Monday, March 18, 2019

Comstock Chronicles: The Beach and the Hills

The children were in good spirits on the walk to school today because they rummaged through a big cardboard box marked "FREE" on the side of the road. They each picked out an armful of items and dumped them into the stroller's storage basket, items that I'm sure someone was equally thrilled to get rid of as I was unenthusiastic about getting it: a stuffed ghost, a felt Frankenstein, cheap red salad tongs, a plastic Dodgers cap, pink mittens too large for any child, and a cookbook that looked like it'd been left outside during the rain.

Lee and Rose danced little jigs on the walk to school and talked about how much they liked rummaging through boxes marked "FREE" on the side of the road. They had thoroughly exhausted the subject when they asked me if I shared in their joy, and I replied truthfully in the affirmative because their joy had infected me. There's nothing quite like seeing my children full of glee even if I must secretly make their stuff disappear in the future.

Tighter discipline, more hours of sleep, and some newly found freedom has released me from my resentment at the trouble my children cause, and I feel more free these days to delight in their antics. Just yesterday we were sitting down to dinner. When Lee didn't appear, I went looking for him and found him writhing on his bedroom carpet with his soft blanket wrapped snuggly around his head and arms.

"I'm trapped!" he said in a voice that did not at all sound panicked. I chuckled and "saved" him from being consumed head to toe by the blanket, remembering similar episodes from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes.

It is practically impossible to feel dampened this time of year with a sudden burst of warm weather following on the heels of so much rain. The Whittier Hills are as green as Hobbiton. The smooth rolls in the hills are tinged with yellow mustard, and the crevices are accentuated by the darker and more permanent scrub bushes. Neighbors' neglected front yards look like wild country fields dotted with yellow and purple flowers. The rains have washed Whittier's majestic old trees clean, and everything feels fresh and shiny.

The beauty of our city struck me yesterday as Phil and I hiked Turnbull Canyon trail and then down Hellman's Park. The older kids were spending the night at grandma and grandpa's, and baby Benny we put in the carrier for the hike. The grasses on the hills were so thick and juicy. And the wild mustard has grown above our heads. We could see where the new growth from this year has completely covered the widened portions of the trail that were bare with over-use just a few months ago.

The Santa Ana winds were blowing from the east, and we could see Catalina and the Hollywood Sign and the snow-caped San Bernardino Mountains. The sky was as blue as could be and fellow hikers cooed at sleeping Benny.

It was a day for the beach, so after the hike and church we headed down with In-N-Out burgers and little Max Oldenburg. Again the children's excitement was infectious. They chatted excitedly all the way down, holding their breath beneath bridges and pointing out blimps and two Osprey tiltrotor aircrafts.

Phil and I both sent up prayers for good parking, and when we accidentally parked in a one-hour-only location, a sun-burnt lady with unnaturally red hair came out of her tiny house and offered us her parking pass.

We gathered our troupe, hamburgers, chairs, and baby and stepped into the fine sand of Seal Beach. There is nothing quite like the beach. That fresh salty breeze blows away all the cobwebs and household worries. The children run free and cover themselves in sand. 

We plopped down beside a fit and freckled Christian lady with her four boys and plethora of sand toys. Max and Lee quickly made friends and played tractor-road-paving-catastrophe with the other little boys, while Phil put his feet in the water and sanded a new wooden spoon. Rose made piles of sand near me and I attempted and failed to convince Benny that sand between his toes is glorious. I chatted with the woman who unfolded her peculiar situation to me. Seems that she and her four boys live in Iowa and her husband works as a firefighter here in California. He stays in SoCal for several weeks working, and then flies home to Iowa to see family and home. She told me about how strange life is and difficult to figure out. 

When the wind picked up, we gathered our things to go. The boys were so covered in sand, which they had unavoidably dumped into each other's hair, that I feared we'd have to strip them down to their underwear for the ride home. Not one to be left out, Rose asked if she'd have to stripe to her underwear too, and upon hearing that she wouldn't, she proceeded to sandy herself up a bit more.

As we headed out, I apologized to the older couple lying downwind from us. They smiled and laughed, assuring us how pleasant it was for them to listen to our boys playing like little boys ought.

Idyllic really. The whole weekend was idyllic. But I suppose the trick of having a wonderful weekend is not to be ensnared by the lovely times, but give thanks for them and open the palms again for a new thing. 

Today must be for new things.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

How to Have Perfect Motives

I’ve known for awhile now that my love for my children isn’t up to snuff. I know because when they ask me to spend time with them, I don’t want to . . . unless of course it’s doing something that I like to do like puzzles or organizing or working in the garden. But reading yet another Fancy Nancy book: no, thank you! Pretending we’re squirrels on the walk to school, please don’t make me. 

