When relationships with the in-laws are tricky…

Advice for when relationships with your in-laws is tricky

Dear Bronwyn,

I read your RELEVANT article on honoring parents when we are adults. I was  wondering if you have any practical tips for honoring parents when a circumstance is difficult?

My husband and I live near his parents and see them regularly. Although we’ve been married six years, and both just turned 30, there are times when his mom becomes a bit of a ‘helicopter parent’ and treats him like he’s a little boy again. As if he needs to be a ‘son’ first and a ‘husband’ second. It stresses him out for sure and I’m looking for ways to support him in this. We’ve had several (kindhearted and respectful) conversations with her but not sure if they resolve much. We’re a bit baffled on how we might help her see us as adult children instead of just kids that need to do nearly everything with the family still. Any thoughts?

– a Baffled Daughter-in-Law

Dear BDiL,

I grew up hearing some truly alarming stories of difficulties my parents had with their own in-laws. My mind is etched with tales of my late grandmother refusing to eat a pork roast my newlywed mom had cooked. Legend has it that she shuddered and sniffed: “I never eat pork, it’s so like human flesh.” My mom was devastated and poured her heart out on the phone to her own father on the phone. Recounting the jibe about pork being like human flesh, my ever witty grandfather came back with: “well, how would she know?”

Jokes aside: navigating relationships with adult parents can be incredibly tricky, and when one adds a spouse and then children into the mix, things become even more complex. I want to commend you and your husband for your desire to honor his parents, for the loving conversations you have had with her so far, for the prayers you have prayed and are continuing to pray. It can be hard to remain warm and welcoming and prayerful in a situation where you feel criticized and the other party lets you know they are disappointed with how they are being treated – even though you’re doing your best.

So first thing: good job. God sees your heart in this, and I believe he blesses your desire to honor them.

My second thought is this: I think there are some significant limits on what we are able to “help people see”. We can explain as lovingly and clearly as possible, but sometimes people can remain at an impasse. She may not want to “see”. She may not be able to see, due to a hurt or different worldview or radically different perspective on things. You did not mention whether your husband was an only child or the eldest son, but if he is – I hear that can have a big impact too.

So what do you do then?

I take great comfort in the words of Romans 12:18:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

If it is possible… God knows a peacefully resolved relationship is not always possible. It might be that we try and try and pray and pray and do everything right – and healing a breach might not be possible.

but: as far as it depends on you, live at peace. I love that the Scriptures are clear about delineating healthy relationship boundaries. Healthy relationships depend on more than one party – and so as far as it depends on you – do what you can do keep it peaceful. The fact that you and your husband are on the same page about this is a huge help (sometimes I get letters from people where the wife feels the Mother in Law is interfering, but the husband seems unaware of or unwilling to address the problem. My advice there would for the couple first to figure out what they want from their relationships with the in-laws).

So often if a couple is having a hard time with a parent who they feel is overly (and unhealthily) involved in their family affairs, they fall into the trap of allowing the parents to set all the relational expectations – and then they believe that honoring the parents means trying to meet as many of those expectations as they can. The parents are often disappointed because their children aren’t “honoring their wishes”, and they interpret their disappointment as disrespect. So, for example – a mother in law might simple assume that her married, adult son is spending thanksgiving with them, or coming over for every Sunday dinner – but fail to actually invite the couple, or to give them a reasonable space to say no, not this time without the threat of The Great Dump Truck Of Guilt being heaped upon them.

In that circumstance, though: the adult children are not disrespecting the parent. The parent is just disappointed, that’s all.

My practical advice for you is this:

  • Create your own boundaries as a couple. Figure out what you and your husband CAN and WANT to do to honor his parents and include them. As a family unit, prayerfully decide the ways in which you feel you could honestly and openly welcome them into your lives and home. You set the terms of what you both feel you can, in good conscience, do. I think it would be healthy to reach a space when you can say that you are CHOOSING every interaction and visit you have, instead of trying to just minimize the number of times you disappoint her and being driven by guilt.

So, for example – decide if you would be happy to have lunch once a month/once a week. Tell her you’re often invited to lunch with other young families after church on Sunday but you still want to make time to have lunch with her because she’s important to you – so ask her if you can write a date down in the calendar in PEN, and tell her you are really looking forward to it.

