Tuesday, November 18, 2014

When Church Is Disappointing

This week I came across this article about how committed church members are leaving the church, declaring themselves done with all of that church stuff. They apparently are called "Dones," which I keep mis-reading as "Drones." To be honest, it broke my heart. It breaks my heart for Christ's church, but even more for these dear ones who are missing out on the life of a healthy body of believers.

I wrote a few weeks ago about what to do when marriage is disappointing. The parallels between how marriage can be disappointing how church can be disappointing are striking, although of course on a vastly different scale. We expect church to give us some of the same things we expect marriage to give us: love, a sense of belonging, opportunities to serve and sacrifice, support during hard times, and an opportunity to better ourselves. We expect some give-and-take, and if we give until we're worn down but don't feel like we're getting much out of the relationship, we may want to leave. If that happens at a few different churches we may conclude that the problem is with the idea of church itself, and so we give it up and decide to "create our own spiritual experiences."

Sometimes church, like marriage, is just boring. Uninspiring. Same old-same old. So we may want to leave not because church has so devastated us, but just because it's not as interesting as we think it should be. We have a million things to do, and church isn't inspiring enough to seem important.

I get it. Sometimes church feels like work. In fact, my husband and I at one point determined that since church often feels like a work day we should view it as such. We relax on Saturday, as much as possible, and then attack Sunday as a church worker instead of an audience member. That perspective helped us enjoy Sundays more and stop resenting the fact that it was so much work to go early for choir, go early to help with the evening service, and corral those young kids to and from church twice each Sunday.

So what do we do with the fact that committed, serving church members are apparently leaving church for good? What's going wrong? It seems to me that our understanding of what church is--and what it is not--have gotten off track somewhere along the way.

Others can and have written eloquently on the subject of Why Church?, and I will leave that to them. But I will say this: there is a Biblical mandate for the church. It is the body of Christ (Eph. 5:23-32), and as such is the deeper reality to which marriage points. If we view marriage as important, how much more so is the church? It is a living building (1 Pet. 2:4-8), and Christ himself established it (Matt. 16:18; Col. 1:18). It is the vehicle through which believers are to discover and use their spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:28 and elsewhere). Paul called himself the least of the apostles because of his persecution of the church (1 Cor. 15:9). It is to be the vehicle through which Christ is made known: "so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph. 3:10).

Perhaps most important of all, church is how we grow. "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Heb. 10:24-25). Far from being an obligation, church is a gift to us. A way to be stirred on toward love. A source of encouragement. A family.

On the other hand, church is not a social club. It is not necessarily supposed to be fun. It is not the be-all/end-all of your spiritual life. It is not necessarily filled with people you like. The worship may or may not be your favorite thing. The sermon may not always contain new information to you--although at those times it is probably full of good reminders.

In light of all that, I guess I'd say that the simple answer to the question of what you should do when when church is disappointing is to go anyway. Put yourself under the authority of a Bible-believing church and then stick it out, the same way you stick it out with your family even when they disappoint you. If you've been devastated by a church, perhaps it's time to find another place of worship, but do find one. 

Maybe, like in marriage, you need to adjust your expectations. Church will never be all you hoped. Everyone there is a sinner just like you, and they have idiosyncrasies that make it hard to put up with them. The good news is that they have to put up with your idiosyncrasies as well. And the benefits of learning to get along are huge. You will be sanctified in the process. You'll have people who can point you in the right direction when you're led astray. You'll have someone to be there for you when the chips are down.

