Tag: Parenting

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.

http://perryumc.org/images/stained-glass/

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.

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Part 3 Desire and the Kingdom

Sermon on the Mount - Tewkesbury Abbey see http://professor-moriarty.com

“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)

This statement of Jesus may seem to contradict what I said earlier about him. Remember, I said whatever it is that you believe or don’t believe about Jesus there is something undeniable about Him. Jesus understands people. It might seem that Jesus saying, “don’t be anxious” to folks could be either ironic or cruel. Because the simple truth is that people are anxious – very anxious – about lots of things. That is not only true of adults – it is true for children and students as well. I am not a professional counselor. I am a pastor who has worked with families, children and students since 1992. In that time I’ve done a good bit of pastoral counseling (I often refer folks to professional counseling). A common concern has been anxiety and children. Some of the anxiety is over children, i.e., the parents have concerns over the child’s future, their attitudes, their grades, their friends, their habits. Some of the anxiety belongs to the kids, i.e., the child is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Some of the parents anxiety may be their marriage, some with their kids, some with family  finances, some with jobs, some with a desire to be happy. I don’t downplay the reality of any of those things and the impact they have on how families work. However, what my experiences has done for me is helped me to be reflective. First – with my family. I wonder how I’m doing as a dad –how my sons are doing with me as a dad (not to mention how I’m doing as a husband). Second – I try to think about what it is that Jesus has said – and here is one of the things he said specifically about being anxious: “do not be anxious…” My first reaction to this is normally – honestly – “well no kidding.” The question that comes up isn’t “why not?” Most people do not like being anxious. It is a human response to want equilibrium. But the truth of the matter is we all have a proclivity for anxiety – even our kids. Something makes all of us anxious. Perhaps we ought to be honest about that. Perhaps we ought to be thinking of ways to deal with it – because it is real. I don’t think it is possible for us to just ignore anxiety. I think we are supposed to deal with the things that make us that way. Because what makes you anxious just might make your kids anxious too. The effects of anxiety are well-known and numerous – and we ought to deal with it. So the question really isn’t “why not?” Rather the question is, how? Does Jesus really intend for people not to be anxious? Well – it might be helpful to notice what it is that Jesus said folks shouldn’t be anxious about. In verse 31 he says, “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” Most folks that I know – and most of the folks who will read this – are concerned about what we eat, drink and wear – just not in the way that the first folks who heard this were. It is important to remember that every part of the Bible has a context. What I mean is that every book of the Bible (there are 66 total – 39 in the Hebrew Testament and 27 in the New Testament), and every chapter and verse was written at a specific time with a particular audience in mind. What makes the Bible amazing is that it can still speak into the lives of folks in the 21st century. So –Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – in fact His life and work – was in the first century. As you know those folks actually were anxious about their next meal and how they were going to feed their children. They actually were anxious about what they were going to drink – not only did they have to dig wells – but they had to be concerned about the quality of water – in ways that we don’t. And they were anxious over what they were going to wear – it wasn’t as much about fashion as it was a matter of protection from sun and cold. Most folks were anxious about what they were going to eat, drink and wear for survival. In a sense what Jesus is talking about are essentials. In those days folks were anxious about the essentials for living. So are we. We are just as concerned about what it takes to survive in the 21st century as folks were in the 1st century. I don’t think Jesus is trying to give people a hard time. I think he’s trying to speak truth into our lives. He seems to know that we get anxious – particularly about things that we believe to be essential for living – or perhaps what we image to be essential for living. He seems to be suggesting that we don’t need to be anxious but rather focused on something else. I know I get anxious about things that I have defined as essential for living a good life and I’m passing that along to my sons. I’m not trying to live in the lap of luxury and I’m not trying to pass that on to my sons. And yet I get anxious about the essentials. Do you? Are you passing your anxiety on to your kids? Are you anxious that you will not be able to give them the essentials for the good life that you’ve imagined for you and your family – for your future? Lots of folks are. I think it is one of the things that drives our culture – anxiety, fear, chasing an image – or perhaps what we might call an essential. So Jesus is saying that folks are not to be anxious about essentials for living – even, perhaps, what we image are the essentials for a good life. So why is it that Jesus is telling us not to be anxious? Why shouldn’t we be anxious  about essentials? Well – I think because he wants to give shape to our image of a good life – and what is really essential. I think he wants us to know something in order for us not to be anxious.  Perhaps I’ll share more about that tomorrow…

Desire and the Kingdom part 2

I do want my sons to live a good life. Most parents do. But where does my image of a good life come from? If I am being honest – mostly from surrounding culture.

