Why Christians need to let go of the word “deserve”

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. ” – Jesus, Matthew 23:37

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” – attributed to God by Isaiah, Isaiah 49:15

What does your child deserve from you?  Leaving aside personal feeling for a moment, what does he or she really deserve?

When he kicks and screams in the store, while you’re doing your best to buy him the good things he needs, because he can’t have a toy, what does he deserve?

When she has, in her sweet but graceless toddler way, tried to help and made your job twice as hard, what does she deserve from you?

When you are still bleeding, two weeks later, from labor, and he won’t let you sleep, but wakes at all hours demanding even more from your tired and broken body, what does he deserve then?

When she works herself into such a frenzy over the medicine that you are trying to give her that, once you finally get it in, she promptly throws it all up, what does she deserve?

Are you screaming at me, yet, that I’m missing the point?

These children, your children, my children, don’t deserve anything from their parents.  It’s the wrong word.  Parenthood goes far, far deeper than that.  We have a word for parents that would stop feeding or medicating their children because of a fit, for those who punish good intentions, for those who disdain the needs of the most vulnerable among us, no matter how onerous they are to fulfill.  We call parenting based in that attitude abusive.  It’s a strong word, but we know that true parenthood does not rest on deserve.  We are in another framework entirely.

The framework of parenthood seeks the best for the child, even when the child is not wise enough to know what it needs.  It takes joy in giving good things to the child, in seeing the child grow, in seeing the child’s joy.  Parenthood’s framework is one that is not concerned with punishment, but with directing down the right path.  It is patient in its endurance, for the child’s sake.  The framework for parenthood is not deserve.  It is love.

We know this, many of us, from our first moments of parenthood.  Though we are imperfect, we learn and grow along the way.  We love our children with everything in us without the least thought toward what they deserve.

Why do we think less of God?

God, who is named as Father and Mother.  God, who goes to great lengths to teach and heal and reconcile with his children.  God, who IS love.

And yet I hear my brothers and sisters worrying about whether they deserve good things from God.  Whether they’ve done enough to deserve his forgiveness.  Whether they are earning their place in the Kingdom, in his notice and his love.  And my heart hurts, the way it would hurt if a small child told me he worried about deserving his mother’s love.

It can be hard, as a child, to hold your burgeoning ability to reason in tension with those things that you know to be true, but can’t explain.  Occasionally my boys will ask me why I love them.  They suggest maybe it’s because they are smart, or because they did something helpful that I praised.  And my heart breaks a little, and I tell them that I love them simply because they are mine, and they will always be mine, and I will always love them, forever and ever.

God loves us.  He loves with the heart of a parent, unshakable, unwavering, unbreakable.  He loves us toward growth and reconciliation and healing.  Deserve is no where in it.  He loves us because we are his, and we will always be his, and he will love us, forever and ever.

Amen.

God and dirty diapers

There’s a particular metaphor that has stuck with me since a church service in elementary school.  During a vacation Bible school altar call, the preacher of a large church stood up and told a sanctuary full of children that it was impossible for us to do anything that would please God.  In fact, the very best thing we could possibly do- the most selfless, most loving thing we could imagine doing, the best thing we ever accomplished- was, to God, a dirty diaper.

I imagine he chose this illustration carefully.  What better to elicit disgust in a room full of children?

The preacher spent some time on the point, really driving it home that God was utterly disgusted with our every attempt at goodness, because it could never be good enough.  God was so holy, our best attempts, our most pure-hearted intentions would always be repulsive waste in his eyes.  Jesus’s purifying influence was the only way he could stand to be close to us at all.

And then I became a parent.  And let me tell you, that metaphor?  It’s a load of shit.

New parents are given a lot of information about baby poop.  In the hospital, we were actually given a chart and told to fill out time, color, and consistency for every effort.  That’s because for newborns, poop is a major indicator of nourishment and development.  A baseline number of dirty diapers indicates that the baby is receiving adequate nourishment, while the rapidly changing appearance of the poop – for the uninitiated, there’s a normal progression of rather surprising colors and consistencies- indicates that the baby is developing appropriately.  A quick search for “baby poop” will bring up countless articles on the subject.  With images.  A lot of loving thought and concern is put into baby poop.

