Nov 17, 2010

Gypsy Church

I'm embarrassed to say it, but here goes. Since we've moved back to Orange County nearly three years ago, we've been to 8 different churches. Yes, 8. I will begin by emphasizing that there was absolutley nothing wrong with any of them. In each church, I have found kind, loving people, friendly faces, good teaching, great worship, nice kids' programs and even some pretty tasy donuts and coffee. But somehow, it wasn't enough. For me. Somehow, I left feeling worse, sadder, lonelier and more confused. I wish I was one of "them". I watch them high fiving, discussing the family barbecue last weekend, the upcoming Christmas program, the Lakers game. And I desperately want "in." And it's not that I couldn't be, if I tried. I consider myself a pretty friendly person and generally have no problem fitting in. So why, three years later, do I still feel like an outsider, that no matter where I go, I'll be stuck in the back pew, taking it in and leaving feeling like I can't breathe? I have an inkling of how I got here. Three years ago, things weren't so complicated. We loved our church, went every week, attended small group; I even played on the worship team. I loved every mintue of it. I found warmth, genuine- ness and depth. I found something real. But something happened after we moved back. My life sort of fell apart. I got sick. My husband lost his job. I watched as close friends' marriages dissolved and cried for them. I sat in the back of a Catholic church and wept for a 5 year old boy who lost his life due to cancer. I watched helplessly as someone dear to my heart fought mental illness. I heard one story after another from friends who grew up in church and for the first time don't know if they will go back. I got angry. I lost everything I knew to be true. But it didn't end there.Something else began to happen. My anger turned to searching, my searching to compassion. The homeless guy in front of the bagel shop might have a name now. The snippy room mom at school might have a husband who beats her when she gets home. The boy who acts out in class might do so because he hasn't seen his dad in a year. And suddenly, it's not enough. Its not enough to just sit back and watch, to throw a can of soup in a paper bag and call it feeding the hungry. Not enough to say "How you doing?" on Sunday morning when we don't really want to know the answer. And frankly, don't have time to do anything about it if we knew. Is this it? Is this where it ends? A feel good message, a couple songs we know by heart and can hum along to, and then we're out the door and off to lunch at the burger joint down the street. Surely, this can't be it. God, for me, hasn't changed. In fact, I'm more keen on him than ever. His love becomes real to me in new, simple ways. I don't always hear him, but I feel him. I might be starting to really know him. And I might be willing to believe he loves me just as I am. I drop out of Bible study for the third time and head to the library, where I pick up a handful of Christian books and dive in. Interestingly enough, it turns out I'm not alone. Preachers use words like "Jesus of Suburbia" to describe the safe Jesus we've created in our lives. I couldn't agree more. George Mueller reminds me that praying radically is not only okay, but encouraged. Corrie Ten Boom flies halfway across the world without knowing where she's going, but God meets her there. Brennan Manning reiterates that the gospel is simple; we are the ones who have made it complicated. Francis Chan says that crazy faith is the way to go, and I think he's on to something. Then I pick up a little book called "Quitting Church". A journalist spent the past few years interviewing people all over the nation and came to a conclusion: for some, church as it once was isn't enough anymore. But people are still searching, she says. In fact, it's the "good, faithful ones" who are leaving. Wanting more. But what? This leads me to the next phase of my journey, the one that scares me the most. Because it doesn't have a name. I dont know where I'm going next or what it entails, but I do know it will be good when I get there. Sitting with the homeless under a bridge in Texas breaking bread? Maybe. Hanging out with troubled teens who last night wondered if it might be easier not to live? I'm up for that. Having a cup of coffee with a friend whose husband has just walked out the door? That sounds pretty good too. But all this takes time; a broken heart doesnt always mend the same way. For me, it goes something like this: Growing up in the church, it was simple. Love God, love others. Then it became complicated. Now I want simple again. And I have a hunch I'm not the only one. So if you see me at your church on Sunday, please say hello. Invite me to lunch if you want; I have no grievances against the burger joint down the street. But if I'm not there, please don't wory about me or add me to your prayer chain with concern. I'm not a wayward soul. As my kind friend Karen points out, not all who wander are lost. I will find my way. And when I do, I'll slip off my shoes, park my gypsy wagon and stay a while.

May 2, 2010

Who I Am (Like it or not!)

