The Trouble With Growing Up

Yesterday was one of those days when you know you’re a grown up. My collegiate alma mater hired a head football coach who is the same age as me. A young woman from my high school graduating class died from cancer. My daughter got off the bus and told me a boy asked her to go to a school dance with him.

Each of those things gave me pause for reflection. And after careful consideration, I came away with only one single thought:

When did I become an adult?

Surprised

This week I’m participating in Seth Godin’s #YourTurnChallenge. My goal is to blog everyday this week (Mon-Sun) here on my site as well as on the challenge’s official Tumblr blog. Here’s my Day 6 submission.

There have been relatively few times when I’ve surprised myself. In fact, the only one that comes to mind is finding the strength to speak at my daughter’s funeral. She was stillborn 5 days after her due date. I was a wreck.

It wasn’t supposed to happen to me and my wife.

Yet there we were: a tiny pink coffin, a tiny baby girl, and hundreds of people gathered at the graveside.

I cleared my throat and spoke. I don’t remember any of it. All I remember were the hot, unstoppable tears that rolled down my face as I addressed my grieving wife; my stunned parents and in-laws; the pained faces of people from my church. I spoke from my heart, where raw pain collided with faith.

And in five minutes it was over. I watched as the men from the funeral home lowered my daughter into the ground. I watched as the dirt fell atop her casket. I watched until my daughter was nothing more than a memory.

The next day, I got up. And then I did the same thing the day after that. And the day after that.

I’ve repeated that process for almost 10 years now.

My wife and I have two children now. We take them to visit their sister’s grave every year on the anniversary of her birth/death. We sing happy birthday. We give her fresh flowers. And we walk away holding hands, knowing how precious life is.

Sometimes, the most surprising things are the simplest.

Do? More.

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Don’t believe this. Not for a second.

From a very early age, we teach kids to identify themselves by what they can accomplish. When a baby can flip over from back to stomach, we ooh and aah; when she learns to sit up, we applaud; when she stands for the first time on wobbly, uncertain legs, we celebrate the triumph; and when she takes her first tentative steps, we announce that she’s becoming a “big girl.”

It continues throughout childhood – each physical or developmental marker brings another round of Facebook statuses, Tweets, videos and pictures. The first tooth lost. The first day of school. The first dance. The first game. Every achievement documented, celebrated, and cemented in the child’s head as the surest way to understand themselves.

I am what I do.

Naturally we don’t let that idea remain. We tell our children that they are more than their accomplishments. We try to instill in them that their value lies not only in what they can do, but also in who they are. We teach them that they are intrinsically valuable – even without doing a single thing, they are beloved and special and worhty. We say that, and then spend most of our time praising them only for things they do. It’s our default setting.

Heck, even Aristotle sad as much: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, it is a habit.” The connection between identity and productivity is dadgum hard to override, because we understand that there are bad things that happen when a person gets too caught up in what he or she can or can’t do. I mean, I’ve seen elementary school kids crushed because they didn’t get an A on a spelling test. I’ve seen high schoolers devastated because they didn’t get into the college of their parents’ choosing. I’ve seen adults completely adrift in life after losing a job they thought was their dream.

We are what we do.

Since we’re human, things are naturally complicated. We shouldn’t solely define ourselves by our actions, but our medium for expression as individuals is throughactions: thought, communication, creation. We cannot tell the world who we are unless we do something. But we go awry when we come to believe that what we do is all we are, and that when we can no longer do those things that make us us, then we are no longer someone who matters.

It’s what makes nursing homes so challenging. Same as hospitals. We hate being reminded we have limits; that the very thing that makes us feel alive – our physical/mental capabilities – will be stripped away. People struggle with aging because it’s a regression to the mean; it’s the universe’s way of telling us that we are finite, we are frail.

We are not gods in flesh.

When we come to the end of ourselves, we wrestle with the notion of value. Life becomes an existential cage match. If we cannot do, then what good are we? If we’re merely clogging up the planet, using up money and other resources better spent on those who can create, why should we linger? Why spend our last days as a museum piece that only teaches it’s hell getting old?

I’ve heard those questions from the lips of people who’ve gotten old, gotten beyond their prime years of production: why am I still here? What good am I?

My grandmothers both ask me that question when I go to visit. I look at them and I see life, my life, sitting there in front of me, and I wonder, how do you not know you’re valuable? I look at them, aged and beautiful, and all I can think of are things like sunshine and laughter and meals and hugs and wisdom and prayers and guilt trips and love. And I love them for ALL of it. Every bit. I don’t necessarily remember any one single act (though we do have a few stories to tell) but what I remember, more than the lifetime of doing, is the person who did it, and did it all, because she loved.

Maybe she can’t get her shoes on anymore. Maybe she doesn’t sleep well at night. Maybe she is reaching a point that she’ll require someone to watch over her the way all of us worried parents watched over our own children, someone who can encourage and celebrate each accomplishment, regardless of how small. Maybe all of that and more.

But there will come a day when neither one is here. When both will have gone the way of all people, when both will be a marker next to the marker for a good man who went before her. And when that day comes, I will wish not for her to do something for me, not for her to create or accomplish anything. I will simply wish like hell that she were still with me, that she still existed in a form I could hug or kiss or look at, simply because she’s who she is. My grandmother.

