Friday, June 9, 2017

Into Abba's Arms

A few weeks ago, Story and I had a really bad day. May is a tough time to be a high school teacher. My students had spring fever, but I felt the constant pressure of needing to prepare them for their exams. We were in the midst of the busy (but fun!) arrangements for my brother's wedding, and I was getting increasingly uncomfortable in my six-months pregnant body.

One afternoon, I brought Story home and needed to get inside to make dinner. There is no harder time in my day than the hour or so before Andy gets home, when I am dead on my feet, and need to cook. This wasn't fun before Story, but now, I have the added challenge of a whining toddler who weaves in and out of my legs and intermittently falls onto the floor in tears of frustration because I won't stop what I'm doing to play with her. I've heard that this pre-dinner time is called the "witching hour" by some moms. I'd agree- I just don't know which one of us is the witch

So this bad day, Story and I had been playing outside, but I knew I needed to get in and start dinner. Since she wasn't obeying my commands (shocker), I picked her up to take her inside when I felt a sharp pain on my ample belly- she bit me!!! And it HURT! I got inside, in physical pain, but I was in worse shape mentally and emotionally. She'd been threatening at biting for weeks. But this was the first time she'd really gotten a chunk of me. My exhaustion, emotion and frustration collided. I gave her a spanking, sat her on a chair at the kitchen table and left her there, howling, as I went upstairs to change out of my work clothes. I needed space between me and her. I paced around my room, trying to calm down.

After a few minutes, I went back to the kitchen. She sat in the same spot I'd left her, red-faced, with steady tears coming down her face. Usually, when Story is crying, whether she's hurt or is in trouble, my heart breaks the minute the first tear falls and I pick her up and comfort her. But not this day. I'd had it. Had it with the whining, the demanding, the biting. Had it with the exhaustion and the dreaded hour of the witch. There was no nurturing touch in my hand as I yanked her up and put her in her high chair and placed some sort of leftovers in front of her.

Time passed, and Andy still wasn't home, so I got myself a plate and sat down at the table, not really making eye contact with Story, who had stopped crying and was occupied with pushing food from one side of the high chair tray to the other. But after she finished eating, I asked her to do something she refused to do, and this time, she swung her hand at me. She does this all the time. I think all toddlers do this when they are feeling frustrated. I usually calmly catch her hand, squeeze it and firmly say no. At most, I give the little hand a tiny pop that elicits some equally undramatic tears and then we move on. But this time I was enraged. First she bites me.  Then, while I'm still angry- she HITS me! I gave her the second firm spanking of the day, and left her standing in the kitchen howling while I cleared dinner plates.

Right about this time, Andy got home to his angry wife and screaming kid. I blurted out what had happened while he tried unsuccessfully to console Story. She ran into our den, still howling, and began to pace back and forth in there like a caged animal. Andy again tried to pick her up and comfort her- she really was a wreck. But she couldn't go to him. She was disoriented and devastated.

Maybe that was the moment I stopped being a witch. I went into the den and knelt down, arms open. Immediately, Story flung herself into them. her heavy head found my shoulder and she breathed ragged, tearful breaths into my neck.

A few days later, God used this moment to teach me something. Story created that situation for herself. She was defiant, mean, and hurtful. She made bad choices that led to consequences that left her confused and with hurt feelings. But in the midst of those consequences, her only desire was to be reconciled to the person who had exercised discipline in her life. That's why she wouldn't go to Andy for comfort. She could hardly even factor in that he was in the room with her. Things weren't right between her and Momma. And the world was upside down.

God showed me that I need to be like Story. No matter what has happened. Even when I am the maker of my own mess, I need to realize that my Heavenly Father's arms are always outstretched, and I need to run into them. Because, even though He is the one who exercises discipline in my life, He is the one that I need.

This year has been tough in many ways- our move, new jobs, new house and demanding routine. In the midst of that, we had to make some tough decisions about personal relationships that cast a shadow of loss over our little family. Tough, tight places like these are where God likes to do His disciplining work, but my first response isn't always pliancy of heart. I like to try to work my way out of those types of tough spots- with reasoning, distraction, or the sweat of my brow. When really, I'm similar to my toddler - my world is upside down. And I need the open arms that never stop loving me more than I need anything else.

I ran back into God's arms after this really tough day with Story. I could feel God start working in and through me again in ways that have renewed my soul so that I cross the "finish line" of this school year today, not somehow, but triumphantly (as my BSF teaching leader always said).

