An Open Letter to My Unborn Son

Dear son,

You are almost here! Your dad and I cannot wait to hold you in our arms, to kiss your sweet cheeks, to count your fingers and toes. You, my love, are a miracle: Nine months ago you didn’t exist at all, and now you are flesh and bone and brain and heart and soul. We thank the Lord for you every day! 

While you’ve been growing safe and secure inside my belly, the world out here has undergone some seismic shifts marked by much fear and tragedy. I want to tell you about the past few months while they are fresh in my mind because I believe that God is working through these events to do important work in our hearts. My prayer is that what He is teaching us now creates a wave of lasting change that will make your generation more loving and more thoughtful than mine. 

In late January, when I was just beginning to feel your tiny flutters and kicks inside me, we started to hear news about people in China and other parts of Asia falling ill and dying from a mysterious respiratory virus with many different names: “The Coronavirus,” “COVID-19,” “SARS-CoV-2.” When the virus reached the United States, our President and several media outlets referred to it as the “Chinese Flu,” which may or may not have contributed a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans in the weeks and months that followed. 

This is something I need you to know, my sweet son: Words have power. We can wield them “like swords” (Prov. 12:18) or apply them like balm that brings “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24). 

By early March, as your eyes began to perceive light and your ears process sound, the virus had spread to almost every state, including Missouri. We worried for you. No one seemed to know anything about how COVID-19 might affect pregnant women or unborn babies or newborns. There was no research – how could there be? We heard conflicting information about the virus from the media, government, and health experts. 

The death toll climbed, the illness primarily affecting the most vulnerable among us: the elderly, the sick, the immunocompromised, and our Black brothers and sisters, who are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people due to poor access to healthcare and other preexisting conditions related to living in poverty. Hospitals became overcrowded, and doctors and nurses begged people to stay home to avoid further spread. 

Restaurants and shops closed their doors, playgrounds were taped off, schools and churches moved online. We stopped seeing our friends and tried to keep a safe distance away from your Grammy and Grandpa to avoid getting them sick. Your Aunt Paige and Uncle Ryan pushed back their wedding, we moved your baby shower online, our friends and family members who’d planned to visit us canceled their flights, your dad was no longer allowed to come to our prenatal appointments. 

The entire world was put on pause. 

That’s when videos began to circulate that showed two white men gunning down Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was on an afternoon jog in a suburb in Georgia. Even though the local police had seen the video, no charges were filed against Ahmaud’s killers. A few weeks later, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, was shot and killed by police officers as she slept on her couch inside her home in Louisville, Kentucky. A few weeks after that, another video surfaced – this one showing a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, for almost nine minutes while he repeatedly said, “I can’t breath” and twice called out for his mother. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protestors of all colors, faiths, and political leanings flooded streets all over our country (and the world) to demand justice for Ahmaud, Breonna, and George, but also to speak out against the systemic oppression that has plagued black Americans since they were brought to these shores as slaves. In some cases, protests have turned violent: businesses looted and burned, officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds. 

It’s easy to get nostalgic about the time before COVID-19, to wish that we could all just “go back to the way things were” or “return to business as usual.”

But the reason I’m telling you all of this is because I truly don’t think God wants us to “go back to the way things were.” We know that it is through exactly these kinds of tragic circumstances – when life feel most confusing and painful and hopeless – that God so often does his most important work within us. Instead of wishing away the year 2020, maybe we should stop for a second and ask, “God: What are you trying to teach me here?” 

For your dad and me, COVID-19 has led us to reflect upon what Jesus really means when he tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

By the time you’re old enough to read this, you will probably have heard the parable of The Good Samaritan countless times. The story is so good, though, that it bears repeating here:

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

The true neighbor in this parable, of course, is the one who stops – the one who presses pause on his busy life in order to see and serve the dying man in the road. This parable is often retold as a reminder that to love your neighbor means to care for the weak, sick, and the vulnerable.

But it’s important to note that this parable is also very much about race. 

In Jesus’ time, Jews and Samaritans (two separate ethnic groups) despised one another. The lawyer who questions Jesus hopes that he can “love his neighbor” by caring solely for other Jews, but Jesus uses this story to flip the lawyer’s worldview entirely. Not only does Jesus command that love for our neighbors should transcend racial boundaries, but by making the Samaritan the hero of the story, he also challenges negative stereotypes about Samaritans. 

