Twenty-five years ago tonight - at ten minutes before midnight the day before my fifth birthday - my sister Elaina died.
I know. It probably seems a morbid way to begin a blog post; and this is not going to be about still grieving the loss of a baby sister who's been gone almost as long as I've been alive.
It's more about a pivotal point in my family's history and in my own philosophy.
It's amazing how much a five year old can absorb and how much some big event that happens when a person is five can really change their thinking. I was actually four when Elaina was born and in my world, babies were just a matter-of-fact event. Mom would be pregnant and eventually a new baby would come home to live with us. That's what had happened with Elizabeth and I could still remember that pretty clearly. I was much more excited for this new baby than I was for Elizabeth, though, and I was shocked and unable to grasp why my parents would've come home from the hospital without Elaina. It took a little while for it to dawn on me what was meant when they told me the new baby was very sick. Again, in my world babies didn't get sick, much less die. I still had no comprehension that Elaina might die, though I did pray very earnestly all summer for her to be healed so she could come home and live with us. I had every confidence that she would and I looked forward to it, partly because life was so topsy-turvy that summer that I couldn't wait for us all to be home and be a proper quiet family again instead of having me and Elizabeth staying with family and friends while our parents were at the hospital with Elaina.
It was during this time that I first became very suspicious of hospitals and doctors. Unfairly, to a great extent, though I did learn that when a person is in the hospital it's almost impossible to defy the rules, no matter what those rules are. In our case, children were never allowed in the NICU to visit babies. So at first, Elizabeth and I weren't even allowed in the family waiting room connected to the NICU, which meant we didn't get to see the new baby at all.
Eventually, when it became obvious Elaina's genetic condition was so severe that she was probably never going to make it out of the hospital, the administration bent the rules to allow me and Elizabeth to visit. It was a rare and massive concession and it must've made everyone nervous because little kids bring illnesses with them and there were a lot of other babies in that NICU not separated from Elaina by much. I didn't understand that at four years old, though, and as far as I was concerned, hospital rules and doctors inexplicably forbid us from seeing our baby sister and then made some weird rule that we could only see her for half an hour on Sunday afternoon after we'd asked permission.
Everyone's heard the phrase "falling in love" and I'm usually hesitant to use it. But when I finally saw Elaina, I did fall in love as much as a young child can. I wanted so fiercely for her to get better. I wanted to touch and hold her and kiss her fuzzy funny-shaped little head. Considering how fragile she was, I marvel that I was allowed to touch her and kiss her head; but I did and there are pictures to prove it. To this day, when some family members don't like to look at pictures of Elaina because it's clear how deformed she was, I still feel a surge of defensive protectiveness. I didn't care then and I don't care now that she was funny looking. I remember what she looked like and how she smelled and how I considered her my baby too. She was just Elaina, and funny-looking went with the territory. Same went for Jonathan about eighteen years later.
The strange thing is that as much as I loved her, when she died I was sad but not in any way inconsolable. It must've had something to do with how my parents responded. A good friend remembers my dad calling up the morning of my birthday - the day after Elaina died - to tell him what had happened. As they were talking, Dad heard the garbage truck turn onto the street and ended the conversation by saying, "Oh, I'd better go. Time to get the garbage out."
I learned from that. I learned that the baby can die and the garbage still has to go out. And that's a good thing. Life doesn't stop because someone dies. Life didn't stop here when Joshua died. I knew it wouldn't when we lost him. I knew because I remembered. That's quite a gift of preparation, when you think about it. It's one thing to have the philosophy that God is good and grief isn't something that should ever take away from the peace and joy that comes from his Spirit, and if I hadn't had that preparation the philosophy would've comforted me. But I also had memories. I had memories of how exactly a year later, Mom had a beautiful, healthy baby boy who's grown into my wonderful brother Aaron and where we had been sad one year on my birthday, the next year we were waiting for there to be a new baby born at any minute. Babies die; and new babies are born; and God is good.
I also learned to treasure life in a way I'm not sure I would've otherwise. Many people do treasure life deeply without losing someone - this is just how I learned. I never, ever took the birth of a healthy sibling (or even an unhealthy one, in Jonathan's case!) for granted. Looking back, the love I felt for each of them was the same love I first experienced when I saw Elaina that first time in the hospital. I don't think I experienced the same thing when Elizabeth was born, probably because I was quite a bit younger and because I didn't have the same understanding that not every baby comes home, and when they do it's something to be deeply glad of.
