Joyful January

As 2014 came to a close, my daughter and I had been studying the fruits of the Spirit. We had begun the Fruit of the Spirit Curriculum for Toddlers, and while it was fun to sing the Fruit of the Spirit Song (which I’ve included at the end of this post so that you can also get it stuck in your head for weeks!), learn about fruits and colors, and read Galatians 5:22-23 every night until she had memorized it, I realized that I was learning too.

There are so many fruits of the Spirit that a mother of a “spirited” preschooler needs, like gentleness, patience, kindness, self-control, to name a few. Now I’m not saying it’s bad to focus on these, but I tended to focus on them just to survive. I would begin the day and within an hour or two of consistently unpredictable and disobedient behavior from my daughter, all the self-control, patience, kindness and gentleness was nowhere to be found in my heart and I would explode (let’s not even talk about the days where there was no nap!).

I would get so frustrated because I felt like I was trying so hard to hold onto these virtues, but there was just so much anger and frustration in my heart that if those virtues were in me when I woke up in the morning, they were just a weak facade covering the selfishness and anger underneath.

Obviously, rooting out personal sin is a journey all Christians are on and will be on all of our earthly lives, but one day as I was reading Galatians 5:22-23 with her, I was struck by the fruits of the Spirit I tend to gloss over and one of them was joy. ‘Joy’ is one of those words I probably use once a year, mainly at Christmas and usually only in Christmas songs like Joy to the World.

I am quite certain that no one who knows me would call me “joyful” (my husband agreed when I asked) but it seems to me one of the fruits of the Spirit that is most important to have because it, like love and peace, directs our perception of the world to be God-focused and gives us a solid foundation to stand on no matter our life circumstances.

To me, it almost seems like love, joy and peace are the fruits that form the foundation for our character and then the others, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, are built upon that foundation. With love at the core of our hearts, kindness, gentleness and faithfulness are an expression of that love; peace in our souls makes self-control possible and joy makes patience and goodness (not perfection, which I often try to confuse with goodness!) attainable.

For the month of January, I’m going to be focusing on cultivating joy in my heart with the help of the Holy Spirit, and I hope you will find it encouraging too! Let’s begin this New Year by developing a joyful spirit that serves as an anchor for our soul when life gives us lots to be joyful about and even when it doesn’t.


Follow Me

I admire the gutsiness of Paul. In his letters to Jewish and Gentile Christian communities, he is willing to chastise but he is also willing to hold himself up as an example to follow.  In his first letter to the Corinthians he clearly defines “the bar”, spelling out what immorality is and that the Church should not be slack about it (particularly in chapters 5-6) and describing and defining the roles that the Church should build on and develop (in chapters 10-14). I think as parents we get stuck in these modes– here are things you shouldn’t do and here are the things you should do. Of course, this is essential. We need to be the ones setting “the bar” for our kids because the world will set a very different one for them.

But smack in the middle of the book, Paul steps out of the role of passive teacher and offers his life as an example to follow: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 1 Cor. 11:1. I don’t know about you, but I do not wake up every morning and say to my toddler, “I’m going to be a shining example of Christ in every situation today, so watch closely and learn,” but that is essentially what Paul is saying. I think as Christians in general this is something we all need to work on but as parents to young kids it’s essential.

I had planned to go back to work after my daughter was born, first at 6 weeks and then at 6 months but life was so insane at those times I decided to wait even longer. Finally, or what seemed like ‘finally,’ she became a toddler and she was more independent and I thought I would finally get some personal and professional space that had been engulfed by the very clingy, very needy, colicky baby. On days when we were home together alone I wracked my brain for things to do and for a long time it seemed like I would try to teach her things, she would watch for a second and then run the other direction and try to create a mess in that direction or find some dangerous object that I didn’t realize was a dangerous object until she was trying to gag herself with it. I felt like my skills as a teacher (and even just as an intelligent human being!) were being wasted. But all of a sudden one day, she picked up one of her stuffed animals and hugged it, kissed it and rocked it as I had modeled for her several times without seemingly making any impression on her at all. It was like a light bulb moment that all first parents have. I taught you something and you learned it. YAY! It made me realize that my efforts did matter and for me at least it confirmed that while she is a little sponge I want to be the one impacting her the most.

