Thursday, July 23, 2015

Have Courage: Lessons with Littles

It was August of 2014.  I had just spent six weeks apartment living for the first time in my entire life of 34 years. Throw a dog and two kids into that apartment, and it was, shall we say, adventurous, but trying. Now our rental house had finally become available. The movers had come and gone, and the boxes were everywhere. I had just moved from east coast to west coast, and it was time to make a home again.

To say I was stressed and exhausted--mentally, emotionally, physically--would have been an understatement.  But if I was anything, I was calm. I was taking one bite of life at a time. I was controlled--or so I thought.

That first week in our new neighborhood, our family took a stroll down to the playground/green park field that most neighborhoods in California like to incorporate. It was a quiet, peaceful, late afternoon with the sun beginning to set, when we turned to walk our family of four and our dog Samson back to our new home.

Samson was trotting along at the end of his leash, all ten years of his contented dachshund self happy to be pulling at the end of eight feet of leash, trying to keep up with the kids skipping ahead.  When it happened.

Out of nowhere an Irish Setter, attached to a leash NOT attached to an owner, rushed my little dog, blind siding him. A rolling mass of red hair and leash began to tumble across the sidewalk in front of me, with yipping, yelping, snarling, and growling coming from within the ball of fur.

My husband quickly entered the red hair flurry, pulling the Irish Setter out by its owner-less leash.

I, on the other hand, had snapped. Something inside of me broke and for the (maybe) fifth? time in my entire life, I had an out of body experience where I was outside of my body viewing my life like a camera man panning a scene. Some of the scenes were close ups of the woman's face who had appeared on the scene as the owner of the Irish Setter. She was older, sixties, slow, confused, befuddled. A look of bewilderment smeared across her face.  Pan up, and from above, looking down, I am 12-15 inches from her face. Screaming.

I mean screaming. To this day, I do not remember what I said to her. Something about dogs needing to be on a leash. Something about her dog attacking mine. Something about what the heck was she thinking. I don't know. I just know I was red-faced and spit was flying from the corners of my mouth. Pan to the side, and my arms were flailing wildly like it was all I could do to keep from grabbing this woman and shaking her.

I remember taking a breath. She looked at me incredulously and said, "Why are you screaming at me?" And it was in that unapologetic remark, I found my second wind and began to scream again. Was that all she had to say for herself? My dog could be seriously injured. He has bad hips and a bad back, etc. etc. etc. Why would you let your dog run around the park while you sit on a bench? The screaming continued, and I realized another neighbor had entered onto the scene and swiftly inserted himself and his dog in between me and this woman, slowly creating distance between us. I must have looked like a mad woman, at least that's how I imagine it.

I turn to look to my husband for some support, some back-up. He has Samson in his arms and is already fifty yards away, back turned to me, telling the kids to head home, now. Red-faced and heaving from the exertion, I enter back inside my body and turn reluctantly to follow him home.

In the hours that follow, I fumed over the arrogance of this woman who never once apologized or even acknowledged that her dog had done something wrong. But once the fuming began to fade, I began to realize also the error of my own ways.  In the retelling of the story to people in the next few months, I openly acknowledged I owed that woman an apology. She became teasingly known as "my friend," and both my husband and my children liked to point out when we drove by the park that "my friend" was out, or she's in front of her house, or she's over there with her dog.

Six months passed and the lookout for "my friend" had not faded. Neither my husband nor my kids would let me forget I owed this lady an apology. My plan to let things die down, hoping they would forget about the incident wasn't working. Their constant reminders began to rub my pride the wrong way.  I know I was in the wrong, but so was "my friend." She started it by not tending to her dog properly. She should be the one to apologize first, especially since she hadn't apologized in the heat of the moment.  All of these arguments and reasonings and conversations played around inside my head for months.

And every time, I heard the voice of the Lord, softly and gently elbow nudge my spirit, "You know you need to apologize. It's the right thing to do." And never more than that. He wasn't nagging like the voices of my children, or slightly condescending like my husband. He wasn't making me have to do anything. But in His kindness and softness, I felt myself begin to give. I knew He was right. I knew they were all right.  I just plain didn'

Bottom line. I didn't want to. It would require I swallow huge lumps of pride in the back of my throat. It would require an embarrassing conversation that I could foresee no good way of beginning. Apologizing to a woman who didn't even know my name, and I didn't even know hers. It was too embarrassing, too awkward of a situation. Time would pass. This would be forgotten in the long run.

Then one day in May, we were driving past her house with her car in the driveway and her Irish setter behind the fence like we had had to do every day since August to get out of our neighborhood, and my daughter pipes up very calmly from the back seat, "Mom. You just need to have courage and apologize."

