Monday, 18 December 2006
Chief Among Desires
The following is a testimony by my friend Lanier Ivester. Every time I read it I cry. It is so beautiful. It is long, but I couldn’t send it to you in parts knowing that it would be a terrible and painful thing to do to you all. Once you get going you won’t be able to do anything else until you finish it.
"For wisdom is more precious than rubies,
And nothing you desire can compare with her."
When I was fourteen, God turned my world upside down-or, more accurately, set it right side up. My parents had become Christians a couple of years before, and the devotion and zeal with which they approached their new-found faith had had a marked influence on me. I had started to take my own walk a little more seriously, spending time almost daily reading my Bible and praying at times for things I wanted very badly, paltry trifles though they were. But, for the most part, I went about my merry way, which really wasn’t all that merry, truth be told, making little, if any, application of the things I had read in the Bible, and making my own personal happiness the very business of my life.
Chief among the desires that I cherished was a passionate yearning for popularity, and the high road to that glittering god of adolescence was, I believed, a spot on the cheerleading squad. From the first day of middle school it was painfully obvious that I didn’t fit in. I still wore the trim little plaid woolen jumpers, crisp oxford shirts, and penny loafers that my mother had dressed me in since elementary school (three long months ago!) and wore my hair long and pulled away from my face with satin ribbons. All of the other girls wore make-up and big earrings and tight-fitting clothes; but it wasn’t until I turned around in class one day and caught my best friend, Andrea, making fun of my ribbon-bound braid that a reckless determination arose within me to be just like the rest of them, whatever the cost. That was the beginning of a dark period of opalescent lip-stick and teased hair, and cheap, ill-fitting garments that stuck gracelessly to my thin little-girl frame.
My appearance was not the only sacrifice that I made to this shining idol. There were others, more subtle, perhaps, but more dangerous, laced as they were with the sly cunning of self-deceit. With every ‘little’ choice I made, every coarse joke I laughed at, every true desire that I shamed into conformity, I grew more and more distant from myself-and from my God. I was eleven years old then, and daily in contact with girls from respectable families who whispered of smoking and ‘making-out’ with boys; but as that year passed, I learned to listen to their chatter without the slightest sensation of the wide-eyed shock that had characterized my early days in junior high. No amount of conformity, however, could change the fact that this shy, slightly awkward little girl-who had felt the ache of beauty in her soul and had heard the call of God-would never fit in, unless she put her own nature to death.
Nevertheless, I was resolved to be a cheerleader or perish in the attempt. If hard work could win a spot on the squad, then it should be mine. I could hardly wait until the end of seventh grade when I could try out. In the end, I was chosen for the team-with much different results than I had anticipated. In being selected, I had inadvertently bumped one of the ‘in’ girls off of the squad, and thus invoked the wrath of her whole set. It was a dreadful, painful, self-conscious year of petty slights, ill-concealed ridicule, and open scorn. Of all the cruelties of nature, few can surpass those of teenage girls. I had some pluck, though, if I do say so myself, even if it was misplaced. With all that I endured that tedious year, I was ready, even eager, to try out for the high school squad. It would be different in high school; I would get another chance to find my niche in the popular crowd. After all, there was no other choice. What joy could life possibly hold if I continued to be relegated to that wistful host outside of the charmed circle?
During this period, unbeknownst to me, my parents were weighing a very serious question. At nothing less than God’s initiative, they had begun to investigate a new and rather radical method of education called home-schooling. By January of that year, I was aware that it was a very real possibility for Elizabeth and Zach, my younger sister and brother, but it never entered my mind that they could be considering it for me. Apparently, it hadn’t entered Daddy’s mind, either, for when Mama pointed out to him an algebra book in a catalogue that she thought might do for me, he was taken aback.
"Now, wait a minute-I think that this will be great for Elizabeth and Zach, but not for Lanier. She’s going into high school. How can we expect to teach her all of the subjects that she’ll need?"
Mama stared at him for a moment, too dismayed to speak.
"Honey, you don’t understand!" she said desperately. "It won’t work. It’s got to be all of us, or it won’t work! Otherwise it will pull our family apart rather than build it up. Lanier has got to be a part of this, too." I’m sure that Mama’s own conviction that they were losing me lent weight to her words. "I honestly don’t know how we’re going to tackle all of those high school subjects, but I am convinced that if God is calling our family to this, then He will show us the way."
She wisely said no more on the matter, at least to Daddy. To be sure, she said a great deal to God about it over the ensuing months, and God, in turn, began to speak to Daddy. By the end of the school year, he was as good as convinced, and the decision had all but been made, when a trivial incident became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. One afternoon, he turned up at my school, intending to surprise me by attending the pep rally scheduled for that day. No father that ever lived could be more proud of his children or more supportive of their efforts and interests than mine. He rewarded every hard-earned achievement with such a liberality of praise and affirmation that the actual attainment of the goal paled in the light of his smiling approbation. All three of us knew the joy of that smile; under its influence our best efforts ever flourished.
