Finally. Spring.

o-ARCTIC-WINTER-WEATHER-2013-570

The mid-west polar vortex was a bit more than this missed-place southerner could handle. There is something not right about wind chills below zero and snow that stays around for weeks rather than leaving after a few days. During the bleak mid-winter of 2014 all I wanted to see was sunlit uplands made glorious summer by the smoke from my grill.

Finally. Spring. Summer. Grills ablaze.Grill-Steak1

A harsh winter provides nothing except thankfulness when it is over; gratitude is best shown with meals prepared out-of-doors. There is something hopeful and comforting about food cooked over a flame. Over the winter I read through cookbooks and subscribed to the Splendid Table podcast – just so I’d be ready when the gray of winter gave way to the blue of spring.

This being Memorial Day Weekend we splurged a little – bought some steaks and prepared a marinade. I found the marinade recipe in a cookbook by Bobby Flay rightly titled, Grilling for Life: 75 Healthier Ideas for Big Flavor from the Fire. It is marvelous and frankly easy. One huge plus is that it calls for red wine – which adds to the joy of cooking since we shouldn’t cook with a wine we wouldn’t drink!bobby-flays-grilling-for-life-75-healthier-ideas-for-big-flavor-from-the-fire-hardcover-book-467_357

To my way of thinking there are few better ways to overcome the doldrums of a bad winter than planning and cooking a great meal for the folks you love. So grab a few cookbooks at the library – or check out some great sites on-line and get to grilling something amazing. It’s a great way to share love and to show gratitude that the sun is shining and all that snow is gone!

Here is the recipe from Bobby Flay’s Grilling for Life: 75 Healthier Ideas for Big Flavor from the Fire:

  • 1.5 cups dry red wine
  • 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • he calls for 1 flank steak, 2 lbs, trimmed of fat and cut crosswise into 2 pieces – but use what you want! Combine all these ingredients – stir them up – pour over your steak of choice and let it sit for 4 hours to 24.
  • Now fire up that grill and eat up!

Here are a few sites to check out:

  1. http://www.jackedupgrill.blogspot.com
  2. http://www.foodnetworkstore.com
  3. http://www.splendidtable.org
Advertisements

Captive

 

hands boundOver the last week news outlets have buzzed with the fallout surrounding the “alleged” racists comments of Clipper’s owner, Donald Sterling. Everyone from former NBA players and coaches to the President have contributed to the discussion. Even non-profits who have benefitted from Sterling’s wealth are weighing in – some returning his donations and others refusing to receive any further money from him. Sterling’s alleged remarks have left some wondering how this sort of thing could still be with us in 2014 after all we know how horrible racism and bigotry are. We have seen how it can lead to violence and that it also shows up in apathy and neglect. What we may miss, however, is just how captive we may personally be to racism and bigotry.


john perkins 2John Perkins understands how racism and bigotry enslaves humanity perhaps better than most people. Perkins experienced the violence of racism first hand – with the murder of his brother and welcoming justicehis own brutal beating at the hands of law enforcement in his Mississippi hometown. However, as Perkins lay recovering from near death he realized that if he returned the hatred that is inherent in racism he would be captive. He realized that racism and bigotry cuts across the intent of the Gospel. On recovering, Perkins continued the work that he had done earlier but he also began the work of reconciliation. He realized something incredibly important which is at the core of his life work. In the book, Welcoming Justice, John Perkins wrote, “No one ever put a chain on another human being without tying the other end to himself. We know this. But it can be hard for white folks to see how race continues to hold them captive.”

Is it difficult for white people to see how race holds them captive? Is it difficult for you to admit, to acknowledge racism and bigotry in your own life?

Here is an exercise that might be beneficial (or perhaps not).

  • If you are white, does it bother you that an African-American in Mississippi said this about white people? Why?
  • If you are African America does it make you feel good that Perkins says this about white people? Why?
  • If you are neither white nor African-American, how does this statement strike you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I’m not a racist but…?” Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you?
  • When was the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t have a problem with gay people but…?” Did it come from your lips? Who said it? Why did they feel comfortable saying that to you? Or why did you feel comfortable saying it?
  • Would you rather not have certain “types” of people for neighbors? (I once had people react because they didn’t like the idea of living next to a pastor and his family).
  • Does race influence where you eat, shop for groceries, drive, live, or send your kids to school?
  • Does it influence where you worship?
  • Last week a man was sharing with me about where his kids would have to go to school if he didn’t send them to private school. He actually said, “it is a little dark over there – if you know what I mean.” Seeing my reaction he quickly followed up with, “I’m not racist but…” as if that would cover him. How would you have reacted? What would you have said? (I’ve wondered why he felt comfortable saying that to me).

