Sunday, December 28, 2008

"ilus on maa, mida armastan..."

Yesterday afternoon I watched the most incredible movie I've seen in a long time. I've mentioned it in a previous post, but had yet to see it.

It is an important film in its own right. But it was especially poignant for me as I watched The Singing Revolution with my husband's family. They lived through many of the historical events depicted in the moving documentary about the history of the various Estonian occupations before, during, and after World War II.

It was a little surreal to explain to my children that the events they were seeing depicted onscreen, really happened to the great-grandmother and grandmother who were in the room watching with them.

"You know, Helde (as their 98-year-old great-grandmother is known) was grabbed and loaded onto one of those trains, but she jumped off once it was moving and escaped."

"Helde and Emi (their 70-year old grandmother) and Onu Toivo (her older brother) took food out to those guys (the "forest brother" revolutionaries living in hiding in the forest). One time Helde was caught by a soldier, in the forest, with food for them in her hands. She told him she was feeding their family's cows or something, and - miraculously - he let her go."

"Helde and Emi and Toivo escaped, but their dad had to stay back and fight. They didn't know if they'd ever see each other again."

"As they were leaving their house in secret, Toivo grabbed a few photographs from the drawer, and Helde turned over the china cabinet, shattering everything. She determined that, if the Soviets were going to invade and occupy her home, they weren't going to eat on her dishes!"

"See?! That's why Daddy's family felt that it was so important for those who escaped to keep the language alive in their children. That's why Daddy knows Estonian."

The history is rich, the stories remarkable. And it was a privilege and blessing beyond words to watch the film together with those who had lived through it.

From one of the traditional Estonian songs featured in the film:
"Ilus, ilus, ilus on maa." ("Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful is the land.")
"Ilus on maa, mida armastan." ("Beautiful is the land that I love.")

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Celebrating Christmas

As we move into Christmas Eve, the excitement around our household is growing. Many of our family's "Christmas traditions" have already come to pass, and many are yet to come in the next few days.

At the meeting of our worship team during our weekly practice last week, the "icebreaker" question was to share your favorite family tradition in celebrating Christmas. It was interesting to watch people decide which "life stage" to answer about... whether to answer about the traditions they remembered from their own childhood, or the ones they implement now with their own children, or the ones they used to implement when their children were still at home. Generally, the effect was that you got "the best of the best," as they had to choose a favorite from among all of those experienced during any life stage.

My own children were in the room, participating in the meeting, so we got to hear firsthand their perspective on some of the favorite traditions we're practicing now. What I discovered is that "it's working." We have long desired to capitalize on our children's love of holidays and special occasions and celebrations, and to use them to underscore the special significance of certain spiritual truths. We've always wanted Christmas to be more about Jesus than Santa. We've wanted them to be firmly grounded in truth. We've wanted them to be more excited about giving than receiving. And we've wanted to avoid the materialistic spending frenzy that is typical of Christmas in America.

Yeah, right. Pretty tall order. But we've done our best, and it seems to be mostly working. Here are some of the things we do toward that end... all of them are not "spiritual," and some of them have just "come about on their own" without any planning or thought or purpose to it. Some of them are just silly and fun, while some of them are deeply significant. Some we hold lightly; some we simply must do.

We'd love to hear about what you do, too, because we usually end up incorporating new ideas each year... and some of the strangest ones stick!

So, although I'm pretty sure nobody else is as excited to read all about our family's Christmas traditions as I am to write them all down, here they are, in no particular order:

* We usually stay away from anything Christmas-y until after Thanksgiving, in order to give that holiday its own import and focus. On Thanksgiving day, after all the feasting, we always watch "It's a Wonderful Life." It is just a great movie that underscores what's really important and what really isn't... and my husband is pretty much George Bailey.

* By far our most important and significant tradition is doing our "advent banner" beginning on December 1. iivo and I created this banner (from the book Family Celebrations - Meeting Christ in Your Holidays and Special Occasions by Ann Hibbard) when I was pregnant with EV, and we've been going through these family devotions during advent ever since. We made a banner with a large flannel Christmas tree, and each "ornament" (with its symbolic felt emblem) is velcroed onto the tree by a child after the advent meditation has been completed each evening. This keeps our focus clearly on the spiritual dimensions and implications of the advent season. Our regular family devotions are replaced with this advent banner during this time. [Note from the future, in 2013: These devotions are perfect for little ones, and a little "babyish" for older ones, but we walk through them every year anyway. We've added an advent "road the the manger" candle tradition--compliments of Ann Voskamp's son who crafted it himself, with profits going to missions.  We printed the pictures and made the "ornaments" for her advent tree devotional several years ago, and we usually do some of that, too, when we can. We reprise the "thankfulness tree" from Thanksgiving, and we do these things when we can. Sometimes, now that they're older, we'll do three or four days' worth of felt banner devotions at a time, and other nights we won't do it at all. Whatever works to keep all the relevant advent scriptures before our eyes and minds throughout the month.]

* We also have collected quite a set of Christmas books over the years, so our evening "family read-aloud" is also disbanded during this time, and we read a Christmas story together each night. These range from the explanatory (Santa, Are You For Real?) to the symbolically spiritual (this year's acquistion - The Tale of Three Trees) to the silly and fun (A Wish for Wings that Work - an Opus Christmas Story). We have enough by now to last us throughout the Christmas season. The red-white-and-green basket of books comes out with the Christmas decorations and sits out all month, by the couch; the kids tend to pick up and read the books on their own throughout the month as well.

