Friday, April 30, 2010

Protection and Strength

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"Life's tough, so you'd better get over it!"

"Oh, boo-hoo, you enjoy being depressed!"

It doesn't take long for a child to figure out she's on her own.  And it doesn't take long for her to come up with her own emotional survival strategies.  But of course she's only a child, and a sinner to boot.  Her strategies are fatally flawed, but she can't see that.  By the time she's a woman, they've become an unquestioned part of who she is, and they feel like life to her. 

Toughen up.  Shut down the tender feelings that make a sucker out of you.  And don't expect help from anybody.  In fact, keep 'em all at arm's length, or they'll suck you dry with their demands.  Just show them the smile and move on.  Handle life on your own.

That attitude is so deeply ingrained in me that I've never really examined it until recently.  Of course toughness is necessary for survival, so of course it's loving.  Of course tenderness is for suckers.  (Never mind how deeply I long for it!)

What do you do when life brings you more than you can handle?  If you were raised like I was, you know that God is up there.  And though you don't believe He loves you personally, you do know that you once prayed the right prayer to take advantage of God's legal loophole and get forgiven.  So when you need something, you pray.  And pray.  And pray.

But what if God doesn't answer?  What if your precious toddling son really is gone, replaced by this look-alike who has lost all of his personality, who does nothing but scream day in and day out until you have no nerves left to fry?  What if there are diagnoses that leave you without hope for his future…and then you find out your older son has something similar? 

And what if God doesn't do anything about it, no matter how you plead, no matter how obviously you're drowning?

If you're like me, you go into hiding.  You build walls.  You avoid as much of reality as you possibly can.  People don't help, and now you know that God won't, either.  The circumstances just never change, and they don't look like they ever will.  How could they?  Autism and Bipolar Disorder don't go away.  Medications only help a little.  How can I be the mother these children need?

The answer echoes from my own childhood.  Toughen up, wimp!  That's the only way to cope and be what they need you to be.  And so I try, but it's not in me.  I can't shut off what's good inside my soul, even if I believe that "toughness" is the most loving thing I can do.

Can anything be more paralyzing than finding none of life's options to be livable?

Something inside of me sobs for a protector, but there isn't one.  I learned that when God didn't change what was killing me.  So nothing remains but to try to make the inner sobs shut up.  Pour contempt on them.  Crybaby!  Wimp!  Nobody's going to protect you but you.  So hide.  Hide.  Hide.

Computer solitaire, anyone?  Or how about catching up on Christian blogs, or the latest news?  Has another day disappeared already?

Sometimes I venture out of my hiding place.  The calendar keeps flipping.  Children keep growing.  The past is a blur.  Opportunities have disappeared forever.  The future makes huge demands, and I've got to be tough to meet them.  My family needs me to be stronger!  So I try, but toughness requires anger and kills all softness in me.  And it's so ugly!  I hate it.  My family hates it.  I can't bear to keep it up for long.  Before I know it, I'm sinking back into escapism, knowing I've failed again because I'm not strong enough. 

Of course, during all of the lonely years, God hasn't really been absent.  He has thrown away all religious nonsense about "legal loopholes" and has introduced me to Himself.  He has brought friends into my life, and has taught me to trust and enjoy them, and even to be there for them.  He has allowed my most autistic child to progress in ways I never would have imagined.  He has allowed me to be fed wonderful spiritual food from different sources.  He has grown my faith tremendously.

But still, as I mentioned yesterday, there has always been a radical disconnection between my faith and my life.  It's not that I'm living in any gross sin.  It's just that I still don't have the strength to face my responsibilities. 

But just a few days ago a thought popped into my head that could only have come from God.  It's too foreign to my way of thinking for me to have manufactured it myself.

Re-think the Fruit of the Spirit in terms of how God protects you.

The part of my soul that sobs for a protector sat up and took notice right away.  And God must have done some cultivating to prepare my heart's soil for that little seed, because it seems to be taking root. 

It dawned on me that protection isn't synonymous with hiding.  (That's a paradigm-shattering notion right there!)  Protection can be like armor in the middle of a battle.  It can make even a coward rush toward the enemy, can keep a weak man from being skewered, and can preserve a strong man to fight another day.

Then it dawned on me that, if protection can make you strong and brave, then maybe you don't need ugly, soul-killing, tenderness-squelching, angry "toughness" in order to face life's challenges.

