Thursday, November 24, 2011

in the way of grace

Hans asked Emeth to close his eyes. In his hand held a sweet surprise. A morsel of chocolate-covered ice-cream. He planned to pop it into Emeth's mouth after his eyes were closed. It may not seem like a big deal, but to our three-year-old, it required a great amount of trust and faith in daddy. These days, "Why?" is a common response to the instructions we give to him. The request was simple: obey daddy and trust that daddy has only what is good for you in mind.

God asks his children to pray. Too often, however, our hearts rebel again this exercise and ask "Why?" What difference does it make? God is sovereign, so why does it matter whether we pray or not?

Prayer is not a shopping list; it is not a to-do list. It is not merely meditation, or a means of unloading our fears and worries. It is not even "just talking to God."

In the language of Jonathan Edwards, when we pray, we are placing ourselves "in the way of grace." I think of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, or the woman who touched Jesus' cloak, or the Canaanite woman who threw herself at Christ's feet for the sake of her daughter. They each placed themselves in Jesus' path, and their hope in his mercy.

Compare to the many other things we can be doing, praying can seem so -- unproductive -- because it is (on our part, anyway). It is as unfruitful as when the sons of Israel circled around Jericho again, and again, and again.

Prayer is a picture of how grace is to be received -- us on our knees doing "nothing." It is us living out our dependence on God, a realization that we can do nothing apart from him, and a proclamation that he has done everything for us. Praying is hard because it requires sacrifice, yet it yields no measurable result. Surrender with little honor. Hard work with no glory, especially having been asked to pray in the closet.

Prayer is a kind of death lived out,
a daily dying to self.

This way of grace, however, is also how we get to participate in God's work, and take part in God's joy. We get to. Like the four friends who believed. They made a hole in the roof and lowered their sick friend at Jesus' feet. They got to be a part of Jesus' miracle. They got to be a part of the story.

Close your eyes, darling,
and trust daddy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A strange and frightening kind of day

November 21, 2011

2:00 p.m. Emeth laid down for his nap with not much bouncing or laughing. Unusual, but I did not think much of it.

3:30 p.m. Emeth woke up. We had our ritual of hugs and whispers, and he requested to return to his crib "to rest" a little longer "because he was too tired." This never happened before, but there is a first time for everything, right?

4:30 p.m. Emeth woke up from his second nap (?!). We talked a little and he proceeded to lay on the floor and watched his brother playing with toys. Again, never happened before.

5:00 p.m. Emeth requested to return to the crib a second time to rest. I was getting a little worried.

6:00 p.m. He was still under his blanket, holding his bear, staring blankly into space.

The house was quiet. I heard only the light footsteps of the little brother's fat feet. When I washed the dishes, I did not have to remove my gloves every two minutes. No one was talking, or telling me stories, or roaring like a lion, or asking questions.

My imagination ran wild. I had read several articles on meningitis a few days ago. Lethargy was among the symptoms; death was among the "complications." I checked his temperature several times. Is your neck hurting? How are your knees? Can you straighten your legs?

6:40 p.m. He sat up and said, "Emeth is not feeling too tired any more," and slowly regained his momentum of chattiness.

7:30 p.m. He was singing Pop Goes the Weasel at the top of his lungs. He was not eating his dinner like I wish he would, but it was well with my soul.

I record this for days to come when I might foolishly wish for a quieter house. I might wish to whine about all the interruptions or the giggles and squeals when they are supposed to be sleeping. I record this to remember how frightened I was when Emeth was quiet, and how grateful I was when I had my a boisterous and endlessly chatty three-year-old back.

Here are some Emethese for good measure:

ker whale -- killer whale 
os-posit or o-sipit -- opposite
long long time ago or last morning -- a few hours ago, yesterday, weeks or months or years ago.
maybe -- definitely. E.g. "maybe I spilled my yogurt" means "I spilled my yogurt."
almost -- already. E.g. "It's almost two o'clock" means "It's already two o'clock."
deft-ly -- definitely
um-set -- upset
sammich -- sandwich
opportunist -- what daddy calls me and my little brother when he comes out from his study.
Jolay and Dalay - me and daddy when we are pretending to be Jolay and Dalay. Mommy is also Jolay but she doesn't like to play along. And Hanan is Dalay, like me, but he is too little to understand.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On absurdity and unkindness

Years ago, I had a dear friend who had anorexia and bulimia. One night, very early in our friendship (when I didn't know about her eating disorders), she looked at me and cried, "You are so thin, and I am so fat!" I was so confused. Her size-zero pants looked baggy on her. I will not tell you the size of my pants, but I can tell you that I was (and still am) not a size-zero.

