Thursday, March 08, 2007

Smile Lines

When I was eighteen, I almost got a tattoo. I was in England for a summer literature program and thought it would be a good idea to have the Snoopy character Woodstock permanently etched on my rear end. I didn’t follow through for two reasons: my friend, who agreed to go first, screamed throughout her entire turn. And second, I imagined what Woodstock would look like when I turned sixty--sad, saggy, sallow and swaddled in Depends™ undergarments! I settled for triple piercing my left ear with a sewing needle.

Today, the symbolic scars of teenage irreverence have faded. Instead my body is a vivid historical map of the past four years. Three pregnancies have left a spider web of stretch marks and my hair is growing back in strange patches from the last post-partum hormone imbalance. The exhaustion is seeping into my face. I hope it isn’t irreversible.

Recently, I found myself sitting next to an older woman, Margaret, at a ladies’ brunch. “Did you have children?” I asked her.

She nodded and smiled. “Four, actually. In six years.”

During the course of our conversation, I discovered she did not have a washing machine until the oldest one was ten. “Wow,” I gasped, “Moms today must look spoiled to you.”

“Oh, we all just try our best,” said Margaret. Joy was written all over her face; smile lines curving upward toward her sharp, sparkling eyes. A sense of relief washed over me… it’s possible to survive this stage of life and become a joyful person.

The more kids I have, the less impressed I am with myself. My patience, love, j oy, hope and humility are tested and I fail miserably. I am disgusted with the behavior I regularly exhibit. I’m rude to my toddler, abrasive to my preschooler and short with my husband. Some days I feel I should preface every conversation with an apology,

I don’t know why it is so easy to be cynical and pessimistic. On paper, my life must look enviable: loyal husband, decent house, t wo rough-and-tumble little boys and a smiley baby girl, local family who helps out, kind friends. And, I have a growing relationship with a living God. But joy comes laboriously.

We live in a violent, sinful world. I’m scared and worried. It shows on my face, the lines developing are furrows and frowns, not smile lines, like Margaret’s. Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15), “Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe.”

I know God is bigger than the depravity of humankind. I know the heaven that awaits us is amazing, perfect and complete, without the brokenness, t he damage, t he dissension sin causes. I wish I could establish that as a platform for my joy, but my habit is to slide into bitter sarcasm.

Margaret didn’t. She quite literally “shone.” Not in the Hallmarky, beauty pageant sense of the word, but deep and peaceful, like a river of grace. I am hoping that Jesus can develop a fragment of that grace in me, so I am trying to smile, t o laugh more, to let that which irritates me melt away.

Praying for grace is dangerous, like praying for patience or humility. God gives you lots of opportunities. While out shopping recently, I paid with a credit card and the cashier asked for identification. When I handed her my driver’s license she said, “Oh, you look so fresh and young in this picture. How old were you?”

I grimaced. “That was four years ago, before I had any kids. I was twenty-seven.” And I was smiling.

Joy is a choice. I don’t want my kids to inherit my fear. The joy of the Lord is, will be, must be my strength, so I am going to smile until I have lines of joy tattooed on my face. And in forty years, maybe I’ll look like Margaret.

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