Repentance is now considered a negative word. It implies sin, guilt and shame to the modern mind. Yet, the truth of the biblical quote, “All fall short of the glory of God” (which is perfect love) is pretty obvious.
The problem seems to me that somewhere along the way, we decided that seven was old enough to recognize right from wrong and twenty-one was old enough to take responsibility for our choices. End of story. The reality that we not only can grow in our understanding of and capability to love ( of morality), but were designed to do this at least to the day we die, got lost in the shuffle between Adam and Eve and their apple of damnation and Jesus Christ and the cross of salvation.
What if we use the word “unfinished” to describe our falling short? What if we use the word “growth” for the change implied by the word “repentance.” And then recognize that grace is simply “unconditional love ” in many different guises. And that is the fertilizer, the good soil, that enables growth and change.
Important note: Love does not protect us from the pain of natural consequences from our imperfect human choices. But love/grace stays with us through the whole learning process and has the power to free us to change when we recognize our need for it.
What percentage of the world’s population experiences perfect love from birth to seven? More, probably, than between seven and twenty-one. But where in the world do children experience only that kind of love? In an imperfect world of disease, hunger, greed, war, and TV is it even possible to protect children from knowledge of the fear, pain, and hunger in the world?
Even in a loving family, in affluent circumstances, traumas can still happen at critical stages of a child’s development. I knew a family who had several children and when the youngest was a toddler, the mother stayed with the oldest who had to be in the hospital for a week. After they returned, the youngest would have a panic attack if the mother even went out the front door and could no longer go to sleep except in bed with the parents. Up until a certain age, a child experiences “out of sight” as “gone forever.” By school age, the child seemed to outgrow the fears, but years later, in retrospect, the mother recognized that a profound fear of abandonment has been a strong influence even into adulthood.
We probably all experience the crippling effects of forgotten, even innocently caused traumas, unaware of how they influence our responses and choices in adulthood. The key to freedom is recognizing them, feeling sorrow for how they have wounded us and caused us to misuse others, and then by taking responsibility for seeking healing. Recognition is the beginning of the process. Sometimes awareness alone can free us to break a pattern of response. Other times, it takes time and we can only replace the destructive response with a less harmful one, during the process.
We are terribly vulnerable human beings in a scary and confusing world in a humongous unknown universe. Both, addictions to pleasures and to behaviors that give us the delusion that we are in control, dull the pain of awareness of our human vulnerability. I personally am not into housekeeping. Dust reappears the next day; no feeling of control there. But sorting and organizing lasts a lot longer and is much more satisfying. But sorry you will be, if you come along and disturb my order. And when dealing with painful realities in the middle of the night, but too tired to organize anything, I’ve been known to stand at the kitchen counter and eat half of a peach pie. These are not terribly destructive painkillers, unless I use them to indefinitely avoid looking at what is the root of my particular pain at that time.
I’ve never known anyone that thought this life is heaven. Though there have been times I thought it might be hell. I am definitely no longer a Pollyanna, who saw only the good, because I felt too fragile to deal with the pain of life. Nor am I my midlife self that became a cynic, who expected and tried to prepare for the worst. With grace, I’ve become able to see both in each day; to experience the deep sorrow of loss and the joy of beauty all around me at almost anytime.
When we believe we are loved at our worst and still unfinished at our best, most days we are able to try to be open to how our lives are challenging us to grow. Sometimes, like Peter Pan, my theme song is “I Won’t Grow Up!” But then I remember that life does not give up challenging us, which means I’m just dragging out the process.
We are all a work in progress. Awareness is the key to progress. And that comes in different ways: discomfort within, overloaded responses to people and events, even just something we seem to suddenly read or hear all around us. We will be able to perceive the cues in different ways through different stages of our own life. When I got brave enough to make the leap from agnosticism to faith in grace, I could suddenly make sense of the scripture in spite of all its anomalies. But I met many life long Christians that admitted sadly that they did not really find meaning there. Then later in life, they suddenly found great joy in it. I had loved the Scripture from my early thirties, but during my fifties and sixties it simply became like reading the back of cereal boxes. We all go through stages, but they differ in timing because of our various personalities. So, don’t assume because you have never enjoyed or understood something, that you never will. Like it or not, we grow and change with both losses and gains during the process.
All of this can be seen as psychological or spiritual or both. Mostly, it’s just the way life is, but how we perceive it can make a huge difference in becoming the people in process that we were created to be.
