Wednesday, August 28, 2013

On Bulls and Blindness and Bowing

There have been days when I could hardly stomach the very way he sets his bowl by the sink after dinner.  There have been days when I was forced to plunge my hand into a pool of cloudy broth and noodles because he stuck his dirty dish smack dab in the middle of another dirty, un-emptied dish, days I found myself cringing at the starchy residue on my fingers and the slop of old soup he has slung across the counter and, ultimately, at the grating friction of two lives bumping up against each other.

After fourteen years of getting my hands dirty on the mess of his leftovers, you'd think I would have come up with some better plan than letting the muscles in my neck flex wildly when he plops his plate somewhere that, in my never-humble-enough opinion, it doesn't' belong.  But we are a mess, the two of us, a jumble of lives that sometimes agrees on nothing more than owning this jumble as our mess.  Perhaps that's why, after fourteen years, I still tend to think that there is a right way of doing things, and then there's his way of doing things.

I will be the first to admit that in the delicate china shop of our marriage, I am the bull.  In fact, I am so stubborn that my father actually warned Sam in our marriage ceremony to be prepared for my strong will.  I am so quick to see my way and so slow to see almost anything else.  I can be rigid and selfish and harsh, and sometimes I fumble so spectacularly through our marriage that I am sure it will break apart in my hands.

On my worst days I am convinced that, when the Christian folks who love to quote those verses about wives submitting to their husbands see people like me, they huff and nod to each other that I am pretty much making their own point for them.  After all, here is a woman who writes about equality and has been known to criticize the treatment of gender roles in modern churches, and who also freely admits that her bull-headed nature can be very hard on her marriage.

And I guess it might be easy to assume, since I do write about feminism and equality, that I don't believe in submitting to my husband.  It might be easy to assume that my stubborn pride, my famously bullheaded nature, keeps my from bending to the will of this man I have married.  It might be an easy leap to make, when you read about how I think women deserve more respect, authority, and freedom, to assume that I believe some inverted system is in order, with the long suffering women taking the lead and the brutish men finally being kept under our thumbs.

But, see, that's where these arguments about submission so often get derailed because many of us who bristle at the notion of wives submitting do so not because we have some vested interest in taking charge or getting our way, but because we believe the message of the gospel is just not intended to be used to keep anyone under anyone else's thumb.  We don't believe in correcting the balance of power; we believe in the redemptive nature of exposing the pursuit of power as the dead end that it is.

There are people like me who believe that when we sing the words of "Amazing Grace," we do not mean that we once were blind to the rules but now we can see all that small print that spells out exactly how to behave.  We believe, instead, that our eyes have been opened to the freedom of submitting to a redemption that exempts us from the hierarchies set up by the world.  We are free from the rat race, the beauty pageant, the "he who dies with the most toys" mentality.  We are free from the desperate addictions to power and fame. The blindness of trying to find our worth in how big our houses are, in how sexy we look, in how perfectly we eat, in how flawless our grades are - all of that film, the distorted cataract of living in a world that runs on "me! me! me!" power, is removed.

We once were blind, but now we see.

The legacy of submission survives better in the church than perhaps anywhere else in the Western world.  We submit to this blanket redemption called grace, joints popping as we get down on knees that can hardly remember what it feels like to kneel.  We submit our bodies to the water in baptism, a symbolic death to ourselves.  We submit our lives to service, to humility, to deference to a God never seen or heard by the eyes and ears we believe were actually crafted for us by this God.  We bow our heads and close our eyes, make our very posture submissive and come to the Lord as children, crying "Father, father!" with mouths aimed down at the floorboards.

There are many of us who believe that submission is the key to having our blindness removed.  After all, the pivotal image of our redemption, the foundation for our faith, is a man willingly submitting himself for crucifixion.  Which is why someone as bull-headed as me can revere the freedom found in the act of submission while simultaneously denying the necessity of wives submitting unilaterally to their husbands as an integral component to the Christian faith.

Because we are also called to submit one to another, and there are some of us who believe the call to submit to each other is a powerful reminder that our tendencies to retreat into legalism or place our weight on the leaky lifeboat of power-as-status have no place in the relationships of people who have been freed by grace.  There are some, like me, who believe that you cannot both submit one to another and also establish a static leader-follower structure, that setting up a hierarchy within the marriage necessarily means you are not able to be mutually submissive.

Maybe there are some folks who would be surprised to hear me say that I do believe in submitting to my husband.  In fact, we are bound to each other in the mutual submission we have been called to, and every single day, I have to make the choice to temper my bull-headed nature with the humility and tenderness and patience my marriage deserves.  And every single day, so does he.

After fourteen years of cleaning soup off the counter, I have realized something about this model of shared selflessness: it allows for a level of respect and intimacy I couldn't share with someone who was propped up as my leader, someone who got to override my opinions, someone whose judgment mattered more than mine when it came right down to the tense, gritty moments of decision.

That's why I find myself taking a few deep breaths and clamping down on my tongue when my husband plops his bowl into a pool of old soup, spilling his way all over my nice and tidy idea of the right way to do things.  And it's also, I believe, why Sam gets as fired up about this whole "wives submit" business as I do, why he aches for the friends we've watched bristle and argue and even buckle under the strain of an unequal marriage.  It's why we spur each other on, why we don't feel the need to compete against each other, why we have remained a safe place for each other even in the worst moments of our marriage.

It may always be in my nature to be a bit of a bull in a china shop about things, but every day I get a chance to practice walking softly and calmly, head bowed, mindful of where I'm placing my feet and my horns and my sense of self importance.  Every day, I watch the two of us learn in a million, sloppy, hard-earned ways how submitting to each other helps keep our eyes open to the greater freedom offered by our redemption.  It helps us remember that once we were blind, but now we see.