Perkins is spot on and perhaps the Sterling debacle highlights how race and bigotry continue to hold people captive. Here we are in 2014, we have made all these advances in regards to equality and yet it is still with us. Why? Because racism and bigotry do not live in bans, fines, policies, legislation and even in electing an African-American President. Racism and bigotry live in the fertile soil of the human heart where they are planted, take root, bear fruit and harvested. Perhaps we need to ask what is within our hearts.

Perkins could have returned to his bitterness and anger after being beaten. It was certainly an option. It was as much a part of his heart as yours or mine. Instead he went the opposite direction. How?

John Perkins is not the hero of his story. Perkins points to one who triumphed thru him. In the New Testament Gospel of Luke, Jesus, we are told, entered a synagogue and a scroll, from the Prophet Isaiah, was given to him to read. He unrolled the scroll and found what we know as Isaiah 61. He read these words, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a Christian, it is the image of “liberty to the captive…those who are oppressed” which captures my imagination, especially as it relates to racism and bigotry. It was Jesus that helped turn Perkins away from the captivity of racism. It was Jesus that transformed his life and heart and keeps transforming it.  And yet, as much as I would like to say that racism and bigotry do not exist within a Christian context I can’t without lying. Sunday morningsslavery_hands_chain are often called “the last segregated hour.” Church folk do not always do what Jesus would have them do.

Nevertheless, I believe, as Perkins states so well, that Jesus “came to drive a wedge in the status quo and create space where new life can happen.” That is one thing that Jesus does – he pushes against even the hidden places of the human heart – the places where the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted – and brings good things to bear. It starts with something difficult – admitting, at least to God and ourselves – that we simply do not love all cultures and all people.

Perhaps when we are ready to admit some things about our hearts, the way we believe and think, then we can look to Jesus – even if you are not a Christian – and see how he interacted with people. Look at where Jesus traveled (Samaria), whom he engaged (prostitutes, tax-collectors, rich, poor, religious and self-righteous). Take a look at Jesus’ life and see how it differs from the way we make decisions about where we go, shop, eat, live, and especially the way we treat other people who are very different from us (Jesus, after all, was very different from the people interacted with). Perhaps Jesus will help us see the ways we are held captive by racism and bigotry. Perhaps he will help us the way he helped John Perkins – who in turn has brought good to bear in so many places. Perhaps Jesus will help you and I to become more aware of the ways that we are held captive to race and bigotry.

iron-shackles-~-u11832210

 

Resources:

  1. http://www.jvmpf.org/
  2. Marsh, C. and J. Perkins (2009). Welcoming justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. Downers Grove, Ill., IVP Books.
  3. https://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/policysocial-context/24114-some-nonprofits-keep-donald-sterling-s-money-others-send-it-back.html
  4. http://www.esvbible.org/Luke%204/
  5. http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2008/dec/17/radical-faith-the-revolution-of-john-perkins/
  6. http://www.esvbible.org/John%204/
  7. http://www.esvbible.org/John%203/

 

 

Steps to Perfect Kids

parenting-classes-300X300I came across another article the other day that promised steps to the perfect party for kids. That was on the heels of flipping through a magazine, which highlighted the perfect bedroom for a kid, and an article on the perfect kid friendly vacation spots. There was even an ad for school, which offered the perfect environment for a child’s education. I immediately felt a rise in my anxiety levels because, given the nature of our lives, I can’t possibly provide perfection.

Parents, if you don’t already know it, are some of the most fearful, anxious people on anxietythe planet. We spend tons of resources (time, money, etc.,) on trying to assure that our children have all they can ever need so that they have the perfect childhood – which will in turn lead to a perfect life. Books and articles that promise pathways to perfection get bounced around social media like celebrity gossip.

At one point I had over fifteen parenting books on my bookshelf most from a Christian perspective. Many of them promised to deliver a parenting strategy that would lead to great, well-adjusted kids. The trouble was that they were all different in their approaches – some even contradictory to the other.

Parenting5tipsIt was confusing and overwhelming and at times alarming. I am smart enough to realize that there is little chance that I can perfectly put any of these “tips” into practice. However, these articles and books come with an implicit warning. Failure, on my part, according to the purveyors and peddlers of parenting advice, is certain to cause my kids to plummet into nothingness. What pressure!

On the one hand, I know parents who are so resigned that they are “messing their kids up” that they jokingly say they aren’t saving for their kid’s education but rather for their therapy bill. On the other hand, a dad actually said to me, “Mark if you do these five Biblical things you will have great kids – I can guarantee it. If you don’t, well I’ll pray for you and your kids.” While on opposite ends of the spectrum both parents have something in common – they are both anxious about parental perfection.

