Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In His Hands

"These scary spiders are going to go away now."

He had been 'scaring' me with these silly plastic toy spiders for most of the day. He being my just turned 5-year old son. I often wonder if he would be so focused on my attention if his sister was still alive. It hits me like that: not just how my life was suddenly thrust into the spotlight of unknowns, but how his was, too.

We all know days pass, decisions are made or not made, choices turn us this direction or that. Our lives are a constant stream of unknowns. What if I hadn't dated that person? What if I would have stood up for myself? What if I would have applied for that job? What if I would have moved like I dreamed I was going to?

But these types of unknowns are the shadows of our lives. The ones that stay in the background, stepping forward only when called.

Whereas, the what if my child was still alive? unknowns stand bold and tall, center stage, with the spotlight shined on them morning, noon and night. There is no intermission. Actors may come and go, action continues around it, but that bright unknown never, not even for just a second, leaves the stage.

As time goes by, you learn to turn your eyes, focus on the action next to it... but it's still standing there. You still see it in your peripheral.

Would she have the same friends? 
What skills in gymnastics would she have obtained? 
Would she think her little brother was annoying or would she still be mothering him? 
What kind of student would she be?
What would she look like without her braces?
Would she still write handwritten letters to Ashley?

I snapped back to the here-and-now present moment and watched my son slink away on hands and knees, slowly pushing the plastic spiders in front of him.

"No!" I yelled out, feigning over-dramatized fear and terror. "They can't go away!"

He stopped, looking up at me with the strangest look of confusion on his face. "Why?"

"Well, because if they go away we can't see them and we won't know where they are!"

He cocked his head to the side, considering my words. "Yes, you will. Because they will still be in my hand."

He smiled up at me, his precious little boy face filled with absolute assurance. And off he crawled, spiders in hand.

It's amazing how many times God speaks to me through the voice of an innocent child. Because in that instant, watching this little boy disappear around the corner and down the hall I realized something. Something huge: even if I don't have the details.... even if I never see what the path looks like, or what is seen along the way - what is said or heard or felt - even if I can't see for myself and I can't touch for myself - I know where Avery is.... she's still in God's hands.

How can I not be comforted knowing that she's safe in His hands?

He uncovers mysteries hidden in darkness; 
he brings light to the deepest gloom.
Job 12:22 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Letter to my Psychology Teacher

Dear Mr. Love,

I often thought about how nice that would be to walk into a therapist's office and sit down with someone named "Love." It's a word that evokes gentleness, caring and kindness; all the things you were to me in school. Except I was a very angsty teen and you wouldn't have known I thought all that.

You had the pleasure of enjoying me in your Psych 101 class. (Someone really should have given you a pay raise.) I questioned, well, everything. I peeled back layer upon layer and looked at things from every possible angle and forced you to put up with I-totally-understand-why sighs and eye rolls from pretty much every single kid in that classroom. Yet, you were always calm and patient and "up for the challenge" when dealing with me.

But if I was challenging in class I was downright difficult in homeroom. You must have drawn the short straw because you were stuck as my homeroom teacher for all four years of my angsty high school career. Or, maybe I wasn't difficult at all, if you consider the fact I physically attended homeroom maybe twice during my entire senior year. I just didn't see the need for it. It was held really early in the morning and I wasn't a morning person and none of those announcements actually pertained to me anyway and also I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder.

 Did I mention I was angsty?

I actually looked up the word angst. It means, "a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general." I guess I didn't realize I was that concerned about the human condition. (Turns out I am; I just needed to figure out what to do about those feelings.)

One morning I actually showed up on time for homeroom and everyone looked at me like I was some new kid they had never seen before. My peers were annoyed by my pretentiousness - casually walking in as if I could come and go as I pleased; you treated me with a party. You genuinely were excited to see me. You even gave me a Hershey's Kiss. You announced how proud you were that I was there and you weren't being sarcastic or mean. You weren't trying to embarrass me... I felt like the prodigal son returning and could feel the jealousy (and possibly disgust) of my peers burn through the skin of my cheeks.

I didn't come to homeroom after that.

But I still went to class.

You assigned a paper, telling us it needed to be between 3 and 5 pages, typed. That was back in the day when computers were just working their way into schools. I had learned to type on a typewriter, worked my way up to a Word Processor and now I was on a computer. It was pretty cool. Twenty years after the fact I realize how incredible it was that I got to experience such a "sudden burst" of technology. We were the guinea pigs; the lab rats. We tested that stuff out. And that's kind of a big deal.