Image Credit, used under Creative Commons License.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

To My Lincoln, on Starting Kindergarten

Dear Lincoln,

Today I downloaded the school supply list, and I wrote down all the supplies you will need for the year.  Tonight, I will go home and dig through your dresser, counting how many pairs of shorts and jeans and t-shirts still fit you after your massive spring growth spurt.  Undoubtedly, I will find some leftover relics of a smaller size, some shirts pushed to the back corner that you haven't been able to wear in some time, and I will pull them out and lay them on my lap, smoothing out all those bottom-of-the-drawer wrinkles and seeing an image in my head of the way you looked in that shirt.  And it will physically grieve me to move that shirt to the pile of yesterdays, the stack of things to pack away or give away, the fleeting mementos of the days when the tags in your shirts measured your age by months and we called you "the baby."

In a week, you'll be starting kindergarten, and I tell you, my little man, I'm not sure what to make of that.  This morning, I did the ugly cry all over the steering wheel on my drive in to work, just thinking of you as a kindergartener.  Then, I laughed at my silly old self, then I cried some more. 

It's kind of funny, really, how hard this is for me.  I'm not a stay at home mom who's struggling with her identity now that her last child has left her days, and her house, a sudden, deafening quiet.  We haven't spent the last half decade with you tugging at my apron strings all day.  Heck, this isn't even your first year at this school.  You've been in preschool in the same building for almost three years now.

But, this is kindergarten.  This is the real thing, little man, and somehow it's just different.

I'm not sure I'm ready for you to enter the world just yet because you are still so small and so fragile, and I still slip and call you "the baby" sometimes.  Every year of your life that passes, spiraling so fast that neither of us can catch it, is a reminder of how fast you will be gone, how soon you will no longer be mine to raise and hold and sing to sleep at night.  It's a strange thing to love someone who is constantly becoming less yours.  It's a strange thing to be in a relationship where, every year, the object of your affection moves farther and farther away from you.  Needs you less.  Wants more time on their own and is actively building a life not based on you even while you can do nothing but build a life based on them.

And it's a strange thing to be charged with caring for a person, hardly feeling like more than a child yourself some days, and realize that the tiny little person you are trying to protect is going to have to live in the same world you do.  The same mixed up, often confusing, sometimes cruel, angry, violent world you live in.  Ah, son, I wish we'd gotten it in better shape before I had to send you out in it, but this is the world you and I have to live in.  There's nowhere else, not in this life, and so we'd better get used to the idea of you living out in it.

And baby, I can't make any promises about what this world will be like for you because, yes, some people may be cruel some of the time.  But also maybe the world really is changing, and maybe more and more people had mammas who raised them right, who will know how to be kind and look for the good in other people and make friends with people who aren't just like themselves.   And I hope you know that I wish I could protect you from the bad ones, but the only way I could protect you from the danger that people can present would be to hide you away from all people forever, and that would be its own kind of punishment.  Just ask Rapunzel.

The last few years, I have read this letter written by a woman named Glennon Melton.  It's a personal letter about her experience with a boy named Adam that she went to school with, a boy who was different from her and who she missed knowing because she was too preoccupied with how different he seemed.  Now that Glennon has learned from her mistake, she reads this letter about Adam to her children every August at the beginning of the school year.  A few years ago, she shared her letter with the world, and now there are a lot of other moms and dads who read this letter to their children every year, too.

So every year now I read this letter, too, and think of you.

See the thing is, though you don't understand this yet, to some people, you will be Adam.  And Lord how I pray that millions and millions of parents are reading their children letters like this and teaching them how different doesn't mean worse and how you never know where you might find a remarkable friend.

But I know, just because I've been in this world longer than you have, that some kids aren't ever getting read letters like that.  And their mammas and daddies are using words full of hate, words that they will pick up soon if they haven't already.  I know that some kids won't understand how to treat an Adam, and they will say or do things that hurt you.

I know that some kids will look at you and just see Down syndrome.  They won't see how you are funny and kind and intense and loyal and independent.  They won't know how to see all of those things because they have been taught, in so many direct and indirect ways, that the differences they see in you are the biggest, most important things about you.  I'm sorry that you may meet people who haven't learned how to treat others with kindness and respect.  I pray, more than you will ever know, that the number of those people is small and getting smaller everyday.  But, to some people, you will be like Adam was to Glennon.

And here is the rub.  They are Adams, too, in a way that they won't ever quite understand. Because what matters to people like that is being cool, being accepted, being powerful or popular or receiving enough attention and appreciation to try and fill the hole of emptiness inside them.

But to us, what matters is being kind and genuine, being honest about who we are and seeing how we are fundamentally so much like everyone else down where it really matters.  What matters to us is taking care of our fellow humans, serving people in love and humility, always trying to leave this world better than we found it. So in a way, people who are cruel and exclusive and uncaring are Adams to us because they just don't fit in with what we believe is important.  And those kinds of Adams deserve our love, patience, and understanding just as much as we deserve theirs.

I'm not going to say it will always be easy, learning to live with those kind of Adams, learning to treat them with understanding and forgiveness.  I think we'll have to learn that part together.

I know you don't understand any of this yet.  For now, your world is full of a million little adventures, full of stories and music and laughter.  And the good news is, despite some of the bad parts of this world and despite some of the Adams you may meet, your life will always be full of little adventures.  It can always be saturated with stories and music and laughter, if you want it to be.  That's the great part about kindergarten, the part I both love and fear, that it is just the beginning of you going out into the world and making your own life.

So go out there and get started.   Have a great year in kindergarten.  Go ahead and get started on the rest of your life.  I love you.

~ Mom