Raising Identity

When we were at the grocery store the other day someone complimented Judah to me. “He’s so obedient,” she said. Instantly, without thought, I responded, “He is now, but you don’t see him at home…”

And there it was. In one fell swoop I not only undid the compliment, but I used it to shame my son in the eyes of a complete stranger. I regretted it almost instantly although I wasn’t sure why. Thankfully Judah moves at the speed of light these days and was long gone before he heard our interchange.

Why did I respond that way? Without thought or intention? I suppose some of it is because my children feel like extensions of myself. To accept a compliment offered to them feels as though I might somehow be taking credit. Or perhaps it’s because I’m so aware of Judah’s failings that I see those much more clearly than I see his virtues. Or maybe it’s because I feel like there’s something theologically correct in shouting from the rooftops that my children really aren’t virtuous – that they are much more sinful than they are righteous – and that I, the one who sees, must proclaim the truth.

This last premise has been haunting me and I am beginning to see it as the most dangerous and the most damaging.

Judah is virtuous. I see it often. Perhaps I see it more clearly some moments, but then you could say the same thing about me. I am virtuous. I am also full of failings.

So where is the truth? Which one defines me? The virtue or the sin? The light or the dark?

If I teach my son that virtue perceived by someone else isn’t actually real – or, even worse, is much less than the sum of his failings, where does that leave him? Shame never motivates to virtue. It never has and it never will. Drawing others’ attention to his failure will never motivate him to righteousness. Never. The fear of shame does not lift one’s spirit to virtue.

Both the light and dark live in him. Both live in me. My virtue is not less because my sin is great. I am not worth less because I have a whole pile of steaming sh*t in my heart. I am not worth more because I fight hard for righteousness and sometimes I win my battles. I am worth a whole lot – worth the attention of God Himself, worth a unique and beautiful story, worth the love of my family and friends – because my Maker says I am.

I want my son to live knowing that he is worth every moment of love and attention he receives. I want him to feel his unique beauty and character and personality in the marrow of his bones. When he is virtuous I want him to know gladness. When he fails I want him to know sorrow. Both live in him and neither defines his worth.

Next time you tell me that Judah is an obedient boy I will say, “Thank you. Yes, he is. I am so proud of him.”

You can hold me to it.

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Walking with Sorrow

“But we never knew, we children, because the death of a baby is a melody played softly through its mother’s life like an intimate dirge, and you have to have died a little yourself to hear the music.” (in Nora Seton, The Kitchen Congregation)

I am learning how it feels to live with sorrow. Real sorrow. Not the shock – that goes away. Not the anger – that only masks what’s underneath. Not the desperate clutch of some passing fancy that you mistakenly call hope, but tastes much more like denial when the fruit is tried. Not the bandwagon that offers shallow answers for why tragedy occurs. True sorrow is none of these things. True sorrow does not answer any of the questions that well up in the heart of the sufferer: why me? how is this possible? when will it end?

Sorrow just is. It is a companion, a fellow pilgrim. It is the desperate ache for what might have been but is not; the cry of a heart, “This should not be and it is.” It is the burden of what was lost, or never even sought and now will never be. Sorrow is the final surrender in our bloody battle against darkness.

When Josh and I took our kiddos to Hillside cemetery a few weeks ago it took me a minute to get out of the car. The grave is only feet from the road and I could see it from my seat. I had been full of tears all day – for days before – feeling the terrible memories come sweeping over me like a flood. And beneath the tears was a new kind of reality. Sorrow doesn’t always manifest in tears. I sat in the van, looking over at the most precious plot of earth in this wide world, and I felt my companion nuzzle in close to my heart. “I’m here,” Sorrow said. “I have never left and you are only beginning to learn what it is like to walk with me.”

I have two beautiful children who are beautifully alive. They are also born from sorrow – mothers who could not care for them. Their hearts broke to surrender a child whose blood was their blood. You can talk about the beauty of adoption and you would be right. And adoption comes from sorrow. It always has and always will.

But the truth is it takes courage to face Sorrow. Courage to open one’s heart to the Sorrow that is Reality.

A few months ago I stumbled upon a book that has left a permanent mark. Anne Rice’s story, told from the perspective of Christ, tracing his first adult years and leading up to His first public miracle at Cana. When I reached his temptation in the desert the tears started flowing.

“…this is not my prison. This is my Will. This is your Will…And I will go down, down with every single one of them into the depths of Sheol, into the private darkness…I will be with them, every single solitary one of them. I am one of them! And I am your Son. I am your only begotten Son. And driven here by your Spirit, I cry because I cannot do anything but grasp it, grasp it as I cannot contain it in this flesh-and-blood mind, and by your leave I cry…I am alone. I am absolutely alone because I am the only one that can do this. What judgment can there ever be for man, woman, child – if I am not there for every heartbeat at every depth of their torment?”

