Ep. 116 || Leaning into Grace: An Interview on Faithful Motherhood with Debbie Martens Transcript

Laura: Today we’re excited to welcome Debbie Martens to the Risen Motherhood podcast. Debbie is a woman who’s invested deeply in both Emily and I at different points in our lives, pointing us to Christ and challenging us in our walks with God. Debbie’s interview is part of our series “Faithful Motherhood,” where we talk with women whose children are grown about how the gospel has impacted their motherhood over the years. These aren’t meant to be prescriptive interviews for how to do motherhood; they’re just a glimpse at one woman’s unique walk and lessons learned as she lived out her calling in the Lord. Today we’re talking with Debbie about the value of bringing her children alongside her in her work, what it looks like to maintain a commitment to God’s word in the little years, and she opens up about struggling through a season of anger while raising her young children. Debbie is a wife and a mom to seven grown children, and a grandmother to five. She leads her local church’s children’s ministry, maintains a small acreage in central Iowa, and is an avid bread baker and seamstress. Now let’s get to the show with Emily, Debbie, and myself.

Laura: Well, hi Debbie. Thanks for so much for joining us on Risen Motherhood today!

Debbie: Thank you. It’s a privilege to get to be with you.

Laura: Oh, we’re so excited to have you. I have Emily here with me as well. As you heard in the intro, Debbie is one of these people who will always hold a special place in Emily and my life. She’s invested in us at different points in our lives, which is neat; maybe we can share a little bit of that. She’s someone who’s really lived a faithful and godly life. So, we’re excited for her to be able to share her wisdom today with all of you guys.

Emily: I know! I feel like we’re letting you in on a little treat. [Laughter] We’re actually recording in Debbie’s kitchen, which Laura and I have both spent lots of time in. So, it’s a joy to give you guys a peek into our local lives and our personal relationships that have really formed us as we communicate the gospel. Debbie is someone who poured gospel truth into us, and she’s one of the many reasons why we have anything to share.

Laura: When we talk about older, wiser women on the show, this is one of them. You guys are going to hear her firsthand. So, with all that lead-in, Debbie—

[Laughter]

Debbie: No pressure. [Laughter]

Laura: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Help our listeners get to know you. How many children do you have? What’s a day look like in your life?

Debbie: Well, thank you for that gracious introduction, but honestly, it’s fun to be with you girls. I tell people often that I try to rub shoulders with the younger generation, because I don’t want to grow old but also because I have so much yet to learn from you. Thank you for faithfully proclaiming the gospel to young women. It’s a privilege to get to be a part of that.

So, I’m married to Terry, and we’ve been married for 41 years—if you can believe that. We’re blessed with seven precious children, and they really are precious. We have two girls, then five boys; they range in age from 37 to 22. Four of our seven children are married, so we’ve added to our children; I regard them as additions. We have a son-in-law and three daughters-in-law. So, we’ve expanded our family. We currently have six grandchildren I absolutely adore. Right now, we’re open nesters.

Emily: I like that!

Debbie: Yeah, we’re not empty, we’re just open to whatever God might bring our way. All our children have moved out of our home. Some are close by, some far away.

Laura: And what does one of your days look like? What are you involved with?

Debbie: My days look a whole lot different than they did when the children were around and growing up. I seek to volunteer where I can within my local community like through the schools. Right now, I’m part of a tutor program in our county, and I really appreciate that. I tutor some children in reading. My days are filled with whatever Terry needs me to be doing, and life on the acreage keeps me pretty busy. Through that and my church involvement, my days are filled. I’ll tell you a little bit later about some of the ways my days looked when they were growing up.

I’ll introduce myself by saying my early years of motherhood started out in Chicago. We moved from where we now live to suburban Chicago with one child, and we came back with five. My days were really full, and I had a lot of young motherhood days in the Chicago-area. I really, really liked that, but after our fifth child was born, we moved back to this acreage where we currently live. For the sake of most of my kids, this is all they’ve ever known; life here on the acreage and all that goes with that.

You asked me at one point about what my involvement was like in children’s ministry. So, Terry and I, together, have been involved in various forms of children’s ministry for about 30 years now. We’ve been nursery directors, Sunday school teachers, helped with mid-week programs, and we currently direct the children’s ministry at our local church. My commitment to children’s ministry usually revolved around whatever my children were involved in. If I took them, I thought, I might as well be involved in what they’re learning too. And I wanted to be involved. I chose to be where they were and supported the teachers in whatever was happening in that environment.