But back to the paper.

You told us it had to be 3-5 pages and the topic was exploring the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I promptly forgot about the assignment. One day, twenty minutes before class I realized two things: I had a paper due and I had a free period.

I ran to the computer lab and typed furiously for twenty minutes. I made it to a page and a half. (That was with double spaces.)

Yet, you gave me an A.

Really? An A?

I often wondered if you were just presenting some form of extrinsic motivation (like you did the Hershey's Kiss) in an attempt to persuade me to apply myself, but you made several hand written notes in the margin. You liked my paper, even if I didn't follow the rules. You read it. Dissected it. Complimented and challenged it. You knew I understood the concept. And you knew I wrote well. At the time, that was the compliment I was really searching for; that I was a good writer. (If I were to be honest, it still is.)

I knew then that intrinsic motivation comes from within. That it's not something taught or contrived or convinced or begged out of a person. It just is.  And I knew that there are all sorts of extrinsic motivators: money, prestige, those coveted compliments. The promise of a bigger, better house; the desire to be known and recognized - all these other things outside of ourselves that compete with what we know is our truth within.

I kept that paper with it's bright red A and pathetic shortness.

In fact, I have it in one of those plastic protective covers, snapped safely in a binder that houses all the things I've written that I'm most proud of. It shares space with a poem I wrote in memory of my grandfather and a piece I slaved over paying homage to Ezra Pound. (Ezra would have hated me. I over use adjectives and I'm a big fan of the abstract.) But it's that class paper that kept haunting me year after year. I kept it... but couldn't quite figure out why.

Now I know.

See, I still had some learning to do. I intellectually understood the concepts... but I hadn't lived them.

When we studied the different motivators and had to write the paper and take the test, I learned something vitally important about life. About my life. Something I didn't really want to admit to knowing. That the truly happy people are the ones acting on their motivations from within.... and I wasn't acting on mine.

All that external stuff - the salaries and pay raises, the house in the hills, the shiny, expensive cars - they don't last. They don't matter much, really, because they're never enough. There's always a bigger salary and a shinier car and a more prestigious zip code. And just as soon as you thought you had arrived you realized you still had a long way to go. You can never grasp onto what keeps slipping through your fingers.

It's when your heart pulls with such a vengeance that you feel like you could fall out of your heels at a dinner party for what aches your soul, well, that there is the stuff that matters. That's the real life this is my purpose stuff that you can't order out of a catalog.That's the stuff that can't be bought over time or handed to you from your homeroom teacher. It can only come from within and if you ignore it - if you turn your back on where your soul aches to go... you're just left existing in this world with a sad soul.

Angst means, "a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general." Did you catch that? An unfocused anxiety... 

And remember, not all anxiety is bad. Anxiety can actually be quite good for you. Anxiety can be used to fight toward our goal, focusing in a way that brings out our best performance. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been quoted as saying this about anxiety:

"The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind 
is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort 
to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile."

See, to get to my best moments, I needed to start tuning in to what intrinsically motivates me. And a clue to what intrinsically motivated me was where my anxieties kept taking me. Helping people heal. Loving those who just yearn to feel loved. Giving someone strength through the written word.

I'm doing that now, Mr. Love. I'm being motivated not by the outside forces of the world, but by what God instilled in me over 40 years ago. A lot of people tell me they're proud of me, but there are a few that don't quite get it. They think following my heart string and going to where my soul aches is actually quite a foolish move. Selfish, even. It seems following your heart doesn't always come with a hefty paycheck attached. In today's world, we get ambushed into thinking it's all about the highest salary, the biggest house, the most exotic vacation. Sometimes I wonder how the human condition can be overlooked so easily. Why it is that we're so easily led away from what motivates us from within only to get sidetracked by external forces that, in the grand scheme of life won't make you a good person.

Every funeral we go to we're reminded of this. You never hear someone stand up to give a eulogy and say, "Frank was a good man. He had three cars valued at $22,000 each. He had a tidy nest egg and a home that we're going to be placing on the market for $300,000. Frank worked his way up at his company, acquiring 5 weeks of vacation at the time of his death. His investment broker is going to miss him."

