Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Why Christian?

This past weekend I was fortunate to attend a conference in Minneapolis. Fifteen speakers, all women, from a wide variety of backgrounds, came before us and explained why they identify as Christians. Their stories were vastly different, as were their approaches to telling them. Some of them had experienced terrible losses or treatment; others had more conventional paths to faith but with interesting detours along the way. All were passionate, and articulate, and inspiring.

I loved hearing their stories, and was reminded again how powerful personal stories are for relationships, for instruction, and for guidance. Our stories reveal our truth. There are those who say that stories are not truth, but I believe that the story is far truer than a recitation of the facts, because it reveals the teller's truth. It shows what parts of the events recounted are important to the teller. It tells what part of the event changed the teller. The facts, as told, may be disputable, but the teller's connection to the story is true!

So when I tell you why I am a Christian I am revealing truth about me to you. And it may look very different than your own experience and feel very different to you than it does to me, but it is my answer, my story, and my truth.

Yesterday someone shared an experience she had at a church she visited. She said "I hate going to worship where the children are sent away!" It didn't feel like church to her at all when there were no murmurs or shushing happening. I have heard others share the opposite story: "And no one took their child out - it was so loud I couldn't get a thing out of worship there." Both completely true, and probably neither very factually accurate.

Every family has stories they love to tell:

  • When there was a snake in the basement
  • When someone shoplifted and had to go back and face the music
  • When the uncles pushed the car to the end of the driveway before starting it so as not to wake the parents

Each is told from the perspective of the teller and each participant or observer adds details and perspective that enrich the tale. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John recount stories of Jesus' time on earth and include different (and sometimes conflicting) details Our picture of Jesus is enriched and enhanced by these different perspectives.

You can probably anticipate what I'm going to say: tell your kids stories. Tell them why you're a Christian (or why you're not. . .), or where your spiritual journey has taken you. Tell them about your childhood, your people, your experiences and feelings and changes in direction. Paint them a rich tapestry that includes your truth, varnished and unvarnished. Be authentic. And hear their stories for the truths they reveal. Of course you want to discourage outright falsehoods, but don't get so worried about accuracy that you miss the messages contained within the details. Imagine how little we would know of Jesus if we only had one Gospel. 

I give profound thanks for the stories I heard over the weekend. They pointed out perspectives on Jesus I could never have seen without the lens of their experience. I'd love to hear your story, and I hope someday soon to write mine more fully.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

High School Dating

A conscientious mother recently asked me to write about dating and I've been letting that thought bubble around in the slow-cooker of my brain for a while, wondering if I have anything of value to share on this topic. After all, my own children have both been married for more than three years and had "dated" the men they married for years before the weddings.

Dating is a scary and exciting passage for teenagers. It is thrilling, and sometimes devastating. It can help a person sort out what they want in a permanent relationship, but it can also open a world of possibilities not apparent from the cocoon of your family. It is hard for us as parents because it is so obviously a step towards leaving the nest.

I don't think there are any sure-fire formulas for dating success and safety, but I do think there are some common-sense pieces that should be in place before dating begins:

  • Your child should have some long-term goals, and have thought about where relationships fit into that. (How much time can be devoted to a relationship? Can your child defer one desire in favor of another? Will they leave an event where there is under-age drinking or illegal drugs are being used?)
  • Your child should know what a healthy relationship looks like. Ask them who they admire; ask them what they hope their future partnership will look like. This will help them avoid, or at least more quickly realize if they get involved in an unhealthy relationship.
  • Your child should know how to say and hear "NO". Do not let your child date without having the mutual consent conversation. (Which hopefully started over sharing toys and clothing and isn't a new concept now.)
  • While they live under your roof, they should not be dating people you haven't met. I also think that they should not be dating people in other life stages (ie no dating people with drivers' licenses until you have one of your own, no dating people with their own apartments until you have your own, etc. And the reverse is also true!)
  • It goes without saying that they should have been schooled in safe practices related to: alcohol and drugs, sexual activity, driving, violence, manipulation, etc.
  • It also seems common-sense that they should date on money they earned themselves. Kids who are willing to mow lawns and babysit to have dating money are far more selective in who they spend it on.
I believe that we were created for community and building healthy relationships make for better communities. Families are our first communities and they should protect us and prepare us for what is to come. 
  • Don't be hands off with your children's significant others. Invite them to dinner, get to know them. Often the most obnoxious choices will be eliminated simply by seeing them in the context of the family community. 
  • Notice how your child's relationship mimics or digresses from your own relationships. This can be a place to open discussion if you have concerns.
  • Pray that God will bring a worthy match for your child. A life partner is truly a gift from God.
  • Make sure your child is aware of what he or she is worth, in your eyes, and in God's eyes. He or she is wonderfully made!
And lastly - it's easier to sleep in the kid's bed until they get home than to wait up for them. God bless you on this phase of the parental journey. Amen. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

What am I supposed to do?

