Tag Archives: Confusion

The Full Catastrophe

It’s family disaster week.

Actually, there is nothing “family disaster” in what I’m about to say; in fact, what I’m about to say probably reflects the same family life most people have in their fifties. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are both good and bad, and some days feel like Murphy moved into your house, took over your bank account, and decided that he personally has a vendetta against you.

I hate that Murphy guy.

This will serve as your one and only trigger warning: if you are already overloaded with family drama, I’ll see you next week. Otherwise feel free to read on.

So…the mom brag moment!

My oldest daughter called me and told me that wonderful things are happening at her job. Since she hasn’t told the world yet I won’t give you details, but let’s just say that the money is getting significantly better, she’s about to become very happy with her job and her commute, and she hasn’t felt this valuable to a company in a really long time.

It was so surprising that she was a little stunned and overwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that she totally and absolutely deserves all of it.  Yes I’m her mom but dang that girl is bright and capable!

To put the icing on that cupcake, she told me that her partner (who is a professional photographer who does mostly BMX races) has been marketing himself a great deal in San Francisco because she travels there twice a month for work…so why not fly there together, you know? Well, after showing his work around town he got hired for a 3 day commercial shoot for a major fashion designer!!  Seriously, when I heard this I squealed out loud and he’s not even my kid.  Again…they haven’t told everyone yet and so I am keeping some details under my hat, but OMG a major (MAJOR) fashion designer!

After our phone call was over I was so excited that I danced all around my house as I got ready for my Zumba class, where I danced rather exuberantly and with great joy.  I had to let the energy out somewhere!

It has been a good couple of weeks for my girls. My youngest passed her certification exam and now is a certified Pharmacy Tech (hello, big raise!) and my son-in-law got a great job at an airport with benefits and everything.  Considering that he is thinking of going into aircraft maintenance, this is a good job to have.

Some days are good. Some weeks are good.

And then…

I have written previous posts about the challenges of aging and how important it is admit and accept that you are going to require someone else to take care of you. I have written about the importance of working through the emotions of becoming more and more disabled before you come to that point, and understanding that aging doesn’t have to be about loss.

Yeah, my parents don’t read this blog.

My dad is 76 years old and has dementia; my mom is 70 years old and chronically ill.  Both of them are slowly losing their ability to be independent, although neither of them wants to admit it.

My dad is unwilling to admit that his dementia has reduced him to the point where he cannot live independently and needs a caregiver. My mom has been filling the caregiver role for eight years, with increasingly less and less physical ability to do so, and more and more emotional and mental stress related to my dad’s decline.

I feel like we are at the breaking point.

I talk to my dad and he unloads about his frustration and overwhelming confusion in combination with his anger with my mom.  You see, he still believes that he is capable of independence, and he keeps trying to live his life the way that he used to. He thinks that it’s my mom’s anxiety that causes her to stop him from doing maintenance around the house or driving. Sadly, my dad’s dementia has made it impossible for him to evaluate his own functioning, or lack of it. And he does keep trying to function, despite the fact that the results are consistently bad.  Over and over he’ll try to “be of use” and do the things he used to do around the house, but since he no longer remembers details or how things function he ends up breaking or destroying clothes, appliances, fixtures, you name it. He has lost or destroyed so many things that my mom is at her wits end, so she tries to stop him or she ends up criticizing him because he is doing it wrong and refusing to receive instructions on how to do it right. This causes him to become belligerent and angry and then he becomes aggressive and things just keep escalating until there is a huge confrontation.

That’s when I get frantic, emotional phone calls from my mom telling me just how bad it is, how agitated and aggressive my father is becoming, how exhausted and overwhelmed she is…and I gather resources and try to offer help to her…which she refuses most of the time.  Recently she revealed to me just how aggressive my father becomes when he gets agitated, and the last time I was at their home she had me take pictures of the bruises. It broke my heart to think that my father has become that guy and that my mother feels trapped in the situation.

Disaster.

Believe me, I have tried all sorts of things, and I have gathered all sorts of resources including an elder law attorney. Nothing is getting either of them to realize how explosive this situation is becoming.

I was up until almost 2am last night running it over and over in my mind, furious with both of them for the choices they have made and are making. I have a huge list of fears, with each one more terrifying than the other until the final one involves such a horrible occurrence that I would lose both my parents at once: one to death, and the other to the criminal justice system.

All morning I have been trying to interject more logic and less fear and anger into the discourse in my head, and I have realized that no matter how much I want to, I cannot make their choices for them. As much as I love and want to protect them, every attempt to help them make a decision that would admit that they need help because of their increasing debility seems to create a backlash of resistance and petulance out of my dad, which only serves to increase my mother’s anger with him.  I don’t want my desire to “fix things” to become the reason they end up in the next screaming, violent confrontation.

I fear that the best course of action is to sit back and let their choices drive what comes next and hope that none of my fears comes true. But I’m telling you, I’m going to get a hold of that elder law attorney and get papers that would allow me to file for conservatorship and get them filled out in advance. I’m also going to ask her for a referral to an attorney that deals with criminal charges against compromised adults. I can’t save them from themselves, but I can arm myself with information, prepared paperwork, and referrals.