Yeah, that’s the easy part. Those moments are important. Those are the moments when we intentionally set “the bar” and we are in teacher/preacher mode. But what about all the other moments of your day? What about when you just wake up and you’re a mess? What about when you’re making dinner? Or even when you’re taking a shower or using the bathroom?! Personal space is a luxury when our kids are little and I remember distinctly one day when I ran into the bathroom and my toddler followed. I had toys set aside for her in the bathroom but of course they weren’t as interesting as what I was doing. Here I am dying for a moment of privacy and my toddler wanted a ringside seat to the show, trying to get me to move around so she could see better. I remember laying my head in my hand in defeat and frustration. I didn’t want to be a teacher I just wanted to go to the bathroom for crying out loud! After I got done, she asked if she could try and to my utter amazement (with no prior potty training) she used the potty (both jobs! Yeah, you can so tell I’m a mom, right?).

In that moment I had a total change of heart. I didn’t want to be on the pedestal all the time as the teacher of life, but that’s what I am for her. Even in my most vulnerable moments, she is learning what it means to be a human being and most importantly a Christ-follower. Paul realized it wasn’t just enough to say to people “This is how it is, now do it!;” he put himself out there as an example to follow. There are two important things to realize about Paul’s decision, though. One is that he was intentional. He knew that he was putting himself out there for criticism but he was bold. In those harder moments we need to recognize, accept and own the fact that we are examples for our kids. He also didn’t do it in his own strength. He doesn’t tell us to follow his example because he himself is perfect but rather because Christ is fully sufficient and he is following Christ. We’re not going to be perfect, but we need to strive in our own spiritual lives to let Christ become more and more as we become less and less so that in every situation (even in the shower!) we are modeling what a wonderful Savior we have.

With Fear and Trembling

In the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul poetically spells out what sacrifice looks like through the imitation of a wholly selfless Christ, and after that poignant example he says:

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed– not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence– continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Phil. 2:12-13

I have read lots of commentaries and sat through sermons on what it means to work out our salvation with “fear and trembling.” Most of them relate the concept of ‘fear’ to the awe and reverent fear of God discussed in the Old Testament (like in Proverbs 9:10) , but becoming a mom has made me view this passage in a distinct way which maybe you too can relate to.

Before I became a mom, I was career-focused, and I thought I was a strong Christian, having committed my life to Christ at a young age and staying firm in my faith as the years went by. Then I had a colicky baby and while other moms were ooing and ahhing and having quasi-spiritual experiences with their firstborns, I wanted to lock myself in the closet and never come out again. From day one I realized that parenting was hard and that it was going to require way more of me than I had ever given to anyone before, even my husband. Feeling smothered during the newlywed years was nothing like nursing for hours a day, spending hours trying a myriad of ways to pacify a screaming baby and being denied more than 3-4 hours of uninterrupted sleep (with the recorded sound of a vacuum cleaner playing).

I thought that I had developed the fruits of the spirit but the warm fuzzies of love, joy, peace, patience, etc. weren’t there in those dark moments. Part of my mental difficulty in grasping the reality of my situation was that I was confusing feelings with character traits developed in us over time by the Holy Spirit which seems pretty easy to do, especially when you’re hormonal and sleep-deprived! I also tried to view all of the difficulties of that first year as a phase. She would grow out of it; life would get easier and parenting would become more natural and not so utterly exhausting and terrifying. It is true that the colicky baby grew into a toddler, but we are still in phases and all of life can be seen as a phase. By focusing on the experience as a phase I just had to survive, I missed living in the moment and being taught some of the spiritual lessons that moment had for me.

So now I’m back to fear and trembling. While there is a certain reverence toward God implied in working out our salvation, I see Paul’s command as a call to recognize the weightiness of each moment, each decision as it relates to our lifelong journey toward salvation (and, to use a big churchy word, sanctification) and this relates to our children’s salvation as well. When you think about the job we have as parents, to take little helpless people and throughout their lives help turn them into self-sufficient, godly men and women, it is a task that causes some fear and trembling, not because we don’t think God will give us the strength to do it, but because it means we need to be intentional in our parenting and weigh out and judge our actions towards our kids because they have such an enormous impact on how they view us and the God we say we love and serve. Our kids also challenge us in ways that nothing else can and while it might be our natural inclination to get angry at them for disobeying or inconveniencing us, we can instead allow them to take us a step toward salvation and develop the fruits of the Spirit that sound pretty on paper but are hard to live out, like peace when your toddler is throwing a tantrum in the middle of a busy store, patience when she is dawdling and throwing you behind schedule (as if you weren’t already behind!), love when out of anger he says he hates you and you’re the worst mother on earth.

For the longest time I thought if I could go back in time I would want the sweet, meek and mild baby over the colicky sleep-fighting one God gave me, but now I see that even back then God was using her to make me a better person if I choose to just stop trying to survive and learn to thrive spiritually in the environment I’m in.