Out of Bondage, Into Freedom

God called me out of bondage into freedom in the moment my first child was born:

I was twenty three, fundamentally unchurched, reasonably content in my liberal, secular-humanist worldview, when God took advantage of my hormone-logged postpartum daze and hit me over the head with a baseball bat.  I held my baby daughter in my arms and I knew, I knew God loved me like I loved this wet wrinkled start of a human being.  I got it.  I didn’t love this little lump because of her good works (though I certainly hoped she would grow to be someone who would do good in the world).  I didn’t love her because of what she could do for me.  I simply loved her because she was mine, I had created her, and she was good.  If I loved her this much, this freely, and this fully, how much more did God love me?  In this overwhelming moment in the maternity ward, I heard a voice and caught a glimpse of God.

Until that moment I had run away from the oppression and injustice and violence of my childhood, but I was not free of it.

I ran away when my father left my mother and I thought I could leave her too.  Within a month of my leaving the house, my mother began to terrorize my younger brother in my (and my father’s) place.  I returned home to protect him, to draw her rage and malice onto me, away from him.  Two years later, I ran away again when I graduated high school.  I went to San Francisco and got a job as a nanny.  I wanted to prove to myself that I could provide for myself, by myself.  I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and some spending money.  I congratulated myself that I had gotten free.  Then the mother of the family for whom I worked began yelling and screaming at her daughter in front of me.  It wasn’t long before I witnessed the mother beat her 10 year old daughter.  I hadn’t escaped.  The battered hope I had tried to keep alive in me died as I found myself back in a house filled with violence.  Conventional wisdom was right after all.  I was doomed to repeat my childhood—wherever I went—into a job, into a marriage, I would simply recreate the horrors I had hoped to leave behind when I left Texas.  I ran away from the nanny job for college, joining Jeff (my future husband) at the University of Chicago.  I ran away to Europe and then to Seattle.  I ran away into marriage and almost immediately found myself pregnant.  I was sick and slept through much of my pregnancy.  When I woke up, I read child rearing books and watched other mothers with the keen eye of an anthropologist.  I wavered between hope and fear, but fear that I would do to my child what had been done to me was definitely winning out over hope that it might be different for me and for Jeff, and for our child-to-be.  I had moved 3000 miles from home, made the honors list at college, become fluent in a foreign language, and married an amazing guy, but I was still oppressed by the violence of my past.  I was still bound.

Until I was set free in that moment in the maternity ward.

I hardly have the words to describe.  I was healed and held in God’s overwhelming love, I was transformed by God’s words to me:  I love you like you love this little one.  Those words were both a baptismyou are my beloved child and in you I am most pleased—and a call to be the parent and person I barely dared to believe I could be.  In that moment I was set free (mostly) of my fears, and free of my fears I fell into the arms of Love.  I went forth free to love my baby girl and to be loved by a God I had decided did not exist, did not matter to my life.  And although I would not say that that loving and being loved has been easy, I am most clear that loving has been liberating.  That moment set me free and continues to call me ever on to Freedom.

That moment was over two decades ago.  That moment was a conversion moment—it was a liberation moment.  It was also the beginning of a new life.  I died to so many things in that moment and in the moments that followed.  I died to the overwhelming fear of repeating the past.  I died to the despair that wanted to insist I was doomed to perpetuate the violence.  In that moment of Love I was called.  And the call that came that moment keeps calling me all these years later, calling me to deeper relationship with God (and therefore deeper relationship with those dear to me), calling me to a great new work—a great new world.  God’s call to make a home and a family filled with love, grew me into a new person, one who was ready to say yes to a call to seminary.  That call, in turn, grew me into a new person, one who was ready to say yes to a call to begin the work of re-membering my childhood.    That work I have done faithfully with the help of a gifted and generous counselor and the support of my dearest friends and family, as well as the spiritual guidance of my friend and minister.  Although that work continues, I see (even now) how that work is preparing me for whatever call will come—whatever crazy thing God might ask me to do next.

That moment when God broke in set me free. The great whine of my life is: “I want a different childhood!”  That I will never have.  But I am so thankful for the family I have built with Jeff and our girls, so thankful for the gift and the grace of it all.  I do not get a “do over” for my childhood, but I do get a chance to be a part of a loving life-giving home, full of laughter and free of violence.  As I have sharpened my skills for mothering (and for partnering) over the last twenty-some years, I have become ever more the person I want to be—the person God is calling me to be.  And becoming that person liberates me more all the time.

