Monday, July 21, 2014

In defense of normal

As I write about leadership I feel like that perhaps I should explain that I'm coming from a very pro normal perspective. In an age where it feels like we need to be extreme and sold out and special and amazing I really do believe in normal. I'm certainly not the only one who feels this way either, and it's possible that I'm writing more about how things worked when I was high school than what people are experiencing today. It's also possible that I'm mainly reacting to mega church dogma as filtered through literature and social media. Either way, I want to make plain that when I talk about leadership and the mundane realities and duties of life that I'm really talking about the normal life that most of us pretty normal people lead.

When I say that a woman's primary job is to love her husband and her kids I'm saying that normally this is how a woman experiences life and that, precisely because it is normal, it should be a woman's goal. Ditto for men. It's normal and good for men to get job training (college or vocational), find a wife, and settle down to raising a family and working for the man. Now, as various authors have pointed out, this mundane life actually does involve radical (read: continued and faithful) obedience in dealing with snotty bosses, snotty noses, and snotty t-shirts that never quite make it to the laundry basket. But even this obedience is pretty mundane and typical. Start a load of laundry. Wake up and go to work even though it's a beautiful day. Read that book to your kid for the tenth time today even though you'd really rather read your new novel. Refuse the temptation to snap at your child, spouse, or friend. There's not a lot of heroics involved. People don't call you to write interviews about the mom who hasn't said a cross word to her kids for three days. No one gets his name in the paper for getting to work on time and with a good attitude for six months. It's just stuff that people do because we're human beings with jobs and manners and social/familial obligations.

Leadership, though, sounds kind of glamorous and exciting. We get to be important and have influence and perhaps display extreme competence. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have tiny daydreams about being a rock awesome babywearing momma on tv or having an interview with someone where, with graceful wit and authority, I sparked a more general resolve to improve postpartum care in the US. My slightly grander daydreams involve me babywearing while I speak on a panel about mother care at a health professions conference :D I'm completely serious. When I'm folding laundry I sometimes run away in my head to a place where people respect my opinions and look up to me and don't know about the dust bunnies in my closet or the expired food in the back of my fridge. If human nature is as universal as they say it is I'm guessing that you've had those daydreams as well where you get to be spectacularly competent in front of an attentive if not adoring audience. The main problem I have with these daydreams isn't that they inspire us to do something but that they can distract us from what we actually need to do. Too many times when I'm caught up in some head trip that involves me being generally awesome I'm not particularly attuned to what Jacob and Allen need. I'm over there building air castles and folding laundry (or poking at facebook) while Jacob is pulling at my leg and fussing for my attention. The air castle is much less demanding and therefore often more attractive.

My second problem with these sorts of dreams and aspirations is that we can easily become a wee bit puffed up over our supposed abilities. When you see yourself as the natural leader of a church wide or national movement it can be hard coming down to planning next week's menu. Conversely you could plume yourself that such an important person does take time to plan menus and cook homemade meals. Instead of approaching our tasks humbly we start elevating ourselves in our minds and rejecting the normal life right in front of us.

I also want to point out that when I talk about normal life I'm talking about the middle of the bell curve. I'm not talking about the people who really are called to do strange and wonderful things. Instead I'm trying to reaffirm that most of us really aren't called to do those things and need to be content with the glorious mundane. I feel like that's a bit cliche, but that really does describe my life. I'll be trotting along through my week planning meals (or road trips!) and changing diapers and meeting with some mom's group and not feeling that life is anything to special and then find myself cooing over some funny gesture Jacob made or reveling in the absolute rightness of listening to Sunday's sermon with Allen. I don't really need a whole lot of bibble babble about managing people and gaining influence because my life is small enough to not really need much of that. The main thing I need to work on is remembering names and getting into conversation with people. It's a thing leaders do, but it's also a thing that gracious and mannered people do. At any rate, if you're living outside the normal, all I want to say is "more power to you." Be a dedicated missionary or doctor or teacher. Live a rambling and unusual life. I don't want to guilt people whose feet God has set on different paths. That's the catch though - until God indicates that you should be doing something unusual you should assume that your life is going to be normal and that this a good thing which in no way insults your talents or intelligence. You should plan on having babies and washing dishes and hanging out with your family on holidays and those sorts of normal things.

The point I'm trying to make is that normal isn't particularly special or exciting, but it's also not beneath our abilities or dignity. Whereas I feel special leader culture encourages us to overestimate our importance I believe that normal life humbles us while simultaneously giving us the skills we need to help those closest to us. Normal gives us a quiet place to practice the more unpretentious virtues like patience and diligence. Normal gives us a way to quite literally be faithful in the small things. It's the way we refine who we are and grow as humans. And, for some people, it's a staging area for moving on to bigger things. All I'm asking though is that you start with normal and that you start small. If it's tweet worthy question it. Do a gut check - "Am I doing this/dreaming about this because it really does fulfill and enrich my life (art classes, jogging, writing a blog, etc) or because it makes me feel all puffed up and righteous or competent?" Don't put yourself on a pedestal. Do put yourself in community with people you love and who love you and with whom you can live a normal life of service and fellowship, and just maybe God will take that and turn you into a leader. You don't start there though. That's all.


