Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hard Truths in Parenting

Some nights I go to bed and I feel like the biggest failure as a parent. I fail to be kind, to be patient, to not insist on my own way, to not be irritable or resentful. I fail to bear all things, to believe in the good in all things, to hope and endure all things. Simply put, I fail in loving my children as a parent. Knowing this hurts my soul and breaks my heart in two, and I pray each night for forgiveness from God. Sometimes before my girls go to bed, I even ask them for forgiveness, but sometimes I don't seek their forgiveness in my failures in loving them and the pain feels even more heart wrenching. I know that I am not alone in my feelings of being a failure to one's own child. I say this not in accusation of other parents but rather in knowing that this is a collective struggle that parents from the beginning of time have endured in raising children. What gives me hope in facing this feeling of perpetual failure is that I seek God for answers and strength to die to self  daily and to build the relationships that he wants me to have with my children as their mother, not the one that I want to have with them. Giving in to the realization that my relationship with my girls is not perfect as well as allowing myself to be more reliant on God's grace rather than my own personal abilities gives me the strength and peace of mind to allow myself to be forgiven and to humbly move forward in this calling of being a mother.
       In recent months I have had a particularly hard time with my nine year old daughter. She is beginning to exert her need to be independent as well as to display what I have deemed a truly terrible bad attitude toward just about every last thing she is asked to do. In her mind, her life is the "worst" of all of her friends. No one else in her class has to ride in a booster seat, no one else has to brush their teeth or take medicine that is such an "icky" flavor. No one else has to put their clothes in the hamper or flush the toilette. I certainly am the worst mother out there for making her do any of these afore mentioned things. She has also become quite the expert at everything expressing her opinion on all subjects with great authority. Yes, this is all normal, I realize that. In my teaching career, teaching 9 year olds was my least favorite age of kids to teach for this very reason. And now I am living with one and I feel at times I may not survive until the next stage which parents with older children have shared only gets more intense! It makes me not only feel like a failure to not be able to tolerate this stage but also very sad that my little girl is now more unhappy than not when life used to be a bowl full of cherries in her world.
        So I look for the moments when she is happy and I try and focus on those things that make her smile. I look at the person she is becoming and marvel at the wonderful and intelligent child  that she is. I soak up her sweet smile and never tire of looking at her beautiful long eyelashes and her twinkling soulful brown eyes. I give thanks for her compassionate heart to save even an unnoticed snail from an untimely demise. I rejoice that she has so many friends that she cares deeply about and I cherish the times when she takes my hand, and whispers, "Mommy, I love you!" On the days that our moments together seem more like failures than not, I am reminded by God of all of these blessings that also make up our relationship and I give thanks for the gift of being her mother and another day to begin again.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Need for Compassion

My recent trip to Italy was a blessing for many reasons. Aside from being amidst some of the most amazing architecture, art, food and culture in the world, I also had the opportunity to reflect and contemplate my place and purpose here in the world. One of the things that struck me the most on my travels was multiple encounters with the Italian beggar.  Most of these beggars stand outside of churches quietly asking the passerby for alms. Many are lame or deformed as was one woman who had no nose and another who had a very severe facial birthmark and yet another who had no use of her legs and scooted around on a makeshift dolly. None were obtrusive, just simply asking for compassion from those passing by. Most people including Howie and me  often simply walked past them into the grandeur of the churches we were seeking to visit. Occasionally someone would stop and place a coin in the plastic cup held by the appreciative hand there to receive it. On some occasions, I too placed a coin in these cups. The lady who had no nose inspired great compassion in me, not because of her deformity, but simply because I felt she saw herself as undesirable. I wanted to give her that coin so that I could look at her in the eyes to let her know that I did see her and that she was beautiful as God's own child. Another person of whom I wanted to eagerly give a coin and to look into her eyes with love was an older woman standing outside of a church who looked to me like the Tomie DePaola character Strega Nona. I wondered about her, where her family was, why she needed to beg for alms.

