Our Last Spiritual Will and Testament


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IMG_0397.JPEGBoys,

The Bible says that “you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.”[1] None of us are guaranteed another day on earth. Therefore, your mother and I thought it wise to write down what we hold dear, in hopes of passing it on to you before the Lord takes us home. Our possessions will one day be distributed with a legal instrument, but this matters much more. This is the treasure that was passed down to us, which we now pass to down to you.

***

We give you grace and kindness.

Your great-grandfather Clark never turned down a chance to be hospitable to strangers.[2] When he had a dinner at his home, he invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.[3] Your great-grandfather Dan was a kind, gentle and tender-hearted man.[4] He gave to everyone who asked of him, and if anyone took something from him, he did not demand it back.[5] I never once heard him complain about personal hardships. Ever. You have seen how your Papa would put everything else aside to help us with household repairs, because he counts others more significant than himself.[6] And your Nannie has often had occasion to discipline you with harsh words, which you deserved, but has instead offered you the teaching of kindness,[7] grace upon grace.[8]

Your great-grandfather Clark would always ask, whenever someone told him about a new church, “Do they preach grace there?” Every other religion or philosophy teaches what we can do, but grace is not about that. It is a gift from God,[9] purchased by the precious blood of Christ.[10] And if we draw near to the throne of grace, God gives it in our time of need.[11] He has an inexhaustible supply.

Grow in grace, boys. Be kind to retail workers. At a restaurant, ask the server how you can pray for them before you eat. Listen patiently to lonely people on airplanes who tell you their sorrows. Give a word of encouragement to our friends on the street, and then give liberally from your wallet as the Lord allows. Be gracious to sojourners, to ugly people, to those living with disabilities, to orphans, and to the lost. For so we were, until the Lord offered us the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness.[12]

***

We give you the Book.

Like our ancestors, we are People of the Book. Oh, certainly there are plenty of books laying around our homes. How often have you seen your Pops reading Lonesome Dove or a Jack Higgins novel? Or Marmie reading The Giver or To Kill a Mockingbird, again. Or Nannie and your mother with their detective novels. Or me with a C.S. Lewis book! It’s been our greatest privilege to share our love of books with you. We have treasured reading Narnia and Harry Potter and Llama Llama and Elephant and Piggie with you. We were reading books to you when you were still in momma’s belly and in your tiny cribs. Someday we hope you’ll return the favor and read to us while we lay in our deathbeds, ending our days as we began yours.

Some books mean one thing to us when we are a certain age, and something different as we grow older. The Horse and His Boy, for instance, meant one thing to me as a child running up the hills behind the cabin, leaving New Mexico behind for Narnia, and another thing to me as a father reading about Shasta’s encounter on the road with Aslan, realizing that the One Lion had always been at my side, praying He would always be at yours.

But there is one Book that is different from all others. It is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, equipping us for every good work.[13] It is alive! Nothing else cuts like this book.[14] It revives our souls and makes wise the simple.[15] Only this book can illuminate your path[16] and encourage you with the hope that never fades.[17] I don’t know if we’ll be reading The Horse and His Boy or Lonesome Dove for the rest of eternity, but we will be meditating on this book forever and ever, for it is from the very mouth of our Lord.[18]

Begin and end your days by meditating on it.[19] Begin and end your decisions by consulting it. Sow it deep into your heart and take every thought captive to it. Speak it to your spouses, children, colleagues, and strangers. Discover the delights God has stored up for you in studying it. And then obey it. We have never regretted obeying God’s Word.

***

We give you joy.

Every Thanksgiving we watch a movie called Plains, Trains, and Automobiles. In one scene, Del tells Neal, who’s been having a rough trip home, “Go with the flow, like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream.” Del laughs as he says it. We find out later that Del is homeless and a widower. But with a twinkle in his eye, he says, “Go with the flow.”

