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

The As You Go Quilt Romance: A Quilt Adventure in Tatters

2012Ruth&Norm2 - Copy (2)Ted and Mae’s plan was already in tatters—and Ted hadn’t even begun the first step. By 22:10 he was supposed to have secured the quilt—folded like a road map under his left arm—and strolled into the darkened corridor. But it was already 22:25. South Wing was still lit up and the last of the nurses on the late-shift were only just leaving, almost half-an-hour late.

In a lot of ways it would have been more logical for Mae to make her way to Ted’s room, instead of the other way round. Her night vision was better and so was her health. But Ted’s rapport with the nurses in the rest home was more likely to get him out of trouble if he was discovered.

In Room 3 East, Mae waited…and waited.

She had purchased a new night-gown for the occasion. And she made sure she was wearing a tiny bit of the pink lipstick Ted said he liked, that first day she’d felt alive again— the first time in forty-four years that a gentleman had been kind to her, or had taken any notice of her at all.

Their friendship blossomed almost from the beginning – when Ted first noticed her ‘gardening’ in the courtyard shared by the South and East wings.

‘You’d better not let Fred catch you stealing his flowers,’ he said.

‘Oh, I’m planting, not stealing. See?’ Mae held up a tiny trowel and a packet of poppy seeds.

But the next day, and the next day… and the next, Ted noticed her doing the same thing, though in a different place each morning. It was a week before he realised that she was indeed ‘planting’— but the poppy seed packet was a cover-up for the pills she refused to swallow.

While the nurses thought she was sweet, if a little eccentric, Ted found her delightful. The more he got to know her, the more he liked her. They discovered a mutual love of gardening, history and reading.

Before long, they were sharing all of their meals and spending much of each day sitting together in the garden or, on rainy days, in the sunniest spots by the windows. Ted read aloud while Mae stitched.

Two weeks ago, Ted proposed an after-hours rendezvous. Mae responded that she was ‘a bit-old-fashioned that way.’

‘Well marry me, then,’ he said.

‘Okay, I will. Thank you for asking.’

Ted announced it to his family the next day. They could not have been happier for him. It was good that he was here, well cared for and with great medical facilities nearby, in case his heart skipped a beat again. Best of all, he was close enough that his daughter and the grand-kids could walk there to visit.

Yet he hadn’t really settled. Until recently.

They had noticed something about him was different. There was a new spark; something that had been missing since their mum died … it must be Mae.

But Mae’s son Eric, ever-protective of his inheritance, threatened to stop her from seeing her two grandchildren if she went ahead with the marriage.

Mae’s sweet demeanour always disappeared after conversations with Eric. This conversation was rowdier than usual – heard all the way down the corridor. Ted fully expected Mae to stay in her room for days afterwards.

Yet she surprised Ted the next morning by greeting him at the breakfast table and announcing, ‘I had forty-four years of being bossed around by his father. I’m bothered if I’m going to be bossed around by him.’ Then she whispered, ‘Let’s not allow anything to get in our way. I have an idea.’

Ted leaned over and listened as Mae revealed her plan. ‘Whether or not it’s true is a bit contentious,’ Mae explained, ‘but the story goes that during the time of slavery in America, women stitched secret codes into quilts to guide the slaves to safety. I’ve decided to sew a quilt so you can find me in the middle of the night.’

Mae couldn’t sit still. She sat on the edge of her bed. Then she sat in her arm-chair. She turned her main light on and off and on again. She smoothed out every wrinkle on her bed, pressed and re-pressed the folds of her quilt, and adjusted the pillows… again.

Nurse Rosie noticed the light going on and off and went in to check that Mae was okay. Mae made up a story about needing to mark the page in the book she was reading, climbed into bed and asked Nurse Rosie to turn the light off, please.

‘Dear ol’ thing,’ Nurse Rosie said to the other nurse when she returned to the desk. ‘I saw her doing some embroidery the other night – the most unusual stitches I’ve ever seen. Said she was making a ‘quilt-as-you-go’ quilt. I’ve seen some of her other work – very intricate and detailed. This was more ‘folksy’. You know, thick wool, coarse and lumpy stitches. Not my cup of tea. But each to her own, I s’pose.’

It was now 22:45 and still, no Ted. It was unlikely he would be able to make it in the next half hour because the nurses tended to do another round between 22:50 and 23:10.

A tear dropped from Mae’s face onto her pillow. She had not cried for twenty years.

