Thursday, August 18, 2016

Ritual Vs. Relationship: a hard look at choosing to engage in life

We live in fast food, live-streaming, ATM cash dispensing, instant credit card swiping culture. Figuring out how to balance the most important aspects in our lives and keeping them from becoming a habit is difficult. But if we purposefully choose to engage in our own lives and take a hard look at how and why we do things, it can really change not only the way we do them but the outcome.

Family and Holidays. How we chose to parent can become a system that we don't even think about and do out of routine. Get the kids ready for school, pick the kids up, extra curricular activates, homework, dinner, baths, bedtime, rinse, repeat. The key to turning ritual into relationship is by thoughtfully participating in the tiny moments that make up each of those steps. Engaging with our children: asking them questions, listening to their stories, savoring each kiss and hug creates an unbreakable bond. Sometimes its hard, especially when we have had a long day and not a lot of sleep but that's usually when its the most important to stop and actually participate in our lives, not just hit cruise control and have it all pass us by. I was never more aware of this until after my 9-month-old son, Dylan, passed away from SIDS in 2013. Luckily, at the time, I thought he was going to be my last child, so I really immersed myself in every moment I had with him. Looking back, I'm so grateful for that. But what if he had been my first child or my second? Would I feel the same lack of regret? If I'm honest, probably not. I had a lot going on when I had my first two children, external events that took my focus off of savoring those small moments of perfection. I didn't realize until after my son died, how truly precious all the little moments really are and that sometimes, they become even more valuable than the big ones we focus so much of out time on. After my son died, my husband and I choice to have another child, my third daughter and I can say, I am keenly aware of how valuable each moment is with her as well as her sisters. Parenting properly is important but being a loving parent is paramount. We should strive to give our kids all we can and do right by them but it needs to be balanced by letting them be kids and showing them their inner worth. Would I rather my child grow up being a concert level pianist that never felt loved by their parents because of the focus on exterior things or a child that maybe spent half as much time being shuttled to and from lessons allowing more family time causing them to feel more important than what they could do? People always quote, "Quality over quanity." If I can't give my child lots of time, I will just make sure to give them quality time. But I really believe it need to be both. Children need to feel they matter and the best way you can do that is to spend a little less of our time watching tv, reading a book or surfing the internet and play a board game with them, go outside and count the stars at night or take a walk together. Another area where ritualism can form is with our spouses. Fatigue and stress of daily life can cause us to treat our spouse as a ship passing in the night. By the time the day is over, we have no energy to engage in any type of intimacy. I feel this way often but my husband needs to feel connected and needs to know that he is a priority, not at the bottom of my "to do" list. We have to make ourselves do that extra little thing they like, tell them how much they mean to us, cook them dinner even when you don't feel like it just because you know it will put a smile on their face. It's important to nurture that bond because when our kids grow up and we retire, all each of us will have is the relationship we did (or didn't) create with our spouse. We don't want to wake up one day, look over at a stranger laying next to us and think, "I have no idea who that is or what's important to that person." Another area that we can find ourselves following tradition rather than making purposeful choices is during the holidays. I know that I personally have fallen victim to this. I want to do activities on certain holidays a certain way because of nostalgia and/or guilt. One example: Going around and making everyone say what they are thankful for on Thanksgiving. In the past, I always made it a point to do this because I grew up ever year doing it. Another example is opening one gift on Christmas Eve because we always did that when I was a child. It's hard for me to not want to keep things the same. It's even harder to merge two sets of traditions together and even though my husband and I were both raised in Christian homes, we celebrated many of the holidays differently (in some cases not at all, like Halloween). Trying to find a way to accommodate both sets of expectations and needs is extremely hard during an already stressful time like the holidays. But what should really matter is following those traditions (or not) because they personally mean something. We can also make new traditions that are special and significant to your family. We used to let each of our children pick out an ornament for Christmas and now that our son has passed away, we didn't end the tradition, instead, as a family we have evolved the tradition into picking one for him and placing it on the tree right beside the others. We can also look at the holidays differently rather than the way we always have in the past. Like on Thanksgiving, we should be saying we are thankful every day, not just once a year because that's what's mandated. We should allow ourselves to acknowledge that there are seasons where it's difficult to find a grateful heart in the midst of deep turmoil or grief and when Thanksgiving comes around during those seasons, God will understand, if from our broken place, we tell Him how we really feel rather than sugarcoating it.  The holidays don't need to fit into the perfect photo album. It's okay to not be okay.
 
