This morning, like most mornings, I found myself in the drop-off line at my son’s elementary school. Normally, he and I share light conversation, that’s the best I can muster until the life-giving nectar of coffee permeates my brain. As we wait our turn in line, I do what most drivers do, check my rear view mirrors. Most of the time I catch a glimpse of every other bleary eyed parent, but not today. Today I was treated to a site that made me smile.
In the mini-van behind me a mom transformed her kids mundane, Monday morning routine into Dance, Dance-Fever! Though I could not hear the music I caught the rhythm as she danced behind the steering wheel, which was both a drum and a micro-phone. She was all into the music and so were her kids. Seated in the van’s midsection her daughter followed her mother’s uninhibited motions, beaming her nearly toothless, first-grader smile. Even the shot-gun riding, stoic son, let his head sway.
I have no idea if that’s a daily routine. Chances are good their mornings are like most families: sleepy kids who can’t find a shoe, pets that needed to go out – but not any longer, breakfast and lunch prepared at the same time (why’d I put eggs in a Ziploc bag?). But for a few minutes, before school started, a mom in a mini-van created a little laughter and a lot of fun.
She looked crazy. She did not look like she had it all together. No one in that mini-van was concerned about what the folks in the other cars were thinking (and they were looking). Her kids were loving it and so was she!
Most parents that I know put a lot of pressure on themselves. We want to love our kids well and by that I mean we want to be the perfect parent. We want to be the parent that is never frustrated, always on top of every detail, able to dispense wisdom and cash.What’s more, we want others to think of us as the perfect parent.
But maybe parental perfection looks more like a crazy mom dancing in a van with the kids. Maybe the perfect parent is one that is a little more human, true to themselves, less concerned with others, and way more into having some fun. Sometimes we need a little Dance, Dance Fever! in the drop-off line. Sometimes we need to surprise our kids and ourselves, create moments of laughter and fun, in the most mundane places. Way to go mom!!
I 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 the 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.
It 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,
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.
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.
Sherry and I have three sons. We, like most parents, love our children – deeply. As a rule, love means we long for, pray for, work for, hope for – do all we can for – their good. It also means we are on the defense, working, as much as possible, to prepare them more than protect them from things that can bring them (and others) harm. That is no easy task, as most parents know.
One area that poses a threat is the area modesty and our overly sexed culture. Yesterday I watched an interview (on ABC/news) with a woman who is trying to “help.” According to the report 90% of kids (some as young as 8) have been exposed to hardcore pornography. That is troubling on a number of levels, but the woman being interviewed was concerned because of the impact hard-core porn can have on a persons expectations and understanding of intimacy.
Her way of “combatting” the damaging effects is to promote the idea to “make love not porn.” At first I thought she was an anti-porn crusader. But her idea, that is being heralded as a great response to counter the impact of hardcore porn is, well, to create a soft core porn site where ordinary people can post videos of their lovemaking. The emphasis is to showcase real lovemaking / real intimacy between partners as opposed to what hardcore sites offer. She theorizes, since we can’t possibly protect kids from porn then there should be a site that focuses on showing the beauty of lovemaking.
The problem with this idea is that it is still pornography – even if it is soft-core. While she is trying to show the beauty, she is just providing one more site in a world awash with images that have an impact on the ways in which men and women interact with one another. I could make a list of the faulty thinking in this plan, but I will not. However, it is one more challenge to the soul and one more challenge for parents who are striving to raise men and women, not children.
Our three young men started back to school this week. It is a reminder that they are getting one step, one year, one grade closer to being on their own. Sherry and I want to prepare them for what that will mean. We can’t protect them, fully, but we can prepare them.
The world is full of foolish things, like attempts to curb the impact of porn by creating another porn site. Our greatest assurance for parents who want to raise men (and women) is that we can help them to see the difference between things that bring wholeness and those things which bring harm – and we can encourage them and help them to work for good. If we are to live out of the law of love (which Jesus commands: love God, love neighbor, love each other) it will mean helping our children to think through what it means to long for, pray for, work for, do all they can for the good of others. Porn, on any level is demeaning to women and men because it reduces human beings to being mere sexual beings, and nothing more. It does not bring about the good of another – it is not love but a false sense of it.