Your Marmie and Pops have taught us to do just that. When life hands the Morelands hardships, we shake our heads, laugh, and say, as Pappas Foreman did, “Mercy.” We earnestly seek joy in sorrow. Sometimes it takes a while to locate, but we know it’s buried in there somewhere. We are confident that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.[20] We believe that God knows what we want better than we do. We believe, as our friend Cory says, that God paints on a bigger canvas than we can imagine. That doesn’t mean we sit by when others are suffering or that our actions don’t matter. You both have a marrow-deep hatred of injustice, as you should.

No, we’re talking about the kind of steadfast courage that allowed Dr. King to hew out of mountains of despair stones of hope. The kind of unshakeable peace that allowed Paul, chained to the wall in a freezing Roman prison awaiting execution, to say to Timothy, with a twinkle in his eye, “Suffer hardship with me.”[21] The abiding presence that says, “Trust Me one more time, child.” The kind of ceaseless devotion to our family, to our calling, and above all to our Lord, that allows us to rejoice, for the Lord is near![22]

Go with the flow, boys, like a twig on the shoulders of a mighty stream. I know you still have questions about why Will has Down syndrome, or what careers and places you two will settle into. We don’t know the answers to those questions either. We are acquainted with sorrow. But when those times come – when it comes down to the mortgage or the tithe, when you’re at the ER in the middle of the night, when William spits in your face or when Samuel ignores your request to jump on the trampoline, when you’re losing at cards or at life – shake your head, laugh, and say with a twinkle in your eye, “Mercy.” For “a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our Great Captain inside.”[23] And so, we rejoice, evermore!

***

Boys, before you were born, He formed your inward parts. He wove you in your mother’s womb. We give thanks to Him, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made. His works are wonderful, and we know this very well.[24] We pray that where we go, you will go also, just as our Lord prayed for us.[25] May the Lord stand with you and strengthen you. May he fully accomplish His will in you. May he rescue you from every evil deed, so that all might hear of His works and glorify Him. And may he bring you safely home to His heavenly kingdom.[26]

Grace, kindness, illumination, and joy be with you always.

 

In the love of our Lord,

Mom and Dad

 

[1] James 4:14

[2] Hebrews 13:2

[3] Luke 14:13

[4] Ephesians 4:32

[5] Luke 6:30

[6] Philippians 2:3

[7] Proverbs 31:27

[8] John 1:16

[9] Ephesians 2:8

[10] Acts 20:28

[11] Hebrews 4:16

[12] Ephesians 2:7

[13] 2 Timothy 3:16

[14] Hebrews 4:12

[15] Psalm 19:7

[16] Psalm 119:105

[17] Romans 15:4

[18] Isaiah 55:11

[19] Joshua 1:8

[20] Philippians 1:6

[21] 2 Timothy 2:3

[22] Philippians 4:5

[23] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” p. 9.

[24] Psalm 139:13-14

[25] John 17:24

[26] 2 Timothy 4:17-18

Dis(Order)


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SAM SEABORNE: “You know anything about chaos theory?”

MALLORY O’BRIEN: “I know it has to do with fractal geometry.”

SAM: “That’s about all I know too. But it has to do with there being order and even great beauty, in what looks like total chaos. And if we look closely enough at the randomness around us, patterns will start to emerge.” – The West Wing, “20 Hours in America”

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We have a playlist we listen to every morning on the way to William’s school. Actually, it’s my iPhone’s “25 Most Played” playlist, and at that we only listen to the first four or five songs. I have to promise to play these songs, or William will sit in the hallway and pout about how his throats so bad that he can’t go to school, until I say, “Will, you want to listen to the ‘Little Song’ in the car?”

“Okay Daddy,” he says with a smile. He stands up, grabs his backpack, and off we go.

The songs we listen to in the morning are, in order:

  • “Make a Little,” by Midland. This is a country music band named after our town, though they’re not actually from Midland. I’m hoping that William doesn’t know what the lyrics to “Make a Little” mean.
  • “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” by Johnny Rivers, or as Will affectionately refers to it, the “Boogie Song.” This is actually the first song on the playlist, which we currently listen to after “Make a Little.” We’ve played this song a whopping 678 times since I purchased it. Great song, right? Wait until you’ve listened to it 678 times. You may not want to boogie to it ever again.
  • “I Am A River,” by Foo Fighters. When William requests this song (and yes, no matter how often we play the same songs, he still asks for each one), we always repeat the same liturgy:

WILL: “Daddy, Ricker song. Ricker song!”