I just know that if my kids get a good education, they’ll get a good job – and they’ll make good money – and hopefully they’ll marry a great girl – and they’ll live in a nice house in a safe neighborhood…they’ll be happy – and I’ll be happy – because they are living the idea of a “good life” that most folks consider to be a good life. That’s what they are supposed to do – aren’t they? That’s what good parents do for their kids – don’t they?

But then I heard Smith’s claim banging around inside my head…and I thought – what sort of vision for life am I giving my sons?

I actually want more for my sons than just a good job, money, home, etc. I had to stop and think about what I am passing on to my sons because the truth is – I think Smith is right. We seem to be creatures that are driven by our desires to live a good life – to do the things that make us happy. And we gladly give ourselves to those things that we think will lead to whatever we have defined as “a good life.” We give ourselves headlong to that desire and we pursue it. The problem is – we encourage our kids to do the same thing but often without really thinking through what image it is that we are pursuing.

We all want to be happy. We want our kids to be happy. We want to make sure that they have what they need. A lot of the time we also want them to have what they want – and what they want is what they image will help them to have a good life and be happy. There is a vicious cycle and it is being passed from parent to child.

The trouble is that desire and pursuit often doesn’t make us happy at least not like we think it will. And yet we pass this practice on to our children. But chance are good it will make not make our children happy either. How many times have you read about people who – though successful in their own eyes are miserable? It seems happiness evaded them – but they have everything they imagined would lead to a “good life.” How many times have you read the tragic stories of parents who have helped their kids have everything to make them happy – and their kids are miserable – caught up in all sorts of messy things. As a pastor – as someone who has worked with families and students for twenty plus years – I’ve heard it a lot.

A lot of parents are scared to death that they are someone else is going to mess up their child’s future. I know parents who cart their kids all over the place to make sure they are getting every advantage so they can get into a good school. But all of the running and going is really about the desire to live out what these parents image will lead to a good life for their child. In the book The Price of Privilege the author quoted one child who said, “My mom is everywhere but nowhere.”

For many folks parenting has become more about carting kids from place to place and struggling to figure things out – what will make them happy – how to get them in the right school, the right camps, the right sports, the right experiences. I don’t think it has to be that way. I’m pretty sure it shouldn’t be.

The question for me has become what image is giving shape to my desires for my kids? How am I passing that on to them?

I think that Smith is right – human beings are creatures who are driven by the pursuit of our desire to live what we imagine is a good life – and we want that for our kids as well – we give our lives to it.

Perhaps that is why so many parents are anxious. Perhaps that is why so many parents are willing to nearly kill themselves to give their children what they think they need.

Recently I read something that the late John Stott – the well known, respected English Pastor and Theologian – wrote. He wrote, “Jesus took it for granted that all human beings are ‘seekers…’ We need something to live for, something to give meaning to our existence, something to ‘seek’, something on which to set our ‘hearts’ and our ‘minds…’ ‘the Supreme Good’ to which to dedicate our lives…(it) concerns our goals in life and our incentives for pursuing them…(it) is what makes (us) ‘tick’; it uncovers the mainspring of (our) actions, (our) secret inner motivation. This, then, is what Jesus was talking about when he defined what in the Christian counter-culture we are to ‘seek first.’”

Whatever it is that you believe or don’t believe about Jesus there is something undeniable about Him. Jesus understands people. As you read the Gospels you can’t help but notice that He spoke right to the heart of the issues with which people deal.

A great case in point is the Sermon on the Mount – which is what John Stott was referring to. Within this great text we discover just what it is that Jesus intends for His people. The Sermon on the Mount – among other things – is intended to give shape to our desires – in fact it is intended to form how we see the world, how we think about God, ourselves and others, how we live, spend our money, our time. In other words – the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to help us understand “a good life” and help us to pursue it.

