Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Meditation or Mediation: The power of meditation to live in the moment

This Advent I have been convicted about the Christian discipline of meditation.  This is a practice that requires more intentionality than I have been giving it.  I have been tracking what thoughts I naturally "fall into" when my mind has available time and also been aware of trying to give my mind more opportunity to reflect.

Long ago, people lived in the company of their own thoughts and in the companionship of friends and family.  If there was music, it was live music.   If someone was sharing ideas or thoughts, it was in person, which made real dialogue possible.  If someone far away wanted to communicate with another, it was through a messenger or a carefully written letter that required a level of reflection. Books required time to sit and ingest ideas or stories.

I actually live in the blessing that texting and phone calling has given when my daughter is in college and my family far away.  The geographical scope of the Gospel has expanded because of radio and computer technology.  I recognize the benefit of disseminating information quickly and the time savers that email and other technology provide. But these benefits have come with a grave cost--primarily to our own ability to be present in the moment.

For one, our time is not freed up, for we only expect more of ourselves and others.  We have more devices to check in with.  Teenagers today have to check Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, texts, and maybe email...many times a day.  I don't know of a moment that teenagers have that is quiet with their own thoughts.  Research shows that it is most likely that it is a new kind of addiction. People are unable NOT to check these apps and devices out of a panic that they will be left out.  And yet teens are more lonely and isolated than ever before.

With the advent of Snapchat, comes the constant distancing oneself from one's own life, observing it, sending it out in bites, not living in it, being alive in the moment to what is happening, what someone is saying, what God might be saying. It is a constant, "How might this look in a photograph?  How can I in this moment let others see my life?"  This level of self-awareness can hardly lead to a healthy understanding of one's place in the kingdom of God, a place that requires me to shed self-consciousness and do the hidden but essential work of life.

Over time, technology has made it possible to have a virtual connection with many others who are not present, to spout off ideas that have not had time to gestate, to live with a constant input of thoughts that are never truly explored, encouraged to grow, or allowed to unfold and be challenged. We are never alone long enough with our own thoughts to have a meaningful inner dialogue that can even come under the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah says, "You will keep in perfect peace him whose imagination is stayed on you because he trusts in you."  Is so much of the anxiety in our lives and the lives of our children because our imaginations are unmoored, controlled by whatever images and words we release through the touch of button?  And then we have no time to pray and reflect on what we have seen and heard and ask God to align it with what he says and what is real.  Are our imaginations rooted in God and do we have a disposition that trusts God?

If not, I think that some of this is the lack of time and space for meditation. Psalm 1 describes the one who is stable and blessed.  This same one is not walking, standing, or sitting in the way of the wicked, the the sinners, or the mockers.  I would say this paints a picture of a progression of commitment and time to what is not kingdom thought in contrast to the one who is rooted, fruitful, and prosperous like a tree.  This one meditates on the law of the Lord day and night.

How is that kind of commitment to meditation possible?  I would say it has to start with available mental time and space that we intentionally do not fill with technology.  The music we listen to should lead us into thoughts that are good, true, beautiful, noble, commendable, pure, just, and excellent (Phil. 4:8--incidentally the instruction given right after the command not to be anxious about anything).  We should have some car rides that are silent, walks that allow us just to be present to our own thoughts.

I remember many times when my parents (missionaries to Brazil) had to wait in line, a daily activity.  I would ask, "Do you have anything to do?  They would say, "We'll just pray."  They taught me to pray through the alphabet, one letter at a time, all names in my life that I could think of that started with that letter.  (This is a method I use to help me get to sleep sometimes).

Giving oneself available mental space is only the first step to meditation.  This does not imply that being alone with one thoughts will not produce anxiety.  Sometimes one's meditation is frought with anxiety.  That is when the help of beautiful music, books, community, constant exposure to God's Word and the Church will help shape the meditation of one's heart.

Pope Paul VI said, "We know perfectly well that in order to listen to [God's] voice, a bit of calm and tranquility must reign.  We must keep ourselves far from all intimidating excitement or nervousness and be ourselves."

As we come into Christmastide, consider carefully whether or not you want to give your child that iPhone.  Be countercultural and stand up against the onslaught that such technology brings into the home.  Give them the gift of being more able to be present to their own family, their own lives, their own thoughts, and their God.  After all, God came in the flesh.  We have to be looking up to see him.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

An Elegy for Gender? The Encroachment of Androgyny

"REALLY? You think you received something different from your mother and father?" is a question my college student daughter was recently asked in disbelief by a group of young women and a professor. These are all Christians.  In their perspective, mother and father are interchangeable in terms of what they give their children--neither has something unique to give that the other could not just as easily give--if it was in their personality to do so.  Man and woman are just not that different.

