Apple Versus Apples: An Open Letter To Myself

by Tara Johnson

Recently, my oldest daughter was waxing poetic about the difference between our wants and needs and she prompted an interesting discussion. Bethany, in all her child-like wisdom said, “Mom, did you know our wants are not our needs?”

“Yes, I seem to remember hearing something about that.” I smiled and tugged her blonde hair with affection. “So what does God give us that we really need?”

“Jesus, shelter, food, water, clothes and shoes.”

My youngest daughter piped in. “And a mailbox.”

Turning to her little sister with a flicker of annoyance born of sisterly irritation, Bethany asked Callie, “Why a mailbox?”

Callie shrugged. “For Netflix.”

netflix

Her remark made me laugh yet caused a moment of reflection. There are a lot of things we say we need. But how many of us are just saturated with want?

I need a raise. I need a break. I need faster internet. I need a new phone. I need a weekend of R & R. I need my kids to behave. I need more ‘me’ time. I need a bigger house. I need more storage room…

I fear too often, my own list of complaints resembles Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob. “Gimme, gimme, gimme. I need! I need!” give me, i need

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrCEhRNgGHY

The difference between our corner of the world and other cultures became glaringly obvious when I was speaking at a women’s retreat in Belize. We were talking about idols in our lives and I had just remarked that one indicator of an idol we’ve erected in our hearts can be revealed by the one thing we think we couldn’t live without. So I asked, “What is the one thing you think you couldn’t live without?”

Blank stares.

I coaxed, “Come one. Don’t be shy.”

One woman meekly raised her hand. “Water?”

Her answer took me off guard. “Well, yes. Water is not an idol, of course. It’s a need. What else?”

More blank stares.

“Food?”

The women slowly began chattering about the things they couldn’t live without. Food, water, clothes. Preferably a roof over head. That was it.

The contrast between our cultures slapped me in the face. I chuckled. “You know what? You guys are exactly right. Those are our needs. Those things and Jesus. I guess when I asked that question, I was thinking about the idols many of us worship where I live.”

One woman up front leaned forward. “Like what?”

Grinning, I answered. “One time I posed this question for a ladies group and a woman told me she literally could not live without her cell phone and texting.”

The Belizean woman snorted in derision. “What? You people be crazy!”

Agreed.

When we’re too busy to attend church because we’re gone every weekend doing sports or getting our much need R & R at the lake, we’ve bowed down to the idol of entertainment. When we give away precious time with our children because we’re working late to afford that sleek new vehicle that we just had to have, we’ve fallen at the feet of the idol Possessions. When we sacrifice our sleep because we’re too busy scrolling through social media, updating our pictures or checking to see how many follows or likes we’ve gained, we’ve worshiped the god of self.

need vs want

Am I saying it’s wrong to take a vacation or crave some down time? Absolutely not. Our bodies have emotional and physical needs as well. The problem comes from an out-of-balance life that focuses most of its attention on physical desires and entertainment and starves out the spiritual man. An out-of-balance life has a nasty way of tipping over at some point.

Quite honestly, sometimes we are so focused on what we want, we end up missing the things we need. But here’s the amazing thing: when we focus on attending to our spiritual needs, a vibrant, obedient relationship with Christ, the other needs, the emotional and physical things tend to be filled as well. He takes care of all of it.

Forget the techie gear or our ever-expanding wish lists. What we actually need is a heart focused on Christ. We need to not just make him number one but our everything. We need a heart surrendered to obey Him, even if that hard thing He’s asking us to do isn’t on our wish list. We need to nurture our time with Him.

Food, water and shelter are good too.

Oh, and Netflix.

