Monday, July 21, 2008

Great Expectations

I try to keep things light. I try to keep be consistently optimistic, if a little darkly sarcastic in doing so. My faith makes me ready to say that I believe, that I hope, that I am confident in my God and in the saving power of His son. But honestly, I'm struggling. I feel like I am not using my gifts to their potential, like I'm not approaching my family with the gratitude that allows me to care for them as I should, like I'm floundering to make sense of my vocation and what it requires of me. And I feel like in the midst of it, God is standing by, silently watching. I feel the distance...I feel the burden of my failures...I feel that somewhere in the growing hunger in my soul, a dam has to break. I feel that this time will give way to some growth, or healing, or new understanding -- some touch of abundant grace that lies just over the horizon. And so I wait...and pray for courage and resolve to embrace the darkness, and to be vigilant in expectation of the dawn.

This post was started just before a family vacation in July. In abundant mercy and abiding faithfulness, I know my redeemer lives. As they solidify, I will post the thoughts and prayers from our time away...a chain of blessings from a chain of lakes beneath the Michigan sun.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Cleaning out the Fridge

Yep, I did it. One of the hottest, most humid days so far this summer, and I cleaned out the refrigerator. It's a little embarrassing, but I can't seem to get to those out-of-the-ordinary-routine type jobs nearly as often as I should. I usually think of them when I am in the throes of some other, more immediate task, when I can't really stop and take care of other things. And so I really cleaned out the fridge -- shelves out, throw away anything remotely questionable, scrub the whole beastie inside and out. The subtitle of this blog is "a journal of God's grace in a mom's world." It could only be grace that allowed me to see myself in the sticky, cluttered mess that was my refrigerator, and lead me to better understanding as it was transformed into a clean, shiny, and fresh-smelling chill-chest (props to Alton B.!).

A refrigerator serves a specific purpose. It keeps stuff cold. That capability may be applied for a family's groceries, an office staff's lunches, beverages, or fishing bait. There's virtually no limit to the applications, but the essential function is always the same. We also serve a specific purpose. The Life of Man is to know the only true God and to know Jesus Christ whom he has sent (Jn. 17:3). We come forth by His will, and we return to Him in His time. There are innumerable variations in just how we accomplish this, but the essential function is always the same.

A refrigerator isn't nearly as effective if it's not clean. Sticky stuff on the shelves or pooled in the bottom make it less efficient. Too much stuff in the doors or stuff not put in neatly will keep it from closing correctly, or block vents it needs to move and cool the air inside it. Dust on the coils can really cause can shorten the life of the fridge, burning out the motor before its time. And in this knowledge (bandied about with the Aquinas and Chesterton I had been reading), I came to better understanding of what sin does in the life of a Christian.

When I lose my temper, speak unkindly or disrespectfully, let my thoughts wander where they shouldn't (this list could get really long), it gums up the works. It puts stuff between me and the performance of my essential function. When I neglect my spiritual needs and put other, more immediate (read "noisy") issues ahead of time to pray, time to read scripture, time to stop and see God's hand in my life, it gets my vents and coils dusty. I can't breathe; I'm likely to burn out.

Sad but true, this little metaphor goes even further. My refrigerator has humidity adjustment for each of the crisper drawers, and it has removable shelves on the door. I broke one of the shelves, because it was sticky and I couldn't remember how it was supposed to come out, and I don't have a foggy clue which vegetables like what level of humidity, so I'm not using that feature to its potential. But I'm not using all of my features to their potential, either. I get a little roughed up emotionally when I try to muscle things in the direction I think they go, rather than easing them in the direction they actually go. A little time devoted to learning something new, and I could bring a little finesse to the way I do my job.

I have to admit, I was a bit grumpy while I was cleaning the fridge, muttering about the pickle juice that had dripped down the back and the sticky iced tea that had spilled when the jar leaked. I knew darn well that the job would have been easier if I hadn't put it off. I also knew that I could have put it off longer, but that would just complicate things further, and that my much-needed (and appreciated) icebox would keep plugging faithfully, but at a diminished capacity, eventually burning out and becoming useless.

I have to admit, I'm a bit grumpy taking stock of the dust and sticky stuff I've let into my life. I know darn well that the job would be easier if I weren't so attached to my pride. I also know that I could put it off longer, but that would just complicate things further, and my commitment to my faith would keep plugging along, but at a diminished capacity, eventually burning out and rendering me useless.

Then someone put an open can of soda in my nice, clean, fridge. It spilled.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mirror, Mirror

It's no secret that God's ways are far above our understanding -- that he governs all according to his will, whether we approve or not, and regardless of whether or not we understand. And so when we have need of a given virtue, he gives us circumstances that enable us to develop it. Be it patience, courage, faith, fortitude, generosity, humility, or obedience, he provides for our every need!

