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Posts Tagged ‘Encouragement For Moms’

I’ve shared on this blog before how God gave me a new spiritual name in my 20’s to symbolize the different direction he was taking me. For the first 21 years of my life my name was Ability. Much of my life was on a stage singing, acting, dancing, or speaking. But then God began to take me off the stage so he could root me in my faith and deepen my relationship with him. During this season my name was Availability, which is my old name – Ability – with my literal new married name, Vail. For the past 21 years I have sought to simply be available to be used by God whenever and wherever he wants to use me. I have mostly done short ministry assignments in a variety of places in the church, as well as homeschooling my children and occasionally blogging.

However, around the time of my 42nd birthday, last summer, God began to move mountains in my life. He released me from homeschooling my oldest child which forced me to face every fear I’d ever had about him in the weeks leading up to his return to public school. The voice of the enemy was so deafening in my ear with shouts of fear, but because of how close God had been to me earlier in the summer during the 6 weeks my mom was on hospice before she died, I knew that if God could sustain me while I was taking care of her, he could certainly take care of my son in school. However, the power of God to silence that screaming voice of fear was not activated until the day before my son started school, when I taught my Sunday School class the lesson God had been teaching me on parenting out of faith instead of fear. God’s power in our life is often activated by our voice when we speak in agreement with him.

It was then that I first discovered the power of my new name, Avail. The “Ability” part of Availability has been dropped because, frankly, whatever abilities I bring to the table don’t matter to me anymore. I’m not interested in being praised for my abilities – a former stronghold of mine. As I move into this third segment of my life (which, interestingly, can clearly be divided into segments of 21 with 3 distinct seasons of 7 years in each), God’s priority for my life is that my words and prayers avail much for the kingdom. It’s not my stage; it’s His. The word avail means

to be of use; have force or efficacy; serve; help
to be of value or profit

The root, which happens to be my last name, Vail, comes from the Latin valēre, to be of worth.

It’s no surprise, then, that the enemy first attacked me in my youth with the stronghold of insecurity. If God intended for my words and life to avail much for the kingdom – to be of value or profit – the enemy needed me to question my worth, or at least link it to my abilities so that when I failed or was no longer in the spotlight, I would doubt my value. However, as I activated my new name by speaking the truth over my life – the truth that I am of worth because Jesus died for me, and I was created for a purpose that God will accomplish in and through me – the enemy lost his power to bind me with fear. You and I were created to avail much. Our words have efficacy, which means “the ability to produce a desired or intended result.” If God has given you a promise for your life, don’t just think it, speak it! When the enemy comes against you with fear, boldly speak the truth and promises of God with praise and thanksgiving, and the enemy will flee!

Speaking God’s truth and promises over my son – that he is God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for him to do (Eph. 2:10), and that God will finish the good work he started in him (Phil. 1:6) – silenced the voice of fear. It also activated those promises in my son’s life. I have never seen him thrive and flourish like he has since the school year started. God’s hand is on him in a mighty way, healing him and maturing him in every way. God is blessing him and our relationship with him. Hallelujah!

Parents, what I’m about to share may be a hard pill to swallow, but here is what God’s been showing me about our words. When we believe God and speak his truth over our kids, it activates his blessings in their lives. If you read through the Old Testament, you’ll find several accounts of parents speaking blessings over their children (Noah, Isaac, and Jacob, to name a few). People brought their children to Jesus so that he could bless them. These blessings had power and efficacy. However, when we listen to the voice of the enemy – which often comes as the voice of fear – and speak words over our children in agreement with our fears, we are unintentionally speaking curses.

“Stop acting so weird or you’ll never have any friends,” we say to our child in agreement with the voice of our fear. And so the child becomes fearful of other people, wondering if people are rejecting him. As a result, he withdraws and becomes overly self-conscious. And ends up with no friends. Cursed by our words of fear voiced over him. 

One of the hardest things God’s called me to do this year is apologize to my son for agreeing with my fears and speaking curses over him. God told me, when he was 4 years old and in the midst of major upheaval in his behavior, that he would be all right. (And because God is always consistent, he spoke that same promise again recently.) However, for the past 10 years the voice of fear has often gotten the best of me, and I’ve reacted and parented out of fear that what I was seeing was going to be a forever thing instead of just a phase. (How do you know if you’re parenting out of fear? You’ll know it’s fear when you feel like you need to control your child’s behavior. There’s a difference between teaching our kids self-control and being just plain controlling.)

When my son started public high school, I wanted to talk to his teachers about his Dysgraphia because I feared that his writing difficulty would hinder him from finishing his work on time, but my son didn’t want me to. The reason why God also said no was because he knew that phase was over and there is nothing hindering him in his writing anymore. I honestly believe that had I kept speaking it over him, it would have continued to plague him, which is why God said, “Enough! Start believing and acting like you trust Me that if I say he’s okay, he’s okay.”

God’s revealed to me that my son and I were meant to be 2 threads woven together in a beautiful tapestry for the dual purpose of teaching me how to love and accept someone who is unlike me, and also speak words of encouragement to other moms of kids who don’t fit into the world’s mold. He gave me a precious, quirky boy who was meant to be different – and we were to delight in it.

This is now one of our favorite photos, depicting our epic failure as parents to recognize that 4-year-old soccer was not our sons jam. He was so miserable, but we learned our lesson not to assume anything with this kid!

