Saturday, February 22, 2014

What Does it Mean to be a Woman?

Note: What began as a blog entry became a behemoth.  Of course, the question elicits a lifetime of answer.  You may want to read this in a few sittings.  I wish I could provide you with a bookmark and a large cup of coffee.

In the novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Garcia Marquez, the author describes in his magical but realistic way a village suffering from an insomnia plague.  As this plague continues, it gradually causes the loss of memory.  To try and salvage memory, the people developed an elaborate plan that involved labeling everything, for instance, "This is a cow."  But even the labels lost meaning over time and needed to be further defined.  So, for instance to "This is a cow," they added: "She gives us milk.  We add milk to our coffee."  Eventually the village put a placard at the entrance to town that said, "God exists," as that knowledge too was slipping.  Then the people began to forget what a mother was and what a father was and lost all language to describe it.

This image from Garcia Marquez describes with haunting accuracy the plague that is spreading through all levels of our culture and society.   It is as if we have lost the regular recalibration of sleep in which sanity is restored.  We are beginning to lose the most fundamental and elemental truths, such as what it means to be a mother or a father, a man or a woman.  If any of us was asked to define "man" or "woman," I daresay we would hardly know where to begin.  This is not simply because we have lost the meaning, it is because these iconic ideas were never meant to have to be defined; these truths were meant to be lived in such a way that a cognitive explanation or defense would never be necessary. For certainly the reality of Man or Woman is much larger than words, and any attempt to wrestle down a manageable definition would fall far from the mystery that is Woman or Man.

But if the human race is to flourish, we must not lose a grasp on who we are, especially in the fundamental identities of Woman and Man.  We seem to have become disconnected from the ancient truths which have anchored us.  In order, then, to salvage memory, an attempt at a description is perhaps a starting point.

Because I am a woman, and because Woman seems to be the gender that is most searching for definition and perhaps the identity most under attack, I will begin with Woman.

Women carry such deep hurt from attempted definitions over time.  We as women somehow feel definition diminishes us rather than ennobles us; we can feel squeezed into molds so small that we can hardly breathe.  So I tremble putting words to the "feminine genius" (to quote John Paul II).  But I also fear that we as women, in fear of definition, in fear of limitation, will forget the gift we have to give the world, which is uniquely ours to give, and if not given, will leave a gaping and unimaginable chasm in the psyche of the world. And all persons will walk crippled from this loss; indeed this is already happening. As women move toward androgyny (being distinguishably neither masculine or feminine), I do not see women who try to throw off any descriptive feminine identity walking into freedom.  I see them more compressed, more unmoored than ever.

Where to begin when approaching the mystery of Woman?  Let us go back to the beginning...the creation of the woman.  Woman was created because man needed a companion to help him carry out his creational instructions:  to image God, to be fruitful, and to be master of the earth.  In the first pair of man and woman there is a presupposed harmony, a dance that had no power struggle, no need to assert importance or influence over another.  Certainly the solidarity between man and woman in their joint task of mastering the earth deserves its own essay, but for this essay, I choose to focus here on the woman's vocation as mother to the earth.  The first command of God was, "Be fruitful and multiply." Be a father. Be a mother.

Mother to the world.

Why does the serpent come to the woman first?  We don't know.  But one reason seems to be that she is, as Adam named her, "The mother of all the living." And as such she represents the most vulnerable point of entry for Satan to attack and distort the human family. (Of course, Adam's passivity in this situation is another vulnerable point of entry).  We know that Satan hates life, and after Woman came from Man, now all mankind would come through Woman.  As a friend of mine recently noted, throughout history it has been, "women and children first," not because they are so weak, but because they represent the future. The book of Revelation in the Bible paints this mythic war against Woman as the source of life, and through whom ultimately came Jesus,  the one who would redeem all mankind from the tragic fall.

The curse of the Fall (which is simply just stating the natural trajectory of the choices made), as it is aimed at Woman, is twofold: her fruitfulness in childbearing will become complicated and painful, and she will begin to look to man for definition.  To be fruitful requires harmony between man and woman.  It is only natural that the consequences of the Fall would begin at the very core of who she was created to be--1. a mother and 2. a companion to stand beside her husband.  Now a disequilibrium with Man is a natural outcome of the relational breakdown that occurred with God.  In the ESV Bible, it says, "her desire will be for her husband," and then in the notes it says, "or against her husband."  That pretty much sums it up.  Desire itself is distorted by the new struggle for power and identity. We women say to men, "Tell me who I am, and by the way, don't you dare tell me who I am."

