Friday, December 19, 2008

Bellybuttons and the Incarnation

Many years ago, I noticed one of our kids (an infant/toddler at the time) playing with his bellybutton, and I had a bit of an odd thought. Everyone, it occurred to me, has a bellybutton; the greatest and the lowliest, the most beautiful and intelligent, and the least. And what does it mean? That each of us was borne in his mother’s womb, at the most basic, earthy level, and you can take it from there. Each of us was an infant with shitty diapers; each of us was a snot-nosed kid, and so on. . . If we’re fortunate, each of us will grow old and wrinkled and gray-haired. Funny to think about supermodels with snotty noses; or gray hair and wrinkles, for that matter. Funny to think of Einstein with shitty diapers, but it’s true – every human being who ever lived had a bellybutton – was born of a woman. Human life has a few constant parameters, not all of them glorious; and bellybuttons are one of them.

Given the season, it’s real appropriate to observe that even God Himself was born of a woman. As sloppy and messy as human life can be, it wasn’t too gross a thing for God to be born of a woman and share human life with us. Peter Kreeft has said that the Incarnation means that God stepped in our manure (because Peter Kreeft is not quite so rude-and-crude as I am).

And in the previous context, the Incarnation comes to seem all the more amazing. Supermodels and Einstein are funny to think about, but. . . God Himself? A little baby. . . shitty diapers and snotty nose. . . God?! And that, at the most fundamental level, is the wonder of it. . .

“For we do not have a Redeemer who is unable to sympathize with us in our weakness, but one who has experienced life as we have. . .” (Hebrews 4:15, roughly; call it the DJV – Desmond Jones Version)


For the past few years, to mark the seasons of Advent/Christmas, our community has put on a show (shamelessly stolen from something someone heard on PBS) called, ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ – nine Christmas-themed Scripture readings, each one paired with a corresponding Christmas carol. It’s really a pretty cool idea.

This year, our family (‘The von Jones Family Singers’) sang What Child Is This?, to go along with Luke 2:1-7 on ‘The Birth of Christ’.

I have always been struck by the second chorus of this song: “Nails, spear, shall peirce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you”, and the idea it expresses that, whatever else might be the case, the Incarnation is ultimately directed toward the Cross.

The Word became flesh, not merely to show us a human life lived as it was meant to be lived, but, ultimately, for the Perfect Sacrifice of ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’. So, even amidst the joy of the Incarnation – the angelic choirs, the Child in the manger, and all that – there is the sorrow and suffering of the Cross. The two are not separable. The Cross – the Sacrificial Atonement – is the larger part of the significance of the Incarnation. And without the Cross and Resurrection, there is no Christianity.

And, one wonders about Mary. At what point was she aware that Jesus, the Incarnate Word to whom she gave humanity, the child of her own womb, was also the Sacrifice Lamb? When did the sorrow temper her joy? When did she realize that “the Son of Man must lay down His life as a ransom for many”? Was it revealed to her before she said her momentous “Yes” to God? If so, all the more amazing that she said “Yes” even still. And even if not, isn’t it just Human in some archetypal way – her own joy at giving birth to the Incarnate Word is not untempered by the sorrow of the Cross? That’s just the way it is for us humans, and Mary is nothing if not human. . .

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tough Times, If You've Ever Been Married to My Dad

I posted a couple months ago about my ‘stepmother’ (Dad’s second wife), and her struggles with Alzheimer’s. My parents had moved out of their home of the past 35 years, and into an assisted-living facility. They chose the place they did, because of its proximity to a level of care for Mom that would allow them to live together for as long as possible.

Well, it turns out that ‘as long as possible’ was about a month-and-a-half. Something about leaving her familiar surroundings and into a new-and-unfamiliar place seemed to ‘disorient’ Mom, and she fairly quickly started up with some more ‘difficult’ behaviors that just made it impossible for Dad to take care of her, so in September, she moved out of the assisted-living place, and into a full-out nursing home, about a ten-minute drive from Dad.

She seemed to do well enough at the nursing home, and the staff there complained, just a bit, that she was always ‘on the move’, and they spent more time than they’d have liked just ‘tracking her down’. Then a couple months ago, she just stopped. She wouldn’t get out of her chair, she didn’t want to get up and walk around at all. And nobody seemed to be able to tell us why. Finally, a couple weeks ago, some tests were run which determined that she’d had a pretty significant stroke, probably right around the time when she stopped walking.

And since then, her health has just continued to deteriorate. My sisters are now telling us to make sure that everybody comes down for Christmas, because it’s starting to seem like we won’t have her around for much longer.