This is now one of our favorite photos, depicting our epic failure as parents to recognize that 4-year-old soccer was not our son’s jam. He was so miserable, but we learned our lesson not to assume anything with this kid!

However, the enemy also had a plan to spin a web of fear between my son and me, so that every time I ran headlong into fear I would attach that web to him and myself, thus tangling us up in a sticky mess. Every time I voiced my fear, and spoke words in agreement with it, we got more and more entangled in the web. But God, in his grace and mercy, has not only delivered me from the stronghold of fear through voice-activated faith, he has been untangling us from that ugly web. Glory to God!

Thankfully, the way into that mess was also the way out. When I apologized to my son for sticking that web on him, I said, “I revoke the curses I have unintentionally spoken over you.” I then laid my hands on him and began to speak blessings. I blessed him in every area of his life I could think of where I used to be filled with fear. I blessed his education, his friendships, his marriage someday, his work; everything God brought to my mind, I agreed with God’s good plan and spoke it.

I want my words to avail much for God’s kingdom and in the lives of my children. God’s word tells us that we will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:20). Our words have efficacy, especially in the lives of our children. Oh God, consecrate our mouths so that we speak blessings, not curses. May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You.

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As we pulled up to the stop sign, my 12-year-old daughter spoke up from the passenger seat, “Mom, this is where we turn.” Yes, sweetheart, I know that. A few minutes later I heard, “Mom, turn right.” What in the world of driving has gotten into this girl! Am I suddenly incapable of navigating the town I’ve lived in for 35 years because my daughter is now 12?

This behavior continued for about a week until God gave me some insight into what was prompting her to act this way. As my daughter was, once again, telling me how to drive, I said, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been telling me how to drive lately. Is this because you’re wanting to let me know that you know how to get around town now?” She sheepishly smiled and said, “Yes.” I then praised her for her navigational skills, but let her know that she need not tell me where to go anymore.

However, there was more to it than that. Her driving commentary was really her way of saying, “Mom, I’m ready for more responsibility. I’m capable of doing more than I currently am. I need a challenge.” It’s hard to listen to what our kids mean to say when we’re distracted by our irritation over what actually comes out of their mouths. (Can I get an amen!) But when we answer the deep, unspoken need of a child’s heart, it has a way of correcting the child’s actions for us. Only God knows what that need is, but he will tell us if we ask (James 1:5). In my daughter’s case, she needed to be given more responsibility over her life.

From “B” Word to Blessing
Before I go any further with how this was accomplished, I want to say a word to fellow parents of strong, capable girls. For the love of our daughters’ futures, could we please stop calling them the “B” word, bossy? If we label our daughter’s gifts negatively, she will feel like who she is at her core is wrong, and that if she tries to use her gifts she will be rejected. Our strong girl – who was meant to make a difference in the world – will whither up and shrink back in fear, never fulfilling the purpose for which she knows she’s created. When a girl who is endowed by her Creator with gifts of leadership, administration, and organization is trying out these gifts by exerting them in inappropriate ways (say, over her big brother), we need to redirect her gifts in positive ways and give her something appropriate to be in charge of, such as a pet or a household chore that she desires (like cooking a meal or helping to plan a vacation). We can bring out the best in her by prayerfully giving her as much responsibility over her own life as is appropriate for her. (My daughter has had way more responsibility at each age than her older brother because she desired it and could handle it.)

Let Her Decide How Much Responsibility She Wants
The trick is to not burden her with more than she desires, just because she’s capable of shouldering responsibility. I’ve been guilty of this many times with my daughter, and she lets me know when she would like to just be a little girl for a season. And that’s okay. We went through one of those seasons last fall, when her brother went back to public school. I realized that because she was capable of doing the same level of work as her older brother, she’d already done the middle school curriculum I had, but she was not ready for high school in 7th grade! So we took a semester off of academics and focused on building relationship. I let her be a little girl (which she kinda missed out on for a few years) and played games with her, baked, did crafts (by the grace of God because oh how I hate crafts), read, found new piano music to learn, and went on long walks and shopping trips. It was a precious time for both of us.

Let Her Be In Charge of Herself
But that season ended in December. By January, she was ready to stretch her wings. So rather than let her take over my driving, I put her in the driver’s seat of her own education. I decided to pull out all our school materials and set them in piles by subject. I invited her to look through each pile and pick out her curriculum, then with a little direction from me she designed a learning plan for herself. The keyword I want to emphasize is herself. Before she can be in charge of anyone else – and she likely will be one day, because she has a desire and gifting to do so – she must learn how to be in charge of herself. The more opportunities she has to make her own choices, the happier she is and the more confidence she gains in her ability to make plans and follow through.

Oh the power of boxes to check off!

Oh the power of boxes to check off!

Provide Encouragement and Accountability 
The result of my turning over her education completely to her is that she now writes her daily assignments in a planner each morning, then checks them off as she does them without any reminders from me. Strong, capable, self-directed girls are a blessing! (I just ate a bite of a delicious peanut butter banana muffin she baked all by herself this morning. She is a truly a gift from God!) On Friday, we either have an afternoon tea time or take a walk together to discuss what she’s learning. As I give her responsibility, I must be careful to hold her accountable. She needs to know that what she does matters and will be noticed. (Don’t we all?) I also check in with her periodically throughout the day to see if she has any questions or would like additional resources. I am her mentor, but she is learning how to teach herself.