His displeasure can be imagined, then, when he entered the gym to find the other cheerleaders mid-way through their little display, and me, watching them alone from a bench on the sidelines. I felt so awkward and stupid there by myself, in front of the whole school, as it were-but at the sight of my Daddy’s figure in the doorway, I smiled in spite of myself. Mortification fled before the indomitable comfort of his presence. I was not alone.
In a moment he was beside me with his arm around me whispering, "What’s going on?" I whispered back that the girls had decided among themselves that I wasn’t ‘ready’ to perform the routine, and had put the alternate in my place moments before the pep rally began. My own stinging sense of injustice melted into his as he sat there for a moment with his mouth set in a firm line.
"Let’s go," he finally said, rising abruptly and taking my hand.
I remember driving away with him, a happy sense of freedom rising within me. I felt wildly, as I had many times before, that I never wanted to come back to that hated place. I did hate it, with all of my scramblings and schemings for its elusive bounty of popularity-or, perhaps because of them. I never knew any real happiness there; and when I was honest with myself I knew that the one place on earth that gave me the kind of security and joy that I was searching for was my own home among the people who loved me for exactly who I was.
But I was going there now-with Daddy. It was Friday afternoon, and a whole weekend stretched between now and the grey Monday when my parole would be up and I would have to return to prison. Daddy probably bought me a milkshake on the way home. I don’t remember exactly, but it was just the kind of thing that he would do. And we came in the door laughing, leaving the cruel world and its insults and hostility outside.
Not long after this incident, a family counsel was called, and the three of us made our way to the den with vague forebodings. I had known something was in the air. Like the distant rumble of an approaching thunderstorm, snatches of overheard conversations and catalogues left open on the dining room table had heralded the coming disaster. But even I was stunned when the storm finally broke-for it broke with such force and finality that all of my hastily erected arguments and alternatives were swept away before I knew what was happening.
We all sat open-mouthed as my parents related the plan for the coming year. There was such a curious mixture of excitement and firmness in their voices as they told us how God had led them to embark on this strange adventure called home-schooling, and I knew that an unwilling protest or an insolent remark would be worse than fruitless. So I tried another tack.
"What if we don’t want to?" I wheedled. "I mean, what if we would rather go to Christian school, or something?" I could still be a cheerleader there, if I had to.
Daddy’s smile vanished. He lowered his eyebrows and looked at me with that steady, searching gaze that always made me squirm, and which, I imagined, could have wrung a confession from the most hardened of criminals before his bench.
"Ah, sweetie," he said, without taking his eyes from my face. It should be expressed that in our house, ‘ sweetie ‘ was not a term of endearment, and when prefaced with a calculated ‘ ah ‘, one knew, unmistakably, that one had erred. "I’m afraid that you don’t understand. We’re not giving you a choice. This is what God has led us to do with our family, and your Mama and I are committed to seeing it through."
I stared at the floor and bit my lip in frustration and anger. Home-schooling ? Were they crazy ? I had never even heard of it before they had started whispering about it last fall. Maybe it wasn’t even legal! Hope glimmered faintly for a moment and then faded. Daddy would surely have looked into that. Oh, this was terrible! Did they even care that I was going to have absolutely no friends now?
I stole a look at my younger sister, Elizabeth. She was sitting in stony silence, with her little mouth set very much like Daddy’s could be. She was three years younger than me, and my opposite in many ways-a passionate student, and the sun around which her fellow fourth-graders revolved. I knew that she was stricken to the core, but she would save her tears for the solitude of her own bedroom.
Zach, on the other hand, was the very essence of enthusiasm. Despite the difference in our ages, I suspect that we shared the same distaste for traditional schooling, and it was an unspoken, even unobserved bond between us. While I had been reprimanded by teachers for daydreaming in math class and drawing crude sketches of princesses in my social studies notebook, Zach’s trouble had manifested itself in a general rambuctiousness-perfectly normal in a boy his age-which had occasioned several notes home and conferences with annoyed teachers. What Zach really needed was exactly what he was about to get: a sound education with enough freedom and sunshine interspersed with spelling tests and multiplication tables to satisfy the inherent longings of a healthy, robust boyhood.
"Won’t it be wonderful?" Mama was saying. "On cold mornings we can do our lessons in here by the fire-"
"With hot chocolate?" demanded Zach, as if it were one of the terms of a contract.
