Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Turning Failure into Faith.

Growing up I was naturally athletic, fairly artistic, and overly ambitious. These traits have been part of me as long as I can remember. In school this meant I was often the "teacher's pet" and I did fairly well in most subjects and activities. In my late teens however, I started to see a problem crop up more and more: I was nearly incapable at handling the frustrations of being bad at something.

I took a beginner's piano course in college. I had played the trumpet in Elementary school and for a while in Jr. High, then I had done choir for six years afterwards, so I figured adding piano to my list of accomplishments would be a fairly easy task. Nope. It definitely wasn't.

I wasn't terrible, but I knew I'd never be considered gifted or excellent. I started slacking when it came to practicing and skipping a few classes here and there. By the end of the semester I was horribly behind on my hours and the fear of failing this class threatened me daily. The last two weeks I spent an absurd number of frustrating hours in the piano lab, attempting to log enough practice hours to earn a C. It worked, just barely. Never again, I thought, No more piano.

I didn't think about it much at the time, but I definitely avoided activities with potential for failure after my piano experience. I called it "Sticking with what I'm good at". A year or so later, my husband called it "avoiding what you're bad at".

Playing tennis brought out these same frustrations. I was naturally athletic, and probably pretty good for a beginner, but I knew I could never commit myself to becoming excellent at Tennis. It killed me! I hated it. I hated losing, I hated practicing knowing I was still going to stink, and I hated the irrational feelings that followed my attempts at playing.

Somehow, I had equated being excellent at an activity with being a worthwhile person, with being liked by others, or valued by leaders. In all my learning years, I was generally valued for my talents, accomplishments, or good behavior. Coaches were thrilled to have an ambitious, talented athlete on their team. Teachers loved my eagerness to learn and do what is right. Leaders at church appreciated my attentiveness and desire to know God better. But very few of them showed their appreciation for me in just being myself, uniquely created by God.

I know it's natural for adults to notice those who are excelling, to see and encourage those who have potential and desire success, but for me, this perpetuated my deep need to be excellent at everything I do. My personal bent in this area continues to create a lot of insecurity, striving, and anxiety in my daily life. It is partially how I am wired, but our culture also supports the idea that we create value in ourselves by being particularly excellent at something interesting and important. I have to intentionally undo this desire to be known for my achievements by focusing on God's excellent desires. None of us will find lasting fulfillment in accomplishment and success alone. God has something much bigger and much better for us.

He wants to show His love for me and move me to freely give His love to others. Through Jesus He has declared me righteous and He wants me to point others toward His glorious gift. He gives me peace in all circumstances and wants me to offer peace to all I encounter.

The list goes on: obedience, kindness, mercy, sacrifice, praise, patience. There are endless ways we experience and show the love of God, and enjoying the excellent achievements He gives us is only one of the ways we encounter Him. When I despair in my failed attempts, I act like God's goodness is unavailable in places where I am not perfect. When I do my best then wallow in worry over the outcome, I treat God's plans as untrustworthy. When I lack confidence in my talents for fear of what others will think, I treat God's intentional design of my life like a careless toss of the dice.

God is the farthest thing from unavailable, untrustworthy or careless. He has better plans for us after this life than anything we can achieve during our life on earth. And we have opportunity to participate in God's plans here on earth every day, in simple, easy ways.

When we love people despite their weakness, we give them God's love. When we recognize others' patience, we are evidence to them that God sees their efforts. When we encourage a person during a time of failure, we prove to them God's ability to meet them where they are. When we notice a small, special part of someone, we give them evidence of God's creative spark in their soul.

There are endless ways to give God to others, and to see Him in our lives. Like I said earlier, being excellent at something impressive is just one thing, only one way to see Him working in our lives. Being a dependable friend or persisting in doing good are tangible ways to be excellent at showing God to world around us. Being kind to your children and finding the good in hard situations are beautiful gifts to those around us. Bringing peace to your family and providing for tangible needs of those around you are enduring, fruit-bearing sacrifices.

Do not despise the little things. Do not strive after only big things. Do not let being excellent at one thing define your worth. Do not be discouraged with failure and closed doors. Put aside your desire for obtaining a great name, and desire instead to obtain fulfillment in Christ. Don't set your heart on finding fulfillment in what you can achieve in this life. Set your heart on God's plans for you to live a life of praising Him rather than seeking praise for yourself. Treasure the ways God is preparing you for eternal joy. Hope in what comes after this life is done. Only then will your failures feel small and insignificant. See what God sees in you, and search for what only He can reveal.

"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-20

If all of this makes sense, but you cannot get your heart to agree, you are not alone. I am right there with you. It is still good for you to set your mind to the task. It's a wonderful opportunity to practice humility and admit you cannot do it yourself. Wait for God to change your heart and be willing to take the step forward, obeying even if your heart is not enthusiastic. He is good to us, and He will pull you in. He will not leave you in despair forever. Your ability to excitedly chase after God may come and go, but it does not make the prize any less wonderful. Go for it anyway. Walking, running, crawling, or inching, it's all still forward motion.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Mercy, Not Sacrifice.