A scream shattered the silence of West Wing. Three nurses rushed to Room 3. One turned on the lights. Another raised the security alarm. They found Mrs Campbell attacking an intruder who was now cowering under cover of a grey-brown quilt.

A nurse yanked off the quilt.

‘Mr Collins! What on earth…?’

Another nurse steered Mrs Campbell to an armchair as nurses, guards and available staff appeared at the doorway. Nurse Rosie arrived last – just in time to see a security guard manoeuvring Ted out of the room, and carrying the quilt.

‘Hold on,’ said Nurse Rosie. ‘I recognise that quilt. What are you doing with it?’

‘I…I can explain,’ said Ted, but not quickly enough to stop Nurse Rosie from grabbing the quilt and returning it to Mae in 3 East.

‘Oh dear,’ said Mae as spread the quilt out on her bed. Then, out of her sewing basket, she took a hand-drawn map. Mae traced the map with her finger; then matched it, block by block, against the stitches on the quilt.

‘Oh no!’ she said. ‘It’s all my fault. Here! Block 3D. I’ve turned it left instead of right. He’s gone to the right room in the wrong wing!’

 

 

Two-ice-cream days

It had been a big day. As I put our five-year-old to bed, I asked him ‘Did you have a good day?’

‘I had a great day,’ he said.

So I asked him, ‘Why was it a great day?’

‘Oh mum!’ he exclaimed, as if it were completely obvious. ‘Because we had 2 ice-creams of course!’

 

I guess I was taken a little aback. He’d played all day with almost all of his cousins. His grandparents had showered him with love and his favourite things. It had been a really happy day for lots of reasons.  So I continued the question,

‘So that’s what makes a great day, then …when you have two ice-creams?’

‘Yeah!’ Again he gave that exasperated look that means something like ‘Are you for real mum? Of course.’

He continued though.

‘You know when we went on our holiday and we had ice-cream for dessert and you said we could eat as much ice-cream as we like. That was the best day.’

That was the first day of a recent two-week holiday which included toboganning, whale watching and climbing tall towers, and his favourite part was …ice-cream?

 

Kids have a great way of putting life into perspective. While we are often carried away with making things bigger and more exciting, kids seem to revel in the simplicity.

How many children are swamped by technological gizmos and are still bored, only to find delight in simple pleasures such as digging in the dirt, splashing in water or stirring the cake mix?

How often does a toddler delight in the paper wrapping from the Christmas present rather than the present?

 

Especially if life has been too hectic lately, why not take a step back today and turn off the television, DVD and I-pad?

Then steer your kids in the direction of a pile of dirt, a stack of boxes or some water and plastic cups, jugs, funnels and implements from your kitchen and see the wisdom in simplicity.

Oh – and don’t forget the ice-cream!

 

Originally published as ‘2 Icecream days’

in The Lutheran, 24 July 2006, Vol.40, No.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unusual Saturday: Perfect beginning

cropped-2015-12-23-23.57.13.jpg

The church site is busy with the annual fete. People from the church community, from the local area, even from interstate, meander through the stalls, devonshire teas, barbecues and treasures – still undiscovered.

 

The sanctuary, usually quiet, dark and still on a Saturday, is full of children, parents and leaders singing and dancing.

 

A man opens the only closed door on the premises. Slips through it. Glances at the people – the sanctuary that is full of life and laughter. He returns to the cold of outside where his wife and a baby cradled in her arms are waiting for him.

 

The door re-opens. Some-one goes out to greet him.

‘Can I help you?’

 

‘We are on our way home from the hospital.’ He beams as he introduces his wife and newborn son. ‘We want to give thanks to God. Could we use your church to pray?’

 

They are ushered in midst the noise, the singing, the dancing.

The altar is bustling with children and music.

 

But, in front of the garden, the crosses and open tomb are still in place after Easter.

 

And that is where the brand new father and mother unwrap their tiny son, place him on the ground and bow their heads.

 

New life, in the same place as we remember His death.

Sacrifice of thanks, midst the chaos.

Midst the noise, the singing, the dancing – perfect peace.

 

Perfect beginning.

 

Unusual Saturday.

School Daze: Settling into School Life

‘Mrs Hahn, I didn’t think this would happen in your family!’

I can still hear the words of our principal when my child (who shall remain nameless) threw their body down onto the ground in the middle of the school driveway, arms and legs flailing, refusing to walk home.