A couple weeks ago, I went to see a woman comedian at a local church with some friends. I had no idea what to expect, but I was up for a girls' night out, and I'm always up for a good laugh, so I figured it would be fun. This woman was beyond hilarious. She spit out one (clean!) joke after another and had us laughing so hard I was sure my side was going to split. She even did a few dances on stage which only caused the audience to erupt in laughter again. As she slowed down and began to share her story, her more serious side came out. She shared how she had grown up in an especially conservative home and had always felt she had to live up to a certain standard that she felt she could never attain. She felt different in church, as she just wanted to break out of those ugly choir robes and start doing the Macarena up and down the aisles! She finally came to realize that God had made her the way she was for a purpose, and instead of trying to fit into a mold that didn't fit, she embraced herself as she was. She joked about being the antithesis of the Proverbs 31 woman, whom she found quite intimidating becuase the woman woke early, went to bed late, always kept her candle burning and gathered her food from afar. "That food, ladies, I'm sure, was take -out," she joked. As she came to a close, I felt tears prick my eyes, for I felt as though her story could have been mine.
I'm not a famous comedian, nor do I think I'm super witty, but I have always felt that God made me, well, a little different. Growing up, I never quite felt like I fit into the typical mold. My mother tried teaching me to sew, but it turned out terribly disastrous. I nearly flunked home Ec, which is nearly impossible to do. I got the worst grade in the class on an atrocious crocheted reindeer I sewed; the teacher did not find the Scotch tape I used to piece it together amusing. My mother tried numerous times to teach me to sew, but I had an aversion to reading directions, following directions, or doing anything with the word "directions" for that matter. I got upset that the scissors were too small and the pattern was too flimsy and nicked myself with the stupid needle a hundred times before I even got it threaded. I finally wound up with a pair of elastic waist pants for a genie costume I wore to a Halloween dance in junior high, but I had to hold them up all night as I made them way too lose. Needless to say, that was the end of the sewing for me. I've since found a wonderful Vietnamese dry cleaner that sews buttons and hems pants for next to nothing. They dont speak English, but I don't care. We are lifelong friends.
Next, my mother tried teaching me to bake, but that didnt go over particularly well either. I didnt much like using recipes and preferred to concoct my own "creations" in the kitchen. This often resulted in a huge mess of melted chocolate and various dry cereals stuck to the bottom of a mixing bowl that I never got around to washing out, but I didn't care. To this day, I rarely use a recipe and if I do, I feel compelled to change it up a bit. Just to be rebellious, I suppose. Sometimes, this works out, but other times, not so much. These are the days we have a lot of leftovers in the fridge.
And then there were the athletics. I never aspired to be a stare athlete, but I thought that perhaps trying some sport might be good for my self esteem. I should have known when I got picked last for kickball year after year in grade school that I wasnt meant to participate in anything that involved a ball. Or a bat. Or, well, you get the point. I tried tennis lessons, but didnt have much luck with them. A season of girls softball didnt prove to be any more successful. I was more interested in the cute boy sitting in the stands and the sour candy at the snack bar than I was in playing outfield. When high school rolled around, I worked up the guts to try out for cheerleading. That didnt work out so well either. I forgot the routine halfway through and proceeded to do a bunch of impressive looking kicks that obviously didnt wow the judges. The result was a pulled muscle and wounded pride. Those were the end of my athletic days. I didnt really mind, to be honest, but I really thought it would be cool to have a picture in the yearbook of me doing something. Yearbook club, chess club, drama club, surely, I could have picked something! Instead, when one flipped to my name at the back of the yearbook, there was only one sad little page number next to it. And if one turned to that page, they would see a sad mug of a girl with a bad perm who would be forgotten by most the day we graduated.
And then there was the music. I started piano lessons at age seven and (shocker!) I actually took quite well to playing. So well, in fact, my teacher insisted I would be a concert pianist in no time. But I didnt really want to be a concert pianist. I just wanted to make up my own songs and play in my living room for an invisible audience. But I did play, sometimes in front of hundreds of people while my heart thumped wildly in my chest and my face turned beet red. And one time, I did forget my song and walked off the stage with my head held high. But that didnt keep me from playing. I was born to play, and nothing would stop me.
Since the piano was going so well, my mom suggested I try the violin, but that wasn't such a great idea. My mother, who happened to be a violin teacher, painstakingly tried showing me over and over how to hold the instrument in my arms and stand in proper position. I then remembered why I'd never tried violin in the first place: it was too much work! Why stand till your feet ached when you could sit at a piano bench? It was a no brainer!
