Say “Yes” to the Mess

muddy-field-7About a six weeks ago, I was running along the river pondering how life had been relatively smooth, as of late, mirroring the state of the water that was my companion on that run. In fact, the river was so smooth, I could see in it a perfect reflection of the trees that hang so gracefully over its banks. It was a breathtaking sight which allowed me to glimpse the beauty of creation twice. Since summer had ended, our family transitioned back to school almost effortlessly. In fact, it was probably the first time I could remember since my daughter’s diagnosis of ADHD with anxiety, added to the previously diagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder, that we had experienced such a peaceful and calm fall. Usually these changes to life triggered the worst of anxieties, leading to behaviors which became disruptive to any sense of normalcy we touched during less challenging times. But this year was different; so different that it was strange. I kept waiting for something to set off the chain of chaos that had become our new normal, but that something never came. I don’t know if it was the fact that this was her ninth year in her current school or that we finally figured out the perfect combination of meds. I don’t know if it was her incredibly knowledgeable and sensitive home room teacher who “gets” my girl and works well with her or the regular dosage of exercise and sweat that came as part of the package when she signed up to play volleyball. WHATEVER it was that could be attributed to these sweet, smooth, serene months of calm and peace; it was a most beautiful gift.

As the old idiom goes, all good things must come to an end. Volleyball season ended. High school placement tests were administered. Talk of next year’s plans were initiated. Then came the final straw: Shadow Day at her dream high school arrived. At first, when I picked her up after school, she seemed very excited about the day. She said that she participated in class and knew lots of the answers to the teachers’ questions. She mentioned that the high school kids affectionately referred to her as “Shadow” all throughout the day. She happily chatted about friends from last year’s 8th grade class with whom she was able to reconnect in the hallways and cafeteria. But mere hours later, the telltale signs reappeared. At first it was the hypersensitivity to touch. My right arm brushed up against her left arm in the car when I opened up the compartment between the seats. An explosive emotional response followed immediately, along with the physical retraction from the touch. Next came the need to balance out the unexpected sensory input by brushing the arm that wasn’t assaulted against my arm which remained between us. Quickly thereafter, she was throttled by a flooding of all things sensory. She slammed the radio off to stop the sound. She pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her eyes to shut out the onslaught of visual images that threatened to cut the thin thread of sanity to which she was clinging. To watch her in these moments is to witness a response of both fight and flight. It breaks my heart to see her suffering.

The smooth, serene waters are no longer. They are choppy and treacherous and threaten to drown her once again.The future is uncertain, unknown, uncontrollable. The secure position of stability, found after so many years of therapy and learning how to cope, has collapsed all too soon. The aftertaste that remains of the peace now lost makes this new chaos all the more bitter. Day after day, unmet expectations or unwanted sensations or unplanned events trigger the strife once again. I grasp to recall how we successfully navigated these days in the past. It feels as if I am a combat soldier, though once strong in battle, now utterly unprepared for the daily warfare.

In the midst of all this comes Advent, a time when I am supposed to prepare for the birth of a Savior on Christmas. As one who works in ministry, I am ever aware of the dichotomy that exists between what I am called to embrace and my life as it is in these days. How in the world can I prepare to invite the newborn babe into this utter turmoil, this MESS? When we prepared to invite her into the world, everything was ready and waiting. We took classes to learn how to care for her. We read books and devoured articles about how to be good parents. We painted her room and decorated it tastefully. We assembled the crib and equipped it with the softest bedding we could find. Everything was perfect and I felt ready.

In a feeble attempt to prepare for Christmas, I dug out an old Advent reflection book written by Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent.  Sometime during the end of the first week of Advent, I finally got around to opening it up. I figured I would try my hardest to prepare my heart for His birth like I did my house, for her birth. I would make everything neat and clean and perfect and ready. The very first page I read reminded me that my ways are NOT God’s ways, my thoughts are NOT God’s thoughts. It read,

Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus. Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on ‘the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ’ who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves and to surrender.”

