Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Problems: When We Can Bear them no More

I’ve been intensively reading through the Old Testament to get a better understanding of the whole counsel of Scripture.  The Old Testament disturbs me, but what I like about it is the variety of stories of God interacting with His people.  The Lord is creative and He doesn’t always do things the exact same way, but there are similarities with how He works in both the Old and the New Testaments.

One of the stories that troubles me most is in Exodus 5.  God had told Moses to confront  Pharaoh and tell him to release the Isrealites from slavery.  This made Pharaoh angry and he responds by giving more work to the Hebrews with less help from the Egyptians.   When the slaves can’t pull off the extra labor, the foremen are beaten.

This is the part I can hardly take, and neither could Moses.  Lash after lash, whip after whip imposed on the people of God because Moses obeyed the Lord.  The suffering is carried out by non-believers, but God let it happen, is primarily responsible, and let his prophet squirm: “Then Moses turned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, why have you done evil to this people?  Why did you ever send me?’” (vs. 22)  And this is the tension we see over and over in the Scriptures: God allowing and being directly responsible for the pain of His people.  There are four observations about this principle I’d like to make:

1).An individual will suffer intensely for a period of time because of a corporate purpose.
            I don’t like this but it’s true.  An individual Isrealite got beaten but his entire family got spared from slavery later.  In the New Testament, John the Baptist suffered in jail and by death.  Jesus didn’t go to His own cousin and save his life; instead He went about the town healing crowds and performing miracles.  And Jesus sent word to John in Luke 7:23 saying “blessed is the one who isn’t offended by me.”  Basically he said, “John, you are blessed if you still believe me even though I am physically take care of others instead of you.”  And to this day John the Baptist is an example to many who are hated by the world.  It only matters what Jesus thinks of a person, and of His imprisoned, dirty cousin He said “that’s the greatest man ever born.”

2) Suffering is meant to be temporary.
            There is a fascination these days among evangelicals who equate suffering and worthiness to be a disciple of Christ.  I have heard individuals and pastors pray that God would allow us to suffer in order to bring Him more glory.  In my opinion, these people do not know what they are asking.  They are actually trying to be better than Jesus.  When the Son of God faced the horrendous cross He basically said, “Father, if there is any way, get me out of this.  But ultimately let what You want be done and not what I want.”
            The truth is, we can’t physically undergo suffering on this earth for long periods of time.   We will either die or be relieved.  Jesus suffered horribly for a few days.  He lives in eternity with all the riches of Heaven.  Jesus only spent 33 years of His eternal life messing with our junk-- the rest of His life is posh!  Those who follow Him will mimic His pain but more so His pleasure.  My own prayer is not that God would “let” me suffer for His sake, but that I will be obedient no matter what wonderful or horrible circumstance comes my way.  Obedience is what brings God glory, not suffering.

3) God usually brings relief right after the sufferer hits despair.
            I’m sure it was not fun to be the Egyptians’ slaves.  Although not ideal, slavery was manageable because the Isrealites were provided with food, water, and shelter.  The work was burdensome, but they were physically able to get the jobs done.  Being beaten was nearly unbearable, so was the insurmountable amount of extra work that was laid upon them.  This is what drove them to cry out more.  And this is when the Isrealites went from crying out to God to crying against God.  When believers get to that point where they are tempted to question God’s work or if He cares, or if He’s timely and attentive, that’s usually the signal they will soon watch God do the impossible.  This happened in the New Testament with Lazarus’ sisters.  These sisters had just watched their brother die.  Jesus didn’t go to comfort them immediately or heal their brother on purpose.  He actually said, “for your sake I am glad I was not there.”  Jesus intentionally let His friends suffer so that they would believe His power to raise the dead. Jesus always has more than the physical stuff in mind.  He’s got a spiritual plan that He’s working.  Our breaking points will turn into our belief and proof if we will keep our eyes open to what God is doing.
            I don’t know why God does this but I just know He does: he often lets His people go without earthly needs and will only give to them when they ask.  The Isrealites complained over and over that God didn’t feed them in time, or give them water promptly.  But God said all they had to do was ask.  The New Testament confirms this.  James 4:2 “You do not have, because you do not ask.”  And if we aren’t getting what we ask for, maybe it’s because we don’t want to honor God with what we are asking for.  If all we want to do is consume, God is not obligated to contribute.  So we often spend our time complaining against God and arguing with other people.  Here’s the challenge: you need physical provisions so you can live?  Ask for them.  You want to be debt free so you can give?  Ask God.  Keep asking.  And keep obeying.  You want a God-glorifying marriage?  Ask for one.   But if all you want is to be pampered and treated like a queen while your husband does the work…well, good luck with that.  (What’s amazing is that even in a case where the marriage fails beyond one person’s control, God gets the glory by the one person’s obedience throughout the marriage.)
            Do you find yourself continually arguing with a family member, boss, co-worker or God?  There’s a way to get what you want, if you can look past your selfish ambition.  The first step out of an argument is asking:  God’s people need to learn how to ask and what to ask for.

