Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A safe friend

Several years ago, I was at a small group meeting when one of the young children had about all she could take. She probably missed her nap. It was getting late. There was too much excitement, all of which was a perfect recipe for a meltdown. The adults were very sympathetic, though. I don't remember who said it, but someone stated that wouldn't it be nice if we were allowed to have our own meltdowns when we get overwhelmed, frustrated, or exhausted? I'm sure I laughed that evening at the thought of indulging in a nice cathartic tantrum, but I knew better. As adults, we learn what is socially accepted and expected. We have an idea of  how "good" Christians are supposed to behave, so we keep the frustration hidden inside. But as hard as we try, sometimes the pressure gets too great, and it all comes spilling out.

If you remember the tale of the "Little Red Hen," the main character goes about asking for help from the various barnyard animals. They all refuse her for one reason or other, so her response is "Then I'll do it myself." That's great for a storybook chicken, but the feeling that it is all up to you isn't very comforting. It's also not very comforting when you get the idea that you shouldn't ask for or need help in the first place. Well I had a recent "Little Red Hen" moment. I was overwhelmed with a pile of work. I was stuck in traffic. I was tired and didn't know where I would find the wherewithal to "do it myself," but I couldn't see any other way out. It may not have been a full blown meltdown, but I vented my frustration. Initially, there was some relief, but that feeling was quickly replaced with shame. I should have known better. I should have done better. I shouldn't be feeling this way as a Christian. But here I was, and even though I knew the truth in my head, my emotions weren't lining up as quickly as I would like. Hence more shame.

Thankfully, God came to the rescue in the form of a friend - a friend who asked me how I was feeling and listened to me. She didn't berate me for not getting with the program already, but she gently corrected me. She told me directly that I was leaving God out of the equation as though my work and the traffic were outside of His control. She also reminded me that I didn't have to "do it myself" because God doesn't turn away our prayers when we come to Him in need.

In Unashamed, Heather Nelson writes:
For times such as this, when you are feeling your most vulnerable, it is important to have someone "safe" to confide in. Safe does not mean perfect (since none of us are that). A safe confidant is someone who has proven over time his or her commitment to you, someone you can trust to be both honest and gentle with you and who allows you to similarly speak into his or her life. Such friends give you space for your feelings and thoughts, and they share theirs with you, too.1

And this is exactly what my friend was to me in my time of need. It was humbling because she saw me warts and all in that moment, but those warts were no surprise. True and safe friends have no illusions because they have no illusions about themselves. They know and remind us of the gospel. They point us to the fact that we needed Jesus before we were saved, and we will never stop needing Him. They remind us of God's forgiveness, our acceptance in Christ, and the Holy Spirit's on-going work that is changing us from glory to glory. And this is why we need one another in the body of Christ. We weren't meant to "do it myself" or go it alone with no one to walk beside us.

So I'm thankful for my safe friend. I pray I would likewise be as true of a friend to her.

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  Col. 3:12-14

1. Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame, Heather Davis Nelson, Crossway, 2016, pg. 46.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Can mother ever relax?

This is a slightly modified repost from my personal blog from 2013. 

My middle child was diagnosed with asthma when he was a few months past his 2nd birthday. The diagnosis came after a very acute attack, and a frantic trip to the ER where my son spent the next three days, and where my husband were given an education about asthma.

Every asthma sufferer has something that trigger his symptoms. Some people have allergies, or wheeze because of stress or exercise. Our son's triggers were infection, both viral and bacterial. Kids get sick; trying to keep him from being set off was like nailing jello to the wall.

I feel like he coughed for the next ten years. After the diagnosis, it took a long time to get things under control. He would cough a lot at night, especially. It would wake me. I would lie there, listening closely, holding my breath, waiting to determine if he would need medication, if he was going to get acute enough to demand a trip to the ER, or if it would stop. When the house became silent again for a long enough time, I knew it had passed. I would relax, and think, "He's okay. Now, I can rest." It was a wonderful feeling.

This is a picture of parenting adult children.When my son was lying there coughing, I couldn't stop it. All I could do was wait to see if I was needed. When we parent adult children, we have to do a lot of waiting and listening.

When my children were little, it seemed so much more straightforward. I prayed for wisdom to know what to say; now, I pray for wisdom to know if I should say anything. That is one of the hardest things I have learned as my kids have grown up: knowing when to speak. The wrong word can make a mess of things, and a word not offered can do the same thing.

My children are still establishing themselves as adults. There are still "growing pains," albeit much more complicated ones. I continue to hold my breath, waiting, sometimes late at night, wondering: can I relax now?

I don't know as if there is a permanent state of relaxation as a mother. Yes, we release them, and we put our trust in the sovereign God. We meditate on verses like Proverbs 22:6, Romans 8:28, and Philippians 1:6. But things happen: career struggles; a broken heart; a fractured friendship; the struggle to find a good church; learning to live with a tight budget; and, as they strike out on their own further, possible marriage struggles and children of their own. Again, we ask, "Will they be okay?" While they are adults and capable of managing, old habits die hard, and we get into mother bear mode.