And then I am going to sit back, close my eyes and meditate on raises, promotions, new jobs, photo shoots, and the incredible joy I feel when I think of what amazing women my daughters have become and what amazing men they have chosen as their partners.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, one of the characters gets asked if he is married and he says “I have a wife, children, house, everything…the full catastrophe.”

Life is a catastrophe, indeed. A wonderful, excruciatingly painful and beautiful catastrophe. I would complain, but then I think of Jesus’ life and all that He went through and I realize that even my Savior lived the full catastrophe, even if he never had a house and may not have had a wife and children.  It turns out that this is the nature of incarnate life, and I don’t know that I would honestly want it to be any other way.

 

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Calling It Like I See It

Today my colleagues and I were at an all-day meeting where we tried to discuss our differences and come to consensus in regard to ordaining LGBTQIA persons.

Say whatever you will about the church in general, or what you think of the church’s hang-ups about sexuality, or even what you think about LGBTQIA persons…you have to admit that this is a hot-button issue when it comes to church politics.

And of course, we didn’t really resolve anything or come to any stunning conclusions. I, however, came home having learned some things.  Take these for what they are worth—I’m not saying that there is any real wisdom here—but since I committed to honesty today, that’s what I’m going to put in my blog.

Our moderator for the day asked us to think about what we were willing to do to in order to bring more maturity and wisdom to the debate.   With the moderator’s encouragement, many of us chose to speak our “I will…” statements out loud to the entire group.  I’m not sure if we did that so that we could be held accountable for our commitment, or just so that it would be food for thought for the group.

Anyway, I committed to being “scarily honest.”  Shortly after making that commitment, we broke into small groups and began discussing what we personally needed to do in order to contribute to consensus and understanding (instead of increased conflict)…and I immediately started shutting down and refusing to be honest.  I realized that I was struggling to trust one of the members in my small group (I’ll call him ‘Bob’) who wasn’t joining the conversation except to make light jokes to break the tension. Bob appeared to be very closed off, as if he was hiding himself from the group. Being committed to honesty, I challenged Bob about it (poorly…I think I came across as judgmental and self-righteous instead of as honest and questioning) and discovered that I was right: he admitted he was purposely hiding himself from the group.  The thing is that Bob had a really good reason for not risking trust with us…and he chose to be scarily honest by telling us why.  Bob revealed that he had been badly burned when he reached out to several colleagues in ministry for advice and a listening ear. Bob asked them for confidentiality, only to have them break his confidentiality and cause him a great deal of emotional pain.  My heart broke for him. No wonder he didn’t trust us! I cannot imagine what it must be like to be so deeply betrayed by people you are supposed to be able to trust. The paradox of the moment was that Bob’s choice to share his pain with us broke down the wall of mistrust. I immediately felt comfortable trusting Bob, and he contributed a great deal to the conversation after that. For all my commitment to scary honesty, it didn’t take much to shut me down…luckily it didn’t take much to open me back up, either.  Again and again I learn that honesty pays off in the strangest and most amazing ways, even when your honesty is clumsy and unkind (as I think I was.)  My hope is that Bob found our small group to be trustworthy (and that’s why I’m not using his real name) and that he will continue to trust us, even if just a little.  Unconditional trust takes a while to earn, and we were only together for a few hours…but it is a great start!  Bob if you see this…you are one brave dude and I greatly appreciate the risk you took in telling us how badly you got hurt.  Hang in there man, because I think you are one great minister!

It turns out that the small group experience was the best part of the day. Once we reconvened as one large group, I found myself increasingly frustrated with what I’ll call ‘corporate happy crap’. I spent plenty of years in the corporate world before going into ministry, and I heard way too many of my managers say things that sounded decisive and committed but that actually meant very little and were frequently used to sidestep the commitment later on.  I thought I had escaped corporate happy crap when I went into ministry, but no.  Sadly, I heard a lot of corporate happy crap today.  I heard my colleagues speaking sincerely about committing to pray or to listen.  I expect clergy to pray, so that seemed like a no-brainer, but the commitments to listening riled me up a bit. Despite all those commitments to ‘listen’, those same colleagues did not offer to genuinely try and connect with the pain and struggle of the ‘other’ side.  The truth is that listening is easier than you think.  I listen to all sorts of things: talk radio, close friends, music, lousy sitcoms, my counseling clients, my family, etc.  I spend a huge portion of my day ‘listening’.  Despite all that listening, the only things that actually impact me are the things I open my heart to, which is usually my friends, my clients, and my family.  Talk radio, sitcoms, etc…not so much, but oh my Lord don’t I listen to them.  I open my ears and the sound comes in and I don’t protest. Sometimes I can actually repeat what I hear—verbatim—to confirm that I’ve understood what I ‘listened’ to. But let the words in deep enough to let them impact my emotions?  That only happens when I open my heart on purpose and let the speaker’s words all the way in.  And this is what I mean when I call it corporate happy crap: it sounds SO good but it actually doesn’t require much real commitment.

