Monday, July 26, 2010

The Curse (and Blessing) of Perfection

Hello, my name is Sarah, and I am a perfectionist. I admit it. Darn it, I just want things to be right. I have been “recovering” for years now, but I can’t seem to kick the desire to have everything (and everyone) in order. For some reason, no matter how many times I learn that there is no perfection in life, I still have some deep-seated need to try for it.

This week we had a family Saturday at home. I didn’t start out with a conscious “Martha Stewart” dream. I just wanted to provide a nice dinner for Bryan before he went to sing at an evening wedding. That was really my only goal. I started a roast at 10 a.m. (believe me, this is not my typical routine). I did some reading and writing, fiddled with my Facebook page, and did the appropriate amount of oo-ing and ah-ing when the girls came to show me their fashionable dress-up clothes. It was a relaxing Saturday…for a while.

Then came the request, “Mom, will you teach us how to sew?” (Yeah, sure, if I knew how!) “Please, Mom! Will you help us make a dress for Baby Kate?” How hard could that be, really? “Yes, later, I replied.” My girls wanted me to teach them a valuable skill. It would be fun to spend time together, right? And so began the vision in my head that looked something like a smarmy episode of Little House on the Prairie.

Before we could get to sewing, we ate our late-afternoon dinner. I forgot to put the carrots into the slow-cooker on time. The potatoes were done and getting cold as I franticly boiled the carrots on the stovetop. Running late for the wedding, Bryan ate in 10 minutes flat. So much for our delicious, heartwarming family meal… Exactly fifteen minutes after the food hit the table, I was rinsing the remnants off the plates. The massive clean up effort was underway. It was exhausting…and pretty unfulfilling.

Hours later, ready to begin the sewing lesson that was sure to redeem the day, I gathered supplies. Toting iron and ironing board up the stairs, I surveyed the playroom. As if traipsing through the ruins of a city after battle, I observed the aftermath of a full day of creative play. Tiny beads blanketed the carpet in my office along with multi-colored pipe cleaners, belly dancer costumes, play money, doll clothes, markers, scissors, tape, paper, Polly Pocket furniture, and assorted naked Barbies and their parts (legs, heads…don’t act like you don’t know what I mean!). My throat began to tighten.

When the clean-up was complete (and I mean complete by the standards of a 6-year old and an 8-year-old), we finally arrived at our hallowed sewing lesson. As I stood at the ironing board preparing the materials and making a pattern for the doll dress, the noise in the little room grew and grew. I gave instructions, but I noticed no one was really listening. Instead, at my feet were two little monkeys using the ribbon I had chosen for the dress to tie their ankles together for a make-shift indoor three-legged race. It was not what I had envisioned.

Three hours later, both girls had gotten a chance to push the pedal and sew a few stitches, which was probably all they wanted to do in the first place. I, on the other hand, had hoped to emerge with an actual doll dress. But, I had made two failed bodices, and I decided to wave the white flag of surrender. Three hours, a big mess, a strained and stressful experience in a small room with my sweet (but busy and noisy) children…and there was nothing to show for it. What does one do next? Eat cake.

Downtrodden, I sat on the couch watching cartoons with the girls, inhaling chocolate cake, and trying to figure out what went wrong. Why does it seem that the more I try, the more I fail?

A commercial came on between cartoons. A preschool teacher touted the amazing properties of Moon Dough. Five impeccably dressed preschool children played quietly and joyfully at a table with the magical play dough. The classroom was immaculate. Every toy was in place except for the ones currently being used. The children shared and managed the supplies without adult help. Perfectly shaped animals and pizza toppings and dough blocks adorned the table. IT WAS TOTALLY UNREALISTIC!

What would that scene look like amongst real people? All of the dough would be brown because the kids would have mixed it all up. The decibel level in the room would rival a rock concert, not a library. Kids would be fighting over supplies and asking for help and tattling. There would be crumbs of dough all over the table, and some of it would be ground into the carpet. The playroom would not look like the Pottery Barn Kids catalog, every toy and supply appropriately categorized and labeled. There would be games with missing pieces, and yes, naked Barbies with missing legs. Some kid would be wiping his runny nose on his sleeve, and some kid would reek of maple syrup because she had yesterday’s breakfast crusted into her hair. Real life ain’t pretty, folks.

