One of the Most Powerful Parenting Ally

I took my daughter to see Cinderella last week. We had talked about it for months, and both of us were excited. We waited through the previews and then the movie started, and about 10 minutes into the show something remarkable happened.

Unprompted, she reached over and held my hand. And I felt like I was a teenager again. My heart leaps up in my chest and I’m thankful for the darkness of the theater to conceal the stupidly big grin I had on my face.

She held my hand.

And she didn’t let go. We sat there, for the better part of an hour and a half, and just held hands. I couldn’t help but thinking during the movie that moments like these aren’t going to last forever. Time is fleeting, and at some point I’m going to be replaced in that seat. There will be another boy who will get to hold her hand, and I’m confident that his smile will be bigger and stupider than mine. Because of that realization, this special moment that meant way more to me than to her was tinged with a little bit of sadness.

My kids are growing up before my eyes. Some days it feels like they take leaps and bounds toward young adulthood. And in those moments, I curse time. I like things the way they are, but time wags his finger in my face and tells me that they can’t stay like this. They are going to change, ready or not. At times like these, time feels like my opponent, something to be fought against. So I battle and battle to try and preserve the day, the now, knowing that it’s a losing battle.

There is, however, another perspective. For parents like me, time doesn’t have to be an opponent; it can actually be one of the most powerful allies we have. That’s good news, because let’s face it – we all need a few more allies in this great task of raising our children. In order to see time as our ally in parenting rather than our opponent, though, it will take a change in perspective.

Here, then, are three changes in focus that need to happen for time to start being our friend:

1. Focus on character rather than accomplishments.

It’s very helpful for my wife and I to step back every once in a while and remind ourselves as parents of what exactly we are in this for. Is it for straight A’s? Is it to raise good citizens? Is it to make sure the boys can throw a curveball? And the answer again and again is no. We aren’t in this for the personal accomplishments of our kids; we are in this to model and teach them the gospel and then ultimately to see them transformed by the grace of God. It seems like we start seeing time as our opponent when we start focusing on the accomplishments of our kids. When we do, we get impatient with their progress at one task or another. But character building through gospel transformation? That’s the long play. And God is not in a hurry.

2. Focus on progress rather than perfection.

Similarly, it’s easy to get frustrated with our kids when we have to say the same thing to them again and again. And we do; if you’re a parent, you do, too. It’s helpful to remember in those times of frustration how many times the Holy Spirit has had to say the same thing to me:

  • You are God’s child.
  • You are safe in Him.
  • You don’t need to worry about tomorrow.

Again and again. Like our own relationship with God, our kids have not yet arrived. Fortunately, though, there is time. And hopefully, by God’s grace, and aided by time, we have to say the same thing less frequently.

3. Focus on celebration rather than mourning.

Yesterday Jana took our baby – our last one – our 5-year-old Christian to register for kindergarten. That’s the last time this will happen. This is the last time we will have a true first day of school. This is the way of parenting – you’re constantly experiencing that sense of loss as a kid moves from one stage to another. That’s why time can feel so much like an adversary; it is constantly taking precious moments away from us.

But the opposite is also true – time is also giving us new moments. If we change our perspective from that of mourning to that of celebration, we can begin to see time as an ally.

The moments we have with our kids are precious, and they are fleeting. But instead of mourning the loss of those moments, can make the choice to be grateful for the time we’ve been given and, with time as our ally, make the most of every opportunity.

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You Are Not Your Trials

NaCl.

That’s the chemical formula for one of the most common ionic compounds to our everyday life – that of table salt. It’s a 1:1 ratio, meaning it is in equal parts sodium and chloride. When those two elements come together and form a compound, you get salt. Both are an essential part of making this compound that is something entirely different than what those elements are on their own. Take one away, and you no longer have the compound that is so essential to everyday life.

The compound is the sum of these parts; it is not defined by one, but instead is only made when they come together.

