Monday, October 12, 2009

The Good Life

The Good Life

“Of course you’re miserable!” said my advisor Dan, looking over his spectacles at me, “As a doctoral student in Human Development and Social Policy, you of all people should remember that your timing is all wrong for graduate school.” We sat in Dan’s office, and I was whining about my life—my insecure, powerless and confused life. I felt stressed, discontent and anxious. Now I also felt slightly guilty--he knew I was a follower of Jesus and I wasn’t making Jesus look very good by spewing forth all my angst.

But Dan’s comment stopped me short because he was right—according to adult development studies, my timing was all wrong! I entered graduate school straight out of college, and if I charted my life forward, all the major tasks of school and career development directly conflicted with my other goals, especially the hope of having babies. In class we discussed how graduate school put us in a time warp compared to our peers. As our age-peers married, bought houses, bore children, earned money, and climbed their career ladders, we graduate students could feel like we were just standing still, or still worse, going backwards. Looking at the research on women’s lives and my own sorry existence, my on-going argument with Jesus about graduate school intensified. Led by wise advisors, circumstances and prayer to graduate school, I couldn’t help but feel like it had been one big sorry mistake, and if it wasn’t, then Jesus apparently cared little for the quality of my life.

Sad to say, twenty years later, I sometimes still feel the same panic I felt in Dan’s office even though on the outside, I can look like a woman who “has it all.” Despite the nine year route to finishing my degree, I finished, and you can call me Dr. Kathy thank-you-very-much! I have an interesting and enriching job with gifted and fascinating colleagues and students. I married a wonderful man and we have three healthy children. We even own two cars, a home, and stainless steel appliances. So if my life is crammed with blessings, why do I regularly feel my timing is all wrong, that I’ve fallen behind, and that the land around me is scorched and dry?

A quick answer is that I am bombarded every day with messages about the “good life.” It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see how my life falls short--especially since the definition of a “good life” changes depending on the crowd you’re with. At Harvard, where I’ve worked with doctoral students for the past eleven years, the good life means achieving tenure at a top-tier university. In both the public and private sectors, the good life usually involves rising to a certain level of management, wealth and power. Among certain social activists, the good life entails living harmoniously with nature and humanity, eating organic, marching for justice, or tutoring needy children. In women’s self-help magazines, the good life requires embracing our own positive potential, exercising 30 minutes a day, and losing at least 10-15 pounds. Even individual churches promote a vision of the good life—my church’s motto is “empowering impossibly great lives.”

As I haven’t hit the mark in any of these areas, these competing visions just make me feel tired and discouraged. Where is my impossibly great life? Does God even want me to have a great life? Is it right to ask God for more blessing when I have already been so blessed?

When faced with such eternal questions, I go back to the beginning, to Genesis 1-3. In Genesis 1-2, we see two stories of perfect creation, creation which bursts forth with life, teeming with flora and fauna, all riotously growing and abundant. In fact, God commands all creation to flourish--to be fruitful, to multiply—and pronounces his final product very good. Man and woman together steward creation. The lion lies down with the lamb. Either mosquitoes don’t exist or human bodies are not their food source. Adam and Eve literally hear God’s footsteps in the garden, hear his voice calling them by name, and talk with God face to face while joyfully working the jobs He’s given them to do--naming animals and tilling the garden.

Then comes the fall. The serpent tempts Eve, Eve persuades Adam, the two of them eat the forbidden fruit, and the world is never the same again. Their tiny act of disobedience bears huge ramifications for this planet. What once was lush and green now becomes withered and parched. In an instant, lions chew on lambs, mosquitoes gorge on humans, and humans develop a rapacious appetite that threatens to devour all of creation. Human life--once overflowing with plenty--becomes characterized by scarcity and suffering: male and female begin the epic battle to dominate one another; toil replaces joyful tilling; thorns and thistles grow where fruit once abounded; agony and death now shadow the bringing forth of life.

Genesis 1-3 describes both the promise and the tragedy. God created humankind for the good life, but the fall means our pursuit of this good life is regularly thwarted. No wonder thinking about it makes me feel tired.

As the founding member of Overachiever’s Anonymous (a group I attempted to start at Harvard, but failed at when students didn’t rush at the chance to admit they were overachievers and that it was destroying their lives), I’ve had my share of ups and downs on the road to recovery. A key part of healing has involved realizing that the source of a good life has little to do with my work: the degrees I’ve achieved; the job title I possess; the valuable contributions I’ve made. Neither does living water flow from my relationships. Husband, children, friends, and community are great blessings, but can be the font of every burden as well.

My overachieving mentality can also bleed into my spiritual life. For almost all of my cognizant life, the Daily Quiet Time, the epitome of evangelical Christian spirituality, created inordinate amounts of guilt in my life—mostly because I rarely did it. On the few occasions I disciplined myself to daily pray and read the Bible, I often found my devotional time dry and meaningless, something I performed just to say I did it, to feel better about myself as a spiritual person, rather than to relate to the God of the universe.