Raising Christian men and women is the task of every Christian parent – within that is the call to live out of Jesus’ law of love. Parents today have challenges in front of them that are different from earlier generations in some respects. Those challenges, however, can be overcome – but not in our strength or wisdom or power or techniques – but in God’s. Raising godly men and women means pointing them toward the God who saves, helps, restores, and is at work in the world. Our children need to see that their parents depend on God as He really is – able and greater than anything else.
In the New Testament book of John (1:5) we read that the “light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, God is very much on the move and at work in the world. We have no reason to be afraid of anything. Neither do our children. They need to be ready to live in a world that is broken and yet loved by God. There is darkness in the world but there is also a much more powerful Light – and that Light is the person and work of Jesus – the Self-Expression of God’s great love.
One great way that the Light is at work in the world is through different people who are trying to live out of the law of love. I recently came across a great lecture given by Jessica Ray on Q: Ideas for the Common Good. I’d recommend families watching it with their teenage kids and talking about it. Jessica talks about the evolution of the swimsuit and modesty; she does a great job. This actually is a great way to counteract the impact of an overly sex consumed society and culture.
I have liked wrestling for some time. No. I don’t mean WWE (although I enjoyed watching a Texas Cage Match with Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Rowdy Rodney Piper once). I mean scholastic, collegiate, Greco-Roman wrestling.
I wrestled in high school – gave it a go in college (that did not go well)- and helped out with a few high school teams while working for Young Life and in student ministry. Wrestling is a great sport and I appreciate what it taught me. However, all my experience on the mat did not prepare me for what I experienced when my son took to the mat this past year.
Turns out that he has more natural ability than I ever had. Each week he wrestled in a tournament and I would stand as close to the mat as I could. I stayed quiet, not wanting to shout over his coach, and settled calling out moves into my hand cupped over my mouth. I felt myself twisting and turning, wrestling an invisible opponents as if simply by body language I could convey a message to him. In some ways I felt as I was on the mat with him and by match end, I was exhausted.
He did very well but he did not win every match. At the end of those matches I wanted to be there for him all the more – but in the right way. I wanted him to move forward. I did not want him to stay stuck in a moment he could not fix. I wanted him to reflect on what had happened, see it for what it was and use it to get better and ready for the next match. His feelings of shame and failure had to move out and be replaced by hope and confidence. I wanted him to know that he was deeply loved – win or lose.
I’ve come to understand that I am not the first dad to stand on the edge of the mat and participate move for move.While it may be difficult to understand or believe, the Old Testament book of Psalms says that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1, ESV).” This Psalm reminds me that life requires a good bit of wrestling on all our parts – but especially those who have professed faith in Jesus. It also lets me know that God is very present.
To be present means more than to sit idly by. Some folks have an image of God, if they believe in one, sitting outside of things and not involved. The Bible, however, gives other images of God – including one where God is present in the middle of wrestling matches (collegiate or otherwise), an image of God as Father with feelings and longings for his children.
To be present also means that God is “well proven” in times of trouble. He is not one that is way off but present – there in the moment. That is a great comfort in the middle of tough moments, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the troubles I’ve created or ones someone else has caused. It is good to know that God is wrestling with me and very often for me.
This week all three of my sons, separate from one another, have told me what they want to do with their lives. Our oldest announced that he’d like to be a director – and make great movies. Our twelve-year-old said he wants to be a doctor – a surgeon perhaps. Our youngest said, “Would you let me be one of those guys who stands on a stage and tells jokes. I think I’d like to do that.”