Graveyards and Funerals. Most people like to use the term "visit" the cemetery. I don't so much as see myself as a "visitor" as much as an honorary citizen. I have my plot already picked out next to my son and I know one day I will be a permanent citizen but in the meantime, I am content to upkeep the grounds and commemorate those that have gone before me. When I go to the cemetery, it's a way for me to continue to have a relationship with my son and my father even though I know both of them are in heaven now. Because I have gone to the cemetery often over the past two and half years, my living children have grown up playing amongst the trees there, fixing the flowers of strangers' graves, taking gifts to their baby brother and grandfather on special occasions and doing balloon releases on their birthdays. Through doing these things, I see my children finding a acute awareness of what's to come after this life and a deep knowledge of how limited our time here on earth really is. I think visiting a graveyard becomes ritualistic when we do it out of habit or out of guilt, when there is no thought behind it other than "I should do this" or "this is what I always do." In the beginning, I went every Sunday to see my son simply because the cemetery was by my old church but now that we have moved and my son's grave moved with us, I tend to go more sporadically and I found more freedom in that. Sometimes I will go several times a week, sometimes only once a week and there have even been times where I haven't made it there every week due to various circumstances. The thing is, my son and dad aren't really there. I know that but I go there to feel connected to them and to give me a quiet place to reflect and process my loss. It's about honoring the relationship I had with both of them here on earth and the relationship and I know will be restored again one day. Funerals can be viewed the same way. Many people have funerals out of habit because "it's what you do" when some dies or they do it out of obligation to please everyone else. A friend of mine's father died recently and their family chose not to have any type of official ceremony and instead had an intimate dinner with close family. They chose to forgo ritual and chose relationship because that was what they wanted. They honored him the way he had asked them to which was more important than doing what they thought they should by cultural standards.
 
Faith and Devotion. Why do we go to church? Many of us were raised going. I can admit that there were times in my life that I went solely out of obligation or routine. It doesn't mean God isn't there or that He can't talk to us even when our motives aren't necessarily pure. Honestly, sometimes when we don't want to go, that is the time when we need to go the most and when God has the biggest message for us. But I truly believe going to church should be something we look forward to and something that doesn't feel like a chore or punishment. If it does feel that way, chances are high that we aren't going to the right church or our heart isn't in the right place. If we are at the wrong church or church that doesn't fit our personality, we will most likely become stagnant. God says he wants us to be either hot or cold, he doesn't want us to be lukewarm. If we feel like we are, than we need to find another church that is a better match. The good news: there is a variety of churches out there. If we are lucky enough to live in the USA, we have the luxury of openly trying out churches until we find the right fit. I want to encourage people to not give up because the right church is out there where each of us can find our calling, our purpose, our extended family and a true connection to God. Another area that can become bogged down with routine is our prayer and devotion time. My pastor, Jason Hanash, said recently, "Little prayer, little power, more prayer, more power, no prayer, no power." When we are taught to pray as children, often we are given a cookie-cutter prayer such as this: "Dear God, thank you for everything you do for me, bless my friends and family, keep us safe, Amen." It can vary and be tweaked but usually its somewhere in that ballpark. That's great if we are just starting out in our prayer life but does our prayer time mature from that? Prayer should be like a conversation, ebbing and flowing. Giving time for God to speak to us and telling Him our deep truths, worries and hang-ups. It's easy when we're busy or tired to just hit the easy button and go back to what we were taught as children but we are busy and tired often and if we hit the easy button too many times, our prayer life will be stunted, never making it past the adolescent years.  Another spot in our lives we can fall into a pattern is when we are reading the Bible. It's hard sometimes to carve out the time to sit down and read the Word. I know, because I often find myself coming up with excuses just like I do with my prayer time. And when we do read, how often is it a quick word of the day or scripture that scrolls across the screen of our computer. We take a momentary glance and then continue about whatever we were doing before that moment, not even giving any true time for God to speak to us through His Word. The problem is that if we are not going to church, praying and doing our devotions, things won't get easier and we won't find more time. We need prayer and devotion time to refuel and refocus on what is most important: our relationship with God.

Daily Life and Habits. I'm a stress eater. What that means is that when I am stressed out, I turn to food to comfort me, usually without even realizing it. Something goes wrong in my life ie. problems at work, fight with the kids, rude driver on the road, I will inevitably find something to eat to make me feel better. When problems become pitfalls, like when my son or my father died, the eating becomes more frequent with bigger portions. I didn't realize this until lately. Never knew that something I need to do every day could become such a drawback in my life. I wasn't looking at food in a way that it was substance to keep me alive and healthy but as treat. When things were really bad, I would wait until everyone was asleep and reward myself with food I didn't have time to eat with my stressful schedule during the day. I would feel guilty and swear I wouldn't do it again but the cycle kept on happening. I'm realizing now the only way to combat these food rituals is to seek God to help me. I've tried it on my own, with little to no success. I've also had to acknowledge that it will be something I will battle with most of my life but if I choose to allow God to fight for me, I can come out the victor. I think food is an area where a lot of us struggle with and one that is overlooked quite often. Spending habits is another daily activity that most of us don't want to analyze. It's hard because we want to be able to buy whatever we want whenever we want. Most of us have been raised inundated with it. I remember when I was handed my first credit card at 18 at my local junior college. They wanted to get me hooked early. Spend what I make tomorrow on what I'm buying today. What they didn't mention to me at the time I signed-up is that I would be paying off the interest for the next 25 years and if I lost my job, well it would be going to collections. I was part of the rat race for many years. I fell sucker to all the clich├ęs like "trying to keep up with the Joneses" and "the grass is always greener on the other side" but I came to realize that money really can't buy happiness. It can be a blinged out Band-Aid on a festering wound but the Band-Aid is going to fall off and the wound is going to be toxic. Another important point my pastor made is that "the antidote to materialism is generosity." I want to be the type of person that is more generous to others than I am to myself and I want to instill that same principal in my children. True happiness comes from finding your purpose in life and fulfilling it, not how many dollar signs are present in your bank account. A twin problem to materialism is being a workaholic. I have known people that let their work become their number one priority and have had to struggle with balancing their work life with their home life. This is an issue that directly affected me because I was married to a workaholic. My husband had a job he loved more than anything else in the world. His priorities were work first, family second and everything else after that. It didn't seem so bad until he started missing the kids school awards shows, didn't make it home for dinner for the hundredth time or stayed an hour late just because he would rather be there than with his family, then I realized it was the worst feeling in the world. I can use my husband as an example in this area because my husband has profoundly and irrevocably changed and is no longer the same person. I know God wanted him to change his priorities sooner than he did but my husband has always been stubborn. It took two major events to shake up my husband's misguided priorities. First, my husband almost died in a car wreck that caused him to be unable to do the job he loved. It was devastating to him and he fought for years to get back to the career he valued more than anything, nearly ruining our marriage. The second event was the death of our son. It truly was the breaking point for my husband. He finally realized he had been focusing too much time on the wrong things. I'm grateful to say that he is a better man now: kinder, more generous and helpful that he has ever been but it is because he finally gave his whole life and all control up to God. When he did that, it was like a lightbulb went on and this new man emerged that was everything I  had ever prayed for and more. But it was a difficult road to get to this place. In some ways, we are still navigating it but I know we are headed in the right direction because my husband just told me the other day, with our new business and our new life, he is happier than he ever was with his first career. I attribute his happiness to being right where God wants him to be and that's because his priorities shifted to the right order: God first, family and God's work second, career third.
 
When we strip away all the rituals and focus on our relationships, we are capable of anything. It's a choice, a tough one sometimes, but if we make that choice to engage in life, we will never regret it.