Thursday, April 29, 2010

Maybe this is why so many therapists use couches

My one-year-old better understands and can better express some spiritual axioms better than I can.

Seriously.

Take today for example: no matter what I did, no matter what I sang, no matter how hard I tried, Kai would just not settle down for anything in the world when it came time for a nap. The second that I laid him down in his crib…BOOM! Kicks. Cries. Wails. And this kid was INTENSE in expressing his displeasure: after I let him just go ahead and cry for about ten minutes, as soon as I opened the door to his room, I noticed he was not only standing in his crib, but his blanket was crumpled in a corner, his stuffed dog was out of the crib, and his pacifier had been thrown – THROWN! – across the room.

To put this in perspective: almost every morning, after breakfast, playtime and sometimes going out to walk Maggie with me, we’ll just settle down on the couch in the living room or back in what Ashley calls the “man cave” to relax, calm down, and get bored to sleep by watching something on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel (hey, I like these shows, but he’s just one year old. Cut him some slack). After he drifts off, I carry him into his room, put him down in his crib, and then I can be on about my merry way to drink coffee and partake in my morning rituals.

Today? Somehow my actions were clearly an affront to his dignity, and all he was lacking was the physical dexterity to be able to call someone to explain that his basic civil rights had been somehow violated.

We wrestled (both literally and figuratively) for the better part of 30 minutes with me trying to get him to go back to bed until I finally decided that I’d had enough. I capitulated. I figured that if by God he wanted to be up, then he was going to BE up, and that we were going to get dressed, and go outside and be productive.

We fed ducks.

When we came back for lunch, he was just so tired (duh) that he fell asleep while taking his bottle. I decided that his need for sleep should take precedence over food, so I stood up, carried him into his room, and laid him in his crib.

Worst. Idea. Ever.

We were quickly headed for a repeat of this morning’s reenactment of The Shining when I decided to just bring him into the living room, lay a blanket down on the couch, and let him sleep there.

And that worked like a dream…provided that I kept a hand on him at all times.

It was at this point, while I was stroking his increasingly curly hair, that I felt something come over me. Not the frustration and building anger over the fact Kai wasn’t being rational. Not the justification of the list in my head of reasons why drinking before noon shouldn’t be frowned upon. Not the desire to do a Google search for the maximum amount of Benadryl one can offer a toddler.

I realized that Kai just wanted to be near his dad.

Just like I do.

How often do we feel separated or distant from God, and – unlike Kai – aren’t able to articulate our frustrations or are able to express what we’re feeling? Kai did the only thing he KNEW how to do: he cried out to me. We, the rational and intelligent adults, either look to other things to fill the gap in our hearts and minds or we play the Blame Game and just give up (“Church sucks – I never feel anything there, so I might as well just stop going”).

Even when I was never physically far from Kai (waiting just outside his door to see if he’d quiet himself on his own) and I was out of sight, to him? It felt like an infinite gulf between us. Those things that normally brought him comfort – his pacifier, his blanket – were useless and impotent in their ability to comfort.

And my God, I know that I’ve felt exactly the same way in my own life. That the times when I felt as if God was nowhere to be found, when I was wandering in the wilderness, when I looked for a reason behind the pain I was feeling and why I felt so alone…I know that I cried out, both literally and figuratively, for Him. Through anger. Through a voice that cracked because I had been crying for so long. Through tear-stained eyes and a blotchy red face. Finding no comfort in the items that surrounded me.

The reality is that all we have to do is cry out. It may never seem as if we get an answer, but we are heard. Comfort may not come immediately, but it can come and oftentimes will come – not when we want it, but when we need it.

We may even get others in our lives to assist us with finding an answer. All the genuinely helpful advice and loving support I got from Ashley this morning? At the time, all it felt like was a critique, as if she was telling me that I wasn’t “doing it right” in terms of how to placate a psychotic one-year-old. And I’ll be honest and transparent: I wanted to lash out at her (I have since subsequently asked for her forgiveness).

I know that I’ve bared my teeth in the past to colleagues and friends in much the same manner, thinking their concern was judgment. All they wanted to do was help. God was trying to use their voice for His words, and much like a bitter angry child lashing out at injustices, I drowned out them and Him by throwing my own version of a temper tantrum.