Have you and your husband decide how much phone conversation or texting you are willing to do – and have him call her regularly. If she calls at inappropriate times, I would say it is okay to let the phone go to voicemail on occasion – but then he must call her back when he has time to talk, and make a good effort to really listen 🙂

Cloud and Townsend’s book on “Boundaries” is so helpful for things like this. Say yes and no to what is healthy for your family, and then stick to that. If you decline one of her invitations, you do not need to apologize profusely or promise to make it up to her, NOR do you need to give her a reason why you can’t go. People who are invading your space then often feel that they have the right to evaluate your reason and see if it’s “good enough” to justify the no. I find it better to say: “Thanks for the invitation, but we can’t this time! Sorry to disappoint.”

* Help your mother in law with the language of disappointment if you feel she is pushing too hard or starting to hover. “Mom, I know you’re disappointed we can’t come over tonight. Thanks for understanding, and we are looking forward to that Sunday lunch…”

* Ask her some questions: about her own relationships with her in-laws. About her favorite memories with her children. And if you have the openness of relationship to ask directly, maybe you might even be able to say: “I know we aren’t always to spend the kind of time with you that you would like us to. You are important to us, though, so I was wondering what some of the most important things are that you would appreciate from us?” Who knows what might come from that?

I hope this is of some practical help. If it is possible, and as far as it depends on you, I hope your relationship with both your parents  remains a peaceful and rich one.

Got an “Ask Me Anything” question? Click over here

 

Photo Credit: Grant MacDonald “Vine and Brick” (copyright from Flickr Creative Commons), edits by Bronwyn Lea.

Help, I have a transgender friend

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Dear Bronwyn,

I have a new friend who recently asked if she could share something with me without me judging her. She told me she was actually born a boy and has been living as a girl since she was 14 (now 17). He had wanted to be a girl since a young age, but his mom would not allow it until he almost committed suicide. Questions that followed were in regards to dating, if she should tell the person she is with, what to wear, how do do makeup for the date, etc. I have been struggling with how to respond to such things so that I am not being too involved and encouraging living as a girl, but also not coming off as judgmental while still living out my own christian beliefs and making them clear. How can I continue to build a trusting and positive friendship with her, and lovingly share Gods truths? – P.C.

Dear P.C.,

A few years ago, I met someone who had had gender reassignment surgery. She had lived as a man until well into her adult life, had married and had kids, and then in her 30s made the choice to start living as a woman. After a few years, she followed it up with surgery to ‘seal the deal’. It cost her her marriage, her career, her relationship with her kids – and it caused a terrific amount of stress in the extended family: some were accepting, others refused to ever come to a family meeting where she (or ‘he’, as they insisted) was present.

I knew some of this background before meeting her, but I was still a little unprepared when I finally met her and her boyfriend (!!) I did my best to be loving, friendly and attentive – but I confess I was really unnerved when I got up to use the restroom and she got up and accompanied me, “because we girls go to the restroom in pairs.” A few minutes later I was washing my hands and she came up next to me and observed: “You also have big feet – don’t you find it a hassle to find nice shoes that fit?” I didn’t have a clue what to say. Yes, I find it hard to find big shoes – but I have big feet for someone who was born a woman. I mumbled something and skedaddled out of there.

All of this is to say: I can relate to your feeling of confusion, but I don’t feel I have excellent answers for situations like this. What I can say, though, is this:

You are already showing love and friendship to her by being a safe person who listened without judgment. You have shown welcome. I do believe this is the most important thing Jesus would have us do: he welcomed people and did not lecture or judge those who were hurting. It is one of the most wonderful things in all the gospel that Jesus did not require us to change before he loved us or bid us ‘come’ (Romans 5:8).  That you have shown a willingness to love her as she is in itself is a powerful witness to the gospel.

Secondly, your job as a friend is not to be a counselor or psychologist: you cannot possibly untangle all the things going on in her head. But you can listen. You can try to understand. And that is more powerful than you might realize.