In fact, if you ever want to know how Jesus intends for Christians to live – just turn to the Sermon on the Mount. You can find it in the New Testament, in Matthew chapter 5 thru 7. If you’ve never read that before you ought to.

But – it is important for you to know – if you don’t already – that Jesus – when he gave this sermon – was seated on a hillside with his disciples close by – and most likely a crowd of other folks stood around and listened in. That’s something else you may need to know about Jesus. He was winsome – he drew crowds – for lots of reasons. Some folks liked to hear him talk. Some folks liked to see him do miracles. Some folks really loved him and wanted to follow him. Some folks hated him. Some folks wanted to catch him in something.

That’s just something to keep in mind as you read this. In Matthew chapter 6 verse 31-33 Jesus said something which for me is important to think about – especially when it comes to this idea of desire and how that is shaping my parenting. Here is what Jesus said,

“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’ll have more on this tomorrow…

An Obsession with Pancakes

 

Great Pancakes - Great Coffee - Great Saturday

The whole “love language” thing has always been a mystery to me. Not because I think it is weird or untrue but because for years I didn’t think I had a love language. In fact someone once asked me if I knew my wife’s love language and I was able to fire it off quick. But then they asked me mine and I stood there looking dumber than I usually do. Never again. Now I know my love language. It’s pancakes.

Pancakes are the way that I tell my family I love them. Almost every Saturday morning – unless soccer, lacrosse or something else dictates otherwise – I find myself in my kitchen, mixing and flipping. As you can imagine – as an act of love – these are no ordinary, just add water pancakes. Nope. These are made from scratch and they are tasty.

I started making pancakes years ago – first as just something different and fun. What I noticed is that my kids thought it was cool that Dad was making them something special. It took on a life of its own after that. I started researching how to make them better and better (partly out of love and part because I get a little crazy and super focused). One of the best places that I’ve found for learning how to do anything in the kitchen is America’s Test Kitchen (if you want to really learn the science of cooking check them out). 

What I have now is a simple recipe that I’ve pulled from different places and made my own – and one I’m glad to share. But remember – it is an act of love. I’d recommend to every dad – tell your family you love them by making really good pancakes – or really good grilled cheese sandwiches or burgers or BBQ.  Go the extra mile and make it extraordinary.

Pancakes:

  • 2 Cups of All Purpose Flour
  • 1 Egg
  • 2 Cups of Milk
  • Butter
  • A bit of Lemon juice (I go for fresh but you can use the bottled kind too)
  • Pinch or so of Salt
  • Dash of Cinnamon
  • Drop of Vanilla
  • Some baking powder
  • Some baking soda
  • A little sugar (sometimes I use brown sugar) not too much of either
  • Griddle (I don’t use a skillet go for a griddle – heat to about 350-400).
  • Spatula – a really good – large, floppy kind so you can flip ’em over
Directions:
Add this to the other ingredients – mix well but do not over mix. You want the lumps in the batter.
Throw some batter on the griddle in pancake size shapes. Wait till the edges have started to firm up a bit – then carefully flip ’em and let ’em cook for a minute or so.
Then serve them up nice and hot with some great syrup.
Cooking 'em up

Fun with Syrup:

  • Jack Daniels Syrup: put a good amount of syrup (two cups or more) in a small pot and put on medium heat. Add a few table spoons of Jack (I don’t want to “waste” my JD) to it and let it come to a boil. It adds a little kick to the syrup for Mom & Dad. (BTW I saw a guy use this syrup and pancakes with his BBQ on Diners-Drive Ins and Dives not sure about that but I guess if your BBQ is bad JD makes it eatable).
  • Organic Molasses add a nice touch as well.

 

Derek Jeter and His Parents

Derek Jeter

I like ESPN. I like Sports Center. It is one of the best things to happen – both to folks with ADD – like me – and folks who love sports. I can catch-all the most important moments, know the score of any game, and all within just a few minutes. Its brilliant.

This morning I caught the perfect highlight – but it was not the normal highlight. It was  a “top ten,”but not Chris Berman’s. It was Barbara Walter’s Ten Most Fascinating people of 2011. Derek Jeter was one of ten.

