Monday, April 23, 2012

Kindness

A guest post by brother C.S. Lewis, whose words below have been smouldering in my heart since I first read them a few months ago:

"By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right.  And by Love, in this context most of us mean kindness--the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. 

What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does it matter so long as they are contented?'  We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven--a senile benevolence who, as they say, 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves', and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, 'a good time was had by all.'...I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines.  But since it is abundantly clear that I don't, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction...

There is kindess in Love:  but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it.  Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object--we have all met people who's kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer.  Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided that it escapes suffering...It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms:  with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.

If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness.  And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt.  He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense."

--excerpted from The Problem of Pain (emphases mine)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jobs

"I heard you're a teacher," a dad at the drop-in playgroup said to me this morning.  He hadn't met me before, but recognized my youngest son who comes three times a week to the group with his babysitter.

"No, I'm a pastor," I corrected him.

He looked surprised for a minute (this never fails to happen), and then said, "Well that's a different kind of job!"

He didn't ask me any more questions about it (that also tends to happen), so I asked him about his job, (specifically if he was a stay-at-home dad--he wasn't).

Jobs have been on my mind a lot lately, thanks to the kerfuffle that's arisen from Hilary Rosen's inaccurate (and politically inexpedient) statement about the work ethic of stay-at-home mothers (specifically Ann Romney).   Simcha Fisher has said everything I could want to on that particular controversy (and better of course, brilliant woman that she is).

Rosen's gift was to get me thinking (again) about my current job description(s).  I'm just under 3/4 time at the church, doing my paid jobs of teaching, pastoral care, directing our discipleship and outreach programs, and the bungle of administration that is heavy on my plate these days.  The rest of the time I have another job, for which I am not paid. You all probably know this, but I take care of these guys:


And at this point in my mommy identity, I consider it (healthily I think) as a job.  As more than that of course, but still as a job, as work endowed with its own dignity and well-worth my time and energy.  Right now, in that job sphere, my responsibilities are (in this exact order): keeping Ephraim alive in spite of himself; getting some food into each of them at each meal; cleaning their clothes (so many clothes); directing the traffic of our lives in equal parts bluster and affection; cleaning our toddler-terrorized house; and welcoming my sons' friends when they come over (which, in the case of the neighbour boys is almost every day).

What I love about this job (apart from that it obviously involves my sons) is that it is very clear work.  I wake up each morning knowing what needs to be done and how to do it.  There is deep pleasure in having a clean house, in fed and clothed boys, especially because it is difficult sometimes to achieve.  (Ephraim's current favourite hobby is following me as I clean and dumping out what I've just put away).

Challenges acknowledged, it's good work; the kind of work you can hang your hat on and sign your name to.  Which is probably why I found Ms. Rosen's statement so strange (I actually thought it was just a bad joke the first time I heard it).

If anything, it's my [paid] work as a pastor that tends to be more nebulous.  I've just finished reading "The Pastor" by Eugene Peterson, and he retells the story of a non-Christian neighbour who used to greet him every Sunday afternoon saying "It must be nice, just one day of work a week".  I laughed when I saw this, based on a recent, personal experience that reminded me such beliefs still exist.  If stay-at-home-moms/dads are misunderstood or undervalued because they aren't paid for their work, pastors can be misunderstood or undervalued because it's hard to tell what we do (unless our hands are in every church activity, which any good ecclesiology will tell you isn't the way its supposed to be).  The 20+ hours of sermon preparation isn't seen.  The more menial tasks of administration and the life-giving tasks of prayer, study and pastoral care aren't easily visible.  Teaching/preaching, and directing programs are easier to hang your hat on, but these don't happen all the time.  (Nor should they, according to Peterson and others who know.  And this is harder to do--or rather, not do--than it might seem).

All that to say, it's a strange job, complicated by the historical reality that getting paid for "spiritual" work has been viewed with suspicion by those inside and outside the church.  The Communists went so far as to label all clergy "parasites", and that feeling can still be found today (and God forgive us, we have at times deserved such a name and worse).  The government of Canada, thankfully, doesn't think so and has issued me visa after visa validating my work carrying out "spiritual duties" as a legitimate reason to stay in the country.

Of course, as I write that, I'm reminded that I'm not issued a standard work permit but a visitor's record with an exemption to let me work at the church.  So maybe the government does think it's weird...

My struggle isn't so much with how my job is viewed by others.  I don't have the energy to worry about it.  What bothers me is more personal, and more universal: it's the wanting to be in two places at once that I've written about before, when I kiss the teary face of my two-year-old son as I head to the church.  I hate it.  It makes me question what I do every time.  I was telling a fellow pastor friend about it a month ago, and she asked me if it was a struggle between pastoring and motherhood.  "No," I answered, "It's whether what I'm investing in is worth what I'm giving up.  I know what I'm giving up.  I want to know that what I'm doing each day is necessary and valuable."  

