Friday, January 29, 2010

Campfires, a Mustard Seed and My Mountain

One of the most significant spiritual locations for me is up in the Catskill Mountains. Each year, from 4th grade through when I graduated high school, I'd head up there with some friends to a little, rustic camp in the middle of nowhere. There were holes in the walls, bugs in the bathrooms and it was paradise.

My favorite part of each day was probably the campfire. The day was coming to a close, we were tired from hiking or playing, doing skits, eating completely non-nutritious meals and the exhausting vigor that comes from feeling some semblance of freedom from everyday life. We'd sit in the absolute pitch dark, one of the perks of being nowhere near civilization, and just watch the fire burn. I've come to believe that a campfire is one of the easiest places to actually experience true silence and, consequently, hear from God.

The summer after 6th grade, I was enjoying such a moment of peace after wrestling all week with what I actually believed. Being a perfectionist, I wondered if I'd ever get it right, this faith thing. I still had doubts, I still didn't seem to know enough; I put a lot of pressure on myself, even at 11. But that night, as I was wrestling with my imperfect faith, a man got up and spoke about a tiny little mustard seed. This little passage in the bible where Jesus promised that even with faith that tiny we could move mountains. I remember thinking to myself "Well, geez, even I have faith THAT tiny. I guess that's all He's asking for." Since then, my journey with God has often been characterized by this tendency toward perfectionism and away from grace and, ironically, with a faith that struggles to believe in the moving of mountains.

A good friend recently challenged me to step back from the places I was hurting and waiting in and ask these questions of God: "Where are You taking me?" and "What part of Your heart are You showing me in this waiting?" I've done that, faithfully, for about a month now. The answer has not been what I wanted or even expected. He has been making it clear to me that He is planning on taking me to a whole new understanding of the miraculous. He is cultivating in me a holy and miraculous expectation of His power and goodness and intent to change the world around me. He's asking me to pray anew for something that in my heart I've given up on: the radical transformation and redemption of my earthly father.

I don't know what this is going to look like. I've prayed so many times for my dad that I know there's fear in my heart that I'll be disappointed yet again. But I know that I've been asked to do something and the only thing I've been promised in return is that I'll get to know the heart of my Heavenly Father better in the process. This is my mountain - my relationship with my father represents years of pain and confusion and frustration. To see him changed, to see our family's world changed, would truly be the miraculous moving of a seemingly unmovable thing.

So, I'm going for it. I don't know why this is what I'm supposed to do now and, thankfully, I don't feel the pressure to know. In the meantime, I've given those other things I've been focused on into the hands of faithful friends who I'm certain will bear them for me. Even in the hours since doing so, I've felt a subtle but distinct lessening of anxiety.

However God chooses to show up in this new moment of faith, I am certain of this; that He will show up, that He's faithful to continue His work and that in those moments where I'm tempted to believe He's not there, those are the times when He is working so deeply that soul transformation is happening and I just have to hold on and wait to see the miraculous reality.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

IALAC Buttons and Vanilla Ice

I have three academic memories from life at Mahopac Middle School. One is the song that Mr. Petrone would sing before every life science test we took. I am constantly tempted to sing it to Reed when he has his take-home exams; "Oooooh, every other seat, put your books on the floor, I got a little test that you'll adore...." The second and third memory come from the same class: "Guidance." Yes, this was an actual class for 6th graders in the early 90's in my cutting-edge hometown of Mahopac, NY.

Apparently the administrators of our school were concerned that 6th graders were not entering middle school with enough self-confidence to withstand the harsh realities of cliques, parachute pants and the advent of gender drama. Their response to this was to create a class that would encourage us to stand strong in who we were and not give in to the peer pressure around us in the hope that we might make it through middle school relatively emotionally unscathed. In retrospect, I'm actually pretty sure that that's not possible.

My first memory from Guidance is of the IALAC button. I.A.L.A.C. For those not in the self-esteem movement know, it stands for "I Am Lovable and Capable." We were given a pep talk about self-esteem, which I don't actually remember, and then told to make buttons with this phrase on them. Then we were to wear said buttons proudly around school. I cannot actually think of a faster way to throw your self-esteem in the toilet than to wear a button that makes you a target of ridicule for all upperclassmen, and all humans for that matter, who might come across you. I don't actually remember if I wore it. Being the obedient little nerd that I was, I most likely did and have blocked out the horrifying repurcussions.

