Thursday, January 11, 2018

could i have grace instead?



I paced around our small bedroom, bouncing a swaddled infant and singing Jesus Loves Me. We were interrupted by a knock on the door, again. Andrew was only a few weeks old, and his two-year-old big sister had not yet mastered the art of playing quietly in the other room while I put him down for a morning nap. I whipped open the door and knelt down to Charlotte's level. "If you knock on this door again, you will have a time out."

The knocking did not stop, but it did change to a soft tapping, allowing me just enough peace for Andrew to doze off. I laid him in the pack 'n play and moved toward the door, committed to following through with my threat. I didn't care how many times I put her in time out over the next few days, that little girl would learn to be quiet when her brother was napping.

I opened the bedroom door to see her sitting in the hallway surrounded by pretend food. She smiled. So big. So genuine.

Shoot. Stick to your guns, Joy.

"I made you soup," she said, holding out a small plastic pot filled with wooden carrots and peppers.

Oof. Don't cave. Don't you dare be a parent who spits out empty threats. 

"Charlotte, thank you for the soup, but you kept knocking on the door when I said to stop. You have a time out." As expected, the tears began, but it wasn't temper tantrum tears; she was sad, disappointed. She finally had my attention, and I was barreling in with a consequence.

I was flooded with compassion. She'd been a big sister for sixteen days, and I expected her to play quietly in the living room while I snuggled and smooched her brother. I was being unreasonable, and I knew it. She didn't need a lesson in obedience right now; she needed grace.

My next sentences were a jumbled mess. There was something about how she'd made a mistake by not obeying. Something else about not getting what she deserved, and I probably threw in something about Jesus for good measure. It wasn't eloquent and possibly not theologically sound. But if I want my children to grasp the grace of Jesus, I need to fill our home with tiny snippets of grace. This was a first, mediocre attempt.

"So," I concluded,  "Mommy is going to give you grace instead."

I exhaled a sigh of relief, hoping to move past the moment, but Charlotte wasn't done. She looked at me with expectation and held out her hand.

"Grace," she demanded. "I want grace."

Oh rats. My holy moment was coming to an abrupt ending as I realized Charlotte wanted something put in her hand. I told her I was giving her grace, and she was ready to receive. No doubt she imagined grace to resemble a chocolate chip cookie.

"I want grace," she demanded again, now stretching out both hands.

"Well honey," I began, knowing I was already sunk, "grace isn't something I can put in your hand. It's kind of like..." Oh, this ought to be good. "Like...a hug."

A hug? Really, Joy? Grace is like a hug?

It seemed appropriate to lean in for a hug, but she pushed me away in frustration. With her hands outstretched and head flung backwards, she began screaming, "Grace! Grace! I want grace! Give me grace!"

Preach it, sister. We all do.

Would you think less of me if I told you I went and got her the cookie?


*****

A few months ago, the kids and I met some friends at an indoor play place. We played, ate lunch, and played some more. I intentionally held off on dessert knowing it might be just the motivator I would need to gather the darlings when it was time to go. There were a dozen candy machines next to the escalator, and I'd be happy to trade a quarter for a handful of Skittles if it meant a smooth exit to the car.

It was nearing 1:00. I gave the five minute warning.

The one minute warning.

Then the casual, "Time to go," as I swung the diaper bag over my shoulder and turned toward the exit.

No one followed. Shocking.

Eye contact was made, and I mouthed the words, "Let's go," from across the room, complete with a forceful hand gesture and deathly mama glare.

No response.

I walked toward them as they ran even further from me, a sure trigger for my blood to start boiling. I knew it wouldn't be easy to collect the darlings, but I had to keep my composure. After all, there were other moms watching me. I couldn't go all crazy mom, yet.

They began climbing a giant pig structure and I moved in, ready to pull a good, old-fashioned dessert threat out of my back pocket.

"You need to come now, or you will not be able to get a treat." I stood silently and watched them disregard my instructions with glee.

