Balance

It took nearly four years to bring our adopted son home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During that time, I was constantly searching for information about his home country. Did the Congolese President mention adoption at his latest news conference? What were those protests about and was anyone hurt? What illness was affecting the people there? I got in a habit of turning on the radio every time I walked in the kitchen. I wanted the news running in the background so that I could catch any bits of information that I might have missed online. My ear was tuned to pick up certain words: Congo, Kabila, Ebola.

 

Now that our son has been home for four years, I realized that I still turn on the radio while I’m in the kitchen. It’s routine, like flipping on the light switch. But listening to the news I hear on the radio now is too much to absorb for hours at a time. While it’s important to stay informed, I can’t listen to the number of deaths and job losses all day long. It’s not right to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the misery of others, but it’s not healthy to swallow that darkness in such big gulp-fulls. I decided I would allow myself thirty minutes of news radio, and then switch to music for the rest of the day. I would limit social media as much as possible, choosing instead to sit in the sunshine (when available…Thank you, Jesus!) and watch the squirrels and birds in my yard. I was searching for balance.

 

Another way I’ve calmed my anxiety has been through crocheting, picking up my crochet hook and yarn during this time of social distancing. For years, I’ve enjoyed making afghans for friends, but it’s become a new form of therapy for me now. I decided to use the various balls of yarn from old projects to make a granny square blanket for one of my daughters who’s going away to college next year. Instead of making separate squares that would be joined together like a quilt, I chose to make one giant square that would change colors for each row.

 

I began with red yarn in a tiny ring that grew into four little clusters, then a little larger ring of navy, followed by another ring of mustard yellow. Little by little it’s growing, but the rings can only be made one cluster at a time, and those clusters can only be made one stitch at a time. At the beginning it seemed daunting: How would this little stitch become large enough to cover a bed? How long would it take? Though the beginning rings were smaller and took less time to make, they seemed more difficult because I couldn’t see what design was forming. Now that it’s a big enough square to just cover my lap, I am encouraged. Now I see that I can complete it as long as I stick to the plan—one stitch at a time.

 

It’s like this period of quarantine—months made from weeks, weeks made from days, days made from hours, hours made from breaths…one breath and then another and then another. Look for the balance you need to take this season one day at a time. The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes understood this kind of balance when he wrote: “There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth: a right time for birth and another for death, a right time to plant and another to reap, a right time to kill and another to heal, a right time to destroy and another to construct, a right time to cry and another to laugh…” (The Message Bible)

 

He also reminds us about enjoying TODAY: “Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange for the hard work of staying alive. Make the most of each one! Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily! This is your last and only chance at it…” (The Message Bible)

Forbearance

Scottish-born author Robert Louis Stevenson was no stranger to being stuck at home. Although he was an acclaimed travel writer and author of some of the 19th century’s most exciting works of fiction—Kidnapped,Treasure Island, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—almost all of his 44 years were spent suffering through sickness. Just like his mother and his grandfather, Stevenson continually nursed a weak chest and a persistent cough. He nearly died several times, barely surviving particularly cold winters or after making long voyages.

 

In his poem “The Land of Counterpane,” it’s easy to imagine Stevenson as a weak, sickly boy as he writes: “When I was sick and lay a-bed/I had two pillows at my head/And all my toys beside me lay/To keep me happy all the day.” He had to learn how to find contentment and entertainment while confined to his bed.

 

Though Stevenson was raised by devout Protestant parents, he later proclaimed as a young adult that he was an atheist, telling his father that he couldn’t continue to live a lie. In his final years, Stevenson retired to a Samoan island where he hoped the warmer climate would improve his health. During those last four years, his feelings about religion seemed to change. Stevenson wrote Prayers Written at Vailima, a collection of devotions meant to be read at various times of the day. One of these prayers is simply called, “For Success.”

 

“Give us grace and strength to forbear and to persevere. Give us courage and gaiety, and the quiet mind. Spare to us our friends, soften to us our enemies. Bless us, if it may be, in all our innocent endeavors. If it may not, give us the strength to encounter that which is to come, that we may be brave in peril, constant in tribulation, temperate in wrath, and in all changes of fortune, and down to the gates of death, loyal and loving to one another.”

 

In spite of how his late-19th century wording might fall on modern ears, something about this prayer especially resonates now. This man with all his unfortunate flaws and unique talents and the tragedy of his battles with sickness and seclusion, can speak to us in these extraordinary times.

 

One word in particular stood out to me—forbearance. It’s not a word I use in regular conversation, but desperate times calls for descriptive vocabulary. I’m already in the practice of daily praying for patience, but now I pray for forbearance. It’s a word with more weight, like the thud of two feet being planted in place to prepare for the attack of an opponent. To forebear is to abstain, to bear up against, to control one’s feelings. There’s a sense of delaying, of waiting, and in the waiting, an endurance. I can imagine a young Robert, lying in bed with toy soldiers and books carelessly thrown around him on the sheets. He looks out the window and sees a world he misses. He wonders what lies beyond what he can see, both down the street and in his future years. A century and a half later, these are my thoughts, too.

