Control and Surrender, Part 1

I gave a retreat this past weekend, my first, and my writing for this has been such a journey, it seemed worthy of including here.  It certainly has been a part of my wandering in circles around my personal Jericho.

I try to live my life in a prayer of Mary’s Fiat – Let it be done to me according to your will. But sometimes I feel like what God actually heard was something more along the lines of, “Bring it on.”

As mothers, we have so much to manage and keep going. Children to teach, the family to feed, a husband to keep up a relationship with, school and church work, our “real” jobs. Keeping control seems like the only logical way to do that. But leaning on our ability to control things is slippery and deceptive. The control we exercise can be taken from our hands at any moment. So we need to find a way to keep a responsible grip on the management of our families and jobs while balancing that with surrender to God’s guidance and will, and trust… that in one of those moments when control is taken away entirely – we are still securely in His hands.

Sundays are always my hardest day. Between Jay’s masses, and trying to get ready for another week while keeping everyone fed and cleaned up for mass I am left with little patience and always find myself thinking that if I just planned it well enough and executed it perfectly then the day would go smoothly. I grasp at control and scribble down a list of things to finish up that day and reminders for next Sunday. I berate myself and think that I could bring peace to my family if I just had enough control over the day. But in spite of any elaborate planning I do, Sundays slide from my grasp – sometimes its a sick child, a busy Saturday that leaves me playing catch up, my own exhaustion, or even just setting aside what needs to be done for time with family. I simply cannot control all of the variables and get a hold on Sunday.

I’m not sure if control brings peace or just the illusion of peace. Sometimes I think I would settle for an illusion of peace!

There are two moms I know: One is always in control. Her home runs like clockwork, her kids never eat sugar cereal while being rushed out the door in the morning. And yet her children are always shuffled out of the way to keep things running smoothly.

Another has told me smilingly that she never feels overwhelmed. She has several children, and she enjoys them all greatly, making time for them as much as possible. She is not what I would call out of control, but her grasp on it seems to be a little looser.

So it occurred to me one day, that maybe this overwhelmed, scrambled existence is where I am supposed to be right now. Maybe this, in itself, is the medicine my soul needs to teach me to really lean on God’s control instead of my own. Because really, when it comes down to it, how much do we really have control of? Our lives can change in a moment.

What is the difference between being out of control and living a life of surrender?

Surely there is a difference. We mothers have to do our due diligence in caring for our family and not just toss in the towel and quit trying. But I have to have that continual reminder that it is not my will but His that must be done. Frustration with this does not equal lack of surrender.

Preparing for this retreat has been an exercise in surrender in itself for me. Just as I began to work on it, I found myself in the throws of morning sickness, then Jay’s hand injury ( he lost a portion of a finger in a work accident) tossed our life into an uproar, then a series of sicknesses in my kids that kept my hands busy with laundry and my lap full at all times. Truly, my time was not my own and I couldn’t work on it at all. I had to chuckle and God’s sense of humor, and wished that maybe I had been led to a different topic for the retreat – then I wouldn’t be getting this tough lesson.

But it wasn’t until last weekend that it really came to a head in our household. For months, I have been diligently following Dave Ramsey’s financial principles, trying to get a working budget and get us out of debt and living within our means. Every penny is spent on paper before the month begins. I made progress for several months, even got some bills paid off. But the business Jay works for is struggling. The paychecks have been coming, but they have been getting later and later. Finally, this past week, we went a whole week without a paycheck. Between that and the mounting medical bills (For Jay’s hand injury and Molly’s hospitalization) I just completely fell apart. I had one of those moments of staring over a cliff, seeing the darkness that was out there without faith, but feeling like my best efforts had failed me entirely. I wasn’t chuckling at God’s sense of humor anymore. I was angry and tired and very tempted to despair.