4) In almost every believer’s life, there will be seasons of both protection and pain.
            Those individual beatings of the Isrealite foremen were the last incidences of oppression done by the Egyptian taskmasters.  After this incident, God sends a number of plagues—that ONLY affected Pharaoh’s people.  The Hebrews were in a protective bubble watching pests bother and destroy other parts of the land, hail and darkness cover the Egyptians property but not their own, others die while they lived, and being amidst the sick while they stayed healthy.  Our New Testament Paul discovered this and writes about it in Phil 4:12 “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”

And now for my big understatement: Suffering is hard.  There are a lot of questions I won’t have answered until Heaven.  But the Bible teaches me that there’s a story being written about each of our lives.  Bad stuff is going to happen.  More good stuff is going to happen.  And in my own story, I’m either going to crumble or carry on.  I’ll keep complaining or I’ll learn to be content in a God who is in control.  I will pout or I will persevere.  And when the end of my life draws near, I want to be one of the many who hear, “well done.  You didn’t give up on Me.”

Monday, October 22, 2012

How to Raise Smart Kids

I have been hesitant to write this blog because people could easily misunderstand me.  In order to write something with the title “How to Raise Smart Kids,” I  
1) claim to have smart kids
2) have the audacity to tell other parents how to produce intelligent children

But that’s exactly what I am doing, writing, and proposing.  You can put your Baby Einstein videos away.  You can stop worrying about the best academic program to put your potential child prodigy in.  This blog is the last thing you will ever have to read for your future valedictorian, engineer, businessman/woman, lawyer, doctor, teacher, advocator, or minister.

I’m not going to tell you how to make your kid the smartest.  We seem to have an obsession in our culture with being the best.  This information is not to teach you how to make your kids better than mine, because of course, that would undercut the very thing I am trying to do with my own kids. I am going to pass on what the Bible says about raising intelligent and capable future leaders.  James 3:13-16 says:

“Who is wise and intelligent among you?  By his good conduct let him show his good works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

How do you raise smart kids?  The question for most Christians parents I know is not “how do we make our kids even smarter?” The question we need to be asking ourselves is “how do we make our kids better servers?”  Most of the people I know have some smarties in their family. We’ve got to teach our kids not to use their God-given capacities for selfish ambition.  Our kids can compete.  They should maximize their skills.  They should grow in all areas of their lives like Jesus did. (Luke 2:52)  But they should do so to further open opportunities to serve others and bring glory to God—not themselves.  Their intelligence should not only be displayed by their test scores, but by their good behavior, which proves they love God and other people.  Their actions should be carried out in meekness (strength under control).  And if a peer beats them out in a race or competition, we need to teach our children how to be happy for others’ success.  Because jealousy is demonic.  Jealousy threatens the unity of believers.  Jealousy keeps us from “weeping with those who weep” and “rejoicing with those rejoice.”  Jealousy is what Lucifer felt when he got himself kicked out of heaven.  In short, jealousy is stupid.

Christians, let’s not raise stupid kids.  The smartest, most intelligent people use their brain power to gain wisdom and produce good works that benefit the world, not just themselves.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"Hey Mom, did you ever......?"

Thanks to comments made by people who have known me for a long time, my oldest daughter has had a curious interest in my teenage life before her Daddy.  Some of my life mishaps between the ages of 16 and 19 are down-right hilarious (now but not then).   I've got plenty of crazy stories, but there are some I’d rather not tell my own children.  I wish I would have treated others more kindly, made better decisions, and not entangled myself with certain people or fleshly desires. 