The Fall broke the harmony and introduced the sword between the sexes.  Forevermore, we would see ourselves in competition, in a power struggle for influence and recognition.

But God did not leave us there.  Even as he spoke the words of the curse, he spoke the words of the promise:  from Woman's womb would come the one that would redeem all of this.  Centuries later, God sent an angel to a young woman and said that he would overshadow her and bring through her very body into the world the one who would crush the head of the deceiving serpent.

Eve is called the mother of all the living.  What is Mary called? The early church began to call her the mother of God.  In their parallel stories, we find the redemption of Woman's role in the world, and the healing she is capable of bringing to humanity by being available to God.

God, when he chose to come to earth in the flesh, did not just appear as a 30 year old man as he just disappeared when he was finished with his work.  He chose to come through the womb of a woman, be nurtured by her, connected to her.  Jesus came as a man, and that is essential because he is the new Adam, but he came through the womb of a woman, and in so doing hallowed both Man and Woman.

The early fathers began to understand Mary as the new Eve.  She is the new icon of Mother, of Woman.  Mary accepted the word of the Lord that Eve did not accept.  Instead of doubting God's Word as Eve did and fearing that something good was being withheld, Mary stepped out in faith that God's Word would bring good, "Be it done unto me according to your word."

I would offer that the looming icons of woman in Scripture are mothers.  A church father said, "The woman's womb is the doorway to heaven."  No human being will be in heaven who did not first travel through the womb of a woman.  You must be born again, yes, but you have to be born the first time, and that involves the starting home of a woman's body.  The second birth, the water and the Spirit, is ministered through the Church, which is our spiritual Mother (John 3).  Bishop Cyprian said when speaking of the Church as our Mother, "...From her womb we are born, by her milk we are nurtured, by her spirit we are given life...She watches over us for God, she seals her sons, to whom she has given birth, for the kingdom...He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother."

This is a tall order to be the icon of the Church--the Mother that nurtures life.  All of us women--celibates and married, fertile and infertile-- cannot flee from this call.  We are the sacramental embodiment of the Church that births and nurtures life, and there is none other as uniquely crafted to carry this kind of life into the Church and the world as we are.  The world is languishing while we cast about seeking to be released from this privilege that carries so much responsibility.

Our bodies tell a story worth listening to: woman has been given a unique unity between her physical and spiritual being  We have been given the unparalleled vocation of assimilating into our bodies another living being.  Your personhood began inside your mother's body.  I would offer that woman has a different calling from man in her impartation of being.  She is the one who has the precognitive connection to the baby.  This development of personhood as it is nurtured in the attachment to Mother extends beyond birth.  Babies need their mothers, not just any loving caretaker.  A growing cluster of psychological research on attachment indicates that the depth and consistency of a child's bond with its mother is the primary determinant of a healthy sense of being and personhood. Woman as Mother is essential to the well-being of all humanity.

This is beautiful, but we diminish and resist it.  Why?  It is sometimes hard to be needed in this way, to this depth, by another.  It is sometimes hard to believe that even the apparently meaningless and trivial motions of caring for another who cannot possibly appreciate the sacrifice, could be so fundamentally important.

I would offer that the apparent smallness and the very hiddenness of this call is one of the primary Christian paths of formation in love.  Everyone has the opportunity to learn to love in life.  Some take it; some do not.  Every mother has a unique opportunity, that if seized upon, can be the making of her own personhood.  Through this obscure path without worldly advancement or promotion, a woman can learn love.  And in turn, she can multiply the effect of this love by giving a gift to the world (though it is increasingly undervalued)--children with the capacity to love others because they themselves have received sacrificial love.

Gertrude von le Fort, a German philosopher and poet, in her book, The Eternal Woman, says that men are like stones in a stream, planted, giving all their creative energy to this generation;  women are like the water flowing and carrying the treasure into the next generation.  Even if one disagrees with the metaphor, no one would disagree that stone and water are primal elements of force in nature, and both are essential for holding together the earth.  This metaphor does, however, capture the deeper complexity in water as compared to stone.  Stone is fairly straight-forward.  Water is formless, shapeless, colorless but can seep through solid rock, erode away a mountain over time, evaporate into air and be carried to another location altogether.  The differences are real, but it would be foolish to spend energy trying to decide whether stone or water was more powerful or to strategize how we might neutralize their differences so that they are interchangeable.

