Friday, September 30, 2011

On Quitting My Job

I'm employed by a secular company (I still struggle a bit with complementarian stereotypes, and I am nervous about admitting that to the larger conservative evangelical culture, though I think Christian culture is settling down a bit on that topic). I taught middle and high school math back in the day. But since we moved to Seattle in 2002, I have taught math at the local community college. Since we had kids, I've only taught one or two online classes (which isn't really teaching at all with the computer program we use) because it allowed me to keep my foot in the door at the community college but stay at home with the boys with maximum flexibility.

During any given week during the last 6 years since I've had kids, if you asked me that familiar question--“What do you do?”--the true answer would be I change poopy diapers and clean macaroni off the walls. But the answer I always gave was, “I teach math at the community college,” despite the fact that it was about the smallest number of hours of anything I did in a given week.

Well, all that's coming to an end. I am “retiring” from the community college. And I'm nostalgic. Teaching math defined my life for a long time. I used to be really good at it. Now, I'm marginally effective, though I won't go into a discourse on the value of traditional verses online classes. My husband says I have the gift of teaching, and I have tried to steward that. I enjoyed teaching, and I enjoyed math. Watching the light come on in a student's eyes after they had struggled with a math concept has always been an amazing, rewarding moment for me. Someday, I'll write a post on the value of mathematics to theology, but for now, I'll just say that those moments when a student finally understands that math has value to their daily lives make teaching it totally worthwhile.

Teaching online classes at the community college was helpful to our family for a while. However, I'm relieved to move on in one sense. It's been a distraction from things that now are much more important to me. In another sense though, I'm sad, fighting the concern I think most moms have that their lives will get swallowed up in the meaningless practical daily tasks of raising kids, being a wife, and keeping a home. Yes, I said meaningless. Because sometimes no matter how many times someone tries to paint it as beautiful and valuable, cleaning up ravioli off the floor just seems meaningless.

I struggle like everyone else. WHAT WILL DEFINE MY LIFE?! And answering “I teach college math” when someone asks “What do you do?” has at times been a bandaid over a deeper struggle. I feel overwhelmed by the gushing river of responsibilities that is my home and ineffective at my attempts to manage it. And I so often feel GUILTY.

I don't feel guilty because I DON'T value what I do in my home or don't see raising my boys and loving my husband as my first priority tasks, but because I DO. I don't need lectures on my home as my ministry. I know how important this job is. And that's what makes it so painful when I fail. My husband thinks I'm a good mom, and that has helped me tremendously, but more often than not, I feel like I'm flying by the seat of my pants, running as fast as I can, just to not lose track of all the good moms I'm trailing so far behind.

But, boy howdy, I can teach math!! I need to be good AT SOMETHING. And when I applied myself to teaching math, I seemed a lot better at that than cooking meals, cleaning house, or raising boys.

Teaching was a cool thing over the years because the rewards came a lot quicker. You had high school kids for 9 months (or college students for just 11 weeks). My objectives were completed quickly, and once I turned in grades each quarter for a batch of students, my obligation to them was done. I could watch them walk out of my classroom with satisfaction knowing I had met my personal objectives with them. Not so with husband and kids. I talked about the long term nature of our investment in our family here, and that seemed to resonate with a lot of you. Raising kids takes multiple decades. Marriage is for a lifetime. It's not a sprint. It's a long, hard marathon.

I had a conversation with a friend recently about motherhood. She and I have similar mental battles. While lots of women struggle with pride in their homes, both she and I struggle with self condemnation—certain that our children will one day, instead of rising up and calling us blessed, will call us something else, possibly unfit for publication. She said her adult child regularly tells her now that she IS a good mom and seems to genuinely love and appreciate her, and yet my friend STILL struggles with self-condemnation for mistakes she made as a young mother.

It's not logical. But it is real in her heart. And for her and I, no amount of external affirmation can fill us in that place deep in our psyche that whispers, “Failure!” to us over and over again. Only Christ can meet us there, and only a full and robust understanding of the gospel upon which we regularly meditate and practically apply can meet us in this need.

*I am made in the image of God.

