Sunday, April 12, 2009

Are You Familiar with the Book of Job?

Since I've been able to catch up on some computer things lately, I find that I have a few things to post on my blog. So while my husband is busy with chain maille, I'll share some of my recent thoughts.

I have found myself contemplating the book of Job lately. Now, I don't know many Christians, let alone non-Christians who are very familiar with this book of the Bible. They may know the general story line that Job goes through a lot of suffering, but if they look any closer, they tend to get bogged down in the language and give up reading it. Tim has actually taught the book of Job at church a couple of times and I have found his approach helpful in understanding the flow of the book and the big ideas presented. So, I'll share his method to give you some background on how I came up with some of my ideas I wish to share later.

First, When you read the book of Job, you need to read the whole thing in large chunks. It is a story with an introductory narrative and ending narrative. The main portion of the book in the middle is a series of speeches in the form of a debate between Job and his friends where God gets in the last word. If you read the book more like a Shakespeare play than a storybook, you have a better idea of how to go about it. Most people stick with the easy reading of the beginning and end, but leave out all of the meat of the middle. Almost all of the main points in the book are made in the debate section. They are big issues on suffering, justice, wisdom, God's involvement with mankind, and life after death. Job is a man who through no fault of his own is placed in the midst of suffering that most people never experience. He is a man of great faith and trust in God, and his suffering is a test of that faith. In the debate section of the book you see him progress through his struggle from a why me? attitude to nearly grasping the need for the resurrection. Along the way his friends debate with him using all of the various arguments people have used throughout history to explain suffering and the justice of God. They even use what is considered orthodox theology against him. Job points out that their arguments don't hold water and don't fit his situation and what he is going through. In the end, God himself speaks approvingly of Job and his struggle to understand, but blasts his friends for maligning his name.

In reading the book of Job, you have to be willing to wrestle with the big issues of life and not be content to fall on platitudes. There is a lot to make a person squirm in this book if you think that you have everything figured out nice and tidy.

So, with that as a brief background. Let me say that I've been feeling lately that I've been gaining insight to the dynamics between Job and his friends. Many of you know that we are expecting a baby who has the chromosomal anomaly "Trisomy 13" and as a result of this she is not likely to live long. Since we were hoping for a healthy baby to cherish for many years to come, this was a big shock. Since learning of this diagnosis, we have come to terms with it and are doing the best we can by living life in the present. We are not ignorant about what this means for us or our baby. We have researched what it is and what it will mean for our lives. We understand the underlying causes and what medical hope there is. Yet we do not feel ourselves to be suffering in anything like Job's situation. In fact, it sometimes feels like we have to encourage the people around us who are suffering for us. We know that when our daughter dies, we will grieve. Knowing about it ahead of time, just seems to provide glimpses of the grief we will have later. But in the meantime, we find ourselves on a completely different page than the well meaning people who are trying to encourage us. They seem to think that they have to bolster our faith (since we don't give the answers they expect to hear). It reminds me a lot of Job talking with his friends. Let me try to explain it for you.

I can see now how Job, having to live with his suffering on a day by day basis, has a different perspective than those who see it and its ramifications on a purely theoretical level. We are living with this trial in our lives in a similarly daily way in which we will live with it from now on, no matter what the outcome. We have had to make life and death choices for our daughter. We have to face the prospect of her highly likely death and that it would have to take some very big miracles to change that outcome. We have to face explaining the death of a little baby to her big sisters and brother. The reality that not all babies are healthy and thrive has come home to us. Life in America with good health care and low mortality rates has insulated us from how common this used to be and how common it still is in the rest of the world. We feel our faith providing us an anchor that holds us firm as we negotiate this unknown territory. We feel the need not for the big miracle to "fix" the problem for us and cause it to disappear, as much as we feel the need for the strength of simple faithfulness to get through what lies ahead.

Whenever I encounter one of these well-meaning friends, I am not offended by their comments. I am not insulted by insensitivity. They usually ask if there has been any change in the baby's situation. Or without asking any questions, start talking about how we need to keep praying for a miracle. I am simply struck by the thought that they don't understand what they are saying.

