Dreams of Faith

8 Oct

The other night I had a dream about attending an emotional support group. In my dream, it was right before the holidays (a busy time for support groups), and people streamed into the room filling the large circle of chairs. In my dream, I knew most of them, and as each person took his or her seat, I felt the warmth of being surrounded by friends and familiarity.

Then, a stranger came in – a man and his special needs child. She was about 10 and a bit disruptive, making noise as he tried to take a seat and settle her down in front of him. No one said anything, but you could feel what everyone was thinking:

“I came here for help during a difficult time of year, and this stranger and his kid are ruining it for me.”

As the meeting was about to start, one person got up and left quietly. Then more followed. I, too, had felt uncomfortable and disappointed when my precious support group had been disrupted by this awkward little girl, but I was even more disappointed and embarrassed by the rudeness displayed by people who claimed to care about each other, people I loved and leaned on and trusted. I was angry, and I expressed my righteous indignation at those leaving but still within hearing distance.

“What do you people think you came here for? To feel better? The only thing that will make any of us actually GET better will be our unconditional love and acceptance of each other. How can you be so selfish?”

At this point there were only a handful of us left. I noticed the faces were those whom I trusted most, and I was glad to see them. But the man and his daughter had disappeared.

I woke up realizing my attempt to shame the ones who left did not create an atmosphere of love for this man, nor would it change their attitudes. The better thing to have done would have been to quietly accept and love the leavers just as much as I loved the ones who stayed. My dream-time righteous indignation gave me a glimpse of my real-life pride and ego that lives under the surface.

It was a powerful, humbling dream, coming at a time when I most need it. It’s election season, and there’s a lot of righteous indignation floating around, on all sides of the proverbial aisle, and in my heart, too. Righteous indignation about our choices. Righteous indignation about government control. Righteous indignation about injustice. Righteous indignation about private personal conduct and public deception. And sadly, a lot of it is justified. What’s not justified is my friends and family shaking their proverbial (and sometimes literal) fists at one another in our futile attempts to shame one another, to change our circumstances, to change the state of the world, as if we really had any power at all.

I try to keep my righteous indignation between me and God. I don’t want my anger, however justified, to poison my relationships. I know how my friends’ righteous indignation, however well-intentioned, makes me feel, which is the other reason I turn to God.

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

I read these words upon waking up from my dream, because it was Sunday morning and I wanted to review the scriptures before I got to Mass. These complaints of the prophet Habakkuk could have been written today, and God’s response is just as contemporary, urging patience and giving his prophet a vision of the justice to come. “The rash one has no integrity;” God says, “but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

The next reading was from Paul’s letter to Timothy. Again, the Word of God seemed to speak directly to me: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control . . . bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Am I conducting myself with love and self-control and being patient and tolerant?

Finally, I came to the Gospel account of the apostles asking Jesus to give them faith. Since scripture links faith with life and survival, it only makes sense that we’d want more of it. To me, “having faith” means having peace in my heart about the future. Most of us attempt to increase our peace of mind by having more income than expenses, a healthy savings account and retirement plan, investing in our children’s future college education, buying a home in a neighborhood with “good” schools, having a reliable car to drive – practical peace. There’s an emotional component to peace, as well. We believe we will have happiness when all our friends and family are also happy and peaceful, so we do everything we can to ensure that. And because we are such social creatures, we link our peace to the conditions of our greater society, believing we can only have peace about the future when society is living up to an enforced set of ideals. Sadly, this conditional peace is ever-elusive. We strive but always fall short, we hang our hope on the external, and fall back on righteous indignation when our conditions aren’t met.

The apostles were no different than us, and they were living in a very unstable period of history. No wonder they asked for faith. They, too, wanted peace for themselves and their children. They wanted an end to the tyranny of Roman rule and the corruption of the Jewish religious elite. They wanted the power to change the world.

Jesus’ response was an analogy with which many Christians are familiar, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” This response has always puzzled me. Jesus answered a request for greater faith with a statement about power; there’s nothing more powerful than being able to control nature. But then he followed up with an analogy about the powerlessness we are called to as servants of God. To put it in modern mom terms, I’ve taken some liberties with his parable:

What mother tells her child who gets off the bus after school to throw her book bag in the house and go immediately to play with friends? Would she not rather say, “Do your homework first, then practice the piano. You can go play when you are finished.” So should it be with you. When you have done everything your higher power has directed, say, “We are simply children, and we’ve done what we were told.”

