Three Paths to and from Relationship.

On Mondays I go to therapy. This is a new addition to my schedule, so my relationship with this therapist is just beginning. But despite the fact that I’ve only had two sessions so far, there is a sensitivity to the undercurrents in my life that has resulted from my openness to delve deeper into my soul with someone else. The intention to do this work has been enough to initiate it.

This week my focus has been on relationship. My mind has been turning that word over and over and looking at from all different angles. And it was all a result of one question my therapist asked me: “Is there someone in your life who you’d be willing to take a risk with and go deeper?” This simple question has led me down several different interesting and unexpected paths this week.

A story, in which I recognize that I don’t like to be alone.

Before I take you down these paths with me, let me tell you a story. Once I was a little girl growing up on a farm in a house heated by a wood stove and the bodies of six healthy active children. I was rarely alone, and as one of the few true extroverts in my family, I never saw that as a bad thing. 

Family w Grandpa M_blog.jpg

Even at night I shared a bed with my older sister. Sometimes she would force me to lie on her side of the bed for 10 minutes while she lay on mine so that when we switched her side would be nice and toasty. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in my adult head, but at the time we were both convinced that I was so much warmer than her that I warmed up her spot more than she warmed up mine. But it didn’t really matter that much to me. To have companionship even while sleeping was enough to put up with any sibling tension. If I kept her physically warm, she kept me emotionally safe.

I don’t think I realized how much I relied on her until the day she went on a two week trip without me. For the first time in my life, I was forced to sleep alone and the prospect was terrifying to me. I was so used to her protective presence that I slept with our large stuffed bear at my back each night to keep myself from feeling exposed to whatever dangers lurked outside our dark windows.

Path 1, in which I unexpectedly cry over unhealed wounds and loneliness.

So, with that little peek into how I tick, let us proceed with this week’s journey. Monday I went to therapy. During my session we touched briefly on the need for healthy supportive friendships. And my therapist asked the above mentioned question.

On Wednesday morning I sat at my table in my patio visualizing my relationship with a particular friend, practicing the ability to sit with and then let go, as I often cling to people. As I let that friend go, I was suddenly aware of so many other people. The names of my family and other people I love, as well as the general sense of the community that we are physically surrounded with here on campus, filled my head, one after another. I was aware of an interconnectedness that left me with an actual physical sensation of tingling energy. I felt joy and peace as I sat with these people.

But it didn’t end there. As is my morning practice, I picked up my journal to record my experience and see where it led me. That path should have been full of light, but it got dark surprisingly fast. With my mind full of these people I thought about the question my therapist had asked. Which of these people could I go deeper with? There are several that I am already doing that with, but as I pondered my present community I was hit with grief. A past event emerged and a wound reopened and before the morning was out I found myself sobbing in the car after I dropped the kids off at school. 

I am not at liberty to share the details of that event because it would trespass on the privacy of others, and that is part of the problem. It is hard to know how to navigate a painful situation with transparency and sensitivity. How to keep private what belongs to others and still process the pain that is mine. There is a lot of perceived rejection surrounding this event. Rejection that I recognize is mostly in my head, but the pain I internalized is still very real. And as I cried tears of pain and anger and grief, I realized that because of this event, I chose to start looking at my present community as temporary rather than essential. I withdrew. And therefore I have experienced loneliness as a result.

Path 2, in which I remember that loss is part of life.

I pulled myself together, made a mental note that this would probably be something worth discussing in my next Monday session and headed to work. It was a good day. Work went well, and there was an interaction with someone that was significant to me. Someone brought up Emma, and in our brief conversation, even though I had tears in my eyes, I appreciated the connection this friend initiated and the connection to my daughter that it allowed me to reinforce.

I didn’t think much more of it until Thursday morning when I woke from a dream in which I was pregnant. This is sort of a recurring theme in many of my dreams, and as I usually do, I wondered where it came from. What is it that lies deep within me that brings this out? 

I was exhausted, and I was facing one of the hardest days of my week, so I put the dream aside and continued with my morning routine. There were no fascinating events in my quiet time and my journaling was filled with recognition that the day was going to be hard and I would need to be aware of self-care.