The next ten minutes were a blur, and I can't remember how I wrangled them in, zipped their coats, and tied their shoes. I was frustrated, tired, and ready to enforce my threat. Today I would teach them a lesson, even if it meant screams and tears because by golly, when I say it is time to go, it is time. To. Go.

We approached the escalator and the colorful candy machines locked eyes with my children.

"Can we get a treat, mom? Please, can we get a treat?"

Deep breath. Here we go.

"No. I told you it was time to leave, and you didn't come. Your consequence is no treat today." Boom. Done. Consequence enforced. Lesson learned. Well done, mom.

"But please, can we just get one treat?"

"No. I told you it was time to leave, and you didn't come. Your consequence is no treat today."

Charlotte stopped walking, and I braced myself for the inevitable wailing. She buried her face in her hands and let out a loud frustrated exhale. A moment later she looked up and said, "I'm sorry. Could I have grace instead?"

Insert pin drop.

What just happened?

Did she ask for grace?

Is she allowed to do that?

Am I allowed to do that?

I've made stupid choices recently, some toeing the line of foolish and others that are downright sinful. Either way, they are mistakes deserving of a consequence. I never considered just asking for grace. I've opted for guilt instead, fearfully waiting for a smack down that might finally teach me a lesson.

Guilt is a poisonous beast I rarely see in my children. They mess up all the time but are never slowed down, dragged down, or consumed with guilt. I, on the other hand, talk with the Lord about the same foolish choices for months, continue to apologize, and then dwell some more in the sorrow of my stupidity.

Could it really be that simple? Am I allowed to just ask for grace instead of a deserving consequence? Grace instead of guilt?

In Matthew 18:2, Jesus says that we must "become as little children" in order to enter the kingdom of God. It is from this verse that the church coined the term "childlike faith," a phrase tossed around when Jesus stops making sense in our grown-up lives. Jesus is pretty confusing to me most days, and I am not crazy about this "childlike faith" phrase. Mostly because I don't understand what it means or how it plays out in my day to day.

I suppose on my worst days, when the weight of my decisions and the filth of my sin are overwhelming, childlike faith looks something like a crying toddler, hands outstretched, head flung backwards, screaming, "I want grace! Give me grace!" And on my more dignified yet weary days, it might look more like a girl who just lost 25 cents worth of Mike-N-Ikes but is bold enough to ask for grace instead.

*****

I let her have the candy that afternoon, and on the drive home I started to doubt my decision. Was that a good parenting move? What about obedience? What's my plan if she starts asking for grace all the time?

Asking for grace all the time.

I like that.

So, I followed Charlotte's lead that day and decided to ask.

Lord, discipline is hard, and I don't know what I'm doing. I'm not sure what just happened in that mall and if I made a wise decision. Would you cover this one in your grace? Would you take my feeble efforts, weakest moments, greatest mistakes, and give me grace instead?

Asking for grace all the time. I think I'll start doing that.




This essay was first published by Mothers Always Write.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

that damn stroke



A nurse stood at the foot of Dad's bed and held up a pen in one hand, a banana in the other.

"Mike, point to the pen."

His left hand carelessly pointed to the banana.

The nurse set down the banana and held up a water bottle instead.

"Mike, point to the water bottle."

He pointed to the pen.

I thought he was kidding. I thought he was annoyed at the nurse for insulting his intelligence. This was a man who lived for Trivial Pursuit and participated in Jeopardy every afternoon at 3:30 - a grammar nerd, literary guru, and Cubs' stats fanatic. He was being asked questions suited for a nine-month old, and I thought he was playing her. The nurse repeated this exam several times throughout the morning, each time with similar results.

I couldn't stand it anymore.

"Dad. Stop it. Be serious. Point to the pen."

He looked back at me confused. The nurse wrote something on her clipboard and left.

*****

We had been waiting all day for information, an answer, a suggestion, a next step. A new doctor came into the room and stood at the foot of Dad's bed as we circled around. But there was no information, no answers. Instead, the doctor kept a safe distance from optimism, swimming around in a vague territory of "more tests," and "just have to wait and see." If we were looking for hope that Dad might speak again or walk out of this hospital, we wouldn't find it from this doctor. 