As I write this, Kai is laying face-down on a blanket on the couch, snoring, with his pacifier slightly askew in his mouth. Every so often, he’ll just take this staggered, sharp intake of breath – almost as if it’s a remnant of his crying from earlier. I’ve been able to move my hand off his head, and he has released the death grip on my pants leg that he had earlier.

But he knows I’m still here.

I wish that I had the faith of this child in this regard.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

What the Psalms Are Psaying (Part 3 of 2)

Special thanks to Douglas Adams for the inspiration behind this numerical demarcation – and a wink and a nod to all Hitchhikers and Lost fans for the chapter number discussed herein.

PART ONE: HOW AND WHY TELEVANGELISTS HAVE IT WRONG.

I recently had a friend write me to say she’d read the previous posting and the secondary link at the bottom of it – and that she’d love to be able to sit down over coffee and just talk about life and what I’m feeling and what I’m going through. In my email response to her, I made some kind of half-hearted jab at myself, stating that there are times when I almost feel spiritually (and subsequently, emotionally) bi-polar. Like how, or example, I can in one breath both bemoan my lot in life and find despair in some of the struggles I’ve gone through, and yet then turn around, hear Kai laugh or see him smile as he walks across the floor, or simply hold him as he falls asleep in my arms, and feel so incredibly blessed, fortunate, content and secure in “just” being a stay at home parent. How, on the one hand, I love and honor the journey my life is taking me on and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and how on the other hand, I just wish that I had one fraking clue as to where I going, and that I’d sleep better at night if I just had one clear road sign on this journey.

It’s true: I waffle between what I feel and what I think. And the weight of this starts to take a toll on Ashley as well, because she wants to help me, but doesn’t know how. It’s a struggle. I feel like I’m unintentionally frustrating her and myself by constantly swinging from one extreme to the next.

And of course, as we all know, showing these cracks in the veneer of perfection is not what the faithful are supposed to do. Noooo…we’re the original shiny, happy people. We’re supposed to just have enough faith to see things through, and if we doubt, have fears, or have questions – well, then. We clearly just aren’t trusting God enough, and we need to just pray more to have deeper, stronger faith. That way, all our doubts will be cast away, all our fears will be turned to joy, and all the blessings from God we can imagine will come our way, if only we have enough faith when we ask.

Right.

And I’ve got some lovely oceanfront property in Idaho I’d like to sell you.

I was fortunate enough that during the formative years of my youth, I stumbled across a little band called the choir. Now, other than their music totally rocking my world (and inspiring the original name of this blog), at a time when I needed it most (translation: angsty teenage years) one of their songs – “Sad Face” – hit me square in the heart like nothing had ever before. Based off an incredibly painful time in the songwriter’s life and utilizing a passage from Ecclesiastes, this song connected me to something deeper than I’d ever known before:

In my sadness, I was not alone. In my emotional teeter-tottering, I was not alone. And what moody, emo-before-emo-was-cool teenager DOESN’T need to know they’re not alone? Conversely, what person regardless of age doesn’t need to know they’re not alone in their struggle?

We’re socially conditioned to almost always answer, “Good; how are you doing?” like some Pavlovian creature whenever asked about how we are, in fact, doing. But the reality is, we’re not always doing good. We’re not always okay. And Christians have it doubly worse in some ways: we pressure ourselves to think we have to say or act like we’re doing great, great, GREAT! in front of others, or else it may look like our faith isn’t as strong as we say it is. We also get the one-two gut punch of guilt (“Am I just not trusting in God enough?”) and anxiety (“If I just pray, it will all get better.”).

What you feel is perfectly normal. Not just any doubts, struggles or issues you may have about God or spiritual matters, but the mundane, day-to-day, dirt-under-your-fingernails issues as well…like, for example, what one is supposed to do with one’s life. We all get depressed and lonely at times, feeling disconnected from the world or from God. Even in this passage in Psalms 42, the writer constantly uses the refrain “Why are you so downcast, oh my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Not everyone has the attitude of “God will always work it out and be totally in control of everything” as espoused by certain manic preachers on the telly or the rock-star wannabe pastor down the street.

