Serving Millennials on the Journey Toward Significant Life
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Our Created Design: The Pressure of Parenthood

Within the creation account of Genesis is the striking conversation God has within His Being: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). God who is relational in nature, loving and serving the other within Himself—Father, Son, and Spirit relating and caring for each other—from this foundation of who God is, He creates us. And we are created to reflect the same relational nature of God Himself.

One of the ways we see this created design in us is through the early stages of infant development after birth. As our most recent addition has grown (now over 3 months old! time flies) I’ve been thinking about this created design we have to relate with and care for one another.

Psychologists have studied the desire of infants to connect right out of the womb, in what is known as attachment theory. Attachment theory is basically the idea that we were born with a desire to connect and be loved in a secure environment, but not all of us receive that, and relational issues of trust and intimacy later in life can be connected to struggles infants had early in life.

I’ve been known to jokingly refer to attachment theory by saying it’s a good way to blame my parents for all my problems, but honestly, I find it helpful to consider as a parent and a pastor. Here’s how Richard Plass defines attachment theory in his wonderful book The Relational Soul:

“The quality and character of the programming we received early in life establishes a pattern of attachment that controls our relationships later in life.” 

In other words, God designed us to not only connect with others but to absorb their presence into our lives, especially when we are young.

Infants try to establish a connection with their environment. so that they can develop trust and stability, through the primitive instincts of sucking and eye contact. Primitive instincts are essential things humans do without being taught. They just happen. The sucking aspect is fairly important because it is also how infants feed themselves, and the eye contact instinct is obvious enough because you’ll always lose a staring contest to an infant. 

One of the tensions of parenthood is trying to create an environment that allows for meaningful connection between child and parent, but also produces children who are independent enough to make their own (smart) decisions. Balancing these two tensions is difficult and differs from child to child, moment by moment.

My life has undergone an incredible shift in the last decade since I started writing in this space. At the time I was attending graduate school, gaining work experience so I could have something on a resume. My marriage was also young, with no children in the picture.

Fast forward to today, I’ve built the work experience necessary to advance my career, I’ve finished school, and my marriage has advanced from years to beyond a decade. The family picture now includes 5 people instead of 2.

I’ve gone from thinking through experiences based primarily on how they impact me, to instead think about how they impact others. I’m no longer advancing for the sake of moving up, instead my advancements are to help others.

I share these pieces of information about attachment theory because previously I would think about attachment theory out of a curiosity of how my environments as an infant might have shaped me as an adult. But now I think of attachment theory in terms of what kind of environment I am creating for my children and the other people in my life.

Let this not be a discouragement in a “look another way I can fail in life” way, but the encouragement to ask the question, what kind of environment am I making for the people around me?

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The Reluctant Leader

My own story and call toward pastoral ministry is an interesting one because I’ve never felt 100% assurance of it being the perfect fit. I have always approached pastoral ministry with some level of reluctance. The question of “If not me then who?” has always been motivation enough for me to make the leap to moving that direction, however, and it has continued to be the motivating question that keeps me moving forward.

I am 110% certain there are more qualified and capable people that could do what I’m doing. This doesn’t mean I don’t have aspirations for my vocational life as a pastor, but my apprehension toward it has never truly gone away. Part of this is due to my own questions that have welled up from the beginning, but more so this has been amplified when people who I believed to be my friends brought the same questions as a judgment against my fit for the position. Of course, many other voices have provided different conclusions, but the underlying questions still remain rooted in me.

It is these questions, internally and externally, which have provided a level of what I now see as helpful reluctance toward pastoral ministry, because they often work at keeping me humble.

Not long ago a friend of mine asked me whether I could see him working in pastoral ministry as a vocation. He had all sorts of questions about his fitness for the calling. Did he have the necessary skills? Was he too late in life to pursue it? Were there other ways to fulfill what he sensed God was doing in him? In my estimation, he was (and is) somewhat reluctant and apprehensive about the whole thing. And yet, he is, without question, going to be a wonderful pastor.