Well, perhaps not quite all. I want to really, really affirm that there are people who are given different directions in life. This is all well and good. There was a time when I thought God was giving me a different direction in life - namely infertility. I know that these "normal" expectations can feel painful and confining. I know that they can make you feel as though your purpose and goals in life must always be second rate. That's not God's Word though. I think we should seek God's will for us first in the obvious places - marriage, jobs, familial relationships, etc. I wish to make plain that by "seek God's will" I don't mean that you need to do an inordinate amount of soul searching and second guessing. Has God given you a job, a supportive family, and a girlfriend? Yes? Hurray - you might be having a typical Christian life! If the answer to one of those of those is no then start looking around for where else God might be leading you. Explore your passions and your opportunities. Don't ever assume that you should just wait for your life to start because it doesn't look like what your mom or uncle or grandmother or best friend thinks it should look like. Ideally we can all of us on our different paths help and support each other. The family with 2.5 kids should be inspired by the lessons God is teaching their older, single cousin, and their cousin should appreciate the fidelity his cousins display in raising their kids. I hope that they would both hold tight on their ends of the Gospel and see how each of them carries the will of God forward in the world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

"Leadership" is my new trigger word.

For the record I'm not particularly against trigger warnings. I've read a few things where I thought later "I wish I'd known where that was going ahead of time." It's not like the word "leadership" gives me flashbacks to some traumatic boot camp experience. However, I do contort my eyebrows and make funny faces and yearn to dish out snarky set downs when that word pops up in my facebook feed. It's not my favorite. Let me try to explain why.

The argument for leadership goes (depending on whether you're coming from a Christian context or not) "leadership because special" or "leadership because Christian" - which basically means that the Christian argument is just a particular iteration of "leadership because special." What do I mean by this? Well you shove a bunch of kids into a classroom and praise them to high heaven for doing something a kid fifty or a hundred years ago would have been flat out embarrassed at not knowing how to do and then fill them full of gas about dreams and aspirations and "You are our future!" until they're about to pop from self satisfaction. Naturally they think they're God's gift to mankind. That's what we've been telling them from infancy. At this point you're probably thinking that surely Christian parents aren't telling their kids this stuff. You're right. Sort of. Take the conservative homeschooling movement - it is in general academically rigorous and provides a level of education that, on average, is better than what your average public school student receives. The same often applies if you attended a private Christian school. Even if kids in these schools aren't inordinately praised for attaining basic knowledge they are often reminded that their education is in some way superior to the norm. Insert the parable of faithful and wise manager where it says "to whom much is given much is required." Christian kids are often told that they have been given much and that they should do something with it. This attitude isn't as good as it sounds, and Christian kids who go to public schools aren't immune. They're supposed to be "salt and light" by sticking up for their faith and being model students. They are, in fact, supposed to "lead" others to faith.

So we have kids who are told either by virtue of being born or being born again that they have a unique role in the world and that they are destined to something wonderful. Add in the typical "my parents don't understand me" generational gap, and you have a situation where kids seem to think that they can and should rule the world. I mean, in what sane world does a kid writing to the United Nations really matter? Shouldn't the adults sitting around deciding who gets what money and who gets what invading "peacekeeping" force be able to make decisions about climate change, energy, and international aid without listening to a middle school kid regurgitate something she heard on a PBS special? To be clear, my problem isn't that a ten year old cares about this sort of thing and wants to make a difference. We see all the time that one kid who really feels strongly about recycling or children's cancer or orphans can raise awareness, donate time and money, and just generally motivate people to get off their backsides and help out. I'm so glad that there are kids who feel this way and adults who don't talk down to them and tell them they're too young to make a difference. No one is too young to be a blessing to another human being.

My problem with young people (read: under 45) reading books about leadership and attending conferences about leadership and seeking out leadership is twofold. Firstly, most of us don't really know what we're talking about because we're just too flat out young to have enough experience. Secondly, I feel that this focus on leadership takes the focus off of the unglamorous realities of living life in service to the world around us. Naturally my first objection is context dependent. A mom who has been through postpartum depression can be an invaluable ally for newer moms experiencing the same thing. A man who has mastered an addiction can mentor another man just coming to terms with his addiction. You don't have to be that far down the road to help others. Which brings me back to my second point - people who start groups to help other people deal with motherhood or addiction or body image or being a Christian in the workplace are working out of their own lack. They are leading out of the "unglamorous realities" instead of running from them.