So here we are, having to defend the uniqueness of gender.  In spite of having all of art history and the canon of literature defending in image and story the uniqueness of man and woman, as well as biology itself,  it is a difficult conversation to navigate.  It is not in a list or a description of roles that one could outline the differences in the two genders.  It is captured in the heart.  But we are now pressed into definitions out of desperation to preserve something so precious that is being lost in this generation.

I cannot understand why it is so attractive for men and women not to have unique contributions to the world. And the people that are pushing hard for this are women...and the men that take up their cause.  Do we really need to begin a different kind of feminism: The need for Woman?  I think that probably women just don't want the unique aspect of Woman to be what it is.  Power, influence, recognition, worldly reward seem stacked on the other side.

This position--that women and men are not essentially different is nothing other than gnostic. Gnosticism is a shunning of the material in favor of the spiritual.  It is an elevation of mind and soul over the body.  It believes in a special knowledge that frees us from material constraints.  This is an ancient heresy that the early Church had to fight against in its understanding of Jesus.  Gnostics were uncomfortable with the idea that God came in a body.  It is likely that this is what the Apostle John was identifying as the spirit of the antichrist, specifically that Jesus did not come in the flesh.

People are not disembodied minds and souls.  They come in bodies.  Male bodies and female bodies. Rather than be ignored, these bodies have something to say about our mission and meaning in this world, in the same way that Jesus' body, conceived in and born through the body of a woman, had something to say about his mission.

The primary metaphor in Scripture for God's relationship with humanity is marriage.  The Bible begins with marriage and ends with the great marriage feast between God and his people.  This image is completely disrupted as our culture lists toward androgyny.  When we move toward believing that gender is a cultural construct, we miss a world of meaning that God is revealing.

The next generation is the group of people we should be concerned about as we work on "enlightening" the world that men and women are not distinctly different.  That is because we are saying that children don't need fathers and mothers, just parents.  It is only a construct of society that a mother would be nurturing the next generation and the father fighting for it.  I am concerned that in this worldview, the next generation is neither being nurtured or fought for--the next generation is not really being considered.

My husband and I have been involved in years of healing prayer, and deep in the core of so many is the loss of mother or father love or blessing.  The older they get, they are awakened to the unfilled longing to be known and loved in the unique way that a mother loves and knows and a father knows and loves. They become more aware of the holes in their own souls. And though personhood or love or well-being is not scientifically measured, the lack of them is crippling.

My daughter has not been raised in an ideology but within a theology.  So when someone tries to categorize her and dismiss her arguments as "complementation" or "you just think that because..."or she tries to have a genuine discussion free of labels and power moves, she is shocked to find that even among Christians there is a politically driven way to think, and any thought outside of that stream is dubbed "unintellectual" or "narrow."

I want to explore who has a narrow view of women.  I think my daughter has the more expansive view, as she thinks that women actually can do things men can't do.  She actually believes that women are so important that they better not sabotage their own contributions.  She believes that a mother is so important that not to have one is a travesty that only God can redeem.

I am not saying that every child who is missing a mother or a father is going to limp through life.  A single parent who understands the masculine and feminine and the limitation of what he or she can give, can also search for other ways for the church at large and for spiritual fathers or mothers to bring that blessing into a child's life.  I have seen many single parents live this out in the context of prayer, presence, and the community of Holy Church.

In a debriefing of these conversations, Madeleine expressed that feeling of being called on to defend something so elemental and primal as "woman" or "mother" and being at a loss for words and feeling like an idiot.  I know the feeling.  Defending the calling and person of mother as unique from father is like explaining the universe, a cosmos with sun and moon--both of which are absolutely necessary to sustaining life.  Once we have to quantify, dissect, and chart mother love, we have already lost something so profound, I'm not sure where to begin.

Karl Stern, in his book Flight from Woman, describes two ways of knowing.  Whether or not one agrees with the labels he gives them, the paradigm is helpful.  One way of knowing is by analyzing parts of a whole, thereby coming to know the whole.  The second way of knowing is by embracing the whole, thereby coming to know the whole.  He calls the first a masculine way of knowing and the second a feminine way of knowing.  He goes on to show how since the Enlightenment we have been fleeing from the feminine way of knowing and exalting the masculine way of knowing.  By doing this, we only partially know our world and the people in it.

In an amazing twist, Stern takes on four philosophers who exalt the masculine way of knowing over and against the feminine way of knowing and shows how they came to their very positions THROUGH a feminine way of knowing--through dreams and revelations.  So even as they dismiss the feminine and exalt the masculine, their own ideas depended on the feminine.

In our exaltation of the masculine way of knowing over time, it is possible that we are even losing the capacity to receive something that is not scientifically verifiable as real and true, which is so much of our human reality--love, forgiveness, nurture, and so on.

