Rest For Your Soul

Every day, it happens. Usually several times, and almost always during a rare moment of relaxation. The little nag inside my head gives me a poke and says, “You should be doing more.”

“You’ve made a summer schedule. When’s the last time you looked at it? It’s almost July, and you haven’t done a single math game with the kids! And how about the towers of outgrown clothes in the shed – the ones you said you’d sort through this summer? Still towering. Oh, and the kitchen cabinets? Nope, still haven’t learned to clean themselves. WHY ARE YOU SITTING DOWN? Snap to it, young lady!”

And then…a gentler voice. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

But…the Nag is right – those are things I really need to do! They would help our household run more efficiently, enable me to be more patient, educate my children. I mean, some days I don’t even get them out of their pajamas. I have to get on top of all this. I need to get it all together, and every moment lost represents one more step down the road to failure. Back to work – now!

Then once again, like the voice of a mother soothing a frantic child, another reminder from God’s Word gently calms me: “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.” (Psalm 103:14)

And the more I reflect, the more I realize that God never tells us to hurry – or to be superheroes. Instead, He invites us to “find rest for [our] souls” (Matthew 11:28), and promises that “Like a shepherd He will tend His flock…He will gently lead the nursing ewes” (Isaiah 40:11).

If we look around, we will always find something that needs to be done. Or, at least, would be helpful; an improvement on the way things are. And if we allow ourselves to believe that things won’t be “right” until we get through our to-do list…we will never stop. Yet, when I remember that God knows my weakness – not just intellectually, but experientially, as the One who came in the flesh to live with us, as one of us – I realize that many of these demands and deadlines are self-imposed.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should just be indolent; we can find plenty of Scripture that endorses the value of work, and the importance of making the most of what God has given us in the form of time, talent, and even material things. When we cross over into perfectionism and workaholism, though, we doom ourselves to frustration, exhaustion, and failure, setting ideals for ourselves that God never demands.

Does God call us to honor Him with our lives? Absolutely. BUT…does He fold His arms and tap His foot impatiently every time I let a day get away from me…let the clothes pile up for a few days (or weeks) too long…neglect to follow through on a consequence the children have been told to expect for breaking a certain rule? Goodness, no. God’s grace covers and redeems all my failures, real or imagined; “His lovingkindnesses never fail. They are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

And so I remind myself anew to take one day at a time. To remember that some things can wait until tomorrow. To gratefully accept the gift of rest that God has given us. And to revel, every day, in His crazy, unimaginable grace.

An Exercise in Self-Restraint

Today, we’re going to try a little experiment. Don’t worry; it doesn’t involve any fancy equipment. No explosives or messy chemicals, either. Just…your IMAGINATION. Are you ready?

I want you to pretend, for the next twenty-four hours, that you can’t read minds.

“Wait…what?” you might say. “Who ever said I could do that? What, do you think you’re some sort of mind-reader?”

Perhaps I should elaborate. After all, I know you’ve never claimed to be psychic. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m asking here is that, as you interact with other humans over the next twenty-four hours, you choose not to make assumptions about what motivates them. Particularly – and this is the hard part – when these other humans disagree with you.

Think about the people you converse with from one day to the next – neighbors, close friends, coworkers, Facebook friends, family members. You probably don’t hate most of them; if you did, you’d avoid them or unfriend them. But you maintain contact with them because, on the whole, you consider them to be decent people.

Now think about the last time you observed, or participated in, a conversation about something controversial. Chances are, things got ugly…especially if the conversation took place over the Internet. Statements of one viewpoint probably expressed veiled or open derision of not only the opposing viewpoint, but the person holding it. Why such hostility? I suspect that many of us, consciously or unconsciously, maintain certain beliefs concernings those who oppose us on issues about which we feel passionately. For example:

* Anybody who chooses not to vaccinate is an uninformed ignoramus who doesn’t care if the whole country dies of chicken pox.

* All gun-control advocates are mindless, sentimental fools who want the government to achieve total mind control of the entire citizenry.

*Homeschoolers are lazy, uneducated weirdos who hate academics and don’t care about their children’s futures.

* If you are pro-life, you are a domineering woman-hater devoid of even the tiniest spark of compassion or regard for circumstances.