When I speak of leadership as running away I'm thinking of cases where single people are too busy to get married and married people are too busy to have kids and moms and dads are too busy to be parents and spouses. Instead of leadership flowing from normal life experiences like getting married, having a family, and living faithfully within the normal confines of a Godly life, leadership or "servant leadership" becomes a replacement for that life. People end up with "callings" and "vocations" and "dreams" that somehow end up being a whole lot more tweet worthy than my morning spent trying to get a load of laundry washed and failing because my nine month old would. Not. Stop. Nursing. Yet, in those moments of dealing with the frustration of wanting to run errands, be creative, sleep late, cuddle with my husband, and play developmentally appropriate brain enriching games with my baby when in reality I've flopped on the couch with a fussy baby to watch stupid tv shows and nurse, I think I'm learning what I'll need to know when it's my turn to lead others. I'm learning to do my job. My job is to love my husband and my child and family. My job is to put meals on the table and be there for nap times and sneak off when Jacob is asleep to do laundry or flirt with Allen. That doesn't mean that I have to cook every meal or make love a certain number of times in a week or never leave Jacob with his grandmother while I run errands or grab a coffee break, but it does mean that lunch with friends and take out dinners and unmade beds should be part of my larger ministry within and out from my home. Not making my bed because we're having a rough day and need to hunker down and just get through it? Legit. Not making my bed because I'd rather check facebook or have filled my week with too many activities? Not so legit. There's a time to push and a time to relax. There's a time to get it all done, and a time to spend time just nurturing people. There are times when I need to manage my day better so I can get dinner on the table and times when ordering in dinner means that everyone is less stressed and has more time to catch up with each other or fold laundry without having to wash dishes. This is my job, and I'm still learning how to do it. One day I hope I can help new moms and young wives learn how to do their job as well. This is why I try not to get too discouraged when the days seem filled with fussy teething baby - as much as I like to pretend otherwise I'm not that special or competent, and it's not surprising when my days look more like Mary Stewart than Martha Stewart (and occasionally like Lazy Stewart. I'm trying to get her to move out though. She doesn't ever vacuum, and the dust bunnies get on my nerves :p ).

The point is that I'm trying to sow the seeds that will turn into experiences that will eventually qualify me to lead and instruct other people. Some of these seeds will pay off sooner rather than later. I'm part of the leadership/volunteer team at our local babywearing group because my interest in this mothering tool is already paying dividends that should only increase as I practice it. Other seeds will take a long time to harvest. My son is only nine months old which means I've got years and years of seed planting before I see Jacob turn into a man and move into the ranks of veteran mom. This means I'm spectacularly ill qualified to try and teach another woman how to raise her son. (For the record I think there's a difference between inculcating a particular view of motherhood and facilitating a peer support group.) This perspective doesn't come naturally though. I've been taught the whole "special" argument for much of my life. I want to walk into a room and be able to say, "Relax, now that I'm here it will all be under control." The problem is that pretty much everyone else already has it under control, and I'm just being hubristic. The truth is that I want my opinion to be needed and valuable. I'm blogging aren't I? I want people to read this and nod along and think that this Natalie chick really has something to offer here. That's not so bad insofar as it goes, and there are naturally charismatic people who are able to gather people around them without hardly even trying and even start entire movements. Having things to say isn't bad. Being able to naturally sway and inspire people isn't bad. The problem I'm trying to identify is when people who otherwise aren't particularly qualified to lead other people act like it's their natural duty to lead - people who teach forgiveness while ignoring their own grudges, women who'd rather teach other children than have children of their own, men who'd rather air their own opinions than learn from others who are older and more experienced, and parents who feel that teaching good principles to others is more valuable than practicing them at home.

In summary, because I feel like I touched on a lot of things, leadership isn't some birthright we inherit and then put into practice when we come of age. Just being ourselves is only special and unique in fairly limited contexts. You probably aren't going to save the world although you may well change someone's life. However, if you are going to save the world it'll probably be because God looked down and saw you doing your job and decided to give you another one. It's okay, and in fact necessary, to focus on the small duties in front of us. Loving our neighbor means loving our kids and our spouses and our parents. Leadership should flow out of these duties and commitments instead of taking us from them. Hopefully this makes sense, but if it doesn't I'm sure I'll be writing and refining my ideas on this more in the coming year.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

the postpartum culture crisis as a grandmother crisis

I'm still reading Mothering the New Mother, and I'll admit there are times when the book makes me a little uneasy because it really does put a huge emphasis on supporting mothers in ways that go so far above and beyond the cultural norm. Why does this bother me? Because we've all seen narcissistic, selfish mothers who treat their children more like lifestyle accessories. On some level it feels as though all this nurturing and support and understanding must surely turn into flat out pandering. It can also be hard to see someone else get something that we didn't have - witness my moment of out and out anger when I saw that another postpartum friend's mom was doing her laundry for her. No one was doing our laundry. Why is she so special?

So here's the dilemma. On one hand we have mothers who are so fixated on their experience that they aren't willing to do what's best for their child. They ignore medical advice, spend money on useless designer crap, and in general turn their experience into a true Bridezilla sequel. On the other hand we have mothers who are turned lose into a largely atomized culture and expected to thrive with very little support or encouragement. Both approaches betray a cultural and/or personal ignorance of or indifference to the needs of motherhood.