Why are you in pain, oh my soul? Why is my life, both literally and figuratively, so wracked with pain and questions to the point where it takes my breath away? Why do I feel a question, a despair, a doubt that permeates my being? Far beyond a simple “I feel bad” notation – far beyond a simple “I’m sad.” 42:3 reads “my tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me ‘Where is your God?’” Or in this case – where is your faith?

It’s interesting to note that in this verse, the word “say” is the same one used in the creation story when God spoke (or said) the world into being. That’s how powerful the author is – well, saying that it is when people ask “where is your God:” these tears speak, making the pain a reality all its own. Every drop tells a story; every tear is a different word, echoing words spoken to us or by us throughout the course of this pain that cuts across our very soul: fat. Ugly. No good. Never amount to anything.

Doubter.

These verses, these lessons in the Bible were not written down or passed down generation upon generation simply to hold up and extol these giants of faith, nor are they to be used as unattainable ideals for modern audiences. Personally, I don’t want God to tell me to go build an ark or something to the equivalent. I don’t want to hear the Spirit say to me to go raise the dead. I mean, I'd do both if prompted by God (and no one else, thank you) - but I know me. I know that my "giant-ness" in faith is more mustard-seed in execution. And I'm totally comfortable with the quiet, with the small.

Just as it’s written that no sin has come against you and tempted you except that which is common, so has no pain overtaken you except that which is common.

You are not alone.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sonny's Theological Dissemination of the Disney Channel

Parents of infants and toddlers, you will understand.

Most mornings when I wake up with Kai, one of us is slightly more awake than the other. The one of us who’s the more cognizant? That would be the one-year-old who wakes up and literally hits the ground running…or rather, wobbling. Because the requisite 73 cups of coffee have not entered my bloodstream just quite yet, I find that I suffer from Early Morning Stare Syndrome (EMSS). Many of you know full well what I’m talking about – EMSS is when you find yourself awake, not fully “there” mentally, and so you wind up just..staring. At anything: the wall, the dog, reading the ingredients on a box of cereal…the list could go on.

Now, before Kai was born, most of the time I focused my EMSS on “watching” morning cable news programs. However, some of the images and stories on at seven AM aren’t really kid-friendly. And since I’d prefer to not add to the litany of issues that Kai will probably have to eventually work through in therapy, he and I have discovered the majesty and wonder of watching The Disney Channel in the morning. Every. Morning.

Maybe it’s sleep deprivation. Maybe it’s the fact that God likes to show me the spiritual within the mundane. Maybe it’s just that I’m slightly kooky. Whatever the reason, because I’ve seen these shows over and over and over and over again…my mind has decided to begin to hyper-analyze what I’m watching. Probably as a defense mechanism to insure that I don’t snap and start to talk in a sing-song pattern.

Therefore, I present to you, Sonny’s Theological Dissemination of the Disney Channel, using selected cartoons.

HANDY MANNY: completely side-stepping the issue of if Manny represents a negative cartoon stereotype or not, there are two distinct clearly spiritual tenants evident on this show.

One – the tools: Felipe, Turner, Stretch, Squeeze, Pat, Dusty, Rusty and little Flicker. For those of you who have watched more than one episode of this show and who are somewhat versed in the passage from Galatians that outlines the fruit of the Spirit, you may start to see some personality and trait match-ups between – say – an anthropomorphic screwdriver and the gift of patience. And yes: there are eight tools and nine fruits. Perhaps this means that Manny still has to add one more tool to the box…? (Cue the “He’s Still Working On Me” song.)

Two: Kelly. I’ve come to the conclusion that Kelly is the representative of God in this cartoon. Think about it: every time Mandy comes to her in supplication, she has exactly what he needs, when he needs it. All he has to do is ask for it. Now, I’m not sure which might be the more heretical idea to some: that God would run a hardware store or that God would be represented by a woman. Either way, if you stop to think about it, it makes for a neat little allegory and illustration on the way God always has what we need. All we have to do is ask her.

MICKEY MOUSE CLUBHOUSE: Toodles is the Holy Spirit.