Ugh. this is exactly why I both love and hate reading Richard Rohr’s writings. His insights usually serve to cut to the core and reveal a smattering of my most prevalent character defects and flaws. Perfectionism. Need for control. Frustration with others’ disruptions of my plans. And the list goes on. The question that followed that particular day’s reflection led to a realization that still challenges me today. The realization is that deep within, I struggle to believe that God is to be found in the unrest, the disorder, the chaos, the emotional outbursts, the discord, the anxiety, the disrupted plans, the late arrivals, the overwhelming uncontrollable and messy moments that pepper my life. I am very uncomfortable with emptying myself, losing myself and surrendering. There, I admit it.

I left the time of prayer that day reminded that Jesus wasn’t born into serenity and sweet peace. Yeah, somehow I had conveniently forgotten about some of those little parts of the Gospel. Like when Mary was visited by an Angel and she was greatly troubled and she was told she was going to give birth to the Son of God. Oh and that small part about the fact that she wasn’t yet married, but was pregnant, which 2014 years ago was kind of a big deal, like a you-deserve-to-be-stoned-to-death big deal. And, guess what? I forgot that Joseph and Mary didn’t get their house all ready for Jesus with a fresh paint job, new furniture from Ikea and soft bedding. Nope. They were rushing around last minute, like my crazy family does regularly, looking for a place to birth him and all they could find was a stable. He was born into unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, disrupted plans, late arrivals, overwhelming, uncontrollable, messy life. I vowed right then to try to surrender to my life as it is and I asked God that somehow in the midst of our messiness, that He would provide an opportunity for us to serve someone in need this Christmas. From that day forward, my Advent mantras became, “Help me to find You in the mess” and as particularly stressful moments arise daily, “Into this mess I say, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

We have a tradition of cutting down our tree each year at a local Christmas Tree Farm run by the Benedictine monks. This year when we arrived at the farm, it was already about 3 p.m. With the winter solstice drawing near, our window of daylight was quickly waning. As we trudged through the wet and mucky fields, my daughter was the first to come upon a young family whose minivan had become lodged in thick, deep mud. Without a moment’s hesitation, she offered our family’s help and summoned us to assist her in gathering dry grasses and the occasional evergreen branch abandoned in the field. These were placed under the wheels of the vehicle and accomplished the goal of dislodging it from ensnarement. Her inventive solution had worked! We were proud of her and grateful to get back to the task at hand. When we had whittled our search for the 2014 Christmas Tree down to the last 2 finalists, our plans were again disrupted. The young family had been unable to find higher ground in the direction they had taken. When they turned around, they had become entrenched a second time. The evening was growing darker and our patience was wearing thinner. Our solutions weren’t as effective in this subsequent round of attempts. But my girl, she didn’t give up. Undeterred by the frustration, she kept gathering dry materials and bringing them to the minivan. Time after time, the wheels spun, even though we had secured the bundles of grasses to give the tires a surface to grab. As we tried to push the minivan from behind, both my husband and I slid backwards and subsequently, I fell down into the mess, catching myself just short of receiving a full mud bath. At that moment, it became clear to me. This was the answer to my prayer. God had provided us an opportunity as a family to serve  someone in need. I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry. I couldn’t even have imagined a more disruptive, unplanned, uncontrollable and utterly messy opportunity to serve than this.

With one final push, the van was freed for a second time and the family fled for dry land. The sun had set, we could no longer see well enough to reclaim our last 2 finalists, we were all covered in mud and exhausted. My girl’s big and generous heart was quickly overcome with the big crashing wave of realization that plans were now changed, nothing was like it usually is and we weren’t going home with a tree this night. Unrest, disorder, chaos, discord and uncontrollable, messy life continued as we made our way out of the field, stopping to attempt to comfort her as she collapsed on to the muddy ground, wailing in grief over unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams. As I stood in the glow of the orange sunset on the horizon, waiting for her to gather her strength to carry on, I whispered into the cold night air, “I surrender Lord. I say “yes” to this mess.” Then deep in the quiet of my heart I heard a still, small voice whisper, “I AM in this mess, it is to be with you in this mess that I come.”

