Thursday, August 3, 2017

Love's Labors Lamented and Reclaimed

Twenty years ago, I was preparing for a visit from my quite critical mother-in-law (MIL). I was nearing the end of my tour in my Shepherding Discipleship Church, and my head was really full of ridiculous expectations – at least six impossible ones before breakfast every day. Before I started on cleaning the kitchen, I went out to tend my tomato garden.

I was on my hands and knees in the dirt, praying as I panicked in the mud. I thought of the Biblical characters of Ruth and Naomi – the greatest ideal of mother and daughter-in-law. Ruth was a convert to Judaism, but after her husband dies, Ruth pledges to continue to follow God and to stay with her MIL, Naomi, as they both struggle to survive. I started weeping as I worked in the garden. My brain washed over with the many memories of the many cruelties inflicted by my own MIL in the five or so years that we'd been married.

All at once, as my thoughts raced, I started to cry out to God from the bottom of my soul over my grief at what I saw as this failing relationship. I blamed myself for the conflicts and friction, and my MIL was all too happy to oblige. I “had to” find something to “make things work” and believed that I could. “Please, make me like Ruth!” Very much in contrast to my thoughts and feelings in that moment, suddenly – it felt like everything hushed for a nanosecond as one sober thought of a voice or a voice of a thought asked me firmly, “But what if she's not like Naomi?”

Credulity's Trap

My MIL made some promises to me when I married her son – that I was now one of her own. I became her daughter. Part of the problem? We each had very different ideas of what constituted a mother-daughter relationship, and neither of us had remotely realistic expectations. To my detriment and despite evidence to the contrary, I wrapped my heart around her words as if my unbridled trust in them would prove them true. I would have to learn the hard way over the course of a few more years that she had no desire to be anything remotely like a noble Naomi – at least not with me.

In spiritual matters, I was always taught to defer to my pastor. Though my mom would say that they were just people with their flaws and foibles like everyone else, there was still this expectation that ministers were to be trusted implicitly. I would have to go through the crushing pain of spiritual abuse and exit counseling before I would confront the fallout from so much credulity in that area of my life.

Daffodils, Betrayal and Wishful Thinking

Over the past year or two, I've written much about the trappings of my tendency to believe the best about people and to look for the good in them – a quality that I like in myself. But as leopards don't tend to change their spots, I would face more of the same old challenges. I found myself in another perfect storm of unrealistic expectations, disingenuous promises, more lack of relationship structure than I've ever encountered before, and my hope against hope that wishing would make things so. (That's what I was taught to do. All I needed was more faith.)

Someone involved in the complicated mix used the analogy that my skin was just too thin. After much thought, I didn't think it was a matter of resisting attack that pierced me to easily. That was a part of things, but the worst of it was more like the poison of the promises that I swallowed all to readily without learning more about what it was that I was about to ingest. Those whom I was sure would never betray me did so in a way that I'd never experienced before. And I shoulda-woulda-coulda known and done better – and didn't.

Another person wisely pointed out that I did come away from the experience with many valuable lessons – but they were just not the ones that I expected to glean at the outset. I found some lovely people and familiar truths along the way. Old lessons took on deeper meaning – but I realized something entirely new.

Love Your Enemies

Several people basically declared themselves to be my enemies, and poor opinions and unprofessional conduct turned into some outright lies. I thought of Jesus' words to love enemies and to do all that stuff that sounds counterintuitive. We need love the most when we deserve it the least.” I revisited Corrie ten Boom's wisdom and lessons of forgiveness that she learned through the death camp of Ravensbruch. I set my heart to love my critics every day and prayed for them and believed the best and kept on doing so. I took solace in Corrie's words about love being painful and the risk that a part of us dies when we try to shut down pain when people won't receive our love.

I made a meme of Corrie's quote that advises the Christian to pray for a new route for love to flow to those with whom we haven't connected. But as is the case when you're raised in a skewed belief system or one that people misinterpret and teach it as holy writ, I remembered anew that I just didn't just flip a switch to reset my thinking. Unchallenged ideas still linger like tendrils wrapped around everything about my life. From that starting point, I set out to follow the sage advice of Corrie ten Boom and the words of Jesus to “fix my problem.”

It was not until I'd walked away from my relationship to that group of people and then grieved their loss that I saw the simple wisdom in a new lesson that transformed from an idea into a solid truth. I looked at my dedicated process of loving my critics as some kind of formula that would turn everything into what I had hoped that it would be. I did love others in that process – and it was very hard at times. I realized the many mistakes that I made by making these people objects by turning them into sainted heroes, but long before they'd earned my trust in not only words but through their actions. I also remembered that any kind of trust always involves risk.


I began to wonder if Corrie ten Boom had it right about love. I'd asked God, over and over, to open up a new route for my love to flow to those who just seemed to hate me more and more. In hindsight and from a safe place, I can see now that I went right back into cult thinking – that Scripture is some kind of formula, and if I get the mix of faith and works and duty and love just right, I will get what I want.

I realized that I didn't lack love for those who declared themselves my enemies. I had the formula. Love, bless, pray... And I kept thinking of a proverb that says that if your ways please God, you'll find a place of peace with your enemies. That's what I expected and sought, and I dug in my heels. God would open up another route for love to flow so that I could find my comfortable niche among people who would accept me and my honest love for them. Corrie's quote just turned into another formula.


And then it hit me! Love your neighbor as yourself. In all of this loving I labored at, I became my own worst critic and second-guessed myself silly. Things fell miserably short of my expectations. Granted, given the promises and the objectives we shared, my expectations weren't that unreasonable. But where and how was that love supposed to flow?

I remembered that love is gentle and kind. The analogy for the Holy Spirit is that of a dove that only lights where it feels safe and welcomed. Corrie ten Boom says that love is the strongest force in the universe, yet at the same time, I'd forgotten that love doesn't push us or drag us. It beckons us, ever so softly, to follow it as it flows.

It became crystal clear. I'd failed to love my hardest critic and my biggest enemy. So simply, I let that flow of love return to my own heart to affirm the love and respect that I must have for myself. God shows it to me through gentle kindness and comfort. I've known this all of my life, but the old casing of what I was told it meant fell away. In following the formula (though not a bad thing to do as a discipline at first – as haters are often hard to love), I'd failed myself more than I'd disappointed anyone else.

I thought much about how perfect love casts out fear. I doubt that my knees will never knock again, but at least in this relationship with others and myself – today – I understand much more than I have before. I was full of fear and my heart was broken – and I turned myself into my own casualty. The route for love to flow that God opened up for me flowed into my heart. And how very interesting that those fears and that frenzy that I felt just melted into a memory.

In days to come, I know that I'll forget some part of this and will need reminded of such a simple thing. But that's okay. (I'm willful, so it comes with the territory.) I think that's how life works. From daffodils, sweet dreams, flying machines in pieces on the ground, and the human trappings of the CranioRectal Inversions (cognitive bias), I'm living and learning – and recalling that not everyone is a Naomi. (And I'm letting love flow and overflow. There is plenty of love and good stuff for all.)