Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Even Grown Ups Need Encouragement

We are all pretty good at putting on our game faces, at wearing masks that conceal what we don't wish to share.  The moment our pressed clothes and polished shoes cross the threshold, we muster up a day full of smiles and friendliness meant to erase any hint of the turmoil going on inside our souls.

But behind that smile that we wear for our friends, our families, our church families, and even strangers, sometimes it's difficult to just breathe.  The emotional burden inexplicably becomes a physical weight that can almost be felt pressing down, in, around, compressing the heart, head, lungs...suffocating.

I've heard pastors tell congregations to just give the burden to God, and they'll instantly feel the weight lifted.  Many times, that works.  Yet, then there are those instances when God, Himself, burdens our hearts for an individual.  He intentionally places the burden on us.

This past weekend was one of those times for me.

I tried my best to give three individuals' different situations completely back to Him because honestly?  Even though it doesn't sound very Christian-like, I didn't want to be burdened for them.  I'm in the midst of grading final projects and final exams.  The last thing I wanted was so much drama during my busiest time of the school year.  What's more, I didn't want to feel this much for someone who wasn't my own blood. It hurts to feel another's pain.

But God didn't lift the weight.  Instead, He made my heart literally ache for what several of my sisters in Christ are going through at this season of their lives.  For days, he made that burden all consuming, filling my thoughts throughout the day with prayers heavenward for that person to find His peace, comfort, confidence, strength, or discernment.

I have learned from past experience that this is how His Spirit works in me, reminding me to pray for others when my daily schedule might keep me from remembering.  In time, He eases the weight, but until He does, He is calling me to pray and sometimes, to encourage those persons through my words and deeds.

Scripture says, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25).

Encouragement is something we all want but don't always give.

Perhaps we don't want to pry or get up in someone else's business.  Maybe we're even a little afraid of what other burden we'll be laden with if we do express our concern or seek to encourage another.

But think of how good it feels when someone stops you just to say they are praying for you.  Think of that phone call or short note you received, out of the blue, just to encourage you.

I have one of those cards tacked on my office bulletin board.  Every time it catches my eye and I reread its words, my heart swells warm again and again.

Those words of encouragement, though?  They're few and far between.  It's too easy to tear down.  It comes too naturally.  Think about it.  Do you call a company when they have a great product? Or only when you have a complaint?

It's discouraging when all you ever hear are negatives.  My days are filled with college students and very young children, both of whom drag me down daily with a litany of complaints concerning what they think I'm not doing right.  In this click and send generation, too many of my students are quite adept at vocalizing every grievance before walking away to take a breath and think about their words or tone.  It's extremely rare to get a 'thank you.'

Perhaps it sounds whiny, but I have those days when I long for someone to step up and say something nice to me, to speak a word of encouragement over me during a trial, to tell me YES, I am doing something right, that I am doing a good job with whatever, or that they're praying for me.

Because I understand this need in myself, I try to meet it for my children by constantly speaking words of encouragement over them.  Each night, I write my oldest son Wyatt a letter to read at morning breakfast, just something simple to brighten his day, to encourage him.  Each morning after daddy takes him to school, I awaken to the phonetically-spelled reply of my kindergartner. This morning's missive was a list of what I could do to "exercise" my body and mind.  Then, at the bottom were the simple words, "thank you encourage me."

Those simple words of thanks for me as a mother brightened my entire morning and stayed with me throughout the chaos of a too-full day.

This is who we all need to strive to be--a people who encourage, who build up. Because, truly, how much does it really cost us to open our mouths to encourage another or to take five minutes and write a short note?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Navigating the Fickle Friendships of Children

It doesn't matter whether you're six or sixty.  Any time a person tethers his heart to another's and that cord is cut, the free fall from the emotional mountaintop is inevitable.  If you're are one of the unlucky family or friends standing below when the heartbroken crash through the cloud bank and fall back to earth, you'll likely be nursing a few heart bruises, yourself.

Heartbreak can mask itself in the cloak of anger, grumpiness, and even defiance.  But underneath these gruff symptoms lies a tender wound, a hurt not even a mother can heal with all the love she longs to rain down on her children.

