Friday, January 31, 2014

No Paint by Numbers

It's not paint by numbers.

This Christian life we're called to live... it's not a step by step plan, it's not a paint by numbers project, dip in the red and paint it where it says #3, dip in the black, paint where it says #5 - it doesn't work like that.

But sometimes we try to treat it like it is.

Have you ever met a theoretical parent? Let me explain, because if you are a parent yourself you've probably met one, and if you are not a parent you run the risk of being one.

You know the kind of person I am talking about - "My child would never act like that," they say. Because as it happens, theoretical parents have theoretical children, and they are always perfect. Sometimes their comments are made in judgment (ok often) or other times in passing, but those of us raising real kids, we just smile and nod because we know the truth. Whatever parenting plan, book or method the theoretical parent believes will be the be all end all in producing the perfect kids, when real parenting comes it comes with real kids, and those kids didn't read the book and they didn't sign on for the deal. And before they know it theoretical parents will soon realize their "perfect parent" badge has been revoked, and they will be reminded continually for the rest of their parenting lives that the books, plans and methods don't allow for the insertion of the real live individual.

Nowadays I see this mentality expanding beyond the parenting arena, and though it's by no means limited to the Christian world, it's certainly becoming rampant there.

The self-help book phenomena has become the way people are trying to do their relationship with Christ. We're taking all kinds of books from "How to Share Your Faith" to "How to Raise Your Children" to "How to Have a _________ (happy? Christ-centered? fulfilling?) ___________________" (Marriage? Ministry? Conversation? Life?)

And people really latch on to these books like they are... TRUTH... and I have to say, you know what? They are NOT truth. That's not to say they are without any value at all, they aren't. They can be a tool, let's call them books of suggestions or even testimonies of success because for that particular author he or she may have founds something that worked for them, and that's fine, but when we pick up those books and treat them like they are going to be resurrection hope and life we do ourselves a HUGE disservice. Because just as in my parenting book example above - they don't always work, and sometimes they even do more harm than good.

Just like the parenting books don't allow for real kids, these kinds of books don't just dismiss the individuality of the people we are dealing with, but they remove the power of the Holy Spirit to insert Himself into a situation, to allow Him to read his greater and deeper understanding of all the people involved in a marriage, family, friendship, etc., but they also deny us the ability to learn to hear and be led by the Lord for a God moment - because we're too busy "sticking to the book."

This is what I believe - God has given each one of us this huge "canvas" of grace to paint the masterpiece that it meant to be our life as followers of Christ. The brushes and paints are made up of all sorts of different things - our personalities, our strengths, our weaknesses, our likes and dislikes, our gifts, our families, where we live, where we work - the list is long. So God gives us the blank canvas and He wants us to dip into all the aspects of our lives and paint a true one of a kind life.

God has given us a "manual" to live by, and yes the edges of it are clear in many ways (that canvas of grace) but if you really stop and read it, it is FAR from a point by number kind of life. Parenting? It says things like "Train up YOUR child in the way HE should go." Do you see the room allowed for individuality, both of the parent AND the child? As parents God is inviting us to partner with Him (who knows every in and out of both parent and child) and help our kids discover their passion, their strengths, their God-given gifts. He invites us to rely on His Spirit to help discover those things.

Even in life as a whole God invites "In all YOUR ways acknowledge Him, and HE will direct YOUR path." Maybe your path will lead you to the deepest jungles of Africa to share the gospel, or maybe it will lead you to a Mommy and Me group every Tuesday afternoon. What God wants from us is an open heart and an expectation that He will meet us along the way, and by the power of the Holy Spirit use us. And you know what if we get hung up on the information we've taken in from some good-intentioned self-help book and we are unwilling to deviate from the method or plan, we not only run the risk of missing a God given opportunity to be used in some way by Him, we run the risk of alienating the other person in the process with our own frustrated efforts to send them down our path.

Have you ever actually done a paint by number project? I personally always found it to end up frustrating. I'd accidentally put the black in a #3 or the red in a the #5 and then the picture would be "ruined." It wouldn't be what it was "supposed to be," and then every time I ever looked at it, I would see the mistakes rather than the picture I'd tried to make.