I know my love isn’t what it should be because when they behave well, I like them, but when they act like hooligans, I don’t. My attitude towards them is solely based on their good behavior and their volume in the house and whether or not I got enough sleep and if my husband gets home late and if I’m in good health and . . .

I know my love isn’t good enough because I’m constantly annoyed with their messes and constantly resentful at how they prevent me from doing what I want.

I tried to tell this to a Catholic friend of mine who then replied, “But you’re a great mom! You do all sorts of good things for your kids. And you’d do anything for them, right? Don’t be so hard on yourself. No one’s perfect. Why do you think you have to be? Did your parents demand that you were perfect growing up or something?”

She was trying to help me feel better. But let me explain how such talk is like a bandaid on my decapitated body or wallpaper over my crumbling lath and plaster or putting clothing on a gorilla.

First, my conscience will always demand perfection regardless of my upbringing because that is what God demands, and he’s pressing that down upon my heart. God says I gotta be perfect for him to take me. That means I gotta love my kids perfectly.

Secondly, yes, no one is perfect, but this doesn’t lift the burden of God’s demands off me. If anything it just tempts me to find people who are more un-perfect than me so that I don’t feel so rotten about myself.

Thirdly, it’s not true that I’d do anything for my kids. Quite frequently I steal their candy and mouth off at them. Yes, I would throw myself in front of a bus for them, and I do like my children more than I like other people’s children, but that’s not love, at least not the kind of love God demands. That’s just selfish natural affection, the same sort of affection I have towards my siblings, parents, and grandparents. I love them because they’re mine. I love them regardless of what happens to everyone else. I want what’s best for them even if that means everyone else has to eat dog food. I don’t get any credit for that sort of preference.

Fourthly, yes I do all sorts of things for my kids, but I do them for all the wrong reasons. Mostly out of selfishness or fear. I correct my kid’s behavior so that other people can't blame me for being a bad parent. I help my son fix his preferred snack so I don’t feel selfish. I model putting everything back where it goes so that they will keep my house organized. I limit their sugar so they don't get cavities like me. I keep my children out of harms way because their hurt hurts me too much. I make sacrifices for them hoping one day they’ll return such love with friendship. I do because I want and not because I am. All that doesn’t count either.

Then, how am I supposed to love my children? As God loves them, right? And how does God love them? With their best in mind. 

Here’s the problem though, I don’t know what’s best for my children. Yes, yes, I know that’s the mom mantra for getting what we want for our children: we know what’s best for them. But that’s simply not true. I probably know my children better than any other mom, teacher, or grandmother, but I don’t know God’s best. I think it's best to hold my son back a year before starting kindergarten, I think it's best to step in when I think my husband is being harsh with the kids, I think it's best that my kids not participate in after school sports right now, but do I really know how these choices will affect God's glory? Do I really know how these choices will effect everyone else's glory to God? Only God knows that because only God knows how my children’s best coincides with what’s best for all the other 7.5 billion people on earth. 

I’m not just talking about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I’m talking about the option that makes the biggest crescendo, that is the most beautiful, the most true, and the most good. As Christians, we say the option that glorifies God the most. That’s what’s best for my children. To want that is to love them.

But here’s another snag that I’ve found. I frequently ask God to help me do whatever I need to in order to glorify him, but what is really in my heart is a fear of displeasing him. I ask out of fear and not love for God. I’ve been haunted by that verse in Romans 8 that tells me that a mind set on the flesh can’t please God. This doesn’t just mean sin displeases God, but good works done for the wrong reasons don't please God either. So loving my children imperfectly doesn't please God. Why? Because it falls short of God’s demands. God wants perfection. He demands it.

But what about trying? Isn’t God happy with our efforts? What if I try really hard to have the right motives? How can God be pleased if even our trying is done for the wrong reasons. I try because I want to please him—as if my not trying would displease him. Again, trying with wrong motives gets me nothing. And since all my efforts and actions are done with mixed motives, it seems that I can’t be good enough to avoid blame and quiet my conscience.

But all is not lost because I do have someone else's motives in me.

God is pleased with me not because I succeed at having innocent intentions or because I try hard to glorify him, but because of the perfect motives someone else had for me. I can do nothing to increase God’s delight in me because God’s delight isn’t dependent on what I do. It’s dependent on the life Christ lived. Christ did EVERYTHING with pure motives, with the good of everyone in mind, with the guidance and reliance on God's omniscient understanding. After all, Christ acted out of his pure love for God. And that perfect Christ is in me. When God looks into my heart to see perfection, he sees Christ's perfect life.

I don’t know how many times I’m going to have to remind myself. Probably for the rest of my days. 
God doesn’t want my efforts. He wants a daily surrender. A broken and contrite heart. A moment-by-moment asking Him to do in me what I cannot do myself. 

