Monday, November 3, 2014

The Fourth Fruit: Longsuffering (MNM 8)

Welcome back!  I’m so glad you are here, and I hope life is going well for you and your family.  Thanks for continuing to follow our study on cultivating the fruits of the spirit in our children (and ourselves).

Here is this week’s verse:

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.
Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace
for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:11 (New International Version)

Soaking in the Scripture (Section 1)

Today, spend some time reflecting on Hebrews 12:11.  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 2)

Begin by re-reading Hebrews 12:11, and recall the ideas that came to mind when you spent time with it previously.

When you think of the word “discipline,” do you feel any particular emotion, or does a specific experience come to mind?  In other words, when you think of discipline, what event(s) or feeling(s) surface?  Happiness?  Anticipation?  Joy?  Fear?  Anxiety? 

Many people I know (myself included) have a negative reaction to the notion of “discipline.”  Maybe this is because when we think of an experience that involves discipline, we may associate it with being punished in some way.  And for most people, the thought of punishment triggers emotions that aren’t really of the “feel good” variety.

But if we reframe the idea of discipline as training for something desirable, it may impact our emotional response to the idea.  The training itself may be hard or involve temporary unpleasantness.  But because it’s for the purpose of reaching a good goal, the difficulties experienced during training can be understood as a necessary part of the process.  From this vantage point, the unpleasant aspect of discipline isn’t a punishment or consequence resulting from our negative behavior; it’s a series of actions that will produce something positive or desirable.  Discipline is simply what a person needs to do in order to become stronger, more capable, or better skilled at a certain task.

A studyof original Greek word translated as “discipline”—which is “paideia”—confirms this more positive notion.  This word is defined as “instruction that aims at increasing virtue.”  It can involve the whole training and education of children, but also (for grown-ups) any experience that cultivates the soul, especially by correcting mistakes and curbing passions.  In other words, the original word for “discipline” isn’t a reference punishment earned for bad behavior; instead, it’s all about pursuing a pleasant, desirable end result.

With that in mind, think about something good in your life that resulted from a time of discipline that was challenging, unpleasant, or perhaps even painful.  Maybe you’ve accomplished a goal that was difficult to attain.  Perhaps you have completed a project or task that involved one or more difficult experiences.   Maybe you gained the ability to demonstrate a particular virtue as the result of struggling through a uncomfortable season.

As you reflect on such an experience, see if you can recall your thoughts during the midst of the more challenging moments.  Did your understanding of the end goal influence how you thought about the difficult parts?

One Family’s Story (Section 3)

Can you think back to life before children?  What ideas did you have about what “good” parenting would look like?  Were there particular parenting strategies you definitely did not want to practice?

I certainly did.  In fact, I began my parenting journey believing my primary task as a mom was to keep my children happy and comfortable as much as possible.  This meant that if my children were ever unhappy, it could only be evidence of my own poor parenting. 

I’ve never pinpointed the origin of this notion, although I have a few ideas (I might share them another time).  But when my husband and I welcomed our first child into the world, the pressure was on.  It became my goal to show my friends, husband, my child, myself, God—even the random people I passed in the grocery store—that I could do whatever it takes to keep my child content. 

As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for me to recognize the giant gap between my expectations and the reality of parenting.  Yet I continued to struggle with the idea that children of really good parents never experience anything remotely unpleasant.   And my inability to live up to this standard scared me to the very core.

It also propelled me to learn all I could about good parenting from every book magazine, and website I could get my hands on.  Fast forward a few years to the advent of social media, and I found myself smack-dab in the middle of a very dangerous place.

Maybe you’ve been there too.  It’s the place plastered with pictures, videos, and tweets of well-decorated and spotless homes; kids’ craft projects that are easy and economical; foolproof tips for making even family Bible study fun.   It’s the place chock full of irrefutable evidence that every other mom on the planet is doing this motherhood thing better than you.  Her house is cute, her hair is coifed, her husband adores her, and (most importantly) her kids are happy. 

It’s a place my husband and I have dubbed the land of “Mama-guilt.”  It starts with a few innocent clicks on Pinterest, Facebook, or Instagram, and suddenly, I’m there.  And, if you’re like me, it can be very, very difficult to break away from its poisonous influence.  As Jen Pinkner so beautifully pointed out in her talk a few weeks ago, spending time wishing for someone else’s script to be our own is one of the quickest ways to squelch joy.  And for me, social media is one of the places where this often happens. 