I realize that I don’t know what was in the hearts of my colleagues as they committed to pray, or to listen, or to try not to jump to judgment.  They might have been deeply sincere and truly trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, I heard way too many hollow commitments during my corporate days, and it left me with a finely tuned radar for words that serve as escape hatches to avoid conflict and real commitment.  I fear that I heard a lot of corporate happy crap today and it leaves me frustrated and sad.

Please understand me: I don’t claim to have any of this figured out. I am not somehow smarter or better than my colleagues. I have, however, repeatedly discovered the value of scary honesty as a way of moving past conflict and differences of opinion to reach vulnerable places of connection and deep, heart-felt compromise.  I may have done a poor job of being gentle with my honesty, but it worked anyway. Honesty is vulnerable, and vulnerability invites intimacy, and my honesty—flawed as it was—reached right into Bob’s heart, and he stepped into the relationship space and the whole group became closer and more honest with each other because of it.  I risked honesty and Bob risked it back and everything changed in an instant. Our group may not have solved anything, but we got honest about difficult topics; we became free to admit our failures and fears; we genuinely laughed and genuinely ached together.  And the best part is we came away better friends than we were when we started.

To my LGBTQIA colleagues and friends, know that I will do my best to use my straight privilege to create honest dialogue wherever I can and to help you in your quest for full inclusion and equality. You have a voice that needs (and deserves) to be heard and I will do my best not be foolish and speak for you just because I already have the privilege and therefore the floor (so to speak.)  I also promise to avoid flinging any corporate happy crap your way.  If you catch me flinging crap, call me on it. I committed to scary honesty and I’m sticking with my commitment. If it keeps paying off the way it did today, it will be worth everything I put into it.

Doubt, Reason, and a Bag of Chips!

I got to preach this morning and it was glorious!

Let me explain. I may be a minister in the Methodist Church but I am not your garden-variety minister. (They grow ministers in the garden?)  Anyway…I am an ordained Deacon. We are ‘specialist’ ministers, meaning that we have education in a specialty area, like Christian education, or music, or youth leadership, or counseling.  This enables us to do ministry in a specialized field while the ordained Elders in the church are there to run the church, preach and teach, attend a million committee meetings, and do way too much work in general.  My ministry is in counseling—I have a private practice—and when the Elders in my church need a little vacation or just some assistance, they’ll ask me to preach for the week.

So I got to preach this morning and it was glorious!

I preached on Doubting Thomas, which is the traditional scripture for the Sunday after Easter.  We read this scripture after Easter for two reasons: 1) it is the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection, and 2) so that we can exhort people to believe in the resurrection instead of being a ‘Doubting Thomas’.  Doubting Thomas, bad!  Believing, good!

Can you tell just how much I dislike the traditional interpretation of this passage of scripture?

Thomas always gets a bad rap, and it just isn’t fair.  If you read the passage carefully (which you can do here) you will notice that Jesus almost immediately shows the other disciples the wounds in his hands and in his side, presumably to prove that the person who hung on the cross is the same person who is standing in front of them at that moment. So why does Thomas get such a bad reputation for wanting to see those same wounds before he believes that Jesus lives? It makes no sense.

I think part of the reason that I want to defend Thomas is because I relate to his wariness.  It comes from my upbringing.

I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical non-denomination church. That is a lot to type, so for short, I’ll just call them fundamentalist.  The people in that church believed…we firmly believed, and firm is the key word there. We knew what we believed and we could state it clearly, and we did state it…often. We were certain in our faith because anything less than certainty in that church was considered tantamount to saying that God wasn’t all that and a bag of chips…and if you are fundamentalist and evangelical, too, God is most certainly all that and a bag of chips and a couple of chocolate cookies on the side, and don’t you forget it!

And for lots of years that worked for me, until I got into college.  And then I started encountering things that directly contradicted what I had been taught in church.

You see, the church I was raised in believed that all the mainline denominations were filled with ‘carnal’ Christians, meaning fake Christians who didn’t really believe the way they were supposed to. Basically, think “Christian in name only.”  My church believed that every person who attended one of those mainline Churches was going to Hell…and of all the mainline denominations, my church thought the Catholics were the worst.

The problem for me was that I had become good friends with several Catholics during my freshman year of college. We talked about our faith quite a bit and I had learned a lot about what they believed and about Catholicism in general.  After getting to know them, I found that I couldn’t go on believing that being Catholic was a bad thing…nor could I believe that my friends were going to Hell for being Catholic.  It just made no sense.

And this put me at odds with my church. My very firm believing, enthusiastic, certain church who wasn’t going to be okay with me suddenly doubting their doctrines. Is God still all that and a bag of chips!  You BET God is all that and a bag of chips!

