While We’re in the Therapy Waiting Room

“We all have tough days.” I say this to my kids, as they watch another kid melting down in the waiting room. They nod, but stare anyway. I say it so that the child’s parent or grandparent can hear it too, whose frustration is likely part exasperation at the behavior, part embarrassment in front of all the other adults whose kids are not acting this way. I know, because I’ve been there. I also say it for myself, as a reminder that all of the thoughts and impulses I’m going to experience during this hour in the therapy waiting room need compassionate reactions from my judgmental self. This is a different place than a playground, church, school, or other public spaces. Here we can escape comparing ourselves and our children against the elusive ideal of “typical” as much as we might everywhere else. Or not. It largely depends on the company.

Most of us have been here regularly enough, and have been frequent guests in other similar ones too. This is a waiting room for occupational (OT) and physical therapy (PT), so the kids who come through here may be working on anything from rehabbing from a physical injury, to working longer-term on coordination, muscle control, sensory-processing issues, social or behavioral skills. We are complicated human beings, and some of the causes of our difficulties may never be fully uncovered, but therapies seem like well-informed experiments with an array of methods that have helped others, to see what could be helpful to us.

It’s not the playground, but my brain cannot help assessing those around me for comparisons. Some days I admit to feeling relief, that my kid doesn’t have the challenge I observe in another. Some days the twinge is probably envy, because I see a child smaller than my own working on something and I wish we were at that point. Other days it’s hope and inspiration as I witness a high-five because it’s somebody else’s last day.

Then one day, my child is the one having the meltdown. Not the child who is here for therapy, mind you, the other one. Her tantrum is not related to anything other than being a kid; her precocious little voice I sometimes hear other parents chuckling over in that waiting room has given way to incoherent screaming. And of course we’re late for our appointment. It is equalizing. The same calm way the therapists and receptionists talk to the other kids’ parents, they then speak to me, getting all the information we need to exchange, over my child’s wails. We all have tough days.

Sometimes parents melt down in the waiting room too, or come close. I am simultaneously impressed and irritated by the young adult nanny who brings one child, because she seems so well-regulated – this kid can’t push her buttons like a parent. The nanny regularly uses the techniques we’ve all learned but just have trouble implementing in the heat of the moment, talking calmly but firmly about the steps they need to take or explaining why we don’t do something that could get us hurt (instead of giving orders). The 5 minutes after a session, when kids are getting out and others are coming for the next hour, is like the Olympics of self-control for parents. The kids know they have us in a bind. They are hyped up by the transition, seeing their siblings again, showing us a sticker – all during that critical time we need to hear the report of the therapist and get instructions for activities to practice at home. They get in our faces, or chase each other around the room. They do not get their shoes on to leave. Ignoring them does not make the disruptive behaviors dissipate, but neither does interrupting this critical conversation to bark orders, threaten consequences, or be like that exemplary nanny. Usually the session after this exiting behavior has been particularly raucous, I remember to talk about expectations ahead of time, before we get to the appointment. Sometimes that works. Finally, we leave the therapy waiting room.

Part of being a healthy parent is admitting when we need help. That’s why we spend so much time here. But maybe what we (I) need most is someone to talk me through it. We all have a complex tangle of emotions, just like our kids, and some issues with self-regulation of our behavior. The solidarity of others who get it is always welcome, especially in the waiting room.

Binge-Reading the Bible

A writer friend asked me, “So, what have you been reading this summer?” Writers have to (and love to) be readers; it’s part of the craft, and feeds the creative juices. I paused just a moment to think of the last book I’d read. “Oh, that’s right,” I replied, “only the Bible.” That only is meant not in a belittling sense, but the opposite, because I’ve read such large swaths of Scripture every day that it is literally the only book I have had time to pick up since Memorial Day weekend.

I’ve been following a B90 schedule, created by a pastoral colleague for reading the Bible in 90 days. Shortly before he started leading his congregation through this adventure, he organized a “Rostered Leaders” cohort via Facebook and Zoom, to check-in among ourselves on a weekly basis just like his congregation members. This is how and why, since Memorial Day weekend I’ve read nothing else but the Bible.

I read my travel Bible (which I used to take on hospital, nursing home or home visits) now at the playground with my kids, during their swimming lessons, in the lobby during appointments, while the little one was napping, in the car on our epic road trip, and after they went to bed at night. 75% of the time, I was a day behind, but I rarely let the gap widen much more than that, because I thought it would be insurmountable to return to the task if I did. The short attention span availability of our road trip fell during the Psalms, which are hard to read through in big chunks anyway.