I’m continuing to learn that when I spend time in this no-man’s land, I’m often feeding my already-overgrown fears about the difference between my own real life experiences and what I see in all so many of those pictures, posts, and tweets.

And I don’t think I’m the only one:  when you’re a mom with little ones, discouragement can sabotage your confidence before you even know what’s hit you.  Especially on difficult days.  And especially when we begin comparing ourselves with the shiny images so readily available on social media—even though they represent only the tiniest portion of the vast, rocky, emotional terrain we travel while mothering young children.

So, in my search for how to be a good parent, and in my constant exposure to these families with kids who are always, always happy, my fears continued to eat away at my confidence.  Not only was I unable to sustain my children’s contentedness; but I also questioned whether making this my main goal was the right thing to do in the first place. 

That’s why this picture posted on Facebook posted by Katie Jessen (mother of 4 preschoolers and wife to Chris Jessen, Pastor of Two Rivers Chattanooga) resonated so powerfully with me:

One glimpse of that image—two boys who are furious with their mom for making them wear their carseats—triggered a storm of emotions for me.  I was taken right back to the countless not-so-shiny moments when my kids were anything but happy.  Moments when they weren’t just upset.  They were tantrum-mad . . .  at me.  Moments that make me wonder whether my children’s momentary brush with unpleasantness was just another piece of evidence revealing my shabby job of parenting.   Moments that take me from peace to fear in a matter of seconds.

But Katie’s picture—and her refreshingly honest caption, “This is real life”—also remind me of what’s true.  Real life, real parenting, and real mothering certainly includes plenty of pleasant experiences.  It gives me lots of opportunities to keep my children comfortable and content.  But it also involves moments when my children are going to be nowhere near happy.   (In fact, I’m probably going to be a little unhappy myself!) 

As I thought more about Katie’s picture, I began to think more about whether the emphasis on keeping my children always and only happy might even be unfair:  unfair to parents because it’s not humanly possible to sustain such an experience; unfair to the children because it gives them a completely false understanding of what the world is really like.

So while the world may want me to believe that my children’s temporary unhappiness shows my incompetence as a parent, my Father wants me to rest in the truth that unpleasantness—and even pain sometimes—is a necessary and even hope-full part of life, and that (strangely enough) it creates an opportunity for my children (and me) to move towards a life characterized by peace and righteousness.

Your Family’s Story (Section 4)

Today, spend a few minutes remembering the things you’ve read and thought of so far this week.    Then, consider these questions:

·      Can you remember a time when you had to make a parenting decision that caused one or more of your children to be frustrated or angry with you? 

·      What kinds of things might your children say to you in such an instance?  What emotions do they communicate?

·      What thoughts come to your mind when you’re in the midst of such an experience?  Are you confident in the face of your children’s frustration, even (and especially) when it is directed at you?  Or do such experiences cause you to worry that you may be failing in some way?

·      How do you reconcile the unavoidable discomfort that is part of living in the real world with your parental role?   As parents, how are we called to help our children develop an accurate picture of what the world is like?

·      Is there a possibility that you may be shielding your children from pain or discomfort in a way that may be giving them an inaccurate understanding of how life works?

Wisdom for the Journey (Section 5)

The spiritual fruit of long-suffering is most closely related to the non-cognitive trait of perseverance, which Merriam Webster defines as the quality which allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it is difficult.  I’m sure you’ll agree:  this is a characteristic that our children will certainly need.  But it’s not necessarily one that is pleasant to put into practice, or to cultivate.

Rather than giving specific tips for how to nurture perseverance and longsuffering, I thought I’d add a few closing thoughts.

First:  The tendency to want our children’s lives to be pleasant is a normal outgrowth of our God-given maternal instinct.  So we don’t need to feel guilty about this desire.

However, this natural instinct—when mixed with affluence (which equips us to obtain items that are comfort-giving but not always necessary),  today’s emphasis on “feel good” parenting, and our aversion to all things unpleasant—can lead us to parent in ways that undermine our children’s ability to practice and strengthen the quality of perseverance.  It’s likely, then, that my parenting decisions are influenced by these factors more than I may recognize.  This is just one more reason prayer is such a vital part of the journey.  Honestly, I don’t know when I’ll reach a season during which prayer won’t be of the utmost importance.

