The Greatness and Insignificance of Humanity

Have you ever noticed that people are really good at celebrating the greatness of humanity?

We love to watch, talk about, and read about great human achievements, whether they come on the sports field, the silver screen, the concert stage or the pages of a book. Right now, your Facebook feed is littered with people declaring, “Look how great this is!” Our culture particularly loves to lift up the collective achievements of mankind – think, for example, of the national pride that swelled up when we first put a man on the moon.

You might hear a different message from your Christian friends. Sure, they might celebrate the Giants’ World Series win with you, or talk breathlessly about the latest movie from their favorite director. But they also may talk about how insignificant – or downright bad – humanity is. Especially if you frequent church circles, you might get the impression that mankind is nothing terribly special, that we’re all really just wretched, lowly worms.

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With apologies to Morpheus, what if I told you that our culture has it right, and that Christians can tend to wrongly downplay the significance and greatness of humanity? And what if I told you that Christians have it right as well, that the culture at large tends to over-esteem our significance? There is a great tension at play here between the insignificance and greatness of humanity.

Our Insignificance

What does it mean to say that humanity is insignificant? The Bible is chock full of reminders for us of how insignificant we are, at least as compared to God.

When King David gazed upon the night sky and considered the awesomeness of God’s works in the heavens, he penned these song lyrics: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man, that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). David’s mind was blown by the greatness of the cosmos, and even more so by the magnificent God who created them, as it were, with his fingers. He sees the heavens and thinks, “How is it that the great God behind all of this gives a passing thought to something as lowly as man, much less cares for him?”

In a different song, David again highlights the insignificance of mankind in comparison to God: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:14-16). God shows compassion to mankind because we are mere dust. Our days are like the fleeting life of grass in the field, which sprouts up one day and is gone the next.

These same themes – mankind as grass or dust – are echoed elsewhere in the Bible as well. Isaiah uses grass to compare the passing nature of our flesh to the immortal nature of God’s word: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8). Mankind’s collective worth fares no better in comparison to God’s worth: “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.” (Isaiah 40:15-17). Gather up all the billions of people in the world today, and they stand before God as nothing.

David’s son Solomon picks up on the theme of mankind as mere dust, noting that humanity shares the same fate as the beasts of the field: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). Cows come from the dust, have a brief breath of life, and return to the dust. So do people.

These kinds of reminders are not limited to the Old Testament. In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul exhorts them to have the humility to count others more significant than themselves, pointing to the ultimate example of humility in Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:6-7). The fact that Jesus took on human nature was so striking because of the humility it took to bridge the vast gulf between the dignity of God and the lowly state of humanity.

Our Greatness

If humanity is so insignificant, where does that leave us? Doesn’t that idea run contrary to other ideas commonly embraced by Christians about the sanctity of life, etc.? While God wants us to know the place of humility we occupy before him, he also wants us to know how great we are.

The greatness of humanity is not a separate category from God’s greatness. Our greatness is tied to the fact that God made us in his image. Putting aside issues of exactly when and how God created mankind, the account in Genesis clearly communicates that God made man and woman to reflect his image in a way that was not true of the rest of his creation:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27).

When I was a kid, I had the notion that our being created in the image of God meant that we somehow look like God in our physical form. That makes little sense, of course, in light of other places that describe God as spirit and without physical form. For example, Jesus says that “God is spirit” (John 4:24), and elsewhere that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones.” (Luke 24:39).

The fact that we are created “in the image of God” means simply that humans are like God and that we represent him. We can see that most clearly in the one perfect man who ever lived, Jesus. He is described as “the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), and “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, Jesus showed what man as the image of God was all about because he was just like God and represented him perfectly.

We, on the other hand, are not completely like God, and quite often do not represent him very well. Unlike Jesus, we have a broken, sinful nature. Nevertheless, there remains in all humanity something of the image of God. That is why we can speak intelligibly about the dignity of human life, for example, and make distinctions between human beings and other sentient life that don’t just boil down to “might makes right.”

The Bible does not give us an explicit list of the ways in which we are like God, but we can pretty easily discern ways in which people are more like God than the rest of creation, including:

  • Our sense of morality, justice and accountability
  • The fact that we have a spiritual life that transcends the physical realm
  • Our ability to think logically about the world around us
  • Our use of the spoken and written word to communicate
  • Our innate creativity and love of beauty, and
  • The depth and character of our relationships and love for each other

Because people uniquely bear God’s image, we occupy a very special place in his creation. Right after David marvels over the fact that God is mindful of something as lowly as mankind, he turns with wonder to our high position: “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” (Psalm 8:5-6).

That high position has tremendous implications. James says our tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison,” because “[w]ith it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9). The great offense of speaking evil of people is that they bear the inherent dignity of the likeness of God!

In a larger sense, that is also the tragedy of the fallen state of mankind. The glorious image bearer of the great and glorious God of all has traded the truth for a lie and traded that glory for lesser things. (Romans 1:18-25). People who were created to be like God and represent him well have instead rebelled against God, turned their backs on him, and now misrepresent him in word and deed. That’s a tragedy and offense beyond our ability to comprehend.

Reconciliation

Ah, but there is good news. Humanity’s insignificance and greatness come together in Jesus. After pointing to Jesus as the ultimate example of humility in that God took on human nature, Paul goes on to explain how Jesus’s humility led to his exaltation:

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8-11).

Through Jesus’s death and resurrection, the door was opened for the restoration of humanity to our intended position as God’s image bearers through the forgiveness of our sins:

[I]f anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself . . .; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them . . . . We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

So now, we who have trusted in Christ are being progressively changed back into the image of God. As Paul put it, we are “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Indeed, that was God’s purpose in calling us broken sinners to himself in the first place, to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” (Romans 8:29). And we have the hope that some day, we will be made like him in the fullest sense, reflecting and imaging his glory perfectly instead of misrepresenting him and denigrating his glory.

Embracing the Tension

In the end, we are left with two truths in tension. First, there is greatness in humanity. Namely, all the ways in which we bear the image of God, even in our fallen state. Christians would do well to acknowledge and celebrate the greatness of mankind, even though the image of God in man has been marred in so many ways. Second, in comparison to God, humanity is very, very insignificant. The greatness of humanity is not worthy of comparing to the greatness of God. Christians need to hold these truths in tension so that we can be true ambassadors for Jesus, imploring people as Paul did to be reconciled to God so that we can stand in humility before him, while also taking our rightful place as the bearers of his great image.

