God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

God’s Gentle Parenting (Or Why I Love the Bible)

There’s a beautiful pick-your-own strawberry patch in Vermont that I love to visit with my children every summer. It’s been many years and many lovely trips, but there is one moment that will always rise above the rest as the most memorable. I had four little ones; a baby strapped to my back and three others under the age of five. We went early but still the strawberry patch was busy with mostly older ladies and couples who were all serious about getting their berries for the freezer and jam. A few gave the kids quick smiles as we passed and went right back to work. I got down to business as well and started picking as soon as I had everyone settled in spots with plentiful red berries. I kept my children in my peripheral vision and they all seemed content and plopped berries in their little boxes.  It was one of those ‘this is the way life is meant to be’ serene moments. Until, my oldest started yelling…. and I do mean yelling… “MOM!!! He’s peeing on the strawberries!!” I’m sure my head wasn’t the only one that quickly turned and saw my little country-raised three year old peeing across three rows of strawberry plants. The next fifteen minutes are fuzzy. Somehow four kids and a half-filled flat of strawberries made it into the van and part way home without me making eye contact with anyone.  I remember driving along thinking, ‘I can never go back there… ever…”

But, somehow, this week found me picking berries at the same farm, with much older children and a toddler (diaper securely fastened!).  My kids are great, hard workers, and they also love strawberry jam, so they were motivated. We were there at lunch time, and the field was full of children and their mothers. One little boy, uninterested in picking, had wandered off; it looked like he might have found a friend his age and started running around the field. His mother noticed and yelled, “Oliver… Oliver, get back over here!” Her voice was loud enough for everyone in the berry patch to hear and her tone showed her obvious displeasure. With drooping shoulders he slowly made his way back over to her.  She directed him back to picking berries. “See… look at those kids over there.” She pointed to my group of pickers. “Look at how those good little kids are picking berries. Why don’t you start picking like them?”  I cringed. I wanted to go over and grab Oliver’s small hands and say, “Little One, don’t feel bad. On a different day you might have seen these ‘good little kids’ running around like wild things and maybe even peeing on the berries.”

This time, we left with three full flats of strawberries and a few quart baskets held in little hands for the ride home. And, as I drove, my thoughts were still on Oliver and his mother. My thoughts were also on my own children and my own heart when I call them or need to correct them. I prayed for us; I want to laugh and play and rejoice loudly but when I need to speak harder words to do so with quietness and close proximity. When I call my children back from wandering, I want to use the same tone that I would use if it were their birthday and it was time to have cake and ice cream. I delight in my children, even when they are straying, and I want my voice to carry that truth.

As I drove, and pondered the value of quietly correcting my children, I thought of times when my husband has had to speak with one of our boys after church when they were getting a bit too rowdy. I’d see him draw the boy away from the crowd; a father’s hand on his child’s shoulder and his knees bent to look in the boy’s eyes. In that moment, his words aren’t heard by anyone else because they are low and gentle. Instead of seeing the boy’s shoulders droop, I’d see them get taller. I’d see him want to be a man and to do what is right. Most people don’t notice the interaction at all. There isn’t a scene, there aren’t raised voices.  There is no public shame. But the boy is noticed and spoken to and corrected in the quiet presence of his father.

And, I thought, isn’t this just what God does with us?

I spent the summer I turned fourteen with my grandmother. I had a little upstairs room all to myself with a window that looked out over a farm pond, a long field and the sunset. It’s the first time I remember really reading the Bible. I didn’t have commentaries, the internet or even a church family to learn from; just a leather covered New King James version and a lot of time on my hands. Maybe in hindsight it would have been good to start with one of the gospels, like Luke or John, that would have been easier for me to read and gain some context for understanding the rest of the Bible, but I didn’t do that. I just picked it up and decided to read straight through from the beginning.

