Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When the Leaves Drop

On Thursday, we will gather around the same table we gave thanks at last year. We will join hands with Josh's parents in their beautiful home surrounded by valleys of pine and oak and gypsy deer and hummingbird illusionists and resourceful squirrels burying food for hard times, and we will say, "Thank you, Lord."

As we did last year.

As we have every other year of our lives together, whether we were at this table or ours or others'.

But Thanksgiving will require something different of us this year.

Because this year, the blessings have been less shiny. This year, the easy, obvious objects of our gratitude--cozy home and mountain grandeur and precious community and family near--have been loosed from our grateful grip. This year, we find ourselves in circumstances that have been the antithesis of what we had asked and hoped and prayed: a forced relocation thanks to a layoff, living in an aparment in suburban Texas while we pay the mortgage on a house that hasn't sold, all the while coming to grips with the reality that the dream job is less than dreamy.

Our gratitude in years past didn't cost us anything. It was the gratitude of abundance. Of stability. Of clarity. We recognized the blessing and we appreciated the goodness and we were truly, sincerely grateful for every gift. The thanks poured out of us, out of our cup running over.

But this year, as we grieve what we've left, as we long for answers to what's around the corner of time, we are asked to find the gratitude of want. Of uncertainty. Of confusion. Of disappointment.

We will gather around the table, remembering how this year we've wiped tears from our cheeks and heaved prayers like sobs and asked why and said, "Please, Lord, please..."

This year, though we wish we could return to the life we led last year, we learn to say, "Not my will but yours."

Like children, we are learning patience, faith, obedience. We are inhaling grace so that we do not tantrum like petulant children who didn't get their way.

This year, we discipline ourselves to say thank you for the heartsickness of missing family and friends and infant nephew milestones, for the months of stress and wondering and frustration and sadness, for the sheer exhaustion of whittling a new life out of question marks.

This year, we raise our hands to our Maker in praise, like the near-empty branches of the tree outside my window, whose leaves--once their splendor and beauty and life--fall one-by-one to the ground. Though we perceive lack, we know, deep down, that we are stripped only for a season. There is beauty in the process, in the surrender.

In the golden remnant of fall, we give thanks that the Lord is good. We give thanks that His love endures forever. And that truth is sufficient. More than enough, really, to sustain us in any circumstance.

Because miracles are found in the messy, grief-stricken disappointments of this world: in a manger, on a cross, in a winter that turns into spring. So surely they can appear in Texas. And as we look for the incarnation, we remember that our true home is each other's arms. We are awoken from our default routines and invited to a life full of infinite choices, possibilities, adventures. We purpose not to ride out the rest of our lives as idle passengers of complacency.

This year, we remember that thanks is something we give, not something we receive. One leaf at a time.

An offering that leaves us with the illusion of emptiness.

Until we find that our emptiness becomes a cornucopia...of faith and hope and love.

We believe. Lord, help our unbelief.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Great Parenting Paradox

This morning, Benjamin came into our room at 6:30 and laid on the foot of our bed, chatting with us about whatever. He was content and smiley and gentle and sweet. His guard was down, his spirits were up. It was the very best of who he is, the real Benjamin, the Benjamin who at times amazes us with his maturity and selflessness.

Josh got up to get ready for work, and Benjamin crawled up closer to me, so we were facing each other. I began squeezing his arm playfully, and he giggled, tickled. He flexed his bicep, and I oohed and ahhed and then flexed mine back. He looked at me and grinned, his smile all big kid teeth. And I thought, I love when we're in this place with each other. How do so many mornings get off track?

Twenty minutes later, our happy train derailed.

He tested a limit, we enforced a consequence, he reacted with drama and sarcasm and blame, I addressed the disrespect, he honored me with his lips but his heart was far from me, I wanted desperately to get us back to the peace we enjoyed on the bed earlier. There were tears, words, anger, hurt. And then, as quickly as the cloud appeared with its thunder and lightning, the skies cleared again. He finished his breakfast, grabbed his backpack, hugged us before walking out the door, and proceeded to chat with me on the way to school as though nothing had happened.

Sometimes I get the impression the kids forget these tantrums as quickly as they start them. I, however, am left reeling, playing the conflict over in my mind to see where I could have diffused the situation rather than escalate it, wondering if something I did incited such a reaction. My tendency is to extrapolate these moments into generalizations about how we're doing as parents, how he's doing as a kid. Is he feeling loved enough? Is he getting enough affirmation? Why did he feel the need to make such a lame choice on an otherwise delightful morning? And then, why didn't he just acknowledge the lame choice and move on so we could return to our delightful morning?

But perhaps these are just the normal, everyday products of childishness. Maybe his attempts to usurp control are actually a necessary exercise of childhood and not a reflection of something we're doing wrong. Perhaps our error is in expecting otherwise. I mean, the kid is winning citizenship awards at school, so he must be taking something worthwhile away from our home, right?

