Monday, December 21, 2009

Target, Goody-Two-Shoes and the Pharisees

Today, a man walked in the "OUT" door at Target and for a good hour afterwards I was grumpy about it. He did not impede anyone else's safe exit from the store, nor did he have a particularly mischievous or diabolical look on his face. To all appearances, he was just closer to the "OUT" door and didn't feel like sliding the 10 feet to the left that would put him through the "IN" door. Man, though, was I mad.

Why did this bother me so much? Well, to put it simply, I love rules. I particularly love when people follow rules, myself included. It just makes life easier. Go in the "IN" door, don't make a left turn from the center lane...these are easy things to do, in my humble opinion.

As a child, my mom says that I was pretty much always obedient. If I was told to do something, I generally did it. This hit a climax in high school. I can actually remember a Friday night when my nerdy self was studying in my room, no doubt enjoying myself and feeling generally in control of life. My parents actually called me out of my room and begged me to go to a party. "You can even drink. We'll pick you up, no matter how late. Just go act like a teenager!" This was a bit of a watershed moment for me. Was I so over the top in my obedience that my parents actually wanted me to rebel? I suspect moments like that are largely why my brother thought I was a goody-two shoes.

Perhaps this is why grace and freedom are such difficult concepts for me. I like the Ten Commandments; they are very straightforward. Obey and live. Simple. But throw in a crazy God who sacrificed himself not because of anything I've done to earn it and my whole understanding of how to function in life is thrown upside down. I know in my heart of hearts that I'm a Pharisee. I always relate to what those dudes were angry about with Jesus and often wish that He could've given us just a few more rules to keep. Just accepting grace, accepting the love that He gives unconditionally, without a little religious checklist, feels a little too simplistic sometimes. Don't I have to do something here? Write a treatise on justification? Maybe pray a specific number of times a day? But just recognizing that all I need is that grace and love to cover my sin and how radically its acceptance changes me is actually hard work. Harder even, than not being mad at the guy who goes in the "OUT" door at Target.

I'm hoping there'll come a day when rules don't matter so much to me. When people can go in and out of doors freely without incurring my wrath. When I can fully grasp that nothing I do matters except the amazing reality of Christ in me living. When grace and truth have finally set me free from the tyranny of the rule-book.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Boughs of Collies

We do a lot of singing around our house. And banging on pots, blowing into the recorder, strumming on guitars, tinkering on the piano...bottom line, it's a musical place to be. One of my favorite things about it is how often my son mistranslates the line of a song into something sweet, but not quite right.

Christmas brings a whole new genre of music to choose from in this area and at least once a day we're asked to participate in a sing-along. Tonight? "Can we sing "Boughs of Collies" please, Mommy?" For my husband, this immediately brings to mind a vision of festively decorated dogs standing in groups around the house. But, we plunge in, sing the song and move onto something else. Boy does my little man sing with gusto!

Of course, I think most of us can relate to having wrongly sung a line or two in our lives, and probably much later than as a three year old. I vividly remember the day I found out that Bush was NOT singing about a religious epiphany in their song "Come Down". I was not only convinced that the words were "I don't want to come back down from Islam," but I also sang them embarassingly loudly. Ahem, apparently it was "this cloud", not Islam. Oh well. I'm sure there were a few people who enjoyed a good laugh on the bus ride to school over it. Certainly my friends did when I finally figured it out, so it wasn't a total waste.

The thing I love is that when a song gets hold of you, it doesn't always matter if you get the words right and, as a three year old, I'm not sure he'd know what "boughs of holly" really are anyway. He sings it with abandon and without a care in the world as to what he sounds like or if he's "right." He's happily and unashamedly him. What a beautiful picture of living in freedom- just happy to be who God has made him to be and enjoying life each moment at a time. Another lesson straight from God through the mouth of a three-year-old to my soul.

So, as I continue to sing about "boughs of collies" and "drops of rain roses" in the coming days, I might just fish out my old Bush cd and sing along, wrong words and all. It was more fun the wrong way anyway!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Like a Child

I'm sure most parents have said this at one time or another, but having a kid has definitely taught me more about having a childlike faith than any sermon ever could. For those who have read between the blog lines, you might suspect that we've been hoping to have a baby for a long time now. Much longer than we ever expected to. And waiting on a pregnancy is like nothing I've ever had to wait on before.

Last week, in the midst of disappointment, my son and I were on our way to run some errands. As the tears ran down my cheeks, he could tell from his seat in the back of the car that things weren't quite right.

J: "Mommy, are you sad?"
C: "Yes, sweetie, I am sad."
J: "Why are you crying?"
C: "Well, I want a baby and I'm just a little disappointed right now."
J: "Well, Mommy, stop crying, then. God will give you one. And I'll give you a kiss and a hug...when we stop, because I can't reach you right now."

"God will give you one". I've asked, right? Probably every day for a year now I've asked, but I don't know if even one of those days I displayed as much faith as this little boy did in that moment. He wants a baby brother and we've prayed for it. So, it'll happen, case closed. No tears, Mommy, God's on top of it.

For a few days after that, my son would ask me if I was sad anymore, but after my decision last month to stop expecting disappointment and live in expectation, my sadness only lasted a few moments. That day I had a good cry, a concept I've only really recently discovered. That night, a glass of wine. The next day, I moved forward in hope once more and my son happily relinquished his role as comforter. I know that God might not answer this prayer the way that I want Him to and that if He doesn't there will be some hard questions and decisions ahead. I'm alright with that. I'm thankful that no matter what, I've got this little person reminding me that God is faithful and will answer my prayer in the way that I need, even if it's not exactly what I want.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Land of No Control

Long ago I decided that whoever designed pantyhose was either (a) sadistic or (b) had no nerve endings between her knees and her waist and was hoping the rest of the female population would follow suit. More likely, it was actually a man who designed them and never even put a pair on to see the outcome of his folly. Consequently, I stopped wearing them, even when I have to go to weddings in the middle of January and I know it's totally socially inappropriate. I just don't care. The seductive promises of control-top don't tempt me, nor does the lure of a smooth looking leg. I wear my scars proudly, even when covered with goose bumps, because the freedom is worth it.