When our children ask us about the realities of the past, we have questions of our own to quickly wade through.  Will we tell them or will we not?  Will they use our mistakes as excuses to make more of their own?  Will they respect us less once they find out we didn’t always live up to the standard we hold them to?

A year ago, my kids learned that I spray-painted my uncle’s wall as a child.  They were stunned I would do such a thing, but that didn’t make them want to graffiti our own home.  That experience helped motivate me to be honest with them.  I have decided to freely talk about my own mistakes/sins to my kids in the appropriate times and to the extent that they can maturely understand them.  Here’s why:

1)      They need to see why Mommy needed a Savior.
2)      I want them to see with their own eyes how God works through imperfect people.
3)      I do not want to set an example of being shackled by shame.
4)      I’m expecting the end of my life to be better than the start.
5)      WHEN my kids mess up, I want them to know who to talk to.  Their imperfect mother will understand how to come to the Lord, ask forgiveness, correct mistakes, make restitutions and better decisions the next time.

This week, I’ve learned that friends and family members with good memories are a two-edged sword.   I would like to think better of myself than I really was.  But no—they have the stories to prove otherwise.  While a pain, I’m glad they are in my life to keep me humbleJ and real.  I’ve also come up a great parenting philosophy that I will continually speak to my children:

“Kids, do as I do, not as I did.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

Guilt: One Mother's Story

I sat across the restaurant table from my precious sister-in-Christ rejoicing about her new-found life in Jesus while simultaneously grieving about the pain she had to work through.  “Jane” had become a Christian just a few short months ago, and I counted it a privilege to have a front-row seat to her journey of faith and freedom.  “You know,” she contemplated with tears in her eyes, “I know I’m forgiven.  I can accept that for most of the things I did.  I’m not proud of being a waitress at a topless bar, but I can get over that.  But there’s this one image I can not get out of my mind.  One night, my husband and I were wasted on the couch.  My son stood at the top of the stairs yelling ‘Mom! Dad!  Feed me!!!  I’m starving!’   Tonya, I wouldn’t even feed my children.  I did not care.  There were so many days my kids were left to fend for themselves, making themselves ramen noodles while I fed my own drug addiction.  I can not forgive myself.”

What do you say in a scenario like that?  The darkness is evident—no right-thinking mother wants this to happen to her children.  How do you get over this guilt?  One doesn’t forget these types of things--that image will linger in her mind for years to come.  But it doesn’t have to haunt her forever.  Here are some ways to work through the sins we’ve committed that carry huge life consequences.

1.)    Rejoice that you now see clearly.
          Jane did not feel guilty when she actually WAS guilty.  The very fact that she can now feel guilty is a sign that she can finally see the difference between right and wrong.  Her conscience is no longer seared; she has moved from “dark” to “light”.

2.)    Understand what controlled you then and now.
          In Jane’s case, she was controlled by drugs.  They overpowered her every decision.  Now, she is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  As she continues to walk in the Spirit, she will yield to a different Master who will teach her love, mercy, service, kindness, and self-control.

3.)   Stop trying to forgive yourself.
           The reason so many people have trouble forgiving themselves is because the Bible doesn’t tell us to.  We are to accept God’s forgiveness that He extends to us, accept forgiveness from those we’ve wronged, and then extend that same mercy to others.

4.)    Use guilt as your motivator.
Guilt is useful as a safeguard and indicator, as I discussed earlier.  But once the damage is done, we can not repay what has been lost.  We can’t “make-up” for sin.  In Jane’s case, she doesn’t now need to feed her kids whatever they want whenever they want, buy them excessive toys to make up for her past neglect, or excuse any bad behavior now or in the future.  She needs to use that past life as fuel for the next life, like Paul did.  When someone carries out the desires of her flesh, she will neglect and abuse even those that she loves.  How much more motivated then, should we be to carry out the commands of the life-giving Word of God?  I told Jane to keep that image of her son on the stairs.  Next time she wants to fall down in depression over past transgressions, she can use that image to remind her of how she really needs to be nourishing her children.  “Your children will never be able to articulate their need for spiritual food like they can physical food.  But when the soul is neglected, this is the type of desperation our kids feel.  Feed them Jane.  From here on out, teach them the Bible.  Teach them about God.  Teach them about Jesus’ forgiveness and freedom and that we no longer have to be slaves to the things of the world.  Feed your kids the love and mercy that God has given you.”

