Mother’s Day

On one particularly frightful worst-mother morning, I threw a particularly frightful tantrum because the family had seemingly forgotten my birthday. Though there had been some efforts to help me to celebrate—one out of the four of the kids had made me a home-made card, and my husband had gone shopping at 10-minutes-before-closing time the night before—I remember feeling particularly unimpressed by the lack of thought.

It seemed I was being taken for granted.

I also remember my performance – to my shame.

But on the following Mother’s Day, the family made up for the previous              un-celebration. I was smothered in flowers, gifts, cards and hugs, and the obligatory, celebratory ‘Stacks On!’ where all five of the other members of the family piled on top of me.

I was required to stay in bed where I received a cooked breakfast followed by coffee, the paper and a puzzle book. Bliss! Lunch was served eventually, complete with Oysters Kilpatrick and Prawns. I don’t remember the rest of the menu, but I do remember how I felt…like I was the most important mother in the world.

I wanted to write something wonderful and inspiring about mothers in preparation for Mother’s Day – a definitive article on mothers. But the story of my tantrum reminded me that I am probably the least qualified of all to write such an article.

So I looked for help.

I asked my friends what I should write about mothers, but they raised more questions than answers:

How do we define ‘mother’? Who is a mother? Is ‘mother’ a job description? Are all mothers female? Why are mothers from different generations so tough on each other? Does becoming a mother make one weaker or stronger?

I wanted to make it a light-hearted article so people might want to read it, but realised I needed to be sensitive to the grief that surrounds motherhood.

I wanted to remind people not to take their mothers for granted, but remembered that many who will read this have lost their mother.

I wanted to remember those who have yearned to be a mother but will never hold their child in their arms. And those mothers who have said their final good-bye to their children.

The harder I tried, the more I was reminded that motherhood cannot be restricted to a thousand words.

I looked to the bible for what it said about mothers. Though there are plenty of examples of godly mothers, there are no specific instructions.

Mothers such as Hannah and Moses’s mother are upheld as examples of women who nurtured future leaders in their homes. The bible gives specific instructions to fathers, but talks only of the mother’s role as nurturer and carer, and that she needs to be respected, honoured and protected in that role.

 

Mothers have a tough gig. Always have had, always will have, I suppose. Perhaps that is the pain to which God was referring when Eve sinned – not the pain of child-birth which everyone is terrified of but soon passes from memory. But the pain that Simeon prophesied to Mary: ‘the sword that will pierce your soul’  (Luke 2:35); the solitude of becoming a mother – giving everything she has, to bring her child into life; having to stand up for what she believes is the best thing for her child, despite the pressures of outside observers and her own heart breaking.

 

I read a book in which an author called his mother ‘a quitter’. She was an accomplished pianist, he said, but she had a whole house full of unfinished projects. I wondered how he became ‘successful’. His mother’s work was obviously invisible to him. If he had looked at her through eyes of love instead of criticism, he would have understood that a mother’s life happens in seasons rather than schedules. He would have seen her as ‘the one who dropped whatever she was doing for herself, for the good of those she loved’.

 

A few weeks ago, I was wandering in our local shopping mall and saw a family struggle.

‘What are you looking at?’ the mother snarled at me.  I concentrated on the blank, non-judgmental look on my face.  Two of her three children were screaming: one because she’d been hit by her big brother, the other because his mother had hit him.

One day I’m going to get in big trouble for doing this, I thought as I made the decision to walk toward this screaming family, instead of away from them. She watched me come close to her and we both stared at each other in an uncomfortable space.

God. Words, please? I prayed.

At last, I broke the silence between us.

‘This mother-thing is tricky isn’t it?’

That’s all I said. But a dam full of what she had been holding inside just burst out in a tidal wave of words. She told me about what had been happening in her home: why the kids had been fighting, why they were crying now, how she felt about it, that she didn’t know what she was going to do about it, could I hold something while she picked up the stuff that she’d dropped, how life was so tough at the moment, how she loved her kids but was struggling especially with her son’s behaviour…

While she talked and I listened, she packed up all the bags around her, organised herself, placed the older kids either side of the stroller and began to push. We walked together for 100 metres until she stopped.

She looked at me and she smiled.

‘It’s just a stage. It’ll pass. Thanks.’ she said and we headed off in different directions.

I smiled back, knowing that though I could not walk in her feet, for a few short moments I had walked beside her.