I think God wants us to make bigger and bolder brush strokes in faith across the canvas allowing Him to be our inspiration. We are His workmanship, and we were created in Christ Jesus to "do good works," but they are not all the same, the who, the how, the when, the where will all be individualized to each one of us.

God is a real God who speaks, leads, directs- through His word, in a still small voice, through experiences, and even through the voices of others (so I am NOT saying that these books have NO value.) But we need to be more expectant in our opportunities to hear from Him. The Holy Spirit is REAL, He's not just something that was poured into you on the day of your salvation and sealed. He is your Counselor, your Comforter and your Helper as well. He wants to move in you and through you, and there needs to be an openness to allow for that, and a faith and expectation that it will happen.

Everything about your life is critical and important to God. He cares about the details of your life - struggles, strengths, successes. He is mindful of your weaknesses, He has plans for using you to touch other lives based on the way He geared YOU up. But it isn't a method that you will find step by step direction for in a book that He did not author Himself.

We need to let the Holy Spirit lead. As days get darker and more difficult there will be fewer and fewer people and circumstances that will sign on for our methods. If we aren't real and genuine, willing to be honest and even get into one another's difficulties and messes, we will become more and more ineffective in our faith.

Another final warning, there is another side to this coin: We need to stop looking at each other and sitting in judgment about how they are living for Christ and serving God. We need to allow one another to have faith to follow where we feel the Holy Spirit leading. Just because you wouldn't do it that way doesn't mean that that isn't God leading someone else to step in and do it exactly the way they are doing it. If you're effective in touching ten or a hundred in your "logical" or "clean" method that God leads you with and someone else touches one in what looks like a "mess" to you? Guess what, both forms of "ministry" were just as important. It's about touching the world for Jesus.

So look at your canvas of grace - the boundaries of following Christ are clear, but the picture you paint has only one other requirement - that it be to glorify God. The masterpiece you create with your life is the act of worship you make to honor Him.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will guide you with My eye.

Psalm 32:8

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord,
And He delights in his way.

Psalm 37:23

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.
Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.

Romans 12:1-8

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Motherhood - Round 1 #parentingishard

A few years ago my father gave me a magnet for my fridge (that has since been lost) that said "Motherhood is not for wimps."

A truer statement has never been made. All the romantic notions about what it would be like to be a mom I found quickly shattered by sleepless nights and long days. Exhaustion was often just a state of being in those earliest years. But the kids came cute and cuddly and if you could hold them on your chest and nuzzle them under your neck for even the briefest moment it always made up for the hours of spit-up soaked shoulders, leaky breasts and sleepless nights. "Someday when they're older I'll sleep," I foolishly thought, and I willed for the days for them to be older.

For me I feel like parenting had two distinct rounds for me. I was the mother of an only child for seven years. Then I became a mother again twice in the year before he turned 8. Needless to say life really kicked up a notch in the year of 2001.

I often refer to my first child as my practice kid. I had no idea what I was doing, and still don't as he continues to power ahead into new stages and seasons of life. The little years for him were somewhat easy, he was a pretty good sleeper, a good eater, healthy and mostly obedient. Until his first tantrum hit when he was four in a Payless Shoe Source (the image is still burned in my brain) any complaints I had a long the way were more about me being a young adult twenty-something who had grown up an only child and never really understood the concepts of doing things based on other people. Oh mind you I was a pretty decent wife at that point, but Neal and I sort of did life side by side until kids came along. We could agree to disagree and not seeing eye to eye was an option. But when this little one came into my life I felt this great responsibility to teach and to train, to direct and to lead... Those are all very nice ways to say CONTROL. Not for the sake of control but because I loved and cared and because everything in me wanted the best for this precious little person.

When I think back on the childhood of my oldest it's like home movies I can play in my head. I can see him "cruising" from chair to chair around the kitchen table when he walked over and patted my cheek. "Mama," he said, it was his first word, and my heart melted a little (ok a lot). I remember his refusal to crawl and his half efforts at walking until I walked across the room away from him with the chocolate shake he had just tasted for the first time. It was the first use of a straw too, and he stood and walked in his saggy little diaper, suddenly he was totally mobile.