Right around the same time as this conversation took place, another friend of mine declared to me that he was ready to take on leadership within the church and was hoping I could find the right place to “plug him in.” He had spent the previous months on what he described as “the sideline” and was now ready for “primetime.” He has a wide variety of leadership experience within churches and believed he was now ready to be utilized in a great way.

I compare these separate interactions because on the surface they are quite similar, both men sensing God was leading them toward serving within our locally gathered body in a greater way. Yet, these interactions could not have been more different.

One began with a question.

The other began with a declaration.

One came from a place of reluctance.

The other came from a place of aspiration.

One has no clue whether they are the right fit.

The other has expectations for their future influence.

Reluctant Leadership Isn’t Always Positive

Now certainly, this is not simply black and white. All leadership must involve some aspiration and desire to step up, and any leader without a hint of reluctance or questions is kidding themselves. It’s a mix, no question. Reluctance toward leadership isn’t always a positive either, it can manifest itself in positive and/or negative ways.

In the negative, it may look more like lacking motivation or passion for the responsibilities required; looking over the shoulder hoping someone else will pick up the pieces.

In the positive, the reluctant leader is “fervently motivated by his own conscience. He forces himself to embrace the fact that while this is not the destiny he would have chosen, it is his duty and he will follow it to the end” (David Brooks).

Moses is the quintessential example from the Bible, as he believed he couldn’t speak well enough, wasn’t brave enough; there had to be someone better. Yet his reluctance did not hinder him from leading the greatest redemption project in the history of the world. His reluctance provided a necessary humility and tenacity in negotiating with the most arrogant leader in the world.

Why Reluctance?

This is why reluctance can be powerful in leadership. From the start there is a sense of unknowing: is this the right fit? These questions keep the leader from believing they are bigger than the task.

There is also a great sense of hard-nosed tenacity toward the responsibility of leadership because reluctance never allowed the task to become too glamorous. Letdown is far less likely an outcome because the reluctant leader never believed it was going to be glorious.

I have tried to allow for my own reluctance and my own questions of fit to keep me humble and tenacious, and my experience with others has shown consistently that the most powerful leader in the room is always the reluctant one.

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Embracing Limitations

Back in 2016 I was an outspoken critic of the Christian support behind Donald Trump, who was at the time running to be the Republican nominee for the Presidential election that year. Following the election I made a conscious choice to no longer address political topics related to the current United States President through a public forum. This has been, at times, quite difficult, but most often it has been a great relief to hold myself to stay silent.

Since then I’ve been criticized as having a privileged position to be able to stay silent and not be negatively affected by my silence. I understand the criticism, but I found that my reactionary critiques were having negative effects on my life and relationships with others. Though my silence should not be considered support, I find silence to be the right posture for myself right now.

With so much wrong in the world there can be an underlying temptation to fix it all yourself. Speak out against injustice. Raise awareness for a cause. March in the parade. Push harder. Speak louder. Leverage your voice and your life for good.

All of these inclinations can likely produce a helpful good, but where do they end? Silence has been a forced limitation in my life, which has only led me to more greatly consider the value of other forced limitations. Yes, I could do many things, but the limits operate as helpful guardrails, reducing distractions, pushing me toward what truly deserves my focus. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

In Zack Eswine’s book Sensing Jesus he describes the desire we often have to do everything that could possibly be done, but that “Jesus will teach us to live with the things that we can neither control nor fix.”

When we believe we must do all the things we harm ourselves and often harm others. But when we embrace the limits of ourselves we are more greatly able to be present to the things God places right in front of us.

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Fuel for The Way

This is the final post in a series walking through Ronald Rolheiser’s book Sacred Fire, which profiles what he calls the 2nd or mature stage of discipleship with Jesus.

The first two posts look at two separate pitfalls common during this stage (pride and the temptation of a 2nd honeymoon), and the previous post looked the struggle of this season of life being disillusionment.

READ PART ONE | TWO | THREE

In the previous posts we’ve established that the 2nd stage of discipleship, roughly from ages 25 to 45 and beyond, is one focused on building a life through responsibilities and commitments. How these are focused on by the Christian is different than the previous stage of life, because instead of building a life for yourself, your focus shifts to giving your life away, for the sake of others.