What does that liberation feel like?  It feels like a glorious gift.  It feels like a dream come true.  It feels like a mistake.  Sometimes I feel like I got away with something.  Mostly what I feel is overwhelming gratitude, a gratitude that brings tears to my eyes and almost leaves me breathless.

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Friday Favorites: Something New

Here is something I love:  learning new things

Here is something I hate:  being bad at things

Unfortunately, for much of my life, my low tolerance for being bad at things really got in the way when I started something new.   If I couldn’t jump rather quickly to competence, the experience of being really terrible at something undermined my enjoyment to such an extent that I would (more often than not) just give up.  Both marriage and parenthood were good for me in this regard, because although I was not very good at either all the time and in every way (the way I hoped I would be) neither was I willing to quit on Jeff or the girls.  And as I stuck it out—I got better.  Not only that but I learned to love the process of getting better—I enjoyed reading parenting books, talking to folks I knew who had a talent for making healthy, happy marriages and families.  I enjoyed trying out new ways of communicating, of parenting and partnering, figuring out the puzzle of what made our particular family work well.

Two decades into partnering and parenting, with the help of a lot of fabulous friends, a fantastic faith community, and a really great therapist, I have come to realize that there is great freedom (and fun) to be found in being really bad at things.  I have figured out—DUH—that if I limit myself to the things I am good at, I will miss out on a lot of what life has to offer.

Now, there is nothing wrong with playing to one’s strengths.  It’s just that I would never have taken up running or juggling or gardening or guitar, if I still required myself to be good at everything I do.  And I would have missed out on a lot of JOY.

One thing I hate:  missing out on JOY

I wouldn’t even be blogging this blog—after all, I let my first blog fizzle, and I still feel bummed that I wasn’t able to do a better job of The Grown-Up Gap Year.  But I have found that anything worth doing is worth doing badly—and I have hope that maybe, just maybe, if I keep plugging away, I’ll get better along the way.

Anyway, my new Something New is learning Spanish.  I have thought about learning Spanish plenty of times but I have always talked myself out of starting Spanish and into polishing my already pretty good French.  It’s one of the horrors of perfectionism—right?—I could start Spanish but first I should really make my French perfect, then I’ll learn Spanish.  All these years later (you guessed it) my French is still not perfect AND I have no Spanish.

that is the question]

Until a few months ago, that is.  At the end of August, I realized that our long-planned trip to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina was almost upon us, and that if I didn’t get to work, I wouldn’t even know the basics of Spanish for the trip.  So I made a resolution to practice Spanish every day until we leave for Rio in mid-December.  (yes, I know they speak Portuguese in Brazil, but I wasn’t going to try to learn two new languages at once, and Spanish seemed the more generally useful of the two….)  I have used the internet, starting with Veggie Tales and adding in the podcast Coffee Break Spanish, an online library resource called Mango Languages, and Destinos, a telenovella created to teach beginning Spanish.   Jeff and I have been finding Spanish language movies on Netflix for additional ear training.  With all these great tools at my fingertips, I have been having a blast.  I’m not great at it—but I am getting better every day.

And at this point in my life I have found that I love the experience of tangible, measurable progress enough to balance out the discomfort of being a beginner.  When I get frustrated or feel stupid, I take a deep breath, and I imagine myself in Buenos Aires, able to understand and even join in simple conversations.  Every night in bed, I think about the new words and phrases I am learning and I thank God for this new language, full of its own beauties, surprises and mysteries.

What about you, dear reader?  Is there Something New in your life?  Or is there something you’ve always wanted to learn, but just haven’t gotten started?   I’d love to hear…

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What I did (and didn’t) learn in seminary

In my denomination, we have a bad habit of thinking that a person has to have an MDiv to talk to God.  I caught this attitude myself, until I went to seminary.  Sometimes I wonder if I went to seminary because I wanted to know more about God, and I believed getting ordained was the best way to go about that.