Now I realize those days weren't hard. He was always willing to go where I wanted him to. He trusted me. He believed that I loved him and I had his best interest at heart and he willingly went where I wanted him to, at least until that day at Payless when he was four. But even before his first tantrum I knew he was a strong willed child. He was politely stubborn, and it drove me a little bit crazy whenever it rose up. I remember one moment in particular that I was making a bed and complaining to God about the strong will of this child He'd given me. And indignant, I asked God, "How do I kill that stubborn streak in him??" And I heard the Lord very clearly as He whispered to my heart, "If he's stubborn about the right things, it will be a blessing."

And God was right, there were lots of times when that stubbornness was absolutely a blessing. I remember dropping him off at his first sleepover when he was about six. As we drove away I read the menu the mom hosting the evening had sent off with all of us parents. I quickly noted that they were going to be watching a movie that we had decided "as a family" not to see. I told Neal I didn't want to be the party pooper and because I trusted the mom I would just go ahead and let it slide. I wasn't more than a mile from the house when the mom called and let me know that Jake had told her he couldn't watch it and that they would be changing the movie. It was a convicting moment for me, and a proud one as a mom. There are spatters of moments throughout Jake's childhood like that. Proud mommy moments as he stood against the grain stubbornly. They tempered the rare moments that he stood up to me.

Over the years there was this pattern. Four was the first temper tantrum. When Jake turned 8 he was the new big brother of not one but TWO new siblings, talk about a radical shock to his little center of the universe world! And it was the next stage where we struggles, though a lot of it had to do with me being overwhelmed by two babies and crisis, health and legal with our little adopted bundle of joy. Jake didn't get the close supervision he had before and he pushed some limits and tested some boundaries and I didn't have a lot of patience or compassion and it was not my best year as a mom. But as they always did things settled back down and it wasn't till puberty hit around 12 that we once again butted heads with great force. I cannot remember if sixteen was delayed or more likely it lasted longer but it was into seventeen that was really a very hard and difficult season. That time was a testing of boundaries like no other. The pattern was strong, every four years or so parenting got harder with that first child. Sometimes it was him and sometimes it was me, it was always the (totally not) perfect recipe for struggle.

All of these days though I had the trump card - I was the mom, the adult and in charge. And if he didn't want to go and do what I thought he should, it didn't matter, I had all the power. "Because I said so," worked. For the crisis of seventeen it was a good thing. And a lot of good came out of a lot of bad choices on his part. It was a year of big change for us as a family, and God used it all. It revealed great weaknesses and it sharpened great strengths. Though it was a horrible thing to go through, we came out the other side and I was glad. Jake really got it after that - Grace, God, Sin, Repentance, Redemption and Restoration. At the end it was a weary, weary sigh, but a sigh of relief. And I felt like the kid and I were both better for it - and I think I proved to him yet again that I loved him, I was for him, and I cared about his best interests. The storm and rain brought fruit.

But time passes quickly and Jacob will be twenty in just a couple of weeks, and he and I are well into our every four year tradition of butting heads. Who knows, perhaps it's just a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the problem is now that without me even being consulted, this thing called adulthood has inserted itself into our relationship and demoted me from MOM to the woman who pays the rent. And 20 years of intensive study into this person I know and love to the very depth of my soul is a lot like a degree in... well, I have list of degrees I could put into this sentence, but I won't insult anyone, let's just suffice to say it seems to be without any value at all. And it breaks my heart.

As exhausting as I thought sleepless nights were with an infant who would not sleep. As tiring as it was to chase around toddlers, as frustrating as it is to manage a middle-schooler and their raging hormones, I can honestly say that nothing is more difficult or emotionally exhausting as the transition into being the parent of an adult. It's just flat out hard - even when they are relatively good kids.

I know this is part of the process, the earliest stages of when he will someday "leave and cleave" to another. My thought has been recently "Be careful when you raise your children to be strong willed independent thinkers, because they will become strong willed independent thinkers." It's good, it's right, it's natural and it's even normal, but you know what, it hurts like hell.