So even today, my days are filled with children. I spent the better part of this morning making schedules and plans for the fall for what we’ll be doing for children’s ministry, and I like that.

Laura: Did you work when you were a young mom? I know these answers. [Laughter] But for the benefit of our audience, tell us a little about work and ministry commitments you may have had.

Debbie: I always tell everyone my degree was in child development from Iowa State University, so I’ve been practicing my degree; I’ve developed children through the years. [Laughter] I did teach in the public school for three years. When Terry and I married, he said, I’d really like you to stay home and volunteer your time, doing what you can do at the church and the community. So, I retired after three years of teaching, and we were at home. When we started having children, God led us to begin to homeschool our kids. We homeschooled all of our children, probably through most of their junior high years, and then we did some cooperative networking with other homeschoolers in the community. My days of motherhood were filled with a lot of homeschooling. I did work outside the home, you might say. We wanted to teach our children how to work and how to work well. An opportunity arose for us to do some cleaning as a family, so we—largely me—would take the children to clean. They would go with me, one at a time, and we would clean apartments or whatever needed to be done. I feel like that was a good tool. For one thing, they got paid. So the monetary value encouraged them. But also, they learned how to work alongside me doing that. Also, life on the acreage always involved work of some kind they had to be a part of. Believe it or not, when a local retail store needed blankets made for photo ops, I’d sew the binding on those late at night. I did this when we were in the suburban Chicago area. It was a little source of pocket income but not anything that supported us at all. And I had a bread business. I baked bread—

Emily: I didn’t know any of this!

Laura: My jaw just dropped. I didn’t know that either! [Laughter] It’s not a surprise, because Debbie is a master baker and a wonderful seamstress. She taught me how to sew. [Laughter] I didn’t do very well, but she did try to teach me.

Debbie: I must not have been a great teacher. [Laughter] Someone exposed me to grinding our own wheat and making our own bread that way. So I started selling it when we lived in Wheaton, and when we moved back here, we thought, Let’s just try this at the farmers’ market. Well, it was a huge hit. I even won Grand Champion at the State Fair. I put my little ribbon there, and that sure helped the bread to sell. [Laughter]

Laura: People in Iowa love their State Fair. It’s a big deal. [Laughter]

Debbie: So I dabbled in a lot of things but never anything that was very time-consuming. If it started to impose on our time—my time in particular—then we didn’t do it. A lot of those things fell in the summer—the bread baking, the farmers’ market, the other things we did related to gardening. That was during the summertime when I took a break from teaching.

Emily: That’s one of the things I really—and I’m sure Laura has too—gleaned from you: the value of hard work and modeling that for children. Whether or not we have paid jobs to some capacity, there’s a ton of work involved in running a home, managing an acreage. And you use your gifts in all kinds of ways: in the church, in the community. I see a little snippet of that now and think, Wow, Debbie really works hard. You wake in the morning, work hard all day, and you’ve passed that along to your children. It’s fun, because we have relationships with several of your children who serve and know how to serve; like when someone comes over to your house, you have things prepared and show hospitality. I can really tell that’s something you modeled through the years. You modeled how to do really hard work in whatever it is that you’re doing. I know that’s something that God has taught you, as well.

Laura: So to get to our first meatier question: can you tell us a little bit about one of your bigger fears or worries as a mom of young children? Did that fear turn out to be grounded in truth? Did God meet you there and sustain you in the face of fears and challenges?