The second memory is of Vanilla Ice. Yes, he was the musician of choice my inaugural year of middle school, along with MC Hammer. Apparently, the curriculum for Guidance did not just involve humiliating us as individuals but encouraged us to also explore corporate humiliation in the name of harmony. Weren't we less likely to harass each other if we had something in common? The way to harmony, we were told, was to pick a song as a class and memorize it, later on to be performed in some manner. My class, in a desperate move to NOT choose something like "We are the World"(which many of us had actually performed 6 years earlier in a kindergarten play), picked "Ice, Ice Baby". 20 years later I remember every word. I daresay some of my classmates also covertly sing all the words to this song in the privacy of their cars.

The sad thing about these two memories is that I do not remember either one actually impacting how any of us felt about ourselves. America seems to be big about talking about self-esteem to its youth, but I wonder how much this movement is working? Can we really learn in a classroom to truly understand the beauty and worth of our created selves? Certainly, an IALAC button and "Ice, Ice Baby" are not going to overcome the million other messages we hear on a daily basis that cause us to settle for less than who we are created to be.

The truth is, I am not defined by a button, but by a savior who loves me desperately and a God who created me to reflect His perfect and beautiful image in all that I am. I can't understand that better by thinking about it or by analyzing whether I deserve that gift of life. It is only by getting to know that God better and better, in deeper and truer ways, that I can really learn to unashamedly be who I am. It's not about self-esteem or self-confidence...it's about knowing without question who God is and, by extension, who He says I am and who I am continuing to become, that best version of my humanity.

I choose that best life over the deficiences of the self-esteem movement and its IALAC button that urges me to look vaguely within myself for my worth. Vanilla Ice had it right when he said that "anything less than the best is a felony."

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Goodbye to the What-ifs

A good friend once told me that if I believe in a sovereign God than I should never have regret; "should" being the operative word. Well, like all things about God, it seems, I have a much easier time understanding that as a concept than practically living it out. For me, though, regret plays out in the form of it's sister question "What if...?"

Since we moved to Durham, I have made a lot of good decisions. I've had more sleep, more time with God and with my family, I've learned how to paint, taken up running again and I've got a social life. However, I did make one specific poor decision since moving here. I held onto the assumption that I would get pregnant once the stress of leaving my job and moving abated and, consequently, did not pursue some things I could have. "What if I get pregnant?" was the question always in my mind and so I didn't sign up for volleyball last fall when I KNEW it would be an incredible outlet for me. I got money for my birthday for new clothes and chose not to buy any because "What if I need new maternity clothes soon?" What if? It's a powerful question and one that I'm learning looks too far to the future, rests on too many assumptions and does nothing but hold me back from what I actually should do in "This Day." Jesus said that we shouldn't worry about tomorrow...I've come to see that asking "what if" is a fancy form of worry and have realized clearly that asking it over and over is yet another trust issue I have with God. Seeing so clearly my tendency to postpone things that are good for me in the now over possibilities that I might deem to be better in the future was a big discovery. And, with big discoveries about myself, I saw the need for change.

So what to do about this? Well, I'm trying to replace the "what if" question with "what now?" Last week, I answered that question by signing up for a competetive volleyball league. After my first game on Wednesday, I already know it was a fantastic decision. I had the time of my life for two hours and didn't think once about my desire for that elusive baby. I'm seeing that choosing to ask "What now" is slowly replacing worry with trust and longing with joy. That's a big change for me.

I don't know how I'll answer this new question tomorrow, but I do know this: I'm saying good-bye to the "what-ifs" in my life. Volleyball is a whole lot more fun.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Wookies and the Cool Point Scale

My husband and I have befriended a young single guy from his graduate program. This man has been the recipient of much of my home-cooking, hours worth of my losses in Settlers of Catan and, occasionally, much needed girl advice. Yet, last night, as we were playing Settlers, yet again, and he was, yet again, kicking my relatively old booty, I apparently lost "cool points." The situation was as follows.

