Written by . . .
My name is Betsy. I am a child of God, a wife, and a mother of four. We live in a farmhouse in Delaware right now, preparing to move to southeast Asia. I'm glad you're here.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
I meant to write this sooner, but I’m glad now that I couldn’t fit it in. I’ve felt from the start of this series that this was the most important part–the part where suddenly, stumbling under the weight of the relentless round of duties large and small that accompany my calling, feeling tired and overwhelmed and inadequate, knowing the distance between my efforts at obedience and what I ought to be, I see Jesus. Come to me, he says, my yoke won’t choke you and my burden is light.
One disadvantage, if there are any, of “growing up Christian” is that profound scriptural truths can become clichés we take for granted before we really understand what they mean. One such phrase is “do it in God’s strength, not your own.” We’re on sound biblical footing with this: “. . .whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies–” (1 Peter 4:11). ‘Tired?’ we ask. ‘Well, you’re trying to do it all on your own strength, just rely on God’s strength.’ (If I had an hour for every time that’s been said to me concerning my duties I’d have time to do them all and bake bread from scratch.) But increasingly I’ve had the question what does that mean?
I’m not being simple, this is my serious question. I’ve written how the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 is relevant to me. Mary chose “the good portion”, I begin to understand that. But Martha was the one who “welcomed [Jesus] into her house” (Luke 10:38) and she is the one who made the dinner. (Sound familiar, mamas? I think we all know that someone has to make the dinner. In fact, the only reason I can sit and ponder God and duty right now is because we’re visiting family and my mother is making the dinner.) Recently a good friend and I were discussing poor old Martha and she said, “Why did Jesus get after her like that? She was just doing her job!” (That’s the part of the story that’s harder to chew.) Some things just must be done. What does it mean to “do it in God’s strength” when I’m exhausted? Because I still have to be the one to get up and do it. When is the last time God disciplined my toddler? When has he made the salad?
Recently when my gallbladder (needless and vindictive thing) began to gall me and complications ensued, I had some glimmers of insight on how the mechanics of God’s strength and my work play out. I had just returned home, still in pain, from one of my unexpected hospital stays to a messy house, an empty fridge, laundry everywhere, and four needy, fractious children. I was holding Wally, Hugh was clinging to my legs and crying, and the girls loudly calling me to arbitrate an acrimonious dispute that had arisen between them. Suddenly I sank to the kitchen floor and cried, I can’t do this, God, please help me. I waited for him to answer. Nothing happened. Then slowly verses came to mind . . . Jesus never leaves us or forsakes us. In everything give thanks. The promises are still ‘yes’ in Jesus on the bad days. I stood up, gave pretzels to Hugh, took a couple of Tylenol, and started in. I was cleaning with Wally in the baby carrier when the other three children marched in, all wearing backpacks and singing, headed off on an “expedition” together. As I turned off the vacuum I saw Harriet give Norah a gentle little hug and say softly, “I love you, Norah.” I looked at the clock. Just one hour since I’d asked God for help. He helped me with his promises. He helped me start doing things even though I didn’t have the energy to finish–and then he helped me finish. He encouraged me with fruit.
The reason I’m glad I couldn’t write this sooner is that day-by-day I’m continuing to learn more about how God helps me. I attend a Bible study where we were discussing a verse I’ve heard so many times that I forgot to think about what it means: “The joy of the Lord is my strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). What joys do I have in the Lord? The durable joy, the joy constructed of all that is mine because God’s promises are true. How does this make me strong?
To have my joy in the Lord means, for one, celebrating all he gives to me. Have you ever noticed how gratitude gives us the zest for doing the tasks before us? This is why it helps to stop and thank God for our children when we feel annoyed by them. This takes us from “It is so noisy in here my head hurts” to “noisy, happy house”. I must clean my house . . . I have a house to clean. I help my husband with something . . . what a gift he is to me.