It wasn’t until I sat on the bus headed to work that I found myself on this second path. Deep sadness hit me. It was very real, but very comfortable. The kind of sadness I don’t mind inviting in and sitting with. I thought of Emma and of loss, and I held the sadness close. And I realized that this was also a story of relationship — relationship lost.

handsb&w

This path is very familiar to me. This particular journey down this well trodden path began last week. One of the reasons relationship came up in my therapy session on Monday was because of a conversation I had with a friend about the need to hold people loosely, with an open hand. The authority in which I spoke to her was experience. The two examples I used were the loss of my child Emma and the journey over the last two years to see myself as separate from my husband, a journey that has allowed me to love both myself and him more fully. It is in fact just a deeper and more serious version of the lesson I learned as a little girl learning to sleep alone. The words I wrote to her were these: “You see, in order to really help others, we need to reach out to them from a place of centeredness in ourselves. When we do that, we are actually able to offer them a place of stability and safety. If we are reaching out to them because we are defined by them or because we cannot imagine our lives without them, then we are not safe and it is hard for us to help them be safe.”

I’ve walked this path before, and I feel comfortable on it. I may be noticing new things along the way, like the fact that my pregnancy dreams perhaps relate to the death of the  relationship with my daughter, but I sort of feel like I know where this path goes.

It is of course when we think we know where we are going that we find ourselves somewhere completely new and unexpected. Path 2 was actually very much a shadow of path 1, but I didn’t make that connection until I had walked path 3 and then taken the time to write the journey down.

Path 3, in which I am humbled in the realization that I have barely begun to know how to love.

Thursday ended with a long talk with another friend via phone. The connection between us is strong and vibrant and fills me with energy. Which is why I woke early on Friday morning with my mind and body still humming with that energy. But this is a person that I tend to cling to, and my time in silence Friday morning was spent reminding myself that I am separate, but connected. To hold him with an open hand.

I envisioned another connection that morning as well. Still, strong and stable, a cord stretched between my heart and my husband’s. I was comfortable in those feelings, but something niggled at the back of my mind. I had used my relationship with John several times over the last week as an example of holding someone with an open hand, but something didn’t feel quite right. As I pondered my hesitancy to envision this connection with a pulsing vibrant power, rather than the still quiet strength that I was feeling, a thought surfaced in my journaling. A relationship is made of two people. Both must hold each other loosely. A truly healthy fulfilling relationship is one in which each person is there because they want to be there, not because they need to be. And so I started wondering about the possibility of holding someone loosely while they held on tight. What would that connection feel like? Humbled, I realized that the more important question is how do I respond if I perceive this to be the case? I like to be needed. It wasn’t hard for my sister to convince me to warm her side of the bed because deep down I desire to fill someone else’s needs. So, it is not enough for me to recognize that I exist apart from the other person and that without them I will survive. I must also recognize that they exist apart from me, and without me they will also survive. To truly love someone is to desire them to not need me. And that hits me hard. Because my true fear is this–if they do not need me, will they still want me? 

And so this path ended up circling me back to the first path. I have experienced the loss that comes through death, but that is not the only type of loss that we can experience in life. Loss can also come in the form of rejection. And that type of loss I am a whole lot more uncomfortable with. 

A Dance, in which it all gets mixed together and I experience a metaphor of life.

Friday night was Advent Affair–a night of revelry and dancing for the students of VTS and their significant others. John and I have always gone, partly because once I realized that I was expected and encouraged to dance in public at this thing, I don’t like to miss it. This year, both John and I approached this day with a bit of hesitation. Despite being a part of this community for 2 1/2 years, we both feel the struggle to find our true space within it. John’s stress and depression affect his willingness to interact with people and the pain that surfaced earlier in this week for me colored my perspective as well. I went for the dancing and I think my husband went for me. And so we walked in that door, full of our insecurities and pain, but there. Present. And I danced. Two previous years of Advent Affair have loosened me up and given me the permission to let go on the dance floor. Sometimes I danced alone. Sometimes I danced with a partner. Sometimes I danced with everyone in that room at the same time. Some moments were awkward. Some were full of confidence. I smiled and laughed and eventually lost myself and found myself in the chaotic abandon of full body expression. I’m still learning to dance with people. Since I was not raised in a tradition that valued dancing, I have learned to dance alone. And in my few experiences of dancing on a crowded dance floor, I am surprised at how easy it is to still be dancing alone. But that’s ok. I’ve worked so hard to learn to be safe alone, that I don’t mind taking a bit longer to learn to dance with others.