This year, carrying my own child and having lost one, remembering Elaina's death is a little different than it usually is. If anything, I have greater respect for my parents and how they handled the whole thing. There's a statistic with some fantastically high number indicating how many parents divorce after the death of a child, and my parents' marriage not only survived, but they had many more children afterward and continued to love each other deeply. They were not paralyzed by grief but went about having a funeral and actually comforting many people who attended with a calmness that I've taken for granted before when I think back on it. I remember they read the passage of the Bible that speaks of David when his son with Bathsheba was taken sick and died as a consequence of his terrible sin - David laid before the Lord for three days and nights and wouldn't eat or drink as he pleaded for God to heal the baby. But when he learned the baby had died, he got up and washed his face and put on clean clothes and ate a meal. His aides didn't understand him at all, but he explained to them that while the baby lived, he thought perhaps God might have mercy and heal him. When the baby died, David said, "I will go to him, but he can never return to me." And then he went to the tabernacle and worshiped the Lord.
Only someone who believes God is good can behave that way. And my parents did. To the point that I still remember how they behaved twenty-five years later and I remember that while today was a sad day, it was also a good day. It's a good day today, not one to look back on with any kind of unhappiness. If it's any indication of how our family regarded Elaina's death, we finally got a headstone for her this year just because it seemed like after twenty-five years we should probably stop remarking every year that we should mark her grave. It's odd because if you look at the baby section of the cemetery people really go all-out in decorating baby graves, even putting little Halloween decorations out and constantly putting flowers on the headstones and so on. We never did that. We just said, "What's there in the cemetery isn't really Elaina and we'll see her again someday." I look forward to seeing Elaina again someday.
In the meantime, I think I'm going to call Mom.
With the elections coming up, we've been watching debates and discussing politics probably like a lot of people around the country this week. Oddly enough, our thought process went off in a tangent from national issues to one that's seriously affecting local churches.
Christian children are abandoning their beliefs as adults.
The churches are in trouble. It's not completely obvious on the surface. There are churches all over the place and they have attendance every Sunday and lots of weekdays as well. There are activities and programs and all kinds of stuff going on.
But 50% of the kids raised in these churches and attending all the special children's programs are no longer active Christians as adults. (I did some research on this and the numbers are pretty dicey, but I found an interesting Barna Group study here that talked about how kids raised in church are affected as adults - the paragraph I'm referencing is under the sub-heading "Faith Journeys" and actually sounds positive in the context of the article...but in this instance, I'm a glass-half-empty girl).
What gives? How can we be losing half the kids in church - kids of Christian parents who were raised attending church all the time?
I'm going to say something really controversial and extremely unpopular in the church today, but please bear with me.
We're losing the kids because we're separating them from their parents.
The churches - at least, all the ones I've been to in the area over the past two years in the course of some area-wide church programs - are splitting up their attending families. The kids go to Children's Church, the teens go to their own special classes, and the parents and grandparents attend the adult service. Men and women split up to study the Bible. Everywhere you turn, you find families splitting all different ways at church.
The more Ben and I watch and discuss, the more we're concluding that this has become an incredibly destructive influence the broader culture has had on mainstream Christian philosophy.
When I was little, there was a very common feature attached to most church sanctuaries called a "Cry Room". It was usually small with a couple of rocking chairs and a glass window allowing anyone inside to be able to watch and listen to the service. It was a good place for nursing moms to be able to go if they weren't comfortable nursing in the congregation, and it encouraged something very simple: even the youngest are welcome to listen in.
But even in my fairly short lifetime, something has subtly shifted in Christian philosophy and the Cry Rooms have all but vanished. It's another step in a process that's been happening over the past two hundred years or so, a process that involves something unheard-of in the past two thousand years of Christian life: children are no longer expected to be present in service with their parents in a startling majority of churches.
At the founding of our country, those incredibly dedicated Christian parents who first made it to these shores wouldn't dream of attending a church service without their children seated quietly and neatly in the pews with them. Those children grew up simply and naturally accepting the faith of their fathers in large percentages. Families that prayed together stayed together, the saying went. Parents were somehow able to learn about God with their children all seated around them because they expected nothing less. They knew how to train them not to be disruptive because there wasn't another choice.
Sometime around the invention of our modern school system, though - right in sync with the Industrial Revolution and the concept of having masses of people separated into types to accomplish specific workforce goals - came a new idea to the churches: separating kids from the parents so they could more effectively learn about God. Sunday School became just as much a fixture of church life as the Sunday sermon.