I started reading my Bible, because I needed some answers.  No matter how much I read (and I read a lot!) I wasn’t able to find anything that said “If you don’t believe in the exact right way or if you attend the wrong church, you are going to Hell.” That wasn’t in the Bible…anywhere. And of course, that made me start questioning a whole bunch of other stuff I’d been taught at church. For many people, this kind of questioning becomes the moment where they lose their faith. Thank God I didn’t lose my faith…but I definitely lost my faith in the church of my childhood.  I began to question everything and where I had previously had a firm faith, suddenly all I had was doubt.

And this is where I get where Thomas is coming from when he refuses to believe the disciples.

I know that the scripture passage says that the disciples came to Thomas saying “We have seen the Lord” but I don’t think that’s how it went down, not really. That just seems too calm to me.  If I just found out that my friend, the one I thought was dead, was actually alive, I’d be ecstatic, bouncing around the room, overflowing with joy.  That’s why I am betting that the disciples were much more enthusiastic than that…somewhere along the lines of 10 guys, gesturing wildly, all talking at once, looking a little like a basketball team that just won the championship.  I think all that enthusiasm and excitement was what made Thomas so wary.

It’s that funny feeling you get when someone is all wrapped up in their belief and they are so enthusiastic and so very certain and they want you to be so very certain too. They want you to jump into their belief like you would jump in a pool.  Just immerse yourself totally and buy into whatever they are selling.

It reminds me of the church I grew up in, and it sets off all of my alarms every time I encounter it.

There is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about your faith, and there is nothing wrong with being certain that what you believe about God is true.  Just remember that strong faith and certainty don’t develop overnight. They develop slowly, and usually there’s a good deal of questioning that goes on before anything gets strong or certain. Sometimes there is a good deal of questioning that goes on even after things are strong and certain…and that’s a good thing.

I’m a Methodist for a reason. In the Methodist Church, we lean on John Wesley for theological guidance…meaning that Wesley informs the way we think about God. The first thing you need to know about John Wesley is that he was not a fan of blind faith. While Wesley wouldn’t quite say it this way, I will: DON’T EVER TURN OFF YOUR BRAIN.

You see, faith isn’t about believing whatever you’re told by your pastor, or your teacher, or the televangelist.  Faith is about reading the Word—not just a verse or two for inspiration. Read whole passages, whole books, maybe even the whole Bible.  While you are reading the Bible, let yourself be informed by the Church and its teachings and its traditions, and then feed all of that through your own experiences and your reason…your brain…and then decide what you believe to be true.*  And if you’re really smart, you’ll leave space for questions and doubt even after you’ve decided what you believe to be true.  Faith built with room for doubt is a solid foundation for spiritual growth—a foundation that is firm but flexible enough to withstand serious testing. Anything else is like building your faith out of cotton candy where somebody else spins the tale and you just swallow it whole.

Doubt gets a bad rap, but the truth is that doubt can be one of the best things that happens to your faith.

Doubt is useful, not just because it slows you down and encourages you to question what you are being told, but also because it causes you to seek until you find the truth.  Doubt will lead you on a search for God—one that might lead you away from the obvious places, if you let it.  Doubt also turns out to be the biggest evangelism tool you have.  You see, doubt isn’t an instance or a singular experience.  People who create space for doubt within their faith discover that doubt is a kind of journey, a journey towards greater faith, and along that journey is where you’ll find the Seekers…the people who are still questioning if Jesus is the real thing, the people who are questioning if they can ever be Christian at all.  There are folks who try to bring the message of Jesus Christ to Seekers by bringing them a shiny package of faith all sewn up and nicely decorated because they think that’s what the Seekers need.  And I don’t know what’s worse: that the Seekers might run away from that shiny package and maybe end up running away from the church entirely, or that they might buy into it that shiny package, hook, line, and sinker!  I know that this is probably not a very good thing for a pastor to say, but I don’t want people coming to my church looking to buy into a pre-packaged faith with all the accessories, because I can’t deliver that!

The funny thing is that God doesn’t deliver that either. God created you with a brain for a reason…and the reason is that God is really fond of reason. God created reason…and questions…and God created doubt, too.  The world is littered with folks who used to believe and USED to have faith who lost their faith when their shiny, stiff, pre-packaged beliefs didn’t actually function in the day to day world, not in the long term. They thought that a nice stiff, strong faith would give them backbone and strength…when all it did was make them inflexible and prone to breaking when life got heavy.  Faith that is able to accommodate doubt isn’t very shiny and it’s definitely not very stiff—in fact, it’s downright wiggly—but doubt blesses us with the flexibility to bend when life gets challenging. Doubt gives us space in our faith to accommodate new experiences, to struggle with horrible tragedies that make no sense, and to stand stunned in the face of unexpected discoveries and find our faith still intact…changed, but intact.

Better still, faith that can accommodate doubt can discover that Jesus lives in ways that we cannot yet imagine, in places that we thought that God would never go, to bring life in abundance to all the wrong people—sinners just like you and me—people who want to believe but who still have that one nagging doubt.  God is fine with our doubt and it doesn’t scare Him at all, because doubt is the space where God likes to hide so that He can surprise us.  God is good like that.

