Serenity On Saturday

23 Aug

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced serenity.

Not this Saturday. This Saturday I’m my usual hot mess. It was last Saturday when I went on my son’s Boy Scout camping trip. The boys went to a “lake” that was actually a 120 foot deep shale quarry filled with crystal clear water. You couldn’t see the bottom, and there was no beach to gradually wade in. All of us had to wear life jackets as we enjoyed a zip line and a multitude of inflatable climbing structures. My son was a bit intimidated by it all, but he enjoyed the canoe and the paddle boat.

They warned us to take off rings, earrings, or anything else valuable. When I went in the water, I left my glasses on dry land. But in the canoe, I never thought to take them off. I really can’t see without them.

We were paddling along the sharp cliff wall of the quarry, where there were blackberry brambles growing out from the cracks in the rocks. As we paddled under those brambles, a branch brushed the side of my glasses and knocked them off my head into the water, where they sunk into the blackness before I could even blink.

In about 5 seconds’ time, I experienced all the stages of grief compressed. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. It was nearly instant. My heart raced for a moment, and then serenity washed over me. Complete acceptance that my glasses were gone. And I laughed. What else could I do? I spend hours every summer pillaging blackberry bushes for the plumpest, sweetest berries, and now they were having their revenge!

My son thought I was losing my mind that I was so calm. He was horrified at what happened and was frantically calling for the lifeguard who was patrolling the area in his kayak. I joined in the effort to get his attention, but not because I thought there was anything that could be done.

In that moment, I had totally surrendered. I let go absolutely. I had prescription sunglasses back at the campsite, and I’d go to LensCrafters when we got home Sunday. Until then, I’d be ok.

I can’t think of a another time in my life that I’ve been so at peace about something I couldn’t control, especially so quickly. Usually the journey to acceptance is a long winding road that involves a lot of crying and backtracking. Of course, letting go of people and situations is not like letting go of a pair of glasses, either. But it was a wonderful concrete example of what serenity is and how it actually works.

Since the incident with the glasses last weekend, I’ve had to do more letting go, and every time I’m tempted to “pick up” again, I take a deep breath and say to myself, “The glasses are under 100 feet of water.” The thing for which I want to grasp is gone, if it was ever there in the first place.

But that’s not the end of the story. One of the park’s employees had diving gear. He got suited up and found the glasses about 20 feet down, stuck on a rock ledge. I truly never thought I’d see them again, but grace came through yet again.

We’ve all heard that cliche, “If you love something, let it go. If it doesn’t return it was never really yours.” Well, I’ve had lots of “boomerangs” in my life, lots of second and third chances with work situations, relationships, friends and family. And I can say from experience that even if it does come back (which is never a guarantee) it’s still not really mine. It was never really mine, ever.

That’s the heart of serenity.

High Maintenance

21 Aug

Last week a male friend from work called me a “high maintenance” woman.

(Yes, he lived to tell about it, but my revenge is to immortalize him as fodder for a blog. That’ll teach him!)

To which I replied, “Any woman worth keeping is worth maintaining.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. Not sure where the girl with low self-esteem went, but her replacement has a quick wit and a healthy sense of her own value.

I have never wanted to be high-maintenance. I’ve always tried to be sweet and accommodating and understanding and compassionate. I’ve been a great listener, an encourager, and not usually demanding. Although there was a time when I’d smother a guy with advice (and clothing suggestions), I’ve learned in more recent years to keep my opinions to myself unless I’m asked (most of the time). I’ve diffused conflict with humor, and I’ve done my best to meet my own needs so thoroughly that I wouldn’t need to ask for help from a romantic partner. I rarely asked for much of anything, and if I felt neglected I stuffed those feelings and made a gratitude list about my partner, or nursed a silent list of resentments and sulked in self-pity.

That doesn’t sound high maintenance does it? (All the men I know are probably laughing right now. Yeah, I hear you.)