Thirdly, your job as a friend is not to be the Holy Spirit. He is the one who prompts and enables real change in us, when it is time for that change. I want you to know you can love her freely without feeling like you need to act as her conscience too.

Fourthly, your job as a friend IS to be honest about who you are, even as she is being honest about who she is. So just as she is entrusting her true self to you, when the time comes – you must honor and respect her enough to entrust your true thoughts to her – but do this with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Remember: “I don’t know” is often a very useful and honest answer to know you have. If she asks your thoughts about how to apply lipstick or dating, I would say it is okay to answer “I don’t know. I have never been in your situation or had a friend in your situation, and I have no idea what to suggest.” It is okay to say “this is an awkward question for me, and I don’t have an answer but I’m glad you feel safe asking me.”

Fifthly, if she asks about your faith, tell her about Jesus. Tell her about the hope that you have, and what God means to you – she needs that more than she needs a position statement on being LGBT. We are saved by grace, not by keeping the 10 commandments. I know that her sexuality might seem like the “big sin issue” from one perspective – but in truth it is only one of a NUMBER of complex issues which God, in his love and wisdom, cares about.

Finally, I would offer this one piece of advice if she’s wondering whether to disclose her situation to other friends. She is in an awful situation where not telling someone about her identity means that she can never be fully known in that friendship. She will always be afraid of being found out or rejected – and in truth, the longer one keeps that information, the harder it is to disclose it later in a relationship without someone feeling really betrayed. However, telling someone from the get-go  risks a huge amount of rejection and enmity with people who may not have made good friends either. So I would say: she doesn’t have to tell everyone or wear it on a pin – but if there is a relationship which she feels has potential for being a significant friendship, she will have to make the decision to trust them with that information… and I daresay earlier might be less damaging than later.

Unequipped as you may feel to be her friend, you are being a friend right now. I want to encourage you to keep being that friend: be kind, generous, loving. Be honest. And I do believe God will use your friendship to her to show her something of His welcome.

Related posts: Why I Won’t Take a Stand On Gay Marriage, The Parable of the (Gay) Samaritan

Photo Credit: Giulia Cortigiano -Ci piace! La vogliamo in: Friendship never ends (Flickr Creative Commons)

How do I find a mentor?

The word Mentor in magazine letters on a notice boardI got such a great question a few weeks ago in response to the invitation to Ask Me Anything:

How do I go about finding a spiritual mentor if I don’t really know any wonderful Christian women locally to ask?

I’ve been mulling it over. Looking back, I have been mentored by a number of different women over the years, and been a mentor to a handful too. Each of these relationships began differently, seemed to be for a slightly different purpose, and in each of them I had a different feeling of whether it was particularly beneficial. It is hard to pin down a ‘method’ for finding a mentor or establishing a good mentoring relationship. As frustrating as it may be, my answer is “it depends”.

That being said, here are the few thoughts I have on seeking out a mentor.

1. I believe mentoring relationships need to be treated as relationships. In other words, there’s something organic and almost mystical about “clicking” with someone.Even when there is an office or church program which seeks to pair people up in mentoring relationships, in my experience the success of those depends on whether those people would naturally have been drawn to each other as friends. In other words – you have to LIKE each other.

2. What distinguishes mentoring relationships from other friendships, then, is that there is an advisor-advisee dynamic at work. The mentee (for want of a better word) has specifically opened herself up to be a learner in the relationship and the mentor knows that she is free to speak openly without being regarded as offering unwanted advice.

3. Some relationships have been more formal (as in, “will you mentor me?”), whereas many of the mentoring relationships I have been in have developed out of a friendship. Sometimes I didn’t even know I was looking for a mentor, but in retrospect God used the life and words of an older woman to “do the work of mentoring” in a particular season.If you are praying for a mentor, the answer might be in a relationship you already have more informally, and God might surprise you by allowing that relationship to take on a new significance.

4. Where I have been mentored by women who are older than me, I have often found it important to specifically tell them that I welcome their stories, input and insights. Our generation has a habit of coming across as know-it-alls and unteachable. It has taken some persistence to assure older women that I really am interested in what they have to say, and to hold my tongue long enough to wait for an honor their stories. I think the default position of many potential older mentors is to assume that we aren’t interested in them or their opinions, and so they naturally draw back.

