Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Balloon that Changed the World

The smell of the Michigan shoreline in its late autumnal dress still holds strong in my memory.  The sun was setting far off to the south more than west these days and it seemed to put additional stress on the already slanted clouds that were quickly heading away from the chilled northwest wind.   My boots were covered with the damp shoreline sand and that same damp shoreline spirit seemed to be hanging on me like a wet cotton sheet.

I’d been struggling with school for some time.  At 19 years old, the questions seemed to far outpace the answers and in my usual manner, I chose escape and avoidance to deal with them.  I was by fate allowed to enroll in an honors curriculum at the university I was attending and found it confusing.  If the professors thought you were smart, you’d do well in coursework without even having to think.  First choice in class assignments, great leeway in grading, cream-of-the-crop professors.  Grade point was providentially supported, friendships were abundant, parents that were supportive; what could possibly be confusing or wrong?

Something wasn’t fitting into the equation, at first I figured it was somehow related to the powerful combination of the 18-year-old drinking age and college but later agreed that "correlation wasn’t causality".  I didn’t really like gin anyways.  Was God trying my heart?  Was I supposed to be doing something different?  I had a gift, that of drawing and was an artist by declaration and a Fik by genetics.  This, by-the-way is the sort of Dutch heritage that causes guys to draw pictures of naked girls in Tahiti, cut your ear off as a demonstration of love, and paint big pictures of landscapes in which 80% of the landscape is actually the sky, somewhat missing the whole point of a landscape.   

That still, small voice though seemed to be tugging at my heart.  Here’s where being old comes in handy – you can recognize the voice of God whereas at 19 you still foolishly think that God speaks like your father, your pastor, the fruitcake evangelist on TV, or some cataclysmic rock-splitting event.  (Re-read your Bible and you’ll realize very little of God’s voice came out like this, he whispered far more than he yelled!)  I was confused on my future direction and rather than listen, I ran.  Were there a boat on the shore of Joppa, I’d have booked passage and headed out to sea like Jonah – destined for a showdown with God.

My tears were causing as much dampness as were the grey waves over my boots, and the reality of a long dark night was ahead of me.  The trouble with camping in Michigan at that time of year is that the nights are long.  The sun slips away by 6:30 pm with the seagulls slipping away just ahead of that.  Watching them leave only added to my loneliness.  There was no Facebook, no cellphones; the personal computer was just a crazy notion in a California garage at this time.  There were no LED lights that burned all night, only a campfire, a crummy battery flashlight and a candle lantern that visually warmed only a 30” circle.  I walked along the beach for a few more yards, begging for God to talk to me, to tell me what to do, where to go.  In the waning light I saw a small wake in the wave on the shore – I thought it was a dead fish.

As I came closer, in the waning light I saw that it was a deflated balloon.  Deflated balloons along the western shore of Michigan are gift from our friends in Wisconsin.  Its 80 miles straight-line across the lake and those little balloons tell of life in Milwaukee, Racine, Appleton, and Madison.  This one came from Columbus and while most held the news of a store opening, homecoming celebration, birthday party, wedding or theme park, this one actually held a message from God.

I looked at the zip-locked bag under the deflated balloon and noticed a Bible verse and partially obscured name and address.  It was too dark to read it on the shore so I bade goodnight to the Lake and headed back up the sand dune to my wooded campsite.  I carefully unwrapped the soggy bag from around the note with the same timidity that Moses used when clearing the smoke from the recently etched stone tablets.  While his was in Hebrew, mine was in plain English. 

I wish I could tell you what the verse was.  I wish that I could tell you how its words literally made the sky burst open, the fear and doubt disappear, how it calmed the seas and how my life’s direction was course-corrected by 78 degrees.  I wish I could remember the words – what I can remember is how all those things I just described, happened.  Everything you know about me now is a direct result of those words, my loving wife and soul mate, my children, my faith. That corrected course would set me to sail not away as in the case of Jonah, but towards.  My escape and avoidance was to be forever escaping towards a loving God who would be challenging me (and my wife) in ways no one could ever have imagined.

I don’t remember the words of God, but I remember the more important artifact; the name of the 6-year-old girl who let go of the balloon in Columbus, Wisconsin.  While the note was a typewritten Bible verse, the handwritten name and address will never leave me.  As it turns out, my newfound friend Brandi (according to her mother) was the only one in her church group that actually believed that someone would find the balloon. I was the only one to return a message.  As far as I’m concerned, that whole church event, all those balloons – were an anomaly, they likely never existed once they left the sight of the participants, save the balloon of one little girl.  Her balloon was destined to change the world.

