Faith, Family, & Focaccia

A faith and culture Mommy blog, because real life gets all mixed together like that.


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Fear-Rejecting Parenting: Reflections on the Courage of an Amazing Family

I think I might have been more traumatized than the Gigglemonster when he fell and smacked his head on a hard, stone floor (notice the lump!)

I might have been more traumatized than the Gigglemonster when he fell and smacked his head on a hard, stone floor (notice the lump!)

Something they never tell you about becoming a parent is all the fear that suddenly invades your life when you take that precious, miraculous, fragile little bundle home from the hospital. Watching your heart (captured in the body of your child) grow, and discover, and slowly move away from you is both breathtakingly joyful and breathtakingly frightening.

In my experience, the fears of parenting run the whole spectrum of terrifying possibilities. I am afraid of the things that could happen to my children (be that physical pain and illness, or car accidents, or rejection by friends, or failure to achieve their dreams), and I am afraid about what they will be exposed to (from societal evils like consumerism and bigotry to the very individual dangers of evil people who might try to harm them). I worry about their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. I worry about their present and about their future. Moments of intense pride in their character and accomplishments are tempered by moments of fear when their whining, or selfishness, or timidity conjure up imaginings of how these traits might hamper them as they mature.

Added to fears for my children are the fears for my own failures as their mother: failures to protect them, failures to guide and teach them, failures to give them all that they need and deserve, and failures to back away so that they can learn independence and develop their own coping strategies when life is imperfect.

My own fears are probably holding Princess Imagination back from really learning how to swim. It's so hard to trust that she can learn to be safe in water.

My own fears are probably holding Princess Imagination back from really learning how to swim. It’s so hard to trust that she can learn to be safe in water.

I don’t mean to give the impression that motherhood is an endless labyrinth of fears and forebodings. In fact, the apprehension I feel is so powerful only because the love and joy of parenting my little ones is so intense. It is because there is so much to lose, so much indescribable happiness, that my hands occasionally shake when grasped by soft, plump little fingers. My life is incalculably better because of the two invaders who so completely upturned it with their presence and their needs.

And yet, I am unavoidably aware that my relationship to fear has undergone a qualitative shift since I became a mother. Fear now has a secret entry to my heart that was never there before. When my body gave my children entry into life, with all its dangers, it also opened a door for fear to fill the empty space where they once nestled under my heart. It’s as though the intense, physical dependence that began our relationship has reprogrammed me. I will now – I think forever – know myself as the one whose responsibility it is to protect and nurture my children. What that looks like changes as they grow, but the imperative does not slacken. A central part of my very identity is the absolute obligation to seek their well-being, and for me that includes a persistent awareness of everything that threatens it.

Perhaps that is why I was so struck by the story of Heather and Cameron Von St. James when I was introduced to it a few weeks back. Eight years ago they shared the awesome experience of bringing home their baby girl and encountering the joy of discovering all the wonderful ways their lives were now changed. That part of their story is intimately and sweetly familiar to me. The fear they faced just a few months later, however, is something I struggle to even imagine. Heather was diagnosed with Mesothelioma – a virulent form of cancer that usually results in death within 2 years of diagnosis. She was given just 15 months to live.

Fifteen months! That kind of diagnosis would be devastating to anyone, but for new parents … my parenting fears pale in comparison. Such a huge element of my fear as a mother is my immense sense of responsibility – the need to protect, and love, and guide my children in all the ways they need me. But what if I faced the near certainty that I wouldn’t be there to do any of those things? I really don’t think I can imagine what it must be to face that kind of fear.

What I can do, is to share my awe-filled respect for what Heather and Cameron did with their fears: they named them, and then they rejected them. They began a unique ceremony of inviting friends and family to join them for a backyard bonfire. In the light of that fire, a symbol of danger, they write their fears on plates and then throw them into the fire. They use the destructive power of the flames to smash their fears and reclaim their lives, and in the process they embrace each day they have with each other and with their daughter, Lily.

As it turns out, those days have been more numerous than the doctors ever imagined. It has been eight years since the lung removal surgery (the “lung leavin’ day” as they have dubbed it) that is the date for the Von St. James’ annual ceremony. Heather has been at every one.

Heather’s life, and her ability to be present in her daughter’s life, is miracle enough. But this amazing family has gone a step beyond by sharing their miracle with others as an inspiration for fear-rejecting parenting. They have taken a source of unimaginable fear and changed it into a chance to embrace love instead.

WOW!

I have often been comforted by the words of the apostle John (I John 4:18) that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear,” however I have also struggled to really experience them in my life. In all the relationships that matter most to me – those where my love is the deepest – fear seems to hold the opposite relationship to love. Especially as a mother, fear seems to grow with love, not be banished by it. But here, in this inspiring example, I think I am beginning to understand a bit more about how to claim this truth in my own life.

The Von St. James’ are not without fear. They hold their fear-smashing ceremony every year, because fear is not something that can be banished once and for all. The fact that Heather has beaten the odds does not remove all the fears that come with a cancer diagnosis as a young mother. She still has fears about the cancer coming back, about missing out on her daughter’s life. And so each year she rejects those fears – rejects their power to control her life and to tarnish each day of love that she has with her daughter.

“Perfect love casts out fear.” Casting out is a willful act – a decision. By writing a fear onto a plate and then throwing it into the fire this special family, and a growing crowd of others, make the decision to reject fear’s power to rob their love of its joy and beauty.

So, this blog post is my plate today. I am writing down my fear of failing as a mother – whether through my own imperfection or my inability to control all the evil in the world that can harm my children. It’s out of my control but that does not have to tarnish the joy of loving them. Perhaps, if I learn the discipline of regularly rejecting that fear, it will even help to liberate that love.