Jaws off the floor, please.

Think about it: Toodles descends from off-screen, as the manifestation to bestow the gifts when he is called upon. I mean, we’re already completely stretching the meta-contextual ideas of theology and spirituality, so how hard is it to consider the possibility of this as a representation of a concept in Christianity that many of us continue to struggle with to this day? So – if you’re willing to entertain the ideas that the Toodles/Holy Spirit analogue can and does bring the tools we need for the situation we find ourselves in, even going so far as to include a Mystery Mouskatool, showing that we need to be open to whatever the Spirit/Toodles brings us, it goes a long way to helping us understand the working of the Spirit, and how the Spirit operates.

It also makes you giggle a little if you stop to craft the mental image that in Acts 2, instead of tongues of fire, everyone had mouse ears on their head.

And personally, I'd love for They Might Be Giants to lead worship. I finally might hear songs I can get into.

SPECIAL AGENT OSO: perhaps the weakest of the trinity of ‘toons discussed here, Oso doesn’t really contain any deep spiritual issues I’ve been able to observe.

However, I think that whoever writes this cartoon clearly is the pastor of or is a member of an emergent/contemporary church. Why? Because all Oso EVER needs are three special steps. That’s all you need. Three special steps, and you’ll learn to succeed. And you have to do them in sequence.

If THAT doesn’t just reflect the content of what a typical Sunday sermon in an emergent church might sound like, I don’t know what does. All that’s lacking are some blanks to fill in. Even the titles of the episodes on Oso are parodies of titles to James Bond films, thereby checking off the requisite pun/rhyme an emergent preacher might use with the three special steps for success in your life God has in store for you.

Try not to snicker the next time you see or hear one of these preachers speak. It’ll be difficult, I know…


Thursday, April 08, 2010

Question of the Day (for me, at least)

So, here’s a thought/idea that’s been percolating in my mind for quite some time now, but has only recently come to a boiling point:

If we (and by “we,” I mean the general population) say that raising a child is the most important work that can ever be done…why is it that some, if not most, employers view being a stay-at-home parent as some kind of professional albatross?

I’ve written before about how when Ashley and I first moved to Miami, I didn’t move for my job; instead, we moved for her job. I moved here without ever having set foot on campus or in the city. For the first two years we were here, God opened some amazing doors and gave me two wonderful opportunities to work on campus at UM. Neither of the jobs I had were positions that I probably would have sought out on my own, simply because I’d never had experience working in either of the respective areas. However, I quickly learned that one of these jobs spoke deeply to passions and convictions I’d never really been able to express before, and the other honed some professional skills of mine that had begun to atrophy. However, for various reasons, neither of them ultimately really…fit. They weren’t “me” on some levels. I enjoyed myself, and I found some satisfaction in working with the students, but overall – I never really felt as if I was at home.

So, Kai’s birth and my subsequent choice to be a stay-at-home parent really was – again – a blessing for me in disguise. After almost a decade and a half of working in student affairs, I was beginning to feel myself burning out. I questioned if I really did care about staying in this field. I questioned if the only reason I stayed in the field was because it was all that I knew, and all that I felt I was any good at. I was becoming complacent, and that complacency was turning into apathy and irritation.

I needed a sabbatical. (Yes, the inner voice in me was telling my spirit I needed a Sabbath. Toe-MAY-toe, toe-MAH-toe…) However, since my field (unlike academic affairs) does not afford practitioners the luxury of taking time off to clear their heads or do research, we are left with two choices: suck it up and keep on keeping on (and things wind up either getting better or much, much worse) or bow out. And I’d seen what staying the course in spite of personal and professional dissatisfaction could do to you.

So, I elected to do the later. …much to the shock and horror of some of my colleagues. My personal favorite comment was and remains the person who said my choice to leave my job was akin to committing “professional suicide.” At the time, I scoffed at their remark.

Now…?