So as parents, we nourish our children the best we are able, and we watch their output to check on the quality of the nourishment they are receiving, and the development of their system which processes that input.  We take genuine pleasure when the output suggests the child is growing and developing, even when dealing with it is messy or inconvenient.  In between holding our noses and arguing whose turn it is to do the changing, we may just admit we’re happy or relieved or maybe even a little bit proud of the development of which the bundle held at arm’s length is the outward sign.

Which brings us back to the preacher’s metaphor.  The “actions as dirty diapers” metaphor crumbles the second you acknowledge that God the Father has a parent’s heart.

If my love for my children causes me to value even a dirty diaper as a sign of their growth, how much more must the perfect parent, the perfect love value our attempts to learn and grow?  Even when they are messy, even when they are inconvenient, even when we get it all wrong, I’m convinced that God values our efforts the same way we value those of our children.  I think God rejoices just as much when his children open up and try something new; when they do the hard thing and share; when they keep trying, even when things get tough.

Of course he does.  He’s our father.

And I believe he’s waiting, smiling, arms open.  “Look how much you’ve grown!”

And now, a random poem

Modern Physics

The shape of the world has changed.

No longer smooth, full of space

and raw material,

where matter plus energy

yields predictable results.

Everyday life has fractured

into Mandelbrot complexity-

every space a precise and intricate multitude,

dimensions wrapped in dimensions

requiring exacting attention to half-known laws

and beset by

quantum uncertainty.

The Second Amendment, or, No Nukes is Good Nukes

I don’t have a problem with guns.  I went to the gun range with my dad, and shot a .22 a lot better than anyone expected of a geeky little girl with giant glasses and thick bangs.  I watched him shoot skeet, and later, practice with handguns.  I ate dove for dinner that had been flying that morning.  Pretty tasty with dumplings.  Guns, in and of themselves, do not bother me.

You know what does bother me?  Bad logic.  And a lot of the nonsense that is being spewed by otherwise sensible individuals about guns is downright illogical.

Let’s start with the Second Amendment, which says:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Some of the founding fathers worried that, in giving the federal government the ability to maintain a sizable standing army, they exposed the states and their people to the risk of federal tyranny.  The Second Amendment was meant to assuage those fears by ensuring that the federal government could not force state militias to disarm.

I’ll get into the modern applications of the Amendment in a minute.  But first, can we agree that the state vs. federal situation is no longer an issue that is at all likely to be addressed militarily?  The states are far more tightly bound to the federal government than they were just after the Revolution.  It has been established that states do not have the right to secede, and diplomacy is far more useful these days than guns when it comes to the balance of power between the different levels of government.  So, state militias are not the issue when we discuss defending this right.

Nor are “arms” as we interpret them likely to be much help in a stand-off against the Feds.  Weapons available at a federal level have evolved to a level that private citizens can’t even begin to match, and we have an expectation that some advanced classes of weaponry shouldn’t be available to the general public.  I don’t have 4.026 million dollars to purchase my own drone, for instance, or the capability to use one if I did, and I’m quite sure the FBI would have questions if I tried.  An attempt to procure uranium would also raise a few eyebrows.    We have an understanding that “arms” means guns, and no matter how fancy the gun, it isn’t going to provide adequate defense if an individual feels the need to protect their rights from the federal government.  So, again, protection against government tyranny is not a valid modern application of the Amendment.

More recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment is not limited to militias, but also protects the right of citizens to keep guns for personal use.  These rulings argue that there are protected uses- self-defense is mentioned repeatedly.  The Court also explicitly states that the right to bear arms can be limited-

“…nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” – DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HELLER

So we can see that the Court acknowledges that the right to bear arms does not extend so far as to trump public safety concerns.  It explicitly states that laws governing the sale of fire arms, and limits on possession, are legal, as long as they don’t unduly interfere with protected uses such as self-defense.