* However soon as  is practical after Thanksgiving, we head together as a family to get our Christmas tree. Though there is a lovely(?) artificial tree in our attic even as I type, over the past few years we have developed the habit of heading to our local Taylor's for a "real" tree, which as of this 2008 writing can be had for only $14.99. Somehow it has come to be tradition that after we choose our tree and strap it to the van, we head across the street to have lunch at the Tijuana Flat's restaurant that is there. There is nothing Christmas-y about it, but it is pretty expensive for our whole family to go there, so we usually only do it this one time during the year. It has become part of the Christmas traditions purely by accident. [NFF 2013: The "must have a real tree" thing has continued, through several price hikes at Taylor's over the years and then the eventual abandonment of them entirely after this tree fiasco.  Also, the super-close Tijuana Flats closed down, so we now head across town to the other one, though it is nowhere near the purchasing place of the Christmas tree anymore!]

* We usually end up putting only the lights on the tree at this point, and then "do the ornament thing" about a week later. While the lights go up, we tend to gravitate toward a favorite Christmas CD called It's Christmas Time (with carols and fun Christmas songs sung by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra). (NOTE: This CD got lost sometime around 2012, and I have been grieving the loss of it ever since. It is a lot like an 8-track we listened to while putting up the tree when I was a little girl, and I miss it!)

* After the lights are on the tree, the girls usually grab the other Christmas decorations from the attic and scatter them about the house, while iivo and PT put some Christmas lights outside, on the house and bushes.

* We have a variety of nativity sets, and they go up in different rooms of the house... right down to the little clear glass ones EL bought at the Dollar Tree for her sister OG and her brother PT one year when she was very little, "so they can have one of their own like EV." (Said "nativity of her own" for EV came from her Sunday school teacher when she was a pre-schooler, and is a little nativity set of black figures. She still puts it up in her room every year.)

* iivo's birthday falls in the middle of the "Christmas season," so there is usually a break somewhere in here one weekend to celebrate him and his birth.

* "Doing the ornament thing" is an experience around our house, and is usually reserved for a weekend of its own after iivo's birthday weekend. (We're still homeschooling during these weeks of early December, so weekends are all we have!) Each ornament is brought out and - since many of them have significant memories attached to them - discussed as it is put on the tree. My mother and I have been buying a different Christmas tree ornament for each of my children every Christmas since they were born, so that they'll have a set of ornaments to take with them to their own homes when they leave ours. They each pull a few of their own ornaments out of the special boxes we bought them, smiling and remembering and deciding where to place each one. It is usually best if I stay out of this process as much as possible. (See here for more about this!)

* When we put ornaments on the tree, we listen to A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. This is relatively calm and mostly instrumental, which helps during the frenzy. So does egg nog, by the way, so that's become typical during the hanging of the ornaments.

* Though we own a lot of Christmas albums, and have put them all into a Christmas playlist on the ipods, a few favorites tend to come out and stay front and center around our house in December. These include the two already mentioned, James Taylor's James Taylor at Christmas, Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters, and A Christmas Together by John Denver and the Muppets. A couple of local radio stations play Christmas music all season, and it tends to irritate some of us and thrill others of us. So there is usually some listening to "I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas" or "Feed the World" or "Santa Baby" type songs... and the commensurate "radio wars" that go on when one member of the family doesn't want to hear "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" for the eight-hundredth time, while one other member of the family has every radio station in the house tuned to this station - and turned on!

* Our children do not have "Christmas wish lists," and we tend to only buy each of them one big present. This item is something we think they would enjoy having, not something they've asked for. (I think both our homeschooling and our not watching television help in this regard, because there aren't nearly as many "have to have this" items in a kid's mind when he isn't in the peer-conformity world of school or watching TV commercials tell him how much he needs a specific thing.) They never ask for particular things they want, as we've never fostered an environment that caters to that. They do have grandparents, however, who will sometimes ask if there are any particular wishes; occasionally one surfaces, but not usually.

* What they do love (and I mean love) is the practice we have of going out shopping - one child at a time, with me - to buy a specific gift for each of their siblings. (I talked about this in my last post.) They plan out and think about what they might like to buy each other for weeks and months before Christmas, and head out once we finish homeschooling with either with a very specific plan in mind, or with an open mind combined with a pretty good knowledge of the sibling, and we shop. This is both exhausting and exhilarating to me. Truth be told, I love it, too! There is something thrilling about seeing your children genuinely more excited about the gifts they're giving than the ones they're receiving.

* Christmas Eve, for us, traditionally involves a series of Christmas Eve church services. There is a children's service at my parents' church up the road that starts at 4:00 and involves story-telling and craft-making and a "birthday cake" for Jesus. My parents pick up and take the little ones to that, while the older ones and we adults get ready for our church's service. iivo is the worship leader, and at least some of the rest of us are usually involved in the music in some way, too. That service is typically at 5:30. My father brings the little girls after the children's service is over, and then attends that 5:30 service with us. My mother is usually doing some last minute rehearsing at her church for the 7:00 service there. Once our service is over, we try to limit the intake of Christmas cookies by our children, then head up the road to that service to see Nanny sing in the choir and ring the handbells. By the time this service is over, we are all "sung out" and starving, and we head up the road to the local Chinese restaurant and share a variety of dishes "family style." Afterward we head back to my parents' house for more Christmas cookies and hot apple cider, and to open stockings.