* Somebody who cares about the environment is probably a brainwashed mosquito-loving tree-hugger who secretly hopes we will all be eaten by polar bears.

…and so on. You get the idea.

In case you’ve deduced that you now know where I stand on at least five hot topics, it just so happens that I randomized the examples in order to reflect some positions from my own “camp” and others from the opposite. Because I’m inscrutable like that. And, okay, because I’m an obscure blogger whose skin isn’t yet thick enough to withstand attack. (Just kidding. Mostly).

Seriously this time: the issues, for the purposes of this article, are not the issue. About some, I feel strongly; about others, I’m unsure; about the majority, I’m not willing to engage in debate. First of all, I’m a terrible debater. More importantly, I don’t want people to associate me with a certain set of political views; if, in your perception, those views overshadow my faith in Christ and my consequent love for others, then I’m doing it wrong. Finally, I find it very unlikely that debating will accomplish anything.

Call me a cynic, if you will. It wouldn’t be completely inaccurate; really, “cynic” is just an optimist’s term for a realist. But we will never all agree. Some propose that, deep down, we all agree; we just have to get to the point at which we realize it. We don’t, though. In many cases, our goals align, but we differ on how to reach those goals. In other cases, our goals aren’t even the same. Different worldviews, different priorities.

Even so, I honestly don’t think that the people who fundamentally disagree with me are horrible. In fact, I know they are not all horrible, because some of them are my friends. And when I read the comments people make in response to my friends’ stated positions on various topics…or when I read vicious indictments against everybody who espouses a particular ideology, knowing that I have other friends who ostensibly fit that category…my stomach muscles constrict and I feel the way I did when I was a kid watching a friend get yelled at by an angry grownup.

Don’t get me wrong; I realize that, for every generalization I listed above, there exist hundreds of people who truly do fit the descriptions scornfully assigned to them by their detractors. In every group – EVERY group – there are those who cling tenaciously to their dogmas, unwilling to listen to opposing arguments, yet unable to do more than spout a few emotional platitudes in defense of their own views. However, those same groups contain many more people who have reached certain conclusions after considerable thought, discussion, and – occasionally – research.

So the next time you prepare to jump into a debate, breathe deeply. Remind yourself that the person disagreeing with you is somebody’s friend. Maybe even yours. And it’s quite possible that he or she has employed rational thought in arriving at a particular position, whether or not you agree with every step of the thought process and where it led. Finally, remember: most people are not horrible, and ultimately, the only mind you can really claim to know is your own.

Going Easy on Myself…For the Kids

These days, it’s easier than ever for a mom to feel inadequate. Most of us, of course, can’t resist that age-old temptation to compare ourselves with everybody we know…which inevitably leads to the conclusion that we are utterly inferior to All Of Them. This tendency is compounded by such modern atrocities as the Mommy Wars – an embarrassment to our generation – and Pinterest, whose soul-crushing cuteness can reduce even a Supermom to tears.

Fortunately, my friends and neighbors are too classy to engage in the Mommy Wars, so the only taste I’ve had comes from the times I’ve been stupid enough to visit the wretched hives of scum and villainy known as Internet forums and blog comment sections. Furthermore, I know myself well enough to stay on Pinterest no longer than the amount of time it takes me to “pin” a recipe I found elsewhere. As for the comparison thing…well, I can’t claim complete innocence. I’m working on it.

Even if I were to conquer all those demons, though – if I could look at my high-achieving mommy friends and feel nothing but admiration and delight at the wonderful things they do to raise their kids – I would still have myself to deal with. And I don’t know about you, but I can be a real bear. In my head, I have some pretty well-defined ideas of how my children should turn out…and the extent to which I reach my ideals tends to govern my sense of success or failure as a mother.

First and foremost, of course, I want my children to love Jesus and know that He loves them. Beyond that, though, I really think it’s important that they develop a deep love for books. And while I’m certainly not the Tiger Mom type, I’d like them each to become proficient on at least one instrument. It teaches discipline, beautifies life, and brings so much joy to oneself and others. Both of these goals would benefit, obviously, from a love for learning and a desire to achieve. Not to the exclusion of outside interests, of course; they should also have a healthy love of the outdoors, whether they experience it through biking, camping, running, or reading in a hammock. Regardless, they should definitely prefer being outside to doing anything that involves looking at a screen. Heaven forfend.

