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28 February 2013

Valjean and Javert: Redemption vs Despair


Since seeing the film, I have spent a lot of time listening to the soundtrack and going deeper into the lyrics.  Inevitably, the music student in me has started to go deeper into the music as well.  Back in University, as a music major, I spent hours in the music library listening to pieces over and over, so that I could write papers analyzing the meanings in the music.  

One of the things that occurred to me immediately after watching the film was the vast difference in the way Valjean and Javert respond to the possibility of redemption.  I found it incredibly sad to watch Javert’s last scene and his suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.   It made me think of an Easter sermon I heard once.  It was a bit strange for an Easter sermon, but the message stuck with me.  The basic gyst was that Peter had denied Jesus 3 times before his cruicifixion.  He was guilt stricken, but when Jesus  rose from the dead, Peter was one of the first witnesses, running into the empty tomb and excitedly telling the others.  On the other hand, Judas Ischariot betrayed Jesus to death.  Jesus’ death and resurrection were sufficient to redeem even the likes of a traitor but instead, Judas, in his guilt, could not go on and so committed suicide.  And, as we all know, St. Peter became known for his role in establishing the church of the follows of Jesus Christ, while Judas Ischariot is only known for his betrayal of Jesus. 

I’ve been mulling over that connection, in regards to Valjean and Javert while listening to the soundtrack repeatedly over the past week or so.  Gradually it started to come to me that Valjean and Javert both have a “redemption soliloquy” which are not only identical musically, but have lyrics which mirror each other.  

I decided to transcribe the lyrics here, as well as attach audio clips of each piece. However, I don't believe either the lyrics or the music require much explanation.  Listen carefully to the music to hear the elements that are the same and different between the two.  I'll let them speak for themselves and invite you to reflect upon them as I have.

First, Valjean's soliloquy:

What have I done, sweet Jesus, what have I done
Become a thief in the night, become a dog on the run
Have I fallen so far and is the hour so late that nothing remains but the cry of my hate?
The cries in the dark that nobody hears
Here where I stand at the turning of the years.

If there’s another way to go, I missed it 20 long years ago.
My life was a war that could never by won
They gave me a number and murdered Valjean
They chained me and left me for dead just for stealing a mouthful of bread.

Yet why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother.

My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me.

Take an eye for an eye
Turn your heart into stone
This is all I have lived for
This is all I have known.

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul
How does he know
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching but I fall and the night is closing in
And I stare into the void to the whirlpool of my sin.
I’ll escape now from the world,
From the world of Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean is nothing now,
Another story must begin!

And Javert's soliloquy:

Who is this man what sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last to  put a seal on my fate
Wipe up the past and watch me clean up the slate.
All it would take was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life.

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief,
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the law and the law is not mocked.
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face.
There is nothing on earth that we share.
It is either Valjean or Javert.

How I can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?
This desparate man that I have hunted;
He gave me my life, he gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand,
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well.
Instead I live but live in Hell.

And my thoughts fly apart.
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from Heaven or from Hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void of a world that cannot hold.
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean!
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!

And thus Javert dies.  Ultimately, of course, so does Valjean. But it's a very different sort of death.  Although Valjean is always haunted by his past, he is never bound by it.  He never forgets his gratitude for being given salvation and new chance at life, at freedom.
This is our choice.  We can stay bound up in the past, in our sins, in our regrets and fears.  Or we can accept the hand of Salvation and Redemption.  Allow ourselves to be forgiven and washed clean of our past.  And this can be an ongoing process as well, which is why Lent and Easter come back around year after year. 

17 February 2013

The power of grace, according to Jean Valjean

First, a disclaimer.  Although this post discusses details of the movie/musical Les Misérables, there really is nothing about the plot that cannot be found by reading any newspaper or internet review and only the very beginning of the movie is really discussed.  However, if you want to see nothing about the film until you have seen it, don’t read this!

