To the Weary Momma

*This was written to one of my dear friends. I was going to write this just to her, but the truths are needed for most parents who are in the trenches, so I made some details more generic for the sake of the blog and sharing with all of you.

My sweet, weary friend,

You opened up yesterday about how you’ve been feeling like you’re failing as a wife, failing as a mother, and failing as a friend since your family changed a few months ago. I woke up this morning feeling the weight of your words, crying out to Jesus for you, and I hope to build you up with this letter.

Love feels like failure. Real love isn’t the yummy feelings we have toward our husbands, though that can certainly be a side effect. Real love gives up the things we once loved for the sake of others. We work our whole lives toward something we dreamed would bring us joy. It might be a brochure-worthy family who is peaceful, happy, and together. It might be a job. It might be a creative endeavor. It might be a financial status. It might be respect from others. Then an opportunity to love comes along, and the only way to do it well is to give up our dreams. It feels like a part of us has to die, and the grief is fierce.

It must have felt that way 2,000 years ago, too. Jesus wanted to be with his Daddy. But for the sake of love for his father and his people, he became the biggest failure ever in the eyes of those around him. That fool died for the ones who hated him. He had a good thing going for him, too, with fame and followers. And he gave it all up for love. All the people watching laughed or shook their heads in disappointment or mocked him. They thought he’d actually be something in this life, but instead he died the most humiliating death of all, just a nobody.

But that was only the earthly perspective. In heaven there was a much different scene taking place. They knew what that death meant. They knew it meant victory, not failure. And there was a party as the serpent got his head crushed. His “failure” was the very thing that exalted him to the highest place, and it made failure impossible for you.

You have a picture in your head of love. It’s been shaped by society, articles, magazines, things your friends say. Probably even things I say. But our definition of love is so small. God wants much more for us.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)

I watch you almost every day, and you’re my hero. I see how hard everything is, and I see you continue to fight the fight. I see you take time out for every kid and adult around you, often overwhelmed but always dropping what you’re doing for their sake, especially when you don’t feel like it. I see you pour into your family, doing the mundane day after day. I hear the hours of conversations you have about your children, trying to make the most faithful decisions for them. I see how passionate you are for justice for your friends, and how you can’t just sit and do nothing. I see how weary you are. And it’s pretty much the best view I have.

The most beautiful sunset doesn’t even compare.

But you don’t see yourself that way. You focus on the details that show you in the worst light while the deceiver whispers in your ear, distorting and inflating those details. You’re tempted to see the moments instead of the full picture. You get weighed down with how hard everything is, and you see all that as failure.

You forget that when you sin, when you get selfish, when you choose the wrong thing, when everything comes crashing down, that’s exactly where God meets you. He wants you where you can’t rely on your own strength. He wants you to be reminded you can’t fail, not because you’ve been a good wife, mom, and friend, but because of the One who lives in you. You’re now a success no matter what because he himself is your new identity, and his earthly “failures” are eternal glory.

Even as you read this, I’m sure you’re still not seeing yourself rightly. None of us ever do. We’re at war with the spiritual forces of evil, and it’s hard to block all his flaming arrows. As we stand side by side in this battle, this letter is my attempt to help pick you up to get you safely behind your shield again, as you have done for me countless times. Praise God we don’t fight this battle alone!

Your sacrifice here on this earth, your mundane tasks, the decisions you have to constantly make, the dreams you’ve given up–they all point me, your children, your husband, your friends, your neighbors, your church, the people at the grocery store, to the Savior. It feels so small, so insignificant, so pointless. But it shines God’s glory far brighter than any humanly thing we could do. It makes you the most successful wife, mom, and friend in the world. A success based on your weakness but his strength. And your kids get front row tickets to it every day. How blessed they are!!!

I long for the final day with you. You’ll enter the presence of Jesus to hear him say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” And you’ll hear cheering from the rest of us as we agree and laugh in joy. And your family will be in the front cheering loudest of all.

Come, weary saints, though tired and weak
Your strength will return by His quiet streams

Come, wandering souls, and find your home
He offers the rest that you yearn to know

Come, guilty ones weighed down with sin
The freedom you long for is found in Him

Come, hopeless hearts, do not despair

For ten thousand joys await you there

Hear Him calling your name
See the depths of His love
In the wounds of His grace
Hide away in the love of Jesus


Why We Play Family Games Together

I really thought in writing this post, I’d go through a theology of laughter and joy, showing how God gave us humor and enjoyment as a foretaste of the glorious enjoyment we’ll possess forever in eternity. Then I’d turn that theology toward our proclivity to play as the reasoning for why we play games together as a family.

But we really just play games because it’s fun. And we really like to have fun. I can work my way backwards into it, retconning a relatively convincing answer. But the truth is that we have shelves of games and kids who love games because…we think it’s really fun.

So there’s that.

BUT…I have found that there are a great number of “side effects” that come from playing games, many of which is highly helpful as parents and disciplers of our kids. Aside from the more obvious parts of games like learning strategy or good teamwork (which truly are great skills to learn), there are some less tangible benefits that we get from playing games. Here are some of them:

It’s a great tool for encouragement. Games are places to see players do both some pretty awesome stuff and some pretty awful stuff (think Pictionary here, people). Every time someone does something cool or impressive—whether teammate or competitor—it’s a great opportunity to verbally encourage. And every time someone bombs or does something dumb, it’s a great chance to build them up and help them not get discouraged.

