Sunday, October 28, 2012

COM Ch 2: Fast Forward 13 Years or So

Chapter 2:  Fast Forward Thirteen Years or So

            I was having one of those moments - a moment that pushes you to your limit and threatens to break you.  I had spent thirty-two years carefully constructing a world of comfort and contentment.  (I didn’t plan the alliteration, but it does sound poetic, doesn’t it?)  And this moment came out of nowhere.  No warning, no preparation.  In fact, I was probably the opposite of prepared. 
            It’s like a flower.  If you plant a seed and grow it carefully protected from any wind, the stem won’t be strong.  The slightest breeze could knock it over.  But if it grows with the wind moving it back and forth, it is forced to grow a strong stem that can hold up in severe weather.  I was a weak-stemmed flower. 

            For years, things had gone so well that I was unprepared for the strong winds.  And the slightest trials threatened to break me.  I was in a tailspin of fear and worry that I had never been in before.  Actually, I wasn’t just having “a moment.”  I was having “one of those years.”   
            Before June of that “tornado of a year,” I was confident and secure in just about everything.  So much so that (I am ashamed to admit it, but I am working on it) it bordered on smug.  (Just to clarify, I tried not to act smug to others.  I always tried to be kind and never rude, never condescending.  But I was smug on the inside.  Just being honest.) 
            I am the oldest of six children and a classic first-born overachiever.  I was one of those annoying kids that loved school and got good grades.  (Except for a D in college History - I was never good with names and dates.)  I was on the Honor Roll, part of the National Honor Society, the captain of the cheerleading squad, and I have a Master of Psychology Degree with a license in counseling. 
            Growing up, I was a leader in our church’s youth group, and I went on two overseas Short Term Missions trips (you’ve already heard about PNG).  I have always felt that I’ve had a good handle on just about everything.  I hardly ever asked for help and rarely needed to lean on anyone else.  I have always been quite confident in myself.  (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking - blah, blah, blah, me, me, me.  Hang in there with me!)
            And then a series of trials threw me into a pit of self-doubt and confusion that drastically altered my perception of myself.  Fear gripped me as I have never known before.  Gone were the days of the simple trust and faith in God that I experienced in PNG - those days when I expected to be cared for and when the answer to everything was, “Don’t worry, God will take care of it all.” 
            Within a week - nearly overnight, actually - I had gone from being confident, calm and . . . well . . . smug to a complete wreck.  I felt like I couldn’t make a “right” decision if my life depended on it.  And I was terrified that every decision I did make would be the wrong one and would end in dire consequences.  I became completely insecure.  I was afraid about my family’s health, our mortality, our finances and, mostly, I was afraid we’d lose our teeth.  (Yeah, backwards, I know.  But that’s the way it was.)  I became paralyzed with fear, and I was turning into a chronically-worried mess.  I was going to fail as a parent.  I was going to become a shriveled shell of a person.  I was going to make my family homeless and toothless.  I had lost all confidence in myself. 
            I had always thought that I had a rather stable relationship with the Lord.  Sure, I had dry spells and low points, but I generally felt like I was on the right track.  I knew how to pray, I read my Bible, and I led in various Christian things.  I tried hard to be what I thought God wanted me to be.  And I was doing okay.  I could handle things that came my way.   
            What I didn’t realize, though, was that by always having to be in control and by relying on myself, I was missing out on a large part of relating to the Lord.  By being so confident in myself, I had never learned to truly put my confidence in Him.  I never really seriously had to.  Even my trip to PNG was tainted by an attitude of I’ll do what I want and God will bless it.   
            I hadn’t yet struggled with something greater than I could bear.  I hadn’t yet needed to learn to give up fighting and to fall into His arms, sobbing and seeking comfort.  And so I hadn’t yet learned the comfort of knowing Him as Father.  By always having to be the take-charge “adult,” I never knew what it really felt like to be the taken-care-of “child.” 
            I was good at being a parent and a leader and a peer, but not a child.  Children were needy, helpless and dependent.  And I was a strong, capable leader who didn’t much like being “childish,” even when I was a child.  I didn’t like feeling “less than.”  I didn’t like being reliant on others.  I didn’t like being under anyone else’s thumb.  It made me feel naive and young and . . . well . . . childish!  I can recall from a young age feeling silly about being childish.  It just wasn’t a desirable quality in my book. 