Gaza, Iraq and the Most Moral Genocide

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Genocide in Gaza

Are you aware of the genocide in Gaza? The sides dispute the actual casualty figures (of course), but there’s no question that hundreds of Palestinian women and children have been killed by Israel in Gaza since early July. Many people see Israel’s attacks as a form of genocide against the Palestinian people. That sentiment is especially common for those who view Gaza as an occupied territory whose inhabitants have understandably – and maybe a bit heroically – risen up against an unlawful occupying force.

Wait, that’s not genocide! Israel is doing what it must in defending its people against terrorist attacks. Hamas is responsible for the tragic civilian deaths in Gaza because it purposefully operates among the general population, firing rockets, taking refuge and storing arms next to homes and even in schools. Israel even fires warning shots to allow civilians to flee from bombs aimed at Hamas targets – that’s hardly genocide.

Genocide in Iraq

Well, perhaps you’ve heard of the ongoing genocide against Christians and children in Iraq. In its push to establish an Islamic caliphate, ISIS (or is it ISIL? IS?) has basically cleansed northern Iraq of its former Christian population. And, according to an Iraqi activist in the US, ISIS even has been “systematically beheading” children. Many are describing ISIS’s actions as genocide aimed at a Muslim-only nation.

ISIS’s actions against Christians in Iraq sound more like religious cleansing than genocide. It’s terrible that so many Christians have been driven out of their homes. But the videos ISIS has posted of mass killings appear to involve mass extermination of Shiite Muslims, not Christians. And other than the claims by the one activist, there’s no evidence of mass beheadings of children by ISIS. It’s a bit of a stretch to call any of that “genocide.”

Okay, then how about the genocide against the Yazidis? ISIS views the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq/Kurdistan as devil worshipers. When ISIS swept into their area, thousands of Yazidis were killed when they refused to convert to Islam. Meanwhile, tens of thousands more fled to Mount Sinjar to escape the ISIS onslaught. Cut off by ISIS troops and with no food, water or shelter, the Yazidis trapped on the mountain faced almost sure extinction. Worldwide, cries went out against the impending genocide of the Yazidi people, and the US responded by striking back against ISIS and making airdrops of food and water to the people on the mountain.

Yeah, I’ll grant you that we could have been faced with genocide of the Yazidis. But it looks like that crisis has been averted, with tens of thousands of people already having been rescued from Mount Sinjar. Maybe we should refer to ISIS’s actions there as “attempted genocide,” just to distinguish them from the horrors of actual genocide.

Forget the F Word

Whatever you think of these particular examples, the fact that we invoke the name of “genocide” in all of them points to something broader. People generally still agree that genocide is bad. Really, really bad. We are quick to use the G word as hyperbole to garner sympathy for the plight of people caught up in war. Some even have referred to the shooting in Ferguson as part of a larger genocide against young black men in the US.

It’s no mistake that we use the G word, either. That word calls to mind the prototypical genocide of Nazi Germany, from the horrifying images of piles of corpses in concentration camps to the staggering numbers of Jews and other undesirables murdered in just a few short years.

As the more recent examples show, genocide doesn’t just strike us as wrong because of the high body count. We are offended most by genocide because it involves killing whole groups of people simply because of who they are.

The Most Moral Genocide

Even today, though, there’s an ongoing genocide that escapes most people’s attention. It’s not limited to a small strip of land bordering the Mediterranean – this genocide is happening all over the world. No one is about to come to the rescue of the people being killed in this genocide.

The targets of this genocide are being wiped out in mass. In Taiwan, 96% of their population is being extinguished. In Europe, 92% are killed. In the US, upwards of 70%.

And these people are being killed not because of anything they have done, but solely because of who they are. Their community reaches across gender and across national and ethnic boundaries. The thing each of them has in common is some extra genetic material on their 21st chromosome; we know them as having Down Syndrome. Disdain for these people is nearly universal: 90% of women choose to terminate the pregnancy when their baby tests positive for Down Syndrome.

Wait, we’re talking about abortion?  Here we go again.  Abortion as genocide:  yawn.

Yes, we’re talking about abortion. But to a certain extent, abortion as the instrumentality of their death is beside the point. We recoil from Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews not mainly because he used gas chambers to accomplish his goal. The main evil we see in his actions is that he slaughtered millions of people simply because they were Jews, along with smaller numbers of people simply because they were Gypsies or homosexuals.

Similarly, what matters most in the ongoing genocide against those with Down Syndrome is that they are targeted because they have Down Syndrome.

In any event, this issue does not break down along traditional battle lines of Pro-Choice vs. Pro-Life. Many people that identify generally as pro-choice remain queasy about the sheer number of people with Down Syndrome that are aborted. There’s something a bit dark and sinister about an entire generation of Down Syndrome children being wiped off the map worldwide.

Enter Dawkins

Ah, but not to Richard Dawkins! For the uninitiated, Dawkins is a leading figure of the modern atheist movement and something of a hero to those who may have softer views on religion, but still admire his progressive, humanistic thought leadership. Dawkins garnered some attention last night for weighing in on the (theoretical) plight of a pregnant woman who learns that her baby has Down Syndrome:

Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.

Dawkins backpedaled a bit in the face of criticism, suggesting that he wasn’t actually telling her what to do. But he stuck to his guns on the main issue, insisting that the decision to abort a Down Syndrome baby is the “most moral” decision a woman can make:

Women have a right to early abortion. Choice is theirs. Down Syndrome is 1 of the commonest & most moral reasons to exercise that right.

The statistics would suggest that, deep down, most people agree with Dawkins. We hate genocide. But this is an acceptable genocide. This is even a moral genocide because . . . Choice. The highest good here is not the protection of an entire population of people. The highest good is protecting would-be parents of these children from the burden of raising them. Better to wipe out entire generations of among the most vulnerable individuals on the planet than to burden our society with the feeding and care of those individuals.

Better to protect the purity of Choice at all costs. Substitute the purity of Islam, and that’s a genocidal argument ISIS could get behind.