My night ended with a rare dance with John. Rare because he has not yet learned the art of abandoning himself to the dance. Our steps are not very synched, our energies so very different, but I still found extreme pleasure in being in his arms, being together with him, letting it be whatever it was. This is life–sometimes awkward, sometimes graceful. A beautiful attempt to connect with those around us. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we get it right. Our best attempts flow out of the security and confidence we find in ourselves. But even our shy inexperienced steps are rewarded because we are all in this together, and our energies interact to fill and empty and play and learn and dance with each other.

Advertisements

My thoughts on Veteran’s Day.

How should a pacifist approach Veteran’s Day? It’s a day that always makes me a little uneasy. On this day my social media feeds are filled with recognition of those who have served in the military. And I am usually silent. I have no desire to disrespect veterans or those who are in military service now, some of whom are family members of mine. So I usually let the day pass without thinking too much about the unease that I feel with every post. But I don’t post either, because I do not want to condone the system of violence that underlies much of the messages we hear about the military. Can we respect individuals while also critiquing a government that makes really poor choices with their use of the military? Can we honor the service of these individuals while also promoting the way of peace and questioning whether being a military power is at all wise? I recognize that many may think my questions are in bad taste on this day. I anticipate that my silence is exactly what quite a few people would prefer. So, I’m choosing a compromise. I’m posting this blog on the day after Veteran’s Day is observed. But I am still posting it because I think these things are important things to be having a conversation about.

Over the last week I have seen the evidence of the public school system’s indoctrination of my children as we approached this day. And I feel a responsibility to point out the problems I see in the messages they are receiving. My 9 year old has started musing about which branch of the military he will join when he grows up, and asking me again why it is that he can’t play violent video games. My 5 year old gave me his handout about veterans and asked me to read the words across the bottom of the sheet — “Thank you for being brave.”

Now, I know that these things seem harmless to most people, and maybe even beneficial. But to this pacifist momma, they make me cringe. I have told my 9 year old that just because his parents are pacifists does not mean that he has to be. He’s asked me if I will be upset if he grows up and joins the military and I have said that I do not plan to meddle in his life when he is an adult. It will be his decision. But right now, as his parent, I also feel the need to make sure he is hearing more than one message, because I know his fascination with the idea comes from an American ideal that I do not support–the glorification of violence.

veteransday

And my 5 year old? This bothers me perhaps the most. None of my other kids did their Kindergarten year in an American public school, and I am discouraged that the message begins so young. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset that they taught him what a veteran is, or that they encouraged him to thank them. But I am upset with the way the message was framed. When we discussed it today, these were his words: “Veterans are all around us, like God. They are there to protect us. And they have guns so they can keep us safe from bad guys.” Oh man, there are so many problematic pieces to this that it is hard to even know where to begin. And in our conversation while I was yet again trying to convince my son that “bad guys” do not actually exist he responded. “You are wrong. They do. They are in other countries.” Gah! Do you know how hard it is to deconstruct these ideas once they are in a 5 year old’s head? Now, granted, I am not entirely sure he understood what he was saying. He was upset with me because he thought that I was somehow telling him that veterans were the bad guys, and I wasn’t. So, maybe he just meant that veterans are in other countries. Hopefully I misunderstood him and he wasn’t actually repeating some nationalist agenda. I don’t know. But I am frustrated. Somehow my 5 year old believes that guns exist to keep him safe, and that the world is somehow made up of good guys and bad guys, a dichotomy that is possibly even defined by national boundaries.

