Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pray Before You Speak (4 Questions to Ask Yourself)

If you've been married for longer than your honeymoon, you know that a covenant marriage relationship includes conflict.  In some seasons it's more frequent than others, and the severity can range from vow-hindering sin to the slight offense of leaving a trash can un-emptied.  One great skill that happy and holy married couples possess is the ability to forgive, especially as they constructively approach difficult conversations.  Lovingly approaching sins and hurts in your marriage isn't the primary change agent for your spouse's heart, but it can pave the way for repentance, reconciliation, and restored marital health.

Here are a few things to consider before jumping into your next difficult conversation with your spouse:

1.  Have you prayed and waited on God?
Remember, there is only one person who can change a heart and rightly understand every situation - God himself.  Our first instinct shouldn't be to fix our marriage conflict ourselves from our earthly perspective, but to seek wisdom from the word in prayer.  It's amazing how sometimes just the act of praying can bring enough clarity to stifle the need for a 'difficult conversation' altogether.  Praying about what is hurting you and asking for God's help can allow you to be lead by the spirit instead of your flesh or your feelings.  If and when a conversation still needs to be had, it will be much more effective in God's timing preceded by a heart of submission to God's will.  And remember that God's perfect timing might mean waiting days, weeks, months or more to gracefully approach something difficult.

2.  Have you considered your own contribution to the situation?
In prayer and as you read the word, it will hopefully become obvious that you need Jesus just as much as your spouse.  That you have sinned against a holy God in similar ways in other times of your marriage or your life.  Most often, when I'm frustrated by something in my marriage and I stop to think deeply about my spouse's sin, I'm confronted with the myriad of ways I've failed God in the same area and I'm reminded of God's abundant forgiveness.  From that lens, I'm able to refocus on the situation and consider how I might have contributed to some of the frustrations at hand.  And even if I haven't directly contributed, I've already gotten the log out of my own eye so I can humbly discuss the speck in my spouse's eye.

3.  Have you thought about how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed?
The bible makes it clear that we are to treat others as we would want to be treated, loving them as well as we love our own interests - our own spouse is no exception!  Would you want to be approached in an accusatory tone, feeling put on trial?  If that answer is no, then it doesn't quite seem right to head into a conversation with your beloved that way.  Instead, it might be better to recognize that you are both on the same team facing the problem as a couple.  Proceed with care and caution, considering how difficult and embarrassing it can be to sit on the receiving end of a hard word.  Ponder how you can lock arms with them, encourage them, preach the gospel to them, and grieve their sin alongside them in hopes of restoration.

4.  Have you considered overlooking the offense?
Overlooking an offense doesn't mean, "It's totally fine that they did this too me" or "I'm going to avoid conflict by punishing them silently."  But it does mean, "They sinned against God and me, but I forgive them, and I am going to trust God to work in their heart."  Overlooking an offense requires discernment, because sometimes it's sinful avoidance of an issue that needs to be addressed.  But in marriage, bringing every slight offense to the table would be overwhelming and discouraging.  Consider the severity and frequency of the issue before bringing it up.  It's especially helpful to think about their heart and intentions, believing the best in your spouse and judging their actions accordingly.

The encouraging truth:
For believing spouses who both desire to follow Christ and live according to God's word, these conversations can be a tremendous blessing (and so can the prayer and preparation leading up to them).  When two people love one another, look out for the interests of the other and listen to the spirit's timing, hard conversations can go well and end well.  And the best part?  When we wait and trust God, he gets all the glory in the resolution.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Christian Mom's Guide to Yelling