"God, my children want me to pretend I’m a squirrel again, but I really don’t want to. I want to just have my thoughts to myself. Give me what I need in this moment. Give me the desire to do what’s right for all to your glory.”

“God, my children are fighting again, and it just makes my blood boil. I want to go in there and knock their heads together. Help me to care about doing what’s best for them and for me right now. Help me to be pleased with them even as you are pleased with me always.”

“God, my son has to make an animal out of recycled materials, and I already feel the pressure to make it look just as good as the other projects that the parents will do for their children. Please, help me to do what’s best for my child in light of building him up and not competing with the other mothers.”

And when I forget to bring all my attempts at goodness to God, when I forget that my own efforts get me nowhere, when I backslide into thinking it’s up to me, I don’t need to be ashamed of that either. Because all my works now serve as a reminder that I don’t need to work at all.

"Yet we know that a person doesn't make God happy by trying, but through remembering that God is made happy because of what Christ did, so we daily rely on Christ in our hearts to make us good enough for God and not by obeying all our oughts and shoulds, because no one will succeed at trying to love on his or her own." (Galatians 2:16 Abby version)

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Gorillas at a Cocktail Party

We are like gorillas fresh from the jungle, attending a conference on how to be human. And we’ve dressed ourselves in tuxedoes and gowns, bejeweled necklaces and polished shoes. We’ve powdered our noses, and pulled top hats down over our bulging foreheads. We think we’ve fooled each other despite our black fingernails and the tufts of black hair matted beneath our nylons. 

Here we are standing on our hind legs and acting like this is a cocktail party. We’ve stemware gripped with our opposable thumbs, and we drift slowly across the room to hide our bow-legged gait. While we wait for the conference to begin, we are discussing what it means to be human and we are discussing it intensely because we feverishly wish to be human. And more than that, we want others to think we are human.

Then in through the double doors bursts one of our kind with the jungle rain on his brow, but he’s not dressed, and he’s bawling and hooting. We stare as he beats his chest and cries, “I’m a gorilla! God help me! I’m a gorilla!” And he beats the floor in anguish.

We gasp and cringe and wish he’d go away. How unsightly! How embarrassing! Can’t he control himself? Can’t he act like a person? Like us?

One female in a polka-dotted dress pats that poor beast on the shoulder and drapes a sports coat over his heaving shoulders. “Come now. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re not so bad. You've got opposable thumbs after all. None of us is perfect.”

But his outburst causes another to yank off his wig and rip open his collared shirt. “I’m a gorilla too!” he says and weeps with his brother.

The rest look down their noses. They pinch their collars together finding comfort in the feel of fabric at their necks. The females pull out their compacts. The males check their cuff links.

And I sink into a chaise lounge and ensure the gloves on my hands are pulled down. The incident is a relief because so long as everyone is looking at those fools, they won't look at me. They won't discover what I am. Perhaps they’ll forget the time I went knuckle-running across the room or had to be told that my lipstick was askew. Maybe they’ll forget when I laughed so loudly that my canine’s protruded or when I slapped the ground in anger. I cringe to think of those times. Surely I am better now. Surely I look like a human now. Surely they are fooled. 

But I see the tears of these poor beasts here, and I feel the black hair beneath my clothes itch as it drips with sweat. I cannot do this any longer. 

I stand up and undress.

I don’t love my sisters as much as I love myself.
I don’t care if the other drivers are late so long as I arrive on time.
I'm not interested in my friends' children . . . unless my friends have shown interest in mine.
I think my life is harder than everyone else’s.
I blame my parents for my shortcomings.
And when I’m with other gorillas, I thank God that I’m not like them.

But I am. And nothing I do alone can change that.

What a world we would live in if in the aftermath of another’s humiliation, we stopped pretending we were already human, ripped off our wigs and declared, “I am a gorilla too!”

Monday, March 4, 2019

Fruit and Sheep

What if the fruit of his labor
wasn't cabbages or pears?
What if the fruit of his labor
was his striving and wishing
to be good enough
to appease the angry God—
for God to say, "With you I'm satisfied."

What if God's disregard for Cain's sacrifice

was God saying, "I cannot delight in anything you do"?

And Cain felt it

as I do everyday.
The pressing in of inadequacy.
The wondering if my sacrifices are good enough.
And the fear that they are not.

And what if the lamb of Abel's flock

wasn't the right choice of profession
or a symbol of obedience or godly living?
What if the lamb of his flock
was an admittance that no fruit of his labors
could appease the displeased God.
Nothing but a lamb's blood, the lamb's blood,
would lift God's face towards him.

And I with that blood spread across my doorposts

am then with Abel a delight.