another church meeting, a fellow deacon approached me. “Hey, I saw you on the side of Midkiff Road the other night. Were you in an accident?”

The scripture passage came back to mind. “A deacon must manage his children and his household well.” The knife twisted in my heart. And it has since, every time I drive down Midkiff Road.

———

Sunrise.

The next evening, this happened.

[Doorbell rings]: “Hi, I’m your next-door neighbor.”

CLARK: “Oh, hi there! Nice to meet you! We’ve been meaning to introduce ourselves.”

NEIGHBOR: “Um, I don’t really know how to tell you this, but your dog is on the roof.”

ME: “What?! How in the world did he get up there?”

[Chief, our 100-pound black lab, barks, then sees me, scurries to the open window upstairs, and squeezes his butt back inside. Another window opens.]

SAM: “Dad, did you know the dog got out on the roof!”

ME: “Yes, I know. Go put some clothes on!”

[The front door opens.]

ME: “Oh my Lord, William, go put some clothes on! Don’t come out here in your underwear!”

[William goes over to the neighbor]: “Hi there! Hug please?”

NEIGHBOR: “So, um, welcome to the neighborhood.”

ME: [Walking back into the house]: “Mercy sakes alive! It’s like a circus around here. Jesus take the wheel!”

———

Sunrise.

My grandfather died on April 13th, which happened to be a Friday. This did not go unnoticed by Sam. But the rest of us marveled more at the fact that my other grandfather also passed away on April 13th, sixteen years before.

The following Tuesday, we laid him to rest at the graveyard, before attending a memorial service at First Presbyterian Church. The boys and their cousins walked around the graveyard – no, that’s not right – they ran around the graveyard. They played hide and seek behind the pine trees. Sam tried to find the oldest grave in the cemetery and quizzed his cousin Corin on his subtraction abilities. William traipsed behind, giggling, arms flapping in the air, playfully attempting to catch a piece of his cousin Fiona’s dress.

I tried to be the dad, be the guy in charge, and convey the austerity and…you know…gravity of the event, but have you ever tried to manage little kids in a graveyard?

Then I heard his voice in my mind. Mercy, y’all leave my boy alone!

Pappas had a great way of saying that word, mercy. My mom inherited it from him, and so did I. We pronounce it with a hard r, almost as if you were saying marcy. I often find myself saying it when I’m frustrated: like when the boys are in the car with me, and someone cuts me off on the road, I’ll use it in lieu of a curse word. Mom says mercy when I’m being obnoxious at the dinner table, or when our team loses at dominoes, or when I haven’t called her in a few days. Mercy, Clark Thomas.

But Pappas’s said it best. He would tilt his head and chuckle, his eyes dancing cheerfully as he said it. Mercy sakes alive, he’d say, on the porch of the cabin after I had scored a 30-pointer in dominoes. This boy is just eating my sack lunch! Or when mom and dad would give me the look I often give Will and Sam now – you know, the look parents give when their reserves of patience have been completely tapped out, and they turn into Yosemite Sam two seconds before he blows his stack – at moments like that, Pappas would pull against his suspenders, come alongside me, and say, Mercy, y’all leave my boy alone. Pappas was my defense attorney, my Atticus Finch.

But not just mine. Everyone thought that way about Pappas. I never heard a cross or disparaging word said about Dan Foreman. People went out of their way at Wall Street Bar and Grill, or at the Post Office where he served Midland for decades, or at First Presbyterian Church, just to shake his hand. It wasn’t because he was all that powerful, or wealthy, or advantageous to them. They shook Pappas’s hand because he made them feel good. Every single one of them thought they were his friend, and they were. He never held a grudge – ever. He was always more interested in other people than himself, and was content to be quiet and listen when others (usually me) spouted their ignorant opinions. I’ll never know a humbler, kinder, more gracious and merciful man.

Pappas wasn’t one for big productions, so the plans for the memorial service at the church were simple: country hymns would be sung, a simple homily would be preached, and then it would be time to head over to the house on “L” Street for sandwiches and homemade ice cream.

