Category Archives: Marriage and Family

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?

A  dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.

Identify Askers and Guessers to Request Favors More Effectively

Ask and Guess Culture

The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.

Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.

Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.

An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.

I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury  recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.

The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful

The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.

  • Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
  • Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
  • Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we  attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
File:The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, from The Story of Christ MET DP855490.jpg
The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes — Georg Pencz (1500-50)

What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?

I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.

Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!

I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s  day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!

Anxious children: Help for the long days of the stay-at-home

4 ways to help your anxious kid
Nan Lee in the NY Times

Now the quarantine seems like it has gone on too long, and April 30 may not be the end of it! People with jobs are longing for them. People without jobs might be getting more anxious all the time. And the children don’t know what to make of it all. People even report disoriented pets who have trouble finding their own space with everyone home all the time!

Hopefully last night’s soothing music and meditation helped.

The breath prayer in today’s Daily Prayer has many applications: (inhale) Cause me to see (exhale) beyond the cross. We are definitely getting better acquainted, every day, with the “cross” and more of us are literally facing death in our relationship circles. Resurrection may seem like a long way away and it might seem silly to mention it. But hanging on to the life we were given and the life we’ll be getting is the core of health.

People are saying lots of good things that Jesus followers can use to help their families cope. Here’s a bit of advice adapted from the New York Times.

Build on the foundations you have

What the parents bring to this situation is what the children will get. Doing fun things and having a creative, consistent schedule is important. But the most important thing is you, the parent, and you all, the marriage, and everyone, the relationships beaming in on the screen and nurtured in the imaginations.

“The most important thing is for children to have caring adults that they’re engaged with.,” — Sherrie Westin (president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street)

Long-term studies on children in England found that kids who were separated from their parents during World War II (to keep them safe from bombings in London) were more likely to have insecure attachment styles and lower levels of psychological well-being decades later, compared with those who stayed with their parents, even while being bombed.

Children who are prone to anxiety may find this period especially challenging. But all the experts emphasize that stable routine and simple affection make a lot of difference. Even in the healthiest families, “You’re probably going to see increased tantrumschallenges with sleep or behavioral issues as folks acclimate to a new normal for a while,” said Dr. Rahil Briggs (Psy.D., national director of Zero to Three’s HealthySteps program). But, we need to “trust in the foundation we’ve built with our children,” she said. “It will help us to ride this out.”

Dandelion and orchid

You are probably familiar with the “dandelion and orchid” metaphor to describe children. It was developed by Dr. Thomas Boyce, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher. labels are always dangerous, but they can help us consider how to love our child as they are and not according to who they should be. The theory says the vast majority of children are “dandelions” — meaning they are pretty resilient and able to deal with stress as it comes. So worrying about them too much might actually diminish their resilience and make them overly dependent on you. The balance takes discernment, so we might need to help each other see how we parent.

Dr. Boyce estimates about 20 percent of children are “orchids.” As he described them on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2019, “the orchid child is the child who shows great sensitivity and susceptibility to both bad and good environments.” They may be more sensitive because of a combination of biological and environmental reasons. No one really knows why we turn out how we do, everyone needs the Savior.

If you are caring for an orchid (and some of them are fully grown and you married them!) he or she may be struggling more than usual right now, with all of the changes this pandemic has wrought on their daily life. Plus they are watching inspiring dandelion stories on TV all the time. Dr. Boyce’s research shows that orchids thrive on regular routines — routines that have had to be rejiggered considerably in the past month or two.

Help for the orchids that helps dandelions, too

Experts have some common sense ideas to help your anxious children right now. Though these methods are geared toward orchids, they can work on your upset dandelions as well (and maybe your mate!).

 Label what’s happening. Just acknowledging the recent changes to your children’s lives can feel validating. With young kids, you can keep an ongoing list of things that have changed and things that have stayed the same. Brainstorm this list verbally with your kids — for example, “You used to go to a school building, that has changed, but you still have Mommy tucking you in every night, that’s the same.” By doing so, it will make them feel less alone in their feelings, because they’ll know they’re not the only one noticing that things aren’t the way they used to be.