God of grace, thank you, thank you, for never leaving me. When I am in pain because of the circumstances of life, the decisions of others or even when I am in the midst of the consequences I earned for myself, You are there. Thank you for holding me and letting me breath my own ragged, exhausted, sin-soaked breaths into your neck. Thank you for cleansing me, making me new, and giving me new strength to do what you call me to do each day. I love you, Abba. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day Prayer

Now that Story is a toddler, acquiring boo-boos is an almost daily occurrence. And these words are spoken by me with equal regularity- "Do you want Mommy to kiss it and make it better?" Her reply is always an enthusiastic, "Uh-huh."

Before I became a mom, I thought it was silly to say things like that to children. Of course mommy's kisses can't actually make boo-boos better. Now that I have a little one of my own I know better.

This Mother's Day I am reflecting upon the responsibility that God has given to Mothers. First the responsibility to grow and bring forth a life. Then, the daily duty of dying to self in order that someone else feels your love. And finally, the responsibility of letting go of someone you love with all of your heart- so that they can choose for themselves the direction in which they will go. To be called to motherhood is to be called to mirror God Himself in the life of someone you cherish- how powerful.

To have the opportunity to mother, and to carry out that role with whole-hearted acceptance and dependence on God is one of life's greatest joys. There is healing in it. Both for the little ones who receive that love, and for the mommas that get to give it.

But the opposite is also true. How painful it is for those who can no longer turn to their Mother for healing when life, inevitably, wounds them. Perhaps because she is no longer here on the Earth. Perhaps because her own wounds cause her to inflict more pain than she heals- with her words, her actions, her distance. And how painful, also, for those would-be Mommy's who haven't had the chance to bring forth life and nurture it- even though it is their hearts greatest longing. Our pastor said, in closing today's service, that we should be mindful that there are many for whom this is a painful day. Amen.

God of grace, grace that is sufficient to heal. Thank you for showing us yourself through Mothers. Thank you for giving us the ability to love beyond ourselves, out of your grace and strength alone. Today, I give you thanks for my mother, and for the ways in which she has shown me You. And I give you thanks for the chance to be Story's mother, and I ask that she would, above all, see You in me. And I lift up those who cannot reach out to their mothers today, for whatever reason, to love them and be loved by them. May your infinite love be enough. And for my dear friends who long to be mothers, will you give them the desire of their heart. Amen. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A few reasons why you should or shouldn't watch 13 Reasons...

A few weeks before spring break, one of my students told me I should watch a show on Netflix called "13 Reasons Why." She told me the premise, (she said it was about a girl who commits suicide and the clues she leaves behind about why she did it) and because I'm a sucker for mysteries of any kind, I decided to check it out. I finished the last episode today.

I don't really write "reviews" about things on here, but I want to say a few things about this show. My student's synopsis was actually pretty good. But, if you haven't watched this show- be warned- it is devastating. The language, the content, the message- will wreck your sensitivity. It simply isn't for everyone.

I made it through for a couple of reasons. As a high school teacher, I try to stay connected with my students by getting on their level. I'm not going to listen to their music or use Snapchat- I'm just too old for that-but I try to select a couple of cultural things each year to engage in. More specifically, I wanted to try to connect with this student- a young lady who is spending time in tutoring, and yet, with whom I've had a hard time connecting. In teaching, connection is everything.

So I watched, even as things progressively worsened throughout the story. The plot is dark to begin with. The main character, Hannah Baker, has recently killed herself, but before doing so, created a series of 13 tapes explaining the various reasons why. Though dark, the premise is intriguing, and it's hard to not just let your Netflix take you into the next episode and then the next and then the next... And yet, with each episode, with each escalation of violence and use foul language and portrayal of sexual exploitation, I wanted to stop watching. I was frequently disgusted by the graphic nature and sexualization of heinous acts, and the abundance of foul language. I grew tired of the portrayal of adults as bumbling, but well-meaning idiots and high school students as angsty, artsy geniuses who seemed to have no limits and were never held accountable- either in school or at home. I was also very confused about the overall point the creators of this show were trying to make. But I wanted to see where they went with it. Because, underneath all of that filth, there was something going on- a message that might just be worth tuning into, and I wanted to get to the end of the message and see if it was worth wading through the muck to get it.

The jury is still out on whether the message- that bullying is a terrifyingly serious reality- was worth me watching it... so that's not the reason I'm writing here. I'm writing here to convey a couple of thoughts that were important to me as I watched the show.