The First Thanksgiving

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Before we dig into the turkey and whatnot, let’s take a moment to remember the history behind Thanksgiving, shall we?  Feel free to print this out and read with the whole family.  

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Origins

It was autumn of 1621.  The Pilgrim settlers in Plymouth had just struck a decisive blow in their battle against the local indigenous people, thanks to their large cache of handguns and a well-timed bout of smallpox.  In celebration, landowners all across New England took a much-needed break from burning witches and gathered in a large, muddy field in upstate New York to hear a stirring speech by heroic General George Washington.  Against a backdrop of well-amplified patriotic hymns, Washington announced the institution of the first national holiday of Thanksgiving.  The holiday was to be commemorated with a three-day feast beginning at midnight on the first new moon after the second Thursday of the second-to-last month of the year.

Dissent immediately sprang up among the local villagers, who complained that the schedule would force hundreds of them to work while others were stuffing their faces and watching the Redskins take on the Lions in the Coliseum.  The villagers eventually put away their torches, however, when they remembered that vacations hadn’t been invented yet.

Getting Ready

For the next four weeks, preparations were made for a grand feast, the likes of which had not been seen in the New World since notorious party boy Chris Columbus dropped in to visit.  Farmers emptied their storehouses of dried corn, tobacco, and whiskey.  Villagers suffered through long lines at their local turkey slaughterhouses and pumpkin patches.  In the “Waste Not, Want Naught” spirit of the day, famed brewer Samuel Adams released a special Turkey Gizzard Ale for the occasion.

A crisis set in on the eve of the first Thanksgiving feast when housewives all over New England realized they had made many more apple and pumpkin pies than ever could be consumed by the settlers who had survived the Great Famine of 1620.  Invitations were hastily issued to the local natives, who presumably wouldn’t notice that they had only recently been added to the Evite list.

The Party

The first day of the celebration went off without a hitch.  The people spent Thanksgiving day huddled around small tables piled high with the bounty of the land, feasting on carcasses of local birds, cornbread, corn cakes, corn-on-the-cob, popcorn, creamed corn, and corn.  They spent that evening and late into the night gathered around fires, giving public proclamations of thanks.  Not thanks to any specific deity, mind you.  Instead, the participants encouraged more enlightened expressions of general thankfulness for being lucky enough to stay well-fed that year.  This was New England, after all.

On the second day of the celebration, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.  Never having been warned of the dangers of botulism, villagers had unwittingly unleashed a dark plague on the populace by serving from bloated, infected cans of cranberry sauce.  By Friday evening, huge piles of bodies of the dead were gathered in town squares across New England.

The Aftermath

The leaders of the surviving settlers assembled the following day at Washington, D.C.  They opened the meeting by swearing a solemn oath never to forget that Black, Black Friday.  A day of prayer and remembrance was rejected as too boring and out of step with their Puritan values.  Instead, they would remember that day by encouraging everyone to buy stuff.

For the next several hours of the meeting, they made plans to institute a national healthcare system to avoid the ravages of future plagues, only to abandon them when they reached an impasse over selecting a qualified programmer to build the website.  The remainder of the meeting was spent sharing recipes for what to do with all those leftovers.

Reminder

As many of you heard, Jen had a bit of a medical emergency this weekend.  To prevent my thumbs from falling off in a tragic texting mishap, I thought I would update everyone on my blog instead.  Those who didn’t know us a couple years ago and haven’t heard the story can get caught up on Jen’s previous medical saga in this series of blog posts:

Jen   |   Another Day, Another Doctor   |   She’s Home   |   Better, Then Coffee   |   Fragility   |   Go Doctor, Go!

If you don’t feel like reading through those, here’s the condensed recap.  In 2011, when Jen was pregnant with Hannah, she was hospitalized with a terrible migraine.  A brain scan revealed that the two main blood vessels in her brain — the internal carotid arteries — were completely shut off.  After an Odyssian journey of doctor visits, we discovered that her ICAs had been in the process of closing over many years as the result of a rare disease called fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD), and that her migraine had been triggered by the final dissection of one or both of those arteries.  We were left with very little in the way of future prognosis, but we knew to be on the lookout for any signs of stroke or other signs of further arterial deterioration.  For the past couple years, periodic brain scans and other tests have been clear, and Jen has lived relatively symptom-free.

On Friday, we received something of a gracious reminder that Jen isn’t entirely out of the woods.

That afternoon, she was sitting at the computer, when she suddenly noticed that she was having trouble reading the screen.  She went to the mirror and found that she couldn’t see the right side of her face.  It wasn’t a black spot — part of her field of vision was just gone.  That soon progressed to a series of other symptoms, including dizziness, tingling in her arm, and nausea.  A call to her neurologist confirmed that she needed to get to the hospital ASAP.  Unfortunately, I was over an hour away, so Jen called 911 while friends rallied to get over to our house and watch the kids.  Between the ambulance ride and the ER, Jen developed some migraine-like pain in her head and neck.

Unlike with most medical emergencies, it didn’t make sense just to take Jen to the nearest hospital.  She needed to be with her doctors at UC Irvine, who not only know her medical history, but are among a very small group of doctors in the nation that have expertise in dealing with FMD complications.  Thankfully, the emergency personnel drove her up to UCI Medical Center in Orange.

By the time I made it up to the ER at UCI, they already had done a scan of Jen’s arteries, and were about to give her some morphine for the pain.  I was able to hang out with her for a couple hours while we waited for an MRI.

As an aside, if you’re ever tempted to think too highly of human nature, I’d suggest spending a few hours in an ER.  You usually will be treated to a little cross-section of the deep brokenness of humanity on display.  It’s usually sad and occasionally a little humorous, like the guy a couple beds down from Jen who was convinced he was in a broken-down car rather than a hospital bed.

The doctors suspected that Jen either had a stroke or a TIA (transient ischemic attack, sometimes called a “mini-stroke”), but the possibility remained that it was an atypical migraine.   They wanted to do more tests to narrow it down, and wanted to keep her in the hospital at least overnight for further observation.

By the time they completed the MRI, got her admitted to a room, and gave her dinner, it was already pretty late.  Due to the incredible kindness of friends from our church, I was able to stay in the room with her that night and all the next day.