What we need are the dual expectations that mothers will in fact pour themselves into their children and seek their good combined with the expectation that older women in the community will in turn pour themselves into this younger mother. What I'm seeing from other cultures, from this book, and from the Bible itself is that motherhood is like some vast stream that catches us up and bears us onwards. When the Bible says that older women should teach the younger women to love their kids and husbands and take care of their homes I'll admit I've often thought of it in the sense of older women laying down the law about how these younger women need to step it up and stop complaining and being lazy. Upon reflection though, I think a gentler connotation is warranted. The ESV says "and so train the young women." That's a lot of what this book is talking about - training mothers to be good at being moms. Instead of grandmothers and aunts and cousins skipping a generation to pour all their love and attention into these new babies, they need to step back and take a look at the mom and make sure that she's equipped to be a good mother.

Unfortunately Titus 2 women seem about as rare as snowflakes in Florida, and we find many younger women existing in a state of benign neglect. I say benign neglect because I rather doubt these older women don't care that their friends and daughters are struggling with motherhood, but it's also neglect in that these older women are failing to do what they ought to do. I'll confess that the more I think about it and see evidence of it the less patience I have with even benign neglect. In some ways it's gentle nature almost makes it more virulent - it's harder to complain about someone who brings over a casserole and coos at your baby even if that person leaves you feeling lonely and frustrated at their lack of understanding and support. In my own life I've seen this play out in very similar fashions with two women who could not be more dissimilar in how they otherwise love and care for people. One person is a giver, and the other is a narcissist - they neither of them understand how to mother the new mother.

Grandmothers and great aunts and old cousin and sisters and the like have a crucial role to play in postpartum care, and they fill that role best when they look first to the mom and then to the child. An infant doesn't really "need" a grandmother, but he surely needs a mother who is encouraged and supported and feels capable of loving and nurturing him. In that sense, a grandmother who coos at her granddaughter while ignoring her own daughter's needs is being just as selfish as a mother who "needs" a certain type of birth. I think it's entirely possible that our current postpartum culture is partially the fault of grandmotherly selfishness, but because this selfishness manifests itself in lots of cooing and baby snuggles we either can't or don't see it for what it is. It needs to stop though. These babies do need the love and wisdom of older generations, but the way they most need that love and wisdom initially is poured out through the care their own mothers receive.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The mother and the child

I've got words stumbling around inside of me that have been sifted loose by my reading lately on postpartum practices in America. They don't feel very eloquent, but then again they might be. There seems to be a fair bit of pain and confusion around becoming mothers - matrescence as one of my books puts it. I can't speak for many of my friends because this isn't something that comes up casually, but, as I start on the earliest stages of trying and preparing to understand and help other postpartum women, the stories I've come across suggest that perhaps my story isn't so very different from other women.

My journey into motherhood was a fragile, brittle thing. My mother is a broken woman as was her mother. My paternal grandmother was reserved and had fought her own battles. My mother-in-law is a dear woman but can't quite seem to meet me on my own impulsive yet over-thought level. Her mother was rather similar. Possibly the most motherly woman I've ever met was my husband's paternal grandmother - Mamaw. A little woman living on a farm with her garden and her cows who loved people. She might not appreciate me saying this, but she had just enough squish for proper grandmotherly hugs. Her enthusiasm for her children was boundless. Although I only knew her briefly, I loved her dearly. She was, in some ways, the most mothering woman I knew for some years.

So when I say my journey into motherhood was brittle or fragile, I mean that it was like spanning a gorge with a thick cable and asking me to climb into a basket and hoist myself to the other side. I didn't have generations of women around me to make the way across plain and safe and carry me over on their experience, compassion, and wisdom. Looking back, I believe I felt alone. A man cannot take you there. It takes a man to be a mother, but I'm not sure he can make you one. Men have different burdens, and it's like asking a freight train to grow wings and fly to Cairo. Eventually you just can't get any closer no matter how hard you try.

All through my pregnancy I tried to face my fears and worries about becoming a mother. I read the books and talked to my counselor and took a childbirth class and tried to soak up the faith that I too could make this journey. If you'd seen me wresting through transition it might have all looked like a front. I don't know because I didn't make it that far. After I started to bleed they rolled me back into a very bright room with a very narrow table full of people who suddenly looked very different in their surgical gear. I remember thinking, insofar as I could think while pumped full of drugs, that there was supposed to be a cry. There is supposed to be crying at births. I waited and waited for that first cry. In my heart I think I'm still waiting for it - that moment when your baby cries and you're flat on your back on a narrow metal table, but it doesn't matter because life has snapped back into focus because your son has arrived. Instead I had a very quiet birth and a near sighted squint at a very baby looking baby (drugs remember) in a plastic box before everyone got wheeled away to their respective destinations.