Just because our kids can do up their own coats, cut their own food, and tie their own shoes doesn't mean parenting gets easier. To be honest, I find it harder now than those days of toddlerhood. It's hard to just sit. Sometimes, I just want to do something. But I can't. Scrapes and sibling arguments feel like a walk in the park compared to the larger struggles they face as adults. We know what those are struggles are like ourselves, and despite our desire to shield them from them, we would be doing them a disservice to hope they didn't have to go through them. They need them to learn that God is faithful.

So, I wait, and I listen to see if I'm needed. Sometimes, I can relax, but sometimes, I can't. This is the reality of parenting; it's a life long vocation. And we can be thankful for it, because it causes us to draw closer to God, and it gives us opportunity to grow. And in between the times of watching them struggle, there is tremendous joy. We are so thankful that they are our children, and that God gave them to us. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Aging with grace

This is a modified repost from on my personal blog from 2009. I've crossed the 50-year threshold since then, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded to be content with my age.

"But Mr. Weston is almost an old man. Mr. Weston must be between forty and fifty." from Emma by Jane Austen, chapter 4.

As the year is drawing to a close, I have been thinking about growing older, because I turned 48 this year. In Jane Austen's time, 40-50 years was the average life span, and she only lived to 42. Therefore, the above comment may not be as harsh as we would think. But today, 50 is not old given our 21st century life expectancy. In fact, I have heard some people refer to it as the new 30. So if 50 is the new 30, I'm still in my theoretical 20's. Then why am I still sometimes reluctant to admit my age? Conversely, why am I flattered on the rare times I get carded at the grocery store?

Maybe our culture encourages our infatuation with youth. The media has inundated us with the lie that "youth + beauty = happiness" or at least what passes for happiness. It's also interesting to note that the standard is different for women than for men. Men are considered attractive with graying hair, but I doubt the same applies to women. Have you ever counted the number of shades and brands of hair color that are available at the grocery store? When men have lines on their faces, it's considered rugged but not for women. Have you ever counted the number of products claiming to be anti-aging, anti-wrinkling, age-defying? That's not even taking into account the surgical options that are available today. Believe me, I know. I work as a transcriptionist for a plastic surgery practice.

As I begin to count the few white hairs that are becoming manifest and debate about buying a box of hair color, not that hair dye is intrinsically bad, what is my motivation? Do I want to buy into what the world says is of value or what God values? Do I want to just age gracefully (aka looking younger than one's stated age) or age with grace, taking joy in this time of life and not try to push back the clock, as if that were possible? Proverbs says Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised and Gray hair is a crown of glory. After all, isn't my age part of God's sovereign plan for my life? He decided the year of my birth. Not a decade before. Not a decade after. And if every hair is numbered, that includes the ones that are no longer black.

I pray that I would not be ashamed of my age. I pray that I would be thankful for every year of mercy and grace because each year is a gift from God. It's another year to know Him and another year to be transformed by Him. It's also another year closer to the day when I will see Him face to face.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book Review - Journey into God's Word

I love to get book recommendations. In the winter semester, my hermeneutics prof regularly recommended books, and he recommended Journey into God's Word. Months later, while attending the church were my son works, I listened to the senior pastor recommended this book as well, which is not surprising, because he and I had the same hermeneutics prof.

Journey into God's Word is a great book for beginners who want to learn to study the Bible. The book approaches Bible study by comparing it to crossing a bridge over a river from one town to another:
  1. We discover what the text meant in "their town," i.e. in the context of the original audience.
  2. We assess how wide is the river to cross from one side to the next. That is, how different is the context between the original audience an us?
  3. We cross the "principlizing bridge." We draw out the theological principle that bridges the space between their context and ours.
  4. We evaluate what it means in "our town." We apply the principle to our context.
It may sound like an approach to use with school aged children, and it definitely would suit young students, but it is also a valuable image for any student of the Bible. One of my oldest and dearest friends, who is also my former teaching partner, read the book recently and said the images were very helpful to her even after having been teaching for twenty years.

Duvall and Hays open up the book by discussing the nature of Bible study. They focus thoroughly on understanding and appreciating the context. This is something they refer to again and again throughout the book. They also include a chapter which addresses something I think every Bible study book ought to address: our presuppositions. Some of us bring to Bible study a lifetime of learning from our church backgrounds. Some of those presuppositions may colour how we respond to what we discover as we study. For example, if I hold to a particular eschatological view, it will affect my reading of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature. Will I be open to discoveries that refute what I presuppose? It's a good question.

After talking about what Bible study is and the nature of Scripture, the authors discuss the various genres of Scripture, beginning with the New Testament books. I think beginning with the genres of biblical literature is key to studying the Bible. We simply cannot approach every part of Scripture in the same way, and it is when we attempt to do so that we may run into problems.

