Friday, February 21, 2020

On Lament

Yesterday my friend Katie Billheimer shared these words:

Lamenting. Something our culture doesn’t really know how to do. Grief makes us uncomfortable. When someone is going through something and they have questions we can’t answer, we try and fix things, force a positive spin on it, tell people not to be sad or angry as if it’s a switch to turn on and off. In the book of Psalms, 70% are songs of lament where the writer cries out to God out of fear, sorrow, and frustration. It’s not wrong to feel this, even if it is scary. We were made to feel. Made to question. Made to yearn for something better. We’re not going to have the answers for all the struggles in this world—if we did we would be God. But this lack of knowledge is nothing to be ashamed of. We should never make people feel less for being low or like there’s something wrong with them. Just be there. Listen. Hold their hand and don’t say anything. Your presence and the knowledge that you won’t run away or ignore them is enough.
Her words are wise. Timely. I have spent the past few months taking as much time as I can nab to be alone and sit and ponder and acknowledge the loss and the brokenness and cry out to God and ask him lots of questions and then let go of longings and dreams and unmet needs. It is been very good.

In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop says this of lament,
The space between brokenness and God's mercy is where this song is sung. Think of lament as the transition between pain and promise. It is the path from heartbreak to hope. 
 He goes on to describe the key elements of lament:
 1.) an address to God, 2.) a complaint, 3) a request, and 4.) an expression of trust and/or praise....turn, complain, ask, and trust....the heart is turned to God in prayer. Complaint clearly and bluntly lays out the reasons behind the sorrow...the lamenter usually makes a request for God to act--to do something...nearly every lament ends with renewed trust and praise.
What struck me about this is how little lamenting we do. Maybe lament doesn't look good. I would imagine some might think it a bad witness, a wallowing, so to speak in your pain. We are so often told, taught, chided, commanded, exhorted to trust God in our pain, leapfrogging from turn to trust and skipping entirely the complaining and asking part that is absolutely crucial and the very heart and soul to lament.

Why are we afraid to lament?

Perhaps so much of it is our Christian culture. We are encouraged to do, do, do, do, do. To be studying our Bibles and praying and evangelizing and discipling and raising up our children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" and so often are told exactly what that all should look like. And, of course, we should at all times and in all places have that "attitude of gratitude" (insert sing song-y voice and syrupy smile here.) Stop gazing at your navel and get on with the show.

Perhaps so much of it is our theology. We have a theology of sin, but not of suffering. We think the whole of the Christian life, the whole of it, is about sin and repentance. So any suffering requires not complaint, but confession. Any suffering is your own damn fault.

Perhaps it is because we think if we hurt enough to need lament, we are doing it wrong. We have been fed a lie that if we come to Jesus he will clean up our house and tidy up our rooms a la Marie Kondo and pain and suffering and brokenness and the terrible messiness of life here on this earth will touch us no more. Or if it does, we will be so filled with the "peace that passes understanding" that we can just float above the fray in our Happy Jesus Balloon.

But the older I get and the more messy I see life truly is. The more broken I feel. The more pain and suffering I see in the world and in the lives of people I hold so dear. The fewer answers I have. And I find that all I can do is lament. And it is good for my soul.



Monday, February 17, 2020

Drinking the Kool-Aid

I remember the day they drank the Kool-Aid. It was November, 1978. I was in 9th grade and I watched, along with the rest of the country, as the nightly news played on our monstrous console televisions images of hundreds of people...adults, children, entire families...laid out on the ground, seemingly asleep. But dead. Dead from drinking a lethal concoction of cyanide and Flavor Aid. Brand names being what they are, the phrase was born: they drank the Kool-Aid.

The members of Jim Jones's People's Temple followed him and his ideology to their deaths. Well, some followed. Some were forced. Many wanted to leave and flee the abuse but were unable to. In the end there was no choice. Drink the Kool-Aid.

It's easy to do, to drink the Kool-Aid. It tastes sweet. Cold. It goes down easily. But that syrupy goodness masks the toxic taste of something deadly.

I've drunk the Kool-Aid. I've done it so many times in so many situations that I can't begin to count. I've believed something too good to be true. I've bought in to a system because it promises me something I think I desperately need.

I did that with parenthood. I drank the Kool-Aid, and in the the message that I should and I even COULD control the outcome. That if I did it right, my kids would make all the right choices, with right being defined by the standards of the community, and would make me proud and prove that I was a good mother.

Here's the hitch. Here's the terribly deadly thing about this particular pitcher of Kool-Aid. When you drink this up, you drink this cup, parenting is all about you. Your child's report card becomes your report card. His or her choices, your job evaluation. And if he or she fails to measure up, struggles to compete, or chooses a different path from the one you are told is the right one, you become the failure.