May you find your doubts like Easter eggs hidden in the grass, and when you open them, I pray that you find Jesus hiding inside.  Just when you thought Easter was over…the resurrection goes on, and on, and on…

* We call this method the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

Presents and Nests

It’s been a weird year for me.

My youngest daughter got married just a few weeks ago…November 17th.  She got married on a Thursday because apparently, you can save thousands of dollars if you get married on a day when no one else wants to get married.  So my baby girl decided to want to get married on a Thursday, and I think she’s a smart girl. I’m pretty fond of her new husband, too.  He’s a good guy—he just wants to change my youngest daughter’s last name…and her address, because come this January he wants to move her to Oregon.  And that’s kind of freaking me out.

My oldest daughter moved to Colorado only 8 days after the wedding, which was the day after Thanksgiving, if you’re counting.  Wow.  She moved, like, 850 miles away. Which I really shouldn’t complain about, because when I moved away from home, well, first I moved 348 miles away, and then after I married my husband I moved about 1,747 miles away from home.

I suppose that I really have nothing to complain about.

The thing is that…I feel…so…

LONELY.

I went into Target the other day and I saw all the Christmas stuff.  Dear God, I love Christmas!  At least I used to. And then I looked at all those decorations and the lights and the ornaments and the gift wrap and the baking supplies and I thought…

There is no one left at home to pamper!  No one left at home to bake for!

There is no one left to pamper!

My little girls have all grown up and they are moving away!  My whole world has been reduced down to me and my husband and two Shih Tzus. That’s it. There is no one left to bake for, no one left to buy stuff for, there is no one left to decorate the house for.

I have discovered…the EMPTY NEST.

I thought the empty nest would happen when my daughters stopped living at home, but it didn’t, not really. Alex moved out 5 ½ years ago, and then Katie moved out three years ago.  I freaked out a little wondering if they were safe or if they were well fed, but in general I was fine.  I thought I had this empty nest thing mastered, and then…

They got married and moved away and I’m dang near dying of the pain of it all.

Who exactly am I here to take care of?

I mean, I have a husband and all, but realistically?  How much care does he need at 54 years old?  And I need to be careful not to smother the man, so…

What exactly am I here for?

I hate that question!

I’ve spent my whole life being the mom and the wife and the daughter and the pastor and the counselor and suddenly…there aren’t near as many people to take care of, and I don’t know how to handle it.

I find myself sitting before God with an empty bowl, wondering why I’m here and what God needs me to do, and I’m not getting any answers.

It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had.

I wake up every day to this empty bowl, and no matter how many people I try to put in my bowl, God keeps pulling them out. I wake up with an empty bowl, and I go to sleep with an empty bowl. After a while I don’t even want to look at the dang bowl. I’m sick to death of that bowl because all it does is remind me that there is no one left who needs me, not really.

I know I’m supposed to be happy because it’s Christmas and all, but I’m not. I walk through the stores and I see all the Christmas decorations and I just feel sad.  I feel empty. I feel like I want to cry and I can’t make it go away.

I prayed about it. I did!  I asked God over and over to show me what I’m supposed to be doing now and no answer came.

I’m not used to not getting an answer from the Lord.

But not getting an answer has made me wonder about empty bowls.

You see, I grew up in farming country. I grew up where we grow the corn and the wheat and the cows and the chickens and the soybeans.  I spent my summers canning with my mom, putting up vegetables and fruit, preparing for the winter when nothing was fresh.  We knew that we could make it better at home than anyone could ever make it at the store and so we spent the summer preparing for the barren times.

That day at Target I sat in my car, crying and wondering what my mom did when there was no one left to can for.  You know, she and my dad can only eat so many jars of pickles and tomatoes, so many bags of corn and beans.  My mom used to spend the whole summer canning and putting up vegetables and fruit, so what exactly happened to all of that? And what did she do when my brother and I were gone?

I decided to call her.  I told her how I was feeling and I could hear her smiling at me when she replied.

First you cry, she said.  First you cry.

And then she said things I wasn’t expecting.

She said “Let God lead you into a time of lying fallow.”

I know what that means. Fallow. It’s what farmers do with their fields when the field has been used to produce crops for years and years. Over time the field gets worn, even though it keeps producing good crops. The field gets tired and exhausted and the soil gets thin; all the good stuff and the nutrients that made the field produce such good crops fade away and the field becomes weak.  If the farmer is smart, the farmer stops planting in that field and lets it lie fallow, and if the farmer is really smart they do that long before the field becomes so weak that its crops are worthless.  The field might lie fallow for a year, and sometimes longer!  And during that time, the field just sits there, with the stalks from its last crop sowed back into the ground. While the it rests, the field gathers up its strength.  Somehow, in the time that the field lies empty, the soil become rich again, and then after a couple of years, the farmer replants and the field bears fruit and crops and good things happen there.  But for at least a year, nothing. Most of the time it’s longer. Most of the time, a field lies fallow for several years—years where there is nothing at all.