This reality is a bit like our own lives. We all have a story; we all have different experiences that have profoundly shaped who we are. All are important because like clay in the hands of a potter, the Lord has used all of them to shape us into who we are. If you take one out, the product of both who we are and who we’re becoming is radically altered. In other words, your experiences matter.

Even, and maybe most especially, the hard ones.

If we took stock of who we are becoming, one of the things we will clearly see is that the hands of our Sculptor seem to have been most formative during the days of difficulty and trial. Though we might have been too blinded by our pain at the time to recognize it, in retrospect we would have to admit that those dark days of difficulty were forming days. It was during those days that God chipped away at our sin and self-reliance; at our lack of trust and immaturity.

It was through those times that we learned perseverance, and after perseverance, all kinds of other godly character traits were moved further and further along. So while we might not necessarily be thankful for the trial itself – we might not thank God for the cancer, for the job loss, for the tears of many kinds – we’ve got to admit that without them, we would not be the people we are today. These experiences were part of the compound of our being.

But not the only part. And this is where we can self-destruct so easily.

Though our trials are an essential part of who we are, they do not define us. They are one of many great works of God in and through us, all coming together to bring about our Christ-likeness. They are part of our definition, of our very core, but they don’t define who we are.

God defines who we are. He calls us His sons and daughters, and the trials we walked through with Him were the means to reinforcing or awakening that true and complete definition. When we experience those trials, we are stripped of all those things we might have trusted in: our career, our health, our ability to manipulate situations for our own good, and we are left bankrupt. We are emptied of what we thought we could count on, what we thought was most precious and dear to us, and when we are left there feeling so very empty, we find our true and lasting mark of identity.

Though we are essentially shaped by our trials, God takes that experience along with all our others to bring about the compound of our being. And in the end, we find that we are shaped, but not defined, by our trials as well as our successes; our accomplishments as well as our failures. We find that we are now, and always, the children of God.

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Thanking God for the Cable Company

My name is Michael, and I have cable.

I’ve thought about getting rid of cable a bunch of times. Sometimes it’s because of expense. But most of the times I’ve considered cutting the cord it’s out of frustration. Appointment times missed, poor service, outages – all of these things have caused me more frustration than they should have. And that’s kind of the point.

Every once in a while, you come across a situation that brings something to light in your heart. Sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s bitterness, sometimes it’s fear. Thing is, we think these situations are causal. I am afraid because of the diagnosis. I am angry because I was mistreated. I am bitter because someone else got the credit I deserved. More accurate, though, is the fact that these situations didn’t cause all that stuff; they only revealed it.

Think of it like this – if you were to take a piece of fruit and put it inside of a vice and start tightening it, eventually the juice will come out. The juice was in the fruit all the time; the vice was only the mechanism that caused what was inside to come out. Situations and circumstances are like the vice. They tighten and tighten and tighten until something eventually come out of us. But what comes out was in our hearts already; it wasn’t placed there because of the vice.

So a couple of weeks ago when, yet again, the cable company didn’t deliver, I felt very, very wronged. That’s not to say I wasn’t wronged (nor is this meant to be a commentary on whether or not the cable companies are jerks or whether you should have cable or not). What came out of me was my latent sense of consumerism. And it was ugly.

I believe it’s this way for many of us; we live our whole lives as consumers. We consume good, services, and even church, and when someone or something doesn’t meet our expectations, our sovereign rights as consumers are infringed upon. We feel wronged; we feel that we deserve better. The question is what happens next.

When that sense of consumerism is awakened inside of us, we would do well to recognize just how deeply it runs. Even spiritually, do we have the sense that we deserve more? That we deserve better? Perhaps so. This, along with so many other circumstances, is a chance for us not only to deal with the individual circumstance, but to deal with the heart issue our reaction in the midst of it revealed.

So maybe there’s something redemptive after all about the cable company. Maybe.