Wondering what it takes to speak to your children in a harsh tone with the intent to control, hurt, or manipulate (maybe even in a loud volume)?  Here are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success:
  • Don't pray for your kids.  When they behave in ways that frustrate you, bottle it up, talk to your mom friends about it, complain to your husband, but definitely don't tell God about it.
  • Don't tell your kids what you expect.  Have silently high standards, but never say them simply and clearly.  And if you do let an expectation slip out, don't repeat it!
  • Don't worry about schedules and routines.  Let everything happen on a whim, and change things up a lot - that way the kids don't know what's coming.  When in doubt, skip regular naps and meals.
  • Don't care for yourself.  Always put the kids first.  Stay up late AND wake up early.  Accept no help.  Eat tons of sugar and processed foods.  Never take a break or do something restful.  If there is limit, push yourself to it.
  • Don't discipline or correct wrong behavior.  Just let it slide and catch it next time.  Give warning after warning...also, counting is a great strategy.
  • Don't say 'no' to anything.  Attend as many playdates as possible, help with every church need, make it your job to care for every hurting person you know outside of your home, work as many hours as you can, and try to obtain whatever your 'ideal' is for motherhood.
  • Don't keep your house in order.  Let things go, refuse to organize, allow the kids to pull out all the toys at one time, and tell yourself, "I'll do it tomorrow."
  • Don't tell anyone you're yelling.  Especially not your Christian friends, accountability partners or others who might care about the state of your heart.
  • Don't put your frustrations into perspective.  Today is going to go on forever, and all that matters is getting to bed time.  Tell yourself, "My kids won't remember this anyway." and "If they weren't so bad, I wouldn't act this way."
  • Don't read the bible.  Especially avoid interpreting it in context and seeking to purposefully apply it to your life in difficult situations.  When the Holy Spirit brings a verse to mind in a tense moment, block it out and go forward on your own.
  • Don't take practical preventative measures.  Even if there is something that would help your children, don't worry about seeking that wisdom out and changing things about your parenting style.
  • Don't give your undivided attention.  Always try to multitask, and don't stop to pay attention to your kids.  Be on your phone and computer while you're talking to them, and attempt to offer correction without slowing down your other tasks.  Tell yourself that they are the interruption.
  • And most importantly - Don't remember the gospel.  Don't remember how much you disobeyed God and how little you deserved his grace.  Don't think about how mercifully he dealt with you at the cross.  Don't remember who you belong to.  Don't allow yourself to ponder eternity and the riches of your inheritance.  Don't permit joy in God.
I'm here as a witness, to assure you that if you do these things, you have set the stage for harsh words toward your children!

Okay, so that was a sarcastic way of illustrating truth - and hopefully you caught that!  Of course our desire as moms isn't to yell or be dealing with our children in a spirit of anger, control or manipulation.  I used to think I wasn't prone to this sin because I reasoned, "I'm not an angry person.  I never yell."  And that was true...but put under enough pressure, the sin that was already lurking down there reveals itself.  We can't blame our sin on the storm, because what comes out of us was waiting to be exposed.  But, I've learned that I can fight sin by the Spirit and with the truth of God's word.  For me, that starts with preventative measures, because when I'm tired, malnourished (physically or spiritually), overcommitted, mismanaging my home, and trying to be supermom, the stage is set for me to give into temptation.  And secondarily, I have to guard my heart by learning to love the gospel message, believing it's truth daily, and praying for God to change my affections.  I want to love mercy and self-control.  Only the Holy Spirit acting powerfully in me through repentance can I overcome the temptation to deal harshly with my children.

So regardless if you are a mom who yells daily or thinks pridefully as you rock your first baby, "I'll never be that way" - heed the warning and hold fast to the truth.  Condition your heart to treasure Christ and hold fast to the gospel.  It's our only hope for the kind of gracious parenting that brings glory to God, showing our children his amazing love.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Moms Need Margin

The other morning I was trying to do too much.  My husband walked out the door to attend Sunday school for an hour while I stayed back to:
  • Cook a casserole
  • Clean up from a cake I baked earlier
  • Put together a salad
  • Nurse a baby
  • Put on clothes and makeup
  • Change 4 kids
  • Prepare for church and a lunch at a park
  • and keep the house semi-picked up along the way
As he left he inquired, "Are you sure you're able to get all that done while I'm gone?"
"Yes, I'm fine.  I can do it."

Well, he arrived home an hour and a half later to find me frazzled and nursing (still in pajamas) while trying to discipline 3 small boys with a loud voice.  No one had been changed, no one was ready, and any task I had completed was done with an angry heart.  In hindsight, it's obvious to me how crazy and prideful it was to think I could do all of that in such a short amount of time (without yelling or becoming majorly overwhelmed).

As I had a moment to reflect on this later, the word the Holy Spirit kept bringing to mind was "margin".  I had filled my morning to the brim with some running over.  My task list was so full and ambitious that I had no room for love, kindness, gentleness or self-control.  I had no room for discipline issues, training children or quietly feeding the baby.  I had no room for some necessary self-care, and I definitely had no room for prayer and meditating on the word.  I was trying to go it alone, without God, and accomplish the humanly impossible.  No wonder the result was frustration and sin!