I remember when my oldest son was a toddler, just developing a sense of his own will, and the realization struck me for the first time: this is not an exercise in biology and sociology. This is a vocation -- a calling -- that demands that I exercise every virtue, even those I lack. I remember being so frustrated with my little boy, thinking that if he would just listen to me and do what I said, then he would be protected by my experience and perspective. He wouldn't get hurt, he wouldn't have to sit in time-out, he wouldn't spill his juice on the rug...and on the list goes. And then, in the tender compassion of our God, dawn from on high broke upon me. How much pain, how much frustration, how much damage to the trust and affections of the people I love could I have avoided by simply listening and obeying the will of my heavenly father? To bridle my tongue, to be diligent, to be obedient, to be temperate, to be generous, or to be patient, in so many instances would have been my saving grace.

Several years and several children later, I find that my most frustrating moments with my children are those in which they do the very things I continue to struggle with. Sometimes I can justify "do as I say, not as I do," because there are certain things that fall under a mother's authority that are not appropriate for them to repeat (i.e., correcting and disciplining each other). But sometimes...

Sometimes, my children are rude and unkind. But how often do I raise my voice? How often am I abrupt with them, failing to slow down and direct them on their level with love and gentleness?

Sometimes, my children are impatient. They want what they want, and they react with a mountain when they are irritated by a molehill. But how often do I snap at one of them when he asks repeatedly for something, or asks for something that I have just given the other four? How often is a shouted-at-the-top-of-his-lungs rendition of "Slow Ride" just the final straw that gets somebody (or everybody) sent up to bed?

Sometimes, my children are sloppy with chores, or simply don't do them. But how often do I avoid responsibilities, procrastinate, or do a "quick job, for now" and fail to give my work the attention it deserves?

Sometimes, my children are critical and nitpicky with each other, quick to tattle on each other or simply retaliate for whatever slight they feel. But how often am I critical of them, or fail to praise them when they are helpful or kind or generous?

Sometimes, my children battle to avoid responsibility for their words and actions -- "He did it first!" "But he called me ..... " But how often do I scramble frantically to justify myself when I am wrong, or argue for the sake of being right?

Truth be told, I am flawed and sinful, and my children tend to mirror my behavior and attitudes, whether good or bad. So my prayer is that I have humility enough to recognize and admit when I am wrong, and to let my children see me when I seek forgiveness, reconciliation, and greater virtue. I pray that they will see, when they are older and look back, that I am not who I was when the first stick turned blue. And I pray most of all that they will grow into men whose lives are devoted to the pursuit of virtue, strength, and integrity, because they have seen in me the way they should go.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

In Good Company

There are so many ironies in our lives. There are the little, Murphy's law types: Mop the floor, and the children will spill the entire bottle of maple syrup on it. Dress up for a night out without the kids, and the babysitter will give the littlest ones Oreos before they give you hugs and kisses. The worst diaper blowouts will happen just as you walk out the door, especially if you're running late or if everybody's dressed up and on the way to a special event. You will see everyone you know at the grocery store, but only when you're just ducking in for milk on the way home from whatever, sweaty, unkempt, and in your crummy clothes.

But then there are those big ironies -- major paradoxes that can reach the scale of an all-out war. St. Paul (Romans 7) describes it so well: "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. ...I find this law at work: when I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being, I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin...." This is the grand paradox of a believer's world -- the struggle of a lifetime, between the eternal and the temporal, the physical and the spiritual.

To be a believer -- to say "I believe" -- is to commit to the struggle. It is to willfully engage in the fight to be emancipated from slavery to the law of sin, and to enter in to slavery to the law of Christ. It is to acknowledge that there is a greater reality than this, and that it is as different from what we know as an acorn is from a mighty oak. Just like that acorn contains the fullness of the oak, the fullness of the of the kingdom of God dwells in us! Just as the tiniest roots and green stems break forth in search of light and water, we struggle to break free from the limited perspective of our temporal world, reaching out for eternal light and living water. We take courage in this: even though the tiny seedling struggles frantically to take root and spread its leaves, it settles into peaceful strength after it has gained them. It rests and bears fruit. When we have taken root, and found the strength of maturity, we too will have rest.

In maturity, there is quietness. There is still growth, but it is a steady renewal from our depths, not the frantic reaching of a seedling to find stability and sustenance. In maturity, there is strength to replace the fragile vulnerability of a new life. If we are shaken, or even broken by the storm, we recover. We continue to grow. And if we die, it is never in vain, for death bears us from our temporal world into an eternal one.

Lord willing, we all will reach for maturity in Him, and provide comfort and protection for the young believers among us who are reaching and crying out to be rooted and nourished. St. Paul, a man well aware of his weaknesses and failures, came to the end of his life with peaceful strength that allowed him to stand before the Emperor Nero and face his execution. He, a mighty oak of the faith, was cut down, but in his death fed the flames of the Holy Spirit that allowed the gospel to reach the ends of the earth. He, a self-acknowledged sinner, stood confidently before the throne of grace, certain that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, and taught us to embrace the same confidence, no matter what thorn we wrestle with in our own lives.

"...he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."