No. We hear about what made Frank unique, different and loved. That he attended every single one of his granddaughter's ballet recitals. No one paid him to do that. He wanted to go because he loved his granddaughter and he loved the feeling he got when his precious sweet thing got up on that stage and twirled around believing she looked like Anna Pavlova but actually looked more like a turkey caught in a blender. It didn't matter. To Frank, she was the most beautiful ballerina on that stage and he wouldn't have missed it for the world. He didn't care if she was the best or worst one on that stage; he just knew he loved how his heart felt when he watched her.

We hear about how Frank took food to the hungry and volunteered at church. He didn't earn vacation days for doing that; he fed his soul.

We hear about how Frank came to the rescue of a couple stranded along a busy highway and how they ended up being life long friends and raising their kids together. He didn't do that because someone dangled a carrot in front of him, he did it because he saw someone in need and he felt it in his bones to pull over and help.

We all know by now that the things that make our lives great, the things that make our souls shine, are all the things we stumble trying to put into words. It's the part of our coursing blood that can't be seen through a microscope. It's the way our throat catches and lumps closed even though no one else's seem to. It's the way our eyes threaten to overflow at something seemingly inconsequential to the rest of the world but for some reason it suddenly means everything to just us.

It's the stuff God placed inside us when He created us, whispering into our soul-heart, "this is what will make you unique in all the world." Not even identical twins with perfectly matched DNA will have the same soul-heart.

And if we turn our backs on it... if we tune out our soul-voice and ignore the pulls on our heart strings, we're just existing in this world. Living with a sad soul.

I think I could write that paper now the way it deserves to be written.

You did a good job teaching me, Mr. Love. Thank you for that.

And thank you for the Hershey's Kiss. You made me feel really special that day. I just didn't know how to receive it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Life Jackets

"The life jacket won't make you swim," I tried to explain. "You'll still need to do the work; it just keeps you from sinking."

She wanted to swim so badly. She felt it was time to move from the shallow kiddie pool over to the big kid pool. But she was afraid because she didn't know how to swim.

We borrowed a life jacket and strapped her in. The second the belt snapped in place she squealed, "now I can swim!"

Oh, buddy, I thought. If only it were that easy.

Avery and her life jacket

Maybe life is like swimming and faith is like the life jacket. 

Let's say you've got to swim across this huge span of water. You can't even see the other side and, while the waters appear calm and quite pleasant right now, you've heard stories of dark and stormy seas. Of waves that swell so big they threaten to swallow you whole. Of the torment the waters put on a body, making every muscle ache and lungs plead leaving you crying and completely broken, begging to just give up and give in to what attacks you.

But you've also heard stories of the gentleness and softness of the water. Like silk gently trailing across the flesh and the sun warms your face and the birds above you sing and you can lay your head back and soak in the goodness, smiling as it feeds your soul, overflowing with a love that you can't even put into words.

And you can't even see the other shore. So you know that when it is good you'll want it to last forever; but when your body is failing you'll want some relief.

And that's where the life jacket comes in. 

God's love wrapped tight around you, secured with his goodness and mercy and grace. His promises keeping you afloat. He provides the eternal life jacket for your soul. 

But you still have to do the work.

Because you can't just enter the waters wearing His life jacket and expect to suddenly get to the other side. 

You have to move your muscles. One arm, then the other. Kicking your legs, propelling you forward. Yes, you have the assurance of your life jacket - but that life jacket can't do the hard work for you.  

As we travel through the earth-waters of our life, knowing God's arms are wrapped tightly around us, God is telling us to kick! Move your arms!  He is the swim coach of our lives and the buoyancy that allows our head to keep popping up for air, allowing us to breathe in His greatness at that exact moment we felt we would fail.

And just as you must keep swimming through the torrential rains and work extra hard to swim through the waves that swell taller than we ever imagined, so God reminds us that when our earth-waters threaten to pull us down, suck us in, finish us off - it is then that we must try harder, faster, stronger! 

Because God is many things. He is love and light and goodness and compassion. He forgives and redeems and blesses and showers us with grace. But He won't do the work for us. He wants to see us do for ourselves. We need to do it for ourselves. 

A little bigger and a bit more confidence.

I watched as my daughter struggled. I watched as she became discouraged because she couldn't figure out how to move herself forward. I watched as her eyes narrowed in frustration as other kids swam quickly past her. I watched as she cried and complained when another jumped in next to her, causing a wave to splash into her face. I watched as she gagged and spit out water from her mouth.

Several times she looked at me, calling out for help. And I would answer, "You can do it, buddy. I know you can. I'm right here."

And, you know what? She did do it. 
She blew it out of the park.

Avery on the South Central Swim Team

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