* [If iivo's family is visiting from out of town, this pattern tends to look a little different. We only attend our Christmas Eve service, and afterward we eat a meal highlighting a blending of traditional Estonian and Swiss foods. This would typically be a pork roast, sauerkraut and red cabbage (very Swiss-German!), rosolje (Estonian "purple potato salad" containing pickles and beets and - if you're lucky - skipping the herring), sai (an Estonian Christmas bread made with raisins), and verivorst (Estonian Christmas sausage) if my mother-in-law has cooked and brought some. The Eesti folk eat this - and iivo loves it - but the rest of us tend to pass on the blood sausage. If my in-laws are here, we'll stay home and open our own stockings on Christmas Eve.]

* Either way, once the kids are in bed, we go around and swipe all the baby Jesus figures from each nativity set and carefully wrap them together in one package. We wrap this package very plain and dull and place it under the tree. (This becomes "the first gift of Christmas" in the morning, and we highlight the fact that Jesus - the greatest gift ever given - arrived here without fanfare or recognizable earthly glory.)

* On Christmas morning, I get up early and put in the dough for the traditional cinnamon rolls that are our Christmas breakfast. Afterward, we crawl back into bed and "sleep in" as late as the first child. This child - however big or small - crawls into bed with us and waits for brother or sisters to awaken and join us. Once three of the four are up, we decide it is time for the final child to get up, and all head in together to rouse the sleepyhead.

*We get up and get going in the morning with the final installment of the advent banner. This is meant to be the Christmas Eve lesson, but we wisely skip this since we're already attending two church services that night. This lesson is on the wise men, and segues nicely into the first gift of Christmas. We open this (the baby Jesus figures wrapped the night before) and the children go put each baby Jesus back with the corresponding nativity set. This was more naturally "fun" when they were little, but it has become part of what we do, so even these older children love to walk through this process.

* After this, we head into the kitchen, fashion the dough into cinnamon rolls, and get them going in the oven. While we wait for them to bake, we open our stockings.

* For breakfast, we have cinnamon rolls and either sausage or hard-boiled eggs for protein so no one "melts down." After we eat this, the kids are finally able to head in and distribute their gifts to their siblings. They are fairly about to burst with anticipation by this point, but they take turns and go one at a time. One child "plays Santa" first, and gives her gifts to her siblings one at a time. Said sibling opens the gift and we all enjoy seeing what was given and received. This process takes a while, since there are twelve gifts (three each) that have been purchased by the children for each other. It always strikes me every year how fun it is to "know" and "be known," as these gifts perfectly reflect their knowledge of each other and what each other likes and might enjoy receiving.

* After this, we take a break to read a Christmas storybook, then give the children the presents we have bought for them. iivo and I don't buy each other any gifts (his birthday is in early December and mine is in early January), but instead buy one "big thing" we feel the family needs or would enjoy. This can range from the immensely practical and needed to the totally frivolous and decidedly un-needed. Everybody usually knows about what this gift might be, as there's been some discussion about it throughout the preceding months. It is revealed at some point over the course of the morning.

* After all this, my parents head back home, we shower and get ready, and then we all re-convene at their house for a holiday meal mid-afternoon. The menu varies every year, but is usually some variation of turkey or ham, with each of us contributing different side dishes to go with it. When we gather at their house, we eat the feast, and then open the gifts from them.

* Over the course of the month, we tend to watch a Christmas movie or two. These vary from year to year, and have included such favorites as Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, The Santa Clause, Samantha (An American Girl Tale for Christmas), Prancer, and The Polar Express. We also usually try to fit in a viewing or two from among the favorite childhood television specials we always watched when they (and we!) were little: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, or Nestor, the Long-Eared Donkey (my personal favorite since I was a girl).

* We have watched The Nativity Story every year since we went to see it in the theater with my sister and her family, who were visiting, the year it came out, but we have yet to figure out a "regular" time to do it, so the tradition is simply that we must do so some time over the course of the season.

* If iivo's family hasn't come to visit us, there is usually some holiday travel involved after Christmas to go see them. This may be the weekend after Christmas, or over New Year's, but sometime over the course of the break we try to get to see them, too.

* Although the Christmas decorations disappear from my mother's house as quickly as the local radio station playing Christmas songs reverts back to its usual love-song format, we tend to leave the decorations up through all of the "twelve days of Christmas." We're just not quite ready to see them go by December 26th, and so we leave them up until a weekend falling somewhere around January 5.

* Unfortunately, it is usually not until this stage of things that I get around to doing our Christmas cards! We are terrible about Christmas cards!! (See here for more on this!)

