I am writing this as I sit in a Muskoka chair watching a spectacular sun set over Morrison Lake.  I hear the rhythmic lapping of the water over the rocks and my skin tingles as the breeze makes itself known.  The kids are asleep and all is well with my world.

Or is it?

I find that I can be in these moments and still not really be in them.  You know what I mean?  Like I want to just sink into the calm of it all and breathe deeply but there is something inside me that seems wound up. Like my breathing is constrained by some imaginary force field.

Perhaps, if you have a personality like mine, you can identify.  You too might find sitting still to be an impossibility and God forbid you add silence to that equation.  Still and silent? Can’t do that. Must. Do. Something. (Blogging in this case!)

I think that I actually have to slow down before I can be still.  Sure, I can stop my body but my internal funnel cloud can still be whirling about regardless of my physical submission. My mind has a mind of its own, so to speak.

I don’t think this is healthy.  And so I pause and I pray some breath prayers:

God help me rest in you. 

God help me in the silence. 

God help me listen. 

God help me unwind.

I know that I should have moments like these each day but I feel like I have not had a truly quiet moment in weeks, perhaps months.  So many things shouting and vying for my attention.  Distractions, really.  The enemy of the meditative experience that I desire.

How can I slow my mind down, even a little, even for a moment?  I know I desperately need a break from the noise of life and the noise of my own processing: A resignation in the silence that all is well, a relinquishment of control.

God help me cultivate this peace in my spirit each day.


Mustangs, High Heels and the Like

It seems we like to rent a cottage on a lake every year for summer vacation.  Many would say that rental money is thrown away, but perhaps not in the grand scheme of a vacation.  Certainly, ownership is the North American way.  In Mordecai Richler’s novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the protagonist lives his whole life trying to prove his worth based on the assumption that “a man without land is nobody”.  Why?  Do we really own anything anyway?  As Christians, we acknowledge that all gifts come from the Giver.  Do we think about our spending spiritually?  Like, what would the Creator the Universe spend his Toys’RUs gift certificate on?  That question is rarely on my radar at the mall.

I was chatting with my dad last night, sitting in Muskoka chairs, looking out over Morrison Lake and waxing eloquent about what I would want in a cottage if I owned one.  His striking comment was, “I’d have to go a long way to justify a cottage”. (This from a man who just bought a Mustang convertible, but I digress.) But do I need to own a cottage?  Couldn’t I just rent every year and be thankful?  Arguably, even the rental money could be used for better purposes.  I really have trouble sorting out the complexities of cash flow.  Do we actually do anything differently as Christians, other than tithe? I doubt most Christians even do that.

Our conversation turned to the abundance in North America and the glaring contrast between poverty and affluence.  I was reminded (as I often am) of Richard Foster’s book The Freedom of Simplicity in which he suggests that we, as Christians, have the choice to live simply so that others may simply live.

What does financial simplicity actually look like, though? I often wonder how to process the use of money in our culture.  I know we justify so many things that we don’t need and (if you want to get technical about it) those dollars could provide food for starving people –  the cost of a Mustang could cover a lot of loaves and fishes.

Somehow, I don’t think it is a simple as that, though.  I think we all need to wrestle with our riches.  That’s right,  if you ate today, you are rich by global standards and you will  have to give an account for how you spend all of your resources, including your money. For me, that’s a sobering thought.

I remember Pastor Carey Nieuwhof sharing one approach to purchases which was to consider how they could be used for Kingdom purposes: could those extra spots in the vehicle allow you to provide needed rides?  Could an extra bedroom in your house allow you to foster or adopt?  Could your cottage be used to provide spiritual retreat to friends or family in need of rest? Essentially, you are asking are your purchases selfishly motivated?  Most of mine are.  Even those little ones that are seemingly harmless.

We buy things for our enjoyment.  I don’t think that is entirely wrong, but how do we reconcile our spending with our faith?  There are SO many ways we spend on really pointless things.  (As an aside, I used to work with a teacher in Kingston that often expressed his concern for a world that paid good money for water and dirt!)

