Friday, January 16, 2009

Leavings

The past year has been filled with difficult departures for me. On December 23, 2007, my father died after a sudden and precipitous decline from what seemed like pretty good health for an 87 year old. In my last post (“God’s Adult Children”), I made a brief reference to the effect his death has had on me, but I suspect I will be dealing with it for quite some time to come. One of its most telling consequences has been the impact on my mother’s life. Pop's strong will and sure hand in managing their household affairs right up to the end disguised the extent to which she is losing her grasp on the world around her. Whether we attribute it to Alzheimer’s or just old-fashion dementia, she is slowly but surely “leaving” us as well.

Then, in the early fall, our 25-year-old son moved to another state to start a new job. I helped him pack the truck, made the trip with him, and helped move him into the new apartment, so we had lots of time together. Plus, he’s been back home to visit for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. But we have always been very close, and we’ve never been apart for such long stretches of time or separated by so much distance. He occupies a place in my life that no one else can fill, so even though I’m proud of what he’s doing and glad to see him get out on his own, I miss him very much.

At almost the same time, I “broke up with” my best friend of 18 years. Hurt feelings and hard words dominated our last bits of communication, and we haven’t spoken for over 3 months now. I told him the friendship had become toxic to me and urged him to take the steps necessary to heal it, but he couldn’t see what I could see, so he walked away. I miss him.

Which brings me to yesterday—the effective resignation date for my #2 at the seminary. I hired him 4½ years ago to help me achieve a bold and ambitious vision. We celebrated quite a few victories along the way, but we had our rough spots too—mostly because our styles are so different. Recently, though, he felt himself being called in a different direction, and I knew I couldn’t stand in his way. We tried to avoid talking about his imminent departure, and we got through the day yesterday without being too emotional. He left as he arrived—a trusted and valuable member of my team.

This is not intended to sound like a Pity Party Post. I’m just reflecting on an experience that has not been all that common for me. Historically, I have been the one who left—whether restless, ambitious, detached, or just idealistically seeking greener grass somewhere else. When you’re the one who leaves, you don’t get much practice at being left. And at this point, I’d have to say I don’t particularly like the experience. But, as I reflected on all of this on the drive home last night, I realized the other meaning buried in my title.

“Leavings” are also what’s left behind, a residual effect, a lingering presence. All five of the persons in this story may have “moved on” in some way, but there is a residue that remains—what Stephen Schwartz’s amazing lyrics call “a handprint on my heart.” To some varying degree, I am who I am today because of each of these people who—at least for now—have left my daily sphere of living. And their influence will continue, not only through their “leaving,” but also through their “leavings.”

I think God made us that way on purpose. And if I’m right, then Jesus would certainly GARAAT.

Dr.KAJ

Friday, January 9, 2009

God's Adult Children

My brother-in-law and I were discussing the nature of prayer last night, especially as a vehicle for God’s interaction with us. I found out that we both downplay the role of petitionary prayer, as usually conceived, because it runs the risk of reducing God to a cosmic short-order cook. I stated that I often experience what I call, for lack of a more precise term, “promptings” that I identify as God trying to get my attention. They aren’t audible, but they do seem to be language based. Something that is to intentional thought what peripheral vision is to gazing. An echo in the moment just before it fades to imperceptibility. Just enough realness not to be imaginary; just enough otherness to imply external agency.

From there we moved on to consider why some people report receiving regular, detailed, totally unambiguous communiqués from God, directing virtually every aspect of their lives. Are they über spiritual? Are they deluded? While I certainly can’t just flatly deny the validity of their experience, I cannot be satisfied with this view of the divine/human interaction. Whereas uncritical emphasis on petitionary prayer reduces God to something less than fully divine, the notion of God’s specific directing of every detail of our lives reduces us to something less than fully human. I, for one, believe that God created us to be more than life-like animated game pieces, moved around the board by a hand other than our own, toward an endgame that has already been determined.

At this point in the conversation I was searching for an image or analogy to convey my admittedly somewhat unorthodox views. Here’s where I landed:

My father died a little over a year ago. He was 87, and I was 54 at the time, so for many years our relationship had been that of a parent and an adult child. I have been on my own and directing my own life for considerably longer now than I was a dependent living under his roof and his rules, but that didn’t keep him from having his own opinions about whatever I might be doing. He usually realized, though, that his own role had changed from authority to advisor, and I think he had made his peace with that and maybe even experienced pride and joy when watching who his son had become. To be honest, I was often the one who initiated those conversations in which his advice was solicited. But knowing that I could use him as a sounding board without being bound by his feedback was a liberating experience that made me feel like a real grownup.

We start out as totally helpless infants, utterly dependent on others for everything we need in life. Loved and nurtured by parents and extended family, we grow into children, discovering the “self” inside of us and exulting in what we can do for and by ourselves. Adolescence follows, moving from awkwardness to displacement to rebellion against the very ones who brought us to that point in life. But it concludes with the discovery and reintegration that signal the onset of adulthood. As parents, we love our children unconditionally at every stage of their lives. But when they finally reach adulthood, who of us would want to see them return to infancy, or childhood, or adolescence? Isn’t the greatest joy to be found in seeing the mature, independent men and women they become?


Maybe that’s how God wants to be with us. Maybe God wants us to still be connected through prayer, wants us still to be attentive to promptings and guidance, but at the same time be our own people--not mindless Stepford creatures. Maybe if we're lucky, and we live long enough, we get to grow up and be God's Adult Children.

I think Jesus would give a rat's ass about something like that.

Dr. KAJ