Now I am not one of those people who disbelieve in miracles. I have seen enough miraculous stuff to know that God still does miracles. I had an elderly friend who was literally going through kidney failure with the expectation that he had only hours or days to live. After much prayer by the people who cared about him, he mysteriously recovered. It amazed his doctor whom he then preceded to outlive by another 10-15 years. I knew a student where I worked who struggled with the difficulties of having one leg shorter than the other. She sought healing for years and was miraculously granted that the length of her legs would match and she no longer suffered the effects of the problem. I also knew briefly a young woman who was struggling with the physical recovery from having been hit by a car several years prior to my meeting her. She had the un-nerving way of mentioning how God talked to her. She kept praying to God for healing. One Sunday she told us that God said that he was going to heal her. Three days later she died after being hit by a car as she crossed a street. Sometimes miracles don't happen the way you expect them to. There are numerous stories out there that people can tell of miracles that have happened in their lives. But, when you are dealing with miracles, you are dealing with exceptions to the rule. If miracles were routine, they wouldn't be miracles and they wouldn't have their intended effect. The Bible is full of miracle accounts. The Bible is also full of accounts where miracles didn't happen and people were expected to live faithful lives anyway. I am convinced that God doesn't just hand out miracles like a fairy godmother, if we just believe enough he will do the impossible just to make us happy or save us from some of the unpleasant things in our lives. I think God wants his miracles to make a difference in the big picture. We tend to be looking at a much smaller picture than God is.

Knowing what we know about our daughter's condition, it would not only have to be fixed in her chromosomes in every cell in her body, it would have to be fixed in the multiple organ defects that have taken place as she developed in the womb. That would be a big miracle. Would we be happy to have a healthy daughter? Absolutely! So why don't I pray for the big miracle? Because I can't see what "big picture" good it would do. People in our society are very skeptical. When faced squarely with a miracle like that, they do not decide "OK... God must really exist after all." They assume that the initial diagnosis was wrong, the tests were messed up, the ultrasound pictures weren't accurate or any number of excuses to avoid believing a big miracle. Would a big miracle in our situation do much good beyond our little circle? Somehow, I don't think so.

On the other hand, what about the small miracle, which is what I pray for. If God grants us the ability to live simple faithfulness through our trial, what good would that do? How many people are hurting and struggling in their lives? A lot. How many of them expect a miracle to save them from it? How many of them would instead find greater hope in their own lives by seeing someone go through a struggle successfully relying on God through simple faithfulness rather than that person being one of the few who are granted a special miracle? Somehow, the small miracle seems to me to fit better into doing the most good in the big picture.

So when I encounter these people who are trying to encourage me by telling me that God can do anything, don't give up, we're praying for a miracle, and so forth, I get the feeling that they are doing the same thing that Job's friends are doing. Unlike us they are not intimately connected with the situation, so they haven't really needed to wrestle with it and think it through deeply. It is very easy to sit back and rest on cliches and platitudes. It is easy to say what you think God should do, but that doesn't change the fact that God does what he does in each situation based on that situation. The moving of God's Spirit is not controlled by us to do as we wish. We are the ones who are supposed to be sensitive to God's Spirit to be thus moved and controlled to do as He wishes. It is so easy to have a surface conversation, say the "right" things, and be completely wrong.

So what are the real right things to do and say? It is good to listen. If you aren't sure if someone wants to talk about it, ask them if they care to talk about it. Until you hear the person who is going through some suffering or trial talk about it, you don't really know how they are doing. Only then can you figure out how to respond appropriately. If the person says something that shocks you or conflicts with your sense of the way things are or should be, don't immediately try to correct them. Try to understand that they have a different view of things based on their personal experience. Until you have a better understanding of their experiences, you may not have a complete view yourself. It is OK if people spend time wrestling with the big issues when they are going through struggles. Look at all the major figures of faith from the Bible, not one of them had an easy faith experience. They argued with God. They ranted and raged. And God worked with that. It was the people who thought they had all the answers, that God had trouble with. So if you are tempted to stop people from struggling with their faith, and just hand them the clean-cut answers you like so much, stop. Don't do it. Let them struggle. Instead, you might point them to examples of others who have also struggled so they can see something that they can relate to. It seems that in the midst of our struggles, we have the opportunity to understand things much more deeply and better, than we would otherwise.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Is this nesting instinct?

I've always had trouble differentiating my normal level of wanting to get things accomplished from the overdrive version most often referred to as the "nesting instinct." The nesting instinct is supposed to be where a pregnant Mom starts to be compulsive about getting things ready before a baby comes. For some women it occurs as late as when they begin labor. For me, I think it is not much different from my normal behavior where I'm planning ahead before I'm even pregnant.