I’ve read much of it before, of course. But this time, this method, showed me some things the typical seminary deep-dive into smaller portions of Scripture just couldn’t do. Here are a few of the themes:

The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, is 2/3 of our Bible. Yet, we don’t give it that weight or importance in Christian worship, do we? The historical books are SO long, and although I know length is not synonymous with worth, the emphasis on the trajectory of the Israelites in a good portion of Scripture probably means that it should bear weight in our faith identity more than it does (which is almost not at all in some cases).

There are stories in there that I did not realize are repeats, which I had only merged into the one most memorable one. Three examples:
1. bargaining with God not to wipe out an entire city (not just Sodom/Gomorrah)
2. mass killing of false prophets by one of God’s prophets (not just Elijah with Ba’al prophets once)
3. victory over the Philistines by felling one of their number descended from the Giants (but it’s not Goliath)

1 & 2 Samuel are basically 1 & 2 Kings all over again. So other than making me think I’ve picked up in the wrong spot and started reading material I’d already read before, it begs the question: What was the purpose of keeping both in the canon? As one colleague said in our discussions of this, perhaps it makes a stronger case for the Holy Spirit at work in pulling the Bible together, over a group of editors or council with their own agendas.

We mostly read the uplifting Psalms in worship. But there are so many more that are violently vindictive. If you’re reading it right through, the vengeance this poetry calls down upon enemies gets pretty oppressive. We are clearly choosing a certain perspective by what we use for public reading, which is in itself a tool of interpreting Scripture.

If God never changes (there are a couple verses one might choose to make that point) then clearly human perspectives on God, recorded in Scripture, are what have changed over time, because God “behaves” quite differently in different part of the Bible.

The prophets are very concerned with the political realities of their time, in explicit, specific detail. When we take a verse or two here or there from them to interpret as a prediction of Jesus, it’s quite far from the message of reading the whole prophetic book in which it appears. But…

Speaking of cherry-picking favorites, even Jesus himself takes characters or stories from the Hebrew Bible out of context, bordering on cultural appropriation in his preaching.

King David can interpret the Word of God, the prophets do it, Jesus does it, Paul does it. They take Scripture out of context and apply it to their own situations. Rather than directives to limit our interpretation, perhaps what Scripture really is then, is a jumping off point for our myriad interpretations of how God works in the world and our lives. We can certainly check our interpretations against the whole body of Scripture, but there is also ample permission here to riff on the messages that come out of our contexts.

Having read the whole in such a short period of time, I know I would preach smaller parts of it differently. I will be compelled to check my interpretations against larger contexts, AND also find the freedom to make even more creative interpretations, because hey, all the best preachers in the Bible did. But for now, please excuse me because I’ve got to read…something else.

God wants us to vacation

God wants us to take all our vacation, AND to find pleasure in the midst of toil. Pleasure is built into the design of human beings. That’s the message I glean from the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes.

That is not the takeaway I expected from any book in the Bible. Christianity may be more commonly associated with dour endurance of life than exuberant delight in it, as diligent as certain persuasions of Christians have been at defining what we should not do. But we cannot let what is, stand in the way of what could be!

Wisdom literature in the Bible (largely found in Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and parts of Job) imparts more than information; it is less descriptive of what is, and more aspirational: urging us to become who God calls us to be. For example, “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat and who can have enjoyment?” (Eccles. 2:24-26). In one way, this is a description of life as it seems to be: nothing better is to be expected than eating, drinking, and searching for enjoyment in the midst of toil. But also: these things are from the hand of God! God gives us daily bread and also enjoyment, as gifts for our growth and well-being.

We are designed to enjoy creation and each other, and delight in what our bodies can do. We are designed to be thankful, but when we are frazzled or oblivious, we are far from thankful. In short, we need time out of our routines to remind us how to enjoy every part of life.

But let us not pursue enjoyment at the expense of others having abundant life too. The insidious trick of consumerism is that by trying to get things for ourselves better, faster or cheaper, we might seek our own relaxation or adventure or pleasure at the expense of others. Everybody needs time to rest, laugh, and be someone other than the worker they are every day, especially those who are over-worked. The fight for earned sick and safe time recently prevailed at the legislative level in the city where I live, but not without considerable resistance (even given the self-interest of not being infected by sick workers). Guaranteed vacation time is only a dream.

