Friday, October 25, 2013

Dreaming the Right Dreams

for ourselves and our children

Years ago when I was teaching at an international school in Brazil I heard yelling in the apartment on the first floor.  I ran down to find one of the other teachers standing in the hallway wrapped in a towel yelling that her shower-head was on fire.  I ran in to turn off the water (or electricity)--I was use to this sort of occurrence having been raised in this world where water and electricity seemed to be combined in useful ways. (Other more developed countries have not yet advanced to such discoveries).

When I returned to comfort this shaking woman who had only just arrived from the United States, I was surprised to find her laughing.  "Who thought of heating water with electricity in a shower-head?" she laughed.  I told her to be careful, as it is easy to get shocked while taking a shower,  but she was among the few who have had the unfortunate experience of the water turning to fire, and for that I could only apologize on behalf of Brazil.  Her response has stayed with me.  She said, "I came here expecting to live in a hut.  I'm so excited we have hot water and showers, that this is nothing!"

Our responses are shaped by our expectations.  I have reflected often on what I expect of this life, as those expectations will shape my responses to difficulties and trials.

I was teaching Death of a Salesman to some highschoolers recently and was once again struck by Biff's comment about his father, "He had all the wrong dreams." His dreams for his children had been for worldly success and recognition.

What are the right dreams?

I realize that much of my expectation and dream for this life is shaped by the American drive for comfort, self sufficiency, and stardom.  Therefore, when I am in discomfort or feeling great pressure or limited resources, I am disappointed with life.  I have an impression that I am being cheated by a nebulous force that keeps me from all I could be if only I had the resources I need to live with a sense of control and what would command attention from others.

That is because we were made to live our lives for and with others, not creating an image of our own aggrandisement and self reliance.  We came into this world infants and are meant to grow into maturity.  Is maturity self-sufficiency and stardom?

When we had our first child, my husband and I prayed for a guide by which to shape our nurturing and discipling of our children.  What was our goal?  Was it for them to be intelligent and get into good schools so that they could use their gifts and have many opportunities?  Was it to teach them to be independent?  Was it for them to be popular Christian kids who would attract others to the Lord through their charisma and charm?  Was it to raise them to be confident and believe they could do anything they wanted to do?

As we prayed, we were led to the two greatest commandments, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength," and "Love your neighbor as yourself."  We were to raise children that could love...God and others.  And that unfolded for us a journey of which I will say more in another post.

To have the expectation of life that I will learn to love God and others, means that circumstances are always an opportunity to grow in love.  Nothing can sabotage my life goal.  In fact, God is glad to teach me to love.  He sent his Son to show me how.  It is a battle of submission in the garden.

It is the cross in which my arms are held open in vulnerability sometimes against my will. 

This means I should not shun trials for myself or my children.  My dream must be that everything be used for shaping a person that can live for God and others.

Is it possible that I could dream of loving like Jesus?  And if that is my dream, cannot I not expect my love to be perfected in pressure and adversity as his was (after all, it says, "he learned obedience through what he suffered" Heb. 5:8--Jesus, of all people)?  So if I expect a hut, the shower of fire in an enclosed space is just part of the journey to which I committed. 

Throughout my day, when I again encounter discomforts and pressures, I can turn to the Lord and submit,  "Oh, Lord, just make me more open, more loving, more surrendered.  May all these trials take me somewhere I could never go if I had not submitted to them.  Make me a person who loves you more.  Make me a person who loves those around me with a perfected love--a love that is not self-seeking."  I have had to lead my children in these very prayers when they are grieved or profoundly disappointed.

When my brother was dying an early death with so much ministry and academic opportunity spread before him, as well as a lovely wife with which to share his life, and two young children to raise, he struggled with profound sorrow for all he was not going to be able to do.  One night Jesus ministered to him, and my brother said to me, "I realize now what this life is all about.  It is not about what I accomplish, but it is about learning to love.  And if I have done that, I have lived a full and successful life."

How often I am tempted to have the goal of making my child a star.  So much is lost when that is the dream.  We give up family time, spend too much money, waste too much time chasing a goal that does not necessarily make that child a mature person, full of love and purpose.  How many parents I know would rather have their child get into an Ivy League school even if it batters their faith and makes them intellectual sophisticates than see them go to a good and challenging school where their lives are shaped with a selfless mission.  I have read shocking articles of how motivated parents have become to getting their children into the BEST university, that they will shape all of their activities and relationships with that one purpose in mind.  I would rather have an average child who knows how to love and be a good spouse, mother or father, how to work very hard, how to fill leisure time with meaningful and enriching activity, and has learned how to live fully in God and the Church.  For some, this would be accomplished by going to the best school or being the star in something, but certainly not for most.