5. Ask around: if you haven’t already, ask your pastor or ministry leaders or other friends if they can recommend older women for you to befriend. They might know someone who is afraid of the label “mentor”, but would welcome getting to know you!

I have appreciated the wisdom of two online mentors who have written extensively about mentoring: Natasha Robinson has written a number of excellent articles on mentoring (including considerations about spiritual, professional, cross-cultural and inter-generational mentoring), and Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs Darcy ran a fantastic series on mentoring with easy-to-read bite-sized wisdom on the topic. In particular, I appreciated her suggestions from her Mentoring Cheat-Sheet, where she suggested three things to discuss with your mentor:

 1. Here’s what I’m working on right now. Tell them where your gaze is resting and where your priorities lie at the moment, what your big picture looks like and where you see yourself in it.

2. These are my next steps. What current projects are you giving the most attention? What’s your plan for moving forward? How have you decided to deploy your resources–time, money, energy–to accomplish these things.

3. Where can you help? Tell your mentor what you’re looking for. Do you want encouragement, or critical feedback? Do you want them to introduce you to someone who can help your career, or review your essay before you submit it to the magazine? Do you need granular advice about making it through the witching hour?

I hope that helps! I remember many times feeling that I really would love some wisdom from a mentor during particular seasons, and in retrospect it is wonderful to remember how God met those needs in very surprising ways! I hope He delights and surprises you with some new and enriching friendships very soon.

Got a question you’d like to ask? I don’t have all the answers, but you’re free to ask me anything – let’s talk! Click over to the Ask Bronwyn page and drop me a note. I’ll put a virtual pot of tea on and get ready 🙂

photo credit: Laura Kronen

When you’re married to a grad student

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My husband started his PhD program 8 months after we married. We thought it would take 3 years, max. It took 5 years, and then some. We thought it would be a low-stress environment in which to start our married lives (what with flexi-time, and all that). It wasn’t. We thought we’d finish up grad school before we had kids. We didn’t.

And so, when I was asked: “Do you have any advice to give young married grad students?”, I flinched a little. Those five years of early marriage in grad school were intense, and it is hard to distil the things I learned which were true of sharing-grad-school as opposed to the steep-learning-curve-called-marriage; because we did them simultaneously. However, if you’ll forgive me smooshing things together, here are some of the things I’d want to whisper to other spouses of a grad student…

1. Grad School is more than a 9-5 job.

Grad students don’t come home from a long day on campus and get to sit down, grab the remote and “switch off” for the evening. They feel tremendous pressure to come home, eat a little, and keep working. After all, their lab mates are working, their professor expects them to be working, there are papers to be published, papers to be graded, books to be read, funding opportunities to research, and that’s just for starters. They are competing with motivated, mostly single, grad students who have room mates with whom they share responsibilities and bills; not a spouse with whom they share life. I, on the other hand, expected his “work life” to stay at work, and for him to be present when he was home.

My grad student spouse needed me to acknowledge the pressure he was under, and we needed to agree on when we would spend time together, and also allow time when he could work at night or on weekends without feeling guilty.

…but… Grad School is easier to manage if you treat like a job

Our youthful selves can all handle 24 hours of intense work, or even a week or two of 16 hour work days. Exam season, or mid-term season sometimes calls forth extra bursts of energy. But grad school is a LONG-TERM commitment: it requires YEARS of sustained effort, and no-one can work around the clock for years and stay healthy.

Even though grad school often required my spouse to work nights and weekends, he did better – WE did better – when we still aimed to treat school work as a job. We allowed for weekends away. We cherished vacations. We knew there had to be time for other things: hobbies, friends, dinners and the general shenanigans that make life fun.

2. You will not understand much/most of what your spouse is studying

My husband liked to joke that a specialist is defined as “someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” PhD’s are by definition in a field of study which no-one else has ever thought to think or write about before… i.e. it is NOT in the “public interest” (yet). I spent more hours than anyone in the world trying to understand what my husband was doing – but I just didn’t get it (and I didn’t really want to, and I had to beg him to stop trying to explain: “honey, the likelihood that I will understand it better if you explain it just one more time is exceedingly slim… so please can we get some sleep?”)