I kept in loose contact with her family over the years, updates on my journey, insights from life, cards about significant life events.  Loose contact, that carries meaning but not impact.  I’d never shared the depth of her influence on so many lives, not by intention mind you; by design.  Not by my design, but by the design of the very God who had me camp on that particular spit of land along a lonely 9 mile stretch of sandy hills.  That balloon and its message of hope changed for the good not only my life but also globally - it changed the life of a 14-year-old rape victim in Korea.  She was faced with a difficult decision and her choice to give birth to a child who was born way too early to a mother way too young in a country that’s way too traditional to allow such things, was justified, by the balloon of a little girl from Wisconsin.

The bizarre humor that my family is privileged to laugh with, the beautiful “special needs” people we’ve grown to love, the terrifying challenges we face, and the deep relationships we with have with God, daring to question His sovereignty and yet receiving blessings from him for asking the question… It can only be deemed, “world changing”.  The impact that Bethany has on the lives around her is indescribably complex, rich, powerful, and terrifyingly frustrating.  All this for the sake of one little balloon, one prayer for direction, and the subsequent willing heart to listen to that still, small voice.

So many lives have been changed for the good as a result of that balloon.  I believe that now the 6-year-old girl is an educator by profession.  I’ve news for her; she was an educator long before that.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ray, A Drop of Golden Sun

We drove along the snow-covered road happily singing the last three verses from the musical The Sound of Music:

 “That will bring us back to doe, doe, doe, doe - a deer,
   a female deer”.

For some reason she’d scream out only the “doe, doe, doe” portion with an intensity that would send slobber flying and laughter ringing in my little Volkswagen.  I’d laugh with her as we headed down the dark road towards home, enjoying the bliss that she’d found in mimicking my words. 

Then, as quickly as it started, the laughter stopped.  She took her ever-present, deflated ball and began to tap it against her mouth in a quiet, rhythmic cadence that signaled an introspective moment.  I’ve learned to take advantage of those sudden shifts in mood, to use them for what I call “free-floating”.  It’s a chance for me to let my guard down and think about my own world with all the selfishness I care to muster. We drove along for a number of miles, with me silently marveling at how grown-up she seemed, sitting there in the front seat.  I’d taken to having her sit in the front seat because it was easier to visually manage her there.  When she’d drop her assortment of comfort toys, I could simply reach down for them rather than rummage with one hand behind the seat while trying to drive.

Quick as a rattlesnake, her left hand swings at my right arm – spinning the steering wheel a quarter turn to the left, sending me directly over the centerline.  In my over reaction, the car slid a bit on the ice but quickly regained its proper location on the road.  I instinctively yelled “NO!” to her and was rewarded with a deep, cynical laugh.  She immediately reached out to do it again but this time I allowed her contact to flex my arm – the car holding fast in the right lane.  I drove on using only my left arm, holding my right arm in reserve to fiend off her next attempt.  There was no place to safely stop on this road and move her to the back seat so I drove on; that beautiful earlier interlude of singing having been replaced with a panicky and very confrontational mood.

I was angry with her now.  Angry about the destroyed beauty of the moment, angry for the hazard she’d put us into, angry about the insistent attempt at doing it again.  No doubt she’d find catching a face full of airbag as thrilling as a new type of extreme sport, I on the other hand, had no desire for it or it’s implications.  For the last 5 miles, I drove defensively – holding her hand as best I could, ignoring the sharp fingernails as they dug deep into the back of my hand as she tried to wrestle free. 

One stop before going home, I decided to shut the car off and put her into the back seat.  Usually, once there she kicks the back of the driver seat or tries to rip the headliner out so I left her in the front seat while I went in the store.  Now I know that German engineering is no match for Korean occupancy as while I was in the store she ripped out more of the heat vents in the dash.  I noticed that in addition to the vent modifications, she was much more calm.  I took this as a gift from God – yes, five minutes of relative calm is a gift from God.  What I could not have seen in the dark car is that while I was in the store, on that brief 90 second span of time her eyes had rolled to the back of her head and the calm, serene attitude was actually another seizure.