*I am a sinner marred by the fall who is being conformed back to the image of Christ through His sacrifice on the cross.

*God hasn't just forgiven me for my sins and failures, though He most certainly has done that! But He has also lavished on me His grace, clothing me in Christ's robe of righteousness. He sees me through Christ's sacrifice, and I never appear inadequate to Him in that robe.

*My home is now, as my teaching was then, a place to steward my gifts for the kingdom of God. I'm a steward for King Jesus. And He will equip me for every good work to which He calls me in this season.

*His approval of me is not based on my maturity or perfection, but on Christ's maturity and His perfection. And my failures teaching my students or raising my children are TRULY covered by His sacrifice.

As I resign at the community college, I'm letting go of that last little tie I had to a time in life when I excelled (or at least when I FELT like I excelled). And I'm going to firmly live in the middle of a place where I don't excel. The good thing is that it pushes me out of my comfort zone and reminds me of the basic truths to which I must cling at every stage of life—those big, robust truths encapsulated in that little word GOSPEL.

[Disclaimer: this post is not intended to influence either for or against working moms. It's about our identity in Christ and security in Him. Period. ]

Monday, September 26, 2011

Parenting the Abnormal Child

Normal is a charged term when talking about children. I actually hate the term. What IS normal?! But I'm also a mathematician, and I understand and value statistics. In a logical, mathematical sense, normal has a clear meaning. And so does abnormal.

Abnormal – not normal, average, typical, or usual; deviating from a standard: (

One of my children is abnormal. He's also very smart, cute, and funny. He's gregarious and loving. There are many, many things about him that endear him to me. But he's not normal. By that, I mean that he doesn't fall into statistical means on most anything. Below average on some things; above average on others. Frankly, I don't mind having a child that doesn't fit the bell curve. Most days.

But there are certain times that I am overwhelmed with the responsibility of parenting an abnormal child. My child doesn't look abnormal, and his issues are not nearly as serious as many of you have experienced with your children. Our diagnosis is PDD-NOS. Those of you who have been through the battery of testing know exactly what that is. It's the junk drawer for children who don't fit the bell curve yet also don't fit the set of symptoms and characteristics that define someone, say, on the Asperger's spectrum. Our big issue is how my savant deals with new social situations. One of my children will walk into a room, evaluate it, and join right in with whatever is going on. One day, his easy conformity to the social norm is going to be a big problem. But when he's 5, it's helpful. My other son, in contrast, is doing his own thing before he walks in and will keep doing his own once he's there. He's aware of what's going on inside of himself, but he is oblivious to how his actions affect others. And he hates change, especially change forced on him so he fits into a group.

At the beginning of the month, we moved. On the first day of school. Bad timing, Mom!! I was stressed moving, glad enough to drop the boys off at school and hurry on to my major To Do list for the day. Immediately, the troubles began. My child felt out of control, didn't know how to navigate his new social setting, and his attempts to regain control and power were very destructive. Pinching kids, pushing kids, passionate melt downs at church, school, and play. There were problems EVERYWHERE EVERYDAY. I felt like I had post traumatic stress disorder at the end of each day.

Paul Miller recounts raising an autistic daughter in The Praying Life, and the Lord ministered great grace to me as I read through his struggles. The stories of her meltdowns struck a nerve with me, though our family's struggles are not nearly so intense. My primary take away from the book was Miller's statement that he did his best parenting on his knees. Of late, there have been many days that my best practical efforts to prepare my children and myself for whatever situation we faced failed in a puddle of great negative passion. In those moments, all that is left is prayer. There remains no naïve notion that I have it together enough to navigate the minefield of parenting. In fact, I am absolutely certain that I do not!

So I prayed to God privately. And I prayed to God with my son. And the Spirit reminded me that God parents me through relationship and that I need to parent my son through relationship. So he and I talked, and I realized I had to get involved with him at school. I started sticking around his classroom in the morning to figure out what was causing his outbursts. Then the teacher asked me to read with him in the hall because he was having difficulty reading silently in the classroom when others were reading aloud. After about 3 days of this, he was confidently reading the little books that he previously was throwing across the table in anger. Then he asked me to come to recess because that was where he was having the most problems with other kids. I did, and it was like Lord of the Flies. I volunteered to monitor recess a few times a week.

