Between Lakes and Oceans

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It’s getting to the end of our time in Georgia. We are checking items off our bucket list such as visiting SeaWorld one last time or eating at our favorite burger joint in Savannah. As a chaplain family, we can expect to move every two to three years, but specific training or “school” can mean as little as six months in a post. This means that about the time a place starts to feel normal, we leave. But moving house is just one piece of the story.

It is wise for military chaplains to experience many different types of battalions early in their career as it prepares them for the duties of higher ranks. This means that my husband went from a cavalry squadron (the soldiers heading into a war zone to do reconnaissance, but they ride helicopters, humvees, or tanks instead of horses) to a support battalion (the soldiers stabilizing the wounded, fixing humvees, hauling water and food, and generally keeping everything and everyone running). Our new adventure that begins this summer is hospital chaplaincy training. My husband will be the chaplain at a soldier’s bedsides when he or she is suffering the aftermath of the ugliest war has to offer. It is, as a mentor put it, “Ranger School for chaplains.”

This life is in stark contrast to my childhood experience. My family lived in the same house and my dad worked at the same job my entire childhood. We practically wore a rut in the road from our house to my maternal grandparents’ home on the other side of the lake. We were as settled as we could be in our neighborhood, church, and homeschool group, and sometimes I miss that feeling of stability and familiarity. I look at pictures of my birthday parties, the faces mostly the same each year, and ponder that my children will never have the same set of friends longer than a few years. I think of that rut in the lake road and mourn that grandparents will always be hours or days away. FaceTime calls only reach so far, and wanderlust suppresses homesickness only so long. It’s why you hear experienced military wives talk about “forever homes” with wistful looks and long sighs.

But as I have pondered how this life has affected me so far, I keep coming back to euryhaline fish. Stay with me through some science talk.

Homeostasis is how an organism regulates its biological processes to maintain optimal functioning in its environment. If you have or know someone who has insulin-dependent diabetes, you know exactly how this works. In a diabetic one of the mechanisms of homeostasis has broken down and the person must consciously monitor and regulate blood sugars and insulin to survive. All organisms adapt to their environments, but there are limits to how far that adaptation stretches. Most fish can survive only in either fresh or salt water. If you take a fish from the ocean and toss it in a lake, its cells will take on water until they burst and the fish becomes an ex-fish. But a euryhaline fish can survive and thrive in both fresh and salt water because they can regulate the amount of water that enters their cells.

Okay, stop nodding off. I have an important point to make!

Everyone experiences change, but with the military it is often sudden and extreme. One of my friends moved from Georgia to Japan with barely a month’s notice. Another came to Georgia from Germany. In cultural, social, and spiritual terms, I’d call that the equivalent of being picked up out of the ocean and thrown into a lake. And as in homeostasis, the work that must be done to survive that type of change is internal. You can hang new curtains, paint a wall, discover new parks for the kids, and expand your palate, but survival depends on your heart.

As my husband begins the next chapter of his job in a brand-new city, we will encounter situations I cannot imagine, and if our marriage and ministry are to thrive, I have to adapt at the heart level. I am a cerebral sort who leads with facts and logic, so I’m reading Grunt by Mary Roach to get my head around what he will see in the hospital from day to day. While I house hunt on Zillow, I pray for a sensitive compassionate spirit that is tender when he is hurting at the end of a long day. While I look for churches, play groups, museums, and hiking trails, I memorize verses on how God binds up wounds and is close to the brokenhearted. This fish intends to survive and thrive no matter where He sends me.

Maybe one of those places I’ll finally figure out how to grill salmon.

Oh look! We found Dory!

Oh look! We found Dory!

What’s In A Name?

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Why platypus? What are we asking it? And what possessed me to name my blog such a thing?

Many moons ago in middle school I gave a report about echidnas. Thus was born a love of all egg-laying mammals. I long to visit them in Australia, and I’ve fantasized about a pet platypus, so it was natural to think of a platypus when I went to name my blog.

