Monday, August 7, 2017

Taking the Long View

Last week I had the chance to visit with a long-time friend.  As we talked about what we’d been doing lately, she told me about her family’s recent annual vacation to the beach with her adult children, husband, parents, and sister.  As she described what they did that week, I asked her whether they liked to cook or eat out.  “We usually do a little of both, but this time, we did more eating out than usual.  My son has become a foodie of sorts," she smiled, "and he brought a whole list of restaurants he wanted to try.  So my husband and I ended up going to many of them with him.”

As she talked about their time with their son, she paused.  “You know, he hasn’t joined us on our vacation the past few summers, so we were really glad he wanted to come.  And I was just struck by –and so grateful to see—how respectful he was . . . how honoring.  We just had a wonderful time together.”

Through our conversations over many years, my friend has shared that parenting this child has not always been easy.  And last week, she and I remembered some of the struggles she and her husband have faced with him—difficulties that, in the moment, were not just hard and frustrating, but sometimes frightening.  Even though I know my friend has been so faithful to love her children well, she has expressed that sometimes she's feared for this child’s future—worried whether he was going to “make it” as an adult.  And I have to wonder (even though she has no reason to feel this way) whether she's sometimes worried that she might be  missing the mark as a parent.  

I wonder that because I have felt that fear . . . . because I've wrestled with it in my own parenting journey.  

When my husband and I face hard things with our own children, there are moments when I start to believe that a particular difficulty is the beginning of one of my worst parenting fears:  a long, pain-filled experience of seeing a child struggle with issues that will wreak havoc on the rest of his or her life.  That fear is compounded by the thought that my child’s struggles may very likely be the result of my inadequate parenting.

Talk about catastrophizing . . . . I am a pro.

But my friend's story about her son last week—his pleasure in a vocation that took a long time for him to find, his dedication to his friends, his growing love for Jesus—planted a huge seed of hope into my heart.  I was reminded about how easily I get hooked into the paralyzing lie that a single struggle with my own children is the end of the story.  I remembered, again, my tendency to see one difficulty as the defining moment, instead of recognizing it for what it is:  just one small part of a much larger story that will never not include God’s redemptive work . . . . although (as both my friend and I continue to experience) that redemptive work may come later rather than sooner.

I’m so encouraged to hear stories like my friend’s:  Stories that take the long view of parenting.  Stories that include the good stuff and the scary stuff.  Stories about when His presence is easy to detect and stories about days when He just seems to be absent.  Stories that remind me it’s okay to keep trusting God.  

My friend’s story--and her son's--is a living example of how God actually is completing the good work He has begun in our children.   It also reminds me that He is continuing to complete the good work He began in me, too.  

Reminding me to take the long view of parenting is one way He is accomplishing that work.

[P.S.  I made sure to get my friend's permission to share this post.  Just didn't want anyone to wonder about that. . . . . ]

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Nouwen's invitation to conversation . . . .

Since the beginning of 2017, I have been participating in an online book club hosted by an organization called Renovaré (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the sweet Christmas gift).  Although I've encountered many quotations from Henri Nouwen's writings, I hadn't read an entire book.  And I wasn't disappointed; reading his Life of the Beloved has not only been timely for me, but also profoundly impactful.

Nouwen, a Catholic priest, wrote the book at the request of a friend, NYT journalist Fred Bratman, a secular Jew, who asked him to discuss Christian faith in a way that "speaks to men and women in a secularized society" in a way that "he and his friends 'could hear.'"  Life of the Beloved is the result of that request.

I won't discuss the content of the book here (there is my thinly disguised attempt to encourage you to read it for yourself--it's that good).  What's fascinating, though, is that 
Nouwen initially considered his attempt a "failure" because of Bratman's response.  After reading the book, Nouwen's friend commented that the book contained writing that was "for the 'converted'" rather than "for truly secular people." 

Nouwen's attempt to articulate his faith, Bratman's experience of reading Nouwen's book, and Nouwen's disappointment all resonate for me in many ways.  Perhaps I'll write more about that later.

In the epilogue, Nouwen discusses his conversations with Bratman after having written the book.  And there I found Nouwen's thoughts to hold rich guidance for today's American cultural climate, and for my own life.

My sense in my own community and nation is that now, more than ever, the long-held American Christian belief that we are travelers in a foreign land has given way to a fearful and, at times, hostile view of the world around us--our acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, leaders, or anyone who does not profess Christian views.  This angst colors the way we relate to that world, so that we do so from a defensive or even antagonistic posture, as if we are now being forced to fight for our views to be validated, or to aggressively attack anything or anyone that might cause us to be discriminated against, regardless of what means we "must" use.