"Yes, of course!" Mama laughed. If Elizabeth and my sullen countenances troubled her, she didn’t let on. She seized upon Zach’s interest and talked as if we were all wildly excited. "Think of the books we can read together-and the field trips!"
Zach accepted it all with the enviable abandon of an eight year old, and went his way with a light heart that summer. Elizabeth and I were not convinced, however, and I have every reason to suspect that she cried herself to sleep at night for weeks. I tried to be hopeful: they would get tired of it, or it would be too hard, and then they would come to their senses. I even pictured myself trying out clandestinely for the junior varsity cheerleading squad the following spring-I could see the surprised but proud looks on their faces as I told them that I had made the team, and could hear their vanquished concession to my all-important happiness. How could they resist? For you see, I was still quagmired in the state of believing that my happiness was the main objective in everything-I, who didn’t even yet know what true happiness was!
It is with some shame that I confess that I left my friends in school with a very dubious idea of what I was doing in the next school year. If they happened to cherish the notion that I was going to a private school ( very private!), I didn’t see any necessity in disillusioning them. The only friend that I discussed it with was Andrea.
"It’s only for a year at the most," I told her. "I’ll be back in tenth grade."
"I think that your parents are crazy," she replied.
"I do too," I muttered.
The courage of my mother and father cannot be underestimated. Relatively new Christians, they had embraced obedience with an uncommon devotion; and if this new life led them into uncharted territory, it was with a steady eye of faith that they scanned the horizon. To be sure, there wasn’t much to be seen, even from that hilltop of satisfied obedience, for the homeschooling movement was still in its early stages, and there were few provisions and little company in the land that stretched before them. I couldn’t help but notice that virtually the whole of our town thought them insane. Their conversion had been dramatic enough, for my parents were well known in the community, both by Daddy’s profession as a judge and by Mama’s civic involvement; and the manner in which they had lightly dropped their former pursuits and pleasures had sent shock waves through their set. But this had caused a genuine uproar, and no doubt, there was much shaking of heads and wagging of tongues over it. Heaven only knows how many snide comments Mama smiled graciously at over her grocery cart, or how many well-meaning cautions from baffled colleagues Daddy laughingly brushed aside.
Even their closest friends were skeptical. Their pastor tried to talk them out of it. My loving and godly grandmother had dire forebodings: "You won’t make it a year," she told them grimly. But to me, in retrospect, the most admirable facet of their courage lay in not being afraid of their own children. Our resistance did not deter them in the least. In not giving us a choice in the matter they did the very best thing possible. My parents did not allow us to presume that we knew what was best for ourselves, and in so doing, taught us all a great lesson about the wise and loving dealings of God with His children.
So that was how it all began; and thus, with my arms folded and a sullen look in my eye, I embarked on a golden pilgrimage.
If the first step was taken grudgingly, even against my will, then all the more credit goes to God for nudging me and tugging me into the path where my joy was to be found. My first impulse had been to ‘lay low’, and by feigned compliance, store up my parents’ favor for the time that I should really need it the following spring, when I would launch a full-blown campaign to be put back in school. And so I was docile enough on that bright September morning as we all sat around in the den, hands folded over crisp new workbooks, faces turned expectantly towards Mama. How overwhelmed she must have been at that moment! And how bravely she lifted her head and smiled back at us, the cheerfulness in her voice masking any fear she may have felt.
"Let’s just begin with a prayer and thank God for this wonderful opportunity that He has given us," she said with shining eyes.
I am sure that, even as committed as they were, Mama and Daddy scarcely imagined the vastness of what they had undertaken. What valor and faith would be required of them! And yet, if they ever were weary and burdened-and I know that they had to have been at times-we were never, never made to feel that it was directed towards us. I never heard the slightest word of complaint from my mother over the sacrifices she had made to educate us at home. But neither do the noblest soldiers show off their battle scars or seek sympathy for the privations of camp life. There were skirmishes and struggles, to be sure, but my parents cried out to God in the midst of them, and found that they were not worthy to be compared with the blessings and benefits of the life that they had been called to. Mama and Daddy had disentangled themselves from anything that would hinder obedience, and Elizabeth, Zach and I were the ones who were blessed for it.
Hardly a week had passed before I had to admit to myself that it really wasn’t as bad as I had feared. There was, in fact, a new little happiness welling up within me that was both mystifying and delightful. Mystifying, because it had finally begun to come to me when I had stopped grappling for it; delightful because it was sweeter than I had ever suspected. The change that came about in my attitude-truly, within a matter of days-was such that it can barely be traced; so natural and easy was it that I didn’t even realize that it was happening. Suffice it to say that at the beginning of that first week I was inwardly defiant, and that by its end I was more satisfied than I had ever been in my life. Gone were the strivings for approval, the endless agitation of insecurity, the wearisome business of conformity.