Him: (strange, unidentifiable and fairly disturbing noise)
Me: "Um, what was that noise?"
Him(incredulously): "Um, a wookie?"
Me: "What's a wookie?"
Him (and my husband, for that matter, both with looks of sheer disbelief): "What???? You don't know what a wookie is?"
Me: "Why? What's a wookie?"
Him (to my husband, not me): "OK, your wife just seriously lost some cool points."

Apparently this is a reference to Star Wars. Confession: the first time I saw the trilogy was in college and it was not by choice. A well-meaning and highly concerned guy friend of mine, upon discovering my deficiency, took it upon himself to force me into a room and make me watch all three in a row. In the same night. I don't care who you are, that's a LOT of Star Wars. For me, having grown up hearing all the hype but seeing a lot of movies that probably surpassed its 'breakthrough cinematography', it just didn't seem like a big deal. Good action, good storyline, sure, but it did not live up to the hype for me. I'm alright with that. I'm not going to pretend some movie is the pinnacle of cinema experience just to impress somebody or sound cool to all those people out there who count cool points. I'm pretty sure most of the women who I spend time with have not read all 120 books in the Star Wars series and wouldn't put the movie in their Top 5.

For the record, this is not about movie genre for me. I love action flicks and while I do enjoy a good chick flick or two, my favorite genre is actually war movies. The thing that mostly gets me about this man's comment is how we can often turn something that is meant to entertain into a barometer by which we measure other people's worth. It reminds me of high school, when people made you feel like you had to like the right bands and, of course, dislike the wrong ones vehemently. If not, your "coolness" was questionable. I wish I could say that people in the church were different, but we fall into this too. Which worship music is acceptable to sing, which speakers are saying things the right way, which theological opinions are "in".

I wish people felt the freedom to just unashamedly like what they like and embrace it. To not care whether other people feel the same way and to just live, enjoying what they've been created to enjoy. Star Wars doesn't do it for me and probably never will. I'm ok if it does for other people.

Let's let the cool scale die. It's really not that funny and, frankly, if we really were paying attention to what should register on the scale, would making a wookie noise in my kitchen really swing that dial to "cool"?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

T-Rex and Calculus

When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare in which I was running through a dark forest, pursued by a rather menacing Tyrannosaurus Rex. I don't know if this was a result of me reading all the dinosaur books I could get my hands on, but thankfully I always woke up before it caught me and the rest of the day was rather unaffected by this slumbering encounter.

As I got older, I found myself in a new kind of dream, and one that rarely ended with my alarm clock buzzer. I would dream that it was near final exam time in high school and I suddenly realized that I had not shown up to my calculus class all year. My attendance grade was an F and I was most surely going to fail the final because, for obvious reasons, I knew no calculus. Ensue panic. I would wake up from this dream in a cold sweat, mentally calculating how quickly I could possibly teach myself derivatives and frantically running around the room getting dressed to go to school early for extra help.

Now, eventually reality would set in and I'd realize that not only was I not in high school anymore, but college was also becoming a distant memory. My day was still usually a mess, though. I could never quite recover from this panicked started.

After several years of this dream, I finally figured out its cause. The moment my life had no margin, the moment I had more on my to-do list than I could remember in my head, I guess my subconscious just panicked and the terrors of a forgotten class invaded my REM cycle. My nightmare was a total loss of control and certain failure.

It's a sad commentary that I am more terrified by the failure dream than I ever was by T-Rex.

It's been about 4 months since I last had my high school nightmare. 4 months that have been characterized by margin that I've filled with sleep, painting, reading, jogging, hanging with my neighbors, actual conversations with my husband and a lot of laughing with my 3-year-old. 3 good months in which I've known God more fully and been more rested in Him than I can ever remember being. Months in which He has shown me more clearly who I am meant to be and begun to strip away the lies that I've let get in the way of that realization of my identity.

As I walk into this next phase, life after sabbatical, I do so slowly, yearning to hold onto the dearly bought lessons that I've learned over the past year, desiring strongly that my life would not be characterized by busyness or self-importance, but by listening, laughing and receiving each moment as one more chance to know my God better and to love those around me more fully.

I hope it will also be characterized by a distint lack of any high school calculus classes. I didn't like it then and I certainly want no part of it now.