Minutes before the service began, as we waited in the church parlor, I noticed that William’s brow was still glistening with sweat from running around the graveyard. He had a look of confusion on his face. Knowing that William does not like interruptions in his daily routine, I wondered how he would act during the funeral. Would he crawl under the pew like he normally does on Sunday mornings at our church? Would he hop up into Marmee’s lap and ask to watch Curious George on her phone? Would he hop on to the platform and rip his shirt off?

We didn’t get the chance to find out. As we began walking into the sanctuary, the organ – that magnificent, powerful First Pres organ that I’ve loved ever since I was a kid, the organ that rumbles so low during the final verse of “Joy to the World” on Christmas Eve that you walk out like a vibrating string in the Lord’s ten-stringed lyre – the organ sprang to life, and it freaked Will out. He dropped to the ground, and anchored his weight into the floor. He turns into a 200-pound sandbag when he does that. He put his hands over his ears.

I carried him to the bench in the hallway behind the sanctuary, and softly attempted to coax him inside. He wouldn’t have any of it. He sat down in the floor, folded himself over, and whimpered. I don’t know why.

Carrie came out and offered to take my place watching Will. “Nah, it’ll be fine.” She stood by my side.

A group from the children’s day out program at First Pres walked by. They were three, maybe four years old. They held their hands together and quietly walked by, but not before gawking at the eleven-year-old in the floor throwing a fit. The old pangs came back. I looked down at Will, heard the service beginning, and started to pray bitterly.

Then I heard that voice. Mercy, Clark. Leave my boy alone.

We went to the church’s cry room, and held each other.

———

Sunrise.

It had been a long week for Carrie at school. Friday couldn’t have come soon enough. “I think I’ll take the boys to the baseball game tonight,” I said with some pride in my voice, “and give you a break from whiny children.”

“Ok. Are you going to take both boys?”

“Sure, why not?”

“William had a rough day at school, Clark. Are you sure? He might melt down on you like last time.”

“Nah, it’ll be fine.”

I really should stop saying that.

As we walked up to the ticket booth for the game, Sam carried his birthday present – a new baseball mitt. He was stretching it, trying to break it in so he could catch a foul ball. I was carrying Pappas’s old glove, the one that had caught ten thousand of my pitches, the one I had caught a foul ball with when I was a kid. Pappas had waited with me outside of the players’ dressing room that night, so I could get a few autographs.

The game was sold out, but there was room on the grassy berm in the outfield where we could sit. That was trouble. There is a playground and splash area in the outfield, and previous experience had taught me that if William observed these delights, he’d ditch the baseball game altogether. And that’s exactly what he did. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded, but there were so many kids at the ballpark that night – swarms of toddlers, little leaguers, tweens who should have known better – all darting around that chaotic scene. Meanwhile, Sam was down at the berm, wanting to watch the game and catch a home run ball with his new glove. Then he saw a friend from school, and they began walking down the concourse. I felt torn, stretched, understaffed. I couldn’t keep an eye on both boys. So, I resorted to yelling.

“Sam, get back here! SAM! GET BACK HERE!”

I turned my head quickly. Where did William go? I turned the other way. Had Sam heard me? I turned back. Had William just run over the little girl crying at the bottom of the slide?

Sam arrived at my side. “Dad, I’m just over here talking to my friend!”

I freaked out. “Son, I couldn’t see you! C’mon, we need to get your brother, and we’re going to go sit down for a minute and calm down.”

I walked over to Will. “Come on, Bubba, let’s go over here to the berm and watch the game.”

“No, daddy! Play!”

“No, buddy, you’re way too wild, and there are way too many kids out here. Let’s go over there and calm down.”

“No daddy!”

I tried picking him up. He sandbagged me. I growled and used every ounce of strength I had to lift my child, dragging him to an empty spot behind the center field fence.

William began smacking his head, enraged that I had removed him from the playground. He banged his head on the dirt. Blood began to fill his mouth, as he had bitten deeply into his bottom lip. It was time for an executive decision.

“Time to go, Sam.”

“Dad, it’s only the second inning! I want to stay!”

“Son….”

