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Sophia's World

Meeting Grandpa Willis

A trip to my fiancé’s hometown left us with hearts swollen and tender

I spent Christmas week visiting my fiancé David’s hometown in Bismarck, N.D. His parents had requested that we visit them there this Christmas, because David’s 96-year-old grandfather Willis recently had a stroke and we suspected he might not be around for next Christmas. 

There in snowy Bismarck, David and I visited Grandpa Willis several times at the skilled nursing facility where he now lives. I could tell David had a hard time seeing his once-strong, vibrant grandfather basically bed-ridden, his right hand useless and stiff from the stroke. This man has been a well-revered Baptist pastor for many, many decades, and even now he still serves as pastor emeritus at his church, still tunes in online every Sunday for service, still reads theological books for leisure. In many ways, he reminded me of my own father, and my heart warmed to this humble, dedicated man who fears and loves the Lord.

On our last day in Bismarck, we visited Grandpa Willis again right before we left for the airport. Knowing it might be the last time he saw either of us, Grandpa had obviously thought carefully over what he wanted to say to us. When we entered his room, he was bright-eyed and clear-minded, sitting upright in his armchair, dressed in the red plaid button-down shirt David’s parents had gifted him for Christmas.

The moment we sat down, Grandpa got down to business. He turned to me and asked, “Who’s the leader in your marriage—David or you?” 

“David,” I said automatically. I was a pastor’s kid who grew up in the church and was thoroughly schooled in orthodox theology. I knew what the right answer was.

Grandpa smiled: “You responded really fast.”

I thought it over, and edited my answer: “Well, I know the husband is the head of the house. But I think it will be a challenge for me.” 

Grandpa nodded. “Good, as long as you’re aware of that.” Then he turned to David: “How are you going to lead your family?” 

“Um,” David said. “I’m learning to trust in God.” 

Grandpa looked at him for a moment and then shook his head: “That’s not specific enough.” He then said, “If there’s something I wish I had done differently in my marriage, it’s that I don’t get so busy with my ministry work. I remember Ruth (his wife, now deceased) telling me, ‘Willis, I wish you’d call me honey more often.’” Grandpa turned to David: “Remember to show affection to your wife. And for me, no matter how busy I was, I still always made it home for dinner.”

I had expected Grandpa Willis to say something super theological, like quoting Ephesians 5:22-33 or 1 Timothy 2:8-3:13—so it was a nice surprise to hear him share something so practical and personal. Yet what he said was fully Biblical too—to be a good leader of the household is to be loving and self-sacrificial, as the Bible commands husbands to be, and that can be as simple as calling the wife “Honey” and showing up for dinner regardless of the workload. 

Later, I got a better picture of what kind of marriage Grandpa Willis shared with Grandma Ruth, who died 10 years ago from congestive heart failure. Grandma Ruth spent the last weeks of her life in the same healthcare facility Grandpa is currently in, and at the time, Grandpa was living in a senior community housing right across the field from the facility. It was so close that every morning, Grandma Ruth would sit in her chair looking outside her window, waiting to spot Grandpa walk out of the house, lock the door, and trudge towards her. 

“Quick!” she would exclaim to her daughter or anyone who was with her at the time, “Grab my lipstick!” By the time Grandpa reached her room, she would be ready with bright red lips puckered to greet him with a smooch. And every day, all day, Grandpa Willis would sit by her side and not leave until nighttime, even during the last days of her life when she was barely conscious. 

As Grandpa Willis reminisced on those final days, his face scrunched up and he began wailing. It was the kind of moaning and weeping that spills out from a fresh wound. I was so taken aback by his sobs that I sat frozen for a few seconds, and then hot tears stung my own eyes. I looked up at David, and his eyes had watered up too, even though he’s the kind of guy who rarely cries. 

Ten years had passed since his wife died, but Grandpa still wore his wedding ring, still hung a picture of them by his bed, still referred to Ruth as his wife. He misses her every day. He longs for the moment when he goes back to his heavenly home and sees her again. What a marriage!