Masculine and Feminine are this elemental to holding the world together.  Their differences become absolutely necessary to the preservation of the human race.  And yet, little thought is given to preserving the uniqueness of each gender as fundamental to society. And certainly women do not seem that concerned in preserving their own unique powers and making sacrifices to be sure we carry from our age to the next generation those gifts that those who come next, both men and women, (for we build being in both) might be ready to take the baton and run the race.  Woman by her very design has a unique bond to the next generation and in giving life to that whole generation, she naturally gives something of herself away by flowing from one place in time to another.

Does this mean that a woman who is celibate or unable to bear children is not participating in the vocation of womanhood?  Heaven forbid!  [Does it mean that every woman who biologically bears children has entered into the spirit of motherhood?  No.  I have met women who have birthed even seven children but whose spirits treat motherhood as an imposition.]  The capacity of the woman's body to bear children tells a story of how all of us as women impart life.  A celibate woman is uniquely freed in the Church to minister the mother love of the Church to the world.  Edith Stein, a celibate Jewish Christian in Nazi Germany who died for her faith, wrote extensively about women bringing a unique gift of motherhood in the work place.  Her book of essays, Woman, is definitely worth reading to expand our understanding of the gift women bring to society when they choose to be mothers (even when it is not biological). Recovering the gift of Motherhood in our generation means recognizing and valuing the diverse ways in which this mothering identity brings healing to the world.  Turning away from the posturing of mothering has affected us on all levels, even in the world of academia and the marketplace.

This beautiful gift of imparting being as mothers is the very gift women are trying to shake off.  I read recently that 40% of German female graduates are choosing not to have children.  The government said that if the birthrate in Germany does not go up, they will eventually have to "turn out the lights," meaning say goodnight to what was once "Germany."  Not one country in Europe has a replacement population level.  Whole populations are facing demographic crises as women define their lives away from the calling to motherhood. (I recommend the DVD, "Demographic Winter," a sobering evaluation by secular social scientists on the depopulation crisis).

America is a little better off, but the attitude toward childbearing is quite charged with ambivalence. Just follow the recent national conversation on motherhood in the Wall Street Journal or read the books on motherhood published in the last five years. 

Pope Benedict spoke to this resistance to bearing children:  "Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.  Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present." So why are the women of our generation so ambivalent toward being mothers?  Well, it is hard.  And it is a sacrifice. And women say that there is a lack of childcare options.  But I think Pope Benedict put his finger on the real issue:  children appear to be a threat to self-actualization.

Women are resistant to the limitations motherhood imposes on their own ambitions--a limitation very different than fatherhood.  It is easy for us to think that men get it all--successful career and the chance to be a parent.  This creates resentment, partly because increasingly it seems to be the reality that when women have both, they lose on both fronts. That is because men do not create a home like women do, and women have a deep longing to bring soul to the home even if much of their energies are expended outside the home.  So they feel torn and stretched.  Men can sacrifice themselves for present success and gratification.  The sacrifices a mother makes are often invisible to the world outside, are not rewarded with a raise in pay, and the results are only manifested in the future. For this reason, a mother would have to be motivated by the future joy and assurance of her essential identity in the master plan of the world to make these sacrifices over and over.

From the outside, simply imagining motherhood or hypothesizing about it only allows a mathematical evaluation of loss.  The reward of LIFE, indeed multiple lives, however, that is woven into the fabric of her life, and even her body, becomes a masterpiece of art that is its own discovery and treasure, but is only unveiled as she steps into the sacrifice. The benefits and rewards are immeasurable.

I am going to share a personal story that carries a symbolic import of every woman's fear of giving life that results in her own loss of life.  After four happy births complicated by manageable post partum hemorrhage, my fifth birth was a beautiful and fast birth that quickly turned into trauma by bleeding that would not stop.  After a great deal of medical intervention brought the bleeding under control, I was relieved that I had been blessed with five healthy children and was alive to raise them.  Imagine the shock when three years later, at age 45, I found I was pregnant.  For nine months,  I suffered with fear of losing my life--not just for myself, but for my husband who would have to raise all these children alone, and for my children who would grow up without a mother.  I went in and out of trusting God with my life and knowing my times were in his hands.  I worked closely with a midwife, surgeon, a hematologist, and the hospital to do what we could to make a plan.  But I knew enough about birth to know that no plan could insure that I and the baby would make it out alive. This experience became for me the inner struggle played out in a physical way.