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The Courageous Choice to Stay

Courage is a spiritual thing. That’s because courage and faith are linked for the Christian.

It takes no courage to make the choice where an outcome is clearly seen and the outcome is favorable. If you have the choice to go down Path A and Path B, and Path A looks like it was transported out of a Disney movie, complete with rainbows, butterflies, and mice who sing songs to you, and Path B looks like it came out of a horror movie, it doesn’t take a lot of courage to go down Path A. Your senses tell you that it will be easier and more enjoyable, so you make that decision.

Courage is about uncertainty; it’s about doubt; it’s about fear; and ultimately it’s about choosing Path B even though you know it’s going to be more difficult. That’s why courage is a spiritual matter – you are exercising faith in your decision-making because you believe in something that’s not visible to your naked eyes.

When we think of courage, though, we typically think about leaving. Right now, especially in the Christian world, courage is about leaving a career for another one, leaving a way of life for another one, leaving something you find yourself stuck in for what might be. Courage is about chasing the elusive dream because, so the line of thinking goes, that dream has been put inside you by God.

But what if courage is not always about leaving? What if courage means staying?

This is the flipside of the coin; the one that’s less exciting. It’s also the one that fits with the biblical exhortation you see over and over again in the New Testament to faithfulness. The Bible says stay. The Bible says persevere. The Bible says remain. The Bible says hold on.

True enough, it also says “leave.” God told Abraham to leave the familiar; Jesus told us as His disciples to venture out; the rich young ruler was told to abandon.

So you can’t really say that the courageous choice of faith is either one without exception. What you can say, though, is that you can’t determine what the choice of faith is based on the excitement of one choice over another.

To the dad who is tired of coming home to needy children, the Bible says stay.

To the wife who is fed up with her unromantic husband, the Bible says stay.

To the church member who only consumes what the church has to offer and is therefore wanting to move across town, the Bible says stay.

Don’t be quick to leave; don’t be so fast to confuse courage with excitement; don’t bow before the idol of excitement at the expense of faithfulness.

Sometimes the most courageous thing you can do is to stay right where you are.

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The Maturing of Self-Awareness is Self-Forgetfulness

John Calvin wrote in the beginning of The Institutes of the Christian Religion these words in regard to knowledge of God and knowledge of self:

“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”

I’ve found this experience to be true; self-awareness and God-awareness are linked together. That’s not to say, however, they are the same thing. God and humanity are different from each other, and the pathway to God is NOT found through exploring oneself. At the same time, the link is strong. As one begins to plumb the depths of who God is they inevitably have the same experience as Isaiah in Isaiah 6. In the light of the knowledge of God we are forced to recognize the true depth of our own depravity. And as we see ourselves in light of Him, we are again forced to reflect on who He is as He is different than we are.

And so the circle goes. As we know more and more of God, we also become more and more aware of ourselves. And as we become more and more aware of ourselves, we look increasingly at the character of God.

Self-awareness is a good thing, then, for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, it forces us to recognize in our faults that God exists apart from those faults. For example, we might find ourselves a desire for justice to be done in the world, and yet through our increasing self-awareness recognize that we want this justice to be done to others at the exclusion of ourselves. It’s good for everyone else to be held accountable, just not ourselves. But God is not like that.

Another reason why self-awareness is a good thing is because of the effect on our relationships with others. We can be more sympathetic and compassionate toward others when we recognize the same characteristic at play in our own lives.

But this self-awareness is not an end in itself; it can’t be, or otherwise we become people who live for no other reason than knowing ourselves. We become our own God; we are the object of our pursuits. This, unfortunately, is the unintended result of our emphasis on “authenticity” and “community.” We become people who justify our sin and our shortcomings because they are known and acknowledged and shared with others. We no longer feel conviction about this stuff in our lives that has yet to be fully claimed by the gospel because our struggles are common and even understandable.