I need to start with a disclaimer of sorts. Our five children not only survived my weird mothering style, but have all become basically good, reasonably happy, creative and productive people. This is the miracle. I dragged our family out of a comfortable suburban ghetto to live in the middle of nowhere, six miles down a dirt road from the nearest small town. We were the first outsiders to move into this particular back in the woods “holler” since before the civil war. It was a different world. After a couple of months, our first grader said to me, “You were right, Mom. We are going to learn a lot from living in the country. Before we rode the school bus out here we didn’t know any cuss words.”
When our preschooler and I spent days exploring the land collecting weeds and rocks for making nature crafts, we weren’t close to a bathroom. And frankly, I never really did very well with the whole toilet training thing anyway. So he just targeted the closest tree. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to teach him a protocol for trips to town where to my chagrin, he dealt creatively with the lack of trees by using car tires instead.
Another of our sons was by nature both incredibly kind and extremely private. For some reason this combination brought out my dark side. One Easter, I put money for each child in a large plastic egg and painted lovely flowers and scenes on them. For reasons known only to God, and maybe Satan, I cement glued this son’s egg together. I knew that of all our children, he would be the only one that wouldn’t destroy the art work to get the money, but he also wouldn’t let anyone know about his problem. Sure enough, there he was surreptitiously grappling with his egg as the others were happily counting their money. He finally quietly slipped away to his room, where fortunately he couldn’t hear his mother’s evil laugh. I finally did weaken and help him break the egg open while promising to paint him another one.
Siblings are going to fight. It’s a law of nature. Having been ten years older than my only sibling, I was not used to family infighting. It drives me over the edge. Our kids fought furiously every single morning. So as soon as they got old enough to pour milk on their cereal and get themselves dressed for school, I simply put the pillow over my head and slept until they left. One morning our oldest came in saying he was sick. Could he stay home? He still claims I was awake and said yes. That day, I was busy with a project and never got over to the kids’ side of the house. When I had finished my project by lunch, I began to regret that I had told him yesterday I wouldn’t be able come after school to take him to a friend’s house. So I called the school to ask them to tell him I would pick him up. I doubt if they ever believed he didn’t skip school, even though I tried to explain why I didn’t remember that my child was home sick.
I was an equal opportunity embarrassment for all my children. I variously humiliated: one by attending her elementary school’s Halloween Open House dressed as a witch, another child by gathering pine cones in his Junior High School yard while his classmates watched from the bus, and also the first musician in our family by running with tears of pride all the way down main street along-side his marching band. And I pretty much humiliated all of them by playing the senile fairy godmother when the local theater group put on a warped version of Cinderella at their schools. The list could go on.
Surprisingly, the only time they actually rebelled as a group was when I put our garden near the faucet right outside our sliding glass doors. In spite of my pressing all my children into forced labor, previous attempts at gardens had failed due to droughts and lack of accessible water. I now read that I could get a tremendous yield from a very small garden by making an environmentally friendly fertilizer using horse manure soaked in buckets of water. Unfortunately, our house was cooled by attic fans and lots of open sliding glass doors. Once spread, the manure tea was horrifically pungent. We had to choose between everyone gagging for days or dripping with sweat from closed doors. My lynch mob family threatened to either set fire to the land or run away from home en masse if I ever attempted another garden. My fantasy of a bountiful farm had to be traded for the creative possibilities of a weed and rock sanctuary.
Another memory resurrected.
I’ve mentioned that my husband and I both grew up in cities and that our move to our own hundred acre paradise was a lot like the old TV series, Green Acres. Dreamer that I am, I had a vision of a bountiful garden, horses, chickens, maybe a cow or two.
My husband did not share this vision.
The kids bought into the animals, but not the garden part. But, by using the art of friendly persuasion, threats and bribes, I got them to all pitch in and with the help of neighbors with a tractor and plow, we put in a half acre garden that first spring living in the wilds.
It turns out that all those delightful forest animals the children enjoyed finding and watching, are not a gardener’s friends. We began to learn the fine art of warring with nature. Reading magazines on being earth…
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The gift of learning to love unconditionally.
The gift of recognizing that life is not about competition, but about becoming the person we alone were created to be.
The gift of wanting others to succeed in their own journey.
The gift of awesome joy over small, but difficult, accomplishments.
The gift of the present moment.
The gift of freedom from living for image or others’ opinions.
The gift of your own best self being called forth.
The gift of patience.
The gift of tenderness toward all those who are vulnerable.
The gift of humane values.
The gift of courage.
The gift of seeing beauty in those different from you.
Every person who has not been blessed with loving a handicapped person, needs to attend a Special Olympics to experience these gifts.
The moment of insight for me was when one of the children fell
down in his race and the other runners turned back to help him up.