As you may have guessed, our reality doesn’t match my ideals. Although my children both enjoy reading, it’s not the first activity they request when they’re bored, and my son has frankly informed me more than once that he prefers movies. As for my musical dreams…well, having been raised as a musician, by musicians, I know how much practice goes into excelling on any instrument. When I imagine the battles that would ensue if I tried to instill good practice habits into my strong-willed, attention-span-of-a-squirrel six-year-old, my legs get wobbly and my breathing becomes labored and I’m tempted to issue an edict that all instruments be hidden from sight for twelve years, kind of like the spinning wheels in Sleeping Beauty. So, needless to say, we haven’t touched that one. As for my Earth Mother dreams: I’m happy to say that, when we go hiking, or haul our bikes to a trail somewhere, we usually have fun together (especially if I’ve brought snacks). If we’re just playing in our yard, however, eventually one of them is bound to say, “I’m bored. Can we go inside and play with toys?”…or “play Wii?” THE HORROR.

Reflecting on the disparity between my ideals and the reality, I can easily become discouraged. If I were doing things right, we’d be making discernible progress toward those goals; conversely, my inability to make them happen indicates personal failure. Or so I’ve allowed myself to think for too long. As God has worked in my heart, through time spent in prayer and Bible reading, and through conversations with people older and wiser than myself, I’ve slowly come to understand and accept several truths:

1. At the tender ages of six and four, my children are way too young to have their fates decided. Though I know them pretty well, I can’t possibly predict – with any accuracy – what they’ll be like as adults. So I seriously need to chill.

2. When I look at what has and hasn’t happened in my children’s lives so far, taking full responsibility for every perceived lack, I give myself a power I don’t possess. Though I can (and should) influence them, teach them, and often correct them, I didn’t create them. God designed each of them with unique personalities, gifts, strengths and weaknesses, and will work in their lives far beyond anything I can do.

3. As long as I think of these not-yet-accomplished goals as personal shortcomings, I am doing a disservice to myself…and to my children.

For some time now, I’ve understood the truth of Point Number One (though I must constantly nag myself to remember it). As for Number Two, I’ve accepted, at least intellectually, that I have less control than I’d like to think. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating a “kids-will-be-kids” approach that dispenses with all discipline, allows the children to run the household, and avoids ever making them undertake anything they deem unpleasant. I’m simply saying that I did not, and cannot, shape their personalities, their passions, or their gifts. They are individuals, each one composed of a dash of myself, a dash of my husband, and a generous dose of the things that make them unique.

Which brings us to Number Three. It should go without saying, but I put far too much pressure on myself when I conclude that I’ve failed simply because of some unattained ideals my brain has randomly generated. Moreover – and this is what really gives me pause – my harsh critiques of myself will, in one way or another, inevitably extend to my children.

My son is great at building things. He excels at problem-solving, knows the rules of Chess better than I do, and considers Scrabble Junior beneath him, preferring instead to play the “real” version. My daughter has an amazing memory, fears nothing, and is incredibly agile. (This blows my mind, as I routinely bump into doorframes, and hit my head on the table almost every time I pick up a Lego).

If my son grows up to be an engineer, and ends up spending most of his time inside being smart and computery, will he know that I’m proud of him? Or will he sense that I always wished, deep down, that he would be an English professor who went camping every weekend? If my daughter becomes a ballet dancer, will she know that, even though I admire her and am in awe of her grace, I thought she could have been a great violinist who spent her free time as a freelance writer? When I allow dissatisfaction to hold sway as long as my expectations remain unmet, am I truly being thankful for the wonderful children God has given me the privilege of raising? Or am I putting my desires ahead of His, thinking that only the preconceived path I’ve envisioned will allow them to glorify Him?

When I answer all these questions honestly…it’s a bit humbling to realize how self-absorbed I can be. Unimaginative, even. Over and beyond that, though, I feel immense relief. I don’t have to write the perfect script that will guarantee careers of intellectual and artistic excellence. In fact, I shouldn’t. So, briefly, here’s what I want for my children: I want them to have character. I want them to be teachable, and to make the best of the gifts they’ve received. Most of all, I want them to know that Jesus loves them…and so do I. No matter what they do when they grow up.