After a week of this, he has made a 180 degree change. The anger is gone. He seems committed to showing kids grace if they cut in front of him in line (previously quite the sore spot with him). He is proud that he defended a kid in the lunch room instead of being the one who hurt him. I'm still a little stunned at the turn around.

I know where I was last week, though. I remember clearly staring at a bunch of kids practicing soccer at the playground and wondering, in a PTSD stupor after a particularly traumatizing outburst by my child at karate practice, what it would be like to have normal kids? All I could do was lean into my relationship with God through prayer. And then the Spirit pushed me to lean into my son through relationship as well. The contrast between my relationship with my son last week and this week is staggering.

Not all problems resolve that easily. And I know that some that seem resolved will resurface. I'm simply reminded by yet another round of parenting trials that it is on my knees that God parents me and that I can in turn best parent my own child, even one who does not fit society's norms.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Theology of Spiritual Abuse

I'm not sure theology is the right term. I'm not sure spiritual abuse is the right term. But there is something big rocking conservative evangelicalism right now, and it centers around the abuse of authority by leaders in the Church. I know there is “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9), and a cursory look at Church history confirms that to be true, especially on the issue of spiritual abuse. So whatever name we want to give to the abuse/oppression/injustice we see in the 21st century Church carried out by its spiritual leaders, I want to understand the transcendent principles at play according to Scripture. For lack of a better phrase, I'm going to call it a theology of spiritual abuse.

In its most basic sense, abuse simply means to misuse. It's using something inappropriately. And in the spiritual sense, it is using an authority, role, or task given by God in unrighteous ways. It is mis-using spiritual authority . Can non-authorities in the Church abuse spiritually? I guess so. They certainly can hurt people. But I'm going to leave out of this discussion inappropriate actions by Christians without particular spiritual authority. So if your sister was a legalistic jerk to you, that's not relevant to this particular discussion because Scripture does not set her up as an authority over you. Parents can certainly spiritually abuse, but I'm going to save them for another day as well. Instead, I want to examine non-familial spiritual authorities – in particular, pastors and elders.

(Edited to note I am NOT talking about issues of sexual or physical abuse by clergy. While that is certainly spiritual abuse, it is also blatantly illegal activity that puts it into an entirely different category in terms of response. For the purposes of this post, I am talking about the misuse of spiritual authority that does not get into illegal behavior.)

What is the appropriate authority given pastors and elders in the life of a believer? What do we do when pastors/elders MIS-use this authority, spiritually abusing those God gave them to lovingly shepherd?

Hebrews 13 gives some insight on the first question.

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. ...
 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

God gives us an important word here. Our spiritual leaders have sober obligations: accurately speaking the Word to us, modeling a life of faith, and shepherding and keeping watch for those under their leadership. And they are ACCOUNTABLE to God. Any leader worth his salt takes this seriously.

God is going to hold them to account as He has tasked them with watching over our very souls. In light of this sober responsibility, I understand why the author of Hebrews urges us to OBEY and SUBMIT to them. In other words, cooperate with them in their God-given obligation to shepherd us. If you have any experience with spiritual abuse, you know that a very real result is a fear of ever trusting a leader with your cooperation again. And yet, God's design is for a real, accountable relationship between spiritual leader and those they shepherd. This should make us take spiritual abuse that much more seriously, for it threatens one of the most important relationships in the Body of Christ, the one between shepherd and flock.

When do these good, sober responsibilities among our leaders become abuse, or the misuse of their righteous obligations?

1) When they do not accurately speak the Word (sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by a malicious desire to manipulate the sheep)

2) When their manner of life and walk of faith does not model gospel grace and a life of Biblical love – they are rude, unkind, impatient, they have a short fuse, assume the worst of people, seem to delight in the uncovering of evil (I Corinthians 13).