What kind of conditions would it take for you to put your child's life in danger to escape them? I asked myself this question when the unaccompanied children of Central America and Mexico began flooding across the borders of Texas. I am asking it again this holiday weekend as pictures of drowned toddlers and desperate crowds trying to make it to Europe fill the news.

What kind of conditions make these incredibly dangerous choices seem like the safer option?

I cannot, in my comfortable, air-conditioned, and indoor-plumbed home begin to imagine. Even if I were camping this weekend, as so many Americans are, it would be with ample food carried in a motorized vehicle to a campsite with running water and electricity.

At the start of this holiday weekend the UN announced that there were now over 2 million Syrian refugees; half of them are children. What is happening in their cities and villages that makes this migration the better alternative? If I am honest, I will tell you that I do not want to know. I don't want to know how bad it can be. I can hardly bear the pictures from the camps much less know what is worse than that. It makes me feel helpless; it makes me feel guilty; it makes me feel completely, and utterly, overwhelmed.

I don't understand exactly how this came to be but I know it has something to do with 9/11 and oil and ancient in-fighting in the middle east. It really doesn't matter to me any more. I don't care if these people are fleeing from famine or soldiers or devastation caused by natural disasters. Something has to be done. And beyond sending money I am pretty much at a loss. What would I want if I walked with these people?

I wouldn't want to come to a new country and learn a new language and work at a job way below my former pay grade and capabilities. I wouldn't want to be dependent on people I don't know, whose motives are suspect because I don't really understand their language or their religion. I wouldn't want to dress in strange clothing and eat strange food and be separated from everything and everyone that is home to me. But, I would do all these things if it meant my child could live into adulthood. . .
because I am a mother,

Do these desperate mothers and fathers also have an inkling that in saving a child they will lose her? Because that child will become a member of another culture. She will not want to return to the place of the mother or father's childhood. That is a place she remembers only with feelings of fear and deprivation. I hope not because they are already bearing the unbearable.

It doesn't really matter what your politics tells you about this, or who you think is responsible.

This. Is. A. Crisis. These are people. They are not trying to take advantage of anyone or anything. They are trying to save their children. They are trying to survive. None of us would do any less.

I follow Jesus, who was once a refugee child Himself. Jesus teachings tell me that He expects that I will offer a cup of water to the thirsty, a morsel of food to the hungry, and a coat to the naked: simple, practical, realistic stuff. What am I to offer these people who have lost everything? What can, what should I do in the midst of this enormous problem?

As I wrestled with these questions over the weekend, I heard that Pope Francis asked every parish in Europe to step forward to take in one Syrian family. I like this idea. It brings the crisis down to personal size and it changes the question from "What can I do?" to "What can WE do?"

What CAN we do?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Last Day of School

Today was the last day of school in my town. The last day is always an exciting one for children, and a day often filled with many emotions for parents. Parents may be anticipating summer adventures with their kids but they may also be feeling the stress of full-time childcare expenses. Some will feel sadness that another chapter in a child's life is finished or a sense of loss if there was a close partnership with a teacher. There can be waves of nostalgia if the child will be attending another school in the fall. A parent might be dreading the late nights, messy bathrooms and depleted larders that are the earmarks of summers in households with teens. And the last day of high school carries a deep bittersweet feeling all its own.

Whatever you're feeling, one parenting practice that serves well in times of transition is the "marking of days." A wise friend initiated my family marking of the last day of school.
It was not unusual, simply a backyard gathering where we stopped and talked over the highlights of the year just ended. The older kids told the younger ones about their 2nd (or 3rd or 4th) grade memories and everyone shared plans and wishes for the summer and the next school year over burgers and chips. It was informal, and familiar (we frequently gathered in that backyard) but it sealed the year somehow, and created a bridge we crossed into summer.

In Old Testament times significant events were marked by building an altar. The books of Genesis through Judges contain at least 14 stories of building altars. The stories featured famous Biblical
characters: Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Gideon, Saul, David, Solomon, and Elijah. These stories provide us with a simple formula for the marking of days:
  • Stop.
  • Remember.
  • Then build something
  • Out of natural or readily available materials.

Like our informal backyard gathering where we built burgers and remembered, most families probably have some type of ritual that has evolved over the years: going camping, putting the dock in the water, visiting Grandma, or moving seedlings from indoors to the garden. The stopping and doing are important. Adding the remembering and familiar, tangible materials makes it a full-blown marking of the day. It adds meaning and intention to a day already filled with feeling. Marking days builds bridges between times and places.