This is not to say that women cannot know in masculine ways or men in feminine ways.  The hope is that we are blessed by our mothers and fathers in such ways that we have an integrated capacity to know. Nevertheless, there is a special way that women represent the transcendent movement of the feminine in the world, and that men represent the transcendent masculine, and both must bless the next generation with their powers and instincts that young men and women might not be trapped in a very small universe,  such as the one they are living in now.

The disregarding of feminine ways of knowing naturally leads to a disintegration of our understanding of first: women, and secondly: men.  This is because personhood, while it can be studied and appreciated even from a scientific perspective, is also mysterious and often best expressed in and through art and poetry.

Women's bodies are not just different.  The way they think is different.  The way they know is different.  The way they see is different.  The way they process is different.  And I would hate for all of this to go out of the world in our day.

The disintegration of Feminine and Masculine as movements in the universe will lead to chaos in family and culture.  If children don't need mothers and fathers but only loving caretakers, then why not same sex parents? And eventually...why not polyamorous families in which three people marry each other--isn't the love of three better than the love of two? After all, we have reduced child rearing to making sure the basics are covered: food, clothing, sleep, shelter, education.  A mother being bodily present in real time is no longer of primary importance in the shaping of a person.

Mothers impart something of LIFE that is not recoverable somewhere else.  Yes, a mother has a womb, and though science may someday be able to grow a baby outside of it, I think we still have the remnant of understanding that some deep psychological piece would be unformed in a child grown outside the body of a mother.  So we still agree that being in a mother's body is essential for the first nine months of a child's life, and that the mother is imparting something other than the cells and food. She is providing personhood.

The mother also has breasts that were put there to nourish the next generation, and her body tells us something of God's intent.  But the breast is not just to make the healthiest food for a baby. Something happens in a baby's person when he or she is held close to the mother hour upon hour, when her body says, "You cannot be away from this tiny person for very long or else this little one will go hungry." The father was not given the body to nurture the next generation in the same way. Mothers have a unique calling to nurture the next generation that involves their bodies.

The more we conveniently reduce our own unique contribution to the next generation, the less responsibility we feel, and the more children suffer from anxiety, depression, and lack of direction. And the less we want to be with them.

I have written more extensively about womanhood on this blog in my article, "What is a Woman?" In that article I speak to the conclusions that can be drawn from the importance of the uniqueness of a woman's body for all women, not just those who will nurture children.

The loss of our understanding of Man and Woman is real.  But even more real is the God who created Man and Woman in his image and is always at work in restoring what has been lost.  So we can never lose hope, and we have to live into our callings in such a way that we awaken that true desire in the world for Father and Mother, which, even in deprivation and loss, can lead one to God, the Father, and Holy Church, the Mother.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Naming a Child's True Self

Several years ago I looked out the window to see an eighteen month old child in only a diaper walking down the street drinking a coke.  Then I realized it was my child.  I wasn't sure where he had found a coke, but this was the least of my worries.  Twice this child had been delivered at my door by strangers who guessed he came from our house.  Once the police had been called and had to take a statement, which ended with the police saying Nathanael needed a bath.  For weeks I defended myself to the my mental dialogues. No matter how we locked our doors, the garage, the gate, this little Houdini could find his way out.

Twice when I was trying to leave the first service at church, he had run into the second service all the way down to the front where he waved his bag of snacks, laughing, challenging anyone to catch him, smiling at his dad who was trying to lead the service.

A bath, now, was out of the question, as that would have set off more neighbors calling the police for all the screaming and yelling, wailing phrases like, "Why are you doing this to me?" We started every bath by closing all the windows.

The difficulty with this child was that when he wasn't escaping he was clinging.  It was the strangest of combinations.  He would have to be touching me at all times, his preferred place to put his hand being in my armpit.  The only way I could make a meal was to sit him on the counter where he could keep his arms around my neck while I stirred from side to side.  When I had to work at the stove, I would send an older sibling out pushing him in a stroller around the block several times...often with him crying the whole time. When I took a shower he would cry outside the door for the full duration.  When I got up during the night to use the bathroom, he would follow me and have to stand by me the whole time.  This went on for four years, yes, four years.  I was truly desperate.  As an introvert, I was about to crack with the lack of physical and emotional space. Behind his back we secretly called him, "the Triplets."

As I prayed about him, begging God to change him, move him to a different stage, or something, God spoke to me the same thing over and over, "Receive him. For him to be the adult that he must be for my kingdom, this is the kind of child he must be."

The understanding the Lord extended to me and the vision for what Nathanael would someday be as an adult, carried me during those days.  I realized that his life would be one of high risk, stepping out and going far afield into places God would call him, but this would all be balanced with a high degree of connection, of knowing his rootedness at home.  Undeveloped, these qualities are difficult in a child, but shaped and directed, these qualities make for a great combination of independence and interdependence.