Today I went to see the movie Les Misérables.  Oddly, although I’ve listened to the Broadway Soundtrack many times, and know the basic premise of the story, I really didn’t know or remember much about the details.  And so it was that, in the first few minutes of the film, I was amazed by one of the most powerful exhibitions of grace that I have ever seen in film.  After Jean Valjean has been paroled after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s dying child, he is understandably bitter and angry, vowing never to forgive the injustice that has been done to him.  After stealing the silver from a convent, he is caught and the Bishop, instead of accusing him and sending him back to prison, tells the authorities to that he has given Valjean the silver and, in fact gives him more.  In a moment that I imagine to be much like Jesus talking to the woman caught in the act of adultery, he says, “Use this silver to make yourself an honest man.”  In the next scene, Valjean is sobbing in front of the altar, completely broken down and overwhelmed by this act of grace, which has given him an opportunity at a new start.  He dedicates his life to the service of God and others, vowing never to forget what has been done on his behalf.

There is so much to say just about that one little bit.  It is key to the rest of the film, another 2+ hours’ worth.  However, it is also key to my life, to my Lenten journey and to my relationship with God.  

In reading reviews and comments about the film, it seems this moment is glossed over as “heartwarming” or an “act of kindness” and somehow, to me, the fullness of its meaning is lost.  The deeper meaning, to me, is that this is exactly how it looks when God redeems us.  This is why the life and death and resurrection of Jesus have such power.  Jean Valjean could be considered a “small time” criminal, a “minor” sinner.  He was treated unjustly, wasn’t he?  He “only” stole a loaf of bread. And surely, because of his sorry circumstances, he could be justified for stealing the silver from the Bishop.  However, the law sees it differently.  He is no different from any other criminal.  He has committed a crime and he must pay the penalty.  But the penalty he has to pay, far beyond the hard labour of prison, is also a life of bitterness and hatred. 

Many of us have found ourselves in this same boat.  We don’t consider ourselves really “that bad” of sinners.  We’re generally honest, hard working and just trying to get along in life.  Meanwhile, we’ve been hurt, often by the Church and by those we love, perhaps our parents or our friends.  We feel justified in living lives underpinned by bitterness and perhaps even revenge.  We seek out churches and therapists who help us to see how we’re not to blame and that we don’t need to be caught up in all that negativity and guilt and shame. 

However, we’re missing out on a big piece of the puzzle if we stay there.  Jean Valjean almost missed it.  But, of course, if he had, Victor Hugo would not have had a story.  The story is that ALL of us, no matter how big or small our offenses, live in a world embittered by sin, by fear, by guilt, despair and revenge.  A literal reading of the Bible attributes this state of sin to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Whether that story is literally true or whether it is a metaphor (or a parable or an allegory, I’m never sure which), it is clear that SOMEHOW, the wonderful and perfect Creation that God intended has gone horribly wrong.  It is still beautiful, to be sure, but horrible things happen, often to really good, nice people.  And, despite our best intentions, we often do horrible things to those we love. 

So, what happens when, in our bitterness and guilt, someone says, “I love you, wholly and completely.  You are beautiful just the way you are, because I MADE YOU THAT WAY.  And I forgive you for all of the wrong you have done, even the wrong that you’ve kept hidden way deep inside.  I see all that. I KNOW you. And you are mine. “  How do I respond to that? How do you respond to that? 

If I really, truly take that all in, the only way I can see to respond to that is the way Jean Valjean responded.  It is so overwhelming to realize that I have been saved from a life of bitterness and fear and regret that really, all I can do is cry and pray and throw myself at the mercy of God and commit my life to following that example of grace and forgiveness.

Of course, the rest of the story, as I’ve repeated over and over on this blog, is that God became one of us and is intimately familiar with every kind of suffering we’ve experienced.  Jesus took it all on and he overcame it.  And that’s why we can trust him when he invites us to lay it all down and follow him. 