When I read through this parable in light of the racial unrest embroiling our own nation, I can’t help but feel deeply convicted.

Because long before we knew the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, back during our pre-COVID state of “normal,” we did know the names Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many others. Your dad and I have also known for a long time that racial disparities exist across nearly all systems in our society: criminal justice, healthcare, education, and economic.  

Yet we’ve rarely stopped and paused our lives long enough actually do anything about any of it. Over and over again, we have been like the priest and the Levite: We see the man dying in the street, and over and over we choose to “pass by on the other side.” Because it’s so much easier and cleaner and more comfortable to avoid looking at the problem altogether than it is to stop and actually do something about it. 

With COVID-19 has come much pain and suffering. The economy has grinded to a halt, people are out of work, and over 480,000 people have lost their lives. But even within these horrible circumstances, God is at work. Collectively as a nation, we’ve been forced to slow down, and it seems we are finally paying attention to the dying man in the street. 

Because of global protests and vocal public outrage at the deaths of Ahmaud, Breonna, and George, police departments across the country have already begun reforming their policies and our President has signed an executive order to ban law enforcement from using chokeholds. More than ever before in the history of this country, white people are listening to their Black brothers and sisters, educating themselves on the deep-rooted causes of systemic racism, and seeking solutions. 

The other day, someone I know to be a strong Christian posted this image on his Facebook page (side note: I sincerely hope Facebook is a thing of the past by the time you’re able to read this):

The words on this image trouble me for several reasons, but I find the last line particularly disturbing coming from someone who I know to be a follower of Christ: “If you choose to see evil, then evil is all you will see.”

My sweet son, if we choose to NOT see evil, then we are just like the priest and the Levite who “pass by on the other side.” Even more importantly, if we choose NOT to see evil, then we have no need for Jesus.

You are about to enter broken world full of poor and miserable sinners. None of us are immune, especially when it comes to the sin of racism, which has been with us since Biblical times and which, like all sins, will be with us until Jesus comes again. We all need the grace and pardon that only Christ gives through his death and resurrection.

My prayer for our nation is that when the pandemic and protests are over, when we all resume the hustle of “normal” life, that we keep working to love those who are unlike us and work to eradicate injustice. My prayer for the Church is that we help lead the charge.

And my prayer for you, my son, is that you refuse to look away from the brokenness of this world, that you refuse to be like the priest and the Levite who “pass by on the other side” because it’s more convenient and comfortable to do so. I pray that, like the Samaritan, you go out of your way to love and serve those who are crying out for help, especially those who are different from you – something that I fail at continuously. 

I pray, too, that in the midst of this world’s worst trials and tribulations, you see God at work and know that “in all things [he] works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). 

What we need are sticker charts

For New Year’s 2019, I made a resolution and mostly kept it. Hold your applause. I have always, always been a New Year’s Resolution person. I think they are worth making and I take them seriously, and that is one of the few things in life I will fight you on. In December 2018, I realized that I had stopped exercising almost completely. I had just finished a busy first semester of graduate school, and I was feeling a little sluggish and not myself. My days were almost always full, and exercise felt less urgent than academic deadlines and less appealing than watching New Girl on my laptop in bed, so it got swept under the rug. It’s not that I didn’t want, somewhere deep inside of me, to exercise; it’s not that I didn’t believe that exercising was a good choice to make for my life. It’s just that, most days, my best intentions couldn’t quite overcome the external pressure of school and my personal desire to be relaxed and comfortable as often as possible.

So: New Year’s Resolution 2019 was an exercise resolution. I wish, for the sake of keeping things interesting, it was something more original – but there you have it. I’ve failed to keep plenty of New Year’s Resolutions before, but I was serious about this one. I knew that since my days were busy (and working out is hard, especially when your muscles have been on vacation for the last few months), I needed some infrastructure if this was ever going to catch on.  After I wrote, “work out 4x / week” on my list of New Year’s Resolutions, I got myself organized.

First, and because I had just finished a semester of having my head stuffed with psychology, I made up an operational definition for working out. I decided what I was going to consider “exercise”. I set my bar low and attainable. Any amount of time doing something exercise-y above and beyond what I normally did in a day would be called “exercise”.