How then, could all children of God aspire to time for pleasure? How will we help our neighbors to keep from brooding over the days of their lives, and instead stay occupied with the joy of their hearts (Eccles. 5:20)? What might we do? We who can take vacation, should take it all, for God wants us to be people who enjoy life. Know what it is like to have respite, things provided for you, worries lifted even for a short time. Then strive to create that respite in the lives of our siblings who cannot stop working for fear of losing much-needed jobs or caring for relatives that requires constant supervision.

To take pleasure in our toil is not an oppressive command, but a wise inspiration. We can let the refreshment of fresh air and sunlight into workplaces. We can discipline ourselves to be in good humor in our interactions with those who provide customer service. And we can make ourselves advocates and allies for a better quality of life for those who work, especially at the minimum wage.

A Tribute to the Teens of (Our) Summer

I know it is just a summer job to you

A way to earn some cash for gas

Or back-to-school clothes

But you are also

Making a lasting impression on my kids

 

When you soothe the pre-schooler’s fear

Of splashing during swim lessons

Or notice the 2nd grader who cannot quite

Break into a group of friends at camp

You are shaping their childhood

 

They squeal with delight when you arrive to babysit

And triple-check when you’re coming back

So they don’t miss it

Don’t miss you

For you are a celebrity to them

 

The one who manipulates with her sweetness

And the one who seems quiet unless you make the first move

They are taking it all in

They are taking you in

Making you part of who they are

 

Their excitement is contagious when they report

You both had the same sandwiches for lunch

Or that you can kick the ball SO FAR

And that you didn’t smash the lady bug

But helped it escape out the window.

 

They will talk about you for months

They want to be you when they “grow up”

The words you utter, even under your breath

Will be spoken in their high-pitched voices

Long after they forget who first said them

 

From you they start to imagine that in-between stage

Between child and adulthood

They start to aspire

From me:

Thank you.

 

You Can’t Call God “Father,” and Treat God’s Children Like This

A God who is Our Father would never sanction the punitive traumatizing of children, by separating them from their parents at a national border.

As a parent, it is unthinkable. To my 3- and 7-year-old daughters, my presence is everything. From the moment they wake up, to the moment they fall asleep, and if they happen to wake up distressed in the middle of the night too, they want me there. We do not live in the cross-fire of gang conflicts and are not scraping by with money for one meal at a time, but I’d be willing to bet that even if that were the case, me being with them would still be the most important thing in their lives. Of course a parent who loves their children would try to escape with them to a better life, and may God go with them. But woe unto those who seek to re-traumatize God’s beloved children.

Our immigration system is broken; all sides acknowledge that. But breaking the closest bond between human beings is not solving anything. So much brokenness and latent trauma haunts American society from taking African-American children from their parents during slavery, or removing Native American children from their families to be assimilated via boarding schools. Have we learned nothing from our collective sins against parents and children? Can we utter “Father God” or “Our Father who art in heaven” with any integrity, while perpetuating such violence to the family? Separating immigrating or asylum-seeking mothers or fathers from their children is never in the interest of the child, nor is it in the interest of our communities.

When we call God Our Parent (as Jesus did) we are claiming that God experiences the depth of the parent-child relationship at the core of human families, and God loves us like a parent does a child. This is part of what our God declares in Genesis by “making humankind in our image” (Gen 1:26); being in relationship is at the core of who God is, and we are. A Father or Mother God would never endorse ripping apart parents and children to make a political point or even to deter immigration. Can American Christians consent to this way of enforcing immigration restrictions by our government?

For what is a mother or father to their children, or a Father or Mother God to us? Our Mother is protection from all who would do us harm. Our Father is our fiercest advocate up against anyone who would oppress us. The way she repeatedly tells us how much we are loved is the foundation of our own self-worth. The way He coaches us to keep becoming who he knows we can be ingrains perseverance and resiliency in our personalities. The only people on earth I trust to have “no greater love than this, but to lay down one’s life”(John 15:13) for me, are my parents. Children deprived of their parents have no dependable protection for their physical, emotional or spiritual well-being in our cruel world. Is God to fill in those roles with no people to help?

A child being separated from your mother or father with no hope of reunification is traumatic for everyone involved. It should grieve to the point of protest, those who even hear of it. If you are the parent, a part of you dies with that separation. This is part of the self-traumatizing sacrifice of birth parents who make an adoption plan for children they are unable to parent. If you are the child, you bear what is referred to in adoption circles, based on the work of Nancy Verrier, as a “primal wound” from the separation from your first parents. Birth parents, children and adoptive parents move on, but trauma can effect the rest of our lives: our relationships, our resiliency, our participation in civil society. Families crossing into the United States have left their home countries because of trauma. Separating parents and children at the border is heaping trauma upon trauma for both parents and children.