This stage is when years quickly become decades because they’re focused on the kind of growth and success that comes through long-term endeavors. Rolheiser describes them this way: “Our adult years are a marathon, not a sprint, and so it is difficult to sustain graciousness, generosity, and patience through the tiredness, trials, and temptations that beset us through those years…we need help from beyond” (169).

Yes, you need help from beyond, because without it you cannot sustain the necessary strength and energy to keep up when years turn into decades. This strength is found in God through prayer.

The practice of prayer is vital because it provides you with the right amount of strength, to keep you reliant and powerful, humble and confident.

Too often in life you either see yourself in too negative a light or too positive a light. You are either a complete failure or the greatest person to ever live—weighed down or puffed up. Prayer not only connects you with the Almighty God, but gives you a steadying presence. This is why prayer is so necessary. Rolheiser describes it this way:

“We need to pray not because God needs us to pray but because if we do not pray, we will never find any steadiness in our lives. Simply put, without prayer we will always be either too full of ourselves or too empty of energy, inflated or depressed” (171).

But I need to admit to you, I find it hard to pray.

I often have an overwhelming sense that life is passing me by in what can often feel like pointless minutes of prayer. The warmth of God’s presence does not magically fill me as I say the words “Dear God.” Rolheiser says, “Our deepest greed is not for money, but for experience” (202). Prayer often feels like a waste of time instead of worth-while time. Why pray when there’s so much to do? 

This question is similar to the concern Mark Galli shared in his recent piece for Christianity Today—that we are too busy to enjoy God’s presence because God’s work is ever before us. Here’s how Galli describes this shift:

One of the jobs of the church is indeed to love the world. But when mission becomes the center, the focal point of the Christian life, I believe that life will inevitably degenerate into an active and busy religious life void of God.

I have noticed many within this 2nd stage of discipleship drawn to the ethos of motivation as their fuel for the way, whether it be in fitness, religion, parenthood, or life in general. Not far from the slogan of Nike (“Just do it!”), many are parroting and drawn to the message of “You can do this!” But this fuel cannot sustain, because it ultimately tempts you to prop yourself up, before you eventually fail. Left to your own strength, failure is the inevitable outcome.

Thankfully prayer is not this kind of fuel for the way. In fact, it is not fuel, it is a person. Prayer connects you with the presence of God. It does not prop you up, it props Him up. Prayer does not lead to an inevitable letdown, because it never created an unsustainable way to live.

Grace Naessens describes the importance of prioritizing prayer in a poem, and this summary is a helpful reminder from the beginning of what accomplishments deserve your focus:

I woke up early this morning and paused before entering the day;

I had so much to accomplish that I had to take time to pray.

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When God Is Hard to See

Note from Tyler: This is a continuation from previous posts inspired by Ronald Rolheiser’s book Sacred Fire. Be sure to check out parts ONE (on pride) and TWO (on the temptation of a 2nd honeymoon) along with this one. We’ll finish this short series next week. 

Previously we explored two pitfalls of what Rolheiser describes as the mature stage of discipleship. Now we turn our attention to the difficulty this stage of life presents over and over. 

The last stretch of months have been the most trying of my life as a pastor. Granted, I haven’t been a pastor for decades-long, so I have no doubt more trials and difficulties surpassing these are ahead, but for now these have been extraordinarily difficult. For the sake of those involved, I won’t be sharing specifics, only that for me personally there has been a sense of loss, betrayal, compromised trust, and emptiness.

These prevailing feelings come in waves, knocking me back at seemingly random moments in the aftermath. I have spent the months since these difficult situations hit me (and my family) head on trying to figure out what possible good will come from them. Taking time to write and publish this is an example of my ongoing search for meaning and purpose in the midst of what feels like several hardships. Throughout these ordeals, God has felt further away, not closer.

