A Generous Grace

ideas on practical spirituality and loving each other

Author: Janel Breitenstein (page 1 of 26)

Know Thy [Stressed] Self, Part II: The Stressed Version of Your Marriage

Missed Part I? Grab it here.

One of the unexpected delights of our final couple of months in Africa was the arrival of a college friend who’s known my husband and I since the beginning. She watched us meet, cautiously date, giddily become engaged. She played the piano when the two of us spring chickens said “I do” forever. Later, I stood with her as she spoke her own vows beneath a spreading tree. And when she visited us in Africa and we stayed up entirely too late, she gave us this gift: I told my husband, “I love that she reminds us how good we are together. That you and I together are a really good thing.”

I wrote before that this time of leaving Africa, of setting a foot on two highly divergent continents, has delivered unavoidable stress to our relationship. Both of us are strained, so it makes sense that our most intimate relationships would bear that weight. So it was kind of God to remind us that despite the ways we occasionally feel like the losers in a three-legged-race right now—“us” is still a really good thing.

Part I of this post outlined some essential reasons we need to identify when we’re stressed. If you’re convinced, let’s get down to it. What are the signs your marriage is under stress?

Sometimes in stress, we actually ask some of the wrong questions–which lead us to some of the wrong answers. We might be thinking stuff like, Did I even marry the right person? Would I be happier if I weren’t with you? Are we a good match? Are we going to get through this? Should I think about getting out? Questions like those, I realize, don’t lead us to be more married. They don’t lead us to “unity of mind” (1 Peter 3:8). They lead us further apart.

A tip: Set aside a time to talk about this when you’re not about to explode in frustration. Your goal isn’t an argument, but some constructive conversation: togetherness-talk. Consider sitting next to each other while you talk, cuddling or holding hands.

The goal of these questions? To push us further into a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Examining the Stressed Version of You (Plural)
  1. As individuals, what patterns do you and I fall into?
  • How do I know when you’re stressed? (Again, this list will help.)
  • How do you know when I’m stressed?
  • What are your go-to ways of relating? He goes into man-cave mode. I work until long after the kids are asleep. He gets critical. I get insecure. I don’t talk. He doesn’t listen. He doesn’t really “see” me and my needs. I can’t get out of bed in the morning.
  1. What are each of your favorite coping mechanisms? Some of those will be helpful. In what ways do you each overuse your coping strategies?
  2. Ask each other:
  • What’s one tangible way I can help you cope?
  • At what point are each of our coping mechanisms unhelpful?
  • How can I help you steer clear of that point?
  • How can I be a “safe place” for you when you’re in hard times? How can I advocate for you?
  • In what ways do I make you suffer the consequences of my stress?
  • If you were to write a “stress relief prescription” of activities for me, what would be on it?
  • What do I dislike about “us” when we’re stressed? How do our weaknesses tend to create friction?
  1. What lies do we each tend to believe when we’re stressed? I’m powerless. When I’m overwhelmed, passivity is all I can muster. I’m a failure. I don’t have what it takes. If people don’t think well of me, I’m nothing.
  • What truth can I gently remind you of when you’re in those dark places?
  1. Who’s been helpful to us in the past when we can’t see our way out? Is there anyone new who might help us? Who encourages us to be more “married”, prays for us, and/or helps us see the good we can’t see on our own?
  2. Pray specifically for your marriage.
  3. For future reference in tough times:
    • What do we love about us?
    • What made us fall in love?
    • What keeps us trying?
    • What are our overarching reasons we push for a better marriage?
    • What do I love about you?
    • What am I thankful for in our marriage and our journey together? (Lord, don’t ever let us forget. Keep truth at the front of our minds, and show us what lies we’re believing. When we want to turn away, help us remember. Help us choose us, over and over.)