 

 

 

Originally published in The Lutheran magazine, 2014, May edition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Question: How to manage conflicts in different parenting styles

How do you resolve conflicts in different parenting styles between yourself and your partner? e.g. where one parent is stricter than the other

According to The Gottman Institute, in every successful relationship most (69%) of the conflicts are unresolvable*.

Some of those conflicts might be about inconsequential things, such as our favourite flavour of ice-cream. But many of the unresolvable issues are more important than our taste buds. Knowing they’re unresolvable helps us to manage them, rather than waste our time and energy arguing about them.

What about our attitude and parenting style in bringing up the kids?

I’m an ex-nurse and used to bandage the wounds of other people’s adventurous kids who ended up in the Children’s Hospital Emergency Department. So my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach when I see a child anywhere near where they might possibly fall. I am a scaredy-cat.  I would happily ban trampolines and all kinds of other adventures – but there wouldn’t be much fun left.

DH (dear husband) grew up climbing trees, rambling over rocks and yabbying in dams and creeks. He has several scars which show that many wounds heal by themselves, eventually.
He encourages climbing – with the theory that if you let them climb, as long as they know how to climb down, they’re safer if you leave them to it than if you make a fuss.
Our way around that was for me to stay well away from the adventurous parts of playgrounds – so the children couldn’t sense my fear. Chris would be in charge of the kids in playgrounds. And I left him to it. It meant that my kids learnt to climb, and jump, and do normal kid things without my unfounded fear.And the kids knew that if he ever said ‘That’s enough!’ their lives were in mortal danger.

That’s pretty much how we still handle situations on which we disagree .

We go on the side of the person with the most factual knowledge or experience about a situation:
Anything requiring medical or nursing care, he leaves to me.
Anything microbial i.e. what’s safe to eat that we find in the back of the fridge, we leave to him.
Anything we’re not sure about, we still err on the side of caution – unless it looks like fun and we feel that it can’t do too much damage.

Interestingly, the issues we used to find most difficult, we can’t even remember now.

Perhaps our ways aren’t what every couple would choose. But that’s the beauty of families. We’re all different.

When it came to our natural parenting styles, we’re opposite. But we discovered the Parent-Coach style, through ‘Toolbox Parenting Groups’ from The Parenting Place. Both of us could work together on that, with the same goal in mind.

Doing whichever courses came our way, about relationships and parenting, we learnt new tactics and decided together which ones we didn’t think would work for us, and happily tried ones that sounded hopeful.

We made time with each other a priority. When the children were small, we hired a student once a week to mind the kids while we went on a date. Later, when the kids were at school, we had a regular Wednesday morning ‘date’ at a coffee shop next to the bus stop.

Making time for each other helped us to understand how we were travelling, and what made us react and respond to our kids and each other in different circumstances. We could talk things over when not in crisis mode, and often made decisions about the kids in semi-relaxed circumstances. It really helped us with our communication during crisis moments that inevitably have happened.

And our parenting decisions are guided by our family values. More about that in the article about family values – but, in summary, when we have worked out together what are the most important values to our family, all sorts of decisions are much easier to make.

*(John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman, 2014 Bridging the Couple Chasm: Gottman Couples Therapy: A Research-Based Approach)

The Parent-Coach Approach

As a young mum, I loved to help the kids to explore and make discoveries. Freedom and creativity were abundant in our house. Being the lovely mother that I was, I tended to become child number four and join in making a big mess. We would all have a wonderful time.

The Parenting Place from New Zealand* would classify my natural parenting style as a ‘Jellyfishicus’ parent—somebody who is warm, friendly and loving to their kids, but who, for whatever reason, does not use any form of control, does not set boundaries or make any rules.

But if the kids fought, or the noise got too much, or the mess became hugely overwhelming, my niceness wore off. My attempts to take control relied upon very public, personal explosions.

It sounded very much like: ‘Don’t leave this big mess to me. You made it with me. If you don’t clean up, you’ll have to go without dinner.’

Unfortunately, lovely Jellyfishicus parents tend to become overwhelmed when they have lost all sense of control. Then they turn into a different type of parent—the ‘Sergeant-majorcus’ parent. Sergeant-majorcus parents like to be ‘in control’ all of the time. They like order and yelling out orders. All family duties are carried out in a military style. There’s lots of control—lots of rules, but little, if any, warmth.