Perhaps the greatest Biblical example of the misuse of spiritual authority is Peter in Galatia. Note that the central element in his abuse was his actions (manner of life) that contradicted the gospel he was teaching. He SAID the gospel, but he lived out its opposite. Note also the very clear, concrete result of this contradiction – he required something of his sheep that God did not require. He OVERSTEPPED his authority. John Stott pointed out in his commentary on Ephesians how in each authority relationship that Paul addressed, he repeatedly urged upon them “not the exercise of their power, but the restraint thereof.” When spiritual authorities start walking away from their God-given obligations, it may sometimes take the form of passivity or inertia, but in my experience it is much more likely to take the form of overreaching the limits of their authority. Beware the authority figure who loves to speak about things which God does not speak. They have an opinion about rock music, movie theaters, facebook, netflix, yoga, and teletubies. And they project onto you shame or self satisfaction based on how your opinions and convictions line up with theirs on things on which Scripture is silent.

In light of ths, what should the average lay person's response be to spiritual abuse (the mis-use of spiritual authority)?

1) Pursue biblical means of confronting authority (I Timothy 5, Matthew 18). If your church doesn't have an established means of holding authority accountable, you need to turn around, walk out the door, and don't look back. DO NOT STAY IN A CHURCH THAT DOES NOT HAVE CLEAR ACCOUNTABILITY AND LIMITS ON ITS AUTHORITY FIGURES. That's not a church. That's a group of people pretending to be a church. And personally, I am concerned about non-denominational churches that don't have a synod or presbytery to hold their leaders accountable. But that's a longer discussion for another day. It's taken me a long time after a long history in independent churches to come to that conviction, and I won't attempt to force it on others who don't share it yet. Chances are, given enough experience in independent churches, you will one day come to see the wisdom of a presbytery on your own if you don't already.

2) When authorities continue to abuse with impunity, seek to rescue the powerless from the abuse in righteous ways. In RIGHTEOUS ways. In love. With patience. Being available to those in need. Sometimes, someone in an abusive situation needs simply to know that they have options. It was easy for me to leave a spiritually abusive situation because I had enough experience to know that God was doing WAY more in His Body than what I was witnessing at the abusive church. But I've had friends who did not know that, and they were afraid if they left their abusive group, they would lose everything. In those moments, they need to understand the breadth and depth of the Body of Christ and know they have a brother/sister in Christ who will stand with them as they journey away from those who misuse their spiritual authority.

3) Most important of all, do not sell your soul to the devil. I've sold my soul to the devil, by which I mean I have given into the very urges I was reacting against. I have stood against abuse with grace at times. But I have also stood against abuse with my own mis-use of power. And I HATE myself in those moments when I have become the very thing I was standing against. I hate their rude, harsh language … using my own harsh language against them. I hate their graceless response to those who oppose them … employing my own graceless strategies to point out their flaws. When you allow yourself to employ the tactics you hate in your abusers, Satan has won the day. There is ONE answer to the ills of spiritual abuse, and it is the same answer to every ill mankind has experienced since the fall of man. It is Christ on the cross, enduring our shame and our spiritual abusers' shame. And THE THING that separates me from a spiritual abuser is a confidence in this gospel grace to change the ugliest heart of man. I don't need to abuse my authority or manipulate those I influence. And it's only when I am confident of who I am in Christ and how I got to be that person through His grace that I can fully arm myself to battle righteously the ills in the church and those who use its authority against others.

This is only a preamble to a topic deserving a long treatise ...

***For a more thorough fleshing out of this topic, please check out Tim Challies' interview with Bob Kellerman.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Myth of the Biblical Parenting Method (and free book give away)

There is a huge difference in Biblical parenting principles and Biblical parenting methods.

Method: a specific procedure, technique, or practical way of doing something.

Principle: a fundamental law or general truth from which others are derived and determined.

Methods are drawn from understanding and applying principles. In terms of Biblical parenting, I and my friends are longing for methods. We are longing for someone to tell us the tangible, practical techniques that will aid us in rearing our children in Christ and the Word. My mom's group Bible study is looking for a PRACTICAL study on Biblical parenting. Readers of this blog ask me regularly for PRACTICAL techniques they can use with their kids. And I long for it myself – someone please hand me a grace-based, gospel-centered MANUAL of methods. Enough with the principles. Enough with inspiring me to parent my children the way God parents His in light of the gospel. I've got it. I understand the principles. Now tell me what to do when my 5 year old son decides to relieve himself on the back of my 13 year old dog at 6 am in the morning. What specific procedure, technique, or practical way of handling that fits with the fundamental truths of my Christian faith?!

