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.

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.

The Sanctity of the Arm Pat, or How to Be a Humble Parent Not Just a Humbled One

We had a certain feng shui in our home.

As noticeable as the furniture placement, our mix of six personalities was exquisitely balanced. Three of us are intense, confrontational extroverts. Three of us are laid-back, peacemaking introverts. Three of us don’t understand moderation. Three of us live in middle ground. Three loud. Three quiet. Which means one half of us was pretty much always baffled by the other half, and this included Bill and me.

More conversations than I can count started off benign and ended in ways we never saw coming. Ambushes. Land mines. Flying shrapnel. Tears (usually, as the only female in the house, these were mine). Doors slammed or walls punched. (If you have a boy, this will happen once. In our case: four boys/four times. And four opportunities for our boys to learn how to repair sheetrock.) I’m almost entirely referring to the adolescent years here, which at the time felt like an epoch from which we might never escape.

This post is not about achieving balance in your home. Far from it. It is about how to get humble when it is easy to stay proud. It is about how to take a two second breather and consider that maybe, just maybe, your kid’s personality, his way of seeing, feeling and operating, might have something right in it. Even though it seems so wrong. How to respond when your kid’s take on the world is alien to your take on the world, as in scary from another planet “take me to your leader” alien.

I’m one of the intense ones, but I like the feeling of peace. I value ending the slightest squabble with “we’re at one with each other, right?” I value talking in the happy lilt of an infomercial or a sappy sitcom. So I guess you could say these collisions, especially the ones I had with boys so unlike me, humbled me. This implies that I did not go into those conversations humble. I went in proud and right and full of myself.

As a follower of Jesus, I understand that I have a spiritual governor inside of me. A voice that speaks gentlingly to my less gentle self. I recognize the Holy Spirit when I hear him. But sometimes, sometimes the noise of my own rightness in the face of a boy’s wrongness, a boy with emboldening peach fuzz on his upper lip and a bull frog in his throat and a good six inches of height above me, when all that noise was playing like incessant static, I did not hear the Holy Spirit. I would not.

And so I stomped on the land mines. And God spoke in the bleeding aftermath once I’d been humbled unawares.

Bill would tell the same story about those years when our two very different-from-him sons gave him fits of confusion. When conflict escalated as a result.

And then, somewhere along the way, Bill began to pat my arm or I’d pat his.

The message of the pat was simply this: Danger. Stop. You’re about to step in it and you don’t even know it. Think. Maybe you should leave the room. Let me take over. I get him and clearly you do not.

And I’d flick away the pat. He would do the same to my pat on his arm.

The message of the flick was obvious: Leave me alone. I’m right. Don’t tell me I’m not.

This did not go well. Pride never does. And so, eventually, after being humbled and humbled again, we both decided to let the arm pat make us humble. To concede that maybe we couldn’t do it. That maybe someone else (in my case, Bill, and in his case, me) could do a better job. To admit that our way was not necessarily the right or only way. To develop a humbler reflex than the one that obviously was not serving any of us well.

I admit that I’m like the horse David described in Psalm 32, “without understanding, which must be curbed with a bit and bridle,” but I tell you what, I’m thankful for the bridle effect of Bill’s pat on my arm. I’m thankful for a chance to get humble before I was humbled. And I believe his gentle pat was a harbinger of God’s promise to never leave me to my own designs.

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” Psalm 32: 8

I’m not sure what happened first. Did we become more humble parents and, thus, have healthier conversations with our sons? Or did they grow up to become humble young men and, thus, less apt to mine the field between us? Or did we just get through it?

Maybe so. But getting through it gave us ample practice in humility, in listening to wise instruction and heeding counsel, in recognizing that our own wisdom is never enough.

These days, when Bill pats my arm the message is nothing more than affection: I love you. So maybe this is the reward, that what was there all along—the love of God expressed through my husband, a love strong enough to break through my pride—is there still.



More than enough.