What would happen after I’d started shouting was that the kids would end up cowering in the corner—if they hadn’t already been sent to their rooms. Nothing would get done, and inevitably I would wind up with a headache.

There is another style of parent that would emerge after the headache appeared: the ‘Parentus Absentus’ variety. Though I was there, I wasn’t really there. The kids were safe, largely supervised by the big sister, and I was conscious enough to help out in the case of fire or blood. But anything not constituting an emergency was pretty much ignored.

Thank God for older, wiser parents and teachers who showed this mother other ways. They taught me a parenting style that works most of the time and that anybody can learn to apply, no matter what their natural personality might be. It is the ‘Parent-Coach’ style.

Most of us can think of great coaches that we’ve encountered during our lives. They may have been sporting coaches whom we were privileged to train with, or coaches (such as NRL or AFL coaches) whom we admired from the sidelines. They may have been teachers, choir or orchestra conductors. Or they may be mentors who walked alongside us.

Great coaches show respect to their players and in return earn the respect of the players. Great coaches apply a balance of warmth and control, encouragement, discipline and independence. Great coaches know each of their players, with their strengths and weaknesses, and work with them. They work on inbuilt strengths to compensate for weaknesses, and teach skills step by step where natural ability is lacking. Great coaches teach skills in bite-sized chunks, giving opportunity for the players to practise, and gradually incorporate new skills into the game-plan.

Great coaches teach the rules of the game, showing where the boundaries are—and what the goals are. They inspire by getting a team to have a common goal, to recognise what needs to happen for the team to get there, and then walking alongside each member of the team, so that each individual recognises their own important role in achieving success for the team.

When my children grew, I was able to share the Parent-Coach principle with other parents.  Parents can usually identify to which of the parenting styles they are naturally inclined. Some also recognise that different circumstances, and even different children, can bring out differing styles within each parent. When parents discover the Parent-Coach principle, they soon recognise that this is an achievable goal for them, regardless of their natural style.

In The Parenting Place’s ‘Toolbox’ course, parents are given practical and positive ways to implement Parent-Coach ‘tools’. Usually just ‘tweaking’ some of the things they do already makes a big difference, but sometimes, trying a completely new concept is beneficial to their family.

For example, many parents use timers in their homes for particular roles, such as cooking. I used to use it for ‘Time-Out’ for the children’s bad behaviour. These days I recommend using a timer for more positive things.

I recommend a timer for children who don’t have a sense of urgency in such things as getting ready for school. It helps for parents to first observe what is taking so long and break it down into do-able chunks for the child. Then use the timer for the chunk that seems to take longest for no particular reason.

Or use it when a child asks for your undivided attention, but you have ten minutes of work to finish before you can take a break. ‘Here. When this timer rings, I will be finished doing this work. Then we can play together. Okay?’

One family’s dawdling child made the family late for school every morning. When applying the Parent-Coach principle, the parents recognised that this child loved Mum to stay at school to help with reading each morning. So Mum and Dad began to set the timer for the amount of time their daughter needed to get dressed. If their daughter was dressed before the timer went off, Mum had time to stay for reading. If dressing took too long, Mum would have to use the ‘Kiss-and-drop’ lane at the school instead. The child was in control of her own destiny. Within a week, the family was no longer late for school, and Mum was able to stay for reading every day.

The greatest coaches love their players! That’s the element where we as parents have an advantage over most coaches.

As parents we have more reason to love our children—a lifetime investment. Being a Parent-Coach style of parent is do-able and makes the journey much, much more enjoyable.

*For great parenting advice, and to find a Toolbox parenting group in your area, see www.theparentingplace.com

 

Thanks to the mums from MOPS for their questions

Thanks for inviting me to be on a panel of mums, for mums, at MOPS Elizabeth.

It was a privilege to share my answers to the following questions, which I’ll post as I translate them from note form to readable form over the next few weeks.

  1. How do you resolve conflicts in different parenting styles between yourself and your husband/partner? eg where one partner is stricter than the other
  2. Now that you’re an experienced Mum, if you could tell yourself one piece of advice to really listen to when you became a new mum, what would it be?
  3. How do you balance your time between being a wife/partner and a mother so that no-one feels they miss out? What about when you have more than one child?
  4. If you could have one family rule or value, what would it be?
  5. What are your strategies for raising toddlers? e.g. dealing with whinging?

 

 

 

Watch them take off and fly!