Additionally, if my joy is in the Lord then I don’t need to look for joy from my duty. Sometimes doing it is joyful, but when it is not I can persevere because my joy is fully supplied elsewhere.
We are helped in our duty by God. Help comes in remembering that, if Jesus is (my) Lord, then my only real duty is to him. Far from being scattered and pulled about in different directions, I am following him. He is my one bright, particular star.
Did you feel cheated by the idea that help to do our duty comes from doing it? It’s like a greeting card my college roommate sent once: “My cookbook tells me if I don’t have an egg, I can substitute two egg whites . . . I don’t think my cookbook understands my problems.” What if we haven’t an egg when it comes to duty? Starting to do it (whatever it is) would perhaps prove helpful but that’s the trouble.
Then it’s time to have a look at the heart. Like the father in Proverbs admonishes his son, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23), the life we live is the outworking of the heart we tend. And if, as Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45) then surely from that same source the feet tread (or don’t tread) doggedly on. When it becomes hard to do my duty, I learn something about my heart. . .
I am a stay-at-home mom. There are days when I am at home in my job, rocking the comfortable clothes and cuddles and cookies in the oven. But there are days (or perhaps times in each day) when it’s sheer hard work. It’s constant interruptions (even the interruptions are interrupted). Sometimes it can seem like an endless round of thankless menial tasks. A precious friend of mine, a wiser woman than I, once described motherhood in a comment on this blog as a series of deaths to self. (My Self wants to write this right now. My Self has been interrupted by my Duty (and his big sisters and his baby brother) seventeen times since I started this paragraph.)
I have those moments where, suddenly, I don’t want to be here right now. I don’t want to do this (whatever it is). I’ll start feeling like I’d rather have my husband’s job (there’s peace and quiet in his office) or my neighbor’s (her kids go to school, she goes to Starbucks). This is when questions like these start to rise inside us: Is what I’m doing even important? Do I add any value here? Or the smoke-screened version: Are my gifts really being utilized?
In these moments we need to take our hearts by the throat and look them in the face. However blessed I am, however much I may enjoy some of my duty some of the time, if my heart is not quieted, submitting to God, “duty” does become synonymous with “burden”.
Years ago I stumbled on this matchless quote by Elisabeth Elliot: “This job has been given me to do. Therefore it is a gift. Therefore it is a privilege. Therefore it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.” She nails me to the wall with “not in some other”. It isn’t rocket science to figure out what duties God is giving me to be faithful in today (they are right in front of me).
We are helped in our duty by quieting our hearts. What is a quiet heart? In the words of Jeremiah Burroughs, “A [quiet heart] is opposed to an unsettled and unstable spirit, whereby the heart is distracted from the present duty that God requires in our relationships; towards God, ourselves, and others” (from The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 1648).
The “God of seeing” (Genesis 16:13) knows where I am. He “prepared beforehand” the duties he created me to do (Ephesians 2:10). I can rest my heart in the knowledge that I am not doing the choosing. A last word from Elisabeth Elliot: “God is God. Because he is God, he is worthy of my trust and obedience. I will find rest nowhere but in his holy will that is unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what he is up to.”
There’s no proper path between the porch and the van, just a dotted line of flat stepping-stones through the grass. These are adorable three seasons out of four but slippery (and invisible) just now, buried in snow. Most of us would probably get wet to the knees on every journey from the house, except for one thing: we’ve trod that route so often that there is now a flattened place in the snow. We weren’t traversing that way daily to make the path; we had to get in the van. But now the path is there to help.
In the same way, when I do my duty, I am helped to go on doing it. Why is it easier to obey once we begin? Is it that we are made creatures of habit–and this is turned to good account when the habits we build into our lives are faithful ones? Is it that we somehow actualize or demonstrate our faith by acts of obedience, however small, and God (the one who rewards those who seek him) then comes to our aid?