And what happens then? All of your energy is then focused on yourself. Beating yourself up. Or groping in panic to whip your child back into shape to fit inside the box.

I beat myself up for years. Not because there was anything wrong with my children, but because they didn't always make the choices I was told they were supposed to make and I was told it was my responsibility that they make. It was horrible. It was horrible for me because I felt that I had somehow failed God by not doing it right and it was horrible for my children because I became focused on licking my own wounds rather than what they needed from me.

I suppose it is easy now for me, years down the road, to see this. All four of my kids are well into adulthood and such incredibly wonderful, fascinating, and outside the box that it is a blast to know them as people, not just as offspring. But I wish I had known this then.

I wish somebody had told me that my job was not to ensure that they made it to adulthood as industrious, courageous, sharp, modest, ambitious, college-educated, Bible-verse quoting, smiling virgins but to love them as they are with all of their biology and brain chemistry and strengths and weaknesses and hopes and dreams and come alongside them and guide them, as best I could, based on who they were and what they needed. I wish I had spent my energy asking "How can I love him? How can I love her? Here. Now. In this situation. What does my child need?" Instead I spent my energy feeling intense shame and beating myself up every time I got a sideways look from another parent or a rebuke from a leader because my child wasn't marching to their orders.

I can only apologize to my children who I love more than life for not being there emotionally for them because I was too busy beating myself up.

I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed that my value as a person depended on my success (whatever that meant) as a parent. And even more than that, that my value to God depended on my success as a parent.

The truth is this: parenthood is not an accomplishment. It is a relationship. Anybody who tells you differently is putting something in your drink. Take note of what is in your Kook-Aid.







Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Numbers, Goals, and Things That Can't Be Measured

It is the time of year when people have set goals and are running out of the gate at breakneck speed to meet them. At the beginning of the new year we are so energetic. So eager. We have thrown off weariness of the old year and have set new goals to strive for.

The peoples out there tell us to make our goals tangible. Numeric, even. In business development. In physical health. In personal improvement. I get that. How do you know where you are without a mile marker? How do you know if you have crossed the finish line without a line to cross?

There are a few problems with these numbers, though.

1.) We can get competitive. And while that competition may be good at producing results, it rarely produces the inner growth and peace we are shooting for. Blow them all out of the water and you can perhaps think a little too highly of yourself when, in fact, the reason may be that you have better running shoes or a smoother path. Lapse behind and you can feel horribly inferior and like a failure, even if you made the best effort you can.

2.) We can begin to define ourselves and measure our value by our numbers. I know way too many people whose very identities are caught up in numbers of all kinds. What woman out there hasn't had her psyche crushed by the number on a scale? The number on the pants label? And yet we know that a number doesn't define something like health. An overweight person who exercises regularly and eats a reasonable diet is far more healthy than a super thin, smoker, couch potato who lives on Little Debbies and Mountain Dew.

3.) The numbers don't always measure the effort involved. In real estate we are told to set a goal for number of transactions closed in the next year. And I get that. You gotta shoot for something. There are, after all, bills to pay. But serving my clients well is not always reflected in more transactions closed. I think of the wonderful couple I worked with this past year who were trying to thread a very, very thin needle and, over the course of several months had two different homes under contract, only to terminate both contracts due to factors I had no control over. And then they decided to put off the entire purchase until this next year. I have no regrets for them. I have full confidence that I did my very best for them. But my effort cannot be measured by a number.

4.) Numbers can put quantity over quality. They represent the outside, not the inside. The surface, but not necessarily the core. The performance, but not the heart.

I got to thinking all this about numbers because of my own numbers game.

When I was a young mom with even younger kids I grew weary of the fact that nothing I ever did stayed done. A friend commented that when her kids were the age of mine, she got a lot of satisfaction out of crocheting for just that reason. It was the one thing in her life that stayed done.

Seeing how I had no skills whatsoever and seeing how I had been blessed with 10 thumbs instead of the usual two and a set of nimble fingers, I knew crafty handiwork was out. So I decided to do the only thing I knew I could do. I decided to read.

And so read I did. And every time I finished a book I wrote it down on a list. And at the end of each year I could look back and see I had done something that stayed done. Satisfaction at last.

But then I started counting. I would count how many books I read that year. Some years, especially the years when I was racing through the Newbery Medal winners, I read an impressive number of books. Other years, the number just wasn't quite up to snuff and I felt guilty. How unusual for me!

A few years ago I decided to set a reading goal. I don't remember what the original number was but for the past four of five years, my goal has been to read 25 books. For me that is a pretty manageable number to shoot for without being unreachable. Just enough push. Set obtainable goals, they say.  I am happy to say I reach that goal every year.

But I've run into a problem. Actually, a couple of problems. And they showcase the problems with numbers.

