Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Beating the drum

I have been saying these things for years.  Parents protect their children too much.  Kids need to take risks, and they need to get hurt when they make mistakes -- both physically and emotionally.  Parents shouldn't inflict pain on their kids, but they should let the kids take chances, fall and skin their knees, and deal with the consequences.

This article does a great job of laying these facts out in a very persuasive way.  I highly recommend this for any parent or anyone who has influence on a parent.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Getting things done, one way or another

I've been thinking a lot lately about something subtle in the book of Acts.

Actually it's not very subtle, it's just not the kind of thing we like to think about.

Here's the deal.  In Acts 1:4, Jesus tells his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they're clothed with power from on high -- until they receive what the Father has promised.  He's obviously referring to the Holy Spirit.  In 1:8 he elaborates a bit about what will happen when the Holy Spirit comes -- his followers will be empowered to be witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

So in Acts chapter 1, the disciples faithfully wait in the city.  They pray, read scripture, deal with some leadership issues, all in obedience to Jesus.

In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit shows up in great power.  Tongues of fire, different languages, thousands of people converted, new community created.  It's pretty amazing.

In Acts chapter 3, the disciples remain in Jerusalem.

In Acts chapter 4, the disciples remain in Jerusalem.

In Acts chapter 5, the disciples remain in Jerusalem.

In Acts chapter 6, the disciples remain in Jerusalem.

In Acts chapter 7, the disciples remain in Jerusalem.

See a problem here?  Jesus told them to remain until the Holy Spirit came, then to be witnesses in an ever-increasing area.  But they've received the Holy Spirit and stayed parked in Jerusalem.

In Acts 8, a persecution breaks out against the church and everyone except the Twelve are scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.  They preach about Jesus as they go.  In other words, when the disciples were not obedient, God was able to back them into obedience through indirect means.  I think it's safe to say that from the disciples' perspective, this persecution was a great tragedy, even a great evil.  But it's so clear in the text that Jesus laid out the agenda in Acts 1:8 and God is getting it accomplished through this persecution in 8:1.

(By the way, read through Acts 7 and notice how prominent in Stephen's speech is the idea of "place." To Jews who believed God favored Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and Israel above all others, Stephen's speech must have been infuriating.  Stephen points out over and over how God has worked his best work in places other than Jerusalem.  Maddening.)

So here's the question.  When you experience things that, from your perspective, look like a great evil, is it possible -- just possible -- that sometimes what God is doing is calling you back to a command he gave you earlier, but that you failed to obey?

God doesn't bring tragedies into our lives to punish us or to beat us down.  Every action he takes toward us is loving, absolutely loving, for our good.  And sometimes we suffer at the hands of others who are responsible for the evil they create.  But in the midst of tragedy, of great evil, God will still work to bring about greater good.  It's worth doing a little self-examination and checking to see if there's something in the past God called us to do that we have failed to follow through on.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three decades later ...