Exhausted and defeated, it was clear we all needed a break. 

My brother and I, along with our spouses, ended up at Starbucks. I was thirty-six weeks pregnant and ordered an iced passion tea lemonade; it didn't seem appropriate.

Thirty hours ago Mom had found Dad on their bedroom floor, crippled and silenced by a massive stroke. Right now he was sleeping in a hospital room. He couldn't move the right side of his body and made weird noises when he tried to talk. His face was droopy, and he needed someone to wipe drool off his chin. While he laid in bed scared, confused, and unable to distinguish a pen from a banana, I was sitting outside a coffee shop on an 80 degree day drinking a fuchsia colored iced tea. Something didn't feel right, but it was also a relief to be out of that hospital, away from doctors who had no answers and offered little hope. There was freedom from the stale conversation that hangs in hospital rooms because no one knows what to say but silence seems worse. The familiarity of a coffee shop brought relief. I don't know how to navigate hospitals, awkwardly lingering around my dad as he lay motionless in bed, but I do know coffee shops. I know how to order a drink and idle by the counter. I know how to set up camp around a table, sip, talk, people watch, repeat. It was comforting to know what I was doing for an hour. 

We sat around the table, and I told them I didn't feel bad for my brother or for my myself. We had Dad, at his best, when we needed him most. He was there - baseball games, dance recitals, Six Flags, AWANA Dad's Night. He'd taught us to drive and took us to Cubs games. He'd moved us into college and walked me down the aisle. I didn't even feel that bad for my mom. I probably should have, but she was Mom; Mom can always handle it. 

Instead, I told them, my heart was aching for this baby in me who would only know a grandpa who sits in a wheelchair as a quiet spectator rather than one who gives piggyback rides and reads stories in a Donald Duck voice. 

My heart also ached for my brother's three-year-old twin boys. They were too young and wouldn't remember that just nine days ago their Grandpa was splashing them in a hotel pool and building a sand castle on the shore of Lake Michigan. 

That's when my brother cried. 

My brother is a man of action; he always has a plan, a next step. There was something about seeing him, elbow on the table, leaning into his hand to wipe away tears that told me this was bad. This was our great divide - the event that just split our lives into a before and after. 

I stopped talking and drank my tea. 

*****

It was just after 4:00 in the afternoon on Monday, three days after Dad's stoke. I was sitting on the small plastic couch near the window when Dad waved his left hand, motioning me to come closer. He pointed to the clock and then back at me; his face was concerned and looked to me for an answer. I knew that look, and I knew what he was thinking. 

"You're wondering why I'm still here," I said. 

He nodded.

"You want to know when I am leaving."

More nodding. 

"You know it's 4:00, and you know we have a five hour drive back to Ohio. You are worried about us driving home in the dark." I said it as more of a question, not really sure if he understood details like time. 

But he nodded again and even smiled. He motioned at the clock and then at the door.

"We'll leave soon, okay?" I sounded like a teenager, irritated at my overly protective father. But I wasn't really annoyed; I was relieved and knew he also wanted to ask if I'd rotated my tires recently. 

He reached over and put his left hand on my giant belly. My throat tightened up, and I felt tears burning the back of my eyes. But I didn't want to cry, again. I didn't want to tell him my heart was crumbling with fear and that he had to get better so he could play with his grandbaby. 

"You think I should leave now so I don't have the baby right here?"

He laughed and looked at my mom as if to say, "Would you help me out here and get her to leave already?"  

That was the first time I saw a hint of Dad. Visitors with good intentions told us he was still in there; he was the same old Mike. But I wasn't so sure until he pointed to that clock.

