I hate balloons.
Before I had children I had no particular opinions about balloons. They were festive at parties and fun when filled with water and thrown. It was when I had children that I started to hate them – because children love balloons.
They love to bounce them around rooms off pointy objects, to float them high above their heads on wavering strings. They say goodnight to them as they hover above their sleepy heads and look expectantly for them first thing in the morning. The one thing that they will not accept is that balloons break.
I remember when Sam was two that I would run away in horror from well meaning people handing a balloon to my sweet little boy. It was impossible to say no once he had seen it and a nightmare after he had it. If I tied it onto his wrist he cried and insisted that the balloon string would not stay straight up and down. He wanted to hold it in his little hand. He would take 3 or 4 or 5 delighted steps looking up at his balloon until he forgot to hold on and watched his balloon float up into the sky.
“Balloooooooon!” I remember him crying, “Balloooooooon. Come back. Mama will the clouds get it and bring it back to me?”
The truth is that there is nothing wrong with balloons. There is not that much to them. A little rubber and air. The very things that make a balloon a joy are the same things that make it impermanent and fragile. But the child loves the balloon so much he can’t bear to see it go.
How often we treat our life like a child treats a balloon. The gifts that we are given we cling onto fearfully. We forget that our life is the divine breath and the dust of the earth. The playfulness and joy of the impermanence and fragility of our earthly life inspire terror in us. We hold on to that which was not meant to last.
Sam is older now. He still likes balloons. But he knows that they break. He knows that they are here for a very short while. He even enjoys sometimes to purposefully open that hand. He relaxes his grasp and watches as a balloon floats off into the freedom of heaven.
The heat is finally letting up. Summer in Phoenix is rather relentless and the heat doesn’t normally end until sometime in October. The first week that I can walk outside without feeling my skin frying is a good week.
We went on a hike this week with the kids. I love getting out in the desert with them. TJ was excited because he had listened to a book about the Saguaro Cactus in his kindergarten class. I looked back to see what was keeping the twins and saw TJ excitedly explaining to Mary about that cactus. “This cactus is one year old” he was saying. “It won’t get its first arm until it is sixteen.” She was listening earnestly. TJ’s face just shone as he took on the role of teacher. I smiled too. Never mind that the cactus he was pointing out was really a barrel cactus. I didn’t correct him or try to teach him anything new about cacti. I was happy for his new confidence – for his innocent interest in the world around him.
So many times in my life I have learned new things about God and I can’t wait to be the teacher – to share my information with the world. I imagine that God smiles like that at me as I confidently run to impart my new-found information to my friends and family. In reality, the truth of who God is so much greater than all the different species of cactus in the desert. I see as a child- like TJ in the desert – using the limited knowledge I have been given to try to make sense of the vastness I am confronted with.
Our journey of knowing is like walking the Chartres labyrinth. We learn and grow and then we turn around and walk the other way. God is this – God is not this. Of course it feels sometimes like we are not getting anywhere at all. The closer to the center we get the longer the journey back. Now we know in part but, like with the labyrinth, we can be confident that there is a center where we shall know fully just as we are fully known.
This week in music I was quizzing the children on the notes. Sometimes in class I go around and ask each child individually to tell me what note I have written on the board. It is a bit of a shock for the kids who have been goofing off to have to answer the question. Sometimes they have no idea how to work it out. This is what I’m looking for. I am waiting for them to ask me, ‘Wait, how do I figure that out?” so that I can take them through the process while I have their full attention. Many times there is a child close to them that tries to whisper the answer. They would like that. They would like to get the answer right and have me pass on to the next child but, as I explain to the class, the answer isn’t really important – it’s knowing the process, knowing how to come up with the answer that is important.