I appreciated especially the chapters on prophecy and Psalms. Prophecy can be very confusing and daunting to read, and Duvall and Hays give a great overview that helps with some of the logistical issues. Knowing why and to whom the prophets wrote helps us avoid reading prophecy incorrectly. With regard to the Psalms, they helpfully point out that the Psalms are examples of how we relate to God, so that instead we simply cannot approach it in the same way we would the book of Romans, for example. Psalms are always a favourite with Bible readers, so understanding how to correctly interpret them is important.

At the end of each chapter there are discussion questions as well as writing assignments. This book is clearly meant to be used with a group of students. My son's pastor used this book in their church during a series on Bible study. The writing assignments could be done as a discussion as well. I like the idea of both writing assignment and discussion because some people learn more as they are forced to write (I am one of those) but there are opportunities to benefit from others' input through discussion.

Bible study books seem to exist at very wide poles: the very introductory on one end and the very advanced on the other. There are not many in between, and I think this one meets that need. I believe it can still be used by a beginner, but it will suit a student for a while. Furthermore, because this book is a scaled down version of Duvall and Hays's book Grasping God's Word, there is a resource for further explanation and added depth.

I was reminded again as I read this book of the great need to study Scripture in community. We tend to think we can and should do everything on our own. I discovered last semester the great benefits of studying with others, and I think the best use of this book would be to study with a group or even one-on-one. Older women teaching younger woman ought to include teaching Scripture, and I think this book would be an excellent resource for that. It's not very long, and it isn't terribly expensive. It is definitely worth investing in.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review - Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame

Unashamed: Healing Our Brokenness and Finding Freedom from Shame by Heather Davis Nelson, Crossway, 2016, 192 pages.

Shame: the feeling of "not good enough," acccording to our own standard or our perception of someone else's standard for us. It's what keeps us from being honest about our own struggles, sins, and less-than-perfect moments. Fear of shame drives us to perfectionism in all areas of our lives, so there would be no imperfection for others to notice and judge. (pp. 57-58)

The word "shame" conjures up many memories for me - all unpleasant:

- Wondering if God could possibly forgive me again after committing the same sin yet again.
- Being mocked for looking different or dressing out of style.
- Being scolded for normal human failings like forgetting something or not making the wisest choice.

But the ones that haunt me the most are where I have been the one doling out the shame, and I long to lay these feelings to rest once and for all. But where do I go for help and healing from the shame that seems to be so pervasive?

In Unashamed, Heather Nelson brings the gospel to bear on the shame which we all know far too well. She begins by first making the crucial distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt relates to what I have done. In the case of sin, the Holy Spirit convicts, and the resulting godly grief produces repentance. Our response should then be to cling to the promise that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness because Christ died for those sins. Amen? Amen!

But what about shame? Shame is more complex because it relates to who I am more than what I have done. Yes, it can arise from condemnation over sin that has been confessed and repented of, but often I experience shame because the fall has taken its toll. In this case, "brokenness" is very apt and not just a politically correct way to avoid the word "sin." I may forget. I may be socially awkward and physically clumsy. I can guarantee you that I will make mistakes. While I may not have necessarily broken God's moral law, I may be looked down upon and treat others likewise. The author addresses this rejection specifically in the areas of body shaming, social shaming, and the trap of performance/perfectionism. Yet the gospel still applies.

In the case of sin, Christ paid the penalty that we could not. In the case of shame, Christ lived the perfect life on our behalf thus securing our standing before a holy God. We are now loved and accepted for Christ's sake and united to Him no matter what others may think of us or what we may think of ourselves. This may be easier said than done, which is why Nelson emphasizes the necessity of Christian community for healing from shame. We can't do this alone. We need one another to be listening ears as we confess the shame we feel. We need patient friends who will support us as we learn to walk in freedom rather than fear. We need those who will speak the truth in love as we unlearn the lies of shame. She also discusses how the foundation of the gospel enables us to fight shame in our marriages, families, and the local church.

On a personal note, Unashamed was very timely for me as I have had recent conversations with family members about shame, specifically shame-based parenting. My guess is that ever since the fall, parenting has not been shame-free. Rather shame has been the modus operandi from generation to generation, and I've been cut to the heart that I have done my part in perpetuating the cycle. But this book has encouraged me that the way forward isn't trying to gear up my performance, but to confess, repent, and believe that the gospel is sufficient even for me. I am also encouraged that the cycle of shame is not a given and can be broken.

I highly recommend Unashamed.

We do not live for the approval or condemnation of others, but our audience is God himself - the one who calls us his beloved because of Jesus. Therefore, we move out freely into relationships without fearing or needing others' accolades or judgment. We practice our freedom at every turn - refusing to live according to shame's lies and awakening our souls to truth that sets us free.  (pg. 174)

Purchase Unashamed from Westminster Bookstore (affiliate link) and Amazon.