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September 17, 2020

Face Cream

I can’t win. It’s happened twice now.
9 min read

I can’t win. It’s happened twice now.

Two times my pricey face cream has ended up in the trash. Once because my autistic son wanted the container it comes in, and so decided to pour its contents onto the floor. And once because I accidentally disposed of another full jar, thinking it was the empty one I had set aside for recycling.

I know there are news headlines that demand I ignore such trivialities and prayerfully focus on far more important things. My daily to-do list stretches a mile long, screaming for my energy and attention.

But I can’t help it. The waste of this little luxury item just bugs me. Eats away at my core like a hidden worm that has hatched in my stomach and is stealing my nutrition.

And I am reminded—like it or not—that my emotional life often operates the same way. Some minor problem will emerge in my world and I will respond to it with more anger, fear, or annoyance than it merits. If I am lucky, these overreactions remain internal, far from the view of those I care about. But I suspect that those dearest to me probably see right through to my churning core, whenever a regrettable word or deed escapes me that exposes my stockpile of stress.

A) This irritates me. I so want to appear calm and collected, capable of overcoming—or at least adequately coping with—life’s difficulties. (Particularly the ones that seem easier on the surface.)

B) This worries me, because my daily troubles frequently derive from my son’s developmental deficits. When I blow my top, words fly out of my mouth and into his ears that may prove harmful down the road, if not in the present moment. Who yells at a disabled kid? Only the lowest, most disgraceful mama on the planet, who should always show herself patient and wise, no matter what. (By the way, this standard applies only to me, and not to other parents.)

C) This torments me, because aside from A and B, I tend to look up—prodigal sheep that I am—and realize that I am grazing on the bitter grasses that grow far afield from the greener pastures my Good Shepherd offers. How did I get here? I wonder, even as I resist running back to where I belong. What am I waiting for? I ask, watching other sheep munching away, grateful and trusting as they follow their protector and provider around. My own feet remain rooted to the ground, however, even as I will myself forward towards the flock. I’m going nowhere. I’m just too angry. I’m just too disappointed. What’s going on?

When I was in college, a friend from a large family told me a story from his childhood. The whole clan was on a road trip, and pulled up to a rest stop for a break. My friend and his siblings were treated to ice cream cones before everyone piled back into the car to move on. Well, almost everyone. Apparently my friend got left behind in the shuffle and nobody noticed till the rest of crew had traveled some distance. When they returned to the rest stop­—his parents no doubt panic stricken—they found my friend sitting outside, placidly eating his ice cream. When asked why he had remained so unruffled, he simply said, “I knew you’d come back.”

What a stark contrast between that little boy’s confidence that he would be remembered and my deep-seated conviction that I am so easily forgotten. Because that’s what all my indignation over issues big and small amounts to: a child’s cry for attention, for help, for love.

For those who have suffered some kind of affliction in their past in which the car never turned around and rescue never came, being forgotten by Those in Charge can become a real sticking point. As both sisters of Lazarus declare to Jesus upon his late arrival to their home: “If you had been here my brother would not have died” (John 11:21,32). You can almost hear the reproach in their voices, the “How could you?!” directed at the One who may have been a wonder-working Messiah to the masses but was intimate family to them. Why had the healer sent Lazarus to the back of the line like some stranger, neglected him in his hour of need? Didn’t this beloved brother deserve better?

Ah, deserve. I think that much of my bitterness in the midst of struggle stems from a bedrock belief that I am owed a reasonable amount of happiness in my adult life—especially because I have already had to work so hard to recover from childhood pain and trauma. And my sense of “reasonable” probably shifts from day to day, depending on how resilient I am feeling regarding my circumstances and how charitable I’m feeling towards God.

Yes, I know how offensive that last phrase sounds—as if the Creator of the universe were somehow beholden to me.

Inside, I am quite like the prodigal son, who seeks funding for his whirlwind adventures by accosting his father with, “Give me my share of the estate” (Luke 15:12). The old man isn’t even dead yet and the youngest of his two sons is already laying claim to his inheritance—probably so wrapped up in his sense of entitlement to perceive the insult inherently dealt by his proposition.

When I look out upon the plans that shape my mental landscape, part of me expects God to automatically back them. I mean, they are, after all, good plans (e.g., to raise my son well, to write works of enduring value, to encourage those struggling where I have struggled, to joyfully fulfill all that I have vowed to my husband, to age with grace and health). The problem is, these plans must unfold in a world so broken as to seem inhospitable—if not directly opposed—to them. Jesus put it this way: “In the world, you will have tribulation,” (John 16:33) and, “Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt 6:34).

If literally the best man ever to have walked the earth, the human most cheated of the good life and death he certainly deserved, didn’t hold grudges against God, then I have some serious rethinking to do. Jesus seemed neither surprised nor disillusioned by how hard he had to push to be the person God wanted him to be to fulfill his purpose. When faced with toil and opposition, he pressed into his Father’s embrace, if the accounts of his many prayer vigils are to be believed.

And there’s something else about those hours Jesus chose alone time with God over sleep. They speak of need, of dependence, of trying to discern what his Father’s plans were rather than charging ahead with his own. The apostle Paul says it this way:

“…though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8 ESV)

The words that trip me up are “becoming obedient,” because they suggest that Jesus had to learn things as a human being, however perfect he may have been. I bet one of the hardest lessons he had to learn was how to keep believing that God was good and that He loved him, even when circumstances shaped up to say otherwise. (For example, there’s nothing like getting ditched by your friends during a crisis to make you question God’s love, but Jesus didn’t [John 16:32].) In other words, Jesus had to remember who he was, and where he was: a beloved son in a broken world.

