Monday, July 13, 2009

Mourning A Family Under Fire

Sometimes I get in these moods where even though I don't know what to say, I must write, like some primal impetus has taken hold of my fingers and glues them to the pencil or keyboard. This is one of those moments. Bear with me.
It has been a turbulently quiet day. I awoke late, cheeks still salty from a good cry I had the previous night. My grandmother is getting worse and my mother is exhausted as her sole caregiver. My father is working in California and rarely gets to see her, and my little brother will be going back to school in Washington soon and will no longer be able to support her in her efforts. I invited my parents to go on a cruise in January to celebrate the final completion of my long-awaited bachelor's degree. But money and time intervened and they ended up having to say no. And I cried about it. Almost-24-year-old that I am, I bawled like a toddler refused her favorite toy. I know I am being selfish, and bitter, but somehow I had made the mistake of placing the yearnings of my whole heart on that six-day trip with my family. I had imagined the time I would spend with them, being celebrated by them for my accomplishment. I could picture getting dressed up for dinner in one of the fancy on-board restaurants, my father raising his beer and toasting me as their first child to graduate from college. I saw myself rising early and going jogging on the track with my mom impressing her with my unwonted fitness, after which we finally went for the manicure she's been inviting me to every time I've seen her for the past three years, me sporting my shapely, unbitten nails that I had worked so hard to grow for her approval. I could see us exploring Disney World together on the way down, Nassau and the pirate museum on the way back, with my dad offering to rent a sailboat and let me steer like I used to when I was five in the sunny harbors of California. I pictured the pride on my parents faces that their little girl had finally gotten her life together, had finally become someone.
So I cried. I cried that my grandmother is sick and unable to take care of herself, that the care of her and my handicapped uncle has sapped my mom of all her strength and joy, that my father feels second rate compared to his ailing mother-in-law. I even cried, selfishly, because my brother is helping my mom when I can't. I want to be the child she can rely on, the child she turns to when she needs a break, a glass of wine and a good movie to make her forget about her many jobs for a little while. Instead I am locked here on the East Coast, a four day drive or $400 plane ticket away from visiting my family. I have obligations to fulfill here, family to care for that-- while they accept me as one of their own-- are not truly mine in the most basic sense. I have no job, and no money with which to purchase a trip of such magnitude and just pick up and fly to my family's aid.
While I was crying to remembered the times when, in high school, I would get punished for some seemingly insignificant transgression or another, and while sulking throughout my punishment, repeat to myself the most heartbreaking promise I have ever made: "Someday, I'll get away from them. Far away, where I can live my own life and they can't bother me." I regret that promise. What a horrendous way to realize that the old adage holds true: "Be careful what you wish for." I would give anything to be a part of my family once again.
My husband and I discussed the idea of sending me out for an extended visit, for a month or so. I could stay with my mom, after my brother has left for school, and help her attend to my grandmother, take her shopping and clean for her, take her for walks, and finally get a chance to write down all those old stories she told us when we were little about her childhood before they die with her. I hate myself for wishing it, but... if I do make it out there, I want her to die while I'm there. I don't want to learn about her passing from yet another foreboding phone call that leaves me with a phone phobia, like the one that came with news of my brother's leukemia. For nearly a year I rushed to the phone anytime day or night, nearly panicked with the news it would give me. I don't want that again. I want to be there, able to comfort my favorite grandmother in her last moments, able to console my mom and hug my ridiculously tall and skinny little brother so tight that I can clasp both of my own elbows. Able to see my mom and dad free to be a part of each other's lives again. I don't want yet another major family ordeal to happen when I'm too far away to be a part of it, when I come shuffling in after the fact like a dog who knows he's been a nuisance. Obviously I don't want my grandmother to die now. But I also don't want her to live like this, as a burden on my mother and a wedge in her marriage. As an alternately absent and embittered "patient" in a retirement community that she'll never consider home, pushing away and verbally abusing the one child who has stepped forward to care for her in her time of need.
I want... but I don't know what I want, much less what is needed. Only the Lord knows that, the God of Abraham, who has planted and uprooted nations. Does his gaze that encompasses the whole earth see the trials of my family? Does his heart swell with our suffering as does my own? I know it does. The God who watched his own Son die on a cross, helpless to turn the hearts of those he died for, must know what it is like to watch a family put under fire, to watch a loved one fading, to be helpless and faraway while the effects of sin and death on a ruined world hurt the ones you love the most. And if he knows my pain, and if he loves me and my family, which he created with loving hands and died for, how can he not desire to intervene, to soothe the burns with the pure salve of his love? And my God, who is vastly wiser than my selfish, hurting heart, knows exactly what needs to be done, and he will do it in his mighty way, and someday, we will look back on this time, this trial, with gratitude in our eyes. May it be.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Clearing A Clouded Heart