I think on a metaphorical level, we often face into a primal fear of losing ourselves if we give life to another. We forget that the one who maneuvers to save his life, finds himself without life in the end. The one who lays down his life for Jesus' sake and the Gospel's, will find life.  Imparting life by necessity requires parting with life as we understand it.  The promise is that life will be returned to us--a kind of divine exchange.  "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (John 12:24ff)

I recently read a poignant article by the daughter of the stridently feminist author, Alice Walker.  Alice raised her daughter to despise motherhood.  Her daughter resisted motherhood in attempt to imitate her own mother.  When she finally had a child, she realized in deep regret what she had missed her whole adult life.  She was now awakened as a mother in her own being, and she had to reckon with the way in which the freedom that had been sold to her had robbed her of years of meaning that were unrecoverable.  You can access this article here:  

If you are a Christian, then you belong to Christ--the whole of you.  God gets to decide how your intellect is used and fulfilled, how your gifts are used, how your education is used, how your body is used, how your time and creative energy is used.  What if God decides that your children need your education, your gifts, a good parcel of years, and most of your creative energy?  Our current culture would say that it would be a waste for you to give all of that to children.  You were made for more or educated for more.  Our vision for the future has stopped with ourselves.  We cannot see that the future generation will have very little to give because it has received so very little from us.

Various legitimate reasons emerge for a woman to work outside the home, the details of which deserve their own conversation.  The point I am making is that we must give motherhood its proper priority.  In helping young women plan their future, we should be helping them plan a life that has room for imparting being (especially to children God may give them) because if not, their creative energy will be in so much demand elsewhere.  It is hard to choose to give that mothering FIRST to one's own children, and it is certainly not as gratifying in the short term.

Edith Stein said, "Whatever is surrendered to God is not lost but is saved, chastened, exalted, and proportioned out in true measure."  Mary is an icon for all of us of our relationship to Christ.  We are all called to carry Christ to the world.  We are all called to become less as Christ becomes more.  It is the seed that goes down alone into the earth and dies that bears much fruit.  I understand now what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that women would be sanctified through childbearing--it is how we can become like Christ in our giving up of self for the sake of new life.  It is the Christian lesson available to women in a particular way.

After nine months of trying to trust God for my life and future, the birth of our sixth child took place during a blizzard of epic proportions.  I began to bleed during labor from a placental abruption, forcing the hospital staff to go out with an emergency vehicle and get the surgeon who could not get out of his driveway.  As they wheeled me into surgery, I was panicked.  Would this sweet baby who I already loved live?  Would I live?  In my swirl of overwhelming emotions, I knew I needed to still myself and be present to God, who was with me in this valley of death.  I quieted myself and listened.  I was surprised at what I heard.  I heard God whisper to me among the beeps and buzzes of machines, in the gathering of the crowd of surgical nurses, anaesthesiologists, surgeon, and so many others, and this is what I heard:

"Thank you."  Thank you.  I asked you to walk into your deepest fear;  I asked you to lay down your body because I wanted this person at this intersection in history, and you had to be his mother.  Thank you for being open to giving life.  I can thankfully say that Becket and I are both alive and well.  It could have turned out differently but still with a result of the victory of life.

We as women have a choice before us:  will we ensure the survival and success of the human race?  This seems extreme, but it is exactly that crucial. Whole cultures and people groups are soon to disappear because women are saying, "No. I won't do it.  Make it worth my investment."

Sacrifice of self is required for future generations to thrive.  The beauty is that when we choose to make that sacrifice, we find we become someone we would not have become otherwise because we find that we walk into who we were created to be.  Our beings expand as we give being away.  Before I became a mother I had grandiose visions for myself.  I was going to change the world, write books, adventure into difficult places, be recognized for my gifts to the world...all for God, of course. What I didn't realize is that God wanted to perfect me in love.  He was not so concerned about all I would do for him.  Motherhood taught me the greatest lessons in becoming less. Instead of doing great deeds, I was taught to do small deeds and realize their secret grandeur.  All the desire for recognition was slowly rung out of me, and my desires became more aligned with God's call to smallness for the purpose of fruitfulness. 