DADDY: “Say it right, Bubba.”

WILL: “Riiiivvvvvvvveeeeerrrrrrr song.”

  • “Rolling in the Deep” and “Don’t You Remember,” both by Adele. We alternate between these songs depending on how bad the traffic is and what kind of mood Will is in. William has always had a thing for divas. Please don’t ever introduce Mariah Carey to him.

Other songs have come and gone in Will’s greatest hits – “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “Atlantis,” and “Stuck like Glue” come to mind – but the five I have listed are the Top of the Pops, the undefeated champions of our commute.

But this year, something extraordinary has happened. The planets have aligned. The eclipse has arrived. Yes, there’s a new song that William has begun asking to listen to…

 

“New York, New York,” by Frank Sinatra.

You may have noticed that Will’s musical tastes are as eclectic as his Daddy’s, but I didn’t expect him to latch on to a showtune from Sinatra’s later period. Does he even know what New York is? Does he understand the meaning of the song? Does he know that Frank Sinatra sings the song? I’m not sure about answers to any of these questions. But he knows every word to it, and if I don’t have the “The New Yoke Song” playing when I pick William up in the car line after school, I get an earful. The Chairman of the Board has issued his decree, and I’d better follow orders.


Considering how fastidious he is about music in the car, you might assume the rest of Will’s life is arranged in orderly, neat rows; that is, until you walk into the dumpster fire that is his room.

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Now I know what you’re thinking: “Clark, you have a thirteen-year-old. This is normal.” But this is not mere laziness or messiness. He’s not Pigpen from Peanuts. No, William loves to arrange things in his room. This week alone, he has moved his bed to four different spots. Yesterday, he asked to clean his room. An hour later, when I went to check on his progress, I found the door was blocked by every single thing he owned.

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Under piles of blankets, clothes, books, empty yogurt cups, and steamer trunks (it’s all very exciting as a luggage problem), I spotted one of his most prized possessions: his “Tidy Desk Award” from school last year.

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I attempted to put it back on his bookshelf, a more suitable place of honor so I thought. I was quickly reprimanded: “No Daddy, don’t touch! That’s mine!” And he carefully tucked it back under a pair of shorts, right where he had left it.

These arrangement battles spill over into other rooms too. We’ve been having a month-long conversation about where the upstairs bookshelf belongs…

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We’ve engaged in a scholarly colloquy about whether extra copies of my book would be best arranged in a floral pattern on the floor…

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Or whether they should be stacked alongside his other favorite author, Mo Willems, in a suitcase…

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Or whether the Mo Willems books are better suited for display on his bed.

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There’s his demand that the refrigerator be stocked with chocolate milks and juice boxes arranged in rows of two.

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Then there’s the 100 Years War over my sock basket. Unsatisfied with scattering his own clothes across the house, he decided to seize upon my socks, hiding them under his bed, pairing them with his own (I often find rolled up sock pairs where one is mine and the other is his), or just flat out tossing them into the floor.

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It’s cute until you pull a sock up and your toes discover there’s day-old yogurt inside.

If you’ve had any regular contact with William over the last year, you know about his clothes obsession. It has been especially problematic at school. At one point last year, he was packing several shirts and pairs of underwear in his school backpack, then spending all his free time folding them into neat piles. Perhaps a future career at Gap awaits? At home, he will take a suitcase of clothes to the backyard, sit on the trampoline or under the cool shade of a tree, and fold them while listening to birds and passing cars. It’s his moment of Zen.

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It may sound like I’m making fun of him, and I suppose I am trying to find the humor in a situation that can be incredibly frustrating for his mother and me, who would prefer to find things where we left them, and would prefer not to find yogurt in our socks. We’ve refrained from using words like “OCD” or “hoarding” to describe these behaviors, but there’s no doubt that Will’s brain is on the hunt for stimulation and pattern arrangement.