Though everything is imperfect, I am ready. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

To learn more about Sensory Processing Disorder, visit STAR Institute: About SPD

An Oblivious Amen

10481946_10152235969004372_3691425472651833846_nThis past week I was delighted to find out that a local Catholic church was hosting one of my new favorite recording artists, Matt Maher (http://www.mattmahermusic.com/), in concert at a venue close to my home. Even though I really wanted to go, with the looming deadline of a rather large quarterly tax payment due in just days, I couldn’t justify spending the cash. I tried to put it out of my mind and forget about it. But just hours before the concert, a nagging urge to go came to the forefront in my consciousness. I wrestled with an intense desire to be fiscally responsible, but the nagging urge became all consuming, so I went.

As I approached the box office, I slid a credit card through the entrance in the glass window and asked to purchase one ticket. The girl behind the window promptly slid my card back to me, along with a ticket and said, “A generous donor just donated a handful of tickets to give away to the next few people in line.” As I accepted the gift, I found myself both speechless and stunned. A sense of gratitude flooded my heart because somehow, it seemed clear to me that I had just been led to a divine appointment. I was convinced that I was supposed to be in this place, at this time, for this concert and that before the end of the night, I might leave with some understanding as to why. Before Matt Maher walked onto stage, a representative from the host church welcomed us and began the night with prayer. As we Catholics are typically not known for possessing stellar skills when it comes to spontaneous prayer, we were invited to join together in the “Our Father”. Excited about the concert, I rushed through the words rotely and ended the prayer with a thoughtless, but resounding, “AMEN!”

Matt did not disappoint. We listened as he introduced his songs with stories of his life and how he had found God’s presence over and over in the midst of his experiences. At times the music was loud and rocked the theatre; at other times, it was reflective and prayerful. Through it all, I found myself drawn, like a moth to light, to the text painted on the side of his piano. As an enthusiastic aficionado of all things typographic, I was drawn to its simple, rugged beauty. In an irregular, vintage letterpress-like text, it simply read AMEN. After the concert, I even made my way to the stage to snap a photo of it. While it was a very worthwhile, enjoyable evening, I arrived home without a definite understanding as to why I was meant to be there. However, as darkness consumed the day’s light, I climbed into bed and once I stilled myself, I began to see it over and over in my head; that word, AMEN. I drifted to sleep for a time, only to awaken later with visions of it playing on repeat in my mind. So be it. That is the definition I could remember of amen as I laid there in bed. My dad, a true wordsmith, always made us look up words in the dictionary when we asked him what they meant. Most of them I forgot, but not this one. Just three simple words, but with such powerful possibilities. So be it. I had spoken it earlier that night. I had thoughtlessly spoken it at the end of the “Our Father”. I had just said “so be it” without even thinking about that to which I was agreeing. I had obliviously said “so be it” after telling God straight from my lips, “Thy will be done.” Yikes, I thought to myself, what if God takes me seriously?

It could be said of me at this point on the journey that I am a sort of recovering control-freak/perfectionist (still very much a work-in-progress). However, at my core, I don’t like to say “so be it” until I’ve previewed the terms and conditions to which I am agreeing and definitely not until I’ve been told the details of Plans “B” and “C” if “A” doesn’t worked out as was explained to me. My mother’s mantra, which I recall hearing even in my earliest of days, was something to the effect of, “Sometimes plans change and you’ve got to learn how to deal with it.” This was spoken most often following a total meltdown on my part, because something out of MY control changed and I hated when that happened. I did not possess the admirable skill of “going with the flow”. Even before I met my husband, I was quite certain about how God’s future plans for my life should play out. My days at a Catholic University, sheltered in a bubble full of virtuous people striving for sainthood, only served to cement this vision of my perfect life. I was to marry a devoted, Catholic man who adored me, we were to have five to seven children and we were to reside in a gloriously beautiful, clean, sizeable home decorated straight out of the pages of the Pottery Barn catalog. My life’s work would be inside my home, homeschooling our little darlings so they would not be stained by the imperfections of the world outside our piece of heaven on earth (insert gagging noise here, right?)Well, apparently, this Plan A was gonna change and neither Plan B or Plan C was explained to me in advance, because if they were I would have NEVER agreed to them either. Guess what? No one consulted me. But then, was it possible that I had already agreed to the change because I had said the same oblivious AMEN, as I did the other night, following hundreds of “Thy Will Be Done” my whole life and God actually took me at my word?