It’s quite sad for my dad; he put a lot of thought and effort into finding a place that would keep them together for as long as possible, and it just seems cruel that it couldn’t have been just a bit longer. But, as we well know, there are no guarantees. . .


I’ve blogged about the fact that I have three mothers – my birth-mother, my ‘stepmother’ and my ‘first mother’ – my dad’s first wife, who adopted me, along with Dad. I’ve had a few things to say about my ‘first mother’ in the past, but I haven’t given a very full account of her story, so perhaps it’s time I did that, just a bit.

My ‘first mother’ was born in Germany in the 1920s. She was a pre-teen when the Nazis took power, and that fact pretty much set the tone for the next decade-and-a-half of her life (as it did for virtually all Germans of the time). Because her mother was ill, her father was able to keep her out of the Hitler Youth, to care for her mother. She was a young adult when the war started, and by the end of the war, she was working in a field hospital somewhere in Austria. She told us once about the last days of the war, and how everyone she worked with simply headed west as fast as they could, so as to fall into the hands of the Americans, if possible, but anyone besides the Soviets. Which she managed to accomplish.

After the war, she got a secretarial job working for the US State Department in the postwar reconstruction (which was only possible because she had never been a Nazi, including the Hitler Youth), and it was there that she met my dad. They were married in Germany just before Dad’s tour of duty ended, and she came to the US with Dad when he returned home to finish his college degree on the GI Bill.

They were married for nine years without any children, before they finally adopted me, and two years later, my brother. When I was little, we lived in the Detroit suburbs, but when I was seven years old, we moved Up North.

I’m not sure exactly what sort of marital difficulties they were having, but during the winter in which I had my ninth birthday, she left. I remember my dad sitting down with my brother and me, telling us that Mom had left, and she probably wouldn’t be coming back. And that was effectively the last we heard from her, until many years later. There were a few awkward phone calls, and she sent us birthday cards for a few years – I recall that the last one was for my 13th birthday.

My brother and I lived a kind of ‘bachelor’ existence with Dad for the next year, but he pretty quickly took up with the woman who would become our ‘new mother’ (and would instantly add three more children to our ‘new family’), and they were married before my tenth birthday (the ink was hardly dry on the divorce papers).

Fast forward now to my early 30s; Molly and I had been married for a while, and 3M had just been born. 1F had started school, and she was also exhibiting some fairly remarkable musical aptitude. And it caused me to think of my ‘first mother’, who had been quite formative of my own musical abilities – she had insisted that I start piano lessons when I was five, and she had brought music into our home (my dad, on the other hand, was pretty thoroughly tone-deaf), and that had always stayed with me.

Somewhere along the line, I thought that I wanted to thank her for having brought that into my life, so I decided to try to find her, and re-connect with her, if possible. I followed a few leads, but mostly ran into dead ends. But I did register with a ‘people-finder’ service through Social Security, where they would, blind to me, and if possible, contact the person being sought, and inform them that I was desiring contact with them. At that point, any contact would be up to them.

And, over Thanksgiving of 1988, she called me, and we re-established our relationship. I learned that she had remarried in 1969 (roughly corresponding to when the birthday cards had stopped). She and her new husband had no children; and he’d had no children with his first wife, who had died a few years previously. In the 70s, they’d moved to a warm-weather state 1000 miles from Michigan, and that’s where they’d lived ever since.

She had never told her new husband that she’d had children, so when I came onto the scene, she had some ‘splainin’ to do. (I think this was partly to do with her insecurity over her own infertility; even when she was still married to Dad, I don’t think she really, deep in her gut, thought of herself as our mother). But, in the fullness of time, we formed a warm friendship with her and her ‘new husband’ (to whom, by the time of our reunion, she’d been married nearly 20 years).

The following spring, we went Down South to visit them (and swim in the ocean for the first time), and we had roughly annual visits with them for several years afterward, until her husband’s death in the mid-90s.

Since his death, she has lived as a widow, independent and active in her church. She moved to an assisted-living facility a few years back, but she has always had a strong network of relationships.

I have been in the habit of calling each of my mothers during the major holidays. This year, when I called my ‘first mother, she didn’t answer her phone. I didn’t think much of it – I figured she was probably spending the time with friends from her church, and we’d eventually hear from her. But she didn’t call back, and after a couple days, we started to get worried. Fortunately, she’d given us the phone number of one of her neighbors, and told us to call the neighbor if we couldn’t contact her, for some reason. So Molly called the neighbor, and we learned that she’d fallen three times in the week before Thanksgiving, and was in the hospital. She didn’t have any broken bones, but she was sore and bruised, and her legs had essentially stopped working. And then, while she was in the hospital, she’d contracted pneumonia.