Maybe, "Be strong in the Lord" doesn't mean what I thought it meant at all.  Maybe it doesn't mean "believe the right things and carry a big stick."

Could this "gotta be tough" mindset be the false belief system that has been holding me back?  I've been praying for God to teach me to walk in His grace…is this part of His answer?

This is beginning to sound exciting!  Maybe there's a way to be strong and loving!  Do you suppose?

And maybe…maybe if protection doesn't look the way I expected it to look, then perhaps it's because it's suited for a totally different enemy than the one I thought I was fighting.  Had I mis-identified my opponent?

And if I was wrong about my opponent and about what protection looks like, then was I wrong to conclude that God had failed to protect me?  Could I really scrap my forlorn conviction that I have to go it alone?

And how does the Fruit of the Spirit figure into all of this?  (I know, I had planned to elaborate on that today, but I've already made this entry long enough just by laying the groundwork.  Tomorrow then, okay?)


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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Confusing Ends with Means

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I've been gone awhile.

Not "gone" as in "traveling," but as in "out of commission."  Life's stresses built up to the point where writing was out of the question.

There is a time to keep silence and a time to speak (Ecc 3:7), and this was definitely a time for me to keep quiet and listen.

Some of you were used by God to speak to me during this time.  You may or may not know it, but I do.  More importantly, God does, and you will not lose your reward (Matt 10:42).

So why is it time to write again?  Because He has given me a focus, a direction, some things to work through.  I write to learn, more than to teach.  I desperately need the content He gives me, and the chance to pass it along to someone else is pure gravy.

And what is He wanting to teach me?  For starters, it's that my spiritual focus has been wrong.  I've been focusing more on external circumstances than on internal realities.  And when I've tried to deal with internals, I've done it mainly with an eye toward changing my circumstances.  That hasn't been my conscious motivation, but it was my motivation nonetheless.

Now, there's nothing wrong with praying about (and dealing with) circumstances.  We do not have because we do not ask (James 4:2).  But sometimes, God gives a different answer than the one we were hoping for.  Sometimes He says to us, like He said to the Apostle Paul, that our pain has a good purpose, and that He intends for it to continue (2 Co 12:8-9). 

Whatever my spiritual direction has been, it hasn't been sufficient to prepare me for an answer like the one Paul got.  I have regularly stumbled, gotten discouraged, and quit in the face of overwhelming and unrelenting difficulties.  My spirituality was beautiful in theory, but it couldn't stand up to the realities of my life.  That's one reason why I've found it so much easier to read and write my faith than to pick up a scrub brush with it. 

I'm not talking about hypocrisy.  I have believed, deeply.  But there has been a radical disconnection between my head's belief and my heart's life, and I haven't been able to figure out why.

I could live out my faith if only they would…

I would be loving, but it's all so overwhelming…

Paul stopped praying for relief when God explained to him that His grace was sufficient.  But I fear that my heart has been saying, "Sorry, God.  Your grace is not sufficient for me.  I need relief!"

What if life never stops being overwhelming?  Is my spiritual walk really to be held hostage, only to be released when things become manageable for me?  Why have I resorted to escapism and other sins so often?  What has made me feel that I couldn't do what I knew God wanted me to do?  Why would I turn away from love, from patience, from kindness when things got rough?

Could it be that, even though I "know better," I have been judging the value of godliness based on whether or not it changed my circumstances?

What if godliness isn't supposed to be a means to an end?  What if it is the end that we are to seek?

Of course it is.  I know that, at least in my head.  But in my heart I've been screaming, "Life can't go on like this! I can't go on like this!"

And so, I quickly resort to the things that bring me relief, or that I hope will change my circumstances, even if they're not godly.

God hasn't told me to stop praying for circumstantial relief, so I will continue to do so.  But relief may end up coming in a package that has nothing to do with a change in circumstances.

Maybe relief comes from a change in me.  Godliness may turn out to be its own reward, if I give it a chance.

Tomorrow I want to write down some thoughts I've been having about how godliness (specifically, the Fruit of the Spirit) can help me, even if it doesn't change my circumstances at all.  It won't be the wisdom of experience, because I don't have enough experience.  But it will be the sorts of truths that I want to tell myself, the sorts of beliefs I want to encourage.  Maybe they'll help others, too.


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