So I left a rather cryptic status post on my Facebook yesterday about clearing the lies from my clouded heart, and I got just enough response that I figured I'd better clarify before everyone started thinking I'd gone emo on them or something.
Anyway, the realization I had that my heart was "clouded with lies" stemmed from the devotions I've been doing in a bible study lately, entitled "The Disciple's Prayer Life" (). Anyway, it was talking about our perceptions of God and his character. It stated that he created us for fellowship primarily, and that just didn't sit well with me. It's not that I didn't believe it, at least intellectually, but rather that this conceptualization of God's character just didn't mesh with the picture I've held of him in my heart. It asked me to describe how I viewed God, and I had to sit and think about that for a moment. Finally, a concise description came to mind: I view him as a general. I recognize his authority and power, and I feel indebted to him for the salvation and blessings he's bestowed on me, so I serve him as obediently as I can. But when it comes to cozying up to him and being buddy-buddy, the idea strikes me as foreign as a soldier cuddling up to her superior on the couch while watching chick flicks. Just doesn't seem to be realistic.
So that got me thinking. They say your first and greatest impression of God comes from your father. Well, there were two takes I could have on this. My father, the one who raised and cared for me is anything but the military type. He was very loving and caring and treated me in every way as his own beloved daughter. But I don't think he is the one who formed that God-image for me, unfortunately. I think that image stems from even farther back, from my biological father.
My mom got pregnant with me when she was about my age, and she wasn't married yet. It's a typical story nowadays, but it must have been terrifying even then. So the first thing they did was tie the knot. But my biological father was not exactly the "responsible, settle-down-and-have-a-family type". He was in the navy, and was, as far as I can tell, a bit of a charmer, probably a bit egotistical and the like. When he found out my mom was pregnant, his first instinct was to go for an abortion. I try not to blame him for that, because I have never been in his shoes, and he doesn't have the same outlook on human life as I do. Nevertheless, it's hard to think that upon your first conception, your own father was already looking for ways to get rid of you. Regardless, my mom (my heroine) nixed the abortion idea and went ahead with the pregnancy. Bill (my biological father) really wasn't all that "present" during my birth and early infancy, despite their marriage. My mom always gave me the impression he would rather be out drinking or partying than at home playing the part of Mr. Cleaver. So, inevitably, the marriage failed. My parents split up and went their own ways, and my mom took the entire burden of parenting upon herself. Several years later, she met a funny, goofy guy at work, who she later married and had a son with (i.e. my precious little brother). That is the man I call "Daddy".
All this is merely information gleaned from my mom's recollections to me, usually imparted with anything from flippancy to abject disgust and bitterness. I think my mom is still dealing with the scars Bill left on her heart and soul. I wouldn't blame her. But my earliest memory of my first father was from after my real father had already taken the job. Bill didn't keep in contact very well (okay, like at all) during the early years of my life, though my mother never revoked his right to visit and spend time with me. He just didn't seem all that interested in having a kid. He seemed, however, to have a sudden change of heart when he started dating a children's author who loved kids. All of a sudden he was calling to ask if he could take me to the park to ride a pony or up to the mountains to play in the snow. He was suddenly into this "daddy thing". And I was loving it! I still remember the name of the pony I rode: Pepper. Is that pathetic? I had so much fun being the center of attention of this charming and fun-loving man who called himself "Daddy Bill" and his fair-haired lady friend.
But somewhere along the line, Bill's relationship with the author must have fallen apart, because I stopped seeing him anymore. He just sort of faded back out of existence. Eventually I think I just stopped asking about him. Then, one night, after my family had moved to Idaho from our sunny California home, I had a revelation. Shuffling quietly into my parent's bedroom, I stood in the doorway and asked my sleeping mother a life-changing question: "Mama, is Daddy Bill my real daddy?" My mother, too asleep to be tactful, and probably not even aware of the import of my question, simply answered yes, and told me to go back to bed. I cried myself to sleep that night. Thereafter, I had a definite sense of always being the "stranger" in my family, the odd one out, the child who didn't exactly belong. It wasn't that my parents treated me any differently. But now I knew who I was, and the identity I formed from that information was alienating.
I'm not trying to tell you a sob story here, but merely give background. I came to Christ at sixteen, after a turbulent battle with depression, something that has continued to plague my life since, and will probably always be something I deal with. But despite the love poured out on me via the message of God's only son being sacrificed for my sins, I still carried that sneaking suspicion with me that God was in some ways very much like my original father figure. This connection jumped out at me the other day. All this time, despite all the ways He has blessed me and shown me his care and regard for me, I still tend to think of God as a general or commander, who recruited me into his army not based on his value for me personally, but merely because he viewed me as an asset for getting his own way. And obviously, I don't project the desire to impress the ladies onto my Heavenly Father. But how many times must I have simply assumed that God merely wanted me on his team so I could increase his kingdom or bring other's to the faith?
It may sound ridiculous, or, who knows, it may even sound exactly like what you suspect of his motives. Who knows how many of us have gone through life believing that God was the divine carbon-copy of our own fathers: that he wanted to use us, like our fathers did. That he only wanted us as a trophy or a servant, like our fathers did. Or, God forbid, that he didn't want us at all, like so many girls with absent fathers must suspect.
How did we go so wrong? The most basic and well known verse declares God's abundant love for us: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world [or use the world, or abandon the world], but to save the world through him." John 3:16-17 He loves us! He wants to be with us. Yes, He desires us for other purposes as well, to spread the light of his gospel to the nations, to administer hope and healing to a broken world, to feed the hungry and free the captives, but above all things, let it be known that he first and foremost created us and sent his son to die on that brutal cross because he LOVED us and wanted to be with us. What a powerful truth to clear the lies from our hearts!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My Personal Idol