May we resist the siren call to waste our energies dreaming of and trying to craft the perfect life.  Take time to pray and ask what your dreams for your children honestly are, and then be intentional about shaping a life as a family that follows the proper dreams.  And may our children say of us, "They had all the right dreams."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"You need privacy...with me."

One of the sanctifying aspects of a large family for me is the constant infringement on my physical space.  I should not still expect personal space after growing up as I did.  My teenage life was spent riding the public buses in Sao Paulo, Brazil (the second largest city in the world), which were filled 100 percent beyond capacity with people hanging out of the door and the bus listing to one side.  I would be at the right height to have my head thrust into an available armpit, as all the people standing in the aisles had their arms straight up, in surrender to the thieves of privacy and human decency.

Body odor mixed with cheap cologne will always throw me back decades into the undesired confinement of a lurching city bus.  Sometimes the bus would stop quickly, and my feet would lift off the floor, and I would be suspended among working bodies, my feet fluttering away in desperation for a landing place.  Groping hands often took advantage of these undesired intimate moments.

The noise pollution in a city of our size is something few can imagine.  Trucks barreling down the road;  Gas trucks playing lines from classical music over and over to identify the kind of gas for sale; political ads shouted out on megaphones attached to cars;  salespeople shouting; the knife-sharpening man clapping his clapper together; doorbells ringing incessantly;  pressure cookers hissing; cement drills and picks clanging away on sidewalks and construction.  Noise goes on all night.

At home, my mother welcomed in strays from all walks so that people slept in the laundry room, on the couch and wherever was available. We often had large groups for dinner, and every holiday was an opportunity to share our home and our family.

Why did we live in such a place?  Because that is where the people were.  If we wanted to reach the people, we had to endure what comes with people.

One would think such schooling
would make me easy with six children in a relatively small house.  But I still find my patience exhausted, and my expectation for space only expanded.  When I sit on the couch to read to my children, I imagine a cosy read with a living book, maybe everyone sipping a hot drink under hand knitted throws.  Instead I must endure ten minutes of arguing over seats--those who need to read along over my shoulder up against those who don't like feet touching them and squabbling with the ones who never get to be right next to me.  Then there is the settling in, then the heavy leaning against my side, and someone lying behind me on the top edge of the sofa.  The baby comes up and decides that nursing right now would be the cosiest conclusion to this happy scene, and once settled in, kicks the child on one side while pinching the face of the one on the other. How I am tempted to give up, though I know this is worth making happen.

Mealtime is another assault on physical and air space.  The volume at the table is deafening.  All my children are storytellers and expand on one another's stories, with hilarious theatrical imitations; children call for food; someone spills a glass of water;  younger ones need to be coaxed to eat vegetables.  Recently, my two year old kept calling, "please pass the butter...please pass the butter..."over and over.  Finally, unattended, he stood up on his seat, took his glass of water and held it over his brother's head, saying, "Ellison, look in my eyes.  If you don't pass the butter, I pour this on your head." So much for a civil and polite meal.

How many meals have I had a baby nursing while I try to lean over an extended body to get some meager bites in my mouth, in between serving up more food and trying to follow one line of conversation to its conclusion.  At least the boys are not playing soccer or football in the hall.  We have them "contained" at the table. The baby may get up and begin playing loudly by the table, though, and I am dreaming of bed time and quiet.

But my bedtime once again makes me available to waking children, and my bed can be filled with wanderers at any point during the night.  I won't even mention the child that always wanted his hand in my armpit, or the child that cuddled with her hand down my shirt.

The car is another chance for sanctification.  The arguing over seats, the screaming infant, the discussion over music or audio books, the distribution of snacks, the child asking a question over and

over, the rowdy game between two
children that involves hilarious laughter and poking and tickling--all contribute to a cacophony of insanity.  I'll never forget one of my most amiable children, fairly tolerant of noise and confusion, bursting out in the middle of a 4,500 mile road trip, "Get me out of this stinking wreck!"  All grew quiet in shock that one of our most stable would come so near the edge.  The situation must be quite dire in the back seat.

How many times I want to yell, "Get me out of this stinking wreck!" I do not know what I expected of life with people, especially children, but I now know that people and relationships are messy.  I can choose to engage, or I can become a control fanatic.  True, children must be taught to sit still, be quiet, and we do need times away from the fray, but if we want to engage life, we must engage noise, smells, and disruptions.

