“This isn’t working, God,” I confess to Him through tears, huddled in the wing back chair in the dark at 2am. The red and white lights on the Christmas tree prick the room’s darkness. Absentmindedly twisting a crisping branch, I admit, “Motherhood isn’t really turning out how I thought it would.” The noble-pine scent comes away on my fingers – the scent of childhood – over 30 Christmases now.
“How did I end up here, God?” I asked, looking back. “I was such a happy child and teenager. I had everything figured out. Now, I am a dangerously-nearing-middle-age woman (shudder) who still doesn’t have anything figured out? I never would have guessed I’d turn into this.” Questions and confessions to Him pile laundry-high, disappointment drapes thick, and I don’t know where to start.
“I am angry too much of the time,” I begin to confess first. “But what am I angry AT?” Certainly my old wounds haven’t resurfaced again…? Could it be the rain? This gray Washington December? Being cooped up in a chaotic house with 4 kids all day, waiting tables and wiping bottoms and breaking up fights and getting screamed at? Wouldn’t ANYONE on the planet be angry after 14 hours straight of getting screamed at?!
We never see that anger in others – that frustration of too many days barely belted together, brokenness bursting, stress stuffed into secret corners for school functions and birthday parties. We don’t talk much about our frustrations or failures, because we (I) are so, so afraid – of judgment, image, and honesty. What if we’re the only ones? (We aren’t.) What will they think of me? I already feel ashamed as it is; I don’t want to make it worse. And so that anger, it grows – a left-sock-only pile of useless rants and roiling rage that will never get sorted out, alone.
“What do I need to do, God? Just show me!” I plead. “Tell me how to be a happier Mom! I want this to be a house full of joy. How do I build more patience? How do I find that love, that peace that passes understanding? Where’s the self control in those moments when I’m teetering right on explosion’s edge? Help me! Give me these things! Please!!” I beg Him.
This is not just a random shopping list of attributes I’m asking for. I chose it specifically, and could complete it by heart: I am asking for fruits. The fruits of His Spirit. Right at this moment, I want the items on His fruits list more than anything else in all the whole world. Love, Joy, Peace. Patience, Kindness, Goodness. Faithfulness, Gentleness, and oh dear God – Self Control. Why does it feel like I might as well be asking for unicorns or world peace? Are they really so unattainable as that?
An answer comes to me, still as the night, threading through the mess I’m meandering in my head.
“Spend time with me.”
It’s a silent voice, yet a voice I’ve known well since childhood – over 30 Christmases, at least. My own train of thinking is veering off the tracks, but this unmistakable thought breaks through with a marked sureness. Otherworldly and from outside of me, comes a clarity I myself certainly never possessed: My Father’s voice.
“Spend time with you,” I say out loud. “Yes. I know that. That’s what I’m doing here. I’m always fighting to do that, and I’ll keep making it a priority. That’s a good one, God. But seriously Father, I need answers here. What needs to change in our family? Do I need to go back to work – would that make me happier? More play dates? More time outside of the house? Counseling? Do I need to hop online and order more books on how to train my children in the Lord? Do books even exist on how to lead a decent family worship that doesn’t disintegrate into yelling and crying? I need ideas here, God – practical tips. What is this family missing?”
I wait. I anxiously begin to note the empty spots on the tree, opposing the over-crowded branches bearing 3 and 4 ornaments each. In my head I begin to rearrange them – the angel to that open hole, Santa slipped left, and all those bulbs on different limbs… Order! It’s order I want, on this tree, and in my life. I’ve left a warm bed because I want this more than sleep: and that’s expensive currency, right there. I don’t pay such a high price for too many things. But this – I want.
“Spend time with me,” comes the impression again, and I realize: this IS the answer. Immediately, I am frustrated.
Any Christian 3 minutes old can tell you that it’s important to spend time with the Lord, and I know this fact just as well as my own address (but not the zip code…does it matter…?) I’m annoyed. This is basic. I DO spend time with God – when I can. When I steal it or pay in precious morning-sleep savings or when I collapse into it at the end of an exhausting day. Yet my soul still feels as dry as these pine needles, and my shoulders stoop low under loads far heavier than branches could bear. Spend time with God? Too basic. Elementary. I need so, so much more than that. I need real answers and real help.
“Spend time with me,” comes the assurance, once again, and then looking at the tree, I get it: fruits. Fruits are a by-product of seeds planted first. Fruits blossom and grow when seeds are cultivated. And the fruits of the Spirit are no different – they are by-products of spending time with Jesus. They are a natural result, things that mysteriously blossom and grow in us when we’ve enjoyed time in His presence. And this is suddenly a great relief. I can’t cultivate patience in myself, you see – I’ve tried. Zip. Nada. No good. I can always scrape it up for awhile and then – poof – gone, disappeared into thin air (somewhere with all the right-socks, no doubt.) Try as I might, I cannot muster these things inside me.