We had quite a bit of difficulty getting to actually talk with her, and by the time we did, this past weekend, we found out that she was being moved to a temporary nursing home, and her nephews (her late husband’s brother’s sons) were working on moving her to a home back in Michigan (God bless her nephews; they have treated her as a beloved family member since the day she married their uncle; it is a little bit daunting for us to think about contacting them to ask them to keep us in the communication loop).

It will be nice to have her closer at hand, and to be able to visit her much more easily than when she was Down South, but it is clear that now both of the women who spent any amount of time raising me are in the ‘end game’ of their lives at the same time. I’m absolutely glad that we were able to be reunited, and to be part of each other’s lives, to whatever degree, for the past 20 years.

It’s a little bit difficult to sort out just what the demands of ‘Honor your father and mother’ are, when referring to multiple mothers in various situations and relationships to us. But I do want to give each of them the honor, and gratitude, that they are due, and that God requires of me. But it’s not always clear just what that is. . .

And, just in case anybody is wondering, my birth-mother’s health is just fine; at least, as of a couple days ago. . .

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Rest of my DNA

When I was reunited with my birth-mother, some 19+ years ago, she told me who my birth-father was, and gave me enough information to find him, over 1000 miles away from me, within a few more months. I called him on the phone, and by my dropping my birth-mother’s name, he knew immediately who I was, and my connection to him.

Our relationship has been friendly, although I wouldn’t characterize it as ‘close’. Certainly, I don’t view him as having paid the same kind of ‘price’ for my existence as my birth-mother did. He had his fun, and the rest was up to her. And in fact, when her father sued him, to cover her medical expenses, he treated her pretty shabbily; and I’ll leave it at that. So, yeah – his role in my coming-to-be was somewhat less than ‘heroic’.

And, on a more ‘existential’ level, I wasn’t in the market for someone to fill the role of ‘father’ in my life. ‘Mother’ is a very earthy, physical relationship – I lived for nine months in my birth-mother’s womb, and drew my sustenance from her body. And, in the current day and age (although not to the same degree when I was conceived and born), her own choice brought me to the day of my birth, and into my life ‘on the outside’. But ‘father’ is a much more ‘relational’ role in a child’s life, and that role had long since been filled in my life. My history with mothers had been somewhat checkered, but my dad had been the one, solid constant in my life. So, when my birth-father started to relate to me like his ‘long-lost son’, I recoiled from that, just a bit. I wasn’t looking for ‘another father’; I was only looking for insight into where, and who, I’d come from. I was happy to know and relate to him as my birth-father, and to enjoy the obvious genetic connection that we share (he’s a Jeopardy! freak, just like me), but the role of ‘father’ was already filled. Which, I think, hurt him, but it is what it is. I regret that he was hurt, but I don’t know how I could have done it differently.

Along with my birth-father, I also found two half-sisters, my birth-father’s daughters by his first wife (my birth-mother, you may recall, had an adopted daughter, but no other ‘children of her womb’, who would have been ‘genetically’ related to me). And my relationships with my half-sisters have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire search/reunion phenomenon.

My birth-father gave me the names of my sisters, and told me how to get in touch with them. I called the older one (call her Martha) first; we had a real nice conversation. I think it amused her a great deal to learn about her father’s ‘wild oats’. She told me that, in her teens, her dad had gotten drunk and told her and her sister that they had a brother, but he didn’t know where the brother was. Which she’d never known what to think of, but now, it seemed, her dad’s drunken ramblings had been true.

Martha was planning to be in Michigan, visiting relatives, within a couple months, and so we planned for her to visit us while she was here. The day came, and she called us as she was leaving her relatives’ house, saying, “We’ll be there in about an hour.” Something about how she said it struck me as odd, and as I hung up the phone, I turned to Molly and said, “I think Martha is a lesbian.” It was nothing specific, just an impression from what she’d said, and something about how she’d said it.

Not in the least that we wouldn’t have wanted to meet her; she was (and is) my sister, and I am happy for our connection, regardless of anything else. Still, we had an hour to wrap our minds around the possibility. Which was probably merciful, because it’s hard to know what our response would have been if we’d been blind-sided. Because when Martha arrived, with her partner, Laura, it was clear that my impressions had been accurate. It wasn’t so much the short hair – I’ve known lots of very heterosexual women who wore their hair short – but the studded black-leather outfit she wore fairly shouted her, uh, sexual preference. And I had to smile wryly to myself, realizing that she was intent on finding out, right up front, what our attitude to her ‘leanings’ was gonna be.

