Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Safe in God's Arms

There is a song by Plumb called "In My Arms," whose chorus appears below.

Knowing clouds will rage
And storms will race in
But you will be safe in my arms
Rains will pour down
Waves will crash all around
But you will be safe in my arms

Every night I sing that song to my daughter Rebecca as she drinks her bottle and falls asleep in her father's arms. I want to assure my little girl that she is indeed "safe in my arms"... and ultimately I think I want to reassure myself that she and I are both safe in God the Father's "arms".

I've been thinking lots lately as I sit there in the darkness of my daughter's room about what it really means to be "safe in God's arms." As I sit there in that dark room I cannot help but remember that there were supposed to be two little girls occupying this space. There remains an empty space where a second crib was supposed to be for her twin sister Hope. Noah's Ark decorations still adorn the walls, a reminder of what was supposed to be. (I even recall that we played this song at Hope's funeral about a year ago and I spoke some words that day.)

Clearly whatever it means to be "safe in God's arms", it doesn't mean that if you trust God, nothing bad will ever happen to you. I've always known that truth in theory… but in recent days I have experienced it as painful reality. The rubber hits the road in living out my faith in these moments. The Psalmist says, "It is you alone Lord that causes us to dwell in safety." Notice that God doesn't promise to shelter us from ever experiencing pain and sorrow in this life, but he does promise to keep us safe in the midst of our hardship.

I realize that for me, far too often growing up, being safe was synonymous with being sheltered. My parents (and I believe my mom drove this dynamic to a large extent) certainly tried to keep me safe, but they did it by sheltering me and not letting me experience life with all of its risk, pain, uncertainty, etc. My mother meant well; she wanted to protect her beloved son from ever getting hurt—what parent doesn't have that same desire for their children? We don't ever want to see our kids hurting…

So my mom tried very hard to shield me from the unpleasantness of life. And to some extent, it worked. I did avoid some things that I am just as happy not to have experienced—i.e., I don't feel it a great loss to never have known what it is to be drunk or high.

But because I was sheltered, I also missed out on lots in life that is good and fun. On the whole, I don't think my parents particularly encouraged me to desire or dream about a more abundant life. Pursuing desires and dreams would have required risk taking on my part and the possibility that I would fail… and get hurt… so we tended to avoid those awkward and uncomfortable situations altogether.

Over time, I think, without even being consciously aware I was doing it, I started to succumb to a rather limited view of myself (and my world) that, in the words of C.S. Lewis is an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. [I was] far too easily pleased. That is to say, I actually convinced myself that I was okay with merely existing. I stopped imagining anything more was possible for me. Even if more abundant life was "out there" waiting for me I wasn't particularly motivated to seek it out. I was sort of lulled into believing that when it comes to life, what you see is what you get. No use wasting time dreaming for more; it's not like I can achieve it anyway.

But of course, it's a vicious cycle. Because I was constantly sheltered from having to experience anything unpleasant in life I never developed the confidence and courage I needed to seek out that abundant life for myself. To put it another way, I never experienced the good that comes from having to learn to deal with the bad and ugly in my life.

The fact is that there are some "lessons" that only the bad and the ugly of life can teach us. As I've lived through the loss of my daughter and subsequent events this past year, I am learning lessons that only this unique "curriculum" could teach me. They aren't lessons I would've chosen, because they are painful and difficult, but nevertheless they are lessons I need to learn. I'm not even sure I can clearly articulate exactly what exactly the lessons are just yet, but I hope that in time, I will gain more clarity.

But I honestly have to wonder if my experience the past year has been even more difficult precisely because I was so sheltered growing up. For so long, I was protected from ever having to experience anything unpleasant in life. As a result, when I do experience hardship and pain in my life it seems particularly harsh and unfair to me, and I often don't know how to effectively give expression to what I feel.

As I was growing up, I'm not sure I ever really developed confidence in my ability to get through bad and ugly life circumstances, so when they come my way as an adult they inevitably throw me for a loop. Oh I keep my composure outwardly (Jack Ward's son is well-schooled at that!) but I retreat inward with my thoughts and feelings. I have a tendency to want to avoid dealing with or talking about the unpleasantness because I am so unfamiliar (and uncomfortable) with having to process these kinds of feelings. I "push it down" and move on hoping it will go away. I crack jokes to hide what I really feel inside. I smile outwardly but my tired expression belies how I really feel.

I constantly struggle with a haunting, nagging fear that I, "don't have what it takes," to get through the critical moments of life. In short, deep within, I feel handicapped when it comes to living life to the full. Even though God has never let me down even once (not even when Hope died) I still struggle to trust myself in every new situation I encounter. The message of my childhood wounds plays repeatedly in my mind and is hard to overcome—I struggle with the fundamental feeling I am forever flawed as a human being and thus it's foolish for me to hope for more than mere survival. I know it is a lie of the Enemy, but it can seem so true to me at times.

So I definitely want my daughter (and my son) to always feel "safe in my arms," but I don't want to repeat my mother's mistake and shelter them excessively. And finding this balance is hard, especially when you've already lost a child... and Brady has also had some health concerns. There is a tendency to want to "hold them close" and shelter them from all possible harm. I would have every good intention but I know deep down that this would be a mistake... and I really couldn't "protect" them from the unpleasantness of life even if I tried. Life happens... and sooner or later they must learn that lesson the same way I have.

I want my children to have a healthier sense of what it means to be safe than I did. I want them to be free to experience life to the full—which includes the good, the bad, and the ugly—so they have opportunities to develop confidence in themselves and in their ability to handle whatever life brings their way. I want them to know that mom and dad love them and that it's precisely because we love them that we will not shelter them. We will do our level best to be with them on their journey and keep them safe, but inevitably, in this life they will experience pain, suffering, and hardship. While we won't be able to (and probably shouldn't try to) shelter them from it, we will always be there to "hold" them when they need us, cheer them on, and pick them back up when they fall... and when they ache, we will ache.

I hope they come to know that God ultimately feels the same way about all of creation that we who are parents feel about our children. We are probably never closer to experiencing how God loves his beloved children than when we are when we experience the love that we have for our children—whether those "children" share our genes or not. God loves us enough to let us live life to the full. So God does not shelter us from experiencing pain and hardship in this life, but God promises to be with us in the midst of our struggles and promises that we are indeed "safe in God's arms". I hope that as we come to understand the reality of that promise, as it sinks in deeper and deeper to the fabric of who we are, that we are truly transformed and set free once and for all to live life to the full and become the people God created us to be. As Dallas Willard says it, for those who truly know and experience this reality, "The world is a perfectly safe place to be."

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