I understood what my mom was saying to me but it was hard to accept. I don’t know about you but I feel like my personal worth is wrapped up in what I produce, what I do for my family and friends, what I do for my church and my God.  Who am I and what the heck am I worth if I’m not doing anything at all? If there is no one to take care of, who am I?

I may think that way, but The Great Farmer is wiser than that.  The farmer knows that a field left to lie fallow, no matter how long it lays there, empty—the Great Farmer knows that a field left to lie fallow is a promise.  A promise of what is to come. A promise of a greater future. A promise of purpose and meaning and value. A field that lies fallow is a field at rest; a field waiting to be all that the farmer can ever hope for.

God is like that with us.

We hate it when our bowl is empty. We hate it when we can’t see why we’re here and what we’re here for and what we’re supposed to do and who we are supposed to serve.  We want to be active and filled with purpose and meaning and God is the wise farmer that says Wait! Stop!  Rest.  God asks us to let it go and lie fallow and know that we are everything God ever meant for us to be and yet, we still aren’t done.

A field that lies fallow is a promise of what is to come.

As far as I’m concerned, a promise of what is to come is just short of a wrapped Christmas present that God is preparing just for me.

I like that idea. I like the idea that where I am in my life right now, as difficult as it feels at this moment, is actually a wrapped Christmas present from God to me—a present that will slowly open all by itself sometime in the future. And when that present opens, I’ll know it for what it is: a blessing from the Lord to me.  I also know that when my present finally opens, my bowl will be full to overflowing.

God is like that with us. God is always like that.

May God bless you to overflowing during this Advent season, and prepare you for the coming of the Christ child!

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.      Psalm 23, NRSV

Oh my aching heart…

I mentioned in my last two posts that being tenderhearted can cause problems, that it can make it hard not to interfere where you shouldn’t.

The thing is that I should have said that it just doesn’t work to have strong feelings about things that you just cannot change: other people’s choices, other people’s lives, other people’s consequences, etc.  It doesn’t matter if the other person is your coworker, your neighbor, your sibling, or your adult child…if it is happening to another adult and you can’t do anything to change it, you probably shouldn’t be getting all worked up about it.

But what if you are worked up about it? What are you supposed to do now?

Let me start with an example out of my own life.

My youngest daughter K. had just turned 17 when she graduated from High School…a full year early.  She had worked hard to get through school and we were very proud of her.  She had a full ride scholarship to a local college and was certain to move on to great things in the coming years.

Or so we thought, her father and I.

And then K. met L.  He had long hair, no ambition, and fewer brains.  He was a nice enough boy, but dang that child was brainless and it made us crazy to see our daughter so smitten by him.  We figured she would quickly move beyond him…but instead K. became more and more involved with him, taking on some of his habits and beliefs, hanging out with his family, and taking up his habits…including the one where he smoked marijuana.  We were horrified!

Long story short, her grades weren’t terrible but they also weren’t high enough to maintain her scholarship, which meant that suddenly she had to find a way to pay for school.  Her father and I told her that her failure to maintain her scholarship was not going to become the occasion for us to be punished by having to pay for her tuition.  She had earned a scholarship that covered two full years of community college and she lost it because she wouldn’t focus on her schooling instead of her boyfriend… so we told K. that she would need to pay for her schooling herself. Let’s stop right here for a moment and take notice of a non-codependent behavior: my daughter’s consequences are not mine to absorb.  K. isn’t 12 years old anymore, and if she lost the scholarship, then she’s the one who has to find money for tuition now.  And isn’t it great that I didn’t behave codependently?  Uh, yeah, sure…but I still was all codependent emotionally.  Behaviorally I had gotten better.  Emotionally…not so much, and so the saga continues.

The problem was that K. had no job and wasn’t really interested in getting a job.  We told her to get a job as soon as possible, and she pretended to apply to places and assured us that she was working really hard to get a job.  We weren’t fooled at all and expressed increasing amounts of frustration with her bad attitude and failure to get a job, and K. became more and more belligerent.  As soon as the spring semester was over, we told her that she had until August 1 to get a job or she would have to move out.  K. called our bluff and moved out before July 1st, choosing to move with L. and his brother N. to their grandfather’s abandoned home in a remote city we’ll call Crapville.  Gee…do you think I have negative feelings about Crapville?  Yes…yes I do.

Literally, my daughter was living rent-free in an unused home that had electricity but no hot water because they couldn’t afford to pay the gas bill.  Neither my daughter, her boyfriend L., or his brother N. had jobs, so they did their grocery shopping at the local food bank.  Essentially, K. was living by choice in relative poverty, in a home that lacked some of what I considered to be basic necessities.

My husband and I were horrified.  What could we do? They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have hot water, they didn’t have enough food.  You cannot imagine how badly it messes with your head when you know that your daughter doesn’t have enough food!!  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.

But I had to admit: K. had chosen this life.  She didn’t have to move out.  All K. had to do was get a part time job, which she steadfastly refused to do.  She could have gotten a part-time job and lived at home with free room and board while going to school. Apparently K. had decided that she’d rather live in poverty and skip the job.  Any time I thought about what she was doing, I became so upset that I got sick to my stomach.