As you wade through thoughts like these, perhaps this prayer will encourage you as it did me this morning:

Lord, we pray we never find ourselves without hope, without a glimpse of the empty tomb each time we happen upon a cross. Help us begin our daily journey expecting both crosses and empty tombs and rejoicing when we encounter either because we know you are with us.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (it’s a new favorite of mine!), p. 255

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Suffering–and the People We Become

We lounged in the lamp lit half-dark: my husband and I, and our college friend. We’ve been friends for about two decades now, which makes us feel impossibly old. We still easily bend over in outright laughter over hilarious references to our college days and their mishaps. Now, though, we have things like minivans and tax returns, and my friend and I swap tips on how cast iron is really the best way to cook fish, or omelets, she says.

But years aren’t the only thing under the bridge. That night, I marveled sadly how out of our six parents, we wouldn’t have guessed we’d have lost two of them by this point. My husband and I have moved to Africa, caught malaria, gotten robbed, etc. My friend has dealt with multiple nightmarish diagnoses of those she loves.

Somehow, my friend is the same friend who earlier that day had swung her legs with me over a camel. We’d both ridden in our skirts, half-shrieking and yes, giggling over the top of a camel saddle (who knew they made those? Who knew, when we met each other, that someday we’d be dangling over a camel in Africa?). Somehow, we are still the same goofy coeds.

But we’re also changed. We sat in my living room internally leaner somehow (certainly not externally, after four kids each!). We are quietly wiser, more realistic, and likely with more life questions those we flung out in college like a pitching machine.

There are aspects of the pain we’ve endured that are simply indelible. The three of us will die with them; they have marked us.

I admit to wondering, sometimes, if I will crawl into old age feeling worn. Perhaps I’ll be wizened and shriveled from the sheer expanse and depth of pain I’ve seen here in Africa. And from the stories yet to unspool in front of me.

I don’t think so. I trust God will continue to make hope blossom before my eyes, as He always had.

Still: Because of pain, we are different.

Another friend of mine laughs about the division of her life into “before” and “after” a challenging child came into their home. “I used to be so fun!” she grins lopsidedly. One study of parents who bear disabled children, too, supports that these parents experience a shift in identity.[1]

My own pain, as you know, has pressed into me lately. I wonder about things like bitterness; like dreams diverted. Recently I’ve been mulling over Tim Keller’s important work, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. He notes French activist and philosopher Simone Weil’s essay on some of the ways affliction changes us:

  • Isolation
  • “Implosion”—self-absorption as we seek to stop the pain
  • Hopelessness/condemnation. Weil writes, “Affliction hardens and discourages us because, like a red hot iron it stamps the soul to its very depth with the scorn, disgust, even the self-hatred and sense of guilt and defilement that crime logically should produce but actually does not.”
  • Anger, directed at various objects
  • Temptation. Keller notes, “We become complicit with the affliction, comfortable with ours discomfort, content with our discontent…It can make you feel noble, and the self-pity can be sweet and addicting.”[2]

These, at various times, are me.

But Keller also relays the story of a man confined by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), who communicates using a computer reading his eye movements. The man remarks that the sweetness of his life with God as a result of his illness he wouldn’t trade for more years.[3]

So as much as pain does transform us while we’re walking through it—Keller also outlines the beauty it creates, though it’s different in each of us. Suffering:

  • Transforms our attitude toward ourselves, humbling us and removing unrealistic self-regard and pride
  • Will profoundly change our relationship to the good things in our lives—things that have become too important. We rearrange priorities, investing more of our hope and meaning in God, family, and others.
  • Can strengthen our relationship to God as nothing else can—and fortify our relationships with other people
  • Makes us far more useful in compassion toward other people.
  • Makes us more resilient, wiser, and more realistic about life…or harden us.[4]

This, I hope, is who I am becoming.

Of course, Keller reminds, suffering cannot be seen just as a way to improve ourselves. That’s a form of masochism, as if we’re only virtuous when we’re in pain. (Stupid as it is, I struggle with this comfort by martyrdom.) This is also not some attempt to suggest that our character justifies whatever happens. (Keller imagines parents who’ve lost their child: “What kind of God would sacrifice an innocent little girl to teach us ‘spiritual lessons’?!”) In this gymnasium of character, I remind myself that I can’t lose sight of a compassionate God; a God who suffers with me. Who suffered Himself.