The Lord has shown me this in all of my children.  The nascent stages of many virtues, in a child, are raw, unformed, and challenging.  Perseverance in a child is frustrating, especially when he won't give up begging for that snack he must have.  Empathy in a child requires extra parental caution so that she doesn't see anything that will upset her equilibrium.  Artistic gifts in a child often mean an unfiltered imagination plagued by disturbing pictures or ideas. A high sense of justice in a child means he will monitor everyone, including his parents. A leadership gift in a child means she will assume she always knows what is best.  These potential virtues will drive us insane if we cannot see them as exactly that, potential virtues.

It is important, of course, to be clear that children have sinful hearts.  They will be rebellious, disobedient, and mean, simply because they are sinners.  But as we discipline these children, we must be in dialogue with the Lord to know what clearly just needs to be "put to death" and repented of, and what we can call forward in the true self.

Seeing the truest self in a child involves disciplining what is not the truest self.  As I discipline a child, I sometimes use the terms of Scripture, "This is your old self that you don't want to live out of."  Disobedience, selfishness and disrespect must be nipped in the bud, along with any dishonoring of others.  While disciplining, we are casting a vision for submission, love, and selflessness as the truest and new self they are to live out of.

We named our Becket after Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who refused to let the state dictate to the Church and was martyred for standing on his convictions.  As our world moves into greater conflict with the Church, we wanted our child to be strong and not capitulate.  Also the name Becket means, "one planted by the river," and when I was pregnant, our family was always singing the song, "Just like a tree planted by the waters, I shall not be moved."

In my worst moments, I wonder what we were doing to ourselves.  Becket is the childish embodiment of "I shall not be moved."  I don't know if I have seen a stronger willed child.

While Becket HAS to be disciplined for saying to us, "I will not listen to you," I at the same time am praying that he will say just that to the temptations of this world.  He has to learn submission to God and to authorities God has put in his life to be able to stand and say, "I will obey God rather than man."

And so, with each of my children I ask God to help me see the truest self underneath the behavior in order to call forward that which must be shaped and matured.  At the same time, I try to cast a vision for my other children to do the same for siblings.  So when Ellison was so difficult as a child, I used to act out scenes for my children of what it would be like when they were in college.  I would have a pretend phone ring, I would answer it and stage a dialogue between Madeleine and Ellison that showed a deep connection of love, fun, and trust.  They would laugh, but I think they caught the vision that someday if they gave each other grace, they would be mature and close.

We have to do this now with our older kids when they are putting up with Becket.  They would refer to him as "the monster." We put an instant stop to that.  We said if you want to call him a "strong boy who needs to learn how to control his strength," feel free.  I think we have allowed "Rajah," and "Norwegian Princeling," only because we all need to have some outlet of humor for what we deal with from day to day.  And we all share in the struggle together, praying for him, enjoying him, and even laughing secretly at his attempts to rule the world.  The olders now have perspective, too, because they have seen Nathanael slowly, and I mean slowly, emerge as a delightful, hilarious, athletic, engaging brother who adds so much to our family.

When the Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, Gideon was hiding from the Midianites.  The Angel addressed him, "The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor." God called forward in Gideon what he could see and what Gideon could not even see in himself, before he was anything resembling valiant.  How we label our children is extremely important.  We need to make sure that all labels call them outward and upward to something greater.  If you call a child shy, he will be.  If you call a child anxious, she will be.  If you call a child naughty, stupid, selfish or mean, he will be.  This does not mean that you don't say, "You are being mean right now.  I don't think that is the kind of person you want to be."

And if you call a child thoughtful, kind, intelligent, a hard worker, he or she will become all of these things over time.  Of course, you say what is real, but be aware that you have an immense power as a parent to shape what "real" will be. One of my greatest joys now is to see siblings blessing one another by saying, "You are really good at that." Or they might tell someone else, "My brother is amazing in this way," or "My sister is so good at..."

Years ago I remember a sociology professor in college sharing that when he was in elementary school his parents were called in to the administrative office where the school shared that this boy had scored in the genius category for math but was not showing it in his math performance.  So for all his school years he knew he was a math genius.  When he graduated from high school, his files showed that there had been a mistake.  His scores had been confused with another student's, and he had so long ago only tested average in math.  But it didn't matter.  He had since become a math genius.  So much more could be said about the biblical testimony of our becoming what we believe we are.

May God give us his eyes to see our children for what they can and will be, even in the midst of behaviors that belie their truest selves, and may we walk in faith, calling forward in them the man or woman they are created to be.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

True revelations: Outings with lots of kids

My friend Rachel and I, after many outings with our combined children, thought that we should publish a book that reveals the truth of what homeschooling or large family experiences are REALLY like, not the Christmas Letter version.  We often fantasized about this to try to bring some sort of artistic cast to one botched adventure after another.