It’s a great tool to teach a Law that stands outside any of us. Despite our fluffy age of “following your heart”, games don’t allow for that. There are rules. Everyone has to follow them. It’s just a thing. Unless you’re one of those weird families that just make up your own “house rules” to everything (i.e. you just stink at following rules), the rules are an outside authority we are bound to obey in order to play the game. And it’s highly instructive to see which ones of my kids feel the need to buck against those rules (the prodigal rebels) and which ones are Nazis about following the rules (the legalists).

We get to help the sore loser. Sore losers abound in our family. I have a great many who resort to anger and/or pouting when they don’t win or things just don’t go the way they’d hoped. Losing is a means of embracing humility and rejoicing with those who rejoice. Besides, there are plenty of times in life when others around us will feel like they have “winning” lives while ours feel like loser lives. Sore losers come out in a number of ways.

We get to help the jerk winner. As much as I have sore losers, I also have punk winners. You know what I’m talking about: they brag and gloat and self-congratulate. This is an opportunity to remind the winners to mourn with those who mourn, seeing the sadness of losing in their brothers and sisters—and having compassion for them. Furthermore, it’s an opportunity to learn humility in the face of success—especially since in all games, there is some element of chance (the right roll of the dice, the right card drawn, an opponent’s mistake) that led to victory. Thus, a win is never truly “I did this!”

In disputes, we get to put to practice following Jesus in loving others more than ourselves. This is a biggie. It’s really easy in games to always work an angle, trying to get things our way or bend the rules our way or simple shout out in rage, “That’s not fair!!” But in playing games, there is always room to put others first and be willing to be defrauded for the sake of the gospel. So, in a moment of dispute like two players shouting the answer at the same time, having the grace and love to offer the point to the other player simply because the first will be last and the last will be first.

It’s a chance to fail in front of others, but it doesn’t matter. A loss hurts. There are frequently tears shed during or at the end of a game. Whether that’s because of poor performance or just poor “luck”, it hurts to lose. This is different from the sore loser, because this isn’t pouting but just plain old sadness because losing sucks. But in this, we get to find a place to lose that has no moral, physical, or financial effect. One of the coolest things about a game is that you can lose and then immediately say, “Let’s play again!” Losing in real life is so much harder, but the skill to mentally say “Let’s play again!” after a loss is so valuable.

It’s a chance to remind everyone that in order for there to be a winner, there has to be a lot of losers. When I’ve interviewed for jobs in the past, it has struck me that if ten of us applied for a single position, only one of us will get it and the other nine will be left with disappointment. Playing the odds, that means most of us spend our time as losers, not winners. And that’s true all over the place. Despite the inner desire we all have to always be winners, the fact is that we’re usually not. This is simply a fact of all games, but also a fact of life, too—one that I’m still trying to learn.

They get to see Mom and Dad mess up, too. Maybe I’m the only one here, but games sometimes bring out the worst in me, too. Sometimes I’m petty or will find a way to play the system or I’ll be grumpy when my time is getting stomped. In games, the kids get to see me in a tense and stressful situation—and they get to see me screw it up, too. So hopefully they also get to see me repent, confessing my sins freely. And on that note…

Games afford MANY opportunities to ask for and grant forgiveness. Games are like a cesspool for sinning against each other—yelling, cheating, pouting, accusing, taunting, insulting, mocking, etc., etc., etc. There are TONS of opportunities in games to ask forgiveness and confess sins for the stupid, sinful things we do. And that also means that there is lots of room for extending forgiveness and finding reconciliation, too.

We get to remember that it’s just a game. While I’ve just offered all of these real-life ways that games can help us disciple and train our kids, the fact is that they’re just games. And there are moments where trying to get that win becomes more important than anything else—more important than loving one another, more important than doing what’s right, more important than serving King Jesus. In those moments, we get to offer perspective and remind our kids that it really is just a game and doesn’t really matter worth anything. And the ability to see something inconsequential become our idol-of-the-moment—and then just be able to say, “It’s just a ____” is something I still wish I could learn to do.

These are a just a few of the side benefits that I’ve seen come out as we play games together as a family. What about you? How have you been able to train or disciple your kids through games?

Realizing You’re a Bad Parent–A Rite of Passage

I’m a good parent. I know this because I’m told it’s true most days of the week. Do you want to know why people say this? Because I have ten children. That’s it. It somehow automatically makes me the bomb. I’m patient, organized, good with kids, put together, and joyful. That’s what they say, so it must be true.

Except it’s not. When we first got married, Bill didn’t want children and I was just fine to not have any. I have red in my hair and the quick temper to go along with it, so patience has only ever been something I’ve prayed for (insert God’s humor in the way he’s answering that one!). I’m a really great planner but really terrible at follow-through. I prefer teenagers over young children (though give me a newborn any day!!); my house is a mess most of the day with me in sweats, no make-up, and 2-or-3-day-old hair; and I’m joyful as long as people outside my family are around. I’m an expert at looking good on the surface.

But that’s not all. I try to control my children most of the time because I don’t trust God to change hearts. I mean to instruct my children but end up tearing their little hearts down. I choose my phone over time with my kids almost every day. The TV becomes reprieve just so I don’t have to listen to them anymore. I yell. I expect my kids to revolve around me. I fail to pray for them.

And this is exactly where I want to be.