And, miraculously, that young teen understood and fell in love. It was the start of not just time in a book, but of a relationship with the Author. They were my first moments of being that child with my Heavenly Father pulling me aside and leaning over me; telling me the hardest, sweetest, most beautiful story ever told. Pointing out the ways He’s seen my heart and my actions straying and correcting me with a patient gentleness; assuring me of His love for me now. And, I think most significantly, showing me His attributes and His character and allowing me to know Him. There in that westerly facing room, still a child and alone but for the Spirit of God, I fell in love with the Word of God, both written and manifest in Jesus.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

I remember those moments so well that it’s hard to believe so much time has passed since that first summer. The other night my family was all outside playing; I had been tagged and was frozen. I stood admiring my family and the beautiful place we get to live. I looked up at the pointed fir trees, felt the glory of God in nature, and I wondered, ‘what would I believe if I had never read the Bible?’ I tried to separate out everything I had read from what I felt right at that moment. Later I wrote about it in my journal:

What if I didn’t have God’s Word? That is what I wondered as I stood frozen in our game of ‘ball tag’ tonight. I’d know that there is something more powerful than me. I would know that the world was designed and created. I would know there is a battle between life and death. I would feel it even in myself… the struggle to stay on the side of life with goodness and kindness. I would know that there is beauty… and that I can’t quite enter into it… that it is something outside of myself in an almost painful way.  I would know love… the deep love of a mother. I would see the amazing design in each of my children… I would know they came from me and yet I didn’t make them. I think I would know there is God because of prayer… I would want to speak to him and hear him. But I think I would be afraid. I wouldn’t know if God was good or bad or if He loved me. I would be so crushed by His power and the unknown.

And then, while still pondering, I thought of that little children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…” Just from studying his creation I would know a lot about God and myself. But I wouldn’t know the gospel… I wouldn’t know that God had entered into His beautiful and yet fallen creation in order to redeem us or of the staggering depth of his love. I might know things about him, but I don’t think I could really know or trust him.

After the game that evening, I sat by our small pond and watched the row boat that had drifted from shore. It was floating aimlessly. I thought of how without the Bible I would have been floating through life on the currents of my feelings. So often, my time in the Word has been that time of being pulled aside and corrected by my Father. The Word exposes my sin; not just the actions but my thoughts and the bent of my heart. I might come to the Word saddened by the evil in the world, or the wrongdoing of others, but when God speaks to me it’s about the tangled knots of sin in my own heart. It’s my own sin that I see crushing Jesus on the cross, and the work Christ did there becomes devastatingly personal in a heartbreakingly beautiful way. “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) God lifts my eyes to see not just my sin there with Jesus but the death inside of me dying with him. The Word made flesh, dying a fleshly death, so that in me, the Word can bring life.

I return to the Word, and to the cross, over and over and over again. This summer I’ve been reading through the book of Hosea, part of the Old Testament and written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. And yet it is all about Jesus. From beginning to end the Bible contains the cross, the ransomed life and the Father calling to his wandering children.

Come, let us return to the Lord;

for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

He has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

on the third day he will raise us up,

that we may live before him.

Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord;

His going out is sure as the dawn;

He will come to us as the showers,

as the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 6:1-3)

 

It’s raining again this morning as I sit here reading these ancient words. While the rain pours down outside my window, watering my tomatoes and green beans, the words from this long ago prophet are once again watering my soul.  Since I first picked up that Bible as a young teen, there have been a lot of spring rains, many wanderings and many returns. Throughout it all God has remained the same. He has never been the loud and frustrated parent. He has never been embarrassed by my lack of maturity or ashamed of my fumbles. But He has continued with his effectual call, desiring me to return to Him and to His Word. I don’t think it will ever cease to amaze me that it’s not just for our salvation that He calls to us, but it’s for our and His own delight.