Now is when I must sing the praises of UCI.  Instead of a won’t-quite-fold-down-all-the-way chair, they had a padded bench I could use as a bed.  There is a world of difference, my friends, between a zombifying night of catnaps in an uncomfortable chair and a night of on again, off again hospital sleep on a padded bench.  A world of difference.

Jen was able to get a little sleep as well.  More importantly, she was able to switch from morphine to Advil and still control the head and neck pain.

We spent all day Saturday hanging out in the room, talking and taking catnaps between visits from nurses and various therapists.  The therapists administered a battery of tests to make sure that Jen hadn’t lost the ability to talk, read, swallow, walk, etc.  Late that afternoon, we got the news we hoped for:  they were going to release Jen.

As for what happened?  The doctors believe she experienced a TIA due to low blood flow to part of her brain, perhaps brought on by low blood pressure or even dehydration.  A blood perfusion test on the MRI revealed that the newfangled arterial plumbing in her brain is providing weaker blood flow on the left side of her brain than on the right side.  That, the doctors think, leaves her susceptible to a TIA caused by temporary low blood flow on the left side of her brain.  Or at least that’s the working theory.

The great news is that there’s no evidence of permanent damage due to stroke, and there’s no evidence of FMD complications or dissection in Jen’s remaining cranial arteries (most crucially, the vertebral arteries proving all the blood to her brain).

So we’re basically back to where we started a couple years ago.  We go back to living our lives, and if Jen experiences stroke-like symptoms, we call 911 and get to the hospital.  It may be another episode like this, in which case the doctors may learn more over time if a pattern develops.

This latest episode was a gracious reminder in at least a couple ways.  First, it reminded us after a couple years of normalcy that things aren’t completely normal with Jen.  But instead of reminding us by way of a devastating stroke, God saw fit to remind us gently.  I’m very grateful that she gets to carry on with life as usual, able to see the faces of her five children, able to communicate with no difficulties, able to drive around unassisted, and able to experience the myriad other graces in her life.  Second, it reminded us again that life really is a vapor.  Though we’re tempted to waste it in so many ways, God continually gives us the grace to re-focus on spending this life on things that really matter and in pursuit of the one treasure that will never fail:  Jesus.

Another Blog Post About Twilight

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Of Lawyers and Dwarves

Two years ago, I had the unpleasant experience of seeing the law firm I worked for go under.  Because it was a matter of some interest in the broader legal market, we were able to learn about the firm’s demise through various blogs.  But more than the blogs themselves, the comment sections on those blogs were the epicenter for rumor, real-time news, and comic relief.  Not surprisingly, the firm leadership drew lots of attention from anonymous commenters, both in the form of pot shots and statements of loyalty.

When I ran across a comment from someone expressing sympathy for people who had come of age at the firm (in the partnership track sense) just in time to see it implode, I was surprised to see the commenter single me out by name, “Shawn Kennedy.”  It was very strange to see my name brought into the discussion in such a public forum.

Stranger still was the reply to that comment, where another anonymous commenter took issue with the implicit compliment that had been paid to me.  “Shawn Kennedy?”  (There it was again.)  “That dwarf would have never made partner . . . .”

That was one of a very few times in my adult life that someone engaged in name-calling based on my height, at least where I could hear it/read it.  Don’t get me wrong – some of my braver close friends lovingly call me “Hobbit” or the like, but it’s not usually socially acceptable for adults to do that out of spite.

Here’s the thing, though:  that brave anonymous commenter was right.  I am a dwarf.

Dwarf

No, not that kind.

To be precise, I have Russell-Silver Syndrome (RSS), which is one of five types of primordial dwarfism.  Primordial dwarfism?  Haven’t I seen a show about really, really little people with that?  Yes, but not all types of primordial dwarfism are the same.  The smallest people in the world are primordial dwarfs, including He Pingping, a Chinese man who grew to a height of two feet, five inches (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/He_Pingping).  People with RSS, on the other hand, usually grow a fair amount taller – somewhere between four and five feet for an adult height seems pretty common.

In Other Words, I’m Really Tall

So, you shouldn’t really think of me as a short guy.  Think of me as a really big dwarf.  I’m not exactly the Yao Ming of dwarves, but I’m definitely that guy you notice when he walks in the room and think, “Wow, he’s tall.”  If they had Dwarf Olympics, I would dominate.  No, really.  I’d be Carl Lewis, Bruce Jenner, and Michael Phelps rolled into one.  Probably even end up on the dwarf Wheaties box (which is about ¾ the size of a regular Wheaties box).

Really though, it’s strange for me even to call myself a dwarf.  Aside from being short, my RSS-related “conditions” are quite mild.  The entire left side of my body is bigger than the right side (hands, feet, legs – even, apparently, my skull), but only a little.  Unlike a lot of people with RSS, the disparity isn’t bad enough to cause scoliosis or other health problems.  The slight inward curve to my pinky fingers doesn’t do much more than make it harder to play the guitar.  I don’t suffer from any RSS-related internal health issues either.

Twilight

So I live in sort of a dwarf twilight.  Too tall and condition too mild to really count as a dwarf, but short enough to be outside of “normal.”  I’m reminded of the reality of this latter point when I see my gut-level reaction upon running into another guy that’s either my height or shorter.  I’ll take the twilight, though.  It makes life easier, including the little things you probably take for granted, like being able to find clothes and shoes in your size (I’m at the very bottom of the spectrum for this), reach that item on the top shelf at the market, or even drive a car without a special setup.

You weren’t really expecting me to write about teenage girls and vampires, were you?

What’s so “Good” about Good Friday?

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Growing up, I knew of “Good Friday” mainly as one of the Easter-related traditions we didn’t really celebrate – kinda like the day the Catholic kids would come to school with dirty foreheads.  I later learned, of course, that Good Friday was the day when Christians historically remembered the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

I remember thinking that was a strange name for what’s often a very solemn remembrance.  Yes, the darkness and misery of Jesus’ death ultimately was good news for me, but it still seemed odd to call that day itself “Good.”  Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it “Black Friday,” followed by “Good Easter.”

 

The Great Exchange

If you’ve spent much time around Christians, you probably have heard that the whole point of Jesus dying on the cross was that he died for our sins.  Indeed, Paul describes Jesus’ death as accomplishing an exchange of our sin for Jesus’ righteousness: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 15:20-21.)