I knew that I had to let it go.  Getting upset wasn’t solving anything.  Getting upset wasn’t changing K’s choices and it wasn’t helping me any.  Even worse, my attitude about K’s choices had the potential to do damage to our relationship.  I didn’t want to become one of those mothers who complained and criticized every time I had any interaction with my daughter.  I was upset enough that I knew my attitude would bleed into my voice whenever we spoke and I didn’t want to risk my relationship with K. for any reason.

In an attempt to get control of my feelings about K’s choices, I started forcing myself to admit that I had no idea what path God might have for her, and admitted to myself that perhaps my daughter’s time in Crapville was a major part of God’s plan. Parents often think that we know what is best for our children, and while they are under the age of 18 we are usually right (usually…not always).  However, my lovely daughter was over 18 and her life and future were in God’s hands, not mine.  After a bit of prayer, God assured me that He was more than capable of handling my daughter…and suggested that I might want to handle myself.  After that point, whenever I found myself thinking of her or complaining about K’s choices to another person, I would force myself to say out loud “I don’t know God’s path for her.”  It was a true statement: I truly didn’t know what plans God might have for my daughter, or what paths those holy plans would cause her to take, but I needed to trust that God could get her to where she needed to be. I found myself saying “I don’t know God’s path for her” over and over, sometimes multiple times a day, and to be honest it was soothing.  I actually felt a little better every time I said it.

Here’s the deal: lots of us start feeling all sorts of strong emotions when we start thinking about what is going on with our kids, or with our parents or our siblings, and sometimes even when we think of what’s happening to our friends or to our neighbors.  It’s easy to let those emotions run away with us and get us all worked up…but it’s incredibly UNWISE.  Remember, I’m not talking about a situation that actually impacts you, like when your best friend is diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse up and quits their job, or your children move across country.  Those things impact you quite a bit…and it’s still wise to be careful not to let the emotions you feel about those situations get so big that you forget that a) you don’t control the other person’s life, and b) they have decisions to make and your opinions and feelings don’t figure in those decisions.

What self-soothing phrase do you need to help yourself let go of your emotions? What do you need to remind yourself of so that you can stop being anxious/controlling and just let things happen naturally?

Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Ask yourself where God is in all this.  Ask yourself what responsibility you have regarding the issue.  Ask yourself if the issue is still unfolding (not yet finished.)  Questions like these may illuminate what you need to self-soothe and stop freaking out.

Here are a few suggestions to help you start calming yourself down.  It won’t stop you from being upset immediately, and you may need more than one phrase, but if you keep reminding yourself of the truth and of God’s presence, you may find yourself less upset about things than you think you are right now.

Try these:

God is still in control, no matter how bad it looks.

I don’t know what God’s plan is for them.

I am trusting God to somehow bring blessings out of this crazy situation.

Not my circus, not my monkeys.

This is not my problem to solve.

It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and I don’t hear anyone singing.

If it’s not over, God hasn’t had His say yet.

And finally:  I didn’t cause this and I can’t fix it either.

 

And if you are wondering: K. lived in Crapville for two years. She ended up getting a job and actually doing quite well at her job…then lost that job and really hustled to get another job so that she could pay her bills.  After two years, she broke it off with the guy she started dating after she kicked L. to the curb and moved home.  K was so much more mature I couldn’t believe it!  She was so helpful around the house and so incredibly calm and wise that I loved having K. live with us.  She learned a lot from those two years in Crapville…and I never could have seen that coming when she first moved out.  Truly, God did use that time to grow and mold K. into a wonderful woman!  She moved in with her sister almost a year ago now and is engaged to be married to a sweet young man.  I did not know God’s path for her and God knew far better than I did what K. needed.

I Get It Now

The joy of the Lord is your strength.  Nehemiah 8:10f

I remember the first time I heard that scripture verse…and I remember how I struggled to understand it.  I was just a child and the verse seemed to make no sense to me at all. How am I supposed to know how joyful God is?  And even if God is very, very joyful, how is that supposed to make me stronger?  None of it seemed to make sense at that point, I think mostly because I didn’t need much strength from God to get by on a daily basis at that point in my life.

During my childhood, my family was blessed with relative stability.  My dad had a good job, so my mom was able to stay home and focus on caring for me and my brother.  My household was free of addiction and abusiveness.  I lived with two parents who loved each other and loved both my brother and I despite the fact that we were messy and sporadically obnoxious and rude.  Actually my brother was consistently obnoxious and rude, which made it relatively easy for me to seem angelic in comparison, meaning that I could get away with all sorts of stuff if I just stayed out of trouble in general and offered to help mom and dad with chores once or twice a week. My parents were deeply faithful and involved in our local church, and I grew up helping out in Sunday School and attending youth group.  I had few reasons to contemplate the joy of the Lord and I could not really imagine what circumstances would make me need to seek out that joy so that I could have the strength that supposedly came from it.