The girl with the low self esteem also believed that a woman worth keeping was worth maintaining. But her perception was distorted. When she plugged her experiences into the formula, the answer she got was that she must not be worth keeping, since no one seemed interested in maintaining.

That kind of thinking has a self-perpetuating momentum to it.

It never occurred to her that she hadn’t ever given them the chance, or that she had a habit of turning toward good-hearted guys who simply weren’t capable of maintaining.

People are not high maintenance. Relationships, especially those worth keeping, are.

They require open communication and honesty. They require courage – courage to be ourselves, and courage to allow the other people to be themselves, exactly as they are, right here, right now.

Relationships require time. Time is an investment, and some investments are inherently risky. Time creates attachment. Even though we each have 24 hours in a day, not everyone is able to invest the same quantity or quality of time in a relationship. That doesn’t make them “bad” people; it does, however, make a relationship with them a riskier investment.

Relationships require an emotional investment, too. Some of us (yours truly included) seem hard wired to make generous donations of emotional capital only to bankrupt ourselves with emotional charity. Abundant giving to a child or to a geriatric parent or grandparent or a sick family member is laudable. But if I’m over-giving to a grown adult who isn’t willing or able to give back, that’s not healthy, in spite of what our culture and maybe even our religious faith may have taught us.

Love by its very nature is unconditional, but healthy relationships are not. I think it’s ok to expect a return on investment in a relationship between equals. But as the old saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone, especially if you don’t even tell the stone what you expect. You can’t go to the hardware store and expect to buy bread.

Which takes us back to having the courage to accept ourselves and our “partners” exactly as we are, even if an honest assessment means we aren’t really partners at all.

In hindsight I can see that believing myself to be “low maintenance” has lead me to settle for low maintenance relationships. Wanting more is often seen as “high maintenance” in a disposable culture that values ease and comfort over effort and endurance. But I do want more. I want effort and endurance. I want relationships worth keeping. I’m high maintenance and proud of it.

What I’ve learned from meditation and journaling about this whole “high maintenance” business is that maybe I’ve acted low maintenance because I didn’t have the time or emotional capital to invest in a relationship worth keeping.

That’s a difficult place to be – knowing your value, wanting the best, but not being able to afford it. I could mortgage myself. I could go into emotional debt, but I would have to work twice as hard to pay it off, if I even could pay it off. That leaves less time to invest in that “relationship worth keeping” later down the road, when the infatuation wears off.

There’s another choice. I could invest in myself. Every bit of time and emotion I focus on myself will earn interest, or so I’m told. My parents taught me to save up for the things I want. I saved for two years while my gorgeous bedroom set was on layaway, bringing home one piece at a time. I saved for almost a decade and worked overtime to be able to afford a two week trip to Ireland, and the down payment on my first house came from my savings. I know how to do this in “the real world,” so it’s just a matter of applying those skills to my “emotional world.”

I didn’t deprive myself during those years of saving; I was just more frugal. I can be frugal with my time and my emotions. I can learn to maintain myself, which is not the same thing as never asking for help and resigning myself to loneliness. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers,” and it’s as good advice for 39 years old as it is for 6. Supporting myself means asking appropriate people for appropriate support, not being a rugged individualist boot-strapping my way through two jobs, three kids, and single parenthood.

Education is another way we can invest in ourselves. When I was first separated I read a fantastic book about rebuilding after divorce, and one of the chapters was on “growing” relationships – that is, temporary situations that help both parties grow. It’s an investment of time and emotion, just as going to college is an investment. But we don’t expect to stay in college perpetually, do we? We expect to graduate with skills and confidence that will serve us going forward.

Most relationships are of this variety, whether we admit it or not. I have a double major in depression and emotional unavailability with a minor in codependency. I just got my master’s degree in detachment with love, and I’m hoping to earn my doctorate in acceptance before this life is through. Having kids is a bit like a practicum course, and some of my dating experiences have been like unpaid internships, most valuable for the experience they provided.

