John Piper’s advice for busy mums and an alternative narrative.October 11, 2013
A facebook friend posted this sound-bite from John Piper with the recommendation ‘Every Syllable of this is gold.’
I don’t usually give much space in my life to the writing or speaking of John Piper. I know that I see the planet from a completely different view point from him. I heard him speak in Capetown in 2010 and to think about it still brings angry tears to my eyes. But every now and then I think I should put my prior experience to one side and give him a go.
The topic, ‘Counsel for a busy mom’ interested me. I am always fascinated by the way the role of ‘mother’ is played out in expectations, limitations, celebrations, demonisations and idealisations in public discourse, including within faith communities.
Piper gives the predictable socially conservative advice which lacks imagination for how a woman might combine the season of child rearing with her partner and a fruitful expression of her gifts in service and mission. He reinforces the professionalisation of ministry in orientating her as a joyful consumer of the teaching and worship provided by the church and creates a clear boundary between those who serve and those who receive.
Piper affirms the role the mum has with her children, makes some extremely patronising comments about the outcomes of a ASD child/young man, but by assigning her ‘success’ vicariously through the identity and achievements of her husband at this time, makes it clear that the domestic role of child rearing a) belongs primarily to the mother b) is a task of lesser status than male roles outside the home.
While Piper offers the advice that this is a season in which the mum can pray and give, and that these are good and valued roles, his primary frame, which is that this is a season of reduced activity and contribution, ‘lopsided’ which one must endure with patience, overshadows his advice with a clear hierarchy which places men above women, and pastors above everyone, and indeed the activities and productivities of pastors well above those of mothers, who are ‘lifting the hearts of mothers out of the mundane….’. John Piper evaluates the significance of the mother, by what her child will become one day, when an adult (male in the example he gives). It is adult males who ‘make it’ (JP’s words) that are of significance and retrospectively bestowe dignity on the season of mothering by the woman.
So, maybe JP’s words would be comforting to some women. But not to me.
An alternative story goes like this….when one of my kids was 2 and the other was about 4 months old, my brilliant faith-filled pastor said – ‘come and use your gifts and work for the church. Integrate life and faith and service and calling and letting us love you as a family too.’
And my husband cut his hours back to half a week – I worked half a week – we tag teamed with the kids. He brought them up to the church office to see me at lunch time while I was still breast-feeding the youngest. The office admin set up a roster so that once a week someone dropped off a casserole to the house.
I am so grateful for a church that valued the gifts God had given them in me, and used simple logistics to make sure ‘stage of life’ wasn’t a barrier to exercising them. ‘Stage of Life’ could paralyse someone at just about any age.
Then my husband and I were called together to job share in pastoral ministry together in another church. We certainly pumped out the hours in those days. We worked in an a couple of established congregations and planted a third congregation, along with a plethora of community engagement projects that connected with families. Between us we shared a 9 days a week role; we took in a friend who needed a home and some community; I studied for my M. Div and my husband did a Grad Dip.
My kids were challenged by the demands of community life that we experienced, but were also deeply loved and cared for by wonderful people. And they have grown up seeing that God can use anyone (male/female lay/ordained teacher/businessman) in whatever ways he chooses, when the body of Christ releases people to use and serve with their gifts. And our family lived this alternative narrative, that it’s not an individual (mother’s) burden to raise children, but the joy and responsibility of a whole community.
All of this happened because, though we bore the role of ‘pastoral leadership’ we were working with other people in the church, not for them. We had their backs in a particular way pastors can, and they had ours. In fact, long after we have left the roles, they still do. They feed us, pray with us, cheer on our kids. We love them. We were nothing special – but were simply and graciously given the opportunity to serve with others knowing there was room for everyone’s strengths, everyone’s weaknesses, everyone’s needs. No shame in that.
It breaks my heart to hear JP talk down to this woman, to assign her identity through her husband, to step back from affirming that she has a unique gifting that the church is the weaker in its mission for not facilitating.
Although he says ministry is not just what happens in church, his answer communicates the ethos that she is in a ‘waiting’ or ‘fallow’ season. You can pray. You can give. What your husband does counts as your agency. I wonder if Piper realises he is saying to this woman in these words ‘You are derivative at best, but really you are nothing’.
While he speaks of receiving the child as receiving Christ – the descriptions of what a mum should do and the assumptions of what a dad, and a pastor and a worship leader etc. will do gives the clear message that the child is not like the child Jesus placed in the midst of grown up disciples to show them the kingdom, but the child is to Piper a thing that needs to be taken care of so that men can be released to do ‘kingdom’ work.
I know plenty of mums who find going to church, which is oriented around the delivery of the product pre-formed and performed by professional and semi professional pastoral staff, really hard work with their young families. The problem isn’t so much that this is a ‘diffiuclt’ time of life, so much that we make church so passive, so controlled, so inhuman, that it is hard for people who are seriously engaged in the active business of living and loving to actually function in that space. If church is a difficult place to love and live in for families, it should cause us to stake stock of what it is we think we are supposed to be doing. Families together living and loving each other in joyful and tearful expressive active noisy messy community seems a great reflection of the kingdom of God – and which it would be surprising if the man famous for coining the phase ‘christian hedonism’ wasn’t overjoyed with.
I wonder what JP would say to a 30 year old pastoral candidate with gifts in teaching and leadership who was a dad with a couple of young children? If ‘Erica the mum’ was ‘Eric the dad’, who wrote in and said ‘Though when I was single and married-before-kids, I served in a number of ministries leading students and adults, now I feel a bit guilty about my place in church life. But I feel like this is a season of lopsidedness which I need to sit out and simply consume the teaching and worship of the church and have patience, praying and giving while I raise my children.’