I had decided that it would be good exercise to walk home with my child after their first day at school. When I think about it, that probably wasn’t one of my better ideas.

Though eventually enjoying school, each of my children struggled with the stresses and strains at the beginning. One cried from separation anxiety—made worse by their mother hanging around to try to calm the hysteria. Another asked to be dropped off at the kerb so they could walk up to the school alone — only to return to the car to ask us to open the very heavy front door of the school.

At the end of the first day, from more than one child we heard, ‘There’s no point going anymore. I didn’t learn how to read or write.’

What I learnt in the process of beginning four children in three different schools I’ve shared with other mums and dads who have all said, ‘It’s so nice to know that it’s normal!’

Hints for beginning school that I’ve learnt so far:

  • Beginning school is tiring for all concerned: A more regulated structured day, as well as little bodies and brains that struggle to keep up with each other’s demands, is much more than we can expect of anybody without experiencing some teething problems.
  • Little bodies that are beginning school need lots of rest, lots of love and lots of energy replenishment.
  • Learning, making new friends, trying new things and growing is hard work. So it’s important to plan your child’s day so that she can rest and ‘chill out’ after school and replenish energy.

Our family found it helpful to have a supply of yummy, easy-to-eat, healthy snacks in the car, to restore a little energy supply and get us home without too many tears. Another family I know walked home with picnic food, stopping at a playground along the way to eat, rest, play and relax.

A comfy chair or bed at home, and having ready a supply of favourite storybooks and a milkshake or smoothie for the children to sip while I cuddled and read to them became a safe haven for them (and me) for the first few weeks of school. It also helped to create great memories by giving them devoted time to share the joys and frustrations of their day.

  • It’s worthwhile to resist ‘play dates’, extra-curricular sports and other activities after school until little bodies have become used to the increased demands of school.

In our family, we decided to plan that we had specific nights of activities, and other nights of rest. We also restricted each child to one sport or physical activity such as gymnastics or ballet at a time, and one musical instrument. It’s not only exhausting for kids to be taxi-ed all over the district, but also exhausting for their parents. 

  • Sticking to familiar and established routines such as baths, bedtime stories and prayers helps children to settle and relax for a good night’s sleep, and helps them to have control, knowing that not all of life has changed.

Many schools adjust their schedules for school beginners by having a mid-week day off, having shorter days for the first few weeks or having naps during the afternoon. If you feel that your child needs an occasional ‘early moment’ and would benefit from an afternoon nap, don’t be afraid to negotiate with the teacher to pick him up at lunchtime:

  • Keeping in touch with the teacher is about the best investment you can make, as far as their education goes. 
  • After school is not the best time to go shopping!           
  • After the excitement of beginning school wears off, many children come to realise that they are stuck there!

Be prepared for the end of the honeymoon period. Anticipate ‘tummy aches’, sore heads and sore toes (even if imagined, all of these are very real to your child) and have suitable strategies planned. While being sympathetic and loving, it is also possible to be matter-of-fact and deal with the situation confidently and appropriately. In our home we have often used the same strategy I learnt from my mother: ‘I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. You obviously need some more rest. Why don’t you go back to sleep? I’ll pull the curtains and make sure it’s quiet and dark so you can sleep. I’ll check to see how you are going later on.’

Importantly, the child needs to know she is taken seriously. If she is genuinely sick or needing to catch up on sleep, she’ll soon be back to sleep, and it will become obvious in other ways that there is a genuine illness. However, if the ‘sickness’ is her strategy to stay home, a morning in bed resting without television, games or books is very likely to inspire a quick recovery by recess time. And sometimes, little bodies just need to have a rest.

  • We found that celebrating ‘getting bigger’ helped our children to accept the changes more readily; by going on special weekend dates alone with Mum or Dad; having extra responsibilities, such as helping with the shopping by using the shopping list; or even being able to stay up a little later than younger siblings.
  • Remember that there is definitely somebody out there (probably at your school) whose child has outperformed your child’s tantrum.

Registering discontent is normal and healthy — it even seems to be part of a 4–6-year-old’s job description. It does not mean you are a bad parent, but it does give you the prompting to learn new strategies as your child grows.

Listen to your child. Ask how they feel and acknowledge their feelings as important. Avoid asking ‘WHY?’* Instead, ask something like ‘What happened?’

*’Why’ is a tricky question to answer if you’re a child because it opens up many more questions – and you can get into trouble for not answering the right way, or according to the adult’s expectation.