I wish I could say that pantyhose were not the only methods of control I rejected at an earlier age, but I'd be lying. I think I've lived my whole life in the land of "Control Freak." Maybe if I plan for every possible outcome and have a million hypothetical conversations in my head, then I can be sure of the outcomes, right? How much time have I wasted on the "what-ifs"? How many lists have I created, with their neat little boxes just ready for my satisfied check mark, finding my identity in the fact that so much of my world was ordered? I was nothing more than a slave to fear.

I've hit that point in my sabbatical when people are starting to ask those questions that are calling me to a summary of what I've learned. As I've tried to put this amazing experience into words, one word has dominated: Freedom. Freedom from fear, freedom from performance, from the tyranny of busy-ness and self-importance, from low expectations, from self-limiting boxes shaped like other people and not myself and, mostly, the freedom to actually trust God. Not just in word, but in deed. I may not be buying pantyhose, but what I am buying only comes in two sizes: all or nothing. I'm either free or I'm not, there's no halfway or almost. I'm either free or I'm a slave.

God has been breaking me of this control in so many ways; through unanswered questions, through different opinions on the timing of events in my life and through victorious glimpses into what a day feels like when it's approached with openness, flexibility and a deep sense of adventure and expectation. Just today I had a meeting with a man who has a great say on what is next for me in my career. Rather than preparing a 3 page, double-spaced treatise on all the options I saw, I just prayed a whole lot and showed the heck up, trusting that God would work through him to give me direction. And you know what? He did, in amazing and life-giving ways that have already, just hours later, gotten me so excited for this post-sabbatical phase of my life that it's hard not to start planning it right now! But I won't, because this life is a life I hope to live with much margin, joyful spontaneity, fewer lists and no pantyhose. Particularly not control-top. Sure, I gave them up years ago but it never hurts to reaffirm such an important commitment.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Corporate Bellies

Why is it that there are several things in life that always seem to evoke a total loss of any appropriate social conduct and conversation? Pregnancy seems to me to be the most consistently regular cause of a total lapse in sensitivity in the larger part of the population.

Why do people make comments like "It must be in the water..you should drink some," when they, and seemingly everyone around them, is getting pregnant? Or, "He just looks at me and I get pregnant, har, har, har!" What the heck does that mean? And why would you say that to me when I barely know you? Do you have any understanding that there are millions of women who want to be pregnant but aren't and would give anything for it to have been as easy as a sip of water or a look? Any inkling that I might be one of them?

And what about once you're actually pregnant? Why does every random person cross personal boundaries and rub you? Why do they feel the incessant need to express how large you look and how you must be having more children than you think you are? Do they think this makes a woman feel good? Do they think this is funny? Like gaining 40pounds is fun for a woman.

Perhaps it's just that the thought of an impending baby really excites people and they let down their guard. Maybe it comes down to "It Takes a Village" and people see other baby bumps as corporate belly property. For me, it comes down to insensitivity. People sometimes just cannot fathom that their story is not the story of those around them. We don't think ahead to wonder if we are being potentially hurtful, we just barge ahead, holding up humor as our torch and burning everything in our path for the sake of a good laugh.

Well, for every dumb comment I've made to a pregnant woman, I'm sorry. For every insensitive word to someone regarding my own story with my first son, I repent. I'm praying that God will grant me sensitivity and words of life for those around me as well as continued patience for people who assume that I must not be pregnant on purpose. I'm also praying that I can honestly respond to those people and maybe help them understand why it's less than helpful to make such comments. Who knows? Maybe it'll spare someone else having to laugh falsely along while aching inside.

Hope Stands

War movies are intrinsically about hope. Hope that, eventually, the horror will end and there will have been some greater purpose to the horrific suffering of so many people. Rarely will you see a movie that doesn't have some sort of moral or inspirational message interwoven with the carnage. If there wasn't that hope, even I could probably not continue to watch them. If Band of Brothers was only set during those cold, despairing nights of waiting in the Battle of the Bulge, I'm guessing it wouldn't be considered one of the greatest war movies of all time. It would be dreary and heart-wrenching and we'd wonder to ourselves what the point of it all was.

It's taken me some time to learn how to hope. I've spent months living in this place where I've kept my hope suppressed in anticipation of disappointment. Perhaps if I didn't hope too much, then the disappointment wouldn't hurt quite as much. I've learned pretty painfully that this is total hogwash. Even after weeks of not hoping very much, disappointment is still disappointment. It's even worse, actually, because it's disappointment delivered to a soul that has chosen fear and self-protection over abundance and trust. That's a pretty toxic combination.

So, for the past few weeks, I've chosen to stand in hope. I've chosen to place my trust in a mysterious God whose timing confuses me and whose presence sometimes feels elusive. I've leaned on those things I know are true of Him, his trustworthiness and his goodness, and fought against the lies that try to convince me that hope is fruitless and God is vindictive. I've called several friends to hope alongside me and to remind me of this choice I've made. My husband and I have boldly and unashamedly prayed for the desires of our hearts together and eagerly wait on God.

Like soldiers in war, I have to move forward not knowing when the end of the war will come, not knowing how my hope will play out and knowing that, inevitably, there will be disappointments along the way. I do know that choosing to hope opens me to hearing from God in a much greater way than do self-pity and despair and that no matter how long this waiting might be, I'd rather do it with God than without Him.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Injured Reserve

I have a knack for injuring myself in profoundly stupid ways. I found my arm in a sling for two days once from "overuse" in tambourining. I ended up with a major headache by slamming my own head inside a cabinet. Just tonight I opened a door, quite hard mind you, right into my own head and already have a large knob forming on my right temple that should be fun to explain tomorrow morning. If I were on any kind of team, no doubt I'd often be on the injured reserve list.

