Tuesday, July 28, 2015

My First Mission Field

When I tread the weathered terrain in my mission field, and sit down to rest, I often notice that the soles of my feet are stained black with dirt.  They walk barefoot over food scraps and particles brought in from the outside, weathered and calloused by the same beaten path.  It's not unusual to find that at the end of a day's work in my mission field, I'm covered in some of that dirt and food myself, not to mention the bodily fluids that stain my best clothes.

In my mission field, people speak poor or very little English.  They can't read the bible, so they rely on me to open it up, speaking it in prose they understand.  I often find myself sharing its truths, only to realize my unreached people aren't really listening to what it says.  Despite their unruly, God fleeing ways, I still must persist to translate the gospel into a language they can understand.

The language they understand, however, usually includes meeting felt needs.  The unreached people I work with are in desperate need of food, drink, shelter and clothing.  Their state in life makes the most basic tasks difficult, so they rely on me to help keep them healthy.  It's the kind of missional love that isn't noted, applauded or reciprocated by those I minister to.

The best of my work in the mission field is done when I pray for the tender souls in my care.  Where I plead with God to give me a heart again for this people group, who are about to wake for the day.

Where is this mission field?
While it might sound similar to the rough terrain of Africa or an orphanage in Haiti - this mission field is right in my own home - in central Iowa.  Opposition to the gospel is about to greet me as it runs down the hall in footie pajamas, pleading for sugary cereal.

As the days go by, I realize that this mission field can seem so obvious that it comes off as unimportant.  It feels like it could never be as great as the outside callings, where I could minister to the "real" poor and destitute.  But as I've meditated over the years about the great commission and those whose hearts God has place in my care, I recognize that the unbelieving children in my own home meet every criteria for the the lowly, despised and rejected that I'm called to minister to.

They have no material means of their own.
They can't read the bible.
They are deaf to spiritual truth.
They are low on society's priority list.
Who will care for these souls?

I will go, Lord.

Many women wake up alongside me in the morning to a mission field inside their four walls that sometimes feels invalid, lacking the "real" poor people that Jesus speaks of.  It is right and good to acknowledge God's call for us to seek and save the lost everywhere - in our neighborhoods, our cities, our country and the world.  We should see those needs and desire to spread the gospel far and wide.  Each person has a unique sphere of influence, through which, they operate as a conduit of grace.  But let us not forget the small and young unbelieving people who God has placed directly in our path.  It is not at their expense that we go out; but that we nurture, love, share and help them pursue Christ as we invite them alongside us into a world of unbelievers.

If you find yourself in this mission field of your own four walls today, I encourage you to go to battle on your knees like the missionary saints in other nations.  I pray that you will fight the battle for the souls through the mundane meeting of needs and unwavering faithfulness of Christ-like love for the poor and needy.  That you will translate the word of God clearly into toddler-ese, helping those nearest to you to treasure and trust the Savior.  Because for mothers, the first mission field of the great commission starts with the little hand latched at your knees - and spreads from there to the ends of the earth.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Waiting for Baby #4 (A personal reflection)

It's late pregnancy.
I've been through this before, but somehow, the excitement has compounded and the hope set before me seems more real than ever.  In just a few short hours, days or weeks, I'll be holding our fourth son in my arms.  Until then, our family feels just a little incomplete, missing a piece we've known about for 9 months.  

Each story and each labor has been unique, teaching me different lessons and chiseling sin out of my heart in new ways.  With my first, a completely unexpected episode of my water breaking at 36 weeks sent us into a rush to the hospital.  I wasn't emotionally standing guard, thinking I still had a month left of pregnancy with no signs to tell me otherwise.  The sudden labor sent me into a fear spiral, and was more painful than I anticipated, tying my back into knots and continuing without a break.  I faced it with tension and panic, eventually needing the gracious relief that a modern medicine can provide.  But at the end of it, I fell in love with a dark-haired baby who's six pound frame was strong enough to go right home.

With my second labor, I spent 3 1/2 weeks trying to hold off the inevitable.  My uterus had stretched well beyond full-term, and my body struggled to walk around with the weight of two children.  Each step was painful, turning in bed was a test of patience and my back has yet to fully recover.  My contractions threatened as we took low-risk medication to keep those babies in as long as possible, but each day they increased and became stronger, eventually giving way to full-blown active labor.  But this time I was not afraid.  I was not caught off guard, I was eager.  I was ready.  My body was so strained carrying twins, that the prospect of labor and delivery seemed like a light and momentary affliction.  I knew that the risk of needing a c-section was high, and again, medical pain relief would be prudent in case of an emergency.  But when it was time to dull the pain, my strength was still in tact.  I was curious what would have happened with support and relaxation.  But at the end of it, I fell in love with two fragile babies who eventually came home after some feeding and growing.