What is margin?
Margin is...
"The amount allowed or available beyond what is absolutely necessary."
"A limit in capacity, beyond which something ceases to be desirable or possible."

Moms need margin.  We need an few extra minutes, some space in our mind and our day for things to come up.  We need time to squat down eye level with our kids and speak in a gentle voice to explain our expectations.  We need time to join in a game or mediate a conflict.  We need time to keep things in order around the house so that everyone can breathe a little deeper.  We need time for ourselves, to fuel up on eternally important things so we can pour out to others.  We might think that we can live at or beyond capacity (trying to emulate lives we see on instagram - where everything seems 'perfect'), but we can't.  As normal moms, we can't have it all...we can't have the body, the perfect food, the thriving friendships, the fun activities, the greatest career, the awesome ministry, the organized / designed house, the best clothes, the richest marriage and everything in between.  Somewhere we need space.  Somewhere we have to say no.  Somewhere we have to keep things open.  Because even if you achieve 'perfect' on the outside, on the inside of your private life, something in your heart will be corrupted.

3 Ways to Increase Your Margin
1.  Listen to the Holy Spirit and say "no" where he prompts.
One thing I'm learning in this season (with 4 young children) is to say "no"more frequently than I feel comfortable with.  I can't keep living in the past, or longing for the future.  There used to be times when I could commit to a lot of outside activities, and in the future I anticipate I'll get back to that capacity - but for now?  I can't run at that pace AND reflect Christ in my most important relationships.  This is a very real battle for me, because I want to fit in and I don't want to miss out on what others are doing.  Even daily, I have to ask God to show me areas where I need to say 'no' to say 'yes' to really important things.  For instance, on that frazzled Sunday morning, I probably should have said 'no' to baking a bunch of homemade things and picked up some store bought things instead OR I should have said 'no' to something the day before to have extra time for baking.  I couldn't come to the potluck armed with a gorgeous food spread AND do everything else my life demanded that morning.

2.  Expect the unexpected.
Another thing I'm learning (which is necessary in all cases of margin) is to go ahead and expect that something is going to come up that wasn't in my plan.  I need to expect that someone is going to get sick, need extra training, have a dirty diaper right when we walk out the door, or wake up earlier than I anticipated.  The possibilities are really endless, and the point is that I often can't predict when they will happen or to what degree.  When I live life completely maxed out, without a minute to spare, I don't have the ability to gracefully deal with the unexpected.  Handling those situations means I'm going to negatively impact something else I've committed to, or I'm going to develop a grumpy and bitter spirit.  On my Sunday morning example, I should have anticipated my kids were going to act like... *gasp* kids.  Had I planned for them to need my training and attention, it wouldn't have been a big deal to spend my last hour doing just that.

3.  Leave extra time.
What this all really boils down to is time.  We have 24 hours in a day, and don't get to add more because we increased our task list.  So if I want to do more in one area, I have to do less somewhere else.  It's foolish to add, add, add without finding somewhere to subtract.  So as we've added a child, I need to subtract somewhere because that child takes REAL time.  If we add a church activity, I need to scale back somewhere because that activity takes REAL hours.  Of course, the practice of this is difficult because everything seems important.  But I think as I evaluate life prayerfully, I start finding areas where I can add back space.  For instance, in this season, it's pretty crucial for me to wake up before my kids to pray and get a head start on things.  It's crucial for me to go to bed early to make up for that sleep.  It's crucial for me to keep activities to minimum so my routine is flexible (able to add things back in where we find the ability).

Live Life Connected to Christ
For me, this concept of margin often feels counter-intuitive.  I want to be the best servant of Christ I can be, by reflecting God and performing my roles with excellence.  This isn't a bad desire, but I often try to accomplish it on my own and by adding more 'stuff'.  But the bible - the gospel - bids me to do the opposite...to RELY on God more and to make space for people over tasks.  If I want to reflect Christ, I first have to have fellowship with him.  I need to love him, treasure him, and be in closer relationship with him.  Living a life closely connected to the savior gives my heart the margin it needs to overflow a life of joy to others.  Without first communing with Jesus, I fail to have anything of eternal value to offer.