Oh, Dear one who is feeling "done" with church. Please don't give up. I know it's hard. I know you're worn down. I know you're tired of being hurt by your brothers and sisters. But we need each other. You need us as much as we need you. I don't care about the numbers on the rolls or maintaining membership or making the budget. I don't care if we have to shut down this or that "program" because you can't lead it anymore. I don't care if you go to my church or a house church or somewhere else, as long as they preach Christ, and him crucified. Wherever you choose to go, your brothers and sisters need you. Your gifts are essential, or God wouldn't have given them to you. If you need a break take one and just come to be fed for a season. But please come. This body of believers is God's plan A for reaching the world, and there is no plan B. Let's work together to make our churches look more like the bride Christ died for.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mom, CEO

This fall applied for a job. It was sort of an act of faith--I wasn't sure if I was ready to work more than I am (it was only part-time, but still more hours than I usually work). But I felt led to give it a go, thinking that I was at least worthy of an interview.

Well, I did not get an interview. Which is kind of a blow to one's ego. And then a person starts wondering if a mother of five who has worked from home for 14 years will ever get an interview for anything. I read just yesterday that mothers who take more than 10 years out of the work force have a much harder time getting hired than those who take between five and ten.

Don't get me wrong. I made the choice to be home with my kids, and I love it. I have loved being home for almost every minute of their baby and toddlerhood. I've had a lot of freedom to schedule my days and pursue many different interests. And I realize that a person can't have both: you can pour yourself into a career and not have kids, or you can pour yourself into kids and not have much of a career, or you can try to balance the two but always feel like you're cheating someone or should be somewhere else. But you can't have a high-powered career and be a stay at home mom at the same time (a lucky few manage to stay home for a few years and have a high-powered career before and after those years, but that is not easy to do). And of course it is a luxury and a blessing to be able to stay home with my kids--a luxury and blessing that many people do not have. I am thankful.

Who wouldn't want to be home to capture moments like this?
And be able to go on fun outings with your kids on weekdays?

But there are moments when I wish for the benefits I would have if I had chosen a career instead of staying home. The fulfillment of doing something that lasts longer than my empty laundry basket or clean kitchen. The benefits of a supervisor telling me I've done well. A paycheck. An adult conversation. Being part of a team. An escape out of talk of potty training and picky eaters into the "real" world. And, yes, the ego-building of having a title, of having written or said something that other people care about.

So, what does a stay at home mom do in these moments? All too often, I think we turn mothering into a career. We make choices that give us fulfillment or feed our egos rather than serving our children. From the outside we look like supermom, but sometimes we are using our children to meet our own selfish ends.

What does that look like? I think when our kids want us to sit down and play a game with them, but we instead scour Pinterest for ideas and then spend two hours making a game, which we then take and pictures of to post to our blog, that is feeding our egos instead of serving our kids. When our kids want us to sit down and let them serve us their imaginary food, but we make felt food upgrades to impress our fellow crafty moms, that is ultimately serving ourselves rather than them. When our kids want to color with mom, and we instead find an idea online, make a trip to the craft store (where our kids have a tantrum and we get aggravated with them), and then get home and are too tired to even do the craft, we've failed to capture a special moment with our kids because we wanted to do things that would capture our interest instead of theirs. If our kids ask to play with play doh and we instead spend all morning making a "sensory bin" that keeps their interest for about five minutes, we haven't tended to their needs and interests, we've tended to your own.

There is of course nothing wrong with Pinterest, or mom blogs, or elaborate crafts. It is good to do all our work, parenting or otherwise, with excellence. And there is nothing wrong with trying to make the work of parenting more interesting for ourselves. But I think sometimes we scour Pinterest for the best ideas and then post our efforts to a mom blog out of a desire to 1) find fulfillment in our kids--who while they are fulfilling, should not be where we look for fulfillment (that's a way of using them). Our kids are a sacred gift for us to tend, not a career or a path to self-actualization; 2) feel better about ourselves by seeking a pat on the back from our fellow moms who are impressed by our efforts; 3) do the things we want to do rather than the things our kids want us to do. Sometimes they ask for a simple activity and we give them way too much--getting stressed and grumpy in the process. Sometimes we forget to listen to what they want, instead imposing on them what we want or what will make us feel good.