For the last twenty years I have worked with parents and students in one capacity or another. I have yet to meet the perfect parent with the perfect parenting strategy and the resulting perfect kids. And yet somehow I fell into the quagmire of attempting parental perfection when my sons came along. I found myself rummaging through books and articles, trying to find some morsel that would help me as a dad. I actually tried to make things perfect and I failed, miserably. It is nearly impossible to rise above the pressure from our culture’s pursuit of parenting perfectionism.

I learned something, in the midst of my anxious rush to find the pathway to perfection; I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others. The world isn’t a perfect place. Parental anxiety comes from trying to create perfection in a world that is full of flaws and broken-ness.

I don’t want perfect kids – or even perfect parties. I want kids of character. Character comes from the ways we handle imperfection in ourselves and in others.

Because we are prone to messing up we need to be patient with others and ourselves. Sure, we want to become better people but a better person doesn’t mean perfect. Better may mean being self-aware enough to know and admit my faults, failures and quirks so that I can overlook/forgive others their faults, failures and quirks. Perhaps that is the thing we can give our kids to shape their character.

There is a passage in the Bible that, while talking to people in Christian community, says a lot about seeing others and ourselves as we are and doing something about it. Parenting is about shaping the character of our children and that comes from interacting with our mess and the mess of other people. This text from the Bible speaks to that. It is in a letter from a man named Paul to people he loved. He wanted them to know the blessing of living in community, so he wrote that they ought to put on,

beatitudes in stained glass

compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15, ESV) 

Our kids live in a world where they are going to have to bear with other people – because people are going to have to bear with them. Parents need to break away from the lie of perfectionism and embrace reality. We do not live in a perfect world with perfect people. Our kids are not perfect. They like all of us have stuff in their hearts that they need to be aware of. We live in a real world where people and circumstances are not always fun, nice and easy. Character comes when as we navigate through the tough things both in our hearts and in our world. It starts with parents being real about their stuff – and allowing their children to witness the way they go through things – faults and all. It brings relief from the lie of perfectionism as parents allow their kids to see them growing in character, too.

Telling my kids I love them is something I try to do all the time. The truth is sometimes my “I love you” is overshadowed by the fact that I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. Or worse, as I drive them to school, blasting them for something they did or did not do. Then saying, “Love you” as they get out of the car – as if saying I love you will cover a multitude of sins.

It is clear in those moments to my kids and to me that I am not perfect. I need to own that and preëmpt the conversation and say, “I’m sorry. I blew it with you. Will you forgive me for that? I’ll try to do a better job next time” and then really work on doing better. After all, parenting is all about shaping the character of our kids but how can I give shape to their character if I’m not working on mine – in front of them.

growing-up

Trying to achieve perfection in parenting is bound to create anxiety – especially since we are not perfect people and do not live in a perfect world. It is far better to help our children learn the ways of character by helping them to deal with the good parts and the not so good parts of life. We are all a work in progress and the progress is life-long and not merely through childhood and adolescents. Perhaps we can let our children know that they are not the only ones growing up and getting better – their parents are, too.

Oh God – Please Help Me – I Have a Terrible Case of the Adolescents

C.S. Lewis was a man of letters.  Not only did he write books and articles – he wrote letters, lots of them. Lewis was also a man of prayer. He not only cultivated his own prayer life but he encouraged others to do the same. In 1951 he wrote a letter to an American man for whom he had prayed. The man, a veteran of WW II, had come to faith in Christ – which was THE answer to Lewis’ prayer. Not long after that Lewis wrote him a letter, urging him “to be ‘busy learning to pray.’”

I came across that account from Lewis’ life in a book by Lyle Dorsett (one of my profs from Beeson Divinity School). It has stayed with me since. I’ve often turned that phrase over in my mind  – recognizing the simple wisdom in that advice.

At the same time, though I have busied myself in trying to learn to pray, to be honest, I haven’t felt the urgency that is often needed to become a full-fledged man of prayer. In other words, though I have prayed earnestly, with frequency (daily), with faith, hope, assurance and a times out of desperation, I can’t say that my first instinct always is to pray. That is until recently.

It happened rather suddenly. One day I woke up and realized I had a severe case of adolescents – two in fact. Talk about being “busy learning to pray!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Sherry and I have great sons and I am not complaining. I am so grateful to be their Dad I can’t even put it to words. I’m simply stating a fact. As great as our guys are – well – they are teenagers and with that comes a whole new set of challenges.

