900 Seconds of Light

900 Seconds of Light or What Every Parent Needs

I’ve almost forgotten this fact: Raising children can be discouraging. This stands to reason because children are, by definition, not yet what they will be. This not yet quality children possess persists for years, so much so that it feels like the not yet will never go away.

Good habits like bed-making, doing homework with some proficiency, doing homework at all (hello, middle school), basic hygiene, table manners, answering politely when spoken to, kindness, self control. Sometimes I wondered if they’d ever learn. And then there were the bad habits like wearing their brand new, clean socks without shoes in the back yard or leaving the milk jug on the counter, unless it was empty and then they’d put it in the fridge. Sibling Rivalry was the bane of my maternal existence for what felt like forever.

The other day my mom told me I pitched a temper tantrum once. One. Time. Only. My mother has impeccable integrity, but in this instance I seriously doubt her. No child of mine (her grandchildren) committed any grievous or commonplace sin only once. Sin is habitual. And, in children, immaturity is, too. My mom is like me in that she forgets. But the point of this post is not to tell you you’ll forget the discouraging parts of parenting (even though you probably will).

In fact, most days I knew our boys would not end up going to college in diapers or never have clean fingernails except in the summer (when they spent all their days in the pool). I knew they would develop decent table manners and common courtesy. They would not sulk like teenagers forever.

But I did wonder if they would encounter Jesus—personally and authentically—and, in that encounter, be transformed into his likeness. I wondered if they would seek him and find him. I wondered if they would love well. If they would have pure hearts and clean hands, metaphorically speaking. Sure I wanted our boys to wipe their feet on the door mat and hang up their jackets in the hall closet. I wanted them to make eye contact with adults and bathe every day. But I wanted a lot more.

I think you probably have a lot of important wants for with your children, too, thus the discouragement during the not yet years. Today I want to suggest something for you ask God to give you in the middle of it all.

I’m not suggesting something to pray for your children. I hope you pray big and bold and audacious prayers for them. I hope your heart explodes with longing before the throne of God. I hope you have a faith-imagination on your children’s behalf that defies reason and exceeds all these small habits you want them to learn. No, this is not about what to pray for them; it is about what to pray for yourself to help you get through.

During that long season when our boys were habitually missing the toilet or the hamper or their curfews, when we found cigarettes in their closets or they couldn’t seem to interact with their peers without ugly sarcasm, an older friend told me she used to ask God for fifteen minutes of encouragement every year. Fifteen minutes of clarity from her Creator that it would all be okay. Fifteen minutes that flew in the face of the other minutes that suggested it wasn’t really all that okay. Fifteen minutes of light delivered on dark days. Fifteen minutes of confirmation that the truth and wisdom she imparted to her children would one day stick.

At first that sounded like underselling God. But then I thought about how many separate moments fifteen minutes could hold. As long as it was meted out in tiny intervals, 900 seconds total, fifteen minutes sounded about right to me. I couldn’t see any clear biblical basis to this prayer request, but it seemed like what I needed, so I prayed for fifteen minutes.

I’m here to tell you those 900 seconds of light sustained me for years.

And lest you think this is parenting advice that shoots way too low, I’d like to add here that I’m not talking about our responsibility as parents, a responsibility that includes loving our kids so fully that we “hope all things” for them. That’s the better part of obedience, to look for hopeful signs of excellence every waking moment you are with your kids. To heed Paul’s words to the Philippians:

Finally… whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phil. 4:8, ESV)

I’m not talking about this. No, I’m talking about those moments when you take off your shoes, because God himself has whispered something hopeful to you about your not-yet-there child. Fifteen minutes is not shooting too low.

Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, James, and John; they were sustained by smoking firepots, burning bushes, hot coals, and a time when Jesus, ablaze in glory, appeared before their very eyes on a mountainside. These were not every day occurrences, even for men such as these. They were flickers of hope sprinkled in brief, bright increments to sustain them as they parented generations of believers. Like us, they counted on the sparks flying upward, sparks that prophesy to a not yet world that there will come a day, a day when we will completely forget that we were ever not yet there. A new day engineered by a God who knows the beginning from the end and speaks in the in between.

So pray big and bold for your children. And pray small and hopeful glimpses of light for yourself as you wait for those big prayers to come true.

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Dysfunction

The Dysfunction You Can Laugh About Later

I’m going to tell you the same story two ways.

Because that is exactly how most stories go, I think: in different directions.

Our second son, David, was about to get married. For his bachelor party, his brothers and a couple of close friends decided to take him camping on a mountain in North Georgia. Our boys never have been Vegas types. His brothers were all single at the time with no discretionary income to speak of, so their camping gear was mostly secondhand or borrowed and not cared for all that great. And it stunk uncannily like the floor of their closets or the trunks of their cars.