Maybe it is time for women to give the world what it so desperately wants and needs--motherhood.  And in so doing, we might just find ourselves.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Endurance, Part II: Teaching our Children Endurance

Life can be hard; wouldn't it be better to give our children a childhood of leisure and then when they have to face deprivation or difficulty let them deal with it as it comes?  After all, how could we ever prepare them for the kinds of trials they will face?  People can never fully be ready for some of the tragedies life might have in store.  True, much of the shaping from a trial is what happens when in the trial already, but we can prepare children with a capacity to handle hardship so that once they are in one, they have emotional resources to press in and discover God.  

As parents, we must not shield our children from having to learn endurance.  Instead we must take opportunities that surface and even create opportunities to teach our children endurance, so that when they face difficulties they will have the inner resources to weather storms.  After all, who would you rather be on a wilderness trip with:  someone who had endured an Arctic exploration with limited rations and trying temperatures, or someone who has never been out of their own living room?  We lean into people who know how to face a difficult situation, and we want our children to become adults who can endure hardship without complaining and know how to sail their boat in a storm. Just as drills in a sport prepare athletes for the games in which skills and endurance are required, we must prepare our children for all the game of life will require of them.

Some of the ways we have helped our children build endurance (and we are still in the training zone!!)  is through  hard work, strenuous physical activity, expecting a non-complaining spirit and a resourceful attitude in bothersome daily trials, regular investment in the development of skills, and coaching them through difficult life situations.

It is extremely important that we teach our children to work hard.  It is a temptation to do everything for them, but this creates an expectation of being waited on and the lack of skill to approach a difficult task, plan how to tackle it, and then carry it out in a timely fashion, and then be rewarded with the result. But we train them to do hard work by first doing it with them.  If children feel like you are trying to get out of work, they will follow your example.  Instead, they must see that we too work hard. Once we enter in and show them how to manage a difficult work project, we can now ask it of them without our help. When a truck dumps a large mountain of mulch in our driveway, my husband tells the kids to get busy with shovels and the wheelbarrow and tells them where to spread it.  All ages will work for hours and are rewarded by a job well done, a great sense of teamwork, and the surprising realization that they could do it.  Because my husband used to do it with them, now the olders can do it with the youngers and show them how to do it.

Strenuous physical activity is a great way to accompany children in their development of endurance.  My husband hikes with our children every week, and by the time the baby is not in the backpack, he must keep up with everyone else or ride on someone's back or shoulders.  (If we trek through snow, the youngest can be pulled on a sled).  Stewart always tells them, "Ruchs don't complain.  Ruchs are strong.  They endure long walks."  And the children rise to it.  They do not want to be the weak link, and they are praised for their endurance.  "Did you know that Nathanael hiked three miles today and didn't utter one complaint?" someone will say.  Every summer the older children get to go on a day hike on the Appalachian Trail with their dad.  It is a coveted rite of passage to be considered capable of accompanying them.  Nathanael was just asking the other day if we think he is ready.  Stewart responded, "It's mostly about your attitude.  I know that you are capable of doing it physically;  let's see if you will be ready to be cheerful the whole way."  This communicates the expectation but also the confidence we have that someone can be a great companion in a test of endurance. Being pleasant in strenuous activity, as well as waiting without complaining builds endurance.  We can cast a vision for our children of becoming people capable of enduring by focusing on something worthwhile.  Jesus endured by focusing on the JOY set before him.  We can help our children see that deferring pleasure is a sign of maturity.

Children learn that they actually can be hot or cold or thirsty or hungry or squashed...and be OK.  I was deeply moved to hear of some missionary neighbors of ours who have eight children and were in some financial difficulty.  They had run out of grocery money, and the children initiated, "Let's just eat two meals a day.  It will be a fun challenge to see if we can make the food we have in the house stretch until pay day!" And they did it, and had a close community experience of enduring together, what to an American is unthinkable, but really is a minor hardship when one considers what kind of hardships are faced in the rest of the world.  It also gave them a solidarity with those who do not have enough everyday over and over again.

Chores are essential to a child's developing work ethic and a healthy attitude toward tedious work. Young children can unload dishwashers, restock toilet paper in bathrooms, empty trashcans, wipe the table, sweep the floor, vacuum, dust.  Older children can do deeper cleaning, wash dishes, take out garbage, bring down laundry, do laundry (our sixteen year old does all the family laundry as her chore). At the end of the day, we have zones assigned to each child;  younger children team with an older one. They are responsible for straightening the whole zone.  When they finish their zone, they go to the other children and ask if they need help (that is because some zones get used more on some days than others).  This morning our nine year old and six year old did an hour and a half of snow shoveling, including cleaning off the cars.  After having done it multiple times with Dad, then with older siblings, now they can do it alone.  We praise them and let them know how mature they are becoming...and try to have some hot apple cider or tea ready for them when they come in frosty from the snow.