This is what’s sometimes referred to as the Great Exchange: even though Jesus never sinned, God treated Jesus as having done so, punishing him in our place; at the same time, even though we did not live a righteous life, God treats us as having Jesus’ perfect righteousness.  Or, as Peter put it, Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. . . . For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 2:24, 3:18).

 

The Problem:  It’s Not Fair

I will concede, that sounds pretty good.  But we’re not out of the woods quite yet.  Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.”  According to God’s just standards, it is decidedly NOT good or fair to punish an innocent man in the place of a guilty man, and it is NOT good or fair to treat a guilty man as if he were innocent.  Rather, the guilty must be condemned, and the righteous vindicated.

Again, though, the point of the Great Exchange is that God justifies us (the wicked) and condemns Jesus (the righteous).  If God calls that an “abomination” (really strong word), how can it be good?

 

The Solution: Just and the Justifier

The key is in who Jesus was.  He wasn’t just a good man who volunteered to be punished in the place of the bad.  That, according to Proverbs 17:15, would be an abomination to God.  God’s perfect justice had to be satisfied, or the cross would be worthless to you and me.

The really good thing about the cross was that Jesus was the divine Son of God – fully God and fully man.  His death therefore accomplished God’s justice in that God himself took on his own just punishment for our sins, and in turn freely gave us his own righteousness.  In that way, God showed us his own righteousness by being both just and the justifier of the sinful:

[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. . . . It was to show his righteousness as the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:23-26)

So yeah, thanks to who Jesus was, that was a really Good Friday.

Present Reality

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I suspected from early on that our fourth child would be our first little girl, figuring that a different mix of hormones was to blame for the different pregnancy symptoms my wife experienced with that pregnancy.  When Jennifer developed a killer migraine, I was sure.  We were having a girl.

It wasn’t just any migraine.  It was the worst migraine she ever had, and it came with new, scary side effects.  At one point, Jen thought she was having a stroke when one half of her body went completely numb.  With half her mouth numb, she had trouble talking.  Turns out, it was a neurological “aura” that can accompany that kind of migraine.  Several days later, a doctor prescribed a medication that made the pain subside and the auras go away.

The next morning, Jen was feeling remarkably better, and I was off to work.  She called me that morning saying that she was in terrible pain.  But this time, it wasn’t her head.  It was the kind of pain that sends pregnant women to the hospital — a burning, ripping sensation across her abdomen.

I tried to reassure Jen that the pain didn’t mean the worst, though I knew it could.  You see, this wasn’t our first rodeo.

Before we had our first son, we lost three babies to miscarriage. Getting the news the first time was a suffocating blow.  The doctor searched for a heartbeat with no success, then kept searching and searching some more, before finally delivering the news that our baby had died.  He left the two of us alone in the examination room, and we stood together crying on each other’s shoulder, trying to wrap our heads around the fact that the baby was gone.  After several minutes, we struggled to pull ourselves together for the walk out of the doctor’s office.  Our grief felt very private and very out of place in that office.  When the next two pregnancies ended with miscarriages as well, our experience of loss grew deeper and wider, but it was never quite as shocking as that first time.

So, when Jen announced that she was in pain shortly after her migraine disappeared, a dark sense of foreboding fell over me.  We might be going through it again.  I didn’t have long to mull that over, though.  Shortly after she called to tell me about the pain, Jen called with worse news.  She was bleeding.  A lot.

There was no more mystery:  we had lost another baby.

I rushed out of work to meet her at the emergency room.  Thankfully, a friend came to pick up the boys so I could attend to Jennifer.  I sat next to her in the uncomfortable waiting room chairs.  Once again, we were left alone to our grief.  The doctor hadn’t yet told us that the baby had died, but we both knew.  There wasn’t much to say.  I just held Jen as she sobbed on my chest.

After about twenty minutes, they took us back to an ultrasound room, and we sat silently in the dark while the tech did her work.  There was no joy in that ultrasound room.  No banter from the tech about the baby, no hopeful anticipation of seeing the heartbeat or learning whether it was a boy or girl.  Just stony silence from the tech and the faint sound of weeping from Jen.  As I held her hand, I stared through my own tears at the screen, waiting to see the lifeless form of our baby.  It felt more like a private funeral than anything.

Then, a flash of light and sound.  It disappeared.  The tech moved to another angle and kept at her task in silence.  What was that?

There it was again, but this time there were several flashes and faint sounds.  My voice broke as I forced out the words, “Was that . . . a heartbeat?”

“Yes,” came the answer, and the tech focused back in on the same area and turned up the sound.  There it was, unmistakable.  Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, along with the bright flash of a beating heart.  Life!!  In an instant, our grief had been wiped out, and we embraced in the dark with tears of joy.

Several months later, our joy was made full when little Katie was born.

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Katie, March 2013

. . .

I learned a lot about hope that day in the ER.  As we sat in the examination room, we both were utterly positive that our baby was dead.  Between our prior experiences with miscarriage, the pain Jen felt, and the heavy bleeding, we had no reason to think anything else.  We didn’t come to the hospital hoping that our baby would be okay; we came grieving the fact that she was not.

And then, out of nowhere — hope.  Counterintuitive hope.  Hope that dashed our expectations and left us breathless.  I realized later that even before we saw and heard Katie’s heartbeat, the hope of her life was more real than the reality we saw before our eyes.

I think this is the kind of hope the Bible describes.  Peter says that God has “caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” then exhorts us, “[S]et your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”  (1 Pet. 1:3, 13)  Paul says that we groan as we wait for the redemption of our bodies when Jesus will be revealed, but reminds us that we were saved in the hope of that redemption:  “For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?”  (Rom. 8:23-24)  So both Peter and Paul talk about the hope we have as a present reality, based on the salvation we have received in Jesus: we were born again to a living hope and we were saved in that hope.  Hoping in God for our ultimate redemption always means grasping hold on the present reality of that hope.  It’s not just wishful thinking, or an unfounded hope in an uncertain outcome.  At the same time, the hope we have still looks forward to what God will accomplish:  we hope in what we do not yet see.