And that’s where I’ll end the metaphor, because relationships aren’t like a job you qualify for with higher education, interview for with your best rehearsed answers, and use as a stepping stone to the next best paying gig. Relationships are a gift that you have to be ready to receive, and there is only one I’m guaranteed to have – a relationship with myself. And I can have a relationship with God, but only if I want it. I’m not entitled to anything else, no matter how hard I work. Everything else is a gift of grace, which I can hold only if I learn to let go of the things not meant for me and keep my hands and my heart open instead of clenched tightly in fear.

Being open requires daily maintenance. Worthwhile maintenance. The highest of maintenance.

This Too Shall Pass

12 Aug

I struggle with depression. It’s been an on-again, off-again companion since I was about ten. Sometimes it is triggered by a situation or a disappointment, other times it appears to be hormonal or the result of physical or emotional exhaustion. Anger and hunger make it worse. It has never completely overwhelmed me; after all, I’m still alive to write this reflection. But it has yet to permanently go away; as many times as I’ve gotten a temporary reprieve, it is only ever temporary.

I was 20 the first time I sought help; I made an appointment with a counselor in college, I had to wait two weeks even though I was on fire inside, and by the time I was to see her, I felt better. I didn’t seek help again until a few years later, when something dramatically painful happened that I couldn’t ignore. Therapy helped a little. Pharmaceuticals were not worth the side effects. Marriage and pregnancy and motherhood brought steeper peaks and valleys. But eventually I found a spiritual solution that works for me if I do the work. It doesn’t stop the depression entirely, but keeps it from overtaking my life, and for that I am grateful. Today when it rears its ugly head, I have some strategies for coping, and it usually passes quickly.

I’m not sharing this from a place of self-pity or sympathy-seeking. I was in the thick of it when I started writing this piece a few days ago. I’ve been in a pretty dark place for about a year, sometimes deep within the cave of sadness and despondency, but most of the time at the mouth of the cave, desperately listening for God. I know other people (maybe you?) are too.

I’m writing this because it needs to be written. This weekend’s readings were all about depression. Elijah in the cave, Paul mourning his Hebrew heritage, Peter sinking when he tried to walk on water – each of these stories has a special message for the person who struggles with depression like I do.

Scripture scholars have written some wonderful commentaries about Elijah’s well-documented depression, and some less-than-wonderful “bible-based” depression advice, too. The basic gist goes something like this – Elijah suffered from depression because he lost his focus on God, and right after he’d had a great spiritual victory, no less! He got out of the depression by doing God’s will. So it stands to reason, if you put God first, you won’t get depressed. And if you ARE depressed, it’s because you aren’t putting God first, you miserable sinner. So go beat yourself up some more – that should cure you!

This weekend’s selection from Elijah’s depression story takes place just after he begged God to take his life, because he couldn’t see the point of going on. Yes, he had just experienced a spiritual victory, but demonstrating God’s power and showing up the king’s worthless gods had done nothing to convert Ahab or his horrid wife Jezebel. Sometimes our best is not good enough, and that will trigger anyone to get depressed, even a prophet. Why bother?

If you’ve never entertained suicidal thoughts, this will probably make no sense to you. You probably just shake it off and move on. Someone with depression can’t do that. It’s not a matter of will power. I ask you to kindly suspend your judgement and desire to fix it with advice while I tell you what it’s like for me. It’s a place of utter hopelessness, of being overwhelmed by my imperfections, inadequacies, insecurities, and failures. Ironically, it is especially poignant after an exceptionally good day, because I know it’s only temporary. It’s being unable to see past my shortcomings enough to believe that I am or ever will be deserving of love, affection, companionship, or understanding, no matter what I accomplish or what fleeting joy I might have felt yesterday. It’s a desperate desire for complete and total reprieve from the compulsion or expectation to do my best, because mostly I’m just tired of trying.