Yet I find that many of my "secular" friends are, at this time, experiencing and sometimes acting out of that same sense of fear: they, too, are afraid that their views and lives are in danger of being discounted (at best) or eliminated by governmental mandates (at worst).  They too feel the need to fight more aggressively than ever before.

In light of the current cultural climate, what resonates for me, as a believing faculty member at a secular community college, is Nouwen's emphasis not on fighting, fearing, oppressing, or mandating, but instead on the importance of Christ-followers questioning and exploring our "inner solidarity with the secular world."  Rather than giving fuel to an already-well-cultivated view of the world as threatening, Nouwen writes that believers "don't have to be afraid to enter fully into [that] secular world and speak there about faith, hope, and love." 

Perhaps now more than ever before, Christ-followers have an opportunity to (in Nouwen's words) be honest about how we have approached those who are "other" than us--to "bridge the gap within [ourselves]" between the secular and sacred.  

I wonder whether we can do just that by hearing and supporting all of those in our lives during this anxious time.  Perhaps the act of fearless listening to, identifying with, and validating the justifiable fears so many have during this time can be a way of gaining entrance into conversations with people from all walks of life, convictions, and beliefs.  Perhaps those conversations can be places where our articulating the reason for our hope is seen not as condescension or criticism, not as unsolicited advice, not as an irrelevant or oversimplified truism, but instead received and even welcomed as the relevant, palpable, transformative hope that it is. 

I'm certainly not saying I have the wisdom to navigate such conversations with any sort of grace.  In fact, now more than ever, I desperately wish for that ability as I interact with so many who are justifiably fearful and angry about what the future may hold for all of us.  But maybe--as the unexpected and grateful audience for Henri's "unsuccessful" book suggests--the point isn't to strive for such wisdom or ability, but instead to move into our own world with a ruthless authenticity about our own brokenness coupled with a ruthless trust in a God who is graciously uses our lives, not because of our accomplishments or knowledge or "superior" beliefs  not with any certainty about how or where our lives will "count," but instead--and miraculously--out of our shortcomings, struggles, and fears, and with a hopeful anticipation that He will use us where and how He sees fit.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Ninth Fruit: Self-Control (MNM 14)

Welcome back to the ninth and final post in our study!  You've made it all the way!!!!

I hope you can look back on this year and see specific ways that our loving heavenly Father has guided you, and my confident prayer is that He will continue to protect and provide for you in this sweet season of mothering little ones.  I won't say farewell just yet . . . . first, let's dive in to this week's readings!

Thanks again to my friend and photographer extraordinaire, Suzanne Stelling, for this image.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
Psalm 16: 5-6 (New International Version)

Soaking in the Scripture (Section One)

Today, spend some time reflecting on this week’s scripture.  Read it a few times, perhaps in different translations, or even aloud.  

Is there a word or phrase that strikes you as particularly relevant to your life during this season? 

Give yourself some time to think, journal, or talk with a friend about the thoughts that emerge from your time of reflection.

Also, try and find time to share this verse with each of your family members in ways that are appropriate to each of them, and see what kinds of conversations happen.

Digging Deeper (Section Two)

In this passage, the Psalm-writer, David, uses two concepts—the idea of a “portion” and the notion of “boundary lines”—to describe his own life circumstances.  

How would you describe your “portion” during this season of your life? What sorts of relationships, activities, and commitments has He put on your plate?  How is your current “portion” different than it was in past years?  Spend some time considering all that is part of your life during this particular season.

As you’ve reflected on your “portion,” and perhaps how it has changed, you may also be able to identify some “boundary lines” that have “fallen” around your life during this season. Are there some things that used to be part of your life’s “portion” which are no longer present?  Has your current “portion”—perhaps marriage, and/or the arrival of children, for example—brought about changes regarding the relationships, activities, and commitments you are involved in?  Where are the current “boundary lines” in your life?  What do they include, and what do they exclude?

Finally, when you consider the fact that God places limits around your life by assigning you “portions” and “boundary lines,” how does that strike you?  Is it something that creates a feeling of security, or do you find yourself frustrated that you aren’t given the opportunity to choose your own “portions” and draw your own “boundary lines”?  How do you view your “portion,” and what feelings do you have about the “boundary lines” that you have identified?  