We could mitigate our guilty feelings by quibbling over which parent God resembles and how. Some churches endorse strict gender roles in parenting, so define fathers and a Father God as ones who guide their children, discipline them, and are to be obeyed, while those in the motherly role take care of emotional nurture and comfort. Yet even such a father would never willingly traumatize children by forceful separation. Jesus challenges his hearers: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Mt. 7:9)

Although Jesus himself used the word Abba (“Daddy”) to speak with the intimacy of a child to God, God’s actions reveal a mothering character as well. God has “numbered every hair on our heads” (Mt. 10:30) like a mother who knows when any little thing is amiss and “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Ps. 121) while watching over us. Jesus nurtures and raises his disciples through not just teaching, but endless days of just being with them, making sure the crowds are fed, aligning his heart with grief-stricken mothers at the death of a child, or tenacious mothers begging for their child’s healing. God has lived in the space between parents and children many times. God Our Parent will not condone destroying this sacred bond.

If you want to admit that separating children from their parents at the border is a political issue to you and nothing else, you have other images of God you can twist and wield as you wish: God as Judge, God Who Decrees Commandments, or God Who Seeks (Your Interpretation of) Justice. But the God as Parent metaphor is no longer available to you.

 

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crazycups/

Cruel interpretations

It’s not just those people who work at the border who are enforcing this. It is me too, if I do not act to put a stop to it.

I am afraid I might identify with the Pharisees. We all could.

In our Gospel for today, Jesus does not reject the sabbath, the 3rd commandment, the law itself.

He does not reject Judaism, a religion and identity centered on a covenant to be God’s people.

Jesus rejects the way these Pharisees are interpreting the law, and that would make anyone defensive.

The interpretation of the Law they were forcing on others, was hurting real people. To forbid healing, eating, or traveling to bring the good news to more people on the sabbath is a perversion of God’s Law. But no doubt the Pharisees who were enforcing these practices didn’t jump to those outcomes on day 1. For who would hear Moses reading from the tablets and immediately declare: Those who are in need of some kind of restoration to wholeness in body or in relationships, can’t seek that one day a week? Or those who are hungry but didn’t have the means to prepare ahead should not eat that day? Everyone would see the inhumanity in that.

But there is this slow creep of apathy, of gradually letting go of things that are intensely important, core to our faith, and our knowledge of God’s love for humankind, that happens to all of us. Because, well, we weren’t holding on, keeping it at the core of who we are, or we simply weren’t paying attention and it was taken away. One day we look up and we are not who we set out to be. We let go of some principles when we’re holding too tightly to being right or being the authority or just trying to keep things they way they are. It happens to all of us. Jesus summarized the entire Law in just 2 statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Yet we loosen our grip on these commitments, and how much effort and intentionality they take, and we let their interpretation slip into the hands of those who want to control, manipulate, or frame them for their own benefit. Sometimes those people are even ourselves.

Take for example, the ways children are being separated from their parents when crossing this country’s border as immigrants or asylum-seekers. Those who present themselves to a checkpoint to seek asylum through the approved process, fleeing violence in Central America, have their children as young as 18 months taken from them, with no time-line for reunification. I cannot even fathom the cruelty. Most of us didn’t even know this was the practice of this current administration to “deter immigration” until it was in the news earlier this week. But it has been going on for months, as the political conversation about immigrants has turned from talking about them as refugees from violence and poverty – neighbors to love – to criminals who are trying to “enter our home illegally.” There is no excuse for destroying the only security these parents and children have left – each other. Oh, it feels shameful to be called out on this. My attention was diverted elsewhere. I thought we were past the worst when the Muslim travel bans were mostly struck down in the courts.

But now I have to recognize: this is who we are, or who we’ve allowed ourselves to become. Desensitized to what I know is the most cruel form of punishment for already traumatized people, ripping apart parents and children. And I have to admit that it’s not just those people who work at the border who are enforcing this. It is me too, if I do not act to put a stop to it. When Jesus asks if we know what is right or wrong and we stand mute, like the Pharisees in our Gospel reading, we are complicit. So how do I respond, when I realize that instead of insulting these Pharisees, I might actually be like them in some ways?