  • Your child’s teacher will be able to reassure you about particular behaviours you may be worried about and can also suggest ways you can work together to help your child to settle into school life.

If you speak with other more experienced parents you may also be reassured that your child is not the main contender for the Academy Award for melodrama!

 

Originally published as ‘School Daze’ in The Lutheran, February edition, 2008.

The Should Depot

All I wanted was toothpaste!

Something to clean my family’s teeth and freshen our breath.

It should have been simple.

But at the local supermarket I was overwhelmed by the different sizes, shapes, colours and flavours; of the many varieties of toothpastes.
73! Yes! I counted them–much to the bemusement of the woman who was stacking the shelves.

Seventy- three different toothpastes to choose from, each with a perfectly valid reason why I should purchase that particular variety:

‘a whiteness you can see’,‘ice sensation’, ‘extra bright’, ‘stages for children’, ‘herbal’, ‘no added sugar’.
I am sure that advertising agencies play on the minds of shoppers by creating a special compartment in our heads: the ‘should’ depot.

Should I worry about too much fluoride, or too much artificial sweetener? Was it accidental that the denture tablets were at eye level, reminding me why I should buy certain brands of toothpaste?

Whether or not I was worried before I made my purchase, the ‘shoulds’ certainly got to me by the time I nervously passed my chosen variety to the checkout operator:

Would she notice my smile?

Did my breath smell like last night’s lasagne?

Should I have gone for the herbal blend?

 

Quite frankly, I’d like to ban the word ‘should’. 

If I listen to my head on days when I am particularly overwhelmed by life, there are a multitude of ‘shoulds’ that flood in and swamp me:

I should get up this morning and go for a walk. I should not eat that last piece of chocolate cake, but I shouldn’t let it go to waste. I should get outside and do the weeding. I should be more diligent with composting and recycling. I should use a timer for the shower. I should be a better parent.
 I should …
I’m not sure when it crept into our vocabulary so prolifically, but I think ‘should’ has become one of Satan’s sneaky but effective ways of creating false guilt and unnecessary anxiety in us.

After all, what am I really saying when I say ‘I should …’?

Am I saying, I feel guilty because there is so much to be done?

Or am I imposing guilt on others, because, even if I didn’t do something, if I thought I should have, I have gone one better than someone who had not even thought they should have?

If I take on the guilt for what I should have done, does that absolve me?

There almost seems to be a hierarchy of holinesses associated with ‘shoulds’. If Monty Python were to perform a skit about ‘should’, I imagine it would go something like:

Guilty Person (GP) 1: ‘I should have taken a meal around to the family who was struggling.’
Guilty Person (GP) 2: ‘You think that’s bad! I should have spent time with the person with cancer and I should have given to the charity, whose blind representative was at the door of the supermarket.’
GP 1: ‘Luxury! I should have offered to babysit for the family with 23 children, served at the local soup kitchen eight days a week, mown the lawn for all the elderly folk down the street, assisted the frail woman across the road, hemmed all the trousers in the local Goodwill …’
GP 2: ‘And if we told the younger generation of today what we should have done, they’d never believe us!’

‘Should’ does not motivate us, encourage us or equip us. It confuses us, tempts us and lessens our effectiveness.

‘Should’ uses energy we don’t have in order to worry about things we probably won’t do anyway.

We spend more time worrying about what we think we ‘should’ be doing than on doing what really needs to be done, what we are capable of, or what there is actually to be done after all.
What would happen if we used the energy we waste on ‘shoulds’, for the ‘Coulds’ and ‘Let’s’ and ‘Why don’t we?’

Just thinking about the possibilities makes me smile.

It opens up a rainbow of opportunities: our minds to the creativity that freedom brings; our hearts to the warmth of really understanding what we were created to do; our hands to the doing; and our voices to singing God’s praises so that everything we do or think about actually glorifies God.

Imagine a world in which we replace worry about what we ‘should’ do with a prayer to the creator of our days, followed by a desire to do his will.

Imagine a world in which we leave the ‘shoulds’ of today’s society behind us and take up ‘We can!’ as our catch-cry.

The late missionary and author Elisabeth Elliot once included the following words in her radio program Gateway to Joy: ‘I have only one thing to do today. That is God’s will, and he will enable me to do it!’

Life might look less depressing and more achievable if, instead of being ‘burdened again by the yoke of slavery’ (Gal 5:1) of the ‘shoulds’, we replaced ‘should’ with ‘can’.