So if you find yourself (like me) feeling stressed and overwhelmed, treating others around you in a way you aren't proud of - maybe it's time to ask yourself, "Do I have enough margin in my life?"  And even more importantly, "Am I feasting on the only food that will really satisfy me - Christ himself?"

See also:  The Gospel for Moms

Monday, August 3, 2015

Help with Missional Living for the Mostly At-Home Mom

*This post was originally submitted for a writing contest based on the prompt "I wish my local church knew_______."  Although I wasn't selected as the winner, I still felt like this had relevant information for my own blog!  There isn't much 'I wish my church knew', but I wanted to share something I thought they did a good job of, that other churches might benefit from.  I hope some of you can relate!

When you're mostly at home - can you be missional?
As a stay-at-home mom to three kids under three, opportunities for community involvement can be hard to come by.  It's not that I don't desire to have weekly interactions with local women at library story time, or to make connections as a frequent visitor to the splash park, but simply that our season of life doesn't afford such activities.  To go out with my children (which includes a set of twin toddlers) requires all manner of strollers, bags, confidence and extra helpers.  During this unique time, when I'm largely bound to home or well-known environments, I've wondered how I can spread the gospel and be a meaningful voice for Jesus among unbelievers.  When my most-frequent outings are to the Pediatrician's office and the grocery store pickup lane, who can I witness to?

Recently, our church distributed a helpful resource which listed practical ways to engage people with the gospel.  When I think of 'evangelism', it often conjures up images of awkward street corner conversations, overseas missionaries and long-term relationships with unbelievers in a work environment.  Traditional images of evangelism seem to exclude people who aren't able to get out into the world much; the elderly, young moms, people in rural areas, those with chronic pain or illness and so-on.  So I was thankful when our local church offered such a tangible reminder that we all have ways of being missional in every season.  It gave ideas like:

"Grow a garden and give extra produce to neighbors."
"Walk your dog around the neighborhood regularly, during the same time of day."
"Be a regular (at coffee shops, stores and more)."

For the first time in a long time, some of the suggestions had me thinking, "Hey, I can do that!  I can live missionally!"  It was encouraging for me to consider opportunities to reach out in love right where I'm at, even if it doesn't look like my grand stereotypes.

As I evaluated my lifestyle, I quickly identified everyday situations where I can be more intentional, even in this more challenging and isolating season.  For instance, I estimate that I've been to see my OBGYN forty times or more over the last four years and three pregnancies.  We go to the Pediatrician's office an average of one time per month.  I see the same hairstylist every twelve weeks, and interact with people from my husband's work.  Despite the limitations, we do take family walks in our neighborhood and have reason to stop and talk to those who live near us.  During nap time, I'm able to write and add my voice to the blogosphere, hopefully encouraging women in Christ between diaper changes and laundry loads.  And most of all, I minister to three little unbelievers everyday, living out the gospel in front of them, teaching them who God is and what he is like.  A small practical resource passed along by my local church opened up a whole world of thoughtful possibilities; ways that I do engage with unbelievers, even though it might look different than someone who can be more active in the community.

How churches can help moms make the connection
With the help of my local church leaders, I was able to make the connection between evangelism and my own daily life; something that's been difficult for me in the past.  Many times, churches unintentionally elevate some types of evangelism over others, and make it seem out of reach for people with a more limiting lifestyle.  I've often wondered if being a witness for Christ is something I'll just 'do later' when my children are in school or when I have more natural connections with unbelievers.  But the time to make disciples is now!

Churches can come alongside women like me, and others who might feel isolated, living in a padded bubble of Christians.  We are wanting to do more but might feel like 'sharing the gospel in the community' adds a lot of stressful pressures to our lifestyle.  Just as our church distributed and promoted some helpful resources to get the ball rolling, church leaders can help their congregations by translating the mission of the local church into practical steps for missional living.

Does the church hope to reach an inner city group?  They can explain how to invest in relationships in the context of daily life.  Does the church emphasize inviting new friends on Sunday morning?  Give ideas for how this conversation or invitation might take place.  Be straightforward, and don't assume people are already equipped or know how to forge these relationships.  

True followers of Christ have the desire to share Jesus with others in every season of life, but sometimes, our mental stereotypes don't help us, so we need tangible examples - even for women buried in laundry who can barely find time to frequent the local Target.  Because God has sovereignly placed each of us in our sphere of influence for a reason, we can look around our normal life and find everyday ways to share the love of Christ.