My Plan A pretty much started to fall apart the day my devoted Catholic husband and I welcomed our first child into the world. Our daughter’s birth was the event that God used to gently pull the loose string on the tightly wound ball of my ideas for the future. On that day, mental illness struck with a mighty blow, crushing my ideals and aspirations of perfect motherhood into tiny shards, and later I would discover, this was only just the beginning. (https://eyeswideopentothesacred.wordpress.com/?s=imperfect+imperfection). Nearly five years later, my life, even on the best of days resembled nothing of my hopes and dreams. A series of events that followed her arrival had derailed us off of the fast track to perfection; the realization that our first child would most likely be our only; her diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, which rendered the simplest task of getting her dressed in the morning a monumental and herculean one, the harsh reality that financially we couldn’t thrive without me working outside of the home. By the time we enrolled her in kindergarten, after I finally surrendered to the notion that I wasn’t up to the task of homeschooling this girl, I felt my life was completely falling apart. Where was God to be found in all of this mess? I believed Him to be a God of order, of perfect function and of peace. My life was disorderly, dysfunctional and stressful. Certainly this chaos couldn’t be God’s plan for my life.

Lent of 2007 was about to begin and through a series of events, a book landed in my hands which I decided to use as spiritual reading for the next 40 days. It’s title:Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. It’s author: Rabbi Irwin Kula. (http://yearnings.irwinkula.com/thebook.htm) I distinctly remember my husband remarking how very interesting it was that a Catholic girl was reading a book written by a Rabbi for her Lenten spiritual reading. He’s right, I thought to myself, but I was captivated by two words in the title, Sacred Messiness. Could the mess that was the reality of my life actually be sacred? I devoured the book and when finished, had a second and third helping. I went back over certain phrases in an attempt to soak them into my stream of consciousness. Some of the most powerful ones for me read,

Inevitably, for everyone there comes a time (or times) when the way we divvy up our life no longer makes sense…our relationships, our work, our world back us into a corner and cause us pain. And then it’s time to dive, to widen, to make room for new truths to emerge.

The ability to live with seeming contradictions-and the ambivalence and tensions these contradictions create-is what gives rise to wisdom. The messes are the point.”

WHAT? The messes are the point?? This book turned my inner life upside down and opened my eyes to the exciting possibility that God was exactly in all of this mess and was actually leading me into it, so that I would find Him in a whole new way. This unplanned, chaotic Plan G (a.k.a. God’s plan) for my life is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. It opened me up to receive anew the gifts of mercy and non-judgment; acceptance and trust. It has made me much more yielding to things beyond my control. And without doubt, it continues to bless and surprise me with new challenges. I laugh to think what an an unlikely headline this would have made in the Plan A of my life – “God Uses Jewish Rabbi to Save Catholic Girl from Her Lame Plans.” Hee.

At age 11, our daughter was diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD. Once again I was led to dive into deep waters whose currents I am woefully unable to control. In the days since then, as I’ve been learning to navigate the turbulence, there have been times when I thought I would surely drown. But here I am, two years in, with my head still above water. I’m a stronger swimmer and am capable of doing things I didn’t know I had in me to do. It was a surprise to figure out that this major people pleaser has the ability to do that which my daughter recently described as one of my greatest talents, when she said, “Mom you are really good at writing mean letters, but making them sound really nice.” (In reference to my attempts to advocate for her when things at school aren’t going so well.)

In retrospect, I am thankful for all of the AMENs I’ve ever spoken-the deliberate, intentional ones and the oblivious, unintentional ones. Most of all, I am grateful to God for taking me at my word. Even though to this day, I still find moments when I’m still clinging with all my might to Plan A, deep within I am convinced that Plan G is ultimately a far better way. It is difficult and challenging and not very comfortable a whole lot of the time. However, if God deems it possible to be present in this mess called my life and deems it possible to somehow use it for good, I resoundingly and intentionally say, SO BE IT!