So I was reading my rote one chapter of Jeremiah as my devotions this morning, and something hit hard with me in this chapter. Jeremiah 16:18 reads

"I will repay them double for their wickedness and their sin, because they have defiled my land with the lifeless forms of their vile images and have filled my inheritance with their detestable idols."

Now normally when I read about idolatry, the "spiritually open, vulnerable and receptive" part of my brain just sort of checks out on a lunchbreak. If you think of it as approaching the Bible with a checklist in hand, you could say I normally just put a check down for the "idolatry" item and say "Nope, I'm good in this area." I would guess most of us tend to think that way. The way the Bible describes idols, they seem pretty basic: a hunk of wood or stone, carved into some weird shape, and put in a temple or shrine or on a hill and bowed down to and offered gifts. I don't know about you, but I'm past my "bow down to statues" phase. No... I'm serious, I did have that phase; in high school I was a Wiccan for a brief period and had a statue of "the Goddess" in one of her three forms, which I burnt incense to and prayed in front of her little shrine at least once a day. Sounds pretty hardcore, huh? Looking back now, it feels foolish, the way I sat there in my little ritualistic setup hoping and pleading with a ceramic bauble to do something in my life to make me happier, prettier, more successful. It was just a trinket my mom bought me, but I put all my hopes on it to be my god.

