Sunday, August 20, 2017

Deserving of a Chance


This is a picture of me holding our friends' youngest daughter.  It was taken last Wednesday evening, three days before the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

Many wise columnists have written about Charlottesville this past week, so I won't attempt to frame the broad social, cultural, or political picture in these brief words.  Instead, I simply want to share a small picture -- this literal picture that captures a moment when a child trusted me and nestled into my arms for a few minutes. 

She happens to be black, just like I happen to be white.  Neither of us had any choosing in this matter.

This child deserves to grow up safely and equally.  Fathers and mothers who are raising young black boys and girls deserve to not fear for their children's safety, security, and futures, as I only can imagine that they do every day.

Our country appears to be moving backwards.  It's almost paralyzing.  As I attempted to explain the recent events to my daughters, my youngest asked the question so many of us are thinking, "Why?  Why would they do that?"

Because man's heart is capable of hatred.  Because racism and oppression are trenchant.  Because our world is fallen.  Because evil and sin exist.  Because, somehow, they were taught it.

As I watch my children process, I imagine them thinking of the people we know and love who are black.  Their favorite neighbor, Mr. Joe, who just invited them over for peach cobbler and always buys a treat from them when they set up their lemonade stand.  Their friends in school and church.  The college students who come to our house each week to share a meal.

They can't fathom how others could hate simply based on skin color.  And I think it's because they've been exposed, all of their young lives, to some degree of diversity, and that they've seen respect and friendship and love modeled.

My heart has been heavy.  Last Saturday's events in Charlottesville aren't new, sadly.  They reveal what's under the surface.  And it reminds me that in my home, in my neighborhood, in my community, in my classrooms, and in my church, now more than ever, we need to demonstrate a firm commitment to loving our neighbors as ourselves, whether they be black, or white, or any range in between.

That young girl in the picture?  She deserves a chance at the best possible life. 

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Repeat As Needed: "It's Going to be OK"


Off and on for the past week, I've felt vaguely anxious.  I haven't been able to pinpoint why, or particularly about what, but I've been the slightest bit off.  I mentioned it to my husband, who said that he felt the same way.  Then he added, "The semester is starting soon.  We're in that holding pattern again."

Light bulb moment.  My anxiety was merely a byproduct of looming unknowns.  I'm waiting on updates from colleagues; I'm creating four different syllabi; I'll meet new students and experience new classrooms in less than two weeks.  All the while, I'm immersed in the daily summer (non)routine with my kids, so my preparatory work for the semester is done only when I can steal small segments of time.

I don't know how I didn't identify this pattern more clearly.  I always feel this way before a new academic year starts.  More importantly, given that I've started over a dozen academic years before, I also know that the details always work out.  The new courses get planned, the new students become familiar, the new schedule is learned, and good things come from it all.

It all works out.

So, when the anxious feelings return, I tell myself, "It's going to be okay.  This is normal.  Keep working, trust God, and forge ahead."

It makes a difference.

At the same time, off and on for the past week, my middle daughter has acted out.  She snaps at people for no reason, storming our house in a volatile huff.  We talk one night as I'm tucking her into bed.  She's feeling vaguely anxious, too, and she hasn't been able to pinpoint why, or particularly about what, either.

She and I work through the same process.  School is starting soon.  You're waiting to learn your teacher, and you want to know if your friends will be in your class.  It's normal to feel a bit nervous.  But remember how you felt this same way last year?  And the year before?  And remember how it worked out?  You're going to be okay, kiddo.  

And then we pray.  I thank God that she'll be assigned the right teacher, even if it's not the preferred teacher.  I thank God that she'll have the right friends with her, and if it doesn't seem that way, that she'll remember that she's never alone, that God goes with her.

Together, we'll repeat this as often as needed, until it rings true:  It's going to be okay.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Perks of Owning an Old Car


We own an old car.  I won't bore you with details about make and model and year, but I will say that while there certainly are older cars on the road, ours is getting up there.  I'll call it a seasoned vehicle.

This past weekend I took a road trip to visit a dear friend.  For three hours, it just was me, my thoughts, and the open road.  And -- because of the age of my vehicle -- there also was a small trove of ancient cassette tapes that I've held onto for rare moments like this, moments when a little reminder of life at age 18, like one mixed tape aptly titled Traveling Music (circa 1996), hits the spot.