Maybe in the end it's not so much about what we do, but being honest about our motives. If you want to crochet a kitchen's worth of food for your kids because you like to crochet food, then by all means do it--just realize that this is your hobby, and your kids don't care if their play food is made of air, plastic, or fancy crochet. But they do care if mom is too busy with her hobby to be served at their "restaurant." If you want to have a mom blog because you love it, then do it--but don't sacrifice your kids on the altar of your ego by embarrassing them or spending so much time blogging that you neglect your children in the process. If you want to make a fun craft from Pinterest, do it because you want to, not because you think your kids need it (they probably don't) or because you need someone to tell you how wonderful you are.

I'm not arguing here for a more kid-centered approach to life. In fact, just the opposite, I'm arguing for a less kid-centered approach. If we were to stop making a career out of our kids, I think we'd end up with more time. If we listened to what the kids want from us (an hour of us playing with them) rather than spending an hour online finding a clever idea to do with our kids, we would have filled up their love tanks during that hour by getting down on the floor and playing with them, and then when the hour is up we would be able to pursue our own interests while they pursue theirs.

And if we did make time to pursue our own interests, maybe our kids would end up happier too. They would get a mom who listened to them and did the simple things they were asking for rather than a mom who constantly stressed herself out trying to be supermom. They would get a mom who had interests of her own and showed them what it is like to find out what you like to do and have the discipline to do it, rather than always seeking approval of someone else. They would be released from the pressure of being mom's "project" or life-fulfiller. And let's face it, those are roles no one should be asked to fulfill.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mondays with Martha: How to Spend Less This Christmas

It's just about that time. We're expecting our first polar vortex this week. The trees are bare, silhouetted skeletons against a grey sky. The red cups have made their appearance at that coffee place, what's it called again? Thanksgiving isn't here yet, but it's late this year, and if you look at the calendar you will see there are only two weekends between Thanksgiving vacation and Christmas vacation. All of which can only mean one thing: it's time to make some plans for how you're going to make this the best Christmas ever. Or, well, a good enough Christmas that you all have happy memories afterwards.

Every year I scrimp and save and say to myself, well, we don't have a lot of money this year, but next year we'll have more to spend on Christmas. And then every year we somehow seem to have less discretionary income. This year it is due to a Disney vacation and a move that cost more than we hoped and a kitchen remodel that cost a lot more than we hoped. So, how can we have all the most important parts of Christmas for less?

1) Make a list of what's really important. Ask the kids what traditions they can't live without. Figure out what makes you the most excited about the season. And then make three lists: The must-dos, the want-to-dos, and the do-withouts. Grandma's Kringle on Christmas morning makes the must-do list. So does looking at Christmas displays in fun stores with my mom. Seeing zoo lights with friends is another must-do. (Notice that those things are all basically free.) Driving around to look at ridiculous light displays set to music is on the want-to-dos. It's fun and basically free (other than the hot chocolate to make the drive even more fun), but if we don't get to it no one will have a conniption. The pictures at the mall in matching dresses is a do-without. It just makes everyone grumpy and really is quite expensive. Also not making the cut are the picture calendars. I just saved myself $200 and two days.

2) Plan ahead for your gift shopping. Ideally by this point in the year I'd be halfway done with my Christmas shopping. But this is the real world, and we are in chaos after a move and a remodel, so I have barely started. Making lists so I can shop sales and not overspend my budget is essential. Avoid those impulse buys!

3) Don't forget resale. Some items you want to buy new, of course, but especially when it comes to toys for young children, used is usually just as good as new, and a lot less expensive. Put a call out on Facebook for what you're looking for; maybe another mom has one she can sell you! Used books are also a great "extra" gift for people.

4) Think of experiences, not more "stuff." This probably works better with older children than younger children, but if you're thinking of paying for lessons or a special class, make it a gift rather than just one more thing your kids feel entitled to. Or have them open a CD (which seems more satisfying than a download, but maybe I'm just old-fashioned) with tickets to a concert. Family vacations can also be turned into gifts--money you were already going to spend that can help you spend less on other things.