Recently, I asked my nine year old boy to clean the bathroom at some point during the day.  I was surprised when he immediately started on it.  I said, "Good job for just going for it right away and for doing such a thorough job."  He responded, "I just want to get it over with."  I assured him that even I have to approach certain tasks that way with only the reward of completion as a motivation, and that he was showing maturity by facing into a tedious task and enduring it for the reward of seeing it done.  This helps children learn that they can actually face into a difficulty, endure it, and get through it, sometimes with surprising pleasures along the way of companionship and a sense of expansion in their maturity.  It also makes them aware of what it takes to run a home and family, and much more appreciative.

BUT, it is important not to give a child a task at which he cannot succeed.  For instance, sending a child into a room that is in disastrous shape and asking her to clean it up, will probably result in tears. Even adults have trouble attacking a mess.  So you train them by doing it with them until they learn.  It is very important to take the extra time to teach your children to work when, at the beginning, it would be much easier to do it all ourselves.  If you do this over and over, eventually you will reap the reward. The other night we left our fourteen year old boy home babysitting his younger three brothers.  He heated up dinner on the stove, fed them all, put them all to bed (including the baby), washed the dishes and then straightened the whole downstairs.  If we had asked this of him before he was ready, he would have felt overwhelmed.  We now are blessed with the benefit of teaching them to work and expecting it as their contribution.  This builds endurance and a proper understanding of the life rhythms of hard work and play.

Let me be clear, building this kind of endurance in children takes endurance on the part of the parents. I find myself reminding, cajoling, making charts that sometimes work, coming up with a new system or plan that I'm sure will be more effective this time, etc.  But sticking with it through the up's and down's of successes and disappointments will bring a long term result that is beneficial for the whole family. So anything I say in this post that is a good result has behind it the wringing of hands, even the weariness of staying on top of children who naturally want to take the easy road.  Eventually, though, they do get an expectation of hard work and endurance into their cells, and then it is self-propelling because the younger children want to emulate the older ones.

Besides hard work and strenuous activity, the regular practice that sports and music provide has been a great way for us to teach our children diligence in hardship.  Discovering that not every good thing comes easily is a dear life lesson.  The delight of watching our children experience the fruit of years of investment in daily practice blesses us not just because they have skills to carry with them their whole lives, but in the process they have learned what it takes to become proficient at something--hard work and persistence, in a word, endurance.

We don't always have to create opportunities for our children to learn endurance, however, as life often provides unwanted opportunities.  Children will watch how we endure trials and be schooled by it.  Do they see us calling out to God in a financial difficulty or health crisis and drawing on God's Word?  Or do they see us self-piteous and self-indulgent with our reactions, angry and fatalistic ("of course this would happen to us!").  When our children face trials of their own, it is crucial that we walk them through the opportunity to be transformed in the midst of it.  Our oldest son had years of learning struggles.  He would cry almost everyday with disappointment and frustration.  He didn't understand why learning was so easy for his siblings;  he was embarrassed to be in a group and not be able to read or write well.  I would sit with him and cry with him but also have to help him look to God for the work God was doing in the midst of the trial.  My husband and I would say to him over and over, "For some reason, God is allowing this trial for you because it is essential in shaping you for who he has called you to be.  You must trust him and look for his grace in the middle of it."  Now we are beyond so much of that struggle, and I can see some of the fruit of the years of endurance for him.  He is such an empathetic person, able to imagine someone else's pain.  Because he was a late reader and had to listen to audiobooks for hours, he has been shaped by story and is uncommonly good at grasping metaphor.  These trials have also kept him humble, considering that he has so many other things that could make him proud.

One of the greatest difficulties with watching our children have to endure a trial is that we so keenly want to spare them pain.  We would not be good parents if it did not make us ache to see our children suffering. This always takes us deeper with the Lord ourselves to have to cry out for his mercy and his wisdom.  But it also stretches our faith to believe that they belong to God, that his love for them is even greater than ours. Some of my children have had to endure things that I so deeply wished I could have spared them.  The Lord has reminded me that that will be a part of their story, and that place in their souls where they are distressed will be a place where they can experience the love and healing of the Lord.  This will be a part of their journey that I cannot control.  I can pray and be there to process with them and love them, but they will have to walk it out over the course of their lives.  And that is something that we say to them, encouraging them that we are confident that God can use all that we surrender to him to shape us into complete, mature, and beautiful people.