Since the early nineties I have worked with students in one capacity or another. I’ve met with parents and heard all sorts of stories. All of that has taught me at least two things. First, it semi-prepared me for being the parent to teenagers. Second, it taught me that nothing could fully prepare me for being a parent to teenagers.

If sharing a home with teenagers doesn’t make a person want to learn how to pray, I don’t know what will. In fact, of late I’ve felt more and more compelled to be busy learning to pray. That’s the funny thing about prayer. Sometimes it takes discovering how much we really need God to be at work before we can actually learn how to pray. When our kids our young we may have a tendency to pray huge, broad winged prayers.

However, when they are on the cusp of adulthood, when they are engaged in the wonderful yet strange mid-term years of adolescents we may begin to pray much more specifically. It is during adolescents that kids begin to exert more independence and we have to let them, sometimes holding our breath. That’s when we may actually learn to pray – and pray we must – because the truth of the matter is every parents only hope is God.

Wendell Berry and the Jedi Mind Trick

Up until a few years ago I was blissfully ignorant, fat and happy. Now, I’m just fat and not all that happy about it. Back then – back when I used to pull into a drive-thru with my wife and kids, order a super-sized sack of “Lord knows what” – I didn’t think so much about family farms or industrialization, community, rain, bugs or the chemicals used to annihilate them. My yard was something to mulch, mow, or rake not something I could use to put food on my table. Then some well-meaning soul introduced me to Wendell Berry: the Kentucky farmer, poet, and author. That person should have warned me.

I had just started reading some of Berry’s fiction when I heard he was coming to Charlottesville to give a lecture. I should qualify this statement – I’m not sure Berry’s books are fiction. Fiction shouldn’t have the sort of effect that Berry’s stuff has. Besides poetry and essays, he writes about the people, farms, in a fictional community in rural Kentucky called Port William.

While reading his books, Jaber Crow and Andy Catlett, I found myself longing for the sort of community that only my grandparents fully knew. It wasn’t like I wanted to go back to the “good ole days”. No. The sense of community that Berry gives is bigger than that. It is the reality that our lives are connected to each other and the things that we do or do not do have an impact – on not just us. In fact, he is quoted as saying we should not have a “split between what we think and what we do.” If we say we care about folks then there ought to be something to show for it. Therein is a sense of community (shalom perhaps).

I had just started to realize that Mr. Berry was writing more than “just” stories when he came to Charlottesville to give a lecture. I’ve sat through a lot of lectures in my day and, quite frankly, I’m not very good at it. But for some reason, I wanted to attend this one.

That night he talked about farms (large and the family farm), politics, money and the way they connect to how food is brought to the table. Many of the ways food comes to our tables actually brings harm to communities. At one point he said, “Simple solutions will always lead to complex problems, surprising simple minds.”

He was humble, gentle and kind. It was not unlike having a wise friend over for coffee; except at the end of the conversation you suddenly find that he had completely rearranged your house. I went into that lecture one guy and came out another – fat but not happy and ignorant. I’m not sure how it happened; however, I’m pretty sure that Berry used some sort of Jedi mind trick.

All I remember is that Berry said that people ought to know and care where their food comes. He also said they ought to participate in getting it to the table. At some point that evening I found myself mumbling, “I should know where my food comes from.” I left that evening with a copy Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food and an overwhelming urge to plunge a shovel into dirt and plant stuff. When I got home I announced to my family that we were going to change our lives and grow our own food.

Everything was going to change. It would require us to change the way we buy food. No longer would we eat fast food – except for Chick-Fil-A (because their food is goodish for you and they do good in the world – the others are the evil empire). We would also need to change the way we shop for food – trying to go local but being aware of how our food gets here. It also meant we would use some of our yard for a garden. My family looked at me like I had lost my mind. Sherry just smiled – she’s been living with crazy for almost twenty years.

But I was serious. I worked on a farm to help pay my way through college. I wasn’t naïve about the hard work. But I had forgotten was that I am twenty-plus years older and I live in the suburbs. We couldn’t have chickens or a cow and we really didn’t have too much room for a garden. Nevertheless, I was committed. After all, Mr. Berry said we should know where our food comes from and we ought to help get it.

Two days later I found myself behind a tiller. I had prepared a place that would get just the right amount of sun. I had a heap of organic soil that would soon be home to our food: tomatoes, peas, green beans, cucumbers, okra, peppers, watermelon, basil and thyme, bell peppers and broccoli. Sherry looked at me with the sort of  “Clearly you do not know what you are doing but I love this crazy side of you.”