But it is not surrender. No, it is the ultimate act of self-centered rebellion. It is the place where fight meets flight. For me, this awful place will be my destination, sooner or later, if I don’t accept myself or reality, or if I entertain the voices of self-pity and resentment. Some people respond to these voices with drugs or alcohol. I respond in other less obvious ways that can be just as deadly, but slower. Yes, I do believe in demons because I have experienced them, first hand.

God didn’t take Elijah’s life, nor did God lecture his servant. He sent the prophet to a cave. That’s where we who experience depression often go when we need to hear the “still small voice.” But first, while we are in our caves, we have to experience what God is NOT – the storms, the wind, the earthquake, the fire. God is not destruction, of course. God is the quiet, still knowing that all manner of things will be well. But not everyone can weather the illusion of destruction that God is not. Light eternal shine upon them, for they rest from their labors.

This stuff is not something I like sharing. It’s something I’m deeply ashamed of. Which is why I share it. If I share it, I diminish its power. I’m afraid that if you know about my bouts of depression, I will scare you away, or that you won’t want to have anything to do with such a person. Like I have a contagious disease or something. Or worse, you’ll try to comfort me so that you can feel more comfortable. (FYI, when someone is depressed, they don’t need someone giving them advice or telling them how wonderful they are or how great life is or how much they need to get help. They need to be held. If not physically, then in prayer. If you have to say something, say I love you. Say I’m here. That’s it.) I have this completely ridiculous belief that I have to be sweet and happy and pleasant all the time or you won’t love me. Which is crap. I know some pretty miserable people, and their shitty moods don’t stop me from loving them; if anything, I love them more, because I know what it’s like to feel that way.

I have a really great life in the best country in the world. I’m healthy, and my kids are healthy, and I have friends who care about me and the absolute best parents anyone could ask for (unless you’re disgusted by potty humor). I have a job, a house, two cars, no debt, and food in the pantry. Life is good. But those feelings creep in, and it’s all I can do to keep them from dominating the space in my head.

I do whatever it takes to get them to stop. I’ve learned that strenuous physical activity and being outside in the sun does what prescriptions can’t. (For me, that is. There is nothing wrong with seeking pharmaceutical help!) I’ve learned to take these feelings one day at a time, because there’s a better than even chance they will be gone tomorrow as capriciously as they arrived today. I listen for the still small voice in everything. Everything. If I can just hear God, I will know I’m not alone.

Depression feeds off isolation. The cave is a necessary part of the process, but Elijah didn’t stay there. Ultimately he went back into the world and even found a helper in ministry. We can’t battle depression in isolation. Community is essential to keep it at bay.

Community is what Paul spoke of in this weekend’s epistle to the Romans. Paul often spoke of a thorn in his side; some “wound” that kept his pride at bay. I don’t know if that is what he was hinting at when he confessed, “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart.” Paul went on to describe the cause of his sorrow – being cut off from his beloved Hebrew community. Paul sacrificed his whole life, including his relationship with a proud culture and heritage, for a relationship with Christ, and he was apparently not always happy about the trade.

This, too, I can relate to. Depression has spurred me to seek help, and I’ve found it in a place that works for me. I’ve found help in a spiritual (but not religious) path toward acceptance. I can feel God changing me, but sometimes these changes have required me to let go of behaviors and friendships I miss very much. I’ve even had to let go of aspects of my religious faith, certain teachings that may be well-intended but actually compound my guilt and shame to the point of debilitation. God didn’t die on a cross to create a bunch of new rules to strangle the people He saved.

When we grow closer to God, we often have to let go of relationships and attitudes which served us well but are no longer compatible with the new life God gives. If that kind of letting go took such tremendous faith for a spiritual giant like Paul, why would it be any easier for me?

Grief is not exactly the same thing as depression. Grief is a natural healing process. Depression is what happens when we don’t grieve. In my case, I often avoid the pain of going through the grief process and wake up to find I’m in a full blown semi-suicidal depression. Like Paul, I have to feel the loss, write about it, talk about it, and make the decision to accept the loss, whether it’s a death, a divorce, a friendship, an unmet expectation, or a stage of life that has come to an end.

Sometimes the grief over what “might have been” or what “should or could have been” is even worse than a loss of what really was – it is much more difficult to let go of a fantasy because you can’t let go of what you never truly had in the first place. The Hebrews were “supposed” to be the chosen people, those who were predestined to receive to first fruits of God’s blessing. It broke Paul’s heart that it didn’t work out that way. It’s ok to feel heartbreak. In fact, not feeling it will push that pain deeper, where it will fester and poison us slowly. Paul teaches me to feel my feelings, or suffer long term pain that leads nowhere but a slow death.

One of my feelings that almost always accompanies loss is fear. Isn’t it ironic that fear – of loss, of death, of losing myself to the apparent overwhelming demands of life – actually causes the very thing of which I’m so afraid? Enter Simon Peter, who had just enough faith to jump out of the boat in the middle of the storm, but not enough to walk to Jesus. Sometimes I wonder if we who strive to live lives of faith and service aren’t especially susceptible to the sinking that happens when we take a leap of faith. Many of us are conditioned to believe if we have enough faith, we will be protected from pain – like some kind of emotional prosperity theology. We throw ourselves into storms, in the name of faith. But believing in God doesn’t make us invincible. Having faith doesn’t inoculate us from losing our faith, either.

“Why did you doubt?” This is what Jesus asked Peter, not as a parent scolding a child, but as a healer who wants to get to the root of the problem. Why do I doubt? It’s not a rhetorical question, and my answer may be different than yours.

I doubt because I know I’m not capable on my own. I’m just not. Faith in myself will fail me every time. I can’t. God can. I gonna let him. It’s a mantra I can say any time I jump out of the boat.

When Jesus asked Peter why he doubted, it wasn’t about walking on water. Peter’s doubt happened before he ever got out of the boat. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” Peter said. Lord, if it is you. Jesus indulged Peter’s doubt and commanded him to come out on the water. But if Peter had had faith, he would never have said, “Lord, if it is you.”

I don’t ever have to jump out of the boat. I don’t have to “fight” the depression demons; it’s a losing battle anyway. I can wait on my God and let my God do the fighting. I can rest. I can eat. I can call someone or text someone and ask for prayers. I can go to the people who hold me in silence at the mouth of the cave and let me cry cleansing tears.

The walking on water gospel story is not about keeping our eyes in Christ in the midst of the storm and expecting ourselves to do the impossible. It’s about accepting our own humanity and our limitations. It’s about knowing He’s there with us in the storm, hunkering down, trusting He will come to us, and having the faith to wait.

This too shall pass.

Try

23 Jul

“Try and pick up those keys,” she said to me, pointing to my car keys sitting on the table between us, right next to her extra sweet sweet tea. Though we had only just become friends, I knew her well enough that I could see from her expression she was about to make a point. I picked them up.

“No, I said try.”

I’d like to say I “got it” the first time. But I picked up those keys again. It wasn’t until she quoted Yoda that I figured it out.

“There is no try, there is only do or do not.”

Duh.

That was when I learned to cut the word “try” out of my vocabulary. I replaced it with doing (or not doing) things well, or poorly. If someone asked me to do something that was outside my comfort zone or ability, no longer would I respond, “I’ll try.” Instead, I say, “I’ll do my best.” It’s a subtle difference.

Changing words is one thing. And important thing, yes. But banning the word “try” is only a surface change. Have I banned “try” from my attitude toward life? Have I really changed my actions? Or am I still attempting to change something I know I would do better to accept?

This morning I came across this video by Colbie Caillat called Try. The video is a powerful testament to true beauty.

When I look at my girls, I think they are beautiful. They have features about which they will probably be self-conscious when they get a year or two older. Tori has teeth that will need braces, and I’m so glad she doesn’t restrain herself from smiling like I did with my teeth. Olivia has a dark brown birthmark on her cheek. It has been my favorite feature since the day she was born.

I’ve definitely gone through stages where I’ve been more than self-conscious about my appearance. It’s an area of my life where I experienced abuse – from my peers, but also from myself. Yes, abuse. Let’s not sugar coat it and call it teasing. Just because the perps were my peers doesn’t make it any less painful or the damage any less lasting. They abused me, and when they no longer abused me, I picked where they left off, physically and emotionally.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look my best. I get laser hair removal, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But there’s a fine line between changing the things I can, and obsessing over perceived imperfections. My world no longer revolves around pimples, thank God. Today I can focus on my beautiful features and accept the parts of my appearance that I don’t like. My hair, my eyebrows, my nose. I don’t have to like them to love them.

My friend who told me to try and pick up my keys has undergone a massive physical transformation since that day at the diner. She surrendered some of her fears, not to mention an addiction to sugar and cigarettes, and on the outside she looks nothing like that woman who taught me about the dangers of “trying.” But she was just as beautiful then as she is today. I am grateful beyond words that I was able to see her true beauty before the physical had caught up with the spiritual. Because I could see it in her, I can see it in me, even when my face breaks out and I’m overdue for a touch up on the chin hair.

Mustard Seed Faith

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The summer before I turned two, my grandmother inadvertently gifted me with my most valuable piece of jewelry. We were visiting her house in Pennsylvania, and my wee toddler self needed entertaining, so she pulled out a decorative box filled with costume jewelry and I was in heaven. Colorful flower pins, long strands of beads, chunky bracelets, and clip-on earrings preoccupied me for at least ten minutes, I’m sure, along with Grammy’s signature phrase as I rummaged through the box pulling everything out.

“Now wait.”

She was always saying that. When I was impatient to go uptown to Uncle Russell’s 5 & 10. When I wanted to go down in the basement to get her box of crayons. When I wanted to explore the attic.

She’s been gone almost 6 years, but I can still hear her voice when I’m feeling impatient. I’ve even heard it coming out of my own mouth when my kids are running around.

“Now wait.”

Ultimately she gave that big jewelry box and its contents to my mom, who still has it. My girls have played with the same costume jewelry. Among its contents was an unusual pendant to which I was always drawn. I always thought it looked like a lightbulb. Inside a tiny glass ball about half the size of a marble there is a hole, and inside the hole, a seed.

A mustard seed.

I’m sure the monetary value of this odd pendant is minimal, but I consider this talisman my most valuable because of what it represents to me – faith and possibility.

Most of us know the biblical parable of the mustard seed. The tiniest of seeds produces the mightiest of bushes that can shelter all the birds of the air. Christ said that faith the size of a mustard seed was all that was needed to move mountains.

Grammy was the paragon of faith in my family. She was widowed as a young mom of three teen and preteen children, and making ends meet in their small town was a daily act of faith. But she never doubted that The Lord would provide, and He always did, up until the time she died at almost 92 years old. A woman of few financial resources, it was nothing short of miraculous that she got to live out the best of her final years in a lovely assisted living apartment community, after achieving her dream of traveling to Russia at age 70. Her post script to every mealtime prayer we shared was, “Thank you Lord for many blessings.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been wearing her pendant regularly, especially on the days when I struggle to let go of a person or situation that is causing me to worry. I just hold the pendant in my fingers, close my eyes, and remember that God has the person I love in His more-than-capable hands. Having a tangible object on which to focus is helpful.

The pendant broke last week. The ball fell off and the mustard seed came out. It was a miracle that I found the glass globe part; I’m pretty sure the seed is not going to turn up. But it’s not the seed that magically soothes my mind when I get all worked up. It’s my conscious act of letting go and trusting that all the people I love are exactly where they need to be, right here right now. If I’m uncomfortable about where they are, that’s my problem, not theirs. I can take my discomfort, and my accompanying desire to “fix them” and share it with a girlfriend or write it in a journal or say a prayer. I can accept and love unconditionally. I can remember that no act of faith on my part has ever resulted in anything but my ultimate good.