            One Christmas, Santa showed up at our house.  We have it on video.  Santa walked into the living room to wish us a Merry Christmas.  My brother Sean (four years younger) was bouncing around like a squirrel hopped up on too many walnuts.  He made no effort to hide his excitement. 
            Granted, I was a little older (maybe a preteen) and the Santa phase was passing, but I just stood there with my chin tucked into my chest and gave a small, embarrassed smile.  I distinctly remember feeling foolish about displaying any excitement.  I was even more embarrassed that people were waiting and watching for me to be excited.  And I was letting them down.    
            But that was me . . . Miss Stoic!  Even if I ever was truly excited about something, I barely showed it.  Which I know probably disappointed everyone who ever gave me a gift.  Although I enjoy receiving gifts, I can never really drum up the anticipated emotional response that I’m sure the gift-giver is hoping for.  It must just be the way I am built (or it’s some sort of self-protective mechanism).    
            Appearing needy, silly, dependent, or unsure made me feel rather ashamed, I guess.  That was weakness.  And I was strong and mature.  Don’t get me wrong, I could be a goof with the best of them.  But only when I wanted to be. 
            My best friend when I was a teen was Gina, the girl who gave me the PNG underwear.  (I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to be known as that!)  She and I were notorious for being in our own wacky world where we did all sorts of crazy antics simply for our own amusement.  We never cared who was watching.  
            We’ve hogged a stage to put on crazy dances just to make each other laugh.  We’ve made up goofy personas and ran around the town square, acting like aliens and ET (and we were, like, seventeen years old at the time).  And during basketball games as high-school cheerleaders, we would make up our own silly “cheers” and perform them for each other on the sidelines, while the rest of the squad watched the game or did “proper” cheers.  (Probably not the best thing for the captains to be doing.  Even our coach was amused, though.)  We loved every minute of it and laughed so much together that I was never concerned with what people thought.  Hey, I was having a blast!  And I was in control of my silliness.    
            But it was a whole different thing to be “childish” when I wasn’t intending it.  One year, as a preteen, I was getting ready to go to camp for the first time.  I was overly excited, and I guess I was acting a little crazy in the store.  My mom scolded me and said something to the effect that I was acting foolish.  (Of course I was . . . first time at camp!)  But I keenly remember how stupid I felt, and I never wanted to get overly-excited or to express too much enthusiasm ever again.  And I never really did.  I, generally, am very controlled with any emotional expression, from anger to excitement to fear.  Being “childish” is something I would rather avoid. 
            As I said, I grew up the oldest of six children.  I have five younger brothers.  They are Sean (four years younger), Bobby (nine years younger), Bradley (thirteen years younger), and Taylor and Tyler (a.k.a. the twins, fifteen years younger).  Separated from them by gender and age, I was more “motherly” than like a peer.  So the “adult and leader” part was kind of built into me from the beginning.  And I wanted to stand out from them as more mature.  Wherever we went as a family, it was embarrassing being “one of the kids.”  I wasn’t “a kid” like they were; I was older and more sophisticated!     
            One year, at a Christmas gathering with all the cousins, I found myself lost in no-man’s land.  (Yeah, I know!  By this point you’re thinking, Wow, this Heather’s a real complainer!  I’m almost done.)  The kids were supposed to open gifts first and then the adults.  I am one of the oldest cousins.  And I had yet to be included among the adults, although I was already over twenty years old (and may have been married at the time, I can’t remember).  I was too young to be considered one of the adults, but too old to be considered one of the children.  But because no one yet invited me to the adult side, I opened my presents with the kids.  I was surrounded by kids five to fifteen years younger than me.  (Wow!  Talk about a blow to your self-esteem!) 
            Afterward, my Grandma Mary (actually my great-aunt who I always called Grandma) did finally acknowledge that I should probably be opening gifts with the adults from now on.  Hooray!  At last, I made it to adulthood in the eyes of the family.  Because, I gotta say, sitting at the kiddy table really loses its appeal when you are old enough to raise the kids sitting with you.    
            As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I spent a lot of time trying to be more grown-up.  But the Bible calls us to do something else - something I really didn’t want to do.  We are supposed to become like children.  Matthew 18:3 says, “And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”  