Second:  I’m also realizing that my own tendency to want my children’s lives to be pleasant can be rooted in my desire for my life to be convenient (or, to use an uglier word—my own selfishness).  After all, when life is easy for my family, it’s also easy for me.  And I like it when life is easy.  I like it very much.  So in order to cultivate perseverance in my children’s hearts, I need to possess a degree of perseverance myself.  Again, prayer comes to mind, since this isn’t a trait that I’m particularly adept at faking or manufacturing.  Each day, I need the help of a loving Father along with his Spirit’s work in my life.

Last:  Professor, researcher, and writer Brene Brown describes a wall-hanging she keeps in her home as a reminder of how important it is to cultivate perseverance in her own family.  The sign says this:

We Can Do Hard Things

I like the simplicity of this statement.  Remembering it helps me recognize moments when I may be tempted to protect my children—and myself—from the necessary unpleasantness that accompanies the completion of difficult tasks.  It reminds me of how important it is to encourage my children to lean into such experiences—to allow themselves to be trained by them.  At the end of the day, I want my children to possess the God-given confidence and competence that is cultivated when they do even the hard things that life will certainly bring their way.


Click here if you're ready to begin learning about the fifth fruit, kindness.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Third Fruit: Peace (MNM 7)

Thanks to Sheppard Tucker for sharing this amazing picture with me. 

. . . I have learned to be satisfied
with the things I have
and with everything that happens.
I know how to live when I am poor,
and I know how to live when I have plenty.
I have learned the secret of being happy at any time
in everything that happens,
when I have enough to eat, and when I go hungry,
when I have more than I need and when I do not have enough.
I can do all things through Christ, because He gives me strength.
Philippians 4:10b-13
(New Century Version)

. . . I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances may be.
I know now how to live when things are difficult
and I know how to live when things are prosperous.
In general and particular I have learned the secret
of facing either poverty or plenty.
I am ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives in me.
Philippians 4:10b-13
(J.B. Phillips New Testament)

Soaking in the Scripture (Section 1)

Today, spend some time reflecting on Philippians 4:11b-13.  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 2)

Begin by re-reading Philippians 4:11b-13, and recall the ideas that came to mind when you spent time with it previously.

Remember a few times recently when you’ve felt contented or peaceful.   What brought on this experience?  Were there particular circumstances, events, or thoughts that contributed to your feeling this way?

You may remember my mentioning in our last devotional how I tend to envision joy as an emotion that kind of “arrives” in my heart.  I often feel the same way about peace: I want to experience peace as often as possible, but I tend to believe I can’t until it decides to “show up.”  [And as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve noticed that there’s a direct correlation between my ability to experience peace and my circumstances.  When my circumstances are desirable and pleasant, I’m much more inclined to “feel” peace.  But when things aren’t going so well, peace is much more elusive, which can be extremely frustrating—especially when, as a Christian, I am “supposed” to experience peace on a more-than-regular basis.]

What I’m learning, though—and what our reading from Philippians suggests—is that we actually play a part in whether we’re inclined to experience peace.

As you know, “peace” is the third spirit-fruit listed in Galatians 5:22-23.  The original Greek word for this quality is eirēnē. which is defined this way:  The tranquil state of a soul so assured of its salvation that it fears nothing from God and is content with its earthly lot, whatever that might be” (thanks, as always, to for this information!).

This definition impacts my understanding of peace in a few significant ways:

First:  it shows that peace is rooted not in my circumstances (my “earthly lot”), but in my salvation.  So, although I may be inclined to manipulate my circumstances so that they feel more peace-giving, it’s important for me to remember that the real source of peace is much more stable than the ever-changing events in my life: the origin for true peace is rooted in the unchangeable truth of God’s deep and abiding love for me—the fact that no matter what happens in my earthly existence, I’ve been given the gift of salvation because I've chosen to accept it.  I am His child, and nothing can alter that.  

Second:  the definition for eirēnē mentions another emotion—fear, which is something I’m really, really good at.  Especially when things in my life are going less-than-swimmingly, my tendency is to let worry dominate my thoughts.   Many times, it comes in the form of anxiety-producing questions:

   * Why can’t I find God in all this?
   * What if this unwanted circumstance means God has abandoned me? 
   * What if I’ve done something to make God unhappy with me? 
   * What if I’m not able to make it through this circumstance? 

Oddly enough, choosing to dwell on these kinds of worries feels safe somehow:  maybe I can’t answer my questions, but at least I’m considering the worst possible scenario.  At least I won’t be caught off guard by more bad things.  Talk about feeding fear with more fear . . . .