Reward Her with More Responsibility According to Her Desires
My daughter is now practicing her administrative and organizational skills in appropriate ways, and her reward for taking on more responsibility is that she gets to plan a family fun night at the end of each month because she loves to plan parties. And because that’s how God rewards us. When we prove faithful with little, he gives us even more responsibility and opportunities to grow our talents (see the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30).

Oh Lord, help us to see what’s really going on inside our kids and listen to what they mean – not just what they say – so we can train them up in the way they should go and faithfully develop the gifts you gave them. Give us godly wisdom and discernment to know when to pull them in tight and when to release them to fly. Show us how to reward them with more opportunities for responsibility when they are faithful with little, so they will mature into the beautiful creations you designed them to be. Thank you for loving our kids and faithfully giving us the direction we need at just the right time.

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Less than a week after my mom’s funeral, the countdown to sending my homeschooled son to public high school began to tick louder, drowning out one grief with the sound of another. I’m not ready! He’s not ready! I’ve somehow got to cram ALL THE THINGS into the few weeks before school starts. Otherwise, I may get my report card as a homeschooler and find an F!

Fear. It’s a powerful emotion – especially when the fear is that we’ve failed our kids. It makes us do crazy things like ruin the last few weeks of summer vacation undoing all the years of allowing your child to discover who he is apart from his peers by suddenly reversing course and trying to make him “fit in.” (Lord, have mercy.) Fear makes us bombard our children with criticism and so many instructions that they begin to second-guess all their instincts. Parental love that has been warped by fear often turns into toxic control of every aspect of our kids’ lives, robbing them of valuable opportunities to learn through trial and error. Thankfully, God gently smacked me upside the head with a copy of Parenting with Love and Logic from the thrift store, with the “knock off what you’re doing” messages conveniently highlighted by the previous owner. (Subtle, God.)

He also used a fictionalized account of the life of King Hezekiah (one of the good kings of Judah in the Old Testament) to show me that I cannot place my hope in the ways our culture tells kids to find success. When Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz (a bad king), paid tribute to the Assyrians (the cruelest army on earth) for protection, he essentially made slaves of his kingdom. All their resources were diverted to Assyria, including God’s tithe. I realized that, as parents, we’re essentially “paying tribute” when we buy expensive clothes, purchase the latest gadgets, sign our kids up for activities we can’t afford, all in the name of not wanting them to be “left out.” We fear the “Assyrians” – the popular kids, the bullies, whoever it is you think will reject your child for not being “cool” – so we place our trust in buying their favor. But once we choose that road, we and our children are forever slaves to it.

At one point, Judah tried to make an alliance with Egypt, hoping that would save them. As parents who’ve lived through adolescence, we know that loners are targets for bullies, so we encourage our kids to do whatever it takes to be popular or form alliances. We put our hope in academics or sports, believing that being part of the “right” group will save them. When I was a teenager, I thought that if I just had a boyfriend, that would make me okay. Alliances make us feel powerful – until they don’t. Until we get a bad grade or miss the winning shot or our boyfriend breaks up with us. Looking to allies to save us still results in us being slaves to our performance and the opinions of others.

Thankfully, there is another way. Hear God’s response to Judah (and me) in Isaiah 30:15:

This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength. But you would have none of it.”

It is a stinging rebuke, but also a sign of God’s grace and mercy as he spells out how to repent and do this parenting thing right. When faced with a battle between the world’s desire and God’s desire for our kids, we choose to return to God and do it his way. We rest in his unique plan for our kids, which will sometimes conflict with our plan for them to have an easy, outwardly-successful life. What if we don’t “pay tribute”? Perhaps that $.99 shirt from the thrift store will make our child more approachable to the kid who really needs a friend. (After all, Jesus’ ministry was usually to the outcasts, not the in-crowd.) What if I stop forcing my kid to do activities he doesn’t enjoy, but has been doing because I don’t want him to be “left out” of alliances? Perhaps saying no to something good will make room in his schedule for something better, like developing the unique strengths God gave him. We don’t have to work so hard to make sure our kids have all the right stuff and amazing resumes by the age of 16. Rest in God, and he will show us what is best.

In quietness – not nagging, nit-picking, fault-finding – and confidence in God is our strength. It is not up to us as parents to “fix” our kids, placing our magnifying glass over their quirks and weaknesses. Our job is to help them become the beautiful butterflies God designed them to be. It’s scary to think about sending our kids out into the world, and yet if they’re going to fly (and not live in our basement forever), we have to put our confidence in God. We may fail our kids, but he never will. We can confidently send them out into the world, knowing that God will never abandon them (Joshua 1:9). On the first day of high school, I shared this promise from Isaiah 30:21 with my son:

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

Ultimately, the voice we want our kids to hear is not our voice, but the voice of the Holy Spirit. As they cross the bridge into adulthood and venture out on their own, He is the one we want to guide them.

Bridge

Have you blown it with your kids? Me too. But it is never too late for God to redeem the failures that we place in his gracious hands. We don’t have to wring our hands in worry, wondering what to do. When we place our hope and trust in God, he promises to show us the way (Proverbs 3:5-6). He invites us to come to him when we need wisdom because he is a generous God who does not find fault with us for simply having questions (James 1:5). As we learn to rest and trust in God’s perfect love, our love becomes perfected. The result of perfect love is that fear is no longer holding the reigns in our parenting!