Tiarna was only 12 months old when we moved to Memphis. Within weeks of our arrival, she made friends with a particular gorilla in the Memphis Zoo.

We lived only a mile away from the zoo. With a family membership, we visited up to three times a week – often enough for Tiarna and the gorilla to form quite a bond.

The gorilla would see us coming, early in the morning, and climbed up to the viewing window. Tiarna climbed up onto the ledge on our side of the window and the gorilla sat next to her on the other side of the glass. There they sat, copying each other and communicating in some form that seemed to mean they would look for each other the next time.

Jesse was nearly three. He seemed to have two speeds – full speed and asleep. The ‘rangle-tangles’ (that’s Hahn-children language for orangutans) were not as accessible as the gorillas. But they knew us well enough to wave to us – particularly to our little, blonde, bouncy Jesse.

We soon discovered that Jesse had an amazing affinity with birds. Memphis Zoo had an indoor, thermostatically-controlled aviary where birds from all over the world were free to fly around, all year round.

Inside the aviary, we wandered along the paths very slowly. Often we stopped to sit and practice being very quiet.

Jesse sat on a low rock wall and birds came right up to him – most often a bleeding-heart dove and her chick. Many people asked  to photograph Jesse with the birds within centimetres of his face.

It was almost magical … until the peace shattered when someone burst into the aviary, running, shouting and sometimes even chasing the birds.
We had lived in Memphis for a couple of years when the zoo installed a Butterfly House. On our first visit we wandered through with Jesse’s pre-school group and a tour-guide.

During the tour, many butterflies landed and stayed on the floral dress I wore – obviously attracted to the colour of the flowers.

The children were fascinated, and I felt rather privileged… until I wriggled and they flew away.

At the end of the tour, we watched butterflies emerge from cocoons. One butterfly hatched completely and took its first flight while we watched.
On my next visit, I remembered to wear the same dress. I stood still in the Butterfly House and about a dozen butterflies settled on my ‘flowers’.

Other people noticed and came to have a closer look.

A girl came up to me and demanded that the butterflies come on to her dress.
She yelled at me.
She yelled at her mother.
She yelled at the butterflies.
The butterflies took flight and flew to the farthest corners of the enclosure.
The child reminded me of the children in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
So did her mother.

The mother pleaded with me to help to get butterflies onto her daughter – as if I had a magic wand.

I couldn’t help – just as if she’d asked me to arrange for the birds in the aviary to come close to her daughter, or for the gorilla to play with the child.

 

A couple years ago Jesse left our home to go renting with a friend, and Tiarna flew to Ireland to meet up with a childhood friend from Memphis (not the gorilla!). I think a piece of my heart went with each of them.

As I sit today and write, I think back to that mother in the Butterfly House, and I recognise that I have plenty of what she had.

I would much prefer to be with my kids wherever they are; making sure that they have everything that they have ever desired; that they can be happy; making  the world safe and perfect for them; and wanting to take their place in scary times (bungee jumping and sky-diving not included!).

Then I remember back to our first tour in the Butterfly House.

When one of the other mums reached out to help a butterfly out of its cocoon, the tour-guide stopped her. The tour-guide stressed that in order to develop their wings properly the butterflies had to go through the struggle of coming out all by themselves.

As parents, it’s always tempting to protect our children from any struggles and to try to keep them happy. But we run the risk of growing beautiful children who can’t cope in the real world.
We can encourage them to learn, and we can influence their environment so that they can make wise choices.
But we cannot live their lives for them.

If we keep them so safe that they cannot learn consequences, or prevent them from experiencing that struggles are a necessary part of life we run the risk of them becoming dependent on us or others approval…always.

If we protect them from taking responsibility for their part in accidents, we don’t allow them to learn about cause and effect.

We can get in the way of their learning while they are young by not allowing them the freedom to explore within safe boundaries.

If we take it upon ourselves to be the provider of all happiness, we can prevent them from discovering that happiness is something they can experience from within themselves.

Our job is to prepare them for life; to let them know that they are always loved and to allow them to grow.

Our children need room to learn, to struggle, to laugh, to cry, and to stretch in order to develop their own wings.

And when they are ready, only by letting go of them can we watch them take off and fly.

 

Originally published as ‘Learning to fly’ in The Lutheran magazine, 2013, September edition.                                                  www.thelutheran.com.au

I’ll mend it, he says. It’ll be fun, he says.