Have you struggled with this issue? What’s the one thing you’ve always thought you couldn’t live without? More importantly, do you consider Netflix necessary for survival? 😉

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Find the Humor

by Tara Johnson

When planning a wedding, expect that something on your big day will go wrong. After all, that’s the advice everyone gave me when I was planning mine. I, however, wasn’t prepared for the fact that everything would go wrong. Instead of white lace and rice, the wedding resembled more of a scene from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

May 31, 1997 arrived. Our wedding day and despite everyone’s continual advice to expect a hitch somewhere in the program, I was determined our day would be memorable.

Boy, was it memorable.

wedding cake

Our two year old ring bearer who had proudly strutted his stuff at the rehearsal was suddenly gripped with terror and refused to walk down the aisle. His father scurried up to the front and waved a twenty dollar bill which propelled the reluctant, sobbing ring bearer into a sprint. He snatched up the money and plopped down on the bench. No big deal. After all, he was two.

Then things got weird.

During the lighting of the unity candle, Todd gave a too-hearty puff on his own candle, snuffing out the middle one. He snickered nervously. “I just blew out Jesus!” One of the quick thinking groomsmen plucked a burning candle from the candelabra and relit the middle light.

You’re probably thinking, “That’s not so bad.” Hang on. It gets worse.

When I had talked to the florist, I’d specifically requested smokeless, dripless candles for the candelabras. And she got one of the candelabras right. The other, however, had been set up with smoky, drippy candles.

After Todd and I lit the unity candle, the plan was for me to turn my back to the wedding party and stare lovingly into Todd’s eyes while the longest song in the history of wedding songs played. So there we were in the middle of a dark church, candlelight flickering across our faces, fingers clasped together and smiling sweetly at each other.

unity candle

Then I heard it.

Soft gasps. Heavy thumps.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The thumps grew louder. So did the whispers.

Unsure of what was happening behind me, I whispered, “What’s going on?”

Todd frowned and muttered, “Your uncle.”

Keep in mind that my Uncle Chuck is no petite fellow. At six foot, three inches and close to three hundred pounds, he’s a big guy. He’s also the family prankster. So when I heard intensifying stomps and gasps of shock, I figured Uncle Chuck was up to no good.

Gritting my teeth, I began plotting a way to get him back.

Then the acrid stench of smoke hit me.

During the song, one of the smoky, drippy candles dropped a ball of flaming wax onto the carpeted floor, starting a fire right next to my maid of honor. She was wearing taffeta and nearly went up in flames herself. Good hearted Uncle Chuck scurried to the front of the church and began stomping out the inferno before my fluffy maid was burned to a crisp.

groom help me

There was more but I won’t bore you with the details. A trashed car. Having to turn back around when we realized we forgot to sign the marriage certificate before finally speeding towards our honeymoon in Branson, Missouri.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, the transmission blew out in our car on the way. We spent our first night stranded in Clinton, Arkansas, eating cold quarter pounders from McDonalds.

After desperately searching for a transmission shop open at midnight, Todd dropped the phone into its cradle and stared at me, his eyes vacant and exhausted. “You know, if it weren’t for the fact we got married today, I would say this has been the worst day of my life.”

I began to giggle at his forlorn look just before he burst into laughter. wedding disaster

In some obscure wedding planning book somewhere in the world, our wedding story should head up the chapter entitled, “Don’t Let This Happen to You”.

Okay, so maybe not everything went wrong. I got a pretty amazing hubby out of the deal. These days, instead of peppering those shiny-faced, gleeful brides and grooms with the sage advice of “expect something will go wrong”, I skip to the wisdom I wished I had received instead…find the humor.wedding day disaster

When your transmission busts on the way to the honeymoon, find the humor. When your kids decide to use your toothbrush to give the dog a dental check up, find the humor. When your circumstances look bleak and life pummels you with the unexpected, find the humor. Laughter is a wonderful gift from God. Use it. Treasure it. Our marriage is much stronger because of it.

“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” ~ Proverbs 17:22

Find the humor…and make sure the florist knows what she’s doing.

I’d love to hear from you. What’s the most memorable wedding you’ve ever attended? What happened that made it so unforgettable?