I am very much like that. I am not comfortable with my weakness and my lack of knowledge. I would like God to help me like one child helps another – whispering the answer to me without the knowledge. I would like God to make me patient and kind and good. And while God is at it organized and smart and witty and able to juggle work and home with ease. I want God to slap these qualities on me like a badge but I don’t get that. Instead it seems to me that God waits for those moments of weakness – those moments of “I don’t get it” to teach me just a little bit more. God is not interested in me getting the answer right this one time. God is interested in me knowing how to get the answer right every time. It makes me careful about what I pray for. A long time ago I prayed for patience and God is still answering that prayer – by putting me in every frustrating situation that I can imagine! By the time my children are grown and out of the house I may have learned patience. Why does God do that? Why doesn’t God just fix us up easily? Why does it feel more like I am being carved out than dressed up?
Saint Francis was asked what true joy is and he responded with a story. He told his fellow monk that if they were to arrive at the end of their long journey (in the snow- uphill – both ways) cold and hungry and their brothers rejected them and turned them out into the snow – if they could still rejoice at that moment then they would have found true joy. This is a joy born of God catching us in our weakest moments and teaching us where to look for true answers. This is why God says, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
If we move away from our weakness we move into roles and expectation and that is exactly where we may lose ourselves. I think of a scene from a movie about St. Francis. He comes before the Pope, his favor is granted, and he leaves – completely free because he is nothing but himself. The Pope, however, is pulled back by his advisors. He is returned to his throne and his robe and his big Pope hat. He is lost in his role. He is trapped in Popeness.
The sermon today was on (among other things) the comparison of believers with the salt of the earth. If salt has lost its saltiness it is ruined – throw it out. It struck me today that salt can’t lose its saltiness. Saltiness means the essence of salt. What Jesus is saying here is that it is the very essence of who we are as children of God that God does not want to lose. Clare must not lose her Clareness or she will be no good in the reign of God. And so – rather than making little copies of good, organized, thin, brainy, witty, people – God made me. And God made you. It is in our weakness that we find the freedom of being exactly who we are. And who we are is exactly enough for God.
I think every parent has had that horrible moment in a store when you look down for one second and when you look up your child is gone. Last year I was in Target with Mary and TJ and they were happily looking at some costume jewelry so I walked one foot away around and end cap. I could still hear them. When I walked back around less than a minute later I realized that it was only TJ that I had heard. I called for Mary expecting her to be around the next aisle. When she wasn’t I started to get concerned and ran to the main aisle calling her name. At that point I saw a tear stained Mary being led toward me from quite far away by a nice looking lady. In the few seconds that I had been out of sight she had looked up and panicked when she couldn’t see me. The first thing that she thought of to do was to run to try and find me. She told me that she was afraid that I had left her.
When she had calmed down we had a talk. I told her that I had been close enough to touch when she couldn’t see me. I said, “If you ever can’t see me and you are scared just freeze and call ‘Mama!’ I will always be close enough to hear you because I will never walk away and leave you alone. Never run away when you are scared because you will always be running farther away from me.”
We have actually practiced that and now Mary is good about freezing and calling , “Mama!” if she can’t see me.
When I think about my images of God changing and growing I don’t think only of the picture I have in my head. It is not difficult to realize that of course God is not the old man with the beard or a blond Jesus in a toga. What is harder to change is the direction in which I look for God. I am used to considering God as someone who must be sought. Like Mary I sometimes panic thinking that because I can’t see God that God is absent or I have been abandoned. I have trouble getting used to a God to says. “I am always here. Just call. I am never far away.”
The most radical image comes from Jesus who said that he is the vine and we are the branches – am image of unity with God that seems to reach too far. It says that the direction of my prayers must change – from those of a child who calls and runs in fear – to those of one who grows in silence and looks to her deepest self to find the unity with the Eternal Vine.
It’s funny the small moments that show you how much your children have grown. Since I see them every day I tend to ignore their growth and it springs out at me unexpectedly. With Sam it is his sheer size. He sprawls. His limbs seem to go on forever. I remember when he first went to school it used to amaze me when he came home with jokes that were new or new ways of saying things. Up until that point everything he knew I or Tim had taught him. It was amazing to me to relate to him as a person who had a life apart from me. Now that he is in fifth grade he is so completely his own person. I am so lucky that he shares that person with me. And yet as much as I rejoice in who he is – there is a part of me who mourns the loss of who he was as well.