And that, I am learning, is precisely what I cannot get.  Not every day.  There was a post on motherhood that went viral a few months ago that could really have been written about pastoring.  (I actually found it more helpful for the latter than for my experience as a mom).  A sense of value or significance in pastoral work is not a constant, nor can it be (is it possible in ANY job?)  The cognitive, I-feel-how-valuable-this-is-and-I-am-so-happy-I'm doing-it comes sometimes in seasons but most often in moments.  It comes when people are introduced to Jesus; when I get to know Him better through study or teaching; when a funny administrative task paves the way for an important conversation or chance to give care.  These kinds of moments do not happen always, nor even frequently.  But they happen just enough, and sometimes precisely when they need to, so that I remember the value of of the job as a whole.

And that's true at home as well.  Today was one of my at-home days, and it was a busy one: the normal cleaning stuff plus a special, long-put-off project.  I always finish my cleaning with vacuuming, and as I did, I started pondering the effort I put into housework compared to how long the house actually stays clean.  Why the push for a clean floor when the boys could care less and will invariably trash it?  Why such franticness to get the laundry caught up when it will be overflowing by my next day home anyways?  As I finished up, Ephraim asked me if I was done (he had been sitting on the couch watching me work).  And when I told him I was, he announced from the couch, "Good job, Mommy!"  

For which he, to his surprise, received a slobbering of kisses and hugs.  My two-year-old didn't know it, but today it was especially good to hear it.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Isaac


Words fail me when I think of my firstborn son.

Mother love is forged in the bloody crucible of bearing, birthing, and caring for a child.  Mine was forged with Isaac, and when I think of him all the fearsome, wonderful, complicated love seeps out of the mother-lines in my heart.  It is painful, it is wonderful.  It is transcendent and immanent and everything in between, a powerful force that I know could someday undo me.

As a pastor, I hear lots of mother-son stories.  Some of them are good, but many are tinged with disappointment or flooded with heartbreak.  I'm aware that ours may turn out the same (at any rate, I can't guarantee it won't).  And so I am, by necessity, constantly handing Isaac and his brothers over to God.

It was Isaac who first taught me what being "made in the image" of someone means.  When I looked at him as a baby and toddler, I saw myself.  Two sons later, it is still Isaac who resembles me the most, physically.  His personality is like mine too, though with significant differences: he has the math/science brain I never will, and a frantic need for socializing that I have only a few times a year.

But he's his mother's son.  My son.  My passionate, wildly imaginative, smart-as-a-whip, articulate and sharp-tongued child.  I understand his failures by right of sharing some of his weaknesses, which makes my job both easier and more difficult.  At my worst, I reinforce his weaknesses by my own frequent, visible failures as his mother.  And at best, having so many stories of "when Mommy did the same thing" helps him take my advice and receive my comfort.  For now.

And now is what I celebrate, I think because I know (more than I wish) that my welcome in Isaac's life may pass. There will be times in life when Isaac has little use for his mommy's words (or hugs, or kisses).  There may even be times when he breaks my heart or I break his.  So when the moments of welcome happen--the hugs, the kisses, the tearful conversations after disappointment--I do not take them for granted.

Palm Sunday has just passed, and on that day we Christians are mindful that the crowd which welcomed Jesus on Palm Sunday was the same one that crucified Him on Good Friday.  We pastors tend to focus on the fickleness of humanity when we preach or teach on Palm Sunday.  But this time around, I heard the story differently.  I wondered if Jesus wasn't feeling something more like the mother-love I feel for Isaac when he saw the crowds welcome him so jubilantly.  If, rather than seeing them with cynicism or sorrow, He simply accepted their joy, thankful for a moment of clarity and love without expecting it in the future.  His love would be enough, even if theirs wasn't.  His love wouldn't give up, even if theirs did for a time.

I am learning a shadow of that kind of love as a mother.  And it's fitting to think on it this week, because it was this week, Holy Week, that we found out we were having Isaac.  He was a surprise (story of my life...I mean his life...I mean my life).  Matt and I had dropped out of graduate school just a few months before in anticipation of transferring to Regent College up here in Vancouver.  We were both working full-time to save the required thousands of dollars we needed to prove to the Canadian government we could be self-sufficient.

Then, the day before Good Friday, we found out we were expecting Isaac.

We were ecstatic. Not because we had planned him (we hadn't) not because we knew how it was going to work out (we didn't), but because...I don't know.  We knew he was coming and we wanted him, despite all the uncertainties about finances and school and the knowledge that we would have him in another country.  He was coming and it was going to be okay, better than okay.


And, of course, it was.  And is.  And by God's grace, will continue to be.