I remember feeling out of my depth when a raccoon broke into our house and killed two of our weeks-old kittens while we slept.  We awoke to a hideous yowling and screeching, and my daughters were the first on the scene.  They flipped on the light just in time to see a large raccoon making off with one of our babies in its mouth.  First they were stunned.  Then they were terrified, and angry and very very sad.

“Why did God let that raccoon kill our kittens?” they cried.

I’m not sure what I said—I wish I had said something like, “God didn’t want your kittens to die, and God is sad too, God is right here with us in our tears and our heartbreak…” but I’m not sure I managed even that.  I was in over my head, and I knew it.  I held them tight, and then I watched them until long after they fell asleep, curled up together in one bed.  I called my pastor the very next morning.

“Oh Catherine, something terrible has happened.  A raccoon broke into our house and killed our baby kittens.  And the girls are just devastated—they want to know why God let it happen—why God didn’t stop that evil raccoon, why God doesn’t punish the raccoon for killing.  I think I told them something like, ‘God doesn’t work that way’ but I didn’t get very far.  Can you help me?  Tell me what to say to them, please!”

Catherine did way better than that.  She asked, “Is this your kids’ first experience with death?”

“Yes.”  I said.

“I’ll come right over.  This is important.”

I couldn’t believe it.  “Coming right over” to our house is no mean feat—we live 40 minutes from church.  Not only that but I knew Catherine would have to reschedule several meetings, or magically find another block of sermon writing time in order to respond to our pastoral emergency.  We loved Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, sure…but they were just kittens.

Catherine knew better—she knew that this was a turning point in my daughters’ lives.  She knew they would remember this day forever.  And she knew that how our faith community responded to them—in their pain, in their questions, in their raging at the unfairness of it all—would make all the difference.

She made it out to our place in a little over an hour.  She hugged my girls and let them cry; she let them tell the story.  She let them be sad and angry and tired and frightened.  She understood that this event shook their world.  If poor sweet innocent kittens who barely got a chance to live—who never did anything but look fuzzy and darling, mewing tiny mews and stumbling around, toppling and tumbling over one another and their worn out mom—if sweet kittens could be here one moment and gone the next, well then really bad things could happen to anyone—really bad things might happen to their mommy or daddy, to their sister or cousins.  Each girl knew, really bad things might even happen to me.

Catherine didn’t minimize their distress or try to patch things over.  She helped them dig a grave and helped them hold a sweet and simple service for the dead.  She let them tell stories of their time with the kittens, stories of being there for the birth as each little furry life made its entrance into the world, stories of what they loved best, stories that were funny or sweet, stories of how they loved the kittens more each day.

Our pastor took her time, and didn’t rush them.  She told them it would take a long time for the sadness and the anger to subside.  She told them that it was okay to be sad for as long as they wanted.  And she told them they could tell it all to God—even the way they were angry or disappointed in God.  She told them God would be with them no matter what they were feeling or thinking; God’s love was big enough for it all.

Finally, Catherine gave them one more hug each, got in her truck, and headed back to church.

The next day she called me to check in.  She coached me—let me know what to expect when a pet dies and what to look and listen for over the next weeks and months.  She warned me (for example) there was a possibility that the girls might dig the kittens back up—sometimes children do—just to check and make sure because it seems so hard to believe the ones you love are really and truly dead.  (I was very glad to be forewarned and even gladder that this never came to pass).  Finally, she told me that Jeff and I were doing a good job in the storm.  She reminded me that I didn’t need fancy words; all I needed was a loving, listening heart.

Just as Catherine predicted, it was a turning point in our girls’ lives—a time they remember vividly, and with sadness to this day. It was a turning point for us all, I think.  We all learned about the pain of death that day, and about how to be with each other and with God in the midst of grief.

And for me, it was another kind of turning point.  After the kittens’ deaths, I finally understood that I wasn’t going to figure out how to pray in seminary, and that, interesting though they were, Christology and Hebrew Scriptures and Epistemology weren’t going to teach me how to be present to others in times of trial and grieving.  That day I finally got it:  all the book learning in the world didn’t mean much compared to the little bit I had experienced of God’s love and grace and healing power.

I didn’t need to wait until I got my diploma.  What I needed to do was figure out how to share that experience of love and grace and healing—not by talking about it—but by living it.  All these years later I am still working on it, still trying to figure out how to carry that loving healing transforming power with me out into this beautiful and broken world.

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