How To Handle Critics While Raising Your Strong-Willed Child

by Tara Johnson

“You need to wear your son out.”

I blinked slowly, trying to understand what the older woman who had approached me had said, a task made difficult by my son’s screams of temper and my own strangled nerves. I felt frayed. Exhausted. At the end of my rope. The excursion into Walmart was not going well. strong-willed-child

I’d had high hopes for the grocery store run. After all, my son’s terrible two fits were getting better. I had been diligent with him at home. He seemed to be comprehending that life wasn’t just about him. We were making progress. Less screams of temper. A slight bending of that iron-strong will of his. Was he stubborn? Most definitely so, but learning. He was learning and improving.

Until we arrived at Walmart.

My little man always wants to be held, a difficult task since his little two-year old body weighs in at a sturdy thirty-eight pounds. I had carried him far too much at church camp the week before and was still healing from a burst blood vessel in my arm as a result.

Instead, I planned. Nate can’t be trusted in a regular shopping cart. He stands up and nearly falls out when the momentum carries him past the frequent stops. His legs are too long for the front kiddie seat so that left one option: the hoss cart.

You know what I’m talking about? Those big blue carts that are the shopping cart equivalent to a monster truck? This hernia-inducing cart has a row of bench seats,  complete with seat belts and a regular cart attached to the end. My nine year old scooted into the bench next to Nate and my twelve year old walked beside me as I grunted that tank up and down aisles. For the first fifteen minutes things went well…until he discovered that when Mom is perusing products, the down time is a perfect opportunity to escape.

Maybe I can hold him. If we hurry, we can get through in fifteen more minutes, right?

Wrong. Nate began wiggling and squirming in my arms. Another ten minutes and my back was shot. With no other alternative, I plopped him back in his seat. “Sorry, little man, but Mommy’s back is hurting too badly. I need you to sit like a big boy until we’re done.”

In a flash, the demon of fury that resides in my toddler rose up with shocking force. He screamed. He slapped. He wailed. He hit himself. He tried to hit me. Wheeling the hoss cart into the shoe section with surprising speed, I grabbed his flailing body and gave him several swift swats to his rear, followed by a stern admonition to straighten up and fly right.

He was having none of it. I needed his crib, a place for time-out where he could escape until he calmed down. For a fleeting moment, I thought about building a time-out fort from shoe boxes but decided against it. Stores don’t seem to like it when you do that.

Seeing no other options, I seat-belted him into the cart as his screams reached ear shattering levels. I shouted to the girls, “Okay, here’s the game plan: get only the necessities like milk and bread and we’ll hightail it out of here.”

My sweet girls nodded and did their level best to help me do my Indy 500 shopping. Nate never calmed down though. He slapped, he kicked, he wailed, he shrieked. With every spine-jerking scream, my nerves stretched tighter and tighter.screaming

Absently grabbing a loaf of bread, I thought, Am I a terrible mother? Why do all of our trips to town end like this? I spank. I do time-outs. I talk. I reason. I reward. I punish. I’m consistent. I don’t give in. I don’t back down. I cuddle him. I love on him. I do everything I know to do and still, this is what happens. I thought I had this whole mothering thing figured out. The girls are sweet as pie. Where did I go wrong?

Then the nosy, albeit well-intentioned lady approached me as I grabbed for some eggs.

“You need to wear your son out.”

I blinked, trying to formulate a reply. “Yes, ma’am. Actually I did wear him out. This is the aftermath of his temper tantrum.”

She shook her head, giving me a sweet yet somehow condescending smile. “No, honey, I mean you should take him to the bathroom and spank his bottom and don’t let him out until he’s stopped.”

I nearly laughed in disbelief. Keep Nate in the Walmart bathroom until he stopped screaming? I really didn’t have the time to keep him in lockdown for seven hours. Trust me, that’s how long it would take before little man gave up. Plus I had two other kids to consider.