But I don’t have to.
These qualities – these are grown in my heart by the Holy Spirit. “Spend time with me,” is the only recipe I’ll ever find for this fruit salad of saving graces. Instead of forever trying (read: failing) to discipline them into myself, my focus instead should be on sidling alongside the Savior and seeking the experience of that soul-changing love. He’s not giving me an answer, tonight. But I think He’s giving me the formula for how I’ll find the answer: in quiet, searching moments alone with Him. I need to fight for more of these – and He will fight through the rest of the mess, in me.
It’s then that I remember her shocking answer.
Last spring, my high school best friend passed through town briefly with her family. We were able to spend just a few hours together after bedtime one evening in a hot tub under the stars. We knew time was short that night, and since we hadn’t been great about keeping in touch over the years, there was much to catch up on. I noted a searching quality to our talking, an urgency to uncover the most important matters. We tried to ask the “right” questions of each other – questions that would bridge time’s gap and help us reconnect. It was hard. At 16 I had spent hours every single night with this girl, pouring out my adolescent heart to her in whispers on those old pastel-striped couches in the girls dorm lobby. How do you catch back up to that place? But we tried.
At one point, over the bubbling jets, I decided to ask, “So – what would you change about your life right now, if you could magically change anything?” I thought it was a good question. One that would reveal our grown-up priorities and keep us talking and wrestling for quite awhile. I was completely unprepared for the reality of her almost immediate answer.
“Well – nothing!” she practically chirped, with a shrug of her shoulders. “I wouldn’t change anything. I’m happy with my life exactly the way it is.”
Okay. Just a moment. WHO. SAYS. THAT?!?!?!!!
I was incredulous. “Nothing?! As in – not anything? Not even one thing? Do you have no goals, no aspirations or improvements you seek in yourself?” I asked. Nothing. She had said nothing. Considering my own collection of much-needed changes and challenges, “nothing” felt foreign to even fathom.
“I feel like I’ve grown so much this year,” she began to explain, and I turned off the jets then because I was literally hanging on every word. “About 10 months ago, our pastor gave this challenge to the church congregation to read one verse every day about God’s love, and to just consider it all day and let it sink in. So I tried it,” she said. “And the more I read, the more I believed in it, and the more hooked I became. It was like everything else – all the trappings of religion – seemed to just fall away and I realized, there is one thing and one thing only that I am expected to do as a Christian, and that is: abide.” She paused. “I’m supposed to abide in Him. That’s my one job. Everything else – all the growing and the changing and the grace-grafting – that’s all His job! I just need to, simply, abide.” I was silent. “It’s kind of hard to explain,” she admitted, “but honestly, it’s changed my life.”
Too simple, again. And I fundamentally disagreed as well – the Bible is chock-full of things for us to do, how could anyone ever boil it down to “one thing?” People try all the time: “just love everyone,” or “just do good” – and these bumper-sticker summaries fall so short in my mind because the immediate next question is: “How? What does it look like to love everyone? What is doing good? How exactly do I abide?” And then you’re right back to the Bible again, searching out the “hows” of practical lived-out Christianity. Abide? How could it ever, ever be so simple. (And what do I have against simple answers, anyway?)
That late night hot tub conversation haunted me in the weeks that followed, haunted me all the way through summer and straight into fall, and now here I sit in late December, still hearing her echo: “Nothing.” She was so content with her life, that she would change absolutely nothing. Oh, I am jealous.
I’ve come up with a lot of theories to write it off – she’s blessed, she’s simple, her life is easier than mine, she doesn’t have 1 year old twins, she’s not a pastor’s wife, she’s short-sighted, she has no goals for herself – etc. But since I know her life, and most of these excuses don’t work, my heart suspects a deeper truth tonight: I think she really gets it. I suspect she’s wrapped so tightly in God’s grace that she doesn’t NEED to change anything. She lives out of the fresh air of acceptance: she accepts her life and her lot exactly the way it is, however difficult. Abiding daily in Jesus, she has found the freedom of not needing to change the things that are His job AND His prerogative to change. It’s simple, and yet it’s not, because it’s the grit and the daily grind of commitment and intentional time sacrifices. Dwell deeply. Give opportunity for the fruit to grow.
I want that. I want all His fruits and I crave freedom from anger and oh how I’d love the abiding ability to shrug my shoulders smugly and reply, “Nothing. I’d change nothing about my life.” But I’m not there yet. Regrettably, I’m not even close.
The white and red lights blend together in a funny, woozy way and I realize I’m falling asleep. I unwrap the snowflake blanket from around me, leave it in a heap, and head off to bed. I don’t have a lot of specific answers, but maybe I have enough?
“Spend time with me.”
It’s not at the top of my to-do list.
It IS the list.
(Post from Dec. 2013)