Giving up my best intentions. Giving up my less than best efforts. Giving up legalism. Giving up perfectionism. Giving up my pride. Giving up myself.
...So what am I actually giving up?
My plan to read the Bible chronologically in one year, while also reading it liturgically. After plowing through Genesis and Job - man, was that ground rocky - I completely fell off the wagon around the beginning of this month. I never really did consistently do my readings for Epiphany either, but at least I could pick up with Lent, whereas with the one year plan, I couldn't (or wouldn't) skip Exodus and Deuteronomy to get where I was supposed to be with my reading. That left me no choice but to quit and try again next year...or so my perfectionistic all or nothing mentality almost convinced me...until it dawned on me that I could continue reading where I left off if I would surrender the idea of reading the whole Bible in a year. And if I removed the time constraint, I could even have a chance to study those difficult Old Testament passages that were part of the reason my motivation had waned. Moreover, it would leave space to weave in my church year readings instead of feeling like I had to choose between them. Giving up rigidity was gloriously liberating. I wasn't giving up - I was giving in. Giving in to the God whose plans always turn out better than mine.
Catching up on the Past. I haven't printed photos from the last 6 years. With each upload, my burden to get them sorted and printed grows heavier and more seemingly untenable. So I asked myself what is at the root of this? Guilt and fear. I feel bad that my children (ages 9,7,5) aren't able to see pictures of themselves when they were younger. I fear their memories will fade of special times because they haven't been visually reminded. I even fear my life being cutting short and not having properly documented everything. I finally asked myself, "Is it impossible for them to see these pictures if they aren't in book form?" Not at all. For some reason, I hadn't thought it could work for them to browse through iPhoto, even though they often would do that over my shoulder when it was on my screen. I guess I didn't think it was good enough. I had this picture in my mind of our family gathered around the couch, flipping through pages together, reminiscing. Anything less than that seemed like failure. Now I'm giving up that ideal, as well as the fear its rooted in and the guilt it grows...and giving in to grace. I'm trying to apply that to my other unfinished projects, especially organizational ones - the kids' artwork accumulated over the past five years , a decade (our whole marriage) of filing, and so on. I'm not giving up on dealing with it but I am giving up listening to the ticking clock, surrendering my fears of an unfinished life and guilt over failing to preserve our family's legacy in the "proper" way.
Homeschooling by the Book. Although I love The Well Trained Mind, it sets the bar quite high for providing a classical education. But it's home to me - it's where I started and where I feel safest (there's that fear again) and what feels right. At the same time, its rigorousness is beyond my capacity, so I feel inadequate since I never quite can implement all the reading and projects and subjects, which even the authors tell you not to attempt, but my perfectionism plugs its ears and creates a compulsion to complete every curriculum by the end of the school year. All of this pressure has caused me to overemphasize structure and to quicken our pace. This, of course, drains the joy out of learning, and doesn't give us the time to linger longer over what's most interesting or takes more time to master (for lack of a better word). So I'm loosening up and slowing down and stepping back to look at the big picture. Academics are only one of our reasons for homeschooling, so that shouldn't be steering our course. Once again I'm giving up...giving up the wheel and letting God take the driver's seat, even if that means leaving classical country for new educational lands, or commuting back and forth between them, rather than insisting we stay parked in one spot.
Obviously this isn't just for Lent, but it does seem the perfect (haha) season to start the process of giving up and giving into God's grace, beginning with these tangible areas of my life.
Soulmates aren't the same or even equal - there is a sameness about them, but it's not the way I always imagined. Before I met my husband, I thought that my soulmate would be my equal, and I his - equally attractive, intelligent, intellectual, spiritual, honest, and so on. Except of course in the traditional men/women characteristics - I imagined him taller, stronger, more courageous, confident, etc.
In fact, I married a man who is shorter, not as intellectual as I am, more attractive (well, at least I think so), and very different from me (besides our male/female differences), yet we are soulmates. In the early years of our marriage I wondered if I had made a mistake. We fought often and ugly - he didn't seem to "get me" so much of the time, and I didn't totally trust him. We weren't reading each others' minds and we had a great deal of trouble even understanding each others' words! Our communication styles and our ways of operating seemed to be totally opposite. Despite the conflict, we persevered, got outside help (parents, counselors, pastors), and kept working things out, even if was the same fight we had resolved ten times before. As we did that, a funny thing happened - we began to understand each other, accept each other, and actually become more alike!
