Due to an internet problem the post Church Tent-ions was published from an earlier version. You will have been sent this incomplete version – please read the completed version below!
As my regular readers will know, my recent focus in this blog has been on my mental health and parenting.
But what of church life?
The sad truth is that the congregations of the churches where my husband in the vicar are dwindling. The rotas and committees and structures are slowly collapsing.
If our churches were tents – this is what they would look like:
So what’s gone wrong?
Well of course that’s a huge question with lots of different answers. It is also a question that I care passionately about, that has massive implications for our ministry and our family, but that I have little structural ‘right’ to comment on / have an opinion on amongst those with the power to do anything about it.
Which means I’m going to tell you all about it and then I can at least imagine that someone is listening!
So here’s what I think lies behind (or underneath!) our saggy tent…
The visible church in area has basically lost its central pole – cultural religiosity.
For a very long time this pillar of religion has done a ‘good’ job of holding things up – and an even better job of disguising the spiritual reality – but it is well and truly gone now and we ‘suddenly’ find ourselves standing in a tent being held up by the tallest person’s head.
Why suddenly? Because, whilst the societal norm of going to church twice a Sunday and giving to the church regularly (if not necessarily cheerfully) is long gone, the residual ‘benefits’ of that have lasted much longer. The pole has gone on functioning relatively ‘well’ whilst those residual effects have remained, masking the structural decay going on behind the scenes. For a long time there has been a large and active generation of people who grew up in a strongly religious culture and for whom it was still their norm. In addition their children were still quite heavily influenced by the culture their parents had grown up in – all be it a bit diluted by their own cultural norms. Christmas and Easter, harvest, remembrance, baptisms and confirmations still drew a crowd and filled the coffers and gave us a sense of strength and purpose. There was still a sense of connection with church (if not commitment and belonging) that kept people giving – if not on a Sunday morning, or in a regular way – at least at the church fund raisers.
But it was just a matter of time. Now we two generations on from that and it is the influence of great-grandparent’s that we are relying on – an influence that is inevitably diluted by the generational gap and which is competing with new cultural norms that are increasingly distant from even the most nominal Christianity. Not only does the average person not have much of a sense of connection to the church, but they are more and more likely to find its teaching and existence at best alien and at worse offensive. Add to that the increasing pressure on everyone’s time and it is a long shot to expect even the sympathetic to show up.
At the same time the stalwarts are struggling – in so many ways. Their numbers, health and strength are diminishing. They are at ‘best’ very discouraged, and at worst increasingly ashamed of the cultural norms they used to cherish and confused as to what they should be holding on to and what they can let go of.
Today it is as though in each of our tents there is an ever decreasing team of people left desperately holding their hands up high to stop the tent collapsing completely. Which is a scary, tiring, heartbreaking job! But one that it is very hard to stop doing. No one will change or move a muscle in fear that the whole thing will collapse. The idea of those of us remaining gathering in just one tent is not to be contemplated. So the plan seems to be for everyone to keep going until they can’t keep going. And who knows (and in some cases who cares) what then?
I thought that what these tents needed was a better tent pole. A gospel pole. I thought this pole would be tolerated, perhaps even welcomed by some. But it has largely been rejected. It has been sidelined to the bits that ‘don’t matter’ (small groups, evangelism, school’s work…”because in 300 years time our small groups will have nothing to show for them, unlike the building which will still be standing”) Even there in the corner of visible church life the gospel is unwelcome to those who control the frame of the tent. Key holder-uppers have abandoned their post to get away from its offensive presence and those who remain are even more antagonistic, even more committed to their ever decreasing pole of religion.
And so we have a very saggy visible church!
And who gets the blame? That dangerous gospel pole and those dreadful people who insisted on trying to strengthen the church with it.
So what shall I do? Pray and love and trust. Repent and serve faithfully, hand over each betrayal, each thwarted opportunity, and of course if all else fails – just smile and wave!