Early in my walk with Jesus I heard someone say to “pray on your knees when you don’t feel like praying”. It seemed unnecessary to me, and a bit silly. Until I tried it–and realized that praying on my knees meant taking some time, getting alone somewhere, and awkwardly creaking down on the ground. Having done all that, I felt like I couldn’t just fire up a half-conscious, poorly-formed request or two before descending into distraction again. I then had to put in the further effort to focus my mind on the Lord and formulate thoughts about and to him. And so I could really pray. Putting myself in the right posture was the hard part.
We are such complex creatures, aren’t we? A mix of body and mind and heart and soul. It is hard to delineate the boundaries of each, but somehow discipline of one may strengthen and direct the others. I love how the “greatest commandment”, according to Jesus, just speaks simply to all of them: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Luke 10:27). Sometimes loving God is a conscious mental decision before it is a heartfelt effusion. As Eugene Peterson writes, “We live in an ‘age of sensation.’ We think that if we don’t feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different: that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship” (from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (1980), pink font mine). Now I think worship is the expression of a feeling for God but his point is that sometimes our hearts follow our actions, and this I have found to be true.
We are also helped in our duty because we know our obedience blesses us later. As C. S. Lewis says, “When we carry out our ‘religious duties’ we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last water comes, it may find them ready” (from Reflections on the Psalms (1958)). Channels in the desert, ruts in the snow, paths for the feet. . . there is something safe, something oddly freeing, in knowing that (God helping us) we can and will choose to do our duty regardless of which way our emotions surge and swell. Yet one more thing I notice, if I “go through the motions” of faithfulness (regardless of where my heart’s at) I am becoming more and more emotionally invested in the good works God has called me to–whether I’m trying to or not. And when fruit appears my joy is all the greater. It’s a way to bank more of today’s time and energy into tomorrow’s account.
For Alex, who walks beside me on the path. This post is deeply indebted to our conversations–“thank you” could never be enough for the many ways you encourage my soul.
We laugh, admitting that sometimes we tell our children to obey “because I said so” as though it is a silly and unreasonable response–when surely shouldn’t it be considered, coming from parent to child, as a full answer? Whenever the word “ought” was struck from our working vocabulary (for struck it has been) we lost something precious: a big, basic building block from the foundations of faithfulness.
If you still yourself and shut your eyes and I say “duty” do you see taxes or laundry? A soldier? A grim-faced lady trotting off to prayer meeting?
Perhaps we see grueling things or get a nasty taste in our mouths because in our world duties are suspect and passions are championed. Doing something because we are “supposed to” is considered worse than not doing it at all. Shel Silverstein isn’t the only one singing, “Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me . . . Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.” I wish it hadn’t been so easy to memorize that as a child because it isn’t true. For me, seeking to follow Jesus, anything can’t be. Some shoulds and shouldn’ts and mustn’ts desperately matter.
Perhaps you don’t see the dilemma. For the Christian, it should be simple: our duties and our passions should lie together. John Piper famously writes in Desiring God (1986) about what would happen if he gave his wife roses and, when thanked, gave “It’s my duty to love you” as a response. He’s right–she wouldn’t like it. Yet that’s a faithful man! Isn’t it true that all of us do things, at times, because they are right and not because we feel it? Perhaps duty and passion ought to go together but duty is there first, like the garden trellis on which we train the vines of our passions as they grow God-ward.
I love my duty very much, except when I don’t. I have a passion for my family. (Today’s duty of cutting Wally’s tiny pinky fingernail was delightful.) But there are times when it’s all dirty toilets and sick kids and spilled orange juice and loud voices repetitively bellowing out of tune. Sometimes it’s five needy people clamoring at once and I’m the sixth (and the neediest). I have a passion for my church. But sometimes events fly thick and fast or attending home group means messing up the kids’ schedule or listening to someone means a lost hour or two. I love Jesus. But there are seasons when waking up and studying my Bible and focusing my mind to pray are the last things I feel like doing.
Do I do my duty anyway? Ought I?