I'm not sure what happened afterwards. If I tell you a thing didn't happen, and you happen to be one of the few people reading this blog who can say for sure that it did then don't feel the need to call me out. Why? Because it wasn't enough. If you think that words said once or twice to a woman who has just been through that sort of birth are supposed to sustain her through the process of matrescence then you're wrong. You are fully and completely wrong. I've had two people come back to me later and say they should have been more supportive - my husband and my childbirth educator. This is not to say that other people didn't do other things for me. This isn't about what they said but about what they left unsaid.

When I really met Jacob it was over twelve hours later. Allen was there as well as the NICU nurse. Other people had gotten to hold him and watch him sleep before I'd done much more than touch his hand. Instead of me, his mother, introducing him to the world I felt like I was the stranger being introduced. Not having the benefit of that birth rush I've heard about and being under the influence of some pretty powerful painkillers the whole experience felt awkward and somewhat flat. In my head I was telling myself over and again,

This is my baby. My baby. The baby that isn't inside me anymore. The baby that surprised us nine months ago. This is my baby. This is Jacob. I don't know how to hold him, but this is my baby. This is Jacob. I was afraid he wouldn't be cute. I like him. He's a sweet little boy. My little boy.

Just about every single one of those thoughts had a tiny little question mark hovering over it. It's like I was having to remind my numbed and drugged body of something that I thought it would know instinctively - that it should have known instinctively. What I desperately needed was someone to affirm my motherhood. I needed a cloud of witnesses to say "These two belong together. They are mother and child and therefore holy in the same way that all God's most common and precious miracles are holy." Instead I had a parade of nurses telling me how to care for him, grandparents who were impatient to hold him (which they can't do in NICU), and a stream of uncles and aunt and friends who cooed and smiles and spoke warmly of modern medical technology. It was an atmosphere of love and thankfulness and yet it did so little to help me cross that great gorge of motherhood. My cord across the chasm felt fragile indeed.

I felt, oddly, like a conduit. Now that I had born a child my husband had a son. Our parents had a grandson. Our church had a new member. I could see rather clearly my son's relation to all the other people around him, but I had a hard time seeing his relationship to myself. I saw my role as trying to manage and foster all these other relationships when I should have been cocooned safely away with my son learning how our relationship worked. What I needed desperately was someone who looked at Jacob and saw a child and his mother, and my faltering, needy heart never heard that message as loudly as I wished. Instead Jacob would insist on nursing when other people wanted to hold him or fuss at loud noises instead of being cheerfully passed around to one and all, and if he was "good" and I expressed concern at being gone while someone watched him I was dismissed as almost extraneous. I had people whom I thought were my friends who didn't even bother to learn our story before making flippantly unhelpful remarks about parenting.

So what did I want? I wanted to be surrounded by people - women of my family and church - who would sit with me while I tried to make my cut and drugged body catch up with reality and encourage me again and again that Jacob and I belonged together and that I would be a good mother. I wanted these women to take their experience and their kindness and build a tall fence about my baby and me so that we could be shielded from ordinary cares and instead learn to love each other. No - so that I could learn how best to love him. Jacob needs no training. He used to bob and shift his head around until his could see my face before he fell asleep, and he'd swing an arm up over me to touch my chest or my neck. He still does that. I have always been the uncertain one. There's still a corner of my heart that wants that birthing experience of having someone see your child for the first time and say "Him - he belongs with her, and that's exactly where he's going to go."

Now, nearly eight months later, I feel as though I've crossed the chasm safely. This isn't about whether or not women require certain things in order to become mothers. This is about the loneliness and uncertainly that I encountered in my own journey to motherhood. It's about a postpartum culture that start and stops (if you're lucky) with some homemade meals and a few late night facebook chats with the mom up the street and just how very little that does to succor a mother who is finding her own journey across the gorge more perilous than she hoped. Someday I hope to find that mother and say, "He belong with you. You're going to do great. I'll be in the kitchen cleaning up if you need me."


I wrote the above in those highly philosophical hours between midnight and 2am, and now in the daylight I wish to add a couple more observations. First, this is the story of a woman who has very few real connections to wise and loving mothering and who entered motherhood in a rather traumatic fashion. Take away one of those factors - a loving and present mother or a peaceful birth and bonding experience - and you'll likely end up with a woman who is rather more satisfied with her postpartum experience. Secondly, upon reading this story, you may at some point feel like asking, "Well, why didn't you just ask for help or support or encouragement." The simple truth is that I and, according to my recent reading on matrescense in Western Culture, many other women simply do not have the voice to ask for these things and for some women it's only years later that they realized what was lacking in their own postpartum experience. That said, I agree that if I'd been able to ask for them that there were women in my life who would have tried to support and help me in the way that I needed. However, the more common experience - my experience - is that when the feelings don't work the way we wish, when we get tired and discouraged, when we doubt ourselves and our connection to our child our instinct is to turn inwards and seek the problem within ourselves.  We are encouraged to be ok with being exhausted and emotional. There are plenty of "there there's" and "that will pass" and "I remember those days" to go around. What was missing were more statements like "Look how happy he is with you" and "Don't you love that new baby smell" and "I'm so proud of how you're taking care of him." Mothering is not all by instinct, and we need a safe and supportive place to begin to feel like mothers. We know we're tired - we've been up all night. We know we're tough - we've been through physical and emotional turmoil different and/or harder than anything previous to this. What we need is constant reassurance that we're ok - because we feel so very inadequate to care for this tiny soul who looks at us with big eyes that take and take and take from us because we are Mother and yet somehow reflect all the wonders on the universe.