5) Think of things you can make. Pinterest is your friend. There are some great ideas out there for games and toys and home decor you can make. My best Christmas as a child was the year my mom made all kinds of items for our Barbie dolls. She didn't spend much at all, but we were thrilled to pieces. Home-made granola, breads, and apple butter make wonderful gifts. Get the kids involved in making something for the grandparents and you kill two birds with one stone: making happy memories and crossing another item off your gift-giving list.

6) While you're getting crafty, think about whether you can make a little extra money at a craft sale or by taking a part-time job. I'm hoping to sell a little jewelry this season to have a little more spending money. And if none of it sells I can turn it into gifts for all the ladies in my life.

7) Think about family gifts--games or puzzles or memberships. It is much  more satisfying and saves you  money to buy a $40 game for your favorite nieces and nephews than to buy each one an individual gift that they probably won't like that much anyway. Puzzling families might like a puzzle they can put together during Christmas vacation.

8) Don't forget the dollar store and the dollar spot at Target. Sure, those things won't last forever. But they will bring a smile to a child's face.

9) Turn necessities into gifts. You can't only give socks and underwear, but you certainly can include them in a stocking. Or if there's an upcoming vacation, give a suitcase or sleeping bag. These are things you have to buy anyway, but turning them into a gift means you can spend less money over all.

10) Focus on what's truly important. Your children are better served by you making fun memories, not memories of mom stressed and dad griping about how much you overspent. Fewer presents teaches them to concentrate on giving more than receiving, to be content and grateful for what they have. And it helps them not be over-stimulated on the holiday itself. It also frees you up to focus on the together times you love the most, the feasting and game-playing and movie-watching that are the stuff of happy childhoods and cherished memories.

There you have it--my best ideas for saving a little money this Christmas. What are your favorite money-saving tips when it comes to the holidays?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

When Marriage Is Disappointing

When you've been married for sixteen years you come to the realization that marriage is disappointing. Sometimes it's a little disappointing--like when he objects to driving the kids to a Saturday activity because "that's my day off," as if moms could take a day off. Or he wants to buy a new car and you'd rather put that money toward a new kitchen. Or she overspends in every budget category, month after month. Or she just doesn't manage the kids the way you'd like. Or he doesn't step up and discipline/care for/fill-in-the-blank for the kids the way you think he should.

And sometimes it's a lot disappointing, when you feel lonely and angry and just aren't sure if you can take one more day. When life decisions are made that you totally disagree with. When you feel more alone when you're with him than you do when you're alone. When you look at your spouse and say "this is not who I married, and this is not what I thought I was signing up for." When you feel utterly rejected by your spouse. When you think maybe life would be better apart than it is together.

Marriage is hard. Some marriages have hard seasons, and some are hard in every season. Some seem to take little work, while others are hard work every single day. Life wears on us and wears us out and it takes a toll on our most important relationships.

But I think marriage is worth fighting for. I think your marriage is worth fighting for. It is a covenant relationship designed to reflect God's relationship with the church, and as such should be preserved whenever possible, by whatever means necessary.

There are of course no easy answers for a person who is bitterly disappointed with their marriage, and each disappointment in marriage has its own needs and its own solutions. But I think there are some things we can do in disappointing days, weeks, years that will help.