It was in those early days of sweet content that one of the greatest blessings of this bright new journey came to me, namely, my friendship with my sister. Looking back over all the joy that those years held for me, it is striking to see how inherent a part of it all she was. I have been extraordinarily blessed in friendship, and agree most heartily with Helen Keller that "my friends have made the story of my life"; but within that sacred little circle of influence there is no friend who has loved me more truly or understood me more perfectly than Elizabeth . One of the first times that I ever experienced that sympathetic illumination that ever characterizes great poetry was upon reading Christina Rosetti’s fantastically beautiful ‘Goblin Market’-when I came to the final stanza, my heart leapt up in recognition:
For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands
Indeed, there is no friend like a sister, for the dividing of sorrows and the sharing of the burden of joy; for the unblinking cognization of all one’s weaknesses and the unstinting appreciation of one’s leanings towards strength; for reproof, praise, consolation each in their proper hour. Each soul needs another soul to understand it completely, to comprehend perhaps better than they do themselves the meaning and matter of their personality. Someone that you don’t have to explain things to-this is a blessing indeed. And who better than she of one’s own blood, who carries within herself the traits of a shared lineage?
My friendship with my sister was, and is, in its purest sense, the simple complexity of counterpoint: a combination of two related, independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character. ‘Two independent melodies’; yet incomplete without the other. Complimentary strains flowing side by side in the perfection of opposites united, brief dissensions resolved into but sweeter harmony. That ‘harmonic texture’ has been for me one of the loveliest songs I have ever known.
We reveled in freedom and friendship that autumn. On the crisp, sparkling days of September and October, we often packed up our lunches and our books and headed down the street to Mrs. Smith’s at the bottom of the hill, whose wooded sanctuary of a yard we were most welcome to picnic and play in. We would spread our blanket by the happy little brown creek, among ferns and jewelweed and mistflowers, and give ourselves over to the pleasures that the day so graciously offered us. Already the idea of school cafeterias and long grey hallways was so remote it would have seemed utterly foreign had we even remembered it. But that was more than another life for me, it was another person altogether. This girl here, sitting in the gold September sunshine, laughing as merrily as the stream that chuckled by, reading poetry out loud merely because it was beautiful and she was beginning to understand it, this was who I was meant to be.
We gradually learned to laugh at the ubiquitous ‘socialization’ question. How abundantly the Lord replaced my previous strivings with true friendships that flowered effortlessly within a moments’ recognition of a kindred soul! His goodness in this area has been almost heart-breakingly sweet. He gave me a lively band of like-minded friends with whom I made some of the happiest memories of my youth. And He sent alongside me a smaller, but infinitely dear company of heart-friends whose very lives spurred me on to a deeper union with Christ. These are the young women with whom I shared many of the burdens and perplexities and yearnings of my young heart-and they are the ones who gathered around me on my wedding day, a gossamer host in pale pink organza, and prayed for me with the loving insight that only such a closeness can give. I feel certain that much of the fulfillment of my present life is due to the example of godliness and contentment that they so faithfully set before me.
We never looked back, and the years only grew sweeter as they slipped by. How could I recount it all: the fireside readings of Shakespeare; the plays staged in the dining room for an audience in the adjoining living room; the indispensable daily tea times wherein matters of consequence to our young hearts were treated with all due solemnity? Friends came to life from the pages of the worthiest literature; godly aspirations were tended with the utmost care; every opportunity was granted me to pursue the desires of my heart-desires undeniably placed there by God Himself. It would take a book to tell of my happiness in all of these things. From this vantage point, twelve years after my actual high school graduation, my heart is more overwhelmed than ever at the goodness and faithfulness of God. I thank Him, and I thank my parents for risking all on His sufficiency to give me a chance to live so abundantly . Because of Jesus, my girlhood was a splendor of birdsong and star shine; of tears turned rainbow-hued by the light of His countenance; of dreams materialized beyond description. I can only pray the same for the children that God will give me someday.
My someday coming child, I name and I rename you,
I make up memories for you,
Of melodies and friends from books I want to give you
And horse and buggy sounds outside.
But of the someday coming world, I don’t know, I don’t know,
There is so much I would keep you from, if I,
If I could
But maybe you won’t see, my too self-conscious stumblings,
My running from the phone, my fear-
Because I can be very strong, (say I can, say I can)
There is so much to believe in,
There are angel words to teach you,
There is hope my daydream child.
Lanier Ivester is married to Philip and lives in a large 1800s home in the Atlanta area in Georgia. Lanier has a website I would strongly recommend for all who want to learn to appreciate beauty and who enjoy good writing. It is www.laniersbooks.com.
For the Greater Glory of God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,