For more reading on this subject I recommend Mothering the New Mother by Sally Placksin.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Following the leader

I'm not sure whether this is more prevalent in the evangelical homeschooling world, but where I come from there's a fairly strong emphasis on being a "leader." Way back in the days when my folks were first figuring out that I was "smart" and I was making noises about getting a doctorate my parents somehow came up with this grandiose idea that I could be that one positive influence on the university system that left a mark and turned the ship and did awesome things that future homeschooling parents would relate to their children in hushed tones as an example of someone who went far and made waves. Ok, so I'm exaggerating. Slightly.

Even at the time I was somewhat skeptical that I could affect the level of change they anticipated, but years later I can only look back and wonder at their over reaching ambition. The people who change academic history are rare. The conservative types who stand against all the prevailing winds of indoctrination and who make history (for something other than getting fired amid a storm of "tsk tsks") are even rarer. Smarter than your average bear won't work in those situations. You'd need to be scary smart along with being extraordinarily savvy and blessed by God with nearly prophetic vision and stamina. That's a tall order for a girl with decently high ACT scores and an education that, to be honest, could have been better. (And I'm going to stop right here and say that I got a great education by many, many standards. The reason why I'm able to even say this about my education is that I've had the opportunity to reflect and think about education in general and particularly about great books/classical education. My mom did a great job homeschooling us. Truly I am grateful for that gift. However, I think that Christian education has rolled along a bit in the past few years, and I think it's entirely possible that the education my kid(s) receive will as far surpass my own as my own surpassed my parent's. Thanks, Mom!) The point being that my parents were telling a story about how I could become this amazing leader without my actually having the background to make such dreams even remotely feasible. Based on talking with my husband and looking around my facebook feed I suspect that experience is pretty normal for those us of who came out of conservative, Evangelical homes.

In my own life this assumption of leadership potential has led to a lot of frustration. Having imbibed this idea that conservative, Evangelical homeschool types should be leading pretty much wherever they went (Hello, Patrick Henry College!) it's been a hard for me to see and accept that my parents really didn't do much towards preparing me to lead. Not really. Reading "The Case for Christ," taking a semester or two of debate, and being "self-motivated" just aren't enough. Hopefully you can see the tension here. I get involved with a group and feel that internal pressure to become a somebody. I want to walk in the door and have my opinions valued and solicited without having done a darn thing to demonstrate why my opinion is worth anything to anybody in the first place. I'm dead serious. Use a baby carrier three times, and my little "leader wanna be" ego is the size of Lady Liberty. The flip side to that if that when I'm being self aware enough to realize that my ego wants to take over New York I tend to not offer advice, or at any rate do it awkwardly, because I'm terrified that I'm being an officious know it all. However when an opportunity comes up to do something that technically should be within my capabilities I tend to freeze and not try anything because I'm so very, very aware of how much I don't know. The result is that I'm often left feeling awkward and frustrated.

So here's the new outlook I'm going to be trying to cultivate - learn how to follow. That's it. Don't get mad wishing people consulted me or looked up to me more. Don't feel bad about not taking on things I feel are outside of my ability to execute competently. Just follow. Learn. Build up the people around me. Be the kind of person a leader would like to lead. Respect the leader's time and ability. Don't try to curry favor. Just be. Enjoy what I'm learning. Be grateful that God has put other leaders in my life. Consider that perhaps they're the one's sowing seeds that need to grow and bloom in my life.

There's more I want to write about this, but I think I'll wait and do a part 2.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

When curses break

In the movies or books when someone comes out of a barren and lonely wilderness experience it's, to my recollection, often portrayed as straight triumph. Squeals, giggles, and jumping around in circles (or roars, fist bumps, and chest thumping if you're the sterner sex) seem like the natural accompaniment to engagement rings, entrance letters, positive pregnancy tests, and last minute touchdowns. In many cases they are. Today though, I thought about a time when deliverance and triumph brought confusion and weeping - namely, at the empty tomb of Christ. We, living several centuries later, jump straight into the glory and victory of Christ's resurrection. We sing "Christ the Lord is Risen Today!" with bursting throats and glowing faces, and we revel in all that the atonement has bought us. We look forward to being with Christ and being reunited with our loved ones in Heaven. We rest in the thought that our future in secure in the one who defeated death and made it possible for us to live in friendship with God. However, as our pastor pointed out, Mary stood weeping and wondering where Jesus' body was. Simon Peter and John didn't have any answers either. The very symbol of our joy was initially a time of sad bewilderment to those who first saw it.