When band time rolled around in fifth grade, I opted for the drums. Why? I simply didnt want to have to blow into anything. Again, too much work. I wanted to save my lungs for more important things, like gossiping. So I took up the drums. The bass drum, to be exact. All was going well until the day the mallet slipped out of my hand and hit the drum teacher square in the forehead. He wasn't so pleased, to say the least. Many said drums were for boys, but I chose to disagree. Plus, we had all the fun in the back of the room. While the rest of the band members had to sit in stiff chairs and squeak out parade tunes, we could take turns sticking our gum to the cupboards in the back of the room and eat potato chips when no one was looking.
When I gradutated and got married, I figured all the pressures were gone. I didnt have to impress anyone with my skills, my sports, my abilities. Wrong! Now came a whole new set of expectations as I dove into motherhood and became a homemaker. Homemakers, I learned, are called just that for a reason. They make a home. They cook gourmet meals, they decorate Martha Stewart style, they host fancy parties, they dust on a weekly basis, they have clean toilets and perfectly folded laundry, and of course, they are crafty. For years, I tried to keep up. I threw the fancy parties, slaved away at dishes I could hardly pronounce, and tried keeping a clean house, all to no avail. Humbling to me was the day a woman came to visit my new baby and offered to mop my kitchen floor! Granted, there were sticky things wedged under the chairs that had been lying dormant for weeks now, but still! I was so embarrassed. And then there was my lack of, shall we say, crafting ability. I spent five years in MOPS, where I enjoyed wonderful speakers, a brunch and new friends. What I did NOT enjoy was the craft. Inevitibly, we'd have to make some stupid popsicle stick picture frame or, heaven forbid, something involving paint, and that always turned out disastrous. Most of my projects ended up in the garbage when I got home, or, if they were halfway decent, I'd claim my kindergartener made it and say "We are just so proud of him!" On one occasion, I was actually quite proud of my hand painted apron I'd created. But by the time I got it to the car, a huge gust of wind kicked up and blew the darned apron straight into my face. Paint everywhere. You get the picture. Another one for the trash.
For years, this went on. Me trying to be the Proverbs 31 woman, wondering why on earth God hadnt made me a morning person, wondering if I'd ever "get my act together" and have a clean, well organized house like my next door neighbor. I attended seminars on organization, but I fell asleep in the middle of them. To organize things, you had to be organized, and that just wasnt me. It's like being pregnant. You either are or you aren't. And I'm not.
And then there was the church thing. The super "good" church ladies prayed elegant prayers and made the best croissants for the brunches and volunteered at all the functions and said just the right thing at the right time. And then there was me, with my sincere but sort of embarrassing prayers, always sticking my foot in my mouth. As for the croissants? Mine were usually store bought, or if they were homemade, I'd usually forget an ingredient or two, and then wonder why a whole plate of them was left after the function. Always a day too late and a dollar too short, as my grandmother would say. I just couldnt get it "right."
But over these last two years (the most difficult of my life) I've learned to give myself grace. I've come to learn who I truly am, and I'm finally okay with that. Someone once said that growing up is about learning not just who you are, but who you arent. I finally understand who I'm not. I'm not a prim and proper gourmet Martha Stewart cook whose house could be pictured in Sunset magazine. I'm not a seamstress, I'm not a crafter, I'm not an athlete. For years, I've thought it would be cool to run a marathon, but I've finally resigned to this idea. For me, running is, well, pure torture. While others find it exhiliarating, I find it excruciating. I wonder why anyone would want to purposely inflict pain on themselves. I mean, I get it, the cute shoes, the medals, the adrenaline rush..I just cant do it. But guess what? I love to kickbox. I love lifting weights, I love walking, and I love sleeping (which I've deemed a new sport for all those new mommies out there!)
Other things I'm not? Super clean, super disciplined, super smart. But you know what? I'm okay with that. Why? Because I know who I am. I'm fun (at least I've been told that on occasion), I'm a writer, I'm a musician (even though I flunked violin and cant hold a tune to save my life!) I'm a good friend, I'm a decent mom, I'm a semi good cook (semi because the recipes only turn out good some of the time..but when they do, they're really good!) I'm deep but not super serious, I'm sarcastic and absent minded, I'm sensitive and compassionate. I dont need to be my mother, your mother, or anyone else's mother. I dont need to be Martha Stewart (who by the way I never wanted to be anyway!) and I'm not Beethoven or Serena Williams. I'm probably not the person you'd want heading up your bake sale or organizing your prayer meeting, but I do make a pretty mean potato casserole. If you come to my house, you might find things stuck the floor, the pillows might not be fluffed and the kids might be runing around half naked. But I can gurantee a good conversation and a nice shoulder to cry on.