I’ve grown accustomed to the non-work-related sexism I’ve had to deal with by being a stay-at-home dad. Random strangers in the grocery store or department store will either look at me like “Oh, that’s sweet – that little boy is with his daddy today. Mommy must be at home sick,” or they’ll ask me outright about me being out with him during working hours. When I say I’m a stay-at-home parent, I’m greeted with looks of shock, confusion, and astonishment. I’ve been told it’s “cute” that I am a stay at home dad. I have been asked if, because I’m a man, do I know what I’m doing when I take care of Kai. I’ve been told that it’s “really weird” that I would choose to stay at home with my son. I’ve been told I must not be “manly enough” because I am okay with not being the breadwinner/head of the household.

Amazingly, these comments have all come from women. When men ask me, they tell me they’re jealous. That they wish they were able to or that they would have chosen to stay at home with their kids. That I’m a great dad for making this choice, and that it clearly shows I have my priorities in order.

What I was not ready for was the reaction from people in the job market.

I know that my resume looks a bit…wonky…in that in the last three years, every year shows a different position I’ve been employed in (and yes, I count parenting as a position). Nevermind the fact that in my interviews and on my resume I was able to explain that my first position at UM was only funded by the university for one year. Nevermind the fact that I was able to explain that my choice to leave and be a stay-at-home parent was as much a chance for me to center myself (all parents of toddlers, please feel free to take a moment to laugh out loud at this thought) and to be able to state that I choose to work in this field because I enjoy it and not out of rote as it was for the benefit of Kai. Nevermind the fact that I applied exclusively for jobs that I was passionate about and not just qualified for, and jobs that made me invigorated when I read the position descriptions.

While at NASPA, I was interviewed by a number of people who looked as if they didn’t even know how to broach the idea of asking me about being a stay-at-home parent. Out of all the schools I interviewed with, only one person even brought up what I’ve been doing for the past year. Others tried with unintentional comedic results, to fit the square peg of my parenting into the round hole of standardized questions (“In your current position, what would you say your managerial style is like?”).

Now that we’re rounding the curve of post-conference interviews, it looks like history from three years ago is going to repeat itself (Ashley has been invited on three campus interviews; I’ve been invited on none). It looks as if our next move will be for Ashley’s job, and that my unemployed self’ll be tagging along once more.

Now before anyone asks: no, I am not intimidated or disheartened by the prospect of potentially being a stay-at-home dad for another year (anyone who currently has or who has survived having a two year old, please don’t shatter my fantasy world right now). In fact, now that Kai’s older and more interactive with the world around him, this next year could be a heck of a lot of fun. I feel as if I’m getting into my parenting groove, and that I feel a bit more confident in what I’m doing.

And yes: I have faith that once God closes the hurricane shutters of my time in Miami, I just might find Him opening a door to something so amazingly cool, so Sonny-centrically groovy that it will astound and comfort me. I know that this is a possibility. He’s done it before, and if I had to bet, I’d say sometime before I die, He just might amaze me again. Maybe.

And yes: I understand that I might be projecting my lack of finding employment onto the notion I quit my job dealing with other people’s poop to deal with literal poop that comes with greater regularity. I know that I might have been square pegging/round holing it myself in that I was trying to seek a job when it’s not my season to. There are a million and one variables as to why my resume, my experiences, or my skills don’t “match” what these schools are looking for.

However, Ashley and I have wondered if my choice might have affected my career. If things might look different if I had kept my job and we’d put Kai in daycare. Or would I look more “normal” to prospective employers if we’d played into traditional and more accepted gender roles and she stayed home while I stayed employed.

And if so, what does that say about not just my field, but us as a society? Do we honor and support a work ethic that advocates blind obedience over life balance? Are we so comfortable with seeing that a career proceeds on a standardized trajectory that any deviation from the “norm” sends up red flags and makes us think there might be something wrong with that person? Going beyond gender, generational or regional distinctions – are we still so mired in what defines “acceptable” that although we talk about celebrating the individual, if that individual isn’t like every other individual, hen it becomes easier to ostracize them than listen to their voice?

And if any of the above is true – would I really want to work for a place, or even in a field, that didn’t honor me choosing to put my family before my job or my career, or that would prefer that I simply slog along in dissatisfaction until something better came along?

And if what I have known is gone as an option for me, and clearly no church wants to hire me (see here for an explanation on that) – what then?