I’ll mend it, he says. It’ll be fun, he says.

I turn around and see the big gaping hole in his much-loved towel and try my darndest not to give him the look of

Are you serious? 

I know he is.

 

 

Does the hero mend the much-loved towel only to return it to the mending pile next week?

Does the heroine save the day by buying a new towel?

Does someone on the beach appreciate the exquisite mending and borrow it permanently – as happened to its predecessor?

How would you finish this story?

 

Watch this space…

 

 

 

 

Faith is like a…cleaning cloth?

It had looked so good at the demonstration.

Sparkling clean results.

No unnatural, caustic, biohazardous or environmentally unfriendly agents were necessary.

All it required was water: And if the job required a little more cleansing than usual, just add more water.

I could just imagine my home sparkling like it never had before.

 

Housekeeping has never been my strong point.

I can always find a higher priority – a child that needs some attention, a friend who needs a phone-call, an article that needs to be written, a book that needs to be read, a topic that needs to be researched. I thought it was high time that I made the commitment and spent a worthwhile amount on a product that would change my life.

So, I thought I would make a purchase that would ultimately help me to achieve a squeaky clean house.

My purchase didn’t prove quite the miracle I was hoping for. Several months after my purchase of a rather expensive piece of fabric, my house, though it had sparkled in places for a week or two, had returned to its usual state of “busy-ness” and “dust-bunnies”. The windows again wore those special marks of little fingers, noses and paws that are familiar in homes with small children and smaller pugs. The bathroom was spilling over with too many soggy towels to even find the sparkling basin, and the dishes were again piling up as though they were reproducing each night.

One morning, as I looked through bleary, unmotivated eyes at the mess that confronted me, I realised that what was lacking wasn’t the ability of the cloth to work a miracle, but my preparedness to use it and put it into action.

When put into use the cleaning cloth works miracles, but is useless if it’s stuck in a drawer. The thought also struck me that faith is rather like my cleaning cloth. Faith too is ineffective if its filed away safely in our heart, without us ever giving it an opportunity to work.

In my house, I’ve learnt its much easier and more effective to use my cloth a little bit, often, rather than wait for the perfect empty day when I can use it from the ceiling to the floor on every wall, window and shower screen. That’s a really daunting task – and inevitably just doesn’t happen.

Similarly, faith often gets left to work on a marathon event, rather than being used a little bit at a time. We are much less likely to have faith in God performing BIG miracles if we don’t learn to trust Him with little miracles.

James wrote, ‘Faith without works is dead’ (James 2:17).
Faith without works – like the cleaning cloth that’s stuck in a drawer.

 

 

Originally published as ‘Faith is like an enjo’,

in The Lutheran, August edition, 2007.

http://www.thelutheran.com.au/

 

 

My terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day*

 

The dad was screaming at his child. Every instinct in me wanted to run up to the child and whisk him into my arms as I yelled back at the dad.

Then I remembered.

We’d dropped off our eldest at kindergarten for the morning, and the house seemed too cold and lonely to go back to. So my younger two children and I headed to the library.

Normally the library was a place of solace. On Thursday mornings the library was alive with storytelling and great family-friendly activities.

This wasn’t Thursday morning.

I could usually find some books with which to settle my kids at a table within an arm’s distance of me, while I had a quick look at some reading matter a little more advanced than Dr Seuss.

But not this morning.

While I was two metres away from my kids, they started some sort of uproar.I don’t even remember what they did. But I do remember the face of the security guard as he suggested I try to come back another day when the children wouldn’t be so disruptive.

So we headed for home.

But we needed milk, so we popped into the drugstore (yes, we were living in the USA at the time).

We didn’t end up getting milk that morning. The kids caused a racket.

And in less time than it takes to get a flagon of milk and line up in a 20-person-long queue, another security guard came up to us. In his sweetest, deepest Southern-USA accent, he said,

‘Ma’am, y’all need to leave the store. These chillun’ are disturbin’ the other customers’.

Mortified, I grabbed the pusher and the hand of my three-year-old, and we headed out—without the milk.

Our house still seemed cold and lonely, so I headed to our friend’s home, where the kids felt right at home and joined in the activities without fear of being expelled.

As the kids played, my dear friend poured some freshly brewed coffee and listened as I burst into tears and related the goings-on of the morning.

‘… and then … and then …!’