There is more to say about this.  The notion of “Cheap Grace” comes to mind.  A discussion of the rest of Jean Valjean’s story and his struggle to stay true to his promise to God to act with integrity and kindness is well worth further exploration.  Those will have to wait for another night.  For now, I’m contemplating this powerful scene in the context of today’s churches.  It’s either “believe in Jesus or you’ll go to Hell because you’re a miserable worm” or “forget all that shame and guilt stuff, God made you good and so you’re good. Period.”  I think it’s neither and it’s both.  I am a miserable worm and destined for Hell.  Whether that is a Hell of my own making, in this life, or a place of eternal suffering in the hereafter is not really as relevant as that fact that without the kind of grace embedded in the life, death and resurrection of Christ I am doomed to hopelessness and despair.  On the other hand, I AM a precious Creation of God and I no longer have to feel guilt and shame for what I’ve done BECAUSE of that grace.  At one extreme, the Gospel is not really “Good News” and at the other, it is pretty much meaningless.

As I contemplate this awesome, powerful grace, I want to leave you with a line from one of the final songs in the film:  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  May I love others in a way that shows my gratitude to God for this most amazing grace.


14 February 2013

Frozen by perfection

It's Day 2 of Lent.  Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and I was involved in meetings at the Med School all day so I had no opportunity to go to an Ash Wednesday service.  I did spend a fair bit of time THINKING about the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." "Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."  These phrases have been passing through my mind over and over the last couple of days.

Meanwhile, I haven't for the life of me been able to figure out what to write about.  I can't work out a "perfect" blog post to start off my Lenten journey.   And so I have been frozen into inaction, a sort of "writer's block."  But in my readings and prayers these last few days I have come across this concept of perfection more than once.  Lent isn't about being perfect.  It's about being REAL.  Being naked before God.  Letting God heal us from our imperfection.  Knowing that God has already redeemed us and healed us and accepts us as we are.

Lent isn't about empty piety either.  One of the listed readings for Ash Wednesday is Isaiah 58.  The prophet is talking about fasting as a self-serving exercise so that others and God might take notice.  But, the prophet, notes, these same people are oppressing their workers and stirring up trouble.  Instead, he says,
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."

All of my Lenten discipline and striving for perfection is a big waste of time if I'm only doing it to for the sake of perfection or to look good.  If all I'm doing is trying to write a clever blog post to show you all how pious I am then it's all about me.  But Isaiah is saying that the fast that God wants is to break the bonds of oppression and injustice.  What am I doing today for the sake of justice?

That's not to say that I should give up this blog-writing discipline as meaningless. I'm not letting myself off that easily.  But in so many areas of my life I have allowed my own perfectionism (a very egocentric attitude) to get in the way of working for the cause of justice, of simple acts of sharing my bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, sharing what I have with the poor and homeless.  I make the same excuses that we all make.  "My little bit won't make a difference." "They're probably taking me for a ride, how do I know that person is really needy." "I can't afford it." "I don't want to pry into someone else's affairs." The list goes on.  Because I can't do it MY way, because I'm not rich enough or clever enough to come up with the PERFECT solution, I am frozen into inaction.

The opportunites are often subtle and small.  They usually do not involve making a big splash and getting our names out there for all to see.  And that's good.  Once my ego gets involved then I stand in God's way.  If I get in God's way then I frustrate all possibility of perfection as only God CAN make things right and perfect.  Likewise, if I turn my back on the opportunities God puts before me, it's quite possible that God will simply start giving the opportunities to someone else.  These opportunities to serve are opportunities to see Jesus, "God with skin on."  If I miss them, I miss God.  I miss the point of the journey to the cross.

What opportunities might I have today or tomorrow to meet and serve Jesus, to break the bonds of injustice, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked? How might I have to step outside of my comfort zone to do so? And how might my obsession with perfection get in the way of these small acts of service that might present themselves before me?

Almighty God, the Redeemer of all who trust in you; give heed to the cry of your people, deliver us from the bondage of sin that we may serve you in perfect freedom and rejoice in your unfailing love; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. (NZBB p 572)

11 February 2013

This year, as every year, I try to be intentional about the journey of Lent.  Last year, it seems, my Lenten journey brought me to New Zealand.  Nonetheless, I start off each Lenten season with great intentions to do some extra prayer, meditation, study, reflection and to fast from things that seem to get in my way of these things.  Things such as the internet, Facebook, coffee, sugar, anger, politics...the list is almost endless.