They stayed up late by the fire, most likely smoking cigars that made their gear smell even worse. On Saturday morning they woke early, planning to worship together and pray for David on the mountainside as the sun camp up.

I’ll stop right there.

If you have boys, you may be thinking about how spiritual and mature our guys must have been. If you have rebellious boys, you may feel jealous or sad because your son fits better in a skanky Vegas story. Apart from the dirty-sock smells and the unsightly equipment, this a good story. If we wanted to, we could use it as proof that we did a good job as parents. It’s a true story.

But I feel obligated to tell you the other story. The also true one. Because I happen to think that when we tell our stories like blowing bubbles, presenting them as shiny orbs of perfection, those bubbles have a right to be burst. Bursting bubbles is good for you, because it helps you with your envy and your pain. And it’s good for me, because it helps me stay humble and authentic, which I need.

So, the boys woke up early. And one of them said, “Those people down the hill are still sleeping, so let’s move [from the perfect spot with the perfect view] away from here, so we don’t wake them up.”

Another brother said, “It’s not their mountain. Let’s stay here.”

I am not identifying who said what for obvious reasons, but if you know them, you might be able to guess.

Still another, the one who is just as intense as the one who wanted to stay, said, “This trip is all about David, and now you’re making it all about you. You’re so selfish. We’re moving.”

And then the four boys really got into it. One of them told me later, “Mom, I’m pretty sure I said the f word. Maybe even more than once.”

They packed up the car in a collective manly huff and drove off. For several miles, the debate continued, loud and strident and as passionate as if it mattered. And then they settled into an icy silence. One of their friends told me, “Mrs. Murray, that was the most awkward ride home ever.”

And then David, who was driving his soon-to-be father-in-law’s Suburban, accidentally banged the side mirror against the mirror of an oncoming car and knocked both mirrors clean off. But because, by then, no one was speaking to anyone else, they kept driving the treacherous curves of that mountain road in silence. They can be so weird.

Less than an hour after they got home, they were all on the phone apologizing for being complete jerks. Lots of I love you, mans and guffawing.

The more I think about it, I’m proud of the second story even more than the first. Not because of the epic fight, the likes of which I—as a woman—will never understand, but because of the guffaws and the I love you, mans and the fact that they made their straightforward reparations within the hour.

Bill and I talk with people a lot about their families, and we’ve concluded that every family has its moments when they get into it, when they knock the proverbial mirror off the car and get weirdly silent about it. What separates the dysfunction you can laugh about later from the dysfunction you hide and suffer from for years mY quite possibly be as simple as an apology. Our most family-broken friends say things like, “My mother was always right” or “My dad never once said he was sorry about anything.”

Turns out the best family stories aren’t the perfect bubble ones. They are the second stories, the ones when the bubble bursts and you say out loud that you’re sorry you were a jerk. You say I love you, even after the damage has been done. You say it soon and you say it often. And, if necessary, you throw in a humble guffaw for good measure.

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Andrew PCA pic

Boys, Brownies, Signs, and Wonders

I’ve been weeping a lot this week. Which, for me, is not normal. But take a look at the scratched photo above (scratched because he’s our fourth and his pictures never made it into albums). Just look at that kid, the one with the ’90s choker and the homemade haircut. The one with the dimples. If that was your boy and if that boy grew up and one day (TODAY) got on a plane and flew to South Korea to teach English for ONE WHOLE YEAR, I think you’d be weepy, too. My heart cannot decide whether to melt in tears or to burst with pride. Heck, I think I’ll bake brownies and do both. Speaking of brownies, I hope you’ll cut me some slack and read an old post today. Of course you will, especially if there are recipes at the end.

When our boys were too young to get into any real trouble but old enough to be safe on their own, we let them have free range of the neighborhood. Every few weeks they and their friends formed a club. The same collection of boys, gathered under a banner of ever-changing club names, convened in our backyard or in the tangle of trees and kudzu by the community pool.

One week it was the No-Ma’am-Bake-Me-Some-Brownies club. Which meant exactly what it sounds like. These kings of the neighborhood were too manly to be bossed around by some woman and too immature to consider baking their own brownies.

I don’t know why, but I thought it was hilarious. You’d think their disrespect would have triggered an angry lecture from me about women’s value in general and my value in particular, especially since not so long before, while Bill was out changing the world and I was stuck at home with four small children changing diapers, I actually said these words to Bill: “All I’m good for is baking the brownies.”

I said it more than once. It became code for, “I don’t do anything more valuable than make sure all those people who have more important things to do have something good to nibble on at your meetings.”

I wonder when I began to not mind being the official brownie baker so much. Back then I would never dream of buying a mix, because brownies were so much better from scratch. That sounds suspiciously like the preference of a woman who must, somewhere deep in her heart, like baking brownies.

I admit it, I liked it then, and I still do. But when did being relegated to the kitchen cease to feel like an insult? And when did I decide I kind of liked it there?

