Refuge

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Another post from the past. One of my garden-related favs.

My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach.

I’ve finally discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. The winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain untidy. Forget deadheading those coneflowers and rudbeckias. Never lop down those fading grasses until spring. The birds and bunnies will thank you profusely. When those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous horticultural perfectionists, winter animals must look much farther afield for the seeds, berries, and protective cover they still require. They need a place of refuge.

Refuge is real

Thus, the gardener who neglects her seedheads and procrastinates her trimming finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles draw those who need shelter from coyotes and cold. I can provide a place a refuge for those for whom the winter winds are too harsh.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life.

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When my children were small and my husband working 12-24 hours a day, I discovered an awful demon in my quiet, retiring heart—uncontrolled anger. My inability to handle conflict had been well-hidden for many years (even from myself). I had easy-going friends, and I had married a man who rarely did anything I could get angry about. (OK, we did have a few discussions about empty cereal boxes on the counter and improperly aligned toilet paper rolls, but they didn’t exactly rock our marriage.)

Then we had kids.

Children, by their nature and seemingly by their firm desire, cause conflict. I had few coping skills for that kind of loving struggle. The day I found myself red-faced, screaming at them, “Why can’t you learn some self-control!” I knew I had a problem.

As God healed and taught me, I discovered something else—an awful lot of women felt the same way. They hated themselves, doubted their ability as parents, longed for someone to understand how they could have so much love and so much anger all at once.

Yet an embarrassed silence reigned over them, because talking about fears and shortcomings opens one up to further misunderstanding and pain. Only one who understood could break the silence and minister to them. Only someone who had an “untidy” life herself could extend a hospitable ear to hearts that needed nourishment and shelter.

Choking on Perfection

In the western suburbs of Chicago where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script isn’t allowed.

Yet, at times, I recognize the desperation behind those masks. The heart that cries, “Just let me see that you’re not perfect—then I can stop trying to prove that I am.” These people search for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

That surface-manicured standard reflects not God’s perfection but my pride. “My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes. A pointer for hungry hearts to the only one who can make order of their chaotic lives. To do that, I must be willing to admit to my own chaos.

Vulnerability is the start of becoming a refuge.

Honesty and grace keep us that way. If we all truly believed that, “There but for the grace of god go I,” what kind of shelter could we offer to people for whom the winter winds of perfection and criticism are harsh and hurtful?

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I love the grass heads bowing under snow outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of rudbeckia seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. I glory in the cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting to those in need. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.

Plowing Up the Hard Road

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I LOVE sunflowers. But I have an issue with them. Every time I plant sunflower seeds in our yard, I get nothing. No sprouts. No flowers. Nada. I put those things all over the place, but it doesn’t matter. I plant many other seeds quite successfully, but sunflowers don’t care. Absolutely nothing has come out of the ground when I plant sunflowers seeds at any time in the history of sunflowers.

Here’s the issue—when my husband plants them, those things jump out of the ground. We have a bounty of sunflowers. I don’t do anything differently. But I can’t grow sunflowers to save my life. I need to stay married if only to have a source of sunflowers in my world.

Even a good seed sower can have problems with uncooperative soil.

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Last week, we talked about how good stories change us for the better so that changed people can tell good stories with their lives. When Jesus laid down that idea, he began with a story to illustrate that very thing. It’s what we call the Parable of the Soils.

TLDR version: A farmer planted some seeds. He wasn’t very discriminatory about the way he planted them or where they fell. This was actually not too far off from current farming practices for Jesus’ time. Or he just had really bad aim. Whatever.

Some of the seeds landed on the road, where birds ate those babies right up. (I imagine starlings or blackbirds, because those things scarf seeds at my feeder like there will be a worldwide seed shortage within the next hour.) Starlings and blackbirds are also rather nondiscriminatory when it comes to eating.

Some ended up in the middle of rocks, and some dropped in the weeds. Rocks aren’t very fertile soil when the drought hits, and weeds . . . well, as a gardener, I know how fast weeds grow. Crazy fast. Either way, the good seed doesn’t fare well.

And some fell in soil that was juuuust right and grew big and strong.

It’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears for farmers.

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Of course, Jesus was talking about our hearts, not basic dirt. What kind of heart will produce big, strong, plentiful crops from the story seeds he offers?