We had a really nice visit. She remarked, on seeing my face, that her dad could hardly deny me if he wanted to. We took a walk around our neighborhood, and at one point, Martha, walking behind me, remarked, “You’re definitely one of us – you got no ass at all.” I’d never particularly been accustomed to women talking about my ass, but it gave me a certain warm feeling that my half-sister was pointing out the marks of our genetic related-ness. At one point, 1F, who was about eight or nine at the time, noticed that Martha and Laura were wearing matching rings, and she asked them, “Are you married?” While I tried to clap my hand over her mouth, Martha and Laura just laughed, and said no, they weren’t married.

We got together with Martha a couple more times in the years following that, but after a certain point, she moved away from the town where her father lived, to another state, several hundred miles away, and stopped responding to our letters or phone calls. I don’t know if, or how, we offended her, but she also cut off contact with her father and split up with Laura around the same time, so it was evidently a time of some turmoil in her life.

I called my other sister (call her Janet) a few weeks after I called Martha. She was a single mother of a son, who was between 2F and 3M in age. Our relationship was slower to warm up, but over time, it has become a very warm relationship. In all sorts of ways, right down to our favorite books, and that we both like to ride bicycles, we just ‘clicked’ with each other, in ways similar to what I’d experienced with my birth-mother. And her son was, in a lot of ways, more like me than my own kids were. Which I found very ironically amusing.

Janet came to visit us at our house once, which was again, a very nice visit, although it came to a rather abrupt end when 3M and 4M got into a fight, resulting in me having to take 4M to the emergency room, after he punched a window in proxy for his brother.

Janet and I still talk on the phone a couple times a year, and whenever we do, neither of us wants to put the phone down. There is just something delicious about the connection with a genetic sibling that you just ‘get’ on some intrinsic level.

So, that completes the picture of my birth-family, from my birth-father’s side. His family – hard-drinking Southerners, originally from Mississippi – could hardly be more diametrically different from my birth-mother’s family of staid, German-Lutheran farmers. A marriage between the two of them would have been difficult on multiple levels. So, on the whole, it’s probably God’s mercy that I was adopted. But it has been very rich to get a glimpse at where my DNA has been, and what kinds of people came together, which resulted in me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sinners Anonymous

This post originated as a comment I left at FTN’s blog almost three years ago (before I had a blog of my own, and even before I had adopted the 'Desmond Jones' pseudonym; thus it's also of potential interest to all you 'Desmond-historians' out there. . .), but since the topic keeps coming up (altho it's getting to have been a while ago by now; Digger posted responses here and here), I thought it might possibly be worth reprising. Besides, it's Advent, and I'm in a penitential frame of mind again. . .


Someone (I forget where I first came across the term) has referred to the Church as ‘Sinners Anonymous’, and that notion has always resonated with me. . .

One of my favorite short stories is one that Walker Percy wrote about a space voyage to another star system (you can find it in his book, Lost In the Cosmos; the book itself is an exposition of the science of semiotics, but the story, which is near the end of the book, is worth the price all by itself). When our intrepid voyagers arrive at their destination, they find an advanced civilization, but before they’re allowed to land, they’re required to state their ‘Level of Consciousness’, according to a three-level criterion*:

C1 – essentially an unfallen, edenic state of consciouness.

C2 – a ‘fallen’ state, full of internal conflicts, essentially at war with itself.

C3 – same as C2, except recognizing its need for help.

Anyway, to return to the original theme of this post – the Church is all about C3.

A common complaint about the Church is that it’s ‘full of hypocrites’, and I certainly understand where that complaint comes from. All talk of redemption aside, there really are hypocrites and other kinds of nasty people in the Church (“And God, I know I’m one. . .”) But, in the context of Percy’s ‘Levels of Consciousness’, I’ve come to think that many of the complaints about the hypocrites in church are something of a dodge.

On a fundamental level, we are, all of us, at various times and places, hypocrites, at least in the sense that our lives often don’t match our own stated ideals. That’s the Christian doctrine of the Fall (or, if you’re Catholic, Original Sin, which GK Chesterton called ‘the most empirically obvious of all Christian doctrines’). ‘Nobody’s Perfect’ is Chapter One of Basic Moral Theology. Not to excuse anybody’s sinful behavior (least of all my own) – that’s just the kind of creatures we are. ‘Sinners’ is the only raw material available out of which to form a church.

There aren’t many of us who are C1’s on Percy’s scale; I can at least say, on a purely empirical level, that I’ve never met one (though I’ve met a few who might’ve seemed to come close). The world is populated by ‘fallen’ people; the only relevant distinction left to be made is whether or not they’ve realized their need for help.