I guess that's why when I read in the Bible about idol worship, I tend to check out, because I assume that once I came over to the one true God who needs no statue or incense or magical candle circle to answer prayer, I was past the idolatry phase. It wasn't a problem anymore. I had outgrown that particular temptation. And, in a way, I was right. I have moved on past that specific form of idolatry. Meaning I no longer believe that inanimate odds and ends will be able to do anything more powerful in my life than look good on a bare shelf. That form of idolatry has been beaten out of my life. The temptation is more subtle now.

Looking at this verse, though, the subtlety seemed to ebb away like a thin veil, and God suddenly revealed to me how idolatry is still in my life. He speaks in that verse of how the Israelites have defiled his land and inheritance with their idol worship. Hold on: let's backtrack. That wasn't him talking about their land and inheritance. It was his. Where they lived and the things they had may have been on loan to them, but they still came from and belonged to God. And they just didn't seem to get it when He told them he could take it away if they didn't stop worshipping their idols. This got me thinking: what is the "land" and "inheritance" God has given me? Well, there's the usual Christian list of "thank-you card prayer" fillers: a place to live, food to eat, a good family, etc. But how about the things that really matter to me? Stuff like my money, or even my time? I tend to forget about these things, because in truth, they seem a little abstract. Especially time.

One doesn't usually think of time as a thing that is given. It's more like something that is just there, though there never seems to be enough of it there. You ever get that feeling? How many people do you hear who talk about how busy they are, how there's never enough time in the day to get everything done. Here's the kicker: how many of them use that as an excuse for why they aren't spending time with God? ::sheepishly raises hand::

So I started thinking about how this "time being an inheritance from God" factored into idol worship. Now my track record isn't too great. I tend to have an on and off relationship with my Bible. Meaning I'll read it a chapter a day for about three days, then something comes up, I get busy, or bored, or sick, and decide I can just "do it later". Three weeks later, I finally allow my built up bad-Christian guilt to drive me back to my Bible, but only long enough to take the edge off of conviction, and then something comes up again. Repeat cycle ad nauseum. A thought popped into my head this morning that seemed to point a big meaty finger directly at that not-so-bright spot on my Christian resume and say "here's your idol." Sure, I may be past the whole incense and fairy statues phase, but I'm still a big fat idol worshipper in a very subtle area (to me anyway): my time. Several times I've committed to God that I would spend some time during every day (generally the morning) reading God's word and praying and spending time with him, and it always gets crowded out by other things. Yesterday it was a migraine and several back-episodes of Buffy. The day before that, maybe babysitting or cleaning house. And before that? Ministry, not kidding. But that time that I promised God, it's not mine. He gave it to me, and I dedicated it back to him. It is his inheritance, his property. And I have filled it with every manner of "vile images" and "detestable idols." And, maybe this is a little extreme, but who's to say He isn't getting just as frustrated with me as he was when the Israelites were doing the same thing during Jeremiah's time? Who's to say he isn't getting very close to taking away this time that he has gifted to me? Ever notice that the moment you start enjoying some free time, it seems to go by even faster? I wonder if that isn't just an impression, but God trying to speak to us. Is my constant brush off during the "morning dates" I've promised him resulting in my to-do list getting longer and longer and my goals getting more and more distant? It sounds a little off the wall, but it could be true.

Either way, I've promised Him that time, and it's about time I stop filling it with detestable idols and start making good on my word. For me, this means I’m going to start picking a time every day and spending the full amount of it in the Word and in prayer, even if it means I have to go OCD on myself and set a timer. For you it may mean you need to start thinking of that quiet time as a quality time for you to spend listening to God rather than asking Him for favors. Or maybe it means you need to start thinking about starting a quiet time, or put more priority on your time with him than on your massive to-do list (trust me, I understand how hard that is). But personally, I’m going to trust that God will remain true to His character. After all, he’s never let me down before. And when he says that if I stop misusing the gifts he gives, then he won’t take them away, I’m going to believe Him. And as an added plus, maybe I’ll actually have more time in the day for homework and housekeeping and fun. It’s worth a try.