I should know.  Our farm was transformed into Heartbreak Hotel last Friday and well into this week.  I had seen it coming, but even a good meteorologist can't stop a Gulf Coast hurricane from coming ashore.  He can only warn of its imminent approach.  Still, there are always going to be those who refuse to hear his words of wisdom and choose, instead, to stand on shore as the winds whip violently, sometimes lifting them from the very foundation they stand upon.

My six year old, Wyatt, knows he's not allowed to have a girlfriend until he's much older.  We call them "friend girls."  But no matter what name we gave the object of his affection, that didn't stop his heart from seeking another girl's approval and love.

He first told me about her a few months ago as we walked hand in hand together from the afternoon school bus.  Crunching through the still-frozen earth of our hayfield to our home, he suddenly asked, "Do you want to know how we fell in love?"

Like most relationships, it revolved around food, this time an individual-sized bag of shared M&Ms.  I couldn't help but smile when he didn't know her name.  The more I asked, the more I realized he really knew nothing about her.  In his mind, "love" meant friendship.

He just wanted a friend, even if it were a girl.

Over the next months of afternoon recess, he did learn her name, regaled us all with stories of her new glasses that kept her from "running into a wall" again, thought nothing of holding her hand when she wanted to walk on the balance beam, and gave her a wallet sized photo of our family.

Then came the long evening of tears when my little man turned little boy once more, his head bent low in my lap as he poured out an ocean of brokenness over the loss. 

All I wanted to do was heal his heart and give him back the naturally open, trusting happiness only found in children.  I tried introducing a new word into his vocabulary--"fickle"--to describe girls, used the "when they mistreat you, that means they really do like you" logic, explained that girls his age usually only play with other girls, and ended with the promise that he had a huge family who loved him more than most children.

Nothing this mother said made it any better.

Surrounded by a pack of other girls, his friend-girl had spoken the worst phrase in the English language: "I don't want to be your friend anymore.  Go away!"

And so, I did the only thing I could do.  While rocking my oldest in my lap, I prayed aloud over him.

The first few days back at school were lonely, but I kept encouraging him to find a new friend, to ask someone to explain the rules of one of those games he didn't understand.  We talked about only needing "twenty seconds of courage"

One week later, the little girl's name is no longer a part of household conversation.  My son's grouchy attitude has given way to his usual jolly bounciness.  And what's more, he played a new game with another friend today, even though he didn't quite understand the rules.

Wyatt knows I don't always like him, but I will always love him.  I still say those words on a daily basis, still put them in writing for him to read each morning at breakfast.  Perhaps that's why my love is less sought after--because he knows it will always be there.  It is safe, unconditional, and never ceasing.

This isn't his first heartbreak caused by the fickle friendships of children, and it won't be his last.  It's one of the hardest parts of growing up.  What am I saying--it's one of the hardest parts of living, even as an adult, this putting your heart out there and having to reel it back in, sometimes in pieces.

Yet, somehow, learning what true love isn't, what true friendship isn't--this is the only way to learn what actually is.  This is the only way to appreciate the true love and friendships we might otherwise take for granted.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Christians & The Home / Public School Battle

This space typically steers clear of politically polarizing issues, but as a parent who is currently both homeschooling my K4 twins and public schooling my K5 son this year, I have to hear both sides of the great divide.  Neither side is okay with the other.  Both sides espouse only the evils of the other.

I have to hear it all.  And it hurts my heart to the point I want to stand up and shout, "Stop It!!!"
That snarky little cartoon you posted on Facebook poking fun at home schoolers as being both ignorant and socially inept?  The hilarious picture you linked to where two little African children comment on how horrible American public education is because the children are forced to sit perfectly still all day long?

It's not funny.  Instead, it's divisive.

Sarcasm is anger's second cousin; it is a passive-aggressive way of saying, "I'm a better mom because I'm educating my child this way."

The problem, though, is not divisiveness in the political area. It's a much deeper division that pierces the very soul.  This war over the choice between public schooling and home schooling is pitting Christian against Christian, dividing brothers and sisters in Christ.