Do I plot to discredit or do away with those who call me out on my sins of commission or omission? I wonder if there was even one of those Pharisees who was convicted by meeting Jesus, stopped in his tracks and realized, “He’s right. I love the Law of Moses and God, and we’ve twisted it.” What does he do? It takes tremendous courage to put your self on the line for strangers who are being harmed by your peers, the group you are a part of. Maybe he doesn’t fully agree, but there’s too much at stake personally, or for his family, supporting these people has gotten him where he is, and they could take it all away. So he says nothing. We don’t want to reckon with the powers that have put us where we are; we are beholden to them. We don’t want to admit that our principles are not what got us where we are, but our complicity with letting them go.

To confess that we are doing wrong in the present can also dredge up past sins, for example, that separating parents and children of color is part of the fabric of this country: first slave children from their parents, and all the way into the 1970s, separating Native American children from their families to be assimilated in boarding schools. This cruelty is not new, just a new form. It is so much to reckon with, of course we become defensive.

The Pharisees immediately begin conspiring with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. They aligned themselves with others who would shut him up, so he would have to stop calling them out on their sins. Yet there is a choice, even from the middle of a crowd of angry Pharisees, of how to respond when Jesus shows us the truth about how far our lives have strayed from the Law of God. We fight this, or we fight Jesus.

Now owning this sin and try desperately to repair it sounds exhausting, for people who weren’t trying to hurt anybody, but just, you know, were carried along by the momentum of being comfortably in the midst of this crowd. Yet confession and restitution are like sabbath for our souls, a gift from God. A sabbath of grace. God loves us unconditionally, without us following any rules or making anybody else follow any rules, without our defenses up and our positions protected. Just loving and being loved. But to do that, we have to recognize the truth. Resting in God’s pre-emptive love, we can step out of our position embedded among the Pharisees, and follow Jesus, who knows the truth about us. He will take us, even as we are, but he will not leave us there. Give us courage, O God, to step out of the crowd and follow you.

Summer Goal: Family Playdates

We technically live near each other. Why is it so hard to get together?

Both my spouse and I yearn to talk to adults unrelated to our work lives, but the best of intentions don’t seem to pan out often. Our daughters see friends even in the summer at tee-ball, vacation Bible school, swim lessons, and playgrounds. But when do my husband and I get to catch up with friends our own age, other than on social media? We need play dates, maybe more than our kids do!

We used to try to have friends over to dinner about once a month, with varying degrees of success. Everyone needs to eat, right? But between the time my husband gets home from work and the kids go to sleep, we have about an hour, give or take a bit on weeknights. Because of our house’s floor plan, we have to kick them out for the kids to go to sleep. Plus, if the friends have kids too, mealtimes can be fraught with challenges. With our 3-year-old, sometimes even staying at the table is a challenge. Then, there’s the theoretical obligation to clean. Even with making a commitment to “scruffy hospitality” though, it may take some effort to bring the house up to the standards of “it is OK that people live here.”

Since my spouse and I both bring work home with us and there are always dishes, laundry and yard work to be done, “down time” at home is never that. We often have to leave the premises to play.

So I am making a goal, writing it down and sharing it publicly with the hope that I’ll stick to it: We will have a family play date at a park or festival, at least once a month from May to September.

I coach myself, “Don’t argue, this is the easiest possible solution to our adult friendship isolation.” My motivational strategy includes the following:

  • Finding a babysitter is irrelevant to making these plans.
  • Festivals have specific days and times, so unlike a nebulous commitment to “get together sometime,” we have an actual time to put on the calendar. Some festivals we go to every year are part of how I curate our family memories. They will probably be even better with friends.
  • Each family brings their own food to a picnic in the park, obviously. If one or the other family cannot show up for some reason, we are still somewhere fun (and I haven’t expended the effort of making a big dinner, ordering too much food, or even of finding a restaurant that meets all of our dietary requirements).
  • It is an excuse to explore different parts of our city. I am highly motivated by ice cream, so if certain friends live near a park not that far from an ice cream shop, I am making it happen. Friends we hardly see because they live in a different part of the metro area will be part of a destination play date.
  • There’s no excuse of a home or yard in utter disarray, for any of us to avoid making such a play date. Likewise, there’s no coordinating food preferences, and no dishes to wash afterward.

The payoff for a little planning is significant: conversation with adults reminds us that we are not just our jobs, even if that job is exclusively being a parent. That’s a payoff worth the effort!