The Lord your God is in your midst,

a mighty one who will save;

he will rejoice over you with gladness;

he will quiet you by his love;

he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

 

 

 

 

What I Need to Say Before ‘Thank You’

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Thanksgiving. I know it’s really important. Not the turkey or cranberry sauce and eating pie all afternoon… not even the Pilgrims and Squanto.  It’s the act of remembering, appreciating and being grateful. Being grateful to Him. It matters; it’s important and it’s good.

But I can’t just turn on thankfulness like a faucet. That deep appreciation and thanks isn’t pouring out of me right now.  And, he’s not an account in the sky where we need to deposit our yearly dose of thanksgiving before we carve the turkey and pass the mashed potatoes. He’s not the universe or ‘The Unknown God’ of the Athenians in the book of Acts. He’s Someone. He says, ‘I Am.’ He tells us about himself because he wants to be known… and he already knows each of us intimately. So, before I give thanks, I need to give honesty. I need to come to him with the questions weighing on my heart and making the thanks feel inauthentic. He’s real and I need to be real as well.

So, God, before I come to you with my thanks, I’m going to be honest and come to you with my sorrow.

Pressing down on me as I roll out pie crust is a weight of sadness for a woman I don’t even know well; we only spoke a few times. But her loss is so significant that just hearing about it has crushed part of me. Less than a year ago, we sat together after Sunday school and talked about her oldest daughter, just nearing school age. She wasn’t sure what she should do this year. We talked about the pros and cons of home, public, or Christian schools. And God, the whole time we were talking, you knew. You knew that a couple of months into her kindergarten year, that sweet five and a half year old girl would come home with a sniffle and be gone a week later. And it doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to get a thank you past the big, heavy ‘why?’. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand you in this.

But I keep going today with preparations for Thanksgiving. As I peel apples and make rolls, I’m thinking of another friend. We have her big, goofy dog in the front yard as a reminder that she’s not in a position to take care of him and that the future is unknown. It weighs on me every day; this feeling that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. I bury my face in the thick fur of her sweet dog, with his tail that wags even when we’re pulling out porcupine quills, and I wish the world was just as sweet and gentle. And I need to tell you, Lord, that it just doesn’t feel right.

There are things that are so broken. I need to check in with my sister and find out if a little girl is at her house for Thanksgiving. This little two year old spent the first year of her life in my sister’s home and now comes back for visits. I am thankful that they have that time together, but, God, it still hurts. I know when my sister hugs that little one, they both remember their hearts have been broken a million times and will probably break a million more. The hardness of the foster care system and most of all the hardness of this world breaks people. It seems like you could do something. Like you should have done something already. It doesn’t make sense, Lord.

And God, I’m sorrowful because I’m so lonely this year. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve experienced without a grandmother somewhere in this world. I want to hear Grammie B ask me what I’m thankful for and hear her say, like she always did, that she was thankful for her salvation and for all of us. I want to know Grammy J is in her kitchen today, sifting flour, baking up a storm of pies and mincemeat bars and getting Grampy to peel the apples. But they aren’t here. I know my grandfather’s heart is breaking today as well and I could just cry and cry. I know I need to thank you, but I want to tell you that I don’t like how this works. Death and leaving and being apart. It seems so wrong and I wish it wasn’t this way.

I also need to tell you about the guilt I feel when I even think of thanking you. I have a five and a half year old daughter as well. She’s so excited about learning how to make pumpkin pie this afternoon. She’s happy and chatty and she’s alive. I am so, so thankful… thankful it wasn’t my daughter you chose to take away. And, tomorrow, my family is going to be home together. Our own puppy will be looking for crumbs on our dining room floor and my husband, who makes me feel safe and understood, will be there with us. My baby will climb on my lap to put his fingers in the whipped cream on my pie and take it for granted that I’m his momma and I will never leave. I have so many reasons to be thankful. You have blessed me in every way. And the contrast between my thanks and others’ sorrows makes me feel those pangs of guilt. I know life isn’t ‘fair’. I don’t understand your ways, Lord.