The simple phrase–thank you for being brave–he has really latched on to. Can those who serve in the military be brave? Absolutely! But something about this message seems to equate military service unequivocally with bravery, which belittles the actual brave actions that do occur on the battlefield and completely ignores the brave acts of those peaceful warriors who choose to stand in opposition to a government that sends these men and women into war often needlessly. “Hero” is another word that I hear a lot on this day. Individual military personnel often do heroic things, but please do not tell my children that just putting on a uniform of brown or green or blue automatically makes them a hero. Why does that bother me? Because if we think that a person’s actions are automatically heroic because of their uniform, it becomes too easy to justify harm in the name of heroism. It becomes too easy to act out questionable orders in the name of duty. It becomes too easy to kill in the name of patriotism. Last week a veteran with a gun (someone who in my son’s words should be there to protect him) entered a bar and killed someone else’s sons and daughters. We must be able to critique this. We must be able to ask the hard question of whether or not our military, our government, our system that glorifies violence in the name of patriotism had something to do with this.  

Veterans are important. Their sacrifices and service should be remembered and recognized. But not blindly. We must open our eyes and see how our country has broken many of them, and not be afraid to ask the question: Was it worth it? We can love and honor and respect those who’ve chosen to serve while also speaking up against the violence the larger system perpetrates. And we can tell our children the whole story, the true reasons wars are fought, the heavy weight of responsibility they will carry if they choose to pick up a gun in the name of their country, and the humanity that exists on both sides of national borders; so that when the choice is theirs, they can look beyond the rhetoric and make a truly informed choice.

A little bit of poetry.

wheretostand2

It should be obvious to anyone who reads my blog that I tend to express myself in prose, not poetry. But there have been occasions when poetry comes to me unexpectedly. I have no idea if it would stand scrutiny by anyone who actually knows how to write or critique or even how to read poetry, but when words come to me in this fashion, it feels important to write them down. Sometimes art is the attempt to communicate something that cannot be easily expressed in other ways.

I attended a conference entitled “Evolving Faith” a couple weeks ago. It was a very full two days of listening to intense speakers presenting how an evolving faith intersects with relationships, parenting, social justice, politics, art, theology, church and everything in between. I soaked in the words, trying to internalize, to critique, to listen, to learn. All the things. And afterwards I was so exhausted all I could do was bundle up all the swirling words I had heard and carry them deep into my soul where they pulsed with color and light as I tried to tuck them away safely into the fabric of my being. Little bits and pieces of it have emerged when things come up in conversations with others, but for the most part, I haven’t really touched these things intentionally yet.

But, twice in the last two weeks, words have bubbled up unexpectedly in poetic form. Words that express the feelings and emotions that this conference stirred in me better than I can right now in prose. And so, here are two poems. One more personally expresses the painful intersection of internal faith shift and external action; the other is an encouragement to those who I’ve intentionally left behind, a call for them to join me.

Where to stand

I don’t know where to stand,
On the rock or in the sand.

I don’t know where to wait,
In the crooked or the straight.

I don’t know where to fight,
In the dark or in the light.

I don’t know what to do,
Turn away or follow you.

I don’t know the shape my voice takes.
Is it the breath of angels
or the roar of lions that I make?

I don’t know the power that I hold.
Is it the force that builds the new
or the fire that burns the old?

If I were hurt and if I bled,
Would my blood be white or is it red?

If I were asked to be bold,
Could I find a hand to hold?

And when we go out into the night,
Will we make peace or will we fight?

 

A Call to the Evangelical Church

Step out.
Step out from the faith you have known.
Go forth into the great unknown.
Move forward with your head held high.
But hurry, for there isn’t much time.

There are people here who are crying.
There are people here who are dying.
There are people here.
There are people.

Step out.
Step out from the faith you have known.
Go forth into the great unknown.
Find beauty in the ashes.
Stand shoulder to shoulder with the masses.

There is truth here to build hope with.
There is hope here to build a home with.
There is love here.
There is peace.

Step out.
Step out from the faith you have known.
Go forth into the great unknown.
Let go of your assumptions.
The idea that all that isn’t you is nothing.

There are people here who are striving.
There are people here who are thriving.
There are people here.
There are people.

Step out.
Step out from the faith you have known.
Go forth into the great unknown.
The kingdom of God is near.
The kingdom of God is here.

There is freedom here for those who doubt.
There is freedom here for those who shout.
There is freedom here.
There is freedom.