It's like a second labor. Pushing Jake out into the world the first time took 11 1/2 hours. It also included pain medication. Then they bundled him up tightly and placed him in my arms. There was nothing but pure pride and joy on that day. It warms and breaks my heart simultaneously as I think about it now.

I look back now at my almost twenty "practice kid" and I think about a thousand and one mistakes... maybe a million and one... things that I would do differently. I would have been less harsh, I would have been more compassionate, I would have slowed down, played more, hollered less, listened more, waited longer to speak. But I also look at him and think, I must have done something right. Because as I stand back and assess this very YOUNG man, I see things I both admire and despise. I love HIM, but there are things about him that I wish were different, and things that I am grateful are as they are, exactly. I must have something to do with some of the good too... right?

I feel like I am standing there once again, laboring, albeit this time it was not physical, but spiritual and emotional, and the time is much longer than 11 1/2 hours as I am pushing him out into the world again, but this time it's the real world, and there will never be another swaddle to hold and protect. I cannot protect him from others, from the world or even from himself. I'm simply an observer now. It doesn't HAVE to be that way, and maybe there are lots of other moms out there who did things better than I did and it has afforded them at least the position of wise counsel or inner circle member, but not so for me. For me somewhere along the line I made some choice or decision as a mom, or more likely a series of them that has put me even past the bench of his life and into the bleachers. I'm a voice in the crowd. It's so damn hard. It's especially hard because I don't know if he has forgotten how much I care about him, and how concerned I am with what's best for him, or if he just doesn't care. Or worse, maybe he doesn't even believe it anymore.

This is a rite of passage in parenting. I know that. In all honesty it is so much like labor that I would kind of like a little pain medication again. I remember when I was birthing him into the world wanting to just bear down and push him out. I wanted it over with. But the doctor would tell me to stop and hold back at times. It intensified the pain, but it was necessary for the delivery to be safe and healthy for the baby. A lot of days right now, I am ready to just push him out the door and move on to the next stage. But it's not like that. It's a process and for his health and safety I have to refrain. And a lot of days I am SCREAMING out at the pain. Sometimes sadly it's AT him, and other days it just remains a screaming inside my own head.

I feel like I am standing staring out at the "production" of my motherhood with my first born. I hear a SCREAMING buzzer in the background that declares "GAME OVER!" And I stare at the field and see all the missed opportunities, the fumbles, interceptions and steps out of bounds. The only thing I cannot see is the scoreboard. Did I do enough? Did we win? I know it's a simple analogy that doesn't completely fit, because that's the thing about being a mom, at every stage we never see the clear definition of success or failure. There's just no way to know. I've spent twenty years planting and watering seeds, but the reaping will happen for a lifetime, and none of it will be at my hand anymore. I may not even get to see it at all. Damn that is a hard truth.

I love my son - make no mistake of that. His "sin" against me is just simply growing up. I knew about that plan from the beginning, but let me make it clear, I spent almost two decades believing it was much further off than it actually was. There is a saying about the childhoods of our children, "The days are long, but the years are short." I don't think a truer statement was ever made.

I have so many "if I could go back" thoughts that race through my mind, but it is a mental and emotional roller coaster than I can no longer afford to ride. There is no going back. The foundation is laid to what comes next, for him and for "us".

I must gratefully remind myself that I was never called to be a perfect parent. As much as I would like for it to be a truth on my life's resume, it's not. Simply said I have been a tool in God's hand to help shape and mold Jacob into the man God wants him to be. Sometimes I was like a fine and sharp scalpel and other times I was a jackhammer, but even the damage I may have done God promises to somehow work for good - in Jacob's life and my own. Hopefully some of the mistakes made in round one of motherhood have made positive impacts on the second round where the "end of the game" I now feel with him is still up ahead for his siblings.

God gave me this gift, never to keep but always to let go. Letting go is hard. Parenting is hard, and I am convinced it may stay that way. Oh Lord help me, I hope it doesn't get harder!