This past week, however, has been pretty busy and I've begun to wonder if I'm pushing the limits of sanity. Over last weekend, we finished up our taxes and I sent them out as soon as I could. We've been doing schoolwork, much to the Pillowfight Fairy's dislike. We've finished our math curriculum and grammar curriculum and as a result, I'm speeding up our history lessons to get as many of them in as possible before the baby comes. The Fairy told me today that she thinks a better schedule would be school on Saturday and Sunday and the rest of the week off. She has a bad case of spring fever. I've been staying up late nearly every night working on next year's curriculum, not just for the Fairy but for the Adrenaline Junkie too. Last night I took the time to do some much needed mending. Yesterday, was Tim's day off and I scheduled us for some new family pictures, which took a big chunk of the morning. (It was about time, the last time we had family pictures made was nearly three years ago.) So family will be glad to hear that we will have new pictures for them very soon.

Today felt like a bit of a marathon. I added a trip to Target to return merchandise to my usual trip to get groceries. By the time I got home, unloaded the groceries, and put them away, it was lunch time. After lunch we all went outside to play and I decided to go ahead and weed the garden. Now our garden is relatively small (compared to what it could be). I've only planted about a third of my garden area this time. But, I've neglected it a bit and it has gotten rather weedy. Those of you who have seen me in person lately know that I am... ahem... really big right now. At nearly eight months pregnant, I make people nervous that I'm going to have the baby any moment. Perfect strangers come up to me and ask if I need help, when I'm doing what to me are perfectly normal things (like lifting my two year old out of his stroller and into a car seat). I have a definite waddle when I walk. I can't move quickly or easily. Watching me get up or down is either painful or comical to watch (or both). But yet, I determined to weed my garden. Now, I do have a nice long handle cultivator that I could use to get between my rows. But, I needed to get the weeds out where they are growing alongside my veggies. I needed to do close work. How in the world was I going to do that? The garden cart didn't have enough room to be used since I have narrow and close rows. I couldn't stand and bend over long enough to make much progress (I did that a few weeks ago and I wouldn't be able to do that again). Kneeling would be impossible, I would need a rescue to get me back up. I finally found a way. We have some plastic stack able patio chairs. With a little experimentation I discovered that if I place one just right, the legs of the chair just fit within two neighboring troughs. I could place my chair so that I could sit in the garden with each foot in a trough and a row directly in front of me. If I sat at the front edge of the chair, I could pivot so that I could reach one row to the left, and one row to the right as well as weed the one in front of me. I wasn't too high to reach the ground, and I wasn't so low that I had trouble getting up. It worked. So I spent the next three hours weeding the garden. As a result, I know what veggies are actually growing in half of my garden. The other half of the garden will have to wait for another time. I exhausted myself.

So what am I growing? Well, the snow peas are doing fairly well and are about eight to ten inches high. I found one lone plant of broccoli, five or six cabbages (better than my one cabbage last year), a few celery seedlings that are barely visible, and a dozen or so onions. It looks pretty pathetic. In the half of the garden that hasn't been weeded yet, there should be carrots, parsley, spinach, and two kinds of lettuce. Among the profuse weeds I have so far only identified a few bits of carrot leaf and one spinach. I haven't seen one lettuce despite the fact that I planted three rows of them. It doesn't look like our garden is doing that well this year. Our fruit trees and other berries seem more promising (except that we seem to have a dying cherry tree). Also our recently planted flowers and bushes around the patio are growing and looking good.

So, it kind of begs the question: Am I going through some kind of extreme nesting instinct? or am I simply off my rocker to be concerned about my gardening at eight months pregnant?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Responsibility? Is It Counter-Cultural?

OK... now that the tax forms are done and in the mail, perhaps I should bring up the topic of responsibility.

This is one of those topics where I'm not sure if I am diverging from the larger society or if I am just holding to a traditional view while society is diverging from me. But, I have noticed more and more that our general society is severely lacking in an understanding of responsibility. The lack of responsibility is becoming so mainstream that otherwise conservative, traditionalist individuals are showing signs of behaving in ways that, if not irresponsible, are an abdication of responsibility. What do I mean? Hmm... let me give an example.

What has parenting looked like in the past? A few centuries back parents would raise their children by their side, teaching and guiding them in life until they are capable of living independently. Perhaps some elite wealthy families would hire help for doing this, but even then, the parents were still responsible for the raising of their children and would be judged as successful or unsuccessful in that endeavor by surrounding society. As our society has become ever more complex, we have become used to the idea of specializing in an occupation and hiring experts to do certain tasks. That in itself is not bad. It makes good sense. But, the flaw that I have been seeing so much lately is that in outsourcing our job of raising and teaching our kids, we are not retaining the responsibility for raising and teaching them. We have started to expect others to be responsible for that. That is what I mean by an abdication of responsibility.