"The aroma of our homes is created by the liturgy of our lives. The liturgy of our lives, simply put, is what happens when we deliberately think through what we do and why... There is liturgy in all of our lives. We all have family traditions that in many ways tell the stories of our homes and what we value."
- Steve Murphy, publisher of
Homeschooling Today magazine


What is it we value at Christmas time? First and foremost, we value the Savior. We long to keep Him first and foremost in our minds as we walk through the season that follows Thanksgiving and incorporates New Year's. What began as a celebration of the incarnation - God made man and delivered to us as a baby - has become deliberately secularized in American culture. It has become more about Santa and getting stuff than about Jesus and giving stuff. It has become more about "happy holidays" than "Merry Christmas." It has become a spending frenzy that breaks many families' budgets and creates many spoiled, ungrateful, never-quite-happy-enough children. We work hard to reverse that focus in our home. Jesus is squarely the central focus for us.

We also value the fun and the feasting and the break from the routine that this season offers. It is a chance to break out of the daily grind and to reflect on what is important to us in new, fresh ways. We value our immediate family, and love remembering them with special little tokens of affection. We value our extended family, and treasure the chance to visit with them in whatever ways work out each year. We value the special friends we have, and enjoy spending time with whichever ones He's given us to be particularly close to in each of the various seasons of our lives.

Even talking about it all has made me nostalgic and anticipatory. We will walk through many of these traditions tonight and tomorrow and over the next few days. I really can't wait!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Barbie Church

With the Christmas break from homeschooling in full swing, my little girls are enjoying the secret and rare pleasure of some fantasy play together.

Homeschool days are busy and scholarly and productive in a way that crowds out the opportunity for hours of "fake believe," but vacation days provide many such opportunities. Sometimes it is creating whole worlds of buildings with our extensive Duplo collection, then populating it with either Polly Pocket people or PlayMobil guys. (They happen to be the right size to live in Duplo World, you know.)

Other days it is Barbie World, which has grown significantly over the years with the addition of brunettes, men, toddlers and babies. We have it all: interracial marriage, twins, modified-by-special-request-to-be-more-modest clothing, and a set of ten or so Barbie-sized wicker chairs my mother gave them one year.

Last evening I trudged to my room at way too late an hour, to find what I can only assume to be "Barbie Church" waiting for me all over my bedroom floor. Check it out:




Monday, December 22, 2008

Thy Mercy, My God

Today I witnessed the unbelievable, and I experienced the unbelievable. My eight-year old daughter - the child who has required more discipline than all three of her siblings combined, and who is still extremely challenging to parent well - looked up at me and uttered the words, "Mom, thank you for spanking me."

No, she had not just received a spanking. (Even she, who required them much later than her siblings, has mostly outgrown the need for that form of discipline.) Instead, she had just witnessed an interchange between a mother and son in front of us in the checkout line. It went something like this:

(imagine an angry, sassy, demanding voice, increasing in volume and vehemence with each word): "You are going to buy me this book right now, you stupid, stupid woman!" As he punctuated each utterance of the word "stupid" with force and volume, I cringed. And I looked down at EL, whose eyes were wide as saucers as she looked up at me, and back to him. He continued with various utterances of things like, "You'd better do it. Right now. You are going to get this for me..." until the next thing captured his attention. This was the fact that he wanted to buy something from the coin-operated vending machine near the door. "You give me a quarter right now, you woman. You better do it right now!" Bear in mind that this kid is about EL's age, so we're talking a big boy screaming these sorts of disrespectful things at his mother.

I'm not sure what I think, quite frankly. On the one hand, this is shameful, awful behavior. I am glad that EL was shocked and appalled. And yet, I'm so pleased that I felt compassion and grief, not judgment, for this woman. On any given day, the words themselves would be different, but any one of my used-to-be-little-but-getting-bigger ones might throw some tone my way that reflects just as much ugliness and rebellion and defiance in their hearts. Or me toward my husband, for that matter.

There was a day - I cringe to remember and sheepishly admit - when I thought I "had this parenting thing down pretty well." But the Lord is merciful, and He never leaves us alone in our pride and arrogance and self-sufficiency. And so He gave me little sinners in my home... four of them, living alongside us two big ones... who are perfect little reflections of the besetting sins of their parents.

And so, dear sweet woman, I will pray for you, and for your son, and for my children, and for myself. May we always "weep for the praise of the mercy (we've) found."

Friday, December 19, 2008

Happy Shopping!

One of our fun family Christmas traditions is going out Christmas shopping during the last few days before Christmas. We can't do this until after we finish up our last homeschool day, so we are usually among those frenzied shoppers on the last few days before Christmas. Each individual child goes out with me to the stores of his choice, shopping for treasures for each sibling.

They all love this. Even I love this, and I hate shopping even on a normal day when traffic isn't insane and stores aren't mobbed. But there is something about the hustle and bustle and anticipation and focus of it all, that is glorious. My usual loathing of shopping just disappears in the joy of being with my kids, watching them find special things they know their siblings will love.

I know, I know. Many people whom I love (my own mother included) think I am crazy, and presume this to simply be disorganization and lack of planning and preparedness on my part. But it couldn't be further from the truth. I love buying things for someone right now, not last January when things were on sale. I love finding something that I know this child, the one living right now in this December moment, will love. What he loved last January may or may not still be so. And he may or may not love it next January. But we're out buying him things we know he'll love right now.

It is nearly intoxicating for me... to know them, to have them know each other, and to watch them find things - little things, not big, expensive things - that they know their siblings will love. I love watching them come home and wrap the gifts, and then move about the house with increasing anticipation and excitement at the coming day when their siblings will open the treasures they've found for them.

