When we were kids, my long-suffering sister had to share a room with me. She tells a story (I don't remember it, though I don't doubt it in the least) where she asks me to get rid of a box of my junk that was sitting in the middle of the floor, and I didn't do it. She asks me a couple more times, and then eventually complains to Mom and Mom asks me about it. I told her there is no box. So Mom and I go downstairs and look at the room. And Mom shows me the box. Sitting in the middle of the room, right where my sister said it was. I like to hope that I was decent about cleaning it up, but I can't remember.
At least tonight I knew my kitchen was bad. Really bad. And I've improved enough that it was driving me crazy all.day.long. But I've got a sick two year old, and a six year old that needs to have me do school with him, and the baby just might be teething. Either that, or she's sick too. I just couldn't quite stretch so far as to get the kitchen under control, though the dishwasher did spend some time open while I made a valiant effort. But how do you do dishes when the Dragon comes and says, "I want to huggle you, Mom!" And he looks miserable and is coughing. That's been my day, for five days now. (Yes, he's been to the doctor's, and it's getting better.) I just can't do it. I can't tell him that my dishes are more important than he is. So I sit down and snuggle, and my kitchen just keeps piling up.
Life is like that sometimes. Sometimes, important things have to give way to more important things. But sometimes, it's just messy because I didn't do what I'm supposed to do. That happens too, and with bigger things than just the kitchen. Promises get made... and broken. Feelings get hurt. Duties get neglected. Life is messy stuff.
My Dragon has been learning that lately. He means to do well, and he plans to follow directions. And then he doesn't. Again. And there he is, with a mess on his hands. Unpleasant consequences. He and I have been struggling through more than a few messes the past few months. My dear, sweet son, whom I love more than I would have guessed was possible before I had kids, has a gift for locating my last nerve. And stomping it to smithereens. And then I make messes too. It's ugly. Much worse than a dirty kitchen. I realized a while back that he no longer believed that he is a good kid. I was heartbroken. He is such a good kid. I cried. What was I doing to my precious son?? I cried hard. And I begged the Lord to teach me better ways to mother my boy.
And He did. He is.
Some days, I feel like such a slow learner, but I'm getting there. The very first thing the Lord said to do was be kind. Even when Dragon is in trouble. Especially then. And that helped a lot. But the past few weeks I've been learning something about Grace. I never really understood it before. Brad Wilcox's talk, His Grace Is Sufficient, was a turning point.
I'd always understood Grace much like the girl in his story:
A BYU student once came to me and asked if we could talk. I said, “Of course. How can I help you?”
She said, “I just don’t get grace.”
I responded, “What is it that you don’t understand?”
She said, “I know I need to do my best and then Jesus does the rest, but I can’t even do my best.”
She then went on to tell me all the things she should be doing -because she’s a Mormon- that she wasn’t doing.
She continued, “I know that I have to do my part and then Jesus makes up the difference and fills the gap that stands between my part and perfection. But who fills the gap that stands between where I am now and my part?”
When I listen to this speech, everybody chuckles as he tells this. Brother Wilcox is a great story teller, and he manages to sound more than a little bit like an exasperated college girl, and it's funny. But also it's not. She's hurting because she feels like a failure. She sees the messes she makes. The problems that she should have been smart enough to avoid. The tasks left undone. And they are robbing her of hope.
Finally I said, “Jesus doesn’t make up the difference. Jesus makes all the difference. Grace is not about filling gaps. It is about filling us.”
Seeing that she was still confused, I took a piece of paper and drew two dots—one at the top representing God and one at the bottom representing us. I then said, “Go ahead. Draw the line. How much is our part? How much is Christ’s part?”
She went right to the center of the page and began to draw a line. Then, considering what we had been speaking about, she went to the bottom of the page and drew a line just above the bottom dot.
I said, “Wrong.”
She said, “I knew it was higher. I should have just drawn it, because I knew it.”
He goes on to tell her that it's wrong because it's a trick question. He's telling her that her understanding is fundamentally flawed, and she needs to see Grace in an entirely different light. I have a lot of compassion for this girl that came to see him, because I'd always understood Grace in the same way. Brother Wilcox explains that Grace isn't like that at all. Christ paid it all. Every penny. He asks for our poor efforts, not because He needs them, but because we need them. We need that process of change that comes in trying to avoid the dirt and clean up the messes. He draws a new analogy, one that works very well for me since I love to play the piano. He compares Grace to a child whose mother pays for piano lessons.
“But Brother Wilcox, don’t you realize how hard it is to practice? I’m just not very good at the piano. I hit a lot of wrong notes. It takes me forever to get it right.” Now wait. Isn’t that all part of the learning process? When a young pianist hits a wrong note, we don’t say he is not worthy to keep practicing. We don’t expect him to be flawless. We just expect him to keep trying. Perfection may be his ultimate goal, but for now we can be content with progress in the right direction. Why is this perspective so easy to see in the context of learning piano but so hard to see in the context of learning heaven? ...
In all of these cases there should never be just two options: perfection or giving up. When learning the piano, are the only options performing at Carnegie Hall or quitting? No. Growth and development take time. Learning takes time. When we understand grace, we understand that God is long-suffering, that change is a process, and that repentance is a pattern in our lives. When we understand grace, we understand that the blessings of Christ’s Atonement are continuous and His strength is perfect in our weakness (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). When we understand grace, we can, as it says in the Doctrine and Covenants, “continue in patience until [we] are perfected” (D&C 67:13).
This was such a revelation to me! And it's changed how I'm doing my mothering, particularly with my Little Golden Dragon. Messes are part of the learning process. They were anticipated. That's why we have a Savior! And, understanding that, I can be more gentle with myself. Although my kitchen isn't perfectly clean tonight when I go to bed, it's cleaner than it was. And that's progress. Tonight, it's not just one box in my room, there's a whole stack of them. They've been there for two days (I had to dig to find the nebulizer for Dragon). But at least this time I know they're there, and I have a plan for what to do about it: the boxes go back in the boys' closet. Even if I haven't managed to remember to do it while they're awake.
And for my kids? For them, me learning this stuff means that I'm teaching them to find satisfaction in cleaning up the messes, and fixing the problems. Not only do we talk about the things that went well when the Daddy comes home and asks how the day was, we also talk about the problems that got fixed and the messes that were cleaned up. We talk about the plan to do well, and the effort expended in trying to carry it out -- even if things didn't go exactly according to that plan. Once again, Dragon believes in his own goodness. And I am learning to believe in my own goodness. Grace means that effort counts. Intentions are important. Grace means that we're not there yet, but if the journey isn't in a straight line, at least we're still moving in more or less the right direction. It's important that my children know that.