I have to admit that there is one ‘onesie’ that I can’t bring myself to throw out. It was Sam’s and later TJ’s. It says, “This little mouse likes eating corn.” I am a good purger and most of the evidence of babyhood is gone from our house, but that onesie keeps floating around. I can’t bear to part with the idea of a Sam who was so small.
I have been thinking lately that my image of God needs to grow as much as my children do. It is natural to begin with a childish view of God in childhood. But as we grow up our image of God should too. I don’t mean that we should read more books or form more opinions, although of course we may, but that God will gradually reveal more and more of God’s nature as we enter into friendship with God. As we sit in silence or serve the poor or read the Bible, our view of God grows and changes. And at some point accepting our new view of God requires that we let go of our old views. Sometimes our old views of who God is fit our new lives as well as that onesie fits Sam now. And yet the giving up and the letting God of our old images of God feel like a small death.
We expect that our children will grow, that our relationships and communities will grow and change. And yet we are afraid to allow our image of God to grow and change. It seems almost blasphemous. It seems to us that our safety and orthodoxy is in holding on to the God we have known since childhood.
For me right now as I feel called to let go of the images of God and of Jesus that I have had for many years, I must take a leap of faith. I don’t know what the new images will be. I just feel that my old images are inadequate to the God I am coming to know. I feel perhaps like the cartoon person clinging to a branch at the top of a cliff. A hand comes down. I am saved! But to grab the hand I must release one hand from the branch. I have done this but now must go one step further. I must let go of the branch altogether if I am to be pulled to be safety. But the branch is what I know. It is my safety. It is what has saved me all these years. But it must be left behind to reach true safety.
In the Chronicles of Narnia when Lucy returns to Narnia after an absence Aslan (the Christ figure) appears bigger to her. “Aslan,” she says, “You’ve grown.”
“No child, “he replies, “You have.”
I’m writing this because I don’t have the energy it is going to take to get three kids to bed. What do you do when you’re completely out of energy?
Sometimes it is just so overwhelming. I try so hard to be the perfect mother/ wife/ teacher that after a while I feel that everyone wants and needs something from me.
So – nothing profound to say tonight. Maybe tomorrow will be better
Tim is leaving on retreat today. I am so proud of what he does. I know that the next few days may be pivotal in the lives of the boys that he is leading. Some of them may be encountering God for the first time or finding that the God that they learned about from their parents has something to say to them in their teachers and their peers.
Sometimes I am jealous of those kids. (Not pretty but true.) I am jealous of the time and attention that Tim and the other teachers are pouring into those kids. I wish that someone were looking at me thinking, “What does Clare need over the four days? What lessons about God does she need to learn? What fears does she need to overcome?”
It is easy for me to get so into my role as mother – the one who is always in charge – that I miss the ways that God is leading and teaching me. How do I know that the next four days aren’t my retreat? That everything that happens today is not planned and used by God to teach me and help me grow?
Part of the power of a retreat is the expecatation that we are going away to meet with God. We expect to draw closer to our community and learn from Scripture and each other. And so it happens.
I seem to have developed a cynicism about daily life that needs to be overcome. I expect that I will be overcome with the pressure of fulfilling everyone else’s needs. I am resistant to seeing the ways that God is fulfilling my needs. I seem to be like the people that Alice Walker says God is pissed off at – ignoring the color purple. Or like Mr. Burns in a Simson’s episode. His assistant has arranged for the people of Australia to hold hands and spell out his names in candles. He can’t be bothered to turn his head to the screen where it is being shown. What has God planned for me that I can’t see because I am so busy ‘being busy’? Do I really believe that God is extravagantly involved in my life? Is that belief a choice that I need to make every day?
This next four days as Tim is on retreat I am going to expect to be on retreat myself. Even though the days will be crazily and busily filled I will expect that God has planned them in the perfect way for me to learn and grow.