We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love…And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:16-19

Lord, thank you for loving us first. We surrender our death-grip on our kids because you love them and know them better than we do. We place our confidence in you, our loving God, not in alliances. Give us eyes of faith to see your vision for our kids so that we will train them up in the way they should go – not our way, but your unique way for them (Ephesians 2:10). May we return to you and find our rest (Matthew 11:28-29). Quiet us with your perfect love and cast out our fear as we confidently look to you for our strength (Isaiah 40:31). Amen.

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A while back I mentioned to my husband that since we’re both hanging on by a thread, it’s a good thing our threads are tied together. His response was, “I don’t have a thread; I’m hanging onto yours.” Perhaps you can relate? The past few months have been some of the most difficult of my life. In addition to the the time-consuming, strict diet I’m on in order to heal my intestines and address food sensitivities, I’m also helping out my parents 2 or 3 days a week, as they adjust to my mom’s loss of abilities due to her vascular dementia (a terminal illness that gets progressively worse). Add to that the high stakes pressure of homeschooling high school and you have a recipe for a breakdown. And that’s pretty much what happened last week.

But sometimes a breakdown is exactly what we need because we finally realize we can’t keep going on in the same way. Something has to change. As I cried out to God in frustration, I realized that the change I needed was to let go of the thread of hope in my circumstances getting easier, and grab onto the thread of hope in God to walk with me through whatever comes today and tomorrow. Hope in circumstances will often disappoint us, but hope in God never disappoints. As I began to shift my focus off of my discouragement and onto God, the following path for navigating this season of my life began to unfold. If you’re also dealing with a stress trifecta in your life right now, I invite you to join me on this path of hope.

Remember That There Is a Purpose in this Season – But It’s Still Just a Season
The overlap of all these stressful situations in my life makes each one feel enormous, but the truth is that eventually my mom’s mind and body will be healed in heaven; eventually my kids will graduate from high school and I will no longer be homeschooling; eventually I will be able to incorporate more food into my diet and find a new normal. All of these things are part of this season, but it will not last forever. I cannot plan my way out of this season (no matter how hard I keep trying to do just that!) or control how long it will last, but I can rest in the knowledge that God is still working out his plan for my life in the midst of the challenges I’m facing.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28

What if the difficult season we’re in is exactly where we need to be in order for God’s higher purpose to be accomplished in us? What if the heat and pressure I feel is part of God’s refining process in answer to my prayer to make me more like Christ? If holiness is a higher pursuit than happiness, then perhaps God occasionally needs to accomplish the former at the expense of the latter in me.

Pray For God to “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”
One of the threads I’d been hanging onto was the hope that if I just did high school “right,” then everything in my oldest’s life would turn out right. But the problem with putting your hope in your plans is that it is usually accompanied by terrifying fear when something – like life – interrupts those plans.  Panic set in when I realized that having to be increasingly involved in helping my parents meant I couldn’t do high school the way I had planned. But into my frantic heart, God whispered an invitation to trust him to meet my needs by simply asking him each day to give me my daily bread, then resting in his provision. So I let go of that fabulous high school plan I’d carefully crafted for my son. In this season, I am learning to take life one day at a time, trusting God to point me in the right direction each day. So far the result has been a more relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere in our home, more interest-led learning because that has once again become a higher priority than checking things off a list, a better relationship with my kids because I’m nagging less and listening more, and my digestive issues are finally healing as I am slowing down and focusing on just one or two goals a day (since the underlying cause of my issues, I’m convinced, is stress).

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6

Receive Your Daily Bread With Gratitude – Even If It’s Squash Pancakes
Many aspects of my life are beyond my control right now, but I can control my attitude. I can choose to resent my situation and spend all my energy bemoaning my woes in an endless loop. Or I can choose to celebrate life with my mom and treasure those moments when I see glimpses of the woman who lovingly raised me. I can choose to focus on making memories and building relationships with my kids in their remaining years at home, instead of worrying about what will happen when they leave. I can choose gratitude for what I have instead of pining away for what is lost. It is not easy to choose gratitude for what you have when it’s not the thing you wanted, but the Apostle Paul – who knew all about suffering – offers us the key to unlocking the secret of contentment in all circumstances:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:12-13

Did you catch that? The secret to contentment is strength from God. I can’t do it on my own, but God invites me to pray for the strength to face each day, whether I feel well fed or hungry. I’m learning to accept that my literal “daily bread” right now is squash pancakes, and though my daily bread may not taste great, it is enough. What I’m doing for my parents and kids is enough. Because God is enough.

I Can Let Go of My Thread Because God is Already Hanging Onto Me
When life doesn’t turn out the way we’d planned, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the change and unrest around us. But God does not leave us alone to struggle through difficult seasons. In fact, in my personal experience, God is even closer during times of trial because he is inviting me to put my faith to the test – not to see if I will pass, but to see that HE is faithful in all circumstances. We may never know how big God is until we take our eyes off of the wind and waves and look to the One who is right there with us in the storm, whispering to our heart, “Peace, be still.”

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. – Isaiah 43:2

Notice that the above verses don’t say “if” but “when” you feel like you’re drowning in your circumstances. Look up. See his hand of protection covering you from waves of bitterness and despair. As children of God, we are constantly reminded in scripture to not be afraid; not because we have nothing to fear, but because God has promised he will never abandon us. We can let go of our death grip on being in control of our circumstances because we know that God will never let go of us.