  • Get some perspective. At some point you chose this person. Maybe they've changed, maybe you've changed. But the fact remains that at some point in the past you loved them and wanted to spend your life with them. And somewhere deep in their soul this is the same person you chose. So find a way to get back to that moment. List the things you're thankful for about your spouse and tell them how much you appreciate those things. Look at pictures of your wedding and remind yourself what you loved--and then search for evidence that those things are still there. Brag to a close friend about the things your spouse does well (in a non-annoying way, of course).
  • Pray for yourself. Take your hurt to the Lord, who bears every one of our burdens. Ask Him to make you a better spouse and to heal the hurt places in you so you can love others more fully. Give your bitterness and anger to Him, confessing your own sin and asking for help. Ask Him to help you love your spouse with His love when yours has run out. Pray that you will have a soft heart and soft words. Ask Him to deal with you first. Wonderful things happen in a marriage when someone prays from the heart for these things.
  • Pray for them. You will never change your spouse, and the more you nag them the more they will dig in their heels and not do whatever it is you wish they would do. But if you take those things to the Lord, He will listen. Pray for spiritual fruit in your spouse, for patience and courage and freedom from fear. Pray that they would find their calling and be healed from whatever is holding them back. Pray that they would make decisions that are for the good of the family and children, even if those turn out to be something different from what you want. Pray with a genuine concern for their best interests, not for your agenda.
  • Turn to your friends. I think one of the problems we face in marriage is that we expect our spouse to meet our needs. It's great when they do meet our needs, but I don't think it is their job to fulfill all our emotional needs, and it is unfair to expect that. If I am feeling insecure, it is not my husband's job to compliment me and make me feel better--it is instead my job to turn to the Lord and get my security from Him. And that's where friends come in. Your same-gender friends "get" you in a way your spouse never can, and they can often fill in the gaps in your emotional needs. When I go out with my girlfriends we compliment one another, we help each other talk through parenting issues, and we pray for each other. Those are the kind of friends who will help you through the rough patches in your marriage. 
  • Stay away from toxic situations. If you have friends who are really happy about their divorce, then perhaps you need to have a hard conversation with them in which you tell them that you are working on their marriage and really need them to refrain from telling you how happy they are about their divorce. If you find yourself confiding too much in a friend of the opposite sex, end that friendship before it becomes a temptation to infidelity. Read and watch things that build up marriage, not things that glorify adultery. Don't participate in husband-bashing gripe sessions (which are never okay, but especially when marriage is hard).
  • Hope for better things. When marriages are really in dire straights, we need to cling to the hope that things will get better. God changes people and circumstances. God can change our spouse and draw them to Himself. God can change us to make us more content. I have seen marriages that seemed irreparably broken get healed, and it can happen to yours. I loved this testimonial about how God healed a hopeless marriage. Read those kinds of stories and dwell on them.
  • Express love and kindness even when you don't feel like it. Most of the things on this list you can do without interacting with your spouse, and in that sense they seem doable even when things are really hard. But of course working on a marriage does take some interaction. C. S. Lewis famously said that we shouldn't waste time wondering if we love our neighbor, but instead should act as if we do and the feelings will follow. I have found that holds very true in marriage. So ask your spouse what you can do to make their life easier today. Compliment them. Hold their hand or give them a hug. Ask them on a date, and if you don't think you can go out to dinner without arguing then just go to a movie where you don't really have to talk. Let them overhear you telling the kids how great they are. Show them in tiny ways that you are still here, that you are trying to make things better. That you accept them as they are.

Sometimes I feel ill equipped to write about marriage because mine has been relatively easy and mostly very happy. But I've felt those disappointments and moments of loneliness just like everyone else. I've seen some unhappy marriages up close. I've seen God work miraculously in many marriages--my own and those I've observed. And I regularly do all the things on this list, which perhaps is proof that these things help.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Mondays with Martha: Abby's Favorite Home Space

The highly talented and creative Abby blogs over at To Form a More Perfect Union. Her blog is fabulous and oh-so-inspiring. And she's such a wonderful person. Abby was kind enough to send me a picture of her favorite place in her home.
Look at that natural light! And the cute cabinet in the corner. And that light fixture. Love it. And I happen to know she cooks some pretty fabulous food to go on that table.

My sweet friend Karil didn't send a picture, but did offer a description of her favorite home space: "I think my favorite spot in our house is the couch by the front window last week when the leaves outside were all yellow and gold."