How suffering changes us, it seems, is in large part our choice.

Who will suffering make us?

 

 

[1][1] As cited in Keller, Timothy. Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. New York: Penguin Books (2013). Kindle edtion.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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Guest Post: A Fast for Your House: The Surprising Treasures of Simplicity

I always learn something from my friend Monica.

She learned to read and write in the last decade or so, when she moved to Kampala from her village in northern Uganda. But despite my college education, she has a lot to teach me.

When I visited her shared compound on Saturday, she couldn’t wait to show me inside her house. I had to comply looking into the toothy ivory grin parting that smooth, ebony face. And when I entered, I understood why.

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Worry: It’s What’s Eating You

A question. What are you…afraid of?

Fear has this way of flaying us open, I think. Of laying bare what we see as bigger than us.

Worry manifests itself in vastly different ways. Some of us, for example, seek to staunch this bleeding of our hearts with intense control or safety. That is to alternatively say, some of us who struggle most with control actually are waging an inner battle with fear. As counselor and neuropsychologist Ed Welch writes, “One message is obvious: ‘If I imagine the worst, I will be prepared for it.’ Worry is looking for control….Worry has become your talisman to ward off future catastrophe.”

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…Try again: Freebie Fridays! Printable Scripture Art: Psalm 90:1

So yes. It’s Saturday.

As in, not actually Friday, like it was yesterday.

And while I have no idea why yesterday’s post actually did not contain an embedded freebie despite my embedding it, I’m going to persevere today.

Perhaps the same gremlins who last week managed to fry my computer’s motherboard (true story), knock over the birthday-gift-from-my-husband guitar and crack the neck (also true), or turn off my water and electricity supply last week for four days (indeed) have decided to try their grubby hands at WordPress. Not that I am complaining, folks. Just acknowledging that the obstacles are real. Good gravy.

For those weeks when the wrong seems strong–may God be your dwelling place.  And may His resurrection continue to characterize your life.

Happy Easter!

free download printable Scripture art Psalm 90:1

Get your FREE, actually quite pretty, PRINTABLE here. (Even if it vanished yesterday.)

 

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Freebie Fridays: FREE Printable Scripture Art! Psalm 90:1

O Lord,

You have been

our dwelling place

throughout all

generations.

Psalm 90:1

Get the FREE PRINTABLE here!

Like it? I’d love it if you shared it. Have a great weekend!

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The Three Words Our Kids Critically Need to Hear

It was a low moment in my parenting—so I’m still a little flabbergasted for the high point my then-four-year old made it.
I’d made a phone call to him as he stayed at his grandma’s for the day. I hated I even needed to make it. After shouting at him that morning, I’d done a fairly false, overall lame job of apologizing. I’d still been so stinkin’ angry—and my mind’s eye zoomed in on his own error. (That’s him at four years or so, on the right.) So I picked up my cell and attempted something more like Jesus.

What I will always remember was what he said in return.

“Mommy, I forgive you. And I want to let you know that even when you do bad things, I still love you. And I want you to know that even when you do bad things, God still loves you.”

Now I felt really bad for blowing my top.

After we’d repeated this to him over and over–I think the power of this moment was in my 4-year-old repeating the Gospel back to me. And really, him reiterating God’s acceptance of me.

In this post on Shame-parenting vs. guilt exposure, I wrote about one of the key underlying messages of shame. That has exponentially surpassed in traffic every other post on this site: I think this topic resonates strongly in so many of us. In a word, Dr. Brené Brown writes, shame is all about disconnection. Because of what we’ve done—which shame welds on to who we are—we’re rendered unworthy of being accepted; of connecting.