One child even asked his mother how I could send my oldest son to public school if I had really prayed to God about it.  The assumption was that I was a bad mother and a bad Christian for not homeschooling, that I was more spiritual if I kept my son home with me (and that he'd be more spiritual, too, by extension).  In another conversation, a friend made the assumption my twins' shyness was caused because I home schooled them and would lead them to become social lepers.  This time, I wasn't a bad Christian but was still a bad mother.

I am not merely a mother, though.  I am also an educator. 

Over the past fourteen years, I have taught your home schooled teens, your public schooled teens.  I have even taught those private schooled teenagers whose tuition cost more than I make in a year.

In the end?  I can't tell a difference among them. 

As a whole, I can't stereotype a home schooled student as being "closer to God" any more than I can stereotype him as "lacking significant social skills." Likewise, I can't stereotype a public schooled student as being a "standardized test robot lacking out-of-the-box critical thinking skills" nor can I stereotype him as being "less moral."

In composition courses where students reveal more of themselves in their writing than they would in a history or math class where facts and figures are more important than personal ideas, I get the privilege of learning who my students are as individuals. Yes, even on the college level, I know them...sometimes too personally.

I listen to their in-class discussions, read their heart-driven essays, have one-on-one office consultations.  By the semester's end, I know most of their histories, their current situations, their moral convictions, their religious beliefs, their political leanings, their dreams, their greatest hurts, loves, and failures.

Yet throughout it all, I can't really tell a blanket difference between the student who was educated in his kitchen or in a traditional classroom.   I'm equally as likely to have a conversation about God with either group.  (I'm also equally as likely to have my socks blown off by both group's immorality.)

Being a good mother? Being a good Christian?

It has nothing to do with whether you home school or public school.  It has to do with you obeying God's calling for your life, whatever that may look like.

Our household is a unique one.  I was public schooled from day one in kindergarten. My husband's academic upbringing was the exact opposite, with his mother home schooling him throughout elementary school and middle school, then home schooling through Pensacola Christian Academy for high school.

When husband and I married, we brought to the table our two completely different experiences on education.  Perhaps that's why we both have love in our hearts for these two styles of education rather than animosity for one side or the other, because we understand this is one of those areas not spelled out in a Biblical command but one where we must pray and receive guidance for our family.

Whether we realize it or not, with every negative word we speak about the "other side," with each sarcastically angry cartoon or comment we post on Facebook...we're creating the next holy war at the feet of our children.

I strongly believe Satan is working intently to break up the unity found in the church.  Where better to draw the dividing line than based on the definition of what makes a good or bad Christian? A good or bad parent? What better way than to discourage and divide rather than support and encourage.

Before I speak.  Before I post.  I need to ask myself if my words are opinion versus Biblical command, if my words can hurt, can offend, can divide versus draw my brothers and sisters in Christ together.

If the answer is yes, then I'd better hit delete.

Friday, April 19, 2013

It's Like Pulling Teeth

The two front teeth grew a little wobbly last November, sending this mother into a panicked rush to schedule the family Christmas pictures before those prominent pieces of enamel came out. I hadn't been prepared when the bottom front teeth were loose enough to bend forwards at a ninety degree angle, had quite forgotten how quickly they can go from loose to missing entirely.  This time, I wasn't taking any chances.

Yet, after the bi-annual family portraits were hanging on the wall and tucked inside all the Christmas cards, I actually welcomed this rite of passage, a sign my little boy was turning into a little man.  Husband and I laughed as we envisioned the Christmas Eve festivities including a very snaggle-toothed Wyatt lisping to "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth."

We waited.  But those teeth never grew any looser.  If anything, they tightened their hold, grew an attitude, determined to not come out.

After that, Wyatt would remind me occasionally that the front teeth were looser, would open his mouth crocodile-wide some afternoons for me to trustingly slip my thumb and forefinger around the tooth for a gentle jiggle.  I always humored him, then smiled, said "not yet," and told him to just leave it alone.  During the winter months full of flu, pneumonia, and stomach bugs, the "not yet" sounded more like "Are you crazy!?  Get your hands out of your mouth!!  You'll get sick from germs and then you'll make mommy sick, and we all know what happens when mommy is sick!"

One month turned to four before he started the persistent complaints about not being able to pierce the skin of each afternoon's apple snack.  The tooth was too jiggly.  Eating on the other side or chewing with his molars wasn't working well either.