Now – I’m a Yankee Fan – always have been – but I am objective. I wouldn’t just throw this out on a blog – just because he is a Yankee. I wouldn’t do that. But – the interview was worth listening to because of what Jeter said about his parents.

At one point in the interview Jeter talked about the fact that he and his sister signed a contract with their parents. The contract outlined what was expected of them in regards to curfew, grades, and behavior. He pointed out that he didn’t really break that contract – or at least he didn’t get caught – because “I never really wanted to disappoint my parents. I still have that mind-set where I don’t want to disappoint people, especially them. I didn’t get in too much trouble — or, I should say, I didn’t get caught.”

I think this is a big deal and something that is awesome. It isn’t often that famous folks point to the respect that they have for their parents as a driving reason for the way that they live. It is important for parents to see this – important for them to realize that what they do actually has a long time impact on their kids. What I think it important is that Jeter’s parents made things clear – they had goals and expectations and Jeter and his sister knew what they were. I think that’s a good idea. We ought to have expectations for our kids – they ought to know them and they ought to have expectations for themselves.

Jeter isn’t perfect and I’m not advocating putting him on a pedestal. I am advocating listening to the interview and allowing that to shape a bit of our understanding of the impact of our parenting. It matters. The expectations we set for ourselves as parents and for our kids matter – and – it has an impact. At least it did for Jeter. That’s a big deal.

http://www.yankeesdaily.com/post/36626

http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/video/derek-jeter-racism-taught-lot-15150221

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/baseball/yankees/yankees-derek-jeter-shows-barbara-walters-black-white-interview-tv-special-article-1.991791

Taylor Swift as A Countercultural Icon & Shaping the Moral Lives Part 2

*This is Part 2 of a blog I started Yesterday about Shaping the Moral Lives of Kids. It may be helpful if you read this article first http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-01/taylor-swift-as-counterculture-icon-for-teens-commentary-by-amity-shlaes.html

While I am grateful that Swift is “systematically pro-parent and pro-family” the reason that this article grabbed my attention has more to do with how the moral lives of emerging adults have been shaped or not shaped, as the case may be. It is not provocative in the least to suggest that moral habits, imaginations and characters of emerging adults have been shaped more by celebrity, media and popular culture than by values of their parents, their church, and their community. But it should be provocative.

In his book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, Christian Smith, Professor in the Department of Sociology at Notre Dame, points to recent research from the National Survey on Youth and Religion. From conducting hundreds of interviews since 2001 they point out that an alarming number of young adults do not have a what may be considered a moral center. It isn’t that they do not know what is right and wrong – good or evil  – necessarily – but it becomes an issue of moral relativism and or situational. While it may not be right for me I can’t say it is wrong for someone else. And – while I may not want someone to steal from me – or cheat off my exam – it is not necessarily wrong. It is difficult for them to define what is right and what is wrong.

This has a profound impact on their morality. This works itself out in many ways, not the least of which is the abuse of alcohol, drugs, consumerism, and sexual promiscuity. While this may not seem like anything new under the sun – there is a reason to be concerned. For these emerging adults these over indulgent practices are the norm.

The fact of how much influence the wider culture has on writing the scripts for what is normative in the lives of emerging adults is well known. Yet, Smith points out that these young men and women are deeply marked, shaped, and taught by what they perceive or have been directly or indirectly taught is the “norm.” For instance, why doesn’t it surprise us that a university student will be exposed to overt alcohol use – even when the majority of undergrads are still underage? Why doesn’t it seem odd that the university is a “normal” place where young men and women push the limits of sobriety and sexuality? When and how did it become the “norm”? It doesn’t matter where you went to school. It doesn’t matter if you were determined not to take part in any sort of the party life – you still expected to meet it and that is considered the “norm.” The trouble is, intoxication (whether from alcohol or drugs) and sexual promiscuity, according to Smith, are what is expected. In other words, there is nothing morally wrong with this picture. There is no right and no wrong – it is relative.

When was the last time you thought that being wasted was okay – just part of what people do multiple evenings a week? It is a normal part of what people do – a sort of “social lubricant.”