And, God, I need to come to you with yet another emotion. It’s fear. As I think of all the good things you’ve blessed me with, like a home and family, bountiful food and healthy children, I’m reminded of how fragile these blessings are. They could be gone in a breath, a moment, with a missed stop sign or with a spark from the woodstove. Nothing here is secure. As soon as I start thanking you for these things I hold so carefully, I am reminded that you might take them away. I’m afraid because I love them so much. And, the reality is that when I look around at the hard things in life, I don’t completely trust you. Your ways just don’t make sense to me.

So that is the reality, Father. I have sorrow, guilt and fear. But you knew that. You are acquainted with all that’s inside and even before I say the words, you know them already. You know and you want me to come to you with them. Thank you for caring. Thank you for wanting to hear them just as much as you do my words of appreciation. Thank you for caring about me… right where I am. For real.

And this is when the real giving of thanks begins. We’re real together. Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’. We know you because you revealed yourself and your character to us in a way we could understand… as a human. And you were fully human… You wept. You were tired. You asked to be spared suffering if at all possible. And, you trusted, somehow in the mystery of the Trinity, that the character you have shared for all eternity, the Father’s love and justice, was enough to make the suffering, the weariness, the tears all worth it in the end.

You tell me it will all be made right. It is going to be okay.

For now, you are weeping with those who weep.

The reality of that is big enough for my sorrow, my guilt and my fears.

Thank you, Lord.

Yesterday, my baby came up to me and lifted up his arms. I reached down and picked him up and held him close. He wrapped his pudgy little arms around my neck and we rested for a minute, heart to heart. I was filled to the brim with love for the little guy, and with sudden wonder, I realized that he was feeling the same thing. He was in my arms, snuggled in and feeling love for me, too. We just held on for a moment, and thanks filled every fiber of my being.

That’s how I want to be with God this Thanksgiving. It’s good to count our blessings. It’s good to remember we have been given so much.

But, ultimately, the Giver wants to give us Himself.

I am so thankful that God isn’t just a power, but that he’s real and responsive and feeling. It means that I can come to him, lift up the reality of my heart and let myself be held for a while. I can rest in his arms and be thankful. Thankful not just to him or for him… but I can be thankful with him.

For I am sure that neither death nor life,

nor angels nor rulers,

nor things present nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

Camp

I took the key down from the nail where it’s hung for decades and opened the door just as I’ve done a hundred other times.  As I took a step inside, my chest felt heavy and I fought back tears, not because it was different, but because it was so much the same. The yard sale finds on the shelf beside the novels, the rugs on the floor, the pillows on the couch, even the silly talking ant from ‘A Bug’s Life’ that the kids love; they were all there. It’s as if they didn’t know things had changed.

I used to find the ‘sameness’ of camp every year comforting. Even when I was a little girl I recognized it. When I was ten years old a dozen things changed in my life.  My two oldest sisters moved out, one to go to college and the other to get married. My mother also remarried and bought a house with my new stepfather meaning a change of neighbors and schools. Even my dog had to be put down. I felt like I had been shaken out of everything that had seemed steady. I remember walking through the same door to camp that long-ago summer, sitting down on the couch and noticing some plates hanging on the wall. They had pictures of a fish and a bear and a deer and I thought about how I had seen them my whole life and with a sigh of relief, I realized that camp doesn’t change.

Before we made the trip last week, one of my younger sisters cleaned and vacuumed. She filled the bowls on the counter with candy and treats so they were just the way they always had been. When I set the key down beside the bowl filled with ‘Devil Dogs’ and Hershey’s minis, the tears broke through.

It’s strange to me how food and grief go together.

The kids all came running in with their sleeping bags and backpacks and chattering voices and stopped short when they saw me. The three year old turned back and I heard her say to my husband, “Mommy’s sad! Mommy’s sad!”

So, I breathed deeply and dried my tears. I reminded them that this was the camp that belonged to my Grammy and they understood and the chattering started again and I got busy helping with all the negotiations of who sleeps where.