Some books say that kids will act out most at home where they know it's safe and secure to do so. In this way, they learn what is acceptable and what's not from those who will love them no matter what. Is it possible our son is actually quite secure? That we should receive his misbehavior as a sign of trust? I generally regard these statements with some suspicion, the perfectionist in me reluctant to believe that imperfection--his or mine--could be purposeful in his growing up. It feels like the pipe dream of a weary parent.

And yet, I think there may be some truth there. If the law came in that sin might abound (so let that be a lesson to us: make fewer rules), and if God consigned all men to disobedience so that he might have mercy on all, then disobedience is not a sign of our failure as parents. If it were, God would, by definition, be the worst parent ever. And perfection must not be our goal, since God made disobedience a condition of humanity. Despite everything we've been told, despite every voice in my head that says if I were doing my job as a mother right my kids would be all sweetness and light every day, raising ever-compliant children is not the point. It's not even possible.

The opportunity for us as parents to demonstrate mercy and offer forgiveness and display love unconditional, is. Over and over and over. Day after day after day. Until, by some mystery of grace, mercy and forgiveness and love becomes the very fiber of their being.

It's a messy, infuriating notion: we get emotionally crucified, they learn love. And isn't love what we're really asking of our kids in all our rules? Benjamin, Abigail: please think of the people around you before you act on your own desires. When we distill misbehavior to its essence, it is simply selfishness at work rather than love.

The great parenting paradox is that our children learn love by experiencing forgiveness for their un-love. Our children learn obedience by receiving mercy in their disobedience. There is no detour around the frustrating to the delightful.

Perhaps Benjamin loves well--in selfless displays that at times leave me speechless--because he's disobeyed and been forgiven much.

I screw up, too. Some days, many days, it is really my unreasonable expectation or grouchiness or need to get out the door right. now. that incites the meltdowns of behavior. My own selfishness spirals us into the tears and anger. But then I have the opportunity to receive forgiveness, to remember how absolutely hard it is to be a human, and in this state, I am drawn to greater compassion for my littles, to greater love for their precious hearts that are doing the best they can in a world that demands so much.

We find our common ground in our failure--and our common joy in loving each other anyway.

Well, it would sure be easier if the process were different: I say something reasonable every time, he obeys with a smile every time, and we all live happily ever after. But that picture of sanitized family is dimensionless and textureless, devoid of the richness and vibrancy and security found in conflict and resolution. The illusion of perfection is better left in the realm of the merely acquainted.

Family is made in the gut-wrenching mornings like today. We chat, we giggle, we feel each other's biceps. We rail and argue and bump up against each other's feelings. And then we pack lunches and hug and ask forgiveness and go about our day, theoretically stronger for having witnessed, yet again, that nothing will break our love for each other.

May it be so.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Failure is Not an Option

Watching Abby ice skate yesterday was an exercise in breathing. I had to discipline myself to exhale, to let the visions of cracked skulls and ER visits exit my anxious mind through deep breaths out. At times, I had to make myself watch her, because everything inside me wanted to cringe and look away.

The thing is, Abby has no fear of falling. Or pain. Or injury. We put her on skates yesterday, stepped onto the rink, and then watched her feet move those skates as quickly as they could without regard for the balance or stability of her upper body. There was no easy-does-it. No starting slow and working up speed proportional to skill. She entered the rink like Bambi on the frozen lake: all runaway limbs slipping and sliding out from under her.

At first, Josh held onto her, coaching her while keeping her vertical when she began to topple. But it wasn't long before she began pushing his hands away, fiercely determined to master the ice by herself. Eventually, she found her center of gravity and kept herself upright without our help. But her method of learning involved skating as fast as she could until she a) fell, b) ran into the wall of the rink, or c) was caught by her vigilant mommy or daddy.

Several times, we watched her legs and arms flail wildly, searching desperately for equilibrium. Occasionally, she found it. "Nice spin, Abby!" Josh would joke with a smile. Abby's eyes would twinkle.

Most of the time, she went down.

Remarkably, she'd right herself and skate on each and every time she fell, often back on her blades within a matter of seconds. Down, up, down, up, down, up. I could practically hear her quads groan as she pushed herself to standing again. And again. Though her clothes were soaked through and her body battered, she smiled with pride each time I caught her eye. Abby paid no attention to fatigue. Only once did she agree to a break, and even that was short-lived. Tenacity ruled.

We've seen her apply this same persistence to gymnastics. Anytime we find ourselves in a park or yard with enough space, we watch her do cartwheel after cartwheel, hand stand after hand stand, determined to master the skill no matter how many times she lands on her shoulder or back or head, no matter how tired her weary arms are.

In class, we see her practice whatever skill they give her with an absolute commitment to mastery. She probably completes twice as many reps as the other kids, because she begins the task again the moment she finishes the first attempt. No matter what they have her doing--hopping across the balance beam, swinging on the bar, flipping into the foam pit, kicking into handstands against the wall--she executes her move over and over with the work ethic of a true athlete.