Like all other parts of our lives, there is a certain kind of maturity to our self-awareness that happens as we grow in Christ. The maturing of our self-awareness is, ironically, self-forgetfulness. This in the end is what true humility is made of.

Here, too, we have some confusion, because we tend to think that humility means thinking we are worthless. It means the deflection of compliments and a refusal to accept that we might be good at doing a particular thing. Instead of simply saying “thank you” when someone offers us a word of encouragement, we brush it off all the while longing in our souls that someone else will pick up the compliment and continue the conversation on our behalf. Or that by our deflection, we will actually intensify the admiration of another so that they think not only we are good at a particular thing, but that we are also really good at being humble.

Messed up, right? Right.

Part of self-awareness is knowing that we are, in fact, good at things. But the other side of that coin is being aware that even when we are doing something that seems to be pretty selfless in the moment, our motives are tainted with vain conceit and self-indulgence. We serve, but we want to be acknowledged for our service. We pray and study but we want others to recognize how much we’ve done. We give but we feel slighted when we aren’t recognized for what we’ve done.

This is where the maturing of our self-awareness come in. By God’s grace, hopefully we are moving in the direction where we know ourselves more and yet think of ourselves less. That’s because more and more we find our gaze fixed first on God, second on others, and we see ourselves in relation to how we might serve them both.

The profitable question for us, then, might not be whether we know ourselves better and better; maybe it’s where that self-knowledge is taking us. Is it taking us down the road of self-justification and indulgence, or is it taking us into that blessed realm of self-forgetfulness?

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God Not Only WILL Do; He Is Doing

What we say really does matter.

We shouldn’t be surprised; it was Jesus who said beginning in Matthew 12:33, speaking to the Pharisees:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good man produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil man produces evil things from his storeroom of evil. I tell you that on the day of judgment people will have to account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

In other words, the fruit reveals the root. If you want to know what’s in your heart look at what’s coming out of your mouth. Jesus’ brother, James, echoed the Lord’s words in his own letter when talking about the revelatory nature of words:

Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water (James 3:11-12).

What that means for you and I, among other things, is that we may think we believe one thing, and yet what we say reveals what’s really true in our heart. We might, for example, say we believe that God is with us all the time through the Holy Spirit, and yet when we pray, we ask that God would “be with” so and so during their time of need. What we mean is that God would comfort them, help them, let them feel His presence, but what we say implies that deep in our hearts we truly believe that the presence of God ebbs and flows based on our circumstances.

Here’s another case study that I often find in myself. I look around and see illness. Suffering. Persecution. Trouble. Hardship. And I say to myself and out loud, “God will do something about this.” And that’s true; God will eventually do something about all these things in a visible, tangible, apparent way. He will fix it, and He will fix it all.

But if the only thing I ever say is that “God will,” then I am selling short the presence and power of God. God not only will do; He is doing. Currently. Presently. At this very moment.

It’s a much harder thing to embrace the “is” in addition to the “will”; embracing the “is” means choosing to see passed the surface level. It means choosing the road of faith. It means choosing to believe something that contradicts what our senses tell us to be true. And ultimately, it means assuming that I know what redemption and good looks like in a given situation.

I do not.

And because I do not, I must prepare my heart for the fact that God’s good, His fix for a given situation, might not be what I have in mind. It will likely be different than my limited view and calloused heart can imagine; and it will be far greater than what I have in mind. That’s what He is doing; He’s in the middle of His work and has not pushed pause.

While we long for what we believe by faith to be experienced by sight, we must not only embrace that coming day when it’s a reality, but also embrace the present day by faith. Even though it looks like a downward trajectory all around us, God is still here. He is still at work.

He is the God who is. Not the God who will be.

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Lord, Make Me a Generous Father

“Lord, make me a generous father.”