Not that I’m any different. When he holds a shirt up and smooths out all the wrinkles, I’m reminded of how I used to iron my cargo khaki shorts when I was in college (Carrie, thanks again for marrying me). Or when he arranges his books on his bed, I think about how I used to arrange every Hardy Boys novel on my bookshelf alphabetically by title, and even today how I arrange books by author and genre. I admit it – if I come to your house and observe your books haphazardly tossed on a shelf, I secretly judge you. How can you not have a system of organizing your books?

But that’s the thing about William’s room: he knows where everything is. He has a system. I just haven’t been able to decode it yet.

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Last month for William’s birthday, we took him to Rosa’s (imagine that). As with many people with sensory disorders, Will only enjoys eating at a select number of restaurants. He wore the birthday cake hat (as is tradition in the Moreland family) and licked his nacho plate clean. Then he scarfed down the family’s bowl of chips and queso, giggling about getting cheese on my pants.

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Then we went back to our house to open presents. As he unwrapped them and discovered he had received everything he had asked for – chocolate milk boxes, bags of White Cheddar Cheetos Puffs, M&Ms, and a Buzz Lightyear toy that he promptly broke – Carrie remarked that few other kids would find so much joy in simple pleasures. But what brought him the most joy, I think, was after the presents were opened. He carefully stacked all his gifts in an empty cardboard box, like it was a Tetris game, and scurried off to his room. He had work to do.

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In Ephesians 2, Paul describes the work of Christ in uniting Jews and Gentiles, making “the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” in the church (Ephesians 2:15). He accomplished this through Christ’s death on the cross, which abolished the enmity that resulted from sinful disobedience to God’s Law. The cross, which vertically represents the peace God made with humanity, also horizontally works to “reconcile [Jews and Gentiles] both in one body to God” (2:16). As we find our place in “God’s household” (2:19), we discover we have not only a loving Father but also brothers and sisters in Christ. No longer are Gentiles strangers and aliens, but are “fellow citizens with the saints” (2:19).

Paul then uses a metaphor to describe the church: it is the Temple, the “dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Not an actual building, mind you, but the people: the church is the “whole building” which is founded on the prophets and apostles, resting ultimately on the cornerstone of Christ Himself. But Paul, not content to let us think that we ourselves are responsible for building the church, observes that the building is “being fitted together” (2:21). The phrase is in passive voice, as it is used later in Ephesians 4, this time to describe how the church is the body of Christ and individuals within it are “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part” (4:16).

The Greek word for “fitted” is συναρμολογέω (sunarmologeó), which from what I read is formed by combining the word for joint (ἁρμῶν – harmos) and the word for saying something (λέγω), which is transliterated legó. Ah yes, Legos, another of my childhood obsessions. I knew where every Lego block belonged in the sprawling city laid out across my bedroom floor. No doubt my parents looked at my room and saw what I see now in Will’s room: a mess. But the endless hours of connecting Lego blocks as a kid prepared me for the Legós work I do today, arranging words and ideas. What did Anne Lamott say? Writing, at the end of the day, is just putting “one damn word after another.”

Some days, though, the words don’t come. Some days, the pieces don’t want to connect. And some days, my world is just plain old scrambled eggs. As I write this, Samuel is burning off energy by doing donkey kicks and handstands in front of me, while William stands at the top of the stairs, wearing a bicycle helmet, tossing down Cheetos to the dog while laughing maniacally. If you think I’ve got life figured out, well I don’t. I still cringe when I read 1 Timothy 3:5: “If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?”

And yet, in times like these, I find great comfort in knowing that not only have I been saved by the grace of Christ, but even my good deeds have already been “prepared beforehand” for me (Ephesians 2:10). I am not the creator of my life: I am the workmanship, the art, the materials. And the Master, the Artist, the Carpenter is fitting me together with William, and with Carrie and Sam, and with you, into a holy temple in the Lord.