If I had worked so hard to control all of our money, but it really wasn’t in my control at all anyway, what was the point? Just like cleaning the kitchen only to come back in and find it wrecked entirely… it seemed like it was all futile. Still, as we will go over in part 2, I remembered that really Holy people have just kept doing their jobs in the face of loss of control. But how is it possible to do that without falling over that cliff and succumbing to despair when over and over you see your hard work crumble like a sandcastle getting hit by a wave?

After much weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, I realized that it really is the outcome that matters, but not the outcome I was looking at.

My work is to be a good steward of my money, to love and teach my children, to love and encourage my husband, to care for our belongings and fill our home with love.

But the outcome of those things – the real goal I am aiming for is not:

  • a balanced bank account
  • perfect children
  • a husband whose needs are always met
  • a clean home with dinner on the table, laundry in the drawers, and a place for everything.

My real goal is to love God and to bring my children and husband closer to Him as well. My real goal is Heaven and an eternity with Him. That is the outcome that matters. The rest of it is the means that will help me to get there.

This reminded me of the story of the Man and the Rock.  I found a version and want to share that with you now:

Pushing Against The Rock – Author Unknown

There once was a man who was asleep one night in his cabin when suddenly his room filled with light and the Saviour appeared to him.

The Lord told him He had a work for him to do, and showed him a large rock explaining that he was to push against the rock with all his might. This the man did, and for many days he toiled from sunup to sundown; his shoulder set squarely against the cold massive surface of the rock, pushing with all his might. Each night the man returned to his cabin sore and worn out, feeling his whole day had been spent in vain.

Seeing that the man showed signs of discouragement, Satan decided to enter the picture – placing thoughts in the man’s mind, such as “Why kill yourself over this?, you’re never going to move it!” or “Boy, you’ve been at it a long time and you haven’t even scratched the surface!” etc. giving the man the impression the task was impossible and the man was an unworthy servant because he wasn’t moving the massive stone.

These thoughts discouraged and disheartened the man and he started to ease up in his efforts. “Why kill myself?” he thought. “I’ll just put in my time putting forth just the minimum of effort and that will be good enough.” And this he did or at least planned on doing until, one day, he decided to take his troubles to the Lord.

“Lord,” he said, “I have labored hard and long in Your service, putting forth all my strength to do that which You have asked of me. Yet after all this time, I have not even budged that rock even half a millimeter. What is wrong? Why am I failing?”

To this the Lord responded compassionately, “My friend, when long ago I asked you to serve Me and you accepted, I told you to push against the rock with all your strength and that you have done. But never once did I mention to you that I expected you to move it. At least not by yourself. Your task was to push. And now you come to Me, your strength spent, thinking that you have failed, ready to quit. But is this really so? Look at yourself. Your arms are strong and muscled; your back sinewed and brown. Your hands are calloused from constant pressure and your legs have become massive and hard. Through opposition you have grown much and your ability now far surpasses that which you used to have. Yet still, you haven’t succeeded in moving the rock; and you come to Me now with a heavy heart and your strength spent. I, my friend will move the rock. Your calling was to be obedient and push, and to exercise your faith and trust in My wisdom, and this you have done.”

Living a Nightmare

Every now and then there is a story on the news that catches your attention and just breaks your heart.  Last September I saw one of those.  A mother was pulling out of a school parking lot and accidentally hit a baby in a stroller.  The baby was killed instantly, and the mother who was walking with the child was not injured badly.  The driver was not at fault, nor was the mother pushing the stroller.

I could understand though, knowing how pedestrians are sometimes hard to see, how this could happen.  My heart broke not only for the mother who lost her baby, but for the driver as well.  I couldn’t imagine the guilt she must be feeling over the incident even if it wasn’t her fault at all.  I remember thinking of them often in the following days and praying for all of them, but especially for the driver.

Life soon took over and I pushed that news story to the back of my brain.  We soon had a new baby to snuggle and a very busy Autumn ahead of us.  I had kids in four different schools then, which left me on the move a lot.  There was one in preschool, two in elementary school, and two children in different high schools.  It was hard to handle all of it, but I managed reasonably well.