As you have the opportunity, you might consider talking about these questions with your spouse, your children, or a friend and processing your thoughts and feelings together.  You might also find it beneficial to spend some time praying through your responses.

One Family’s Story (Section Three)

I have a confession to make:  When Rebekah Wilson and I began last summer to discuss the possibility of my preparing this study for Moms n More, I knew—even then—that the section on “self-control” would be the toughest one for me.  All year long, I’ve kept hoping that my prediction would be wrong, and that exploring the spiritual fruit of self-control would come more easily than I’d anticipated. 

Well . . . my initial fears were right on target:  this has, indeed, been the most challenging portion of the study to write.  However, it’s also put me in a place of letting God peel back a few layers in my heart.  It’s been a tiny bit painful, but it’s also helped me understand more about why God’s expectation that I practice “self-control” is such a tough one for me.   I hope, somehow, that you’ll find encouragement as I share some of that process.

For me, Psalm 16’s imagery of portions and boundary lines takes me right back to two key childhood memories.  For portions, I recall sitting at our family dinner table and being served a plate containing carefully measured servings of all the necessary food groups—some of which did not sound particularly appealing to my young self.  I had all sorts of clever strategies for avoiding the healthy foods my parents wanted me to eat, but sometimes, those tactics weren’t as sneaky as they needed to be.  One unhappy occasion involved a suspicious-looking mound of steamed zucchini—my least favorite!  My attempt to deposit it in my water glass did not go undetected . . . or unpunished.  Fortunately, that sort of thing didn’t happen very often, but as I’ll explain, I certainly haven’t forgotten that incident.

Another occasion involved a 4th grade report card on which my teacher indicated that I’d not done a good job of practicing self-control during a six-week grading period.  I don’t remember what I’d done to earn her comment, but I’m sure it had something to do with my not having followed the rules and guidelines (boundaries, right?) she had established for our class.  What made it especially upsetting is that even as an elementary student, I took pride in my track record as a well-behaved student, and it felt like her comment would mar my reputation in a permanent way.  I still remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, first when I opened that report card at school and later at home when I had to face my parents’ disappointment. 

Those were two very normal experiences involving a child submitting to an adult’s authority—my parents’ and my teachers’.  For some reason, though, both of these instances seem to have had a powerfully formative impact on my understanding of self-control. 

The “zucchini” incident somehow reinforced the idea that being given a “portion” would, by definition, involve accepting and consuming something unappealing, distasteful, or (to my child’s palate) downright slimy and gross.  Somewhere along the way, I began to think that being given a “portion”—initially at mealtime, but later in other areas of my life—would always and only require me to accept and participate in things that I did not like or prefer.  It also meant I would not have the option of choosing things I naturally enjoyed.   In my child’s mind, accepting my “portion” would always mean telling myself “no” to what I might naturally desire—even the desire might be for something good or healthy.

The “report card” incident was, perhaps, even more significant over the long term.  As an adult, I realize that after all those years of being known as a compliant, cooperative student, I sensed that my teacher’s comment had shone a spotlight on the “real me” . . . the “I’m-gonna-do-what-I-wanna-do-whether-you-like-it-or-not” Anne.   Even as a fourth-grader, I think I feared that I’d been found out.   But because I didn’t like getting in trouble with my parents (or anyone else, for that matter), I decided then and there that I’d never earn that sort of negative feedback again.  I decided I was going to be the good girl, and I would accomplish that by repressing any and every impulse that might get me into trouble.  By golly, I was going to practice self-control.  No matter what.

And for many years, that’s what I tried to do.  Stifling any part of my personality that ran contrary to what was deemed “acceptable” by those around me, I attempted to maintain a sort of mean-spirited, iron-vise-grip on my behavior, regardless of how this impacted my personal well-being.  And when I failed to live up to my own expectations, I pulled in the cords of control even more tightly for punishment. 

As you can imagine, my method wasn’t successful; I failed often and miserably.  But that joyless experience is what I thought the Bible meant when it talked about practicing self-control:  telling myself “no” to anything and everything that might be enjoyable, even if it was good, healthy, or in line with my God-given temperament, personality, and gifts.

It follows, then, that for years, any time I encountered that phrase—“self-control”—in the Bible, I had a powerful urge to turn and run . . . hard.  I was terrified of God’s call to practice self-control partly because my efforts had created such misery in my own life.  More importantly, though, I was painfully aware of the utter inadequacy of my attempts at self-control.  While I might experience some success at treating others with love, kindness, and gentleness—and while I certainly sought (and needed!) peace and hope—I still knew I’d never live up to God’s expectation for being self-controlled.  That knowledge—along with my instinctive but sinful-seeming impulse to move away from the call to be self-controlled—scared me.