I have to add that my husband never once told me this was my job. Neither did anyone else. But, in those days, there wasn’t a lot left over in my life, neither time nor energy, for much else. Things changed, and somewhere along the way I discovered brownie-bakers have their place among the world changers. I began to feel less marginalized, and I discovered I had plenty of other gifts. By then our son’s attempt at knuckle-headed, boy club humor gave me a good laugh.

***

This morning I read about Stephen, the first martyr of the church, and his story made me wish I’d understood the massive potential of brownie-baking sooner.

At first glance it appears Stephen was nothing more than a lowly brownie-baker just like me. He was recruited to handle the food service complaints of a disgruntled faction of the early church. Stephen and six others were members of a hastily formed club, recruited because the apostles had more important things to do. Compared to all the high profile world-changing going on, this seems very unexciting to me.

But I am beginning to see that when God chooses a person like Stephen for a job, even if that job is to feed grumbling Greek widows or to bake a batch of brownies, it is never about the job itself. The scriptures say Stephen was a man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” When a task, any task, is performed by someone like that, no telling what will come of it.

Acts 6 implies that Stephen did not in any way see his role as a limitation. It was simply his means of decanting the Gospel to a thirsty world. He was “brimming with God’s grace and energy… doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.” Or, as another translation puts it, he “did signs and wonders.”

As a result, Stephen was put on trial, not for serving food, but for the kind of person he was while serving food. The kind of person who, rather than question the role he’s given, fills it up with wonder and wears it as a sign of something far greater than the job itself. A person who knows that dying is mandatory in any act of service, from baking brownies to preaching to thousands.

***

No one will deny that being a mom is hard, sometimes thankless work. Even if you go to another job that satisfies your intellect or your sense of worth and purpose for a few hours every day, there is still so much to be done at home that feels inconsequential. Not exactly a “signs and wonders” gig. But I am learning that what we do is always a reflection of who we are. If God is with me, I will do “wonderful things,” no matter how wonderful—or not—those things may seem to me at the time. And I’m learning you cannot complain and still have “the face of an angel” like Stephen was reported to have.

When I look at Stephen’s short but astounding life, I realize I missed so much. When I ask myself if I ever had any shining moments, any brief flashes when the wonder of God came through, the funniest pictures come to mind.

Like the time when the boys and I made coffee and cookies and served it in our best china on a tray to the four sanitation workers who were stranded on our street one January morning. Or when I drove the getaway car for our guys as they rang doorbells in the housing projects, dropped off gifts on doorsteps and ran, their faces painted with streaks of green and black, their hilarity infectious. Or those times we took “sad food” to friends or neighbors to comfort them. (And, yes, brownies were almost always a staple in those deliveries.) Nothing special, except that now that I remember them, they glow with a certain wonder. They remind me that I have a cup full of God’s grace, and that cup spills over in rare, surprising moments.

I’m compelled to add that, before we had children, my husband taught me to see the potential in the lowliest of tasks. During his three years in seminary he cut grass, painted buildings, and did maintenance at our apartment complex, a job which included scraping the toxic gunk out of refrigerators and—get ready for grossness—blowing residue out of dishwasher drain hoses. (Don’t make fun of him for washing our dishes before he puts them in the dishwasher. He has a good reason.) One day I overheard some seminary “lawn guys” talking about how absurd it was that they were cutting grass when they had Master’s degrees, and I realized that I’d never heard my husband say such a condescending thing.

I, on the other hand, said it. I said baking brownies was beneath me, and whenever said it, I missed what could have been. So often I couldn’t seem to die enough to see that I had been assigned a task, and that the nobility of that task was in who assigned it and why, not in the task itself. Who knows what signs of God’s grace, what wonders of his love can spill out of our homes if only we’ll embrace what he has given us to do in the moment, even if it’s just baking brownies?

Basic One-Bowl Brownies
(This is a Baker’s redux from my Augusta friend Lauren Washer)

4 squares unsweetened chocolate
3/4 cup butter or margarine (1 1/2 sticks)
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flour, sifted

Microwave the chocolate and butter in a large bowl for about 2 minutes. Remove and stir until the chocolate is melted (this may take a bit more time depending on your microwave). Stir in the sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla and combine. Stir in the flour and mix well. Pour into a greased 9×13-inch pan. Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes.

Or, here’s a fancier version, thanks to my friend Karen Guess:

Crunchy Brownie Bars

Crust:
3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 cup oats
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
Mix well. Press into 9×11 greased pan and bake at 350 for 10 minutes.

Brownie:
Any recipe or mix for family size. (I use the recipe above) Pour over crust and bake as directed.

Icing:
1 stick butter
3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup cocoa
1/3 cup milk or cream
1 tsp vanilla
Mix cocoa and butter. Add sugar and milk, beating well. Add vanilla. Ice!

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