“But Daddy, why?”

I picked up Will. He clawed at my back. I saw I had blood on my shirt, and then I realized that it wasn’t the blood from Will’s mouth, but from my face and neck, where he had opened up gashes with his nails. I carried Will through the swarms of fans in the concourse, glaring at me. I felt warm urine begin to soak my shirt where I was carrying my son. He punched me in the face as we walked through the gates and into the parking lot.

Sam continued to plead his case all the way to the car. “Dad, why can’t we stay?” Red tear streaks and scratches covered Will’s face. A bump was rising on his forehead. I got them into the car, and then didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Finally, I turned to Sam.

“Son, I’m sorry. I wish we could stay. But William needs to go home.”

“But why can’t we go back?”

“Look at me! Look at Will! You think we’re going to go back inside after what just happened?”

“No. It’s…it’s just not fair, Dad!”

“You’re right. It’s not fair. But Sam, this is what it means to be a brother. You have to do what’s best for him, not for you.”

“But he doesn’t do what’s best for me! I wanted to stay at the baseball game, and…”

“I know. I know. Just call it mercy this time, Sam. Mercy.”

As we walked back into the house, I expected, and deserved, Carrie’s “I told you so.” But she didn’t say that – she never does. Instead, she helped William get out of his wet clothes and into the bathtub. She offered me condolences that we didn’t get to stay for the game.

When it was time for William to get out, I went into the bathroom. “Bubba, you ready to get out of the tub?”

“No Daddy. Sam help.”

Sam came in, without being asked, and took the towel out of my hand. “Come on, Will, it’s time to get out of the tub. I’ll help you.”

“Daddy, you get out of here.”

I closed the door, but peeked back through the crack. William crawled out of the bathtub on his own, and Samuel gently draped a towel around him. Then he gave Sam a hug, and said, “Sorry, pee pee clothes. Sorry, Sam, baseball game.”

“That’s okay, Will.”

———

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” – 2 Cor. 1:3

Christians have often heard from pulpits and commentaries about the importance of distinguishing between mercy and grace. We are told that mercy is not getting the punishment you deserve. Mercy is compassion, pity, and clemency, while grace is getting the good you don’t deserve: unmerited favor, forgiveness, and kindness. As Michael Herrington has written, “mercy is the servant to grace’s glory […] Good Friday always gives way to Easter Sunday.”

I suppose this kind of differentiation ought to be made on a theological level, to understand the full picture of the Father’s unspeakable gift of His son Jesus Christ, as well as the daily mercies and graces offered by the Holy Spirit. Yet at the same time, I wonder if these distinctions distract us from the most important fact about both mercy and grace: the fact that our Heavenly Father delivers them both.

We often find mercy and grace mentioned in the same breath by the authors of the New Testament. Hebrews 4:16 encourages us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” In the famous “But God” passage in Ephesians 2:4-5, we are reminded that “by grace you have been saved,” because God is “rich in mercy.” And the mother of Christ, known around the world as a woman “full of grace,” spends more time in the Magnificat talking about the mercy of God than anything else (Luke 1).

In the Old Testament, it seems to me (ignorant of Hebrew, utterly dependent on English translations) that mercy and grace are often used interchangeably. Take for instance Psalm 57:1a: the NASB has “Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,” but the ESV has “Be merciful to me, O God be merciful to me.” According to Strong’s Concordance, the word used here is חָנַן – transliterated “beseech […] grant graciously […] have mercy.”

Theologians like to play the parlor game of what it would be like if Christ showed mercy on the cross but did not offer grace afterwards, but that’s not what happened. God gives mercy and grace through the cross. He gives. He gives.

As I watched Sam wrap the towel around William, I realized that God is indeed the Father of many mercies, and so am I. Not only are my children mercies themselves, but they are “vessels of His mercy” (Romans 9:23). I walk about as if I am not completely dependent on His mercy, but I am. I am awash in mercies. Every morning, I discover them anew.