They just couldn't get that quite the same way with something they bought and wrapped last January, and now pull out of the closet to stick under the tree. "What was this thing I bought again?"

My mother is the most organized person I know... of course it makes sense that this aspect of her life would be so organized as well. So I will happily open and appreciate whatever it is that she put great time and effort into finding for me over the course of this past year, since that's how she works. And she will open and appreciate whatever I acquired for her this month, since that's how I work. For her to try to do it my way would rob her of the joy of it... she would hate the chaos, the uncertainty, the last-minuteness of it. For me to do it her way would do the same for me.

And so, different strokes for different folks. And if you happen to be even a little bit like me, happy shopping!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dolphins, not Jellyfish

In an email message from Desiring God ministries that I read this morning, John Piper continues to boldly state that which many in the contemporary church are backing away from. Grabbing one paragraph from the middle:

"I encourage you to be like a dolphin in the sea of our egalitarian, gender-leveling culture. Don’t be like a jellyfish. The ocean of secularism that we swim in (including much of the church) drifts toward minimizing serious differences between manhood and womanhood. The culture swings back and forth as to whether women are mainly sex objects or senior vice presidents. But rarely does it ponder the biblical vision that men are called to humbly lead and protect and provide, and women are called to come in alongside with their unique gifts and strengths and help the men carry through the vision."

I know that this message will infuriate many of my friends, even those in the church. I am often viewed as "backward" because I have chosen to be a stay-at-home mother to my children. The homes of most of my friends are fractured into three segments... his, hers, and the children's. The children have spent the majority of their waking hours with someone other than a parent since they were a month old, because Mom is pursuing her own professional interests, and Dad is pursuing his. The idea of a woman who gives her life supporting her husband and training their children is looked at with disdain and pity. "What is this, 1950?" has become the usual mantra leveled as us "backward" types.

Consider this:
"But then she asked me if there wasn’t a way to make the book less sexist. I was surprised at this. It had never occurred to me that the adventures of a defiant little milkmaid would be considered anti-feminist.

But my friend said, 'You keep calling Lucy a girl and Wynston a boy. Why do you have to lock them into rigid boxes like that? It’s so conventional.'

I considered this ridiculous, over-the-top feminism. Boys are boys and girls are girls; I ignored her.

But then, when I was revising my second book, my editor had the same kind of comments. 'Why does the dad work and the mom stay home?' she asked me. 'What is this, 1950?'"
- Laurel Snyder, contemporary author of children's books


Or this one:
Paul S. says: "a skirt? what is this, 1950?"
- from a chat board post pondering "What to wear to the Capital Grille"


And this:
"These old, white men are fondly remembering June Cleaver, in the kitchen, in pearls and high heels, whose only purpose was to please her man and her family.

We are NOT going to step back into the shadows! We are NOT going to become submissive and obey (as the Fundies expect of their women) and we are NOT going to return to stressed out 'please don’t let me get pregnant this time' sex and back-alley abortions!

American rights have been devistated (sic) over the last eight years, and no one in this country is being targeted more than our women! It is time to defeat this attempt to 'enslave' us to our men, and we will NOT sit back and allow it to happen!

There should be no woman in our country willing to vote for McStain. What is this, 1950?"
-
one woman's post from the anti-Republican "Think Progress" website


So, in a world of women filled with anger and rage, resentful and trying in every way to become like men, I am filled with contentment and joy as I embrace being a woman.

John Piper's words
are encouraging to me:

"Not asking the question about the essence of male and female personhood confuses everyone—especially the children.

And this confusion hurts people. It is not a small thing. Its effects are vast. I agree with Dobson when he says, “Feminist resistance to making manhood and womanhood significant in behavior and role determination is partner to some of the most painful social and spiritual issues of our day.”(2)

When manhood and womanhood are confused at home, the consequences are deeper than may show up in a generation. There are dynamics in the home that direct the sexual preferences of the children and shape their concept of manhood and womanhood. Especially crucial in the matter of sexual preference is a father’s firm and loving affirmation of a son’s masculinity and a daughter’s femininity.(3) The father must be a man. But how can this kind of manly affirmation be cultivated in an atmosphere where role differences between masculinity and femininity are constantly denied or diminished for the sake of gender-leveling and sex-blindness?

What we all need is solid teaching from the Bible about the differences God intends between men and women.(4) But we also need stories. Great stories. We need to see manhood and womanhood in action - in real life and fiction and history."

* Original footnotes in John Piper's mailing:
(2) Focus on the Family, May, 1993, vol. 17, No. 5, p. 7.
(3) Gerald P. Regier, “The Not-So-Disposable Family,” Pastoral Renewal, Vol. 13, No. 1, July-August, 1988, p. 20.
(4) I have tried to think this through in a small way in What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990). See also, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991), and Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 2004). See also www.cbmw.org.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shattered Snowman

Last night, I broke one of the Christmas tree ornaments. No big deal, right? Well, not really... because it was one of those "preventable accidents" I'm always talking to my kids about. And it was a direct result of my control-freak nature. It went something like this...