I'm starting to think that this is not just coincidence and that there is something else going on. Some might suggest stupidity. Certainly my husband derives a great deal of amusement from said mishaps and one of my son's first sentences, accompanied by an infant giggle, was "Mommy trip!" However, I think it often comes down to the fact that I don't live well in the moment. As I'm doing one thing, I'm already starting to do what needs to be done once the thing I've already started is finished. I'm not paying enough attention to finishing the "now" to realize what the "next" might do to my body.

I think this holds true for me in more than just the physical realm. It's hard for me to be right here, right now. I'm always wondering what's next, in both my future and in my walk with God. As a campus minister it can be hard to just enjoy time with God without thinking "How can I use what I'm learning right now on campus later today?" It's actually good to let what God is doing in me inform what I'll share with my students, but when that becomes the focus of that time, when I can't enjoy the moment with God for what it is? Well, that IS a problem. When I have a constant need to know the next step in life or what I need to do to get there? Not helpful, because it causes me to steep in discontent and lose focus on whatever it is I am doing right now.

As I continue to think through living in "this day" I'm realizing that for me, I've got to think on an even smaller scale. Probably something more along the lines of "this minute." Perhaps once I've mastered that, I can move onto "this hour" and eventually, with God's generous help, "this day." For now, I'm going to hope that I can keep off the injured reserve list and just keep playing. If I can just get a bag of ice and go lay down for a minute...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Painting and Perfectionism

At around 5:48 pm every Tuesday I find myself inching along I-40 towards my oil painting class. As I sit in my car, surrounded by traffic, I pray that I won't care if I'm good at it or not. I ask God to keep curing me of my perfectionism so I can just show up and have fun. I'm not going to be a professional artist, I don't even want to be a professional artist, so it's not going to matter if my pumpkin looks like an grape.

There are people who have been taking this class for years and show up on Tuesday nights for the camaraderie of painting with friends and the expert critique of the teacher. Some of them are pretty darn good and others, well, at least they are having fun! It's been nice to be surrounded by people who are taking time out of their week to do something they enjoy, whether or not it is "successful" in the world's eyes. They've been welcoming and encouraging and not one of them has made any negative comments about the shape of my fruit.

My sabbatical director was excited that I take this class. Doing something new and creative, he says, opens up new ways that we might hear from the Spirit and see new works that God is doing in us. It's been interesting to see the ways in which he is right, yet again. I don't know all that is going on in my soul as a result of this, but I do know that when I step outside, I see the world with more detail. I immediately try to figure out which colors I need to mix to get that exact color of brown of the bark of a tree or what shape brush I'd use to try to capture the curve of a leaf. Colors and contrasts are really vibrant. It probably doesn't hurt that it's autumn! But, the thing is, I'm slowing down. I'm seeing things I haven't seen before and I'm just enjoying them. I'm not thinking about what I have to get done but what I could do to try to capture that beauty on canvas if I wanted to. It feels good to soak in creation.

So, I'm thankful that God seems to be answering my perfectionist prayer on the way to class each week. I'm feeling no pressure to master the intricacies of oils and start a worldwide tour. (And unless said tour was of preschools, I think my audience would be less than impressed anyway!) I'm just simply and undeniably enjoying myself. No agenda, no strings attached, just showing up and enjoying the process and letting God continue that process in me long after I've put the paintbrush down for the night.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It All Comes Back to George

Recently my son was standing stark naked in the middle of his bedroom and, pointing to his train engine, said what I thought to be "I have Josh engine nudie, Mommy." It's actually rare that I can't decipher something he says, so I asked him what he meant and he said, "You know, like George has monkey engine nudie?" Ohhh. Monkey ingenuity. Curious George. Got it. So, I gently said, "I think you mean ingenuity, sweetheart," and he, being the child he is, made me explain what that meant in the kind of speak a three year old would use. I'm still not sure he gets it, so if anyone knows how to helpfully put that word into simple meaning, let me know.

A lot of events in our house or our lives seem to come back to George. Should we build a sandcastle? Of course we should. George did. Should we go to the zoo and look for a baby panda? Duh, if George did it, it's on our to-do list. It's funny to me, though, how much I've actually learned from this sweet little show and from how much my son adores George. George is just unashamedly himself, he takes everything quite literally and approaches nearly everything, with the possible exception of cleaning his room, with abandon. Just like a 3 year old. My son has found his hero.

This devotion to George has a great upside for us- if George has done it, we can reference it and generally Josh will be on board. Lately, though, I'm watching the man in the yellow hat a little more intently and trying to learn some lessons in laughter and patience. George has, in turn, cost him hundreds of dollars over a miscommunicated donut order, totally trashed his house more than once and made it possible for him to wake up with a pig licking his face. His response? He laughed. I'm not so sure I would find it so funny to wake up to Mike the pig in my bed, so I've got to hand it to him. No matter what George does, no matter how much the man in the yellow hat is probably in his right to be totally angry, he sees the intent. He sees his innocent little heart and what George was trying to accomplish and so he usually rolls his eyes, laughs, gently explains to George where his plans went awry and then they clean up the mess together. Next day, new episode, new misadventures, more patience. All this, and still no one can see fit to give the poor guy a name.

I figure if he can keep it together when George has emptied every food container in his house and buried the contents in his yard, there isn't much I should react to before first finding out what my son was trying to do. 99% of the time, he has a very logical reason for whatever he's done and while I don't have a yellow hat, I might start wearing my hot pink, wide-brimmed straw hat more often just to take myself a little less seriously. If anything, it would at least make the neighbors laugh.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lessons at the Midpoint

There's a vivid scene in Band of Brothers, when the Americans are hunkered down in their foxholes on Christmas and they can hear the sounds of Stille Nacht drifting across the battle-scarred forest. It's this moment of stillness and beauty, a moment that reminds them that at the end of the day, they are all, Germans and Americans, still a part of humanity. During this slight reprieve, they find a little time to take stock before the shelling starts again.