This story is making it's own new way.  Again, I am experiencing the false starts of labor signs.  With other modern women, I'm googling "pre labor symptoms" and snooping in forums from years past, looking for clues that my time is near (or far).  The frustration of not knowing floods my brain, the fact that I can't control the timing stretches my faith.  I'm tossed and turned, wanting this child to come at the perfect time while also succumbing to impatience.  And yet, I know that (Lord willing), at the end of this I'm going to fall in love all over again - with our fourth son, who will soon be sleeping on my chest in a quiet hospital room.

Pregnancy brain and the murky reality of hormones are no help when it comes to sorting out wrong feelings from truth.  Just the other day, my oldest child ran in a pretend race in our community and I literally had to gulp hard to keep from bawling.  I couldn't handle his age, his strength, his independence - and mostly I just felt proud.  For a moment, everything in my soul cried out, "This is so worth it.  Nurturing a life - a person - contributing to their growth in every way..."  And my heart beat strong for these babies that God has gifted me.  I'm so undeserving at the chance to raise up these boys into men.

But in the midst of these mixed up thoughts, the ebb and flow of frustration and intense love, here are some observations:
  • We were built to anticipate the coming labor pains.  Everything in us cries out for a baby to be born, just as creation cries out for it's final redemption.  It is right and good to look for the signs, hoping and praying it's finally time.  Because eventually the baby will come - as will our Lord and Savior.  
  • We should prepare for the pain ahead.  Our instincts have us practicing birth relaxation techniques, breathing, talking to friends, taking classes and reading too many articles online.  We want to know what to expect, and we want to face it with as much grace as we can find.  And as Christians, it's healthy to stand guard, to be watchful and to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming persecution.  There is pain before new birth - both for women and for God's elect.
  • We can eagerly focus on the hope set before us.  The promise of holding a new life is overwhelmingly joyful - and at some point, most of us want the trials because the end result is coming and it's better than our current state.  At some point in pregnancy, we transition from wanting this baby to just stay put (because life seems pretty comfortable) to wanting that baby in our loving arms.  As Christians we need to make this shift as we mature, eventually viewing the coming of Jesus as a better state - the most wonderful thing we could hope for, and worth any painful cost.
This thing my body is doing and is about to do is a gift.  I get to participate in the great story of life-giving, life-bearing, life-bringing just as God does.  I get to reflect His image and live out a small picture of his greater plan as I wait, long for, anticipate and prepare.  I get to practice trusting His timing in the small things so I can believe His goodness with the big things.  As God himself knows, being a life-giver is costly and it isn't without pain and sacrifice...but it's worth it.

So as I wait for #4, this is my prayer - that I would glorify the Father and find more wonder in the story of redemption in this birth experience than I have in the past.  That I would let each desire for birthing pains poke at my greater desire for all things to be made new.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The things I used to judge moms for, and what I know now

Once a young woman with stars in my eyes, I kept mental lists of the things I wasn't going to do when I became a mom.  From the superficial and external to the deep and complex - I had it all mentally figured out.  Now with 3 kids going on 4, I'm slightly the wiser (and much more convinced that I know very little about being a mom).

Here are some of the things I used to judge moms for, and here's what I know now...

What I thought then:  My van will never have crushed snacks on the floor and toys everywhere.
What I know now:  Going places with lots of little kids requires bags, toys, snacks, cups, clothes, and more.  Somewhere during those travels (either around town or across state lines) these items drop, fall, or are thrown on the floor.  While moms would like for it to be a priority to remove each and every one of those items littering the van, it's hard enough to get each child out when you arrive back at your home.  You're potentially pulling out people with complicated coats who are hungry, crabby, tired, or haven't napped.  The main goal is getting everyone inside and having their needs met.  So sometimes, the crackers on the carpet just aren't a priority!  A clean van is nice, but some mess here and there is just part of having a family.

What I thought then:  I'm never going to "let myself go" and wear junky clothes / no makeup everyday.
What I know now:  When you've been up several times in the night with young kids, you might need to sleep until they wake up.  As soon as kids wake up, your best opportunity to shower has probably passed.  It's possible to squeeze it in later in the day, but it's going to require other hard sacrifices.  Immediate needs have to be met, like feeding kids breakfast, changing diapers, and getting everyone settled into the daily routine.  Getting ready is on your list, but it keeps getting pushed back and back and back because people keep needing you unexpectedly.  When you do finally shower, the precious 10-15 minutes it takes to dry and style your hair probably needs to be exchanged for dinner prep or switching out a load of laundry.  And once your nice sweaters are permanently stained or torn for the 4th or 5th time, you stop wearing nice clothes around your young children altogether.  There is still a place for personal grooming and looking attractive to your spouse (which is of high importance), but it's much more challenging than I ever expected!