Accept That This New Thread Can Be Part of Something Beautiful
When we moved into our house, I carefully measured and planned our landscaping in the backyard. Ten years later, almost nothing I envisioned has worked out the way I planned. The raspberry bushes took over the corner of the yard and grew over one of my bushes. The elegant white rose bushes I planted both died, then came back to life as smaller, red roses. (What the what?!!) The neighbor’s lilacs and lilies grew under the fence. And you know what? It’s all beautiful! If I had held onto my original vision and yanked out the spreading raspberry bushes, I would have missed out on the abundance of delicious berries we enjoy and share each year. (And the bush that they covered was not meant for full sun, and was dying anyway.) The rosebushes I planted looked sickly every year, and every time we had a gusty wind all the petals would blow off. But whatever this other variety is that took over happens to be hardy and better able to tolerate our growing conditions. And the lilacs make my day every time I look out my window. I had such great plans when we moved in…but had no clue what I was doing. I’m learning that there is beauty and wonder to be found in the unexpected twists and turns of life. Perhaps letting go of my plans will clear a path for something even better.

Also spontaneously growing in the bark patch are weeds, grass, and chives (another oops), but we're going to focus on the pretty lilacs.

Also spontaneously growing in the bark patch are weeds, grass, and chives (another oops), but we’re going to focus on the pretty lilacs.

So I’m letting go of my thread, hanging on to God, and believing that the tapestry of my life that God is weaving will be something so breathtakingly beautiful that I will someday fall to my knees in wonder and say, “Yes, I see it now.” Until then, I will have to see the beauty in God’s plan with eyes of faith, believing that the God who turns ashes into beauty will grow something beautiful in me. Right here. In this season.

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.
– Jeremiah 17:7-8

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Your schedule is full of All The Things a “good” mom does: You juggle kids, home, cooking, relationships, finances, church responsibilities, kids’ activities, and possibly a full-time job (or if you have babies at home, you have a 24/7 job, bless your sleep-deprived heart). You collapse at the end of the day in front of the computer where you see pictures of All The Things the other moms are doing and wonder if you’ll ever measure up. Then someone reminds you that it’s Ash Wednesday and – oh, by the way – on top of all the sacrifices you’re making, Jesus would like you to make one more for the next 40 days so you can relate to his suffering. GREAT!

Dear stressed out mom, if that is you, can I just say that Jesus can relate to your sacrificial giving to your family, and he promised that his yoke – the things he asks you to do with his help – is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). Fasting something during the season of Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter plus Sundays, on which no fasting is to take place) can be a valuable spiritual discipline for those of us who need God to help us develop self-control – one of the Fruits of the Spirit – as we focus on saying no to the desires of the flesh that hinder us from experiencing freedom in Christ. But when you are weary from running your race, Jesus invites you to find rest in him so he can grow the other Fruits of the Spirit (like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc.) in you. When you are empty, you have nothing left to give or sacrifice, and must come to the Giver of all good things to be filled up.

So my Ash Wednesday – or any day – invitation to the weary is to go on a date with Jesus for the next 46 days. (I suppose you can forgo it on Sundays, if you’re going to church, but I find that I especially benefit from quiet time with Jesus before I walk into church because I have many words, and I need God to sanctify my mouth. And my entire Sunday School class says, “Amen.”)

Light in the darkness.

When I say “date,” I mean exactly that. Set up a beautiful space with as many things as you can think of that make you feel special, like you’re on a date. What do you enjoy? What makes you feel nurtured, loved? Is it being outside in your garden or on your patio? (Being outside is too big a distraction for me because all I can see are the weeds and yard work I need to do, and that tends to lead to discipline from God rather than comfort…) Perhaps you have a sunny window where you can enjoy a cup of tea while the little ones nap. Maybe there’s a piece of artwork in your bedroom that you love, and you could pull up a chair, light a candle, and turn your back on the pile of laundry on the bed. You may have to do a little cleaning to get rid of any distractions and put a little effort into making your date space beautiful, but I promise it will make a difference in how you feel about your time spent with Jesus. Why? Because YOU ARE WORTH IT.

You are worthy of beautiful things. You are beautiful to Jesus. You are his precious treasure. When you are on a date, you feel special, and sometimes we need physical reminders of just how much God cherishes his time with us. We know in our heads that Jesus died on the cross for us, but do we feel in our hearts the depth of his love and enjoyment of our relationship with him?

I can tell you from personal experience how much this concept has changed my relationship with Christ. I developed the “discipline” of daily quiet time with God at the beginning of the day years ago, but in the past two years God has been growing the fruit of joy in my life by first teaching me how to find my joy in him, and secondly, by encouraging me to incorporate things that bring me joy into our time together. As I began to infuse my quiet time with sights and smells that delight me, and listen to his whispers of love to my heart through scripture and healing devotional books, I could not help but fall deeper in love with my Savior.

And that’s what Jesus desires most from you; not your sacrifice for him, but your love and relationship with him.