Reading stories to our children of people (including children) who have endured hardship and been virtuous in the midst of it, fills their imagination with models of who they want to emulate and gives them hope in their own trials.  Our family has been listening to the series by Ralph Moody, Little Britches and the several after that.  These are autobiographical about a boy whose father trained him to ranch and then died when his son was age 11, leaving him to provide for his family.  We have listened to these stories because they are beautifully written and spin a great yarn, but the side benefit is that they have provided perspective for our children on how resourceful a child can be and how hard one can work when the situation requires it.  Our children realize that they have a pretty easy life when compared to Ralph Moody.  Biographies are often a great resource for stories of endurance because we get a perspective on the lives of these people that they did not even have during their lives, and it reminds us that we, too, cannot see the full arc of our lives and how all of it will fit together.

If we are ever in a time of trouble, we want people next to us who have endured hardship, have withstood the test, and can then help us do the same.  As we develop endurance ourselves, may we be coaching our own children to be those who can face a storm, know how to steer the boat, and find Jesus on the waves.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weathering a Storm: The Unsung Virtue of ENDURANCE

Just the other day my two year old and six year old received some Santa stickers in the mail.  My six year old was cutting out the face of Santa to make it into a Grinch.  My two year old was running around the house screaming, "He is cutting Father Christmas! He is cutting Father Christmas!"  He began to attack his brother to protect Father Christmas.  Now I observed all of this and realized there was nothing I could do to appeal to Becket's "higher self," except to insist that he stop pounding on his brother.  In his mind, he was being a valiant protector of Father Christmas.  We would all have to endure this phase in our two year old.  He was incapable of understanding how creative his brother was being and how nothing harmful at all would happen to the real Father Christmas (hmmm...another layer of complication).  So we extend grace to Becket and weather the storm.  Some trials we know will pass, such as a developmental phase in a child.  And yet, these trials must still be endured.

Certain seasons of my parenting have required more coffee than others while I stay up and wait for the developmental change to arrive and relieve all of us--such as the "child hates bathing phase," when we have to spend precious emotional capital and get wet all over every time we decide we can't put off the bath one more week.  Or the night fears, or the night waking.  Or the child who is deeply hurt in a friendship.  Or what about the phase of "My Do It"?   Every task becomes a power struggle and a clean-up.  Or the phase of fighting every diaper change?  Many times my husband and I have looked at each other and said, "Oh, that phase.  How long does that last again?"

I have been reflecting on this virtue of endurance for awhile.  Normally when we talk about "enduring" a season or something painful, we make it sound like we simply grit our teeth and wait for the tide to change. This is definitely a part of it.  We are withstanding a trial, in other words, we are doing all we can simply to stand in a storm and not cave into our baser natures.  But the good news is, when we endure and simply feel like we are waiting for this to pass, great inner transformation can be at work.  In some ways, it is as if God is helping us grow up, taking us through developmental stages of maturity in which we do not have the capacity to see the whole picture, and he weathers it with us.  Otherwise, why would Scripture tell us that endurance produces character, and eventually hope, which actually opens us up to love and the Spirit of God?

"We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." (Romans 5:3)

According to the Webster dictionary, endurance is "the ability to do something difficult for a long time," or "the ability to deal with pain or suffering that continues for a long time."  Enduring great trials over time builds character.  

And it takes character to live in hope.  It takes character not to look to the present to meet all of our desires and needs and truly to believe that this is leading to good.

We have all heard of the process of refining gold and silver, and how it requires sustained heat over time.  Somehow certain aspects of our character only change when we are pressured over time, and slowly, as we submit to the trial, we find we become stronger, more mature in our ability to handle difficulty.  We grow muscles that can carry more.

In endurance, we are forced to go deeper, beyond immediate reactions, and face into the reality of the journey, including our own expectations, limited resources, and immature responses.  If we must be in this for the long haul, what must change in us to make that marathon possible?  It is almost like we as children exhaust our ranting and raving and finally quiet down to hear what we're being told.

Most of the trials that make up our lives are the trials that will prepare us to endure the big trials.  This is the stuff of everyday--an illness, a child who is struggling, an unresolved argument, lack of sleep, a financial difficulty, an abscessed tooth (I reference this because that was my trial a few weeks ago).