I've been thinking about this quote from the bible in Matthew 9:13 a lot recently.

"Go and learn what this means 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."

Jesus was eating with tax collectors and the like, when the Pharisees began to question His disciples about it. Jesus tells them to think about this idea; mercy, not sacrifice. He wants them to know He is out to save the lost, not those who consider themselves righteous.

Jesus also recites this phrase again in Matthew 12:7, telling the Pharisees that yes, it was lawful to pick grain to eat on the Sabbath based on this same idea; mercy, not sacrifice.

This original phrase is found in Hosea 6:6 and says "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings."

God was speaking to His people, telling them that their sacrifices were in vain if they did not turn their hearts back to Him. Jesus used this with the Pharisees to tell them God desired their hearts, not their attempts at living righteously.

The reason I have been thinking about these verses and this idea is because of how quick I am to name my own sacrifices. I give up free time, I exert my energy on home-cooked meals (mostly), I spend hours reading and researching about how to educate my children, then I actually spend bunches of hours teaching them not just math, but also social skills, every other subject, and about God. I give up mid-day coffee dates with friends and I have to bring my kids with me almost everywhere I go. I make a lot of sacrifices in the name of raising my children well, and this verse always left me feeling like I must be missing something. I feel like it's becoming more clear in my mind how I have been misunderstanding what kind of sacrifice God wants.

God doesn't want me to simply sacrifice everything for my family, He wants me to have mercy toward them, to have steadfast love be my guiding force. When I honestly evaluate my actions and intentions, they are not usually guided by steadfast love. I've never been one to claim perseverance as a quality I possess, either physically or mentally, but I see God working in me more and more to gain some ground in it. And being merciful to children day after day, really requires the perseverance only God can give.

To help explain it better, you can see mercy defined as:

- compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one's power.
- the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing.
- an act of kindness, compassion, or favor.

Having mercy toward children can sometimes feel like wussing out, or letting the kids win, but a deeper look has shown me that having mercy on someone is usually still sacrifice, just dressed in different clothing. For instance, when I am patient and speak kindly to a child who has disobeyed, I am giving up my desire to express anger. When I choose to kindly help a child who is frustrated, I am sacrificing my own frustration and energy. When I decide not to complain, I am giving up a selfish desire to have my troubles be known.

Is this sinking in? Can you see how it works out?

Mercy is not just letting a person get away with doing wrong, it's doling out kindness, deserved or not. It's not giving what the natural world gives, but offering something better. It's working toward restoration instead of only allowing consequences. Mercy is sacrificing what you think should happen, to let love reign.

The picture of Jesus giving us mercy instead of eternal death needs to be our example. I'm not saying my kids never suffer consequences, but I'm looking more deeply at my reactions and motivations, sorting out what is sacrifice in order to lift myself up (like the Pharisees) or mercy toward people who need Jesus too. Jesus didn't hold up His sacrifice toward others as His proof of love, He simply acted lovingly in everything He did.

This concept is changing how I homeschool, how I discipline, and how I think about the things I am willing or unwilling to sacrifice. If I am willing to give up a career at this stage of my kids' lives to better their futures, shouldn't I be willing to do so kindly? If not, something has been lost. It shows me how I have held up my sacrifice as proof of my desire to live righteously, but have not looked at what God actually wants from me.

Steadfast love. Mercy. Compassion.

These are what I need to be giving. I need to let go of frustration in order to give steadfast love. I have to give up anger if I want to dish out mercy. I must let go of my own standard of what my kids should be able to do in order to have compassion toward them. And trust me, it takes a lot of bravery and guts to swallow that pride in our sacrifice and admit we could stand to love better.

I hope this is helpful for all you weary moms, homeschoolers or not. You will feel a burden lifted when you let go of your sacrifices and hang on to God's mercy. It is truly endless. I know it might feel like defeat to set those burnt offerings down, but you have victory in Him. He'll give you countless days of blessing with your family when you decide to give them love, mercy, and compassion, instead of just sacrificing for them. And the best part, it's never too late to start!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Getting Familiar.

I've been thinking a lot lately about becoming familiar with things: art, school, routes to places in town, music, routines, eating habits, and exercise. You've probably heard the quote "Familiarity breeds contempt", and while this quote is attributed to many different people throughout history, the oldest claim to author I could find was Aesop. I feel this way at times, begrudging the regular, familiar duties of life, but when I think more deeply about the idea of becoming familiar with something or someone, I see how familiarity breeds a level of comfort and happiness in my life.

My first lightbulb moment with this idea was on the flight back from Thailand after my first trip around to that side of the globe. I had been gone for 12 days and while I was tired and ready to be home, I didn't feel particularly homesick. I thoroughly enjoyed the food in Thailand, the friendliness of the people, and seeing all the lush, tropical greenery was an experience I will never forget. But still, the moment I started seeing golden oak trees, red maples, and leaves covering the autumn landscape of Washington, my heart was leaping without my consent or even the slightest encouragement. I kept saying "I don't know why, but seeing the landscape here just makes me so happy!".