On the surface, I don’t see anything about faith or the power of faith in that parable. But faith is less about power and more about being faithful. If we want to be filled with faith (and all the hope and divine power that comes with it), we have to be faithful to become faith-full. Being faithful means doing the humble, everyday tasks of living, not receiving the power to change the world. In fact, it’s be acting faithfully in our small, seemingly insignificant obligations that we do actually change the world, one small step at a time.

Most of us want “comprehensive reform,” whether it’s global and political or closer to home in our own families, but God says no. God’s Word last weekend instructed me that reform is the result of incremental steps in favor of personal integrity, not rashly forcing solutions because I believe I’m right and have God on my side to back me up. God is the one in charge of forming and reforming the world; my part is to simply do my homework.

Righteous indignation is not a show of my faith; it’s a show of my ego. Like uprooting a mulberry tree and telling it to be planted in the sea, it is a useless show of power that does nothing to profit anyone, and probably poisons my relationships. Real faith is knowing God’s power is more than enough to settle all the scores and bring justice in the end. Real faith is trusting God to do his part in his time. My task is to love patiently while I’m waiting.

Meant To Be

2 Oct

Yesterday was my 15th wedding anniversary. Not our. My. We are divorced, he is remarried. According to my church I am still married, because in my church divorce is a human construct that doesn’t really exist in God’s world, and if I want to get married again, I have to prove to my church that I was never really married in the first place. Not in a legal way, in a spiritual way. I have to prove that while there was a wedding, there wasn’t a marriage.

It’s called an annulment and is not too hard to get, although it certainly sounds intimidating. It involves gathering evidence and making a written report about what happened. It’s based on the condition of both people at the time they took their vows, not about what happened afterward.

That’s good, because after I took my vows I had three children with this man, and built a home and a life with him. That’s a marriage by most people’s definition.

I got married because he asked. I got married because I believed God wanted me to. I got married because I believed it was meant to be. I still do. My three children are my proof.

But “meant to be” is not the same as “meant to last.” The God who called me into this marriage was the God who called Jesus to the cross, and He was the God who called me out of it. I believe the divorce was meant to be. And meant to last. My former husband’s baby boy is my proof, and as I watch him grow from every-other-weekend drop-offs, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my God works in mysterious, painful, beautiful ways.

Prepper Mom

21 Sep

Judging from the posts on Facebook I know I’m not the only one. I don’t like making the kids’ lunches. My first year as a single mom, I was unemployed and I qualified for my school’s free lunch program. It spoiled me; I made almost no bag lunches that year.

Fortunately my finances have improved. And I’d be happy to pay full price for school lunches for three children every day. Ecstatic, actually. They are supposedly nutritious, modestly priced, and well worth the time and stress they save me.

But alas, my kids don’t like school lunches. They would rather send their poor, sleep-deprived mother over the edge every morning by forcing me to pack lunch while at the same time dress them, feed them, make sure they don’t smell, brush their hair, inspect their feet for socks, and ensure they don’t miss the bus at 7:25.

Did I mention I happen to be friends with the now-famous “napkin notes dad?” He is one of the most inspiring people I know, and I wish some of his example could rub off on me, but I routinely forget to include napkins, much less write notes on them.

40 minutes is not enough time for me to get my kids ready for school and pack lunches. So I sometimes just postpone the lunch making for the two younger ones until after they’ve left, with the intention of taking them to the school office on my way into work. More than once this school year (that’s less than three weeks at the time of this writing) I’ve forgotten to take the lunches. Thank goodness for the hot lunch backup. Still, I have to face shaming from the 10 year old family dictator when she gets home.

More than once I’ve heard the advice, “Make lunch the night before.” That sounds great, but I’m even less motivated to make lunches at 8:30 pm than I am at 7 am.

One of the main reasons I dread lunch packing is the same reason I struggle with all meals – lack of preparation. Sometimes I’m missing the all-important protein. Other times I’m all out of chips or snack crackers, or a fresh fruit or veggie. The thermos and plastic containers need washing. Then there’s the worst of all – I have all the necessary foods but no plastic baggies.

Yesterday I did something new. I went to the store and spent $75 on lunch supplies. Including plastic baggies. And when I got home, I set everything on the kitchen table and prepackaged baggies of goldfish, teddy grahams, cheezits, veggie sticks, and triscuits. I pulled out three small baskets from the pantry and filled them with tuna packets, granola bars, lance cracker packs, etc. I filled the fridge with mini pepperoni, baby bells, carrot sticks, apple sauce and pudding cups, yogurt tubes, and juice pouches.

