When Your Family is Your Idol

Are we giving our kids any opportunity to actually SEE GOD WORK? In all of our protecting and in all of our keeping them separate what if we are not only protecting them from all the bad but we are preventing them from ever seeing God DO ANYTHING GOOD. They never experience any moments that make them say, “HOLY CRAP. Did you just see that? This God is AMAZING. Heck yes I believe!”

A couple of years ago, I was driving to my parents’ house down a neighborhood street. Charlee and Hattie were in the backseat, whining I’m sure. As we approached my parents’ street, I noticed a dark-skinned elderly woman, probably in her 80’s, walking down the street the same direction as us. In each arm, she toted a grocery bag, presumably from the convenient store a couple of blocks back. She was noticeably exhausted, walking with a limp, pausing ever few feet to catch her breath.

Since we were going pretty slow, I had a good 30 seconds to make a decision. She clearly needed a ride. Buuut I had my 3-year-old and 1-year-old in the car with me. What if she’s dangerous? What if that’s not really milk in her bag but a bomb? What if she’s pretending to walk with a limp but she’s actually a 25-year-old man in disguise? I have kids in the car. My kids’ safety always come first.

And I passed her. You guys. I passed an 80-year-old woman with a limp carrying two bags of groceries. Because of my kids.

Thankfully, God grabbed me by the neck and screamed, “ARE YOU SERIOUS??? Turn around, woman. She is 80 years old. Turn. This. Car. A. Round.”

I ashamedly swung a U and invited her into the passenger seat. She was so grateful and so precious. I took her about a half-mile down the road to a little shack, couldn’t have been much bigger than my living room, the grass taller than my kids. She gushed her thank-yous and crept to the door.

That was the first time I realized I loved my kids more than I loved Jesus. More than I loved bringing his Kingdom down to this Earth.

That was the first (but not last) time I realized my family was my idol.

 

 

Isn’t the gospel the story of a man who lived in the middle of an affluent neighborhood and hung out with mostly Jews? I mean, he was still pretty nice to the Gentiles, but wouldn’t have pursued a deep relationship with them. Isn’t it about how he REALLY loved all the religious people who went to church all the time? They were his faves. And I’m pretty sure he tried not to associate with too many people who would “ruin his witness”?

Or is it about a man who that calls for us to SELL OUT. Sell everything. Leave our family. To LOVE HIM MORE than our mother, father, sister, brother. More than our FAMILIES. To not let anything get in the way of spreading this incredibly GOOD news. To make fishers of all men, not just our own men.

What does it mean to raise children, to grow a family, in light of THAT kind of gospel?  When my instincts scream, “COME HERE LITTLE FAMILY! EVERYONE JUST HUDDLE TOGETHER SO THAT WE CAN BE SAFE FROM ALL THE BAD, SCARY THINGS!!” and I just want to tuck them under my wing and protect them from the whole world.

 

Should I protect them from all the outsiders, the no-gooders, the “least of these”? Should I shield them from the destitute, the addicted, the desperate? Should I just surround them with “Christian” people who listen to “Christian” music and send them to “Christian” camps?

Raising children can be terrifying, not only because this world is scary and the responsibility is HUGE but because at some point in the last couple of decades, Christian parents got the formula wrong. Kids aren’t buying it anymore. Why are young adults leaving the church in droves? What did we miss?

Maybe, they realized they couldn’t believe in something they’ve never seen. And maybe, just maybe, they’ve never seen God. Sure, they’ve seen church. They’ve seen praise bands. They’ve seen Bible Bowls. They’ve seen preachers. But they’ve never actually seen God. How could they? They’ve been tucked under our wing the whole time.

Are we giving our kids any opportunity to actually SEE GOD WORK? In all of our protecting and in all of our keeping them separate what if we are not only protecting them from all the bad but we are preventing them from ever seeing God DO ANYTHING GOOD. They never experience any moments that make them say, “HOLY CRAP. Did you just see that? This God is AMAZING. Heck yes I believe in Him!”

 

On our way to my parents’ house that day, Charlee rattled off question after question about that sweet old woman. Who was she? Why did we pick her up? What was wrong with her? Why didn’t she have a car?

I got to explain to her that this is what people do when they follow Jesus. Sure, we’d read bible stories about it. We had talked about taking care of people who needed help. But that was the first time she got it. That was the first time it meant something to her.

