Kids are a lot of fun. Every loving parent always strives to create the most favorable living conditions for their children.
The sphynx is one of the most popular cat breeds in the world. The almost complete absence of hair, large ears, and expressive eyes make their appearance cosmic and mysterious.
It was just a few months ago that I read an article that sent me absolutely spinning. Got me more inflamed emotionally than I’d been over anything in a long time. I mean, I’m opinionated, and I can get pretty riled up, but I work hard to keep it all under control. Blood pressure, you know. But this has stuck with me at an active simmer ever since, for reasons that go far beyond the topic of the article itself.
After my dog alerted me that the mail man had arrived, I was excited because I was expecting something specific that day. It didn’t come, but my weekly issue of Time magazine did. I’ve gotten fairly used to shocking covers of Time, but this one. THIS ONE. “In Defense of Johns” was the title. The gist: buying sex should not be shamed.
Once I recovered my breath and talked my stomach out of turning itself inside out, I considered the greater ramifications of this article: We live in a culture that bullies us into being ashamed for shaming things that are SHAMEFUL.
Okay, I’ll expound.
There are things/issues/sins that are plainly wrong. Not everything is gray, although we live in a culture that would resolutely tell us otherwise. As Christians, we know better. The Bible gives us timeless truths that don’t change with cultural trends. But there is a very real enemy working to steal, kill, and destroy us. And one of the ways that is done is by turning our right and wrong upside down, and by making us incrementally tolerate/accept/embrace these things.
Historically, the most obvious example to draw from would be the African slave trade. It’s one of the most grievous atrocities and collective sins in our country’s history. Yes? Yes. This is a view held overwhelmingly across the board, regardless of religious belief. Human beings are not objects or property, and skin tones are not a legitimate basis for segregation or for determining the worth of a person.
But for years–HUNDREDS of them–an entire culture considered it not only permissible, but even essential for society. The grossly over-simplified explanation (because I don’t have space for all the history behind it) is that slaves were the economic backbone of the West. If slavery was abolished, the economy could collapse. The moral issue was entirely eclipsed by money. Thus, a horrific disregard for the value of human life was culturally accepted and embraced.
Guilt over that would have been massively inconvenient.
Thank God people of sober conscience risked all to stand up and call this shameful. They called it what it was, and they didn’t back down when the majority tried to bully them into silence.
Even more historically, we look at the Garden and see how not just a culture but a world across generations can be fooled into thinking we know better than God. It started by a little thought being planted that disobeying God is not really wrong. That there’s a bright side to it. That it’s not really a big deal. That our needs are important, and satisfying them will make us happy. That’s what God wants for us, right? Just to be happy?
And we see how this has snowballed over time. We have gotten really good at justifying sin in order to give ourselves permission to have what we want while simultaneously keeping us from feeling guilty.
The more we are told we are not being loving by recognizing sin as sin (aka “judging”), and the more we are told that truth is “whatever feels right to you”, and the more we feel on the outside of popular thought, we give in. And we start confusing the straight line with the crooked one.
I want to constantly ask myself this question, and I challenge you to do it, too: Who is determining my right and wrong? Who is determining how I interpret scripture? A godless culture, or God?
God is the only one who deserves that role in my life, and when I give it to someone or some entity or some trend that is separate from God, I have forsaken Him. I have put Him lower. And when I’m not willing to call sin “sin” because I’m afraid of how people will see me, that may make me tolerant and accepted and safe in the temporal sense, but it also makes me a coward. It does not represent Christ well. And, from an eternal perspective, it’s useless.
Lastly, I am struck by this truth regularly: The gospel is offensive (1 Cor. 1:18). So, while we seek to live in a way that is loving and not condemning, harmonious and servant-hearted toward others, we cannot reject that the story of Christ, by whom we stand, is going to make people angry and reject us. We are in and not of. We are strangers in this place.
The world will do what it will without Christ. It will stake its claim in the darkness and on sin and death until the very end. It’s ugly and it’s not where we want to be, nor where we’re called to be. Not even close. Let’s not blur those lines. Let’s hold each other accountable as Christians to stay sober-minded about what should be deemed shameful, and not be ashamed to call it so. And let’s let others know that there is Someone to live for who is far more satisfying than living for ourselves.