Our stubborn refusal to give up communicating kept us constantly connected. And the other half of the time, we were mostly just enjoying, or at least being with one another. We were also having babies (three in those first five years, during which we moved homes every year, moved our business twice, and bought a house) and raising our children together. What we did have in common grew deeper - both of us prefer intuiting (N on the MBTI) and feeling (F), which makes us passsionate visionaries/counselors/artists (NF idealist on the Keirsey Sorter), but he prefers extroversion (E) and perceiving (P), while I prefer introversion (I) and judging (J). We actually found a book about ENFPs married to INFJs! Having an NF temperament was part of what made us both so willing to dialogue and grow and nurture our relationship with each other as well as our individual relationships with God. Our contrasting preferences created friction, but iron really does sharpen iron - it also forged each of us into being more well-rounded and preserved a sense of mystery/tension that helped keep the romance alive.
As we grew in our marriage, I began to realize that my husband was my soulmate. I started to see so many amazing qualities in him that blessed me and our children and the people around us. He does "get me" in a way no one else does. And I "get him" too, but even more than that, he loves me and serves me like Jesus. There is no more soulmate than that. My goal now is to become his soulmate - he would say I already am, he is so grace filled, he doesn't see the inequality, or maybe it's just that he chooses not to measure, which I shouldn't be doing either, because none of is worthy of our very soul, let alone a soulmate, yet the God of the universe loves us so much that he not only gives us life, but eternal souls, along with earthly soulmates. Both my soulmate and I know that there is only one who truly knows us in our deepest parts - the One who created us and with whom we will always be one.
I love it when God speaks to me through a serendipity. He often does it through repeated words or phrases that reappear in pairs or clusters - for a day, a week, a season. Some people might argue that my experiences are coincidences or that my mind is finding patterns because that's what it's hard wired to do. Oddly enough, that's exactly what makes yesterday's serendipitous moment profound to the point of transcendence...because it was all about the brain and spirituality, or as the book that started this whole thing calls it: "neurotheology."
About three weeks ago we were on vacation and stopped into a thrift shop where I found a copy of Fingerprints of God: What Science Is Learning about the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I vaguely remembered having read about it and being intrigued, so I was pleased to score such a deal on a relatively new book. Initially, I was captivated, both by the subject matter and the author herself - a "mainstream Christian" (whatever that means) NPR religion reporter on a paradoxically personal and objective quest to explore the relationship between the brain and God.
About halfway into it, though, I struggled with going forward. Two things were happening: 1) my specific belief system was challenged (much like the author herself) by the fact that people of all religions have the same kind of brain activity when meditating or praying; 2) spirituality was defined as having mystical experiences, even though that is not the stuff of day-to-day faith, nor do most Christians (pentecostals aside) have other worldly conversions or supernatural seeming encounters. In fact, many never do.
Still, it was a fascinating topic and I wanted to finish the book, so I kept reading. Yesterday I read about brain scans that scientists studying neurotheology performed on "spiritual virtuosos":
Newberg found another peculiar similarity. With both the nuns and the [Buddhist] monks, the parietal lobes went dark during deep prayer and meditation.Newberg calls this "orientation area" because it orients you in time and space: those lobes tell you where your body ends and the rest of the world begins. That is why Sister Celeste (and countless other mystics) described a unity with God, or as she put it, 'God permeating my being' It was the neurological reason that Michael Baine felt a "deep and profound sense of connection to everything, recognizing that there was never a true separation at all." (p. 174)
Later that day, I received some books from my Amazon wish list that I had ordered using a gift card from my birthday. It was a little like Christmas, getting these packages several days in a row. That night, I took a stack of my new books up to bed, and decided to a read a chapter from each - sort of a literary nosh, if you will. In the introduction of one of them, SoulTypes: Matching Your Personality and Your Spiritual Path, I read this passage:
A group of scientists interested in exploring whether there are brain-based differences that determine our religion are using the type of prayer described there to define who is and isn't "spiritual." In all religions, these neuroscientists say, mystical, spiritual moments happen when parts of the brain (parietal-lobe circuits) go quiet, turning off your ability to distinguish between the body and its surroundings. Without sensory data, you feel a sense of being part of infinity or, for the religious, being "one with God." They use SPECT scans to determine whether the person is having such an experience. Building on this research, books such as The God Gene describe how we either are or aren't wired for faith. Kenneth L. Woodward, a religion journalist for Newsweek, points out the problem with this approach:
"The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Losing one's self in prayer may feel good or uplifting, but these emotions have nothing to do with how well we communicate with God. In fact, many people pray best when feeling shame or sorrow, and the sense that God is absent is no less valid than the experience of divine presence."