And I’d almost let it pass me by. For her. Because I’d rather her be safe than saved.

My Utopian Marriage

Clark and I, like most engaged couples with responsible parents, were encouraged to go to pre-marital counseling before our big day. I remember taking that test that diagnoses problem areas within the relationship — a way to pinpoint what needs to be discussed during each session. We had one problem area: that we had no problem areas.

Our counselor told us that we had something of a utopian complex, a “rose-colored glasses” syndrome. He feared we might naively skip into our marriage thinking it would be a lot easier than it actually would be. We assured him that we were prepared, that we knew this was going to be very hard, that just because we got along really well right now didn’t mean we always would. We weren’t unrealistic about the difficulty of marriage. We understood. Seriously. We were good.

But it ended up actually being perfect. We never had any problems.

Wait…. no.

“Stop. Just stop. Shut the H up. No you don’t.” Surely that would have been the appropriate thing for the counselor to say to us in that moment. Surely that’s what he wanted to say. Why didn’t he say that?

Because it wouldn’t have mattered. It is impossible to understand marriage before you are married. It is impossible to watch funny YouTube parodies on what couples fight about, to experience the ebbs and flow of your parents’ relationship, to walk through divorce with friends or family members, to see the tears of desperation from an unhappy spouse, and understand. Because no matter what, “We are different.” Or so you think.

I remember when we were dating, thinking, “Oh my gosh. We are SO similar. It’s crazy how alike we are.”

Then we got married, and I was like, “Um. He tricked me.”

Here’s the truth. When you get married, you are entering a battlefield. But you are up against an adversary much greater than your spouse.

Satan hates marriage. If he can destroy a healthy marriage, all the collateral damage is his to watch and smirk at. The effects of a failed marriage are much more far-reaching than just the spouses, or even the children. Its crumbled ruins tumble onto communities and schools and friends and faiths. From its ashes rise the lesser known Fruits of the Serpent: resentment, discontentment, anger, bitterness. It destroys faith in people, faith in marriage, faith in healthy relationships, and most importantly, faith in God.

This marriage deal sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? That’s the kicker. It totally is. All The Hard — the not-getting-your-own-way, the “intense discussions,” the crying, the pit in your stomach — it’s worth it. Because The Hard ends up being the heartbeat of your marriage. It’s the part that restores your faith in changed hearts and transformed people — and I’m not talking about my spouse, I’m talking about me. God turns The Hard into grace, compassion, patience, understanding. He turns “This is impossible” into “I am so thankful for him.”

So it’s hard. Don’t do it if you aren’t determined to make it work from the beginning. Because, did I mention it’s hard? But there are ways to help it function a little better. These are a few principles I wish I’d realized a long time ago.

You have to care more about your spouse (and your spouse’s needs) than you do about yourself (and your own needs). Deny yourself. Deny yourself. Deny yourself. This works really well when you both put this into practice.

Your spouse is not your enemy. So stick it to the real enemy by not giving up on your spouse.

If you keep complaining about what he/she is or is not doing, check yo self before you wreck yo self. Maybe you could change a few habits or do a few nice things first.

He wants respect. She wants to be taken care of. If there’s a vicious cycle of not offering respect because he won’t show affection (or vice versa) … find a way out. Quickly.

Prioritize. Your relationship with your spouse should be numero dos, only behind that with your heavenly father. Not your kids, not your parents, not your friends. Did I mention, not your kids? Your honey always, always comes first.

Pray like your marriage is ending, even before it is. Like, right now.

Marriage counseling is not a last-ditch effort. There is no marriage that is too healthy or too dysfunctional for a third-party. Best thing we ever did.

I hesitate to even post this because it might lead you to believe that I know a lot (or THINK I know a lot) about this topic. Trust me, I know I don’t. I’m still a rookie.

Obviously, we haven’t been married for 50 years, and we probably haven’t hit the biggest bumps in our road.  The only think I know is that the warfare against marriage is unrelenting. BUT, “…BUT thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 15:57-58.