I can happily say that Jane did and she does.  As she would read the Bible to her kids, it would be the first time that she had read it for herself.  Occasionally she’d email or call because a passage blew her mind, or a kid asked a question that she didn’t know the answer to.  Jane’s questions about God and the Bible taught me so much, and challenged me to find good answers to complicated passages.  She was reading and learning with fresh eyes and a curious spirit.   She once felt the heavy weight of condemnation, but is now motivated to live a God-centered life where the “yoke is easy and the burdens are light.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Musings and Memories: what money can't make

Though both my husband and I have college degrees and beyond, we certainly haven’t chosen a life with lots of moolah.  We were parents early in life, and there have been occasional moments in my children’s youngest years where I was sad about the inability to provide more material things.  As I reflect on those years, I’m satisfied that we had memories with our children that money can’t buy.

Our seminary days were cramped, but filled with creative experiences.  There were days my husband was sleeping in one room (he worked at night), the children I babysat were in the other beds, and my own kids would have to take their naps in random places on the floor.  But those were the fun times we “camped out”.  My son’s only recollection of those years is his mother chasing lizards and mice in the house--he misses those educational moments.  Years later, my husband and I didn’t muster up the cash for a privacy fence.  It was highly inconvenient for me to go outside every time the kids did, but without the “wall” we mixed and mingled with our neighborhood more frequently.  We have yet to purchase our kids play-set equipment for the yard, but I wouldn’t trade the times we had to go to the public parks—those conversations with friends and strangers were priceless and free.

My latest want, and soon-to-be-need, is another van (the old one burst into flames, remember?).   We currently have two 5-passenger vehicles, which means the three kids pile into the back-row seat.  This small vehicular contraption creates intense moments of loud noise, occasional pokes and punches, and strange smells.  Bucket seats and space would give me peace, but they wouldn’t give me the chuckle I had tonight.  Join our family in the latest car-ride conversation:

As we pile in the car, I remind my son to let his sister in first.
Son: “Ladies first doesn’t make sense.  It doesn’t even rhyme.  It should be ladies last.”
Daughter 1:  “That’s alliteration.”
Son:  “Well, whatever.  It should be fellas first and ladies last.”
D1: “Nope.  Sorry.  Females first.”
                (horrid smell)
Son: “UGH! Who took off their shoes?”
D1: “Let’s have a stinky feet contest!!”  (giggle, giggle, feet go flying)
Daughter 2: “oh….wait….I can’t catch my breath.”
D1: “Mom!  Roll the windows back up, you’re letting our stink out!”
A few minutes later, “ah man, our feet aired out.  Next game: baddest breath.”

It would be nice to have bucket seats with the kids spread more than arms’ length apart. I am certainly not opposed to buying equipment, fences, and vehicles to make life less complicated.   But I have to wonder what opportunities, creativity, and conversations I would miss if I could have afforded my comfort along the way.  I've come to realize that most disadvantages have advantages somehow in the mix, and I relish those disturbances that have alliterations somewhere in the making.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Guilt: True or False

A few nights ago, I awoke to an annoying beeping sound.  I stumbled around the house to figure out what the noise was, located the smoke detector, and attempted to solve the problem.  The battery needed changing, but at 3:00 in the morning, I wasn’t coordinated enough to pull off the detector’s cover.  Being the good wife and mother that I am, I took the next logical step.  I shut all the bedroom doors, put a pillow over my head, went back to sleep, and let my husband change out the battery the next day.

Maybe I should have made stronger attempts to rouse myself and get the battery changed that night, but in a home full of solid sleepers, there was really no need.   The smoke alarm was not going off, my household was not in danger, I didn’t leave anything burning on the stove (this time), and there was no fire.  The beeping sound was an indicator—not that flames would engulf my house but that a simple battery needed to be replaced.

And so it is with guilt.  As discussed earlier, guilt can be your safeguard.  Guilt can be the incessant, blaring smoke alarm that warns you “get out of the house or burn”, and it can also be the quiet, yet unavoidable steady beep of the smoke detector indicating the need for a change.   There are times you feel guilty because you are guilty, and there are times you feel guilty because your standard or expectation for yourself is different from the Bible’s standard.