(Please note that I was sitting on the couch as the kids put the ornaments on the tree. I know my tendency toward control, so I decided a long time ago not to worry more about how the decorations look than about the joyful experience of my children as the decorations go up. I never want to step on someone's heart for the sake of just-so ornament placement. So I was sitting on the couch enjoying the Christmas carols and the delighted exclamations of my children as they revisited the memories associated with each ornament.)

[me, pointing] "OG, hang something over here in this big bare spot, would you? No, not that. Something big that will hang down and fill that big hole in the branches. [pointing again] Get that big snowman over there." [Said snowman was one of OG's favorite ornaments, already hanging on the Christmas tree where she'd carefully placed it earlier.]

She made some sort of comment at this point which I didn't catch. But she got the ornament and began to try to hang it in the spot I'd indicated.

[me, again] "No, not like that. See how it's resting on that branch all weird? Move it over a little, so it hangs in the big open spot."

She tried again, muttering something about how she had hung it in the original spot because she didn't want it to get broken. It still ended up weirdly crammed-in and hanging strange.

"Here, let me do it."

Yep. I did it. I got off the couch and moved into control-freak-mode... more concerned about how the tree looked than about my sweet daughter. Of course, I didn't realize this at the time. It wasn't a conscious choice. It all happened so quickly... so naturally... so easily. How easy it is for me to want things "just so," as long as the "just so" is my way!

The first thing I realized was that she was having trouble gettting the thing to hang nicely there because it was difficult to get the thing to hang nicely there. I was having trouble, too. I kept moving it and adjusting it and then, quite suddenly and inexplicably, it happened.

The delicate fragile globe of thin glass that was the snowman's body broke. I heard it and saw it at exactly the same time. I don't even know how it happened, really, except that I guess I hit a branch with it at just the right (wrong!) angle.

The next sound I heard was her sharp inhalation. The next sight I saw was her face scrunching up into that of one who is going to cry. She really couldn't help it. The ornament was special to her, having been given to her by her grandmother in 2002, when she was only four years old. She had hung it in a special place to avoid its getting broken.

And now it was broken. Not an "oh, a little Super Glue will fix it" kind of broken, but a "very thin delicate clear crystal globe is now about to cut me" kind of broken. Irreparable.

And preventable. If I had only let them do the job... and gloried in the bare-spot-laden Christmas tree that is the glorious privilege, for so very few years, of those who still have little ones in the house.

Tears have been shed, I'm sorry's have been spoken, and hugs have been exchanged. But I have awakened this morning a different person, again reminded that people are more important than stuff, and that I must daily lay down my ever-present need to control and orchestrate.

"Freedom from myself will be the sweetest rest I've ever known."
- From Prone to Wander, on the album "Deep Enough To Dream" by Chris Rice

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Love and Respect

So many thoughts...

The weekend away was wonderful. We stayed in a delightful Bed & Breakfast together while the kids stayed with our old neighbors who have moved away to the NOVA area.

We need time away together every so often! It isn't that we need to get away from our children, per se, but that we all need opportunities (them included) to get away from the pressures and stresses of the daily routine.

Don't get me wrong, either! I love my life, busy and crazy as it is. And I even love the relational crucible that is involved with homeschooling. But when my husband and I get away to a restful, peaceful, relationally-conducive spot, just the two of us, we find ourselves connected in ways that don't always happen in the daily grind of this season of life.

One of the things involved in this weekend away was attendance at a Love and Respect video marriage conference. I know, I know... you don't need to write and tell me that no man wants to go to a marriage conference for his birthday. (Several have already done so, both before and after we went...) I can only say that, if you did, you'd be wrong. This marriage conference does tout itself as "the marriage conference men want to attend," but that isn't why I chose this as part of our birthday weekend experience.

I chose this because my husband was reading the book, and really finding it good, important stuff. But I chose it mostly because I have read the book, too, and I know that I have much to learn about being a respectful wife.

One of the basic tenets of the book, among other things, is that many wives have failed to respect their husbands unconditionally, even as many husbands have failed to love their wives.

The term "unconditional respect" may strike you as strange. Our society doesn't accept this idea at all. Unconditional love is understood... we're all supposed to "love each other unconditionally" in marriage, regardless of how unlovely we may sometimes be. That's understood. The problem with that is that that command is given to men only. They are to unconditionally love their wives, even to the point of laying down their lives for them. Wives, however, are commanded to unconditionally respect their husbands.

Respect, in our society, has become viewed as something that must be earned and deserved before it should be given. Love is "allowed" to be "unconditional," but one is expected to be "worthy" of respect before it is given. But wives are commanded to give respect to their husbands unconditionally. It is a radical idea. It is a marriage-transforming concept.

I, myself, have been very enlightened and challenged in my own marriage by attending this conference. It is really good. It is very respectful of husbands and men (most marriage books and conferences are focused on "women-type" love issues and never touch on "men-type" respect issues for fear or being branded sexist). It is also very respectful of unbelievers. He acknowledges their likely presence, and addresses them respectfully in a way that is very appealing and disarming.

At any rate, I am feeling convicted but encouraged regarding much of the teaching I heard. I'm recognizing that I've not been a very respectful wife. Faithful, definitely. Loving, mostly. Submissive, yes, at least somewhat, in practice. But unconditionally respectful? Not so much. I'm sure this is no news to those of you who have observed me over the years, but it has been eye-opening to me.