Still, as my kind elderly neighbor Bertha was just telling me this week, even when kids back nearly a hundred years ago went to Sunday school, they joined their parents for the majority of the Sunday service, including the sermon.
Not so today.
In the church Ben and I attend, the children and teenagers are present for the beginning of the service only. After the singing and the opening prayers, they're dismissed to their separate classes where various dedicated adults from the church do their best every week to present Godly principles to the kids "at their level" while their parents stay behind and hear a sermon being preached "at their level" in the sanctuary.
The more I watch this happen, the more I want to cry every Sunday when all the kids in every family get up and leave before the serious stuff ever gets started. There are only three children left in the room, and even they are only there because they're a little young to be left in the nursery (or in the case of one very outspoken little toddler, she refuses to be parted from her parents and protests loudly when they try to put her in the nursery). Other members are ecstatic about the number of children in the church. All I feel is worry and grief when they disappear. Something is wrong. Very, very terribly wrong. The services are too quiet. Half our assembly is missing; and they're missing what their parents are hearing.
Yes, I've heard over and over, "Well, the adult sermon goes over their heads." That's only true to a point. I was one of those kids once. Yeah, it went over my head for a while. But little by little, I began understanding. I knew what my parents were talking about when they discussed things they'd heard. Even if I didn't totally understand all the time, I learned what they were hearing and what they were learning. I wasn't left behind when they made decisions because I'd been hearing the whole process of how they thought and where they were coming from. I absorbed my parents' beliefs and understanding from being exposed to what they were hearing through the filter of what they thought about it. I remember being about four or five when I first grasped the concept of "atonement"...from hearing adult discussion and matching it to constantly listening to the Bible read aloud on tape. Four or five! And I'm no genius.
Jesus was not kidding when he said his Father revealed himself to little children. Little children that were given to their parents, to grow under their leadership and be taught the things their parents know and understand.
But today in church...children aren't expected to understand. They're expected to only be able to learn if they're separated from the adults, given a special lesson tailored to their age, kept out of the way so the adults can learn the really serious stuff without them.
Where did this come from? When did it become a good idea to separate whole families during the time when perhaps they should most be together? Because from what I can see of Jesus' teaching, he found it absolutely critical that the very young children be included in what his disciples thought was much too adult for the little crumb-crunchers to be wandering around. That very famous phrase, "Let the little children come to me" came about because Jesus was chastising his closest followers from trying to shut children out of their adult discussion. Every time I see the kids get up and leave, I wonder what would happen if Jesus walked into the service and looked around. Once our three little representatives have graduated to nursery and Children's Church, where would be the little fellow he could call over and use as an example in his teaching?
We think one huge factor is that Christians today are accepting a very dangerous philosophy, one Ben and I have started calling "Babel Again".
Our whole society right now is very eager to accept the idea that only by banding together as a worldwide people will we be able to achieve the great ends we believe we're capable of. We want to end World Hunger, ensure World Peace, think of ourselves as People Without Borders, change our entire planet's climate, redefine entire Human relationship structures, rise above racial differences, decide who should live or die...all things that God himself stated are his prerogative alone. So by ambitiously staking our claim on becoming a World Society, we are in essence saying, "Let's build a tower up to the sky where God lives!"
Last time we tried that, God was so alarmed by our attitude that he broke our ability to communicate as we used to. We call that incident the "Tower of Babel" story, a gigantic warning about the consequences of trying to set ourselves up as gods. It hasn't totally stopped us, though. We're still out here tower-building; and anyone who's alarmed by it is considered irrelevant because there's been a huge system setup to inexorably continue training the youngest generations how to "think properly" and totally break from their parents if they're such sticks-in-the-mud as to think maybe this or that current philosophy isn't such a good idea. Because a Global Society only works if you get a huge majority of the world to fall in line with a specific, homogenized way of thinking. Independent thinkers can destroy the whole construct; and those who believe in a God greater than any Human institution have to be silenced or made irrelevant for the Humans-as-gods dream to succeed.
Hence, massively organized school systems designed to separate children from their parents' views so they can be remolded into whatever form the system desires to create.
And we Christians, rather than being wary of going along with our society's ambitions and philosophies, are trying to take that idea and customize it to our own purposes. We're transferring the philosophies meant to indoctrinate young children into abandoning their parents' faith onto our methods of teaching the children in our churches. We're accepting a model of schooling meant to divide children from their parents for the purpose of more easily influencing them and transferring it to teaching about God. We believe that if the purpose of this style of teaching is to train kids in Christianity, the ends justify the means. The kids will be learning what they need to know regardless of what their parents think or teach...and we even think it's a plus that we have a chance to take children of unbelieving parents and pull the parents in by working with their kids. But that's worldly philosophy, not God's! God's philosophy is to work from the parent to the child, from the authority to those under the authority. The children were brought to Jesus by their parents, not the other way around.
