Shed Your Shoes

This weekend over a hundred of us from the Boiler Room caravanned out to Prairie Star Ranch for the annual spring retreat, a refreshing blend of vacation, family reunion, and deep times with the Lord. We had sweet moments of worship together, powerful clusters of prayer for one another, large meals together, a bonfire every night, and hours of free time to wander through woods and along lakes. My sunburned neck bears witness to the hours I spent outside, surrounded by beauty. My heart, likewise, was deeply marked by the personal ways that God reaffirmed my identity in Him over the weekend and highlighted several places in my heart He wants to sift.

After lunch on Saturday, I found myself with a large chunk of free time, so I meandered down around the lake. To be honest, I was grumbling to the Lord a bit about how I just wanted to feel loved (more and more lately I have been aware of this desire rising up in my heart – and recognizing the ways I tend to respond to that desire – so the Lord and I have been working through that together).

Eventually, still grumbling a bit, I moved away from the Lake and into the woods. As I wandered down the path, I remembered how, as a child, I had loved exploring the words around my grandpa’s cabin in central Michigan. I spent hours there, wading in the creek, balancing on logs, and collecting colored stones, wildflowers, and tiny frogs, treasures of the woods. As I recalled those memories, I felt God encouraging me to explore like a child again.

So I rambled down towards the stream, where I found a pile of shoes discarded along the banks. I could hear children’s voices and laughter from around the bend. Remembering the Lord’s encouragement to explore like a child, I shed my own sandals and waded into the stream. I followed it until I found the cluster of Boiler Room children, feet submerged in the water as they scooped up tiny frogs. There were hundreds of these frogs along the stream. They hopped into the leaves and jumped into the stream every time we took a step, the patter of dozens of tiny bodies launching and landing sounding like raindrops. I marveled with the children at the frogs’ tiny webbed feet, the mottled brown and green of their backs, and the kicking motion they made as they swam away through the water.

It was while we waded through the stream, collecting frogs, that we saw them: mushrooms. Not just any mushrooms, though. Morel mushrooms. We spotted just a few at first, their spongy tops jutting out from the bank of the stream by an old dead tree.

I pointed them out to the children and one exclaimed, “Those are the ones my dad likes!”

When we went closer, scrambling up the muddy bank to reach them, I saw that there were more than just a few. I could see dozens of them scattered around the tree, peeping out from under leaves and barely hidden behind logs.

We picked a few to bring back with us, carrying them like fragile trophies as we waded back down the stream. As we splashed back through the water, the Lord began to speak to me about how this is the way we treasure hunt with Him, when we become like children. We cast aside our shoes and our grown-up agendas to simply explore, delighting in even the simple things: the slippery brush of moss under our feet, the flutter of frogs’ feet on our hands, a crayfish scuttling through the water. In the midst of this, we find treasure.

Later that afternoon, I returned with a friend to collect more of the mushrooms. We filled a produce box and had still only gathered about half of them. The following day, a group of us returned again and collected the rest, filling more bags and boxes to carry back home. I felt like this treasure, though a personal gift from the Lord, was meant to be shared, so I set aside a few for Derek and I and invited people to come take what they wanted of the rest.

When we came home Sunday afternoon, I cleaned my mushrooms and soaked them in salt water for a few hours, then sautéed them in butter with asparagus and tortellini. They were incredible, so tender and full of flavor. Delicious.

Naptime Battles

Working with young children has some unique challenges. These days I work with children from nine months to two years old, depending on the day. Much of my day consists of interpreting and responding to their subtle needs: a fresh diaper, a drink of milk, a snack, a nap, or simply being held. A video we watched in one of my classes a couple weeks ago stated that infants and toddlers are one of the most challenging age groups to work with because they require sensitivity to these subtle cues that tell you what they need. That sounds about right.

Naptime has been particularly challenging. In the beginning, it was an all-out battleground. I came in every day, wondering who would win and hoping I could get at least one child to sleep that afternoon. I spent hours trying to get them to sleep and dreaded the moment when their parents came and I would have to share, “They lay down for a little while today but didn’t actually sleep….”.

Now that I have been there about a month and a half, I have become a little more adept at the naptime routines. I am beginning to recognize when each child is getting sleepy and I have learned how to set up an environment more conducive to sleep (I close the curtains, turn on the fan, and start some soft music). And I am learning what it takes to put each individual child to sleep (some require lullabies and back-patting; others need to be rocked for a while; and a very few would rather be left alone to put themselves to sleep) and who is more likely to go to sleep first.

Even so, these young kids fight sleep every day. It is kind of funny to watch, really. They walk around the room, rubbing their drooping eyes and crying at the drop of a hat (or, more likely, the drop of a toy). They are so obviously tired. But when I lay them down on their cots or gather them in my lap to rock, they immediately pop back up, scrambling to find a toy, a cup, another teacher, anything to try to distract me from the naptime routine. The older ones look up at me with eyes half closed and ask hopefully, “Up? All done?” I have learned to persist in laying them back down over and over, singing verse after verse of soft, rhythmic songs, until they finally succumb to sleep.

It is pretty ridiculous that they fight so hard against the rest that they so desperately need.

Actually, when I reflect on it, I am pretty sure I do the exact same thing.