As I read that, I had an emotional experience - not of the presence of God, but of excitement over him having clearly communicated with me. He didn't do it through my feelings, an audible voice, or a supernatural sign - he did it through my life. He did it by leading me in one day to two books dealing with spirituality, which otherwise were totally unrelated, yet intersected at this one specific point, from whence they each went in very different directions. God used the second book to reassure me by validating/confirming the very thoughts that had come to my mind while reading the first book. It was especially powerful because it was merely a sidebar, so to speak, in the second book, and I therefore had no way of knowing that topic would be addressed, let alone that I would discover it just at that time!
In the river of life, I feel like I'm barely keeping my head above water, as the current pulls me along - at the moment, it seems like I'm drowning - the weight of everything unfinished dragging me down - I can't stop to catch my breath, so I frolic in the mess, letting distractions make me farther behind, all the time panicking as I gulp water, sputtering it everywhere in emotional outbursts.
Will the dam hold long enough for me to get my footing, climb up the bank, and build an ark big enough to hold all that matters? Lord, give me the strength, the wisdom, the self-discipline, and the speed to catch up on the past while I live in the present and plan for the future. Rescue me from the flood and set my feet upon a rock. Then give me wings, so I can chase rainbows...
Why is that during the most serious part of the church service, I feel the most silly? Well, it came to an embarrassing crescendo last Sunday...
It started months ago with the big pieces of crackers. I didn't mean to grab the one the size of Texas, but there I was crunching away for what seemed like an eternity. The generous portions of matzo continued, and my husband and I started noticing that not only were they the size of large states, they were the shape of them also. So naturally we had to show to each other - "I got Florida." "Mine looks like Utah." "Giggle, giggle, quack" (okay, there were no duck voices - I just know way too many children's book titles). Sometimes we played it safe and had small half moons of gluten-free rice wafers.
Then there was the wine - ruby port actually - encircled by its non-alcoholic counterpart. Having only ever experienced Baptist flavored churches where all we got was Welch's grape juice, and only once a month at that, as soon as we joined a Presbyterian church last year, I knew I would always choose the real deal, just like Jesus drank at the last supper (don't let the teetotalers fool you). Probably because it's still new, it makes me a slightly giddy, like tee hee, I'm drinking *real* wine in church. Silly, I know, but I'm that girl.
My husband, who is funny ninety percent of the time, mentioned to me that he likes taking the communion cup in the exact center of the tray. So I began noticing whether it was there or not when we would get up to the front, and every so often, I would take it just for fun. We'd have a silent chuckle over that - or if he got it, he would give me those smiling eyes and nod of victory.
As if it weren't enough with all the whispers and stifled giggles between us, my mom and stepdad started sitting next to us during the service. They volunteer to prepare communion, so she has the inside scoop on details I would have been better off not knowing. For example, when I showed her the ginormous piece of cracker I ended up with one morning, she told me that it's really hard to break up the matzo. This is funny in itself, but moreso because we're Jewish by birth. She's also the one who told me that it's not kosher wine (I had thought it was Manischewitz) but port that they pour into the tiny plastic cups.
Well, one week ago today, the humorous energy that had been gradually intensifying reached critical mass, and the amusing details combusted into utterly uncontrollable hilarity. I went up to receive the elements, and as I always do, I made eye contact when the person holding the "bread" tray said "His body broken for you," but as I grasped the cracker, I realized I had two pieces. For a split second, I thought of putting one back, but they felt stuck together, and I had already touched them...and I couldn't hold up the line, so concealed my double portion and my amusement, took the cup and looked up for "his blood shed for you," and made my way back to my seat, grinning widely.
I couldn't help but show my husband and my mom the extra cracker, which they also found funny. My mom then mentioned that there are always lots of leftovers, so not to worry, and that my stepdad drinks the extra wine. So there I got this ridiculous visual of him guzzling these tiny glasses of port in the church kitchen, and I could feel the laughter welling up in me. I tried to suppress it but suddenly I noticed all these white crumbs on my black pants, which I battled to brush off of me. A few seconds later, I saw my mom doing the same thing - dusting her lap with her hands.
It was all just too much. My body began heaving and I had to bury my quivering face in my hands, my head shaking and tears beginning to escape the corners of my eyes (later I was to discover I had raccoon eyes from my smearing my mascara). My stomach suppressed the hysterics, but I faintly emitted a sound like sobbing, which is what I sheepishly wished people would think I was doing instead of laughing!