I try not to give out too much unsolicited advice, but I’ll hit you with this one because I think it’s important: sticker charts. They are for children and they are also for anyone who needs to get something done. I wanted to work out 4 times each week for all of 2019, so I printed out monthly calendars for all of 2019. Actually, I made the calendars myself so they would look nice hanging on my wall all year. I wrote specific motivational thoughts on each month. I bought the perfect sheet of tiny, shiny star stickers, and on the way home from the store I told myself that I could stick a star to the number of every day of the month that I exercised.

Throughout the year, I brought the star stickers and calendar pages with me everywhere. They hung where I could see them from my bed in one room, and then I moved them to a spot above my desk when I moved houses. I folded them and stuck them in my bag when I traveled. I kept sticking stars on every number of day that I exercised, and I cannot stress enough the power the stickers had to get me to do a couple squats when I didn’t want to.

Although a lot of my exercising can be attributed to the sticker chart, my friend Amelia deserves some credit as well. We both signed up for a research study at our university for the month of February. For the study, we were forced to exercise four times every week, with a group of other research participants, while being supervised by the person conducting the study. What I’m saying is, we would have had to actively run away and hide from these people (especially the girl whose dissertation depended on our data) in order to not exercise during that time. February was covered. When the study was over, we kept meeting up to exercise together. It’s a lot harder to walk right past the gym without going in when you know there’s someone in there waiting for you.

For me, resolutions and good intentions get all their power from practical, everyday routines and disciplines, from planning ahead and accountability. I don’t think I’ve ever had a feeling or conviction strong enough to keep me doing something challenging for the long haul.

Right now, we are in a couple of weeks where many of us are making resolutions. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd brought a long-standing problem of systemic racism to public consciousness, and so we’ve seen marches and protests, we’ve read countless social media posts and news articles about what we should and should not do and what’s really the right way to solve systemic and individual racism. And because of it, many people want to do something. I am the exact opposite of an expert on all of this. I am not a voice who should be telling anyone what’s the right, best, moral, etc. thing to do right now. I do, however, know that a lot of us want to start doing new things now that we weren’t doing before, and I think I know a little bit about how to rig your life so you keep showing up and doing something.

I am a resolution optimist. I support new intentions: to read books, have hard conversations, become informed, effect change in our workplaces, self-reflect, and all the other things that matter that we want to start (or continue) doing. However, I think that we may be easily lost or sidetracked unless we approach the new things we want to add to our lives with effort and intention.

Adding new practices to our lives will take effort. Things will come up that seem more pressing and important, and things will come up that seem easier and more fun. When that happens, I think that the plans and routines and accountability that we have created ahead of time will be what keep us going, more than our good intentions or the way we feel right now, as we resolve to do things.

So, some more unsolicited advice and just about my only helpful thoughts right now: I think I, and anyone like me, might need sticker charts, to meet up with a friend weekly to talk about what we’re reading, to click and drag a block of time on Google Calendar called “self-reflection activity” or “listen to podcast” the week before. Whatever it is you and I feel compelled to do, I think using our desire to act to make a plan for how we’re going to keep doing a new thing one month, six months, and several years from now could be the right move. Feeling convicted and moved to action in this moment is, I believe, good and right – but let’s not stop there. Do whatever silly, extra, scheduled, detailed thing it takes to keep you going. (And you make a sticker chart, now or ever, PLEASE send me a picture!)

Choosing A Side

As our family arrived at the baseball field for Louisa’s game (5th grade, mixed teams, machine pitch), we quickly made our way toward her teammates in their “Orioles” uniforms.  Looking around for an opposing team, we saw only a few players in uniforms of another color.  As it became more and more apparent that the other side would not have enough players to field a team, some of the Orioles were excited that they might get a win without even having to play, but I knew Louisa would be disappointed. She liked to win, but not by forfeit. Louisa preferred to be victorious after a hard-fought battle.

The coaches, meanwhile, had put their heads together and pointed out that there were enough total kids to field two teams so a game could be played.  They proposed that four of our team play for the opponents.  Everyone was quickly in agreement, so our coach glanced around, named off four players, and—as luck would have it—Louisa was chosen to play for the other side.

