Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Second Fruit: Joy (MNM 6)

Welcome to the next installment of our study on parenting and the fruits of the spirit!  I'm so glad you're back, and know that I've prayed God will use these readings to encourage and equip you during this precious "mothering" season.

If you'd like to review anything we've already covered, you'll find links to previous posts at the bottom of this one.

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Thanks again to Suzanne Stelling for the delicious image.  

 
 Every good and perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights,
who does not change like shifting shadows.
James 1:17 NIV

Soaking in the Scripture (Section 1)

Today, spend some time reflecting on James 1:17.  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 today, or during this particular 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)

First, spend a few minutes with James 1:17.

Now, think about the different arenas of your life—home, relationships, work, neighbors, and church, for example.  If you like, make a list of those different arenas.

Then, with these different areas in mind, consider what you might identify as the gifts you’ve received in these parts of your life.  Write them down, if you like. 

Do these gifts take on a different significance when you view them as originating directly from God’s hand?  Spend some time reflecting on this idea.

Do you find it surprising that James states that every gift—whether it is “perfect” or merely “good”—originates from our heavenly Father?  When you look at the gifts you’ve listed, do some of them seem perfect, while others seem good?

Consider what you would say if someone asked you to define the word “gift.”  How do you describe a gift?  What makes something in your life—an event, an object, an attitude—qualify as a gift?

Perhaps you feel differently, but I tend to think of gifts as experiences that are pleasant and make my life run more smoothly.  This means there are certain experiences—particularly those that are unpleasant or create inconvenience—which I don’t initially identify as gifts.  Do you feel the same way?  What are some of the experiences you struggle to view as gifts?

When you and your family become aware of God having blessed you with a gift, what kinds of things do you do to commemorate or celebrate that occasion?

Keep these reflections as you continue through this week’s material.


One Family’s Story (Section 3)

If you grew up in the church, as I did, you may recall the melody that goes along with these lyrics, which come straight out of Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  And again I say rejoice!
Rejoice!  Rejoice!  And again I say rejoice!
Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!

I’m not sure why, but the youth minister at my home church loved that song.  In fact, I’d bet my friends and I sang those words hundreds of times during our Wednesday night gatherings.  And somewhere along the way, it started getting on my very last nerve—not just because of the (very repetitive!) lyrics and melody.  What made the song even more annoying was this: Paul just seemed so very adamant about telling me to rejoice.  And it didn’t seem to matter whether or not I actually felt any joy.  My “don’t-tell-this teenager-what-to-do” self didn’t like that one bit.

Even though I’m certainly well past my teenage years, I still struggle with the notion of rejoicing—especially during seasons when there doesn’t seem like much to celebrate.  For whatever reason, I tend to think of joy as an emotion that sort of “arrives” in my heart, or as a characteristic that certain people (myself not included) are more inclined to possess.   When I think of joy in this way, Paul’s emphasis on rejoicing feels like a command to act happy even when I’m not.  And since I’ve never been good at faking much of anything, this feels like an expectation that’s practically impossible for me to live up to. 

This view of joy also feels contradictory to what I understand about our heavenly Father; why would a loving God want us to pretend?  Doesn’t His unconditional love make room for us to be honest about how we really feel? 

Besides, how are we supposed to address and resolve the bad things in our lives if all we’re doing is pretending like everything is just hunky-dory?  Isn’t part of our job as responsible, truth-telling Christians to take a good, hard look at our problems so that we can understand them fully and work on them?  And if we don’t, aren’t we setting ourselves up for even more trouble down the road—the kind of trouble that comes from ignoring issues that need attention?  This kind of approach has always felt very risky to me.

I’m guessing it will take the rest of my earthly years for me to fully understand and accept that when Paul calls us to rejoice, he isn’t urging me to pretend, to fake-it-till-I-make it, or to ignore the very real struggles in my life. 

Instead, the call to rejoice is more like a blessed invitation; to rejoice is to give myself permission to give the bulk of my time, energy and attention not to life’s problems, but to the “good and perfect” gifts in my life.  To notice and think about the things that are “true . . . noble . . . right . . . pure . . . lovely . . . admirable . . . excellent or praiseworthy.”  And, more importantly, to celebrate those things.

But what about the times when such gifts seem scarce?

When my children were little, I often scattered Christmas books under the tree during the days leading up to our family celebration.  I loved this tradition because it took the emphasis off gifts and instead reinforced their love for story—something I want to cultivate.  And I’m so grateful for countless memories of sitting on the couch while reading to my two little blonde-headed preschoolers.

One of our favorites was Eugene Peterson’s The Christmas Troll.  In fact, it probably impacted my husband and me more than our children.  Years later, he and I still repeat a line from that story:

“. . . . it is wise to live life expectantly, alert to the surprises of God.” 

This particular idea continues to speak to me for this reason:  so many of my family’s experiences have been—at least on the surface—to be something other than gifts.  Because life, after all, is filled with all kinds of experiences.  Some bring joyful smiles to our faces.  But others range anywhere from slightly inconvenient to excruciatingly painful. 

In light of this reality, I am learning (slowly, and only after multiple repetitions of the same old lesson!) this truth:

Sometimes, the experiences that seem like anything but gifts are actually the most meaningful blessings of all.

The reminder in Peterson’s story could be based on James’ statement that it’s not just the “perfect” gifts that are from our Father’s hand, but also those that qualify as less-than-perfect, but “good.”   Interestingly, the Greek word for “good” is defined as something that could be seen as anything ranging from “pleasant” and “agreeable” to something that is “joyful” or “excellent.  “Good” can also be something that is just plain “useful.”  The word for “perfect” is defined as something that has been “brought to its end” or is “wanting nothing necessary to completeness.”  When we think of gifts according to these definitions, it can broaden our understanding about the many kinds of gifts that God gives us. Some of them cause us to experience deep joy, while others simply meet a practical and perhaps not-so-exciting need.  The fact that some gifts arrive to us as “complete” suggests—at least to me—that other gifts may need the passage of time in order for us to understand their full significance in our lives.