How about you? I'm still waiting for a picture of YOUR favorite space.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Redeeming Halloween

I originally posted this three years ago, but it seems worth revisiting. Happy snowy Halloween to my Illinois readers!

When I was little, I celebrated Halloween without thinking much about the spirituality of it. We had a great time dressing up, carving pumpkins, and decorating--just without witches and other scary things.

When I reached high school, I had a handful of friends whose parents were opposed to Halloween and refused to particpate in any part of it. That got me thinking about my own views on the matter. At the time I concluded that there was nothing wrong with Halloween if it was celebrated Christianly.

When I had kids of my own, I followed my parents' example. But I wasn't totally comfortable with the whole thing. I mean, if Halloween celebrates death, and Christians celebrate life, how can we participate with a clear conscience? Is that participating in deeds of darkness (Rom. 13:12; Eph. 5:11)? If it had existed back then, would Jesus have celebrated Halloween while he was on earth? I sort of thought not. So even as I dressed my kids up and handed out candy, I sort of felt like a hypocrite. I felt like I was compromising with the world rather than being a light to it.

Well, this year I've found a great book on the subject, and it's revolutionized my thinking.

This is a Tyndale House book (where my husband works, so we usually get free copies of this kind of book), published in 2004, but somehow I'd never seen it before.

The authors start by talking about the history of Halloween. As you probably know, it came from All Hallow's or All Saint's day, the day that honored all the saints and martyrs. This Christian holiday was moved to October in an effort to reclaim the pagan festival called Sow-en. The point of all of this is that Halloween started out Christian, and became about death and witchcraft later. So in bringing the light of Christ to this holiday, we are taking it back to its roots. The authors write, "This book is not a plan for Halloween alternatives. We don't suggest you simply remake the world's version of Halloween. We hope to inspire you to take back the celebration that rightly belongs to the people of God and restore the purpose for which it was established." (p. 18-19). No more guilt!

Here are some of their practical tips to help Christians celebrate Halloween spiritually.

1) Have your kids dress up likes someone that represents a group they want to tell about Jesus. This can be interpreted very loosely: Ninjas represent Asia, a flapper represents people in dance clubs, sea creatures represent sailors. The point is not to limit your children, but to add a spiritual dimension to what they want to do. I'd still leave out witches and wherewolves, though. Then use the week leading up to Halloween to pray for those people.

2) Decorate in ways that show light, not darkness. Think luminaria, white lights, and harvest themes rather than witches and ghosts.

3) Jack o' lanterns were originally created to scare away evil spirits, but these too can be redeemed. The authors have great suggestions for using pumpkin carving to show spiritual truth: as you cut open the top, remind yourself to have the mind of Christ; as you clean out the seeds, think about confessing your sin to God and allowing him to get rid of all that yucky stuff; as you carve the eyes, think about ways you can avoid looking for the faults of others; as you carve the mouth, think of ways to use your words to bless others; as you light the candle, think of letting Christ's light shine in you. It might be fun to have your kids brainstorm all the spiritual truths they can think of that relate to pumpkin-carving, using some of these examples as thought-starters.

4) As you open up your door to trick-or-treaters, think of ways to be generous. Make your home inviting and fun, even wearing a costume yourself. And in my opinion, if you're going to give out Bible verses or tracts with your candy, you better have the best candy on the block. (And it better be candy, not pretzels or fruit snacks!)

5) To have fun with the "trick" part of Halloween, think of people who might need some encouragement. Help your kids make cards or buy little gifts for these people, and then leave them anonymously. Kids love sneaking around, and this is one way they can have fun and bless someone at the same time.

There are tons more ideas in the book for fun parties and more. There is a really good chapter of ideas for teachers to do with their classes.

This year I'm going to get into the true spirit of Halloween, not celebrate it halfheartedly and with a touch of guilt! I hope you will too.