The Ritual of Renewal

Today I started bleeding. This monthly rite of womanhood is a reminder of the flow of life. Of time passing, yet always returning to the origin. A reminder of where things begin. A breath. A break. A place I am invited to each month. 

I know that many women my age want to be rid of this. If they have chosen to be done with childbearing, they feel ready to also be done with the bleeding. To them, menopause will be a release, a freedom. Freedom from the fear and worry of pregnancy; freedom from the inconvenience of bleeding.

I wonder if I am alone in viewing this monthly ritual as freedom itself. It is this time of the month when I feel that my body is mine and mine alone. No matter how empowered, how informed, and how self-confident I am, I still struggle with those past voices in my head and the training I was given by my culture. The history of my patriarchal society told me that my body belongs to someone else. The story I was given was that in marriage my husband possesses me and in motherhood my children rely on me to be self-sacrificing. I pour myself out for others and there is guilt, a burden that I carry anytime I say “no.” Except when I am bleeding. When I am bleeding I know that my body is mine and mine alone. When I am bleeding there is no guilt. I allow myself permission to make space within myself for me. I allow myself the luxury of boundaries around my body. I say no to sex and feel no guilt. I more readily tell my children that I need space and time for myself. What I sometimes label as grumpiness is really my body reminding me that I exist. 

Day one of a woman’s cycle the body stops the process of creating space for the other. Before that moment, it has been preparing gifts, sacrificing of itself to provide for another. It has quite literally created a space within me for someone else. On day one the focus shifts to the body itself. The lining of the uterus is shed, the space that was created to receive life is released and the body heals itself to prepare to do the process all over again. 

Six times, possibly seven, that space my body created received a life. My womb began the process of pouring into another human being. Once, possibly twice, that life was lost within days to miscarriage. And five times I had the privilege of joining in the creative act of God. My heart beat not just for me, but for another. The space that was prepared was filled and grew with the life of a child. Five times I labored, gave myself to the painful act of releasing that life into the world, watching it separate from myself to become a separate being. 

And every month as my body goes through the process of the preparation for life, I am reminded of the strength of being a woman. I am reminded that we give, over and over again to others. That we pour of ourselves, give gifts, create, and serve those around us. Life giving birth to life. All of this beauty, all of this sacrifice, all of this joy, all of this pain. In the rhythm of the menstrual cycle, all of it is revealed, over and over again. Our capacity, our sacrifice, our strength and our pain.

Day one. Day one, we release it. Our focus turns inward. When I bleed, I belong not to my husband or to my children, but to myself. When I bleed I am reminded that in order to sustain my ability to give to others, I must also give to myself. I do not live in a culture that recognizes this externally. Sometimes I wish I did. Not in a shameful way, but in an empowered way. I wish we as women had the courage to step aside, retreat and reconnect with ourselves, our shared womanhood, and our need to be filled. So that when we step back into the lives of those we love, we can give freely, fully, without restraint. So that when we give, it is not because we have been told to give, but because we know our own capacity to give. So that when we pour ourselves out, we do not worry about being emptied, because we know that each month the time will come again when we will be filled, because we choose to love ourselves as much as the other. I wish that this monthly rite and ritual would free us. Free us to love. Free us to give. Free us to know who we are, so that we can enter the lives of others without losing ourselves.lifegiving

The Swirling Storm in my Head.

swirlingmindI walked to the bus stop this morning and felt that suddenly I could breathe again. The last few days have been HOT. Heat indexes in the 100’s and humidity that leaves you dripping and struggling to breathe. But this morning the temperature finally broke a little bit. It’s still hot, but it was raining just a tiny bit and cloudy. It was as if the weather had been holding in stress and emotions until something broke and she softly cried this morning as she released a bit of the tension she’s been holding.

I feel like my mood has mirrored the same transition these last two weeks. I jumped in to summer head first. You would have thought I would have learned from last year’s experience that I cannot be superwoman, at least not for very long. But somehow when all my kids are home, instead of settling into a more relaxed outlook on life, I find myself trying to do everything. I will feed everyone! I will keep the house clean! I will spend quality time with each kid! I can do this!