I’m thankful for how children and life go together.

The first night at camp was hard.  Jon slept in the middle of the sea of wiggly sleeping bags and told stories into the night so that the baby and I could sleep more peacefully in Grammy and Grampy’s room. I didn’t pull back the covers of the bed that Grammy might have been the last one to make, but slept on top with my head on one of her pillows. I saw some sheets and a decoration left on her bureau like she had been working on something and moved on before she finished.  Her camp shoes sat behind a chair next to the wall, the soles worn smooth. Her hairbrush sat in a basket.  I thought of Grampy, who says that nighttime is always the hardest, and heaviness pressed in around my heart as I closed my eyes and slept.

Many mornings I wake up with something like a theme song for the day in my head. Sometimes it feels like inspiration, sometimes it feels like a little joke from my subconscious. When the baby was teething a couple of months ago, and I hadn’t had adequate sleep for days, and the children had been bickering more than usual, I woke up with ‘a little ditty about Jack and Diane.’ My first conscious thought of the day was, “Oh yeah, you know life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…” But, thankfully, that first morning at camp, I found myself singing the line of a different song as I woke.

Jesus has overcome

The grave has been overwhelmed

The victory is won…

 Until I got home tonight and searched for it online, I couldn’t remember the rest of the song. (It’s Chris Tomlin, ‘I Will Rise’.) But, those few lines were what I needed that moment. It was the reminder that death isn’t the end. I know there is something beyond the grave because I know Some One that has passed through it. The victory is won.

Last summer some work was done on the camp’s foundation. Grammy isn’t here to help with the landscaping but Grampy said he’s trying to do things the way she’d like them. He planted some perennials and showed me where he had started some flowers from seed. One of the neighbors at camp had included a package of forget-me-not seeds in a sympathy card and Grampy planted them this spring. They are starting to grow, just little seedlings when I saw them yesterday, but those forget-me-nots are making their way up from the soil next to the bleeding heart plants.

Flowers and grief and life seem to all go together.

I cut a little stem off of Grammy’s rose bush in front of camp before we left today. I’ve never tried growing a rose from a cutting but I’m going to attempt it. It sat sticking out of a water bottle in the console on the long drive home. Like a little birthday gift from Grammy.

When I was growing up, I was happy to have a summer birthday because it meant that I got to celebrate it at camp. When I was a little girl some relatives would gather and there would be presents and singing and Grammy’s marble cake. Even when I was a teenager I would invite friends to celebrate with me at camp and we’d play music and swim in the lake and still Grammy would send over a marble cake. This year, I woke up at camp on my birthday, and I knew that there would be no marble cake. This year, even if the camp is the same and sits steady on its new foundation, something has changed. Something has shaken.

But there are still unshakeables.

Jesus has overcome

The grave has been overwhelmed

The victory is won…

This morning the loons were calling as I woke up. I quietly put on a swim suit and tiptoed past the still sleeping bags and made my way out of camp and down to the shore. I love mornings at the lake. Everything is still. It feels sacred to be the first one to break through the glass-like water and send the first ripples of the day into the lake. This morning I waded in slowly, remembering past birthdays and wondering about the year ahead. I stopped when the water was up to my knees and I looked out over the blue to an island and then to some tall pines standing on a hill to the east. The sun hadn’t quite reached over their topmost branches.

I thought of all the people, here and gone and young and young once, that this place has meant something to. And I thought of the One who knows us all. I prayed. I prayed for them and for me and was thankful for Him. The quiet of the water became the quiet of my soul and I whispered the words, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit,” and I dove headlong into the water.  As my face met the surface once again, the sun was just rising over the tops of the pines.