The definition for eirēnē, though, is a wonderful reminder that I need fear nothing from God—including the confusing, unexplainable circumstances He allows into my “earthly lot.”  Instead, because of God’s deep, abiding love for me, I can choose something other than fear.  Like Paul describes in this week’s passage from Philippians 4, I can be content—not because my circumstances are pleasant, but because I’m rooted deeply in His unwavering presence—even when I might not be able to recognize it.

And—as Paul also suggests, this kind of contentment is something that can be learned and practiced.  Instead of waiting for peace to “come over” me, I can “learn to be content, whatever the circumstances may be.”  I can “know how to live when things are difficult and . . . when things are prosperous.”  I can be “ready for anything through the strength of the one who lives in me.”

Rather than waiting for peace to “arrive” in our hearts, we can learn to cultivate it.

One Family’s Story (Section 3)

During the years when my children were little, I found myself hungry for time with mothers whose parenting I admired.   Maybe it was because I felt so very ill-equipped for the task, or because the days I spent with my young ones felt sometimes painfully lonely.

Whatever the reasons, I actively sought out friendships with other moms, partly to treat myself to a little bit of grown-up conversation, and partly to glean a little bit of wisdom—especially from moms with children who were a few years ahead of my own. 

Many sweet friendships grew out of this season in my life, including one that continues to bless me today.

Heather and I met nearly 15 years ago when were both part of a community group at Fellowship Church in Knoxville.  At the time, she and her husband, Robert, had two young sons, and I’ll never forget the amazing chocolate chip pound cake she brought when one of our children was born.  Heather was gracious enough to share the recipe, and it’s still my family’s most-requested treat (maybe—just maybe!—I’ll share it sometime).

In addition to being a great cook, a literature-lover (like me), and a genuinely authentic person, Heather was and still is an amazing mother.  I was especially encouraged by her admission that she wasn’t comfortable trying to be “the fun mom” (a feeling I also have).  And although she assures me that she struggles impatience at times, the quiet, matter-of-fact interaction she had with her boys set a memorable example for me. Once, Heather referred to the task of parenting preschoolers as “shepherding,” and I found this image to be a fitting description of Heather herself:  thought she didn’t shy away from clearly expressing her expectations, Heather’s guidance was firm, but gentle and warm.

In one of our many conversations about raising children, Heather mentioned an idea she’d run across in an article—something she referred to as “creative deprivation.”  We spent some time talking about it that afternoon, and it’s a conversation that continues to impact my parenting today.

If you’re thinking “creative deprivation” sounds like a contradiction in terms, you’re absolutely right.  The idea of “creativity” has plenty of appeal, bringing to mind things like freedom, imagination, and self-expression.  “Deprivation,” though, conjures everything from the temporary pang a person feels when skipping dessert to the agony a person experiences when basic nutritional needs are withheld.  Creativity involves experiences people tend to welcome.  But deprivation?  Not so much. 

Why, then, would anyone in her right mind be interested in something called “creative deprivation?”  After all, no one likes being denied the things we want, right?  The experience of "doing without" can bring on a host of feelings that are anything but" pleasant.  When we don’t get what we want—whether we’re a child or a grownup—it can trigger all kinds of unpleasantness, from mild disappointment, to anxiety, to all-out tantrums.

Which is precisely the reason this concept is is worth further consideration—especially when it comes to parenting, but really, for all of us.

Creative deprivation isn’t about withholding what our children need.

It’s being intentional about our children not getting everything they want.

Here are a couple of ways parents might practice a little bit of creative deprivation with their children:

The first has to do with toys.  Rather than keeping out every single one of a toddler’s toys for playtime, pack some away and rotate them every few months. Is he being “deprived” of the toys that are boxed up?  Perhaps.  But limiting the array of toys creates an opportunity for him to more fully enjoy what is available.  It also reinforces the habit of not needing a tremendous number of options in order to be content.  Perhaps most importantly, this practice can cultivate gratitude for even the most simple blessings.  What was “just another toy” sitting unused in his toy-box becomes a “treasure” he’s delighted to play with because it’s only available some of the time.  

The second involves your day-to-day schedule:  Filling your time with fun activities may feel like a good way to help your child develop a wide range of interests.  But you might consider cutting back.  By simplifying your schedule, you are giving your child the opportunity to learn how to occupy and entertain herself without needing to have a schedule that is jam-packed with activities.  And when you do get to enjoy a fun activity, it will be truly a treat, rather than just another outing on the schedule.

There are plenty of ways to add this approach to your parenting toolbox.  The bottom line, though, is creating opportunities for our children to truly enjoy the blessings they already have, rather than constantly feeding their need for more.