Spoiler: It’s not the first three.

“Some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them.”

The footpath has had years to be packed down into toughness. The more it’s been walked over, the more unyielding it’s gotten. Every step has made it harder, every day has tamped it down just a little bit more. It’s hard.

Maybe you know someone like that.

The hard, hard road doesn’t feel the need to give way for seeds. It doesn’t bend. It knows what it wants to accept, and anything else bounces off into the ditch of indifference.

Hard roads don’t want to hear anything that challenges their assumptions or threatens to change their minds. That stuff gets bounced right out. They have their rules; they know what’s what. Getting soft only creates people who compromise.

It just gets you hurt.

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Yet Jesus has no use for the hard roads. He knows no true kingdom values will grow there. Not until they are tilled up, plowed and furrowed and deeply dug to allow new seed to grow. 

Hard soiled hearts have to break in so many places to allow them to be vulnerable to the seed and sun and rain God has for them.

We cannot tell good stories unless we’re willing to face our hardness.

As a kid, I responded to being an actual, real-life Ferdinand (the bull who preferred to sit alone and smell flowers) with deep cynicism and sarcasm. Oh yes, you’d better believe I could do sarcasm as an eight-year-old. I didn’t get this good without years of practice. Also, I learned years later the secrets of the INFJ door slam. (“It’s been said that when INFJs get hurt or angry, they don’t hate you, they nothing you.”) 

I pushed others away before they could declare me too weird for words and push me away. Rejection as as preemptive social strike. I wasn’t very big or very popular, but I was strategic enough to know good warfare tactics.

Except human community is not built on warfare models.

When I started to face the reasons I lacked friends, the reasons behind why I reacted defensively and rejected others first, I began to heal and dip my toes in the open water of vulnerability. I learned to go first in bridge-building. I discovered that other people were just as afraid as I was. I allowed others to see between the chain mail loops about my heart.

I got hurt. But it didn’t kill me, and I found it was better than being hard.

Jesus’ words can’t enter a heart that’s defending itself from invasion. His pleas that we put others above ourselves, show mercy as our default, forgive completely, ask forgiveness, and start over—they can’t find fertile ground in hard hearts that won’t yield to the soft foot of understanding. We have no worthwhile story to tell without vulnerable hearts.

Go ahead. Plow up the ground. Face those things that scare you about letting others in. They won’t kill you. I promise that you’re tougher than that. I also promise that the relationships you will gain, the changes he will make in you, are so very much worth the scary bit. Stop hardening up. Plow deep. Allow him to plant seeds for a story that’s unique to you.

You’re a great storyteller in the making.

5 Ways to Nail Motherhood. Kinda Sorta. As If.

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This is sometimes what motherhood feels like.

It seems kind of like cheating to write a blog about “Five Ways I’m Nailing Motherhood” (the prompt over at Mrs. Disciple today) when my kids are grown. Hindsight can make all kinds of things look better.

Also, though, hindsight can give insight into the ways I changed as a mom, and maybe, it can help those who are in the trenches daily. So, rather than five ways I completely nailed being a parent (as if), here are five things I learned and grew into as a parent. By kid three, hey, I had it down. Sort of. (Yeah, right.)

And by the way, I’m going to save the best one for last. Just in case you want to stop reading. Call it just one more thing I learned as a mom. (And as a high school teacher.)

1. I moved from thinking I had to police my children’s outsides to knowing I had to guide their insides.

My Personal Warning Label: Recovering Perfectionist. Handle with Care. Liable to attempt to fix your life or rearrange you dishwasher unless restrained.

I carried that label without the caveat of “recovering” for a long time. As a young mom, I valued what other people thought. A lot. Waaaay too much. (My kids took total advantage of this. Kids can manipulate better than Donald Trump when they see an opening.)

Because I cared so much, I wanted perfect little girls who could recite Bible verses on cue (more than your kid could), got stellar grades, and never even considered pitching a fit when they could not have Choco Tacos at the grocery store. Never.

God did not give me those children.

It came as quite a shocker when I made the discovery that I could not, in fact, control my children into perfection. I could not control them into anything. God didn’t give me controllable kids; he gave me the same kind of kids he chose to have—ones with free wills and individual hearts that could be shaped and molded by love but not by coercion.

I had to make it my job to teach them to love Jesus more than to obey rules.