…but… You need to understand enough to give an elevator pitch answer about their studies

My spouse thought about his thesis topic in a great amount of complexity and detail, and anyone who asked him what he was studying was likely to get a complex, detailed answer. My role as president-of-his-fanclub and first-line-of-social-defense was to jump in with a 30 second layman’s explanation. I may not have understood it all, but I understood it better than anyone else not in his field.

3. Your spouse needs your encouragement more than your (constructive) criticism

Five years (or even two years) is a l-o-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g time to keep going in an intense grad school program. At times it may have seemed like it was falling on deaf ears, but my spouse needed to hear that I believed in him, that his work was making a difference, that I was proud of him, that he was conquering the world. He needed to hear that when he was ‘succeeding’, but especially when he was discouraged. At times of discouragement, an “I love you, and you can conquer the world” did more to help him than “now let me help fix your schedule for you.”

4. Try not to hate their advisor

In our case, my hubby’s supervising prof was a particularly awesome guy; but the issue of “hating on the boss” came up often in our little grad school community. A frustrated grad student would share the frustrations of the day with their spouse, and the spouse would then fume or mentally “fix” the situation for days… long after the grad student had returned to the office in relative peace. Try to remember that the supervising professors really WANT their grad students to succeed – they’re on your spouse’s side, so try to forgive and forget.

5. Life after grad school is more like grad school than you realize

One of the surprises of finishing grad school was how much our routine stayed the same post-grad-school as it had been in-grad-school. The bad habits we had developed thinking “oh, this is just while we’re under pressure now – it will be different when grad school is over,” turned out to be bad habits we had to face later. The priorities we set, the way we managed our time, the way we shared household responsibilities, the way we volunteered at church, the way we communicated remained substantially the same after grad school as it was during.

So my advice is this: create the marriage and life you want DURING grad school, because it’s the marriage and life you are likely to have after grad school. Love each other well, work hard, play well… and on the day when your loved one gets capped, know that you as the spouse got an award too: Spouse cum laude.

Do you have any tips to share? Leave them in the comment section below!

And do you have a question? Click over to the “Ask Bronwyn” page 🙂

On making new friends

Dear Bronwyn,

I finished college, got married and moved to a new community two years ago. We’d heard that making friends after college is hard, so we found a church, joined a small group, and said “yes” to as many engagements as we could. We have met some wonderful people, I would even call them friends.

That being said, Friday nights roll around, or my husband has work when I don’t, and I (or we) find ourselves at home wondering what to do. The college answer of “call your friends and see what they’re up to” doesn’t seem to work. We have one couple we feel we could just call up, but their schedules often differ. Many have kids, and others I am hesitant to call because I feel like they already have their friends and we are just an obligation as part of being “welcoming”.

Is this just the slow reality of developing friendships after college, or am I missing something? Do I need to push harder? How do I do so without being obnoxious?

– Need Friendly Advice

dinner party Dear NFA,

My hubby and I had been married for 6 months when we moved half way across the world so he could start his PhD. Six. Months. And for this gal, who had led a rich, friend-filled, socially-hectic life in Cape Town – those were some of the hardest months of my life. I was lonely, I was bored, I was newly married and trying to figure out so many new things: a new identity, a new community, a new routine, a new room mate (!). Sounds like you are going through a similar set of changes; and I remember praying tear-filled prayers that I would find friends too.

You have two big challenges facing you.

The first is the challenge of making friends after college. College, for all its challenges and existential angst, is still a relatively easy place to find friends as there are a few thousand people of exactly the same age around,and they have similar interests, similar availability, and a similar need to make new friends. Added to that – there are a host of on-campus communities that always make it their sole ambition to find the “new people” and get them “plugged in”. Really, you get the opportunity to just shop for the community you feel most comfortable in, and then the rest is a little like Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate: with a little bit of action on your part, everything gets mixed up and sweet pretty quickly.