Don’t be so legalistic, we say. But is faithfulness legalism? Legalism is fastidiously holding to the letter of the law in order to gain merit. Faithfulness is obedience–even when we don’t feel like it. I suppose from the outside they appear the same. At least they have the same results. A legalistic mama is pretty consistent. But so is a faithful mama.
Let’s not let the world tell us that duty is self-assigned and we should persevere in it only so long as it suits our changing feelings. I have come to believe that a great deal of faithfulness is simple obedience: the old-fashioned word for that is duty. Can I share with you some things that help me when I seek to do it? (If not, unsubscribe immediately–here’s what’s coming:)
1. Doggedly On: We are helped in our duty by doing it
2. Keep Calm and Dog On: We are helped in our duty by a quiet heart
3. Leaning On: We helped in our duty by God
Don’t forget to leave me your thoughts, I want to hear them!
The clouds opened over Delaware all yesterday and the world is covered with white. Then this morning the sun arose and filled the world with sparkles, the snow magnifying its usual brilliance to dazzle-point. It is the kind of day that makes me think I’ll miss winter. (A little.)
Even though the roads are clear, all the schools are cancelled for the sheer joy of living. This doesn’t affect us much, except that Daddy decided to work from home this morning. (Above see Hugh letting Daddy work.) I love it because it feels like a weekend. I haven’t had a weekend in so long. Two weeks ago I had just arrived home from the hospital after nearly all week there being treated for complications following gallbladder surgery. Then last Friday I had to return to hospital unexpectedly with more pain and complications and they didn’t let me out until Saturday night. It was rough. (I hope I’m on the mend at last, thanks to all who have been praying for me in this trial!) Sometimes it just feels so good to be home, with the sun shining and the children’s voices and gingerbread cookies in the oven.
It was fun sending the children out in the snow. Soak it in, remember it, my heart was telling them. It will be a while before we see it again. Wally wasn’t out very long, but his encounter with snow is hereby documented:
Harriet’s toy of choice wasn’t any more appropriate, she chose a butterfly net. One of the more endearing things about Harriet is her habit of grabbing a word, any word, and plugging it in for a word she doesn’t know or can’t remember. She was industriously clearing the walk this morning (with the butterfly net) yelling loudly, “Look at me, Mom, I’m digging it up with my enchilada!”
Crazy little poppets.
In the two weeks following my surgery I started to feel great.
One day I went out to run errands by myself while my parents were still visiting. This occasion was extremely special in that I was wearing clean clothes that were almost starting to fit me and I had put earrings on for morale. I was feeling pretty good. As I prepared to pay for something at one stop, the nice girl behind the counter smiled at me in a really shy way. “I just wanted to tell you something before somebody else comes, I’m just trying to be nice, I hope you don’t think I’m weird or anything, but . . .” and she said something more that I couldn’t make out over the music playing in the store. She’s probably going to tell me I look like Ashley Judd or something, I thought. (I think someone said that to me once in dim light about thirteen years ago.)
“What was that?” I said, smiling.
She said it again and I still didn’t catch it. I think I leaned in a little. “It’s okay, but I still haven’t heard you.”
This time she was much louder. “YOUR ZIPPER’S DOWN.”
(And pride, people, cometh before the fall. Or before I learned of the fall, who knows when it fell.)
So as you can see things were returning to normal. I was rebuilding routines, fishing dirty socks out from under bureaus, flossing my teeth. Life was chaotically refreshing. I started checking stuff off the List(s).
Now I’m wearing dirty socks in the hospital and the only chaos comes from my roommate’s television, which has been blasting the Cartoon Network for nine hours each day. (I can only tell you that because I am fairly certain she does not read this blog.) After several acute attacks of abdominal pain Alex took me to the ER in the early hours of Tuesday and I’ve been making friends and listening to Sponge Bob here at the hospital ever since.