This show is written by adults and it is most definitely for adults. If you have a teenager, do not let them watch it. Something that Hollywood does not get that high school teachers do- teenagers are still kids. You can feed them scripts in which they say words like "existential" and "Orwellian" but the teenagers who are watching this show do not have any idea what that means. Thousands of kids will watch this show, and I'm doubtful that they can actually digest the onslaught of sex, violence and partying and then discern the "meaning" underneath it all. Much of the nuance is lost on young minds- the adult creating it might see an opportunity for something artistic, expressive, even cathartic for his or herself, but most kids are just caught up in the raw events of the plot itself. Additionally, what is portrayed on popular TV shows does, in some ways, legitimize the experiences depicted in the shows. Even if the intention is to show that sometimes really bad things can happen in such and such circumstance, when the circumstance appears on a TV show in a seductive way, kids are going to be drawn into that circumstance, even if they were, up to that moment, naive that such a thing exists in the world. I fear that what teenagers will gain from watching a show like this is that some of the things depicted are actually "normal"- and just to give you an idea of what is depicted- there are high school keg parties, drugs are bought and sold, drinking and driving results in a traffic fatality, there are two rapes, two suicides, and toward the end, a kid seems to be building up an arsenal of sorts in what appears to be the fledgling stage of a plan to shoot the people who have bullied him. Most disturbing of all is the theme that drives the rest of the story- Hannah is telling about all of these events as she records the tapes- the "reasons" why she has committed suicide. My greatest fear in watching this TV show is that teenage suicide has been twisted to serve a purpose in story that's perhaps meant to be cautionary, but is in fact, a revenge plot. And revenge is very sexy and exciting. Who doesn't like to hear a story about someone getting revenge? One of my favorite books is the Count of Monte Cristo- simply because the Count spends so much time and detail connecting the dots back to the people who betrayed him. There's something similar with what Hannah is doing in this show. She carefully chronicles the wrongs she has suffered, and then sends them out into the world where they at last turn heads and get people motivated to do the right thing- because she is dead.  Whether she "intends" the tapes to be a way to to "get back at" the people who caused her the pain and suffering that drove her to suicide isn't exactly clear, but that's exactly what seems to be happening as the show progresses. But let's not forget that Hannah is not the Count of Monte Cristo. He is motivated to create a new life. She ends hers. And what could be more serious, or more seriously off track, than planting the idea in the underdeveloped frontal lobe of a teenager that there is some poetic justice in getting back at one's enemies after committing suicide. I don't know that the creators of the show intended that message to be a part of the show, but for me, it was impossible to ignore that the plot could be twisted in such a way.

I like art in all forms, and I really do think that this show has some artistic elements, and likely was trying to accomplish something good by taking some risky "artistic" license with this topic. As a would-be story-teller myself, I give the benefit of the doubt to the folks who created this show, but I felt so strongly about its potential to create a lot of confusion and chaos for young people that I wanted to write about it.

Before I shut this down, I want to say this- good came from me watching this show. Albeit probably not quite in the way the creators were hoping for, but who know? One of the major take-aways for me in watching this was to be even more vigilant and engaged as I interact with students everyday. Each day, there is a temptation to see the work and not the student. But watching a show like this reminds me that they are real, and there are really things (even things like this show) that are out there to steal, kill and destroy. So in these past few days, I've been as intentional as ever to hold them accountable, and make eye contact, and help them see what I see. I see you. I see you where you are. I see you where you can be. And I care about both. Maybe that is one reason why Hannah Baker isn't a total waste of my time or yours- but I'm old. Keep your kids away.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Habit Shmabit....

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God.
Philippians 4:6

I’m listening to a book on Audible about habits. I just started it yesterday, so clearly, I’m already an expert. ;) But seriously, I learned a lot from just one day of listening. Habits form initially as the gray matter of the upper brain makes conscious decisions about something. Then, as time goes on and the behavior is repeated, a pathway is created in a more primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This pathway, called a “habit loop,” consists of a cue, a pattern of behavior and a reward. Once the basal ganglia forms the habit loop, the pattern becomes like “second nature.” It becomes a part of our person- for better or for worse- and the upper brain is then free to solve new problems or design new thoughts.

Another thing that I learned is that habits come in many varieties- they can be outward behaviors like exercising, smoking or watching Netflix. They also can be thought processes or emotional habits, and this is the type that I’m exploring more deeply today.

I woke this morning at 6:30, as I do almost every morning (if I don’t wake considerably earlier than that), and I began to think about a particular situation that causes me to feel sadness and worry. I generally lay in the bed thinking about this for a long time- until I have to get up and start the day, or I become so overwhelmed with the sadness and worry, that I crack open my journal and Bible and pray. My journal is absolutely filled with prayers about this one particular situation.