Maybe it is because I know that summer is hard. I go into it full of energy, pouring myself in because I know that it will take all of me to get through it. This summer has been better than last summer. Last summer, John’s depression was so heavy that I could feel it when I walked into a room where he was. Last summer, my purpose in doing everything was to try to remove some of the burden from him. Last summer, I crashed. All I accomplished was to make myself sick.

So, I know that I need to take it easy. Do only what is reasonable and choose those things that I need to let go of. I need to demand time for myself in each week. I need to find a rhythm. And I will.

But in the midst of this beginning of summer, in the midst of my struggle to find what I can and cannot handle, there was something else just under the surface, something I didn’t even realize was affecting me. As the heat built outside, the same tension built in me until I woke one morning at 4am. It started as a weird uncomfortable dream. One I don’t even remember the details of, but when I woke the emotions and feelings I’d been ignoring were all there, right in the front of my mind as if they had bubbled up from deep within me, finally breaking through to the surface.

It was, unfortunately, not one of the moments when suddenly all the pieces come together and the solution feels obvious. No, on the contrary, I am sitting in the middle of whirling and competing desires, needs, and circumstances and I have no idea how they are all going to fall into place. But it is time that I notice how much those swirling items are affecting me, how much attention they do need. I cannot ignore them, because there are other people in my family that also need to process this stuff and I need to be awake so we can do it together.

This will get really long if I try to explain all the moving parts, but they all have to do with the impending reality of our near future. In less than a year, we will no longer be a seminary family. John will graduate and we will move on to the next step in life. But, for not the first time in life, that next step feels very unclear. There feels like there are so many competing voices in this decision. There’s the desire of the bishop of Arkansas that we should return there. There’s the desire of my husband to not return to AR, based on some very strong practical and emotional reasons. There’s the aching heart of my teenage daughter who has tearfully requested that we stay here and let her finish her high school career with these friends she’s made here. There’s my job that I love, and also my dreams for the future. There’s the whole family’s strong desire to settle down, find a place that we can call home. There’s the uncertainty of the state of our country, an unsettledness that has us constantly discussing the possibility of moving outside these borders. There’s the very real practicality of making sure we generate an income large enough to support our family. As much as we don’t like making our decisions based on money, we do require a base level to survive and a slightly higher level to thrive.

And I’m in the middle of it all. I can see the value in each of the possible directions we head. I can see a place for myself and my dreams in each of them. None of them precludes my hopes for the future. I’m thankful for that. But each of the choices means something different for the mental and emotional health of one or more members of this family. Each choice may affect opportunities for the future for one or more members of this family. And I care about each member of this family. So much that it hurts.

My 4am awakening to the reality of the presence of all this surrounding me didn’t solve anything. But it started a conversation. And that conversation will lead to more conversations. And hopefully eventually a choice will be made. And I hope and pray that whatever that choice is will move us forward to a place of health and peace. I may feel helpless right now, but I do not feel hopeless.

Fighting desire with desire – the parenting version.

zooRecently I listened to a podcast by Rob Bell, or as he likes to call it, a “Robcast.” I’m way behind on his episodes because I started listening way after he started putting them out and I am going in order, because that is the way I do things. So, this one was from 2015 and entitled: “This Episode is Sugar Free.”

The theme of the episode was how to deal with cravings or desires for things we know are not healthy for us. So, while it started with the idea of foods we know do not fuel our bodies well, it also covered everything else as well, like addiction and unhealthy behaviors.

One of the things he said stuck with me. Don’t fight desire with will. It’s an unfair fight. Desire is much stronger than will. We have to fight desire with a bigger desire.

Now I’ve heard this idea before and totally adopted it into my understanding, even if I don’t always implement it. We can’t successfully become healthier by focusing on the negative, the things we can’t have. We need to focus on the positive, the things we can have.