When we were zooming with the grandchildren the other day. I wondered how Paul was doing with all these changes. Not only did his day-to-day get disrupted, he actually moved to a new apartment in the middle of it all! That is a lot for a six-year-old to feel. I thought he seemed a little tired and it took a while for his ebullient self to emerge. Seeing his grandparents (with whom he had been living) and being with his cousins was good tonic. Dad needs to help him label it all.

 Resolve your own anxiety. This is ongoing, good advice. It needs to be said again because  parents’ anxiety can make kids feel unsettled.

“Our kids are brilliant emotional detectives of their parents.” — Abi Gewirtz (Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the forthcoming book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids)

If you are showing your anxiety it leaches into your relationships. The Times put together 10 tips for easing your anxiety, but our church has tons more in Daily Prayer: WIND and WATER every day and all through the Way of Jesus. Plus you can call up you cell leader or pastor and avail yourself of Circle Counseling. We don’t need to go it alone.

Teach children to meditate. Basic mindfulness techniques can be learned at a young age. Progressive muscle relaxation — where you tense and then release individual groups of muscles — can be helpful for anxious kids. The University of Washington has a progressive muscle-relaxing script just for little ones that you can read to your children. Here is a YouTube video that does the same.

Some people have been actively including their children in the Holy Week offerings, including the breath prayers. If they don’t get the prayers intellectually, they can probably get the breathing physically. Learning how to consciously breathe deep is helpful in itself. Having Jesus with you as you do is much better. Try teaching them, “I am loved…by God and my family.”

Create a schedule with pictures. Predictability is very important for anxious children. One way to soothe kids who don’t read yet is to make a schedule that has images depicting the routine of the day. Really detailed schedules are not necessary or even helpful. We’re all overwhelmed right now, so don’t worry about making some elaborate plan that would be impossible to execute.

The schedule can be as simple as, here are four things we do every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, cuddles. You can add in special events like walking the dog, watching another episode, playing a game, Zooming with Papa (A must! He’s feeling stuff too!). We want to have a simple life. Here is our chance, for a bit. It is OK to slow it down.

We’ve been doing a good job at sharing our good ideas (leave some comments here of on the Parents List). But now the quarantine is losing its novelty and our first bursts of enthusiasm are growing thin. Now is when we develop that great patience God has with us all as we make our way through our natural lives.  Faith, hope and love make it through the fire and into the age to come. Providing an environment for those core characteristics to develop, in the middle of a pandemic, when anxiety is rising, is something we can all do as we keep turning toward Jesus and His people.

Everything is canceled: How to help each other deal with the disappointment

Now that everything is shut down for us and the kids, the new reality may begin to sink in. They are missing that much-anticipated birthday party, the gymnastics meet and pajama day; plus the school is trying to turn home into school while mom and dad are trying to work in the next room.

Parents are getting mixed reactions from their kids that range from joy over extra time off to confusion and sadness over missing a canceled event — and often fear of the unknown.

Whether they’re forced to skip a musical performance, a tryout for a spring sport, a visit to their grandparents or a family vacation, simply telling children that disappointment is a part of life won’t cut it. In fact, just thinking about breaking the news may deepen anxiety in parents.

So how can parents help kids process their disappointment? Here is some advice from Jesus and some experts. (Annotating this article from the NY Times).

In Atlanta I saw families headed for Disney right before it was shut down.

Mom and Dad, check your own emotions.

Checking our emotions does not mean evaluating ourselves. Let’s sit down and feel with Jesus and get some encouragement about our value and future. Check in with Jesus and your emotions. The other night I asked our cell, “What encouragement would you give yourself?” Several people gave themselves an admonition to get it together, which did not sound too encouraging. A nonjudgmental look at ourselves would be more helpful — “How am I?” not “How am I bad?” We need our time with Jesus more than ever, so we can be reminded of our value and our future. Jesus is our peace.

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York City says. “Fear can be contagious, so above all, parents need to monitor and manage their own worry, especially in front of their children. The good news is this also means that calm is contagious.” Jesus is our calm.

Be calm and honest

The government, the president in particular, were deceptive from the beginning about Covid-19. Senator Burr was selling off his holdings while helping to delay letting the public in on what he knew! Jesus is frank: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (Luke 6:46).