This morning, lunch was a breeze.

I’m curious to see how long the supplies will last. I’ll be guarding the pantry and the fridge like a hawk, lest the locusts descend for an after school snack. No! Water and ritz crackers for you! No ruining your dinner and depleting my store of sanity, little ruffians!

. . . and It Gets Easier

16 Sep

Yesterday I received a wonderful email from my brother, not only wishing me a happy birthday, but responding to my most recent blog post, “It Gets Harder.” If I were to copy and paste his entire eloquent email here, the title would be, “It Gets Easier.” But instead of copying all his words and private experiences, I’m just going to share some of them and write the flip side of Wednesday’s reflection.

“Truth and acceptance. It’s a concept I have seen you study in the deep, analytical way a scientist dissects molecules to understand how atomic elements combine to create some totally new form of matter,” my brother said. “It’s elusive and in our unique human experience as relative as it is absolute. I would never dare lecture anyone on truth. As the saying goes, ‘Only God knows…’ But I will offer one tiny, yet impactful observation: there is a light side and dark side to every truth. It is my belief that how we choose to accept the truth will in turn reflect either the light or the dark. Let’s choose the light, as it is our divine duty and human right.”

How we choose to accept the truth. How. That one word makes all the difference, doesn’t it? In my spiritual practices, “HOW” is not only a word, but an acronym for “Honest Open and Willing.” Embracing those qualities is “how” I can keep my focus on the light side of truths that are sometimes hard to swallow.

My brother was born with some physical limitations. I often overlook this fact because in my home, we never focused on it. Ever. To me, he was just an annoying little baby who became an annoying little toddler who followed me around, and then an enjoyable little playmate, schoolmate, friend, and confidant. My parents and my brother never let his limitations define what he could do or not do. Yes, he had casts on his legs. There was a surgery, some physical therapy in his puberty years, and some kind of leg brace he wore at night when he was a little older. Although I never saw it, apparently there was a little bit of teasing in school. But from my perspective, my brother was no different than anyone else.

No, that’s not quite right. From my perspective, my brother was better than anyone else. He was an exceptional baseball and tennis player, a multi-talented musician, and a social butterfly who was liked and respected by every clique in high school. He made good grades without even trying, excelling at math, science, and foreign language. Things that came hard to me came easy to him. I was never jealous of this, but I did marvel at it.

In his email, my brother shared, “I could drown in the sorrow of what will not or cannot be. But in doing so, I miss the point on how easy life is. It is in never having the ability to straighten my legs fully that I gained this perspective. When you face something that is so hard all your life, the rest of life is icing on the cake.”

I never knew his physical defect was hard for him; that thought never even occurred to me, because my brother approaches life with such a positive attitude without any apparent effort. He shared other things in his email about what has been “hard” for him, especially in more recent years. Yes, getting older throws every one of us curve balls, in our careers, families, and physical health. No one is immune, and everyone carries a hidden burden. And yet, throwing my words back at me with a twist, he said, “In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been celebrating the wins. Easy. (See what I did there?)”

Have I been letting my defects define me? My defects are not physical; they are emotional and they are just as real as my brother’s neurophysical defect, even if they are not visible. But are they even defects at all? I once heard a speaker talk about the difference between a “shortcoming” and a “defect.” He said, a shortcoming is like being a baseball player who isn’t very good at sprinting. He can’t control it. A defect of character is being a baseball player who isn’t a sprinter, yet tries to steal a base.

A baseball player who isn’t a sprinter need not resign herself from them team. Maybe her batting average is enviable. Maybe she’s one hell of a pitcher. Maybe her team appreciates her gifts and overlooks her shortcoming as long as she doesn’t try to be something she’s not.

What are my wins? When I was pregnant with my second child, I had anxiety about becoming a parent of two; I felt like I could barely handle being a parent of one. But within a few hours of her birth, I had showered, dressed, ate breakfast, and asked the nurses if I could drive us home now. (They said no.) My nipples never got sore and cracked. My body felt better than it had in a year, and when I did finally get home, I packed up all my belongings and a newborn baby and moved my family to a brand new house without a single anxiety attack. Everything about being a parent was surprisingly easier with two because I’d done this before. Taking care of a newborn without a learning curve gave me a confidence that carried over into taking care of a preschooler, which was uncharted territory.