Because this is when real parenting begins. The parenting of a Father who comes along to say, “Yeah, you royally screwed up again. My son’s blood covers that, too.” A Father who never lets me believe for long that I’m a good mom so he can show off how good of a Dad he is. A Father who keeps reminding me how much I still need to crawl in my Daddy’s lap, crying out to him to take over and save me from myself. A Dad who loves my children so so much more than I ever could. A Dad who is full of mercy and forgiveness, yet still spanks my butt when I fail so I’m led back to his goodness, all the while never leaving me in spite of my rebellion. A Dad who reminds me I can never do anything to keep my children from him, and I can never do anything to bring them to him, either, because they are and always have been in his hands, not mine. A Dad who continues to show Himself in much the same ways to my children regardless of their mom’s faith.

A Dad who changes me because he’s in me. When my faith is in anything I’m doing instead of this Spirit, I believe I’m a good mom. And I’m wrong. When my faith is in the perfect Dad and what he’s doing, I see how impossible it is for me to be a good mom no matter how hard I try, and that’s when the transformation starts. I actually start to be a good mom because the good Dad is seen instead.

Why Do Mosquitoes Buzz In People’s Ears?

After our newest children moved in with us last summer, I went through what I call a crisis of faith. It’s happened after every birth and adoption so far. The stress breaks my body down, I’m fatigued, and I give in to every temptation and hopeless thought Satan throws my way. God always feels silent.

At the height of this desperate time, I was hiking and praying. It’s always my goal to pray during these hikes, but shiny objects pull me from my Daddy constantly. I prefer to look at the shadows of him instead of just enjoying the real thing. This time was no different, and I found myself, as usual, asking God to draw me to him in prayer without being distracted.

A mosquito started buzzing in my ear. Because of the doubts I was feeling at the time, I foolishly decided to test God. Even though I believed in my heart that Jesus was king, that he’d paid for others’ sins, that I wanted him desperately, I just couldn’t believe that I belonged to God. This is the main lie I believe in those dark times. So to try to get God to prove to me that I was his, I prayed something like, “If I’m yours, please make this mosquito stop buzzing in my ear.” As soon as I prayed, the mosquito buzzed again.

This happened multiple times during the walk. Each time the mosquito buzzed, I prayed God would stop the mosquito. And a few seconds after I prayed, buzzing again. After an hour or so of this, I was sobbing and yelling at God: “You can raise people from the dead! This mosquito is nothing hard for you. Why won’t you just do this one thing???” In my despairing heart, this predictably led to saying, “OK, I’m not yours. Just help me not be angry and bitter about it but instead to see how much I deserve this.”

The whole experience crushed me. It was dumb, but that was all it took. The hopelessness ended a few days later when several friends were over. One dear sister noticed I’d disappeared. She went hunting for me upstairs and found me in my closed closet curled in a ball on the floor, sobbing. This friend didn’t ask questions but simply lowered herself to me and let me wail on her shoulder for more than 30 minutes, praying out loud for me the whole time.

(This doesn’t actually have a ton to do with the rest of the story, but man, it was one of the best ways I’ve ever been loved, and I simply wanted to share.)

That day, some of the fog lifted and I was able to see things more rightly. With friends speaking truth to me, my hope in Jesus instead of in my works or even in the strength of my faith was restored.

A couple of months later, I was hiking again and praying. Once more, I wanted to pray the whole time but my mind was wandering. So again I simply prayed that God would help me continue talking to him instead of thinking of other things. Almost immediately, a mosquito buzzed in my ear. My heart was lighter this time, so I started laughing. This time I prayed: “God, I know what happened last time, and I trust you have a reason. But I’m still going to ask you to stop this stinkin’ mosquito. If you choose not to again, help me to trust you.” Again, the mosquito buzzed.

A few minutes later, finding myself distracted, the buzzing started again. I prayed, “God I know I don’t need to know, but will you please show me why you aren’t answering this prayer?” Almost immediately, he revealed it to me: What was I always asking God for when I was hiking? I was asking him to keep me praying and to keep me from distractions. What did I do every time the stupid mosquito buzzed in my ear?

I prayed.

When I saw this, I laughed, like a crazy lady laugh, and I may have started whooping in the middle of a state forest, not really concerned who heard me or not. Because now I knew why mosquitoes buzzed in people’s ears.

At least, I knew why they buzzed in mine.

How many more mosquitoes do I have in my life that I see as nuisances which are really just God drawing me closer to him?


Transitioning to Tween Years

If there’s one topic that’s almost absent in the self-help genre of books, it would be the topic of raising tweens. This title was coined several years ago to describe the years right before our kids become teenagers. It’s a confusing age for kids. Their bodies are changing in weird ways, and they flip back and forth constantly between wanting to act like a young child and wanting to act like an adult. They don’t really fit anywhere, often feeling like outcasts because of it. And we parents sit on the sidelines all like, “What? The? CRAP???”

And there are basically no good articles or books to help us. Woohoo.

So, I’m about to write an article that isn’t going to be all that helpful either. You’re welcome.

But from much trial and error and a plethora of tweens in the house, here’s the one thing we’re learning the most: These years as parents are mainly about transitioning from hands-on to overseer.