And every child was thrilled at finishing their race, even if they were the last to come across the finishing line.
And every parent cheered for all the children, not just their own.
The greatest blessing is learning that life is ultimately not about winning, but about loving.
(Notes from the September 29th sermon at Cross Point Churches in Nashville, Franklin, and Dickson, Tennessee, USA)
Whatever is in our heart comes out of our mouth. Just avoiding sin by keeping quiet is not God’s goal for us. God’s goal is that we will have and share joy, peace, hope, faith, and love.
Everyone needs healing, no matter how fortunate or together they may seem.
Today in our relationships have our words been healing or damaging? For most of us it will have been a mix of both. Some of us did not experience being built up verbally when we were growing up, so we may be uncomfortable loving in this way. But choosing comfort over building others up is a tragic choice.
The scriptures urge us to build others up according to their needs. This assumes we care enough about others to spend the time and effort to learn their needs.
The challenge for today is to list our top 5 closest relationships and become aware of whether we use words to build those loved ones up, or damage them, or just speak about the weather and safe impersonal things, assuming they know they are loved and admired and appreciated., or do we even speak to them on a regular basis at all?
As parents, our grown children, no matter how old, will still be like drought stricken flowers soaking in our life-giving words of affirmation and love. As grown children, our parents, no matter how old or even forgetful, will also soak up words of love and affirmation that will touch and heal their weary hearts. As spouses are the words exchanged in the frantic mornings or the exhausted evenings only reminders like pick up the laundry or questions as to whether we did? Are our longest conversations “nag lists” or worries about the children or money?
Today, tomorrow, the rest of the week, listen not only to your words, but listen to what’s missing. Are our words, words of life, or words of death, or even just silent deserts?
I do not attend this multi-congregational, non-denominational church, but I do listen to the sermons that are streamed online at 6pm on Sunday nights. This is the 3rd in a series of 6 on relationships. This church balances its words with action. The Dickson congregation meets in the high school auditorium. They pay rent, but also do things like paint the walls and this week they are cleaning up the stadium after the football game. They have adopted a stretch of a local road which they keep clean, they are chopping wood for people who need it for winter, and both adults and children visit nursing homes taking food and crafts they have made. They have outreach to Appalachia and third world countries where their members provide much needed services and supplies. They are beginning a new ministry to victims of slavery.
Their sermons can be heard online at Cross Point Church Nashville, Tennessee at 6pm each Sunday by clicking on Messages.
My great-grandson, Aaron, played the xylophone in the junior high band last night. What fun! I could actually hear him, since there was only one xylophone.
He is following in the foot-steps of his great-uncles and great-aunt; Mike (trumpet), Steve (trumpet–until his friend, Donna, drove over it–then a flugel horn provided free by the school), and Julie (flute).
Fortunately for Aaron, if he ever plays in the marching band, I no longer have the stamina to run down Main Street alongside the band with tears of delight streaming down my face. I wonder if Mike has managed to blot that total humiliation out of his memory? Probably not.
The last time Steve came home for a visit, he was still shuddering over his memory of sitting on the junior high school bus with all his friends watching me collect pinecones from under the schoolyard Pine tree.
In spite of starting out frozen with embarrassment, Julie eventually forgave me for attending Parents’ Night on Halloween in a witch’s costume, because her classmates thought it was cool.
But, you are safe Aaron. I have gotten at least a little kinder with age, plus I no longer have the energy required to totally humiliate a third generation of teen-agers.
I now even have a plan for when I get really squirrelly in my old age. I already talk out loud to myself at home and laugh out loud at funny thoughts while driving. So when I noticed an older woman at a crosswalk talking out loud to herself as she walked along, I thought, “Oh dear Lord, there I go in a few years.”
But then I remembered a couple of friends who are at about my level of squirrelliness and it occurred to me that if I just keep hanging out with them, when we walk around together talking to ourselves, it will look like we are talking to each other. The key to old age is to travel in packs.
Plan in place. Problem solved.
This is a poem written by my best friend in highschool and college. We’ve kept up with each other for sixty-three years across the miles between Connecticutt and Tennessee.
Our journeys have been amazingly similar in the things that count, like family and spirituality. I have saved her letters and her writings from all the way back to highschool. I was reorganizing my files and found this and it touched my heart.
To My Children
I gave you life,
I gave you love: or tried to.
Sometimes I gave you pain.
The scars you carry still.
Because of my own wounds, I wounded you.
I wanted you to know God loved you;
But often my faith was feeble
As a candle
Flickering in the darkness –
And so you had too little light.