I had to let go of caring what others thought. You can’t care about what others think and still prioritize guiding their hearts. It’s crazy- making. Guiding hearts is messy, slow work, while creating perfect behavior for others is fairly easy. Also very dangerous. It is much messier down the road. Trust me on this.

I would rather have kids that love Jesus and people than kids who look good in the Christian comparison parade.

I had to learn that. I hope you embrace it now.

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This is sometimes what motherhood feel like.

2. I moved from talking to them about being good Christians to living like Christ.

I am a preacher. I preach a lot. I like it. I can, if I’m not careful, give my kids plenty of sermons.

My kids do not need sermons. They need a living object lesson. Me.

I talked plenty about obeying God and being kind and loving you neighbor. (Unless he was weird and scary.) It wasn’t until they saw me have to decide if I meant those things that it stuck. (Fyi, not loving weird and scary people is definitely a sign of NOT meaning it.) I got caught up in teaching the truth more than living it.

Living it was hard with three little kids. Where was the time to volunteer to help someone? Where was the assurance that we would not have to sacrifice if we really DID some of those things? There wasn’t any. That was the point. All the talk in the world didn’t amount to much. Small areas of sacrifice, kindness, and moving out regardless of fear amount to a mountain of truth without words being necessary.

3. I moved from giving my children things to giving them life experiences.

We never had a ton of money, but I loved showering our kids with Christmas presents. Giving means a lot to me, and being able to give felt good. What didn’t feel good was the frenzied need we developed to go from one thing to another, from toy to game to craft kit, just doing and not caring. It didn’t feel good to be inundated with more stuff than one play room could comfortably handle, despite the giant toy box my husband made himself. Our house is not big. Our ability to handle overstimulation is even smaller.

Then we went on a mission trip. And another one. We started toning down on the things. Taking classes together. Going on expeditions and volunteering together. Also,the travel bug bit us all. Hard. Every one of our kid would prefer to travel somewhere they’ve never been over almost any “thing” they could get. (Although I suspect they would take new cars. And computers. They are now old enough to know things do come in handy when you have to pay for them yourself.)

593ba-july24th2010mom012It doesn’t get any better than raising kids who want to be with you when they are grown up.

Do life together—don’t do things side by side.

4. I moved from being a perfect mom to being a normal human.

I did not have to keep up a front for my kids. I did not have to pretend I always had it together. I did not have to prove I was always right. To this day, I struggle to apologize and admit I’m wrong. Why? Kids know. They are pretty smart little creatures. They know when we’re not being straight. But when mom puts up a fake image like that? It makes kids believe that negative feelings are bad and not to be discussed. I was raised like that. I never intended to repeat it. But I did.

It’s OK to let them see that I don’t know the answer. I make mistakes. I (gasp) sin! I didn’t realize that I was putting my girls in a prison of perfection just as surely as I had been put into one by refusing to admit that hurt, anger, and forgiveness were holy subjects to talk about and respect. We’re a work in progress on this one.

Hurt, anger, and forgiveness are holy subjects to talk about and respect.

5. I moved from thinking my job was to protect my children to believing it is my job to release them.

This is so hard. From the moment that little slimy kiddo lands on your chest, you would die for your child. You would almost certainly kill for her, too. God gave us momma love for a reason. But it gets a little out of hand, right?

I kept my kids from everything I could think of that might harm them. Bad language? Check. Violence? Check. Bullies and school shootings and too much high fructose corn syrup? Triple check. There is family lore that I would not allow them to watch Arthur because the siblings in it fought too much. (Our girls grew up rarely fighting so, hey, who are they to say my highly arbitrary gatekeeping wasn’t responsible? But seriously, Arthur?)

Overprotecting kid teaches them a few things. Things like: You are not strong enough to handle this yourself. The world is scary and the best you can do is wall it off. You don’t have the judgment to choose between what is good and what is bad when things try to enter your heart and mind. You see where this is going, right?

The fact is, it’s God’s job to protect our kids. It’s my job to make them disciples that will batter the gates of hell in this world. This is not safe. It is not for the faint of heart. It is scary as hell itself. But it is my job.

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They have their own journeys to make.

That’s the most important thing I’ve learned about nailing parenting. I have to leave it to the Ultimate Parent who knows the plans he has for my kids and can be trusted to accomplish them. Accomplishing them will almost always mean risk. For them or for me. I have to be OK with that.