If we are parents, we ‘can’ get on with cleaning up after the 19th spill for the day, and play with our kids once it’s done.

Or we ‘can’ sit and listen to our teens as they tell us about their horrible day.

If we are students, we ‘can’ study diligently to equip ourselves with the knowledge we will need to apply later.

If we are employees, we ‘can’ work conscientiously for our employer.

If we are employers, we ‘can’ assign tasks fairly and reward appropriately for effort.

If we are leaders, we ‘can’ serve those we lead.

If we are senior citizens, we ‘can’ share our lives with those who don’t yet have our experience.

Let’s spend our energy on what we ‘can’ do.

No ‘shoulds’ about it!

 

Originally published as:

‘Canning the Shoulds’, in The Lutheran, October edition, 2008.

Money Matters: teaching kids the value of money

Mum’s birthday was approaching. I decided to give her a surprise and buy her a present. On my way home from school, I took a slight detour—via the main street. Boldly I walked into Eudunda Farmers, chose a lovely perfume and took it to the shop assistant.

‘Book it up, please!’ I said as I signed my very grown-up eight-year-old signature in Mum’s ‘book-it-up’ book. The shop assistant was most helpful and gift-wrapped the lovely present. I went home, gift in hand. A few days later I gave the lovely gift to my mother.

As I remember, Mum was very gracious. She said ‘Thank you’ and then asked where the perfume had come from.

Then she explained that ‘booking it up’ wasn’t all there is to paying. She would have to go to pay the shop, and we would have to go without something else because we didn’t have enough money to just ‘book it up’ whenever we felt like it.

But she knew I’d done it with the best of intentions, so we would call it ‘squits!’ this time.

But I was not to book anything else up without arranging it with Mum first, or I would have to pay for it myself.

I learnt a big lesson that day, and I think Mum did too, because at around the same time she began to give us a weekly allowance, so we could actually learn to save, spend and learn the value of money.

These days I work in a church setting, where we regularly hand out emergency food parcels. Some people are in need of help because they are experiencing a tidal wave of circumstances beyond their control. We are privileged to be able to help them with food and refer them to other services.

But others have never learnt the skill of budgeting, problem-solving or having to plan beyond today.

In February, when the Christmas sales have been forgotten and the payments begin, these people are likely to return to us because they can’t pay for food, gas or electricity. We’ll be told that their payments to department or electronic stores have been due this week. And very often, those payments are more than their income.

They’ve simply never learnt the ‘book-it-up’  rule—that anything bought on credit is not really yours until it’s paid for, and that you have to pay for it somehow.

As parents and youth leaders over the past few decades, Chris and I have learnt that different kids, different personalities and different life experiences lead to different attitudes to money.

We’ve tried to enable our kids to learn about money in small, manageable amounts while they’re little. By the time they’re adults we hope  they’ve learnt about managing money in a way that will protect them from the world’s lies, ‘You need this for your life to be fulfilling’, ‘Get this and you’ll be happy!’, ‘More is better!’

We want them to have experienced the consequences of handling (or mishandling) money before it means that their car is reclaimed or they get a bad credit report.

Where possible we’ve tried to relate kids’ money management to real life.

We’re not in favour of paying kids for jobs that simply need to be done in a family. In every family it’s important that we work as a team. If somebody doesn’t empty the bins or feed the dog, somebody else suffers.

So, rather than earning money to do ‘team’ jobs, our children have received a ‘salary’—an agreed fixed amount. But if they don’t pull their weight, they get charged.

It speaks pretty loudly to an eight-year-old when you hand him his allowance and then ask him to pay you back because you made his bed, emptied the bins or fed the dog, which were his jobs. It also helps teenagers to appreciate the value of reward for effort if they are expected to pay their sibling for doing the dishes, or pay for a takeaway meal for the family if they didn’t take their turn to cook.

Salespeople are taught the tactics of putting something in a customers’ hands for them to ‘feel’ ownership; the same principle works with allowances that have to be paid back.

Once our kids reached high school we gave them a debit card and transferred money into it regularly. To get the debit card they needed to present us with a budget which included clothes (except uniforms and sneakers), youth, Christian giving, savings, sports fees and phone credit (no going out if there is no credit on your phone; it’s a safety issue).They needed to demonstrate accountability.