The Materialism of Motherhood (It’s Just Because We Love Them)

I’ve always been a fairly frugal person. I am a sucker for a good deal and avoid paying full price if at all possible. I attribute this to growing up with cheapskates teachers as parents. We weren’t impoverished by any means, but we were certainly eating a lot of ground beef and toast and wearing plenty of hand-me-downs. We were fully aware that new clothes were a twice a year splurge: back-to-school and Christmas. However, my parents were diligent about instilling an attitude of gratefulness and appreciation for all we had, and just as any child in a loving home, I grew up perfectly content. I can still hear my mom’s compulsory reminder, “Well, there are starving children in Africa.” And she’s right. Get over yourself.

But for some reason, when I was pregnant with my firstborn, all my ideals of simplicity and frugality went out the nursery room window. I was sure that my baby needed new everything. Not only new, but top-of-the-line. Because I don’t want my baby to die. And she will surely die if it’s not the most expensive.

Somebody out there is very good at convincing moms of this and very rich because of it.

And then the clothes. Oh the clothes. How fun to be a mother of girls. The pink, the floral, the bows, the dresses, the shoes. It’s just too much. And then you see pictures of babies on Facebook and think, “Oh my! That baby has the cutest boots on. My baby has NO cute winter clothes. None! And the bows! She doesn’t have ANY bows. I MUST go shopping, lest my child be naked, cold and bald.”

Materialism can sneak up on a new mom like a husband after bedtime. We have convinced ourselves that, though we would never be so frivolous in other areas, it’s okay to spend ridiculous amounts on baby swag, for it’s only because we love our children SO much. They deserve the best. They need these things.

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Thankfully, I have a wonderfully sensible husband that calls me out on this bull. When convinced I needed a new $400 stroller, he gently reminded me that my sister, the one that lives literally 20 yards away, has offered to let me borrow one of hers. When I complain about the fact that Charlee has NO toys to play with, he lists every item strewn about the playroom (Not to mention we have a playroom. A playroom.). When confronted with $300 worth of Target gift cards, he reasoned that we should spend that on things we can’t borrow or buy used, such as diapers, wipes, shampoo, etc. (And I might have spent a couple of dollars on clothes…) Sometimes I really hate him. But then I love him so much more.

It’s absurd. The Baby Man has a hold on us moms. Our innate competitiveness (my child WILL be the cutest baby ever) paired with our maternal instincts (my baby WILL be the most loved baby ever) have turned us into raging consumeristic, neurotic, materialistic snobs. And we don’t even realize it.

My family has gotten to know a young African man, Roger, and his family that live here in town. He has four nieces and nephews that live with their parents in a two-bedroom apartment about the size of my bedroom. And those kids are the most grateful, loving, content children I’ve ever been around. Last winter, my sister gave the youngest, 3, one of Ellie’s old coats, and you would have thought she’d given her a lifetime supply of chocolate. The look of joy on that little girl’s face was enough to make your eyes puddle.

On the flip side of that, I was once a teacher. I always told my husband that what was more frustrating than the misbehavior, more than the excessive talking, more than the occasional disrespect, was the sense of entitlement most of the kids seemed to have. When giving prizes or treats, rarely would I hear a thank you, but, more often than not, I would hear some outcry of dissatisfaction (I wanted a BLUE one! I don’t LIKE this kind! I wanted TWO! We don’t get TWO?? That’s not fair.). 

Now, I’m not blaming this behavior on the baby gear. However, I do think that the same “because I love my baby so much” attitude can certainly turn into “because I love my toddler” and then “because I love my child.” And then, before we know it, we are dumbfounded, mystified, perplexed as to why our children don’t appreciate what they have.

What do we eventually want our children to be like? As kids? As teens? As adults? These are (some of) the attitudes I want to instill in my children:

Thankfulness.

Compassion.

Selflessness.

Sacrificial generosity.

So wouldn’t I want them to see those exemplified in our household? Isn’t that the only way they will learn? It’s not a matter of whether we can afford it. It’s a matter of teaching our children that it’s more important to take care of the needs of others than the wants of one’s self. It’s a matter of showing them that our home is full of love, which is way better than full of things. And that, no matter what, The Lord is our portion. Not our stuff.

“Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU.’ ” – Hebrews 13:5

 

 

Family Pictures: My Personal Hell

“If I had a choice between getting smashed in the face with a hammer or being a child photographer, I’d be smashed in the face with a hammer every time.” – Clark Harrell, following our most recent family photo shoot

The only thing enjoyable about a family photo session is (hopefully) the outcome. Everything else is like sitting in 104 degree heat surrounded by crying babies and cranky grown men. OH WAIT. That’s EXACTLY what it is.

Family picture sessions (and the hours of prep preceding) are what I’d imagine Hell to be like. There’s the toddler, at whom you make 173 funny faces and every animal noise in existence to elicit a smile. Who still won’t. Then there’s the baby, a total crap shoot. Funny faces won’t work (not that it would matter), so you can only pray that you scheduled the shoot for the right time of day. And don’t all husbands love to take family pictures? I’m sure yours is always excited when he hears you scheduled family pictures again and never says things like, “We just took family pictures” (our family looks a little different now) or “How long is it going to take” (not long at all) or “I don’t want to take very many,” (you’ll take as many as it takes to get four smiles) because he knows you’re stressed enough having to get yourself and the two minions perfectly precious AND perfectly perky. And I swear I start getting us all dressed 4-5 hours ahead of time but SOMEHOW I’m ALWAYS running around like a squirrel for at least 15 minutes before shoot-time.

Every time I leave, I say, “There’s no way she got ANY good shots.” And then wish I could just be left alone for the rest of the day.

Charlee’s one-year pics were awesome, in that we found out a few days later that she had an ear infection. You can just imagine how well it went. Hannah Vickers is AMAZING, though. For example, in this picture you’d never know my mouth was slowly filling with salty tears as they streamed down her fussy little face:

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She’s not kissing me. She’s trying to head butt me.

These are also winners:

This last session with Erin Davis was no different. This was the opening scene: We start off by doing some solo shots of Hattie while Clark holds the socially malevolent introverted child. Hattie is awake, but so far cooperative so I tell Clark to leave Charlee with me and run put his clothes on (because it would have been too easy for him to actually come dressed). Of course, AS SOON as Clark runs inside to change clothes, Hattie starts going ballistic. There’s no option to set down Charlee because we decided it was a good idea for her to go barefoot while out in the middle of this sticker-infested pasture. Erin, bless her soul, tries to calm down Hattie, but she won’t have any of it. Feeling terrible, I tell Erin she can hand her to me. Well, sweet big sister doesn’t want me to hold Hattie and makes this clear by crying in my other ear. So, I’m just bouncing both of them, sweating like I’m in the pits of Hell (or am I), makeup dripping down my face until it looks like we’ve all been crying … really looking forward to getting my picture taken. Erin and I just look at each other and  laugh, as if to say, “Whatteryagunnado…”

While it did get better, Charlee, just devil-stared at Erin the entire hour and a half. Every time we asked her to touch, kiss, hug, lay next to, look in the general direction of Hattie, she would say, in the whiniest, most pitiful tone, “Noooooo,” shove her paci in her mouth, and lay her head back down on Clark’s shoulder. This was the saddest part to me, because she ALWAYS wants to lay by Hattie and is so dadgum sweet to her. But NOT TODAY. No ma’am. Not the day it will be professionally documented for eternity.

Think of this as you see these pictures. While they turned out sweet, she was not, in any way, trying to be:

Afterward, I looked at my sister and said, “I feel like I just ran a marathon. That was totally exhausting. I just want to go to sleep.” I mean, has anyone EVER had a session where everyone cooperates and is happy to be there and smiles the whole time and leaves so grateful to have had such a wonderful experience together? If so, don’t tell me. I always leave saying, “This just isn’t worth it.”

But then I get the cd in the mail. And there’s these…

Worth it.

How’d she do it? I praise Erin (and Hannah) for the ability to squeeze out some of the most adorable pictures that capture us exactly as we are: the perfect family. 😉 I swear you would look at these and think it was a smooth, relaxed day of giggles, cool breezes, and glossy smiles as opposed to back sweat, hair frizz, and whines. Erin, thank you for somehow, SOMEHOW, making us look like we have it all together. I know it was really (REALLY) hard work.

Sidenote: as soon as she left, Charlee perked right up and put on a big show for all of Clark’s family. While she was being completely precious, I could have rung her sweet little neck. Where was this ten minutes ago? I’m going to have to hire a photographer to court Charlee the week before taking her pictures.