        Since returning from Italy, I have continued to think about the Italian beggars and why they made such an impression on me. Just as important I have thought about why it is that the beggars I encounter here in the United States have become almost invisible to me. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I use to have great compassion for those who were on the streets. I would give a dollar or two to anyone whom I encountered on the side of the road. I bought the Austin Advocate newspaper from those who sold it at the stoplights. I hurt for those who were less fortunate than me and I wanted so badly to help in any way that I could. I was told that I shouldn't help by giving money to those beggars, that they only spend it on alcohol or drugs. I didn't want to believe, but soon I stopped giving, and turned my head upon passing by those who held signs. Why did I lose my ability to have compassion for these people? After returning to Knoxville, the amount of homeless people that I encountered decreased significantly. It has only been in recent years that I have had the opportunity to witness actual street homelessness in downtown Knoxville as it has been revitalized and I have the desire to frequent it more often. I have also had the opportunity to encounter homelessness within my own church walls with opportunities to serve homeless families through Family Promise. With each opportunity to be in the presence of those in need, I feel the walls I had built up crumble a little more as well as a renewed feeling of compassion and desire to help.
         This week at the start of Holy Week, my thoughts on compassion have turned not only to those who are homeless but also towards those whom I encounter every day; my family, my friends, my coworkers, they lady at the local store. How is it that I show compassion to everyone that I encounter? In my thoughts I could not help but think of the sixth station of the cross when Veronica steps out of the crowd and with compassion in her heart wipes the face of Christ with her veil. What a simple act, but what an amazing act of love and courage! In my everyday encounters with each person I meet, I want to step beyond the border of the crowd and reach out in love and courage to offer a simple act of real compassion when and every time it is needed. The risk is to take on the pain of another, but what I have found is that my heart grows bigger with love and I truly feel alive with God's Spirit. Simply put, we are all in need of compassion. May we all have the courage to act in compassion for another as well as receive it's gift when we need it.
Matthew 25: 37-40
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Be Still and Know . . .

This time, this season of Lent is difficult, not because we make it that way through the act of giving up something, but because if truly done with great intention, it allows time for real death. I am of course not referring to physical death, but rather death to self as we relinquish control, quiet the ego, calm the fears and trust in God. Simply put, doing all of those things with intention is hard, very hard! So why? Why do we intentionally take time to allow ourselves to die to self. Wouldn't it just be easier to practice living a good life?  We know that it is not good works and a good life alone that lead us into an authentic relationship with God. It is, however, those things coupled with the space in which we have let go of our own desire to be in control and the time that we  allow ourselves to fall in which we find ourselves being carried upward by God's amazing grace. And the kicker as well as the blessing is that we have to do this over and over and over again not only during the season of Lent but for always. Fortunately for us humans we do not all collectively receive a certificate after the season of Lent that says, "Excellence in Trusting God" that we place in a frame and hang on the wall and then move forward to the next big accomplishable task in life. If that were that case, none of us would truly have an authentic relationship with God. And on top of that, we would miss out on the greatest blessings God has in store for us as we continue dying to self. In the process of this lifelong, cyclical journey, we die a little more to self each time and we are resurrected into our new life through God's unending grace and mercy. As we intentionally look heavenward instead of inward we receive an authentic resurrected life in Christ which is the true gift and intention of time periods such as Lent.
In my recent travels through Italy, I was blessed to enter countless numbers of beautiful churches in the cities of Rome, Florence and Venice. Each church held it's own unique style and beauty in showcasing the glory of God through exquisite architecture, masterpiece sculptures and amazing paintings and mosaics. As I journeyed through these churches I was joined by other pilgrims who also were there to admire the hands that allowed God's glory to be shown through their own gifts and talents. In my visits to these amazing places of worship, I found myself longing for God, wanting him to come down from the tiled or frescoed ceilings and give me an audience with him all by myself. My "self" got in the way, however, and I was left feeling alone, saddened that I had not had a God moment within these magnificent structures erected to his glory.
     One day in Florence after climbing the Duomo and having a wonderful lunch, Howie stopped for a moment to check the map and locate our destination. As I glanced around the street, I saw a sign indicating a church monastery right in front of me. The gates to the church court yard appeared open so I decided to venture in. I opened the heavy door and was awestruck at what I found. The church was silent except for the song of a cricket somewhere in the corner. I sat down in a pew and took in my surroundings. From a clear story window streamed three beams of light which cascaded down to illuminate a single altar bearing a monstrance holding the bread of life. Time slowed as I took in God's glory here in this place and heard him whisper, "Be still and know that I am God."    In the stillness of this sanctuary, I experienced God's presence. He had been with me all along, but the unrest of my mind and inability to move my "self" out of the way, hindered me from being able to hear his voice. The loud silence of this church shook me out of my own preoccupations in order that I may receive the true gift of being filled with God's presence.
      What I find in times such as my visit to the unknown Florence church as well as in my attempts to be intentional about dying to "self" is that it is always in the being still and just simply knowing that I truly encounter God. In seeking God's face, we must realize that he is first within us all along. We must let go of and die to our need to control when and where we find God and just be still and know. As simple as that task may seem, it proves to be one of the most difficult things that we humans are asked by God to do. "Be still and know that I am God." As we enter into Holy Week may we all find within ourselves the grace to allow God's presence to be revealed in the stillness of our souls and may we also experience the gift of resurrection along with Christ on Easter Day