Julie and I spent the weekend at the farm for my 30th class reunion.  I have to admit, I was a little tense going into it.  I don’t normally get tied up in knots; it just isn’t my style.  But for some reason this reunion weighed heavy on my mind.  I planned to go for months, but couldn’t bring myself to RSVP until just a couple weeks ago.  A week ago I spent a few hours on the lawn mower, and all the while I was remembering classmates, pondering what it would be like to see them again, and more than anything trying to remember what life was really like back when.
The remembering part is a little counterproductive, of course.  Memory is not an accurate representation of the facts at the best of times, and thirty years later it’s so distorted and filtered and re-cast that it bears little resemblance to anything that might actually have happened.  But you have to do it, all the same.  So I mowed around and around the lawn, thinking about individuals and personalities and pondering who I was then and who I am now.  That’s the scary part.  I see how much I have changed and (hopefully) matured in the last thirty years and I realize that this will be a gathering of people who with a couple exceptions are strangers to me.  
I have not kept up, you see.  There were not quite sixty of us in my graduating class and nearly all of us had been together since elementary school.  Whether I talked directly to any of these people during school or not, I had been in the same classroom with them, listened to their conversations, watched their interactions, graded their papers, seen their struggles.  Some were close friends.  Others were acquaintances, neighbors.  They were classmates, but long-term classmates.  I had watched them grow from early childhood through almost-adulthood back in school.  I knew these people.
Then I bolted.  Like so many teenagers I had a terrible fear of being pigeonholed.  The idea that I would stay in my hometown for life, never allowed to grow, never allowed to change, terrified me.  So that fall of 1983 I boarded the Greyhound bus for Seattle.  I spent the next two years in a little Bible college in Seattle, then moved back as close as Fargo, seventy miles from home.  But I rarely went back to that little community.  The summers of 1984 and 1987 I lived back there.  My attitude was horrible.  I was not ready to be home.  
There’s a phase that healthy adolescents need to go through when they run away from home.  Not literally hitchhiking to Los Angeles, hopefully, but escaping in some way.  They need to get away.  I think this is one of the many reasons why Jesus’ story about the prodigal son is so enduringly popular.  We identify with the son’s need to run away, to risk being foolish, to spend himself in a far country.  Until we grow up a bit it is perilous for us to return home because we might well be trapped.
In the 1980’s I was in danger of being trapped, but I misunderstood the danger.  I thought the opinions of other people might keep me from changing, might keep me from growing and developing and stretching my wings and my imaginations.  In reality the danger was my own fear.  In fact it was very possible that if I moved back in those days I would have given in to my own fears and never grown past myself, never confronted my ignorance or my arrogance, never been broken, never learned to hope for things far beyond my reach, never learned to take real risks.  I had to be away.  
For some people, this time away is relatively short.  For me it has been three decades.  After college in Fargo I moved to Seattle and spent seven years there.  Then Saint Paul, then western North Dakota, then back to the Twin Cities.  During the early years I felt absolutely torn in two when I went home.  I missed the people, the smells, the sameness, the very landscape in a physically painful way.  Yet the thought of staying there was still too much for me to bear, and I went home only rarely.  Only in the last few years I have begun to spend a little more time there, to venture not only to the farm where I grew up but back into the community just a little bit.  
So I have not kept in touch.  I have seen my classmates so, so rarely.  Some I have never seen since graduation, because they have run like me to various corners of the world.  
There was another fear at work for me.  Ten years after graduation, most of us had hit our stride.  We were establishing homes and jobs, gaining competence and confidence. I shunned my ten-year reunion for fear of watching people try to prove themselves to each other, for fear that I would get caught up in the game of saying “I can handle life.”  At twenty years, some of us were building empires, and others were trying to pick up the pieces of dreadful misfortunes and miscalculations.  Some of us were struggling against a world that seemed mercilessly determined to prevent anything good in our lives.  I toyed with the idea of attending my 20th, but ended up having supper with a good friend and skipping the reunion.
Thirty years out I decided it was worth the risk.  In our forties, I reasoned, most of us will have gotten past the need to prove ourselves worthy.  We won’t need to talk so much about the empires we’re building.  Maybe we can have some honest conversation about who we were, who we are, and who we are becoming.  We are now the people of gray hair and bifocals.  We are people who have grieved.  We have experienced darkness and clawed our way back to the light.  We have found faith, and lost it, and maybe found it again.  
So this weekend I went to my 30-year class reunion, and it was delightful.  Twenty-two of us gathered, some with spouses in tow, many texting throughout the evening to keep tabs on our kids.  We sat outside swatting a few mosquitoes on a gorgeous Minnesota summer evening and caught up.  I talked in depth with people I have always known, but with whom I’ve never had a real conversation.  
Of course, someone brought out old pictures.  I could proudly point to my shining face and slicked back hair in the front row of Mrs. Webster’s 3rd grade class picture, sporting the fancy stitching on my cowboy shirt and the purple and red striped pants that I’m sure I thought were all the rage.  Oh, yes, that’s me.  And of course, all my classmates already knew it was me, because they were there when I was that kid.  
We shared stories of moves and marriages, deaths and jobs and transitions.  Here and there in the corners, quiet apologies took place and daring souls asked probing questions about “how are you doing, really?”  We talked about medical tests and hard lessons learned.  And without a doubt, we laughed more than we have laughed in a very long time.
Suddenly it was midnight.  Like Cinderella at the ball, we turned for the door.  There was indeed something magical about it, something absolutely life-giving in seeing those people again, finding friends I’d forgotten I had, experiencing connections and common bonds that were nothing less than a gift.  I had returned home and found that things and people had changed, changed dramatically, but that things are very, very good.  
But I don’t live there.  Even if I moved back to that town, to those people, I am not the same seventeen year old kid I was in those days.  I’ve changed, too.  Thank God.  I have scars and insights I never dreamed of then, and today I know joy and satisfaction that are deeper than anything I ever thought possible.  So maybe I could live in that community, but the heady wine of reconnecting with old classmates is best drunk only occasionally.  
By the way, Julie deserves great praise for this weekend.  She was absolutely amazing in going where I wanted to go, being flexible and willing to stay as long as I needed to stay in order to make connections and have conversations and reconnect in whatever ways I needed to.  She made conversation and went out of her way to be gracious and talkative when I know many times she just needed to have what Teya calls “introvert time.”  But she was amazing.
I’m glad we went.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Want your kids to stay committed to Jesus?