And then I looked at my friend’s face. She’d evidently been trying to keep a straight face, but could no longer hold it in. She burst into fits of laughter.

‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.

‘Well, after all you’ve been trying to tell me about being a Christian, at last I know now that you’re real! This has spoken more to me than anything else you’ve ever said. Thank God you’re human!’

She continued to speak words of truth, encouragement and compassion. Her words were loving, caring, concise and compelling.

She knew us so well.

We were everyday friends and shared most aspects of our lives. So she knew of the stresses and strains on our young family.

She also knew of the unrealistic demands I had placed on myself as a young mum of three young children in a place a world away from everything and everybody we knew.

She was also a doctor, and picked up pretty quickly that at least one of our kids had a fever—something that I’d overlooked. Several hours later, another burst eardrum revealed itself as the cause of my ‘terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day’*.

 

As soon as I remembered that day, I was able to think about the dad in the shopping centre in a different light. I was so quick to judge—just like those people in the drugstore. Several of them offered words of advice:

‘That child needs discipline.’

‘If he were my child, he would have had a spanking by now.’

‘You shouldn’t come here if you can’t control your children.’

None of the advice had been particularly helpful, and none demonstrated any form of understanding.

They did not know that we had been up all night with various demands of the children.

They did not know that we were from the other side of the world and really needed somebody to give us a break.

They didn’t know that the child who was being most boisterous never complained of pain, but acted up in other ways. He must have been screaming inside but didn’t know how to tell me.

The people knew nothing about us yet were so quick to judge.

And here I was, doing the same thing.

The dad and the child left the building.

And I felt sorry that I didn’t do anything. I hadn’t given any word of encouragement. I hadn’t offered any help. I hadn’t even given the understanding smile that I’ve since been practising.

I hope it says, ‘Yes, sometimes we do have terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad days. I understand. I hope your day gets better from here, but I promise not to contribute further to your misery.’

These days I try to keep a bottle of bubbles in my bag, which often is all the distraction that distraught dads need. A dad with those magic bubbles in his hand turns into a super-hero in the eyes of a small child, and in the eyes of judgemental onlookers.

For the times when I’m not armed with bubbles, I have rehearsed some lines which I have actually used, such as:

‘Not a good day? Can I help?’

‘I hope your day gets better.’

‘Would you like me to help you with your trolley?’

‘I remember those days. Is there anything I can do to help you right now?’

I usually receive some funny looks—but, in comparison with being a judgmental, older person with a poor memory and no clue of the cause of anybody else’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day, it’s worth it!

 

Originally published in ‘The Lutheran’ magazine, September, 2012. http://www.thelutheran.com.au/

 

 

 

* from the book Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very-Bad Day by Judith Viorst

Why I Love Easter (and Les Mis)

‘I love Easter.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Chocolate!’ he replied as he rubbed his hands together with glee.
‘Is that all?’
Then came the reply I guess I was seeking — though I would have preferred it to come without prompting.

‘It’s about Jesus coming back to life on Easter Sunday.’

‘Ah, yes! That’s the answer I wanted’, I thought to myself, patting myself on the back for having achieved such a good result.
Then I stopped to think about the memories of Easter we had in our home.

One of our sons was baptised on Easter Sunday. That was an exciting weekend, with friends staying overnight and a chocolate-egg hunt for seven children all over the house and garden. We were still finding chocolate eggs in concealed places up to 18 months later.

I remembered our family staying on a farm with my godmother and her husband for Easter when I was little. Their home still had a pump for water in the kitchen, and a pit-toilet, real pigs in a real pigsty — and a blackout while Mum was in the bath! You don’t forget an Easter like that in a hurry.

But I stopped to think about it a bit longer.

I thought about how Lent this year has almost become a non-event for our family. We frequently miss Ash Wednesday because of sporting-team commitments. And we haven’t been to many of the studies in the church on Wednesday evenings.

Yet years ago we were the ones throwing stones at other families when we had little ones and were always there — looking upon the failings of others with a sense of self-righteousness.
This week, I watched my two favourite Easter movies. Chocolat and  Les Misérables – the non-musical movie, starring Liam Neeson.

The movie is slow. It is long. But it’s compelling — so compelling that the first time I watched it, it got me out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to see the ending.

To tell a long story in a few words, and hopefully with no spoilers, the story is about a convict who makes good.