Last night, as I lay in bed during a voluminous thunderstorm, my thoughts blew back to another central relationship where our sense of connection had taken a turn for the worse. Here I am, 36 years old, and I realized that in a period of relational stress, I’d longed for a single vibe from this relationship: I accept you. Even if you don’t meet my standards of performance, even if your kids don’t meet my standards, even if I’m stressed—you are embraced. You don’t have to meet my standards to connect with me; to feel worthy in our house. (I still think the hard part is actually identifying the fact that we parent toxically. It’s a lot easier to identify who makes us feel that way, right?!)

There’s a critical message every child—and adult—longs to hear echoed throughout life, at every age: I accept you. As pastor Tim Keller relates in this podcast, every person’s greatest fear is to be fully known, but not fully loved. And our greatest desire? To be fully known, and fully loved.

Accepting our kids doesn’t mean we’re giving the green light their sin or weakness. Acceptance doesn’t mean “I condone your behavior.” On the contrary, like my little boy did, it reiterates the Gospel to them repeatedly: That while we were still sinners, God loved us. Romans 15 reminds us, Accept one another just as Christ accepted you. That level of acceptance is a pretty tall order for any parent. It’s also a vital truth constantly embedded—or not—in each of our kids. (I appreciated this communication in this recent post for missionary parents of LGBTQ kids.)

It makes me wonder:

  • Which of my kids is most likely to feel rejected in our family? Maybe they’re the target of most of the jokes. Maybe they’re into totally different stuff, or have a completely different personality.
  • In what mélange of circumstances am I most likely to let loose with the shame talk (a.k.a. toxic parenting) on an offending child?
  • What phrases do I use that communicate to my kids they’re beyond the range of acceptance? Not their behavior, mind you—but them, in light of how I’m treating them in their weaknesses? (Check out the chart here if you’re interested more in how this might play out.)
  • Which of my kids is most likely to feel rejected by me–whether because of stuff in our past, his or her own failures, a personality clash, my embarrassment, or something else?
  • Other than words, what are ways I can convey acceptance to my child? What habits of mine (like a relentlessly critical eye, my own perfectionism, or my own anger problem!) create static that interferes with that message?

Here’s to our kids getting the acceptance memo this week.

 

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Freebie Fridays: FREE Printable Scripture Art–Psalm 128:11

Free Scripture Art Printable Psalm 128:11

Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,

who walks in His ways.

Psalm 128:1

I’m welcoming Friday with open arms this week!–and with free printable Scripture art of Psalm 128:11 to usher in the weekend, too. Hope it encourages your family.

Feel free to share! (I ask that you please link back to my blog, and respect my copyright. Thanks!)

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Spiritual Disciplines for Real Families: Fun Ways to Study God’s Word (with FREE printables)

Missed the other posts in this series? Check out these on Prayer, Meditation and Contemplation, Simplicity, Solitude, Service, and Fasting.

 

Okay, so if it’s not obvious—problem numero uno may be getting our kids to study anything, right?

Maybe.

Because the truth is, our kids will naturally study whatever they’re interested in. My eleven-year-old, for example has wanted to be a zoologist ever since he knew what one was. It’s why I’m lugging back from Africa no less than three animal encyclopedias; why I know the name of nearly every bird perching in our yard. Any teacher will let you know that kids are self-driven to study whatever they’ve got the bug for. (This is a key concept in this series!)

If our disciplines for God don’t lead to joy…we need to take a serious look at them.

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Freebie Fridays: FREE Printable Scripture Art, Psalm 62:11-12

free printable Scripture art Psalm 62:11-12My fridge is pretty much an explosion of Scripture printables. They’re also lining the sides of our bathroom mirror, the back of the bathroom door, and their bedroom doors. I find a lot of benefit in literally displaying verses on our doorposts (Deuteronomy 6)!

So today for Freebie Friday, I’ve got printable Scripture art for you, taken from Psalm 62:11-12.

Once God has spoken

twice have I heard this:

that power belongs to God,

and that to you, O Lord,

belongs steadfast love

May it encourage your family.

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