As a parent, I want more than anything for my kids to know Jesus.  My greatest hope is that they will know him and grow in relationship with him through their lives and be totally sold out for his agendas, living under his rule.  My greatest fear is that this will not be the case.  So when I think about what it means to "make disciples" the first context I think of is my role as a father.

It's the final command Jesus gives.  The most familiar version, probably, is in Matthew's gospel.  Translating the Greek verbs carefully, you come up with something like this:

"As you are going, make disciples of all peoples by means of baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

The command is to "make disciples."  It's the only imperative verb (command) in the whole sentence.  

Central's mission statement is "Making disciples of Jesus."  How do we do this?  In churches, in families, how do we do this?  Look around you -- bringing kids to worship is obviously not an adequate response, though it's certainly important.  

I recently read an article about why kids growing up in the church choose to remain Christian.  It was a mildly interesting article and I forwarded it to a few friends and coworkers.  I also forwarded it to a couple former kids of my acquaintance and asked for their comments.

The article lists three main reasons why kids remain committed to Christ: 

  1. They have been truly converted by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. They have been equipped through their church, not entertained.
  3. Their parents have "preached the gospel" to them.

I think these three are good answers, for what they're worth.  But I don't think they go quite deep enough.  So, like I said, I asked for some expert opinions from those who up until recently have been kids, who are committed to Christ.  Here are Eric's comments:

For me, this article doesn't particularly hit home; it feels a little like swinging a ping pong paddle while trying to hit a home run.
While I certainly won't argue AGAINST what the author included, I also don't think those three traits are the most important (other than, of course, being a 'truly converted Christian,' although such language makes me wary).
If I were to list the three most important factors in my own life for having 'survived' my college years as a Christian, I'd emphasize the following:
-I was introduced to a faith that was more than an idea; a faith with power for personal and societal change, based upon a solid historical basis, the testimony of others throughout the ages, and my own personal experience.
-I learned from with those who wrestle deeply with facts, theories, and experiences that (appear to) cause many others to lose their faith - while remaining active Christians who neither dismiss these challenges nor crumble in their presence. I have seen robust, informed, and active faith.
-I was and am surrounded by a community of others who testify to God's love and faithfulness, who seek truth wherever it may be found, who press on to know the Lord, who walk with integrity, and who love as Christ loved. I know them and they know me; we support each other; they know my doubts and failings, my testimonies and triumphs. Without these people, I would not be who I am and I would perhaps not be a Christian anymore.
 The themes of "authentic relationships" and "honest struggles" and "transparency" are huge here.  Parents, take note.  It's not enough to tell your kids what to do -- you have to live faith in front of them, share your struggles with them, and don't be afraid to wrestle with the hard issues.

Some of Erica's comments take us farther down this road:
Seeing more mature Christians live out a rough and bumpy faith while still holding onto (and learning to apply) God's promises of beauty and purpose has been more encouraging to me than any youth program curriculum or week-long-mission-trip experience.
 Parents, do you have a "rough and bumpy faith"?  Do you have a sense of God's promise of beauty in your life? (This phrase intrigues me and I want to think and write more about it.  I think it's vitally connected to what Jesus called "the kingdom of God" which was the whole theme of his ministry.)  Do you have a sense of God's promise of purpose in your own life?  

If you have a sense of beauty and purpose rooted in God's promises to you, I can just about guarantee that you have struggled with this.  How can you hold to a sense of beauty in the face of sex trafficking or famine or chemical weapons?  How can you hold to a sense of purpose in the face of a mid-life crisis or a cancer diagnosis or chronic depression?  Can you wrestle, as Eric says above, with the hard questions and doubts?  

If you can fight through these battles (notice I said "fight" and not "conquer") in a way that appropriately lets your kids into your real relationship -- the good and the bad and the ugly -- with Jesus, you are beginning to fulfill your role as a parent.

To put it differently, if you want your kids to stay committed to Jesus through thick and thin, let them into the ways you stay committed to Jesus through thick and thin.  Keep growing in your own journey as a disciple -- in the intellectual challenges of Christianity's history, into the meat of apologetics, into the hard-edged compassion it takes to make a real difference in the world, into the gritty reality of dying to yourself and giving your life away for the sake of someone else.  

That's how we make disciples of all peoples, including our kids.