Maybe I should just write that bloody book you all say I should and call it a day.


Friday, April 02, 2010

What the Psalms Are Psaying (Part 2 of 2)

CAVEAT: unless you grew up in the South or in a rural area, you may not “get” the imagery in this blog entry. Sorry, City Mouse: every so often, ya gotta honor your roots (pun intended).

Psalm 1:3. He will be like a tree, firmly planted by streams of water...

Be like a tree planted by the water. Yes, yes, yes – anyone who grew up in church might have gotten hammered over the head with this verse (raises hand) as a command or life idea. One interpretation of this tree-by-river idea is that we of The Way are to be strong, deep and firm in our faith. Stand tall, if you will. Let our roots run deep and let nothing shake us: not wind, not a rising river, not a storm. Be better than that “Job” guy. But there might just be another perspective to look at here…

I well remember the lazy summer days, growing up in north Mississippi when as a boy (and my age was still calculated in single digits) and I went to go visit my friend Kelly at his house. Kelly, you see, had a tire swing. A tire swing stationed over a lake (well – more like a pond, but everything looked bigger then). And we would get on this swing and swing out over the lake/pond to dive in to cool off from the humidity. Or we’d climb up the tree and just jump in, fearing no beastie that lurked in the murky waters.

Or, if you were like me and you didn’t know how to swim, you simply investigated the tree and watched while everyone else risked life and limb.

One of the more striking mental images I carry with me to this day was the size of this tree, planted by the water, and its root system. Now, anyone who’s ever actually SEEN a tree planted by the water knows that if the tree is in fact planted close enough to the water – say on the edge of a lake/pond – that sometimes the roots can get exposed from erosion. However, if the tree is old enough, this isn’t necessarily a problem. The roots run so deep and are so strong that anything exposed isn’t going to cause it to fall. The tree is so entrenched in the ground that it can’t fall. You even note that some animals, fish, bugs, or what have you take refuge in these exposed roots. That what makes the tree strong provides shelter for them. The tree is rooted in the ground, and these roots help sustain the life of those who interact in its life.

It’s also interesting to note that this tree, panted by the water, also shows were it draws its nourishment from. The roots point to the water. And anyone who’s ever been in or near a lake/pond that doesn’t have the word “CEE-ment” in front of it knows that this water is…well, living. There is life in the water, both literally (hello, snakes and bacteria) and metaphorically (in that it sustains the fish and said tree).

The tree, planted by living water.

Sometimes we trees (Christians) are more than happy to show off our trunks or our leaves – you know, the outer adornments that show how strong we are or how beautiful we can be. Heck, we even get so hung up on showing our fruits sometimes that we let the fruit obscure the tree that it came from. But how often do we show what lies beneath™? How many times do we simply want to show forth our faith, act out our faith, or be commented on about our faith – all the outer adornments. Not that acting out our faith is a BAD thing. I like fruit (more than just as a last name). I appreciate fruit. I need fruit in my life. I want to act out my faith. But I don’t want my fruit to be so billowy that I let them steal the show, or that my life turns into some kind of one-upmanship over who does the best, does the biggest, or whose fruit looks and tastes the best.

Can we simply show our roots?

Can we show where we come from and what strengthens us without the bluster? Can we simply not show forth our firm foundation without focusing on how tall or how wide our trunks are, or how much we’ve grown? Exposing our roots may make us vulnerable in some ways – such as being honest enough to be able to talk about the dirt in our roots. We want to let people see what we think they should see – the trunk, the leaves, and the fruit – without ever thinking about showing the roots. We tend to think that people can infer that if we have fruit, we’ve got roots.

The plastic fruit on my dining room table doesn’t have roots.

Infer from that what you will.

Maybe we should allow ourselves to show that our roots cut through the dirt – that they cut through what we had to grow through – to become as deep and as firmly rooted as we are. That we can allow others to find some shelter in those roots, and it can be as easy as simply sowing that you’re not alone in what you grow through. That we can allow our roots to point to that water that sustains us and nourishes us. The water that we found ourselves planted by.

That the depth we have is as important as the height we grow to.

Because without that depth, no matter how tall we are or how beautiful our fruit is, we can topple.