One of the things I've noticed this year is that I spend an awful lot of my spare time sitting with my laptop in the lounge, while my partner sits on the opposite couch with hers and we're just there, not really talking to each other and doing what?  I don't know.  Facebook is really boring, and yet I spend a lot of time there.  I spend time on GCN and sometimes I look at some news item or blog post from someone I follow.  But most of the time is really a waste.  During the spring (that would be fall for my Northern Hemisphere readers) I decided that I could spend that time doing something else and so I signed up for an online course on "The Diaconate" through the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  I wasn't really that engaged in it for some reason.  Partly, it was because my book arrived several weeks into it (because I only got the reading list a week before, way too late to get a book to NZ).  Partly, it was because everyone else in the class was in North America and were in some way already engaged in the discernment process while I am still exploring and not in a parish where it is even possible for me to be ordained to the Diaconate.

The point is that I have determined that there are way better things for me to do with my time than sit with my laptop in the lounge of an evening and fiddle around with Facebook and other mindless websites.  So one of the things I'd like to do (and in writing it here, am stating my intention to do) is to blog through Lent.  I'd like to work through the Lectionary readings for the days of Lent and write some reflections.  One year I committed to getting up early to do some Centering Prayer.  Another year I committed to getting up early to walk the dog for 20-30 minutes in the morning while doing a walking meditation (unplugging from the iPod for the walk was a real challenge).  Both of those years, I stated the intention and I stuck with it.  I got back to it when I missed a day or two, rather than scrapping the whole plan.  I intend to do that this year too.  I hope that my readers, few as they are, will hold me to it. If you don't see a post for a few days or a week, please push me!

If anyone has ideas about topics or readings for me to reflect on, I'm open to hearing about them.  If anyone has suggestions for how one creates and sticks to a discipline such as this, please share them.

Lent is about repentance, turning our hearts and lives around to follow Jesus to the cross.  It's about reflecting on the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ as he walked the way of persecution and torture all for my sake.  I know there are readers out there who take issue with this characterisation of both Lent and of the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ and what atonement means.  Post-modern liberal theology says that we're all "ok" just as we are.  Yes, to an extent that is true...we are all accepted and unconditionally loved by God.  But "ok?"  No, I am most definitely NOT "OK" as I am.  I am imperfect, undisciplined and repeatedly fail to do the things that I "intend" to do and that I know are right and I persist in doing self-serving things which serve no useful purpose.  The purpose of this is not to beat myself up but to own up to my weaknesses so that I can surrender them to the care of a loving God who wants so much to be in relationship with me that God became Human and took on ALL of the suffering that we brought upon ourselves so that we can be set free from the power of the sin.

So, in my first post about Lent (which only starts in 2 days), I am becoming an apologist for my faith which is something that I think is vitally important for all people of faith.  I need to understand and explain why I am passionate about my faith.  Blogging about it will not only help me to become clear on that but in the process, maybe someone will read it and get something out of it.

The first of the Collects for Ash Wednesday list in the NZ Prayerbook is:
Jesus, holy and strong,
by your fasting and temptation teach us self-denial;
control and discipline us, 
that we may learn to obey.

May it be so.

28 January 2013

Happy New Year!

It's been WAY WAY too long since I've posted here.  I've gone on many interesting trips and have started to compose travelogues.  I have gone through the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany in the Southern Hemisphere which has required me to be very intentional about how I experience these seasons since the "body memories" of the darkness of Advent turning to the light of Christmas and the ever-lengthening days of Epiphany have been turned upside down.

Meanwhile, a new year is upon us.  I've been in NZ almost a year and I've learnt heaps.  One thing I know is that it's not yet time to go.  At least I don't think it is.  The visas have not yet been approved for another year although I've signed the contract with my employer.  I've loved my job and after a year with the medical students, I've just started to feel like I'm learning the ropes.