What’s amazing to me about these conversations is how clearly I could see each one of my sons doing those jobs. Those callings fit them. In a way it is who they are. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it too, “we are not defined by what we do – we are more than our vocations.” I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure that there isn’t a very close connection to being and calling. I could be wrong but…
Knowing my sons the way I do, I believe there are vocations they are better suited for than others. I also believe that not helping them to understand who they are, how they are hard-wired, and telling them they can do anything is not all that helpful to them in the long run.
In other words, know your child. Study them. Understand how God made them and help them to see how God made them. Give them a vision for the target that God has laid out for them and help them to move toward it. Telling our arrows they can fly in a lot of different directions, any direction they want, and expecting them to hit a target is perhaps an exercise in futility.
I believe that who my sons are (being), how God has put them together, gives shape to their vocation (calling). How God made them will give shape to how God intends to use them, His target so to speak. I think that shaping continues their entire lives. However, when I fail to take into account how God put them together and fail to give them a vision for God’s target for their lives, I am setting them up for frustration.
I know a number of parents who want to make sure that they give their child every opportunity and experiences. It is as if the opportunities and experiences will somehow give shape to their children – and it does – but not always in the way that we had hoped. In other words, we send kids to science camps, sports camps, literary camp, (to see if they are going to be a scientist, athlete, or writer or all three). Sometimes it is just for fun but most of the time it is because we believe they can do anything they want to or put their minds to and we just need to give them opportunity and experience to figure it out.
Fortunately, kids sometimes know themselves better than parents do (and it may be frustrating to them to hear us say ‘you are awesome and can do anything you want’ they know that isn’t true for them – it wasn’t true when our parents said it either). What’s more is that some parents have forgotten opportunity and experience are not all that makes a person a person. We work extra hard to give those opportunities and experiences for our kids in hope. All we have to do, really, is spend the time to get to know who they are – really. How they are hard-wired plays a part. In other words, being and calling go hand in hand.
Who knows if one day Sherry and I will one day watch a major motion picture that our son directed, or ask our son for medical advice, or laugh in a crowd at the jokes of our youngest (I’ve given him a lot of material to work with). But, at least at this point, I can see that what they say they want to do is consistent with who they are.
Somehow in the midst of all the mistakes and messes I make of being a dad, God is still directing the being and calling of our sons. My prayer is that I don’t muddle things up too much and I am able to help point these young men toward THE target for their lives. Of course, THE target is that they advance God’s purposes in the world (as agents of shalom) for God’s glory. My job as dad is to help them understand who they are and to give them a vision for THE target so that no matter the specific calling they are finding their purposes wrapped up in God’s. I believe that is how these young men will flourish and those around them will flourish as well.
Of late I have longed to get “back to normal.” It doesn’t matter all that much that my sense of normalcy is far from, well, the norm. The life of a pastor is anything but normal to begin with but when you add a huge transition into the mix everything is up for grabs.
In the last month we moved from Charlottesville, VA to St. Louis, MO. We tried to prepare. We tried to imagine ourselves in a new church, new schools, a new community and city. We made plans and made a budget. Then life set in and, well, like Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.” The result has been, as my friend Bob Burns would say, we are living in ambiguity.
We left VA not knowing exactly where we were going to live. That’s right. The five of us, plus Cash – our dog – packed and loaded up and drove 14 hours in a day to St. Louis, MO. We had only a slight notion of where we were going to live. That isn’t something we planned – believe me. Rather, it was something that developed. We planned for a smooth and easy transition. We made plans for a place to lay down each night, a place for meals, a place for pots and pans, and somewhere for dust bunnies to collect. We planned to leave one hearth for another. That wasn’t to be – despite our best-laid schemes.
We knew (know) that Jesus had provided jobs for us in St. Louis but we were unsure of how He was going to provide a place for us to live. Nothing was on paper – nothing was solid – all we had was a one week reservation at a Residence Inn. We didn’t know where we were going to go beyond the first week. We didn’t know if we would find a house to buy or a place to rent. God did.