Dear God, I can’t imagine what sadness our church must bring you. It is not a pretty picture – and I’m not talking about the lack of numbers, and money, but the lack of love and unity. I’m sorry for my part in its ugliness. For my impatience and lack of love, for my arrogance and for my lack of trust and prayer. I’ve been sighing over this in despair rather than breathing in your strength and breathing out my need to fix it all. I have been testing you in my heart by not trusting you in my heart. I have been cross and unloving and ill at ease. I have been panicking rather than praying, accusing rather than loving. May there always be a light in my eyes and a smile on my lips because of you! Help me Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Before I begin, please let me apologise for the reduced and sporadic nature of my posts recently. In the past this has often been linked to a low spell in my life – happily, on this occasion, it is not my low mood squashing my musings, but various commitments linked to a possible new venture the NTV and I are considering for us a family.
Returning to the matter in hand….
I recently published a post entitled: ‘Post Depression?’
This sat nicely with me as a handle for a blog post given previous references to post natal depression and post primary depression – but is there more to it than a nifty link?
Is there really such a thing as life post depression? Mental illness is nothing if it isn’t complicated, multifaceted and a bit of a mystery – even to the people with really big brains. Can you really recover from it as you would pneumonia or a broken leg? Come to think of it even physical injuries and diseases often leave their mark, a risk of return, a vulnerability – how much less confident can we be that someone’s depression can be ‘all better’?
Part of the difficulty, as I mentioned above, is that because we don’t really understand the various dynamics at play it is hard to know if they have all been dealt with, and if so how permanent, how resilient that ‘dealing with’ will be. It puts me in mind of the phrase ‘herding cats’.
It’s like trying to track down and imprison a vast criminal gang of brain villains without knowing exactly how big the gang is, and who the master mind behind it all is.
Let’s start with the usual suspects – brain chemicals and hormones – and send a highly effective task force with an excellent success rate to bring them to justice.
In that task force we have anti-depressants, beta blockers, vitamins, light therapy, even good sleep and diet……and they do their job well. Thanks to them the physical elements of my struggles are in the main part safely behind bars.
They are not beyond the need for surveillance – I imagine they are pretty handy with a lock pick, rather talented at conning the guards and will almost definitely still have some links and influence with the rest of the gang – but that arm of the gang has basically been neutralised.
But that alone doesn’t make me eligible for a sticker.
Sadly this gang of brain villains is much bigger than the likes of hormones, chemicals and heart rates. In fact I am pretty convinced that while they are well known to the law they are neither the scariest members of the gang, nor the master criminals behind it all.
And it is the other members of this criminal gang who have proved far more slippery. For one thing they are much harder to identify, they are master of disguises and brilliant at camouflage, disappearing into the shadows.
This makes the wanted posters all too vague!
So who are these villains, and who can possibly hope to track them down? Well stay tuned…..
I find myself sighing less these days. And when I say sighing I don’t mean the nicer varieties – sighing in satisfaction, or relief, but rather the ‘hear we go again’ variety.
Instead I find myself taking a deep, slow breath which ends with a smile – a proper inside to outside smile.
What’s the difference? Well I came up with the following this morning:
A sigh gives up, a breath draws in and gives over.
A thought which made me smile some more!
So Post Depression.
No – I’m not missing a word in the middle. As in Post…..Natal Depression or Post …..Primary Depression.
I’m genuinely, although tentatively exploring the concept of life post depression. Is there such a thing? And if so am I there?
A word or two more on what I introduced in my last post as post-primary depression .
As many of you know I suffered from post-natal depression, or postpartum depression following the birth of our first child.
While the depression continues to be a reality for me, those early years were certainly a distinct stage of the ongoing difficulties I face. It was therefore quite a surprise to me to find myself experiencing a very similar set of symptoms more recently and also quite a help to me when I started to see the parallels that may have caused that.
I didn’t find pregnancy easy. I worried a lot. I felt so responsible for this precious bundle I was carrying and at the same time so impotent – so unable to help her if anything went wrong. But… in comparison to life after birth, pregnancy was never-the-less a time when I felt increasingly prepared and on top of things and bizarrely confident that this state of affairs was only going to improve as life as a mummy continued.
During pregnancy I planned and read and decided and studied and prepared for having a baby, for being a mummy. One month before my due date my bag was packed, the house was ready and I was as confident that I could tell the difference between a cry for milk and a cry of tiredness as any experienced twitcher distinguishing between the calls of different birds.