This is a prayer I’ve been praying recently. I started praying it because I read Jesus’ description of our heavenly Father in Luke 11:11-13:

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

It’s my responsibility as a dad to teach my kids, both implicitly and explicitly, what their true heavenly Father is like, and it is a mighty responsibility. It takes my breath away to consider that, whether they know it or not, the primary way my kids are learning about their Father in heaven is through their father on earth. So what kind of Father is He, and therefore what kind of father must I strive to be? Among other things, He is a generous Father.

This whole passage is about giving gifts; not paltry, surface-level gifts, but real ones. Good ones. Extravagant ones. And, as these verses tell us, not always the gifts my kids have in mind, but gifts nonetheless. That’s what led me to the prayer – that I would not be a stingy father, but a giving one. A father who is marked by generosity with his children.

But I also am beginning to think that we define generosity too narrowly; we think about it in terms of the tangible and even monetary, but it goes well beyond that. Money might be the most easy measure of generosity, but it’s certainly not the only one. In light of broadening that definition, here are three areas of generosity for me to grow in as a dad:

1. Time generosity.

This one is both easy and difficult at the same time. It’s easy because time is a commodity that everyone has, but it’s hard because it’s also the commodity that we tend to hold most tightly to. At least I do. There are a limited number of hours in each day, and I am finding it more and more difficult to relinquish my strangle hold on mine. But our time, as fathers, it one of the truest measures of our affection. We might give financial gifts all day long to our children, but do we spend time with them? Time doing what they want to do? Their activities? Their interests? Their passions and pursuits? All of those things have a cost to them, and the cost more times than not is our precious time. I pray the Lord would make me generous with these minutes I have.

2. Attention generosity.

What does it look like to be generous with my attention toward my children? The easiest answer, of course, is to take notice of them, but it goes well beyond that when you start to consider the implications of that statement. To take notice of your children really means to be a student of your children; it means taking the time to know what’s really going on in their minds and the hearts, and knowing that takes the intention of asking regular questions and paying attention to the answers, and then following up with further questions. I’d like to be that kind of father – the one that has made it his pursuit to truly know his children.

3. Financial generosity.

There is, of course, there is financial generosity. This is where we have to be careful, because there’s a difference between throwing money at your kids and being financially generous with your children. In the pursuit of the latter, it means making sure that I am financially responsible in the everyday to make sure I can be financially generous with my kids. This also, of course, is where each family will differ. Some parents believe in paying for college tuition; others do not. Some parents believe in purchasing a car; others do not. Regardless of where you line up on each of those issues (and a whole lot more), as parents, we can make choices about our lifestyles that reflect the fact that we want to be generous with our children. That, along with time and attention, doesn’t happen by accident; it happens through a disciplined approach to the assets you have.

And that seems to be the common denominator to all these areas of generosity. We have limited time, limited attention, and limited money. We can be generous with these assets when we make the choice to do so, and that large choice of generosity impacts the small choices we make every day about time, attention and money. As we choose to be generous, we are choosing to be parents who give fish and eggs so that our kids might believe in a God who gives even better fish and eggs.

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An Acquired Taste

Once upon a time, there was a still slightly young man named Michael who didn’t like coffee. Instead of drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, he would accompany his eggs, sausage, and biscuits with a diet Coke. To him, coffee had a bitter taste; it did very little to wash down the food and provide any kind of refreshment.

Still, he liked the idea of coffee. He liked the thought of sitting on the porch with his wife on a lazy Saturday morning, both enjoying a steaming cup of liquid. And then one day, he decided that adults did indeed drink coffee in the morning, and so he started brewing cup after cup of coffee.

And he still hated the taste.

It took a while for me; I started with the idea of coffee, and drank my way into enjoying it. This, I believe, is what’s called an acquired taste. It’s something that you choose to partake in, even though you might not enjoy it immediately. Then over the course of time, as you actually take it in, your taste buds begin to change. That’s how it happened for me.

Many things in life work this way; some things we are pre-conditioned to enjoy and love; many other things we only grow to enjoy and love after we actually start doing them. It’s this way with many of the things of God.