Funny, isn’t it? We spend so much time trying to do something, and not enough time enjoying who those somethings make us into. We think about that only in the end, only after it’s too late to truly appreciate the person for themselves. I think about friends and family today who would give anything to have just a little more time with a Pop, or a Nana, or a brother or sister or a child…

We are not merely what we do. We are more.

Love someone for that today.

God In The Whirlwind?

ImageI haven’t been keeping up with the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma. From what I’ve read, it’s a sad and horrifying natural disaster, and the response of countless people with donations of time, money and supplies has been heartening. Sometimes, we forget that people are capable of tremendous acts of sacrifice and kindness. It’s a shame that we only remember when something like this happens. In fact, there are a lot of things that we don’t think about until something like this happens. The value of human life, the need for community, the presence – or absence – of God in everyday life.

Depending upon where you fall on the religious spectrum, you might have very strong feelings about that last one. Some people will tell you that the tornado is a message from God, a statement of destruction to wake us up to the various moral failings of our country. Some people will tell you that God wasn’t in the whirlwind at all, that nature just strikes at random and we are all held hostage until Jesus returns and reboots the universe for God. Others take a middle road.

And there are a great many people who will simply say they don’t know.

Why is it that we only look for God in times of tragedy? I’ve heard a lot of preachers expound on the topic, and the consensus seems to be that we’re selfish by nature; that human beings, by default, will seek only those things that satisfy themselves. Therefore in good times, there’s no need to seek God, because the circumstances of our lives dictate Him as unnecessary. Since we have what we need, we obviously don’t need Him. It is only when the universe becomes cruel, when we see rubble piled atop the tiny hand of a child, that we seek out God for accountability. Where were you? How could you let this happen?

The problem, this view suggests, is that we don’t see the world correctly.

I think there’s truth in that idea. But I don’t know that I agree with all of it anymore. I think we are self-seeking creatures, but for some folks that means seeking God in good times as well as bad; I think we do tend to take the good times for granted, but I think we often look harder to see the evil in the world than we should; I think we do turn to God in times of trouble, often in anger or despair, but we do so seeking for some sense of answer, some idea that the things that scare us can also offer us wisdom for healing.

We turn to Him for hope that we might not otherwise see.

Sure some might turn Moore into a referendum on God’s character, but they assume that God is capable of the evil found in the destruction and not the good that comes from the people who respond. They suggest that God is an impersonal force, and thus cannot be present in the humans who are there to help rebuild. They give Him credit only for those things that would discredit Him, as if His only purpose is to be the cosmic bad guy, a reverse deus ex machina that gives us a target for a rage we otherwise wouldn’t know how to express.

It’s funny, but in denying God, they embrace a big part of what makes Him God: His ability to absorb our anger, fear and frustration, yet still love us all the same.

I suppose I should answer a few questions before I close this post out. Do I think God caused the tornado? No, I don’t. Do I think God could have diverted the tornado? It’s possible, sure, but that line of thinking is usually a zero-sum game. Do I think God was present with the victims? Yes. Do I think God is still present in the aftermath, working through the people who will rebuild – both physically and mentally – the town and people of Moore, OK?

Without question.

In the Old Testament, an ancient prophet of Israel went up on a mountain to see God face to face. There was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in it. There was fire from heaven, but God wasn’t there either. There was a great whirlwind, but still the presence of God wasn’t there.

It was only after those events, only after the cataclysmic natural phenomena that left the prophet still searching for the presence of God, that the prophet found Him. The Bible says that God came in a still small voice that the prophet heard. And when he heard it, he knew he was in the very presence of Almighty God.

It is a story well worth considering.

Thirty-some-odd years old, he sits on the back of a donkey, looking out at the gates of ancient Jerusalem. People throng the street before him, throwing their coats on the ground, waving palm branches, extolling him as Messiah and Lord. His closest friends dance alongside him as they lead the donkey ever closer to the towering entrance to the Holy City. Suddenly, overcome by some sentiment foreign to the jubilant hour, he begins to wail, his chest heaving as sorrow bubbles out of his throat.

The people stop cheering. The donkey halts its steps. The disciples grow silent.

Jesus weeps for his people: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that would make for peace!”

*****

What were those things? What was the cost of our peace with God? The temple cleansing, the prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction, the plot to kill Jesus; the Last Supper, the Garden, the betrayal, the mockery of his trials; the beating, the Via Dolorosa, Golgotha, the thieves; finally, “It is finished” and the death of the Son of God.

While graphic, this clip from “The Passion of the Christ” reminds us that the death of Jesus wasn’t just an isolated event. It was the culmination of our rebellion against God and His unfathomable grace to redeem us from our own sin. The things that make for peace were set in motion long before we drew our breath, long before Jesus went to the cross, long before Adam and Eve fell. That knowledge should sober us, give us pause – and lead us into a time of prayerful silence, a time of gratitude that the God who made us, against Whom we’ve all rebelled, chose to make peace His will instead of giving us over to the death we deserved.

The Things That Make For Peace