Here’s a short list of the reasons parents (particularly mothers) feel a false sense of guilt:

  • the child doesn’t act in the way he or she has been taught
  • your parents, in-laws, or friends tell you what you should or should not be doing as a parent (and there is no biblical/medical/legal basis for their opinions)
  • your child is sick due to something you did not cause
  • you made a bad decision because you did not have the correct information and were not capable of obtaining it
  • you were not able to provide something beneficial to your child due to lack of funds, resources, capabilities, or skills beyond your control
  • you made an extra-biblical standard for yourself and failed to keep it

Anytime you start to feel the twinges or beeping sounds of guilt, you have got to access the problem.  Figure out if you need to repent and change your course of action, or if you just need to “change your battery.”  Take inventory and ask yourself “Where is this guilt coming from?  Do my standards line up with God’s?  Are my expectations of myself the same as God’s expectations of me?  Am I listening to other voices when I should be listening to God’s voice alone?”

Picture yourself in God’s courtroom on judgment day.   It is both a frightening and freeing thing to be in the presence of God when all of your sin, thoughts, and deeds are exposed before the Judge.  But take heart, your own child will not be present as your prosecuting attorney.  Neither will your child be your defense lawyer.  This means that your child’s opinion matters greatly in your relationship with him or her, but it means nothing in your relationship between you and God.  Your eternal case will not have a summoned jury consisting of parents, in-laws, friends, pastors, or authors.  Your spouse will not be there as your bailiff, keeping order in this court.  Neither do you get to be your own caseworker, advocating your own case.  You alone will stand before God, your Judge.  He will spread your words of this life before you (Matt 12:36-37) to see if your heart practiced bitterness or forgiveness.  He will spread your works before you to see if they were produced by a heart of fear or faith.  Those who rejected God in this life will be shown all of their sin and cast into hell by the Judge (John 12:48).  But…those who have trusted Jesus have another person in the courtroom.  Hebrews 9:27-28 tells about our advocate and mediator: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

Fellow Christians, please do not freak out when guilt arises.  Do not over-react.  There is no cause for alarm because the fire has been put out.  Do not run around guilt-ridden.  Learn to walk in the Spirit by changing your battery, replacing all of your standards, expectations, and opinions with the only One that matters.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Update: answered prayers

I'm working on part 3 of my blog on guilt, but wanted to give an update because so many people have prayed for me/us the last two weeks. 

A couple weeks ago, I wrote here asking that people would pray specifically for my daughter.  She is struggling being the "new girl" and misses her friends/and old life in Fort Smith.  Two or three events have happened that really helped her meet and feel comfortable with other kids her age.  We just so "happened" to be in the right place at the right time.

Many of you know Mrs. Sue.  She corresponded with me some, and wrote, "Praying your daughter has someone new move into her room."  Well, guess what?  Yesterday, a girl switched from another class into my daughter's.  This makes 8 girls in her class--an even number.  I don't know if they'll be friends or not, but that's not the point.  There is an even number of kids in my daughter's class, and now she doesn't feel like the odd one out.  Our daughter has a long way to go, but even her teacher wrote me and said she seemed lighter and happier this week.

I've learned and been reminded about several things through this situation:

1) I should be quicker to ask for prayer.  That takes humility on my part that I don't always have.

2) God is ready to give good things to His children.  I don't have because I don't ask.

3) It's not prayer that automatically "works".  God is powerful and He works in His timing.

4) God has a mysterious way of moving when petitioned by older, wiser, godly people.  This also happened to me when I first moved to Fort Smith.  We were fresh out of seminary, and I needed a part-time job to help with living expenses.  Mrs. Sue's husband Arliss, sat across the table from McDonald's and prayed that a church would hire me to do college ministry.  I almost laughed.  I said "Arliss, you know I love ministry.  But no church is going to hire a mom with three kids and no seminary degree to do college ministry."  The next week, Pastor Jeff called me into his office and told me to help the church and help my husband at the BCM, and he didn't care who got the credit.  For two years, my kids had no idea that I "worked".  They thought college and singles had parties at our house and that we went to the church office to get candy from the ladies' desks.

5) I plan on returning to paid work in January now that all of our kids are in school.  Arliss and Sue are among the first people I want praying for that job. 

In all seriousness, I am extremely grateful for my friends who think about me and pray for me.  What a privilege to be a part of the body of Christ.