Life does get harder. But it also gets easier. It gets easier because I’ve learned the hard way what I can reasonably expect from myself and other people. It gets easier because I’ve gotten better at communicating, and I know when to keep my mouth shut. It gets easier because I’ve practiced saying “no” and “enough.” It gets easier because my kids are becoming partners in their own choices and beginning to take responsibility for their own destiny. It gets easier because as I let go, I carry less. I don’t care less, but I do worry less, because I’ve had enough experience to trust things to work themselves out, usually in ways my imagination could never conceive. It gets easier because I get out of the way. I don’t bang my head against walls like I used to. I strive for contentment and practice gratitude, instead of striving for things beyond my reach and feeling like a victim. It gets easier because I have faith that meets every fear head on.

I could echo the closing words of my brother’s email, because they are as much mine as his:

“What I have learned most, though, is who I am not – and it is in this knowledge that life truly sets sail. So with 40 years in your rear view mirror, take comfort in knowing all of what you are, and just as importantly all of what you are not. I admire how true to self you have become. It gives confidence that for so many years I’ve seen you grasp for but could not always grip. You have it now. Truth and acceptance. I leave you with an oldie but goodie from the Church of John Leonard, ‘Faith is the emptiness of not knowing and the fullness of not needing to know.’”

It Gets Harder

14 Sep

When I first became a mom, the first few postpartum days and weeks were hard. Really hard. Cracked nipples, swollen bottom, and sleep deprivation took its toll on me physically. The magnitude of caring for a being who was often inconsolable for long stretches of time quickly drained any emotional reserves I had left. The joy of new life was there too, but it was overshadowed most of the time by the ever-present anxiety of being in uncharted territory.

I got myself through those first few weeks the same way I’d gotten myself through many other challenging stages in my life – by telling myself it will get easier. This is what grown ups tell their children who are learning new skills like tying their shoes or reading or navigating the social waters of puberty, and they can say it with confidence because it’s true. With practice, many things do become easier.

But life itself is not one of those things.

I remember the moment this first dawned on me. My son was two months old, and I was bouncing him while walking around the kitchen at about three in the afternoon, hoping he would stop crying and fall asleep deeply enough that I could lay him in the crib without waking him, get some rest, and get dinner started by the time my husband came home at 5:30. So far that wasn’t looking likely. And with tears streaming down my face, my inner voice acknowledged to myself the truth – it does not get easier. It freaking gets harder. And as it gets harder, the skills I mastered yesterday get tested in new ways today. My skills continually improve. My cracked nipples and swollen bottom heal. But motherhood? That just keeps getting harder.

I’m glad I came to this realization early on. Knowing this truth has not made each progressively difficult stage of parenthood any easier, but it has kept my expectations a little more realistic. Imagine how much harder motherhood would be if I had clung to the fantasy of things getting easier?

More recently, I’ve learned it’s not just parenting that gets harder, not easier. Tomorrow I turn 41, and as I pass out of the milestone midpoint year, I do so with a new set of physical limitations. I have some subtle joint pain. My muscles ache after doing yard work. My eyes strain when I read. If I cross my legs, my feet get numb and tingly. “Old” people for years have been saying, “Just wait until you get older,” and “Growing old sucks.” They have been forthcoming about it. They may have said it with a chuckle, or they may have said it heartbroken, but they haven’t kept it a secret. Why is it I’m so surprised?

When I was a child, the world was a great unknown waiting to be explored, and the only limitations were my size, my skills, my age, and my parents’ rules. My teens and twenties were spent consciously overcoming those limitations, and still believing in a promise of limitless opportunity. In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been mourning the losses. Hard.

Grief is simultaneously crippling and healing. Crippling because the weight of it makes me want to not get out of bed in the morning. I’ve had memory loss and a lot of careless mistakes. Anxiety and depression have all but overtaken me at times this year. Healing because every ugly cry feels cleansing. In letting go of misplaced hopes, I’ve opened my hands to receive new gifts.

The end result of the grieving process is acceptance, especially acceptance of myself and my limitations. Acceptance of life on life’s terms gives me new choices, especially the choice to change my attitude, to forgive, to show mercy, to focus on what is essential, and to ask for help when I need it.

Life may not get easier, but it can get healthier as I practice acceptance.

The difficulties give me gratitude for the brief moments of respite – the sunset, the spontaneous hug from my child, the early morning writing, the exhilaration of singing at church.

Happiness may be elusive, but joy is not. Joy is the sweet in every bitter moment. I need only open my eyes and my heart and grab hold of it for comfort.