*****

The months after dad's stroke were confusing. I had lost the dad I'd known for 29 years and weeks later gave birth to my first child. I didn't know how to let the joy of motherhood exist alongside the sadness of dad's stroke, and even now, five years later, I cannot separate the grief and joy. I loved those early weeks of motherhood, but it felt selfish to be so happy when I knew my mom was miles away drowning in decisions and sorrow while my dad was barely moving or speaking. 
 
I was grieving the loss of my dad. I still am. But that seems strange - grieving the loss of a dad who is alive. 

He has come a long way from the man I saw in the hospital bed five years ago. I am thankful for that. But in my desire to be thankful, I haven't given my sadness the room it deserves. I haven't said aloud how much I hate that damn stroke. I haven't thought much about how I'm sad, and how I miss my dad, and how unfair it is that my children were robbed of their grandpa. 

If I give my sadness an inch, I am convinced it will take the mile. And then another mile after that, probably picking up anger and fear and bitterness along the way. Before long, I might be too far gone. 

But today I will say it. 

I hate that damn stroke. 

I hate that it took the life we expected for my mom and dad. I hate that it took the grandpa who wants to wrestle and swim and play hide-and-seek. I hate that my brother's twin boys had three years with that grandpa, but my children never met him. And I hate that I'm starting to forget. 

I have to try, really try, when I want to remember him. I have to sit in a quiet room and close my eyes if I want to hear his voice and remember the distinctive Italian gestures he'd use when telling a story. Sometimes I try to remember him sitting in the driver's seat of the car or mowing the lawn, but I can't, not anymore. It's strange how you can see something or hear something for decades, but then forget so quickly. 

I do not take Dad's recovery lightly. He took on years of therapy like a champ, relearning to speak and walk and manage with just his left hand. We are still adjusting to a new normal, but Dad is alive, and he knows his grandchildren. They build puzzles, play CandyLand, and sit on his lap to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. They have an inside joke about quesadillas, and Dad can bust out a pretty mean tickle monster with his left hand. They adore him, and I am thankful. 

But I still hate that damn stroke.

Monday, October 30, 2017

because one day you won't, part 2

This past summer, I went all sappy mom and wrote this.

I'm doing it again.

These past two months have taken me down. Our hearts are celebrating the news of baby #3, but my body is rebelling against all parts of life that don't involve lying on a couch eating Rice Krispies. I'm irritable and ill and have had to force myself to notice quirky, childlike moments invading our home. It seems like these moments are hiding, lost in the blur of me running to throw up, again, but they are there. And I know they won't be for long.

Because one day she won't come to my gynecologist appointment with a baby doll hidden under her shirt.



Because one day she won't wear a Snow White dress and have a picnic in her room. 



And because one day she won't ask to go to the Verizon store with me rather than staying home to play with friends. 

 *****


Because one day he won't line up tiny twigs when his dad asks him to gather firewood.
 


Because one day he won't mow the lawn in his diaper, rain boots, and winter hat.  



And because one day he won't call rabbits "bunny hops."



So today I will notice those moments.

#becauseonedayyouwont


 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

my messy beginning: week 4


This is the final essay for the blog series I've participated in alongside three other wonderful writers. It has been my honor to explore this messy topic with Mika, Amy, and Precious. They are all such beautiful, creative, intelligent women. This final post was written by me. 

*****
I prefer when my writing culminates into a complete thought, when stories and anecdotes sit with me long enough to reach a finish line. I tend not to hit that Publish button until I've drawn a conclusion, tidied things up, and feel a sense of a closure.

Today is different.

There is no sense of closure because I'm just beginning this journey. I have so many conclusions spinning in my head I hardly know what to do next. I'm in the midst of so much learning and thinking and questioning; it is terrifying and thrilling. There are days I'd like to rewind the clock to before I wrestled with privilege and injustice. I’d like to unread and unlearn information that has left me wondering how me - this affluent, white, stay-at-home mom in the suburbs of Cincinnati - can possibly be part of reconciliation. Other days I want to shake myself because I spent so many years missing it, looking right past it.