Bearing with one another

Last week I was honored to speak at a Mother/Daughter Tea at a church in town. It was a lovely event with tea and coffee and cupcakes and lavender sachets. I came away believing that we really should institute a regular afternoon tea time.

 

I shared a story with these dear women about my dental struggles.Several years ago my dental hygienist pointed out some worn down spots and asked me if I grind my teeth. I’d been having ear aches that weren’t infections, and once I started thinking about it I realized that my jaw was always sore. She asked me if I was under any particular stress. At the time, we were in year three of what would eventually be four years of trying to bring our adopted son home from Africa, so yeah…I was stressed.

 

During that time, I had unknowingly directed my stress and frustration and worry on my poor mouth. I was clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth, causing damage to my gums. I would go on to have gum graph surgery and my dentist recommended I use clear plastic aligners (instead of braces) to correct my misshapen bite.

 

I’ve been through dozens of this plastic teeth movers now and from one aligner to the next, you can hardly tell there’s any change. It’s a tiny tweak, slight modification. But over the many months, the minor modifications add up to a new bite that will cause less stress on my gums and help me keep my teeth.

 

At this point in my talk, the women I shared this with were probably beginning to regret inviting me to their Tea. But I went on to explain that in relationships with each other, we can create bad habits. Dysfunction doesn’t usually happen overnight. It’s a slow teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching process. And this can be the case with mother/daughter relationships. An irritation or misunderstanding becomes a habit of slamming doors and shouting names. It’s hard when these habits become formed, but they don’t have to remain forever. That kind of stubbornness is a sin and God will always be on the side of breaking those sinful patterns, especially when they disrupt our families.

 

So we must look to Scripture for guidance. In the book of Ephesians, we see what the Apostle Paul thought was most important to say to fellow Christians while he was in prison in Rome. Ephesians 4:2-3 gives us some essential truths.

 

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (NIV)

 

In other words, be humble and gentle as Jesus was when he washed his disciples’ feet, choosing the posture of a servant over the attitude of a bully. Tolerate the differences you see in each other because you choose to love in an unconditional way. Then work diligently, with expectations of restoration, to become one as you join together in harmony to sing a beautiful hymn of goodwill.

 

If we can do these things in our relationships with each other, we can take those small steps toward healing. It will take patience, and sometimes there will be setbacks, but the sweetest fruit often take the longest to ripen.

Worth the wait

Tugging at the tape ever so slowly and pulling back the wrapping paper, the present beneath gradually revealed itself. In a dark living room with only the aid of the soft glow of Christmas tree lights to illuminate my mischievous task, I spotted a length of hot pink nylon fabric with lime green plastic piping. It was a duffel bag, and it spoke to me of future slumber parties and sleep-overs and fun. But the joy I felt was tinged with feelings of guilt and remorse, because it wasn’t Christmas yet and I was sneaking a look at my present a few days early and without permission. I re-taped the package and slid it back under the tree.

 

Though this was nearly forty Christmases ago, I still remember that feeling—the wicked thrill of doing something that was obviously wrong for which I might easily get caught, my only companion a miniature version of Baby Jesus in a Manger in ornament-form dangling on a tree branch just above my head.

 

Now, as the wrapped presents pile up under our tree, my youngest son is faced with the same temptation. I see him hungrily eyeing those presents with his name on them, wondering what joys lie just beneath the candy cane wrapping paper. He asks me almost daily, “When can I open them? Why do we have to wait?”

 

It’s a logical question: There’s the present. He wants the present. I bought him the present. So what’s the point of waiting?

 

This is one of those universal human dilemmas with which we all must struggle—waiting. It’s why people say things like “Good things come to those who wait.” It’s an attempt to mollify that nagging frustration we feel as we are forced to wait for something. Our consolation that the prize had better be worth the delay.

 

If you’re looking for an example of Championship Waiting, check out the Prophetess Anna in Luke 2. Scripture tells us that she had been a widow for most of her life and spent all of her days and nights at the Temple worshiping God and fasting and praying and waiting for the Promised Messiah.

 

I can imagine her there, standing in the courtyard, perhaps busying herself with sweeping or tidying up. She notices a commotion. A young couple has brought in their baby to be circumcised and dedicated to God. Simeon, another Temple Frequenter, has spotted the family and snatched the baby in his arms, jubilantly. Simeon tells the mother that her son is the One he’s been waiting for.

 

Anna hears bits of their conversation, words like salvation, lightand glory. Heart pounding and legs like jelly, she rushes over. Seeing Jesus for the first time, Anna doesn’t feel her 84 years as all of those sorrow-filled nights spent asking why she was alone melted away. She is joyful to be present for such an occasion—the arrival of her rescue.

 

My experience with waiting has been up and down the spectrum, from Peaceful Patience to Raging Lunatic. I’ve felt it all. But, in the end, nothing beats the Big Reveal, when the time is just right to open up the gift you’ve been anxiously expecting for so long. It can come in many packages—big and small—like it did so many years ago in the form of a baby boy.