            I spent thirty-some years fighting this very notion.  I had no idea how to be a child!  What does being a child of God mean?  What benefit could there be in that?  And how do I get past years of trying to be an emotionally-reserved adult who needed to be in charge of everything?  This was so foreign to my nature. 
            I always thought it meant that we were supposed to trust and have faith in Him with ease.  And up until this point, I did.  Too much ease.  I was weak-stemmed.  I was coasting through life on my own wisdom and accomplishments.  And it was easy to rely on myself because, well, I had it all under control!  But this isn’t what it means to be childlike.
            I hadn’t yet been brought to the end of myself.  I hadn’t learned what it was like to have faith and trust in Him during the storms of life.  I hadn’t yet learned how to rely on Him as a child relies on a parent.  When you are usually in control of your circumstances, how much do you really have to exercise your faith in someone else?   
            But God, in His wisdom and graciousness, did not leave me as that self-sufficient twenty-one-year-old who could conquer the world.  He allowed trials into my life that completely destroyed anything I ever believed about myself.  They broke me and brought me down to a level I had never been to before.  Everything I ever had confidence in was shaken, including myself and God. 
            And it was in struggling through this newfound lack of confidence that God began to open my eyes to some areas of my relationship with Him that really needed work.  (Which I’ll get to as we go along.)  And I know that I would never have been able to see them without the trials, without the painful heat of the refining furnace.  Because it was this time in the furnace - the years of trials - that finally made me realize that . . . I was tired!  I am tired!  I am really tired of trying to keep so many balls up in the air.  I’ve always tried to maintain a tight grip on everything, including areas that never should have been mine to control.  And it was exhausting me.   
            But these past few difficult years made it possible for me to . . . No!. . . they forced me to admit that I couldn’t do it on my own any longer.  I needed a Father, a Daddy.  Despite my deep need to be in control and standing on my own two feet, I really did want someone bigger than me to hold me, to keep me safe, and to take charge.  I really did want to admit that I couldn’t do it all.  I really did want to be able to stop trying so hard and to say, “I don’t know anything.  But that’s okay, because God does.”  I just didn’t know it yet!  
            But this would end up being the hardest lesson of my life to learn.  I had to learn how to be a child, after I had fought being a child all my life.  And I didn’t have a “daddy” as I grew up.  I had step-fathers, but not a “daddy.”  So I never learned to rest in the care of a genuine father, to live in his love.  This wouldn’t come naturally or be easy!     
            And, ironically or not, it wasn’t until I had children of my own that I finally began to understand what being a child meant.  There is just something about being responsible for a whole other human being that makes you feel more insecure than ever before and that drives you to your knees like never before.  I have never felt weaker in my life than when facing a trial concerning one of my children.  And it was a trial with one of my children that finally taught me that I didn’t have all the answers.  In fact, I had none of them.  And the only way for me to get through it would be to learn to let go of the control that I so dearly hang on to and delight in.  And to trust - really trust - in Someone bigger than me. 
            And you know what else I discovered in the process?  Being “childlike” is not always a negative thing.  In fact, I desire that my children maintain a certain level of childlikeness.  I want them to be properly dependent on me, to be silly at times with the joy of life, to come to me with their needs and desires (no matter how small), and to let me be concerned with the things that they shouldn’t be worried about.  I began to see so many benefits to being a child that I never noticed before. 
            (And actually, now that I think about it, there’s a big difference between “childish” and “childlike.”  For a long time, I considered them synonymous.  Childish is one thing, and that’s what I fought against my whole life.  But to be childlike is a whole different story, which I’ll get to much later.) 
            So what gigantic crisis threw me into this mire?  What huge, life-shattering event caused me to reevaluate everything I ever knew?  I’m almost ashamed to say it because it pales in comparison to struggles through which others have gone.  In fact, seeing how broken I became over something so un-tragic made me realize just how weak I really was on the inside, how I could break under the slightest pressure when my children were concerned.  Nonetheless, this was my mountain of faith to climb (or to fall off of).  But first, a little more about who I am. 

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