Post-college has none of those guaranteed points of similarity: ages vary, schedules vary, interests vary, and there aren’t as many people around who are as desperate to make friends as you are. It takes longer. You have to try harder. In many ways, making friends post college feels a little like dating: you have to take risks, arrange meetings, start conversations. I remember wanting to make friends with my daughter’s pediatrician after we’d met a few times, but feeling like I didn’t know whether I was allowed to make friends in what was, for her, a professional context. Broaching the subject of “would you like to get together?” felt like I was asking her on a date. (For the record, she said yes, and we are still friends). But it was terrifying and it felt risky.

It sounds like you are doing so many healthy things for this life stage: saying “Yes” to invitations, joining a church, and finding a small group. Keep it up. Say yes to opportunities to be with others, and even better – to serve alongside others. And take people at their word: if they say they’d love you to come, don’t second guess whether this is a “politeness” offer. If you like them and would like to be friends, act on it. You have so much to offer as a friend, and they need good friends in their life as much as you do.

Inviting people around and saying yes is not being “obnoxious”: it’s relationally healthy. Keep up your efforts, and as time goes out you will find that the fatigue of always-having-to-explain-the-back-story will fade away: you’ll be able to tell your new friend that “John called and he said he’s coming home for the holidays”, without having to explain that John is your wayward brother, or that his coming home for the Holidays means Walking On Eggshells around him. In time your new friends will know your back stories, and your shared experiences as meals, adventures and service together will build a new web of shared community.

However, you have a second challenge in making friends: you are a newly wed.

The first year of marriage has many challenges, and making friends with a newly wed couple can be challenging because people fear that newlyweds are pretty much constantly in bed, that they would NEVER call you on a Friday evening for fear that they might be “interrupting” something. For sure, the number of “just dropped in to say Hi”, or “just phoned to see what you were doing” calls PLUMMETED once we got married. People assumed we were “busy”, and they wanted to give us “space”.

To counter that – you have to figure out as a couple whether you want an open house/open calendar mood to your marriage, and you will have to work hard to persuade your friends that you still really want them around (and that you don’t spend every minute at home wearing skanky lingerie. Seriously – I had friends that thought that.)  Many single friends fear that their newly married friends won’t want them around (wrongly assuming they only want to be friends with couples now), and so they need extra encouragement that they have a welcome place in your life.

Also, there are the new challenges of figuring out his friends vs my friends vs OUR friends. If someone befriends you, are you available to be their friend, or are you and your new hubby a “package deal”? These kinds of questions are tricky for you as a couple to figure out, and tricky too for those in your community who want to approach you.

Again – this takes a little persistence on your part. There are some couples who prefer to hibernate at home together in the evenings, but if you and your hubby are wanting to extend your circles and deepen your fledgling friendships – encourage your new friends to come round, tell them you are thankful for them, use your words and your invitations to communicate that even though you’re a young-couple-in-love, you also two people who want to make friends and be friends… and you want to be their friend.

Being a newly wed and being freshly out of college requires some new habits in making friends, and is also means some new expectations. This is the “new normal”, and it DOES take more time to make friends. But you will.

And in fact, it sounds as if you already are.

Help, I’m asking the question I’m not supposed to ask.

20131129-104201.jpg“Dear Bronwyn,
I’ve been in the church long enough to know I’m not supposed to be asking this question. I feel a HUGE amount of guilt about it, but I have to ask: “Why?” Life is ridiculously hard sometimes. Why doesn’t God save us and bring us home to him? Why doesn’t he just get us out of here? He can do it. He is able. He already knows the end of the story (who will come to him or not) – so why doesn’t he just make it happen? I know I shouldn’t be asking this question, but my soul is crying out for an answer, and every pastor I hear speak on this seems to be giving a cop out answer. I’m not asking why bad things happen – I know we live in a fallen world. I am asking why we have to live here in the first place when it’s so awful. My non-believing friends ask me this question and I think “hmm, good point” and give them the cookie cutter answer I know I’m supposed to say. But I’m sad, and confused. Maybe I’m just weak.
– Signed, Judge Me or Judge Me Not.”