I groaned to myself as I anticipated her response. Louisa had loved sports all her life, from the moment she dribbled her first rubber basketball around the store and shot it into my shopping cart or tucked one little leg under another and slid with foot extended into an imaginary base in our living room.  She was fascinated by the equipment, enjoyed learning the rules, practiced the skills for hours, was intrigued by the strategy.  But as much as all of those consumed her interest, Louisa thrived on being part of a team.  From an early age she was heavily invested in her team, whichever group that might be, and whichever sport she might be playing.

And–just as I anticipated–happiness at getting to play turned to agony at the thought of playing for the opponent. The coaches completed the arrangements while we all waited, and Louisa stewed.  I knew how difficult it would be for her to play competitively in this situation. It would be a mortal internal battle the entire game.

Finally, as the other team headed to the outfield for the first inning, and the Orioles prepared  to bat, I walked up to the coach to explain why my daughter seemed stuck in her tracks somewhere along the first base line, and I asked if he could possibly choose someone else to play for the other team.  He was not particularly sympathetic or understanding, just shrugged and asked the team if anyone else wanted to switch sides.  In no time he had a volunteer and Louisa joined the Orioles in the dugout.  She wasn’t proud. She seemed emotionally spent.  But her sense of which team she belonged to was intact.

Happy to be playing for her team

“Whose side are you on?” We are fond of asking this question, especially if we ourselves identify strongly with one side.  It is how we identify people with whom we can form alliances or against whom we will do battle.  We ask, and we expect an answer so we can assess others’ loyalty to causes, values, beliefs, or actions.  Even when people don’t express strong convictions, we are bold to demand that they choose a side, or we look for markers to help us decide where their loyalties must fall. It’s important to know who sees things our way–who we can count on in a fight.

There is no shortage right now of motive and opportunity to ask the question, “Whose side are you on?”  We are in a world of hurt, literally and figuratively, and within our nation that hurt has intensified in the last two weeks.  Dividing lines are everywhere. For months we have engaged in debate about the COVID-19 pandemic, ways to control the spread of this virus, or the best treatment for those who have contracted it. What could be a unified battle against a global disease has broken into all manner of factions, generating anger and judgment and hateful speech and actions.

“Whose side are you on?” is an even more emotional question as we address the recent killings, injustices, and evidence of racism in our country and the pain they have brought to millions. Protests, peaceful or violent, have led in some cases to greater dialog and in other cases to greater division as we debate the many aspects of this sinful condition and the best ways to address it.

As if the crises themselves are not enough, battle lines are quickly drawn in this election year as we analyze the action, reaction, or inaction of our leaders.  At every level of elected government, and among our fellow citizens, we ask the questions and look for the evidence that will help us know who is on which side for this fight.

One of the more fascinating scenes from the Biblical account of the fall of Jericho is an encounter that takes place just prior to the battle, described in the last verses of Joshua 5.  Joshua is approaching the city of Jericho when he sees a man with a drawn sword standing in front of him.  Joshua approaches the man and asks him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” the man replies. “But as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” 

“Neither.” Neither!  Here’s a guy, a soldier—a warrior apparently, with his sword drawn and ready for battle, yet he does not declare a side.  He simply identifies himself and his purpose–“As commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

What does Joshua do next?  The passage tells us, “Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

That’s it.  Joshua, the faithful leader of God’s people, does not respond in anger or frustration, or even in fear, but with humility.  He falls on his face in reverence and asks for the message that the commander of the Lord’s army must surely have for him, the leader of God’s people.  The instructions he receives are the same ones that Moses heard when God called him to lead his people out of Egypt….”Take off your sandals.  You are standing on holy ground.”  You are in God’s presence and He has work for you to do.

Suddenly, “Whose side are you on?” or “Are you for us or for our enemies?” are meaningless questions. Joshua gets the message.  Rather than being consumed with knowing who falls into his camp, and who falls in the camp of his enemies, his question changes:  “What message does God have for me?” and—perhaps–Am I in HIS camp? Am I prepared to fight the battles He gives me to fight, according to His battle plan.

Being on the Lord’s side changes my understanding of human divisions.  It also changes the way I look at God.  If I am going to recognize God as God, then He is not mine to try to manipulate, but I am His to lead and use.  Following Joshua’s humble example, I am inclined to fall face down in reverence and ask, “What message does my lord have for his servant” and then I pray I am ready to listen for whatever direction I may receive.

