Sunday, May 12, 2013

What Your Mom Taught You

If we were turtles, I don’t think we’d have a Mother’s Day. A sea turtle lays eggs, buries them and then goes back to the sea. When they hatch, the baby turtles are on their own. They have to dig their way out of the sand, go the right direction to get to the sea and not get eaten by birds or sea creatures. We honor our mothers because, generally, they not only bring us into this world, they bring us up. We are more helpless than turtles, both at birth and for years to come. Mom is your protector, provider and teacher. She not only wants you to survive but to live well and to act right. But each has her own style of doing so.

My mother was a nurse, so this confluence of Nurses Week and Mother's Day is fortuitous. One thing you learn when your mom is a nurse is that boo-boos don't get kissed; they get triaged. If mom couldn't see bleeding, severe bruising, broken bones, a blue-ish tinge to your extremities or lips, or imminent blacking out, she couldn't see why you were making a fuss. As Head Nurse of the Recovery Room, she saw people with real problems--people who had to have major organs and limbs removed, hearts unclogged, eyes put back in, brains sliced into, and worse. With such a high bar to clear, it was hard to impress her with your garden variety childhood owies.

On the other hand, nothing could make her panic. She wasn't a "scream and cry or faint at the sight of blood" kind of mom. She evaluated the trauma, cleansed and bandaged the wound. You got good care and a sense that not every hurt was an emergency. She knew when to apply first aid and when to go to the hospital. The only time I remember going to the ER as a kid was when I was in car accident and needed an eyebrow stitched up.

Aside from having some unerupted adult teeth removed for orthodontic reasons, getting those stitches was the most surgery I've had until recently. A lot of this I can attribute to my mom. I was raised to think about the probable outcome of any contemplated behavior. After hearing Mom’s tales of lung cancer patients over the dinner table, the cigarette a kid would offer me might as well have been a cyanide capsule for all the allure it held for me. (BTW, if you have a squeamish stomach, don't join nurses for lunch. To us the grossest thing you can imagine is just shop talk.) I didn't start a lot of bad habits because the consequences were graphically emblazoned on my mind.

I suppose I must have internalized the basics of triage in this way. Some things are matters of life and death, some are serious but not fatal and some are truly trivial. The trick is figuring out which is which.

Another thing I learned was if you had a question, look it up. My mom read so voraciously that she went to one local library, checked out the limit of books a patron could take home in a week, and then went to another one and did the same. If medical problems had discoverable answers, so did most everything else. And these were found in books, which in turn were written by (one hopes) experts.

One of my favorite books was The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank. With chapters like "Too Hot," "Too Cold," "Too Wet," "Too Dry," "Too High," "Too Low," "Too Lonely," "Too Crowded," and the like, it pretty much covered every kind of disaster one could imagine. As with the chapter headings, he made the advice he gave for what to do in case of a fire, or a plane crash, or a dog attack short and memorable. In the forward he said he didn't expect the reader to have the book with him when he needed it. He just hoped they had studied it enough to remember the main points when a situation arose. Most of all, you needed to be in the right frame of mind; that is, to make a really determined go at beating the odds and surviving. It gave me hope that there was a solution to nearly every situation and simultaneously gave me worst case scenarios against which to measures my little bumps in the road and maintain a sense of perspective.

In our passages from Acts 16, Paul and Silas have already undergone a bad time. Angry that Paul's exorcism of their slave has left them without a way to exploit her for money, the owners drag the 2 missionaries before the authorities when they are stripped and beaten with rods. Then they are thrown into the local jail.

I always tell my patients that your body doesn't know the difference between being stabbed and having surgery, except that after the latter you were sewed up. A wound is a wound and it hurts. The first 3 days after surgery are the worst, with the first day post-op the most severe when it comes to pain. The body parts involved are going to swell and ache. Paul and Silas aren't even at that point. What they endured left them in need of medical attention. How they can be functional after being beaten with rods is beyond me. God's Spirit is truly with them if they can sing after that.

An earthquake hits, the wooden beams barring the doors fall off, the doors all fly open, the stocks come off the prisoners’ feet. The jailer wakes, sees the state of the prison and realizes that his life is over. Losing all of his prisoners would have meant having to take their punishments and probably execution. When he sees all the cell doors open, he figures he's lost the whole prison population. The jailer may have been a retired soldier, but whatever he was, he decides to take the honorable way out. He pulls his sword and is about to do away with himself when Paul calls out, "Don't harm yourself!" The jailer calls his guards to bring lights and he sees that everyone is still in place. He brings Paul and Silas outside and asks, "What must I do to be saved?" He's a smart man. The earthquake is miraculous, not just in what it does--open all the doors and cause the stocks to fall apart--but in what it doesn't do, like make the roof cave in. This is a surgical strike of an earthquake. He figures Paul and Silas are favorites of God and thanks to the persistent yelling of the slave girl, he knows that they are preaching a way of salvation. He has just faced death. He has a life or death question and he is going to the experts for the answer.

Paul and Silas say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” That is the most basic statement of what is required to become a child of God. Often we complicate it and add more requirements and elaborate it but this is the barebones essentials. This is not to say that Paul and Silas left it at that. We are told that they spoke the word of the Lord to the jailer and his family. That means they explained who Jesus is, what he has done for us and what our response should be.

The jailer’s response certainly bespeaks sincerity. He switches from jailer to nurse. He washes the men’s wounds. They in turn wash away the sins of him and his family, baptizing them. Then he takes Paul and Silas into his home and feeds them. He is both grateful and joyful in his new faith.