Debbie: I’m glad you gave me some of these questions in advance so I could think about them. It’s hard to identify the biggest fear, because I had several fears as a young mom. I think I can sum it up by saying: I feared I wouldn’t be enough mom for all those children. There wouldn’t be enough of me to meet their needs. I wasn’t really concerned about our status, or whether or not the kids dressed in the latest fashion; I wasn’t trying to keep up with the Joneses in that. But I would wrestle with, Are they going to have what they need in character? In what they need in knowledge to help them succeed in life and to do what they need to do? The truth that really encouraged me during those times when fear would grip me is that God reminded me, You’re not enough, Debbie. But Jesus is. That may sound trite, but it was freeing to realize I don’t have all it takes to give these kids the character they should have. I don’t have all the energy it’s going to take at the end of the day to be sure they’ve done all the assignments they need to get done. But I can trust God to be big in their lives. I sought then to obey and listen to what God would have me do, and then leave the future and whatever direction he had for their lives in his hands. I have a little saying downstairs in the basement that says, God is the blessed controller of all things. I put that there for my sake to remind me he’s in control of all things, and he’s loving and shaping character far more than I could ever do. Now, that didn’t abdicate my responsibility as a parent; I still had to listen, obey, and do what it was God wanted me to do, but I saw myself as more of a tool, not the one bearing the burden or the whole weight of what I was doing wrong or right in my children’s lives. I realized early on I was going to do plenty of wrong things. Prior to having children, Terry and I thought we knew all there was to know about parenting. We had the privilege of watching different children before we had kids; we’d talk, Oh, our kids shouldn’t do that. That’s the way we’ll handle that. And then we had children, and that all went by the wayside, which I’ve heard more than one parent say.

Laura: I’m pretty sure every parent’s gone through that. [Laughter]

Debbie: And that’s good to be stripped of ourselves and to rely on the Lord. I’m really glad that happened.

Emily: Yes, that’s definitely relatable. [Laughter] We all learn to throw our expectations out the window once we realize how insufficient we are. Can you tell us about one time when you thought, Oh no, I’ve completely messed up my children? How did God work in that? How did God turn your eyes back to him and help you depend on the sufficiency of Christ in that?

Debbie: I’m given to emotion, but I may cry as I tell you this story. When I read that question, I remember thinking about how I really struggled with anger as a young mom. When I would respond that way, I’d think, Oh my word, I’ve really messed these kids up, because I’m modeling a behavior I don’t want them to model or repeat as they parent. And I hurt inside, because I knew my actions and my responses were not pleasing to God. I had this vicious cycle of recognizing it, repenting, going back to recognizing and repenting. It was a cycle in my life. I knew it wasn’t honoring to God, and I was fearful I was going to mess up my kids’ lives. But God was faithful to bring me to a book that someone wrote about the heart of anger. I read that book. I journaled through that book, chapter after chapter. God spoke to me and showed me applications he wanted to make in my life from that and from through the word. It helped me to understand what triggered my anger: expectations that I had of myself, of Terry, of the children; comparing my family to another family; holding too tightly to my own plans and if they weren’t fulfilled, that would cause anger. I had to call those things what they were in my life, which was sin, and not excuse them or put them under a rug, saying, Oh, every mom has times when they’re frustrated with their kids. Rather, I needed to nip it in the bud by telling God, This is sin. I was wrong. I can’t excuse myself any longer. I began to seek his forgiveness more frequently, and I sought my children’s forgiveness for where I modeled that wrongly. The hardest part was to learn to forgive myself; I was hardest on myself. But God did work and continues to work in my life. I’ve had conversations with some of my children since then, and they can tell you there was a turning point for me. They weren’t concerned I was going to respond in anger. God did that work. Of course, I really regret any consequences from my wrong actions and the poor example I was to my family, but that drove me to the gospel. It helped me to see that I was inadequate—I remain inadequate—but he is adequate. And I trust him for those memories that may be difficult for the children when they recall my anger, but also for when they see they lived with a sinful mom with a faithful God.  He will meet them at the point where they have need as well. It’s also helped that some of my children have become parents, and they’ve said, I get it. I understand! [Laughter] And so we’re much more forgiving of everybody. [Laughter]

Emily: Wow, isn’t that the case? [Laughter] I love that you shared about that, because knowing you personally, it’s always so hard for me to imagine you responding to someone in anger, let alone a child. You’re so patient and gracious with young children. What’s encouraging to me in that is the reality that God did work in your life and transformed you through the Holy Spirit, because I can’t even imagine that now. It’s also encouraging to me, because I think that’s something I’ve wrestled with—that cycle of responding in anger with a harsh word, and repenting, and beating myself up, and all of those things. It’s really encouraging to know God is not done with me, and he’s still working to transform me, causing me to hate my sin and depend more on Christ. I really appreciate you were vulnerable and shared that.