In the spring of 2016, I began reading the book Seven. Oh, to this day, there are times I wish I could unread it. God knocked the wind out of me within the pages of that book, awakening me to the intensity and responsibility of the privilege I was born into.

Up until that day, I had thought very little of privilege and what it looked like in my life. I suppose when privilege is your norm, it is easy to miss.

But soon I saw it everywhere.

I saw privilege when I opened my fridge, stared at shelves full of food, and ordered pizza because I didn’t feel like eating anything we had.

I saw privilege when I put my contacts in each morning because I’ve had resources to correct my failing eyes for nearly 30 years.

I saw privilege when I handed in my letter of resignation, voluntarily leaving my job to stay home with my children.

I saw privilege when I was pulled over for a missing headlight and never considered a police officer might treat me unfairly. 

I saw privilege when I freely disagreed with colleagues and never thought twice that my race would be the backdrop for how others interpreted my words.

I saw privilege when our president was elected because as much as I hate how he speaks of the oppressed, I knew my day to day life would not be much different.

God put a fire in my gut the week I read that book, a restless stirring I haven’t been able to shake. I can’t stop reading and talking and asking questions. I can’t unlearn that I am in the top 1% of wealthiest people in the world, practically drowning in resources. I can’t pretend educational opportunities are the same for all children. I can’t ignore the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are desperately trying to come to America, and yet live such isolated lives once they are here. I can’t unsee the hate-filled eyes in those videos of Charlottesville.

This is my messy beginning, my shuffling along, fighting my way through the weeds, with my hands outstretched, asking God, "What now? What can you do with the hesitant offering of a woman prone to wander, resist, and cling to privilege? Can you dig it out by its ugly roots? Can you keep forgiving me? Can you make reconciliation my heart’s cry rather than an item on my to-do list?”

*****

During the past year, I have looped through a cycle of emotions regarding the abundant advantages in my life.

I am ignorant.
I am overwhelmed.
I am disgusted.
I am paralyzed.
I am afraid.
I am humbled, forgiven, and obedient.
Repeat.

Those first five stages are fruitless at best; sinful if I’m honest, and I need to deal with them as such. I need to call out the sin in my life.

I am ignorant. That is sin. Ignorance is choosing foolishness. It is looking away from truth and ignoring the mind God gave me for learning and questioning and engaging. Ignorance is choosing oblivion to global and national crises, excusing myself because it's too sad, it's too hard.

I am overwhelmed. That is sin. I am looking to my own ability to solve injustice rather than following the lead of Him who came to change the world through servanthood. I am sinking into defeat, rather than clinging to a God of victory. Nothing is impossible for Him, and to be overwhelmed is to disregard the power of the Holy Spirit who is alive and active in me. 

I am disgusted. That is sin. The Lord needed to bring me to a place of disgust, a harsh realization of my abundant privilege. But to stay in that place of guilt, apologizing for all I have, is to forget the One who gave it to me. He did not accidentally place me in this life, at this time in history, and He is not interested in my apologies for living in America, for being white, for being educated, or for succeeding in a career.

I am paralyzed. That is sin. The reality of injustice is so thick and so heavy, I get lost in it. And then I do nothing. I stay in my neighborhood and in my home, with my conveniences and luxuries. I hang out with people who look like me and think like me. We talk about how thankful we are Jesus came to do all that messy work, but disengage ourselves from real action. Pretty soon, doing nothing in my norm.

I am afraid. This is sin. Fear will lie to me every time, coaxing me to believe injustice is too much for my God. Fear tells me I will fail if I seek reconciliation. Fear tells me I will say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing. Fear tells me I will put myself in danger and be in over my head. Fear tells me I will upset people and annoy my friends. But God did not give me a spirit of fear, and to believe otherwise is sin.

I am humbled, forgiven, and obedient. Confronting my own selfishness is miserable, but once each of those daggers have been humbly laid down, I can claim Christ’s forgiveness and move on to obedience.