That tiller nearly beat me to death. It pulverized me more than the soil. At some point I was reminded of the agreement I made with the bulging discs in my neck and lower back about manual labor. I was not to do it. Nevertheless, I kept on mixing, tilling and preparing the soil.

Once I got the soil ready I started laying out the neat rows. My youngest son and I dug little holes, dropped in a few seeds here and there, carefully placing them. We did this for a while and then I tried to stand up. I had to have my four-year-old son help me and I groaned the loudest old man grunt ever. He looked at me and said, “You okay Daddy?” Of course I am. I’m participating in getting food on our table.

The worst part was the day was pretty hot; there was a huge sun in the sky. It wasn’t that the heat bothered me in fact I didn’t really notice. That was unfortunate because I forgot to wear a hat. Now for most folks that’s no big deal. For bald-guys that’s a huge deal. I scorched the top of my head. Let me add, it hurt when I blinked.

That evening with everything tucked into their nice tight little rows I stood with my family looking with hope on our little garden. One of my neighbors joined us. My youngest son began to tell him all that he had planted. At one point my neighbor said, “What are you going to do about all the squirrels and deer?” I, uh, hadn’t thought of that.

The next day I was out there again with wildlife netting, doing all I could to protect the food I was determined to bring on our table. At one point I was stooped, laboring over a stubborn old root when I thought, “Why in the hell am I doing this? Who is Wendell Berry and why can’t I stand up straight?”

Then, from my stooped position, I saw my family working alongside one another carefully putting netting around the fencing. They were talking and laughing and enjoying themselves. My youngest son was going over each area that he had planted the day before, patting the soil as a way to encourage things to grow (and he doesn’t like veggies). As we worked, side-by-side, helping each other, to get food to our table, we started planning a menu and who we could share the bounty.

Something happened to my family that never happened in a grocery store or even farmers market. We were participating in bringing food to our table but we were also focused on the fact that we wanted to share what we were growing. That subject came up naturally and organically. There was a sense of community that had come up even before the first green bean shoot.

Something else happened. That evening, with the wildlife netting in place, we stood and looked at our frail but hopeful garden. We realized how vulnerable and dependent each one of these plants was. They were susceptible to everything and it was going to be up to my family and I to protect and raise them. After all, one day these seeds and tomato plants would bear fruit and grace our table and bless the lives of people that we love. That’s when concern grew larger.

I had only thought as far as the planting and the harvest. I had not realized how much care would need to go into bringing this food to the table. Nor was I ready for how much I would care. Standing at the produce section of my local store I had not given much thought to how they were grown. I made a lot of assumptions.

But standing above my own plants I realized that the fruit of our labors was going to actually be food for my wife, my sons, our neighbors and friends. Bugs and vermin are real possibilities but would I put just anything on the plants to protect them? What damage could it do to my family? The soil? There was no way I was going to put anything on these plants that could cause them harm.

The things that Berry had said began to sink in even further. The sense of community extended beyond just giving folks good things to eat. It extended into the how we are getting things to the table. How are food gets to the table matters. It matters a lot.

Day that our first tomato was ready to be picked was a memorable occasion. We were grateful in ways we had never been grateful before – and amazed. The labor of our family, the care that we had put into the garden was rewarded and our care was rewarded with the “the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that” did not in any way “depend on ignorance,” as Berry wrote in Bringing it to the Table.

The Bounty

Perhaps you’ve never been introduced to Berry; if that is the case, do not delay – go and get acquainted with him as quickly as possible. It is safe to say that Wendell Berry has had a tremendous impact on me. This year, for reasons beyond my control, I haven’t been able to put in a garden. I miss it. I miss the hard work as well as knowing where my food comes from. I miss participating in getting food to our table. I miss the way our family worked together to care and cultivate. I’ll also miss the fruit of our labors as much as sharing it. And yet – thanks to Berry – I am no longer “fat and happy” and blissfully ignorant and I do not miss that.

Check these places out:

Check out a great article by Berry at  Wendell E. Berry Lecture | National Endowment for the Humanities.

 http://www.wendellberrybooks.com/index.html

http://brtom.typepad.com/wberry/

http://www.southernexposure.com/

Here is a poem from Berry I came across the other day – can’t remember where:

The Future

For God’s sake, be done
with this jabber of “a better world.”
What blasphemy! No “futuristic”
twit or child thereof ever
in embodied light will see
a better world than this.
Do something! Go cut the weeds
beside the oblivious road. Pick up
the cans and bottles, old tires,
and dead predictions. No future
can be stuffed into this presence
except by being dead. The day is
clear and bright, and overhead
the sun not yet half finished
with his daily praise.
~ Wendell Berry ~
(Given)

Moving Kids Toward Wisdom

Last week the school where my sons attend held their first poetry festival. I must say that I was impressed. Students from Pre-K (that’s four-year olds) thru sixth grade recited poems of varying length. They did an incredible job. What stood out to me was how well the students had memorized poetry (including the Pre-K class) and that they stood in front of tons of folks and recited it. It was great!