Quiet Time

Here is my “date” space with Jesus. I put twinkle lights on our fake tree to brighten up the dark winter mornings, and light scented candles (to cover up the smell of our disgusting dog who is a third wheel on our date). I curl up under a cozy blanket and savor a good cup of coffee (because coffee is God’s gift to moms) while I meditate on God’s Word and talk to him about my day. In this environment, I have a heightened sense of how precious I am to Jesus because it makes me feel precious. (If you struggle with low self-esteem, it’s especially important to incorporate physical reminders of his love for you into your time together.)

I’m currently reading Beth Moore’s inspiring book, Audacious, and would also highly recommend Jen Hatmaker’s, For the Love, to anyone in need of grace and a good belly laugh. But for date time, I can think of no better book than the Jesus Calling one year devotional (not as a replacement for scripture, but as a supplement). Some might balk at it being written in first person, as Jesus speaking to you, but it was simply the author’s way of sharing what Jesus was saying to her through the scriptures noted at the bottom, not an attempt to add to scripture (so let’s not get into a theological debate in the comments section, okay?). However, I found that the first person messages helped me to overcome the negative voices in my head – “You’re not good enough, and you’ll never be as good at that as ______, so you should just give up.” – by allowing Jesus to counter them directly through words of grace and encouragement.

The devotional messages may not be direct quotes from Jesus in scripture, but I believe they come directly from his heart to you and me. We cannot overcome the negative messages from our culture until we learn to recognize the voice of Truth. Jesus said that his sheep would know him by his voice, so if you are bombarded by negative self-talk, I would encourage you to go on a date with Jesus every day during the season of Lent. Learn to recognize His voice, and The Truth will set you free! If you don’t want to buy a devotional book, just read through one of the Gospels and focus on the words and character of Jesus.

Let him woo you, dear sister. The Bridegroom loves his Bride, the Church, and you will find the emptiness in your heart that will never be filled by doing All The Things, satisfied by his love and grace toward you. I leave you with some of the words from today’s message in Jesus Calling (the italicized words are a direct quote from scripture):

Trust me enough to spend ample time with me, pushing back the demands of the day. Refuse to feel guilty about something that is so pleasing to me, the King of the universe (Luke 10:41-42).

Don’t fall into the trap of being constantly on the go. Many, many things people do in My Name have no value in my kingdom. To avoid doing meaningless works, stay in continual communication with me. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you (Psalm 32:8).

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I was feeling agitated after watching what should have been a motivational video, but the message of “you were created for more than this” instead made me gripe at God. “Oh really?” I pouted, “What MORE would you like me to add to my plate?” I actually got out a notebook and filled the page under the title “Stuff I do” with all the things I do for other people on a daily basis. “Okay, God, the ball’s in your court!” I huffed.

“Get your coat on and let’s go for a walk on the dirt road,” was his reply. I was rewarded for my tantrum with a bitter, cold wind and shoes full of goatheads, but as I again voiced my frustration with all the messages I hear on a regular basis to do more, be more, serve more to God, he responded with, “Take a look at those ruts in the dirt.”

“You mean the ruts that are filled with ice because it’s REALLY COLD out here?” I snarked.

“Yes, child, those ruts. What have I been teaching you about your mental ruts and what you need to do to put an end to this spinning of your mind right now?”

I need you to appreciate that I did not have a camera on my walk, and had to go back and repeat the walk in the bitter cold to take this picture. Be impressed.

I need you to appreciate that I did not have a camera on my walk, and had to go back and repeat the walk in the bitter cold to take this picture. Be impressed.

RESET

I’ve been reading a fascinating little book called Habits, by Charlotte Mason, in which she likens the mental pathways we develop through constant use to ruts in a dirt road. Our brains take the path of least resistance, so once a habit or path of thinking has developed, it’s very hard to get out of that rut, in much the same way it’s hard to drive a bicycle or car out of a deep rut. To change a habit or rut, we need to intentionally substitute a different habit or insert a distraction that will cut across the path and allow a new one to be developed.

My personal take on this has been to visualize a distraction – squirrel! – as a mental reset button. When my thoughts take a nose dive and I begin the downward spiral (of dwelling on things outside my control, obsessing over how I measure up to someone else’s standard, fill in the blank with miscellaneous fears/hang-ups…), I can follow that well-worn path (developed over a lifetime of struggling with insecurity/people-pleasing) OR hit the reset button.

What is the Reset Button?
I can’t tell you exactly what the reset button is – well, at least what it is for you. For me, the reset button is any brief, pleasant distraction that shifts my focus away from the endless loop of negative thinking and gets me off the merry-go-round so I can start over with a more positive mindset. In the circumstance above, taking a walk with God was my reset button. (But watching a short, funny “Tonight Show” video also works!)

[Disclaimer: The reset button is not procrastinating and putting off things you should be doing. The reset button distraction is not a substitute for dealing with real problems that require attention.]

The value of the reset button is not that it solves problems, but that it changes your frame of mind from a negative one to a refreshed, more positive one, which then enables you to think more clearly and deal more effectively with whatever issues you’re facing. The reset button is especially useful when you’re having one of those “I overslept, then was grumpy with the kids who, in turn, were grumpy at me, and when I tried to salvage the day by making flatbread, it tasted…well…flat, so I tried to broil some cheese on top and ended up burning it, making the whole house smell terrible” kind of days. When nothing is going right, a reset button allows you to make a clean break and start over.