Sometimes I gave you much too much.
Sometimes my well was dry.
I gave you dung and dirt, sun and rain;
The things all flowers need
To live, to grow.
All that I gave you, good and bad,
I cannot take it back.
The soil is tilled; the seed is sown.
The rest is up to you, dear child.
Whatever road you take,
I wish you joy and peace and courage.
My prayers are with you
And my love.
As the mother of five, grandmother of eleven, great-grandmother of seven, and incidentally, the owner of a nicely framed diploma in psychology, I want to share some gems of wisdom gained the hard way, trial and error, with an emphasis on the error.
1. When you do co-create another human being with God, trust God a little! He stays involved. He gives human babies to human parents. As far as I’ve been able to tell, perfect beings like angels, don’t procreate.
2. Go ahead and read the child psychology books; they can help you hear where your child is coming from. But don’t take them straight. Mix them liberally with books by Erma Bombeck. There’s nothing better than a sense of humor for keeping life in perspective.
3. Do pray unceasingly for your first child. This is your practice one. God will have to invest a lot more in that partnership.
4. Accept the fact that on your first child you will spend a lot of Saturdays with your pediatrician. There is an unwritten law of nature that children only swallow dimes on weekends.
5. But know that when your second child swallows a dime, you will just calmly feed them bread and watch for the dime to make its journey back to daylight. With the third child you won’t bother to watch for it unless you know it was minted before 1945. And your fourth child won’t swallow dimes, because they will already be full from eating the dog’s food.
In my experience, the real fun of parenting came about child number four and the sheer joy with child number five. But then, I always was a slow learner.
Seven Basic Facts to Help You Enjoy Your Children
1. You don’t have to enjoy all the rigors of baby care to enjoy children. Infancy doesn’t last long.
2. A child can fix a reasonably healthy breakfast for themselves (and you) by the time they are five. (Their spouse will thank you for it someday.)
3. Their first grade teacher will toilet train them if you don’t get around to it. (Though they will undoubtedly not thank you for it.)
4. The child that you bat heads with from birth to puberty will astound you by winning awards and honors in high school. (The flip side of stubbornness is perseverance.)
5. Out of five children fed the same kind of food from birth, – no matter what you do – Two will eat only hamburgers and pizza until marriage. Two will eat nourishing and well balanced meals in reasonable amounts. One will eat everything in sight in over generous amounts.
6. Almost nobody normal enjoys their own Junior High age kids. But, God can give you enough grace to keep your homicidal tendencies reasonably repressed, and if you hang loose, they become interesting people and friends somewhere between 21 and 30. (Don’t let anyone tell you that God isn’t still doing major miracles.)
7. And best of all, some day when you are holding your brand new first grandchild and find tears of complete joy streaming down your face, you will realize how very carefully, if sometimes painfully, God has taught you to love unconditionally.
It’s that every child is different. They arrive different. They are motivated differently. They learn differently. They express themselves differently. Their emotional responses to everything in life can be light years apart from their siblings and even you. Their strengths and weaknesses are like day and night from one another. And whether it’s your children or your students, many or sometimes, even most, will be different from you in all these ways.
That sounds obvious, but if you watch yourself as a parent or teacher, you soon realize that we expect them to respond as we do, to be motivated by what motivates us, to come from inner viewpoints that are similar to our own. To even have the same intuitive knowledge about people or right and wrong that we do. Even your first child may seem like an alien from Mars and throw you for a loop as a parent. (That difference may inadvertently insure that they remain an only child.)
To a certain extent it is their inalienable right to be different. The reality, of course, is that to some extent as social beings, we all have to learn to accept group limits and learn to adapt as best we can in a world that does not center around us.
The most helpful tool for recognizing and understanding many of these differences that I have found, so far, is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. My husband and I are extreme opposites on every area of personality that this attempts to describe. (Married for fifty-four years, we consider our marriage a witness to the possibilityof world peace. Though we admit that his intense dislike of change and my devout cowardice at the thought of raising five children alone may have been significant factors.)
And our five children are mixes of every imaginable combination of our personality traits. Imagine my surprise when everything that worked so well with number one, evoked a totally opposite response from number two, etc., etc., etc.
Though as a past consultant on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I’ve done workshops on its significance in education, spirituality, marriage, and management, at seventy-five I am not up to date on the best resources. The internet has many, but the quality varies greatly. If you are interested in following up on this, use the Association for Psychological Type as a guide.
Addendum: For examples of differences in a first and second grade class see post: Important Things I Learned from First Graders When I Was Forty: June 28