You can plan for many important/transitional days throughout the year, creating personal family markings. In doing so you also indirectly prepare for the unexpected days. The Old Testament characters who were building altars were marking the times and places where God "showed up." That was what made the remembering so important. Remember the days that God "showed up" during the school year just ended: the answered prayers, the unexpected perfect response on your tongue to the difficult question asked, the miraculous encounter in nature or with another being. God is still showing up. Mark those days too, and revisit them often.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Holy Week & Children

It starts tomorrow, stretching ahead of us like a long and empty road, with obstacles hidden around each curve. For those of us who work in the church, and those of us who grew up in a liturgical tradition, Holy Week is our marathon:

  • Services on Palm Sunday - complete with palms and perhaps blessing of quilts created for the needy at home and abroad or Passion Sunday - cramming all the week's events into one service. 
  • Then, on Thursday, Maundy (Servant) Thursday, we unpack the Jewishness of Jesus as he celebrates Passover with his friends, the Institution of Holy Communion by Jesus during the Last Supper, and the Servant Leadership of Jesus as he washes the feet of his disciples. All of this concludes with stripping the church of all ornamentation so that on
  • Good Friday it will be stark and dark and sad as we re-tell the story of Jesus' excruciating death on the cross. In many churches Jesus' Seven Last Wordswill be solemnly read, followed by the toll of a bell and the extinguishing of candles to symbolize the departure of the Light of the World.
  • In some congregations, there will be an Easter Vigil on Saturday night, replete with fire and drums and darkness followed by light and noise and shouting. Then comes
  • Sunrise Service which, thanks to Daylight Savings Time regularly occurs in the dark and cold, and additional services attended by infrequently seen people and trumpets flourishes and devoted choir members singing their hearts out.
It. Is. Exhausting. 
It. Is, Amazing.

It is church at its best, and at its worst. And these days, it is often ignored by families with children because it is generally ignored by the rest of society. So the kids, if they are regular worship attenders, go from the high of Palm Sunday to the exultation of Easter Resurrection without ever passing through the valley of the shadow of death. And frankly, that's often more comfortable for us as parents. We don't have to answer difficult questions about death or face emotional responses from our children as they put it all together and realize that we, their most important people, will die. We don't like looking at our own mortality either.

I've been thinking about how parents and Sunday School Teachers should best approach this week. In the midst of my thinking,  I stopped and watched a Veggie Tales video called the Easter Carol. It was a droll parody of Dicken's Christmas Carol and most of its delightful humor would be entirely wasted on children BUT, as the Veggie folks so often do, they found a way to summarize the core message for children. And the message of Easter is HOPE.

And giving our children hope is one of our parenting tasks.
Giving people the sure and certain hope of the resurrection is one of the church's central tasks.

Hope is difficult to describe, but easy to recognize. Hope is the lengthening of daylight hours, the rising sap in the trees, the shoots pushing forth from the ground and the fruit trees blooming. It is watching our children grow, and the promise of things to come.

Easter brings the promise of our own resurrection. It seems to me that this is easier to understand in the full context of the week than as a stand-alone event. It seems easier to bring my children to church and let the leaders there help me and them to unpack these deep and difficult concepts. However, whether you go to church this week or not,  mark these days by speaking with your children (regardless of their ages) of fear and suffering and injustice and despair and death, and then remind them, and yourself, of the hope of resurrection. Hosanna & Alleluia!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Do Not Be Afraid

Children of all ages are no strangers to being afraid, and neither are parents. Children are afraid of the dark, big dogs, the possibility of divorce, monsters under the bed, getting their faces wet, and a myriad of other things. Adolescents are afraid that they will always be tallest or shortest or fattest or thinnest, of being rejected when asking someone out on a date, that no one will stop them from their out of control behavior, and that they will have to leave the nest before they are done growing up. Parents are afraid of car accidents, child molesters, bicycles, drugs and death. Being afraid is part of the human condition.

Into this arena of fear comes the message "Do not be afraid."

God speaks these words to Abraham, to Hagar, to Isaac, to Jacob. Moses is reminded, Joshua is instructed, and Elijah is commanded. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah brought messages from the Lord saying "Do not be afraid." Usually the message is accompanied by "for I am with you."

I imagine few who heard those words were completely relieved of their fear, but again and again God showed up and proved there was nothing beyond the scope of God's power.

As we move toward Christmas we will hear these words again. Angels, messengers from God, speaking to Mary, and Joseph, and nameless shepherds on a hillside. The same message, with a twist. "Do not be afraid; I bring you good news!"

And so as December flies by and Christmas approaches I say to you parents - Do Not Be Afraid!

Do Not Be Afraid . . .