———

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;

To give to His people the knowledge of salvation

By the forgiveness of their sins,

Because of the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us.” – Luke 1:76-79

Last Sunday evening, we sat Sam down and showed him To Kill a Mockingbird. It was too hot to do anything outside: for ten days in a row at least, the temperature had been above 100*, and had approached 110* at times. To make matters worse, it hadn’t rained since God knows when.

Sam was into the story at first – one forgets how much To Kill a Mockingbird is about children’s anxieties and relationships. But as the story evolved into the Tom Robinson plot line, he lost interest. I thought about reprimanding him for not paying attention, but I heard a voice say,

Leave my boy alone.

I carefully hid my tears when Atticus courageously sits in front of the jail cell with his lamp and book. Or when Tom earnestly denies the crime he is charged with: “I did NOT sir.” Or when Atticus implores the jury to do their duty, “in the name of God.” Or when the door swings open and the young hero shrinks back, only for Miss Jean Louise to knowingly smile, realizing that the man who saved her is the one she had been afraid of for so long. Or when the sheriff mercifully saves Boo Radley from being smothered by the town’s attention, because that would be like shooting a mockingbird. And I heard a voice say,

Mercy.

I really struggled to keep my composure in the final scene, when Atticus is shown sitting in Jem’s room, with Scout in his arms. Someday Sam will understand how beautiful that moment is.

Soon after the movie ended, a storm came up – the first one in months. We thanked the Lord for his tender mercies on our land. I tucked the boys and Carrie into bed. The rain stopped, so I opened the windows and doors, and let the cool evening air rush in. Peace descended on our home.

Then, around midnight, I heard someone talking. I rose out of bed, and saw William’s light was on. I was all ready to deliver a scathing sermon on how it was midnight, and how he needed to go to sleep, for crying out loud. “Mercy,” I whispered under my breath as I opened the door.

But what a sight I saw. William was sitting up in bed, his hands folded together, and he was praying.

“House, school, church, Marmee, Pops, Nannie, Papa. Mama, Daddy, Sam. No Sam sad ba-ba-baseball game. No fits. G-g-g-good boy. God’s son, Hee-sus, kitty, Grandma, Pappas, heaven.”

A light rain began to fall again.

He would be in Will’s room all night. And He would be there when Will woke up in the morning.

Sunrise.

Choice


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Thank you, Carrie. You had the right. You had the choice. You could have found out, and you could have stopped it. But you knew, long before I did, that God knows better than we do what we really want. I’m still catching up to that wisdom.

The author of this article says, “That was not the child I wanted. That was not the choice I would have made. You can call me selfish, or worse, but I am in good company. The evidence is clear that most women confronted with the same unhappy alternative would make the same decision.”

Carrie is not “most women.”

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I didn’t expect my book to shame women who have made that choice. I didn’t want it to. But at some level, it’s unavoidable. The mere existence of William – his presence in the grocery store, his picture in their social media feed, even his being in the church – sometimes reminds women of their choices. Perhaps they feel a pang of regret or fear when they see or hear him, or maybe they don’t. I don’t know.

But sometimes, it does feel like people avoid him, and us, because coming into our lives means confronting that memory, that choice, maybe even that grief, one more time. So instead, they move to the other side of the hall. Their eyes turn away.

Maybe seeing my book on the shelf makes them feel that way too. Maybe they look away from his slanted eyes, his broad forehead, his tiny ears.

I’m not one to judge. My hands are unclean too. There are times where I am reminded of my negligence or complicity in someone’s suffering, and I look away. I confess that.

I’m not saying you have to listen to me, as if I know what it’s like to be a woman confronted with that choice. I didn’t have that decision to make. But Carrie did. Listen to her, I beg you. Listen to women like her, women who chose joy, or maybe more accurately, who had joy chosen for them.

And please, don’t avoid us at the grocery store. Come up and say hello. Share your story with us. We will listen respectfully. We want to help you find forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus’s arms. More than that, we want to build a community and a church that makes this choice irrelevant, because people in that community, regardless of their genetic identity, find the love, acceptance, resources, support, and health care they need. Tell us what you need. We don’t want you to be alone, or fearful of the future. We want you to find the joy we have. We don’t want to keep this to ourselves.