And her persistence has paid off. Her cartwheels look like actual cartwheels now. When she kicks her legs up into a handstand, she gets her whole body straight and stiff, even holding it for a second on her best attempts.

This girl was born with discipline: disregard pain, disregard failure, disregard everything but mastery. 

When we climbed back into the car two hours after beginning our icecapades, Abby's nerve endings finally caught up to her. "My body hurts," she told us, not whining so much as observing a now overwhelming fact. 

We gladly spent the rest of the evening snuggled up on the couch in our pajamas, watching a movie. Before bed, I read to her while she soaked in a warm bath to ease the soreness in her muscles.

She inspires me. She's conquering ice and gravity. What's next?

Whatever it is, Josh and I will be there cheering her on...and drawing a warm bath after.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Scripture: Portraits of Love

Last night, after we finished our chapter of Narnia, Benjamin said, "Mommy, where's that verse about a harsh word and a gentle word?"

"The one that says, 'A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger'?" I asked.


"I think it's on your door, your bedroom door."

"No, that's the one about the honeycomb," he corrected ("Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones").

"Oh, yeah." I thought a moment. "Maybe that one's on the refrigerator door. Why?" I asked, wondering what had triggered this sudden interest.

"I've found myself thinking about it a lot in my head lately," he said, all thoughtfulness and sincerity.

"Mmm. That happens to me sometimes. Do you understand what it means?" I asked.

"Not really..." he said, his words trailing like an invitation.

So we defined "wrath" and talked about what happens in a conversation when someone is angry. We discussed why a gentle response helps a person settle down inside while a harsh word makes him even more angry. After, I prayed and sang with him and tucked him in bed, marveling that the verses are finding their way into his heart.

Several weeks ago, I had been thinking about how often I return to the Scripture I have memorized, how utterly valuable those words have proven in my life. One of the greatest gifts my dad gave me as a child was that he quoted Scripture consistently enough that the words became engraved in my mind. Years of Sunday School and Bible studies and sermons and reading added to the well of verses from which I draw. They serve as a kind of compass in my life, pointing me true north to what is unshakeable, unchangeable, even as the sand shifts beneath my feet.

Always, they return me to faith, hope, love. Ultimately, they renew my mind, transforming my perspective, and, in turn, my actions.

I long for my kids to have this same reserve of truth to turn to when they're frightened or confused or despairing or tempted to believe a lie. I want them to have these words buried deep in their hearts, not as some kind of prescriptive that meters out rules and regulations and shoulds and should nots for them and those around them, but as a source of strength and comfort and steadiness to rest upon when the vertigo of life sets in. I want them to know the Scriptures for themselves so that when they hear someone else twisting them and turning them into weapons of fear and hate and judgement, they will remember this is what matters: to act justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with your God.

So one morning while the kids were at school, I hung about a dozen Bible verses up around our apartment: in the kids' room, on my bathroom mirror, on the refrigerator. I chose verses that reflected promises or wisdom relevant to our family's daily life and wrote them in black sharpie on funky notecards I bought at Target for lunchbox notes.

The kids came home that afternoon and immediately ran around reading them all. Abby asked me to read the longer verses with harder words. As I anticipated, they paid attention to them for about twenty-four hours, and then the notecards faded into the background of sleeping, waking, eating, playing, arguing, laughing, crying, loving.

Last night was the first evidence that the words are taking residence within them. I love that Benjamin has found himself pondering that verse. Indeed, as the verbal round and rounds escalate here, I find myself thinking about what kind of response helps and what kind hurts.

Does a sharp response ever help my little people recover from their spiraling emotions? Does raising my voice ever improve the attitude of an incensed eight-year-old? Harshness may temporarily win outward compliance, but it leaves a wake of anger in our relationship.

In truth, I've held on to the premises and promises of Scripture more tightly than ever before as I've navigated the failure-fraught waters of motherhood. No other life experience has magnified my short-comings as clearly as parenthood. No other endeavor has required as much faith in God's ability to redeem me and my messes, my kids and their messes. Daily, I return to verses like these:

"He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it."
"Perfect love casts out fear."
"Love is patient, love is kind...it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs...it always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
"He who is forgiven much, loves much."
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him, and He shall make your path straight."

Which means daily, I am returned to God, who IS perfect Love and casts out fear of failure and evil and forsakenness. Through Scripture, I am pointed to Jesus, through whom we've been forgiven everything so that we will love without limit. I am reminded that I am not required to keep a record of wrongs for anybody, including myself.

Scripture shows me what Love looks like in a fallen world, and the more I ponder those glimpses, the more I love and forgive. And the more my kids are loved and forgiven, the more they will love and forgive. Through these verbal portraits of our Maker, we come to see the character of God as gentle, kind, forbearing. We learn that he hopes all things, endures all things, and believes all things for us. And we come to know in the depths of our souls how wide and long and high and deep is His love for us and this world.

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