Laura: I appreciate that too. I echo everything both of you said. I think a lot of moms can really relate. We did a show—maybe two years ago—on anger, and it was really, really popular. It was a two-part series, and we’ll link it in the show notes. But you can just listen to Debbie, because she got it all there. I appreciate you being vulnerable; it’s really meaningful, and I think a lot of moms can relate to that. Emily and I always talk about how we’re excited for the maturity that comes with aging. There are some things we’re not excited for, but generally, we’re really excited about continuing to grow spiritually and being transformed more into Christlikeness. We know it takes time, and it doesn’t happen overnight; God plays the long game. It’s a good reminder to see God’s faithfulness right in front of us.

Another struggle young moms have is getting into Bible reading. Can you tell us a little bit about what did your time spent in the word look like when you had young children?

Debbie: I’m really blessed that when I was a young mom, someone challenged me to take at least five minutes a day in the word. That didn’t seem like a lot of time, but as a young mom, sometimes five minutes was a lot of time. I really accepted that challenge and took it to heart. I’ve greatly benefited from the spiritual discipline, because it’s helped to build within me the habit of scripture reading. My day doesn’t feel complete in some ways if I’ve not had that time. I happen to be an early morning person, so that makes it a little bit easier for me. I like to get up early, and I found it kind of helpful to tune up for the day and be ready for whatever is going to come. I’ve also discovered the Bible really has a cleansing effect in my life. You know, I like to shower consistently, so spending time in the word helps to reveal my sin, to give me affirmation, to give me direction, to give me a word that helps me know, This is the right way. Stay in it, and it gives me comfort. But there have been days when I’ve read my Bible and shut the cover thinking, Now what did I read? How does that apply to my life? Or I can’t even remember by the time I fix breakfast what it was I read. [Laughter] But I haven’t looked for huge inspiration every day to be my reason for staying in the word, but rather, if I believe his word is eternal, I want to spend time in it. Sometimes I’ve read and I’ve been interrupted by little ones, and I didn’t get as much out of it as I hoped to. Or my mind strayed as I read, and I had other things on my mind. I’m grateful that throughout those times as a young mom—and even in the teen years and now when I have more time to spend in my quiet time—that God allowed that discipline to continue. He’s to be praised and credited for that, because I don’t have it within myself to always get up and want to do that. God has really driven me to the word, and I’ve seen such hope come from it that I want to spend time in it. I often begin by reading or thinking about Psalms 139:23-24 which says, Search me O God and know my heart, and try me and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there be any hurtful way in me and lead me in the way everlasting. That helps me to go to the word with purpose and say, I need you to know my heart, because I don’t know my own heart. I need you to know my anxious thoughts and deal with them. I need you to give me direction. I’m looking to you Lord for those very things, so help me. I’ve had the privilege of being involved in a lot of different studies through the years. Early on with young children, I was more able to do that than I was during the homeschooling years. I had to pull back and not be as involved, because I didn’t have the time to prepare and study like I wanted to. I think God allows those seasons; there are times like that when you’re busy as a mom and you can’t be as involved as you’d like to be. So again, I’d try to take advantage of summer, or do an early morning something with another woman, or something like that. Even though I couldn’t always be involved in those things, Terry and I made it a point to be involved in the local church and hear the word preached. I felt like I was being fed—not only through my own personal time in the word but also through time of hearing the word preached. We’ve usually always been involved in a small group or some kind of community and fellowship; we’ve sought to have people in our home. The word has been important to me. I can remember this quite vividly because I had morning sickness with all my pregnancies, so I didn’t feel well for the first three months and ate a lot of popcorn and laid on the couch. [Laughter] I remember thinking, I made this commitment to read the Bible for five minutes, but I can barely keep my eyes open for five minutes! But I would, only by God’s faithfulness. It was cleansing, and it was helpful. It also helped me, when I came out of that season, to think, Lord, you walked with me through that, you’re going to walk with me through the rest of motherhood too, instead of setting that aside and trying to get reacquainted—if that makes sense. So, I’m grateful for his faithfulness to me by keeping me in the word.

Emily: What’s funny is I was over here this morning discussing the gospel, and we were talking about this very principle. I asked Debbie, How do I stop and remember the gospel? I can’t even get space from my situation. You brought up the idea of “five minutes” and how we can waste five minutes really fast on our phones, computers, or who knows what. But I could set a timer for five minutes and get my journal or Bible out, and spend that time remembering the gospel and those truths. What a difference that could make to refocus my eyes on Christ. I think that’s a really tangible thing that any mom can do. We probably all have five minutes.