Have courage. My stomach sinks, and if there was an ounce of pride left in me, it oozed out onto the floor of the car. I sighed, and gently replied, "You're right, darling. I do need to have courage."

And I began to pray that very moment, right then and there, that the Lord would provide the perfect opportunity for me to apologize. I prayed it would be on a day we weren't in a hurry trying to get somewhere on time. I prayed my kids would be in the car with me, so they could see me apologize. I prayed that the woman would be alone in the park, mostly to cut down on my own embarrassment.  I began to pray for these things every time, every day, we had to drive past that green space and her house.

And to be honest, there were days we were in a hurry, and she was in the park. I told the kids we didn't have time to stop. Excuses. There were days I saw her out in the park with other dogs and neighbors. I told the kids she looked busy. Excuses. There were days I saw her alone, but the kids weren't in the car, so I drove right on by. Excuses.

Let me tell you, living a life full of excuses is unpleasant, and every time I passed that park, I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. It dawned on me that living a life of excuses was just as uncomfortable as the conversation I knew I needed to have to make the apology. It was really a simple matter of will I keep making the wrong choice or do the hard thing and follow through with the right choice. Both seemed equally uncomfortable at this point.

And I began to contemplate my daughter's rather insightful perception at the age of seven, that to apologize, to confess my wrong behavior--without the expectation of an apology in return!--that act really would and does embody the definition of courage. Wikipedia defines courage as "the choice and willingness to confront agonypaindangeruncertainty or intimidationPhysical courage is courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, death or threat of death, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, shamescandal or discouragement."

Have courage. All the circumstances surrounding why I had acted the way I had acted really didn't matter. The fact that the other party involved had no reaction or an inappropriate reaction really didn't matter. Courage is a personal choice. And in the case of a child of God, it is an act of obedience, a personal choice that God calls me to make out of obedience to Him and His hand on my life. And while to that woman, my choice would not look like courage to her, it would be the poster illustration of courage to my watching children.

And my children were watching. I had asked them to have courage for almost a year now. Placing them in new surroundings, new schools, new church classes, new routines, new after-school activities, new everything.  I had thrown them in and preached courage to them. Praised them for their bravery and fortitude and good attitudes. It was time to practice what I preached.

So almost a year later, one day in July, the Lord answered every one of my specific prayers, and once again in my pride, I was going to drive past that park, fingers crossed, hoping the kids didn't see the Irish Setter running around. Nope. "Moooommm!! There she is! When are you going to apologize?"

My pride oozed out onto the floor of my car once more. U-turned at the stop sign. Parked in front of the park. Walked hesitantly up to the woman, introduced myself with a hand shake, and apologized for my behavior almost a year ago. She had the same befuddled look on her face. She began to make excuses for her dog, something about how her dog thought smaller dogs were rabbits? I bit my tongue and simply apologized again for my inappropriate behavior. She smiled briefly and said, "Well, it must not have been too bad if I don't remember it." Shaking my hand again, she told me again her name was Freida, I said mine was Jennifer, wished her a great day, and returned to my car.

Both kids were smiling ear to ear and giving me their thumbs up. Something in me felt lighter, less burdened. Free.

I didn't even know I had been imprisoned.  Bothered, yes. Troubled, maybe. But imprisoned? No, the freedom I have felt driving past Freida's house every day since definitely points to the fact I had been imprisoned by the sin of my pride in this matter.

And it makes me wonder how many other little things, small sins, little bothers, small troubles are actually keeping me in chains, are keeping me from being able to live life with a freedom most people only dream of. For how many years have these sins--supposedly forgotten, supposedly in my past, supposedly swept under the rug--for how many years have some of them held my life captive? In what other ways am I living a life of cowardice instead of courage in the eyes of my children? 

I realized that to willingly humble oneself is the most courageous human act. (Philippians 2: 3-11) My children even recognized this. My ability to admit my mistakes, confess when I was wrong, willingly own my failures--this was courage. This was how my children would learn to be courageous.

I also realized that sins of the past don't have an expiration date. They wouldn't expire until they were confessed and forgiven. Sometimes that means asking forgiveness of others if those others are still available to ask, but I find that more often it means asking forgiveness for myself and recognizing that all those little supposedly insignificant sins add up to a lifetime of living excuses in one area or another. Jesus always knows how to forgive perfectly. I just had to ask.

Suddenly conviction became a beautiful gift. I wanted to confess every sin. I wanted to apologize every chance I got. I was overwhelmed by just how easy it could be to be truly free, truly unencumbered. I just had to let go of me and grab hold of Jesus instead. Once again, His way, His path, led directly to freedom. 

Have courage. Let go of you and grab hold of Jesus instead. Huh....easier typed than lived.  After all, it took me almost a year just to make one apology. I'm praying next time I can at least cut that time frame in half;)

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