It may be counter-intuitive (because what mother doesn’t want her child to be happy?).  And it can definitely be inconvenient (because sometimes it’s just plain easier to give in to your toddler’s request than to help her work through the frustration of hearing your “no”).

But does it make a difference?   

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It’s been many years since my conversations with Heather about parenting our then-young children.  Since that time, her boys have become teenagers, as have my daughter and son.  Plus, Heather and her husband went on to have more children—two more boys!—who are preschoolers.  She and her husband affectionately refer to them as “the littles,” and Heather will admit that her second season of mothering young children has caused her to revisit some of her previously-held ideas about parenting.  She says she’s more relaxed about some things than she had been with her first two boys.  But when I asked her about whether she still practices creative deprivation, she shared this story.

“Our oldest son, Owen, had to wait until he was well into his teenage years before getting his first cell phone.  Even though he was obviously excited about having one, he knew he’d be receiving a hand-me-down from either my husband or me.  Owen was fine with that, and he eagerly anticipated the arrival of his birthday.

“When that day arrived, we surprised him with a brand new phone, and he was absolutely thrilled.  His delight was so much greater because he’d waited so long to actually have his own phone, and also because his expectations were for something less than what he actually received.”

Is Owen the perfect kid, and are his mom and dad the perfect parents?  I think we all know that’s not the case.   But one thing is true:  Because his parents have done the hard work of refusing to over-indulge their children, Owen has learned the valuable skill of being content with what he has.

Some may see this kind of parenting as unnecessarily harsh or even unkind.  But consider this: constantly making sure our children have the latest and greatest thing can breed discontent, ungratefulness, and an attitude of entitlement.  Giving children most everything they want may seem generous on the surface, but it deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to cope when things don’t go their way.  It also deprives parents of our God-given opportunity to come alongside their children, to support them as they learn how to navigate a sometimes-disappointing world, to help them cultivate their own sense of peace by learning to “be content whatever the circumstances may be.”

Your Family’s Story (Section 4)

Today, spend a few minutes remembering the things you’ve read and thought of so far this week.  Then, consider these observations Heather made during my most recent conversation with her:

·      God’s plan looks different for every family, so there is nothing more important than asking Him for discernment about the parenting practices He has for you.  It can be tempting to latch on to the latest parenting trend, or to try out a new method that seems like it might “remedy” a current struggle.  The most important thing any parent can do, though, is pray regularly for guidance and wisdom.

·      Motherhood has a way of compelling us towards comparison: measuring our “effectiveness” against what another mom may be doing; evaluating our child’s behavior or aptitude against that of another child.  But true contentment starts with being content in your own circumstances and identity.  We don’t need to fear or wish away our current circumstances; instead, we can ask God to help us grow in our ability to be satisfied with where He has us right now.

·      Though it sounds obvious, it’s important to remember that God created the person your husband is, including the way he is inclined to parent.  The invitation to peace includes being content with your husband as he is.  Agreeing on how to raise children can create conflict sometimes.  While it’s important to be honest about your convictions and ideas, you also want to let your husband be who God made him to be, and trust God’s ability to direct and guide him in the same way that you want God to guide you.

You've probably already realized that the concept of "creative deprivation" isn't just for children:  it's an important principal for all of us.  Truthfully, this is an area where I continue to need growth, and my hope is to eventually write a companion post encouraging grown-ups to consider applying these concepts in our own lives.  If that thought has crossed your mind, you may enjoy this post from two years ago, in which I describe some of my own struggles around simplicity and intentionality.

Wisdom for the Journey (Section 5)

As you consider whether or not to make any adjustments in your parenting, here are a few things to consider:

*    The chapter on simplicity in Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline provides a deeper discussion of the concepts presented here.

*    Richard Swenson’s Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives is another great book on the topic.

*    One area worth considering involves the impact of our children’s (and our own) heavy reliance on digital media (any kind of screen).  Heather mentioned Sharon Healy’s Endangered Minds: Why Children  Don’t Think and What We Can Do About It as a helpful resource. 

*    Though his writing has more of an academic feel, I found Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains informative.  You can look at a review here, and read another of his articles here. 

*    If anxiety tends to get the best of you sometimes (as it does with me), you may enjoy this post from a few years back.


If you'd like to review the introduction to this parenting study, click here, and follow the links at the end of each post.

Click here for the readings on the first fruit--love.

Click here for the readings on the second fruit--joy.

Click here for the next post on the fourth fruit--longsuffering.