If you read the gospels, one way Jesus did that was by using the pronoun “my” in his language. Unlike the prodigal son, however, he applied it to his Heavenly Father rather than to his Heavenly Father’s riches. Over and over the title, “my Father,” pops up in Jesus’s teaching about how God relates to human beings—His will for them, revelation to them, plans for them, and blessing of them. In fact, Jesus so overlays his Father’s identity with his own by means of “my Father” that he’s essentially saying, “What’s mine is yours.” My Father is your Father. Call Him Abba (“Papa” or “Daddy” in Aramaic). Count on His love as I do. Because He has pledged it to you through me.

Attempting to inch closer to my people, my pasture, I ask: why don’t I use expressions such as “my Father,” “my Jesus,” or even “my Lord”? The surface response is that I don’t know many believers around me that speak with that language, at least not out loud. Neither was I taught to do so in my childhood, although I’m sure some of the old hymns we sang at my church contained it.

The deeper answer: those who have been abused or abandoned would never dare lay claim to another’s love, human or divine. They feel they haven’t the right, orphans and outcasts that they are. Who would want them anyway, with all their wounds and flaws, those stubborn idiosyncrasies that keep them from being “normal”? To be honest, the time I feel most claimed by God is when I’m in trouble and expect some kind of punishment or payback from him. Then I may as well have his name stamped on my forehead, or wherever else the blows might land.

It’s all in a muddle, you see. Even as I accuse God of forgetting me, I myself am forgetting the things that Jesus always kept in mind. For instance, he remained ever-conscious of his environment’s sharp edges, and so did not read every hurt he experienced on earth as a slap in the face from his Father. I, on the other hand, keep forgetting how far our planet has fallen from Paradise and thus take my hardships very personally. As one woe piles on top of another, it becomes all too easy to believe that God has it in for me—or doesn’t care at all. (Honestly, who needs a devil when I do his job of misconstruing my Maker’s intentions toward me so well?)

Another thing—probably the primary thing—that Jesus never forgot was his mission. His itinerant lifestyle, emphasis on teaching and healing, careful choosing of his disciples, and, of course, surrender to a sacrificial death, all point to the same goal: that people should believe he was the Savior of the world. One who could lift them from their misery, restore them to God, and set them upon a path of amazing transformation.

Do I likewise remember my mission in life? That, ultimately, I’m not here to be mollified but molded, not pacified but poured out? That every day I have the opportunity to step closer to the life Jesus lived­—eyes wide open—in communion with his Father?

Maybe I need to back up and ask if I even want to do so in the first place, since things didn’t go so well for the Son of God. His life began in chaos (born in a barn?!) and ended in martyrdom, with a lot of grueling effort in between. Standing from the outside looking in, one can only ask, was it worth it? This surrender to his Father?

According to the gospels, this is a reasonable question to ask. When approached by would-be followers, Jesus said (with a spark in his eye, I imagine), “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58). In other words, “This is a rocky road to travel. You sure you want to join?”

For me, after many years of calling myself a Christian, I can only say this. We are all slated for suffering in one form or another. The diagnostic tests will show Something Bad. Someone we love will leave us. The dream we painstakingly turned into reality will dissolve. We will be betrayed and bereaved. Bedeviled by our own failures. Circumstances we never expected will all but wreck life as we knew it.

The times I can remember that whatever I am facing, Jesus endured the same (and more), are the times I keep my head above water instead of sinking. And when I set my eyes where he set his, I can remember that the Father is actually on my side, and not against me, as I doggy paddle toward the shore. And where did Jesus set his eyes?

“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Phil 12:2 NASB)

Personally, I don’t understand how Jesus could entertain any joy at all as he shouldered all of his sufferings on our behalf. Somehow, he could see that we were worth all his toil. And that one day, the work of restoring us to his Father would be complete and he’d get a front row seat from which to take it all in.

If I am honest with you, I feel pretty far from that place of joy now. When I contemplate all the effort my husband and I put into helping our son battle his developmental disorder, joy is shoved off center stage by worry and doubt, exhaustion and anger.

When I try to discern exactly where I am going as a writer, I feel like a passenger on a plane that has just hit the clouds. I look out the window and can tell that I am moving, but can’t for the life of me see where.

Friends and family all around me are struggling with long term illness and isolation. And no one can predict how long their marathons will last, nor what their outcomes will be.

But my horizon is not without some sign of hope.

A few days ago a good friend of mine was putting her two year old to bed. Being extra tired that night, she skipped over some of the usual words they say together in their routine of prayer. Before letting my friend leave him, though, her son insisted, “Becca’s eye! Becca’s eye!” Apparently they had been praying long enough for a corneal condition that has flared up for me that the boy had taken real notice.

Hearing my friend relay this story to me made me feel so singled out in a good way, so privileged, so remembered. And not just by a toddler who likes consistency in his routine, but by the God who used him to remind me that He remembers all of His children, the ones placidly eating ice cream and the ones staring at repeated ruin on the floor. Listen to this:

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”

Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”  (Isaiah 49:14-16 ESV)

I think I’m going to follow the poet’s lead in three ways in the coming days. First, I will pray using the title “my Lord,” just as it is found here in the first verse (and in Jesus’s language).

Next, I’m going to imagine God looking down at me as I did my own son when he was born. Impossible to ignore, neglect, or not love.

Finally, I’m going to try to picture my name carved on Jesus’s hands and ask him to show me his palms whenever I start forgetting Who is on whose side.

Care to join me in this little experiment and see where it gets us?

Somewhere good, I hope. Some pasture provisioned with joy.