I write to you from the throes of my last week in my thirties. I always knew the day would come, and I confess I have been in no hurry to get here. I could feel it hovering in the distance, like Tax Day; you ignore it as long as possible, but you know it’s coming for you, and even if you file an application for an extension, you’re still gonna pay.
I find myself a mess of contradictions. The best way to convey this to you is to give you a peek at my inner monologue.
The milestones I looked forward to most in life are all behind me now.
I don’t want to be thought of as old and irrelevant.
I feel more comfortable in my own skin than ever.
I enjoy and treasure my marriage more than ever.
I hate cellulite.
Cellulite doesn’t matter.
Just keep swimming.
As you can see, I am all over the place. Most of these are fleeting thoughts; they do not plague me from moment to moment, but they are most definitely there. If I stop all the noise and dial down, there is a wrestling.
I think if I have any revelation at forty, by the grace of God alone, it is that the wrestling is always there, has always been. The topics of my thoughts shift and change, but the underlying theme remains: my will versus His.
My will is that I stay young and pretty. That others look at me and want to be like me. That all my dreams for this life come true. That my failures are small and my successes great. That I have no regrets. That I get the life I want.
His will is that my heart would be pretty. That I would yield and allow Him to conform me to His Image. That my trust in His ways would supersede my need to conform to my culture. That I would let go of living for myself. That I would love Him enough to love others more.
It’s easy to see how these two could be locked in a perpetual arm wrestling match. The flesh and the spirit, a lifetime of war. This is what my fears and apprehensions about turning forty are really about. I sense the spirit getting the advantage, and my flesh grabs on with both hands, plants its feet, and uses its whole body weight to cheat its way to victory. (Which is, coincidentally, the only way I could ever win an actual arm wrestling match. I have the upper body strength of a fruit snack.)
Part of me wants to let go. To graciously and gracefully accept growing older. To embrace this season as an opportunity to learn more fully what it means to live in the Upside Down Kingdom. To prefer others, to serve wholeheartedly, to humble myself into such a position that I no longer see my life as an accumulation of check marks on a bucket list.
Another part of me is kicking and screaming. It likes getting what it wants. It likes being young and powerful, comfortable in the spotlight, setting its sights on new ways to feel important and alive. It shrieks, “Stay focused on me! Get what I want out of life!”
I am under no illusion that this will go away. The day after I turn forty, I will awaken to the same struggle: which master to serve today? But how amazing is grace? I do not have to hide the war with my self-serving nature. It drives me back to the gospel. My righteousness is Christ’s alone. I am hopelessly lost without grace.
I will say that, in my experience, the older I get, the more genuinely I root for the spirit. The more fleeting the world of the flesh appears, the less I want to associate with it. Call it maturity, call it life experience; whatever it is, I am grateful for it. The lie of sin grows thinner, less convincing.
So, when I am in my right mind, I am grateful to be turning forty. In truth, I should be grateful to turn any age. It’s another day to wage war, another day to revel in grace, another day to love with my life.
It’s also another day to check for gray hairs and troll the internet for more supportive undergarments. I will endeavor to do it with an eye roll and a smile.
“Do not regret growing older; it is a privilege denied to many.” – Unknown
So there was this woman, and she was pretty comfortable. After a decade of moving every few years, she’d been settled in a nice small town for nearly five years. Healthy kids, good marriage. She was mostly “at home” with the kids, but had carved out a little sideline writing for a few blogs and her local newspaper. Life was crazy, sure: She had four young children. But she felt like she’d finally nailed the rest-work balance. Three kids were in school now. She had her village firmly in place: school, church, friends, and her parents, who lived 15 minutes away.
And she was about to lose it all, because the following year, her husband was going on sabbatical. Sabbatical: from the Greek word “sabatikos,” meaning “of the Sabbath” – the day of rest. For her husband, sabbatical was a year of rest from his job as a college professor. For her, it felt like the opposite of rest.
They’d be moving their family to California for the spring semester. Five months. It had seemed perfect at the time: her husband was from California, they’d lived there while he was in graduate school, he’d do career-advancing research in his old department at UC Berkeley.