But as often happens these days when I am deep in the role of parent, I started to wonder how this should apply to parenting. I feel like I am always giving my kids negative directives and answers when they ask for things they want that I know are not healthy for them. I haven’t spent a great deal of time helping them develop the ability to replace their unhealthy desire with a healthy one. We had just had an outing to the zoo, where everything had been happy and exciting until the one request for a bag of cotton candy was turned down. Suddenly the cotton candy became the one thing in the world that my nine year old really really wanted. Everything, EVERYTHING, now seemed to hinge on wether or not he was going to get cotton candy. Or if not cotton candy, some other special treat. Now, part of this was my fault because I didn’t have the fortitude to turn down the cotton candy idea right away. I played with the idea, or maybe they have kettle corn. I really like kettle corn. We could get a bag of kettle corn. But then it turned out that the supposed kettle corn was really just regular old butter popcorn and now there wasn’t anything I particularly wanted, so the treat idea was shut down entirely. So, yes, I realized that my indecisiveness and my own weakness when it comes to sweets led to some of the difficulty. But I also realized that even though I talked with my kids about how their disappointment should not be the thing that determines their attitude about the outing in its entirety, I didn’t really talk about the positive things they could use to fight their desire for cotton candy.

In thinking this through I wondered if it would work. Especially with my younger kids who are so focused on the present. Most of the positive desires we work for are long term, out in the future, not right here and right now. I wasn’t sure they’d be able to grasp the concept or be willing to even play with the idea. But if I wasn’t even giving them the option, how were they going to develop this positive thinking muscle that they will need later when mom is no longer there to say no, you can’t have five donuts for breakfast.

I received another chance at this on Monday. I was out with that same 9 year old. He is often the one who gets caught up in obsessive desires that end up ruining his whole outlook on an outing. It was just the two of us and we were heading back to the metro after an appointment in DC. The first time I took him to this part of DC I also took him to Starbucks and he bought a pastry and a bottle of watermelon juice, which was apparently the greatest juice EVER. Now, every time we go, he asks about stopping to get that juice.

In order to save money (once I realized that riding the metro was already adding up to a large chunk), I have stopped planning on taking him out to eat something and instead have tried to get creative with packing meals and treats instead. Today we had had “lunchables.” Not really, I just packed crackers and salami and cheese and cucumbers. I had even put in sliced apple and peanut butter for “dessert.” He really enjoyed the meal and now we were heading to the metro to hurry home.

As we passed Starbucks, he asked, as he usually does, if we could stop so he could get the amazing watermelon juice. I said no, we needed to get home and also I was trying to save money. As the disappointment started to set in, I decided to ask him. “What do you want more?”

I explained how when there is something we want that we can’t have or isn’t good for us, it is helpful to think of all the things we want more that we can have or are healthy for us.

Do you know what he said?

“A good attitude.”

That’s what he wanted more. He wanted to have a good attitude and a good experience on the outing. And then he went on to say how he really liked the food I had packed and enjoyed that meal. And just like that he left the desire for watermelon juice behind him and proceeded on with his day.

As we entered the metro I pondered how often my kids exceed my expectations when I give them the opportunity to try.

Individual vs. Collective Hope

Last Sunday I sat in Christian formation and felt the familiar rise of emotion. I have been enjoying this class each week as it encourages me to think, and it hasn’t failed yet to rile me up. As we discuss different stories and themes from the Bible, usually the Old Testament, I am struck by how many different ways there are to understand certain things and how rather than floating on a boat of apathy in a peaceful sea of uncertainty (which is where I thought I still was in this process of faith shift), I find I have replaced many of my former beliefs with rather strong ones that are often in opposition to the ones I once held. This group gives me a chance to examine those, and to find ways to share them out loud in hopefully respectfully kind ways, while also learning to listen to competing viewpoints with a critical ear (not just critical to their side, but just as much so to mine). Still working on that.

Most of the time I just listen, it often takes a few hours or days for me to fully process the conversation we had and decide how I feel about it. And this Sunday, the emotion that rose in me was stronger and very different than that which I have been feeling. It was grief. Strong, undeniable grief. The kind that causes your face to flush and your breathing to rise as you fight the urge to burst into tears in front of a group of people you hardly know.

The theme we were discussing was the Exodus. What this central story from the Old Testament meant to the Israelites and what it can mean for us. Hope. Hope was the word that was coming out of the story. Hope that no matter how low we drop, how horrible the circumstances that surround us, we will come back up again. We will be delivered.