We’ve also had a rule in our family for years that we don’t purchase on impulse. If somebody decides while we’re shopping that they simply ‘must have it’, they need to think about it for 24 hours before we buy it. Usually it is forgotten by the time we leave the shop. That rule has saved us making lots of poor decisions!

One of our children had her heart set on a game of Cluedo and had been saving for it. When she saw it advertised in the junk mail she asked me if we could go to buy it.

‘This is such a good sale. It’s 30 per cent off. Couldn’t you buy it and I’ll pay you back?’

Stored in my memory banks was the ‘book-it-up’ rule. So I came up with an alternative plan—lay-by. I explained how lay-by works, and we went to the shop to set up an account in her name. The shop assistants took time to explain all the details to our eight-year-old. For the next few weeks my daughter paid about 50 cents a fortnight, until she had paid in full.

What an accomplishment! She’d paid for an item herself, recognised its value, and only received it when it was really hers.

To have a real-life understanding of how money works is something that is important to children. It gives
them experience, teaches them problem-solving and risk assessment, and hopefully will prepare them for life in the big world where, unfortunately, money does matter.

Postscript: The author reserves the right to give a false impression of being a perfect parent. She’s not! Ask any of her kids!

 

Originally published in:

The Lutheran, 2010, February edition

Today was one of those days I should have stayed in bed.

Today was one of those days I should have stayed in bed.

I took too long to wake up, so my coffee intake was late.

The kitchen was full of people,

and I was full of caffeine-withdrawal shakes.

That was easily remedied with a quick coffee.

 

I’ve been trying to get into the habit of a walk each morning.

So I set off – with my phone, a drink, pens and a notebook in the quilted bag I’d machine-embroidered – custom-made for walking and writing.

Usually I walk about one kilometre, then turn around to walk in the opposite direction. But this morning I felt that I should cross the main road, sit by the duck-pond and spend the morning in quiet contemplation.

Last week I bought new walking shoes to go with my new orthotics.  I decided to break them in…this morning. So my feet hurt.

The opportunity to sit for a while before the return trip home seemed to be favourable both to my head and my feet. So off I toddled.

Soon I reached the board-walk by the duck pond and found a bench. I checked the bench for tell-tale signs of early morning dew. I’d had wet pants from wet benches before. There were no dew-drops on it. So I sat down upon it.

It wasn’t until sometime later, after I’d been contemplating the ducks, the skeletons of dead trees, and a magnificent river red gum on the bank of the creek, that I decided to do some writing in my notebook.

As I began to write, I noticed that my fingers were green. I looked inside my bag, knowing that in it was a green fluoro-pen, and it would not have been the first pen to leak in my bag.

So I dug it out.

Aha! I thought as I turned the pen around in my fingers, not realising that my fingers were making the pen green as I turned it over and over.

I looked into the bag. There was no evidence that anything had leaked. I emptied the remainder of the contents of my bag onto the bench, then picked up my notebook. It too was green.

This is really strange,  I thought – as I stood up to survey the bag more closely.

Then I happened to look at the seat again.  Graffiti on the seat shouted at me in bright fluoro green.

Very strange. I thought. I didn’t notice that before.

I looked closer.

The shape of my bottom and thighs encircled the graffiti; the knit pattern from the back of my jumper patterned the backrest. And a little further up the bench, underneath a pile of stones to keep it in place, a scrunched paper sign warned

“Wet Paint!”

It was then that I realised the enormity of what I’d done.

My backside was green

and my face was red!

Today was one of those mornings I should have stayed in bed.

A true story – it happened to the friend of a friend of mine…me!

(Facebook Post by Julie Hahn, June 11, 2013)

 

The Disciple in Discipline

 

‘We think it’s time that we start to discipline Tommy’, the mother of a toddler told me.

I’d been enjoying watching Tommy play: pushing cars around after each other, over mountains and tracks, running into traffic obstacles and finding alternative ways of getting around them. Every now and then Tommy would look up and give his mum a very cute, cheesy grin, which his mum would return. Tommy would then continue with his very serious work of play — complete with the obligatory ‘brmmm…brmmm’.

‘What do you mean by discipline?’ I asked Tommy’s mum.

I thought back to several months before when I was presenting a six-week course. The fourth session is about ‘discipline’. For as long as I’ve been presenting this course, I’ve been intrigued that formerly absent dads appear out of the blue for this particular session. This course proved to be no exception.

On this particular night,  I felt reasonably confident that most of the parents were Christian. So I began with a big, empty whiteboard and wrote the word ‘discipline’ at the top.