But some trials require an extra amount of endurance.  These are the trials that often go for years.  It is the years of lack of sleep, the long term illness, the child who will always be suffering, the loss that is ever present, some constant inner battle, a parent who is deteriorating, a deep betrayal, single-parenting, political chaos.  Endurance on this scale puts the other smaller trials in perspective.  For instance, I have a dear friend fighting breast cancer while still trying to raise a family and plant a church alongside her husband.  When my sister's newborn baby was diagnosed with a brain tumor, they knew that some aspects of the years that would unfold would simply exercise their virtue in endurance, and it did for eleven years.

My husband and I watched a documentary on the underground Chinese church.  Some of these leaders had been imprisoned for years at a time and were interviewed.  We kept looking at each other and saying, "Who are these people?  What rare Christians--so full of hope, joy, and complete surrender."  One interview has continued to stay with me.  It was with a man who had been in prison for eleven years, out for a few, and then arrested again.  He said that the second time in prison he was in despair, crying out to God, "How long?  Just tell me how long I will be here so that I can brace myself. Is it as long as the first time?"  He said he felt alone and that God was silent.  When he finally said to the Lord, "OK, you don't have to tell me how long this will last.  I will simply trust you and be here in this place with you," the joy of the companionship of God Himself flooded him.  He didn't have to know.  God was with him in the dark.

Endurance requires stepping into, not away from, the trial.  It means entering into the unknowns of the trial--"I really have no idea how long this will go on and what will happen to me along the way." It means getting out of the boat in the storm to meet Jesus. The temptation in trials is to distance ourselves from God, who we see as responsible for not removing this trial.  This pulling away will strip us of all the grace to endure.  Instead of wasting our time being angry at God that he has allowed a storm, we need that attentive voice to hear Jesus saying, "Come to me on the waves in the storm.  You will find that you are walking toward me regardless of the storm."

The Lord brings all kinds of unexpected grace when we walk with him in a storm or valley.  Gifts abound if we live in acceptance, instead of bitterness and resistance.  We must put away all self-pity and complaining if we are to receive the help he is providing. Some of the graces I have found in trials involve: humor; coffee and other simple pleasures; surprises in relationships; an awareness of inner change; unexpected encounters with the Lord in Scripture, prayer, and the Church; prophetic words from others that are sustaining; nature and the beauty of the outdoors; music; wonderful story through books and edifying movies.

Gratitude for the small blessings is also a vehicle of grace.  I keep a notebook of gifts that I might otherwise miss, such as "the oak leaf hydrangea in full bloom," "Becket's little voice and his hand on my cheek," "Madeleine crocheting on her great, great grandmother's bed." "Boys in the snow," "Gillian drawing mice."

When you accept that you must step into a trial and draw close to the Lord, hope begins to stir.  God gives more expansive vision for your life.  Where you once just wanted relief or comfort, now you want meaning, transformation, connection, a deep settledness that is not so easily over turned.  You want to be more rooted in love so that the storms do not sweep you away.  A gift of perspective is imparted, and you find yourself maturing.  In looking back after having endured a trial, you realize you are different now.  You have been transformed. My sister and brother-in-law just lost that child of eleven years who had had the brain tumor.  Jeff says that reading Scripture now he finds himself weeping for joy for the hope he has in Christ.  They endured and found the gift of hope.

Some people feel their whole lives have been one long road of endurance, and that all has been drained from them simply to be able to stand against wave after wave.  I have met some of these people, and those who have stood with Christ don't even realize that they have been seasoned by storms, and a time will come, if it hasn't already, when what they have to offer to others will be something as solid as smooth stones weathered to perfection, unmoved and unimpressed by roiling waters.  These people, even if hidden to us, are a testimony beyond this world even to the spirit realm, as Job was to the darkest of creatures.  We have no idea the cosmic reach our endurance achieves.

Next time you realize you must simply endure something (which is not so simple), consider the opportunity provided to get closer to Jesus on the waves.  As you stand firmly, facing Jesus with a wave about to take you under, you might just find yourself walking on the water.

Verses on Endurance:

Luke 21:19:  "By your endurance you will gain your lives."

Romans 15:4-6: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.  May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Colossians 1:11: "May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance, patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light."

Hebrews 12:1-2: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Revelation 13:10: "If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes;  if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.  Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints."

II Timothy 2:12: "If we endure, we will also reign with him."

Hebrews 10:36: "For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised."

Hebrews 12:7: "It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons..."

I Peter 2: 20: "But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God."