Laura: Or even listen to it on an audio Bible. You can still wash the dishes or whatever it may be. Okay Debbie, tell us—I’m excited for this answer—a little bit of insight of what you did in motherhood that yielded the most fruit.

Debbie: This was came to me right away, because I’ve seen this carried out in my children’s lives, and it brings me such great joy. Early on in our married life, Terry and I shared a mutual desire to have people in the home and to open our home up to share life with people. We started doing that when we were early married with no children, and we’ve continued to do that. Sharing a meal, or an overnight, or whatever might happen meant that our children sometimes had to share their space, to share around the table and meal, to share their toys; and we all had to be vulnerable to the messiness that comes with having others in your life. It really does thrill my heart to see each and every one of them involved in hospitality in their own way with whatever God has blessed them with—some great, some small. But they love people, and they’re involved with people. I used to say—and still say—there are only two things that will be with you in eternity: the Word of God and people. So, I want to invest my time well on earth in those two things, because if I’m going to spend eternity with them, I should get used to how to do that. I was also challenged that I didn’t just want to be hospitable to others, but I wanted to do that with my own family. I wanted to make mealtimes a special time for them; I didn’t want them to feel like I only set the table nicely when we had company, but that they were company in my life. We’d create memories by spreading a picnic blanket out on the living room floor and having a picnic. Or I spent weekly visits to the local store to pick up empty cardboard refrigerator boxes so the boys could create forts or who knows what. I wanted to allow space and time for little, simple things like that to make memories with my kids in a way to be hospitable to them, so they felt loved here at home. I’m grateful my kids invited their friends to come over as well. Our table included a lot of people that we maybe wouldn’t have otherwise known had my kids not reached out to them and been friends with them.

Laura: I spent a ton of time in my young years with Debbie over here—or Mrs. Martens, I should say. [Laughter] Old habits die hard! I told her today I sometimes still struggle to call her Debbie, because I grew up calling her Mrs. Martens. I spent hours here at the house with her boys and girls. You guys showed me such wonderful hospitality; I don’t know how many dinners I had here, how much time I spent playing in the asparagus patch in the backyard, and Debbie put me to work. [Laughter] Talk about wanting people to work hard; my parents were big on that too, so you guys must’ve been talking. But I also learned that very much here.

I want to jump to our last question, Debbie, just in the essence of time. Can you share with us what is one of the biggest encouragements you’d give to moms of young children who want to be faithful in their role to discipline their children in the Lord?

Debbie: Yes. In my college years, when my mind seemed able to memorize better, I memorized the book of Philippians. I’m so grateful those verses have been drawn back to memory at different times to give me encouragement in my walk with the Lord. In 3:13-14 says, Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet, but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. In that context, Paul is encouraging the church to recognize they’re not perfect, they live in a fallen world, they’re going to sin, but he encourages them to press on. I think there’s application for all of us, especially moms. Sometimes the days are long, the needs are many, and you’re just plain exhausted at the end of it all. That’s just the way it’s going to be. Young mom, I encourage you to press on. Now that I’m in the retirement years, I’m grateful God gave strength—and he does give strength for each new day. I often think of Matthew 6:34 that says, Sufficient is the day for its own trouble. Don’t be anxious or worried about the next day may bring forth but pour yourself into what you need to do today. I see my life, in Jesus—more so now as we’re entering in these retirement years—as more like a marathon rather than a sprint race. He’s sufficient. He has been and will continue to be sufficient in my weaknesses, in my discouragements, and in my accomplishments as well. Recognize it’s all about pressing forward to get to know him. We’re not going to attain “it,” this perfection, until we reach eternity, but his sufficiency grants grace and strength for each season of motherhood. Embrace that season. My final words would be to continue to stay in the word, remain in community, read good books and listen to good podcasts that are now available, rest in him, and focus on eternity. Faithful is he who called you, who will also bring it to pass. We can rest in his faithfulness, not our own.

Emily: Wow, I think we can end on that note! [Laughter]

Laura: Yeah, there’s nothing for us to add.

Emily: We really, really appreciate you coming on and being willing to share these truths, pointing all the moms who are listening to Christ, as you’ve done for Laura and I and lots of women in our local context. Thanks for coming on.

Debbie: Thanks for having me.