We are both women who love ideas, reading, conversing over tea, and exposing our children to all that is beautiful.  The distance between our ideals and our reality is where we usually find ourselves living.

In light of our experiences, we thought we might offer up some of the lessons we have learned that might get you somewhere from our experienced reality to your ideals.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Plan your departure time within a three hour window.  Numerous things come up--nursing an infant, a blowout diaper, a fight that needs mitigation and subsequent discipline, the finishing up of food preparation.  NEVER expect to leave on time, even if you thought you were generous.

2. Plan easy food and lots of snacks.  This is hard if you have a friend like Rachel whose artistic expression is at its height in food.  One time she stayed up until two in the morning making cornish pasties for our trip to the museum in downtown Chicago.  Different pasties accommodated different food restrictions--the dairy free ones, the tomato free ones, the wheat free ones.  I made pumpkin squares, and we had thermoses of hot tea.  The fact that Rachel slowly pushed a stroller through the exhibits, commatose, diminished the enjoyment of the amazing pasties.  I finally had to curb Rachel's creativity with our co-op lunches, which took an unusual amount of time to prepare, especially the lovely salads with gourmet ingredients.  After I insisted on cheap rice and beans every week or hotdogs or lentils or tuna casserole, we received a letter via post from our children protesting the descent of our meals. I would recommend setting expectations low from the start.
3. If you are going to a museum, call ahead and find out what storage is available for all of the food that you will be carrying with you (since you cannot possibly feed 14 children in those expensive cafeterias).  We did not know that one museum we visited did not allow food even in their lockers.  Since our van was practically parked in a different state, we had to "hide" our food.  We had our children squeezing under bushes into secret parts of public gardens and hiding baskets and coolers.

4. Find out ahead of time if your large van will fit into the underground parking garages.  Measure your height so that you know when it says, "Clearing: 6 feet 7 inches," whether or not you will clear it. I have had to have children stand outside of the van and watch as we try to go under the clearing board to see if we can make it.

5. If you plan to be near any water, throw some old towels from Goodwill into the back of your van.  Let children get wet and dirty, but then have ways to clean them off.  How many times my seats have gotten soaked from wet and muddy children!  I actually keep a large cotton blanket in the back that can be used for spontaneous picnics or to cover seats if children have had an unexpected adventure.  Plan for any water to be an occasion for swimming.

6. Try not to draw attention to yourselves in museums.  Make sure children keep their shoes on, even though the marble may feel so good on their feet. And don't let them point out interesting things in the paintings with pencils; and whatever you do, don't let them climb on the banisters or fall asleep on the benches.

7. Check your calendar to make sure than none of your many children has a music lesson in the middle of your outing.  We have settled in to a nice wooded experience with our folding chairs and thermoses of tea, kids have just waded into the river and begun to find frogs, when one of us will be horrified to realize that one of the children has a music lesson.  Trying to reach the teacher becomes a feat (left the phone (if you have one) in the car, which is a mile away, don't have her number, or the phone is not charged, or she isn't answering).

8. Make sure the parent with the best sense of direction picks up the van.  We have packed up everyone, sent one parent for the van (which as I mentioned is a mile away), trekked with the nursing infants on backs and all the wandering, digressing children to the main road where the van should pick us up, only to wait for a lengthy time for the van.  On one occasion, a woman stopped to say that she saw a large white van wandering around, the driver of which had stopped to ask her for directions, and she wondered if we were the passengers for whom certain driver was looking.  I'm not sure why we looked like a group that belonged in a large van?

9. Beware of strange "hanger-on's" in wooded areas. Large groups of children attract adults who have never grown up.  On one river outing, we noticed some strange characters who then tried to join our picnic.  I had to tell Kevin that we did not know him and felt uncomfortable having him join us seeing that he was a stranger.  During this conversation, Rachel was leading a search party for our two boys who had gone way up the river.  (Note:  Even moms of lots of children who want their children to wander and be carefree worry about their children being victims.  This is normal.  The fact that Kevin's friends were not with him made our creative minds run wild into thinking he was distracting us while his friends went after the animals that were on the edge of the herd).  I told Kevin that I was glad to make a sandwich for him, but he would have to leave once I gave it to him.  He stood over me as I constructed the sandwich asking for more mayonnaise, and could he please have a second piece of bread on top of the sandwich.  I informed him that if we were having open faced sandwiches, so could he.  Kevin and his buddies were later found writing down our license plates and pretending to be cops.  It is a good thing that when the real cop arrived (we finally made the call), she was unfazed by our gaggle of children, as she herself was one of 12.

10.  I cannot over-emphasize the magnet that your group will be for people who want to be with you.  A certain Marcela is in one of our group shots at the Art Institute.  She said she was pregnant with her own granddaughter.  Even Rachel and I, who are very pro-life, could not believe that. (By the way, we got in trouble for climbing on that sturdy lion.  Don't do that when you come to Chicago).