The Reset Button For Your Family
I recently taught this survival skill to my 14-year-old – and if anyone needs to learn how to reset a bad hormone/mood-swing day, it’s teenagers! After a miserable morning that climaxed at math time (shocker), I finally yelled (yes yelled), “Stop! Go outside for 15 minutes and get some exercise.” When he came back inside, we agreed on a reset button activity for him; he can set a timer for 5 minutes and read Calvin and Hobbes to get off the bummer train whenever his mood swings take him for a ride. (Longer than 5 minutes would likely lead to procrastination, and we discussed the difference between the two.) After his reset, we returned to math and were able to see the solutions to the problems that stumped him earlier. (I wish someone had told me that I did not need to be ruled by my emotions when I was a teenager, marinating my mind in depressing music and wallowing in my melancholy like a pig in the mud.)

The 2-part Reset
After my husband got separated from the kids and me at a crowded theme park and was ready to call it quits and go home by the time he found us, we were able to salvage the day with a 2-part reset. We did not say a word while we stood in line because if there’s anything I’ve learned after nearly 20 years of marriage, it’s that you cannot talk someone out of a bad mood. After a few minutes, however, I silently started handing out snacks, since it had been several hours since we’d eaten. Sometimes a reset button requires addressing a physical need like hunger, a need for exercise (in my son’s case above), or a good night’s sleep first.

After we started eating, I noticed some machines that looked like they were supposed to set off “explosives” along the edge of the ride, so I silently walked over and began turning the crank and pressing down on the lever until BOOM, we saw water spray up into the air along the fake canyon of the ride. Suddenly, all 4 of us were excitedly winding cranks and setting off explosions until we got on the ride and forgot the woes we left behind as we enjoyed the roller-coaster.

Part 2 of a family reset is setting an example by taking the first step out of the rut and engaging in an inviting distraction without prodding your family to join you. The 2-part reset button of snacks and a distraction enabled us to break from the negative mindset we were in and move on in order to enjoy the remainder of the evening. Contrary to the feeling of our momentary frustration, a bad circumstance does not have to equal a bad day! (Again, why couldn’t I have learned this years ago?)

A Reset for Routine
Sometimes the rut is simply a routine that needs to be shaken up. This year, my focus word is faithfulness, and I’ve realized that in order for me to be faithful to carry on the (sometimes monotonous) work of homeschooling and homemaking, I need to allow myself periodic breaks from routine to refresh and revive my spirit. Last fall, this looked like filling a backpack with fun educational games, activity books, and reading materials, then taking the kids for “park school” and a picnic as our reset.

"He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul." - Psalm 23:2-3

“He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” – Psalm 23:2-3

A Reset for Marriage
If there’s any area of our lives that regularly needs a reset it’s our marriage. But rather than wait until we’re in a rut, we’ve learned to be proactive in scheduling resets (a.k.a. date nights). If your whole relationship is consumed by the daily grind of life and raising a family, you’re in danger of bitterness and resentment carving ruts. (If you find yourself regularly dwelling on something that irks you about your spouse, then a reset is in order.) A weekly date night helps to reset our relationship by providing a break from our everyday routine in order to just have fun together. (I’m less likely to get hung up on the toilet paper being replaced the wrong way – and yes, there is a right way – if we’re still laughing over how the instructor for our weekly swing dance class keeps calling my husband by the wrong name.)

If you’re in a “we can’t figure out how to make a date night happen” rut, a weekly date night doesn’t have to be on the weekend, doesn’t have to require a babysitter, and it doesn’t have to cost money. Here are some of the variations we’ve tried, which I hope will inspire you to be creative and, most importantly, get a reset date on the calendar soon (and if you’re too busy to make time for your marriage, you are just plain too busy and need to look for some activities to cut, dear one):

  • Midweek Coffee or Ice Cream Date – Drop the kids off at church on Wednesday night, then head to McDonald’s for the cheapest cup of coffee in town – if there’s no climbing structure, it counts as a date restaurant. We order 2 cups of decaf for $2 (or in the summer, order ice cream sundaes) and chat about things we’re reading or big picture dreams (like what we’d do if we had no debt – a fun and motivating conversation starter). God cares about your marriage, so ditch the guilt over ditching Wednesday night church in order to nurture your marriage. (We don’t skip Sundays, however.)
  • Walk, Talk, and Sip Date – Take a walk together on Saturday or Sunday afternoon – put the kids in a stroller or on bikes to go with you if they’re too young to leave at home – ending with a cup of (hot or cold) tea or coffee WITHOUT THE KIDS at home. Since you’re saving money by having a date at home, splurge on some fancy cocoa, coffee creamer or flavored teas that you like. Our favorite homemade treat is a Rum Mocha: 3 c. (8 oz. each) hot coffee, 2 envelopes cocoa mix, 1/4 c. half-and-half (or almond milk or whatever milk is on hand), 3/4 tsp. rum extract. Combine in a saucepan over medium heat and pour into 2 large mugs. Top with canned whipped cream and enjoy in whatever nook of your home is clean and/or pretty. So long, Starbucks!
  • Bedroom Date – Set up a date night in whatever part of your home you feel is beautiful and/or clean. (We invested in an electric fireplace for our bedroom and bought extra twinkle lights at Christmas to put on a fake tree next to it. It transformed our boring bedroom with hand-me-down, 1970’s, plywood and veneer furniture into a cozy little getaway. Worth. Every. Penny.) If your kids are pre-school age or younger, put them to bed first. If they’re older, let them fix themselves a nutritious dinner of microwave corndogs and chips (God bless you Foster Farms, for giving us gluten free corn dogs), while you order take-out or heat up something easy but special for the two of you. (Costco and Trader Joe’s have lots of fun, gluten free, heat-and-eat options.) Put in a movie for the kids in the family room while the two of you enjoy a leisurely dinner and conversation together in your room or wherever you can carve out a date space. If it’s been a rough week, watch a funny movie or show together to unwind or give each other back rubs. Oh, and don’t forget the dessert!

Why Does the Reset Work?
Back to that picture I took of the ugly ruts. The next day, I woke up to blue sky with a blanket of snow covering the ugly, muddy ruts, reminding me that each day is a new day with fresh hope in a God who blankets us with his grace to start over (as many times as it takes in order to break free of the rut). As I headed back out to the dirt path, this time with warm sunshine on my face (and camera in my pocket), I was reminded of one of my favorite verses from the Bible, Romans 12:2 (NLT):

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but let God transform you by changing the way you think.

Those negative thoughts that sent my brain into a tizzy the day before were the pressures I – we all – feel to conform to the pattern of the world to be always striving, always comparing ourselves to others (and never measuring up). But by the grace of God I can exit the rut and start a new path. By the grace of God, my family and my marriage can move out of ruts as we continue to place our hope in God who makes all things new.

Marking a new path.

Marking a new path.

The walk I took with God the day before was the distraction I needed to remind me that God is not calling me to do more, but rather inviting me to live differently, to rise above the old patterns of thinking and knee-jerk responses to disappointments, and allow him to teach me to to be more joyful. Yes, there is more to this life. There is more joy, more love, more patience, more kindness, more goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control that God wants to develop in me if I will stop looking down at the rut and instead look up.

Blue sky! Sunshine! A ditch! (Okay, ignore the ditch.)

Blue sky! Sunshine! A ditch! (Okay, ignore the ditch.)

Utilizing the reset button is one way that God is transforming me by literally changing the wiring of my brain as I cooperate with him when he makes me aware that I need to change the direction of my thinking. Just because certain neural-pathways have been well traveled for 40 years does not mean that I am stuck in a rut forever! God is able to transform me into a more positive, joyful person when I yield to the nudge to shift my focus off of whatever is irritating me – whether it’s the winter blahs, the pressure to conform to the world’s standard for (unattainable) success, a string of unpleasant circumstances, or a hormone-induced mood swing – and accept God’s gift of grace to choose to momentarily focus on something that brings me (and my family) joy and reminds me that God is the giver of all good things. The power to change comes from God, the reset button is the tool he’s given me to help me transition out of my ruts, and the result is a more joyful life that benefits both me and my loved ones. Glory to God!

God, examine me and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any bad thing in me.
    Lead me on the road to everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24 (NCV)

 

 

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Yesterday, I wrote a version of 1 Corinthians 13 that reflected my view of what love looks like for me as a mom.  Oh, it was very creative and well thought out. This morning I erased it. Sure, I could try to describe for you what love should look like for a mom, but the truth is I’ll probably fail to meet those expectations by lunchtime.  The danger in comparing ourselves against a list of criteria meant to artificially define holiness is that we have one of two responses:

  1. Look at how good I am, according to that list. I must be a “good Christian.”
  2. I fall short of that list, so God must be disappointed in me. I should try harder, but what’s the point? I’ll never be good enough.

The first trap is self-righteousness that does away with the need for God (until our world falls apart or we blow it in some way). The second trap is legalism, attempting to define our worth in God’s eyes by our works and ability to follow our rules. Thankfully, we who are in Christ Jesus are saved by grace and no longer live under the “law” – which includes all my good intentions and “shoulds” that I’ve tried to live up to.  Grace is the doorway to freedom in Christ, but many devoted Christians refuse to walk through it because we can’t accept that God could love us as we are.

This morning, during my precious quiet time with Jesus, I was reminded that God is love.  To live a life that is characterized by love simply means staying connected to the Source of love. Rather than striving to live up to a list of expectations, the only way I can truly love others is to keep my eyes fixed on the One who gave up the riches of Heaven to die for me because he loved me while I was still in the depths of my sin.

So instead of sharing with you what I think love should look like, based on 1 Cor. 13, let me tell you Who love looks like.

God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud.  God does not dishonor others, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs.  God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

God never fails.

To be filled with love is the same as being filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s gift to those who have surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ, because God is love. Do you want to know how to love others; how to be an effective parent, spouse, member of the Body of Christ? The answer is not in doing more and serving more and working harder to please God. He already loves you. All we need to do is come before him daily with a grateful heart, asking him to fill us with his Spirit, and thanking him in advance for loving us and providing us with everything we need to live a fruitful life. For “the fruit of the Spirit is LOVE, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

The trick is to not go back to the legalism of trying to define what “fruitful” looks like according to the world’s standards, or even well-meaning Christian definitions like the one I tried to write (or all those inspirational quotes on Facebook that constantly remind us that we’re falling short in some area where we really should BE MORE AWESOME).  Oh, I know the fear that creeps in when we dare to preach grace because “someone” might use it as an excuse to break the rules! Dear one, let God be the judge.  He made the rules, and he chose the way of love and grace and mercy when we didn’t deserve it.

God is love. Will you let go of the guilt of not measuring up and allow him to love you today?

 

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