Times away like this are so good for us. The fact that the kids were taken care of and we were alone at a Bed and Breakfast for two nights was a rare and wonderful thing for us. These times tend to involve deep conversation and great sex and some stuff we rarely do any other time (like eating out or sleeping in). We feel like two totally different people. An old Amy Grant song has lyrics that say, "Stay with me... make it ever new... so time does not undo... as the years go by, how I need to see... that's still me."

It also tends to be a real re-connection and "remember how much we love each other" time. Having the teaching (conference) as the backdrop just assured that we got deep and relevant and spiritual with our time. The fun and silly comes pretty naturally. We have to work to ensure that the other happens.

I am hopeful to move forward now in my roles as wife and mother and teacher with increased perspective and enlightened understanding.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Telling Statistics

Just how secular is the American university system?

The following statistics from the North American Academic Study Survey make the trends in higher-education faculty very evident:

* 72% of college faculty members call themselves liberal (Just 15% are conservative.)
* 87% of faculty at elite universities call themselves liberal (Just 13% are conservative.)
* 51% say they rarely or never attend church or synagogue services
* 67% believe homosexuality is acceptable
* 84% are pro-abortion
* 88% want more environmental protection
* 65% want the government to ensure full employment

Friday, December 5, 2008

Palju ├Ánne

Today is my husband's birthday. He is now the same age I am, at least for another month.

One of the really great things about homeschooling is the fact that you can take birthdays off if you want to, and we sure want to! We don't tend to buy a lot of expensive gifts, but we sure do go all out - in little ways - to make the entire day about making the honoree feel special.

The kids and I have great, fun things planned. I won't go into too much detail because all of it is a surprise at this point... starting with the day off I arranged for him. He is soundly sleeping in a room where the alarm clock has been unplugged and the room-darkening shades have been drawn. He went to bed thinking today is a normal workday. I can't wait for him to awaken and realize that "something's up"!

I'm awake and doing the "special birthday breakfast" thing. His choice? Chile Relleno Casserole, sausage, and hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Of course, he thinks he's having this special birthday breakfast tomorrow...

Such fun lies ahead!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Imperishable Beauty

"But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the one through whom the stumbling block comes!" Matt. 18:6-7

Well, this should be an interesting post. It is about modesty. And the heart. And about how the former tends to reveal the latter... and the latter should inform the former.

This year I am teaching at a homeschool enrichment program. Homeschooled children of all ages interact within a collegiate-style academic and arts setting two days a week. It is a wonderful program. It is filled with wonderful kids. They are all kids whose parents, at least, are professing Christians.

But, as with all gathered groups of young people, sometimes some behavioral concerns present themselves. The newest thing that we as faculty are encountering is a problem with a few of the young girls refusing to dress modestly.

Now understand, we're not trying to legislate peoples' behaviors outside of our academic setting. We have no desire to instill an attitude of legalism regarding clothing. We are not asking for conservative, plain Jane dressing... or only skirts... or neck-to-ankle coverage. We're just asking girls to keep all their parts that begin with "B" covered while they're in class. We're trying to maintain an appropriate learning environment without "boobs, butt, and belly" as distractions for other students.

[This, of course, is not part of any official stance by the organization! It is my own language, borrowed from a dear young woman who lived with us for a brief time before her baby was born. She was later working at a Christian summer camp, and that is what she told the young girls under her charge: "I don't want to see any of your parts that begin with B!" She spoke with a uniquely pointed perspective as a young Christian woman who had fallen into sexual sin in high school, and was now interested in influencing other young Christian women toward chastity and purity.]

But what she sometimes discovered then (and what we're discovering now) is the age-old truth... you can't legislate the heart. And so it is with a mix of sadness and hope that we seek rather to influence the heart, so that the behavior will change itself. (That, and a cover-up t-shirt in the meantime.)

In our own family, we have found a couple of very useful resources for those seeking to dress with appropriate, loving, considerate modesty. If you want to "check your heart" regarding this issue, we suggest reading The Modesty Heart Check. From within that article, you can link to a very helpful "checklist" about specific things to check - with regards to your clothing - before leaving the house each day. For a very helpful (and specific) indicator of what clothing tends to make young (and older!) men stumble, you can read The Modesty Survey.

Of course, all of these should be approached as resources, not as a list of rules. Our family has found them very helpful as we seek to faithfully pursue the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4), to let our good works outshine our outward appearance (1 Timothy 2:10), and to dress for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

After all, modesty is - first and foremost - a matter of the heart, not the wardrobe.*

* The language of the last two paragraphs is borrowed from The Modesty Survey.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Silly Songs

I know that most of you have probably already seen The Mom Song on YouTube. It is sung by Anita Renfroe, and is her rendition of all the things a typical Mom says in a twenty-four hour period. I find it hilarious.

What I also found hilarious was The Man Song, sent to me on email earlier this week by my father. It and The Woman Song also strike me as having some particularly funny moments, if you don't take them too seriously. The Revenge Song is a special favorite of my kids.

For your amusement this cold Wednesday morning...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Homeschooling Works

I just read an op-ed article in the Washington Times about the success of homeschooling.

This is the positive way to state the obvious corollary, which is that it is also an article about the failure of the nation's public and private schools to adequately educate their students.