11. Make sure that the river by which you plan to have your idyllic picnic is not one that has recently been drained.  The boys will not notice and will crawl in the mud slop just as happily.  They sat covered in mud while they ate their grilled chicken wraps with grilled vegetables.

12.  Make sure some child is wearing either a cape or a costume that ensures people will know you are homeschooled.

13.  When planning to depart for a full two family camping trip that will last several days, make sure that the husbands have engineering degrees or at least children who are gifted in such ways for the strapping on of the two kayaks, the sleeping bags that need to be packed inside boats, paddles, fishing poles, ten bikes, and tiki torches that go on outside the van.  For the inside of the vans: make sure you pack the children in first;  then you can put containers, tents, duffle bags, coolers, boxes of food, propane stoves, awnings, folding chairs, balls, BB guns, and dog all the way up to the door.   One time we realized the kids couldn't get out to go to the bathroom at a pit stop.

14.  Get a lot of sleep before you leave on a big camping adventure.  We left once when three of the four parents had gotten a half hour of sleep before leaving at 6:00am (we had planned to leave at 4:30am, but since we hadn't gone to bed yet, we indulged in a later departure).  The other parent who had clocked two hours of sleep was the designated grown-up.  One driver pulled into a gas station for gas, put his pillow on the window and promptly fell asleep.

15.  Pack for the right weather.  We have had to run into town to resale shops to buy every reasonable sweater we could find.  Rachel wore a sweater on her head one whole weekend.

16.  Don't worry about firewood.  Since you can never take firewood into forested preserves, just find it local.  Dead trees are all over the ground.  Just make sure you have teenage boys along with all of their saws and axes.  We have burned through a tree before just by sawing off sections into the fire.

17.  No matter what you do, take enough chocolate.

 In spite of all of your best laid plans that go awry, I can promise you that you will have a boat load of memories and shared experiences about which to reminisce.  Just maybe the ideal experience wouldn't have even made it into the long term memory.  The real memory was just so much more...real.

     In the words of the winged messenger, Nike, "Just do it."


Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Word that Dispels all Darkness: Staying Near Jesus in Holy Week

On the Mount of Olives by Nikolai Ge

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, when giving his nobel prize speech, said, "One word of truth will dispel a world of darkness."  This is the Solzhenitsyn who suffered long years in the Russian Gulag, where the darkness was formidable.  It was a time when hope seem buried in the snows of Siberia along with many of the people who tried to uphold truth and beauty.

Today as our world darkens with the violence of militant Islam, the distortion of gender and the meaning of family, with persecution and peril, with our own fear and cowardice, with selfish ambition, and greed, the Word is spoken that has and will dispel all darkness.

In case we are tempted to give in to despair or to wonder what God is about, God himself shows us. The word he speaks is himself given up for us all.  There is nothing he will not do for us.  In the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday, we will be with Jesus as he cries out to be saved from this hour. On Good Friday we will be at the cross where Jesus willingly offers himself to be betrayed by friends, stripped of influence and dignity, and humiliated so that in his death we could have life.

In the same way that in creation God spoke a word, and light exploded into all that was formless and void, Jesus' broken body is the one Word of Truth that explodes into history, dispelling our darkness.

Holy Week is the time to set aside all suspicion of Jesus, all ways that we doubt God's love.  He does not deserve it.  It is time to crush the head of the serpent who is always asking us if God has not withheld something good from us.  Holy Week is the final Word that he will withhold nothing.  He will lay down his very life for us.

We may be with Jesus in the Garden grieved and heavy, begging God for relief and to save us from this hour.  But he is with us, and if we stay with him, we will also share in the deliverance that does come because it is for us. Jesus asked to be saved from that suffering.  God answered his prayer by saving us.

We may be with Jesus at the Cross, broken, feeling forsaken, cast aside, more dead than alive.  But he is with us, and if we die with him, we will also share in his resurrection.

During Easter Vigil, when we are waiting at the tomb for some miracle, some hope, we can be confident that we will encounter Jesus.  We may not recognize him at first, but he will speak our names, and we will know him.

In November, my husband and son were in Nigeria, a country in which the persecution of Christians is a daily reality.  One day they were at Archbishop Ben Kwashi and Mama Gloria's compound where sixty orphans have been adopted and been given the Kwashi name.  Some bishops' wives had traveled there to help out and pray.

At one point, they were having a prayer meeting in the courtyard, and the Spirit was moving.  One of the bishop's wives said, "I would like to pray for all of the children who saw their parents murdered in front of them.  If that happened to you, please come forward, and we will pray for you."