That festival – and festivals like that – are important. Not just because it exposes children to poetry (that can be good or bad) nor just because it connects them to the arts (although that’s significant). It is important because it can give shape to their moral imagination, which hopefully will move them towards wisdom.

I haven’t heard that sort of language  – especially at it relates to children – all that much. I have heard a lot about character formation and I’ve heard a lot about preparing kids academically for their future. But what about wisdom (can you separate character and wisdom? Is it wise to separate knowledge and wisdom?) What is shaping the way a child makes decisions? How are they becoming not only smarter but wiser? Where are they learning to navigate the gray areas of their own hearts and the hearts of others?

Vigen Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination suggests classic stories go a long way to shape a child’s imagination and move them toward wisdom. He cites the original classics (do not confuse with the Disney-ed versions) like Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi and The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.

The “real” stories do not hide the fact that life is tough and our actions have consequences. Not everything ends in “happily ever after.” These stories make us aware of good and evil, right and wrong, and the fact that human beings and life in general can be gray and not merely black and white. In these stories the reader becomes part of the action because they are so compelling and honest about what it means to be a real person. Thus they awaken a sense and desire to move toward the good (especially when the main character is not so inclined or acting – well – foolish).

That thought jumped out at me during the poetry festival. So many of the poems that these children had learned moved toward wisdom. They used images and story, carefully crafted metaphor to offer insights into life. Not all the poems did that – but a lot of them did (some where just great, fun poems from Shel Silverstein). But one poem that three young women recited at the festival has stayed with me. It is a somewhat familiar poem. It is a poem called “Three Gates.”

THREE GATES
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold

These narrow gates: First “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?”
In your mind give truthful answer,
And the next is last and narrowest,
“Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.

From the Arabian (Tapestries of Life)

It is easy to see how this poem sparks the imagination and could move a child (or an adult) toward wisdom. My hope as I sat there and listened to these students was that the words they were saying – ones they had memorized – would find their way into their imagination – that they would move beyond words on a page – and move them toward wisdom.

Perhaps there is no better source of poems to give shape to moral imagination and move people toward wisdom than The Psalms. Tucked within that book of verse are poems of all kinds and various genres. The great thing about a lot of the poems is that we know a lot about the poet: David, Israel’s great king. Many of his poems tell the stories of his life in verse and, the best part, David is not the hero of his poetry.

That’s why they are perfect for giving shape and moving a child toward wisdom – because they point to the fact that David was like every other human being: broken and in need of help that only God could give. How can a poem like Psalm 3:1-4 not give shape to a child’s imagination – how could it not move a person toward wisdom?

O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
(Psalm 3:1-4 ESV)

The great hero of this poem – the poet tells us – is God. The poet cried out and God answered him. One great thing about this poem – as it shapes the imagination is that it points out that God delivers – He has done that once and for all in Christ. Think of how poems like this – given to memory – can give shape to moral imagination and move a child toward wisdom.

The Conclusion of Desire and the Kingdom

 

Not long ago I sat at my favorite coffee shop here in Charlottesville, VA. Across with me sat a man I have come to respect and appreciate – largely due to a book he authored (which is given some shape to the way I parent). In the course of our conversation he said, “You know – these are anxious times.” I listened to him as he unpacked that statement. He was right – these are anxious times.

So why would Jesus say something like, “do not be anxious”?

Well – like I said before – I don’t think he’s trying to be cruel or ironic. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Jesus understood people – very, very well. I think, in fact, that if Jesus is saying don’t be anxious then he’s probably got a way figured out for folks not to be anxious. It may be worth thinking about. Perhaps Jesus wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential for us to know.

All of this began for me with a claim that James K.A. Smith made. He said, Our ultimate love moves and motivates us because we are lured by this picture of human flourishing. Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos (end, purpose, goal) that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the will power to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons. It is not primarily our minds that are captivated but rather our imaginations that are captured, and when our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked (and sometimes our imaginations can be hooked by very different visions than what we’re feeding into our minds)…So many of the penultimate decisions, actions, and paths we undertake are implicitly and ultimately aimed at trying to live out the vision of the good life that we love and thus want to pursue…This is just to say that to be human is to desire “the kingdom,” some version of the kingdom, which is the aim of our quest. Every one of us is on a kind of Arthurian quest for “the Holy Grail,” that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the good life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing. Implicitly and tacitly, it is such visions of the kingdom that pull us to get up in the morning and suit up for the quest.