I've hit the midpoint of my sabbatical and while it's not as dramatic as that snow-covered scene of silence mixed with a distant, haunting melody, it's a chance for me to take stock. To stand before God and see what He is doing and what He has taught me. It has only been two months, but like a battle, I think it has felt much longer than the actual summation of minutes and hours.

I spent a while this morning just sitting and reading back through my journal since we've moved. I've seen some really clear patterns and God has made very abundantly clear those things in my life that revolve around a false narrative of who He is.

(1) I operate largely out of fear.
(2) I am no good at all at trusting anyone, including God.
(3) I have become used to hiding who I really am, though I yearn to be myself.
(4) I have no idea what I really want to be when I grow up.
(5) I'm NOT a bad stay-at-home mom. In fact, I think I'm a lot of fun!
(6) I often unintentionally interact with God in a way that is attempting to
manipulate him into a specific response.
(7) I have trouble being present and content in the moment.

Stark list, huh? I imagine there will be much to add to it after two months, but let me take a chance on writing one more list, and that's a list of what I know to be true of God and what I hope will be true of me. No, not after just two more months, but after a lifetime of continuing on this path towards Him.

(1) God is not a God of fear.
(2) God is good and trustworthy- he hates death, evil and injustice and is the giver
of good gifts.
(3) God has created me to be uniquely and beautifully His.
(4) God already knows who I am and who I'm becoming and is ok with the fact that I
don't know something.
(5) God is my perfect father and the only representation of parenting that I need to
look to to understand how to love my son better.
(6) God is all-knowing and will not be manipulated. He wants me to come freely to
him with my desires, hopes and dreams, not manipulate him into giving them to me
based on my performance.
(7) God has two days in mind - This Day(today) and That Day(judgment day). He is not
a God who worries or hurries, but who has abundant provision and grace for each
new day. I must learn to live This Day in a way that reflects my trust in the
ultimate outcome on That Day.

These probably seem simple truths that I should've learned a long time ago. To me, however, they are profound. Because after years of knowing them in my head, of being able to speak them aloud to other people, I'm finally allowing God's spirit to impress them on my heart in a way that is replacing my false and pitiful dependence on myself. Fear, you have no power. Performance, back off. Hurry, release your hold on me. I choose life and life abundant.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Choosing My Foxhole

So, I'm not a big "church service" person. I grew up in a little church that was just starting out...it was made up of very messy people who weren't trying to hide anything and just trying to get to know Jesus better together. It wasn't perfect, of course. It had it's share of politics and infighting...but it never felt stuffy to me. It never felt like empty ritual to come together on Sunday mornings. At this point, however, church feels like that for me. Empty, oppressive, ritualistic.

In all fairness, we've moved to a new place and so we've been visiting way too many churches and call none home. Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Non-denominational, UMC...all different from each other with different styles, foci, ways of doing "church." The problem I'm having is that I'm supposed to decide which one I want to go to based on the service and what people there can tell me about it. Based on showing up for the hour or, sometimes, two hour amount of time that has been put together each Sunday morning obstensibly for the purpose of worshiping God. These churches are fine...the people seem nice, the music is melodic for the most part and I haven't had the urge to jump up and run screaming in the opposite direction from too many of the sermons, which I take as a good sign.

The problem is that I'm tired. When I left Richmond I was burnt out. Since most of my activities there were church-related, it follows that I was pretty burnt out on the church. This is not God's fault, I know that. I did it to myself...no margin, poor choices, pride, pride, pride. So, I think that when I'm living in this place of huge margin with all these possibilities before me, I fear the tyranny of the church. There are always a billion things to get involved in and new social "rules" to learn in each place you go- I don't want the temptation of those involvements nor the oppression of those "rules." I don't trust myself yet to make the right choices or to unashamedly be who I am, rules be darned.

This leaves my family in a tough place. I think my husband would've picked a church back in August if it weren't for me and my poor son has probably met every nursery worker in town by now. So, I've just got to make a decision. I've got to listen to the Lord and just pick one and decide to trust Him that He will help keep those margins wide. That he'll give me the strength and discernment only to say "yes" to those things that will be good for my soul or necessary for the welfare of others. I've got to trust that once we've said "yes" to a community that my ability to enjoy the service on a Sunday morning and not be so distracted by fear and unmade decisions that I cannot worship the Living God will be replaced by a yearning to be around other believers each week and seek Him together. Sinfully, I want to just stay home. I want to stop looking and take a long break and I want to justify that by saying that the distance will be good for me. But I know that in this battle I'm fighting through, I would be giving ground to the enemy if I did so. So, I'm going to choose a foxhole, dig in and keep fighting. I'm hoping that the barrage of fear and indecision will dissipate and the chance to move forward and take up new ground will follow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mommy Come Home

When my son was first learning to put words into sentences, he very quickly learned a sentence that would cut me to the quick - "Mommy, come home!" Usually, I'd hear this over the phone when I was at work calling to say goodnight or on a trip somewhere. Sometimes it was even en route to coming home, but no matter what circumstances I was in, my heart broke a little. I began to question again, "Should I be working? Am I harming my child be being away from home? Is it selfish to be a working mom? Am I just a terrible parent?" All these insecurities would flow out and I'd instantly remember every single thing I'd done wrong in my parenting that week. Every selfish thought, every moment of impatience, every time I wasn't fully present with him even when I was home because of all the other things in life that were pressing down upon me to be accomplished.

Now my son can put much bigger sentences together and, in fact, talks a lot more than I do. He could probably put together a much more guilt-inducing plea if he wanted to but as he's grown in his verbal abilities, so has he grown in his understanding. I still don't think he likes it when I leave the house for any reason, but I can at least attempt to explain where I'm going. I can try to tell him why it's good for him to go to school and why I won't go with him, but still there's sometimes that look of betrayal and instantly again I hear his 18 month old voice in my head-"Mommy come home"- and I wonder if anything I'm doing is right.