What I thought then:  I'm not going to let my kids watch TV.
What I know now:  TV is not evil in and of itself.  It needs to be moderated and shouldn't ever take the place of intentional mothering.  There are shows that are not appropriate for a young child to watch, and as a parent, it's so important to protect what our children see until they are mature enough to evaluate content for themselves.  However, there are also a lot of shows and movies out there that have a decent message.  They aren't going to scar a child for life, and they might even bring some brightness to everyone's day.  TV shows can provide a good opportunity for mom to have some needed time with God, or catch up on a few chores to make the rest of the day run more smoothly.  TV shows can give a chance for mom to shower (see above) and can help everyone cope during times of morning sickness or other illness in the house.  I used to think the decision to let my kids watch shows was straightforward, but now I see that there are a lot of factors to weigh and it's not the difference between a good mom and bad mom.

What I thought then:  I'm not going to become a hermit who stays home with kids all day long.
What I know now:  Getting kids out of the house (especially multiple young children) is logistically challenging and physically exhausting.  There are numerous factors to consider such as; is everyone healthy?  Are we going to miss a nap?  Has everyone eaten?  How will we get around once we get to our location?  How much help am I going to need?  What is the likelihood that someone is going to run away or have a meltdown?  Sometimes the answers to these questions aren't deal breakers, but they need to be carefully understood and weighed, and sometimes, the benefits of getting out of the house don't outweigh the difficulties.  Not to mention, most kids thrive on routine.  Sometimes moms want to just be at home and have a smooth or normal day as a family.  The more children we have, the more I understand why many moms go through a bit of a hermit season until their kids get a little older.  It's important to get out and do things, but it's not the only important thing.

What I thought then:  I'm not going to have sick kids all the time.
What I know now:  I used to see moms of many children and wonder, "Why are they always missing things because of sickness?  Do they have a really germ-infested house?  What is the deal?  I don't like that moms are inconsistent and hard to count on."  *sigh*  Even the most clean-freak moms who wash hands and use sanitizer and stay out of public places get sick kids.  And guess what, if you have multiple children who are under the age of 5 in one house, it's almost inevitable that what one has, they will all get.  And it doesn't always happen at the same time!  Sometimes an illness will take weeks to hit each child, and each time that mom needs to wait it out until her child is better before she comes into the world with them.  Bystanders might think this is annoying, but I promise you that it bothers the mom even more.  She WANTS to be consistent.  She WANTS to uphold her playdates and adult commitments.  She doesn't intentionally avoid you because she would rather be taking care of a child who is throwing up or has a fever.  The doctor's office isn't her favorite place.  Any mom would tell you that if it was in their power, they wouldn't ever have a sick child!

What I thought then:  I'm not going to have a messy and cluttered house.
What I know now:  Mom's are trying to pick up after miniature mess factories.  Literally, for every item that is put away, a child takes a new thing out.  For every pair of pants that is washed, a new one is stained.  Each time a dish is rinsed, another one is eaten off of.  Even if you are 100% on top of your game, well-rested, and in good spirits - this is a tough job.  So add any other family or physical stress to that and a person can imagine how quickly a house can become messy and cluttered.  Not to excuse it, but it's much more challenging than I expected, and it's something that you can spend your whole day on without making much noticeable progress.

Honestly, this list could go on and on (sadly, this is just a small sampling of my judgements)...but it's really just a reflection of what some women say and think before they become a mom themselves.  These are the things that can make women dread and avoid motherhood.  Because from the outside, it looks like a bunch of women who are haggard, tired, and struggling to do their job well.  But it's much MUCH more complicated than that, and outsiders looking in on motherhood also don't get to see the deep joy and satisfaction that mothers experience as they put their hair in a ponytail again, nurse another toddler back to health, or give thanks that they are blessed enough to have a car full of cracker crumbs.
Outsiders can't always see the way moms do mundane things with eternal purpose, or work with excellence even when the pretty results are thwarted.  It's not a glamorous job by our culture's standards, but God calls it an important one.

And because of what I know now...I'm TRYING to be more reserved with my judgements about what type of mom I'll be to school-aged children, teenagers and adults.  Because it will probably look a lot different than I expect once I have a better perspective!  Also, I think some of these things have helped humble my too-high view of self, as I recognize my daily need for God's grace through the cross.  I can't do this thing alone, and I certainly can't do it WELL without ongoing growth and training.