I can find a book I really, really want to read, but it is long. Really long. In fact there are three 600+ page books next to my bed right now. But I have lost the incentive to read them because they will only count for one book when I could be reading at least 2 for the same page count. And what if I get bogged down at page 435? I've spent all that reading time with nothing to show for it because I only write down books that I have finished. Remember?

The other problem is that I will often rush through a book just to finish it. So I can write it down. So I will be one more book closer to my goal. And sometimes I will read a book, a really, really good book. Perhaps a life-changing book. But I don't go slow. I don't ponder. I don't chew on the words and journal their implications. All because I don't have time. Because I have to move on to the next book.

Almost two years ago I wrote a blog post, The Numbers Game, where I fleshed out my thought on numbers. Two years later I have the same concerns. Only more up close and personal.

I've watched how I have chosen quantity over quality. I have wasted time reading a bad book just so I can write it down. I have avoided excellent books just because they are too long or too hard and therefor will impact my book count. I have read incredible books and stuffed them back on the shelf without giving them another glance because I have to move on to the next. The numbers are calling.

My point is, when we focus on the numbers, we lose something.

When I focus on how many houses I'm closing this year, I cease to focus on caring well for my clients. I've heard from teachers that the focus on test results takes away their time and energy to teach well.

When my mother was dying, I kept watching her numbers. What was her oxygen level. What was her blood pressure. I wanted so badly to know how close she was to death that the nurse finally came in and turned off the equipment. I needed to focus on my mother. Not the numbers.

We love the concrete. It tells us where we are. How we've done. Whether or not we can pat ourselves on the back.

But life is so much more than numbers. And so is the Kingdom of God.

Love, mercy, kindness, compassion, justice, These are things that cannot be measured. And yet I think if we aim for these things, the numbers will take care of themselves. Or they won't matter any more.

As for me, I'm not setting a numbers goal this year for my reading. I am going to read to learn. I am going to read to grow. I am going to read to relax. I am going to read to enjoy. I may not have as much to show for it at the end of the year, numbers wise, but I hope that the things that cannot be measured will prove to be worth it.



Thursday, January 2, 2020

Be Excessively Gentle With Yourself

On New Year's Eve, a friend on Facebook asked, "If you could tell your past self something a decade ago, what would it be?"

My heart raced. My breath shortened. The thought of going back ten years struck terror in my heart.

I did not end 2009 full of energy and optimism. I was exhausted. Earlier that year my mother had entered the hospital with atrial fibrillation and never left. She died there 9 weeks later. Along with grieving, I took up the task, along with a sister, of cleaning out the house she had lived in for 55 years. I made 13 trips to Chattanooga that year.

In December 2009 I had four teenagers. In case you've ever wondered, four teenagers means that there is never a 24-hour period without a crisis. Four teenagers means exhaustion.

And still. And still. And still....the hardest was yet to come.

I struggle to find the words that describe the decade from December 31, 2009 to December 31, 2019. Perhaps because much of the hard of those years is tender and private. Much of the hard involves people I care about.

And while there is much good that came out of the hard of the past decade, and I so want to take an inventory of all that I have learned and all that has changed in the lives of those I love dearly and of the beauty that has come from the ashes, right now I am just tired. Really, really tired.

I.just.don't.have.any.thing.left.in.me.

It seems the past couple of years or so people have added to, or replaced, the New Year's resolution with a word for the year. I do like this idea. Instead of just a goal for self-improvement, such as dropping 15 pounds or running every day or even, in my case, reading 25 books a year, a word is a reminder to focus on some aspect of life. Last year my word was "acknowledge."

I have been so exhausted and cast down I hadn't even considered a word for 2020. But in God's providence, I recently came across a poem by John O'Donahoe:

A Blessing For One Who Is Exhausted 

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight,
The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.
Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.
The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.
You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken for the race of days.
At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.
You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.
Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.
Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.
Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.
Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.
Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.
Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

"Be excessively gentle with yourself." Be excessively gentle with myself? I have never even been remotely gentle with myself. I have probably hated myself for as long as I can remember, always comparing myself to others and coming up short and wishing I could be something more. Something different. Something better.

My husband says I would never talk to a friend the way I talk to myself. I would never hold anyone else up to the same standards. I would never dare break out such a cruel yardstick for anyone else.

We live in a world of push, push, push. Challenge yourself. Discipline yourself. Reach for higher goals. Do the hard things. Set impressive goals and seek to attain them. Whether in professional life or parenthood or whipping your body into shape. I can't do it. I. can't. do. it. any. more.

My soul is so very weary. I need to slow down. I need to take time to ponder. To think. Or to do nothing at all. Like I said in my last post, perhaps this is just a season. But it is something I need so badly. I need to take time to be excessively gentle with myself.

And maybe this is what I would tell my past self a decade ago: buckle your seatbelt. You are in for a wild ride. Life is hard. Oh, so hard. Be excessively gentle with yourself.