And here, on this first day of 2017, I think I’m beginning to understand why. I’m in an emotional habit loop. I started this loop long ago, I don’t even remember when exactly. But based on what I'm learning about habits, I would say that this habit probably started when I had to consciously think about this situation a lot due to some changes going on in our lives in late 2015/early 2016. I would think and pray and talk things through with God in the morning hours. Often that time helped me have self control over my overflowing emotions, and also led into some really productive conversations with Andy. Together, we agreed to seek some professional counseling, and that proved to be one of the most fruitful events of 2016 for our little family. Praise God. The situation didn't go away, but how we approach it has changed. It's still sad, but we did our best before God and man.

So there's really no need to take the habit loop into 2017 with me. This habit might have started out by providing me an emotional outlet for all I was feeling, but now it just brings unfruitful worry and heaviness that sometimes spiral into anxiety. God doesn't want that for me. He knows how anxiety hurts his children.The situation has been dealt with as best we could, but in my emotional habit loop, I begin to fret and feel sad over the end result, which I have no control over. No good can come of this, and it only steals time that could be much better spent. I could get up, for instance, and fill my gratitude journal. Or, I could remember the friends that I’ve promised to partner with in prayer. Or I could just pray faithfully about the exciting and big events coming up in our lives this year- purchasing our first home! My brother’s wedding! Story’s continued spiritual, emotional and physical growth! I could write, read or do yoga. There are a lot of exciting possibilities for new habits that can replace this old one. I'm going to continue to listen and learn and pray and hopefully there will be something new that sinks in and takes over my primitive brain that brings God the gratitude that He deserves and grows my faith in Him.

Lord, as this new year begins, I need your help. I’m “stuck” in a negative emotional habit loop. I wake up and worry and waste time about something that I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed about, but have no control over and cannot change. Lord, please help me to create a new habit this year, one in which I wake each morning and start the day with thanksgiving. Please let this new habit create space in my mind to creatively worship you and offer up sincere prayers for the people who are precious to me. I pray these things in your name, Jesus. Amen.

The book I'm listening to is: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent Sunday #4- Gifting

Image result for gift of christmas

I am getting so excited for Christmas. Though this isn't technically Story's first Christmas, it sort of feels like it is. Last Christmas, she was only six months old. There was a three day road trip and a terrible virus that made for a minimally merry baby girl on the 25th of December. But this year, Story is happy and healthy and into everything. Christmas should be a lot of fun.

 Yesterday, Andy and I finally headed out together to do some Christmas shopping for Story. It was pure joy for me to circle around the toy store, looking for just the right items for my little one. This week, I'll spend time wrapping them, even though I know she's just going to tear it all off.  A couple of gifts have come for her in the mail, so she's starting to get the hang of things. She looks at the package and gives one of her "Wows" and then carefully (with my help) disassembles the paper and tape.

This morning, I'm thinking about God, my Father, and the gifts that He has given to me. I have this image of Him going around Heaven's store-house of blessings, selecting gifts, big and small, that He knows are just right for me. I think His eyes must have welled up with tears when He gave me my black and white puppy in 2002. And I imagine that He was about to bust with excitement when I walked into an Irish pub in March 2009 and met the love of my life. It sort of reminds me of that last gift on Christmas morning- the one that Dad hides away in an unexpected spot. I see my Father laughing a big belly laugh over what happened at Paddy's on March 3.

I don't know if any of those images are real, but I don't know that they aren't. God identifies Himself as my Father. Jesus surely paints a picture of a passionate, engaged Dad in the story of the prodigal son. A Dad who breaks into a sprint when He sees His son on his way home. I think that's the kind of Dad who would also have a good laugh over a surprise gift or weep tears of joy over one that will restore and heal.

I do believe that God gives special blessings of material things and relationships along the way, but what I can always count on God to give me is the Holy Spirit. Christmas is a time for special gifts, but I need to give to Story every day. She needs love, approval, encouragement, and physical care each and every day. Me too. I need the same exact things, and then some.

When I drive to school in the morning, I ask God to give me the Holy Spirit. I ask for patience, wisdom, joy, love, order, truth and on and on. I ask because I'm empty. I ask because the place that I go into is filled with needy, broken humans... just like me. Every day that I ask, He gives. Just like Jesus said He would.