David and I both left that afternoon with hearts swollen and tender with inexpressible emotions. In preparation for marriage, I had been reading a bunch of books on marriage, knowing life as I know it as a happily single woman will be shaken apart. My generation is not ignorant to the fact that the majority of marriages seem to end in pain, divorce, and dysfunction. I’ve witnessed a few engagements break off because of family trauma and fear of marriage. One marriage counselor even described marriage, quite seriously, as “a living hell.” 

Yet no human relationship is greater or more important than marriage, the marriage books remind me. The Bible begins and ends with marriage. God chose marriage to reflect the gospel, so we can experience the transforming love of God for us. Just as Jesus died on the cross and gave Himself up for us, so we are to die to our own needs and interests and serve one another in marriage. That’s heavy. Kinda scary. Extremely intimidating. Can we really do this? Can I do this?

The more I read, the more I doubted if I’m truly up for this mysterious thing called marriage. I’d never been so-called “wife material”—I’m too independent, too stubborn, too selfish, too easily bored, too impatient to give and commit wholly and self-sacrificially to another man who, honestly, sometimes makes me want to smack him. What if I find him more annoying than lovely? Or he me?

Before we said goodbye to Grandpa, I had asked him for his favorite Scripture. He quoted Psalm 34 by heart: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.”

There’s more to Psalm 34. David and I read it together at the airport. Nothing about that psalm spoke directly about marriage, yet everything about it did. When I first met David, Psalm 42 (“Why are you cast down, O my soul?”) had been my favorite, and it had been his too. Now we have a new favorite psalm, one that I hope we remind each other often: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!”

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(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Sophia's World

Happy heavenly Father

Over Thanksgiving, an old recording of my parents, my brother, and me was a reminder of God’s love

While I visited my parents over Thanksgiving, they played an audio recording that I had never heard before. The hourlong recording was a collection of some of the most momentous times in their life: their wedding ceremony, my cries as a newborn, my first words, my younger brother’s early mumbling as a baby, and me as a toddler, speaking in sentences, singing, and dancing. 

Those recordings made me tear up, particularly as I heard the wonder and joy and love in my parents’ voices as they spoke to my brother and me. I heard my mother laugh out loud as she played with me after I was born, and heard my squeals of laughter in response to my mother’s raspberry blows. I heard my father sing “Jesus Loves Me” to me when I was barely a year old, and me babbling along to the tune. Their gentle voices were so comforting and familiar, even though I don’t recall any of these events.

In one section of the tape, my 2-year-old self called out to my father urgently, “Abba! Abba! Abba!” And when my father responded, I told him I had pooped my pants. “Oh dear,” my father said in Korean, faking sternness: “What did you do? Silly girl!” But the little girl in that audio wasn’t at all ashamed, confident that her father would take care of the stink in her diaper and wouldn’t love her any less even though she’d made a mess.

After listening to these long-forgotten interactions with my parents as a child, I thought about my own relationship with God our heavenly Father. Perhaps because I grew up with the pressures of being a pastor’s kid and missionary’s kid, or perhaps because of my own inherent sinful nature and personality, my relationship with God has always been loaded with a heavy sense of personal responsibility and shame. 

As much as I know in my head that my salvation is gained by grace and not by works, part of me still loudly berates me with accusations and demands: Why am I so weak in the flesh? Why am I not doing more for God? Why do I chase so many things other than God? Why do I still worry over stupid, vain things? Of course, those struggles also include convictions from the Holy Spirit, a necessary process of sanctification. But when I probe deeper into why I feel so much shame and guilt, I recognize that much of it comes from pride—an ungodly expectation that I should be more anointed, more holy, more accomplished than others. 

Listening to my parents’ delight and pride in my brother and me, even when I soiled my pants, even when my brother salivated everywhere, reminded me that this—this!—is how it’s supposed to be between God and man. He created us in His glorious image, and crafted everything in the universe—the sun, the stars, the clouds, the vast oceans, autumn leaves, coral tulips, colorful peacocks, delicious bacon—for our enjoyment and fruitfulness. He literally moved heaven and earth for us, and as He looked upon His creation, He smiled with contentment. 