"Researchers surveyed thousands of freshmen and seniors to measure their knowledge of America's history, government, economics, and international relations. The students - even the seniors - failed by astounding margins." This according to Michael Farris, president of Patrick Henry College, the school whose freshman students (80% of whom were homeschooled) outperformed all others, including those at every Ivy League school surveyed. (These included Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Duke, and our own UVA.) In fact, the average score of the Patrick Henry freshman was greater than that of the average Ivy League graduating senior. (See here.)

According to HSLDA President J. Michael Smith, author of the Op-Ed piece, "The test results do show clearly what happens when you compare the best with the best: The best homeschooled students systematically outperform the best non-homeschooled students. This success did not happen automatically. It happened because tens of thousands of dedicated parents made tremendous sacrifices to educate their children."

You can read an ad-free version of the full Washington Times article here, from the HSLDA website.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hacking My Brain

I read this article this morning, entitled 15 Ways to Hack Your Brain, and I was happy to learn a few tricks of the trade I didn't know already regarding "brain boosting" and such.

This is feeling particularly crucial after all the "time off" from the normal routine this past week... especially with the heavy holiday eating, the disrupted sleep, and the extra excitement of houseguests.

My brain was feeling foggy and slow to jump on board with the weekly routine this morning...

"...and the fruit of the womb is his reward..." (Psalm 127:3)

I have to share with you a letter I received from a dear friend this morning.

Although it was sent yesterday, it arrived in my inbox within an hour of a significant conversation with my husband this morning regarding a decision about whether or not to continue/resume using birth control. I believe it was a direct answer to a prayer for guidance and direction. It comes as confirmation of our hearts' desire, though we know that our extended families and most of the friends around us don't agree with or even understand our choice.

As we have sought to allow the Lord to bless our family with another child, I have experienced at least four miscarriages over the past two years. Concerned that a hormonal imbalance or some other physical problem with my body might be causing these babies to die, we made a choice several months ago to resume using birth control while I underwent thorough testing to be sure I was not chemically or hormonally "off" in a significant health-related way.

Well, those test results are all in, and they reveal that there is nothing wrong with my body beyond the "old eggs" (and the commensurate increased chance of genetic defects in the babies created from them) expected in a woman over the age of 40.

This has, of course, thrown us into quite a decision-making process. We have had to wrestle significantly with many serious things, including our thoughts about God's sovereignty, about His heart regarding families and children, and about our perceived "right" to orchestrate matters of life and conception.

Additionally, we have come to recognize over the past few years that sex is better without birth control, not only physically but emotionally and relationally. We have always been unwilling to utilize any forms of birth control that are abortifacient, including the IUD and oral birth control pills, because we've been unwilling to create and then destroy babies. We have, however, utilized various "barrier methods" of birth control at various times in our marriage. And we have increasingly become convicted that they are just that... a barrier. They are a barrier to the full physical pleasure God intends for us. They are a barrier to spontaneity. They are a barrier, for us, to full emotional engagement and complete unity. And they are a barrier to receiving the gift of children, which God - in the Scriptures - always and unequivocally calls "blessings."

And so, after our final doctor appointment, we fell into a quandry. Do we continue to use the birth control we began using during the testing, in light of the information revealed? We have come to despise it, for the reasons listed above, and yet we have had to process and engage a great many things since we have received the test results. We have had to think about the toll of repeated miscarriage on a woman's body... about the possibility of Down's syndrome or other genetic abnormalities... about "imperfect children" and how we'd feel about having one... about the reality of having a child who spends his last decade at home with really old parents, without brothers or sisters...

We have had to acknowledge our growing convictions against birth control, our heightened hopes regarding the possibility of another child in our family, and our fears regarding repeated miscarriage and genetic abnormalities. We have gone round and round and round, and we finally desperately asked the Lord for His wisdom and guidance in these matters.

That was early this morning. Within an hour, I found the following letter in my inbox:

Happy Sunday, friends and family, I chose each of you to receive this e-mail for the role you have played in our family and vision for family. We have been burdened lately about what to think about family and missions. We have beloved friends who are convicted to limit their children to a minimum in order to tread lightly on the earth and have more room to adopt the "unwanted." We love and respect them. Among them is a dynamic couple doing Christian environmental work in Africa. We also have beloved friends who believe their responsibility is to have as many children as God will give them. We love and respect them. Among them is a couple who serves in Darfur. They have lost 3 children in a year, one of which was almost term and was lost after she was beaten up while on a walk in Kartoom. Their missionary team-mates have told them that their kids and lost pregnancies are a drag on the ministry and team. As we prepare for number 4, we have been torn about how to view children and our future as missionary servants. With details still to work out, we have been rescued by a painfully direct sermon by African-American Southern Baptist pastor Voddie Baucham. I wanted to share this with each of you and thank you for your role in helping us see all sides of this wonderful and sobering issue. Please listen and comment. We are listening, too, and have much yet to learn about being and becoming parents.

And so I post it here for you, too. It has challenged and convicted and moved and encouraged us in a variety of arenas. It speaks about the concept of contemporary "youth ministry" as well as to various parenting issues. I would value your thoughts as you listen, as well.

The Centrality of the Home by Voddie Baucham.