While we want to believe that we are independent thinkers and making decision based on our own desires – that we are the “captain of our own fate” – it seems to be that, at least for emerging adults – that decisions are heavily influenced by what has become a cultural norm. The trouble seems to be that some of the most important cultural cues are either gone or they have shifted. In essence there once was a sense that drinking may have its place but always in control and not to excessively. But if Smith is right that has slipped and the norm now, for many in his study, being intoxicated is a part of living. It is part of the norm. The same is true for sexual behavior. Both are seen as recreational.

The question arises for me – and perhaps for others – how are we as a community to “stop the madness.” Is it good and right for people to spend their lives running after money, a solid buzz and sex – especially when they’ve been shaped to believe that it is the normal thing to do – a normal part of growing up? Is it good and right and culturally responsible to abdicate the shaping of the moral lives, imaginations and character or children to people other than parents? Rather, should that role be given over to government who are legally bound to say or do nothing controversial (which doesn’t form character and kills imagination and virtue). Or – should the shaping of the moral life, imagination and character be given to the broader culture which seems to be ongoing?

Of course – this is a straw-man argument at the same time someone – somewhere – taught that during adolescents – it is the norm for kids to push away from parents – and parents ought to take a step back. That’s supposed to be norm – and we are supposed to follow the norm. It is to be expected. From what I can tell parents are supposed to be engaged in the lives of their children – until the parents are laid in the grave. Granted the relationship has to mature and grown but it is not normal for their to be a wholesale rejection of the parents role in the lives of their kids during adolescence. There doesn’t have to be an antagonist relationship between parents and their teenage kids.

As thankful as I am that Taylor Swift is pro-family / pro-parent isn’t it strange that is news worthy? Why is it not the norm? It should be strange and outrageous that anyone would be anti-family / anti-parent. But they are.

I hope I’m right about this. I hope I’m right about parents staying engaged in the life of their kids. I hope that Taylor Swift is able to influence the young women of our country in  great ways. The last thing I want is for my sons and I to have a bad relationship. It could happen – but it doesn’t have to – it isn’t the “norm.” But the truth of the matter is that a lot of our families are being shaped more by what culture mandates as the norm than by what is true and good and right. More of our young women are being shaped by what Taylor Swift says and does than we’d like to admit. But at least Taylor seems to have it right. And for that – I’m thankful.

Check out the article: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-01/taylor-swift-as-counterculture-icon-for-teens-commentary-by-amity-shlaes.html

“Taylor Swift as Countercultural Icon” & Shaping the Moral Life

Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls: by Amity Shlaes

I don’t have daughters – not planning on having any either. My three sons, however, have asked at different times for a sister. Having three sisters, I don’t blame them for asking; sisters are awesome – at least mine are.

But while I wouldn’t mind adding a daughter to our mix – that’s probably not in the cards for us anyway – I am very much aware of the challenges of raising daughters today. I’m not saying that any one generation has had an easier time parenting than another. However, I do believe how the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women are formed this age has its own unique challenges. Part of the uniqueness comes from the prolific and powerful force of celebrity, media, and popular culture in general. We do not like to admit it but these things carry weight – they do bear an influence on children, families, and communities.

Celebrity, media, and popular culture impact the way that Sherry and I parent our sons and we, like most parents, are very intentional about what we allow our sons to be exposed to. The simple fact that we have to be vigilant when it comes to music, sports, magazines, books, billboards, not to mention the web, TV, Netflix, radio, iPods, video games and movies, speaks to the reality that parents face. Most parents that I know are concerned, wanting to make sure that their kids don’t hear or see things that they shouldn’t. But it is not easy. Foul language, overt sexuality and nudity, and adult themes are so prevalent it is better to prepare kids than try to hide them from it.

It is difficult not to stand back with a certain degree of trepidation as I think what it must be like for moms and dads to lovingly try to shape a young women’s moral life, imagination and character for the good. That seems all the more daunting when she is being bombarded by so many other messages of what is good and normal for a young woman. It becomes an even greater challenge if parents are the least concerned about her spiritually.

As a pastor to families I think about the challenge of parenting a great deal. It becomes all the more challenging given the constant messages that bombard young women (men too) about what is beautiful – but even more than that – what is the norm when it comes to intimacy. Recently I’ve been surprised at what is considered “normal” or simply “common practice,” or “what’s expected.”