First of all, my writing is weird. I’ve written about ghosts, mermaids in the Gulf of Mexico, tall green men on Mars, and a musician in post-apocalyptic Kansas. I’ve also been told that my current novel doesn’t easily fit into a particular genre. The first time I tried to explain the plot of my novel, my friend scratched his head and said, “My brain hurts. Start over.” My posts are similarly scatterbrained.

Memories of my experiences as a pastor’s wife

A short story about killer snowmen

Stream-of-consciousness-style rant

To quote Charles Wallace in A Wrinkle In Time, I’m “…not flesh nor fowl nor good red herring.” I’m a weird little platypus.

The other reason I chose a platypus is simple: have you ever looked at a platypus? They are hilarious. I like to imagine God putting all the spare parts from the rest of the animals into a box, shaking the box, and dumping it out with a giggle in Australia. It has a duck bill, a beaver tail, and venomous spurs on its ankles. It lays eggs and sees underwater by sensing electrical signals. People thought the taxidermized animals coming from the Outback were fake. I suspect all egg-laying mammals were a divine prank on naturalists.

But most of all, there’s a delightful sense of whimsy in the humble platypus. She is entirely nonsensical and adorable, and God clearly designed her to be amusing. If we are made in His image, then we are made to appreciate the joke and the Comedian. In that vein, I created “True Tales of Unbelievable Social Awkwardness.” If you want to laugh with me (or at me is fine, too), take a look at these posts:

The Embarrassment of Emily Rose

Spa Pizza Hut

The Consequences of Three Instead of Two

(I have six more tales at various draft stages, but I’m sure I’ll never run out of them.)

I hope this blog is amusing as well as inspiring, just like a platypus. And I’m grateful for all the wonderful people who take the time to read it.

I believe God has a terrific sense of humor. If you do not believe me…

O Come, Emmanuel!

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My favorite Christmas story actually takes place after the birth of Christ. Jesus had been circumcised and named according to Jewish law, and Joseph and Mary traveled to Jerusalem to present their firstborn at the temple. Can I set the scene for you? The story is found in Luke 2:22-35.

The temple was the center of Jewish religious life, and I picture it bustling from dawn to dusk, full of people waiting to see a priest about their skin conditions, money-changers hawking their wares, and pens of animals for sacrifice. A young woman carries her newborn while her husband handles the two doves for the sin offering required after the birth of a child. Doves are the lesser offering for those who cannot not afford a lamb. At barely over a week after the birth of her child, the young mother is tired and sore, but the law must be followed. They are faces like any other in a loud and busy crowd. We only notice them because someone else did. His name was Simeon.

Simeon lived his entire life in expectation of the Savior of Israel. He is described as righteous and devout, and some sources believe he was a rabbi. God guided Simeon to the temple that morning by the voice of the Spirit.

Imagine how many times he had been in the temple, hoping for this exact moment. How many decades of waiting have built up to this day? I picture him near the entrance to the Court of the Gentiles, shading his eyes to look at every person passing through the gates. He glimpses a young mother with her baby, and his heart leaps.

“Simeon, this child is my promised Messiah.”

In that moment, we hear the death rattle of the Old Covenant and catch our first glimpse of the New. In the Holy of Holies, a thread in the veil is loosening.

Simeon has lived his entire life looking for the salvation of his people. Modern Christians often forget Israel was looking for a political savior, not a spiritual one. The traditions of the Pharisees and teachers had long convinced the Jews that the law was the permanent way to salvation, and it stands to reason that Simeon would have been expecting a warrior-king like David who would free Israel from Rome. His old heart must have ached as he looked at the newborn and realized he would never see his people freed from their Roman oppressors.

Simeon steps forward to this little family and asks to hold the helpless infant. This is the unremarkable beginning of the God-Man. The miracles and ministry, the triumphal entry, the trial, the cross, the burial, and the resurrection are over thirty years away. He is just the baby of a poor carpenter and his young wife, born out of scandal in a stable for animals, but Simeon prophesies what He will become.