But in these last years, something has slowly shifted. Although prayer can still feel dry and rote at times, increasingly, as I make space for God, prayer becomes a way to receive rather than prove myself. And the more I’m able to rest in God’s presence, the more I experience just how good God is, and how good are his intentions for me and the world. The closest I’ve come to sheer contentment, to sitting back and tasting the goodness of life are those evanescent instants when God somehow breaks through my harried busyness and I experience His presence and love. In those grace-filled moments, I need not perform, indeed I cannot perform--all I can do is receive. In God’s presence, I know God’s character and will. Of course he wants me to flourish—to grow, to thrive, to blossom, yes even to prosper—after all, that’s my heart’s desire for my children, and God is a much more loving, patient and kind parent than I am.

Awhile ago, I had a crazy dream. I dreamt that my husband Scott took me on a surprise visit to the Oprah Winfrey show. Although in real life I’ve never seen the program, in the dream, the Oprah Winfrey show was my favorite show of all time. But Scott hadn’t told me about it ahead of time, and I didn’t like how he planned the whole thing. At one point in the dream, I literally turned my back to the stage because it was more important for me to tell Scott my bad feelings than to watch my most favorite thing in the whole world.

When I awoke, I knew the dream wasn’t primarily about my marriage (even though Scott almost sang “glory glory hallelujah” when I told him about it). I knew it was about my relationship with God. Lying in bed, I immediately begged Jesus to change whatever lies within me that is so critical and negative that I’d rather control everything than enjoy the great surprises he wants to give me. He has taken me to various destinations—graduate school, marriage, motherhood and career among them—and I hope he will lead me through many more adventures. But the source of the good life is not the attractions, the speed in which we get there, or the order in which they all happen. The good life comes from every now and then hearing an unexpected crunch in the grass of a footstep and then a voice call out my name.

(First published in "The Well" in 2007)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Spiritual Formation for those beset by Plumbing Demons

Isaiah 40:11 He gently leads those who have young.

BK (before kids), I was notoriously bad at quiet times. As an ENFP, I both lacked discipline and in the rare periods when I disciplined myself to have a daily quiet time, quickly felt how inauthentic my prayer felt—too often it was about checking the “time with God” box than actually meeting God. So I dreaded what would happen to my already spotty spiritual disciplines when I had kids! But thankfully, forming me into Christ’s image is not my responsibility, but God’s. God is the potter; I am the clay. Motherhood, with all its chaos and demands, can be a time when we’re particularly malleable to Jesus.

Having kids changes everything! How God forms us; how we best meet with God; what spiritual disciplines work or don’t work. When your baby needs to nurse every 1-3 hours and sleeps for only 90 minute stretches throughout the night, your spiritual disciplines BK may not work anymore. Disciplines such as daily quiet times, long meditative prayer times, days spent alone on silent retreat, deep meaningful conversations with an accountability partner, uninterrupted immersion in manuscript study, may all be shattered by the wails of the baby or impossible to undertake in the first place. Even when we carve out space to practice these disciplines, we usually can’t stay awake!

Often mothers experience tremendous guilt around these changes, thinking they’ve become unspiritual, godless, prayerless and faithless. As a Chinese-American performance junkie, my faith BK often revolved around an activist faith, where I pursued God and encouraged students and faculty to pursue with me. But when my life became subsumed with spurting milk ducts, hormonal swings and exploding diapers, there wasn’t much I could “do” for God. When our perception of God’s love for us revolves around our performance, we can quickly sink into discouragement as we lose our ability to perform.

The good news is that the chaos, exhaustion and transition of motherhood gives us the opportunity to step into a better theology—one where God pursues us, and where we matter solely because we are His beloved. New motherhood gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn and experience God’s grace as we embrace a new season of life. The good news for those of us who juggle many roles is that learning these deep truths about God and ourselves will only deepen and mature our character, our work and our relationships.

Here are some lessons and hints I’ve learned along the journey:

1. Spending time with God is not about hitting some standard to make God happy, instead it’s about receiving my identity as His beloved, receiving His blessing, nurture and resources.

The former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Steve Hayner, once wrote in a letter to staff that kids are the only ones who get it right at Christmas. As they’re obsessed with presents, they embody the spiritual truth that when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, all we can do is receive. Ironically, motherhood is a time when we can feel like a vending machine—everyone wants a part of us. In our often frantic quest to meet others needs, isn’t it refreshing to know that God demands nothing, just wants us to receive from Him?

The chaos of motherhood these past thirteen years has taught me to spend time with God, not because I have anything to give him, but because He has everything to give me.

2. There’s a reason the metaphor of God as a parent is so important in the Bible! Parenthood brings a new experience of:

God’s Love: I am a slow bonder with my kids—in fact, I don’t bond until they smile. But when my oldest first smiled, I felt overwhelmed by the swoosh of love that filled me, the love of a lioness that would do anything and everything to protect and nurture that child. I loved her so much just thinking about that love made me cry. And that gave me multiple opportunities throughout the day to reflect on God’s love for me. I didn’t have time to pray much more than, “God, if you love me anything like I love this baby, you must love me a lot!!” And through the fog of hormones and sleep deprivation, I sensed God’s joy and affirmation, “yes, I do, yes I do.”