Last night I was watching TV with Sherry and a commercial came on. I’m not sure what was being advertised. It showed a couple out rock climbing together in some remote place – giving the full impression they were off on a romantic excursion. The voice over said something like, “My boyfriend and I were going on vacation and…” I’m not sure what she said after that because I was stuck on that one line. It just struck me how that lined just flowed. It wasn’t all that long ago (I’m not that old) when that was not the norm. Guys and their girlfriends may have snuck off on vacation together but they did just that, snuck off. I know this has been the norm on sit-coms for a long time but this was the first commercial I’ve ever seen that acknowledges boyfriend/girlfriends going on vacation together. Suddenly – this is the norm. This is what is expected. This is an option now. But then there is more.

Research from The National Marriage Project at UVA points out “that over half of all first marriages in the U.S. are preceded by the couple living together.” The research also points out that 75-80% of high school seniors said having a good marriage and family life is ‘extremely important’ to them. However, close to half of the same group did not think they would stay married to the same person for life.” At some point this became the “norm” for relationships. In other words, parents raising girls should not just be talking about the fairy tale wedding, the grand proposal but now their girls can dream about the day she gets to ask her boyfriend to move in with her.

I’m not sure when this became the norm but it is. Our culture doesn’t seem to have a moral center – perhaps it never really did (although I think it did); it is seemingly lost in some weirdness that is difficult to name. That weirdness finds its way into the hearts and minds of students impacting the way they think of things as the “norm.” That  impacts everything from what they eat, wear, go to school, when and how much they drink, what sort of drugs they will do, and with whom they will have sex. In other words, it is less of a question and more of an expectation that they will take part in these things. It is part of their social life. This makes parenting – shaping the moral lives, imaginations, and characters of our kids that much more of a challenge.

Tonight, I was listening to NPR on my way home from work. The interview was about getting tested for HIV. A startling stat they mentioned was that “one of every four new cases of HIV involves a teenager.” The blame for this, according to those being interviewed was, that “sex education programs” because they put “an emphasis on chastity rather than condoms.” In fact one man said to, “expect young people to wait until they’re 25 or 30 is really unrealistic, and nobody is waiting.  I mean you maybe have 5-10% who are waiting, but the vast majority are not.” He went on to claim that he is, “running into kids 11 and 12 that are admitting they’re having sex. In my surveys, that’s about 10-15%  of the teen population, so it’s low, but the fact that it’s amazing they’re starting this young, and over a period of the teen years, let’s say from 12, 13-19,  they are falling in and out of love with different boyfriends and girlfriends in high school, so they might have as many as four different partners by the time they reach 18 or 19.  When they go to college and then in college and are hooking up, you know, one night stands, and alcohol and drugs fuel a lot of these bad decisions, and what you’re finding is that a lot of these young people are now having multiple partners.”

Notice the norm – the expectation. Kids are going to do drugs and drink and have sex. We should expect it. That is just part of our social fabric. So lets give them condoms so at least they will not get HIV.

I have to say I was a little shocked by what I heard – not the stats, not that kids are having sex. I was surprised by the resignation of all moral values. Rather than asking larger questions like how to shape the moral lives, imaginations and characters of young men and women the answer, which seems to be nation-wide is, “well, this is normal. It’s what kids do. Give ’em a condom and teach them how to have the conversation about putting it on with their partner.” And in the same sentence we discover we are talking about middle school kids.

This is a tricky time for parents. Lots of people say things without thinking about the norms of our culture – and those things are impacting the lives of kids and their families. It is difficult for kids and parents to push back against what is considered “normal.” But an article came through my email today that I found refreshing and hopeful.

Up until today I didn’t know a lot about Taylor Swift; I’ve heard some of her music and I think she has a great voice but I wouldn’t have said I was a fan. But now – I’m a huge fan.

First because she seems to get it – what she says matters – and that includes lyrics. She is impacting a generation of young girls. She seems to know that. She seems to understand the seriousness of the role she is playing. Her voice and words are being carried into the hearts and minds of young girls perhaps in ways that the voice of parents are not being heard.