In other words, it’s not just the really shiny, appealing, make-my-life-work-and-look-really-good gifts that are from God; it’s also the more plain-looking, pragmatic, sometimes even-initially-undesirable-gifts.    Those are also from Him, but it can be hard to recognize and value those things unless, as Peterson says, I live “expectantly, alert to the surprises of God.”

The words from Paul, James, and Eugene Peterson remind me about the importance of keeping my eyes wide open in anticipation of God’s gifts, even in the midst of a tough situation:  with a trusting expectancy that God is going to bring along some good surprises.  In choosing this outlook, I am rejoicing.


Your Family’s Story (Section 4)

As you think about where and how these ideas apply to your own family, I encourage you to consider these questions:

·           What kinds of events and experiences does your family celebrate?  What brings you joy?  What are you enthusiastic about? 
·           What are the ways you commemorate those events and experiences?
·           What kinds of unwanted, unpleasant, or even frightening circumstances are part of your family’s life right now—for you, your spouse, your children, your extended family? 
·           How do you talk about more difficult events and experiences with your family members?  How do you think about them yourself?
·           What kinds of expectations do these situations create in your heart and mind?  Do you tend to self-protect by expecting the worst?  Or are you able to open yourself to the possibility of God surprising you with a blessing in the midst of hardship?
·           Do you allow “the surprises of God” to impact you in a meaningful way?  How might you acknowledge and even celebrate such gifts, both privately, and in relationship with your family?
·           What might be keeping you from identifying and/or celebrating these surprises?  Ask God to speak into any hesitation you feel about choosing this kind of perspective.
·           What are some practical ways you can cultivate a sense of joy and wonder in the “surprises of God” in your own spiritual life, and with your family?  What fits for your family?

Wisdom for the Journey (Section 5)

One friendly reminder:  This section is intended to provide a few practical, “hands-on” parenting tips related to this month’s focus.  So as you consider them, please know: the goal isn’t to make your “to-do list” any longer than it already is, which means that some of these ideas may be helpful, but some may not be.

You may recall in my September talk that the spiritual fruit of joy manifests itself in these qualities:  creativity, curiosity and love for learning, enthusiasm/zest, appreciation of beauty, and humor.

When you look at that list, do you feel a spark of interest about how to cultivate one or two of them?  (That very spark, by the way, is actually curiosity!)  If so, the information below is for you.

*     When my children were home, I found that their creativity occurred more naturally during blocks of time that were unrushed and unplanned.  This means that it’s just fine to have days when your children are home with no structured activities.  Try turning off the tv, and instead, scatter some kid-friendly items around the room (blocks, balls, random toys they haven’t seen in awhile).  Or open your drawer of (unbreakable) pots and pans, and see what happens.  This kind of play is where a child’s creative juices can flow, and it is where a great deal of learning takes place.  For a fascinating interview on what happens when children play, click here.

   Although it can be tiring to field the 500-dozen “why” questions that a young child can generate (and it certainly fine to let your child know that mama’s brain needs a “time out” from answering questions), remember that expressing curiosity about things is evidence that your child is engaged with the world around him/her and wants to know more.  Noticing, affirming, and sometimes participating when your child shows curiosity is a valuable parenting strategy.

   Children are natural “celebrators” of life’s small blessings, so don’t be afraid to be enthusiastic with them.  Jump up and down when someone is happy about something.  Sing a song together, clap your hands, or do the happy dance.  

*     Sometimes our family has used the month of November to acknowledge the blessings in our lives.  I purchase paper leaf cutouts from a craft store (sorry all you do-it-your-self-ers, I don't cut out my own) and keep them at the dinner table with markers or crayons.  Then each family member gets to write or draw a picture of one blessing from that day.  Sometimes I hang them on the windows around my table, sometimes I make a wreath and attach the leaves to it, and one year I even made a tree trunk from construction paper and put it on the wall of our living room, so that we could cover it with our "thankful" leaves.  By the end of the month, we've lost count of the leaves we have, which is a great visual picture of how many blessings we receive.

   Be intentional about watching for and celebrating the beauty around you—whether it's the fall leaves, the scattering of freckles across your preschooler’s nose, a lovely bowl of soup, amazing architecture, or a catchy song on the radio.  I'm more of a worker-bee personality, so this one is hard for me. But I'm learning (slowly) the tremendous value in pausing and noticing--letting the weight of beauty really sink in.  Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts:  A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are has been helpful for me.  There is a daily devotional version as well.

   Someone once said that laughter is the shortest distance between two hearts.  With that in mind, see what causes your child (and you) to giggle, and look for opportunities to laugh together.  Try and remember amusing things that happen throughout the day, and share those stories with your family when you're sharing a meal or a car-ride.  Speaking of driving together, playing music in the car (which, by the way, is *hands-down* a better choice than having your little ones watch videos while you drive) can make car-time not only enjoyable but maybe even a relationship-building experience.  We love Justin Roberts, Elizabeth Mitchell, and (get ready for a massive throw-back) Raffi.  Curious?  Grab your little one, snuggle up, click here, and see if you don't do a little giggling together while you watch this silly video.
*     Meal-time is also a great opportunity to celebrate the joy-giving occurrences of the day.  Here are a few great questions to ask while you're sitting around the table:  Who is someone in your life that you appreciate?  Why?  What went well for you today, and why?  For a more thorough explanation about the psychological benefits of these practices, click here.

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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.

Ready to move on to the next part of the study on peace?  Click here.

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