As a Christian mom, I never thought I would say this, especially since I’ve always been taught and read the admonition to “spare the rod and spoil the child”, but spankings make my son worse. Significantly so. He gets hysterical, beside himself and completely shuts down.

A strong-willed child would just as soon take the punishment and keep doing what they want to do.  I could spank my son all day long but what he wanted was to be held. I couldn’t cave in, hence the seat belt in the hoss cart until I could get him home.

I tried to explain all this but the stranger would have none of it.

Taking a step closer, she shook her head. “Listen, honey, I used to run a day care so I know. If you let him pitch this fit, he’ll never learn and will walk all over you.”

Let him pitch a fit? It took all of my self-control not to lash out in hurt and all my willpower to keep him in that seat. Every ounce of energy I expelled trying to stay firm with him was exhausting.

Then, she lowered the boom,  rubbing salt into the open wound. Lowering her voice, she looked over her shoulder. “Listen, hon, people are talking about what a bad mom you are. I just heard a lady over in jewelry say ‘What kind of a mom lets a kid who’s upset scream like that?'”

crying

I was speechless, too hurt and wounded to formulate a reply. Oh, I wanted to. I wanted to lash out in anger, to give vent to the volcano of emotions rolling inside of me. To tell this woman that she didn’t know my son at all. That she didn’t know me and that she had disrespected me in front of my own kids. I wanted to rail that, for a recovering people pleaser, the thought of what others think of me had paralyzed my walk with God for years and I was desperately trying to stay free from that bondage mentality again. I wanted to tell her that her words had wounded me beyond my ability to cope.

But my girls were watching. Observing. She was my elder and deserved respect, no matter how deeply she cut my Mommy-heart open.

Instead, I nodded and slowly wheeled my little ducks to the card section where I cried in front of the Hallmarks.

This is a day in the life of a mom raising a strong-willed child. I actually thought about titling this blog post “Apocalypse, Thy Name is Strong-Willed”. Sound a tad melodramatic? I would have thought so too…before I actually had a strong-willed child.

My adorable little boy’s stubborn, fiery will took me by surprise since we’d already had two sweet girls. My husband and I mistakenly thought we had this kid-raising thing somewhat down. But it shouldn’t have surprised me. After all, I’m strong willed and my husband is as well. And although some days it doesn’t feel like it, it’s a good thing that we are the ones raising a bull-headed little boy. He won’t be able to run roughshod over us. I’ve told him many times and will likely say it a million more, “You’re not gonna win this one, kiddo. I’m more stubborn than you. So settle in and bring it on.”

The truth is, kids with iron will and independent streaks often turn out to be amazing warriors for God, as long as they are bent in the right direction. They are the movers and shakers, leaders and freedom fighters. And when they know they are doing what God has called them to do, nothing and no one can sway them from following Him with wild abandon and steadfast devotion.

On the days I’m ready to throw in the towel, I remind myself of this truth. When I feel my Mommy toolbox is depleted, I remind myself that God has a plan for this little guy. Honestly, rather than the day to day challenges of parenting, I tend to hurt more from the hastily flung barbs of my critics.

So how does an exhausted mom handle those who are happy to dole out unsolicited advice?

