Over the last three weeks, I have had to extract myself from my crying five year old son at least once a day. I signed him up for soccer camp, vacation bible school, and swimming lessons because he told me these were things he wanted to do. I thought that I was being a lovingly supportive parent by saying that he could accept an invitation to go out with a friend and his grandmother for lunch, only to have him once again in tears that this should mean separation from me. Gordon has never been particularly clingy. He’s a quiet boy, but he generally gets along well with other children and has no trouble making friends. This three week turn toward the scared and easily overwhelmed made me feel:
- Baffled – what the…..?
- Frustrated – what the…..?
- Hurt – after all, I had thought he would like these activities for which I had so thoughtfully registered him.
- Guilty – it must be something I’m doing wrong as a parent!
It’s the guilt that lingers most. I do know why he is reacting like this, and it is, at least partially, my fault. To provide some context, our family went through a major upheaval this year. After Christmas, my husband and I had announced both to our congregations and to our children that we would be moving, leaving Orillia and going to St. Catharines. We sold our house in February, Dan moved to his new church in March, I moved to my new church in May, and our kids joined us in June after finishing up a few things at their old school. While my daughter emoted constantly through the entire process – creating stories, songs, works of art and school projects to help her process and imagine the move – Gordon said very little. Occasionally we would realize that he had misunderstood something about the process. For example, he thought that when we had a buyer for the house that this meant we would leave the next day, turning over all of the contents of the house, including the toys and furniture in Gordon’s room, to the new owner. Gordon was also under the impression that his room in the new house would be a home office, since this is the picture we showed him from the real estate listing. (He was happy that he would have a computer in his room, but worried about where he would sleep). Now that the reality of the move has sunk in, he knows that he no longer lives around the corner from his Orillia grandparents, he knows that his best friend since infancy will not be his daily companion at school, he knows that things are different, he is expressing his need for some boundaries. He has dealt with enough change. Even for the sake of getting to play soccer, go to Mandarin buffet, or swim in the pool, the thought of trying anything else new sends him into a panic.
There might be merit in having a similar reaction available to us as adults. I can sympathize with my boy feeling overwhelmed, clinging to me as his soft place to land in a world that has suddenly become very unfamiliar.
Sympathizing with him has led me to understanding in another area of my life too. I have been greeted warmly by my new St. Catharines congregation. I have also created some undeniable trepidation with my arrival. I admit, as is usually the case with my ‘Martha’ personality, I felt a strong need to get busy. But I had been trying my best to navigate change in a way that is thoughtful, clear and well-articulated, to be gentle and understanding about the needs expressed to me, to avoid change for its own sake, and to check and balance myself when I verge into championing revisions to the church’s common life that are only about serving my own preferences. The initiatives I had been launching were responsible, in line with the congregation’s own expressed priorities in hiring me.
And yet, to my surprise, even modifications that I thought were little more than ‘tweaks’ in congregational life – ie. full bulletin, nametags – were being reflected back to me, both with appreciation and with criticism, as ‘A LOT OF CHANGE.’
My reaction to these comments has been similar to my reaction to my son’s tears. Baffled. Frustrated. Hurt. Guilty.
Yet I do have the capacity to understand. I know that whether it is particular life circumstances of transition and turmoil, or just the general reaction to a lightning fast pace of world change, we are all trying to navigate a journey that can often feel thoroughly unsettling. Church is that soft place to land, that rock to which we cling. Of course it is upsetting for that soft place to suddenly become another part of the unfamiliar terrain. “The biggest change that they’re reacting to is you,” one of my colleagues pointed out. “All of the other stuff is just a manifestation of what is now most different in their congregation: you.” Despite my best intentions, the pot of anxiety is stirred, and the comforting option available to a five year old is not available to us: grab mommy’s legs, cry a bit, feel better.
I include myself in this. Because the other thing that I have been trying to do is to avoid any sense of sadness or anxiety that my own upheaval has caused me. My family made a prayerful decision to move. We have felt loved and supported and prayed for every step of the way through this transition. I am happy and feel blessed in my new home and church home. And now that I am four months in, I finally have to admit that I, too, know how my son feels, how my congregation feels. I, too, am somewhere entirely new. I, too, would like a soft place to land. I, too, know the anxiety of the unknown and the sadness at the leaving behind. I, too, would like to just know where I am going, to feel as if the road is familiar to me again. I, too, know that instinct to grab mommy’s legs and have a little cry.
And in the midst of that honesty, I also know where we will all ultimately turn, what will finally get us through. I know that death and resurrection are the real touchstones of our life, not the impossibility of sailing through on unruffled waters. And I have to trust that where God opens us to understand one another better, we will be blessed with the gifts of communion and companionship that Jesus knew we needed to be able to choose faith and courage, to receive joy and healing, in the face of a life that is always in the process of being born.