We lost a lot of God’s original intention for us since the Fall. I heard that in the audio recordings, too: the first glaring signs of sin in me, as young as I was, as I bullied my little brother. I must have been about 3 years old at the time, and as my mother tried to tell us stories, I refused to share the book with my baby brother. I was a jealous sister who didn’t want to share any of my parents’ attention. 

My brother too, already showed signs of disobedience. My mother had given him some bubble gum, and warned him not to swallow it. (“The gum will blow up into a balloon and fly you away,” she fibbed.) A few minutes later, he had swallowed the gum. Later, my mother, noticing he was no longer chewing, asked, “Song, where’s your gum?” He remained silent. I gleefully tattled on him: “Ha! He swallowed it! He swallowed it!" 

Genesis Chapters 3 and 4 replay over and over again with every new human being born into this broken world. And of course, as all parents know, it doesn’t get any easier as the babies and toddlers grow up to be teenagers and adults. When their kids disobey, they grieve and discipline them, because they want nothing but the best for them. Our perfect Father, too, grieves constantly over our stubborn willfulness and stupidity, and He allows us to suffer the consequences of our mistakes or convicts us through His Spirit so we can learn and grow and flourish. But like most earthly parents, no matter how much we fall, He continues to love us fiercely, sweetly, unconditionally. 

Perhaps this is why, in God’s infinite wisdom, He implanted His fatherly love into human parents on this earth. It’s a visceral, powerful reminder of His heart for us: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

We may waddle around in stinky diapers, pinch our siblings, and be willfully disobedient. But God our Father desires that our intimacy with Him be so deep and unshakeable that we can still humbly, yet boldly, walk up to Him, tug at His hand, and say, “Abba, can you help me be clean?” 

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AP Photo/Eric Gay

A man walks through an immigrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Nov. 5 (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Sophia's World

Life in a border camp

Getting a firsthand look at an immigrant tent camp in Mexico

Last week I made a trip to McAllen and El Paso, Texas, to meet with U.S. Border Patrol agents. In McAllen I met an agent who’s been serving in Border Patrol for 18 years. He told me something that I think underscores the real crisis at our border: The human cost of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), aka the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

“I don’t let my kids go anywhere in Mexico,” the agent said. When I told him I was planning to go to Matamoros, the Mexican city just across the border from Brownsville, he shot me a look of concern: “You be careful out there in Matamoros.” He then pulled out a blank sheet of paper and sketched out a basic map of some of the cartel wars going on in Mexican border towns along the Rio Grande Valley.

Perhaps that’s why this agent says he isn’t particularly in favor of MPP. Under the policy, U.S. immigration officials send all asylum-seekers from Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico to await their court proceedings. I’ve written about some of the consequences of MPP, including how it significantly affects the asylum-seeker’s due process in immigration court. And now here was a senior U.S. Border Patrol agent acknowledging that it is not safe in Mexico—the very place we’ve sent tens of thousands of asylum-seekers.

The U.S. Department of State’s own travel advisory webpage puts Matamoros’ home state of Tamaulipas under a “Level 4” warning, or “Do not travel.” It warns Americans of “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.” U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel between cities in Tamaulipas on interior Mexican highways due to the risk of armed criminal groups attacking public and private passenger buses.

I decided to follow the State Department’s advice for its employees. Instead of going deep into the interior as I sometimes do in Tijuana (a city under “Level 2” travel warning—“Exercise increased caution”), I stayed close to the border in Matamoros. Mainly, I just wanted to see for myself the conditions there, since our government has sent more than 11,000 asylum-seekers back to this city.

I didn’t need to travel far. Within a five-minute walk from the international bridge, I saw hundreds of tents pitched all over a public park near the Rio Grande. Many of these tents were covered with black garbage bags to protect from the rain. In this informal tent city, more than 1,200 people—mostly families from Central America returned to Mexico under MPP—live outdoors in the cold and heat. Some have court dates booked into next year.

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