Knowing that precedent, what legal objection could there possibly be to improving the databases accessed when determining eligibility for gun purchase based on prior convictions and mental illness?  Why object to enforced vetting of all potential customers?  Yes, it may make gun sales slightly more inconvenient for law abiding citizens, but it should make them much more inconvenient for people who are already prohibited from owning them.  Why wouldn’t we want to do that?

And why on Earth would we object to banning types of guns and magazines whose primary purpose is to kill large numbers of people quickly?  What protected use is there for an assault weapon?  It isn’t necessary for self defense, or for hunting.  “Because they’re neat” is not a protected use- I think Siberian tigers are neat, but I’m not allowed to have one, for very good reasons.  It seems well within the legal bounds to say that public safety is best served by removing as many of these weapons from the public as possible.

Finally, a word on the argument that bad guys will get guns regardless- and that word is “duh”.  Someone intent on killing will kill regardless of the law, but that doesn’t keep us from enacting laws against killing in order to set societal expectations, allow authorities to minimize risks, and remove from society those who can’t abide by the law.  The same applies to theft- all the laws in the world won’t stop a determined thief, but they will allow precautions to be taken, making it harder to steal, and allow theft to be prosecuted and offenders prevented from having the opportunity to steal again.  So yes, the bad guys will get guns, if sufficiently motivated.  But laws could make it significantly harder to attain them, so that maybe less of them succeed.  Laws banning assault weapons are not likely to eradicate them from the country completely, but could limit the number of assault weapons in circulation, so that it is harder for the bad guys to procure one.  And they allow society to prosecute those who obtain illegal weapons, or those who obtain weapons illegally, hopefully before they do serious harm.

So to my friends who are concerned about their right to bear arms- that right is not at stake here.  That right is protected, and recently affirmed and upheld by the highest court in the land.  The changes proposed by the President do not touch your right to protect yourself, or hunt, or go to the range.  They only aim at making it harder for dangerous people to have access to particularly dangerous guns- a public safety concern that is also protected by the Supreme Court.  Let’s work together to refine these proposals so that they are as effective as possible without unduly burdening law abiding citizens.  We need all voices to weigh in, particularly those of gun owners, because you will have important input on the practical applications of these laws.  We can’t do it without you.

Everything I know about God, I learned from… being crazy

Hi, my name is Melissa, and I’m nuts.  Don’t worry, the nuttiness is well tamped down at the moment, and has been for some time.  But there was a time when it most decidedly was not.

I had a fascination with patterns and evenness as a kid, that over time turned into more of a compulsion.  That’s the earliest I can remember of it, anyway.  If I tapped a foot, I needed to tap the other foot, too.  And the tapping should be in an even number.  No, not that number- that one’s bad.  Maybe a couple more.  Good.  But that last tap wasn’t really a full tap- more of a half tap.  Better try again.  But now is that even, or odd?  Better start over.  But before I can start over, I should even out the taps with the other foot…

You see where this is going, right?  Insert anything in place of foot taps- counting lights on the highway, not stepping on cracks between tiles- all kinds of stuff.  I remember getting these weird feelings of an elusive Completeness, a Rightness that I could seldom attain, applying to all sorts of inconsequential things, from a very early age.  At first, it was just a pleasant awareness of the pattern, with an urge to complete it.  Then it strengthened to a somewhat annoying compulsion- I didn’t just want to finish the pattern, I needed to.  I thought of it as a superstition, maybe an endearing personality quirk.  It didn’t bother anyone but me, after all.   But the initiations of patterns grew more frequent, and the compulsions to finish them stronger.  And the odds of them being “Right” on any given iteration grew smaller.  This was getting to be a problem.  It was still an internal problem- though I was expending a lot of mental energy dealing with it, the most anyone was likely to notice on the outside was some fidgeting, or a strange persistence in walking in a particular pattern on the store tiles, or a hesitation before I answered a question because I had to finish what I was doing mentally- kind of weird, but not unheard of from a kid.  And hey, I was a weird kid.  I had no reason to think it was anything other than irritating and slightly unusual- part of my general and generally likable weirdness.