I wish I'd figured this all out before, but alas, it's taken me 33 years to just sort of scratch the surface. Still, I must say, I feel more free than I have in my life. I'll never forget that comedian, for she helped me to see that we dont all have to fit into a nice, pretty box, that we dont have to be who "they" (whoever they is, anyway!) say we have to be. God's made us all different, all unique, and if I'm going to keep telling my kids that I'm going to have to start believing it too!

Mar 6, 2010

Beware...Work in Progress!

Wow! I glanced at the last blog date and realized it has been over a year since I've posted on here! Where does the time go when you're uh, having fun?! I started this blog to share lighthearted stories about the adventures in mommyhood, but with the recent events in my life, I thought I'd expand my "genre" in hopes that you might be encouraged, or, perhaps, encourage ME! :)
In November of 2009, my husband was laid off from his of the many victims of the terrible economic crisis in the U.S. A month away from completing his masters degree, my husband, who also holds a CPA license, never dreamed it would be his turn. Jobs had always come easily to him in the past..a bit too easily, to be honest. Boy, were we about to be humbled.
I found out about his job loss on my way home from a doctor's appointment, during which the doctor had informed me that my oldest son had broken his foot. This came on top of another medical younger son had sliced his finger open with a knife three days earlier, cutting through a nerve and a tendon. He would need surgery the following week. Having struggled with my own set of health problems for the past two years, I felt I was literally at the cracking point. So, it may not come as a surprise to you that when my husband delivered the news (via cell I was pulling out of the doctors parking lot) that I laughed half the way home and then cried the rest of the way. My oldest son simply patted my arm and told me "God wants us to have joy in our trials, remember, Mom?" Pretty impressive coming from a 13 year old. I'm embarrassed to say I had a hard time swallowing his advice. Sure, I knew the verse (James 1) but joy seemed the farthest thing from my mind at the moment. Panic? Yes. Exhaustion? Check. But joy? Not so much.
Its' been four months since that day. My husband is still out of work, without one call back on the dozens of resumes he's sent out. To summarize, it's been a roller coaster ride. One day, I'm up, the next day, I'm down. Some days, it's all I can do to pull my body out of bed. I wish I could tell you that I have tremendous faith, but some days, it feels more like that little mustard seed. I want to see the end result.and I want to see it now! I'm a victim of the microwave society that wants everything fixed in a moment's time. Internet down for five minutes? Let's hope we don't have a heart attack! Three cars in front of us in the Taco Bell drive thru? A litle faster, please! We want to snap our fingers and solve the world's problems, including our own, but sometimes it's not quite as simple as that. You see, there's work to be done. Things God wants to show us. Lessons to be learned. Grace to be found. Joys to be shared. And none of that could be possible if we lived in a perfect world without trials. We want comfortable, but how does one grow when everything's peachy keen 24/7? Boy, if anyone needs work, it's me! Just like a house in the middle of a remodel, I'm a work in progress. Most remodels take longer than expected. The process is sometimes painful, agonizing and frustrating. But the results? Stunning. A few years ago, our friends remodeled their home, nearly doubling the square footage. You can imagine all the work that was involved. The project was expected to take six months but ended up taking two years! It was through much blood, sweat and tears that that house was finally complete. It is beautiful, let me tell you. Granite counters, cherry wood cabinets, an ornately carved front door that sets the stage for what's to come inside. But it wasn't always this way. Dust and nails littered the floor, light fixtures hung half finished from the ceiling, holes in the drywall made one wonder if the house might literally come crumbling down in the process. But in the end, our friends got the beautiful house of their dreams. Oh, the landscaping still has yet to be done. Weeds cover the front and back yard, an afterthought in the process. But the overall project is complete. And if you ask my friends, they'll say it was all worth it.