Since arriving the last week of June we have seen God’s hand at work. He has provided places for us to stay – even the dog. A number of families have opened up their homes to us – inviting our family to stay in their homes, hosting us for dinner, inviting us for a swim. We are grateful for the way that God has provided. He has even opened up a door for us to buy a home (we close- God willing on July 24th – thank you David Klotz!).
The folks in our new community have been God’s source of wonder amid the chaos of a less than smooth transition. It is an experience that only comes from stepping into things the way that God wants us to. Even in the midst of chaos God’s wonder prevails. BUT, do not get the impression that we are just sitting back relaxing in God’s goodness. No. No. Not even close.
If you want to see what life is like for our family you need only flip into the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Moses. God called those men – along with the families and tribes they led – to step into ambiguity. Oh – God provided wonder amid the chaos – but the people grumbled, complained, fought, and chafed in the midst of uncertainty. Yet, God was faithfully putting together His plan, providing for them and establishing hope and salvation through Christ. But the people blew it often – God never did.
That actually captures more of our story over the last few weeks. Yes, we were willing to step into ambiguity – willing to trust Jesus as He led our family. Yes, we’ve been blessed by the ways in which God has used His people to provide for us. No, we haven’t been these super saintly folks who have not been affected by the unknown and the stress of transition. We’ve bickered with each other. We’ve grown weary with waiting and our prayers have had the sound of lament. We’ve lost our cool with our kids and they with each other and us. We have blown it often but God has not.
And yet even in our failures – our very real humanness – we have seen God’s wonder amid the chaos and something else has emerged. It is something I think the people with Abraham and Moses experienced as well. We’ve found ourselves more aware of our deep need and longing for ordinary days of home.
Ordinary days of home are the sort of days that we often complain about– days in which we have to make meals and do laundry, pull weeds or rake leaves, tend to homework and bills. I have found myself daydreaming about planting a garden, washing dishes, cooking, painting walls, and welcoming friends for meals. Sometimes God, for whatever reason, calls us to step out of those ordinary days into ambiguity. If you walk in that long enough while you will experience God’s wonder amid the chaos, you may experience a longing for ordinary days and thankfulness when they return.
There is much that can be said for the ways in which those ordinary tasks are an extension of what it means to give and receive love, to build into the lives of children, to strengthen a marriage, and the joy of hospitality. Granted, in our family ordinary tasks are often the places where we hear and feel the loudest grumbles. However, taken away, the ordinary tasks of home are sought out because they are as much a part of the relational components of home as rest. Kate Harris, Executive Director for The Washington Institute, wrote
By coming to see my ordinary tasks in light of their relational nature and their wonderful, purposeful inefficiency, I come to see what Soren Kierkegaard means when he writes, “The love of repetition is in truth the only happy love.” What is more, I can begin to think afresh about the simple, mundane, but purposeful work God calls me to pursue for the care of myself and my family day by day. Indeed, the Incarnation itself shows us how intimately familiar God is with our daily needs, deeming the faithful care of a loving mother and father sufficient to provide all of the necessary, bodily care and nurture for His only son while on earth.
Ambiguity has given our family something that we may not otherwise have ever known: a chance to see God’s wonder amid chaos and an awareness of the significance of ordinary days of home. I think Jesus understands that. In the New Testament (Matthew 8 and Luke 9) Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” That text brings great comfort because it reminds me of the cost of following Jesus. Following Jesus means stepping into ambiguity, finding our peace in the way God provides, being aware of our constant need for God’s Spirit to help us, and joy in the most ordinary of days of home. It is not easy but it is filled with wonder, hope, and good.
For the last few months my family and I have walked through a pretty difficult time. I’ve hesitated to write about it here – mostly because I’ve been processing all that’s happened – and frankly I didn’t want to process it publicly. The bottom line is that I was laid off in February mainly due budget issues.