Our sin and frailty: If you’re one of those women who has limitless patience and pours yourself in service with nary a complaint, you can skip this part. If you’re like the rest of us who get harried, whiny, and angry you have probably found that motherhood has shown you sins you thought you’d conquered long ago, or revealed new sins and fears that had never existed before! In the ten years between leaving my family of origin and creating my own family, I somehow thought I’d dealt with most of my character flaws. Then I got married. And then I had kids.

As I’ve found myself sinning against my children, often multiple times a day, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with guilt and shame. Some days I wonder whether Jesus’s death on the cross really could atone for my behavior. My still-alive performance junkie rejects how often I actually need to go back to Jesus for forgiveness—shouldn’t I have licked my anger problem by now? Although painful, the wonderful thing about recognizing our own sin (over and over again) is that we can receive more of. . .

Jesus’s forgiveness! Jesus told us as only those who are sick need a doctor, only those who are sinners need him. Being a mom means we are given opportunities to receive his forgiveness multiple times throughout the day, a process which deepens our love relationship with him, our need for the practical power and transformation of the Holy Spirit, and our sense of gratitude to God the Father.

3. Find new wineskins

Gordon Smith talks about how spiritual disciplines are “cups” to carry and drink the living water of Christ. Thank God that the church has discovered a multitude of “cups” over the centuries. God may even help you discover your own special cup during this time of parenting. Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (IVP) lists 62! Here are some “cups” which have been helpful to me and new moms I’ve known:

· Examen: The discipline of examen helps us recognize where God has been active throughout the day and where we were able to either receive or ignore His presence. There are various forms and ways of doing the examen. But the quick and dirty way we do it in our family (with kids) is everyone prays 3 one sentence prayers beginning with the words “Thank you. . . Sorry. . . and Please.”

· Practicing the Presence of God: If Brother Lawrence could learn this discipline over dishes, we can learn this discipline over diapers! After hearing that my favorite thing to do on a spiritual retreat was to take a bubble bath, one of my spiritual directors encouraged me to use soap lather every time I washed my hands or did the dishes to remember the luxury of God’s love.

· Confession: Because motherhood unearths and unleashes old and new sin patterns, it is helpful to have a safe person or two with whom we can confess our sins. Apart from sins of anxiety, control, impatience, irritability, rage, unholy speech and stinginess, I also found myself struggling with feeling overshadowed and left behind in my InterVarsity work. I felt envious towards men, especially those younger than me, who I perceived were able to sire children, plunge themselves into ministry and write books in their spare time when I could barely take a shower! In those spaces, having loving, non-judgmental folks who could hear my confession and speak Christ’s grace and forgiveness over me brought me to Jesus in a way I couldn’t go alone.

· Spiritual Direction: Although finding time, money and babysitting to see a spiritual director may feel daunting, I have found spiritual direction to be one of the greatest graces God has given me through this time of motherhood. When my life can sound like a noisy gong (“More food! More attention! More chauffering!”), having a wise prayerful director who listens well, helps me discern God’s movement in my life, and directs my prayer has helped me hear God’s whisper in the whirlwind. At times, it’s felt like marriage therapy between me and God. Other times I’ve had forgiveness pronounced over me, or power prayed into me.

· A long obedience in the same direction: God once showed me that growing in relationship with Him was a lot like growing my marriage, many small positive steps towards building trust and love. My husband and I have grace for one another that we’re just too tired to have deep loving conversations and ecstatic love-making every night. In marriage, we’ve found it’s helpful to schedule in brief check-ins daily, weekly date nights where we can catch up more fully, and if, once or twice a year, someone gives us a weekend away just the two of us, we experience anew why we chose to marry one another.

If my husband can show grace, God has even abundantly more grace for the vicissitudes of life! My interactions with God have the same rhythms of my marriage--we touch base throughout the day, but rarely have time for deep long conversations. Once a week or so, it’s helpful to have a deeper conversation—in my life, usually a time of worship and longer journaling where I try to “be real” with what’s really going on. Then at least twice a year, it’s a super treat if God and I enjoy a couple days away together at a silent retreat. It’s at those times that I generally can both hear God’s voice the best and receive his love and centering grace.

When my babies were nursing, it was almost impossible to have those overnight spiritual retreats, but one time, when I was really in bad shape, my loving husband brought the 10 month old to nurse throughout my weekend at the monastery! It freaked the brothers out a little, but he gave me the precious time I needed with Jesus.

Whatever the wineskins or cups God presents you with, remember, the most important piece of our spiritual formation is trusting that God wants to form us more than we want to be formed. As we lay our lives before him, our messy lives with hormonal bodies and wracked emotions, we are exactly the clay God wants to get His fingers into, shaping us into the image of His Son.

Note: This article was written for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff moms, so has that population in mind. Helpful thoughts were provided by my wonderful colleague Kathy Cooper!