A couple of years ago, Liam made the comment that it must be really hard for me to raise eight kids. I told him that physically, it was actually much harder when I had four kids. At that time, none of my kids were even school aged. It was me who had to prep all food, do all cleaning and laundry, dress my kids, strap them in car seats, carry them to and fro, teach them everything new, and make all decisions, usually with a baby on my boob. Now, I only prepare one meal a day (with a cooking helper I might add), do minimal cleaning, only fold my own laundry along with Bill’s, shop for kids clothes that my children dress themselves in, walk myself to the van where all kids are strapped in and ready to go (many times with lunch packed that I had nothing to do with), listen to them tell me about what they’re learning from reading on their own, and often get creative ideas from my kids to help me make decisions. And, well, there’s still a man who occasionally sucks on my boob, but never while those other things are going on… [oh to be a fly on the wall so I can see my poor, mortified mother’s face as she’s reading this].

The little years are the years your hands are literally full all the time! You never stop doing, and it’s physically exhausting. For us, this has changed immensely. Even with the amount of children I have, I don’t need to be nearly as active as I once was because my kids share so much of the load.

However, I’m not less exhausted.

My exhaustion has simply transitioned from a physical (though I’m still plenty active here, too, as a mom!) to a mental exhaustion.

These are the years my kids want time, time, and more time with me. They want to talk about everything from the newest Super Mario game (it’s Odyssey, if you didn’t know–I do now!) to feeling left out with friends in the neighborhood. They get extremely vulnerable late in the evening, ready to spill everything. Their slap-happy gets more ridiculous and funnier all the time. They tell me that I’m their best friend.

I’m loving it!! And it’s so incredibly hard because I would almost rather give my energy to physical work than that much emotional work. But the times I give myself up to listen, really listen, and simply talk as friends to my tweens have truly been some of the most blessed moments of my life.

Here are a few ways Bill and I have changed our parenting focus with this age:

  • Instead of us doing most of the physical work around the house, we watch over the kids work, giving them instruction and letting them learn by trial and error. We also inspect what we’ve expected. If you’re still doing most of the work here and your child is at least ten, I can almost promise you they’re able to do almost all the work you do.
  • I push myself to stay awake later at night. Even in college, I cried if I had to stay out after ten. I figure since I’ve acted like an old person for so long, it means I’ll be the best grandma ever.
  • Bill and I really try to carve out time for each other and give the kids most of the rest. The two of us really really love talking to each other, so we find every excuse under the sun to do so. Family walks–let’s hold hands and talk. Working in the kitchen–let’s talk. Family games–time to talk to Bill. Great quality in a relationship, not so great if it means the kids rarely get opportunities to talk to you because of it. We have time set aside as a couple every day and other times throughout the week, month, and year. And we push ourselves to be patient in the other times to wait for each other (cause true love waits–ba dum bum) so we can be free for the kids to talk our ears off.
  • We have weekly time set aside just for our tweens. We call it Dude/Chick Time. After everyone else is in bed, we split into guys and girls to talk about tons of things relevant to their lives.
  • As they enter this season, we take them on an individual weekend trip to talk to them about the changes that are coming up for them, how our bodies work, and sex. Every year after that, each of these kids get a day trip with one of us for some individual time and to continue these conversations.

We’d love to hear other ways you guys pour into your tweens. And we’d love your list of resources, too. Though we haven’t had great success finding quality ones we love, we still have hope they exist.

Discipling Our Kids as Individuals

A few folks have raised a question from Courtney’s last post about how we do life together as a family: how do we disciple our kids individually and how do we ensure that get enough individual attention from us? There are a few different ways I want to approach this because I think there’s a lot of clutter and assumptions we need to work through before really getting to the meat of that question. I hope you’ll show me a little patience as I work through that before getting to the answer I think most would expect.

1. How much is enough?

In meeting with people over the years for discipleship and the such, a question I frequently ask is “how often do you read your Bible or pray?” and I consistently get an answer along the lines of “not as much as I should.” Then I follow up with the question, “How much should you be?” which no one can really answer. There’s a deep shame that most carry around where however much time is spent on a worthwhile endeavor such as Bible reading, it’s never really “enough.” It seems to me that individual time with our kids would fall in a similar vein. There’s an unspoken expectation that our kids should get lots of alone time with us, and we never really do it enough.

This Enough Complex really has a set of problems all its own and bleeds into all kinds of areas: parenting, spiritual disciplines, eating well, exercise, serving others, caring for the poor, giving money, and on and on and on. We never do “enough” but we never really know what enough is–just that we’re falling short of it. I’m not even remotely arguing that we should just be content with our shortcomings. But I am trying to question how we have set some unstated standard which is probably impossible to meet and does nothing but drive us into shame and guilt instead of driving us into the Sabbath rest of the Savior, who has both accomplished our righteousness completely and given us his Spirit to make us into a new creation.

To sum up: what would be enough individual time with your kids? If you can’t give a definitive, faith-filled, convicted answer then you have a problem before we even start this conversation.

2. Why individual time?

I think this has become my shtick to ask “Why?” about everything, but here we are anyway. Moving past “enough,” I really want to question the foundations of individual time. If nothing else, we have a pressing biblical question to ask about what God requires of us as parents: Does he expect us to give individual time to each of our children and, if so, how much?

I’m going to go out on a limb here by saying: he doesn’t. So where does this idea for individual attention and the importance of it come from? I can’t pinpoint it, but I can assure you it’s a North American socially driven idea, not a biblical one. Now, the fact that it doesn’t come from the Bible doesn’t make it bad. The Bible doesn’t say to sleep with a blanket and I’m a mighty big fan of that, so that’s not the point here. But I would say that if someone wants to sleep without a blanket, then good for them–because it is not commanded or implied by Scripture.