My due date came and went. 15 days later I was definitely not feeling in control. I ended up never going into labour and having an emergency Cesarean at three in the morning. As to discerning her different cries – all I could tell you was that it was either very loud, or very, very loud. I cried and worried a lot. I found myself at a complete loss and worse than that – I was completely surprised to find myself at a complete loss and even worse completely unforgiving of myself for being so.
A feeling that didn’t really let up! At no stage in the infant years do you feel an expert – the babies and toddlers are always ahead of you! You get one thing in place and they change all the rules!
Then suddenly – well about 9 years, 3 more pregnancies, and one very sad stillbirth later – I found myself in my children’s primary years.
Once again my sense of being on top of things tentatively crept out of its hole and showed its face. As time went on I once again grew confident that this more settled state of affairs might go on making itself more and more at home with us.
It isn’t that I found this stage a doddle. Not by a long shot. I don’t tend to do easy.
Life with me is rather like watching the England football team play: it’s a ‘never quite sure if they’ll pull it off, edge of your seat, watch it through your fingers’ kind of game.
Until Sunday’s 6-1 victory against Panama that is. What a totally different experience as a viewer. I actually enjoyed watching them!
No it certainly hasn’t been easy…
But it was a particular stage that, for our family at least, had a certain stability to it and which is now coming to an end.
As I planned and read and decided and studied and worked at being a great mum I was in a sort of second pregnancy. A holding, growing, and developing space within which I was still highly influential and where my intentionality could be put to work on the front line of our children’s lives, – spread out at the meal table, played with as a family in the sitting room and given pride of place in the family diary.
Releasing my eldest child into secondary school was (from the vantage point of nearly two years) rather like giving birth all over again – although thankfully she wasn’t two weeks late second time around time and it didn’t stop me driving for six weeks!
I have no idea whether this will ring any bells with anyone, but recognising the return of old struggles and feelings and anxiety within this context has helped me in lots of ways. Not least because I realise I have been here before – emotionally anyway.
What would I say to my new-mum self if I could somehow get a message to her across the years?
I would tell her to relax and play the long game. To not over analyse every cry and nappy and worry every time my daughter fell asleep in the ‘wrong’ place or at the ‘wrong’ time. I would tell her to enjoy the lovely moments and sit as lightly as possible with the trickier ones. To enjoy HER – not the baby from the book, but a unique new person designed from head to toe by God.
I look back now and see that I planned and prepared for a baby for me to be a mummy to and not for an individual to be in relationship with.
Of course I probably wouldn’t listen to myself even if I could send that message – in fact I’m sure plenty of people did give me that message!
BUT… I can listen to myself now.
And not only can I listen, but I might even believe myself this time.
So here I go, with the Lord’s help and remembering that I am still me and that’s o.k…I am going to relax and keep playing the long game.
I’m not going to over analyse every curled lip and ridiculous attempt to justify the unjustifiable.
I will help her with, but not lose sleep over, her sleep routines. At the end of that day (literally!) it is up to her to work out ways to get to sleep and she’ll manage and she’ll learn, and I’ll be there for her in her tiredness as she does so. And if it means ‘having to’ read Anne of Green Gables to her – well that’s a sacrifice I am prepared to pay!
I’ll enjoy the lovely moments with her – remembering to celebrate who she is. And I will run to the Lord with lament and tears and then patience and trust when those moments are overshadowed either by her rebellion, self-satisfaction and independence by my own many failings and fears. I’ll ask him to give me more love, more grace, more patience and more mercy and with his peace garrisoning my heart I’ll emerge, leaving my fears with him and myself free (or free-er) to parent without panic.
So does this mean I will not be at a loss? By no means. But it might mean that I am less at a loss at being at a loss and kinder to myself and therefore to those around me in my lostness.
Perhaps I have finally grasped that whatever books I read I’m never going to read the future and therefore I am going to need to be prepared to be surprised. And perhaps I have finally grasped a little more of the trust I can have in the one who is never surprised, who not only knows the future, but who writes it.
Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139:16
Maybe I have accepted that no matter how well-developed my theories and skills are they will be put into play not on a blank canvas that is mine to design, but poured into the melting pot of relationship and therefore into a complicated, unpredictable, beautiful mess.
Perhaps I have seen and repented that my preparation, my intentionality, was always too much about me. Our children are not our projects; our identity or our life’s work. They are individuals whom God has made fearfully and wonderfully and given to us for a time, with a remit to nurture and bring up in the training of the Lord.
Which brings us full circle back to…
Pitfall 1: Being intentional and being self-forgetful / humble is a tricky combination.
So I guess I will press on in my me-ish way – but just maybe I’ll manage to be a bit more intentional in avoiding the pitfalls of intentionality.
Pitfall 3: Being intentional is easily mistaken for being in control
You’ve probably gathered by now that I like to be in control! A personality trait that no doubt many of us intentional parents share and can both celebrate and curse in equal measure.
As we thought about in my last post…..
(Apologies for my absence by the way in the unlikely event of anyone noticing it: I blame the delightful distraction of holidays and family weddings! )
In my last post we saw that careful consideration, caring and planning are good things! As is parenting with the grain of one’s temperament. However, there is another side to this coin and it is important to recognise that thriving on being in control and parenting is also a bit of a toxic mix.
From the moment we decide to ‘go for it’ we relinquish control. At the very point of making an intentional, thought-through decision we let go of the reins. We may take vitamins and pee on sticks, take our temperature and wave our legs in the air (or was that just me?) but what happens next is simply not up to us. While it is natural and wise to consider all the various factors involved in the timing of giving birth: the gaps between our children, having a September baby, where we are in our work lives, our marriage, our house renovations…all these calculations can only ever be faintly pencilled in.
Then, for a little while, in the middle of the pregnancy, if all is going well, a small sense of control creeps back. Some of the uncertainty is over – a rough timescale and list of appointments and stages are set out before you. You read the books about babies and you make the lists and write the birth plan and it feels basically do-able. We are back in the driving seat – even if the seat-belt sits rather oddly over our growing bump and getting out of the car in a tight parking space becomes a bit trickier!
But, it is only a very little while because the memo about your due date doesn’t seem to travel through the placenta and once they finally do come it becomes increasingly obvious that your baby hasn’t read the same books as you!
Either that, or they have in fact read the books and simply decided they were speaking rot!
Then slowly, ever so slowly, as the baby and toddler years start to pass we claw back some ‘control’ over our lives. We drink a cup of tea and realise it is still vaguely warm. We get a full night’s sleep. We sit through a church service without being called into crèche or constantly, yet surreptitiously, passing ‘quiet’ snacks to our toddler. Our bodies, though they will never be the same, bear some resemblance (a second cousin once removed for example) to what they used to be and our clothes no longer have to be sniffed for baby sick before we go out in them.
At the same time as clawing back some of this control over our own lives (at least for those of us who have been given the generous gift of good health and well-being in our family situations) we continue to enjoy a semblance of control over the lives of our children.
Their lives are within certain boundaries which we manage quite closely. What they eat (or at least what they are offered to eat!) and who they meet are pretty much up to us, or at very least are well-known to us and within our sphere of influence.
I say ‘control’ and semblance of control because whoever we are and whatever we are doing control is at best very limited and often an illusion. Perhaps strong and active influence is a better term? I feel a new post coming on!
For those of us who have sought to be one step ahead of the game: who have planned meals and budgets and limited television and screen time; planned in family time and bible time and quiet play time and routine bed times this sense of being in control is only heightened.
And once again, without realising it, we start to get our parenting maths badly wrong:
a) I have planned things well and wisely and worked really hard at it (or at least endeavoured to).
b) Things are going relatively well and in many ways are getting easier.
c) If I keep planning things well, and thinking through things carefully and working hard I can be confident that this state of affairs will continue and all will go according to plan.
Hence our intentionality as parents is not only in danger of morphing into a bogus guarantee (pitfall 2), but also – particularly during certain more settled stages of parenting – of giving an illusion of control that simply doesn’t exist.
And so when the next stage hits it is like having a bucket of cold water thrown in your face.
Or as if, having finally gained my footing as a parent, I was walking along with increasing confidence totally unaware of the cliff I was about to walk off!