A friend of mine recently described faith this way – being in free fall and deciding not to panic until you hit the ground, only you never hit bottom. That’s not to say that faith is a remedy for all pain, sadness, or natural consequences – it isn’t. Faith is all about having an attitude of trust instead of an attitude of fear, anger, defensiveness, justification, and selfishness. Faith may not prevent pain, but it eases self-inflicted suffering.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Tiny. Inconsequential. Yet within it is the potential to shelter “all the birds of the sky.” Not just the blue birds. Not just the robins. Not just the cardinals or doves or hawks. Faith isn’t limited, and neither is the kingdom.

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Good Ground

14 Jul

Today’s parable from Matthew’s Gospel has never sat well with me. It’s the parable of the sower. The sower (presumably God) casts out seed (the Word of God) which falls in a variety of hostile places and fails to grow to maturity or bear fruit. Except when it falls on the “good” soil. Then it flourishes. Even today’s psalm selection hammers home the point – the seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

How nice for the “good ground.”

This parable smacks of the kind of predestination-minded theology that makes my stomach turn. What about free will? What about “blessed are the poor?” What about hope?

I’ve always related to the “good soil.” I liked going to church from the time I was a little child. I thrived in my Catholic school. I loved pondering the scriptures, and I took the Word to heart, literally. When life gets hard, I turn to God, not away (usually). So why should I even care about the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground?

For one, I’ve always had a special place in that “good” soil of mine for atheists and agnostics – the seekers, the questioners, the doubters, the deniers. When you love someone who wants to have faith but is too worried about their life circumstances to truly let go and let God, that parable brings little comfort. When you love someone who is a fair-weather follower who falls off the faith wagon after a beautiful conversion, that parable stings to the core. When you love someone who flat out rejects the one thing that brings you peace, that parable breaks your heart. And when that person is a child, a parent, a sibling, or a spouse, it’s almost more than one can bear.

If you’re someone with “good soil” reading this, you know the feeling. No amount of self-righteousness can ease that pain.

I don’t know about you, but I believe in a God of hope. I don’t believe in lost causes, nor do I believe in writing someone off. I believe the words of the prophet Isaiah: “My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”

I also find comfort in today’s epistle from Paul to the Romans. “Creation was made subject to futility . . . in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Yes, comfort. Some people might see that phrase “subject to futility” and throw up their fatalistic hands. Sometimes it seems as if nothing we do can change the overpowering tide of pain and suffering (often self-inflicted) that plagues the world. I can think if several news stories just in the last three days illustrating some of the worst that humanity can throw at itself. Human justice is an uphill, losing, futile battle.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, “Power is the ability to effect change.” In a world subject to futility, there is but one who has all power to change the soil, the soul. May we find Him now.

God throws the seed, and it does not return to him void. Even when it falls on the path to be eaten by birds. Even when it sprouts in shallow soil and withers. Even when it is choked out by weeds.

I know that in my heart, there is good soil. But there is also a well-paved path of self-will that doesn’t receive the Word. There is a fair-weather garden that isn’t suited for deep roots. And there are thorns of worry and doubt, in the darkest shadows, where the Word is all but lost. And if there can be such places in me, then there can be rich soil, if only a tiny patch, in the stoniest, weediest, shallowest heart of another. If only one seed sprouts and bears one small fruit there, that is enough to make angels rejoice.

The focal point of any parable has to be God. What kind of farmer sows seed anywhere but a well-tilled field? The kind of farmer that loves it all – the roads, the rocks, and the weeds. He showers every one of us with His Word, and His word is nothing more or less than hope itself. He litters every imperfect part of our hearts with it, because He knows hope isn’t wasted. And He challenges us to love like that when our harvest is ripe, whether we yield a bounty of a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold, or just one humble apple. Our soil is “good” only by God’s grace, and our harvest is in spite of our own futility.