Why is this important to me? One of the dangers of denigrating or downplaying literature is that people stop learning to understand narratives. They don't study how actions and characters play out in a variety of circumstances. This plays out in real life as well. Who's the bad guy? Where's the unreliable narrator? Who's the quiet force for good whose life is overlooked by those who seek power to change in obvious places? What, you may ask, does this have to do with answering my question? The Bible is at it's heart a book of stories. It's a narrative of redemption. In it we find people in a myriad of circumstances encountering the God of creation - from a faithful young Jewish girl to a bed hopping Samaritan woman to old prophetess. It doesn't matter if you're weeping or laughing or tapping your toe with a stern look in your eyes - there is a story that touches your life somewhere. This really hit me when I was listening to our pastor recount the Easter story because for a while I thought I had a story that didn't fit anywhere until suddenly I saw it writ large in the confusion of Easter Sunday.

When I found out I was expecting our son I didn't have a picture worthy hallmark reaction. I didn't blush or cry or giggle or anything like that. I swore. I'd been waiting for years to see that positive test, and when it showed up I swore because I though surely this was a cruel hoax. After all these years (and after what my doctor last said about starting fertility treatments) I was sure this couldn't actually be what it obviously was. When I walked down the hall to tell Allen it was very much in the same way Mary might have approached the disciples - "You won't believe this - something must be wrong.
For weeks and months later I was uncomfortable with this part of my story. I thought there was something wrong that I reacted with disbelief and confusion, but listening to the Easter story at church today I finally saw my story in their story. I saw the wondering and the weeping and the questioning. I saw people who doubted what was in front of them. I saw a great curse defeated and heralded not with shouts or parades but with people running around trying to find where they'd left their sorrow and defeat. In some strange way I found it comforting to know that I was reacting the way other good and faithful people have reacted in assuming that this great blessing was only a new and varied sorrow. All that afternoon while I waited to hear from the nurse and tried not to think too hard, I was by the tomb of Christ not quite realizing that He had broken the curse and was bringing new life to me. (And I will add here that I have been deliberately and literally cursed in my life by someone who should have know better. Someone tried to speak words of death and condemnation over my life, but by the grace of God His grace and His power have prevailed.) Then I called the nurse and heard the good news and rejoiced. I saw as I had never seen before how curses fade away before the goodness of God, and I rejoiced.

Sitting there in the church where our son was recently baptized listening to our pastor describe Mary waiting beside the tomb it seemed as if I saw where my own quiet longings and desires had been buried in my at the time lifeless womb. Like Mary there were times when I would sneak away to weep beside this grave, and like Mary I was astonished one day to see that the stone had been rolled away. But to what purpose? Was this only another trial and disappointment to bear? No, it is life as perhaps Mary and I hardly dared dream. It is the story of resurrection, and it is the story of how we found out were expecting our little buddy. Roughly. The Bible doesn't report any swearing in the Easter story, but now that I think of it I'd be surprised if at least a couple of the disciples weren't muttering imprecations under their breath.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Childhood, intimacy, and Heaven's fulfillment

 (I want to post a caveat up front - this is a post I very much wanted to write, but I also feel like I should say that I'm very much aware that I'm still in a time of seed sowing and not anywhere close to the full harvest. I'm still learning and really don't have much business teaching - especially not veteran moms or older women who might be reading this. These are my thoughts from this point in my journey as a new mom trying to look ahead to the future.)

I've got my little buddy asleep on my lap and both hands free for the moment, so I thought I'd try to get some more thoughts out in writing.

Even though I haven't seen the two more recent Toy Story movies, what I've heard about them really made me think and question some of our attitudes about childhood and life in general. I'll be honest and say that after hearing about the third movie I wanted to pull a Jesus Juke (where you take all the fun out of life by posing some super-spiritual hypothetical question) and rant about people all over the country getting so worked up about the loss of childhood when we're losing thousands of children daily to abortion. There's a loss of childhood right there that should have you staggering around holding your head wondering why a fictional character going off to college is suddenly a Big Deal. As much as I'd love to confront some Hollywood types on their raging hypocrisy that really isn't what I want to write about today - being pretty sure that there aren't any Hollywood types reading this anyway. Also, it's a pretty simple issue. Stop worshiping your own convenience and start loving and cherishing "the least of these."

Digression aside, as a Christian and a new mom, what really caught my imagination is the way we in the American Church seem to have bought into this idea of childhood as some magical time we'll never recover and that must be savored daily and mourned as lost upon graduating high school. On the surface it's not such a bad idea. We live in a busy modern world where it's easy to get wrapped up in work and friendships and our pinterest craft boards and all the mindless entertainment available to us 24/7, and sometimes we need a reminder to really look at the baby sleeping in our laps because there will come a day we realize that our children haven't climbed into out laps to be held for how long now? Was it last week or eight months ago? And that feeling of nostalgia and loss is exactly what I want to write about. 