Separating children from their parents - and even from their siblings of different ages - was a method originally conceived to indoctrinate them away from parents, not to encourage strong, vibrant families where children are in harmony and agreement with their parents and look to their authority first. We're training children to constantly look to their teachers and give them the love and respect that should only belong to parents; and by sabotaging parents this way, we're wreaking havoc in the churches. We're sowing a wind that's reaping a whirlwind and each successive generation abandoning God in higher percentages should be a wake-up call. More and more elaborate children's programs are not solving the problem of adults abandoning the faith they were brought up in. We're losing at least half of them and that is a percentage that sends a chill up my spine. It indicates that if Ben and I have two children and follow the current model of spiritual training being advocated in the churches, we stand a high chance if losing one of those children to the world. That's not a percentage we can live with. It would be better for us not to have children than accept this.
But instead of recognizing we've let the snake into the garden, let worldly ideas poison our philosophy, we just keep trying more and more fervently to make the world's methods work for us. Jesus told us pretty plainly that we can't patch an old garment with new patches. We can't serve two masters. We can't put new wine in old wineskins. We're going to simply destroy what we're trying to fix.
The problem is not the sincerity of the church leaders. It's not the fervency of their goals or the energy they put into doing their very best to teach Godliness to the children entrusted to them. It's not the parents who diligently bring their children to church every week and conscientiously keep them involved in the programs meant to keep the kids interested in God and learning about him.
The problem is no matter how good the program and how dedicated the teachers, the children are still being separated from their parents. When it comes to children and families, God's way is to join together. The world's way is to separate. God's way unites. The world's way tears apart. God says, "I hate divorce" (divorce being a separation of what God has joined together, including parents and children as well as husbands and wives). The world says, "Separation is healthy and necessary." God says, "I have called you to be set apart, a peculiar people." The world says, "Hey, using a few of our ideas will solve all your problems!"
Over the past two hundred years, Christians have accepted the "healthy necessity" of separation and the results are increasingly stark. The marriage failure rate in our churches has exploded to match that of the general population. The failure rate of children to maintain the faith they were raised in is astronomical. Even those who carry their faith into adulthood are far too often suffering a crisis of faith for some period of time that puts them in open rebellion against their parents and what they were taught to believe. Even if they recover, it's as if they suffered a life-threatening illness and often carry the scars of it the rest of their lives. This is not successfully raising up a new generation of Godly men and women. It's a deadly serious gamble.
The definition of insanity is to keep following the same methods and expect different results.
If separating the children from the parents in churches for several generations is resulting in each generation abandoning God in greater numbers, we have to do something different. Something radical. Something unheard-of.
We need to keep the kids with their parents. Abandon the separation indoctrination model. Quit worrying about sermons going over little kids' heads so they can be one with their parents in learning and talking about and finding God.
We can't afford to be insane.
Mom Turner even bought the cookie cutter sometime last October and I remember Jenny describing to me then how she really wanted different colors so the cookies would look like real Autumn leaves on the tables. One of the things about projects like this is I always wonder ahead of time if I'll really be able to pull off such specific requests. Technically, I know it's doable because you see artsy people doing things like that all the time; but I don't feel particularly artistic and often have to think really hard about how to get something to work. Thankfully, I had a few basic elements in place: I knew what recipes to use to get the job done. Soft Sugar Cookies, Royal Icing, Almond Chocolate Chiffon Cake, Wedding Buttercream and some very tasty purchased raspberry filling from Miles Cake and Candy Store. After that, I just needed to work out how many batches we'd need and how long it was going to take me to complete.
I've made cookies for two other weddings now and I've made one other wedding cake. Not a ton of experience, but enough to know that I needed to block off way more time than you might think for each task. If you've ever baked and decorated sugar cookies, you know they're always way more time-consuming than you might think at the outset. The average batch of sugar cookies yields about two dozen and takes all afternoon to finish; multiply that by six and you've got the requirements for this particular baking project. I figured for the cookies it would take one afternoon to mix the dough, one to roll and bake the cookies, one to do all the glazing, one to do the decorating, and one to wrap and finish. For the cake, it was going to take a day to mix and bake, one to fill and first-coat frost, and a third to finish-frost and assemble. That all turned out to be pretty much accurate, except that so many other things came up this last week that it took me all my "project time" (time in the afternoon after usual morning chores) from Monday to Friday to finish the cake.