  1. Be respectful. As tempting as it might be, don’t respond in anger. “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:20) How you react to criticism teaches your children how to react to criticism. Don’t let your emotions choose for you. Knee-jerk reactions have eternal consequences. Breathe in, breathe out.
  1. Be teachable. prideful-peopleOften times people give advice because they have a trick or technique that worked for them or their child. It’s okay to listen. You aren’t obligated to put it into practice. As any parent of a strong-willed child knows, your stubborn kiddo might be trying to play by a different rule book. Trying something new could be extremely helpful. Or it could backfire big time. Scrap the diva mentality either way. It’s hard to have your pride nicked if it’s not inflated.
  1. Remind yourself that this phase won’t always last. Every time I’m tempted to think that my life will be a never-ending stream of crushed Cheerios, sleepless nights and temper tantrums, I remind myself that this phase of life will pass. Change. Yes, other phases will come and go. Some delightful. Some infuriating. That’s okay. This too shall pass…sometimes like a kidney stone but it will pass.
  1. Don’t try to cram your child into a mold that other people declare to be acceptable. moldTrying to force your child to be something he or she is not is crippling, both for you and them. God has a unique plan for their little lives and His plan does not include having them pretend to be someone else. Think about your goals in raising your little one. Is it to please people, to win their approval as being a great parent, or do you want your child to grow up to be a person who follows God with their whole heart and can live a happy, independent and productive life? The goal determines how you handle the little stuff…and consequently, how deeply you let that irritating know-it-all get under your skin.
  1. Remember God put you and your child together. Every time I’m tempted to wallow in insecurity or think that I’m ill-equipped to manage my little bundle of stubborn energy, I remind myself that God wanted me to be Nate’s mom. He wanted Nate to be my son. For whatever reason, no matter how I feel about my own failures, God chose us to learn from each other, to be bonded together and to love each other for a special purpose, for our good and His glory. And really, if I’m trying to do things in my own strength, I’m going to fall flat on my face anyways. But when I surrender each moment to Him, each decision and each of my unique little ones to Him, His strength will be made perfect in my weakness.

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” ~2 Corinthians 12:9

It’s okay, exhausted parent of a stubbornly stubborn kiddo. Breathe in, breathe out. Love your child. Correct them. Stand strong. Don’t cave under pressure. And remember, when this life is over, you won’t stand before a jury of your peers. Just God. Living to please Him is all that matters.

I’d love to hear from you! How do you handle criticism? Are you the parent of a strong-willed child? What is the best or worst advice you’ve ever received? 

Caged

caged

Yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in front of my computer, clacking away on some writing projects when I heard the familiar scratching of a bluebird trapped inside my fireplace. My poor little, clueless bluebirds. They seem to make a daily habit of curiously exploring our chimney, only to fall into the fireplace looking dazed and confused. 

Seeing the brilliant sapphire feathers, it was easy to tell this was a male. My first thought was “Why don’t males ever ask for directions?” But I digress…

Usually, this dilemma is easy enough to solve. I usher my little dogs out the front door, open the back door nearby and then open the fireplace door. It takes all of five seconds for those bluebirds to behold their freedom and fly out.

But yesterday’s little visitor panicked. The fellow completely bypassed the open door and flew into the nearest window, banging his body over and over into the glass. I winced, fearing that he would injure or kill himself. The more I tried to shoo him towards his freedom, the more he fought.

bluebird

I reached for a broom and scooted the bristles underneath his feet, hoping he would hop on and let me carry him outside, but as soon as he sensed his body rising in the air he flew back into the glass, watching the outside world, happy in its liberation but himself caged behind an impossible barrier.

Seeing no other option, I carefully trapped him in my hands, shushing his anxiety and cradling him into safety. Stepping on the back porch, I opened my hands and smiled as I watched him fly to his mate. No doubt, he received a tongue lashing for refusing to ask for directions. Some things are universal, no matter the species.

That made me think about my freedom in Christ. He died for me, rose again, broke the chains of death and has given me complete and total freedom. But how often I cage myself into the old ways, trying to do everything on my own. I fight and wrestle, banging my head against the wall and wonder why I don’t feel free. All because I think I can take care of myself.

Following my own plans has always led me into disaster. I’m too emotional. Too fickle, making knee jerk decisions out of fear. But stepping into the hands of my Savior has always led to freedom. Freedom and safety.

Don’t let fear make you take your eyes off of freedom’s open door.

freedom 1

Tara’s book Hollow Victory: How to Identify and Disarm 5 Landmines that Make Victorious Christian Living Feel Like a Lie is now available at Amazon!  hollow victory