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A Prayer of Surrender

Three years ago my mind was full of plans for our farm and our beloved animals.  Eagerly awaiting calves from our sweet Jersey cows, I had dreams of fresh milk, butter and cheese.  I had big plans for increasing our herd of Belted Galloway beef cows and with the garden, chickens, fruit trees, honey bees and extras like the sheep and horse, we felt close to being self-sufficient.  I loved our two hundred year old farmhouse with all its stories on the edge of the village.  We were settled, full of dreams and putting down what we thought were deep roots. Carrying my newborn sixth child in my arms, I was surrounded by life springing up in our home, barn and fields.

Then, one early morning in June, I found myself in a dewy pasture touching a dead calf and looking into the heartbroken eyes of my daughter and the questioning brown eyes of her cow, Buttercup. This was the first event in a summer that I can only look back on as ‘the breaking’.  Every single day something horrible happened.  Friends and neighbors couldn’t believe our string of ‘bad luck’. Our vet said she had never seen anything like it. During our daily phone conversations my sister stopped saying, “I hope you have a better day tomorrow’ because it never was. There were calls to the vet, calls to the doctor, calls to poison control, trips to the emergency room. And there was so much more.  Suffice it to say that so much of what I thought was solid started to sink under me.   And every night I would sink into bed and sob.  Every day it felt like something was taken away.  Under pressure I would loosen my fist just a little and something I loved would be pulled from me. I would protectively close my hand over what remained thinking I had reached the limit only to have my fingers pried open again by another painful circumstance. It felt like I was breaking.

As Oswald Chambers described, “A saint’s life is in the hands of God like a bow and arrow in the hands of an archer. God is aiming at something the saint cannot see, but our Lord continues to stretch and strain, and every once in a while the saint says, “I can’t take any more.” Yet God pays no attention; He goes on stretching until His purpose is in sight, and then He lets the arrow fly.”

All the while my heart was crying out that I couldn’t take anymore, a compassionate God was weighing out my distress against the purposes He had in sight. He was moving us and He was relentlessness.  Day by day and week by week, my grip loosened and I began to learn the prayer of surrender. I sat alone in the ER in the middle of the night and prayed a prayer of surrender. My feet pounded as I tried to outrun the pain of being cut out of a loved one’s life and I prayed a prayer of surrender. I placed ads to sell animals that were supposed to be our beginning and grow old and be buried at the edge of the field we had planted, and I prayed a prayer of surrender. I answered countless ‘whys’ spoken by little broken hearts while my own heart was torn, and I prayed a prayer of surrender. With each box I packed, there was a sighing prayer of surrender.

Eventually the arrow flew.

Another summer came and the old life had passed away. I felt like I had been weaned of anything unessential and what remained was where my focus should be. I was still a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend.

Also remaining was the prayer of surrender. So far it had been a giving in, an acceptance of what was. It was the same prayer as in laboring when I bury my face in my husband’s shirt and cry and breathe and surrender. It was a reaction to pain.

But driving home one night, alone in my car, I found a prayer of surrender that springs not from pain, but from worship. The summer following ‘the breaking’, I went to a weekly Bible study at a friend’s house. We were going chapter by chapter through the book of John. This gave me just what my soul needed. After the stretching and straining I needed to look into the face of Jesus. To follow his steps toward his own prayer of surrender, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” I saw his heart broken for me and my heart was drawn into deeper trust. I saw his compassion and his power and I was filled with longing. On that dark stretch of dirt road, watching my headlights bump through the night, I asked him to fill me more. I wanted more of him and if it meant less of me then I wanted to fade so that his light would burn brighter.  My prayer of worshipful surrender was an asking to die to self and to be filled with his life.

It was one of those moments, like in the field with the dead calf, which I can look back on as a point of turning.  It was a moment that led to more moments that led to changes. There is still a need for daily surrender, for moment by moment surrender. For not just a surrender to circumstances, but a full, look into His face and worship, surrender.  Not a resignation to fate but eyes fixed on Jesus, ‘the image of the invisible God.’ To behold that God, in all His glory, is gentle and humble. Not a hopeful spiritual exercise but a reply to a known voice saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30)