But now the initial shock has worn off I find myself able to philosophise as I free fall through the air.
I find my experience of life post-primary very akin to that of birth and babies. So similar in fact that I have dubbed my struggles over the last year or two as post-primary depression.
I thank God that we did have a relatively settled period in our lives while our children were in primary school. When the children are small the stages change and shift before you’ve even had time to acknowledge their existence. Life is a constant bucket of water in the face and it has been good to have a season of recovery and consolidation.
A season rather like the middle trimester of a straightforward pregnancy. The nerves and fragility and sickness of early pregnancy have passed, you are comfortably aware of the baby growing inside of you and more able to share that joy with those around you. The discomfort, uncertainty and potential dangers/complications of late pregnancy are some way off still and meanwhile your baby is getting on with developing and growing thanks to the wonderful environment you are providing.
But, I also thank God for this next stage: for all that it has already taught me of God – the ultimate patient, gracious, and generous Father; for all it has already challenged me with and taught me about myself; and for all it is revealing about the amazing individuals God has entrusted to me to mother.
Pitfall 2: The wisdom of being intentional can mask the foolishness of believing that intentionality guarantees ‘success’.
Sadly it is all too short a step from being intentional in our parenting (or indeed in anything) to believing in the power of intentionality.
The good intention of doing what I* can in my parenting in faithful obedience to God becomes part of a very bad equation.
(*a limited creature with much of the old self remaining)
The logic becomes: “BECAUSE I am doing what I can in order for my family to arrive at the intended destination we WILL definitely arrive at that destination.
And, if I am being really honest I should add: “And not only arrive, but arrive via my preferred route and in accordance with my preferred timetable thank you very much.”
In other words: we intentional parents feel that we are owed our dues – don’t we?
It’s horrible to type, but if I am honest I can imagine myself thinking the following in a few years’ time:
Why is that child going strong with the Lord when mine is lukewarm at best? His parents didn’t drive halfway across the country to get him to camp! There were no family devotions in that house – I’m not sure the parents even had quiet times themselves or prayed for their children. They certainly didn’t go to any Christian parenting seminars or read all the books I read. What was the point of all my hard work and heartache? Their son is working for a church and engaged to a lovely Christian girl and I’m not even sure if my daughter goes to church – it is so hard to get any communication from her above the occasional text message.
Or in other words…
At which point I am sounding dangerously like the workers hired at the start of day in Matthew 20, or the older brother in Luke 15.
Which begs the question: Why am I parenting intentionally and who for?
Well the first answer is for God, for my children and for lots of really godly reasons.
I parent intentionally because God has given us wise ways to follow and it takes intentionality to live that way as aliens – saved, but still sinful – in a foreign, broken world.
I parent intentionally because I love my children and to think of them not enjoying the grace of God and the beauty of his holiness and the blessings of being his beloved children is so painful that it takes my breath away. It is like a punch to my heart, soul and gut that even in its ‘what if’ form threatens to send me reeling and engulf me in crippling pain and fear.
I thank God for the intentional parenting that he has helped me to do over the years and will, I pray, continue to help me to do. It is right to care about these things.
BUT with all the good that is in the ‘whys’ and ‘who fors’ above there is also something that sounds dangerously close to: “I parent intentionally to get what I want.”
But hold on – surely if ‘what I want’ is their salvation then that is a good thing right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes – wanting my children to be saved is a good thing.
Yes – wanting to be faithful to my God-given role as their mother – presenting and displaying the gospel and not hindering its work in their lives – is a good thing.
Yes – being a providential means of grace in their lives as bring them up in the training of the Lord is a good thing.
BUT read the sentence again:
“I parent intentionally to get what I want.”
Pared right down, the sentiment at the heart of it all is looking less and less healthy for me, less and less glorifying to God and is dragging my parenting further and further away from grace.
Following the path of this sentence through the years I will either be:
a) Proud and satisfied and a vocal advocate of intentional parenting and all it promises to deliver, and in danger of idolising / relying on my children’s godly lives for my sense of peace and identity;
AND / OR
b) Resentful, worn out, disappointed, bitter, self-loathing and seeing myself as a failure and / or angry with God for not keeping his part of the bargain, full of regrets, jealous, fearful and unhappy.