The main character Jean Valjean is a convict who, having been paroled after years of hard labour, turns up at a priest’s home. Valjean is fed and given a place to sleep. But in the middle of the night he steals some silver candlesticks from the priest’s home. Valjean flees but is soon caught by gendarmes who bring him back to the priest, expecting to have the priest charge Valjean with theft.

But instead, the priest demonstrates mercy and grace by telling the gendarmes that the candlesticks were a gift. The priest then admonishes Valjean that he had forgotten the rest of it, and gives him even more silver.

The story continues years later in a different town, where Valjean is living with a different identity. He has changed his life so much that the people of the town, not knowing about his past, elect him to be their mayor.

He is recognised by a gendarme (played by Geoffrey Rush) who had been a guard where Valjean was imprisoned. This gendarme makes it his life’s mission and obsession to destroy Valjean.

But Valjean responds in the same way that the priest responded to him — with love displayed through grace and mercy.

This movie wins five stars from me. Wow!

And why do I rate it so highly? It was breath-taking. Neeson and Rush are superb.

But, more significantly, it gives me the sense that I am observing the story of Easter, and it draws me into observing Lent.

I want so much to identify with the grace and mercy of Valjean and the priest. But more often than not, I find that I am probably more like the self-righteous gendarme — judging others by laws and expectations, by their past actions or by dumb things they still choose to do, instead of looking at them through eyes of love and forgiveness.

I find myself hating the gendarme; but I also recognise myself in him.

Like the movie Chocolat, Les Misérables is full of contrast: good versus evil, light versus darkness, love versus hate.

Both have vigilant law-abiding citizens using the law to clean up their societies. Both demonstrate that love is much more powerful than the law.

In both movies love triumphs — like at Easter.
Yet what do we read in our papers? Why do we lose our hope? What was the last ‘good news’ headline we read in the paper or watched on the television?

Apparently blood sells. So does evil. So does fear. And it sells only because we buy it. Funny that.

Why do we buy papers that tell us about terrible things? Is it because of our compassion, or our safety concerns? Or is it that we, too, become the self-righteous gendarmes and measure our own righteousness against the failures of others? Perhaps, having other people’s fallen lives and misdemeanours in print gives us an opportunity to forget about the logs in our own eyes.

I remember one particular Easter. I’d just had an altercation with a friend. I could not understand where she was coming from — until it hit me that she had never realised that Easter was for her. She reacted violently against Jesus’ words, ‘Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves!’

Then the realisation hit me. My friend could not understand Easter because she’d never recognised her need for forgiveness: Surely nothing she’d ever done warranted anybody dying for her. She possibly remains convinced of that.

In contrast, I remember being with another friend who came to the realisation that it didn’t matter what she’d ever done, Christ’s death on the cross covered it all. Her response was pure joy — an absolute life-changing experience for her. (And for me, too, having only recently learnt a quick ‘formula’ for sharing the gospel, which was the instrument God used in that particular circumstance to bring a life to its fullest.)

Every Easter I come to a new realisation, a new reality. This year it is that the log in my eye is pretty darn big!

Thank God, though, that he uses the logs in our eyes, and our misdemeanours, to help us to realise that Easter is for us. For me! Jesus died for me! His love overcame the death prescribed for me. His love was, and is, triumphant over death.
And that is why I love Easter.

 

Originally published as ‘I love Easter (and Les Mis)’ in The Lutheran, 2009, April edition.

 

Holy Handbags: Christian as a brand-name

 

It was BIG! It was fancy and it was very, very expensive.

We wandered around with our mouths gaping wide at the opulence of the Opryland Hotel. The ceilings were so high we almost couldn’t see them. Birds flew around us and then flew upwards into the canopy of tropical rainforest palms. While private rooms and suites formed the perimeter of the hotel, inside, under the main roof, were streets and arcades. There were conference rooms among ballrooms, ice-cream parlours next to saloons, beauty boutiques among fashion shops, florists and toyshops.

As we passed by a conference room, we noticed the paraphernalia displayed by sales representatives in the lobby outside. We looked with interest, surprised by the variety of ‘Christian’ items available on the market: stickers, birthday cards, wall plaques and children’s Bibles complete with colouring pencils.

But as we continued to look, we recognised ‘normal’ things that were labelled with ‘Christian’ symbols or texts, with prices to rival any Nike or Billabong product. My imagination ran away with all sorts of other advertising gimmicks: ‘Holy Handbags’, ‘Heaven Scent!’, ’Perfume of Paradise’, ‘Jesus Jeans’.