Has there ever been Courage like it lived in Jesus? This Savior and Lion of a man. Courage to receive Sorrow – to welcome it – to live with it – to walk with it. Christ was and is the Sorrow of God personified.

If I want Jesus to walk with me I must welcome Sorrow as well. Without blame and bitterness. It’s the only way. And the tears that come from walking with Sorrow are stored up, each one counted and each one precious to the One who feels it too.

 

Posted in Adoption, Ebenezer and Hannah, Suffering, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Stories

I came across a memoir the other day, one that has reached the bestseller list. It’s the story of a man who had a sex change and is now a woman. When she told her [conservative, Lutheran] mother about her decision, back before she had started the process, her mother said, through tears: “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.”

Those words have haunted me the last few days. You know how sometimes you mull over something way deep in your gut (or maybe it’s your toes) for a long time and then suddenly somebody summarizes your entire thought process in one sentence and you’re left speechless. That’s it. That’s what I was reaching for. And why did it take me so long to get here?

My dad loves to say that the most interesting story in the world is how a person comes to know Jesus. I was raised on a veritable Sunday brunch of conversion stories and I loved them. I loved them all. Some were terribly exciting and many not so much, but every single one was different. Every single one.

I think I loved them so much because when I heard someone’s story they suddenly became a whole new person to me. A person with history – history that I wasn’t a part of until our paths came to intersect and I got to experience all over again that God was just that much bigger.

Everyone has a story. Correction: Everyone is a story. A story that doesn’t just contain a conversion to Christ – and maybe doesn’t contain that at all.

When I meet someone new my first instinct is, “Well, nice to meet you, person. Here is my system and here are my categories. Let’s have a brief conversation and then I will inform you where you will fit.”

As if a human being is merely a vat. A vat that contains the decisions they make, the opinions they hold and, sometimes, the events that happen to them. There you are, the sum total of your decisions and opinions. It’s much easier that way, thank you very much. I know what to think of you. I know where you fit in my own neat categories and I’m ready to move on to the next individual, filling up my trophy cabinet with “non-Christian friends,” “Catholic friends,” “hipster friends,” “Democrat friends,” “public school friends,” “poor friends” ….

There’s a problem here. And the problem is with me. It’s nice and tidy to think of you like this, but I don’t want you to think of me this way. When I tell you where I worship I want to explain why and how I got where I am. When I tell you how I vote I want to add a million caveats. When I explain my perspective on education I hasten to add that my opinions are still unformed in so many areas.

The caveats, the explanations – these have to be included because I’m not just the sum of my opinions and decisions. I am a story. Things have happened to me and I have had experiences and made mistakes that are only mine – only mine. The triumphs and the falls; the excruciating hard work to believe God is who He says He is; the brilliant resolutions; the heartbreak, the joy, the despair, the fear, the light. My heart alone holds it all.

Well, not only mine. Jesus knows it too. And there’s the rub.

How does He do it? And why? Why didn’t He create a whole bunch of people who would fit in the “Protestant” category and make them all alike? And then a number to fit in the “Libertarian” category. It would have made it all a lot easier. We could have sized each other up quite quickly, learned how to co-exist and stuck quite nicely to our own category.

I am not the sum total of my opinions or my decisions or even the events of my life. My story is completely unique. It is not your story. Your story is not mine.

But there’s a problem. Hearing your story makes me vulnerable. Telling you mine is even worse. I would rather present myself as a vat of opinions because then I get to appear like I have it all together – like I am pretty near close to having this thing called life all figured out. If I let my guard down – if I let you see that I am only a story, unfinished, partially written, a mix of muck and sweet – then I don’t get to be perfect anymore. Suddenly I’m just a person – just another story that God is writing, just another girl who desperately needs to be loved and who really doesn’t do a great job at loving.

“To lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished.” (Frederick Buechner)

I want to learn how to own my story. To see it for what it actually is: life lived, lessons learned (sometimes), people loved (sort of), experiences gained (some good, some bad), dreams (fulfilled and shattered). And, through it all, a Savior whose pursuing, determined love continues to demand that I live with Him, walk with Him and trust Him.

Next time you hear me rattle off a quick, defensive soundbite you can be sure I’m struggling much further down to figure out who I am and who God made me to be. Maybe if I can own my story then I won’t be so afraid to hear yours.