I spent many [many!] years trying to work through my questions and fears related to this trait.  The details of that story are, perhaps, for another time and place.  For now, suffice it to say this:  through that season, God graciously showed me another way—hopefully something closer to His way—of understanding just what He means when He invites us to let the Spirit produce the fruit of self-control.


Recently, I ran across Mary Ann Froehlich’s book, Courageous Gentleness:  Following Christ’s Example of Restrained Strength.  In a chapter on how this quality relates to the other fruits of the Spirit, she makes the following statement: 

“Scripture teaches that self-control anchors our fruit in two main ways: 

·      It restrains our behaviors that do not mirror Christ.

·      It prepares us to be ready and eager to do good in following our
Lord . . .” (101).”

When I view my own misguided attempts at self-control through Ms. Froehlich’s explanation, I realize a few things: 

First, my efforts at self-control had everything to do with telling myself “no.”  And they didn’t have anything to do with telling myself “yes.”   For me, self-control was all and only about restricting actions and attitudes rather than adding good actions and attitudes. 

This version of self-control didn’t just stop at discouraging un-Christlike behaviors; it also stifled any attitude or action that might have been seen as inappropriate by the people around me—even if those people’s opinions were dead wrong.  The results—at least for me—were nothing short of destructive.  Practicing this counterfeit version of self-control not only made me miserable; it also compelled me to sacrifice my own God-given identity. 

Ms. Froelich’s second point, though, provides another vital observation:  self-control isn’t merely God’s way of stopping or limiting unacceptable behavior.  It is also His gift to us—to me.  When the Holy Spirit prompts me to practice self-control, He is priming my heart to start moving towards the wonderful experiences God had in mind when He created me in the first place.   Rather than requiring me to restrict my God-given identity, those God-ordained experiences invite me to press into and fully live out my unique gifts, talents, and abilities—to be “ready and eager to do good in following our Lord.” 

I still struggle with the issue of self-control; I still find myself inclined to tell myself “no” rather than asking God to show me what He’d like me to say “yes” to.  But as I continue to learn and grow, I am beginning to recognize a connection between God’s invitation to self-control and David’s imagery in Psalm 16.

Some days find me operating by my old understanding about self-control—living according to a self-imposed set of “portions” and “boundary lines.”  When I construct those sorts of limits for myself, I am believing the lie that God expects me to muscle up, constantly tell myself “no,” and rigidly control each and every impulse that might be viewed as “inappropriate” by someone else.  That’s a misery-making, joy-less existence, and I am learning that is has nothing to do with following God.

Other days, though, God gives me the ability to stop creating my own limitations and instead notice the “portions” and “boundary lines” that He has ordained for me.  He allows me to find Him in the midst of those limitations—to recognize those limits as His own loving hands as they guide my life “make my lot secure,” and provide me with an inheritance that is “delightful.”  On those days, I am thinking less about controlling or managing my own behaviors, and more about looking for Him, bringing all that I am to Him . . . right in the midst of whatever circumstances He has for me.

Your Family’s Story (Section Four)

Today, spend a few minutes remembering the things you’ve read and thought of so far this week.  Does anything stand out as particularly important or meaningful?  Take time to notice.

As you reflect back on this week’s material, I hope it has somehow conveyed the idea that self-control isn’t about me regulating and managing my every thought and action.  Rather, this trait is really about how I respond to limits and boundaries—most importantly, the limits and boundaries God places around my life.  Self-control is less about controlling me, and more about my response to His control—a response that trusts in His deep, abiding, personal love.

Here, then is the great irony of self-control:  when my response to my Father’s control is one of submission—which is really relinquishing my impulse to control—that is when the spiritual fruit of self-control emerges and blossoms.

What this means is that self-control isn’t self-control at all; it can be more accurately described as Spirit-control, which means that it is only possible as a result of the Holy Spirit’s empowering.  In other words, I can’t manufacture self-control on my own.

With that in mind, I encourage you to spend some time remembering that you are God’s beloved and uniquely created daughter.  Because He is living in and through you, it’s likely that you are already living out the quality of self-control in your life. 

Section Two invited you to identify the “portions” and “boundary lines” that are unique to your life in this season.   I invite you to consider where you have submitted to, or perhaps even celebrated, some of those God-ordained limits, realizing that such a response is an example of Spirit-control blossoming in your life.  Ask God to help you identify places in your life where this is occurring, and celebrate His work.