A friend of mine is fond of saying, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, because as soon as you do, it won’t be perfect any more.”

Sad as it is to say, when it comes to the Church, “ain’t nobody here but us sinners.”

Which might be a good reason to stay away, but me being a sinner, it’s how I get the help I need. . .

*(a similar-looking, but very different scale than that proposed by Charles Reich in his 1970 book, The Greening of America)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Caught In Between

I was noticing recently, in the ‘Labels’ column in my sidebar, that I’ve got posts labeled for each of my kids. . . except one. I’ve briefly mentioned, from time to time, my second daughter, 2F; but I’ve never devoted a post to her and her life. Which is a shame, because, at least so far, her life has been the most substantial of any of our ‘older’ kids (if perhaps not quite so ‘interesting’ as the others. . .)

From the very beginning, 2F seemed to have come into the world with the mission of teaching Molly and me that:

(a) each of our kids was an individual in her own right,
(b) not all of our kids would be compliant ‘pleasers’ like 1F, and
(c) there were limits to how, uh, ‘forcefully’ we could coerce our kids into obedience.

For that, we have come to be grateful, but gratitude was not always our first instinct.

I suppose that it is inevitable that second children will be parented at least partly in comparison to their first-born siblings. And that tendency is perhaps intensified when the two children are of the same sex. As I’ve said, 1F was a very compliant child, the type who, when we said “Jump” would ask, “How high?” 2F was much more inclined to say, “Why should I?” And “Because I said so” was not always as convincing an answer as Molly and I might have thought it should be.

2F’s stubbornness, combined with Molly’s and mine, and our immaturity as young parents, made for some fairly monumental contests of will. With 1F, whenever she opposed her will to ours, we could fairly easily ‘turn up the heat’ to get her to comply. With 2F, it didn’t work that way, ever. I vividly recall one such contest, when 2F was two or three, that we ‘turned up the heat’ to a level I was already uncomfortable with, and the realization came to me that this toddler girl had us stymied – the next level of ‘heat’ would cross a line into the realms of ‘abuse’ that I was unwilling to cross, and might put us into a danger zone with the law, as well. It was a very disorienting experience, for sure.

And so it went for virtually all of 2F’s young childhood, until roughly 7th grade. Molly and I took to telling her that, if she continued on the path she was going, sooner or later, she wouldn’t be dealing with her parents, she’d be dealing with the police; and the police didn’t love her like we did. And the day came (inevitably?) that she found herself dealing with the police. It was a small enough matter, but it did confirm for her that, indeed, the police simply didn’t care what became of her. So I suppose Molly and I got some credibility out of that.

I don’t know if that experience had a major impact on her life or not, but it roughly coincided with a turning point in her life. Somewhere around 7th/8th grade, it was like she rolled over in bed, and said to herself, “the approach I’ve been taking isn’t working so well; maybe I’ll try it their way, and see if that goes any better.” And really, from that time on, she’s been our most solid, responsible kid.

2F was 16 when 3M started running away from home (and generally demonstrating to us that such willfulness as 2F had shown us in her childhood years had been, well, child’s play). And she was 17 when 1F took up with F-bomb. And for a few years after that, our family was just traumatized. And 2F, being between the two ‘troubled kids’, kinda got lost in the trauma.

She finished high school and went to college, and got a degree in Child Development (following in Molly’s footsteps). She has made us proud in so many ways – she recently returned from a year-and-a-half of mission work in Detroit, during which she lived in the middle of one of the poorest, nastiest ‘inner cities’ in America, and brought God’s love to the people there in a multitude of ways.

2F is an incredibly kind, sensitive young woman, and admirable in a multitude of ways. Just as people used to congratulate us for having raised 1F, nowadays they say similar things to us about 2F. And she finds that ‘role reversal’ the least bit ironic.

The thing is, her childhood has left its scars on her psyche. She was deeply wounded by the severity of our learning-on-the-job young parenting, and by the way she was constantly overshadowed by her ‘perfect’ older sister (and she knew all along, when Molly and I couldn’t bring ourselves to see, what a façade the ‘perfection’ was). Even as she has made us busting-our-buttons proud, she has struggled with her relationship with us. In the last few months, we’ve been able to start bringing some healing to our relationship. By God’s mercy.

I’ve said, from time to time, that life turns out to be more heart-breaking than we planned on. And there is something heart-breaking about our inability to appreciate 2F for who she was all along, to give her the love she needed on her own behalf, and where that’s brought us in the meantime, in terms of psychic wounds and painful relationships.

But God is merciful. He “restores to us the years the locust has eaten,” (ref. Joel 2:25) and “gives us a hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11). So, we can look forward to that. . .