Proverbs 22:1-12

A man had an awful day at work. Everything had gone wrong. There was one interruption after another, and he was never able to complete his work. When he entered the door at home that evening, he knew that his wife must have had a similar day. You could see it on her face. So, to set the process straight he began, “I’ve had the worst day of my life; it’s been bad news, bad news, bad news. I don’t know what kind of day you’ve had, but if at all possible, can you share some good news with me?”

The wife, a thoughtful and loving person, considered his need for a moment and then said, “Of course I can. You know we have six beautiful children — right?” He agreed. “Well,” she said, “five of them didn’t break a leg today.”
That’s a good story with which to begin our sermon today, because I’m talking about Parent Burnout.
Now the image of “burnout” is becoming a common one in our day. It began back during the Second World War. Battle fatigue became a common malady. It resulted from the prolonged stress of being on the front lines of battle without relief, and the officers soon learned that they had to pull them back and give them some relief, some R & R in order that they might be effective in battle.
Today we’re talking about career burnout. It describes a very similar syndrome. If you feel that you’re going into battle everyday as you go to your job, you may be burning out. You’re frustrated because life isn’t fun anymore. You drag yourself home each day, unable to enter into the life of your family because you’re emotionally depleted and physically exhausted. You’re in the process of being burned out.
One of the real issues in the church today is burnout on the part of clergy. So you know that image, and I have an idea that at least most of you here will understand when I talk about parent burnout.
Parent burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and sometimes spiritual exhaustion that has come from the enormous responsibility parents have — the chronic high stress under which we live as parents.
Parent burnout also comes when we lose perspective, and when we fail to recognize our limits. Burnout begins when the energy we have does not match the demands that are made of us as parents. When we see that we can’t meet those demands that are being made of us as parents, we often feel angry or guilty. We sometimes go into depression; self-doubt and irritability are common.
Well come back in a moment to the nature and causes of burnout, but let me interject here a word about the specific title of the sermon, “Clear to the Better End.” I’m indebted to the great preacher Paul Scherer for that title. In one of his writings, he pointed out that the term we so often use, “Clear to the Bitter End,” was slightly different in its original form. Paul Scherer said that when the captain of a sailing vessel wanted to keep his ship from being crashed against the rocks in a narrow strait in the midst of a storm, he would drop the anchor of the ship to the wind and run the cables out to the “better end.” That is, not to the end of the cable that was secured on the deck, but to the end of the anchor cable that went on down and was secured deep within the hull of the ship. So, the ship was secured to the better end and would ride out the storm.
That’s what we’re talking about today as we talk about coping with parent burnout. Clear to the better end — the cable of our parenting life secured in the depths of who we are as parents, called by God to be priests to our children, given this glorious opportunity that is the most precious gift that could be ours: to be parents.
I’m talking primarily to parents who see parenting as a gift from God and who are deliberately seeking to be good parents.
Tucked away into a catalogue of marvelous proverbs is a word of hope to those who are seeking to be good parents, who are seeking to take the gift that God has given them seriously. You know that word by heart: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” How we need to hang on to that; and the witnesses are clear. To be sure, there is the occasion now and then when it doesn’t work out that way, but the cases are multiplied far more of persons who, having received the love and the training of Christian parents, wander astray — journey into the far country — but come to their senses and come home.
So I’m talking specifically, in the primary thrust of the sermon today, to parents who are seeking to live out their responsibility. And that responsibility needs to be put into perspective. I think we can do it by sharing a paraphrase of Luke 15:11-32.
A certain daughter had two parents. And the mother said, “Daughter, excuse me from the responsibility that falls to me. I must divide my time among greater matters.”
Not many days later, she gathered all opportunities together and invested herself in many activities. And she became respected in community service, successful in a new career, and popular in social circles of play and pleasure.
And when she had spent herself in many splendid tasks, there arose a great famine in her soul. And she joined herself to new friends and new clubs and would fain have filled her hungry heart with pleasures and popularity, but nothing satisfied.
Then she came to herself and said, “How many of my acquaintances have the love of their daughters, while I perish, empty and unfulfilled for want of her love? I will arise and go to my daughter, and will say to her … “Daughter, I have sinned against heaven, against parenthood, and against you. I’m no more worthy to be called your mother … but let me be one of your friends.”
So the mother arose hastily and came to her daughter, and said, “Daughter, I have sinned, I am unworthy to be called your mother. Make me one of your friends.”
But the daughter said … “Where were you when I needed you? You have waited too long. Go back to your own fun and your oh-so-very important jobs. I get along better without you — stranger. You are too late.”