I remember feeling really surprised at how a familiar landscape could incite such a response in my spirit. I do love the Fall, and each year seeing the leaves change colors brings me some level of excitement, but when you have a time of separation from familiar places or things, the thrilling rush of being reunited is even more intense.

I see this in our schooling all the time. Most recently, our kids studied George Frederick Handel and his composition Water Music during our time at CC. We colored a picture of Handel, talked about the orchestra, I shared about his life and where he lived, then we listened to the song a couple times. We took note of the repeating portions of the song, which instruments echoed other instruments, and chatted a little about what we imagined happening while the music played. Cole especially took to the music and easily remembered Handel's full name, as he has a stuffed cat named Frederick.

Fast-forward three weeks later to our opening session at CC. One of the other tutors came up front and demonstrated playing some music on her clarinet. She played a few small pieces, and before the third she said we might recognize the tune. As she began, Cole jumped from his chair and looked at me with huge eyes, bouncing, trying to still whisper but hardly containing himself, "Mom! It's Water Music by George Frederick Handel!" and continued to bounce his little bum on his chair until she finished the refrain.

I have never seen a kid so thrilled to hear Water Music. It was his familiarity with the music made it exciting! The same goes for art. During our Language Lessons this year we studied a piece by Andrew Wyeth called The Master Bedroom which featured a sleepy dog on a tidy bed. Several months later, we happened to be leaving Goodwill when Asher pointed out a picture. The same exact print, nicely framed (and nicely priced) was sitting on a bottom shelf! Of course we bought it, and now it sits as a lovely reminder of the way God has taken seemingly meaningless tasks in our homeschooling and brought excitement into them. That print at Goodwill would have gone totally unnoticed by us had we not studied it earlier in the year.

Susan Schaeffer Macaulay talks about this concept in her book For the Children's Sake. We try to make art fun for children by taking them to art museums, but in reality, to make it exciting and impactful for them, we need to teach them art first, then take them to a museum where they will encounter the beloved pieces they have already studied. It will be far more ingrained in their minds, education, and experience.

Obviously, familiarity does not guarantee interest, but a certain level of exposure and knowledge to important and beautiful people, places, and things, gives our children a greater chance at finding something they can pursue with passion. Exposing them to a base knowledge of classical music gives them access to different paths they would not have access to otherwise. Teaching children about famous artists and what the world was like for those people gives them more chances to connect the dots of history, art, humanities, and more.

On a day to day basis, familiarity for us adults means we can do our jobs without a lot of decision-making. We know where our spoons are, we know what cupboard to get a coffee mug from, and we know which button to press when we want to heat up our coffee for 30 seconds more. Aesop might be right in that this level of familiarity can make life feel boring, making us feel resentful, but that is why I prefer George Santayana's quote: "Familiarity breeds contempt only when it breeds inattention".

Let the topics you introduce to your children become familiar enough for them to recognize out in the world, then give them opportunity to find those familiar ideas somewhere new. Help them to know the names of important people, places, historical events, and music so that they can recognize it instantly in a book, in conversation, or on the radio. Not only will you be boosting their confidence in their ability to know the world they live in, you also make it far more exciting. Not just for them, but for you as well. Witnessing the joy beaming from your children over the information they retain, understand and expand upon is one of the most rewarding experiences for a parent.

This all sounds lovely right? But how do you start? I feel lucky that CC makes it pretty easy for us, giving us plenty of information to memorize and digest. But if you are going this alone, without a community or someone giving you a foundation to start from, you can still do it! Here is one practical way to start.

- Pick something you love: a work of art, a well-known historical event, an important person you admire, a president, an orchestral instrument, etc.

- Find out several things about your chosen item or person.

- Print out some pictures, related objects, portraits of people involved, or maps of the area.

- Talk about it! Just tell your children what you know, emphasizing a few important pieces of information.

- Two more times that week, talk about it some more. Ask the children to tell Dad about it over dinner, or to draw a replica of the art or portrait of the person.

- Find a book from the library where this topic will come up again. It can be a book fully devoted to the person or topic, but it doesn't have to be. Just make sure they encounter this same topic somewhere slightly unexpected.

- Lastly, wait and see where else it comes up! Maybe at the grocery store, where the art or portrait of a famous person will show up, or maybe even at Goodwill.

This method of introducing a topic and finding it in more places is probably my favorite part of homeschooling. It's confirmation that the world is far more connected than we realize, and that God intertwines all kinds of things together in our lives. If you have having trouble thinking of a topic to start with, here are some fun topics that have worked well for us.

- The Great Pyramids
- Vincent Van Gogh
- Beethoven
- Bach
- The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
- Geodes and Thunder Eggs
- the Flute
- Andrew Wyeth
- Georges-Pierre Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
- George Washington
- Abraham Lincoln
- The Huns
- The Roman Empire
- Volcanoes
- The Mediterranean Sea & prominent countries in Europe

Come back and tell me what you tried! The first attempt is always the hardest, but soon it will be a familiar (and lovely) process, one with many rich rewards for your entire family.