It took me the rest of the communion time to pull myself together, and only just barely. I wish I could say it was holy laughter, but on the surface at least, it sure seemed carnal. I had, week by week, let my mind wander into these trivial details - the literal aspect of the ritual - rather than staying focused on the symbolic significance of the Eucharist. Not that I hadn't tried, mind you, to shut out these distractions (and, in fact, they occur throughout the whole service), but I had not forced myself into submission. In a way, I see what happened as evidence of grace. Yes, I was embarrassed, but I also felt a sense of release and relief - both emotionally and in terms of not being able to project any sort of pious image. That's me, people, showing you that I don't have it all together, not even in the moment when I "should" be closest to the throne of God. Then again, who's to say that in his presence, in the fullest experience of the most important release of all - from sin to freedom - there wouldn't be uninhibited rejoicing? Tears and laughter are made of the same stuff, I've heard it said, or if I didn't, I'm saying it now.
Afterwards, a lovely woman (who happens to be the director of children's ministry) came up to me and said she just had to ask what made me crack up. I told her the whole story (well, not as detailed as this) and we couldn't help but laugh together. Apparently joy is contagious - I almost wish I had let it all out and that the whole room had burst into laughter, but that will probably have to wait until heaven..."therefore, let us keep the feast"...and our sense of humor.
I didn't realize how damaged I was until I started a family. My upbringing mingled with my sinful nature were what I brought into my marriage and motherhood. Thankfully God's grace had been at work all along, so that despite (and even because of) my frailties, I continued to be his image bearer in many ways - I was saved and kept by my Heavenly Father instead of wrecked by the abuse, brokenness, and dysfunction of my home(s). My innocence, purity, and character were evidence of the Lord's hand on my life, of Jesus dwelling in my heart, and the Holy Spirit directing my path. Still, there were wounds - from others and the ones I inflicted upon myself when I came of age - both of which he bore for me on the cross. They did not all come to light until this past decade, a season of uniting myself with another human being and our offspring.
In addition to struggling with my sinful, selfish self, there has been the challenge of living something new that I didn't see modeled. An only child of a divorced, remarried mother who worked full-time outside the home has not been trained to be a stay-at-home mother of three, let alone homeschool teacher. I'm breaking new ground, while mucking about in the dirt of the present and pulling weeds from my past. It has taken me ten years to learn and do things that suddenly seem obvious and basic. I feel like I'm so slow, but then I remember that I'm a pioneer - starting a family of my own is a journey, one that has been arduous and exhilarating at the same time, so it makes sense that I'm only now beginning to get settled.
As if my blogging could get any more infrequent, along comes Pinterest. There's no telling when the fun will fade (quite possibly never), but anyone can get in on the party (just request an invite or have a friend there invite you). If you've haven't heard of it yet (gasp!), have a looksie at the pinboards I curate. I've also written a whole post about it in my notebook that I hope to type and publish here soon, if I can tear myself away from all this eye candy...
Eleven years ago I began reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. That spring, my literary and spiritual appetites had been whetted by my time at the Mount Hermon Writer's Conference in the sanctuary of the Redwoods along the central California coast. God speaks truth through beauty and I had heard Him there, so I went searching for more in my favorite place to look - books. In the fall, however, he met me in an altogether different way. My heady reading fell to the wayside when I was led into the children's literature section at Border's on my first date with my husband, who read me aloud, "Oh, the Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss. What a prophetic moment that turned out to be. Instead of embarking on the path of disciplined grace, I was swept off my feet and carried away to the manic maze of marriage and motherhood, all but erasing from my memory banks the first four chapters of Celebration of Discipline and 200 pages of War and Peace. There was much celebrating and warring over the next decade, but not much peace or discipline (except of my own children).
Grace abounds even when we are not pursuing it fervently. That is how I have survived this induction into domestic life and now homeschooling. Lately,though, I have sensed that it's time to start moving from functioning by grace to gracefully functioning. Others farther ahead on the path have confirmed that there will be no reprieve during this season for me to enter a period spiritual retreat and renewal. If it's going to happen, it will be between meals, lessons, sorting out sibling squabbles, emails, exercise, TV shows, park days, bedtime reading...you get the picture. Thankfully, since they were young, I have (and this I see as another act of God's grace) trained my children (and they have cooperated with it) to transition from napping to a quiet time. So most afternoons, I have an approximate two hour block of time to be alone. As an introvert, that has kept me sane. It has also enabled our girls to read on their own while preschoolers (other contributing factors were literary genes and Baby Einstein, but when it comes right down to it, I say that God taught them to read).
So eleven years later, I find myself once again picking up Celebration of Discipline (War and Peace will have to wait), finally responding the Spirit's invitation to the path of disciplined grace, in hopes of it leading me deeper into the presence of God, of receiving more of his grace and overflowing it to others, but Foster articulates it more clearly:
"God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
The apostle Paul says, 'he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:8).' Paul's analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines - they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God's way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God's means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.
In this regard it would be proper to speak of 'the path of discplined grace.' It is 'grace' because it is free; it is 'disciplined' because there is something for us to do."