Hypothetically speaking, if I were to buy a cottage for my family, would I regret that expenditure at the end of my life in light of world poverty?  Could that money have been put to better use?  Arguably, yes.  But so could the money I spent on shoes:  many people don’t have even one pair and I have…well, several.  Any purchase could be considered in light of its eternal value and cause us to be convicted about priorities. Store up treasures in heaven and all that.

A long time ago, our pastor asked each family to consider their mission as a family.  After tossing some ideas around the dinner table, we decided that our mission was summed up in one word:  share. I think there is something to the idea that we hold all that we have been given loosely, actively seeking ways to meet needs with our abundance.  We are working on that principle of generosity in our family with more than just our money and possessions.  We realize that we are to share our gifts and our compassion and our wisdom, too. But, even with those efforts, I feel like I have a lot to learn.

What principles do you apply when it comes to spending in your family? How do you deal with these tough questions from a spiritual perspective?

Marathon Days

I had one of those parenting days where things seemed to be caught in a negative vortex that was spiraling out of control. Staying home all day with four kids at this stage of life, I should probably assume that any day has the potential for disaster! Every parent knows how the demands and pressures of caring for even one kid can totally drain you physically and emotionally. (Perhaps that is why our fourth child, Fraser, has the nickname, “Frazzle”!)  Also, if you are a parent, you know about the phenomenon that occurs as children feed off your emotions:  bad day for mom breeds bad day for kids and the vicious cycle continues.

From getting slapped in the face by my 4-year-old to playing judge and jury for each victim of sibling rivalry to burning my banana muffins to my husband texting to say he was going to be late (and he was supposed to BBQ for dinner!), the day just seemed to go from hard to harder.   And the common factor in the day seemed to be the propensity for multiple kids (and mom) to melt down simultaneously in a cacophony of whining, screaming and crying (or some combination thereof) with very little reprieve in between tantrums.  (Many of you moms are nodding your heads right now in a “been there, done that” solidarity, right?).

It was a marathon today that lasted at least 10 hours and truly, who wants to run that long? Isn’t the average marathon time like, 41/2 hours?  I must confess, I am not proud of my performance today.  Certainly not a personal best. But I am hoping that some reflection will help me to prepare for the next big race.  Lord knows, it could be this afternoon!

After reflecting (read: complaining, whining, venting, walking, and praying),  I have come to some conclusions about how I might have navigated the ups and downs of the terrain today with more grace and stamina.  Thought I might write it down to remind me to learn from my mistakes.

A 12-Step Survival Guide for Marathon Days:

  1. Breathe.  Do you ever notice how shallow your breathing gets when stress and anxiety build?  It’s staggering, really, that we could practically forget to breathe.  We all know the take-a-deep-breath-and-count-to-ten wisdom.  Well, there is something to that, cliché or not.  A simple pause to breathe deeply before reacting to the chaos swirling about can go a long way to prevent unnecessary casualties.
  2. Pray.  I was listening to Jars of Clay’s, Dan Haseltine, croon “I need thee every hour” as I drove this morning and I was reminded that I need to demonstrate my dependence on God through unceasing prayer as I go about my day.  If you want to tie step one and two together, try breath prayer.  My current favourite mantra:  Lord, give me strength.
  3. Solicit help.  There is no shame in realizing your own limitations.  Sometimes a call to a friend that will simply listen and validate your experience goes a long way.  Maybe you can farm a kid or two off to a neighbour for a much-needed breather.  Text or call someone who could provide an objective perspective on the day and/or a new parenting approach to try.
  4.  Diffuse the situation.   I texted my husband mid-day to solicit some needed support and encouragement and he advised me to counter all the whining with cuddles.  So, out of desperation, I tried “snuggle therapy”: I literally set a timer and forced my kids to cuddle me (and each other) for no less than five full minutes.  It definitely did not ultimately prevent further breakdowns but it diffused the anger in the moment and helped to deal with the crisis in a loving way for all of us.  Plus, there will come a time when my boys will not want to snuggle with their mom so I’m milking it for all it’s worth at this stage!
  5. Change the scenery.  I did not do this today, but I sincerely think getting out for a walk or a drive would have been a welcome distraction in the midst of the chaos.  Just to pick up and leave without a plan is difficult for me.  I am the kind of person that plans my spontaneity.  However, there is some freedom in knowing that you can retreat to nature or a friend’s house or an ice cream shop to mix things up for everyone.
  6. Let go of my agenda. I am a list maker but I have terribly unrealistic to-do lists.  I know I need to adjust my expectations for any given day and be realistic about what I can actually accomplish in one day.  Part of my stress comes from the imposition of this agenda on myself and my kids and I need to be flexible and more able to respond to the day as it comes, letting tasks go as often as necessary.
  7. Count my blessings. Gratitude fixes many attitudes, mine especially.  I should have asked the kids at lunch what I did at dinner:  help me to remember what I am thankful for.  Philippians 4:8 reminds mothers that, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  Today I was thankful for iPhone pictures,  snuggle therapy, the fact that I labelled and developed a storage system  in the boys’ room (yes, that makes an organization freak like me quite happy), and the phone conversations I had with two good friends,
  8. Be consistent.  Today I committed the unpardonable sin as a parent:  I threatened a consequence with no real intention of following through.  The older kids had planned to go to the local library for a movie in the afternoon and I told them that they would not be able to go if they did not shape up;  but, the truth is, I needed them to go!  Empty threats are no good.  I should have said nothing or found another way to deal with the situation that would actually work.   (A side thought:  It seems that my kids are all struggling with tone lately, whether it is whining or screaming or sassing, so I am thinking of this new technique:  temporarily steal the buzzer from our Taboo board game and place it in the centre of the dining room table for easy access.  Every time a tone emerges I will instantaneously “buzz” that kid to remind them that the tone is in fact taboo!  Too extreme?)
  9. Apologize and forgive.  We have a rule in our home that when there is some sort of offence perpetrated by one party to another it must be “made right” before anything else can happen.  This consists of apologizing verbally to the victim (specifically, naming and owning the offense) and then receiving forgiveness from the victim (asking them not to do it again). So, on this type of day,  I spent a significant amount of time asking my kids to take responsibility for their poor behaviour so I couldn’t very well gloss over my inappropriate tone and remarks and expect to have any integrity left.  I had to humble myself and model this process of reconciliation and had to ask for forgiveness from the kids for the specific things that I had done that were angry and unkind.
  10. Tell myself the truth. Sometimes I can be so caught up in processing a day’s events from the wrong perspective entirely that I fail to recognize the lies in my self talk.  I can believe all sorts of things in a frenzied moment that have nothing to do with reality or logic and everything to do with emotion.  Jesus reminds us of the freedom that is found in knowing the truth (John 8:32).  Instead of getting caught up in the guilty suspicion that I am a bad mother and that I have scarred my kids for life, I should tell myself that there is a bigger picture that a sovereign God has under control.  That truth frees me to relinquish control and to renew my dependence on Him.
  11. Embrace a clean slate.  I always loved the advice that Miss Shirley gives to Anne (of Green Gables):  “tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it”.  If you know anything about this fictional character, she had a penchant for getting into mischief and often needed second chances.  That’s what I need too, sometimes, maybe even as much as Anne.  It is just one day, after all, and “Mama said there would be days like this”.  I need to cut myself some slack as a mom and surrender to the promise that God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:19-26).
  12. Don’t move to Australia!  A temporary escape is one thing, but a total overhaul is too much.  In Bill Murray’s classic comedy movie, What About Bob?, the main character takes a “vacation from his problems”.  I think that is sound psychological advice.  If I can give myself permission to retreat from my problems, even for 10 minutes, I might be able to go back and face them with a new perspective.  Although they will not magically disappear as a result of my mini mind break, I might be able to frame the day more reasonably.  And, according to Judith Viorst’s book, everybody has bad days, “even in Australia”!