And never mind ‘through the years’ – my current struggles reveal that too much of my happiness and stability and peace is wrapped up in how my children react to me.
Because, like the older brother’s years of service on his father’s land and the vineyard workers’ hours of labour in the vineyard through the heat of the day, my intentional parenting is really all rather concentrated on me. Which is something I both need to repent of and be forgiven for, but also be freed from the burden of.
As with every other aspect of my life – I want to win, to get, to have, to be better, to show off, to feel successful and validated, to be accepted, and ultimately (because that is all very tiring) to feel I’ve done enough so I can stop and rest.
How much better to parent first and foremost for my Father, the one in charge of the vineyard. To trust my Father’s love, acceptance of me, wisdom, and fairness. To long for what delights and pleases his good and will. Instead, like the older brother, I resent the Father’s generosity to and love for others and doubt his love for and generosity to me.
In parenting we’ve been given a trust and we need to trust the one who has given it to us. We are to be faithful as we put one foot in front of the other in his service. Our terms of working and the harvest at the end of the season is all in his hands. We should plant well, even when planting in tears.
And as intentional parents we do a lot of thinking about how to plant well! We aim to have a harvest mentality (as Paul Tripp calls it) running through the days and weeks and years of our parenting. And this is good! Let’s be faithful (which doesn’t mean always getting it right, never forgetting or messing up or just being tired) with the many resources we have been given. But let’s not try to do and be more in our parenting than faithfully fulfill the role we have been given by God. Let’s remember that there is an awful lot more going on in our children’s hearts and lives than our parenting (no matter how intentional) can ever dream of having covered.
Which leads me to my final pitfall…
Pitfall 3: Being intentional is easily mistaken for being in control.
I don’t know about you, but I find it so hard to be gentle and patient with myself (let alone the children!) when it comes to parenting.
I know the verdict is grace, but to live in an atmosphere of grace in parenting is a constant effort. Which of course is a sentence that shouldn’t make sense!
Basically the gravitational pull at work in my heart is towards me and therefore away from grace. The more important something is to me, the stronger the pull. The more I have invested in something, deliberated and planned – the more it is about me. It is the pitfall of intentionality.
I am blessed to have a very great friend – The Doctor – who is not only one of my best friends, but also my mental twin and mother to a very similar (albeit 9 years younger than mine) first child.
As we chatted together about parenting she put it perfectly when she said: ” Sometimes I just wish I didn’t think about it all so much.”
And it can seem that those who just muddle along and fly by the seat of their pants come out of the whole thing less scathed and with much the same results as the likes of the Doctor and myself.
Not that winging it would be our comfort zone at all – we like a plan. ‘If in doubt make a list’ is certainly a motto in my household! No, for better or worse we are intentional people and I wouldn’t really want to change that, but intentionality does bring with it its own peculiar temptations and difficulties to strew across the path of my parenting experience and I feel getting those out in the open may be helpful.
Pitfall 1: Being intentional and being self-forgetful / humble is a tricky combination.
Well, it is for me anyway.
I am an intentional person by wiring as well as conviction. Put that together with a tendency towards obsessive behaviour, high sensitivity and anxiety and the likelihood of taking yourself too seriously becomes pretty high.
A plan needs maintenance. All my lists and ideas and grand schemes need careful attention and so, while I myself am not necessarily the main subject, I do spend a lot of time looking in the mirror of my parenting. Once there, it isn’t too big a jump for a sinner to shift the focus of their gaze back on themselves: mirror, mirror on the wall who is the best intentional parent of them all?
Pitfall 2: The wisdom of being intentional can mask the foolishness of believing that intentionality guarantees ‘success’.
The Judge speaks:
Judge: This mother is in Christ. Who accuses her?
The defendant: I accuse myself.
Judge: What do you accuse yourself of?
The defendant: Imperfection my Lord.
Judge: My dear child – I have already heard that case. You have already been declared not guilty in Jesus.
The defendant: But in the matter of my parenting..
Judge: There are no BUTs after grace – only before.
21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. Ephesians 2