She loved California and their family and friends there: Sign her up for a two-week vacation anytime! But this upcoming sabbatical felt too unrestful and uncomfortable. The only thing settled so far was the lovely young lady who’d live in their house for a year and dog-sit in their absence. Her daughter’s public preschool had just cut its budget — and her child — so she was scrambling to find a new preschool for one semester only. They still had no leads on a place to live in Berkeley, where rents were so outrageous that their family of six would probably be confined to a 900-square-foot bungalow. Since it was only for one semester, she planned to “home school” her two oldest daughters. She’d envisioned this as lots of trips to museums and parks, but when her state’s home school application arrived, it seemed that she needed to submit an actual curriculum.
To her this sabbatical – this time of “rest” – looked an awful lot like being holed up in a tiny shack with four children, all day, every day, trying to teach 1st and 2nd grade simultaneously while wrangling a preschooler and a toddler. Time for writing or thinking? Ha!
She didn’t want to do it; she didn’t want to get uncomfortable.
There was this other woman, and she was pretty comfortable, too. For almost five years, she’d lived in what she’d labeled, the first time she saw it, her “dream house.” It wasn’t perfect, but they were chipping away at home-improvement projects; with four young children, there was no point in making things too perfect. The house suited their family of six, and all winter she’d been adding little decorating touches to make it more comfortable and attractive.
But lately, when the house was quiet, she’d sit at her computer and search the local real estate listings.
There was absolutely no defensible reason for the amount of time she spent scrolling through the homes for sale. They weren’t moving; she didn’t want to move — not really: Her children were happily attending the town school, her parents had just moved nearby, and anyway, their family was going away on sabbatical the following year, so moving was a practical impossibility.
Still, she dreamed. Maybe, if they had more open land…if they lived in an old farmhouse…if she had a place to write that wasn’t just an extension of the kitchen counter. Or – a lake house! Maybe a little retreat in that town where they’d spent three happy family vacations….
Five years was the longest she’d lived in any one place since leaving home; she figured maybe this itchiness was because she feared getting too comfortable.
In case you haven’t figured it out, both of those women are me. To be clear, I don’t mean that I’ve been each of those women at different stages of my life; I mean that I’ve been both of those women, simultaneously, during the past month.
How can that be? You ask. How can you feel near-crippling panic at the thought of leaving home for a five-month sabbatical, while at the same time dream of moving? How can you fear the loss of comfort as you inhale, and fear becoming too comfortable as you exhale?
Is anybody with me? Isn’t this human? We walk with God in the Garden, then eat the fruit to get more knowledge. We flee the burning city…then look back. We walk on water — until we notice the wind and waves and start sinking. We can’t get no satisfaction.
I have diagnosed myself with a lack of trust: I don’t trust God to be enough, whether my life is in upheaval or too comfortable. I want to be the author of my own story. When asked to sacrifice for the greater good — whether by staying or by going — I chafe at my lack of agency.
So I did the only thing left to me: I prayed. The message I got back was as clear and direct as any I’ve ever received.
We are going to California for sabbatical. I will support my husband, who has supported me at the expense of his own comfort numerous times. I will not be an example for my children of somebody who backs out when things look difficult. I will trust God to take care of the logistics — and of me.
I have this daughter; she’s a lot like me. Given the choice, she wants to stay home and read. She rebels against anything new or out of the ordinary. A family snowshoe trek? A new after-school activity? Leaving the house? “I don’t want to do that!” she cries. “It’s NOT FAIR! Why do you always make me do what I don’t want to do?”
In the end, she always has a great time.
“See?” we say. “Aren’t you glad you went?”
They say a perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other. I don’t know if “perfect” is really what we’re going for, but surviving and thriving are good goals. So I agree; it takes two people who take the “for better or worse” part of their vows with sober sincerity. Two people who look at their marital problems and, both together and independently, acknowledge that there ARE solutions, and they are worth finding.
All that sounds so simple, breaking it down in such black and white terms. Cause when marriages get messy and dirty and painful, it seems like anything but black and white. It gets complicated and tangled in ways that seem beyond sorting. And it’s so easy to start wondering if you said “I do” to the wrong person. Bitterness and resentment become a regular poison. Hopelessness can start to feel like a weight on our hearts. And repair is just . . . beyond us.
We need help.
Last September, my husband and I celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary. We’ve been through lots of “life” together over that decade: college, buying and selling houses, changing jobs, changing churches, cancer, deaths in the family, adopting two little ones, etc. Lots of hard things and lots of wonderful things.