As each day passes, I am becoming more and more convinced that there will never be THAT book. There will never be a practical manual of specific gospel-centered techniques for parenting our children. At least not one I can recommend to others. I've seen it tried a time or two, and it inevitably fails. I loved Shepherding a Childs Heart … until it got into specific techniques. It made great points on the Biblical principles at play, but it broke down when it got into methods, particularly on the topic of the rod. Then there is Ezzo's Babywise and the Pearl's To Train Up a Child – both heavy on method. Many would argue the Pearls' in particular is horrible, abusive method contrary to the gospel, to which I heartily agree.

In contrast, I have read many great gospel-centered parenting books, but the really good ones seem to understand that a gospel-centered approach doesn't lend itself well to specific, quantifiable methods. Examples are different than methods, by the way. A good author who understands the difference in the gospel and law guards themselves from breaking down the line between what worked for them (example) and what will work for you (method), between what they found helpful and what they project onto you that all good parents should do. Here are some books that I have found helpful with principles and overarching foundational Biblical truths.

Families Where Grace is in Place

Give Them Grace (Elyse Fitzpatrick does offer practical ideas and examples and even has a section at the end with specific words to use. Knowing the heart of man, this section runs the risk of becoming what most attempts at method have become in the Church – more law. Also, she distinguishes between believing and unbelieving children with her strategies. This will be problematic if you hold a covenant view of your children. Otherwise, this one gave me a lot to think about in terms of the Biblical difference in law and grace in my parenting and is the one we will likely use in our mom's group Bible study this quarter.)

Parenting is Your Highest Calling: And 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt

Grace-Based Parenting

Instead of finding a Christian parenting book with gospel centered methods, I've had more success learning practical ideas from secular resources. Then I'm not tempted to adopt those methods as the righteous choice, as a spiritual law. When the resource is secular, I feel freedom to adopt methods for my family because they work in light of our Biblical parenting principles and no guilt at all when I discard a method that is not working for our family or does not fit our principles. There are a ton of resources on positive discipline, which is the secular buzzword in my experience that will give you the most ideas of methods that fit a truly Biblical, gospel centered paradigm for parenting.

In terms of Biblical principles, here are the big picture, overarching themes that I want to govern my parenting.

Parenting my children the way God parents His
In light of the gospel
That teaches there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus …
And equips us to do unto others with grace ...
Under the greatest command of loving God and loving others.

I know these principles, these truths, and I hold them dearly. My secular cooperative preschool is the place I have gotten the most helpful practical ideas that I could use in my family under these overarching principles. I listened to the parent educator and watched the teachers at work. So many of their methods fit right into my gospel-centered principles. It was positive, proactive discipline, not shame-based, reactive punishment. I chose the methods that worked for our family based on my convictions and my children's personalities. And sometimes, the same things don't work two days in a row. Methods have to be open handed things, while the Bible principles never change.

Here's my final thought on this topic. We are never going to get a set of METHODS that works for the long haul. And be very wary of teachers or other parents who try to convince you they've found some. Principles work for the long haul. Methods do not. And parenting our children the way God parents His is much more about relationship than method. I don't think God has methods and strategies for me. He has a relationship with me, and He interacts with me and disciplines me out of that relationship. Doing that with our kids as fallen parents requires wrestling with the principles in play, wrestling with our children's personalities in light of the gospel, and wrestling with our Father in heaven. Don't cop out and accept an easy answer. Stay engaged in this life long commitment called parenting and don't get frustrated that it doesn't come easy. As Paul Miller said in A Praying Life, I do my best parenting of all when I'm wrestling with God over the gospel for my children on my knees. I guess if there is any method I recommend, that's it.

**I have a free copy of Give Them Grace to give away. Please just leave a comment and I will draw a name around midnight EST Monday evening. **

***The book has a new owner now. Thanks to all who commented!***