The good thing is that I was preparing to leave Trinity. For some time now I’ve realized that the Lord was leading us to pursue a new pastoral call. However, being laid off was not in my plan – it was in God’s. I’d have to say – even though it made sense – it was still very, very difficult. I will not go into the reasons why it was so difficult. I will say that we’ve seen God’s hand at work at every turn. We can honestly, faithfully and confidently say that God is good and that He does provide.
One way that was clear is that Trinity’s Session was very good to my family and gave us a heads up and salary from February to August. They also freed me up to work on my dissertation and to look for a new job. A lot of the elders have come alongside of our family, prayed for us and did their best to encourage us. That has been truly good.
Another way that God provides is that He was preparing our family for this moment as many as four years ago. That was when I started my DMin at Covenant. On my first trip to Covenant I almost immediately fell in love with St. Louis. I can say that without reservation. God also introduced me to Bob Burns – who at the time was over the DMin at Covenant. Now Bob is the Head of Staff at Central Presbyterian. Bob and I became friends – and now – Bob, along with Dan Doriani (and the Session), is my new boss.
That’s right – this week the session at Central Presbyterian in St. Louis, MO extended a call (Presbyterian speak for job offer) and I heartily accepted it. I will be the Pastor of Community Development. What’s more – Central has a school – a great school – and they were looking for a 2nd grade teacher…Sherry applied and next year she’ll be teaching 2nd grade!!! Yes the Lord does provide – but not only with jobs – but with wisdom – much-needed wisdom.
Packing Up Our Family
In June our family will be packing up and moving to St. Louis. But packing up – this go around – isn’t just about boxes and a new job. It is about a time of huge transition for all three of our sons – new schools, new community, new church – right at the beginning of their adolescent years. But God is faithful – and He has provided for us. He’s put people in our lives to help us to be aware, even vigilant when it comes to our sons.
When we moved to Charlottesville six years ago our kids were a lot younger. Now they are 13, 12 and 6 (soon to be 7). While our 7-year-old is pretty easy-going about the move, Charlottesville has been the only home he’s really ever known (he was born in AL). But our older two have lived most of their childhood here – and this move is something that will mark them. They really liked their school, their friends, the youth group at Trinity. Now they have to walk away from all that for something new.
A lot of folks in St. Louis and in Charlottesville have asked how our sons are taking the news of a move. I’m glad they have because I think I could honestly overlook their emotions in the hustle to get going. Truth be told I could overlook Sherry’s emotions as well. Even though we’ve prepared for the possibility of a move for some time it has now become a reality. We are excited and thankful and I can’t wait to get to St. Louis – to show my family around a city that I love and I church that I am thrilled to be called to serve. However, it is in that excitement that I could overlook or even be annoyed by my family’s slow transition to embrace what I’ve long embraced. That would be a terrible failure on my part.
So even while I’m thrilled – I think I’m going to have to take things slowly and allow my family to take things in stride. I’m confident that they will come to love the city and the church like I do (at least I’m hoping). But getting a heads up from friends has been helpful already. In fact, today a friend of mine who has moved many times in the last few years sent me an email with some much-needed wisdom.
He wrote, “As one who has moved more than is optimal in the past…my encouragement to you and Sherry is an old one: even if you are going to a great place and your gifts and inclinations are well-suited to your new position….and even if the place to which you are moving has many familiar faces…it can easily take 3 years to begin to feel like home. So give it some time. And keep a close eye and ear on your sons. Ours are just now talking through some of the difficulties they experienced when we moved…they were 12 and 14 at the time…sound familiar???”
With that said – I know that God is providing for our family – so I’d like to ask something of you. Would you be willing to toss some ideas our way? If you have moved with teenagers – or if you moved when you were a teenager – can you toss some advice our way? I’d be very, very grateful – and – my family may be grateful as well.
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?
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
That we care about the things that God cares about.
It means that we pursue good –not just for ourselves but also for others.
It means that we look not only for our interests but the interest of others.
It means that the decisions we make about how we spend our time and our money matter beyond ourselves.
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.
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.
It means our ambitions need to line up with God’s purposes in the world.
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.
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:
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.
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.