My dad was a storyteller. A tall, barrel-chested man with a soft voice and a slow smile. My favorite stories he told were about being a Marine. He would paint a picture of his time at Camp Lejeune, in the swampy heat of a North Carolina summer, and I could see it all right in front of me. The barracks, his friends, the drill instructors–it was all so vivid. Some of his stories about boot camp we heard more than once through the years. The story about the toothpick was one of those.
When dad first arrived at boot camp he found a toothpick on the ground. I guess he must have had a pretty good idea of how his own psyche worked, because he picked it up and took it back to his bunk with him and hollowed out a little place in the wall where he could hide it. Then, during those long months when his drill instructor was screaming in his face, or waking him in the middle of the night for hours-long workouts, or making him clean latrines he would keep his mind focused on that little wooden toothpick and it carried him through. He told us no matter what they were doing to him he knew he had something they couldn’t take. A secret they didn’t know about.
Yeah, that would definitely work for me too. Probably, as the drill sergeant was screaming at me I would have a slight smile on my face that would infuriate him. Probably, I would clean bathrooms a lot. Probably, it’s a good thing I never went into the Marines as I intended.
Fast forward to many years later when I was reading a book from my church library. I came across a story about a POW that was held captive for many years. He was beaten and starved and kept in isolation. But, somewhere along the way, he found a button. Just a button. But, he kept it hidden in different places and it helped him. When he was going through far worse things than my father endured, he would concentrate on the button. It was something he had that they couldn’t take. It was his. The only thing that really was. And, it brought him great comfort.
I got excited at this point. I couldn’t believe the same thing that had worked for my dad was working for this poor man. I kept reading hoping to get to the moment when the man was released and he could throw the button into his captor’s faces and walk away triumphantly. Silly, immature me.
One of the things the captors did to torture the POW was to move him continuously so that he could never get his bearings. The way they did this was to strap him upside down underneath a truck and transport him for hours with mud and grit splashing continually into his face. Never a stop and never a break. Finally, on one of these trips, the man cried out to God pleading for deliverance–asking what else could be required of him. What more could he possibly give? And, the answer came back clearly, God wanted him to drop his button in the mud. To leave it behind.
I don’t know how you reacted when you just read that sentence, but it made me angry. When I first read it, I threw the book on the floor and paced my living room. I just didn’t think it was necessary to make this poor man give up his button. What could it possibly hurt for him to draw comfort from a button given everything he was experiencing? Why on earth would God even ask that of him? Frankly, I thought it was a terrible, inhumane thing to ask.
It took me a long while before I could return to the story and when I did the prisoner did it. He dropped his button. Opened his hand and let it go. Watched it splash into the mud and then disappear as he left it behind and traveled further down that dirty, unpaved path with nothing but the Lord. To this day, every time I think about it, I get the chills. Who is this God we love? Why would he ask for that man’s button?
I have chewed on those questions for years and I’m still figuring out the answers.
I can tell you I have been asked to drop some buttons of my own through the years. Things I thought I absolutely needed to live. My folks for instance. I sure couldn’t have imagined a life without them. But, here it is. Holidays and birthdays and new babies keep coming and neither of them are here to see it. Also, some really dear friends. Friends that were here on Tuesday and then weren’t on Wednesday–that kind of thing. Thought that would knock me down for good, but it didn’t. Neither did finding out I had Lupus or watching my daughter move away or selling a house I loved. None of it has been the end of me. I am still traveling down this road with mud splashing in my face. Hurt and broken but alive. And, still looking for God at every turn. Hoping for him really.
By the way, the story in my book ended well. The POW was eventually released. If I could remember the name of the book that spoke about him I would happily tell you. I have spent hours looking for it on the internet to no avail. Probably, I can’t find it because I would become obsessed with the man and his story instead of God’s. That seems to be the way I roll. Clutching those buttons with both hands and wishing I was smart enough to let them go. Drawn to this big, huge God that knows what’s best for me even when I don’t. A God that I adore and yearn for even when He confuses and shocks me. A God that truly is everything to me even as the world and my attachments try to convince me otherwise.
Maybe, a God who is so good He won’t let me be satisfied with a button when I could have him?
Ugh. I don’t know.
Honestly, this whole blog is making my brain hurt. And I want a cookie. And I don’t think I’m ever going to have all of the answers. Welcome to my life as a Christian.