The Bible tells me to feel the pain of others. Be wrecked by injustice. Be burdened. The Bible tells me to pray, and not just on the days after horrific events like Charlottesville, but to get on my knees every day, crying out for the broken and forgotten, repenting from my sins and the sins of this nation. The Bible says to be faithful in prayer, be persistent, keep bugging God to shake my soul and not look away from oppressive systems that have handed me a life of advantage.

This doesn’t have to be an either/or approach. I can carry on with my daily life and remember the marginalized around me. I can write on my blog about eating dessert in the bathroom, and I can write about racial reconciliation. I can take my children to our community pool where they see dozens of children who look just like them, and I can take them to a church where they are the racial minority. My husband and I can celebrate special occasions at overpriced restaurants, and we can volunteer with the Cincinnati Refugee Resettle Program. I can go to the gym to teach Zumba classes, and I can learn to correctly pronounce the names of the minority women in my class, not just the white students. I can talk with my girlfriends about curtains and crockpot dinners and playdates, and we can talk about teaching our children to stand up for others. I can read Real Simple magazine, and I can read about how to love my friends of color well. I can pray with my children for God to heal their owies, and I can pray with my children for God to awaken their eyes and hearts to those who need love.

This isn’t a checklist. It isn’t more to add to my plate. It isn’t one or the other. It is awareness. It is courage. It is a transformation of my heart to move past the years I spent desiring peace and wishing well to those on the sidelines.

Jesus spent His life on the bottom rung of the ladder. He surrounded himself with the powerless, the outcasts, the bottom dwellers, the marginalized. By his own choosing, He never made it up past that bottom rung. But I was born on the top rung; I was born into a life so far from Jesus. White. American. Middle class. Educated. Excess everything. It is a life so many long for, but it is a life that has proven to be my greatest hindrance in knowing the true Jesus. It is so far from the Savior who said He was “close to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18) and that “the highborn are but a lie” (Psalm 62:9). There is such a distance from me and the man who constantly cared for the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the needy. It is so much harder to “seek justice and encouraged the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17) from up on this top rung.

It’s ironic how you can read something a dozen times and always hope someone else is taking it
to heart. How did I miss it?

In every corner of the Bible, God is screaming, begging, pleading, urging me to love mercy and justice, to care for the last and least. If I’m going to believe the Bible is the Word of God, then it seems God is obsessed with social justice, and He asking me to stay engaged and join Him.

This is my messy beginning.

*****

A note from Mika, Amy, Precious, and Joy:

It has been a joy to share our hearts with you over the past month. The four of us have each been challenged, convicted, and inspired. We have each prayed earnestly for our readers, and for ourselves asking God to shake some souls and spur on conversations that would bring Him glory. We would love to end this series by praying for our nation, together pleading with God to heal and restore.

Oh Jesus,

We come before You with our mess. We acknowledge our sin and repent from it. We need You to do your thing. We need your power to bring change because we know we are powerless without You. I pray, God, that You would heal our nation and bring us to racial reconciliation. I pray that our hearts and minds would be changed and that change would lead to action. May our hearts break for the damage white supremacy has caused in our nation - that we would see it for the sin it is, and commit to not being complicit in it. I pray we would move outside our comfort zones, invite people into our homes that don’t look like us, and build relationships in an effort to reconcile.

I pray America would become comfortable with being uncomfortable and no longer shy away from our horrid past. I pray we would know that racial reconciliation is not simply a good option; it’s important to You. May our hearts remain pliable for You to mold and change; performing open heart surgery if necessary to make us into a people that not only embodies the ethos of reconciliation, but the life style. May our days be less comfortable and more courageous. May our love for You, Jesus, cause us to actively love our neighbors well.

I pray we would lay down our privilege to serve and to see. I pray we would open our hands and our eyes. We are in need of Your grace and Your grit to do and hear hard things. Lead us, Jesus. Please do exceedingly above what we ask.

Amen.


Chains fall
Fear bow
Here, now
Jesus, you change everything
Lives healed
Hope found
Here, now
Jesus, you change everything

Lyrics from Holy Ground