Now the father came in from his businesses at that moment, he heard the daughter’s words to her mother, and in anger he said, “Daughter, we have given you everything you ever asked, all the money, gifts, liberty … and what more could you possibly wish for?”
And the daughter said … “I asked for parents. But you, my parents, were lost, and would not be found.” (Paraphrase from Luke 15:11-32).
Who is prodigal? Who is delinquent?
(David Augsburger, From Here to Maturity, Tyndale House, Wheaton, 1982)
Yes, there have been prodigal sons and daughters
who turned their backs on fathers and mothers to waste their own lives in riotous living; but there are prodigal parents too. Parents who waste not only their own lives, but the lives entrusted to their responsibility: their children.
I doubt if such parents are here today — if there are, you have some commitments to make, some work to do in relation to God, before what I’m about to say will have much meaning to you. My contention is that parents who are present here today are seeking to be responsible parents. You feel that your children are gifts to you from God, and you want to live out your vocation as a parent in the most effective way possible — and you’re burned out, or you’re on the verge of being burned out. It’s to you that I’m talking.
I believe that stress on parents today is far greater than it was in times past. It’s far greater because of the opportunities that are ours that were not ours in the past. I believe that this is particularly true among middle-class and upper-middle-class families.
Modern society has brought us almost boundless opportunities: “Little League, swimming, ballet, private schools, summer camp. Fifteen or twenty years ago, many of these opportunities didn’t exist to the degree that they do now. Many parents feel they have the obligation to provide all these opportunities for their children. Some parents crucialize — that is, they have a tendency to turn something that should be routine into something that is critical. For example, they might go into a panic over choosing a day care center for their 3-year old. Our culture has given parents all sorts of worries: will the baby nurse properly if I don’t hold it within ten minutes of birth? — on what side of the crib should I put the mobile? — do we have the right kind of carseat? Then there’s the fear of crib-death. Some parents exhaust themselves checking on their infants every 5 minutes!
I suppose we ought to ask in a more general way: “What causes parent burnout?” I think it lies in two general areas. One, when parents constantly seek perfection from themselves as parents, they set themselves up for frustration, guilt, and especially anger. Anger robs us of energy more than any other emotion. And anger is caused, most of the time, by not getting what we expect. So, when we set ourselves up to be Super Moms or Super Dads — when we seek perfection as child-rearers — then we set ourselves up to lose, because none of us are going to be perfect.
The second general cause for burnout is holding ourselves responsible for something that we cannot control. There are so many things that we simply cannot control about our children — how they perform in school, whether they take drugs or not, their becoming pregnant outside of marriage. We can’t control that. When we set ourselves up to be responsible for those actions on the part of our children which we can’t control, then we set the stage for burnout.
We’ve dealt enough with description, causes: the fact of burnout. The question is, how do we cope? I want to suggest two directions. One direction is how we prevent burnout, and the second is, how do we recover from burnout.
First, how do we prevent burnout? We need to keep a perspective on some positive principles. And there are two of these. First, love’s right to be wrong. One of the problems that we parents have is precisely at that point — we are anxious about being wrong. We become defensive in relation to our children. They know so much, they’ve been exposed to so much, their possibility for knowledge growth is so great. While we don’t want to admit it, we are often intimidated by them. And when we are intimidated, we react rather than respond.
If we can remember that love has a right to be wrong, then we won’t be so anxious and we won’t live so defensively. Ogden Nash wrote a “word to husbands” which is applicable here.
To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
Now he was talking about marriage, and speaking directly to husbands, but it’s good advice in all relationships — especially in the relationships of parents and children. Don’t hesitate to confess that you’re wrong, because love has a right to be wrong.
Then there is a second principle: if we cannot fail, we will never succeed. I like John Wooden. I’m not really a sports fanatic, but some coaches stand out to me. John Wooden was being interviewed after U.C.L.A. had won one of their national championships. The interviewer asked about his philosophy which produced so many winners and John replied by quoting his own basketball coach, Ward Lambert of Purdue University: “The team that makes more mistakes will probably win, because the team that makes more errors will be doing more, playing harder.”
That’s good philosophy. If we cannot fail, we’ll never succeed. So don’t be immobilized by failure.
Akin to this is a third principle that will prevent parent burnout: Don’t fall victim to “what if” or “if only.”