I told her that she needed to love herself more.

A year after that incident, I was asked to give a workshop in the juvenile justice facilities on sexual harassment. I walked into a classroom containing twenty-two blank stares in blue uniforms. By the end of the workshop, we were a wreck. Some were crying, most were distraught, four admitted that they had been raped.

I left them with colorful bookmarks telling them to love themselves.

Weeks ago, Yohanan was teething (the well-used excuse for fussing). He just had a flu shot. His skin felt warmer than usual, a slight fever. He looked at me and his hand patted his chest, signing "Please." Hold me, mommy, just hold me.

Then, I understood
the absurdity
of the colorful bookmarks,
the unkindness
of telling my friend to love herself.

Girls in blue uniforms stood before my mind's eyes, their blank stares judged me. No, Miss, we cannot love ourselves. Can't you see, Miss? We are hurt, and broken, and sick.

How do we see ourselves?
Are we gods and goddesses -- the way they sing about us on the radio?
Or do we see ourselves as God sees us?

Children, toddlers, babies--
faces of beauty in the fullness of their glory,
helpless, rebellious, center of our universes,
always manage to get our hands on some poison or choking hazards,
prone to wander, falls, and pain.

We are children
like Yohanan,
we are not able to love ourselves.

When I see my children sinking in their self-inflicted misery, I don't tell them to love themselves. No, I tell them that Mommy and Daddy love them. I tell them that their Maker and Savior loves them. And then, we would dance, and sing, and hold on to one another (until, of course, I have to make dinner).

looks to others.
When love looks to the self, it becomes something else.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Emeth's first poem

At the breakfast table this morning, Emeth composed his first poem.
Chubby little fingers,
Chubby little toes,
Chubby little winter on Hanan bear.
I thought it had just the right amount of ambiguity for a poem. I get it, but I don't get it. He said it was to "make Hanan laugh." I thought it was perfect.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nutella on my priestly garment

I've loved history my whole life. I mostly kept this to myself in high school. History, or "Sejarah" as we called it in Malaysia, was among the most despised subjects in the public schools. There was little to love when government exams expected students only to memorize dates and events.

So, when I came to the United States, I freely indulged at the fountain of a liberal arts education, and drank myself silly. I declared my academic love to the history department, even though I was a biology major.

Here, I was introduced to the nuns of the Middle Ages. They enthralled me. Life in the the convents and monasteries sounded most -- liberating. When so few women knew how to read, nuns wrote books. The ascetic life seemed so noble. Monks and nuns sacrificed much freedom and devoted their lives to prayer and spiritual disciplines. I thought if I had lived in the Middle Ages, it would be so cool to be a nun.

I have since grown out of that (weird) daydream. (thank goodness)

And then, I became a mom. The freedom that I was ready to sacrifice as a (Protestant) nun paled in comparison to the sacrifices of becoming a parent. I am not saying that the monastic life was easy, not at all, but at least monks and nuns got full nights of sleep, the time to be with one's own thoughts, the luxury of being in one's own mind, the freedom to come and go. As my friend Charisse said, she can be having "intense devotional thoughts" at one moment, and be upset by the sound of children fighting at the next.

Our worship is tangled up with the ordinary. Nuns and monks clothed the naked and fed the hungry as their acts of spiritual discipline. (Wait, that's what parents do.) We offer our lives as worship; we sing, we play, we eat, we drink, we wash, we comfort, we listen, we teach, we pray. Repeat. This is our service unto the Lord, even when my priestly garment is stained with Nutella, and the floor of the sanctuary may have a few Cheerios on it.

So, when Martin Luther wrote "intense devotional thoughts" about stenchy diapers, I try to pay attention. A monk turned family man, he knew what he was talking about:
[Natural reason] turns up her nose and says, "Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores?"...

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels.
It says, O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight. . . . God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling—not because the father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.