What we’re really dealing with here is a pressure that exists because of our current social context that is driving our parenting priorities. I love individual time with my kids. I really do. But I am under no conviction that I must do so or that I must do so for a certain amount of time or frequency.

This is probably the point where the gut reaction against what I’m saying is coming out. “Don’t you think that all kids should get individual time? Don’t you think that’s important for individual development?” Again, I’m not arguing that they’re bad, but the assumption that they are necessary is the issue. And perhaps (in my context) our American superiority complex is coming out. There are plenty of cultures that spend almost no one-on-one time with their children–while still maintaining strong family connections. Shoot, the central premise of the British-cultured Harry Potter books is that the children spend 3/4 of the year completely separated from their parents. And no one bats an eye. But in America, one-on-one time is practically a non-negotiable.

I also strongly suspect that much of this comes from the shrinking family size of American families as well. With the preponderance of one- and two-children homes, individual attention for each child is either the norm or very easy to attain. Historically, that certainly hasn’t always been the case, nor is it true for many other non-Western cultures. Regardless of the causes, we’re standing on an expectation that is groundless from God’s perspective. There might be wisdom in it (like taking your kids to the dentist), but we need to place this conversation into the right context before trying to really parse it out.

3. Doesn’t God want something greater?

I think my big issue about all this is to see something greater that just a parent-child relationship. In Deuteronomy 6 after the great pronouncement that Yawhew is one God, we should love him completely, and we do that through obeying his commands, we’re told:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

This isn’t a program. It’s not a kid date. It’s not even individualized. Parents are to impress upon their children the words of God. Why? So that they’ll know him, his mighty deeds, and his holy commands. And this isn’t at set times, but all the frickin’ time. The way we train our kids and invest in them is by continually pointing them to the Word, Jesus himself.

We do this at shared meals, while taking walks, on long drives, when playing games, when disciplining, when reading together, when praying together, when going on vacations, when fixing the leaky sink, when sweeping the floor, when cooking dinner, when loading the dishwasher, when getting the mail, when raking leaves, when throwing snowballs. It’s all the time, not just these set one-on-one times.

But more than that, individual time with our kids really needs to be geared toward something other than a deepened relationship with our children–and let’s be honest, that seems to be what most of the concerns are with individual attention. The Shema of Deut 6 is about continually pointing our children toward their True Dad in their True Family. We parent for only a little while. By faith, we believe that those who are our kids will one day be brothers and sisters, all of us sitting at the feet of our great Father. We’re not raising them to a closer relationship with us, but toward the infinitely relational God himself.

The fact is that our kids don’t actually need one-on-one time with us as their parents. We’re striving to raise our kids into Jesus–something far grander than us and our pale imitation of God’s family. And we are bringing our kids into God’s family. This is more than just a God-and-me religiosity, but the fact that God has called himself a people. This people is made up of individuals, but individuals called into a community.

Let’s even draw an analogy from Jesus’ time on Earth. He had his “family” of twelve who went along the road with him. He preached the kingdom to them in houses and along the road, as well as in the morning and in the evening. And as far as is recorded, he spends very little time one-on-one with each of his disciples. He brought them with them everywhere and used the opportunities of day-to-day life to train them toward the Father.

And are we really going to say that Jesus didn’t know his disciples personally and individually? That if only he’d spent a little more individual time with them, Judas wouldn’t have betrayed him or Peter wouldn’t have denied him? Jesus was perfect and he disciples his disciples perfectly.

Wrapping it up

Maybe it sounds like I’m giving very little direction about how to disciple our kids as individuals. In one sense, that’s true–I’m not helping build much and instead am trying to tear down a lot of unhelpful assumptions. Though I think that’s incredibly important, because we’re driven by our core convictions and if they don’t come from God’s Word, then we ought to question them. But in another sense, I’m advocating for discipling our kids in community and for community. I’m advocating for getting to know our kids not so much through individual time, but through the many ups and downs of daily life. I’m advocating for knowing our kids as individuals and discipling them as individual souls, but without feeling like we need all kinds of separate time with each to do that. I would argue that I know each of my kids, I know what they like and hate, I know their preferences, I know their sin struggles–and I know almost all of that from the variety of daily life situations we’re in, not from a kid date here and there.

And lest we be accused of being haters, we’ve posted in the past about how we pursue individual time with the kids. But the point of that time is to fill in any cracks that might come out of our parenting along the road of life. Some months, those individual items might go by the wayside–and we don’t sweat it, because our parenting is built on the gospel of Jesus, not on the quality of our planned one-on-one times.

How We Do Life Together As a Family

Like many parents, Bill and I tend to feel pulled in several directions all the time. We have work, extended family, personal health, friends, kids’ extra-curriculars, neighbors, and various things we want to learn about or get involved in. That’s all fine and dandy, but when you have kids, there tends to be this low-lying guilt we feel that we aren’t spending ample energy on our kids.

First, stop it! Often that guilt isn’t a biblical guilt but a societal guilt–a guilt that comes from what articles say you should be doing as a parent, what your friends are doing as a parent, what your favorite bloggers post about (wink wink), or your own self-made laws about how much time you should spend on your kids. Don’t turn something into sin that was never sin in God’s eyes.

Second, though, evaluate to see if there’s merit to the guilt. While guilt can come from social pressure, sometimes it’s a reminder from the Spirit that we’re pursuing something lesser than the glory God has prepared for us. Are other things, even good things, putting your kids close to last place on your list of priorities? If so, repent, pray for wisdom to see how that repentance should look, and rest by faith in the blood of Jesus which washes away that sin, too.