Can you relate?

Monday, June 22, 2015

One Question for Frustrated Moms

One Question for Frustrated Moms - From the Jensens Blog

Recently, I had some of those low and frustrating days as a mom of young children.  Thankfully, I can say that most days I truly enjoy having three little voices calling out to me as mom, but like most women, I can experience exasperation in this wonderful gift.  I felt a little bit convinced that these sometimes sweet boys were seeking to drive me over the edge by disobeying the majority of my requests and making even the simplest activities difficult.

- Playdates felt like a daunting experience, where I was going to have to spend the whole time putting people in time-out for hitting or throwing, and continually chasing little boys headed off into off-limits areas.
- Read alouds ended in everyone shedding tears with book pages ripped all over the carpet, fighting over the most desirable titles.
- Bedtime meant struggles over brushing teeth, tugging stuffed animals out of greedy hands and going in to lay kids down again and again and again.
- Our household sounded like an a capella chorus of "Whining" with the lyrics "mommmmmyy!!!!  I neeeeeed you!" playing on repeat.

I was pretty much considering a few options at one point:
1)  Completely ignoring all of their behaviors and heart attitudes. "Maybe my kids can just parent themselves?"
2)  Turning into a yelling / scary mom that rules everyone with an iron fist.  "Maybe I can just show them who's boss, and then they will stop pressing all my buttons?"
3)  Taking an extended vacation to an all-inclusive resort.  "How long until everyone runs out of food and clean clothes?"

I think every mother of young children has felt this way at SOME point or another (or I sure hope I'm not the only one who hits these walls of frustration).  The issue isn't DO we have these moments, but what do we DO to get past them?

Where am I finding my joy?
As I folded laundry, only to have someone tear through a neatly stacked pile of t-shirts, I had to stop and check my heart that was bubbling with anger.

What was I telling myself?
What was I believing?
What was I allowing to control me?
Why wasn't I having joy?

These moments are red flags, not to show that we are abnormal women, but that we've taken our eyes off of Jesus and placed them onto something else.  I wasn't finding my joy and hope in God alone, but instead I was placing contingencies on my joy:
  • "I need our kids and family to be FUN in order for me to have joy."
  • "I need our household to sound and look PEACEFUL in order for me to have joy."
  • "I need our life to be EASY in order for me to have joy."
It's pretty simple to see the problem here, because anyone who's lived in an environment similar to a pre-school nursery for long can tell you it's not generally "fun, peaceful and easy".  So if I felt like I needed those things in order to be a joyful woman, I was going to be waiting a while.

How can I stop and pursue my joy in God?
  1. I had to acknowledge, "God, I'm hoping in a fun, easy and peaceful life.  I'm not finding my joy in you.  I'm not looking to you for fulfillment.  Instead I'm looking to my circumstances."  This in itself is a huge step!
  2. I had to repent, "God, forgive me for not enjoying and seeking you as the most wonderful and fulfilling thing in life.  Help me make changes that are consistent with the truth that I believe."
  3. I had to speak truth to myself.  "I know that you are the only thing that can bring me joy.  Help me pursue my joy in you."
This isn't a one-time, magic wand process.  It's something that has to be done daily, sometimes even every few minutes!  There are practical things we can do to orient our hearts and minds around joy in God:
  • Listen to or sing worship music to God
  • Make note of the undeserved gifts God has given 
  • Meditate on the gospel:  God's patience with you, his mercy towards you, his gift of salvation to you
  • Pray simple prayers of humble need, asking for God's help
  • Practice obedience by serving or moving forward in faith that you will have joy in God as you do His will
Done over and over again, these disciplines have the ability to help us reorient our hearts and minds towards truth.

So did this mean that I automatically stopped snapping at my kids and started leaping with jubilee each time they whined or needed something?  No.  But it did allow me to move forward in some productive ways.  With my heart oriented on God, I was able to seek His practical help with challenging situations.  Recognizing opportunities to walk in-step with God:  "How can I discipline more consistently?  Is there an area I need to ask my children for forgiveness where I haven't been faithful?  How can I structure our day or our life better to train our children well?"  This meant remembering that making disciples is not an easy or painless task.  

Lately I've been reading through "Desiring God" by John Piper at the same time we've completed a video series on the topic through Sunday School.  I'll be the first to admit, it's stretching my brain and my theology!  But I really do want to understand and seek my greatest joy in God - and stop separating "joy" from "obedience".  Because for followers of Christ, our greatest joys are not in competition with a life lived for Him. 

So next time you hit a mommy wall of frustration, it might be good to stop and ask, "What conditions am I placing on my joy?" and more importantly, "Where am I finding my joy?"