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Did anyone notice this moment? Did the rest of the crowd hear this prophecy? Every prophet, priest, and king from Genesis to Malachi was hoping they would live to see Messiah’s rescue, but Simeon holds Him in his arms. He blesses the child and his parents, and then he prophesies again to Mary, “Behold this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will through your own soul also) so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:21-35 (ESV))
This child is so much more than a warrior-king. He will turn an entire world upside down. He will call the holiest among the Jews fools, blind guides, and “whitewashed tombs.” He will command nature, sickness, demons, and even death, and all will obey. He will shatter expectations, destroy temples, break down prejudices, and reveal sin. In Simeon’s prophecy we are reminded that this newborn baby will be a Man of Sorrows, the Lamb of God, by whose stripes we are healed. This is the hope of Advent. This is the power of the Nativity.
May our hearts be full of hope this Christmas. He is coming again, brothers and sisters. Let us look to His return and the end of fear, pain, sin, and death. Echo Simeon’s prayer over the infant Christ: “…my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” 
Merry Christmas! O come, Emmanuel!
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F.R.O.S.T.Y.: A short story for the Christmas season

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Merry Christmas, folks. In case you didn’t know, I do not like snowmen. They are as creepy as undead skeletons to me. This is what comes of gorging yourself on Calvin and Hobbes as a child. Enjoy my version of Frosty the Snowman.

F.R.O.S.T.Y.

I hear that in other parts of the country they don’t believe in Frosty. They don’t know Jack like I do. When I woke up this morning and saw the white flakes through the bedroom window I remembered every detail even though it’s been over decade. I was sixteen when the blizzard hit Florida.

Every day in biology that year my teacher would talk about the melting icebergs, the greenhouse effect, and global warming. When you live in a state surrounded by ocean, rising sea levels are a big deal. The previous summer was a record heatwave that I lazed away in various pools and the ocean. They predicted a winter that felt like fall at the coldest.

The meteorologists were puzzled when the sudden cold front appeared, but most were pleased. I remember the one with gray hair grinning as he pointed to the cloud banks forming east of Cocoa Beach. The snow came two days later. Schools and businesses closed. Everyone in our neighborhood went out to make snow angels and forts and snowmen.

Except me.

I spent the day organizing the kitchen pantry. When Dad pulled me out of school the day before, I thought he had a surprise planned, but the surprise was buying propane tanks, butane torches, and bags of pool salt.

“We’ll need it.” He said. I didn’t ask why. I didn’t ask why he made me wear a surgical mask under my scarf either. When we got home from the store, Julio was waiting in his truck. Julio worked at the lab with my dad.

He was sort of like a janitor, but he exclusively handled hazardous materials. He and Dad joked they were the only two in the building without advanced degrees. Dad was a service tech, and he fixed anything in the lab that broke. He had scars from laser burns and a hunk of finger missing to prove it. He told me a few years later that the reason he knew so much about the project was they didn’t think he was smart enough to understand what they were saying. They were wrong.

Julio and Dad went outside for one last check of the house. They were out there a long time with the propane tank and some pipes. Then they duct-taped all the windows. Julio washed all our cold weather gear in hot salt water. When I asked why, Dad stood over the washer watching the clothes swirl and foam and just pointed.

I thought it was my imagination at first, but the clothes were sparkling. A sleeve or collar would break the surface of the water and emit a flash of light like a lightning bug. He sent me upstairs to take a hot saltwater bath.  I couldn’t see anything, but it felt like there were Pop Rocks on my scalp.

The next morning it was still snowing thick heavy flakes you could hear hitting the ground. This snow was uncomfortably white. Years later I would compare it to microscopic rhinestones that reflected light so brightly it hurt.

And I noticed something else strange. It was quiet. Our neighbors had four kids, but they weren’t outside.

“Dad, where is everybody?”

“Well, I’d imagine they have frostbite.”

“Ha!” I laughed. He raised an eyebrow at me in a way that made me shut up fast.