For the Bell parents, we’re in both camps several times every day. Especially me. And each year we look at things we need to drop along with ways we can improve our time with our kids.

Enter this past year’s theme: Almost everything we do is centered around discipling our kids, which we then invite others into. 

This sounds so duh now that I’m reading it. But it’s been huge for our family. In the past, the way we decided if we could add something to our calendar looked like this: We had a few things that were priorities for our family. As long as the new commitment didn’t mess with that, we usually said yes. This meant that our core activities involved the kids, but just about everything else didn’t. What we realized was how many opportunities we were missing to teach our kids, because many of those commitments pulled us away from our little disciples.

Now, we ask ourselves some questions to evaluate if we should commit:

  1. Can we bring our kids into this activity? I focus on this below.
  2. If the kids can’t be brought in, will it still be for the overall benefit of the whole family? One instance of this is Bill’s seminary classes. Bill is a better leader in every way when he’s reading challenging books and writing. He gets more geeked about Jesus and bleeds the gospel most when he’s immersed in this kind of deep thinking. He would also tell you he isn’t self-disciplined and that he works best with deadlines. Enter seminary, where he’s pushed to do both of the above. Though, funny enough, he’s even talked about taking some of the older kids to class with him since his professors are usually good with it. A couple of our kids go crazy over this stuff, too.
  3. Is this worth the temporary sacrifice of family for the sake of the gospel? There are some things that will fit here: helping a friend on a house project, counseling a brother or sister in a sensitive situation, very early/late commitments, etc. But I would also say that I think we probably use this question too often to justify the discipleship of others at the expense of discipling our own kiddos. Often we need to understand we aren’t Jesus and can’t save everyone (even Jesus didn’t “fix” everyone he came in contact with, and he was fine with it!), and we may not be in the right season for that. There are also many times we actually can bring our kids into these situations if we’ll think outside the box.

Here are some ways we’ve tried to bring our kiddos more into our world this year. None of this is necessary for any family to incorporate, and it certainly may not be best for yours, but maybe it will help some of you incorporate ways to do more life together as a family. And lest you think we’re a Leave It to Beaver-like family who has their crap together, please let me be the first to inform you we frequently look much more similar to the Simpsons in real life. We strive toward this but fail constantly, mainly because Bill and I prefer to be by ourselves with no kids around and ridiculously often give in to that desire when we’ve committed to be with the kids. Our posts are honestly written more as reminders for us than for you guys.

  • Exercise is important to both of us, and I push myself to run (yes, you can note the absence of the word “enjoy” in that statement). Every time, though, that would take away an hour of my time. One hour is not a big deal, but I was ending up with several hours like this each day or week. We decided to see how our kids would do with the Couch to 5K program. Well, they rocked it! Seriously, even the smallest Bell can run circles around me. Two of our kids had a hard time with it (not the smallest might I add) after a while, so they ride bikes along with us. We run the distance of a 5K 2-3 times per week, and it’s been such a sweet way to learn working together (instead of competing), encouraging one another, and persevering when things are hard. The kids have also learned some life lessons. Ha!
  • I open my bedroom door during my personal Bible study time. The kids are asked to respect me by not being Chatty Cathys, but watching me has encouraged my kids to study for themselves. My girls frequently ask if they can highlight in their Bibles, too, and they’ve come up with some great questions from their own study.
  • The kids sit with us during our church gathering and participate in our church’s Bible study. I know this can seem intimidating for a while, especially if your kids are in tyrannical ages (aka 3-5; OK that’s not a rule, just my own personal opinion of 3- to 5-year-olds). We’ve found that our kids, even the little ones, catch a ton of what’s going on. Our church has welcomed our kids to the adult Bible study we attend, too. They treat them like mini-adults instead of under-humans. They let them read the Bible passage aloud, answer their questions without mocking them, and even humble themselves to learn if one of my kids has wisdom they want to share. It’s been beautiful. We almost always talk as a family after both of these. Since we’ve shared the experience together, our talks go deep quickly since we don’t have to ask what we all did in our separate classes.
  •  We bring the kids with us to music practice. They don’t participate here, but they learn the songs by listening and sing them constantly since we shared the experience.
  • I used to teach a neighborhood women’s Bible study. Some of my daughters began attending, and they were treated with respect there, too.
  • This one’s probably obvious, but if Bill or I have an errand to run, we almost always grab a kid so we can get some one-on-one time, or we just all pile in the van just for kicks.
  • We take neighborhood walks when the weather’s nice to see and meet neighbors together.
  • We throw block parties with our friends. The kids help plan, cook, and set up. They are wonderful hosts–better than I am, actually.
  • If we’re hanging with another family, we encourage our kids to be part of the adult conversation. One of my sons recently told me he prefers talking to adults, and he’s my most social kid who fiercely loves his friends.
  • One way we’re trying to push ourselves more is simply inviting others along to our everyday stuff. Outings, game night, watching a movie together. We have much room to grow here.
  • If a woman asks me to mentor her, I almost always just invite her to come be part of my everyday world once a week. She simply comes over to hang, let her kids run around with mine, help out where needed, and chat when we can. This has proven to be much more effective than sitting down privately once a week over coffee to discuss a good book.
  • If Bill goes to play sports with friends or a meeting with other men in the area, he takes our oldest boys.