As I wander through this sabbatical, one of the things I'm trying to let God deal with me on is my fear of motherhood. For a long time I didn't want to get married, to have kids, to settle down. I was not one of those girls who planned out my wedding at the age of 10 and knew exactly what dress I'd wear and what song I'd dance to with my dad. I wasn't really interested and didn't think I'd be missing much if I didn't have kids. I think sometimes because of all those years of indifference I now deal with insecurity thinking that since I didn't want this enough I'm probably not unselfish enough to do it well. I also let my mind wander into a place that thinks that since I'm not so good at this, maybe that's why God is witholding a second child from us. I know that's not how God works, but the lie creeps in. If I were a better mom, if I didn't work, if my son hadn't spent months asking me to come home...and I begin to wonder what I can do to manipulate God into letting me get pregnant. Messed up, right?

It all comes back to fear. Fear of failure, fear of not measuring up to...something, although what that something is still feels elusive. Fear that I'll royally screw up this precious life I've been given to raise and make decisions now that I'll regret when he's older. Yes, I've realized that some of the biggest craters in my battlefield have been caused by fear and that they can be so deep that I don't even know how to begin to pull myself out once the shelling has stopped. Though I often don't believe it, I'm thankful that God is a God who says not to fear and that He is trustworthy. That he reaches down from the edge of that crater and offers His hand as a stronghold. I'm hoping that as I slowly climb up He'll erase those insecurities and replace them with a confidence that can only come from being secure in Him. That I'll figure out who I am as a mom, without the use of any social measuring systems, without the comparison game, and learn to take this motherhood thing one day at a time.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Wide Setting

Typically, when I type something up I set my margins to the "Narrow" setting. I want to fit as much as possible on one page and who cares if it looks like a crowded, unattractive manuscript? I've maximized space and I'm not wasting paper, right? This week it struck me that I really often live life the same way I write papers. Fit as much onto one page as possible and the margin size be darned.

As I've spent yet another week enjoying this sabbatical time, and finding myself in a period of self-discovery and hope that is quite probably unparalleled in my life, I've been reading about the margin. The idea that most of us create a life structure that has very little margin, very little space for leisure, rest, even family. I was driving through Richmond about a month ago on my way up to NY for a fundraising trip and as I passed the exits for my former home and my job, I felt this immediate rush of panic and a sense of deep worry that I had forgotten to do something. It was as if I had a hundred things on my list to do again and no time to do them. Needless to say, I put my foot to that pedal and drove faster than normal up 95 until I was safely out of reach of that marginless existence. Since then, I've been thinking a lot about it because right now I'm experiencing the total opposite. I'm on sabbatical, we haven't found a church yet which means I'm not yet overcomitted and my only weekly obligation besides driving my child to school is my painting class.

James Bryan Smith says that "we live in a culture that rewards busyness and overextension as signs of importance" and that lives without margins often become tired, lonely and joyless. Check. This was largely the state I found my soul in when I started this journey in August and as God slowly reveals to me what brought me to that point, I'm finding more and more hope that I don't have to stay there. For the first time in a long time, I can honestly say I do not feel stressed out. I'm well-rested, I'm enjoying a lot of time with family and find that I look forward to my many hours of reading and soul-searching, rather than avoiding time with a God I know will penetrate my rough exterior and ask me to change.

As we settle into a new church in the coming months and as my sabbatical comes to a close, I'm trying to figure out how to set my document to the "Wide" setting. To schedule my life only enough that I'm saying yes to those things that are "necessary to the well-being of my soul or the welfare of others" and being ruthless towards the other opportunities that will just crowd my paper. I know I have to do this and I know it will take tremendous strengthening from the Lord and honesty with myself. I know my tendency to say "yes" to everything and that sinful temptation to feel important the more filled up my schedule gets. Oh, that my words would not honor that marginless, "important" lifestyle and that my choices would reflect worship of a God who desires for me to live a life with margins, a life full of joy with a soul that is restored and verdant with new growth.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sit in the shape of a what?

It's not often that I come back from dropping my son off in the nursery at church to find my husband shaking with barely suppressed mirth in his lonely pew. It was as I sat down and was about to lean over and ask what joke I had missed when I heard what was being read from the front: The passage in 1 Corinthians 14 about women keeping silent in the church. Why was my husband laughing? Well, as we've been forging ahead in this tedious church search, he had asked me to consider a church in a denomination whose position on women in ministry I wasn't particularly enthused about, saying that every church is different and surely they'd be excited for me to be there and to contribute in vital ways. Come on, it wasn't like they'd stand up front the day we visited and quote scriptures about the "woman's place" in church, was it? Right.

We stayed through the rest of the service because I was keeping an open mind and I wanted to hear how the pastor interpreted the scripture. After it had been read, it was sort of left hanging out there like a big uninspirational quotation supposedly meant to spur me into a frenzy of excited devotion. Needless to say, when he finally attempted to explain it, I was left unsatisfied and disappointed. We won't be going back but we did laugh the whole way home.

Most days at church haven't looked like this for me. My journey with the church and gender has actually largely been positive, that because I think a lot of my growth has happened in the context of InterVarsity, a place that has affirmed my gifts and demanded that I use them. I have been on church leadership teams, led tracks at camps and conferences, given sermons, led co-ed worship teams, mentored both men and women and largely felt like I was valued, not in spite of being a woman, but because I was a woman. But there are those moments when I just get frustrated.

I have known men on my journey, who upon finding out that I have "feminist tendencies" would hurry to find or quote scriptures to me about women submitting or keeping their heads covered and then stare at me expectantly. I'm not sure what they were trying to do, but it usually resulted in extreme anger and frustration on my part. I've had women on my journey tell me that it is sinful and even "murderous" to my child to keep working in ministry now that I'm a mother. I have sat at women's retreats listening to a speaker who is only attempting, and often rather shallowly, to engage my emotions or my funny bone and wonder why more female speakers in the church won't attempt to engage my mind and challenge me in my theology.