Looking at the calender, I decided the cookies needed to be completely finished by October 6 (one week before the wedding). When I was thinking this over in August I didn't know I was making a cake, but I did remember from other weddings that some big project usually crops up during that last week and I didn't want to be tied up making cookies at that point. Knowing this was the case, I field tested some cookies in September by leaving them out on the counter for three weeks, tasting them about once a week. By the third week, they were getting a little stale but were still fairly good, so I knew it was safe to have them finished a week ahead of time and still have them taste good for wedding guests.
What I hadn't counted on was that pregnancy really has slowed me down...and how many people on both sides of my family were ready to lend a hand and fill in that energy gap for me! My sisters and mom helped me bake all those cookies - and Leah and Benjamin lent us the kitchen and the freezer for that stage, which I realized about halfway through the baking process would've presented a huge challenge to me in our current kitchen. And Ben single-handedly rolled and cut at least half of the cookie dough. He got so covered in flour and he just kept going like a champ for four or five hours that Sunday afternoon. Kim and Jenny and Grandma and Mom and Jenny's mother-in-law Chris wrapped up and tied them all.
Then there was the cake. Some fun moments: when Jenny showed up unexpectedly as I was putting the cakes in the oven so she got to taste the batter; Katherine coming over for the day and helping me put all the layers together; cutting the center dowel through the layers with a big pair of branch clippers; and getting the cake finally all set up and with it's decorative flowers on it just as Jenny came into the reception room to see it for the first time.
When we got to the reception room yesterday and I saw it all decorated and got the cake assembled, I was very content with how everything came out, especially when I saw Jenny's reaction. I think she and Ken very much enjoyed their wedding yesterday and we got to be a part of making the details work.
Grandma brought her cookie carefully home from the reception and told me today she's not sure she wants to eat it. "Because they're so beautiful and especially I know how much work they were," she said. "Lots of people worked on them. It seems a shame to eat them so soon."
That's a very pleasant compliment.
I'm glad the projects are successfully over, but I've definitely enjoyed all the company it's brought me and being part of getting this big event all ready. It's going to seem pretty quiet around here the next few weeks!
Because last night was the beginning of the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), we slept in a tent in the back yard.
I've never slept in a tent before. And it rained. But it was fun anyway. Though I'll be the first to say it turns out that sleeping on the ground while pregnant is quite a bit different then while not pregnant. I'm not sure if the baby protested by moving all night or if he's been moving all night anyway and I'm just usually much too soundly asleep to feel him rolling around in there.
Ben has wanted to go camping since I first met him. His family used to go quite a bit when he was younger and he greatly enjoyed it. He's not your average "outdoor guy" in that he's not into hunting and likes going fishing only if someone he knows and loves wants to take him along (*cough*...Dad...*cough*) and his preferred clothing doesn't happen to be jeans and flannel shirts (khakis and polos, more like it). But his family used to go camping together and spend that time without the distractions of other friends or outside influences and that's what he loved. I think my experiences growing up were a lot different because of not going to school, but I do understand why it's so special to him. What's funny is that I only went camping once or twice with my grandparents because neither of my parents liked camping at all. My dad thinks camping is staying in hotel room with a broken TV and Mom doesn't want anything to do with a tent in the rain. Probably why I found it amusing that we slept in a tent on a night when it rained pretty much all night.
At any rate, Ben's been looking forward to this for weeks. Last night he was so excited setting everything up I don't think he stopped grinning the whole evening. Grandma was pretty skeptical. I explained but I don't think she quite realizes that this is something Ben really, really enjoys and it's something he's more or less given up for a time because taking care of Grandma and going camping are not compatible.
At any rate, we built a campfire in the metal firepit and roasted some marshmallows and carried out all our fleecy blankets and it wasn't nearly as cold out as I was expecting, in spite of the rain. We spent a lot of evenings sitting outside on the glider last summer and it was a little nostalgic to do so last night also. And a couple nice features about camping in the back yard are still having access to the bathroom and to Netflix on the Internet.
Though I did learn a few things: keeping a towel for wiping wet feet is important, and you might be dry IN the tent, but that doesn't mean you should let anything touch the SIDES of the tent while it's raining. Great dampness will definitely ensue.
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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