I listened as one person after another shared what that meant to them personally. And because one person specifically brought up something that had happened to his daughter when she was just an infant, and was sharing how he coped with and still copes with the permanent effects this had on her, my gut wrenched with pain. This conversation had suddenly veered too close to home. The words he shared were very similar to words that I have shared in the process of grieving the loss of my 7 month old daughter. They were words of searching, searching for purpose in the tragedy, for hope for himself in the midst of his daughter’s pain.

But, oddly I found myself resonating much more with another man who shared something that was rather different in focus. Instead of looking for purpose in his own story, he instead focuses on presence. God was there and is there in the midst of it. And for him, that was enough. Someone else tried to explain the purpose of pain in the world, or the reason for it, but the explanation was not enough for me. I’ve heard it before and it no longer made the sense I used to think it did. And then another woman shared a hope that went beyond herself and to her family, the hope she held that they would survive and thrive even if she were to die from the cancer that she had just been diagnosed with.

There was so much emotion writhing in my gut. I spoke once, and it was only to share the less than cheery fact that in the story of the Exodus, the people that were brought out of Egypt, were not the same people that entered the land of Canaan. A whole generation died in the wilderness, waiting for the promise they were given. The hope of the Jews is not an individual hope. It is a collective one. WE will be saved. WE will rise again. WE will gain our promised land.

Why was it that that one part of the story is the only one I felt compelled to comment on? Why did some of the hope that was shared in that circle Sunday morning sound so hollow to me, while other versions of it resonated? Why did the whole conversation leave me feeling so unsettled? It was as if there was nothing answered for me, but rather a stirring of the waters that left everything murky and dark and confusing.

As I talked it over with John Sunday evening, while the echo of the emotion still sounded in my shaky voice and the tears I hadn’t cried that morning wet my eyes with just a touch of sadness, I realized that I felt unsettled because there were no simple easy answers to the questions that pain and suffering stir up. The world does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. God does not appear to work in a purposefully ordered way. The only thing I could cling to was that an individual hope was not enough. Because too often an individual hope is proved false. What happens when 58 people’s lives are cut short by a senseless shooting in Las Vegas? Where is the hope for those people? What happens when someone continues to live in despair and pain even after crying out continually to God to save them? What does hope mean to them? What happens when a 7 month old baby girl dies for the inexplicable reason that her body was just not born as perfect as it should have been?

An individual hope focuses on ourselves. It looks for what happens to me. How can I find hope in the midst of the senseless violence? How can I go on after the death of my daughter? How many blessings do I have that others don’t? These aren’t entirely negative questions. It is normal for us to find the personal relevance within the questions. It is normal to look for purpose in the pain. I believe that we have to do that to a certain extent in order to survive.

But I also believe we are missing something much greater when we focus solely on an individual hope. In our US culture, an individualistic point of view is common and expected. Our faith has to do with the individual. Our salvation has to do with the individual. Our hope has to do with the individual. The majority of Christian faith that I have seen in the US tends to be rather hopeless rather than hopeful. We have given up on a world that does not appear to be getting any better and began to focus on a hope that only truly exists in the afterlife. Even there that hope is limited, limited only to those who somehow individually find their way to God. This is not the way that everyone has or does live. The Israelites hope was collective. I am not as well studied in this as my husband, but I believe that their identity as a nation was much more important than their individual identity. Why else would a story in which nearly everyone dies, still be a story of hope? Where a remnant remains, there is still hope. Hope that the nation, the community will survive.

This is a hope that is so much bigger than the individual. This is a hope that goes beyond one person. This is a hope that can look at senseless suffering and say, “Things look bleak. But I hope for a day when people live in a world where violence does not take lives. I hope for a world where all people are cared for. I hope for a world where peace is the rule of the day. I believe in the kingdom of God. I believe that it can and will exist.”

I find greater peace in this absolutely almost foolish hope than I do in the attempts to find purpose in the suffering. This hope for me goes beyond death, because I can hope that even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, it can still happen in someone’s. And the weird crazy thing about this type of collective hope is that when enough of us believe it can be true, then it actually begins to hold the possibly that it will be.