This is a beautiful country and I've had the opportunity to share it with friends and family.  My parents are here now, as is my niece, Christina, who is taking a semester away from her University studies in the US and helping us out with Kate.

It's time for me to post some pictures and to write about some of our wonderful travels as well as for me to share some of my musings and insights.  However, life is just so busy and time passes by so quickly.  In the meantime, my computer has slowed down to a snail's pace and is on its last legs.  When I finally am able to buy a new one (hopefully soon), I think blogging (as well as working on things for the teaching aspect of my job) will be a whole lot easier.

Meanwhile, I hope those of you who have read and followed my stories here will stay tuned.  As the kiwis like to say, "Watch this space!"

18 June 2012

"Baking the Loaf"

I like to bake bread.  When we came to New Zealand we left behind a lot of cookbooks but I scanned in my favourite pages from my favourite bread cookbook so that I have those recipes and directions on my computer.  I have used them many times, most recently this evening. So when I was listening to my Daily Audio Bible podcast the other day and I heard the story about the “Widow at Zarephath” in 1 Kings 17, it struck a cord with me.  Perhaps what really hit home was the commentary after the reading in which the reader, Brian Hardin, summed up the passage with the directive to “Bake the loaf.”  What does this mean?

Some of you may recall the story.  There is a drought and famine in the land and God sends the prophet Elijah to live by a brook where he is able to drink water and eat bread and meat brought to him by ravens.  Then, the brook dries up and Elijah is told to go to Zarephath, where there is a widow whom “God has directed” to give food to Elijah.  Now, first of all, it is not at all clear from the story just HOW God directs the woman to give Elijah food.  It almost seems as though the first the woman hears of it is from Elijah himself.  Perhaps.  God works outside of our constraints of time and space.  In any case, he goes and finds this woman gathering sticks to make a fire to bake her last little bit of flour and olive oil together to make a meal for herself and her son.  She believes this will be their last meal.  There is no food anywhere in the land and so she is prepared to eat this last little bit of bread with her son and then wait to die.  It’s a heartbreaking story, really.  The woman is hopeless and yet so full of love for her son that she is going to make the effort to make the most of their last tiny meal together.  So, as she is in this frame of mind, along comes this prophet of God who asks her to get him a drink of water and a piece of bread. She tells him her story.  Remarkably, the first thing Elijah says to her is, “Don’t be afraid.”  These are the same words that Jesus uses over and over.  These are words that I have come to understand as “a miracle is coming, wait for it.” Or, to put it another way, “Trust me, and watch how things turn out.  You’ll be amazed.” Elijah proceeds to tell her that IF she trusts him and does as he asks, her flour and oil will not run out until rain comes to the land, signaling the end of the famine.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if that were me, I’d be pretty skeptical.   I realised as I listened to this story and to the commentary afterward, that this is something that is played out in my life in so many ways.  On a very literal level, what is my response when a homeless person or a panhandler asks for money?  What if they “promise” something in return?  I’ve found that more often than not I am tempted and, indeed, often succumb to the temptation to turn away or to offer excuses as to why that person isn’t “worthy” of “my” charity.  And then there are the more metaphorical examples where I may hear a call to do something or to go somewhere and I make excuses for why I can’t do it or why the call may not be a genuine call.  But beyond that, what’s really going on is that I don’t TRUST the outcome.  I don’t believe that whatever it is will turn out the way I want it to.  I can’t imagine how it could ever turn out in my favour or how it could ever “be right.”  And this lack of faith can paralyse me into doing nothing, staying with the status quo. 

This theme plays out in other places in the Bible.  There’s Abraham and Isaac, when Abraham actually takes his son to sacrifice him to God, all the while TRUSTING God’s promise that through Isaac he will have a nation full of descendants. (Genesis 22)  The story seems so barbaric and gruesome to us, sometimes to the extent that we miss the point entirely.  Abraham LOVES his son and he KNOWS that God knows how much he loves his son AND he TRUSTS that somehow God will see him through this.  And God does.  [Why God would put someone through a test like that is beyond the scope of this post and, frankly, beyond the scope of my theological imagination to answer at present.]