Deadheading Discipline

23 Aug

One of my favorite hobbies is gardening. Not that you can tell by looking at my yard this summer – what a mess! Some seasons offer more challenges than others, the least of which is time to dedicate to weeding and planting and pruning. The excessive heat has not helped either, so I’ll blame that.

One of the reasons I love gardening so much is that it’s so rich with analogies and lessons for living. Recently one such lesson occurred to me, not while gardening, but while practicing yoga.

I take a yin yoga class every Thursday. Yin, I’ve found, is more meditative than your typical yoga class, and my teacher infuses each session with a theme or intention for our practice, reading quotes and inspired sayings as we soften into our poses and surrender to the practice of sitting still. The theme of the day was inner beauty.

She told us the story of the lotus flower, which has to struggle through the mud and muck before its blossom reaches the surface of the water to release a pleasing fragrance. It was a beautiful analogy for any of us who feel our circumstances are less than desirable.

After class, though, I was struck by another analogy on my way to the car. I thought of my roses, which have had a very hard summer. Between the heat and the beetles and some kind of disease that caused all their foliage to drop in late spring, they’ve suffered so much I considered just pulling them out of their beds and planting something else. But in one last ditch effort, I did a heavy pruning of all the diseased parts, and within a few weeks they seem to have recovered a little. My climbers even have flowers.

When a rose flower passes its peak and starts to fade, the plant puts energy into the “fruit” so it will have seeds. This is the natural reproduction drive of pretty much any green growing thing. This time of year especially, you’ll see a lot of gardens filled with overgrown, stalky, spent blossoms. Garden folk call this letting a garden “go to seed.” Eventually those ratty, faded blossoms will be replaced by dried pods that will release seed into the air or drop to the ground to reseed itself. It’s self-preservation, and it isn’t always pretty.

A well manicured garden doesn’t “go to seed.” Why? Because the gardener cuts the blossom heads as soon as the petals fade. With no fruit, no seed pod, no offspring, the plant, without any consciousness at all, instinctually is driven to survive by producing new buds which will eventually be new flowers, new opportunities for seed. This is called “dead heading.” As long as you keep cutting off the fruit, the plant will continue to put its energy back into making more flowers through its growing season.

God often seems to remove, to prune, the parts of my life that in one season seem so unspeakably beautiful. I’d rather He allow them to be perpetually beautiful. But that’s not the way God’s nature works. God may extend the beauty of the growing season, but he does it the way any gardener would, by removing spent blossoms. Short term pain for long term gain.

To me, the fading blossoms in my life are cause for grief. God’s pruning, too, seems cause for grief. To God, all is love. This weekend’s letter from Paul to the Hebrews, he reminds us, “Whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” Like a gardener who does a heavy cold-season pruning to improve the health and eventual harvest of a plant, God removes every branch that does not bear fruit. He “pinches” back my early growth like a gardener pinches the early spring leaves of a mum, so that my growth will not be tall and undisciplined and wild and easily destroyed in a late summer storm, but coiffed and compact and full, strong enough to retain a beautiful round shape even after a hurricane. “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”

The spiritual life – like the natural world – is so full of paradox. As Jesus reminds us in this weekend’s Gospel, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” If God is removing my spent blossoms instead of letting them go to seed, perhaps I need to remember that dead heading is the gardener’s way of sustaining beauty in the world before the seasons change. My growth is not just for my own self-preservation, but for the Master Gardener’s pleasure, and maybe this season He wants flowers, not fruit, for His glory.

Simple Dinner

18 Aug img_3921

This is not an elaborate recipe, but it was a hit with my children – a reminder that when it comes to my family, simple is better.

My ten year old could have made this meal without supervision.

Step 1: Rice and water in the rice cooker for 15 minutes. Maybe a dash of salt.

Step 2: Cleaned chicken breasts in the pan, sprinkled with soy sauce, covered and cooked over medium heat. After about ten minutes, flip, another splash of soy sauce, turn down heat, cover, cook another 10 minutes.

Step 3: Put a bag of “steam in bag” mixed veggies in the microwave.

Step 4: Get kids to set the table.

Step 5: Put all the cooked contents in a pretty serving platter and feel like a sophisticated adult who has her act together. Enjoy the bliss of children actually eating their dinner and liking it. Savor the, “Wow, this is good!”

***

I sometimes over-complicate things. I set unrealistic expectations for myself. I forget that it doesn’t have to be so hard.

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