The difference with what we experienced with Katie was that we had no hope that God would preserve her life before the reality of that hope was revealed to us.  That makes some logical sense because, unlike the hope that we have in our ultimate redemption in Jesus, we don’t have any promise that God will keep us from difficulty or tragedy.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I realize that I could have put my hope in God’s deliverance of Katie’s life, even in the face of circumstances that pointed entirely in the other direction.

I have a lot of room for growth in the kind of hope that trusts in God’s deliverance from or through the trials and difficulties of life.  Most often, I feel the best I can muster is like the father who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  (Mark 9:24)  Among the many reasons I’m glad I have my precious little Katie around is that she’s a reminder to me that there’s a present reality for that kind of hope, too.

Top Eight Ways to Know You’ve Been Traveling Too Much

I had a pretty busy stretch of work-related travel over the past year.  To redeem the experience, I offer the top eight ways to know you’ve been doing too much work travel (top ten lists are so 2011):

1.  The airline names a plane after you.  No, I’m not that guy.  I did, however, qualify for Southwest’s highest frequent-flyer level, A-List Preferred, by March.  Let’s just say I made a few flights back and forth to Arizona in those three months.  Next up?  Qualifying for a companion pass on my next business trip.  Pretty sure that involves getting to sit up in the cockpit, take a turn at flying the plane — that sort of thing.

2.  Your kids forget your name.  Well, just about.  One morning as I was getting ready to head to the office, my two-year-old asked where I was going.  When I said I was going to work, she started bawling.  Turns out that my going “to work” had come to mean in her mind that I was heading out of town.

3.  The TSA agents know you.  Or, better yet, the ones you don’t know say things to you like, “This isn’t your first rodeo, is it?”  But seriously, having a TSA agent know you is fairly significant.  They either employ about 500 agents per airport (such that you never see the same ones twice), or they have a higher turnover rate than a goldfish tank.

4.  The hotel employees know you by name.  This one became a running joke for me and my colleagues.  No matter who was manning the front desk, they would greet me with, “Welcome back, Mr. Kennedy!”  And yet they acted as if my colleagues were there for the first time.  When one of them called a front desk employee on it, she stammered a bit and explained that she remembered me “because he walks by all the time . . .?”  (Everyone has to walk by the front desk on their way in and out of that hotel.)  On my next visit, the guy checking me in scoffed at my attempt to hand him my ID and credit card:  “Oh please, we don’t need that, Mr. Kennedy.”  Or, as my colleague heard it, “Your money’s no good here, Mr. Kennedy!”

5.  The Starbucks barista knows your order.  The guy at the downtown Phoenix Starbucks not only knew my order, but he greeted me in line with, “Hey, Shawn!”  Which led to more grief because there was no such greeting for my colleagues.  Whatever, they’re just jealous of my Starbucks cred.

6.  You’re a security ninja.  You know how they have separate security lines for experienced travelers, ordinary travelers, and families flying with children?  Those are all for rookies.  Security ninjas make the experienced travelers look like me flying with my five kids (which isn’t pretty).  And we ninjas have precious little patience for people that clog up the security line by doing things like “forgetting” the water bottle in their purse.

7.  You’re a scheduling savant.  I made the flight between Orange County and Phoenix so many times, I had the schedule memorized.  My colleagues and I had some stirring conversations about the periodic schedule changes:  “Can you believe they dropped the 5:15 flight??”  And we were like Rain Man when it came to changing flights at the last minute.  “Five minutes to find a cab, 12 minutes to the airport at this time of day, 15 minutes to charge through the airport and get through security, and two minutes to the gate.  We can make it — book it!”

8.  You know the way of the early boarders.  Unless I switched onto a flight at the last minute, I almost always was one of the first few people to check in for my Southwest flights.  My colleagues and I took special pride in being able to say things like, “I was A1 for both flights!”  But with great position comes great peril.  The middle seats in those first few rows are awfully tempting to the middle-of-the-packers.  Avoiding eye contact only works for so long before some brave soul blurts out, “Is anyone sitting there?”  Um, no.  “Mind if I do?”  Um, yes, fat dude with big elbows.  Yes, I do mind.

So there you have it.  If you see yourself in any of these, you might want to ease back on the work travel a bit.  If you don’t see yourself in any of these and you happen to see me in the second row on that next flight, just keep right on walking.

I Am a Bad Person

I’m a bad person. 

Some of you are thinking, “Um . . . duh.”  But for the few of you that may need some convincing, I offer this true story for your consideration. 

One evening a year or two ago, I had just returned to Orange County from a business trip.  I trudged over to my SUV in the parking lot at John Wayne, threw my bags in the back, and joined the line of cars to exit.

At the time, the parking lot exit consisted of lanes on either side of a booth manned by a parking lot attendant.  A couple car lengths back, the lanes split off from a single lane that passed through the front portion of the parking lot.  That lane wound around the parking lot at the top level of the parking garage.

I had arrived at the airport at roughly the same time as hundreds of other people making the evening air travel commute.  As was common at that time of day, I had to wait behind a few cars at the exit booth.

As I pulled up to the window, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten to retrieve my parking ticket. 

I could picture where it was, resting in the front zipper pocket of my bag.  Accessing it would mean putting the car into park, getting out and going around to dig into the back of my SUV, all under the judgmental and impatient stares of the people in the cars behind me, who assuredly had not forgotten their tickets.  In fact, they probably would sit there and wave their tickets at me while they sneered and wagged their heads in disapproval.  So that was out.

No problem, I thought.  Being oh-so-responsible, I had done this before.  All I had to do was tell the attendant I didn’t have my ticket and give him the approximate time that I had arrived at the airport.  He would access some record they kept of the cars that entered the lot (using secret spy cameras, no doubt).  Sure, it would take a couple minutes longer than if I had the ticket, but I figured it was more or less a wash between that and getting out to retrieve my ticket (which, again, wasn’t an option).

When I pulled up and informed the gentleman in the booth that I didn’t have my ticket, he just stared at me with some mixture of fear and disbelief.  It’s my first day, and I have to deal with this idiot?  No one told me this was a possibility.

The language barrier was immediately apparent.  My attendant friend was not a native English speaker, and he hadn’t quite had a chance to master it.  I tried unsuccessfully to explain what I’d seen done in the past, so I quickly resorted to an uncomfortable silence while he started punching buttons in front of him.  He would push buttons for 30 seconds or so, frown, then shake his head and start muttering under his breath.  That process repeated itself at least ten times over the next few minutes.  As far as I could tell, we were no closer to a resolution.