But I was about to have the rug pulled out from under me.

One rainy Monday in December, I dropped Max off at preschool.  I stopped in to have a short chat with the preschool director, then headed out to the car, buckled Molly (5 weeks) and Lily (2 years) into their carseats and pondered my route to Target for some shopping before I headed out of the parking lot.

It was about 9:15am, and rush hour was well over.  I remember that there weren’t many cars on the road at all.  I pulled up to the sidewalk to make a right turn out of the parking lot and onto a large street.  I glanced this way and that, but ended up looking to my left for a couple of minutes to wait for a nice big gap.

Then I slid my foot off the brake and moved slowly forward to enter the roadway.  As I began to turn I heard a sickening THUD to my right.  I turned and saw red hair, white skin, and blue sweatshirt on my windshield before it dropped out of view.  Seconds became hours right then.  I put the car in park, got out and ran around the front of the van thinking, “Oh, he’s going to yell at me!”  But the man never yelled.  He was unconscious next to my van, his bicycle a crumpled mess a few feet away.

A couple of other cars had stopped and were calling 911, but I opened my van door to get my phone and call too.  I was shaking and crying so hard it took me several tries to dial the right numbers.  Before the operator had time to dispatch anyone, a passing ambulance stopped and began to work on the man.

My memory gets a little fuzzy at this point.  I crawled in the side of my van to sit by the babies.  I cried my eyes out.  I called Jay, I talked to the police.  I saw them cut the man’s clothes off so that they could start an IV line and get his blood pressure.  They put him in the ambulance eventually and took him away.

From the car I could see my mother in law and brother in law, but the police wouldn’t let them come near.  Jay arrived and was allowed to come and be with me.  At some point we got out of the car and the police introduced me to some crisis counselors.  But when they saw that I had family and my husband there, they gave me a water bottle and left.  I was in good hands already.

At some point the tears stopped and I just kind of went into shock.  We moved inside of the preschool and out of the rain and over the course of the morning I was interviewed by a couple different police officers and a detective. The preschool where it happened is also a church, and one of their staff came and prayed with us.  It was a prayer that I can’t remember, but that said everything in my heart at that moment.  Our friends at the preschool took Molly and Lily with them so that we could deal with the police interviews.

After a few hours we were released to go home.  I think I just curled up on the couch and watched it rain most of the rest of the day.  Some friends brought dinner.

I stayed in contact with the detective through the week, and he let me know that I had done nothing wrong.  The man was riding his bicycle very fast, against traffic, when he collided with the side of my van.  He had probably assumed that I had seen him.  The detective called me on Thursday of that week to let me know that the man, W.R., had passed away on Tuesday from his head injuries.

How does a person handle something like this?  How can you even begin to process having a part, at fault or not, in an innocent person’s death?  I had wondered that when I saw the news story in September and now I had to actually answer those questions, and I had no idea at all where to start.

And God, where was He for all of this?  The funny thing for me was that my faith was not shaken.  I knew God was still right there, wanting to comfort me, working little miracles through this event.  But mostly I just kind of wanted Him to leave me alone for a while.  My family, my friends, my church, they are all my ministries, and I viewed myself as a tool in the hand of God to work in this ministry of life He had given me.  But now I just felt broken.  I needed for God to put me back in the toolbox for a while and just let me heal.

And that is exactly what He did.

I didn’t stop praying, although my prayer often had no words.  I didn’t stop going to mass, even when every mass felt like a funeral for the man in the accident.  All I could do was to try to rest in His grace and hope that maybe someday I would feel differently.

Little miracles began to unfold.  I started going to see a counselor, who helped me to weed through all this mental and emotional mess this had left me with, and I was able to work through a lot of other things as well.  The father and step-mother of W.R. came to talk to the preschool director.  They were very concerned for my well being and gave us some information on W.R. as well.  They wanted me to know that they did not hold me responsible.