This is not a problem just in the area of parenting. Let's see how many areas I can find and list off the top of my head.
  1. Children not learning to be responsible with money, because someone else always provides it for them (parents, grandparents?)
  2. Teenagers given a car to drive without having to be responsible to provide the car, the insurance, and the income for maintenance.
  3. Students not taking responsibility for their own education. Instead they "do time" in school until they are "free." Actually earning their grades and taking an active part in their education because it is theirs and will shape their future is an unusual display of responsibility.
  4. Young employees taking the "doing time" mentality of school to their workplace. So many seem to have the idea that showing up is all they need to do earn the paycheck. I remember several years back when I worked as a Temporary Secretary. I would have a day job here and a week-long job there and would consistently have supervisors who were surprised that I actually expected to do useful work instead of filling an empty desk chair while pretending to be busy (like the usual temps. they would have).
  5. Young lovers expecting to find their romantic ideal who is of course perfect and will fulfill every wish and dream, but forgetting that they have an obligation to be the type of person worthy of that dream. Relationships involve two people and both people have the responsibility for making the relationship good or bad.
  6. I've already mentioned raising children. How many people put their children in daycare and preschool, not because they have thought through their choices ahead of time, or have a clear necessity, but because they simply want to have someone else do that for them. I suppose if they don't want to spend that time with their kids, it might be better off for their kids to be taken care of by people who do want to be around the kids. But too often I hear an attitude expressed that suggests that some of these parents want kids, but don't want to be troubled by raising them. That is someone else's responsibility.
  7. I'm a little biased about teaching kids, being a homeschool mom. Before I list my next item, let me say that homeschooling is not for everyone. I see plenty of benefit in all of the choices for teaching kids. But, how often are parents abdicating their responsibility to be in charge of their children's education. My husband and I are taking it upon ourselves to educate our children. We are responsible not only that they are being educated, but that we are actively pursuing what is needed to give our kids the best education we can, and doing it ourselves whenever possible. Not all people homeschool, but they still have the responsibility to be in charge of their children's education. How many parents communicate with their kid's teachers and help out when needed at school? How many are involved with decision-making in PTAs or School Boards? How many parents don't even know what their kids are learning from day-to-day? It has become someone else's responsibility. Parents have become too used to letting "experts" or politicians tell them what kind of education their kids should have, when those people have never met their kids and don't have the responsibility for raising them.
  8. Responsibility for our individual or family budget/finances. If you don't understand money, you need to learn. Even then, there are basic concepts that most people know, but they ignore. Things like "don't spend more than you earn." These simple truths are ignored, not because they can be gotten around, but because people have convinced themselves that it'll be taken care of somehow. If they aren't responsible, someone else will take care of it (a bailout) or someone else will have to take the consequences (like bankruptcy). Yes it is possible to get into bad financial situations while doing all the right things, but it is less likely. Most of the time people get into bad financial situations because they made bad decisions, listened to people who told them what they wanted to hear, and rationalized that everybody else is doing it. The bottom line is that each person is responsible for their own finances. Outsourcing some of the managing of those finances is OK, but don't try to outsource the responsibility.
  9. Political abdication of responsibility. This can be politicians not taking responsibility for their actions (whether personal or professional) or it can be citizens giving up their rights and responsibilities to the government.
I'm sure you have noticed ways in which people in our society give responsibility to others that ought to be their own. I cannot say that I am a perfectly responsible person. But I can say that I have struggled with societal norms for most of my life in this area. As an American, I have a cultural tendency to want to be independent. As a Christian and a Conservative person in general, I understand that their are some important ways we need to depend on each other for the good of the whole. As a youngest child (and the only girl), there was a temptation to be overly dependent on my family and get away with what I could. But, I felt my conscience nagging me that I needed to be responsible for my sake and for the sake of those closest to me. My parents won't always be available to help me when I need help. Other family members have other commitments and obligations, too. If I am abdicating my responsibilities, I put them either on the people I love and don't want to burden or I put them on inappropriate surrogates. Is it appropriate to expect an employer to pay me money, if I don't provide work or service in return? Is it appropriate to expect my husband to be the person who makes my dreams come true, without taking responsibility for my part of the relationship? Is it appropriate to expect someone else to be responsible for the children I chose to have? Is it appropriate to expect the government to take care of any bad decisions I've made and be responsible for my happiness and welfare?

I do not want to abdicate my responsibilities. I will still have to outsource some things, but I need to be the one who is responsible in the end. I guess my point in all of this is to encourage you to consider how you might be tempted to follow the crowd and abdicate your responsibilities, too. Adults take their responsibilities seriously. To give them up is to return to the position of the child. I don't know about you, but there were a lot of things I didn't like about being a child.
Besides, do you really want to live in a society where no one is responsible for their actions?