All was silent.  My husband and son were paralyzed.  Were there truly children here who had suffered such an atrocity?  And if they were here, would they ever come forward?  It was silent and still for awhile.  All of a sudden, a small girl, maybe eight years old, stepped out, tears streaming down her face.  Then another, and another, until twenty five children were standing in the center of the courtyard.  By now, all were in tears.  The magnitude of this suffering in the lives of children seems insurmountable.  Did these Nigerian women gathered to pray believe that God could dispel such horror inflicted on the hearts and imaginations and lives of little ones and bring a resurrection?

Apparently, so.  They have faith in a God who wins out over evil.  They all circled around these children, all those mothers.  And they began to call out to God to bring his healing light to encircle and infill and uphold these children that now are his.

And God is doing it...through miraculous prayer moments, but also through the simple love in day in and day out meals and schooling and care from the Kwashis and others.

When we have questions, sometimes no number of words can satisfy.  The only answer to such evil or despair is only THE WORD, which is the incarnated Christ.  In Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, the character of Orual is writing her complaint to God.  And when she finally gets to face him with her accusations, she finds that it all turns to naught in her mouth.  Then she says this:  "I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer.  You are yourself the answer, and before your face all questions die away.

May we know again this Holy Week that Jesus has the last word, and he utters it with his very life, holding nothing back.

                       Crucifixion, Nicolai Ge
Crucifixion by Nikolai Ge

Stay close to Jesus, and you will share in the dawning light that will dispel the darkness, not only from the world, but from the very corners of your own soul where his light can seep in.  This is accessed simply by being with Jesus in confidence that his light is greater than the darkness of your confusion and doubt.  May your journey with him this Holy Week bring you into resurrection light.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Where Does My Help Come From? Living Life with a Challenging Child

It was a normal day in the Ruch family.  I was trying to be productive with three small ones with little to show for my efforts.  I needed to go to the store for some home items, so I packed the 5, 3, and 1 year olds in their carseats, tight as stuffed sausages because of all their winter garb.  We parked at T.J.Maxx, and I got the baby situated with a click, carseat to cart, my oldest daughter and son walking beside me.  I knew I was an idiot to try and go through this store accompanied by curious and creative children yet to be raised, but I had no other option.

About five minutes into our foray, I noticed my 3 year old son getting agitated.  He began to wander a few feet a way from me and refuse to respond to my instructions to stay close. I quickly began to put the things I needed in my cart, aware that the time bomb was ticking.  (I wish we as parents could know how long it will take the burning fuse to lead to the explosion.  I was too generous in my estimate).  My son was picking up speed;  he was dashing down aisles.  I was losing track of him.  The chase was on.

As my child whipped and twisted down aisles with crockery, ceramics, frames, and glass pitchers, I tried in my strained but projecting voice to demand that he stop.  It was only a challenge.  Though I was wheeling a cart and holding on to a five year old, I finally caught up to him, grabbed him around the waist while he kicked and screamed.  To be able to push my cart with my baby, I had to lay him down horizontally in front of her carseat while I speedily pushed toward the door.  I knew if I let go of him, he would run away.

By now, I was creating one of the scenes that give other mothers such pleasure.  Either they feel so good about their own parenting because no child of theirs would ever behave like that, or they feel gratitude to find out that they are not the only loser parents around.  I was sure some shopkeeper would dial DCFS with the way I was handling my son.  But it was the only way to get him out of the store.

I made for the door.  Somehow, while still holding on to the three children, I emptied the items in my cart, leaving them in a free cart, and rushed into the parking lot toward the van.  I managed to get everyone situated and turned for home.  But my son who had started into a full blown meltdown, was only beginning.  He managed to extract himself from his carseat and began running around the van screaming.

Pulling over in a parking lot, I called my husband in tears.  "I can't even get home," I said.  "Please come and help me."

This was the secret life with my son.  Few knew what our daily lives were like--the animalistic screaming and aggression, the forced feeding (the doctors said he had to eat), the sleepless nights, the fits that looked like seizures with writhing on the floor, the compulsive control (we must cross the street a certain way, if not, go back and do it again...if not, possibly a half hour of screaming?).  One day he screamed for 90 minutes.

I faced every day exhausted and with dread.  I cried in the shower and begged my husband not to leave me at home with him.  When I tried to describe him to others, I could tell that they couldn't even grasp the intensity of what I was trying to describe.  He would grow up;  I just needed to figure out how to discipline him. They had just never seen what it was really like inside our doors.  When a friend who had raised four boys (all one year apart) once witnessed a full-blown meltdown, she said she had never experienced anything like it in her life and could only sit and pray for me until it was all over.

How could I explain that absolutely no discipline seemed to accomplish anything?  I had even held him down in timeouts with a baby on my back while he kicked me and hit me the entire time. I had to keep my son separated from his sisters, cloistered in his room listening to audio books all day. I was seriously looking at a future with a family life so much different than what I had dreamed.