While there are definitely things I've doubted about God or had difficulty understanding about his character, I am thankful that at each of those moments, moments when people would have me believe that I'm less than or silly or only emotional because of my womanhood or that I'm evil for continuing to work, that God has responded in truth. That He has created me in His beautiful and perfect image, that He has gifted me in ways that are meant to glorify Him and that when I'm working as a young mother that yes, maybe my child has to sacrifice more than a child whose mother is at home in terms of how much time he gets with me, but, to quote a friend, "he is learning that there is sacrifice involved in the gospel" from a very young age. That has gotten me through mornings when guilt would have had me turn my car around and drive home.

This morning, I am deeply thankful for the people in my life, who have loved me in this, who have helped me see truth, who have helped me deal with my anger and apologize when necessary, who have laughed with me (thank you, Husband) about the absurdities we sometimes encounter in the church (and who may remember being asked to sit in the shape of a "womb" at a women's conference) and who believe alongside me that as men and women we are called to work together, to reflect in unity that beautiful image of God as we live out his calling as co-laborers.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Uncritical for the Day

About a year and a half ago, I attended a conference with colleagues from around the country. One of the first speakers opened his talk with an encouragement to suspend our critical natures for just 24 hours. To try not to find something wrong with what we'd hear, to open our minds to the positive reception of information that might actually change us. Just 24 hours. Easy, right?

Now I don't know about my colleagues, but that exhortation has really stuck with me because at some point along my journey, I became a really critical person. I started to see things as half empty, to focus on what I don't have rather than the abundance of what I've been given in my life, to always see more of what's wrong with something that what is right about it. I use to consider myself a pretty positive person and I think at heart I still am. But I fell prey to that Christian subculture that says that being angry about something or always seeing what's wrong about a situation, even concentrating on what's bad about the church is cool. As if being content about what God is doing or even excited about something might label me as shallow and unthinking. Where did that come from?

I've been thinking a lot about the character of God for the past two weeks, since as I maneuver my way through these Ardennes, I'm realizing more and more that a lot of the obstacles in my way are untruths about the narrative of God. Just as I have believed the lie about crying being weakness, I have let my soul turn healthy critical analysis into cynicism, anger and sadness. I have been unable to translate a lot of the truths about God's character from my head into my heart and find myself at a place where I have real trouble believing that God is Good and that He is Trustworthy. Not all the time, mind you. I can objectively look at my life and thank God for the good; the husband he has given me and the beautiful son that makes me laugh harder than anyone I know, but at the end of the day I seem to go to bed sad a lot of the time because when it comes down to it, my heart still doubts His Goodness. And where I doubt goodness, fear seems to replace it.

I don't want to be a cynical or fearful person. I want to see and know the goodness of God no matter how bad the day is. Or the month or year. I want to suspend that wrongly directed criticism for more than 24 hours at a time. I want to be characterized by the hope and joy that being found in Christ brings. I can't yet see the open sky that is so vivid and obvious when you emerge from the forest, but I am starting to feel hope that it's there. Hope that God can truly transform me from fearful and stubborn to trusting and malleable. Hope that when I go to sleep at night, my mind will be resting in the knowledge that God is Good and I have nothing to fear from Him. Hope that all of the truths I know about God will actually be real in my life, rather than this mottled battlefield of half-truths that have entrenched themselves in my soul. I may have to ask God each morning to help me be uncritical for the day, but I'm ok with that because I know He is replacing that cynical piece of me with more of Him.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

About a Girl

My mom says that I basically came out of the womb yelling about gender inequality and scaring the boys as early as preschool. My friend Joe confirms this, as he has several negative memories of encounters with the 3 year-old me. Sorry, Joe. I remember being overwhelmingly angry in elementary school when the gym teachers would say they needed some "strong boys" to help carry equipment outside for a game...these "strong boys" were generally ones who I could beat in a race or a game any time and had proven so at recess. Why was I, as a young girl, being told that boys had this physical strength to be prized and I should just sit by the sidelines when I could be helping? Why couldn't I carry those mats or be in charge of distributing the balls? Stubbornly, I'd raise my hand any time anyone asked for a boy volunteer and I got picked every time. Maybe my gym teachers were also afraid of me.

As time went on, gym class receded into the background but the comments that men would send my way became my new battleground. Sexist jokes, comments, small slights that were said in passing. If you are someone who decides to speak up against these you are told "I'm just kidding" or "Don't take everything so seriously." As if a slight on my very identity is just a dumb joke not to be listened to. Who started that lie? Why is it funny to essentially demean someone solely based on her gender? So, I fought back. I've spent most of my life angry at men, trying my darndest to prove that I can hack it alongside them no matter what. I tried to outsmart them in school, outplay them in sports and, in the process, ended up treating a lot of them pretty poorly and contributing to the strife between the sexes.

The thing is that when it comes down to it, I'm jealous. I'm vaguely angry with God that he made me a woman and not a man. There it is. After 30 years, I've said it. All those years I was mad in gym class, all those oral reports on the glass ceiling or tirades against a guy who had the temerity to make a joke about women and inside I was thinking, "I wouldn't have to deal with this crap if I were just a guy. People would assume I was strong, would encourage me to play sports, would never make jokes to my face about being barefoot and pregnant and then laugh when I got upset." And it would be one more moment of bitterness, one more moment where I let my identity get even more skewed becuase I couldn't understand why I didn't seem to fit into the "model" of what a woman was. Why weren't all these other women upset? Why did they laugh at these jokes? What was wrong with me?