At some point, a couple of the drivers behind me made a fateful decision.  Somewhere near the place where the lane diverged into two lanes, a driver had chosen to pull over behind the car behind me instead of turning into the lane more directly in front of him, thereby blocking the lane on the other side.  When the next car pulled up close behind him, the decision was irrevocable:  the other lane no longer was an option for anyone.

[Warning!  If, for some reason, you wish to maintain the illusion of me as a likeable human being, stop reading now.]

After a couple minutes of watching the attendant struggle with the buttons in front of him, I glanced up at my rear view mirror.  Oh boy.  The cars behind me were starting to stack up.  There were at least fifteen cars already, and more were arriving every minute.

About that time, the attendant apparently decided to reach out for help.  He picked up his radio and tried to tell the supervisor on the other end what he needed.   Unsuccessfully.  The supervisor would bark out instructions, the attendant would respond by pushing some buttons and frowning.  That went on for at least several minutes, which felt like at least half an hour. 

By that point, the line of cars had backed up halfway around the perimeter of the parking lot. 

There had to have been at least fifty cars in line.  It obviously was completely out of the question for me to get out and find the ticket.  My only recourse was to hide in my car and hope the situation would be resolved quickly.

The supervisor obviously wound up frustrated by the language barrier, because the next person to come over the radio spoke the same language as the attendant.  The two of them proceeded to scream at each other in their native tongue for another several minutes.  All the while, the attendant kept pushing buttons.  He was visibly shaken – drops of sweat ran down his temples, and he glanced nervously around the booth, as if the answer for what to do was written in some secret spot.

And it turned out he was nervous for good reason. 

The natives were getting restless.  First came the honks.  The cars further back in line were bolder and started honking after about 10 minutes had passed.  The cars further up were constrained to be more polite – they waited until they hadn’t moved for about 15 minutes.  Next came the angry visits as a growing number of people abandoned their cars and decided to figure out what the heck was going on.  I’m not sure where they found the pitchforks and torches, but that was a nice touch.

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To his credit, Mr. Attendant studiously ignored the guys yelling, “What’s going on?!” right next to his head.  He was fixated on tapping away at the buttons in front of him.  (I think he was either drafting his resignation letter or writing code for a new program to deal with obnoxious losers who lose their parking tickets.)

Finally, after close to 20 minutes had elapsed, a supervisor appeared on the scene.  Mr. Attendant stepped aside and let the supervisor at his buttons.  I felt vindicated when, two minutes later, I was signing for the credit card payment.  See, it wasn’t my fault!

I couldn’t flee the scene fast enough. 

On my way out, I saw probably over 75 cars in line, many with doors open and the occupants milling about in confusion and anger.  And now they were in for another 20 plus minutes of waiting while the attendant and his boss tried to deal with the backlog.  Of course, like a true villain, all I could do was laugh a maniacal laugh and hope that no one took down my license number.

See?  I told you, I’m a bad person.

Our Christmas Letter

Merry Christmas from the Kennedys!

You know those letters you get every Christmas that capture the family’s year in a nutshell?  They usually talk about the kids’ accomplishments, the enviable vacations the family took that year (Here we are on the Great Wall of China!), and other significant events.  Well, this is the Kennedy family’s 2011 Christmas letter — it’s a little different. 

In no particular order, this year was about . . .

. . . Barf

More than our usual share, that is.  Food poisoning, stomach bugs, migraines, the flu and carsickness — if it makes you puke, our family had it.  Only Matt was spared.  [While this post was still in progress, Matt, Katie and Caden got hit by another two rounds of sickness.  It wasn’t pretty.]

I’d love if someone could explain to me why kids never get sick at anything but the worst possible time.  Say, for example, driving down the Grapevine (Katie), or driving through heavy traffic down to San Diego (Katie again), or driving around our neighborhood for a few minutes (why yes, Katie again).  On the bright side, I’m well-practiced at taking Katie’s car seat apart to clean it.  At home, it’s  almost always in the middle of the night.  And aside from John’s most recent stomach bug, they never make it to the bathroom first.  Ugh, let’s move on.

. . . A Sweet Girl

In May, we welcomed our second baby girl, Hannah Grace.  This post could be about nothing but Hannah and what a sweet little baby she is.  Or it could be about nothing but the sizeable leap it was to go from four kids in the family to five — we’re seriously outnumbered.  It could be about the fact that Hannah is going to have to be our last baby, the surgery to make sure that’s the case, or the emotional aftermath of that decision.  (I’m not one to get emotionally attached to stuff, but throwing out old baby clothes was tough, especially when we caught a glimpse of one of our favorite sleepers.)  Hannah has brought a ton of joy to the family, although I feel like we haven’t been able to appreciate her nearly as much as we should, given everything else that’s happened this year. 

. . . The Flood

When John found a damp spot on the carpet one morning, we figured one of the kids spilled a cup of water without telling anyone.  That afternoon, Jen moved a box in the closet across the room and found mold on the wall.  She called a plumber, and by the time we went to bed, the slab leak (a leak in one of the pipes that come up through the foundation) was fixed.  Not bad, right?  Oh, but the fun had just begun. 

The water had traveled through a few rooms, so our house soon was full of fans and all manner of other equipment.  LOUD equipment.  We lived with that for a few days until we were forced to move out for the mold remediation work.  As it turns out, living in a one-bedroom-and-a-loft hotel room with four kids and a baby wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.  Good thing I was in Phoenix for a couple nights in there.  Oh wait, that’s not a good thing.

The day after we moved back into our house and all the equipment was removed, we discovered more moisture in a different part of the house.  More mold, too.  After much investigation, they determined that it was related to the same slab leak.  More equipment + more mold remediation work = another moveout.  This time, I found a vacation rental on the theory that a two-bedroom condo beats a one-bedroom hotel.  The condo would have worked out beautifully if it hadn’t been for the fact that one of the bedrooms was an un-air conditioned, glorified closet.  That and the crazy neighbor who would bang on the walls when the kids were running, talking, walking or breathing too loud in the middle of the afternoon.