Bishop Frade once remarked that shepherds don’t make more sheep; the flock does. His point was that we often expect the clergy to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to making new Christians. But they can only do so much. Church members dispersed throughout the community have many more opportunities to tell various people the good news about Jesus. Sadly, they don’t. At the recent Synod Assembly, we were told that a study found that the average Christian had never lead anyone to Christ. The average Lutheran does invite a person to his church—once every 22 years!

I’m not suggesting we just bring up Christ out of nowhere all the time. Paul and Jesus went to synagogues and other places where they thought people wanted to talk and learn about God. Another thing they did was let people know who they were and what they represented, so when someone needed to talk to them, as did Nicodemus, they could seek them out. Do the folks at work or in your neighborhood know you are a Christian and a helpful, non-obnoxious one at that? If so, they may come to you with questions about God.

Otherwise we can look for a good opportunity. We can’t all wait for earthquakes but we can be prepared for any time a person is interested in Jesus. This takes some triage, some ability to gauge the seriousness of the situation and the appropriateness of presenting the gospel. If someone is on the verge of death, they need first aid or CPR, not someone to read them the Four Spiritual Laws. If someone shows up at work or school with evidence of physical abuse, they need support and encouragement to get help and report the abuse, not theology. But along with providing them with immediate help, you can let them know that you are praying for them. And you can do practical, helpful things for them.

And what will you say when asked about God or Christ? You’ve heard the gospel many times expressed in many different ways in this church. But can you summarize it? There are many good books on the subject. Some of my favorites are Paul Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith and Know What You Believe, and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. There are no doubt many more recent ones. The basic thing is to understand who Jesus is, what he said and what he did. A lot of that comes from simply being familiar with the gospels.

In fact it is important to be more familiar with the Bible that most nonbelievers. Unlike Jesus and the apostles, our task is not so much telling people who have never heard of Jesus about him as dealing with folks who think they know all about Christianity and have rejected it. They have lots of questions, from naïve to informed, that you need to have at least a basic understanding of.

In my jail ministry, I get a lot of frequently asked questions concerning matters that may or may not be central to the gospel but which people wonder about, such as why does God seem so angry in the Old Testament and so loving in the New? Again there are lots of books that deal with these questions. Lee Strobel, Alister McGrath and Peter Kreeft have written many books on such objections to Christianity. There are websites like,, and that tackle many of the questions people ask about Christianity. There is a free smartphone app called Logos Bible that offers many good books such as Hard Sayings of the Bible, written by scholars for lay people. All it requires is an ability to read and grasp the basics. You will rarely encounter a skeptic who has truly thought these matters out for themselves. The more sophisticated the question, the more likely they have cribbed it from some clever writer and consider it unanswerable. It isn’t.

But you know what? Most people will listen to your story. Tell them what Jesus has done for you. Tell them how your life is different, better, richer, more meaningful. Tell them how God got you through a tough time. Most people will not contradict your experience. Remember, you are just to plant the seed. God gives the growth.

But if someone does come to Christ through you, don’t be like the sea turtle. Be like a human mother. Nurture the newborn Christian. Get them to become part of a church. Because it’s hard to be a Christian alone, not just because of the temptations, though there is or should be an element of a support group about a church. It should be a bit like Sinners Anonymous, a group of folks who realize they are powerless to redeem themselves and who have given their lives over to God. But the main reason you need to be part of a church is because Christianity is about love. Learning to love all kinds of people can’t be accomplished by yourself; you need other people to practice with and on. The fact that they are trying to do the same thing should help. Nurture is one of the main things the church should provide. That’s why some have called it Mother Church

I’m sure that Paul and Silas introduced that jailer to Lydia, and the other believers in Philippi. He would need the love and support of other Christians, especially if he was to continue to work as a jailer. I hope it made a real difference in how he treated his prisoners.

The jailer may even have been one of those to whom the letter to the Philippians was sent. How did he feel hearing Paul’s thoughts as he sat in another prison, contemplating his probable execution? Did he wish he could be Paul’s jailer again, to make sure the apostle was treated properly? Did he pray for another surgical earthquake and that this time Paul would run? Did he realize he never would, because that would mean leaving a jailer to die in his stead? Paul did not fear death. For him, to live is Christ and to die is to gain more of his presence.

Following Jesus or not is a life or death decision. Because it requires a heart transplant. Christ needs to take out of you the heart of stone, the one that is the source of your evil thoughts, words and actions, and give you his own. The new life he offers us is his life. Sometimes our whole life has to be shook up, we have to wake up from our petty hurts and complaints, before we realize just how essential that choice is.

And those of us already living his life need to bone up on what it means and how to communicate it to others when they are ready to hear it. I saw a Facebook post that said, “Every time a baby is born, so is a mother.” We who spread the gospel, the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness and transformative redemption, need to be ready to take in these newborn Christians, give them a spiritual home, feed them so they can grow to be spiritually mature followers of Jesus. Which means, like a lot of parents discover, we have to grow up ourselves.

At this point in my life, I think I can safely say I turned out O.K. And a lot of that is due to my mother who loved me, took care of me, taught to distinguish between what is essential, what is important and what is neither, and gave me the tools to look for answers when I didn’t have them. So I thank God for the gift of my mom. And I thank her for doing such a good job. Like lending me a copy of the Screwtape Letters when I was a kid, something that led to my second life, my life in Christ. Which led me to this place where I am privileged to share that life in a family called by God, who occasionally admits in scripture to loving us like a mother, wanting us not merely to survive but to live well and to act right.

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