Also, ask God to help you think of a few ways you might continue to cultivate self-control in your own heart as well as your other family members’.  Where might you adjust your perspective about the limits in your life, perhaps seeing them as God-given blessings instead of frustrating or disappointing restrictions?

How, also, might you encourage this perspective as you move through the day with each of your family members?

As you jot down ideas, pray for the discernment to recognize those that are good fits for your family members’ unique, God-created personalities.  Then, as time allows, talk about your ideas with them, and continue to pray for wisdom.

Wisdom for the Journey (Section Five)

Much of the academic scholarship being done around the non-cognitive traits identifies self-control as one of the most vital traits for a child (and an adult) to possess.  Some researchers would identify it as the foundational trait for most of the other non-cognitive skills.  In other words, a child who can manage his behavior will also be more equipped to treat others kindly or endure difficult circumstances, for example.  And sure enough, a quick internet search yields countless articles on how to cultivate this trait in ourselves as well as our children.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of summarizing everything out there, I’ll close with a few observations that strike me as especially significant or helpful in my own parenting journey.

The first is this:  one of our primary roles as parents is to help our children recognize and accept that boundaries will be a consistent part of their lives.  This means that my willingness to set and maintain reasonable boundaries in a loving manner is extremely important for my children’s development and growth.

Doing so, of course, causes our children (and us!) to experience all sorts of discomfort.  It will require us to answer our children’s requests with “no” at times.  But learning to manage themselves in the face of such discomfort--and allowing plenty of opportunities to strengthen their "self-management muscle"--is at the very crux of self-control.  

Even as our children encounter limits and boundaries, or “no’s,” parents can help them learn ways to navigate those situations by following the “no” with an exploration of what one or more “yes’s” might be.  Modeling this thought process is an important part of parenting.  Psychologist Madeline Levine discusses this in her excellent book, Teach Your Children Well:  “Don’t expect your children to learn without your guidance on how to show self-control.  Children need to be shown how to change focus, how to shift activities, how to divert their attention.  ‘Why don’t we read this story while we wait for the doctor.’ ‘I know it’s been a long ride; let’s see who can spot the first license plate from another state.’. . . A large part of self-control rests on the ability to manage uncomfortable feelings while searching for healthy solutions” (224). 

Levine is stating that even as our children encounter the inevitable “no’s” in life, parents can help them respond by exploring the “yes’s” that still exist.   They don’t have to only tell themselves “no;” they can also find the “yes’s” within the “no’s.”  Teaching our children to respond to “no’s” with this thought process allows them to recognize that they have freedom and autonomy even within boundaries and limits. 

A second thought:  Even as we guide our children, we can also remember how important it is to allow them low-stakes opportunities to practice their own decision-making skills, even when that means that their decisions aren't always what we might choose.  Recently, I was talking with a friend who is also a mom, and we were discussing our middle-school children’s choices about sugary foods before sports events.  Her words stuck with me:  “I tend to let my children make their own decisions about what they eat before a meet, so that they have the opportunity to learn for themselves which choices are better.”  My friend’s wise comment was an important reminder for me.  As long as I’m actively monitoring and managing my children’s choices, I’m keeping them from having the opportunity to make and learn from their own decisions.  They may be compliant (which is convenient for me); but they aren’t self-controlled (which a vital quality for them).  Grit researcher Angela Duckworth and colleagues agree: “Children who willingly comply with directives from adults are certainly easier to manage than those who don’t, but compliance should not to be confused with fully autonomous, self-initiated regulation.”  In other words, because compliance involves merely allowing another person to dictate our actions, compliance is not the same thing as self-control.  Rather, self-control happens when an individual chooses his/her own actions without directives or supervision from an authority figure or peer.   And it’s self-control that, ultimately, I want to be strong in my children.

Third (and last):  As one clinical psychologist and mother notes, “the foundation of self-control is trust.”  And, although there is certainly academic merit to the importance of being trustworthy parents, it is ultimately most important for us to hold unflinchingly to our trust in God, and to model that trust for our children.  With that in mind, I'll finish this week's material right where we started, with Psalm 16, this time in its entirety.  As you read it again, notice how David’s unswerving trust in God’s goodness is at the root of his overall perspective:

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
apart from you I have no good thing.”
I say of the holy people who are in the land,
“They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”
Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
or take up their names on my lips.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
you make my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
even at night my heart instructs me.
I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,

with eternal pleasures at your right hand.