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).

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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.

Not Your Ordinary, Average, Little Villians

Three surprisingly strange messages are worth passing on to your kids:

Message one: God made us extraordinarily ordinary. Our neighborhoods sound like Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” Our kids have a tough time competing with the illusion or expectation of exceptionalism. They may not be picked for the team or surrounded by friends in the lunchroom. They will fail the final, let in the crucial goal, flub the well-rehearsed audition, bump the curb in the driver’s test—again, and panic in the clutch. On the surface (or on facebook), others may look like they have it all together or–at least got accepted to their first-choice college.Our kids will face disappointment and failure daily.

  • Fail. Rinse. Repeat. Failure is not optional. They will face it. Hopefully, not alone. We parents are designed to coach and encourage, not only to protect. To stand them on their toddling-feet again.To hold the wobbly, two-wheeler firm and then let go.DSC_3242.jpg

To help them fix the fender dent out of their own savings. To listen, to hug, and wipe away tears—at any age. To affirm character growth more than achievement.

Yes, they will have great moments of brilliance when they score 100 percent, sink the perfect shot, rake leaves for the widow next door, hit it out of the ballpark, give a kickin’ performance, win the girl’s heart. Followed by failure again.

  • Our acceptance and God’s. By our acceptance of and constant care for our kids through failure, we show that we are made by our Creator to live–not on the mountaintop–but in the plains, or even in the dark valley. We are not alone there. If there’s one lesson that’s clear in a Bible crammed with oddballs, screw-ups, and dysfunctional families, it’s that God meets us in our failures more often than our triumphs. We pay better attention when we are not at high altitude. In the valley, we need God’s help and we ask for it, we beg for it. We discover God’s love anew, sometimes in and through others acting in ordinary ways.

After all, isn’t this the message of Christmas: Emmanuel, God with us, God born in a manger, God living here on earth? God made us ordinary and God meets us right here in our ordinary moments

Message two: God’s grace knows no bounds for his beloved children. Our grace does. As parents, as we seek to love our children compassionately, we need to be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves.” I love what Kara Powell writes: “the odds are great that your child will ‘cross the line,’ or for some of our kids, catapult over the line.” Parents hold kids accountable for their choices and actions. We attempt to deliver relevant, immediate consequences. We try to do it without anger, but, let’s face it, we’re not all that good at it. God is. Sometimes we surprise them with a “get-out-of-jail-free card,” a penalty-free do-over, undeserved gracebandit-clipart-western_036.gif bigger than the moment requires.

If the little villians “name it and claim it,” apologize, take responsibility, and ask for forgiveness, yes, we forgive…but we shouldn’t necessarily forget. Don’t be a pushover. Our job as parents is to create and hold safe boundaries for our kids in a world without guardrails.

If we wish to form our children’s identities in Christ as beloved, forgiven sinners who are responsible citizens of God’s great big world, we can’t forget they bear each of these names: beloved, forgiven sinners.

  • Beloved. How can we best pass on God’s great-big-no-matter-what-love and surround our kids with a community of faith that adopts, values and encourages them, too? Love happens in little and in big moments every day. Be all in. Love your kids and others’ kids. As the apostle Paul exhorts, “Love wholeheartedly.”
  • Forgiven. God forgives and forgets. We work to forgive. To keep current, with short list of issues. To clear the air frequently, especially when they “don’t want to talk about it.” But we can’t forget—yet. Maybe after the college years. (“So, mom, remember that mysterious mailbox problem back in 1985?”) Truth doesn’t always come out completely at first…or ever. We need to be on the lookout for underlying, heart issues so we can point and guide kids back to reality, directly to the God who forgives. That’s because kids are also…
  • Sinners. Kids are notoriously sneaky, fallen beings. That said, we try to assume the best until we find reason not to hope. Meanwhile, we keep our eyes and ears wide open, whether they are toddlers, stuck in the “nos” and testing out their newly-minted wills or whether they are second-toddlers (aka teenagers,) pulled by unrelenting forces, including their own hormones and desire for independence.

toonvectors-12731-140.jpgOur original sin is never very original. Thankfully, kids make mistakes in covering their tracks. Kara Powell encourages parents, “Don’t panic. There are very few issues you will face as parents that are irredeemable, even the biggies…. The ultimate hope that is part and parcel of trusting God is the hope we have that in the long run, God’s mercy will win.” Jesus went to the cross, to hell and back to deal with sin, to provide for our salvation. We can be bold, pray hard, and face family issues head on.

Message three: pain can be good for us. We need to help our kids face this hard reality: God doesn’t promise success or an easy life; God promises His presence. God promises to be with us in our pain. This lesson needs to be modeled. It will be “caught more than taught” to our kids from us instead of by us.

Model pain. Sometimes pain serves as an early warning system. How do we face failure or tough man-and-girl-reading-bible.jpgcircumstances? How do we cope on Wednesday afternoon during a crushing week of disappointment upon disappointment? Do we let others into our lives to help, pray, and encourage us?

Name it. Kara Powell continues, “Having the support of caring parents who do not hide pain or struggle from their kids can help kids navigate the heartache and hardship of life in a broken world…. We must engage our kids in honest conversation and dialogue, soliciting their opinions and voice during those times of struggle. If you are honest and open with any issue of life or faith, your child will be a better thinker, not to mention theologian.” When life takes a wrong turn, we can grow and learn together with our families when we earnestly seek to follow God and ask for God’s help. High impact lessons can come from even our biggest screw-ups or deepest hardships. Pain pushes us to God, pushes us to grow.

Parents Must Be Present To Win. Here is our assignment:  just three messages to send out, but we must be there, all in. AND we do not need to go it alone. God’s kids, God’s truth, God’s grace to us as parents and to them.

We’re ordinary, beloved, forgiven sinners who face pain and failure in life. God packs in hope and freedom, love and grace abundantly along the way. We rediscover “the LORD, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” who is more than enough to help us face today and tomorrow. We are bearers of good news to our kids, worth believing ourselves and worth passing on.