So at this point, I was already showing definite, but mostly private, signs of nuttiness.  What we think of now as really freaking obvious serotonin issues.  But give me a break, I was a kid, and it was the early nineties, and obsessive compulsive disorder as we understand it today had only recently been defined.  Mental health, thank God, is a much better understood and recognized issue now than it was then, though there is still a lot to be done.  But I digress.  So, I’m a kid, I have a tendency to notice and initiate patterns, a preoccupation with unattainable Rightness or Completeness, and a compulsion to achieve that unattainable goal.

Enter a precocious reading level, a badly informed Bible reading, and some unfortunate application of spiritual ideas.  I got an adult Bible when I was about eight, and started reading it.  From the beginning.  My framework for understanding was rather limited, and I was extremely literal.  Although I knew many of the stories from both Old and New Testament, I didn’t understand the theological implications of the New Testament in general, much less as applied to the endless rules and regulations of the Old Testament.  So what I got from it was, God had these rules, starting with the Ten Commandments and followed by a bunch of others, and Right Behavior meant following the rules.  Then there were some early church experiences that stressed that nothing we could do would ever be good enough for God- even if we tried really, really hard, we would never be able to live Correctly.  We would, in fact, be utterly despicable failures in God’s eyes.  But that was okay, because God forgave us!  We just needed to ask Jesus into our heart, and when we asked him, he’d forgive us and help us to do better.

Let’s leave aside for the moment the idea of how best to introduce spiritual concepts to children.  I have Views on this, which I would love to discuss another time.  For now, we will just say that this particular presentation of the situation was not helpful to me at this time.  And I would quite like to have a chat with the staff of a particular, long-ago church, just in case they are still teaching impressionable children.  Eh-hem.

So my preoccupation with Correctness gained a moral and spiritual component.  Not even in reasonable ways, generally; although I was aware that I should, say, be nice to my brother, respect my parents, honor the Sabbath- those things were messy, hard to define, and hard to know that I got Right.  I was extremely rigid about moral rules when I had decided what Right was, but there was already a known Rightness that I was failing to achieve many times a day.  My brain had somehow connected my existing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors with spiritual failings- it wasn’t just Wrong to tap an uneven number of times, it was deeply Wrong, platonically Wrong, spiritually Wrong.  I became sure I was offending God with my failings.  I knew what to do with this- of course I wasn’t good enough, of course I failed.  I was a fallen human.  But I could pray for forgiveness.  And so I did.

I prayed.  I prayed and prayed and prayed.  And then I prayed wrong and had to start over.  And then I had a stray thought, or breathed wrong, and had to start over again.  And then I knew I was being crazy and the crazy was probably offensive to God but that was okay because he would forgive me if I asked but I had to ask right without bad thoughts intruding or else I’d have to stop and ask forgiveness for those thoughts but the Wrongness would just play over and over again like a skipping record again and again and

Yeah.  Nuts.  It was outwardly noticeable by this point.  I spent the first part of my sophomore year muttering repeated prayers, just under my breath.  Trying to do my schoolwork and failing, because I was too busy inside my own head.  That was the outside.  On the inside, I felt hopeless.  Despairing.  Though I would never have acted on it, it crossed my mind more than once that it would be far easier to be dead.  It became obvious that something was seriously wrong, and my parents and teachers decided I needed help.

After a brief consultation with a psychiatrist, I started medication and therapy.  My therapist explained the biological theory behind obsessive compulsive disorder to me, and said that the idea was to rewire my neural pathways to more constructive patterns.  The medicine was meant to facilitate the rewiring, but I would have to do the work of forming the new habits, the new thought patterns, the new pathways.  This was a really helpful way of looking at it for me.  I wasn’t a lost cause.  There was a physical illness, and a rehab of sorts.  I could work at it, and get better.