Yes, there are still some perks of owning an old car.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Making a Mess of This Parenting Thing


It all started with the slime.  For reasons I don't fully understand, my oldest daughter is obsessed with slime, which is why we now own a gallon jug of Elmer's glue, a box of Borax, and an infuriating Styrofoam-bead-like substance called floam.  Despite receiving ample instruction about how and where slime should be made or played with -- hard surfaces only! not on the couch! not on the carpet! -- each of our three kids have gotten slime on various soft surfaces like the couch, the carpet, the new ottoman, and creatively, bedroom curtains.

With each incident, I grew increasingly angry.  I repeated phrases like, "You know better."  I banned it for extended periods.  Then, being more proactive and calmer, I coached them to use a plastic tablecloth.  It's mostly worked.  The girls are now mostly responsible with slime.  

Except for once last week when, belying all prior instruction and correction, one child got slime on the couch.  In an effort to clean it up, she conspired with her sisters, squirted a generous dob of hair conditioner onto the sticky mess, and then scrubbed it with toilet paper which deteriorated and clumped into hundreds of gloppy bits.  (Because that's how a child cleans slime.)  Then she spoke of it to no one.

But, as we all know, messes tend to get found out.  I spied the still-damp aftermath later that day and raised the red flag, "Alright, WHO did it?"  Even my normally calm and unflappably patient husband had enough.  I stood beside him as he railed at the girls, all of whom sat silently on the now-slimed, stained, and conditioned couch.  I was angry, playing chords of "Do you have to ruin every single object in this house?"   He seemed even angrier, with refrains of "Why didn't you tell us instead of making it worse?"

It wasn't pretty.  It wasn't the type of atmosphere I want to characterize our household.

As the evening wore on, with everyone either bristled or sullen, I thought more about the incident.  Yes, our daughter had disobeyed.  Yes, she knew it was wrong.  And yes, that disobedience made a mess -- a mess that she tried to cover up, nonetheless.

But that's where I got stuck.  My daughter had known that she'd get in trouble for getting the slime on the couch.  So she tried to hide it -- or, more aptly, she tried to fix it.  It just so happened that her fix hadn't worked, so she got in trouble for that, too.

Darned if you do.  Darned if you don't.  The Catch-22 made me pause.

I thought of some messes I've made in my life.  Big messes.  Messes with family, or messes with relationships, or messes from poor choices.  I know what it's like to want to hide those messes, to cover them up, to speak of them to no one, to hope they'll just go away on their own, and then to languish under their weight because they never really go away on their own.  They fester until they're dealt with.

Mostly, I thought about how gentle God is when I come to Him with my mess.  When I point the proverbial slime on my couch and say, "I did that.  I knew better, but for whatever reason, I still went ahead and did it.  Now it's a mess.  I'm stuck, and I'm so sorry."

When I confess, He forgives me fully.  He doesn't make me wallow.  When I confess, He frees me.  I no longer waste away under the heavy weight of my guilt.

During this particular slime incident, though, I had wanted my kids to wallow.  I had been ticked off, and rightfully so.  They did know better, after all.  But it struck me hard -- my reaction and correction had been fueled with anger and passive-aggressive complaints.  Contrast that with God, who certainly corrects, but does so with grace.

And that's how slime brought it to my knees.  That's how slime found me apologizing to my kids for my bad behavior, for my mismanagement of anger, for my mess.  Joel and I both approached the girls.  We messed up.  Your action was wrong, but so was our response.  We're sorry.  You can come to us with your messes.  We're not perfect and we might get upset, but we love you.  You're always more important than things.  Always.  You don't have to hide your messes from us.

Even more importantly: You never have to hide your messes from God.  He loves you.  Unlike us, He is entirely perfect.  His response will reflect that perfection.  There's freedom when you confess.

After all, throughout my walk with Jesus, I've learned that freedom isn't reached by letting enough time pass until I no longer feel the sting of my wrongdoing.  It's not achieved by convincing myself that I meant well.  It's not accomplished by overcoming with better deeds in the future.  It's found by taking ownership and admitting -- to myself, to others, to God -- that I missed the mark and asking for forgiveness, rather than hiding my mess.

I go to God regularly with my shortcomings as a parent.  On any given day, I feel as if there are endless permutations of ways I'm messing up my children, each time just a bit differently, like a combination lock of dysfunction.  I sometimes swing like a pendulum, wondering whether I'm too permissive or too strict, too hand-off or too overbearing, all in the same afternoon.

But perhaps this is by design.  We parents are going to mess up.  Our children are going to make mistakes, too.  When I'm honest with my kids about my failures, asking their forgiveness when necessary, we all experience healing.  It models for them how to make wrong things right, which might be one of the most valuable lessons they ever learn.

So today, if you've made a mess of parenting, don't despair and don't hide.  Take it to God.  He already knows you did it, and He'll help you to clean it up.
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