The other story that comes to mind is the parable of the talents. (Matthew 25 14-30)  In this one, a man gives “talents” (or money) to each of 3 servants.  He goes away and comes back and finds that while he was gone two of them have invested their money and doubled it while the third hid his under the mattress (so to speak).  He is very angry at the third son for his  laziness and obvious lack of shrewdness in investing.  This parable could be (and probably is) used as justification for the “rich getting richer” approach to politics and economics.  However, I see it a bit differently.  I think the reason this parable came to mind when I was hearing the story of the widow is because PERHAPS there is a parallel.  Quite possibly, this parable is about the third servant’s lack of FAITH.  He hangs on tightly to the status quo, to what he’s got, instead of investing it (sharing it, sowing it into a world of great need), and by playing it safe, he helps no one, including himself. 

And so, Brian’s commentary admonishes me to “Bake the loaf,” to give it all to God, to take risks in order to share the God’s grace and mercy and unfailing love with those who need it.  I need to do this EVEN (or especially) when I feel like I might be down to my last cup of flour, my last measure of oil, my last penny, my last nerve, my last bit of compassion. 

These thoughts have been swirling around in my head, mixing it up with the images and reports I’ve received from various friends on Facebook of the events of the Montana Gay Pride event this past weekend.  Montana Pride has a history of being very unlike other Pride celebrations.  The first time I went to one I was fascinated that they held WORKSHOPS.  Most of the Pride events I'd been to  in other places involved a big, flamboyant parade and parties.  Maybe there were outdoor bands and concerts, a dance, a drag show or two, but never workshops.  Last year, I went to a workshop on faith and sexuality and met some amazing people there, including a woman named Michele whose son is bisexual and who shared her journey of coming to accept that.  I’ve gotten to know her a bit more over the past year and she has shared some of her experiences on her blog, Rainbow Icecream. This year, my friend and “little brother” Tom was director of the whole thing and apparently did an amazing job (not surprisingly) and a woman whom I know from GCN (Kathy at CanyonWalker Connections) came to speak and to meet people and to do her amazing work of reconciliation between the Church and the gay community, especially those (most of us) who have been so wounded by the Church.  I believe it took someone like Tom, a passionate Christian gay man, to bring this most unique aspect to a Pride event.  I would imagine this must have been, in a sense, Tom’s “Bake the loaf” moment.  As I described in a previous post, it’s often not popular for gay people to be associated with Christians or Christianity because of how we have been wounded and rejected by many Christians.  Tom and Kathy and Michelle and many others have responded to that call to reach out in faith, knowing that it might (and does) bring abuse and ridicule and rejection from both sides.  It’s humbling, really, to see that kind of courage.  And yet, just like the widow, just like many of the people whose lives Jesus transformed, just like Abraham, many of us have found ourselves at rock bottom with nowhere else to turn and out of that brokenness has come the gift of truly knowing, believing that it really all comes down to GOD. 

I am challenged by the story of the woman who gave her last little bit of food to a man of God, TRUSTING that God would come through for her and her beloved son.  I am challenged by the story of the Apostle Paul who suffered all kinds of abuse for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and truly believed God when he said, “My GRACE is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  I am challenged by people who suffer unimaginable hardships to bring that grace and compassion to others.   It all comes down to trust in God to work things according to a plan that I don’t need to, or really even want to know.  Just “Bake the loaf.”

18 May 2012

Meditations on Motherhood

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, both in the US and in New Zealand.  I used to think that Mother’s Day was just a cheesy Hallmark holiday.  However, since becoming a mother, it has, of course, taken on new significance.  When we were in Guatemala waiting to take Kate home, Guatemala celebrated their version of Mother’s day and we were SO excited to finally be mothers that we participated in the apparent tradition of going out to eat at Compero Pollo (the Guatemalan version of KFC).  We then arrived home on the weekend of the US version of Mother’s Day and got to celebrate our new motherhood again. 