God’s moves and my part in them may well be something completely different from what I would do, just as marching around Jericho for seven days was not the way Joshua normally would fight a battle.  What God asks of me may even cause me discomfort and stress, but I am not a lone warrior. God does not fight battles according to human-defined sides but at the same time He DOES do battle.  Jesus life, death, and resurrection were all part of his battle over sin, fought out of tremendous, sacrificial love, and I must recognize that He fought that battle for every single person on this earth. The battle for salvation has been won, yet He continues to do battle for us against the evils of this world. 

Whatever the earthly battle lines, I would like to have the same unwavering desire to be on God’s side, the same strong sense of being on his team, that Louisa had as an “Oriole” on that baseball field long ago.  With wisdom from His spirit, compelled by his love and reflecting his boundless grace, I want to be willing and prepared also to fight on God’s side–for every single soul, every person on this earth.

Shine Bright

On July 29, 2019, I drove my two oldest boys to their first day of school of the 4th and 2nd grades.

The week before that had been a blur. We had joyfully arrived back home from “The Great Monster Road Trip” that spanned four weeks and nine states, leaving us about seven days to unpack and clean everything before school would start. And then… my husband ended up breaking his leg the evening before the first day of school.

The first day of school looked considerably different than I had expected. My husband was in a lot of pain—so much so that I was unsure about leaving our 4-year-old son with him at home. Twenty-four hours earlier, I imagined that all five of us would go together to drop off the boys. But here it was, just me and them taking the 15-minute drive to school, still reeling quite a bit from our world being shifted right under our feet the night before.

I didn’t want them to go. I didn’t want the summer with them to end. I loved being with my children. I loved being one of the main influencers in their lives. I was feeling uneasy about my oldest starting 4th grade–it just seemed so old and independent! Was he ready? What would he face? Would 2nd grade be a struggle for my active middle child? Would he make good friends? The unknowns of my husband’s sudden disability seemed to magnify the unknowns of the coming school year.

I was worried, driving to school that day, but I was also crystal clear with my boys. I let them know how much I loved them. I let them know that I was proud of them and that I believed in them. And I let them know that my prayer for them that day and that year was that their lights would shine bright. I knew they were headed to a place where they would not be taught about God, but I reminded them that the light of God in their lives could make an impact with their friends, in their classes and in their school.

We turned up TobyMac, snapped our fingers and sang all the way until we reached the parking lot.

The boys didn’t hesitate to get out of the car and, with a quick, sweet look back at me, they re-entered the routine they knew so well.

I saw them leave my watchful eye… and worked at entrusting them to the watchful eye of God.

Months passed. My husband had surgery and lots of PT appointments. My boys went on field trips and made new friends. They learned new math concepts and improved their writing skills. They played at recess and ate at the lunch tables. My husband’s ability to walk on his own returned, and he started driving himself to work and the boys to school. More months passed and COVID hit California. All of a sudden, no one was taking the boys to school. No one was going anywhere. School would now happen on a folding table just off of our living room. I was once again the main influencer in my sons’ daily lives. While I loved the opportunity to spend so much time with them again, I grieved that they couldn’t play with their friends or learn {directly} from their teachers. But their school year ended at home, with just our family, feeling pretty distant from the school community that had served as their second home for much of the year.

On Tuesday morning, my son, Noah, got to say goodbye to his 4th grade teacher. We had a 2-hour window where we could drive through the pick-up loop and grab his last remaining items from the classroom. Our car windows had been decorated with art and words to let her know how much he loved having her for a teacher and would miss her. Her joy-filled smile could be seen despite her mask. It was such a sweet moment. And then she said some words I hope my son will never forget: “Noah, I saw the light of Jesus in you every day.” My heart swelled as I looked at my son’s beautiful brown eyes; oh, he was for sure taking this in.

As we drove away from the school, my own eyes widened as I remembered the song that I played for my boys that first day of school. There it was. In true, almost-unbelievable fashion, God had answered my prayer from that day so long ago (not only for my first-born, but also for my second-born!). I never could have known on that shaky day last July how this year would have unfolded. In the midst of that unknown, I brought the desire of my heart to the Lord, and I trusted {albeit a little timidly} that he could take care of the things that I could not see. And, amazingly enough, he did.

What is a prayer that you could be praying for the people around you right now? Do you anticipate that God can answer it? How can you let your own light shine bright in the darkness?