Dear JMoJMN,

I cannot judge you, and I cannot answer your question either. Why God allows suffering at all, and why He allows it to continue, are questions which fall into the “I don’t know” category. With tears and sadness, I’m sorry to say I don’t know either, and say that cop out answers make me angry too. We cannot explain the purposes and mysteries of God, and while He has given us some clues as to why suffering sometimes happens (due to sin, discipline, disobedience, or even because he has some glorious purpose to work out, like when he let Lazarus die so he could raise him again) – the fact is He almost never tells us which of those reasons (if any) applies to our particular situation.

I don’t know why He allows it, and I don’t know why He hasn’t come yet – but as with so many things in my faith, I find myself faced with a choice when I feel like despairing. I have to choose to cling to the little I do know, or to walk into the great and painful void of things I don’t know.

When I’m hurting and praying for things to resolve, these are some of the verses I cling to:

“The Lord is near to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34:18)

“But as for me, I will trust in you.” (Psalm 55:23b)

“Your promises have been thoroughly tested, therefore your servant loves them.” (Psalm 119:142)

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

“and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

But I hear you: in the midst of clinging to those promises, sometimes my heart breaks that the pain still continues for now. However, I don’t believe you are a “bad Christian” for asking these questions. Indeed, the first century believers repeatedly prayed “Maranatha! COME Lord Jesus, (1 Corinthians 16:22)” a prayer for speedy deliverance if ever there was one. To beg God to make it end quickly, and to despair over the brokenness of the world is not a sign of being a bad or faithless Christian – it seems to me to be a deeply biblical response.

But it’s hard. It’s oh-so-hard. I find myself coming back to two stories in the gospels again and again when I find myself bewildered by the lack of answers. The first is in John 6, when Jesus had been doing some hard teaching. His disciples challenged him: “This is a difficult statement; who can understand it?” (verse 61). In response to his answer, “many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” (v66). John tells us that Jesus then asked the twelve: “You do not want to go away also do you?” Simon Peter answered him: “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69)

The second account is in Mark, where Jesus comes down from the Mountain to find the disciples floundering after failing to heal a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The father of the boy asked Jesus for help, saying “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “IF you can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And immediately, the boy’s father cried out “I do believe! Help me in my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24)

I come back to these passages often. I find myself bewildered and hurting and wondering if I can accept the answers I’m hearing, or if God can do anything about it and have pity and help us. My words are the disciples’ words, the boy’s father’s words. And I hear Jesus’ gentle answer to me: “IF I can do anything? Are you also going to walk away because this is hard?”

In those moments, I have to reply with those first believers: “I do believe, but HELP me in my unbelief. And besides which, where else shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I cannot even begin to tell you how often I’ve come back to these two stories. I don’t know the answers, but I know enough to know I have no better option than to lean into him when I’m hurting.

It’s okay to not know. We are called to be witnesses to what we know, not what we don’t. Over the years, one of my favorite hymns has become the Celtic classic “I cannot tell” (to the wondrous Londonberry tune – lyrics and music video below), which makes this point most beautifully: there are so many things we don’t know and understand. So many things that hurt and confuse and overwhelm us, mysteries beyond us. There are things we “cannot tell”. But then there are the things we do know, and it is those we cling to and sing of and in which we place our hope.

I’m praying for you, friend. Armed with an “I don’t know” for the mysteries, we cling to that which we know. We DO believe, may He help us in our unbelief, and comfort us as we wait.

I cannot tell why He whom angels worship,
Should set His love upon the sons of men,
Or why, as Shepherd, He should seek the wanderers,
To bring them back, they know not how or when.
But this I know, that He was born of Mary
When Bethlehem’s manger was His only home,
And that He lived at Nazareth and labored,
And so the Savior, Savior of the world is come.

I cannot tell how silently He suffered,
As with His peace He graced this place of tears,
Or how His heart upon the cross was broken,
The crown of pain to three and thirty years.
But this I know, He heals the brokenhearted,
And stays our sin, and calms our lurking fear,
And lifts the burden from the heavy laden,
For yet the Savior, Savior of the world is here.

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendor
When He the Savior, Savior of the world is known.