‘What do you think of when you see this word?’ I asked.

Very quickly the whiteboard was covered with words: time-out, thinking time, spanking, distraction, self-discipline, self-control, naughty corner, removal of privileges, punishment, consequences, ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’, control … you get the picture.

I’m sure the list could have continued, but the space on the whiteboard didn’t. It was fairly obvious that we each had our own ideas about discipline.

I then crossed off the ‘ine’ from the end of ‘discipline’ and replaced it with an ‘e’. ‘Disciple.’

‘Does anybody recognise this word?’ I asked and I watched the faces change as I continued.

‘We know that Jesus had disciples. Let’s have another look at our list and decide which of these words describe how Jesus ‘disciplined’ his ‘disciples’.

Together we crossed off three-quarters of the words on the whiteboard.

With my own energetic and inquisitive children, I really struggled with discipline. People told me that my particularly ‘enterprising’ child needed a good dose of medication. That child certainly copped a fair degree of the only thing I knew then — a ‘good spanking’. But all that achieved was to rob that particular child of a sense of adventure and creativity.

Eventually, having heard a lot from authoritarian, hands-off ‘experts’, and feeling like a failure, I sat down in a library with my Bible, alongside a Hebrew and Greek Bible with translation, and searched every reference to discipline I could find.What did I learn? That discipline means ‘to train’ and that a ‘disciple’ is a follower who follows a leader — the ‘disciplin-er’.

When I saw discipline through Christ’s example, I saw a demonstration of love through patient leading, through example, through instruction, story-telling and the use of analogies, as well as through pre-empting and warning of what to expect. When I looked at discipline as what Christ did with his disciples, I saw that it was not punishment or retribution. Even though he had all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus did not use discipline as a form of power or control.

So my approach to discipline changed.

I realised that I had treated discipline as a reaction to my kids’ actions, and, mostly, the kids were getting into trouble because they’d do things I didn’t expect or want them to do. There was a lot of ‘don’t’ without instructing what to ‘do’. With a fair bit of practice, we were able to turn it around.

Discipline became proactive rather than reactive. It meant that we would try to stay ahead of the kids — to plan that our days would begin and end in a more predictable fashion.

Our kids responded really well to being told what to expect each day, or every moment.

For example, we told them: ‘Today is Monday. You need to get dressed, and have breakfast and then we’ll take you to pre-school. We’ll come to get you after pre-school, and then we’ll have lunch and a rest and then we’ll go to the zoo for a little while.’

Then, having given them a virtual map of the day, we would navigate them through it according to their age.

Our five-year-old could manage all that information, while our three-year-old needed step-by-step information, and our baby needed to be taken through it all.

We used charts so that they (and their mother) could have visual prompts for routines such as getting dressed and going to bed. The children knew what to expect and what was expected of them.

Life became more ordered and therefore predictable, as did our children’s behaviour.

When the lives of our children turned upside-down when we moved from the USA back to Australia, the reminder charts and routines were portable and offered reassurance that not everything in life had changed.

We also needed to appreciate our kids’ individual differences.

For example, being aware that each of them would dawdle at a different stage in the morning, we used that to our advantage. We used breakfast as the motivation to ‘hurry up and get dressed’ for the child who took ages to dress but loved breakfast. We made the child who took great pride in personal appearance eat first because of the tendency to dawdle at breakfast.

We smiled more and said ‘Yes!’ much more often.

Since then I’ve also learnt to say, ‘Yes, when you have …’

For example, when our ten-year-old asks to use the computer, our response might be, ‘Yes, when you’ve finished your homework and taken out the rubbish’. It gives positive instruction, gets the job done, and everybody wins.

The Parenting Place in New Zealand uses the motto: ‘If a kid feels right, they act right’. If children can go confidently into a situation, knowing what to expect and what is expected of them, they are more likely to act right. If they are confident that they are loved unconditionally, they are likely to follow instructions and return to the safe base of their parents’ arms in between adventures.

Did Jesus’ disciples always do as they were told? Did they always understand what Jesus told them? Did Christ punish them when they got it wrong? A look from him was all they needed.

Parents have the perfect example of discipline from Jesus, and the incredible, humbling opportunity to look into the eyes of our children to see the reflection of our example to them.

 

Originally published as:

‘The disciple in discipline’ in The Lutheran, February 2010 Vol44 No1 P32-33