“You’ve never seen snow before, so you don’t know what you’re looking at, son. That ain’t real snow.” He looked over at Julio. Julio nodded and shuddered. “That stuff is man-made.”

“You mean like on a ski-slope? Like Colorado?”

“I mean like tiny robots that freeze everything,” Dad said.

“What?”

“They freeze everything they touch,” Julio said. He pointed to a scar on the palm of his hand. “Anything.”

“Did they make them at work?”

“Shot them up in the atmosphere. Trying to fix global warming.”

Looking out the window at the blue light of morning today, I know just how wrong they were. The robots were supposed to stay in the upper atmosphere. Multiple things went wrong. Weather balloons hitting rough spots and dumping loads early. Bad software programming. Too large a payload. The lab blamed the government for threatening their funding, and the government blamed the lab for reckless disregard for human life. The conclusion was Jack was their fault. I was lucky.

“What do we do?” I asked.

“Wait,” said Julio. “Wait until the robots break down.”

“How long will that take?”

“Hopefully not very long. Two days?”

That afternoon I turned on the tv to watch the news. Emergency rooms were overloaded with frostbite patients. Some of them were covered from head to toe. The weathermen were begging people to stay indoors or bundle up. Temperatures had dropped to record lows throughout the Sunshine State. Dad made me turn it off. I put in my earbuds and listened to Metallica for hours. Dad filled the bathtub and several 55-gallon drum with water and salt.

The power shut off around midnight. We were huddled under the heavy down comforters in the living room as the cold came in. There was no sleeping though.

“I knew I should have let that stupid top hat stay busted,” Dad growled.

“What hat?”

“The container for the robots,” Julio answered. “It’s a black cylinder with a lip on the top. Looks like a top hat.”

“Couple screws on the lid broke from the cold. I should have just told them I couldn’t fix it.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered, amigo,” Julio said, rolling his eyes.

I could see my breath in the light of Dad’s flashlight.  “How cold do you think it is outside?”

Julio muttered something in Spanish and gave my dad a guilty look. “Don’t ever repeat that, ok? It’ll get you in trouble.”

I finally slept, but I doubt Dad and Julio did. When I woke up it took me a few minutes to find them. They were in my upstairs bedroom looking out my window. The air was so cold it almost hurt to breathe. There was ice on my Xbox.

“We’re going to have to go out there,” Julio said.

Dad cursed. “We’d better wait until the sun is fully up.”

I walked over to the window and looked out at our backyard. The sky was clear of clouds and a sickly shade of blue. The yard was a mass of white drifts. Flakes clung to everything like magnets. Dad pointed down at the roof of our garage beneath my window.

I screamed. I may have never seen snow before, but I knew it wasn’t supposed to crawl. It oozed up the roof against gravity toward the wall beneath my window. Dad pulled me back downstairs.

“They look for heat sources, so the sun should confuse them during the day,” Julio said. “But come sunset we’ll have trouble.”

“We should clear the roof.” Dad pointed me to the kitchen where the bags of salt were stacked against the wall. “Grab a bucket.”

An hour later Dad had poured salt water down the wall onto the roof below my window. The snow sputtered and slid away in a sheet. Dad, clad in a thick pair of coveralls, my paintball mask with a surgical mask underneath, and thick work gloves duct-taped to his sleeves, dropped down onto the roof and cleared the rest of the snow from on top of the garage. Julio followed him wearing his snow armor and cleared the roof above my room. I watched from inside as the line of saltwater puddles around the house grew into a moat. The snow was still oozing toward the house, piling up in low drifts at the edges of the puddles.

I heated pan after pan of water on Dad’s camp stove in the garage to fill the tub again for Dad and Julio when they finished clearing the house. Julio sat shivering under the down comforter after his tepid saltwater bath. He took the mug of hot coffee from me with a muttered “gracias.”

“Dad, shouldn’t we use the generator?” I asked as Dad walked in, ice clinging to his beard after his own dunk in the tub.

“Not yet. When the sun goes down.”

“So what are we doing?”