If your children are very young, this is going to look different for you. We found with the very little ones that out-and-about commitments were next to impossible to accomplish as a family. For instance, our church building at the time was in a low-income neighborhood. Every once in a while several members would walk around the neighborhood offering to repair gutters for free. We loved this idea but couldn’t imagine how we could actually help with four kiddos under the age of four. Um, no. And at a time when it was already hard to connect as a couple, the idea of one of us leaving the other to do this good deed felt horrible. As I mentioned above, I generally think this season in your life isn’t right for tons of things that will take you away from each other. Rest in Jesus as Savior, knowing he put you here in this time. And that’s beautiful. Even in that season, though, Bill and I spent much time with friends, counseled many couples, mentored friends, and trained small group leaders. It was just all in our home after the kids were in bed.

Let it be said that I DO NOT think every moment of your life should be with your kids. In the words of Luke Skywalker, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” There’re still many things I do apart from them. Date nights with the man, coffee with friends, weekly walks by myself, personal prayer, and doctor’s appointments to name a few. The kids also have their own things. I’m a selfish mom, though, who’s always looking for ways I can get away from my kids to do the things I want, dang it! And I find there’s always room to include them more.

Why You Think Your Kids Need Youth Group

Most of you probably know we met with our church in homes for 5 years here in Indy. In that time we didn’t have organized ministries, and our kids of all ages gathered with us in the living room.

One of the concerns that would come up every now and then would be our lack of a youth group. What about our teens and their need for interactions with kids their own age, others they can relate to?

We always decided against it. Part of that was simply how small our church was, but most of it was because Jesus didn’t make youth group part of his church. Once when he preached, there was a boy there who gave him his lunch to be shared with thousands of others. In Paul’s letters to both the Ephesians and the Colossians, he gives commands to the children–children who were present to hear the letter read. In other words, kids of all ages were right there as part of the church hearing the same message their parents were hearing.

Perhaps that’s not a strong enough argument for some. Some think that the gospel should be made more relevant or maybe even more entertaining to reach young people. But Jesus never made his gospel flashy in order to make it appealing to others or make them want to be part of it. He simply used words along with a righteous life, and people came by droves for this good news. The flashier we have to make the gospel, the more revealing the heart issue is. The issue that we don’t believe this salvation is the best news ever. We don’t rejoice enough in it alone because we don’t think we’re all that bad, that apart from this gospel, we’re doomed. And so we need to dress up the gospel, because it’s not good enough on its own.

Miriam almost drowned a year ago. We couldn’t get to her and were standing helpless in a creek watching our little girl bob under the water over and over. God miraculously sent two beautiful women who were close enough to her to jump in the water without hesitation and pull her to safety just in time. We didn’t respond with, “Man, we’re grateful. But it would have been better if you’d done it with some spotlights or amazing music. And actually, if you could provide pizza for her next time, too, we might even come back to thank you later.” No, we pummeled the soaking wet women with hugs, sobbing our gratitude because they had saved our girl’s life. We took their picture. I kept looking for them throughout the day because I just wanted to hug them one more time and thank them again and again. And I still pray for them and cry praising God for their placement and timing.

Good news is good because of the news itself, not because of the delivery method. And the good news of Jesus saving us from totally destruction and eternal death is the best news that could ever be. If we really got that, every other tool the church uses to try to impress us toward Jesus would just look dumb.

If what I’m saying is true, though, why do well-done youth groups seem to draw teens closer to God and to each other? Why do they produce a fire in youth that isn’t easily squelched?

It’s because these youth groups function more like the church than the church does.

I was raised in a healthy youth group. I still care deeply about those brothers and sisters with whom I did so much life. But here’s how that group worked:

I was blessed with a godly director who cared more about our spiritual well-being than how cool we thought he was. So we studied Scripture together, we prayed together, and we sang together.  So far, so good. Same as the adults.

But we also were in each others’ faces all the freakin’ time. Our youth director did plan fun, ridiculous activities. Q-tip wars, anyone? But outside the planned youth group times, we were almost together more. If something was wrong or I had news I wanted to share, I would call one of my youth friends (no texting in them there days). If a new movie was out I wanted to see, I’d invite one of the youth to go with me. Pretty much every Wednesday night a few of us would go out to eat for pizza or burgers, and we’d sing intentionally off-key to the radio on the way. If a friend was in need, we’d go as a group to their house to be with them. We called each other out when we saw sin and reconciled with each other over and over. The girls started a tradition on our own to meet at one of our houses at Christmas for breakfast and singing silly Christmas songs, complete with an ornament exchange. We knew everything about each other.

This, I believe, is the way the church is meant to function, regardless of age. But we’re a prideful, independent generation. We don’t like to have to lean on others or give up our important schedules to pour into the church or be poured into. Especially when we start families, we get very inward. The inner family becomes number one, and everyone else fits as is convenient. We forget to text others to check in on them or share our heart. We forget to share meals with those in our circle, to invite them to go with us to the museum. We cringe at traditions because we simply see them as another calendar entry. We forget that laugh-so-hard-you-cry inside jokes only happen with time together. Many of us function okay as a small family but forget we’re part of a much bigger family. This bigger family is the church.