But boy, oh boy. We’ve been on the cusp. Two people who love God and love each other (despite how we’ve been unloving toward each other). We’ve looked at each other and asked how it was possible to move forward together. Even our friends — the really close ones who stood by us at our wedding as a commitment to hold us accountable to our vows — even they wondered.
We sought prayer and counsel from close friends and pastors and mentors. We spent hours with church leaders and counselors through the church, praying and being encouraged and being supported and all of that was absolutely amazing. A lifeline, even. We attended seminars and support groups and were surrounded by the best people in the best way. But after several years we were still in the same spot, and it felt extremely . . . grim.
Finally — FINALLY — we got help. Professional help. From a licensed doctor of psychology.
Twice a month we made an intentional, costly investment into saying, “Yes. We want to learn how to keep going because we promised each other and God that we would.” And let me tell you, it was a game-changer. Why? Well, that could be a very nuanced answer with lots of personal stuff none of us want to go into, but ultimately our counselor had the professional tools to make us not only feel safe and heard, but to find the areas that had become roadblocks for us, and to coach us through getting around/through/over them. He helped us find the solutions we thought only existed on some imaginary planet. He helped us find them and helped us implement them.
It didn’t make our marriage perfect or take away all of the problems, but it certainly taught us how to keep going. How to keep loving each other in spite of it all. How to reach for the best version of “us” we possibly can.
I’m betting you or someone you know may need to take this step. Maybe you needed to a long time ago. Maybe you’ve got questions and fears and any number of reasons you’re not seeking professional help. Here are some thoughts I have based on our experience that will hopefully encourage you in the right direction.
- Don’t be ashamed. I’m not sure if there’s still a REAL stigma about going to see a therapist, or if we just think there is, but I’ve found that a lot of people avoid getting professional help because of what other people may think. First, it’s up to you whether or not you tell other people. But if you do, the people in your life who support you should be cheering you on. Besides, doing whatever it takes to get healing in your marriage and to honor your commitment to your spouse is the mark of a mature person and ultimately matters more than the probably-nonexistant-judgers.
- Don’t wait. Because getting to the end of your marriage rope might be too late for one of you. Stay open with close, trusted friends, mentors, pastors. Stay in communication with the Lord. Stay in communication with each other as much as possible. But if things are not getting better, stop the spiral and get professional help right away.
- Don’t let money keep you from taking this step. We did, and we shouldn’t have. Yes, counseling can be expensive, and adding financial stress never seems helpful to an already difficult situation. But find a way. Maybe this means seeing a pastoral counselor (often free) a few times to keep you holding on while you re-arrange your budget (giving up things like Netflix, Starbucks, extras at Target [GASP!] on a monthly basis will likely cover it). Maybe you’ll have to give up something big (financially or in scheduling commitments) for a time so you can get started immediately. Pray and ask the Lord to show you how you can make it work. Ask Him to provide. He will.
- Choose wisely. Not every counselor is the right one for you and your spouse. My husband and I did not find our therapist on the first try, but it was so worth the search. Here’s what I suggest: First, ask trusted sources for recommendations. If the recommended counselor is not accepting new clients, they will likely refer you to someone equally as good, or can put you on a wait list. Second, make sure their credentials check out. I strongly advise someone who is actually licensed. Many times pastoral counselors are not. (Let me clarify: sometimes pastoral counselors can be amazing and perfect for what you need, but if they are not educated and licensed, they may not have the tools to help you through your situation.) Next, make sure they’re Christian. Non-Christian counselors can be phenomenal, but if there’s a highly recommended Christian counselor in your vicinity, make her/him your first choice. Lastly, find someone you both can respect, and who will respect both of you. The last thing you need is a therapist who takes sides.
- Put in the work. Be intentional. Show your spouse the level of your commitment. A counselor can only do so much. You have to practice what you learn in those sessions at home with your spouse every day.
Every single marriage comes with its worst of times. Some of those seasons last longer than others and are more intense than others and can take a huge toll. But I sincerely hope that you find the courage to keep going. To not give up. To seek the Lord and know that He is faithful and He is your advocate. To accept and receive help.
You can do this.
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For two years, Cara Bartlett (a contributor and friend of On the Willows) dedicated herself to purchasing ethically manufactured clothing. This past fall she launched Bien Faire so that she could share her experience as a conscious consumer. It’s not just a blog; she also gives her readers a heads up on special deals and great fashion finds that are all either American made, artisanal, fair trade, or second hand.
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