Yet, Wyatt was firm in one resolution--he was not pulling these teeth.  Not ever.  Daddy wasn't going to pull them either.  And Opa?  Wyatt wouldn't even open his mouth around him, too frightened by his big, weathered fingers and rough-tough stories of string attached to doorknobs. 

I just shrugged.  Fine by me.  They would come out when they came out.

By this past Sunday, though, I knew Wyatt was going to need to re-evaluate his strategy.  Still, I agreed this wasn't the time to pull anything.  Monday through Wednesday were his big "Iowa" test days.  Even though the standardized test didn't "count" for anything, there was no way I was going to encourage him to put an aching crater in his mouth.

Those few days were spent screwing up his courage, I guess, because by Tuesday night, he begged his daddy to pull it.  Husband said it wasn't loose enough.  Wednesday night after church found Wyatt begging his daddy again, but husband still said it wasn't loose enough.

At that point, Wyatt took matters into his own hands so that after the twins' baths, husband had no choice but to break the one remaining root free from its gummy home.

A little over twenty-four hours later, I awoke to a note from husband saying he had pulled the second tooth before school this morning.  Wyatt had stood on the bathroom cabinet, one foot in the sink, his face inches from the mirror, working that second front tooth back and forth until husband had no choice, again, but to make the final tug.
As I held that second tooth, turning its smoothness over in my hand, I wondered how this could happen so fast?  How could a little boy so dead-set against anybody pulling his teeth suddenly shift to begging his daddy to do just that? Where did he find the resolve? The courage?

2 Corinthians 12:9.

" My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."

Our greatest fears, our greatest heartaches--it is God who gives us the strength we need, His power.  But only when we need it.

I've watched this week's horrors of the 2013 Boston Marathon, mourning with the parents who lost their 8-year-old son.  I've prayed for the thirteen families who will now have to find a way to move forward after the plant explosion literally blew their lives apart.  I have been daily mindful of the hundreds more involved whose lives are changed forever, who will need miraculous strength, super-human strength, to move forward.

We don't have the strength within ourselves to move not one step forward.  That's why we look at the tragedies and say, "I don't think I could go on."  And we're right.  We couldn't.  Not in our present state anyway. God didn't grant us blanket grace to survive all the horrors life throws at us. 

All strengthening grace is individual.  All empowering grace is daily, on an "as needed" basis. 

Even a six year old boy's young life speaks to me of such great truths.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Five Minute Memories

 "Want to ride bikes with me outside, mommy?"

I glance over at the clock.  The minute hand has been marching steadily onward as husband played Candy land with the twins and Wyatt lingered too long over his fish sticks and the Sunday funny papers.

 We have five minutes. Literally.  Five.

After that, it's the nightly wind-down routine of bath, book reading, prayers, and bedtime.  Any other night, the late sunset of springtime might make me fudge bedtime by a few minutes, but tomorrow is day two of IOWA testing.  This mother well knows that staying up even a little late can make for one grumpy, overly tired boy.

Still, when my eyes meet his and I hear the orange dinosaur helmet click beneath his chin, I can't say no.

"Sure," I respond, already sliding my feet into well-worn pink Roper clogs.  Instantly, Wyatt rewards me with one of those face-splitting grins of childhood.  This is the grin of unabashed joy found by living in this moment alone, 100% unburdened by the choices of yesterday or the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Already, my choice is worth it.

The one problem is I haven't ridden on two wheels since before Wyatt was born.  I'm not even sure where my purple bicycle is.  And if I did, surely, its rubber tires have grown rigid and crackled from the persistent hundred degree heat of a half dozen or more Louisiana summers.

Wyatt mounts his orange workhorse and offers me his "new" green bike, the one he won last summer through the parish library's summer reading program but hasn't yet ridden much because it's hard for him to "start."  It won't be long, though.  By summer's end and another growth spurt marked on the wall chart, he will finally be able to touch the ground with more than just the tips of his toes.

I feel like a large square of paper being folded into a tiny paper crane, my extra large frog legs forming a right angle as I struggle to make them fit in the space between the handlebars and pedals.  Slowly, I pump them ungracefully through the quicksand gravel.  Wyatt drives equally slowly ahead, patient as he constantly looks backwards to make sure I'm keeping up.