Every once in a while I think I'm over it and am glad to be a woman and then something sets me off again. Some ridiculous book I've read that tries to fit all women or all men in some kind of box. I find myself at square one, like the 3 year-old who somehow already felt that she was at a distinct disadvantage in life for being a girl and so she was going to fight. At this point, the fighting looks different. Less vocal, more internal. The fact remains that I'm still not sure I'm happy about my XX genetic code. Add to all this chaos the extra baggage of the church and gender and, well, you get a blog post that becomes a novel. So, I'll wait until another day to tackle that. In the meantime, for all you guys who've been on the receiving end of a gender-based tirade, I apologize. God's working on me, I promise.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Wall

I ran track in high school for one season and one season only. This is because my coach thought that I would enjoy running the 400 meters and the 4x4 and I'm not sure my body agreed. He taught me early on that by the beginning of the final 100 meters of those races, if I were running them well, I should no longer really be able to feel my limbs. I should hit "the wall" but as long as I kept pumping my arms, I'd hit the finish line whether I realized it or not. Needless to say, the thought (and experience) of that wall was not something I enjoyed and so the following year I tried out for the musical instead. Better fit.

As I've been reading a book called "The Critical Journey", I've really been struck anew by this idea of the wall. Much like what I experienced in that final 100 meters, the wall, in spiritual terms, is a place that we can hit and feel profound disappointment, confusion, doubt, anger, bitterness...and for many of us, we don't even know why. The idea of this book is that we are all on a spiritual journey and throughout our lives may experience any or all of these 6 different stages. Some of them will be easy for us to experience and others will be really difficult.

I think I've spent about 15 years hanging out in "Stage 3: The Productive Life" and avoiding moving on. Stage 4 is called "The Journey Inward" and for someone like me who thrives in Stage 3 it is not an easy stage to move into. I think that for years my soul has been yearning to move on but my lifestyle has prevented it. I've taken too much pride and self-identity in what I could "produce", in using my "gifts", in striving hard to be loved for what I've done rather than who I am and haven't wanted to venture on into the uncertainties of that journey inward because, frankly, uncertainty is terrifying. The book says this makes for a pretty lonely person. Yup.

The thing about moving from Stage 3 to Stage 4 is that we often have a crisis that shakes that stability of Stage 3 and propels us on. This has been true for me as it has for most and I think I spent the last year hitting the "wall" of Stage 4, which is to say that I've done a spectacular job of pushing aside my questions, ignoring my frustrations, not dealing well with grief and loss and just sort of trying to magically push through that wall, which is actually an impossible thing to do.

One thing about the wall that the authors talk about is that you have to be willing to give something up when you hit it. I've spent awhile thinking about this and am pretty sure I know what God is asking me to give up. I'm also pretty sure I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready for my legs and arms to turn to jelly and to let God propel me that last 100 meters. I'm still too scared and stubborn. But, I'm hopeful that in the coming weeks and months that God will continue to work that surrender out in me. That He'll not let me stop at 300 meters and call it quits, because He knows the pain is worth it and that at the end of that last 100 meters, I'll realize that He is the only One that could've ever brought me through it anyway. I want to know that and believe it, so I'll continue to seek and wait and ask for the courage to surrender.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dancing Nancies

I spent part of the summer after my sophomore year of high school driving around upstate New York with two dear friends and my mom. The scenery was gorgeous, the goal a choice in college and the musical backdrop an album called Under the Table and Dreaming by the Dave Matthews Band. I think my mom would probably cringe if she had to hear one song from that album ever again, but I've recently rediscovered it and, typically, I hear a lot more in it than I heard as a naive 16 year-old whose only care in the world was hoping to find the perfect school that had enough trees to keep me happy.

One song that I've been listening to in particular is called 'Dancing Nancies'.

"I am who I am who I am who am I
Requesting some enlightenment
Could I have been anyone other than me?"

I think Dave was asking a really critical question and one I've subconsciously been wrestling with for a long time. Who am I, really? Am I moving along a path that will let God make me into who I was made to be? Do I believe I really could be anyone other than who that is? Would I want to be?

Starting in a new place presents a lot of opportunities. I didn't really want to move, to change jobs, to stay home with my son, but I'm seeing the timeliness and the necessity of this fresh start. There are ways in which for the past few years I have not been brave enough to be who I am. I have let myself feel bound by who and what is around me, by cultural norms that aren't mine. Worse, I've listened to the voice of man far more often than the voice of God and that voice has pulled me away from that path of being beautifully and uniquely me. This wrong posture has created pride, fear and an unhealthy desire to please others instead of God.

So, as I continue through my Ardennes I am looking to find me again. To unashamedly seek to know my God and, thereby, to know myself more fully. This is a scary endeavor because I believe it is risky to seek God. Not risky because I cannot trust Him, but because I know that He will change me and I have to be willing to see that change is, indeed, desperately needed.

Thomas Merton says that "it takes heroic humility to be yourself." He also says that "I who am without love cannot love unless Love identifies me with Himself. But if he sends His own Love, Himself, to act and love in me and in all that I do, then I shall be transformed, I shall discover who I am and shall possess my true identity by losing myself in Him." I don't know if Dave Matthews would've agreed with Merton's answer to his question but I think they could've had some great conversation.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Drops of Rain Roses

My son loves music. And at some point, when I was trying to think in vain of another song to sing in response to his protests of "no, mommy, a different song!", I started singing songs from the Sound of Music. Now, daily, one of the first things out of his mouth is "Can we sing "Drops of Rain Roses" and "A Female Deer" and the "Goat Song"? And so, we select a scene, grab our pots and chopsticks(drums and drumsticks, of course) and proceed to march around the house gleefully singing about our favorite things, needles pulling thread and goats. We can never forget the goats. We do this multiple times a day. It is the answer to boredom, to a spectacular fall that scrapes his poor little chin raw and, I'm beginning to think, a reflection of his current philosophy of life: laugh a lot, sing a lot and make sure you're near Mom and Dad while you're doing it.