The prodigal

When my youngest son gets angry, he often gets dramatically pouty. It may start with something as simple as my refusing him one more handful of potato chips. It’s like I’m a snack bartender. I’m mopping up the bar and I see someone who’s tipsy on Cool Ranch Doritos, so I throw the towel over my shoulder while explaining that I’m under mom-bligations to let a person know when he’s has had enough and suggest something to balance out the junk food like an apple.

 

Once confronted and told “no,” he tends to go straight for the Oscar nomination for Best Whiny Pleading. If he’s feeling especially irritable, he’ll play the Runaway Card. There are some for whom running away is a serious proposition and definitely not a joke, so I would not make light of those circumstances. But for my son, it’s a calculated move. He has no intention of actually leaving our property, sometimes he only gets as far as the garage, but he’s wanting to tell me something and test my response.

 

When one of our daughter’s was younger, she would try the same thing. She would announce her intention: “I’m leaving!” and I would set up a camping chair by the house. I would say, “I always want you to be safe, so I’m going to sit here and watch you. Make sure you can see me. If you can’t see me, you’ve gone too far.” I would watch her walk down our very long driveway maybe with a backpack or a baby doll, and when she got to the mailbox, she would turn around and come back. This is what worked for her, my strong-willed girl who had always known me and counted on me to be her mom.

 

For our 7-year old son who’s only been a part of our family for 2 years, I have had to change tack and choose a different approach. When he marches off angrily, I know he wants to punish me. I also know that I am angry, too. I want to go inside and watch TV and let him sort it out alone. But even though my parenting correction was justified, I know that he desperately wants to be pursued.

 

This happened last Saturday. His pouting was like a carrot on a stick leading him to the overgrown field behind our house where the weeds were as tall as he is. I sat at the patio table and watched him as he glanced back at me over his shoulder a few times. The stubborn part of my brain wanted to show him tough love and let him get eaten up by chiggers, but an image came to my mind of a different parent, a fictional father from a story Jesus told in Luke 15.

 

We often call this parable The Prodigal Son. The main idea is that we are like this son, messing up everything and wasting what is good, then finally coming to our senses and turning back homeward. The father is our God, waiting there for us with open arms, forgiving all our stupidity. But I tend to think there are several layers to these stories, and I wonder if we are sometimes called to be the father, too.

 

Did this father stand outside looking toward the road from town for days and weeks and months, praying that his son would come home? Did he keep his love ready for his son’s return by reminding himself that it wasn’t about him but instead about his wayward son?

 

This is my inspiration. When I was given this job as a mom, it was an invitation to grown up, or as the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

 

I followed my son to the field and stayed in his general proximity until his anger had subsided. (I may or may not have fibbed and said I saw a snake in the tall weeds to get him motivated.) At bedtime, my husband and I discussed with him about how to calmly tell us how he feels and how his actions will never make us stop loving him. Hours after the initial disagreement, he was finally repentant. And while this is what we parents are ultimately looking for, it became clear to me that my job is not only to work towards favorable behavioral results in my kids but to be there for every step of the process.

Driving lessons

One of my 15-year old daughters just passed her “knowledge test” (a.k.a. driver’s permit test). Now comes the hard work of teaching her to do the thing I do nearly every day without really considering how I do it.

 

The first time I took her to a church parking lot to practice driving, she spent the first half of the 30-minute session just coasting. She didn’t use the accelerator much at all. When she did finally give the gas pedal a gentle tap to get the minivan up a slight incline, we reached the minimum speed to make the automatic locks click, giving her a bit of a surprise.

 

While she was behind the wheel, most everything had the ability to surprise her—a leaf falling from a tree or a low flying bird. All her senses were on high alert. Code orange! There’s a lawnmower! Watch out! Don’t hit that curb that’s coming at you at 5 MPH!

 

After a few more parking lot only lessons, she took a short drive on a real road. I don’t know who was more nervous, me or her. It consisted of driving from one church parking lot, down a back road, into a different church parking lot, and back the same way to the first place. (Thank goodness for so many church parking lots!)

 

There are many skills we have to learn slowly, step-by-step: you have to walk before you can run, learn your ABC’s before you can read, tie your shoelaces with “bunny ears” before you can do it the grown-up way.

 

We often want to skip all of those first steps. We’d like to think we can get where we want to go without learning the lessons along the way. We want to make the perfect pancake from that first pour of batter. Maybe that does work sometimes, but mostly we have to make several ugly, misshapen pancakes before we get a good one. We need someone to teach us which pedal is the brake and which is the gas. We need a teacher to sit next to us and tell us how to use the blinker (and how to turn off the windshield wipers when we move that lever accidentally instead).

 

Research shows that it can take as little as 2 months and as much as 8 months for a new behavior to become a habit so don’t get discouraged if it takes a while for a new habit to stick. That’s a lot of little steps to complete a journey. That’s a lot of choosing carrot sticks over candy bars. That’s a lot of driving lessons before we hit the interstate. That’s a lot of weird-looking pancakes.