Now empowered by several weeks of riding up and down the gravel drive, across the open hay field between the twin barns and our house, this boy thinks his mother should have just as much confidence. (She doesn't.)  He pedals patiently beside me, sure of himself even when I am not.
Together, we reach the halfway point of the drive; he shows me how to make a u-turn around the tree and starts back at a faster pace.

I tell him to go on ahead, ride as fast as he can, that I'll keep up.  He does, and I do, too.  But then, he slows again, says he wants to ride beside me.  Here, he is the teacher and I the student.  It's a role he plays well.  My heart melts at the care he shows me in this instant, but still, I fear crashing into him and urge him on ahead.

Husband is outside with the camera when we make it back to the carport.  Wyatt is all smiles.  Even the twins grin at the fun their brother is having.
Then, husband takes the bike from me, and the two of them start back down the drive for another quarter mile loop.  Wyatt gives his daddy no kind deference, though.  Daddy is not a student to be taught.  He is a competitor to be crushed.  Now, it's all about the race, about who can finish first.

Husband has to stand on the pedals to get started.  He looks even more amusing, crane-folded atop that too-small bike, but the twins think nothing of it, continue to cheer him on even as he clearly lets his oldest son win the race.
Just like that, the five minutes are up.  All the young ones groan, complain, and procrastinate, trying to extend this moment as long as possible.  I end up counting to three; they file in reluctantly.

It's just five minutes.  I could have spent them folding clothes, putting up the rest of supper's dishes, or any number of things.  Most of the time, that's just what I do.

But sometimes like tonight, I remember that five minutes is enough.  I build up a child.  And I make a memory worth keeping.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Value of a Four Leaf Clover

My oldest son, Wyatt, asked me to find him one before St. Patrick's Day.  Like any good mother, I tried, diligently, stooping like an old woman until my neck burned from being unnaturally angled towards the ground.  For two weeks, I passed the ten minutes waiting for the afternoon bus on this four-leaf clover hunt.  Some days, I even crouched low and brushed my fingers through their thick, tangled locks, hoping to dislodge one tucked close to the ground, hidden within the canopy of average clover.

Yet, even after all my diligence, I found nothing but millions of ordinary threes.  It was disappointing, being unable to fulfill my son's simple wish, especially since it would cost me nothing more than my time.

As I searched, I remembered summers past spent in lower Michigan on my Grandma and Grandpa's farm, me sitting on a plush carpet of tight green grass and black, loamy soil, both foreign to this Louisiana girl of red clay and unwieldy St. Augustine runners.  As a teenager, I would spend hours on the ground, doing nothing more than searching for the rare among the ordinary and plucking my way to dozens of the four-leafed variety.

Sometimes, I'd even find a five or six-leaf wonder, although those extra leaves were always smaller than the rest, as if the legitimate three had stingily denied those stalk-strangers the proper nutrients needed to grow full sized.

Never at home had I ever found these treasured aberrations in such great abundance, sometimes growing a breath apart.  I was convinced that the deep cold of Michigan winters somehow altered the clover's genetic code, making it more prone to these mutations, something that couldn't happen in South Louisiana where the temperature rarely dips much below freezing and even then, not for days and weeks on end.

Each year, I would return home with books full of carefully pressed fours.  No, I didn't believe they held any powers to grant wishes or usher any good luck my way.  Still, I enjoyed them and wanted, now, to share that joy with my own children, to no avail.

Weeks after St. Patrick's Day had passed and I had long since tilted my head back up to the warm Spring sky, I was on a mission to corral my brood of three for homework time.  As I sprinted past, my eyes glanced down for a split second at a clover patch I'd examined too many times before.  And there one was.  I jerked to a stop and doubled back before doing a little whoop at finally finding one.

This past Wednesday, I came home from Bible Study to an equally excited young man.  My four-year-old Emerson had spent his morning finding four leaf clovers in a patch by the equipment shed that Opa had given a lawn mower's stay of execution.