On the road to Emmaus, two disciples find themselves on a journey away from Jerusalem, filled with the disillusionment born out of their overwhelming sense of letdown and loss. Jesus approaches them, veiling his face, asks a few questions, and then tells the story of the Bible and Christ’s fulfillment within it. In response they ask of one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Previously these disciples could only consider that God was dead, crucified. But, even without seeing His face, Jesus kindled the possibility that God may still be at work. This small spark grew into a fierce fire that would overturn their world in the weeks and years to come.

No question, the 2nd stage of life, filled with commitments and responsibilities, also brings an inevitable sense of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a dream or being dragged through the unending tasks to fulfill, discouragement becomes a constant enemy and temptation to fight off. Rolheiser targets this feeling in saying, “In the discouragement that ensues we will be tempted to walk away from our faith, our church, our hope, our Christ, and our God, toward some place of consolation” (103).

Where is God when we’re stuck in the middle of disillusionment?

Here’s Rolheiser’s encouragement:

“Deeper maturity and a more faithful discipleship are found on the road to Emmaus, when discouraged, in darkness, and tempted, we let our imaginations be restructured by a deeper vision of what God, Christ, and church mean” (105).

The 2nd stage of discipleship is ripe for opportunity and impact, yet it also presents the same chance to give up, to walk away. In these moments what is needed is a deeper vision of the way God can be at work. This is what Jesus provided the disciples on the road to Emmaus, all while never showing His face. His presence alone presented that yes, even in the face of incredible disillusionment, God can still be at work far beyond the ways we can see or even imagine.

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The Honeymoon Temptation

This post is a continuation of a series of posts built on Ron Rolheiser’s book Sacred Fire, which focuses on what he describes as the 2nd or mature stage of discipleship with Jesus, often entered into during the ages of 25 to 45 or so.

Read PART ONE.

Today we’ll look at another pitfall in this 2nd stage of discipleship following last week’s look at pride and faux humility.

Often what delivers you into the stage of mature discipleship is the willingness to enter into life-long commitments. These are the years of building a life, often with few breaks. It can often feel like a battle of attrition and endurance. Responsibilities continue to increase.

While much of life’s previous stage is the search and longing for giving and receiving love and commitment, following the honeymoon of this search reaching a culmination can feel like a letdown. Life becomes a grind, or worse, boring.

Initially, these long-term commitments such as marriage, vocation, church community, and friendship carry with them fresh newness, followed by the inevitable letdown. The long-haul reality of these commitments can come across as lifeless compared to the honeymoon period. On this Rolheiser says:

“One of the demons that we must wrestle with after we have made lifelong commitments is the powerful temptation to experience yet another honeymoon. Infidelity in marriage, among other things, is often triggered by this temptation” (70).

I’ve had several month-long (or sometimes longer) battles of apathy following the ending of what I looked back on as a honeymoon period. The job was no longer gratifying enough. The church wasn’t cool enough. The friendships were becoming forced. The butterflies were gone. I was ready for something new, but I knew my commitments were not short-term, I could not give them up. In some ways I felt stuck, in other ways I had an opportunity to embrace this new way of loving.

Of course, honeymoons aren’t bad in and of themselves. Honeymoons, whether literal or figurative, allow us to quickly establish trust and intimacy with others. But often the intense emotions of love are about the emotion itself. The allure of another honeymoon can quickly unravel the long-built commitments that gave life stability and purpose.

Famously, David knows this lesson all too well. He not only chose to stay home from battle, but in his boredom he allowed his eyes to wander. The love he longed for was a rush of blood and a quickening heartbeat, not the covenant he had established with another.

Yes, it’s true, “Honeymoons are stimulating, but we go home from them. Home might bring its security and comforts, but it cannot match the excitement of a honeymoon, especially during some of its most duty-bound seasons” (75).

It seems to me what needs recalibrating is the way we understand love. If love is sweaty palms, a racing heartbeat, and butterflies, we’ll make short-term flippant commitments that are ultimately about us, not others. But if love is a commitment, the regularity of giving yourself to another, love can grow and mature over the course of years and decades.

Don’t give in to the 2nd honeymoon temptation, because honeymoons always come home.

READ PART THREE

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