The good thing, according to the article (Taylor Swift as Counterculture Icon for Teen Girls by Amity Shlaes), Taylor is not dissing on mom and dad and she is not anti-family. That is deliberate on her part. That is going to shape the moral life, imagination, and character of these young women – and potentially for the good.

Second, I’m a fan because she seems to be saying the right things about moms and dads – about family. That doesn’t happen very often and she is saying it to girls directly – but we all know where the girls go – the guys go (if they are smart). It is truly countercultural because another part of the norm is that teenagers – perhaps especially girls – are not supposed to have a good relationship with their parents.

Years ago, back in the dark ages of the early 90’s, I began working with high school students – first as a coach and then as a minister. One thing became clear right away – parents were not involved directly. They cared for their student. They loved them and wanted them to be involved but they parents knew their place – and knew to keep a distance.

Somehow it was the standard stance, parents had been formed by some unwritten law that they were not be all that involved with their teenager. It seemed like parents were helpless and fearful – not knowing how to approach their own child. It was like watching an odd sort of dance or ballet where parents tried to learn the steps from the hormone rattled, adolescent kids.

What is more, kids felt the same way. It was part of some rite of passage that a student was to tell their parents off and to get a little wild, or resentful toward overly strict parents. That was the cultural script – the norm. Kids needed their space. I thought it was sort of odd. My own teenage years were really messed up after my dads death (I was a freshman) so I was having trouble relating. At the same time I thought it was strange that parents suddenly disappeared from their kids lives to some extent. It wasn’t that parents were not around – they were everywhere but sort of nowhere at the same time. They had been told to stay away – sometimes by their kids and sometimes by a cultural cue.

I remember asking about this one day. I was sort of wondering out loud to an “expert.” I suggested that parents should not be less involved but involved in different ways – especially in places like church and school. Teen years are not easy – so why would we pull the most mature people back from them at that time. His answer was kids need to “individuate from their parents, to become independent and form the important peer-to-peer relationships.”

But I don’t think we actually ever individuate as human beings. I mean our personalities form – but even still there is some part of our parents and family tied into the way we live and see the world. And – most parents want their children to have a sense of independence in that they are able to act as human beings, be productive, use their gifts and abilities. But even then I don’t think independence is the right word. Because, no one is really independent of another and I’m confident it is a bad idea for parents and kids to become independent of one another relationally. That never turns out well.

And yet, part of the culture script is that parents are not supposed to be engaged and involved in the lives of their teenage son or daughter. But that can’t be the way things are supposed to be – in fact I’m sure of it. We are supposed to be in one another lives. That should be the cultural norm – and we ought to want the good of others.

In Genesis 1-3 we read that God created all things – including Adam and Eve. He first made Adam but it did not take God long to make Eve. The Bible says it was “because it was not good for man to live alone.” From that I take it that God intended for human beings to live in community – in a right relationship with each other, with ourselves, with creation and, most importantly, with God.

That’s why things get weird when we try to pull apart – dissecting instead of integrating. Peter Block wrote, The need to create a structure of belonging grows out of the isolated nature of our lives, our institutions, and our communities. The absence of belonging is so widespread that we might say we are living in an age of isolation, imitating the lament from early in the last century, when life was referred to as the age of anxiety…Our isolation occurs because western culture, our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions, and the messages from our media fragment us. We are broken into pieces.

What I observed over the last twenty plus years is that kids don’t seem to actually individuate nor become independent. It may not be for lack of trying – and having met some of their parents I don’t blame them. But they usually end up looking for community – a place or group to belong. And they listen to what others are endorsing as what is normal for them to think, feel, wear, eat, drink, etc. So – just as the cultural norm is saying that parents ought to take a back seat and kids should want them to – there are other voices that are piping in through their ear buds and iPods – doing the job that their parents are actually supposed to be doing.

The good thing is that one of those voices, at least right now, is Taylor Swift. She is certainly pointed young women in the right direction – toward their parents and family – and that is good. The hope is that parents are plugged up to something that is giving them the same message and they are moving toward their kids. It is indeed a two way street and it is important that rather than individuating and becoming independent kids and parents learn more about building family – for a lifetime. It is equally important for parents to help give shape to the moral lives, imaginations and characters of their children – they can’t do that if the cultural norm is saying to disengage.

More to come…