Fast forward to adulthood, marriage, and parenthood.

I have to admit that parenthood gave me a much deeper understanding of God. Having children was an epiphany for me; my deep love for my own children began to instruct me in how God must feel about me, and I had to admit that God’s love was bigger and more expansive than my own love, more all-encompassing than my own love, and far more endless than my own love.  Suddenly, I could look at my beautiful little girl and get a glimmer of how God must feel about me.  It became impossible to maintain the image of God I had developed in childhood—the one where God eternally wags his finger, shakes his head, and is overwhelmed with disappointment at my endless list of sins. Because of my daughter, I imagined God shaking his head at me…and laughing at my ridiculous antics, much like I did with my daughter.  Toddlers are a gift from God that helps you understand just how much God loves you.

And then God grants that your children become teenagers.

Personally I think the teenage years might be God’s way of making us apologize to our own parents for all the crap we pulled when we were younger and thought we knew everything.  I know my mother looked forward to the day that I would have teenagers and would come to understand just how impossible I had been when I was in my teens.  By the time that both my daughters were teenagers, I had apologized to my mom so many times that she eventually began cutting me off before I could get very far into my apology.  After a while I gave up on apologizing and simply asked my mom “Did I do anything this dumb when I was her age?!”  She answered in the affirmative more than I want to admit to, but I was comforted by the realization that I was no longer that stupid, which meant that my daughters would eventually grow out of this behavior and sprout some brains.  Please understand that this entire argument is predicated on the idea that I actually have grown a set of functioning brains… something my parents, my husband, and my bosses still occasionally dispute.

And then we moved beyond simply “teenage rebellion” and I came to understand all sorts of things about God that I had not understood until then.

I won’t go into tons of details (unless you are a parent dealing with this, in which case you are free to contact me here and I’ll tell you everything I know) about what happened, but let it suffice to say that my oldest daughter became a 15 year-old drug addict.  I cannot begin to describe the mess our lives became while we tried to figure out what was going wrong. Her behaviors left us stunned and confused.  Short periods of good behavior would be followed by months of increasingly worse behaviors and no punishment seemed to be enough to stop the downhill slide.  My husband and I became full-time detectives, constantly trying to catch her in the act of sneaking out.  We became full-time lie detectors, forever looking for the tiny crack in her story that would reveal the lie.  We started paying attention to every item of clothing, every possession, convinced she was stealing.  We came to distrust everything and everyone except each other, and every day we became a little crazier trying to figure out what was happening to change our beautiful little girl into a sneaky, thieving liar.  Neither of us knew that we were watching our daughter become the monster that addiction creates in the place of the person you love.  I still remember standing in the office of the residential rehab where we placed our daughter, hearing the director explain that our daughter was addicted to multiple substances and needed long-term inpatient treatment.  I was incredulous.  How did we get here?  How could I possibly send my child away from me…and they told us that the average stay in order to achieve success in treatment was eighteen months.

I was devastated, but what choice did I have?  We had to save our daughter’s life!  We returned home from the visit to the rehab and began to buy the items she would need for an extended stay away from home.  Sheets. Blankets. Winter wear (we live in the desert and she was going to the high country where it snows). Every purchase brought me closer to the edge, to the brink of disintegration.

I was a mother and I was about to send my daughter away from me and refuse to let her come home until she was sober…entirely, totally sober—no matter how long it took.

I would see things in the store as I shopped and I’d think “Oh! Alex would love that!” only to realize that Alex wasn’t going to live with me for at least a year if not longer, and I would start crying.  I would be driving along and suddenly I’d realize what we were about to do and I’d become inconsolable.

My only consolation was in prayer, when I would remember that God already knew how this would all end.  God had my daughter in hand and would not let go of her, even when I had no other choice but to let go of her.  I had to trust that God had led my husband and I down the right path, to the right treatment facility, and to the right professionals and therapists.  We had done all the footwork and now it was time to trust in God and find my consolation there.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.

It made sense now.  As I drove down the road, sobbing and inconsolable, God was not disturbed.  God was not distraught, nor was God fearful of what would happen next.  Certainly God’s love for my husband and I caused His heart to ache when He watched us suffer over our little girl, but God was not worried about Alex.  God knew exactly what it would take to heal her of her addiction and God was already at work.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.

You see, nothing perturbs God the way that it perturbs us.  God isn’t worried, or fearful. God doesn’t get anxious and He doesn’t have anxiety attacks.  God is never inconsolable over what is happening here in His world, because God is in control.  Nothing can steal God’s joy because God has everything in hand. It is all in God’s control, and nothing escapes His notice, or overwhelms His power.  Just because things don’t end the way you and I want them to doesn’t mean that God is done with the situation.  God has the long view…God sees all the way into eternity, and that means that nothing is outside of His saving hand.  There is nothing in the world that can reduce God’s joy in His children and in His ability to bring His children home to Him.

Over time I found that trusting God was the greatest comfort I could find in all the chaos of addiction.

The joy of the Lord is my strength.

I get it now.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”   Nehemiah 8:10