That’s not to say, as Smith points out, that all human beings desire the same kingdom. In fact, he concludes that the vision of the good life that we have is something that has been pictured for us and there are very different visions of what ‘the kingdom’ looks like. The shape of the kingdom is contested, generating very different stories and thus different kinds of peoples, citizens who see themselves as subjects of rival kings.”

So – if Smith is right – and I think he may be – then why are these anxious times? Why are folks so anxious about everything? Why are children suffering from anxiety disorders – more so now than perhaps previous generations? Why are parents anxious about their kids’ future? Why are seniors anxious about their golden years?

Is there a connection between our ultimate love, our desire for what we imagine to be a good life and anxiety?

I think there is. Think about the fact that the average American family is in debt because we bought cars, clothes, homes, went on vacations, went to concerts, or went to university, sent out kids to camps, etc. Why? Most likely because we were pursuing our vision/image of a good life – but now we are anxious about making those payments in a shrinking economy. A lot of folks have less income now than they did and things that seemed like essentials a few years ago are clearly not essential any longer. But the anxiety is probably still very much a reality – each month when the bills come due.

Perhaps that is why Jesus tells us not to be anxious about what we think are essentials. But he doesn’t just say, “don’t be anxious.” That would be cruel and ironic. What he says is, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)

I think Jesus is trying to give shape to our desire – our vision/image of a good life. One of the first things that He says is that “your heavenly Father” knows what you need. That’s a comforting reality – if you understand/believe/ have God as Father. That takes some pressure off – it is not all up to us. God knows what His children need and He provides.

If this is true, and I think it is, how does this impact our anxiety levels? It may impact them a lot – because if we think about it  – it means that God is the one who not only supplies our needs but also defines our needs. What I mean is that we will have to start thinking about what is really essential which will impact our desires. That means that our vision/image of a good life may need to change – which probably means that someone else will have to shape our ultimate love.

Perhaps this is why Jesus follows this up by saying, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Is this the cure for anxiety? Is this the vision/image that people, parents, children, students are supposed to have? What does it mean to seek first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness?

What if God’s kingdom and His righteousness were your ultimate love? What if that was what motivated you to get up and get going in the morning? What it the notion of God’s kingdom and His righteousness gave shape to the way you raised your children, spent your money, loved your family, did your work, saved for retirement? What if the vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness shaped your desires and your understanding of what was an essential and how those things were going to be provided? Would that be an end to anxiety – would it at least curb it?

Jesus seems to be saying so – especially in the next verse (Matthew 6:34). He says, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing – to be able to put anxiety aside? How different do you think your life would be – if you could really have no anxiety? Well – Jesus says it is possible. But maybe he is wrong. Maybe Jesus got it wrong and we are supposed to live with chronic anxiety.

Or perhaps Jesus is right, and I think He is, and He is trying to give shape to the right vision/image of a good life. Maybe Jesus is right and human beings really are creatures who desire to live out an image of a good life – but that desire/vision/image is supposed to be shaped a vision for God’s Kingdom and Righteousness.

If he is wrong then we seem to know what we are doing; anxiety is part of being human. That doesn’t seem right though. Anxiety seems to be killing us. But we just have to evolve.

But if he is right then perhaps we need to learn what it means to live out this vision/image of God’s kingdom and righteousness. I think it’ll mean learning a lot about what Jesus meant by God’s kingdom and righteousness. At a minimum I think it’ll mean:

  1. That we care about the things that God cares about.
  2. It means that we pursue good –not just for ourselves but also for others.
  3. It means that we look not only for our interests but the interest of others.
  4. It means that the decisions we make about how we spend our time and our money matter beyond ourselves.
  5. It means that our first order of life is about pleasing – not ourselves – not our parents – not our friends – not our teachers – but God –first and foremost.
  6. It means your life matters more than you actually think because it belongs to God’s kingdom and God’s work in the world – your life has eternal significance – what you do in this world matters because it is part of God’s kingdom.
  7. It means our ambitions need to line up with God’s purposes in the world.
  8. It means that for those who are in pursuit of God’s kingdom are in pursuit of a good life – and one where needs are provided…there is no need to be anxious.
  9. It means that our children will be raised with a different view of the world, and people, and God and themselves.