I cannot tell how all the lands shall worship,
When, at His bidding, every storm is stilled,
Or who can say how great the jubilation
When all the hearts of men with love are filled.
But this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture,
And myriad, myriad human voices sing,
And earth to Heaven, and Heaven to earth, will answer:
At last the Savior, Savior of the world is King!

Photo credit: scripturelady.com

Help, I’m newly married and pregnant

Yes, this is a photo of a stick with pee on it.

Yes, this is a photo of a stick with pee on it.

Dear Bronwyn,

I just found out that I am pregnant and have only been married 5 months! We were diligently taking birth control, I am in the middle of my graduate program & my husband makes very little money. How are we to handle such a big change that we did NOT plan on having for another 4 or 5 years?                                   – Not Ready

Dear Not Ready,

I well remember feeling so broke and afraid of getting pregnant when we first moved to the US. We were newly married, had no money and very little support and I couldn’t afford any health care at all. I think I would have collapsed on the floor weeping at first if that pregnancy test had two positive little lines.

It is a BIG surprise. And it means BIG changes for you. But this is one of those classic examples where we have to say that while man makes plans, The Lord ultimately directs our steps. And the things we know to be true about Him is that He is good. He loves you. And He calls us, just like Jesus said to the disciples in the boat in mark 6 when the waves were threatening to engulf them, to not be afraid, but to have faith.

Jesus will lead you through this.

I remember a few years into our marriage doing some reading and being convicted that I had had some very wrong thinking about marriage and kids. I realized I had been making pro and con lists about whether and when we should have kids. And then at some point it was as if God said to me: “Bronwyn, I have said that children are a BLESSING. By definition that means they are a PRO. why are you making pro and con lists when I already told you which it is?” It was hard to hear at first, but actually greatly freeing for me.

God has obviously decided that right now you get to be blessed with this pregnancy. He intends it for good. You are definitely old enough. You are married enough.

You are ten years older than Mary was when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.
And you have more marital experience than she.
And you have better health care.
And you have the spirit of the living God jnside you.
You are going to do GREAT. Have faith: if God has called you to this, He will equip and provide!

As far as feeling ready or prepared for parenting…. Well, let me just say that I don’t think we are ever really READY to be parents. It’s a huge big surprising adventure in grace. God gives us pregnancy months not just to grow a baby, but also to grow us. By the time baby comes, we are as ready as we will ever be – and in God’s grace, it will be enough. We don’t get a second shot at anything in parenting: we are never ready for babies, or for the first time our kids sass us, or the first time they really hurt themselves, or for them to be teenagers. Parenting is all about living in the moment by Gods grace.

On a practical note: your ob-gyn may not see you for several weeks. A doctor may consider your home test sufficient proof and only schedule a first visit and ultrasound at around 10-12 weeks, so it is possible you will have a few weeks to wait. If so, here’s my advice:

  • Take pre natal vitamins. Start this TODAY and don’t delay. The big thing with prenatals is the folic acid which, in the first weeks of baby’s life, eradicate the possibility of spina biffida. If you get nauseous taking them, try taking them with food or at different times of the day. But do take them.
  • Even if you’re planning to keep this a secret for a while, tell a handful of people. The first trimester is sometimes easy going, but sometimes rough. It is exhausting physically, especially around weeks 8-11, and you may need help and grace from friends. Also, if something does happen with the baby, you will need support. Trust me on this: we had one miscarriage and I was glad I had told just a few people. I needed them.
  • Finally, look into state sponsored prenatal care, which may cover many (if not all) your prenatal costs, and possibly also your baby’s healthcare for the first year of their life. If you already have health care, state health care will pick up the co-pay/deductibles etc. In our case, we were only be able to apply after the first ultrasound as we had to take in the picture to prove your pregnancy, but it was totally worth the red tape and the wait. We were SO THANKFUL for it. The state support for young families made us all the more willing to pay tax dollars in the years that followed.

You are going to be okay! There is a community of older, godly women which God has prepared JUST FOR YOU to give you all the advice, help, nurture and encouragement you need. He will give you more mothers to bear you up as you set out on this new journey of being a mother yourself.

I hope this helps. You and your husband are starting out on a grand adventure. You may not be ready to hear this yet, but CONGRATULATIONS!