My eyes opened a little further that day – and unfortunately I think I became quite cynical.

What is a ‘Christian handbag’ anyway?

Does it make me holier if I use a ruler with a cross printed on it, rather than one I bought from the local newsagency?

At which stage does a pencil become a ‘Christian’ pencil? Is it born again when it goes through the printing press?

Obviously, ‘Christian’ sells. We only have to remember Christmas sales and the consumption of chocolate in Australia at Easter.

But where is the boundary between ‘Christian’ as we followers of Christ would call ourselves and ‘Christian’ as a brand-name? Should we trust everything that is called ‘Christian’? Should we distrust everything that is not marketed as ‘Christian’? Should we trust that everything sold in a ‘Christian’ bookshop is good, and reject other products on that basis?

How do we figure out what is good and what is not? It’s called discernment. And where do we get it? Good question.

I was once told about the people whose job it is to identify fake American dollar notes from real notes. What are their instructions? Instead of knowing every type of fake note available, they are to become so familiar with the real notes that any slight variation from the truth is very obvious.

As Christians we have the truth available to us in the Bible. If we become so familiar with truth by knowing the Word and have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we too can learn to spot a phoney a mile off. That is discernment.

As Lutherans, we have the legacy of Luther’s Small Catechism which Luther wrote for parents to teach their children. An added bonus of the catechism is that it teaches us to ask continually: ‘What does this mean?’ It encourages us to keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking until we have answers. Searching for answers helps us to find discernment.

We have a banquet of books and other resources available to us. Some are classics, some are fun. Some are religious, some are Christian… Some are rubbish.

Reading, to some of us, is an absolute joy. To some of us, writing, too, is a joy and a privilege. But nothing compares to the word of God in teaching truth.

No books – not even Christian books or bible concordances – should ever take the place of our study of the word of God.

Max Lucado points out that Christians too often rely on somebody else’s interpretation of Scripture instead of reading it themselves; and that makes as much sense as eating what somebody else has already half-digested. In the same way, we miss out on discernment if we rely on others to pre-digest our knowledge.

Discernment cannot be passed on: we must grow it ourselves.

Don’t stop reading other books – but remember that God’s word is truth. How does the Christian book you are reading stand up against God’s word? Is it consistent with the Bible’s teachings, and does God’s love and grace shine through? Are the Scriptures that are quoted used ‘in context’?

John MacArthur from Grace Community Church once gave a sermon titled, ‘Mary had a little lamb’. MacArthur strung a collection of Bible verses together, completely out of context. It was the funniest sermon I have ever heard – but he made the point very effectively that words and verses from the Bible can easily be made to say what anybody wants them to say.

Discernment looks at any verse in the light of the whole of God’s truth.

There are plenty of things on the market and even in our churches these days that appeal to ‘good, Christian folk’, and being a Christian does not protect us from sales-pitches. Some marketers actually take advantage of the trusting nature of Christians!

There are some valid questions that may help us learn to be more discerning; before we read a book, get involved in a program, sign up for a new course, a new roof, a diet plan, sponsorship, cosmetics… anything that is sold in Jesus’ name:

  • Does it glorify God or itself?
  • Does it edify (build up) God’s church?
  • What does it cost, and who will benefit from the cost?
  • Where will the money go?
  • Is there any level of secrecy  i.e. do you have to be a member or make a purchase or commitment in order to find out what it’s about, and are you allowed to share or discuss it with others?
  • What kind of language is being used: Is it ‘sales’ talk; does it use big words that you may have heard of but don’t really understand?
  • What are the claims: Is this the ‘only’ way, the ‘best’, ‘God’s way’, the ‘newest’?
  • What is the response if you say, ‘I will need to go home and pray about it’?

Perhaps if something is advertised as ‘Christian’, it may be worthwhile to bring out your cynical stick. But better still…

‘Keep sound wisdom and discretion: so they will be life to your soul, and grace for your neck. Then you shall walk in your way securely. Your foot won’t stumble. When you lie down, you will not be afraid. Yes, you will lie down, and your sleep will be sweet.‘ (Proverbs 3:21–24 WEB).

 

 

Originally published as ‘Holy Handbags’ in the Heart and Home column in The Lutheran, 2008, September Issue.  

www.thelutheran.com.au