Bible study? Prayer? Fasting? Solitude? These are the mechanisms by which we grow in our relationship with Jesus. And there are seasons of life in which we are excited by them, each and every time. But much of the time, these are acquired tastes. We grow to love them more the more time we actually spend doing them. Like the taste of vegetables to a child, we begin by participating in these spiritual disciplines because we know they are healthy, and then, over the course of time, we find that we have actually developed a taste for them.

If that’s true, then there are many implications for us. Here are three:

1. Don’t wait to start until you feel like it.

If we wait to start doing these things until we have a taste for them, then chances are we will never develop the kind of consistent habits that help us spiritually grow. We can’t wait to start until we want to start; we need to start now because we know it’s good for us.

2. Don’t stop when you feel like it.

Often, the times when we don’t feel like participating in these activities is probably the time in which we need to do so the very most. In the end, we can’t be governed by our tastes. When our tastes run contrary to what we know to be true, we must choose to live by faith which runs against what we see, or in this case, what we feel.

3. Let time be your ally.

Developing new tastes take time. Instead of being frustrated by the time it takes to grow and love these new habits, think of time as your ally. Remind yourself of the power of consistency. God is in this thing for the long-haul – because of the gospel of Jesus, we know He’s not going anywhere. Because we know He’s in it for good, we can stay in the fight.

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Two Reflections About Cynicism

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

I’ve sung that song for years. In fact, I’ve sung it so much that at one point in my life I grew cynical to the simplicity of the call. Music should challenge the intellect and not just be pleasing to the ear , I would pontificate seated squarely atop my high horse. And it’s not just in terms of music. I can be cynical about most anything, especially when it involves the things of faith.

That’s my luxury. I live in an affluent and free society. And cynicism is the luxury of the affluent. I’m not worried about someone busting into the worship services I’m attending; I’m not very concerned about the government arresting me for being a Christian; I’m not anxious about even one of the 15 Bibles I have in my home being confiscated and taken away.

Because I’m not, I’m free to pursue other interests. Like cynicism. I can freely and easily judge away what I might determine to be a less sophisticated way to express my faith. Which brings me back to that simple chorus:

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way

To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

Cynicism is a luxury of the affluent; but cynicism is also a poor substitute for obedience. And that’s what I use it for most of the time.

I criticize those who might be trying to obey the Lord because I find their expression of obedience uncomfortable. It’s frankly much easier to criticize someone else rather than being obedient on my own.

I bet, and I’m really just guessing here, that those who are seeking with their whole heart to be obedient to the revealed will of God have little room for the kind of cynicism I occupy myself with much of the time.

Cynicism is the luxury of the affluent. And cynicism is a poor substitute for obedience. Far better is to trust and obey.

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Unity, Apart from the Gospel, is Self-Exaltation

God loves unity.

In John 17, Jesus’ high priestly prayer just before His death, He could have prayed many things for His followers, and He did. But one of the recurring themes in that passage of Scripture is unity:

  • “…protect them by Your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one as We are one” (v. 11).
  • “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You” (v. 21).
  • “May they also be one in us, so the world may believe You sent Me” (v. 21).

But unity is not an end in itself. In fact unity, apart from the gospel, is self-exaltation.

There was another group of people, years and years earlier, who were unified, but they were unified around the wrong things:

“At one time the whole earth had the same language and vocabulary. As people migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:1-4).

These people had all the ingredients any marketing consultant might tell you are essential for a group to accomplish great things together. They spoke the same language, they had a big goal, and they were motivated to take action. The problem was they were unified around the wrong thing, and when you come around something from the gospel the end result is always going to be self-exaltation.

All in all, it’s good and right that any group of people knows who they are and what they’re going after together. But if we want it to last, we should do well to make sure we aren’t worshiping the goal:

“So from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth, and they stopped building the city…” (Genesis 11:8).

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