When I was a kid I loved this movie. I loved the songs. I always wanted a chance to play one of the characters in a school musical. When I visited Salzburg in college with Norah, we spent a whole day on the Sound of Music tour, singing with a bus-full of Americans and Canadians at the top of our lungs and experiencing the settings from the movie up close. It has always brought me great joy and it certainly didn't hurt the the socio-political backdrop to the movie was the impending Anschluss in the late 1930's.

So as I've been working through these different books, examining my soul and delving into my first go at stay-at-home motherhood, what a fitting soundtrack for this period of my life. I'm finding I look forward to the request and am getting just as much joy as Josh is from marching around the house and making such a racket that Zeke has taken to hiding under the piano. They have become more than fun songs to me, but as I think about the words to "Drops of Rain Roses", I'm thinking of it alongside who God has made me to be. What and who really defines me? Where do I run when the storm bites? As I was singing this song to Josh during his nap the other day, he improvised during the chorus and as I was singing "I simply remember my favorite things and then I don't feel so bad" he sang "I go to my mommy and then I don't feel so bad".

Man. What a sweet but stark reminder to me that this little person is looking to me and his daddy to heal him. To define him. And unless I really let the Lord change me and secure me and define me, I could royally screw him up because I could attempt to mold him into my image rather than encourage him to discover his unique identity in God. Don't get me wrong. I know God is in control and helping me to parent him but now I'm praying for humility as I approach my son and that alongside all the chaos of raising an almost-3-year-old, I would be able to step back and really see him for who God has created him to be and cheer him on in that journey. If that means we'll have to listen to the Sound of Music songs 6 times a day, well, then I'll just be grateful to God that he created him with the same taste in music and breathe a sigh of relief that we are not dancing around to Barney.

Monday, August 24, 2009

No Crying in Baseball

At some point in my life, I decided to believe the lie that crying is a sign of weakness. Who first taught me this, I don't know, but I do know that I have worshipped unashamedly at the altar of this falsehood for too many years.

Yesterday, like we've done for the past month, we visited a new church. I usually enter these churches with a vague mixture of apprehension, curiosity and skepticism, an unfortunate result of loving my home church too much to see the possibility in other places of worship. However, something different happened yesterday. I found myself with tears streaming down my face in the middle of one of the most well-performed live gospel songs I've ever experienced. If you asked me what the words were today, I couldn't tell you. But in the hymn leading up to the song that broke me, I began to feel that fearful, painful twinge of pain behind my eyes that means I'm going to have to try my hardest not to cry. For some reason, instead of giving in to suppressing it, I thought, "Well, God, I don't know why I'd be crying right now, but no one here knows me(the silver lining of church hunting yesterday, at least) so do what you will and we'll see what happens." Enter tears. Many of them.

For those of you who grew up in the late 80's and 90's, you've probably seen A League of Their Own, a movie that takes place during WWII when women had to keep professional baseball going in the absence of men. A quote that always stuck with me, and I'm sure with many others, is when frustrated coach Tom Hanks reprimands one of the players by saying "There's no crying in baseball!" For some reason, as I've struggled through the confusing world of what it means to be a woman, and a Christian woman with a mind at that, I've attributed strength to stoicism. I've reveled in my "T" diagnosis in the Myers-Briggs, proud that I can keep it together and somewhat judgmental of those around me who cry often. I've attributed any emotion to the negative side of femininity, wrongly, and let myself deny who I really am too many times.

So what happened yesterday? I don't know. I do know that it was good and right and very definitely from God. For one of the first times in my life, I felt no shame at my tears, even felt that they were cathartic, something God was using and may continue to use to open me up in new places to what He is doing. The exciting thing yesterday was that right after that tearful encounter with the Lord, I heard a sermon that literally penetrated my heart and mind to a point where I saw myself and God so clearly that I finally became excited about this sabbatical, about the total vulnerability that I'll need to have before Him and the ways in which He could be about to challenge things I have held as idols for a long time. Game on.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why the Ardennes?

I've always been fascinated by the applicability of events in World War II to my daily life. To me, the Ardennes symbolize an unwinnable campaign, a time when men who were outnumbered, outgunned and undersupplied refused surrender and prevailed, learning who they were and why they were fighting.

If you've seen Band of Brothers, you've seen the episodes that take place where men are largely stuck in bomb craters with artillery firing above their heads, trees shattering, deafening noise and vast, gut-wrenching times of frozen waiting. Waiting to see if the Germans will advance, waiting to see who will live, who will die, waiting to hear from the command if winter clothes will be available, wondering if some officer somewhere will surrender or make the call to charge out of the woods into certain death. Weeks of living in the snow and slowly, one-by-one, losing the people you've come to trust to an unseen but deadly enemy.

I've never wanted to blog. I've never really felt like I'd have much to say, but as I've begun to plan for this sabbatical I've felt very clearly from the Lord that this was a step of faith I need to take. That I need to trust those around me enough put my thoughts out there and let people love me through the messy process. And so, the natural name for my blog, for this intentional effort to process in a way unnatural to me, to fight my way through all the muck in my life, will be "Through the Ardennes".

Why? As I think through what I hope God will do in me during this sabbatical, I feel as though I've been in a bit of an Ardennes myself. The historians call what happened in the Ardennes the Battle of the Bulge but I'll call mine the Battle of the Soul. Amidst many changes, losses, transitions and, now, the uncertainty of 4 months of the "stay-at-home life" and the "freedom" of sabbatical, I'm faced with the true situation of my soul. Fatigued, sad, confused, unsure of what's next...My blog is, in a sense, my own personal bomb crater. The place where I will sit, waiting to hear the voice of the Lord, wondering what will next come in this uncertain life and hoping to hear from the "Command" about what next move will advance the grand campaign.

The men in those holes emerged from weeks of darkness only to encounter an even more unspeakable horror- the reality of liberating a concentration camp. They were faced with what they really believed, why they believed it and who they were becoming as a result. I hope to do the same.