  • To be your child's parent. You were not given this child to befriend, you are Mom or Dad!
  • To let traditions from your childhood that no longer hold meaning die. You can lose all of Christmas suffering through traditions that no one enjoys any longer.
  • To kill Santa. Or the Elf on the shelf. 
  • To help your child have realistic expectations.
  • To reach out to others who may be lonely.
  • To simpllify what you need to for the sake of the Christmas your family wants.
  • To make your kids wait. . .
There's a lot of pressure on us this time of the year. Pressure to be more, do more, spend more. And the season that should evoke joy can, instead, evoke fear. Fear of not being enough, not decorating (cleaning/baking/wrapping enough) not spending enough. . . 

Do not be afraid Mom and Dad. The Lord has found favor with you and entrusted His beautiful children into your care. Do not be afraid - just love them and glorify God for them! Let them and yourselves know they have nothing to fear for God is with them. 

I Bring You Good News. . .
  • You are enough
  • You do enough
  • Your gifts show your love
  • It's all about the baby - 
  • The rest is just for fun, and if it's not fun for anyone in your family, don't do it!
Merry Christmas (it's ok to say - don't be afraid!). May the good news of the Christ child eradicate the fears that creep upon us so stealthily.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In All Circumstances

'Tis the season to be THANKFUL, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

There's not much going on to support that idea! Thanksgiving, if mentioned at all, is all about stuffing your face and getting ready to consume bargains on Black Friday. People are keeping scorecards: Who's opening? What time? What's on sale there? Two women in Beaumont, CA set up camp in front of their local Best Buy on November 5, more than three weeks ahead of the big sale. They don't even know specifically what will be on sale, they just want to be first in line.

In the face of such relentless attempts to stoke our appetites it becomes important to cultivate a grateful heart, first in ourselves, and then in our children. Gratitude is the only antidote to greed. Since there are very few media invitations to gratitude, it's up to us to practice and model gratitude. And practicing gratitude has a huge payoff - peace!

I live in a small town without even a Walmart to call our own so I was curious to see if the youth of this community, who shop far less than their suburban counterparts, might be more steeped in gratitude. I had a good sample of 20 or so 7th and 8th graders as a captive audience this week. We handed around index cards and asked them to write down something they were thankful for on one side of the card. Then we talked about Paul's injunction to be thankful in all circumstances and  asked them to flip their cards over and think about a circumstance where they couldn't imagine being thankful. Then they were asked them to "Stump the Chumps" (me and their pastor) and we looked for ways to be thankful in the scenarios they had dreamed up: someone you love is murdered, a car accident, a bad diagnosis, being bullied, etc. It didn't take long for them to catch on and start finding something to be grateful for in each circumstance, making the "Chumps" unnecessary. At the end, we gave thanks for the things they had initially written down on their cards. Each of the 20 had chosen one of three things: parents, families, and friends.

I was discouraged that they had come to the table with so little gratitude no apparent awareness of the gifts of shelter, education, food, health, or a host of other possible choices, Still, I was very glad that they appreciated their relationships more than their cell phones. And I was encouraged that after our exercise I detected a note of embarrassment as student after student said family or friends or parents.

Gratitude, for most of us, is more an ingrained habit than an inborn talent. Family is a perfect context for learning to be grateful. The old-fashioned practice of saying grace before meals is a gratitude practice. Simply reciting "God is great. God is good. And we thank God for our food." creates an awareness that food is something to be appreciated. Stopping to pray before meals and freely expressing specific gratitudes for specific circumstances is also a good way to teach/learn/practice gratitude.

Other natural contexts within the family might include:

  • Requiring good manners: saying thank you when receiving a gift (whether that gift is a birthday celebration, a basket of clean laundry, a warm drink on a cold day, or a ride to a friend's house.)
  • Raising awareness using natural triggers: giving thanks for first responders when hearing sirens, speaking thankfully of income sources when getting cash at the ATM, appreciating good service when it happens, good health when engaging in active recreation
  • Focusing awareness: simply asking familiy members to think of one thing they are grateful for each day and to share it, or put up a white board for keeping track of blessings

I have kept a gratitude journal off and on for many years. Though I haven't been consistent, it is fun to look back and see what inspired my gratitude in other stages of life: a child's long nap, a windy day for drying beach towels, prepared food in the freezer, an accident avoided, good medical care, helpful friends, wisdom from my mother or father or child, a good book, an inspiring sermon, a reminder, no cavities, a telephone call, a day without driving, and so on.

Though it may be obvious, the biggest gift of the gratitude practice is that is cultivates an awareness of God, and of God's goodness. It is hard to comprehend the immensity of God's goodness, but itemizing our daily gifts helps us see God at work in our lives - and in that grateful state be immunized from the germs of greed that draw us away from God. In the language of bumper stickers:

May you know gratitude and peace this season!