And it dawned on me: The whole world has been lying to me about what it means to be a mother. And, I have bought the lie hook, line, and sinker. No wonder I feel disillusioned and disappointed sometimes. That, my friends, is the curse of perfection. There is no perfection under the sun. My children’s counselor used to tell them, “Better done than perfect.” I like that.

With that said, even though there is no perfection “under the sun”, perfection does exist! Sometimes I think we forget that the desires of our heart are often an expression of our longing for eternity. I think, in some ways, my desire for order and beauty and cleanliness and a good meal with family is really a longing for a return to the perfection of the Garden of Eden. It is a longing for the beauty God will bring when Jesus returns and establishes his kingdom on Earth.

Our longing for perfection is not the problem. The problem is looking for the fulfillment of our desire for perfection on this side of Heaven. Randy Alcorn says that Heaven will not be a place where there is a lack of desire, it will instead be a place where there will be constant fulfillment of desire (from his book Heaven).

I don’t know if that means that in Heaven my carrots will always cook before the potatoes get cold or if that means I will have the patience and the wisdom not to care. Either way, we will have an earthly existence in real bodies and get to appreciate the best of God’s creation. We will finally see that many of the desires God placed in our hearts were reflections of his own heart. But, our desires will finally be pure, and they will be fulfilled. Some day we will be blessed by perfection.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Your Own Personal Jesus

Those of you who are products of the eighties will get my title’s attempt at humor. I was in junior high when Depeche Mode popularized those words. Incidentally, I won tickets to their concert on the radio and then had to go out of town suddenly and missed it! After the laborious calling it took to score the tickets (sorry, Mom…I probably hogged the phone!), it was a major teen disappointment to have to give them away. Adulthood, of course, tells me it was no big deal, but the chorus of the song “Personal Jesus” actually rings truer for me today than it did then. I don’t know whether the other lyrics were worth listening to (probably not), but the chorus went, “Your own personal Jesus. Someone to hear your prayers. Someone who cares.”

How true! My Jesus is so very personal. Never have I encountered the wild grace of God like I have in my grief. Never has he shown his love for me like he has in my pain. When the encouragement of others no longer soothes and I am alone, God comes after my heart. Tenderly, persistently, and skillfully, he scoops me up and dusts me off. He squares my shoulders and looks me in the eye. He refutes the lies I have believed and fills me with the truth. And, he gives me surprising gifts of grace. Recently, God has given me the unexpected gift…of red birds.

In March of 2009, we moved. It had been one year and change since Audrey’s death and just a few months since I became aware of my husband’s adultery. Needless to say, I was hurting. Shortly after moving, I began making the same drive down a road by a creek, and nearly every time I got in the car, a red bird would literally swoop in front of my van. I found it beautiful and intriguing, and I asked my friend, who had lived in the neighborhood for years, if she ever saw red birds take nosedives in front of her car on that road. She said she had not.

I don’t know exactly when I decided that those red birds were a sign of God’s love for me. I wasn’t looking for a sign. But, as Spirit-filled Christians know, we talk to God, and sometimes he talks back. Sometimes, he even initiates the conversation. I just love that about him!

Some would say my making a big deal of red birds is silly. But, I say that God can use his creation any way he wants! And, some others would say, “Oh, Audrey is that bird. See, she is always with you.” To that, I say bologna! I’m glad she is not hanging around here with me embodied in some bird! She is alive and well with Jesus and waiting for me!

So, what exactly was God impressing on my soul each time I saw a red bird? God knew my pain. He was never unaware of it. He was always with me. He would never leave me. He would redeem it all. That all aligns with Scripture, right? So, I accepted his gift, and I kept my eyes open.

At first, the sightings were frequent. In June, we went to a family reunion. I was broken-hearted to see extended family members who had never even met Audrey. They would not know how adorable she really was. As much as I longed to bring my whole crew, I could not. When we arrived at the beautiful resort, I opened the curtains to observe the view from our balcony. And, lo and behold, a lone red bird was perched on the railing! The next morning at the family breakfast, yet another red bird sat outside the window as if to observe the proceedings.

When we arrived home from the reunion, my mother lamented that she had not seen a red bird for herself. She, too, was grieved, and she longed for God’s encouragement. While at my home, she sat down to check her email. She could not believe her eyes. A mosaic was being constructed at the school where she worked, and the main subject of the new art piece was a cardinal!