Early progress was limited.  I felt a bit of hope, and the medicine took a little- a smidge- of the urgency, the edge, off of the obsession/compulsion cycle.  The therapy made sense- my brain chemicals were off, my pathways miswired, and my brain getting faulty signals.  But I still couldn’t break it.  The thoughts kept coming, and the patterns, and with them, the sense of failure, the need for forgiveness, the failure at even asking for that Correctly.  After being buoyed, I was sinking again.  And if the buoys failed what hope did I have?

I was praying one evening before bed- what else would I be doing?- exhausted, depressed, wanting nothing but oblivious rest, but unable to rest until I got it Right.  I asked for forgiveness, and forgiveness for failing in my prayers for forgiveness, and forgiveness for failing in my prayers for forgiveness for failing… and so on.  Imagine climbing a spiral staircase, trying to get out of a pit, at the bottom of which lie unknown and unspeakable horrors.  Except for every half-story you climb, the stairs sink another story into the pit.  Yeah, that.  But still trying.  Still climbing.  When, suddenly-

I was overcome by the sudden knowledge that God loved me.  Filled.  It felt like light.  It felt like air.  It felt like bewilderment, followed by freedom.

God loved me, but not like I had been imagining.  Not with disgust, or contempt, or out of pity.  God created me out of love.  He loved me because I was his, and he wanted me to grow and be well.  That was the idea behind all the rules, behind the forgiveness and repentance and everything else.  I had missed the point, mistaken methods for the goal.  The real point was wholeness, relationship, love.  He wanted me to do good, yes, but he wanted it so that I could be well.  God wanted to heal me.  And my obsession with Rightness was standing in the way.  But his love was bigger than my mistakes, real or imagined.  His love was bigger than my broken brain.

Love felt like joy.

I slept well, for the first time in a long time.  The war wasn’t over- the next day there were new battles to be fought, and I would not win them all.  But the tide had turned, and I was able to break the cycle more and more often.  Knowing that the point was love allowed me to let go of the idea that I had unforgiven sin laying around somewhere, waiting to be held against me.  It removed the shame and fear, allowing me to acknowledge my mental misfirings for what they were.  I began to heal.

My brain chemistry still isn’t all it could be.  Stress and lack of sleep bring on cycling thoughts that, unadressed, threaten to evolve from anxiety to a full blown recurrence.    I watch my sleep, try to watch my stress, and have gone back to medication and therapy as needed over the years.  But you know what?  I’m not afraid.  And I wouldn’t trade what I learned about real, saving, healing love, even for a perfectly functioning set of circuits.  Because I’ve found that what I learned about love affects every bit of my life- my relationships, what I strive for and how I go about it, how I feel about the world and the people in it, everything.

Love is the point, my friends.

And love feels like joy.

Everything I know about God, I learned from…

I’ve been thinking a lot about God.  This is a frequent thing for me.  I’d like to write a few posts about what I’ve learned, and how I’ve learned it- the story of the relationship so far, as seen through an imperfect lens.

As for religious background, I was brought up in a Southern Baptist family.  We prayed often, read from the children’s Bible frequently, and went to church sporadically.  I learned the basics of the Christian story, and made a conscious decision to be a Christian at a very young age- a little too young to grasp certain concepts, perhaps, but we’ll get into that.

Of course, I can only speak to my experience.  These things are all very real and present in my life, understood to the best of my limited abilities, and form the foundation for how I think about the world.  I’d love to hear about your experiences, too.  Maybe we can learn something new together.

I’ll link entries in this series below as I complete them:

Everything I know about God, I learned from…being crazy

God and dirty diapers

 

Hello!

I’ve started a blog!

Why?

Might be fun.

All the other kids are doing it.

I think too much, and like bouncing thoughts off other brains.

42.  Why else?

We’ll see what this evolves into, or if it does at all.  I have a few things I know I want to talk about.  After that, who knows- random thoughts, links to neat stuff, poems, insufferable anecdotes about the progeny- we’ll find out!

Thanks for visiting!