How many morning have I sat down to spend some quiet time with the Lord, only to look around the house for any chores that need doing, checklists I could make, homework to start, even a book to read, anything but simply resting with Him, anything but what I really need? Thankfully God is a good caregiver who pulls me close, despite my struggle against Him, and persists in drawing me back to His heart over and over until I finally relax into His invitation to be with Him.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He refreshes my soul.” – Psalm 23:2-3

The Brutal Reality About Children?

Today a friend posted a link to this article on facebook and I couldn’t pass it by without commenting. The article, titled “All Joy and No Fun; Why Parents Hate Parenting”, cites research claiming that kids make parents depressed, anxious, stressed, and generally unhappy. It suggests that the source of the problem may lie in a change in parenting techniques from previous generations or an unrealistic expectations of parenting. At one point it suggests that perhaps a stronger welfare system, which extended paid maternity leave, state-subsidized childcare, and free education and healthcare, might make parents happier and less stressed (“We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.” – p. 4). It ends by admitting that perhaps the problem is a faulty definition of happiness, that perhaps the sense of purpose that can come from raising children is more important than moment-to-moment happiness, which edges towards a hopeful view, but all in all the article seemed to present parenthood as a trap of drudgery that sucks the happiness out of life and “shrinks your outer world to the size of a teacup” (p. 4).

I had so much trouble reading through the article (six pages of depressing statistics and interviews with unhappy parents, not to mention the seventeen – and counting – pages of comments from readers, including statements like “The world is overpopulated as it is” and “Get a nanny and enjoy your life!”) I almost didn’t make it to the tentatively positive second-to-last paragraph suggesting that “The very things that in the moment dampen our moods can later be sources of intense gratification, nostalgia, delight” (p. 6).

I cringed as I read terms like “economically worthless” and “economic assets” applied to children and  phrases like “diminishing returns” and “purchasing power to buy more child care” tossed into a discussion of parenting. How can we talk about the rewards of children and family in economic terms like that? It made me both sad and frustrated.

And then the article delved into how “couples’ overall marital satisfaction went down if they had kids” (p. 3), “with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction” (p. 1). It boldly states, “Healthy relationships definitely make people happier. But children adversely affect relationships.” (p. 4). It cites a study that documented disagreements in 100 long-married couples that showed that “nearly 40 percent of them were about their kids.” The article went on to interview a father of two, who shared the strain his children put on his marriage and how neglected he felt. Parenting meant saying goodbye to “an old way of life, one with more freewheeling rhythms and richer opportunities for romance.” He admits that one of the reasons he loves being with his wife is that he loves the family they have, but he says ““There’s nothing sexy or intimate between us, based on the old model” (p. 4-5). ““This is the brutal reality about children,” the article concludes, “they’re such powerful stressors that small perforations in relationships can turn into deep fault lines” (p. 5).

As I read all this, all I can think is: it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way. And kids are not the problem.

I know that there are so many layers to the issues here and I don’t mean to be simplistic, but perhaps part of the problem is our consumer culture. We tend to focus on what we can get out of any given thing, experience, or even person. If you’re not satisfied with what you got out of a deal, you’re encouraged to switch to a competitor (I’m sure we’ve all seen advertisements along the lines of: “Unhappy with your current  _____? Well, here at _____ we promised to provide you with more _____ and better _____” and so on).

If someone approaches parenting with this what-do-I-get-out-of-it consumer attitude, they will doubtless end up unhappy. Can you imagine? “What can I get out of parenting? Sleepless nights, stinky diapers, higher grocery bills, less freedom….um, no thanks…maybe I’ll look into the no-kids deal….” Even (perhaps especially) if a person looks to their kids to fill their need for happiness and fulfillment, they’ll end up disillusioned and, ultimately, unhappy.

The same can be true in marriage. If you look to your spouse as the source for all your fulfillment and a remedy for all your needs, you’ll end up disappointed and unhappy (and perhaps divorced and looking for a new-and-improved model?).

A lot of this reminded me of some of the things we discussed in our pre-marriage counseling. We went through the book Intimate Encounters by David and Teresa Ferguson (definitely a worthwhile book). In one chapter it discussed the different stages of marriage and the unique challenges that come with each one. In the stage where a couple starts to have children, it’s vital that the couple feels secure in each others love and in the knowledge that they are still a priority for their spouse. If the couple hasn’t invested time and energy into making their spouse feel emotionally secure (which requires sacrifice and a putting aside of selfishness), adding kids to the family probably will cause tension and insecurity, not because the kids are the problem, but because they can magnify problems that already exist (so in that  sense, the article is right in calling children “powerful stressors” that can turn “small perforations in relationships…into deep fault lines”).

But again, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Fergusons go on to talk about how, if the couple has taken the time to develop a healthy relationship (I’m reminded of what George and Sarah taught us early on about the importance of setting aside a weekly “date night” and guarding that time jealously), the addition of children can actually help them grow in intimacy through a sense of joint accomplishment (not just in the act of producing a child, but in the whole process of raising the child together and forming a family). This is a valuable season of marriage.

I don’t think any amount of research and statistics will convince me that parenting is an unhappy state, merely a necessary evil for the preservation of humanity. I’ve watched friends and family have children and have seen a profound joy in it, even among the stresses and frustrations.

But I’m curious: what do you think about this article and the ideas it presents?