I like to think my life is something like that remodel. Years ago, I didnt think I needed a remodel. I thought I was just fine the way I was. Life was going along swimmingly, and I was content, comfortable. And that was just the problem, you see. I was comfortable. It was when the trials began to son's special needs, a health crisis, a devastating move, the loss of a dear friend, the foreclosure of our home, and most recently, a job loss, that that comfy little bubble began to crack. Everything I thought I was and everything I thought I knew was shaken to the core. Oh sure, I knew the verses. I knew the sermons. I knew the songs. I knew what to do, but did I really believe it? Did I really believe God was good, had a plan, cares about our every need, provides for the birds and provides for his kids? Sometimes, I wasn't so sure. I got angry at God, plain mad. One evening, I went out into my garage and threw things at the wall. Before you write me off as crazy, hear me out. It was one of the most exhiliarating things I've done in my life. I picked up everything on the ground that looked invaluable and threw it as hard as I could at the wall. Bam! Bam! Boy, it felt better than kickboxing at the gym! And then, after a few minutes, I took a deep breath, walked back inside and read a bedtime story to my daughter. I never did it again, but I sometimes think about that moment and laugh to myself. A remodel? I need a full demolition, I'm afraid! :)
The good news is, those dust and nails on the ground don't stay there forever. One by one, we pick them up, throw them away and start polishing that new floor. And little by little, we see glimpses of the road ahead, the one that points to hope. A hope that can only come from a God who cares, despite what we think or feel at the moment. Perhaps one of the most exciting things in this process has been to see how God has provided for our family. Sometimes it's in the big things, like a family member helping with our rent. And sometimes it's in the little things, like a free fast food coupon that comes in the mail, or a friend saying "Coffee's on me today." At Christmas time, two different anonymous friends sent sweet cards with money tucked inside. I was truly touched and so thankful for their generosity. My son's youth group paid his way to winter camp a few weeks ago, a huge blessing, as he certainly couldnt have gone without that help. A rebate check from Costco came just in time last week, providing groceries for the week. A group of wonderful strangers at a yard sale found my missing wallet and stuffed money inside and prayed for me (that's another story in itself!) Several companies have asked my husband to come and do contract work for them part time, which has equated to nearly a full time job! Just when we think the work might be drying up, more seems to come. The publishing company I write for has acquired more work the past few weeks, another answer to prayer! The bills are being paid...on time! Only God can take the credit for all that!
Our future hangs before us like a giant question mark. If work does not come eventually, do we pack up and move away? I've always been a planner to some degree. I like to glance at my calendar and know what's going on in three months, six months, even a year from now. But the last few years have shown me that, as the verse says, a man can try to plan his life, but it's God who determines his path. I like to believe I have some control over the situation, that if I only pray harder, trust more, something will soon turn up. I like to think that if I could just see that everything's going to be okay in four months, I could get through the next three.But I forget that's in the waiting that the work is being done. One by one, those old windows are being ripped out, replaced by beautiful, clear ones that shine from across the room. I dont want to be an old window. And if it takes getting dirty and dusty in the process of being replaced, so be it. And so we wait. And trust. And believe. Even when it feels like a mustard seed and a mountain.
The recent Haiti quake didn't just rattle a foreign, impoverished country. It rattled us all. Once again, we were reminded that we aren't in control, that in an instant, our world as we know it can come crashing down. We were reminded that only one thing remains constant, certain, the same. God doesn't waver. He doesn't change. He's still got it all figured out. Nothing is too hard for him. And even when we don't get it, and wind up in the garage throwing old plastic lunch boxes at the wall, he isn't shaken. He's the one sure thing.
In the meantime, I'm riding out the roller coaster, trusting, questioning, wondering, waiting, believing. Up, down, up, down. I joke to my husband that as long as both of us aren't down at the same time we'll be okay. So far, so good. I'm remembering my blessings and taking nothing for granted. Hot water, clothes on our back, a (mostly) running car, four healthy kids? Thank you, God. Simplifying's not such a bad thing either. Who knew a game of Connect Four on a Friday night could be so much fun? And, I admit, I've become rather obsessed with finding deals. The challenge of a bargain holds almost as much thrill as a grande nonfat White Chocolate Mocha from Starbucks, and that's saying a lot for a coffee snob like me! Clipping coupons from the Sunday paper is the highlight of my week. Literally. And if you pity me, please don't. I'd take a good yard sale over a Macy's sale any day of the week.
So, in a nutshell, that's my life. I'm a work in progress. You might not want to step inside my doors right now, becuase there's an awful big mess inside. But little by little, God's cleaning it up. Restoring, refinishing, remodeling. Don't you love those "re" words? They hold so much hope! And that, my friends, is what we must hold onto. Hope for tomorrow, hope for a new day, hope because we know that in the end, the finished product will be beautiful. And worth it.