I have found the best anecdote for me is humor.  How many times my husband and I look at each other from opposite ends of the table and stifle laughter.  Two times I have found hidden toys in my blouse that I, so completely compromised in my sense of personal space, was completely unaware of.  One time a child I was holding at church must have inserted a toy in a "safe place."  When I patted my chest in a gesture of compassion for someone, I felt a sharp presence--only a matchbox car. Another time I participated in an evening of pre-marital counseling for a couple and while saying goodbye made a similar discovery of a Playmobil character tucked asleep in my bra.  I was humorously horrified.

How am I sanctified through this infringement on my space?  I am reminded daily that my life is not my own.  My issues with control are constantly challenged and brought into submission to the greater virtue of flexibility and presence in the moment.  Jesus made it clear that children are good for us.  We have much to learn from them, and when we let them into our lives, we find that people are more important than our things, and our time, and our plans, and even our sense of individuality.

My oldest daughter at age three, followed me into the bathroom one day and as she closed the door behind her said, "You need privacy...with me."  Such is the privacy I have had for years...with someone who feels my privacy is actually to be shared.  And because of this, I have learned to give up what I hold tightly and open the door and let in someone who might even take too much.  In return, my life is rich in textures, voices, confidences, the touch of little hands, and story.  I hold onto life a little more loosely and let it unfold as it will.  This is the cost of relationship, of family.

Sometimes I feel I am on that bus groping for a sure footing, trying to stake out my piece of ground.  But now I at least know that I am going somewhere and that the destination of a life rich in people and a heart that has room for people is worth the crowded bus ride.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Choosing Not to Escape

I have recently been challenged and blessed by the book, Seeking God, by Esther de Waal.  The Benedictine rule of life has much to teach those of us who live in the "turning world."  Esther de Waal was herself the mother of four, wife to a pastor, and wrote this book at her kitchen table.

To live a holy life in the middle of a culture that constantly distracts and pulls us in multiple directions, requires intentionality and a "rule of life" that encourages disciplines that brings us present to Christ and his Church throughout the rhythms of our day.

Esther de Waal explores the three Benedictine vows of obedience, stability, and conversatio morum (conversion of life). I was especially blessed by the call to "stability." This commitment not to run away actually makes the counterpoint to stability possible: change.

"Instead of this bewildering and exhausting rushing from one thing to another monastic stability means accepting this particular community, this place and these people, this and no other, as the way to God...
Instead of trying to find different circumstances within which to meet God, we find that the place he has put us is exactly the best place within which to encounter him.  Enclosure keeps us from escaping ourselves.
'Enclosure is something I cannot cast off, it's the anchor that holds me in a restless sea'  for he knows that when he is thinking of escape he is tired of facing himself."

Tired of facing true it is that I often want to escape who I am in certain circumstances--anxious, angry, discouraged.  I would like me better on a beach in Brazil.  But when I see what comes out in pressure, I see what must be changed.  I used to think I was such a good Christian before I had children.  Then I began to realize that I just hadn't been squeezed hard enough for the deep uglies to come up.  By being where I am placed and not escaping, I can face my need for God's transformation and find that it is indeed possible, even promised.

The author goes on to describe the desire to escape the monotonous nature of our lives instead of seeing the monotony itself as a pattern to be filled by God's presence.

"Our difficulty lies in the way in which we fail to meet those demands with anything more than the mere grudging minimum which will never allow them to become creative.  That limitation can lead to creativity is something which any good artist knows...Clearly this means accepting the monotonous and making it work for us, not against us."

I learned in poetry writing that a form which I must follow often forces me into the greatest creativity.  So it is with life.  Limitations can be the form that produces the most beauty in our lives.

Being committed to the community in which we have been placed, either family or church or both, is that place of limitation. The place we are squeezed, known, challenged to change, will offer us greater opportunity for transformation than if we keep seeking a "better place."  Too often I have seen people come close to the chance for transformation but because of fear or shame or hurt, leave the very community where love would help them achieve the change they so desire.  Someone may be called to leave one church community for another, but this should be discerned with other mature believers and done in a way that encourages growth rather than arresting it.

Accepting where we are as the very place to meet God is the prerequisite for actually meeting Him. God is waiting to fill our moments with his Spirit that our common lives might be transformed into something uncommon.

Esther de Waal gave me a greater vision for what my way of life could be to make space for the transforming presence of Christ.