Expectancy […] is one of the characteristics that most clearly marks the true disciple. Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The Master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you are in the Master’s company.” – Rowan Williams, Being Disciples

Last week, after the shootings in Odessa that left several West Texans dead and many more injured, I anxiously stood in front of my students. Some of them had family and friends who had been shot, and they looked to me for wisdom and comfort.

But to my great frustration, I found myself mumbling a few trite phrases about how “we’ll get through this together,” and that was it. As a writer, nothing is worse than running on an empty tank. People expect you to have the right words, or at least some words, but I had nothing to give. The best I could do was ask people if they were okay, and then listen to their stories, which were heartbreaking.

Donald Murray once wrote, “I am never bored, because I am constantly observing my world, catching, out of the corner of my eye, the revealing detail” (Reading about Writing 76). That’s me: I’m always on the clock as a writer, looking for patterns and “the revealing detail” that cracks open the puzzle box and reveal the Master’s craftsmanship, the “fitting,” if you will.

Walking to my car after a meeting this week, I passed by some chalk art that folks had drawn in the university courtyard during a “community healing ceremony” after the shooting. Among a hundred or so messages, I focused on one that said, “What was meant for evil, God will turn it for the good.” It was a paraphrase of Genesis 50:20, a verse we treasure in our family.

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But it occurred to me as I read it that those who were victimized by the shooting may have a hard time believing that. It might even come across as offensive. Yet I believe every word of that message. What was meant for evil, God will turn it for the good…in His time. The fitting will be done. We just have to wait patiently and expectantly for the Master to finish His work, which is often done in secret.

Later that afternoon I went to pick up Will from school. As I waited in the car line, I whispered the prayer I always say at 3:30: “I hope he had a good day, Lord. I hope he didn’t hit any of his teachers or friends. I hope he worked hard and learned something.” As I pulled to the curb, Will’s teacher accompanied him out. “Oh no,” I muttered. I flash-backed to the time one of Will’s teachers came out holding an icepack to her mouth because he had headbutted her.

Instead, she opened the door and informed me that she had been feeling dizzy earlier, and William had come behind her desk and hugged her, asking if she was okay. She looked at Will and said, “You knew I wasn’t feeling well, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Will said, beaming with pride.

“Anyway, he had an awesome day, Dad,” she said as she shut the door.

“Yes Daddy! Awesome day!” he exclaimed with a dimpled grin.

Then Will did what he always does. He rolled down his window, and began telling everyone goodbye. Several teachers – the pre-K teacher, the vocational leaders, even the Head of School – came out and waved back, as if they had been waiting for this moment all day. “Bye, Will!” they shouted with smiling faces.

“Bye, everyone! Have awesome day!”

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In a week filled with tragedy and chaos, leave it to a school full of people with developmental disorders to show us how to put our lives back together. What had previously been a trite statement now was transformed into something profoundly true: we will get through this together by doing the simple things, the rote things, the everyday things, with all the love you can muster in your heart. Smile and wave at people. Look them in the eye. Pray for them. Hug them when they’re feeling down. Tell them to have an awesome day. Those are the good works prepared for us in times like this.

“For a Christian, there are, strictly speaking no chances” when it comes to relationships, C.S. Lewis once wrote: “A secret master of ceremonies has been at work.” Just as Christ chooses us for Himself, He also chooses us for each other. Our relationships are “not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. [They are] the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”

 Yes, that’s what William does for me. He reminds me that the light will one day burst through. He teaches me that underneath chaos lies a deeper order. He reveals that a secret Master of Ceremonies, the Carpenter, is at work, fitting and holding everything together, and He’s making something beautiful and holy: us.

I thought about stopping the car to thank God for my son, but Will interrupted, “Dad, turn it on!” Oops, I didn’t have the song queued up. I hastily plugged in my phone to the stereo, and it wasn’t long before I heard him singing:

If I can make it there,

I can make it anywhere,

It’s up to you,

New York, New York.

The tears welled up in my eyes. I sang along at the top of my lungs, and we made our way home down old, familiar roads.

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…