Father, You are indeed a giver of good gifts! Sometimes You pick out something or someone so perfect to be a part of my life. Thank you. I love the gifts that You have picked out and given to me. And thank You for what You give to me every day. The patience and strength and endurance to work with high school students and not completely crumble. You alone provide this for me, my God. Thank you. All glory to You, my generous Father. And thank you, thank you, thank you for the Gift of Jesus. Without Him, I wouldn't know the depths of Your love for me. Help me to receive Him as I ought. Amen. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent Sunday #3- A Mother's Song

And Mary said, "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Luke 1:38

This Sunday, I have been thinking about the Virgin Mary. I've been taught that Mary would have been a young teenager at the time the angel came to her to announce that she was going to have God's Son. Before this totally weird and other-worldly interaction took place, I imagine that Mary, like most young women, probably had plans for her own life that didn't involve becoming a social pariah. But, when the angel came and brought her this miraculous news, she accepted it right away.

I know that I wouldn't have responded as Mary did. I'm a lot older than Mary, and I still struggle almost daily with how other people see me. Scripture tells us that Mary had favor with God, which is why He chose her to be Jesus' mom. One of the aspects of her person that must have charmed God's heart was her willingness to completely buy into His plan. I think this is profoundly stated in Mary's song, recorded in Luke 1:47-55. Verse 48 declares, "from henceforth all generations will call me blessed." Mary was right about that. Future generations have considered her a saint  or, at the very least, a woman of God to be admired. But what about the generation that she was in? Being pregnant out of wedlock in her culture was a big deal. She could have been stoned to death. Fortunately God, through Joseph, stepped in and kept that from happening, but I'm sure her reputation was obliterated, along with the rest of her family's.

Yesterday, as Andy and I were driving in the car, I commented on how I have lived a lot of years with the expectation that my life will one day, magically, fall completely into order. My checkbook will be plump, but not my waistline. My home will be warm and inviting, but not chaotic. My laundry will all be folded at the same time. And I'll be appreciated and loved by the people around me. What I'm finding to be true is that life is hectic, expensive and exhausting. Some people really don't like me, and my laundry is rarely folded at the same time.

What I'm seeing from Mary this Sunday is that the plans that we have are nothing compared to what God wants to do with our lives. Mary's heart was willing to let God come into her life and completely wreck any plans she might have in order that she could be a part of the great thing that He was giving to the world. Not only did she have no trouble of letting go of her own plans, she was beyond thrilled to become an integral part of what God was doing in the world. God's invitation was inseparable from the cost. Her life got crazy, but she chose this wildness willingly. She wanted to be used by God more than she wanted anything else.

Dear God, I am so humbled by your servant, Mary. What a beautiful-hearted young mother you picked for your sweet Son. Lord, I confess that I am so concerned with my plans and how I am perceived by others that I often do not even hear You when you invite me into the bigger things that You are doing in the world. Lord, forgive me. Don't let me miss out on Your greatness because I'm preoccupied with my own little slice of goodness. Let it be to me, Dear Lord, according to Your Word. Amen. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Sunday #2- Today the manger, tomorrow the throne

For unto us a child is born, 
to us a Son is given, 
and the government will be on His shoulders. 
Isaiah 9:6

I keep up with the news on my iPhone. This week I've scrolled through headlines about the new administration's plans for taxes, leadership, foreign policy. I try to take it in and think through it before saying anything. But one headline I read this week got me thinking about something that I'm just too excited not to write about. What will the headlines say when there is a final shift in government? What will the coverage be like when Jesus is finally the King? I imagine something like this...

Jesus Cuts Military Spending to Absolute Zero as Wars Cease

Holy Spirit Guides Soldiers and Healthcare Workers into New Career Fields 

Slums and Ghettos Restored to Green Space, Former Residents Help Design New Housing Nearby

Taxes No Longer Necessary as Generosity Abounds in the Nations 

When I think about the visitors who saw Jesus upon his arrival, I wonder if they could envision news like this, too? The Wise Men who traveled so far. Or the shepherds who had been commissioned by a choir of singing angels. Or Simeon, who was waiting to see the Messiah before he died. They all knew that there was much more going on than just the birth of a baby.

We picture them in a stable, surrounded by animals. Mary looks serene, her hands clasped together at her breast. Joseph steady beside her. Everyone peers into a manger and looks at a newborn. We gather there with them this time of year. Today, all of us meet at the manger. But one day, we will gather in a throne-room. I love baby Jesus in the manger. I sing about his birth and celebrate the sweetness of this Christmas miracle. But, like these others, I crave His majesty even more.

King Jesus!!! How I long for your rule and reign. How I long for you to come back to this Earth and restore all things! You will repay every injustice- from the great ones that cause millions to suffer, to the smallest that have broken my own heart. Of Your rule and reign there will be no end. In that day, You will guide us into the best life. You will give us peace and rest. You will teach us to truly love one another, and to care for all that You have created. I see You now in your manger, and, though I celebrate, I wait to see You on your throne. Help me to wait well. Amen.