It’s wonderful to celebrate Motherhood.  Being a mother is the strangest, most wonderful trip I have ever experienced.  And yet, the concept of celebrating Mothers and Motherhood is fraught with difficulties.  During the years that we were trying to become Mothers, Laura and I experienced such a range of emotions including excitement, loss, pain, grief, joy, anger and fear.  It was a roller coaster that threatened to destroy us individually and as a couple.  Mother’s day for those who want desperately to be mothers is a very painful reminder of what they desperately want but cannot have.  I have also walked with friends through the deaths of their children and have found that, especially in the case of the loss of an only child, those women want to be acknowledged as mothers yet find, sadly, that people are uncomfortable wishing the mother of a dead baby “Happy Mother’s Day.”

To make matters even more complicated, many people have very complex and troubled relationships with their mothers.  I used to think I was one of those people but over time, I have discovered that compared to many, my relationship with my mother is actually quite ordinary, perhaps even HEALTHY!  At the very least, it is pleasant.  I enjoy spending time with my mother and value our conversations.  I perceive my mother to be less critical than she used to be.  I don’t know if that perception is based upon any change in HER behaviour (perhaps she just doesn’t tell me what she really thinks?) or if it is simply that I am not as sensitive as I used to be.  In any case, I am grateful.  And I am keenly aware that many people are not so fortunate.  I know Mother’s Day is very hard for those who have broken relationships with their mothers, those whose mothers have died and especially those whose relationships with their mothers were never healed prior to the death of their mothers. 

As the mother of an adopted child, I am also keenly aware of the complicating issues of unwanted pregnancy and the choices that face girls and women in that situation as well as the difficulties faced by children who have been given up by their mothers.  Kate will always wonder and imagine what her birth mother is like and why she “really” gave Kate up for adoption.  And, although she is blessed to have two mothers who love her dearly, she has endured a huge loss at a very basic level.  We can’t dismiss the importance of the bonding that occurs between the mother and baby in utero. 

But for those of us who are fortunate enough to be mothers when we’ve wanted to be and to have a happy relationship with our mothers, Mother’s Day is a good time to reflect on the many nuances of Motherhood. 

Being a mother is FUN.  

There is never a dull moment in our house.  Kate is always coming up with new things to do and new ways to do them.  It is amazing to see the world through the eyes of a child.  It’s a cliché but it’s so true.  When I stop what I’m doing and just watch her, I see her thinking, struggling, listening, and seeing in ways that I’d forgotten all about.  She never stops learning and, as a result, neither do I.

Being a mother is SCARY.

Terrifying, actually.  How many mothers have held a tiny baby and wondered, “What do I do now?”  How many mothers have had nightmares about horrible things that might befall their children?  I’d daresay the answer is somewhere between most and pretty much all of them.  I shiver sometimes to think of things like the time Geyser got stuck in the flooded culvert and Kate tried to rescue him while standing on the bank of the swollen creek with a stick in her hand.  We found them in the nick of time, nudged; I’m sure, by the still small voice of God calling us outside to check on them.  I spend a lot of time praying for God’s guardian angels to shield and protect Kate both physically and emotionally/spiritually but in spite of all that prayer, I am, still, often afraid.   John Irving in “The World According to Garp” coined the term “undertoad” to describe the feeling of impending danger.  Garp heard his mother say “Beware of the undertow” when swimming in the ocean.  He misheard “undertoad” and always imagined a very large toad under the water, waiting to sweep children away.  It’s a powerful image as most of us can readily imagine that there is just such an animal lurking unseen, waiting to snatch our precious children from us.  For those of us who struggled to become mothers, I think the fear might be somewhat greater.  We know better than to take this gift for granted.  All love involves the possibility of loss.  Motherhood is no different.

Being a mother is BAFFLING.

