“Godfidence” and Growing Young

In baptizing baby Magnolia last week, I asked her parents, “Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach that faith to your child?”

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Our first babe’s baptism.

They responded, “We do.” Then I asked the congregation, “Will you, the people of this congregation, nurture and love her, and assist her to be a faithful disciple?  They answered, “We will.”IMG_20180216_185704974

 

And they may… or they may not. This congregation has lost the vision, energy and will to do so. I  share with you the sermon I shared with them on how families can become a priority to the Church, based on the book Growing Young.

 

Scripture reading 1: Mark 10 :13-16  (NIV) 13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Scripture reading 2:  1 John 2: 8-14 (NIV) 8 I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in Jesus and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. 9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. 12 I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name. 13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. 14 I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

Kara Powell writes,

We follow Jesus’ lead when we prioritize the young. When Jesus took a child in his arms, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in  my name welcomes me, and whomever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:17)  The Disciples struggled with this—Could Jesus really have meant that welcoming children is a way to welcome Jesus– and the Father? [1]

Yep. He did.

“WHAT? Jesus is alive? Why didn’t anyone tell me that before? He is risen from the dead? That’s totally cool!” — Alexandra, grade 3

Look again at the gospel story from Mark 10. Powell explains,

This day wasn’t turning out quite like the Disciples hoped. Jesus’s Disciples were accustomed to crowds, long days of teaching and healing and demands from the most unlikely people seeking out Jesus. But children? Jesus eagerly welcomed young people to gather in close to him, at the expense of the adults who thought they should get Jesus’ full attention. We don’t know if the Disciples just didn’t understand Jesus or didn’t believe him, but on this day they acted in a way that crossed the line. Mark 10 says “People were bring little children to Jesus and the Disciples said ,“NO! No more children!” They thought Jesus needed space, not to touch the children and bless them. The Disciples thought Jesus need to attend to more important matters, more important people so the Disciples “rebuked the parents-“- The NRSV reads “Spoke sternly to them.” That got Jesus’ attention, didn’t it?  He said, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Then Jesus not only says to welcome children, but to become like children! This command sounds like an invitation to Grow Young,

This is a goal we’re exploring together at this church. In our Winter Warmth Series, we’ve been looking at the Growing Young book and research done by Fuller Youth Institute about churches that actively engage young adults,  ages 18-29. The Study is called CEYP –Churches Engaging Young People—and is a study of what churches are doing RIGHT to engage young adults actively in congregations.

We’ve explored five Growing Young findings: showing empathy, taking Jesus’ message seriously, fueling a warm community, and being the best neighbors. Today we wrap up by looking at prioritizing families and youth everywhere, both in our families and in our church. And how wonderful that today we have the privilege of baptizing Magnolia during our service as well. She’s an example to us all. As Powell continues:,

Jesus says to welcome children, but also to become like children! Jesus wasn’t suggesting we revert to immaturity. He was making it clear that not only are children eligible to receive the kingdom of God, but they are great examples of what it means to do so.

My favorite role at any church has been storyteller for VBS. I was telling my favorite story of the empty tomb and Mary’s excitement over meeting the risen Christ. She runs to tell everyone she meets the good news….3rd grader Alexandra, family new to church—  Alexandra heard this, and shouted out “What, Jesus is alive? Why didn’t anyone tell me before? He is risen from the dead? That’s totally cool!” Then she asked for a Bible to read Jesus’ stories for herself.

Our church is missing out, isn’t it? We know it, but don’t know what to do about it. Change and growth begins in the mind and the will, and overflow into good leadership and tangible action. What are we willing to do at this point? What are we willing to give? What are we willing to learn from our youth & young adults who have new ideas to lead us forward? Any good future for a church that grows young needs to engage children.

Powell writes,

I think it is children’s sincerity, willingness to trust, and dependence that make them examples to us. Theologian Karl Rahner writes, children model to the entire community an “infinite openness” to the infinite.( GY 219-220) So theologically, we stand on solid ground when we prioritize young people everywhere in our congregations. Jesus led the way for us in his shocking attention to children and his reorienting the community around them.

What are some ideas of what it might look like when a family and a Growing Young church take Jesus’ same approach to children teens and young adults?

First, no more kids table—you know, at a family gathering where only the kids  and a weird uncle or two sit.Instead, let’s welcome everyone to the BIG table—where we share in ideas and conversation, listening and talking together across generations.

JDMs 80th Silly Family

In my family, everyone belongs at the kids’ table.

In a family or at school, this approach is called “scaffolding,” when we deliberately support a child to help them learn a skill or task through adult encouragement & coaching. When we engage with him or her to listen and learn what matters most— what gives him or her the spark of life and joy. To tell stories to each other. To teach how to do chores and life tasks and how to serve others. To worship and pray together. These are powerful intergenerational actions.

 

Secondly, at a church level, when we think up a new outreach ministry or events, Growing Young churches ask as simple question—how can young people be a part of this? (GY 222) How can generations work and serve alongside each other?

In our families, sometimes we adults place our own goals, wishes, convenience or ease ahead of the benefit to a child, especially in the area of committing to regular church attendance—choosing relaxation or even playing sports on Sundays. Sometimes we don’t have the energy to fight the Sunday morning battle. How many have been there? As a family pastor I watched families drag in to the building late as if just came from a  war zone.  And I congratulated the parents and told them it was worth it because our children learn what matters most through our consistent actions and role-modeling. The most powerful way a child can learn faith is through “catching his or her parent in the act of praying and reading his or her Bible.” Research shows it’s especially powerful to see a father pray and act on his faith.Engaging in worship and serving alongside us are 2 ways our kids can “catch faith.”

That’s what the Scripture from 1 John talks about, when we act in ways that show:

  • we as God’s children are “grateful that our sins our forgiven,”
  • when fathers demonstrate that “you know him who is from the beginning.”
  • When “young men & women support one another to overcome the evil one.”
  • When we encourage one another in Christ to bestrong, and let the word of God live in us.”
  • Then we are being the body of Christ together across all generations, and we are supporting one another on our faith journeys.
  • Then we agree to prioritize families and young people everywhere

Churches can encourage these actions by offering solid discipleship for all ages to build faith that lasts a lifetime. These are good ways to Grow Young.

Another way churches grow young is by addressing family pain and brokenness through support. It can be through small groups, mentors, Sunday School teachers, but Growing Young churches empathize with the realities of parenting by partnering with parents through the rough terrain of toddlerhood and teen years. And walking alongside children & teens’ growing to find their way in faith. Growing Young churches can show this by being flexible to care for kids of divorce and by flexing with today’s families’ busy schedules (GY 223).

Growing Young churches involve youth in leading worship or in leading SS every week in big and small ways. Here at FPDG youth lead us forward to embrace technology. I am thrilled to see how the tech crew includes, embraces, and trains young adults. It’s a significant role in the life of the church! What other areas can become intergenerational?

Lastly, we adults may need to sacrifice personal preferences to welcome & prioritize young people. We likely do this all the time for our own kids & grandkids. But what about the children of the church? In baptism, we covenant to nurture and teach a baby in the Christian faith.

When children in a family or in the church know with certainty that they are loved, it is more believable when we share with them that God loves them. That the God of the universe loves us each of us like crazy. We belong to God and to each other.

I’ve often said one of the most important jobs in a church is rocking the babies in the nursery. I think of Andy & Audrey Pelham at my first church who rocked the babies faithfully each Sunday. When healthy, caring adults give love to children, when children in a family or in the church know with certainty that they are loved, it is more believable when we share with them that God loves them. That the God of the universe created them good and the God of the universe loves them like crazy. That we each belong to God and to God’s family. That we matter to God and to each other.

I think it’s a good step  that this church is holding confirmation for 5 students this year—special thanks go out to20160515_122507_001 the leaders & parents. My last church paired each confirmation student with a mentor to get to know one another, to share faith stories together, and to help the students write their own faith statements. Ideas to consider.

I also think it’s a good step that we continue on with blended worship and include a praise band.  I have a great view of y’all from up here—I love to see you give over your hearts and minds to God as we sing God’s praises and give God glory together. I’ve heard amazing stories of the priority of children teens & young adults, which used to be strong here at FPDG—in Sunday school, VBS and pioneer clubs.

The question is will we look beyond ourselves and our needs again to prioritize children, teens, and young adults? This can happen—though it will look different from before—it may occur in surprising ways: through agreeing to form a union with another healthy church so that we may become stronger together. Or by dreaming up new outreach to a new generation. A healthy church draws 10-20% of its attendees from children.  Our two task forces are at work exploring these options, but they need solid support including funding for their future plans. They need our prayers and confidence that God can do a new thing.

Dale Hudson calls this “Godfidence.” As a result, churches that prioritize families, “care about unreached kids and families in their community…a lot. They keep their focus outward and are heavily involved in the community outside the four walls.  Families in the church build relationships and bring people to church on a regular basis.” [2]

Having good intentions, sharing stories of past glory, and smiling at the youth we see on Sundays just aren’t enough. Growing Young churches vote to back up their good intentions with actions. We, too, have the opportunity vote each Sunday to Growing Young

After all, we live in  Chicago, where people vote early and often—soooo we have the opportunity vote each Sunday to prioritize the next generation:

  • To vote with our knees, to pray for kids and young adults by name,
  • To vote with our wallets to give $ to support children, teens and young adults
  • To vote with our feet by choosing to lead and serve and teach children, teens, and young adults.

When Growing Young churches vote together, they agree to be intentional to reach the net generation, to give priority to children, teens and young adults (GY 229-230). Just like Jesus does. Jesus welcomes the children and teaches us that when we welcome the children, we welcome Jesus and the one who sent him. Let’s follow Jesus by welcoming families– children, teens, & young adults — and in the process, we all may grow young by making families a priority. 

[1]Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, Brad Griffin, Growing Young, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), p. 196ff.

[2] http://www.relevantchildrensministry.com/2013/09/10-keys-to-explosive-growth-in.html (accessed 2-9-18).

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JoySorrow and HOPE, bright hope

Christmas celebrations can’t be over in just one day.

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Over each meal, we light the advent candlesIMG_20171224_175501039.jpg, last night with my extended family who have been arriving for New Years. While we enjoy hugs, reuniting, and good meals, there are two noticeable absences: my rambunctious, brother-in-law Ozzie died suddenly in May and my older brother and his wife have split.

We acknowledge Ozzie with stories. “He’d totally make fun of you, Troy, for wearing a hat and jacket inside, ‘Ready for an expedition, Nanook?'” I wish we could imitate his laugh. We look at videos from his grandkids, from the moments he would have loved: Davis’ big wipeout while tubing off a jump and Lincoln’s first bday pics.

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Our brave friend Lara Hauser, who is a young widow and wonderful mom of four, calls life’s ongoing mix of joy and grief “JoySorrow.” So we tell JoySorrow stories and laugh and cry: at Ozzie’s favorite strategy for staying warm nicknamed “three violent jerks,”  at what Christmas has felt like without him for Tam.

We brainstorm a strategy together for introducing 6-year-old Brantley from Florida to snow in the frigid week ahead, “Snow is fun. Cold means fun.” Then cousin Mark calls in from Minnesota, “Toughen him up. Tell him there are no whiners in the North.” If only that was true! We are ready to embrace “BBob”–as the teenaged cousins call him–and his dad in the week ahead with warm love amidst subzero wind chillsand subzero life chills.

This month as I led a congregation through Advent, we realized that God’s big plan to save the world begins with a knocked-up teen and her finance’s considering divorce. With Jesus, born in animal shed, who became a refugee. With foreigners and shepherds who pay attention and look up to see what God is doing through stars and angelic announcements. God works through all these out-of-the-way people in out-of-the-way places to “bring good news of great joy that shall be for all people.” The gospel story certainly relates to life today in our topsy-turvy times.  Cary Nieuwhof writes,

“What if your  imperfect Christmas is actually a front row seat to God’s grace?….The surprise of Christmas is this: it speaks to us in our weakness even more than it speaks to us in our strength.”

This is how our family life looks right now. This is how our ongoing celebration of Christmas seeps into its grief and reality with hope and love.

As a gift, I give you the words our family has said together since the kids were small as we light our advent candles:

Light the 1st Candle—Purple:

Jesus is our HOPE. Bright HOPE. Stars in the darkness.

Light the 2nd Candle—Blue:

Jesus is our HOPE for PEACE, Kind PEACE. Bridges over broken places.

Light the 3rd Candle—Pink:

Jesus is our JOY. Great JOY. Good news that changes lives.

Light the 4th Candle—Purple:

Jesus is our LOVE. LOVE for everybody. LOVE. There is nothing greater.

Light the CHRIST CANDLE:

Jesus shines in the darkness, Making it LIGHT. Showing us the way to new life, the greatest gift of all.

Daring prayers and unexpected miracles

Last month we prayed daring prayers for every cell in Bill’s body to come alive with God’s glory and heal.  We asked our faith communities to pray daring prayers along with our family.

Faithful believers by the thousands from around the world joined our voices asking God for miracle after miracle for my brother-in-law Bill Ostlund. For five days we all prayed without ceasing for “Ozzie” after an unholy storm of complications from minor cancer, chemo, and norovirus caused him to crash and suffer two heart attacks. We thank you.

At the Sisters of Mercy Convent in St. Louis, a sign reads, “Worry is like praying for what you don’t want to happen.” We visualized and prayed for God’s healing power to be at work and for Ozzie to walk out of that hospital to play with his grandkids. Were those prayers wasted?

Turns out our daring prayers for a miracle were already answered, though we did not know it, and not as we pictured. Bill was already alive to God’s glory, already in God’s presence in eternity. God is mysterious in His mercies, which are new every morning, a constant surprise to us. We were the ones who had to catch up. To sob together. To let go. To open our eyes to the unwished-for miracles.

Bill’s favorite movie was Miracle on Ice. He loved spouting forth Herb Brook’s locker room speech. Bill was a bundle of action and energy, of love for Jesus, and joy and fun that grabbed ahold of anyone nearby. Devastating to us, Bill didn’t get the win we hoped for. He got a different miracle. Over time, maybe we will see the miracle that we, too, have been given through our showing up for Bill’s last days.

Maybe the miracle after miracle is how Bill and Tami’s best friends drew together, to hope and pray, and then grieve together. Maybe the miracle is what Bill’s incredible nurse Greta told us on behalf of the staff, “We’ve never seen such love.” Maybe the miracle is in bonding across our family generations, by rocking baby Lincoln to sleep and doing a hundred “hokey pokeys” with two-year-old Davis and checking in with their parents. Maybe the miracle is in the 800+ people gathered to celebrate Bill’s life, many college-aged or millennial who knew him through Young Life. Maybe the miracle is how Bill’s kids Ellen and Mark spoke bravely and with gratitude of the impact their dad had on them. Maybe the miracle is how all who came listened attentively to the Gospel, hearing one more challenge from this joyful, goofy hockey player, husband, dad, brother-in-law, and friend: “Keep it simple. Show up. Go to the hard places. Be joyful and play. Love Jesus. Love people.”

Maybe the miracle was watching my grieving sister Tami walk around the reception afterwards, bringing grace-filled messages of love and encouragement to so many, telling them how much they meant to Bill. He had a huge capacity to love and bring out the best in people. No one was too far away from Ozzie’s winsome outreach or contagious, “possibilities” thinking. Dang it if Oz didn’t propose that I start up a new church during our last conversation. “Make something happen, Tass. No sitting on the sidelines.”

Maybe the miracle is how Bill joined our family when I was 12. Oz was the epicenter of nearly every fun, crazy, adventurous shenanigan we have ever done in love. We grew up together, and somehow Oz stayed a kid at heart. Bill wasn’t afraid of conflict or the “hard places.” He modeled following Jesus to me. Always.

We met surgeon Tom Blee at Bill’s bedside in the ICU at Regions Hospital in St Paul. Dr. Tom urged us to pray fervently for Bill even though his situation was dire and growing worse day by day. Tom encouraged us that he had seen incredible miracles take place in that hospital and that the staff would join us in praying. My family began to look for God’s hope in new ways, even as Bill died. We do rejoice in his healing in heaven even as we grieve deeply. Words can’t touch how we miss him.

Dr. Tom gave us his book How to Save a Surgeon: Stories of Impossible Healing. He writes,

When God gets involved, healing moves beyond what we could orchestrate. It can be surprising, even weird. [God] says “Your sick family member will be healed I guarantee it. She might have to die first. But no matter what, I’ve got her. And I promise no more tears, no more pain. No more grief.” Our ultimate healing might have to wait until eternity, but still God gives us these surprises, these ripples of healing that touch everyone near…family members… nurses. The healing in these lives will ripple out, touching dozens, passing through families and communities until hundreds are made more whole. Impossible healing may not be on our timeline and it might not be the sound and light show we expect, but it will often expand out into something bigger—and more glorious-—than we would have ever imagined.[1]

We are still awaiting the stories to come of those healing ripples. The next day, Tami’s dear friend Debbie Burns posted on facebook,

unspecified“Day 1 of the Bill “Ozzie” Ostlund challenge for the rest of your life:

  1. Love Jesus
  2. Love people

It IS that simple, people. Billy O. modeled this every day of his full, but too brief, time with us. Let’s strive to follow his lead❤️ ”

 

In another unexpected twist, one of my best friends Sarah was diagnosed with breast cancer last month, while praying for Ozzie and for my family. She told me she has these words from Tim Keller written in her Bible, “Worry is not trusting God to get it right. Bitterness is deciding God got it wrong.”

So we wait, hoping to get a glimpse at how God “gets it right” in this tragedy–and in all our tragedies, really. Instead of worrying, we can continue to pray daring prayers for those around us. However God’s unexpected miracles unfold–for my family, for Sarah, for you in your life–we will have front row seats to see what God is gonna do next.

“Keep it simple. Show up. Go to the hard places. Be joyful and play. Love Jesus. Love people.”–Bill Ostlund

I close with same words we used to close out Bill’s funeral: the benediction always given by the former Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Richard Halverson,

You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go,
God is sending you.
Wherever you are,
God has put you there.
God has a purpose
in your being there.
Christ lives in you
and has something
he wants to do
through you where you are.
Believe this and go in the
grace and love and
power of Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

 

[1] Tom Blee, How to Save a Surgeon: Stories of Impossible Healing, (Minneapolis, MN: 9Foot Voice, 2016), p. 45-46.

Freezing Frogs and Sunday Hope

In oversize puddles and wetlands, my sister and I stalked amphibians to see if we could spot with our own eyes what was chirping the oversize chorus. Nope. Each time we got close to water’s edge, one frog stopped singing and another started just a few feet further away, playing hide and seek with us while singing an impressive chorus. We imagined their creature-from-the-black-lagoon plotting, “I think I can take the shorty, but the ginger target looks tastier.”  Wonder and giggles make good stress relievers.

Don’t we all need a place to go, to run or walk out our thoughts in our mixed-up, “manic Monday” world? To pace out our problems on our worst days, “Yeah, it’s finally Friday, but–dang it–I didn’t solve that yet. And I didn’t even come close to meeting my goals for the week.” Stress, stress, stress might tempt us to spend even more time at our computers. Nope. Add arrows to your Bullet Journal to move the task to next week. Not all change depends on you or your own efforts. Head outside!

“Don’t believe things can change? Just look at Palm Sunday — to Good Friday — to Resurrection Sunday. Always believe, always keep hoping — things can change.”

–Ann Voskamp

IMG_20170314_143618495When I’m frustrated, I walk the 3 1/2-mile Deer Grove East prairie path, several times a week. Sometimes with my brother and his bite-sized dog Samson. Always windy, rarely crowded, a great place to watch clouds and view the whole horizon. (Translation: no hills … or any feature, really … to distract from the sky and my steps.)

It seems I walk much faster on a warm March day (inspired by the name of the month?), but it’s in contrast with whistling headwinds that slow me down in blustery February.

Friday I walked with my sister Tami. We hashed over our family’s issues along the way, and lost–and found–her glove, but no solutions. And we stalked frogs as tiny as a fingertip. Visiting from Minnesota, she kept commenting on the uninterrupted green-grass vista and buds on the trees. Not spring in Minnesota yet.

Walking on a Friday brings me hope even when there’s no real reason. Nothing’s actually gotten better … yet. But I stop my striving and put the week to rest. I walk my way into weekend mode. I look forward to Sunday.

Monday I walked again,  alone this time, hurrying to complete my lap before a hailstorm rolled in. Almost back to the car, I nearly missed it — and it changed everything. How? “Pop,”a tree burst into full white bloom. Spring hope, there before me.

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Lovely tree along my walk route that burst into flower between Friday and Monday.

In the midst of the still winter-bare woods, a tree dressed fully in spring splendor.  Over the weekend, life found a way. While I was resting, watching movies, cheering at 12 PHS volleyball games, talking with two friends in marriage crunches. While I was worshiping and waving palm branches at church, God was re-creating his world. And hopefully, recreating me.

That Friday my sister and I talked through my ministry “do-over” options, brainstorming a possible shift from the church world back into non-profit leadership. My dining table was piled with 50+index cards listing my transferable skills in sharpie-blue. It’s uplifting as spring to have a sister you trust and who loves you look at your bold bucket of skills and say, “Yes! You’d be great at this            !”

Even without my sister to cheer me on, Monday felt better, with Sunday’s lingering hope. Monday brought morning sun and lemon daffodils popping open in the backyard, but quickly turned to holy hailstones crashing down from the heavens. During the storm, I boldly sent out my revamped, skill-focused resumes. Talked with a potential church employer about a fresh ministry area. Wrote a new article assigned to me by a magazine editor. Sunday hope carried over into my manic Monday.

I finally googled those crazy, chirping amphibians my sister and I had chased. “Chorus frogs”, they are called: locally, Western chorus frogs, and where I used to live, Northeast spring peepers.

The amazing thing I learned is these tiny hoppers can survive being frozen alive. These daring frogs come out of hibernation early, and when the temperature drops again, no problem. When the first ice crystals form, their livers quickly rush sugary anti-freeze throughout their bodies to protect their organs.

It all looks impossible on Friday, doesn’t it? With the chanting crowds, the darkened sky, and and Jesus’ being nailed to a cross?

It looks impossibly bad, yet we call it “good,” for God’s actions that Friday change everything. God means us to live in close relationship with Jesus and with others. Forgiven and forgiving. Redeemed and freed from “the sin that so easily entangles.” Jesus’ Friday death on that cross and his Sunday resurrection change everything. Jesus saves us. Unfreezes us. Brings hope and Spring to our wintery souls.

Turns out that none of what we need most depends on us, on any day of the week. It all dhqdefault.jpgepends on Jesus, on a cross, on an empty tomb. That’s Sunday hope on a Friday.

 

Sources:

Thanks for inspiration to Jon Acuff’s helpfully entertaining book Do-Over.

Aatish Bhatia, “What’s making this strange chirping noise?” https://www.wired.com/2014/04/spring-peeper/ (accessed 4/11/17).

Ann Voskamp, “When you’re kinda struggling through holy week–and don’t feel holy at all” http://archive.mlgn2ca.com/u=fb5ead1fd337d4ac2581b075b6244ad1&id=360d7273&e=1d0e0720 (accessed 4/11/17).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids + Life = Surprise!

Anything shock you lately? Surprise your socks off? Blue hair might fall in that category….

Before we were even dating, my husband Ken asked me to throw him a surprise 30th birthday party. “Um, if you’re expecting the party, how do I surprise … oh, never mind. Sounds like a fun challenge.” It turned out to be a great gathering of friends. He’s asked me to throw him a surprise party every 5th year since: a tacky tourist party, a micro-brew hangout, a 70’s bash, a family scavenger hunt, and a church-wide mission project. Each an extrovert’s delight.

Not all kid surprises equal good parental surprises though. Like the baby blowouts that necessitated “Mr. Clean” Ken’s changing Carlina’s clothes three times in a row in his first hour of singlehandedly caring for her. An unshakeable father-daughter bond formed that messy summer. While Ken was relieved and delighted to start teaching again in fall, he wouldn’t trade those early months together for anything. Such love surprised him. Bad beginning, good ending, paying dividends for the last eighteen years and counting.  All of which paved the way for our recently-applauded, “chill response” to Carlina’s post-Christmas, blue hair. Surprise!

It doesn’t always work that way. In our house with two students flexing their independence and two parents dealing with new jobs, right now there are not enough “chill responses” to go around. Exhaustion. Impatience. Anger. Fear. Stress. Change. Overwork. These factors eat fun for lunch–or dinner–no matter what age your kids are.

Even the good intentions of a surprise–a mother’s day dinner out–predictably went awry with our two and six-year-old, devolving into an overpriced whine-fest. (p.s. Don’t ever recap such an event by saying, “No biggie; I’ve finally lowered my expectations enough, so I thought it was a good Mother’s day anyway.” Do not speak such exhausted mama-truth to your earnest husband. Don’t even think it loudly.)  I frequently say the wrong thing at the right time.

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re on your way to somewhere else.” Kids+ Life = “Surprise!” What about receiving the late night phone call every parent of a teen driver dreads? Finding a wadded-up, lousy report card? Discovering your kid is being bullied by classmates … or doing the bullying? Rushing to the ER, triggering a chain of medical treatments? Facing student depression and/or struggling with disorders?

Anytime a kid starts a pronouncement, “I’ve got something to tell you, Mom. Don’t get mad, but _____,” what comes next will in all likelihood be life-changing: “I lost my _____.” Or, “I missed the _____, but hit a _____.” Or,”I’m _____.”Or, I tried my best, but _____.” Or, meet my new _____.” Surprise!

As a family minister, my conversations often begin when your difficult family conversations end. Though it seems students never put down their devices, our kids are watching us sideways and listening closely to how we respond to “Surprise!”

And I’m not talking about blue hair here, which obviously grows out. I’m thinking about the biggies. In fact, such disasters and follow-up conversations are so predictable with teens that a wise parent brainstorms or role-plays in advance how to respond–sidestepping anger and reaching up for God’s love, mercy, and  grace. With discipline as needed. But not until the next day.

Our words matter. Most of us are not good at thinking on our feet and responding quickly with kindness or love. Then we replay these hard conversations over and over in the middle of the night. I know I need practice being calm & gracious, how about you?

Truth be told, these conversations with students never really end. They just begin a new series of discussions. A student recently tweeted, “The problem lies not in what we say, but in what we do not say.” Can we plan ahead for what we might say–and what we promise ourselves and those we love we will not say?

At Families@Five, a worship service for young families at Second Church Indy, we prayed a simple prayer together to confess our sins every week, followed by our assurance of pardon, “Turn and look someone in the eye and say to them, ‘Jesus loves you no matter what.'”

How can we say that in the face of “Surprise?” How can we respond with God’s-no-matter-what-love, “Nothing you can do can make us love you more and nothing you can do can make us love you less. Your life might get harder, but we’ll love you through it.”

Revelation 21:3-6 gives us a clear, beautiful picture of Jesus as our starting–and ending–point in conflict and in tough situations.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

If Jesus is with us, if we are his people, and if God himself is with us as our God, then Jesus has got this surprise covered. If Jesus can handle even this surprise from beginning to end,  if Jesus will wipe away every tear and all this pain,if Jesus will make all things new, then we will be ok. More than ok. This situation and we will become new.

“Sure,” you might say, “But what about right now, when life sucks?” What about the time before heaven, this in-between-time, when we have to live the reality of stupid choices, when there’s danger or fall-out, when our kids face tough consequences and life-altering decisions, when we pour out tears and regret?

Or when we’re not ready to move through it yet, but mired in denial, anger, conflict, or stubbornness, and kids are stoney in rebellion or headstrong persistence, a long way from repentance?

Jesus’ promise isn’t for just someday. Jesus is making all things new right now.

Jesus doesn’t give up when it gets hard, or when we mess up, or when we stink at forgiving, or when we say the worst possible things at the worst possible time. Jesus doesn’t wait on us to parent well or to get our stuff together to begin working in the situation, and Jesus doesn’t wait for our kids to realize the error of their ways. Jesus’ work in us and in our kids is not over when we fail. Hear Philippians 1:6, “[I am] confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Even in the now, we can ask for the Spirit to help us love with Jesus’ love, in small ways immediately. We can take one step toward giving mercy with Jesus’ mercy and forgiving with Jesus’ forgiveness. We can be ready for the new, even when it is painful in the now and in the days to come. Jesus has already redeemed us and already redeemed even this situation. It is already accomplished, not by us, but by God. It begins and ends with Jesus: “These words are trustworthy and true. And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

We can respond to our kids with what we all long to hear,”We love you. We’re in this together. And God is in this. God is for you.” Surprise!

 

For excellent ideas on praying for your family, see Cindi McMenamin’s article http://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/7-ways-to-pray-when-your-child-goes-astray.html (accessed 1/27/17).

Stuck? Throw an “Inch Pebble” Party

Doesn’t fb really stand for “family bragging?” Posts like: “Look at the clever Halloween costumes we made” (with help from a professional makeup artist and the costumer from Lion King?) 14639899_10153984291182918_8499421417956026212_n “My quarterback son just cured cancer during halftime of his Homecoming football game,” or “We— I mean–my daughter won the science fair blue ribbon.”

Am I the only one overwhelmed by parenting my kids, let alone comparing myself to other, overachiever families? (Just because I can’t get my act together to post fb pictures doesn’t mean we’re not having jaw-dropping, creative, family fun–it means you don’t have a good enough imagination.)

We all set basic goals for our kids’ growth (i.e .learning how to use a fork and knife). We help them practice skills and hone talents (not including how to armpit fart–boys teach that to each other.) We help them make mid-course corrections in order to become responsible citizens of the world. (“When you earn a D on your report card, no one but you think that means ‘I have a crappy history teacher.’ The rest of the world thinks, ‘He didn’t do the work.'”) And as families, we get stuck sometimes.

For ministry training this week, I’ve been reading an excellent book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. aclkNot a church-y book, a business book. It covers how to build hope and create forward momentum, even how to make big changes through asking people to take incremental, easily do-able steps. Applicable to get your teen to clean a room, to pay off your enormous college debt, or change that most stubborn behavior.

Good points of the book are: 1) motivate rather than impose change by following the bright spots, 2) build on what’s going well, 3) make it easy to change right now by setting a clear path.

Aiming for your child to be successful in milestones (straight As on the report card or making the A team) is too overwhelming. Heath says to break it down even further. He writes,

piled-smooth-gray-pebbles-3836837Aim for family “inch pebbles.”

Especially for our kids, we might take the time to shrink the problem to what is doable NOW, one inch at a time. OR we can grow our kids by motivating and helping them really want to move the next pebble (celebrations,  vision casting, bribes all help build new pebble-moving habits). Create a path out of “stuck” by providing positive, actionable clarity. Heath says it works better every time than loud, parental “no’s” or even our best, can-do speeches.

It’s as if we flipped the switch on our kids–we suddenly move the pebble forward the next inch in the next five minutes. Worth throwing a party? Yes.

Takin’ Risks & Prayin’ Moonshine

On our road trip to our daughter’s southern college,20160819_124530 we talked for miles about change and fear— (and what exactly is Moonshine anyway? Didja know it’s also “foolish talk or ideas?” The McCoy version of talkin’ smack? Didja know they’re called the Smoky Mountains because fog in the hills looks smoky,20160819_195739 not because Smokey the Bear lives there? Revelation. We clueless Yankees crossed into southern territory, dumbfounded by places where every word is drawled, like the town proudly proclaimed on its water tower as “Florence, KY Ya’ll.”  And then Rockytop, TN. We trolled my siblings, singing “Rockytop” over and over. Sorry. Not Sorry. But I digress.)

For fun, we brainstormed silly conversation openers, pick-up lines, and ways to make new friends for each of us who’ve moved this summer. Which new activities to try. Yes, and which maybe not to try. (I’m both a mom and a minister, after all.) Remember this is the girl who went paraglidingscreenshot-2016-09-14-15-16-49 in Argentina this summer.  Jumped off a mountain with a parachute for Pete’s sake.) Anyhoo, during freshman orientation, Carlina tweeted:

Aug 27 that moment between taking a risk and seeing if it pays off or blows up in your face. that. 1 RETWEET 2 LIKES

Yes, that. A leap of faith. Restlessness. Passion. Optimism. On the verge. In a liminal space. Hope-filled. Moving forward. In transition. All those phrases suggest you are taking a risk and opening up your life into a new season of change. Call it whatever you wish, for many of us change is spelled:

F-E-A-R.

For some of us, that moment sss-tttt-rrrrrr-eeee-tch-eeees and sss-tttt-rrrrrr-eeee-tch-eeees out some more. I know it. I’ve read books about it. I’ve coached others through that season, asking them questions, “What one hopeful step can you take today? How can you use this in-between-time for growth? What great, big, God-sized dreams are you praying for?”

Mmm hmmm. “One hopeful step.” Sounds great to say TO SOMEONE ELSE! Even though I’ve lived it before. Six cross-country moves. Three career changes. Eight job changes.  A few years ago we accidentally turned into that family that moves a lot.  I now have several “interim” job titles on my resume to explain. But not anymore, right? We’re done. Settled. Let’s hope. Except that we follow “One who is notoriously unpredictable,” as Tim Hansel said.

Last time I made a big change from the Midwest to that region-that-must-not-be-named, it stretched into a year of underemployment. Many prayers later, I discovered that God and I do NOT have a special arrangement just because I’m a minister and supposedly follow Him full-time. (I dunno exactly how I wandered into that conclusion before? Hence the “supposedly.” #heresyalert). No job handed to me with my DMin diploma, either. (Uh Fuller, what WAS that $18,000 and five years good for? “Still waiting….” [Cue the Energizer Bunny.]  “Still waiting….”)

So no God deals for an insta-job. Turns out finding my fit takes time. And stinks. Even this time around, two years and three moves later, two years wiser. I know God is faithful; He’s done it before and can do it again, in my life specifically. Moving here to Chicagoland is but one part of what God’s gonna do next, and we have a front row seat to watch for it. (I hear your voice, Sally Kruse.) And I hear all you Narbs people shouting and jumping up and down, “Yeah, we heard it from YOUR mouth at Thanksgiving last year! ‘God is faithful; He provided us a job and a house and an open door.’ Do you listen to yourself, Pastor Tassie?” Yep, I’m not just talkin’ moonshine.

I’m trying to wait expectantly, with creativity, hope, and imagination—and all those big words I listed above. Many of you have inspired me with your hunger, passion, patience, and longing for God as you wait for a child or job or a cure or a yes. Thank you for your examples, far, far better than my own words. There’s still room for my great big, God-sized dream. And I also have learned the flip-side: if I want to make God laugh, just tell Him my plans.

How will I wait? I’m doing more praying, that’s for sure. Risking. Taking fruitful actions. Prayer doodling. Leadership brush-up. SWOT analyses. SMART goals. I’m using this time in-between to advance my skills. Reactivate my network. Make connections. Consult with a few churches. And did I mention prayin’ moonshine? Right now I’m praying for an exciting role at the Chapel, overseeing family ministry at eight churches. Or whatever our big God has planned. Please join my prayer posse. And let me know how I can join yours.