“To be a witness means to offer your own faith experience and to make your doubts and hopes, failures and successes, loneliness and woundedness, available to others as a context in which they can struggle with their own humanness and quest for meaning.” (Henri Nouwen)

I guess it’s a whole lot more complicated to see a person as a story. It means I don’t get to judge – not really – because I won’t fully understand until I hear your story. And I get this sense, all the way down in my toes (or maybe it’s my gut), that once I have heard your story I won’t want to judge anymore. Instead I’ll probably ask for a great privilege – to be a part of your story and to be your witness.

 

Posted in Christian Ritual, The Daily, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

To Trust and Love

Do you ever wonder what obedience is? Deep in your heart you’re thinking, “Lord, what the hell do you want from me anyway?” Excuse the language, but really. Sometimes that’s how I feel.

You face a situation where you have absolutely no idea how to go forward – every option seems either too scary or too fraught with pain. Or you really have no clue what the right decision is – you can’t seem to understand the current situation well enough even to put the right foot in front of the left. Or you have been completely removed from the known and every paradigm has shifted, every piece of reality altered.

“Just obey.”

Ummm…ok. Could you please tell me what that means? Give me the list – or, not the whole list, just the top ten and I’ll start with that.

Sometimes I wish I could join up with the Pharisees. I mean, they really had something good going on – don’t you think? They had The List and all they had to do was start with number 1 and go from there. Pouring mint and cumin into the offering plate seems a bit bizarre these days, but if it makes my life a little less complicated I’m willing to do it. Especially if less complicated can equal a bit of obedience stored up for me.

The problem is Jesus didn’t seem too impressed with the Pharisees, which makes things a bit harder in the whole obedience department. He seemed to think the mint and the cumin were somehow missing the point.

“Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Really? I mean, he left everything he knew, started out on a pretty ridiculous pilgrimage, handed his wife over to Pharaoh to save his own skin, ended up in an area 100% claimed by someone else, watched his family fall apart, buried his wife. A whole lot more complicated than tithing mint and cumin. His whole life was one upsetting, unbroken cycle: obedience, disobedience, obedience, disobedience, obedience, disobedience. And he was called the friend of God.

There must have been something so precious to the Lord that only He could see – something deep within Abraham’s heart that grew stronger and stronger as He lived with this God who had plunged him into the dark and complicated and dangerous life of a stumbling pilgrim.

I wonder if Jesus was thinking about Abraham when he felt his feet being washed by Mary.  Did He feel His own heart respond to her, in recognition of that deep well of love and trust that Abraham dug deeper and deeper in himself all through those complicated and painful years? Maybe it was only the tears that caused the Lord to recognize in Mary the kind of trust that lived in Abraham.

That’s what I want. And, in my best moments, that’s all I want. I want a heart that loves. I want a heart that trusts. The trust is the obedience. Without the trust, without the love, there is no obedience.

Which means, I guess, that the hardest work I will ever do is done in my heart.

Posted in Suffering, The Daily, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The Wounded Surgeon

I love Evangeline’s hair. I love how different it is from mine. I love the challenge of learning how to care for it and how to make it look beautiful. What product is the best? What style? These things are fun for this blond, straight-haired white girl.

The problem is it’s not fun for her. She hates it. She sits in her booster with a snack or a meal and will put up with my pulling and combing and twisting until her food is gone and then all hell breaks loose. Her feelings grow progressively more hurt as I continue my painful work of beautifying her locks. She does not understand why I keep going when it hurts her so much.

But if I don’t apply and re-apply conditioner and then comb it out and then give it a style that will protect it from snarls her hair will become one terrible mess. The tangles seem to appear within minutes. It is growing longer every week and without the proper care it would quickly become unmanageable.

How to explain this to her? All I can do is look down into her eyes, tears streaming down her cheeks and tell her that I’m sorry and it will be over as soon as possible. To her mind it is a very strange kind of love that would allow such pain. To my mind it is absolutely necessary.

And what of my own heart? What tangled messes of pride and rebellion and worldliness lie there? Will I have those tangles approached by the only Hand that can bring beauty? “For He does not afflict from His heart or grieve the children of men.” It has been called His “strange work” – God’s determination to conquer death in our hearts so that we might actually live.

“Then the lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”

Maybe you have moments like I have – moments when all you can do is cry in anguish to God to please stop the pain. I shrink from it – run from it – do anything to avoid it. But the Lord is a God of dark mysteries and He will not stop His work of unraveling the tangled mess that is my heart. I can resist Him – pull back – rebel against His touch or I can surrender my heart to the cauldron even as He turns the heat up higher and higher.

“Do you know, my Lord, how crushing are the blows that you allow?”