In the fall, my children went to a new school. One day, I was volunteering in Mary Claire’s classroom. When it was time for me to go home, she clung to me and cried. I didn’t want to leave her. Her teacher, not meaning to be curt, shooed me out the door, reassuring me that she would be ok. As I walked down the sidewalk toward my car, I felt outright despair. To leave Mary Claire that day took obediently steeling myself, holding up my chin, turning my back, and putting one foot in front of the other. It felt wrong, even though I knew intellectually that she would be fine. Actually, it felt just like it did the day I steeled myself to turn my back and walk away from that stupid, tiny casket in the cemetery. I was overcome with grief. I got in my car and began to drive. I didn’t want to go home, but I had no idea where I was going to go. In that moment, I looked, and in the median was a red bird. The tears came. I stopped the car. God knew my pain. He had not forgotten me.

It has been about 16 months since God first sent me a red bird. I am always delighted to see one. They make me smile. But, the big mystery is how and why they continue to show up in the midst of despair. Anyone who has experienced a big loss knows what kind of despair I am talking about. There are moments of darkness for me. There are moments when I doubt God and I think it is all just a big lie. I feel like I am deceiving myself and that there could not possibly be a loving God who would allow this kind of pain. Heaven must be a fanciful notion made up by hurting people just trying to comfort themselves. Those moments (sometimes hours or days) are very, very dark. I wish I could say I’m done with that darkness once and for all. But, I know I’m not. I think it is part of the process. What I love is that God is always faithful, despite my lack of faith. He personally ministers to me to bring light to those dark places. He abounds in grace to me!

About two weeks ago, my husband and I were doing the hard work of marriage and grief. Even under “normal” circumstances, this work is not always pretty. Both deeply discouraged, we were of no comfort to one another. And, truthfully, things were looking bleak to the both of us—I mean, really bleak. We had stayed up until 4 a.m. trying to hash things out, and we had to be up the next morning to parent and to “do life”. I was wiped out. Bryan encouraged me to go get a massage. I got in the car, and admittedly, I should not have been operating large machinery. I was at the bottom…again. I cried out to God in anger, “Couldn’t you just give me one of those red birds today?!” Then, I shamed myself on the inside for asking for such a silly “sign” because God “doesn’t work that way.” I forgot about it, at least consciously, until, on the drive home, there flew a red bird. I laughed out loud. God, you are gracious even in my ridiculousness! Your love for me is lavish!

Just this week I was keeping my friend’s 18-month-old son while she traveled with her husband. The child was delightful. My girls were the best helpers. As they watched a Baby Einstein video about animals, I pondered the days of watching Dora and Little Bear with my three little girls in my lap. Why had God not let me finish the work I had started with Audrey? Would there always be this nagging hole? My mom called. She tried to encourage me. But, nothing was penetrating that hardness in my heart. The darkness began to set in again…and then the miracle of God’s grace came. In the very moment I angrily gave voice to my biggest fear (“What if none of it is true? What if this is all there is?”), the word BIRD appeared on the TV screen accompanied by classical music and a picture of (you guessed it) a red bird. And, I wept and wept.

God can use nature, mosaics, and simple preschool videos. He can communicate hope to me in any old way he wishes. Will he always use red birds with me? I don’t know. But, I am reassured time and again that he is lovingly pursuing me. He will use whatever means necessary to encourage and strengthen me because he is personal.

Will he give a “sign” to everyone who asks? No, I don’t think that is a promise. But, he does give us many reasons to believe that he cares about our pain and that he intends to give us the grace we need when we need it—grace that is tailor-made for each of us!

God’s Grace is Personal

Ephesians 4:7 says grace is given to each of us as Christ apportioned it.

1 Peter 5:10 says that after suffering, God will himself restore you and make you strong.

God’s Grace is Enough for Us

2 Corinthians 12:9 says that God’s grace will be enough for us and that it is most perfect when we are weak.

2 Corinthians 9:8 says that God’s grace is so abundant that we will have ALL we need at ALL times so that we can keep doing good work.

God’s Grace to Us Causes Others to Praise Him

2 Corinthians 4:15 says that God’s grace to us will cause others to thank him. Though we are wasting away on the outside, all the while God is renewing us from within.

Whatever your life’s struggles, may you be encouraged by the testimony of God’s faithfulness to me in despair! May it cause you to praise and thank God for his grace-filled, personal attention to each of our lives. And, may you open your eyes to see your very own “red birds” in your pain.