The truth is, I have NO idea what I’m doing.  None of us do.  I have learned that it is really important to not compare my insides with other people’s outsides.  Those mothers who seem to “have it all together” probably don’t.  I know this, in part, because, as a doctor, I am privy to the secrets of these women who seem to be supermoms.  I can’t reveal their confidences but I can speak in generalities and say that in many cases the perception of “Supermom” is a total illusion.  I don’t think it’s “shaudenfreude” to take some comfort in the revealed weaknesses of other mothers.  I don’t take pleasure in anyone’s misfortune.  But I do feel a bit better knowing that I’m not alone in my befuddlement.  I just wish mothers could be more honest about those feelings instead of perpetuating the illusion that we “have it all together.”  I certainly don’t have it all together.  I don’t have a CLUE.  I just pray that my daughter will grow up to be a reasonably capable adult, in spite of me. 

Being a mother is AMAZING.

By that, I mean, it fills me with amazement.  What a miracle, what a gift.  How did I get so lucky, so blessed?  It’s easy to forget all that it took to get here. It’s easy to get swept up in the day in day out work of parenting and forget what a gift it is.  But when I stop to consider that part of things, I AM amazed.  I always thought I wanted to be a mother, but I had NO idea how hard and how wonderful and how scary and heartbreaking it all would be. 

Mother's Day Breakfast in Bed

As I was thinking about this post, I found myself contemplating some examples of mothers that I’ve found interesting.  Many of these mothers are Biblical, some are fictitious or fabricated.  One in particular is the mother of the boy who shared his lunch with Jesus, who went on to multiply it into a feast for thousands.  I was reading an “Arch Book” version of the story to Kate once last week when this thought occurred to me.  The story was told from the perspective of the boy whose mother packed him a lunch so that he could go with a family friend to see this man they were calling The Messiah.  The boy tells her he won’t need a lunch because he believed Jesus would provide food for the masses.  The mother, however, insists that he’d better bring some food along, “just in case.”  It’s fascinating to view the story from this perspective.  This mother is a prime example of how our actions vis a vis our children will have huge ripples that we may never ever see.  This boy’s mother probably never thought that she would pack a lunch that would be turned into one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, and certainly one of his most famous.  Most likely, all she wanted was to make sure her boy had enough to eat and, perhaps, she wanted to make sure he learned to “pay his own way.”  It is also clear that this mother had instilled some very important values in her son.  She did not teach him to take what he had and hoard it.  He had obviously been taught to share what he had with others, no matter how little he thought he had.  He had clearly been taught to trust God to provide for all his needs.   It reminds me that, as a mother, it is vitally important to teach my child to trust God and to share with others. 

If I’m going to discuss Biblical mothers, of course, I would have to mention Mary, the mother of Jesus.  It turns out that the most prominent “Mary story” on my mind this week has been the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus famously turned water into wine.  This story is one of a couple of accounts of Jesus seeming to rebuke his mother in a way that could be seen as “dishonouring.”  In this story, Mary comes to Jesus for help and he tells her, “It’s not my time, yet.”  She ignores him, of course, and tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do.  Once again, it’s the mother behind the scenes that has a tremendous impact on the course of events.  What if Mary had not insisted?  This miracle was recorded by John as “the first sign” in Jesus’ ministry.  Once again, the faith and the faithfulness of the mother have monumental consequences in the course of history.  Now I realise this might sound hyperbolic, especially to my non-believing friends.  That’s ok.  The point is, MOTHERHOOD MATTERS. 

Then there are Mother Goose, Old Mother Hubbard, and the “Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe.”  I’m not sure what these mothers would add to the discussion of mothers but it seems appropriate to give them a shout out for Mother’s Day as well!

Overall, I think it’s important to acknowledge the blessings, the challenges and pitfalls of Mothering and Motherhood.  But while we consider these things, may we be sensitive to those who have less positive experiences around Mothering and Motherhood.  Mother’s Day is more than just a “Hallmark holiday.” It’s a time to consider all the joy, pain, sadness, and blessing that go with being a mother and being mothered.