God alone has the power to change the landscape of our hearts. I know that seed will only yield a harvest in “good soil;” why then do I insist on repaving the same well-travelled roads? Why not turn over the shallow, fallow fields? Why not allow the Master Gardener to remove the weeds and thorns? God doesn’t just want our “good” soil. He wants the whole damned package. He has the ability to effect change there. This is what the psalmist understood when he wrote this poetry of praise:

You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
Thus have you prepared the land: drenching its furrows,
breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.
The seed that falls on good ground will yield a fruitful harvest.

And it’s all good ground.

Raising Adults

12 Jul

It’s Saturday, I’m single, and my son came home from camp today. A week ago, I had to carry him down the stairs, and his father had to push him toward the car, and the Scoutmaster had to pry him away from his dad’s arms at the camp entrance. Aside from the day we told the kids we were getting a divorce, camp send off is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent.

I’ve spent the better part of this past week questioning whether I’d done the right thing. Thank goodness for all my guy friends who’ve assured me that, yes, he’s going to be better off having gone to camp, in spite of his resistance. He will thank me one day, they said. And God bless the Scoutmaster who sent email and photo updates of the boys every day. It was my lifeline.

Through his Sunday morning tears, my son told me the reason he was so upset was that he didn’t have any say in the decision; we decided for him. I told him we’ve been making decisions for him for 11 years, because he’s been a little boy. And now that he’s getting older, we will have to let him start making some of his own decisions. After he got back from camp, of course.

I’m looking forward to that about as much as I look forward to the end of summer break.

It’s gotten me thinking about why I sent him to camp in the first place – to foster his independence and help him find the confidence and community he needs to sustain him as he makes the journey toward adulthood. As hard as it has been to deliberately remove my son from his comfort zone, what got me through my self doubt was continually reminding myself that I’m not supposed to be raising a child. I’m raising an adult.

Based on the current outcome, I’m really good at raising children. I have three really well-behaved kids who sit still in restaurants (even without the aid of electronics), listen attentively on guided tours of historical places, are quiet in church, go to bed when I ask, and do their homework without much prompting. They are “free range kids” who have their run of the house and can be trusted (mostly) not to eat all the junk food if I sleep late in the morning. Occasionally they make their own beds and clean their own rooms, although the little one hasn’t caught on to this yet. They work out most of their sibling conflicts without much parental brokering. I’ve followed my mother’s method of childrearing – let kids be kids within boundaries which keep them safe, keep them on a predictable schedule and a regular routine, and use encouragement and scolding in equal parts. It has worked.

However, I know very little about raising adults. I am not convinced that I am one myself, and I’m not so sure I want to be one.

It’s Saturday, and I’m still a child on the inside. I want to go to camp. I want to pick blackberries. I want to play at the river. I want someone else to do the cooking. When I really was a child, I thought being an adult meant being able to do what I wanted, when I wanted. Turns out, that’s not what it is at all. Being an adult means having to wake up when I’d rather sleep, go to work when I’d rather play, cook and clean when I’d rather be out on my bike.

It’s Saturday, and being an adult doesn’t mean I get to make all the decisions for myself. Not really. It’s Saturday, and my kids make my decisions, whether or not they realize it. My clients and employers make my decisions. My mortgage company and utilities companies and banking institutions make my decisions.

My only real choice is my attitude. Will I decide to have an attitude of resignation, or an attitude of rebellion? Neither one suits me. How about an attitude of denial? That one works for a while, until it doesn’t. The bills and the laundry and the dishes pile up, demanding attention. The children whine more, and I wine more. Or crush candies.

It’s Saturday, and I choose an attitude of acceptance. And as my son opened the car door to face his mom again, he had a smile on his face. He was beaming, actually. He apparently chose an attitude of acceptance, too.

It’s Saturday, and he’s not going to be thrilled to learn that adulthood doesn’t mean doing whatever he wants. But, he’s off playing with his friends now. I’ll let that lesson wait until Sunday.

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