She was lethargic getting out of the car but I simply assumed she was being difficult again.  I was still mad at her and in my mind, more concerned with the autistic boy that lives down the street and around the corner – the one who in the summer months, spins endlessly in the garage with the lawn sprinkler spraying (in the garage), often times he spins naked – not a care in the world.  I thought I’d seen him standing in the dark by the road, spinning.  While managing Bethany, I’d turned around and driven back but didn’t find him although I thought I’d seen his shadow along the gate – I was worried for his safety but could manage no more than concern.  My thoughts were on him in our driveway, not on the slow moving and unresponsive daughter that had just made me so angry.

As I hung my coat, I heard my wife’s first comment on seeing Bethany; “oh, we have rolled eyes again, great…” 

The rest of the night was an enigmatic blur to me.  Her self-abuse, the blood from a split lip, the time Sherry sat with her holding her hands and rubbing her temples so that she’d not try to dig her eye out with her fingertip.  It was all a faint blur as I fell into a deep, depressed sleep - held captive in my sorrow while my wife again carried the burden of intervention.

“Doe, a deer, a female dear.  Ray, a drop of golden sun.  Me, my name, I call myself.  Fa, a long, long way to run.”

Tonight we’ll sing the song again, she’ll laugh with all the gusto she can muster, and the cycle will likely happen again.  We dream of a simple EEG, of a 90 minute visit to a neurologist and a diagnostic interpretation coupled with an action plan.  It appears thought that the Lord will only supply is with a simple song that we can sing over and over, its words washing over us in a beautiful array of images.

I guess that “Ray, a drop of golden sun” is the best we'll get and perhaps it's His way of saying “My grace is sufficient for you”.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Shock of a Pointed Finger

Again, I notice that it’s 2:30 in the morning.  No one is awake but me, likely no one is in tears but me, at least in this house.  Again, awake as the accusation rolls though my mind – the horrific mental image of my wife and I being thought of as abusive monsters.

Given all her bruises, marks and cuts – we figured it was only a matter of time before someone again questioned the source of this entire trauma.  I recalled the first time we were called into question.  In the emergency room for her first massive seizure, the ambulance delivered her, the physicians examined her, and the staff questioned us.  It seemed so bizarre that we would have to explain to trained medical staff what “Mongolian Spot” was.  The bruises they were examining were typical congenital pigmentation found on most Asian children; so much for diversity.

Bethany’s life has for many years been one of self-abuse and anyone who has ever spent time with her knows the physical impact on her body as well as the emotional toll that it takes on caregivers.  Countless hours are spent intervening and redirecting the blows, mopping up the blood, changing the stained and torn clothing.  After those many, many hours, to have someone formally imply that YOU were the likely source of the infraction is devastating.

How many nights did I lay awake thinking about the horror of even the accusation?  We have in so many ways given our very lives for her and in kind, we’re affronted with a most horrible allegation.  The tear rolls clumsily down my cheek and into my ear, for a moment occluding my hearing.  The sounds of Sherry’s breathing are oblong and odd under the salt water.  The tear isn't for me or my reputation, its prompted by even the thought that our care was somehow deficient, that Bethany was not safe in our home.  I roll onto my side and pray for wisdom.

Wisdom comes slowly in the form of truth, patience, and a web of support that gently and directly informed the system of its error in judgment.  The investigation was proof that someone cares for the welfare of those who have little voice of their own.  I guess that, while the leveling of an accusatory finger in my direction is proof that no one is beyond reproach, it underscores the importance of continually remaining vigilant and on the defense.  God has richly blessed us as a family and Satan wants nothing more than to destroy that harmony.  He’s been wearing us down for years, now a more direct approach seems warranted. 

Many will scoff at the idea of this being a spiritual battle.  There is no God, there are no demons, and this is merely a bio-chemical imbalance.  Environment and genetics can explain everything.  Even the miracles in the Bible can be explained away, hemophilia, cerebral palsy, autism, seizures, even the feeding of the five thousand is justified by the simple explanation of a crowd wearing puffy sleeves loaded with food.

I assure you, no mortal on this earth is a bigger proponent for the success of Bethany than her mother and I.  No one on earth knows the struggles she faces, the medical bewilderment she faces, or the inexplicable affect her life has on others; no one, but us.  We see it, we know the power that surrounds her and we love both the God who loves her, and her.

Bethany’s most unremarkable life is far more remarkable than our lives will ever prove to be.  God’s got a great plan for her; we’re just here to enable it until it comes to fruition – tears, trials and all.