Few things are more negative to our functioning as parents than this. It will choke parenting to death — the “what if” and “if only” snare. And we all are vulnerable. We slip into this in almost every area of life, and especially as parents. I speak firsthand and confess my own failure at this point. “What if” we had not moved from California to Tennessee. “If only” I had taken more time with them, and not depended on the church to provide them basic Christian education. “What if” I had insisted on a different set of friends. “If only” I’d had money enough to move into a better section of the city, or to send them to better schools. I plagued myself with questions like that for years when our children were in their teens.
It’s a dead end! It will fuel the burnout process. So let me review. How do we prevent parent burnout? Keep perspective on these positive principles:
One, love’s right to be wrong;
Two, if we cannot fail, we cannot succeed;
And three, don’t fall victim of the “what if” or “if only” snare.
Now a final word. How do we recover from parent burnout?
I’m not sure the question of prevention and cure can be so clear. Stuart Briscoe once told a story about this. A man went to his physician complaining of constant headaches. The physician asked him if he smoked.
“Yes, I do,” said the fellow.
“Well, stop smoking,” suggested the physician.
So he stopped but the headaches persisted. He went back to the doctor.
“Do you drink?”
“Yeah, I drink considerably.”
“Stop it.”
So he stopped. The headaches persisted.
Back to the doctor again.
“Are you engaged in physical labor that would in some way put pressure on your back?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Quit your job.”
He quit his job and took another position, but his headaches persisted. Everyday the pain pulsed through his head. Finally, they discovered he was wearing a size 15 collar on a size 16 neck. No wonder he had a headache.
(Stuart Briscoe, What Works When Life Doesn’t, Wheaton, III: Victor Books, 1976, p. 125.)
The question of prevention and cure is not always clear. But let’s do it this way for communication’s sake. Some of you here today feel that you’re already burned out, and you’re looking for recovery. I offer a three-fold prescription.
One, take care of yourself. I’m not even going to comment on that except to say that if you don’t take care of yourself — physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually — you’re not going to be able to overcome burnout. One of the things that parents need to know is that they owe something to themselves. You cannot be a slave to your children.
A few weeks ago, in the series of sermons on Exodus, I spoke about idolatry. One of the things I said in that sermon was that anytime we allow anything or any person to take the place that God should have in or lives, we’re guilty of idolatry. Aren’t some of us guilty of idolatry in relation to our children? We put them in the place God should have in our lives. If you’re going to recover from burnout, take care of yourself.
Two, remember you are “tapped, not trapped.”
It’s easy to feel trapped — the children demand so much of your time and energy. The whole household revolves around them, especially at certain stages in their life. All of your planning has to involve them, their future. It’s easy to feel trapped. You have so much energy, so much time, and the family has so much financial resource — and children demand so much. It’s easy to be trapped. Feeling that, you’ll sink deeper and deeper into burnout, you’ll become more and more exhausted.
There’s a beautiful word in the 20th chapter of Acts. It’s Paul’s farewell to his friends at Ephesus. Paul loved Ephesus. The church there was a joy to him, but now he’s having to go. Listen to him.
“And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:22-24)
Paul is speaking, of course, to our total life as Christians, our call to minister in every way. But this is such an appropriate word for parents. “If only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I receive from the Lord Jesus …”
You have been tapped, my friends, as parents. You’ve been tapped by God. This ministry is the most important ministry that you can have — that of being priest to your children. So if you can keep in mind that you are not trapped in this role as a parent, but you’ve been tapped by God for this, you will be energized for that task.
And that brings me to the third aspect of this prescription for recovering from parent burnout. Trust God now to renew your strength.
It amazes me how we actually live out our relationship with God. We affirm God as an ever-present help in the time of trouble. Most of us are ready to quote freely and joyfully one of my favorite verses of scripture — Isaiah’s word: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” We talk about all that. But we don’t avail ourselves to God’s power in the present moment when we need it.
God says He is a present help. You remember Psalms 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.” We believe that, don’t we? God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in the time of trouble. The question is, “Why don’t we avail ourselves to that strength right now?”
God is immediately available, wherever you are, wherever you go, whatever time of day it is — you don’t even have to ask for an appointment. He never puts you on hold. You never get a busy signal when you’re calling him.
So, if you’re going to recover from parent burnout, trust God now to renew your strength.
Will you receive what I’ve said, act on it, and let that promise of God’s word be your undergirding power: “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Remember our symbol with which we began: Clear to the better end. When our parenting is anchored in the conviction that our children are gifts to us from God, that we have been tapped for this task, and that God’s strength is available to us now, then we will have run out the anchor cable of our life into the deep hull of the ship of ourselves and our lives will be secured to the better end and will ride every threatened burnout.

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