Let me ask you – as you think about what it is that you desire – what is driving you –when you think about how you would define “a good life,” do you give any thought at all to the fact that Jesus calls people to “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness?” – is that your first priority when leading your decision making?”

If not perhaps you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Perhaps you need ask if you are part of God’s kingdom and if not why not. The truth is I don’t think you can pursue God’s kingdom and righteousness apart from God. I don’t think you can ignore Christ and just try to be good. I’m pretty certain that if Jesus is the one pointing toward this vision of the world then God intended for people to consider Christ and what He’s saying in the process. I don’t think we get to pick and choose what we like and discard the rest.
  2. If you have put your faith in Christ – trusted Him for salvation and look to Him as your only hope – but you realize that you are not seeking God’s kingdom first – that’s okay – this is a good time for you to pray and ask the Lord Jesus – by His Spirit to help you.

Honestly – even as a pastor – I have to do this all the time because the cares of the world sidetrack me easily…but God is faithful. In my own family I have been guilty of driving my kids to think about their future – not so much because they are part of God’s work in the world – part of God’s kingdom – but as a means to an end – an end toward happiness.

I mean – the vision/image of a good life that I’ve passed on to my sons is one shaped – to some degree – not by God’s kingdom but by, well, perhaps the American Dream. However, I recognize my failure in this. I think life is more than a good education, job, etc. Life isn’t supposed to be all anxiety. I think Jesus is right. I think the right vision is a vision of the kingdom. I want to help my sons have that vision. I want to have that vision of seeking God’s kingdom and righteous – I want to pass that along and not a roll of Tums.


[1] Ibid., 54.

Desire & The Kingdom – Part 1

James K.A. Smith, a professor at Calvin College, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, made an enormous claim. He claims that all human beings – past, present and future –all 7 billion people who now populate the planet – are “essentially and fundamentally creatures who are” “oriented” (directed, pointed, aimed) and “defined by…(our) desire”[1] to live what we imagine to be a “good life.”[2]

In other words – at our core – at the deepest part of us – perhaps in ways that we do not even fully understand ourselves- all of us at our core are driven by our desire to live the sort of life that we imagine will make us the happiest. In other words we are driven by our desires to live what we believe to be a good life.

In fact, Smith goes on to say that our “actions,” the “paths we” take are all “aimed at trying to live out” our “vision of (a) good life…”[3] In other words – we are all focused on searching out the things which we image will make us happy. And that vision of a good life is shaped by what we imagine it will be and things like stories, pictures, ads, music, movies, icons, all give shape to it.

What do you think about that? Do you think it is possible to reduce all human beings to simply creatures who are fundamentally, essentially given to pursue what we image will make us happy? Is it true of you?

One night I came to the conclusion that it is true of me – but not in what might be thought of as the usual way. What I mean is that I’m all about not getting caught up in being rich and famous (and with my occupation  – I don’t see myself getting rich and combined with my proclivity for mischief I’m far more likely to be infamous than famous). The folks at Delta have actually played into that a little bit.

On a recent flight I came across this ad on their napkins – it plays right into the weary traveler – who is pursuing their image of “the good life”. All they need is 20% more and they’ll be 100% happier.

I’m not going to fall into that. However, I am just as prone to pursue what I image will be the good life in other ways. Unfortunately it has to do with my family and it has shaped the way I parent.

For instance – on more than one occasion Sherry and I have had the opportunity to discuss with our children the connection between their future and their current educational habits. Now – I’d like to say that it is always pleasant and that they always reply, “Oh thank you dear father for your wisdom. I will at once return to my studies with greater vigor.” They don’t – although even if they did it would not be without sarcasm (I’ve been able to pass that ability to my sons with very little effort).

So a while ago I was having one of those conversations about education and their future vocations. With Smith’s claim firmly in my mental background I heard myself say, “Buddy – if you don’t get your homework done and start doing the right things school – you’ll not have opportunities later. You will not get into a good university – and study the sort of things that you want to study – so you can get the job you want…” That’s when I stopped because I knew where I was going.

I was going to that place in my mind that I imagine will make them the happiest. I have imagined for my sons a “good life.” To get that “good life” they have to do great in school – so they can get a good job – make good money – live in a nice neighborhood – take great vacations – drive nice/decent cars- etc, etc, etc.

I heard myself pushing my sons to live out an image of a good life that I had gotten from somewhere – but I’m pretty sure it isn’t something that a pastor ought to be pushing his sons to do. I’m pretty sure it is supposed to be larger than that…isn’t it? Life is intended to be about more than those things – isn’t it?

There is something more to life than just what I imagine will make me happy…

Part 2 Tomorrow…


[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Volume 1 of Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 131.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid.