Do I Belong? Dragging kids to Church

I asked my fourteen-year-old why he never wants to hang around church anymore. He answered thoughtfully, “Nobody really talks to me. You know, Mom? People don’t introduce themselves to new people or people they don’t know.”

Hoping for a chance to hear more, I responded, “I can see how it feels that way. But remember, you’re a teenager now and we have our own corner of the church, so we don’t always see other people. We’re newish and they don’t all know you yet– plus you don’t go to everything, either. Do you think that messes things up?”

As a teen, his Sunday-morning-persona ranges from somnambulist to tortured p.o.w. and his responses to adult attempts at chatting resemble gorilla’s grunts.

“So there are what, three events a year, and I missed one? And let’s see, 40 people have dinner together on Wednesdays–but only five students come.  This church really doesn’t do “everybody-get-together” stuff. Don’t you remember the chili cook-off and international dinner at our last church?  At our old church all the families did stuff together all the time. Caroling and BBQs, remember? I guess the Chois and the Wengers here are good at inviting people over. So that’s two pluses.”

Fascinating. In two years since we moved, he has rarely mentioned a friend his age whom he misses or talked about anyone in particular from Chicago other than cousins. Yet he misses the feeling of belonging .and being known at church, being cheered for, and being loved by whole families, by all ages, parents included. I was listening. I didn’t try to argue why Church is good for him or why he should go. His feelings matter as much as those Truths (and they can wait. They will still be true later.)

Granted this is from the kid who used to be the self-appointed mayor of our last church. Now he’s no longer the kid of the senior pastor, no longer the darling of the little old ladies. And I must add, no longer very talkative, either. As a teen, his Sunday-morning-persona ranges from somnambulist to tortured p.o.w. and his responses to adult attempts at chatting resemble gorilla’s grunts.

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In other words, my son told me he longs to belong and to be known. I am so glad my son is connected with a mentor this year as he goes through Confirmation. A kind, displaced-midwesterner with a friendly smile and ready laugh, whom our daughter named “the most joy-filled person in the church.”  His healthy interest in our son makes a difference.

As adults, our efforts matter to learn students’ names, to keep track of their activities, to ask how “the big game went” or “what are the dance plans?” Please move past their “I-don’t-care” mask to reach for the heart. One person a week, reaching out in one pew, can make or break a kid’s church experience. It’s not complicated. Open our eyes, open our hearts, open our mouths to welcome, saying without words, “You belong.”

 

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Dr. Seuss and the Places You’ll Go!

Years back, Ken invented a mythical place we did NOT want to end up living in any of our moves to a new pastoral call: Dismal Seepage, Nebraska (DSN for short). In fifteen years of ministry, we’ve interviewed at a few churches that were located too nearby to DSN. We boldly ran the other direction. Maybe to Tarshish. Once I cried through the worship service at a potential church as I realized the Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 1.45.14 PMonly thing our kids would like about that church would be taking turns ringing the big church bell on Sunday mornings.

The great philosopher Dr. Seuss was enthusiastic about moving, “Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself  any direction you choose.”

Philadelphia. We moved here from Chicago 20 months ago. Moved away from my close-knit, Midwest family to a place where I had no connections whatsoever. Moved east instead of west, which had been our long-term, intended direction.

Bruce Larson used to say, “When God wants to teach us a lesson, He takes us on a trip.”

This has sometimes felt like long trip for me. Did I mention living in the Northeast is vastly different from the Midwest or Northwest where we’ve resided? People passing on the street look right past me and NOBODY talks to strangers, even to friendly, smiling, middle-aged women. Our middleschooler likes the NE the most of all our family members, “It’s awesome here, Mom. Everyone is rude all the time. You don’t even have to try to be polite and friendly!” So there’s a plus I hadn’t considered.

But at least it’s not DSN, right? Not by any objective standards. A year ago it all depended on which day you asked me what I’d call it. I enjoyed walking the parks and rolling with the hills; I was wowed to see the explosion of cherry blossoms, like a Whoville wonderland! The Barnes museum with its impressionist art collection is my kinda place. I bump into founding fathers’ history everywhere I turn. And nearby are DC, Boston, and NYC where we’ve had fun, family, weekend adventures.

Plus our family plugged into a neighborhood church, a church where I eventually ended up on staff, serving youth and their families. It’s been a privilege.The church family has adopted us in love and opened their hearts to us.

The Spirit encourages us to look at life as an open door, an invitation to walk through to God’s adventure. In All the Places to Go, John Ortberg writes, “An open door is an opportunity provided by God, to act with God and for God” (14).

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 1.47.52 PMOne of my problems for the first 9 months was that I hadn’t made enough opportunity to act my way into anything. No job yet, not many friends . . . at least I finished my DMin degree.

Ortberg’s words resonated with me in my ups and mostly downs of that first year, “When I go through open doors, I will often discover that my faith is really weaker than I thought it was before I went through” (46).

Ortberg goes on, “ Anytime you step through an open door, your story and Jesus’ story begin to get mixed up together, and you become part of the work of God in this world. The only way to fix a broken story is to embed it in a larger story that begins and ends well”(77).

The resurrection reminds us the story does, indeed, end well.

I bumped into a series of facebook messages between me and my friend Ann from Indy, a young mother of two who was diagnosed with serious, advanced breast cancer. She has been a five-year survivor. She wrote me,

“I have hoped and prayed during these 8 months that this journey would be for God’s glory – no matter the outcome. It may sound strange (well it did to my mother-in-law but I bet you will understand) . . . one of my prayers has also been that I would not miss the blessing in all this. The lesson. The wisdom. The change. Whatever it is and whatever it is to be called – I did not and do not want to miss it! I am still asking God to help me discern what I am to learn and how I am to grow. Others have brought me courage and hope and I am so touched that I could do that for you – such an honor.” Ann VM, 6/27/13

How do I keep my eyes wide open to the blessing even in unexpected life change, that it may be for God’s glory? I don’t want to miss a thing.

I just bumped into this draft written last May.  Cool to see the difference a year makes and how God answers prayer in unexpected ways, often through His people!

 

10…9…8…Launched!

From age three on, our curly-haired darling would announce, “I’m going far, far away from you, mama!” And so she has. Argentina, to be exact. Launched into the great big world at 17. At age four, we left her at Grandma’s as we led a two-week high school trip to Greece. We could barely get her to stop playing long enough to speak to us on the phone, “I’m never ever gonna see you again but it’s ok, ‘cause Grandpa and I are having so much fun. Bye!”

The sense of independence that began with visits to Gram and Gramp increased in ever-widening circles, aided by “so much fun!” Summer camps.  Mission trips. We could get rarely a peep out of her about her world-expanding experiences, other than a thumbs up as they were special, fantastic events to be savored by her alone.

Then puberty and romance. First dates. Growing six-feet tall. First boyfriend (NOT six-feet tall). Driver’s license.  First fender-bender. Moving states and changing schools. Striving for a 5.0 GPA. Volleyball tournaments. Finding new friends who didn’t speak English. Learning more and better Spanish from them. Falling in love with Latin America. Causing a two-alarm fire truck response to our rental house– never mind, long story.  Solo flights to both coasts for college visit weekends. And now Argentina for five months.

Carly’s dream of going on international exchange emerged and snowballed into reality with her vision of beginning a center for intercultural understanding someday. She applied for the AFS Latin American program and won one of four scholarships, was accepted into the Argentine program, then assigned a host family. (n.b. After one month in Argentina, she switched families.) After NO goodbye fanfare (Text: “Taking off soon. Bye!”), nine hours by plane to Buenos Aires and fourteen cross-country hours by bus later, she was warmly welcomed by her host family. (Text: “I’m with my family in Tucumán, the travel was luxurious and they are amazingly wonderful people. DON’T WORRY ABOUT ANYTHING.”-Carly) (Subtext: “That’s it, mom. See you in July.”)

Launched. We have just launched one quarter of our family. Crazy to realize it’s happened to us. It’s different to write a blog called FamilyLaunch than to do it, right? I shouldn’t be surprised she’s gone, though I’m still dizzy in the head as I pick up the pieces that are still whirling about in the tornado of her departure.  Maybe Hurricane Carly is more apt? Connecting with her year–long crush and falling madly in love in her final 3 weeks here.  Maneuvering to spend every minute together with him.  Breaking curfew.  Getting a speeding ticket.  Arguing with us, “You’re driving me crazy. I can’t wait to leave! I’m 18; I should be able to____.”  (me: “NOT YET!”)  Letting slip a few confessions, “I didn’t actually take my online government class final yet, but I have till June, right?” “Oops, I lost my retainer in Miami.” “Dang, can’t find my glasses; just mail them, ok?” Last minute packing and unpacking when the suitcase weighed 15 pounds over limit. These actions were all out of character for her, so they made our heads spin.

I’m told this is perfectly normal “leaving home” behavior. Some students even pick a fight, so everyone is mad and it makes the student’s breaking away to independence  and the parents’ letting go a little easier. Soooo much easier !?

Then at last, “She’s gone. Whew!”

 Quiet. Breathe. Peace in the house. Inner turmoil.

Reading her tweets (via Google translate) such as: “New  family!” with a happy picture of her bus station welcome and “I miss Chipotle and Ben & Jerry’s more than I miss my family” reassure me in a back-handed way. When it doesn’t feel as if my daughter broke up with me.

Dropping the habit of “checking in/checking up on her” is harder than I thought. Not entirely because I am a control freak, but because it turns out THIS WORLD IS A DANGEROUS PLACE! AND MY CURLY-HAIRED, THREE-YEAR-OLD—um, I mean eighteen-year-old—IS OUT THERE IN IT!

Our first contact via Skype one week after she arrived involved her rapid-fire-talking for 90 minutes (despite a cold and hoarseness), giving us a horrifying description of her birthday night at the disco when one of the 10 girls had a drug slipped into her drink. Since the other girls’ solutions involved propping the girl up on a bucket outside and dumping glasses of water on her, Carly took charge by ushering everyone into a taxi at 5am to take her home. (“But don’t worry, Mom and Dad. Everyone says that NEVER happens. And my dad here is a policeman! I’m safe!”) As my wise sister reassuringly pointed out, Carly handled a surprisingly scary situation with initiative and decisiveness, while commenting casually “I’m never going back there.”

Other quick texts from Carly do this mom’s freakish heart good, “Found a Sunday night church service,”  “Say Hi to the Youth Group.” “Thanks for pics. Kinda miss you.”

Until last weeks’ text, “Food poisoning. Nearly threw up in class on the 2nd day of school.” 😦  We actually traded texts for a few day while she was sick in bed—mostly about immodium— and it was followed up 6 days later,”Things better.” (Subtext:Don’t need you anymore, mom… for now.”)  I am proud of Carly’s brave handling of new challenges.

Meanwhile, I know all the drama of leaving (and then returning for three weeks this summer) will be followed up in rapid succession by a theatrical encore, her August college departure for Davidson College in North Carolina.

Carly’s leaving is not temporary: “I’m going far, far away from you, mama!” She’s on her way to adulthood. While Carly is in Argentina, the clock ticks on. She is truly launched.

I am getting accustomed to being a family of three.  A male, mom-is-outnumbered, family of three. As soon as I turn my focus to my son, in an instant, the next shocking count-down begins, to send him off to high school, “Ten, nine, eight…”