Nailing motherhood? It’s a moving target. It’s a good thing we have years to hone our skills.

(Don’t) Clean up Your Mess

Hey, what’s wrong with messes? We look great, right?

The more I live with people instead of just coexisting in proximity, the more I recognize something—there are a of of messed up people out there. Even more messed up than I am. Yes, true story.

The other thing I’ve come to recognize is that being messed up is not necessarily a bad thing. Neat lives are often a sign of lives so carefully curated that they are museum dioramas, not lives. And the thing about museum dioramas? They’re full of dead things. Stuffed dead things. This is not appealing to most of us as an environment.
A little bit of mess signals a life that’s lived in, like a couch with graham cracker crumbs welded to the underside of the cushions. That life has taken risks, known joy, and has the stains to prove it. Some messes are dangerous, toxic spills that needs to be cleaned up out of our lives. But others? We need them to prove we’re alive.
I never wanted or imagined the mess of a loved one with mental illness and attendant self-destructive behavior. Given the choice, I’d have picked the carefully curated life. Having chosen that, I would have missed out on a lot that has made me alive.
I had no idea I was living amid dead things.
Sometimes messes just mean something better is coming.

Because of that experience, I’ve been able to share a lot with people whose lives are broken in various ways, and similar variations on a theme keep returning. It’s hard. It hurts. But we have learned so much. When you’re in the slime and mud of the mess, though, you really want to know what exactly people have learned. What could possibly make this worthwhile? What could anyone tell me to make me appreciate this wrenching time of uncertainty?

I’m not sure. I suspect that when people are slogging through those times is not always the best opportunity to offer sage advice. Most of us aren’t ready to hear it when the pain is shrieking louder than the wisdom. But people ask. What do you find out about life, and yourself, when your world is a mess? How do you even survive?
The answer to the second question is easy: God’s grace and insistent love. Nothing more or less.
The answer to the first could go on a while. But here are a few thoughts.

I learned that grace was a choice I didn’t make often enough.

I had theoretically believed in grace, but operationally, I extended it mostly to those who didn’t look like they needed it. For those with rough edges and incomprehensible, annoying behavior? Maybe when they got themselves together. My reality of grace was not even close to God’s dream of it for me. I had no idea that grace looked a lot more like hugging a drug addict than praying for lunch at Panera.
“Grace got out of hand the moment the God of the universe hung on a Roman cross and with outstretched hands looked out upon those who had hung him there and declared, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ Grace has been out of hand for more than two thousand years now. We best get used to it.” (Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday)
I never understood that before. I didn’t really want to. Now, I don’t want anything else.

I learned that love is always a good thing to decide.

You might get hurt. You will be taken advantage of. But love reserved for those who deserve it and won’t tamper with it is not love at all. It’s a calculated investment. CS Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”
I didn’t understand that until I had to choose to love not only my loved one in a mess but the people it brought into our lives. It seemed God put them there despite what I wanted, so the only real choice was to love them. And they did, indeed, break my heart. But broken hearts are the best kind for letting others inside.   . God’s dream for me was to lavish unconditional love, as He did. My reality had been fearful half loving.

I learned to honestly believe that He loves us.

He loves our messes. Really.
He can handle them.

Driving with a loved one to a potential prison sentence is about as messy as it gets. Until in the middle of praying you hear those words on the radio, “If His grace is an ocean we’re all sinking; oh, how He loves us so.” And you realize for perhaps the first, or at least the most profound, time that they are true. Not just for you but for the person sitting next to you. And all those other persons out there who have messes in their lives and need that grace like an ocean. He loves. Beyond our imagination.

 

He takes care of the messes, beyond our imagination. All the worries and terrors and anxieties about them do nothing helpful, while putting the mess in His hands and leaving it there always does. Because He Loves are the most needed and true words you will ever hear, and they are bedrock when life feels more like a mudslide than a picnic.
I don’t know if you’re feeling messy right now, and I don’t know if it helps to be told those things. Maybe you have to learn them yourself in the fire. I think, though, that at least it helps to know someone else has been in that mess, and it has not won.
Something better is still coming.
We still have not finished this mess.

Have you seen the sign some people hang in their kitchen that reads “God Bless This Mess”? Yeah. That’s about right. Ask Him to. He will.