Emerson took me to the patch, and in a few short minutes, I found two more, myself.  Anyone would have thought we had found solid gold rather than worthless weeds.  Still, we placed them in a plate of water, both of us enjoying enjoy our spoils each time we passed through the kitchen. 

It's ironic, how in this one instance, people in general prioritize the mutation, especially considering how physical differences aren't really celebrated or even desires.  It's ironic how something that scientists would dismiss as a genetic snafu, a mistake of nature is much sought-after by the common man.

At four, my son knows these clover are wonderfully special creations from God, not mistakes.  I encourage this search for the unique and press each away inside a book, knowing that one day, I'll need to bring them out to remind him that this concept doesn't merely apply to weeds by a barn but to himself as well.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

When Princesses Come to Passover

I'm not sure what Jesus would think if He looked across the Passover table at my four-year-old daughter, dressed elegantly in pink linen with embroidered roses.  Amidst the unleavened bread and the wine, the Haggadah of prayers and songs written in both Hebrew and English, and the tiny silver menorah filled with cornflower blue birthday candles sit six plastic princesses whom Amelia has brought to the feast, all dressed appropriately in their most sparkly finery, all wearing crowns.

Her twin brother, Emerson, has long ago put the Scooby Doo coloring book and twistable crayons beneath his seat, but she has no intentions of allowing her girls to miss out on the meal to come.  They line up, form a circle, then move into a line again before facing each other close as Amelia animates them in conversation.
The group lifts their glasses in unison to partake of the first Cup of Sanctification.  "Blessed are Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth fruit from the vine."

I add a silent prayer that my own clumsy prince and princess don't spill the Solo cup of purple grape juice.

Little chubby fingers next take a sprig of parsley, dip it in salt water.  To my surprise, they eat it, undeterred by the taste and texture.  This meal is special, and they know it.  I explain simply how this is what tears would taste like and how this reminds us of the Israelites' tears when Pharaoh kept them as slaves.  The twins know this story well.  Even later this night, they will explain this part of the feast to their daddy.

My mother leans close to Emerson, dressed in his favorite orange Hawaiian shirt.  As the youngest at the table, it is his role to ask the questions.  Grand-mama reads from the Haggadah, and he repeats, suddenly shy at this attention.

"Why is this night different from all other nights?"  I think of the apostle John leaning on Jesus' breast, asking this same question.

Minutes later, we all lift voices to sing the Hebrew chorus of a new song, "Day-enu."  The words mean "It would have been enough," and although this meaning is significant only to me, the twins clap, smile, and sing praises to the Lord anyway.  A few plastic princesses even dance along.

Together, we continue around the Seder plate, partaking next of the bitter herbs, although in South Louisiana where Tabasco and hot peppers are the rule, they don't make us cry.  In fact, Amelia and Emerson both take their matzah bread back for a second dip in the bitter horseradish before pulling out their spoons to dig deep into the haroseth, a sweet apple paste resembling "mortar" the Israelite slaves would have used between bricks.

As any good hostess would do, Amelia picks up Snow White and Cinderella, offers them a bite of her favorite dish on the plate.

Two hours later, there is miraculously no grape juice on the floor or anybody's clothes.  Everyone has fellowshiped and eaten well a meal of roasted potatoes, lamb, turkey, green beans, and strawberries on angel food cake.

We read from the Psalms of Ascents, sing another song in Hebrew,pack up the princesses, and head for home.

Later, the twins will joyfully share with their older brother about this Passover meal, so much so that Wyatt's face will sour as he fusses at not being pulled out of school so he could attend, too.   

No, I'm not sure what Jesus would think if He saw my two youngest children enjoying their first Passover meal, but I think He would smile in approval, a smile that would reach His eyes and warm those around Him.  I think He would enjoy these children just being children as they learn of His faithfulness in generations past.

Princesses, crayons, and all--somehow, I think a scene such as this is exactly what God would have had in mind when He penned those words explaining how the Biblically-ordained feasts of Leviticus 23 were for the "generations to come."

This is for that next generation--so that they, too, will know He is Lord.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Joy in Trying Something New

 By nature, I'm one of those newborn birds who chooses to remain huddled deep in the bottom of my secure twig nest, quite content to forever remain there with downy, untested feathers.  Sure, I'll peek over the edge, even look around a bit in inquisitive wonder; yet, I dare not extend one wing into the open air for fear of failure.