“They start moving more as they break down, so once it gets crazy out there, it’s almost over.”

I didn’t want to know what he meant by “crazy.”

We huddled inside for the rest of the day drinking hot coffee from the camp stove and watching the drifts of snow creep toward the icy puddles of saltwater. The neighborhood was silent all day. As the sun went down, I asked Dad what he thought had happened to everyone else.

“They’re probably dead, son.”

“All of them?”

“Except the hoarder at the end of the block. He’s probably fine.”

“So it’s just us?”

“I’ve been keeping an eye out for people, son. If someone comes to us for help, we’ll help them.”

 

I stare at the ceiling of our bedroom and listen to my wife breathing next to me. I still wonder what would have happened if Dad had tried to warn people. Before he passed away I asked him why he didn’t.

“You try telling Floridians there’s a blizzard coming and see how many of them listen to you.”

I still wish we would have tried. I entered high school with a class of over three hundred. I graduated with twenty.

 

“Time to go,” Julio said, scrubbing his red-rimmed eyes and downing the last swig of coffee.

“Let’s start the generator.”

The house warmed up slowly, but Dad kept the thermostat on 45. “Too warm, and they’ll come too fast for us.”

We stayed inside until about midnight. That’s when Frosty decided he wasn’t afraid of salt anymore. We bundled up and stacked the bags of salt on the roof with Dad. Julio said he’d take the front. Dad told me to watch the backyard with him.

I didn’t understand why we’d bought the propane until Dad stepped outside and lit the pipes. The next thing I knew our house was surrounded by short wall of flames. Julio lit and checked the front of the house while Dad sent me to the side by the alley with more salt.

I swear Antarctica would have been warmer than our backyard that night. I tossed salt into the puddle next to the house and watched the snow twitch. It sparked into a chain reaction, and suddenly the drift closest to the house seemed to have arms that swirled around reaching toward me. It desperately searched for my body heat, flailing like a dying octopus until I kicked the salty puddle into the center of the monster. The snow octopus sparked white hot and shuddered. As turned to go back to the backyard, I realized I’d been cut off. The drift behind me had risen to over four feet and was oozing and flailing over the puddle, reaching for me.

I had one chance. I ran.

The snow erupted behind me as I splashed through the puddles. The drifts snatched at me in fits and starts until they balled up into a great rolling mass behind me. The bitter cold of robotic ice grabbed at my heels.  I leaped over the embers onto the patio and turned to see the snow sizzle. Dad was right. The heat was attracting the snow but somehow keeping it at bay. The flakes balled up into a thick lump, followed by another smaller lump and another, each shuddering and squirming as if the lumps were sacks filled with insects. The lumps became a jagged column while the bottom seemed to have tank treads made of ice, flakes tumbling over each other leaving behind a trail of writhing snow.

“Dad! The salt!”

“On three!” he yelled from the roof.

One.

Two.

Three.

For what seemed like hours all I knew was cold and the sting of salt water. The briny liquid splashed over the fire and hit the wall of angry snowflakes with a hiss. The icy wall sparkled like diamonds. Flashes of light spread until our backyard looked like we’d set off fireworks. A silver fountain of dying robots heaved and fell back. Frosty receded like a wave, sparking and jittering into pools of salt water. Julio yelled for help on the other side of the house. I ran around next to the flames and found him spraying the snow with salt water from an old insecticide pump. I tossed a bucket full of brine at the heaviest drift and listened to it scream and melt away as I ran for more water from the drum next to the front door.

“They’re breaking down,” Julio yelled at me. “If we can last a few more hours until sunrise, we’ll make it.”

My hands burned from the cold as we tossed saltwater everywhere. I moved purely on adrenaline, constantly shoring up one side or another as the snow flailed and sparked in death throes.

“Sunrise!” my dad shouted. “Sunrise is coming, guys!”

I blasted another snow monster with a bucket of saltwater. “Die, Frosty! Die!”