This is going to fee like a tangent, but bear with me. I've heard plenty of people speculate about how there presumably won't be sex in Heaven. If there's no marriage and no children being born then it makes sense that sex would be off the table. Naturally this disturbs lots of single Christians who are staring down a long road of celibacy. However, if our marriages are supposed to be pictures of something that will be fully realized in Heaven, then it doesn't really matter that there won't be sex in Heaven because God will have something so much greater planned for us. How does this play into our view of childhood? Well, sex is a form of intimacy - so is pregnancy and nursing and rocking your baby to sleep. These are all intimate acts of nurturing which exist in a mom's life for a short period of time and then pass away as our children grow. Just as sex must have its fulfillment in Heaven, I believe that the intimate bond created by serving our children will have a similar fulfillment. God says He will try our works by fire so that only that which is pure will remain. That means God will preserve whatever is Christlike in my relationship with Jacob and transform it by His grace into something more wonderful than I could imagine. Personally I think it's entirely possibly that God has broken up our intimacy with each other into little bites so that we immature mortals have a chance of seeing and understanding what it means to give ourselves to each other, but that in Heaven all the scraps will be assembled so that we're able to experience greater unity with each other than we could possibly imagine on this earth. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the unity of husband and wife, the tenderness of a mother with her child, the comfortable joy of old friends swapping stories over nutella crepes, and the satisfaction of brothers working on a shared vision were all rolled into one all-encompassing experience bonding all of resurrected humanity together with each other and their Lord. Is it possible? Given that the New Testaments points to our earthly experiences as dim shadows and reflections of the glory to be revealed, I think it is.

I believe this idea of our mortal experiences being redeemed and glorified has certain ramifications for how we as Christians view childhood. Instead of all the good things of childhood merely being fleeting moments snatched from the onslaught of time, I think we should imagine these funny, tender little moments as being foretastes of something beautiful about God's nature that we'll get to experience in all it's fullness once we see Him in Heaven. This has led me to a sort of lazy "seize the day" attitude. Let me explain. All these little glimmers of glory are gifts from God and point to His character and should be received with open hands of gratitude. However, I think that all too often we look at God's blessings and then treat Him like a miser. We take in armfuls of blessings and hoard them and count them up like the dragon Smaug sitting on his pile of gold and fearing that we'll miss a single one. Yet God has told us again and again that He delights in His children and delights to bless us. Count up all the blessings that occurred just to get your bowl of oatmeal on the table. You can't do it. If you tried to count up all the individual blessings that happened in the past year for you to have oatmeal today you'd be sitting there all day and longer. We are surrounded by that many blessings. So why be clutch-fisted about it? Don't let people telling you to seize the day and cherish the moments make you desperate. There will be enough days and will be enough moments. How can I say this? "My grace is sufficient for thee." One thing I've learned about motherhood is that the moments always seem too few, and yet God will make them enough for my mother-heart. I don't have to grasp. God is giving these times to me, and I believe once I get to Heaven He will have everything good and pure and lovely about those days waiting for me in some form. Even as my son grows up and away from needing my constant care we grow towards a time when God will reveal the eternal ramifications of that work. This is a God who wastes rainbows and sunrises on squirrels and whales. I think He has enough good things stored up for me - although in this life or the next there have been times I couldn't tell.

Movies like the last Toy Story (or so I gather from the hoopla that went around) seem to present a warped view of childhood and maturity. It's like we create some sort of fetish around children in order to distract us from the virulent child hatred that is prevalent through so much of our culture. I would speculate that when we say to the unborn "nobody wants you" that creates a pressure to idolize the stages of life for those who are born as a sort of atonement. "You, my precious genetic image, are wanted with a desire that will lead me pour money down on your head as a way to convince myself and the world that by wanting you enough I have made you human and worthy of life." It's as if by doting on the children we do allow to be born we can make up for the ones we throw away because they're inconvenient for us. They've built these constructs around children and parenting that I think the American church has bought into without much examination. No matter how many times we talk about Jesus calling the children and telling us to come to him with childlike faith we can't escape the fact that the Bible calls us to maturity. We are called to grow and to grow old in wisdom and love and service. Children teach us so many things about ourselves. I'll always cherish my memories of when Jacob fell asleep at my breast and ducked he head against my shoulder and blew bubbles on the changing table, but my job is raise up a mature man. Him putting away milk and eating meat will be an achievement. This is a good thing. Being an adult is a good thing. It is also a sad thing. Jacob wasn't a week old before I was thinking about the day he'd move away and leave us to begin his own adventures in the world, and it was such a sobering, heartbreaking realization that this tiny infant cuddled in my arms would rapidly become someone I may only see on holidays. That's why I went through all that speculation above about Heaven. God will redeem our works. What is like Him will remain. What reflects His character and brings His people everlasting joy will remain. We are growing into something so much better than we could possibly imagine. It's a cliche, but it's there in the Bible. That means there is something in Heaven better than little boys playing space robots or climbing in your lap for a hug. There's something more precious than little newborn baby breath on your cheek. So instead of looking at these popular images about childhood our culture has constructed and despairing I think we should be looking ahead to the time when God will pull back the curtains and show us the greater joy which all our little joys pointed to if we could have only known.