Even with all my successes, I still fear newness.  I constantly fear failure.   But as an adult who knows life is deathly short, I constantly take the plunge over the edge into the empty depths of my fear, push myself to try new activities--making beeswax candles that spiral upwards, weaving baskets out of white reed from Indonesia, crocheting long Rapunzel braids that brush the floor, creating a three-tiered coral reef cake out of fondant or crafting a mermaid wave cake topper out of gingerbread and royal icing.

My oldest son, Wyatt, is just like me, only he hasn't quite reached the age where he's learned to choose action in the midst of fear, where he's learned the rush of success is worth the floundering spiral in thin air, falling tail feather over beak at times.

Now, I'm the mother bird called to gently push him out of the nest, despite his fears.  And when I fail?  God steps in.

We've been talking about taking Wyatt's training wheels off for months now.  He's six.  His church buddy just recently learned to ride on two versus four. He is strong and healthy.

Still, he balked at the idea, so I did nothing.

Then two weeks ago, Wyatt left his bike behind my van.  Yes, I did the visual sweep of the back corners as always, but somehow, that bright orange hunk of metal hid behind my aqua cracker box on wheels.  I completely missed it until I heard the sickening sound of metal, concrete, and my back bumper attempting to meld together.

Thankfully, my reverse speed is slower than a snapping turtle crossing Louisiana asphalt in the winter.  The bike looked fine as I gave it a frustrated push across the carport.  But, a few days later when Wyatt decided to take it for a spin, the bike wouldn't work.  One training wheel was bent.

As I shrugged my shoulders in a pretend-shocked, well-there's-nothing-else-we-can-do-but-take-the-broken-training-wheels-off fashion, I couldn't help but smile at the heavenly boot pushing this mother and son out of their safety zones. What a great task for him and me to undertake together over the Easter holidays.

For the next few minutes, I pushed; I let go; he pedaled; he crashed.  In five minutes, he could keep the bike upright but not multitask.  In other words, steering was completely out of the question.  Ten minutes later, he could drive a straight line but could neither start nor stop himself.

He fussed. He argued with me. He cried with defeatist frustration.

I sighed deep.  He would never learn on our 40 x 20 foot square of concrete . It was too small.  He'd get a good run and then fall off, unable to turn the sharp corner without crashing.
There was nothing to do but send him down the quarter-mile gravel driveway separating our house from my in-law's home.

He would have to learn by pedaling through pea gravel that acted more like quicksand than concrete.  He would have to learn to steer by holding desperately tight to a steering wheel that developed a mind of its own when driving across a minefield of golf ball sized gumball seeds dropped from the gum trees above.

Twice that day, I ran alongside him the full length of the drive and back, yelling at the top of my bossy, maternal lungs, "Pedal! Pedal! Don't stop! Push! Pedal! Push harder! Faster! Don't stop!" 

One mile later, he was elated!  One mile later, I was elated, exhausted, and hoarse.

Two days later, Wyatt was tired.  The newness had worn off, the praise had lost its luster.  One knee was scabbed over with a bloody war wound.  This riding a bike--it was work, not easy play.  He wanted the training wheels back on.

I solemnly shook my head no.  There was no turning back.  Besides (logic), the training wheel was still bent.

Now, he starts, stops, and steers by himself.  He's learned how to pedal harder to get up enough speed so he can make it through the big rocks.  Every afternoon, he drives up and down the drive, joy radiating from that little body as he beats me home again and again. He leaps and sings to me the "Practice makes perfect" ditty he frowned at when I sang it just last week.

And me? His joy is contagious.  I'm still so proud, I could burst.

This joy is what we miss when we're too afraid to get out of the nest, to try something new, when we don't even give ourselves the chance to succeed.  This joy is what we miss when we allow fear to hold us back from what we know we should do, what we've been called to.

If only I could bottle this feeling to remind me of what this joy feels like...for the next time I am frozen by my own fear.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The View From Up Above

Here's a little test, asking you to rate yourselves in five simple areas.  I promise I won't ask for your answers if you don't ask for mine. 