After a few days, we were back in our house, which by that point looked like Elliot’s house when the government found out he’d been hiding E.T.  But it beat living next to a meth addict (just a wild guess).  The next afternoon, Jen pulled back part of the baseboard in a room where moldy carpet had been removed but a musty smell remained.  Lo and behold, more mold.  That night, I pulled back more baseboards and discovered that the mold extended around most of the remaining walls in our downstairs and likely was under our wood flooring, too.

One more moveout and lots more demolition later, we had a dry, mold-free house that resembled a WWII bomb shelter.  Total time from leak to final move-in: a couple years months.  Because the bomb shelter lacked floors and furniture, we lived upstairs for several more weeks while we re-piped our entire house and had floors installed, with our master bedroom doubling as the living room, family room, dining room, etc. 

Just to add insult to injury, having our walls opened up in the middle of the summer caused our ancient air conditioner to finally give up the ghost.  Nothing a little money couldn’t fix.

. . . Work

At the end of January, I made the move with a great group of lawyers to a new firm.  Turned out to be a great move — we hit the ground running and haven’t had much of a chance to catch our breath since.  In fact, the past six months or so has been about the busiest stretch I’ve ever had.  It’s definitely involved the most travel, which was super convenient in light of what was happening at home.  Put it this way: the barista at the Starbucks in downtown Phoenix knows my order.  The hotel workers call me by name.  In fact, the last time my colleague was out in Phoenix on a solo trip, one of them asked where his friends were.  They missed me, apparently. 

In case you’re wondering, Phoenix is lovely in the summer.  Sure, it’s 113 degrees, but it’s a dry heat.  Kinda like a hair dryer blowing on your face.

. . . Doctors

You probably knew we were going here eventually.  This one could span a whole bunch of blog posts or even, as some have suggested, a book.  So we’ll just hit the highlights:

Unless you’ve been living under a rock with that Geico guy, you’ve read about Jen being hospitalized for a severe migraine, the surprise finding that both of her internal carotid arteries were dissected, and the subsequent diagnosis of fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD).  Due to my blogging hiaitus, you may not have heard about Jen’s continuing neurological symptoms and more recent bouts with stomach pain, necessitating a number of other MRIs and other procedures.  Lots of tests, but not many answers.  Good times!

We weren’t about to let Jen have all the fun with brain scans.  One night, we took Katie out of the tub and laid her down to put her diaper on.  Suddenly, her right eye was staring way over to the right, and her left was looking right at us.  A trip to the eye doctor led to a diagnosis of strabismus (wandering eye) in both eyes, which we’ve been told likely will require surgery.  Given the nature of how it came on and some other factors, within a few days, we found ourselves wheeling Katie into the hospital to have a brain scan of her own.  Those couple days were long and stressful, but it was a huge relief to get the good news at the end that Katie didn’t have a brain tumor.  For now, we’re trying our hand at getting an active two-year-old to wear glasses that are supposed to help focus her eyes in one location.  Not sure how effective they are, but at least we haven’t had any recent bouts of carsickness.

Then, just for good measure, I decided to get in on the action.  I woke up one morning with sharp chest pains, and before I knew it, I was passed out on the floor.  When I came to, Jen was sitting next to me on the phone with 911.  Apparently, it didn’t look all that good.  So I got to take a ride in an ambulance to the ER for a full day of tests.  The following weeks saw trips to a neurologist and cardiologist, along with a battery of brain and heart tests.  So far, so good.  And after a couple weeks of getting to know the public transportation system, I’ve been cleared to drive by both the doctor and — more importantly — the DMV.

For those keeping score, that’s three people in our family that had a brain MRI in a three-week span.  For three different reasons, no less.  I’m no mathematician, but I’m guessing the odds of that happening are fairly small.

Throw in a grab bag of other doctor visits, including pinkeye for me, trips to the ER for various injuries to the kids, and even a trip to the doggie doctor for emergency bladder stone surgery.  Poor Duke.

. . . Grace

It may sound odd, but more than anything, this year has been an object lesson in grace.  I’m more aware than ever that I don’t deserve any better than the difficulties that have come my way this last year.  In fact, I deserve a lot worse.  But thankfully, God doesn’t treat me according to what I deserve. 

All the good things in my life have come my way strictly because of his unmerited favor.  Those good things include my wife, who’s somehow still walking around, talking, smiling, laughing and loving our kids even though she’s lost two major blood vessels in her brain.  And they include my healthy kids, the job that keeps me busy, and the disaster zone of a house that gives us shelter.

At times over the last year, it felt like I was living in the trenches in a war movie, with shells raining down to my left and right.  Some of the shells landed close enough to inflict serious injury.  Just as I was getting patched up, another blast sent me reeling.  Ears ringing and coughing up dust, I inspected myself, only to find that I was unscathed.

When we were in the midst of some of the worst of it, Jennifer said something that stuck with me.  It occurred to her that God was just as glorious then as he was on a day when all was right and good.  In other words, he’s just as worthy of our praise when the shells are falling as he is when the sky is clear

All too often, though, we use our experiences as the measure of his goodness.  If things are going well, we can be happy and thankful for that.  But when things turn bad, our praise turns to doubt or even accusations.  When we treat God as no more than the hoped-for means to relieve our suffering, we act as though his glory depends on how he treats us.  If he takes away the illness or delivers the job, he’s worthy of praise.  If not, well . . . not so much.  That’s the essence of human idolatry — we trade the joy that is found in God himself for the pleasure we find in his gifts.

I wish I could say that realization landed on me with tremendous power and I haven’t approached God the same way since.  But I’m an idolater at heart just like the rest of you.  Hence, grace.  Thankfully, Jesus always glorified God just as he deserves, even (and especially) in the hour of his worst suffering.  And thankfully, Jesus’ performance has been credited to undeserving people like me.

None of that is to say that I’m not hoping for a break in the shelling.  Believe me, I am.  I just know that, come what may, none of this suffering should give me any pause in recognizing the infinite glory and worth of God.  To the contrary, I have the promise that all of the trials he brings my way are intended for my good, especially my eternal joy in him. 

So here’s to a much better 2012!  . . . hopefully.

Love, the Kennedys

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P.S. — Please accept our sincere apologies for being so out-of-touch this last year.  Friends have been neglected, family unvisited, emails have gone unanswered, phone calls unreturned.  We’ll do better next year!