May today and every day be a day to throw fear into the fire and instead embrace the joy I have today.

(To learn more about Heather and Cameron’s story, or to help them raise money for Mesothelioma awareness, you can visit their webpage: http://www.mesothelioma.com/heather/lungleavinday )

Each day with them is a reason to smile!

Each day with them is a reason to smile!


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Chaos and Comfort

This will be a short one, I promise. It is basically just an introduction and then a short piece of writing I completed for a completely different purpose, that has since been hanging with me.

So, first the introduction. I have previously mentioned my small but wonderful Thursday morning bible study group, which has become a source of learning, inspiration, and friendship over the last 8 months. The format is fairly standard, but for those for whom this form of religious practice is not familiar I will briefly summarize its two elements. First, each participant completes the study preparation, which includes reading the text for the week and answering a number of questions about it that range from basic summarizing to deeper interpretation to personal application. Second, the group meets to share and discuss their responses, as well as to pray and just share our lives. It is an enriching part of my weekly routine, but nothing very unusual for those in church circles.

Last week, however, there was an unusual task included in the preparation section. We were reading Acts chapter 27, which tells the dramatic story of the shipwreck experienced by the Apostle Paul and over 270 other people during his transportation as a prisoner from Caesarea to Rome (If you’re interested in the context, here’s a link to the online text http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts%2027&version=NIV). As part of our reflection on this story, the study participants were asked to write a description of the emotional experience of one of Paul’s companions on the ship during the more than 2 weeks that they spent buffeted by a hurricane before being marooned on the island of Malta.

At first I hesitated at this task. In past reading I have thoroughly enjoyed some imaginative retelling of pieces of the Biblical narrative (The Red Tent comes to mind as a wonderful exploration of the feminine world that lies mostly obscured by the Biblical account of the patriarchs). I think it can be appropriate and illuminating to start from the limited information provided in Bible accounts and then try to “flesh out” the story with the human experiences and emotions that can sometimes be difficult to find in the theologically driven original texts. Nevertheless, I quail at the thought of attempting such an exploration myself. While I thoroughly enjoy the process of character development in my fiction, to engage in this process with actual historical events, and more than that with events that are part of the revelation of God, seems too far beyond my ken. How could I endeavor to achieve the necessary truth in such an enterprise?

And yet, the assignment was there, and after initial hesitation I couldn’t just completely rebel (I am a consummate rule-follower, after all). Once I capitulated I found that there were actually several points of contact to help with my engagement. The fact that the scene involved a ship-wreck helped provide a sense of background. I know from my seminary studies how in ancient middle eastern cultures the sea was associated with primordial chaos: the ultimate evil that is contained or restrained in creation, but which always threatens to break free. That would have possibly given a special terror to the prospect of death at sea. My own personal experiences of sea sickness also offered an entry point for my imagination. If I don’t take chemical aids to fight it, I am bent double within 20 minutes of riding even the gentlest swells — even the thought of two weeks of being buffeted by a hurricane makes me nauseous.

I had those two concepts in my brain as I set pen to paper, but not much more. Unlike my normal writing process I had no outline, no sense of where I was going. I just started writing. The result stunned me. It also reawakened in me a sense of awe about the power and deliverance in my faith; an awe that can sometimes be hard to hold on to in the tides of daily life. I hope it can offer a sense of anchor for you as well, or perhaps offer a sense of the screaming of the wind. So, with no further adieu…

This is worse than a nightmare, because it just goes on. Day after night, night after day, week after week. It starts to feel like this is the only reality there is, and all memory of land, of stillness, of quiet, of happiness, were all just a delusion.

I have vomited so much that I feel utterly empty inside. The smell of my own bile is part of my skin now; eating at my teeth; matted in my hair; I cannot imagine ever being clean again. The sickness is so painful I begin to long for death… until I look over into the water and I recoil back from its churning, gaping mouth. The salt stings my eyes as the wind lashes a wave into my face, and something in me screams, NO! I don’t want to be eaten up by that bottomless chaos!

The power of the smashing waves terrifies me, but it is the icy stillness beneath that grips my heart with a fear deeper and more paralyzing than I have ever known. How deep will I sink? Will I die before I am pulled out of reach of all light? Or will my last moments be the terror of total darkness and the scaly touch of unseen creatures as my lungs fight helplessly to draw oxygen from the water filling them? Even this current hell of sickness and fear is better than that fate.

Then I see Paul, that prisoner who somehow seems to gain respect even from his captor, the centurion, Julius. He has… peace. Somehow in this chaos of howling wind and biting rain… somehow despite the incessant creak of the boat’s timbers that cackle to my fears of the imminent cracking and tearing that will throw us all into the sea… somehow none of it affects him. He even smiles at me as he moves past and reaches out a hand to stroke the vomit-flecked hair out of my face.

His touch is miraculous. My stomach quiets. For the first time in weeks pain is not pulling my insides into a riotous ball. I turn and follow him, captivated, and see him take up a loaf of bread before turning to the mass of hopeless men strewn across the deck.

He doesn’t have to yell. Despite the despair that pulls each man in on himself, gnawing on his own misery and fear; despite the cracking, crashing noise that had battered our ears for days without end; when he speaks we all can hear. He speaks with total confidence of reassurance, of the promise of his God to save not just himself but all of us. It is unbelievable.

But I believe him. I feel myself mysteriously filled with the same stillness I see in him as he breaks bread and tells us to eat. I have seen him and his friends do this before, speaking words about remembrance of this Christ they follow. As I take a hunk of bread from Paul’s hand the words come back to me. “Do this in remembrance of me.”

I don’t yet know what I am remembering. But I will find out.