“I received those blows, my child. I felt the heat of the cauldron you are in. I bled from the wounds that give you pain. I wept your tears.”

The Hands that unravel the mess in my heart are scarred. I can trust them.

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel that questions the distempered part; Beneath the bleeding hands we feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art resolving the enigma of the fever chart.”

Posted in Suffering, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

More Hate For More Love

If you’re a mom like I am maybe you have days like I did today. Yesterday evening I was full of good plans. Today was going to be all about my children. Read to them; play with them; instruct them firmly but not in anger; give them grace and mercy all through the day. Maybe, just maybe if I could do that then they might catch a tiny little glimpse of how lovely a thing it is to belong to Christ.

At the end of this day I’m pretty sure if there were prizes for worst.mother.ever I would get the gold. Anger, impatience, frustration, passing over the desires of my children in order to coddle myself. I listen to my son laughing hysterically at his daddy and am thankful we had someone to come home and put things to right again.

How is it possible that the Lord uses such appallingly weak people to convey His love and mercy? My best moments were when I was asking forgiveness from my two year old. I’m learning to do that much more often than I ever thought I would have to.

Why does He allow me to labor on in my mothering with this terrible disease of sin eating away at me – calling me to selfishness and pride at every turn. Why does He not simply take away my sin and fill me with nothing but love for my children? That would seem to accomplish His purposes far more successfully.

I have had a new thought lately that is taking firm hold in my heart and leaving me wondering again at the mystery of a God so far above us that we will never comprehend His ways.

I think He wants to teach us to hate our sin more than He wants to remove it from us.

Of course the battle against sin will and must lead to greater righteousness, but it seems that those men and women who are the most gracious, the most loving, the most holy and upright are the ones who truly consider themselves the worst of all. Perhaps because they are not rid of sin, but because they have learned to hate it. This is a kind of hatred that I only nibble at from time to time.

And if hatred of sin is God’s purpose for us then in the end He will have to give us refuge because hatred of something must then be filled over and cured and comforted by love of something else. Or rather Someone Else.

I guess in the end God is more interested in Christ-lovers than the morally upright even though the former must, over time, produce the latter. I find myself to be neither. But I know I want to love Christ. I know I begin to hate my sin. I guess that’s a start.

Posted in Mommying, The Daily, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Rock of Ages

I find it is easier to obey a Cause rather than a Person. I like to rest in its shade and safety, content in my own virtues. Each Cause gives me a whole new pile of bricks with which to build a strong tower of righteousness for myself.

Many Causes have crossed my path in my adult years. Depending on the circumstances of my life some are more compelling than others. Worship music and liturgy; gender roles; politics; schooling; grief and loss; infertility; orphan care; adoption; mercy ministry; evangelism methods; disability care; hermeneutics; biblical studies; the role of the local church; hospitality; parenting. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, all of these things are important. The Church has faced these issues and concerns ever since the dawn of time. Each one takes its place in the life of a Christian community. Each one must be reckoned with and somehow assimilated into a community’s life and ritual.

At bottom, each issue of importance is simply a means by which we obey a Person – not a Cause through which we see our righteousness. “Temporal things are but Material for Obedience” as that wonderful Oxford Don once said. When I am faced with an orphan who needs care and if I am in a position to care for that orphan then it is obedience to do so. Plain and simple.

But what I want to do is grab a Cause to myself and to see my righteousness through the lens of that Cause. I lay brick after brick, building the tower of my Cause and I feel more and more secure and safe in my standing before God. I hasten to say as often as possible, “See, Lord? Look at how faithful I have been in this issue!”

God is the One who sets the boundaries and parameters of our obedience, who carries us along various “temporal things.” He sets them and re-sets them according to His good purposes.

So what happens when he re-sets the boundaries of my obedience so far away from where I was before that my strong towers of righteousness are nowhere in sight? Then what? Where do I find my shade and my safety and my righteousness out in the middle of a desert where I have never been before?

I could set to the work of building myself yet another tower of righteousness. They are so safe and familiar and it’s scary out here alone without them. But if I chance to look back at all the towers I have built and I get a good look at the landscape left behind, then all I see are mounds of rubble, crumbled and dusty, good for neither shelter nor safety.

There is another Tower; another Shelter; another Righteousness that speaks for me. When the parameters for my daily life are re-set by the Hands of an all-knowing, all-seeing, loving Father and new material for obedience has been laid at my feet there is only one thing to do. I turn and take refuge in that Strong Tower, pierced with nails, that has been standing fixed and unmovable in this very place long before I was ever here.

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”

Posted in The Daily, Uncategorized | 2 Comments