"Are you above or below average in each of the following areas?"
  • My ability to get along with other people
  • My honesty
  • My work ethic
  • My basic intelligence
  • My morality1
 In Larry Osborne's newest book, Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of Overzealous Faith, he says 100% of people will rate themselves above average in every single category.

The problem with this "I'm-better-than-you" attitude is that it's negatively impacting not just our personal and professional lives but also the Kingdom of God.  Such an attitude affects the way we perceive other Christians and churches in general, even those that bear the same denomination.

Osborne notes that as the Christian grows closer to God, he is more likely to inadvertently become a Pharisee, in all the negative connotations of the word.  As he states, "as you press forward, it's inevitable that you begin to notice that some people lag behind. And it's at this point that your personal pursuit of holiness can morph into something dangerous: a deepening sense of frustration with those who don't share your passionate pursuit of holiness"2.

While the book begins by exploring how the word "Pharisee" once wasn't a bad thing and how this group was held in high regard as the ultimate in righteousness, the text quickly shifts to a discussion of where the Pharisees went wrong and how modern-day Christians are making many of the same mistakes so that, in the end and without even realizing it, devout Christians zealously intent on pursuing righteousness are disdainfully treating other Christians with contempt.
  • It may begin with a disagreement over an interpretation of a much-debated passage of Scripture.
  • It may begin with a personal commitment to "raising the bar" in one's own life and then suggesting that real Christians must therefore do X, Y, and Z, too.
  • It may begin with an effort to root out false gospels and keep the church focused on holiness so that it matures into a group of fully committed believers.
Yet, whatever the initial cause of our Pharisaical attitude, the result is the same--we attempt to be the Holy Spirit for others.  In that mindset, we begin to fail in loving others as Christ loved, we prioritize our relationship with God as the only way to relate to God, we bicker over nuances that do not impact the core of salvation, we fall into legalism with new rules and standards that must be met for us to consider someone saved, we fail to extend the full gospel to those Christians we consider weak, and we neglect unity in the church for exclusivity and uniformity.

Osborne says that in the end, "No one asks me if we love Jesus.  That's too generic.  They want to know if I pass their particular litmus test.  They want to know if I share their vision, agenda, and code words.  If I do, I get the secret handshake.  If not, they pray for me"4.

The picture Osborne paints of the devout Christian as accidental Pharisee is compelling, convicting, and written in down to earth prose.  He backs up his analysis with numerous examples from the Scriptures, admonishing his readers to quit following a cut-and-paste gospel but to seek to let Scripture interpret Scripture in order to see the full picture of what Jesus intended our ministry to be.

Interestingly, the group who suffers most from the Pharisee-Christian's attitude is not the non-believer but rather the floundering Christian.  As Osborne explains, "We still lov[e] the lost and the hard-core sinner. But we disdai[n] the less than fully sold-out Christian"3.

He continues, saying the modern-day Pharisees "have plenty of mercy for those overseas, mercy for those who face tough odds, mercy for those who don't yet know Jesus. But there's very little mercy for struggling brothers and sisters in Christ. There's not much sympathy for people who are weak and faltering. For those folks, there's nothing but a harsh rebuke and stinging exhortations to catch up with the rest of us, often with a disclaimer that they're probably not even real Christians anyway"5.

And when anyone does attempt to extend mercy and compassion to these floundering Christians?  They are viewed as watering down the gospel, making exception for sins.

Osbourne leaves us with two choices: to encourage or to discourage, to draw in those weak, floundering Christians or to shove them out the door as useless, lazy, and not worthy of Christ's sacrifice.

Overall, "Ouch" was my response to many a criticism in his pages. Unlike many books I review, this one will remain permanently on my shelf.  Since I agree with Osborne that this tendency to become a Pharisee is all too easy for one who seeks to deepen his relationship with Christ deepens, I know I will need this continual warning reminder to guard my own heart.

There is such a thing as balance, a desperate attempt to not swing too far to either side of any one thing.  This book, I believe, is Osborne's attempt to call us back from the fringes of either side, for the sake of Christ and the souls of mankind.

**I receive zero compensation from Zondervan for my review of this book.

1. p. 53
2. p. 20
3. p. 46
4. p. 90
5. p. 107