W.R. was 20 years old, living in a group home nearby because of a chromosomal abnormality that caused some delays and very large size.  He was 6’8″ and well over 250 pounds.  His organs went to four different people: heart, corneas, and both kidneys.  And his brain went for research for the chromosomal abnormality he had.  There had, to that point, never been a brain for them to study.  Those were some small comforts amidst the darkness.

2010 was very much defined for me by the recovery from this accident.  In the beginning I counted every day and week as a wonderful bit of distance that I could put between myself and the event.  Then I was able to add in months as well.  And somewhere along the line I stopped counting.  When I reached the one year mark, I stopped and had a quiet day to remember and to pray, but it wasn’t just about having distance from that time anymore, it was about where I am now and how far I have come since then.

I share this with you not to look for pity or astonishment, but just to share where I am coming from.  As this blog is largely about my spiritual journey, I think you need to see what has guided that for me.  This accident will always be one of the defining moments in my life.  I am sure I haven’t even felt the full impact of the ways it has changed me.  But I hope and pray that, no matter how horrible and tragic it was, I can continue to use those changes for good.  I am out of the toolbox again, ready to get to work.

Put and Take

Sometime between 6 and 9 months old my kids learn a fun little game we like to call “Put and Take”.  They hand me a toy and I hold it in their reach.  The child looks me in the face and then takes the toy back again. Put and take, over and over, like a first game of catch or a very early introduction to sharing.  It becomes a favorite game as they bring me different things and put them in my hand and take them back again.

I play this game often with God, in a slightly less cute way.

I always picture myself handing my problems over to God as if they were written on a scrap of paper and telling him that I really do trust Him.  But then after fidgeting about in front of Him for a few minutes, I reach up and grab it back.  I just need to tweak something first before He can have it.  And then I hand it back again.  “Are you sure?” He asks me, “Can I really have it?”

“Yes, I’m sure.  But let me fold it one more time just to make sure it is ready for You to handle it.”
“Ok,” He says.  He never stops me from taking it back.

And so I carry my little problem over to the corner and fuss over it, knowing that God’s hand is open and waiting.  Knowing that I need to let Him have it.

Finally, I work up the strength to hand it over to Him.  I walk away, casting glances over my shoulder.  He doesn’t seem to be doing anything with it at all and I wonder if maybe I should go ahead and handle it myself anyway.  Usually at this point, my addled brain gets distracted by some new problem or excitement and I forget to take this problem back.  My own forgetfulness keeps me out of a lot of trouble.

But while I am distracted, my loving Father takes this little paper problem and makes it into something I could never have imagined.  As Jen @ Conversion Diary so succinctly put it the other day, “I’m not good at knowing what I want; I’m terrible at knowing what I need.”

My game of Put and Take this week involved the schooling of my children.  This week I received an email, on my birthday no less, that the school where my older children go for Jr High and High School is moving.  Right now we have a 20 minute commute to their school each way and I hate it.  It makes it very hard to deal with extra curricular activities and makes for a lot of time in the car for the little ones.  This new location would bring our daily car time up to over 3 hours a day, more if someone had an extra activity or tutoring.  This is just not compatible with our family life and having small children around. 

I was devastated.  Crushed.

While my current sophomore could probably finish her high school career there, my younger kids would not have that opportunity, and that broke my heart.  I cried on and off for two days.

Then came another email exposing a potential health threat with this new location.  I have only minimally researched whether or not this is valid, but what it showed me is that I cannot foresee the possibilities here.  Maybe something will come to light and this move will be canceled.  Maybe it will go forward as planned.  I have no idea.  The message I got loud and clear is that whatever the outcome, God still holds us in His hand.  He sees things that I can’t possibly imagine.  There are two more years before this move would take place and anything could happen in that time.

So for now, I will write this problem on a piece of paper and put it back in the hand of God and say a little prayer, “Let it be done to me”.  He has the outcome under control, even if I don’t like what it will be.