The sun rose on the remains of a war zone, a monster made of ice twitching all over our neighborhood. I’ve never been so glad to be awake with the sun.

 

My daughter bounces into the room shouting, “It’s snowing!” She does a little dance of joy and drags my wife out of bed to show her. Annie squeezes my hand gently as we look out the window together. She’s from Texas, but she’s heard Dad’s stories. I shrug and kiss her forehead before they head downstairs to get a better look. I pull back the curtain on our bedroom window and watch the flakes flutter down on the wind. They are soft white. Beautiful. Harmless.

Before I join my girls for breakfast, I check my stock of rock salt in the attic. Frosty may have died, but I wouldn’t put it past someone resurrecting him. They never did find the Top Hat.

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The Ring I Don’t Wear

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Five years ago last Sunday was the anniversary of my husband’s first day as a senior pastor. It’s two important years of my life that have shaped me and my view of ministry. The problem is that every time I try to get my thoughts in order, I get a mental block. I can recount in painful detail the circumstances that led to our leaving, but I don’t want to hurt the people I love who remain in that church. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized I need to talk about it. It’s the ring that did it.

Caleb bought me a ring while he was a pastor. It’s a simple band of white gold with three oval sapphires surrounded by tiny diamonds. It’s beautiful, and I love it. But I rarely wear it.

When he first bought me that ring I wanted to wear it all the time. Sapphires are my favorite gem, and most of my clothes are blue. It was small and subtle enough to wear with almost anything. I couldn’t wait to show it to them.

By “them” I mean the precious ladies who were so faithful to come to my Bible studies every week. I mean the wonderful VBS worker who stepped in to help me when she was already working night shift. I mean our home group who ate my egg rolls and brownies and laughed with us every week no matter how hard Sunday morning had been. I mean the amazing wife of one of our deacons who encouraged me with hugs and kind advice, even as she lost her husband to cancer. I mean the family who constantly encouraged us, prayed for us, and never failed to tell my husband how much they learned from his sermon. I mean the kids in the youth group who made me laugh week after week.

But I found myself wearing it less and less until it stayed in my jewelry box all the time. I remember showing it to a friend outside the church who asked me why I didn’t wear it.

“It isn’t safe,” I said.

As in I was anticipating criticism, not of ME, but of my husband. As in I knew that people would use that tiny band of gold to accuse him of wasting money on a “flashy” gift. As in I was always on guard for the next biting comment, the next cruel rumor, the next nitpicking complaint. As in nothing was sacred, not even a precious token of love.

I would dress for the day and remember that there were conversations over Sunday lunch where everything we did was placed under scrutiny. I’d think of the one time I spoke in unguarded anger and how the woman who saw it never treated me the same again. I’d wonder if I was going to see the person who gave me backhanded compliments about my “fancy” professional clothes I’d collected as a secretary. And that ring would stay in the jewelry box.

It stayed there long after we left Kansas. I realized that I’ve worn it a handful of times over the last three years. I have good memories from our time in pastoral ministry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with bitterness. I hate certain worship songs. I tend to be standoffish in chapel. I worry about how my involvement or non-involvement, smiles, frowns, clothing, jokes, and a hundred other things will reflect on my husband. Most of all, I realized that I’m scared to share joyful moments because I anticipate criticism. I’m still afraid to wear that ring.

A sweet lady I met at a chaplain training conference not long ago told me her own story of rejection by a church at the beginning of her husband’s ministry. The pain was obviously still fresh decades later. But in those intervening decades she and her husband had served God faithfully in many different roles and churches. As she gave me a hug and pat with a lightly bejeweled hand, she told me what she tells every pastor’s wife: measure yourself according to Christ, not what a congregation thinks. That’s when I decided that if she can wear her pretty rings without fear, so can I. I wore mine today. I’m going to wear it again tomorrow.

I’m going to keep wearing it until my fear is gone because Satan is not going to steal my zeal for the Gospel by threatening me with damage to my husband’s reputation. He’s a liar, and I’m going to remind him of that every day with three sparkling sapphires.

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