Ironically, even though youth groups get this together-as-family aspect so well, youth groups aren’t realistic. After college, there will likely never be another time in life when your people will only be those who are the same age as you. And in my experience, we usually struggle to break down age barriers when reality finally kicks in. We still look for those who are in the same exact season of life as us. But God wants older men and women to disciple the younger ones. He wants younger ones to sit at their feet. He wants it all mixed up and jumbled together. I don’t believe he necessarily wants the church to have a strong youth group to grow young people in him. I do believe he wants the church to function like a youth group, but across ages and life stages and financial statuses.

I think youth groups feel needed mainly because we stink as a church to embrace anyone who isn’t majority. In my experience, that’s the married folks, preferably with kids. The core ministry of the church focuses around this majority group and marginalizes the rest. Those who aren’t in that category end up being outsiders in the church. Therefore, the outsiders feel the need for a group of outsiders like them and we create things like youth groups (and singles ministries and senior ministries and on and on). What we miss is that the church as a whole is supposed to be a whole bunch of outsiders joined together for support. When we only seek out those just like us and are unwilling to put in the hard work to become close–really close–to those who aren’t like us, we stop functioning as the church. And that’s one reason I think many youth groups do a better job looking like Jesus’s church.

It’s important here for me to say this post has nothing to do with convincing you that you should do away with youth groups or pull your kid out of one. Each church has it’s own needs, and often that includes a ministry that’s mutually beneficial for all the believers who are part of that local church, like youth groups. But I do challenge us to strive to function as a church more like a youth group, without holding back and totally in each other’s faces all the time for everything under the sun. If the church functioned more like this, maybe our youth wouldn’t crave an outside ministry just for them so much. And we wouldn’t think they needed it either.

Staying On the Same Page

Bill and I are ridiculously blessed to parent our children together. It’s a privilege I easily take for granted. Most of our neighbors and many of our other friends don’t have someone to partner with in their parenting endeavors. If you’re in the latter category, I look up to you more than you know. One of my closest friends on the planet has become a single mom in the last couple of years, and I’m amazed every week at how strong God continues to make her. He’s taken a horribly broken situation and turned it into something beautiful, but her lot is still much more difficult than mine.

For those of us who are married, we all know how difficult it can be to connect when kiddos are in the picture. Bill and I have intentionally set aside various ways to stay in sync. Obviously, this list is aimed at married couples, but if you are on your own, you can still use some of the same principles with tweaks. I pray you’re part of a solid church and community who’s praying for you and ready to be a sounding board, offering help whenever needed. My friend, for instance, made a decision early on that her church would take the place of her husband in most decision-making areas. We have a group text, and she uses it liberally to keep us updated as she asks for prayer and counsel. It’s been a sweet privilege to weep with her, rejoice at God’s deeds, and work through tough situations together. God called us to depend on those around who love him, so please don’t attempt to do this tough parenting thing alone.

With that in mind, here are some things Bill and I do regularly to stay connected:

  • Couch Time–We used to actually do this on the couch. (That totally sounds like I’m talking about couch sex! Go for it!!!) But I’m actually just talking about 30 minutes of catch-up conversation at the end of Bill’s work day. The kids know they aren’t to interrupt this time except for emergencies. We plan it for a time the kids are occupied, and in the past we’ve even set a timer so the kids knew when they “got us back.” These days, we almost always have this time during neighborhood walks which happen most days when the weather’s nice enough. When the walks don’t happen, yeah, we usually do it on the couch. [middle school snickering] We talk briefly about our day, but we mainly talk about issues we had with the kids and try to make some decisions moving forward with them.
  • Home Date Nights–One dinner a week, we hang out in the living room eating together while the kids eat in the dining room. This is usually a simple extended talking time. The kids know to quietly put themselves to bed, and we get a couple of hours without interruption since we start close to bedtime for most of our kids. We often use these evenings for some planning time, too, looking at the calendar for the week ahead and working out logistics.
  • Weekly Dates Out–These dates out are more about talking without interruption and about connecting. That means our dates aren’t event-oriented, but relationship-oriented. We’re at a point in our lives that we pay for weekly babysitters, but this hasn’t always been a possibility for us. In times past, we did a variety of things such as trading babysitting with other friends, trading services with others (once I mentored a college woman in exchange for babysitting; you could teach a skill or trade an item), paying for babysitting once a month or so, or simply asking favors.
  • Sex–And a lot of it. If you can be as vulnerable as you need to be with regular sex, it’s easier to be more connected in other ways, too. Just different ways to work things out together. [still snickering]
  • Guard Your Tongue–If you find out your spouse gave permission for something you might not have (or vice versa), table your thoughts for a private time with him or her. Best for you to decide together to change the decision than for you to undermine the decision in front of your children. Otherwise, you’re opening the door for strife between the two of you and causing anxiety in your children from the double standards.
  • Pray Together–Unity comes through the Spirit. And since one-fleshness is the deepest human to human unity, praying together is a beautiful humbling way to ask the Spirit to continue that unity and draw you even closer together in him.
  • Ask Intentional Questions–Each night, Bill and I ask a couple of simple questions to wrap our heads around the next day. We ask how we can pray for each other and for one way we can serve each other. It helps focus the next day on the right priorities.
  • Regularly Communicate Throughout the Day–Like most families, at least one of us works outside the home. But with modern technology, it’s usually possible to still connect. Many times if Bill’s at the office or working upstairs, I’ll send him a text to ask help about a decision with the kids. I know he can’t always answer right away, but he can almost always find a brief moment to chime in without too much delay. It’s also sweet to send encouragement and definitely fun to flirt this way.

What are additional ways you and your spouse stay connected in the midst of craziness?