As it happens, I am experiencing complications after gallbladder surgery. Basically I have a bile leak inside of me. Yesterday I underwent more anesthesia to place a stent inside me that should help stop the leak and facilitate its healing. There is a pocket of leaked bile still there that may present me with pain for some time until it reabsorbs. There has been lots of talk about drainage tubes and CT scans and such but my original surgeon feels it is best to wait and let yesterday’s procedure take effect and see if I can rally without additional measures. If further complications do not develop I will be allowed to return home in the next day or two. Then I return in about six weeks for more anesthesia and the removal of the stent.
I can only say, in the words of an excellent haiku sent me by a talented friend during the last crisis:
Needless and vindictive thing-
Good riddance, thou knave!
I was not really planning to spend the week in the hospital but must conclude that God was planning it. I keep reminding myself that this is where he plans for me to be right now, so this is where I want to be. I am tempted to ask, “Why this, Lord?” and “Why not heal me, Lord?” and especially “Why right now, Lord?” but Jesus prayed, “Your will be done,” so I make that my prayer, too. At least I pray that I would pray that, which, given God’s faithfulness, is much the same thing.
Something about January makes us want to get our lives sorted. We make lists and set goals and start digging through closets. This January in particular things are moving around here, as I need to lighten our load once again and be ready to hone our possessions down to what we will ship overseas this summer. With homeschooling and four little people and housework and all the other logistical details of leaving that keep popping up, I struggle to focus and my efforts are scattered at best.
I try to write long do-lists of all the things that should be done and then I lose them. I find them later and in the meantime I’ve drafted other lists that have completely different things on them. I lay awake at night sometimes over questions like what to do with photo albums and sweaters. My urge towards productive procrastination no longer serves me well, instead of getting things done ahead of time that will help myself later I pick strange times to begin emptying cupboards and making piles, like ten minutes before church or at suppertime on a Wednesday night. Thus half-emptied cupboards, half-finished projects, and piles of Things To Be Dealt With are everywhere. It’s preparation: headless-chicken style.
With all this going on it took me weeks to realize the pain wasn’t going away. Sometimes acute, often debilitating and uncomfortable, I had a persistent abdominal ache. I kept thinking I had a stomach virus. But those aren’t supposed to last eight weeks. I finally went to the doctor and x-rays revealed that I had a great many gallstones. These have been linked to pregnancy, fluctuating weight, and cholestasis, all of which I’ve had. In my case, given the pain and our imminent departure, prompt gallbladder removal was in order.
That’s abdominal surgery (which I had on Thursday). And recovery. And moving slowly amidst the piles of Things To Do and not doing them. What a test for this Martha-type! And that’s not Martha Stewart, people (as much as I enjoy her)! That’s Martha, to whom Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.” (Luke 10:41-42).
It seems Jesus would call me back to “the good portion, which will not be taken away from her”, which Mary chose. It seems he is less concerned with my gallbladder and more with my heart.
I stumbled on a book the other day entitled You Are Your Own Gym:Use the Body You Have to Build the Body You Want. All 171 pages of this paperback volume are no doubt packed with good things, but I will not be opening its covers for much longer than it just took me to see how many pages it has. I have a fitness program all my own.
I’m calling my version of this classic work Your Toddlers Are Your Gym: Use the Bodies You Have to Build the Body You Want with the subtitle Make Your Kids Work For You!
For optimal results the trainee should have children available in a range of sizes, lighter weights to use for high reps (definition) and heavier wights for low reps (muscle mass).
One gem of wisdom I spotted on the book’s pages that is relevant to my program as well: “For an exercise or workout to be functional, it must resemble the event being trained for as closely as possible” (9). For my version to be most functional, there should be laundry everywhere, a newborn crying, and smoke coming from the kitchen.
One functional exercise I suggest based on the principle above would be running into the grocery store in the rain, laden with a purse weighing 20 pounds, pushing a baby buggy, carrying a flailing toddler, and screeching, “HARRIET! Give me your HAND!”
“The hardest part is often just getting started. Next time you don’t feel like training, try kicking yourself. . . it doesn’t always have to be so structured or serious” (42). Hear that, Mamas? Try kicking yourself.