This was not the sum total of who he was.  He would often weep in remorse for rash actions he had done.  He was close to us and would let us hold him and even sleep with him when he was totally impossible.  He was clever and funny and had a sensitive heart.  But all of this was obscured by something much greater.

During these years, I prayed desperately for God's intervention.  People laid hands on him and prayed for him.  One day I was taking him to the doctor, and the Lord spoke to my heart before I left, "This doctor will have an answer for you."  When I described my son to the doctor, he cut me off and said, "He has allergies."  I was a little aghast.  Allergies could cause this level of neurological disturbance?  He recommended a book called, Is This Your Child? by Doris Rapp and gave me the name of a clinic we should take him to.

I came home and set to work on taking everything out of his diet that was a typical allergen.  He still was a mess.  We were down to quinoa and a "smoothie" I made every morning from sunflower seeds that had soaked over night, to which I would add a banana and vanilla.  Then one day, the same doctor called me accidentally when he was trying to reach someone else and happened to ask about my son.  He said, "Why have you not taken him to the clinic?"

I felt this was a nudge from the Lord.  So we began the long journey of allergy testing that builds an antigen that neutralizes the reaction.  It turns out Ellison was allergic to 18 molds.  It wasn't even foods, but environmentals.  And why the agitation in TJ Maxx?  He was allergic to formaldehyde present in most new clothing.  We did a long and extensive clean-up of mold in our home, and he started on daily shots.

The day after his first shot, he was a new person.  I was afraid to believe it.  Any one who knows him now at age 15 would never guess what he was as a child.  He is actually easy-going, affable, flexible, and full of life.  I felt like his true person emerged.  It was not the end of the trials, as he would still have reactions, but they became less and less frequent, and as he grew older, he was able to understand his own reactions and begin to manage them.

Ellison is not the only child I have had that was a challenge.  I have had the the garden variety willfulness, the children who can't stand tags or wearing clothes or baths or transitions. I have had the child that would not stop hanging onto me for four years, whose intensity and neediness exhausted all my energies.  I also have the boy that is the stereotypical storybook redhead--flying into rage at the slightest provocation, yelling things his older five siblings would never have dreamed of yelling.

My children eventually grow up and change, and I change.  I have lived with just enough to have the deepest empathy, however, for those who have special needs kids who don't grow out of their difficulties.  Instead, they just manifest differently at each new stage of life.  These people deserve our mercy, our help, and our solidarity.  It is a lonely life.

I know what it is like to have children that defy the books on parenting.  Certainly, I have been deeply helped by practical suggestions for connecting with and disciplining my children, for help with sleep or eating (all of these are a good place to start, and living on a strict diet has helped our family culture tremendously).  But when you have a challenging child, you feel isolated.  You fear that no one can understand what you live with day to day.  The techniques that work on other kids don't work on this one.  Getting out the door takes so much energy that you just aren't sure you want to go out.  But then, again, you feel trapped at home and it is hard not to blame this child for the absolute disruption of your family life and dreams.

So if I were to write a book on parenting, I would start with the premise that God is raising a parent. We have to be divested of our control issues, our dreams shaped by the culture around us, and our perfectionism.  He will reveal to us what we need to know about each child if we listen and receive his wisdom with the intent of using it (James 1:5-6).

To engage with the real family God has given us, we must relinquish our ideals.  The ideal becomes the enemy of the real.  As a friend with a special needs child said to me the other day, "I've become more thankful for the small things."  What makes a good day is the small things, the sunshine coming in the window, a child sitting still on your lap, a funny conversation with a four year old. And we always pray into the future as God shows us how to pray.

In all of my parenting years (and I have many more to go), I could not have lived without the prophetic words of encouragement that have come to me through Scripture and through others. When I was having a hard time not rejecting one of my own children because I felt he was sucking me dry, the Lord kept saying to me gently, "Receive him."  Many times I have felt like pulling back, and God calls me to press in, to love, to be vulnerable.  I must not escape in my heart, but I must pray.

I pray the promises of God over my children.  I pray that they will love one another.  I pray that all their challenges will lead to greater love for God and greater capacity to serve others.  We cannot lose vision because the present is challenged.

The other day my daughter came in from taking the SAT.  When her siblings, who were all in the basement, heard her voice, they came charging up the stairs and crowded around her, asking, "How did it go?  How did you do?"  I was touched because I realized that even with all the years of sorting conflicts, crying out to God for help, love had prevailed.

My desperate cries in the shower changed.  Now they are a call for the Holy Spirit to fill me for all the day requires.  God cannot do miracles as long as I insist they look a certain way.  He wants to do something that looks a little different.  And I don't want to miss it.

Where does my help come from?  The maker of heaven and earth, (Psalm 121). That is the kind of help I need: creative and ordered.  As long as God is my help, I can face the day or the child that is even now getting ready to press my buttons.