I’m not recommending having a house full of fury. But breaking down the situation into a child-sized narrative can help. Denying that something big is happening is dishonest. Trying to make things “normal” might create more anxiety than going with the abnormal flow. If we are not honest, the big unknown gets bigger and imaginations run wild with one’s own interpretation.

Gayle Cicero, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education says, “Regardless of a child’s age, honesty is the best approach.” But don’t throw out adult concepts children can’t handle. “Terms like ‘the right thing to do’ or ‘think about the elderly’ or ‘for the greater good’ are hard to grasp when, developmentally, kids are in a stage when their worldview centers around them, their family, and perhaps their neighborhood and friends.” That doesn’t mean we should dumb things down disrespectfully, but it does mean we may need to teach our kids what we are talking about when we say things like “trust God” or “even if I die, I will live again.” Our forced Sabbath would be a great time for a daily check in with the family to reinforce our common understanding, narrative and affection.

Image result for jesus compassion

Let everyone feel what they feel

Maybe you could ask the kids to illustrate the story you tell about Jesus feeling compassion for sick people, or the time he wept over the whole city of Jerusalem. Christianity first flourished among people who were disempowered and had little hope. Teens, in particular, may be facing all sorts of disillusionment, now that the society’s over-confident sense of power and control is falling apart. The pastors keep telling us our church was built for times like these. We have a place for and answers for the questions our feelings arouse.

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital says, “When breaking the news of cancellations, parents should focus on validating their children’s emotions, whether that is disappointment or fear or something in between. Kids often gain comfort in knowing that they are not alone. It may help for parents to say that a lot of kids are feeling the same way and even admit that they are a little worried, too. At the end of the day, the most important thing that parents can do is to send their kid the message that it’s OK for them to feel what they are feeling. These are the interactions that help a child feel seen.”

Naming your child’s emotion (for example, saying, “That must be so disappointing”) helps them begin to realize what they are feeling, said Leighanne Scheuermann, an educator based in Dallas. “In the long term, your child is more likely to remember how you respond to their emotions and also will recognize the efforts you made to make the situation better for them.” The process of naming helps us all feel like we have choices we can make and feel like we are not completely helpless.

Learn about managing stress together

Many families in the U.S. are feeling the shock of not being in control. Their careful schedules are nonsense, their finances are shaky and their future is uncertain. In many ways this gives us all a new way to hear the Bible. The New Testament, in particular, is mainly written to people who were threatened by the authorities for following Jesus, and most of them were not that well off to begin with. 1 Peter, especially, takes on new layers of meaning, right from the beginning. (Try reading it every day for the rest of Lent):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Some believers turn this into “Don’t worry, be happy” and turn their faith into another defense against feeling or facing what they fear. I read it as encouragement to let our faith ground us when the whole earth is being shaken. If you talk this over with the kids, you may find they have more natural faith than you expected. They might not have been trusting God because they were trusting you as you trusted your own power!

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a psychologist and pediatric mental health specialist psychologist in Connecticut  says, “Disappointment can be linked to a feeling of loss of control in children. When you have to talk about canceled events that kids were looking forward to, think about it as a learning opportunity to manage disappointment. We often are so worried that our kids will get upset when we should be thinking: ‘What can my child learn here? Can they learn about managing stress and feeling upset?’”

It helps just to be a listening ear so your child can freely vent her frustration. It is tempting, as parents, to swoop in and wipe out disappointment. But, Dr. Cicero said, parents can actually get in the way of a child’s development when they do this. “Plus, there’s something so therapeutic about a person willing to hear you out and just be with you,” she added.

We will need more imagination than Netflix

I have been heartened by the amount of creativity and connectivity people have poured out this week. Some people have spent all their energy hunkering down and feeling shocked, of course. But others jumped right on it and shared their ideas and love.

Now we know the infectious atmosphere is apparently going to be around for a while. So we’ll eventually need to do something but watch TV. The other day one of our cell members got on our video text app and got us to sing encouraging songs to each other! That helped. Maybe you could have a family theme song for this new depth of Lent we are experiencing. Here is one from the deep Circle of Hope archive about waiting (Ps. 40): I waited for the Lord. (This is also good dance music for stuffed animals).

When a child’s emotions are really starting to disrupt his usual disposition or he seems stuck in a funk, it’s time for some creative direction from the parents. Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York says, “A fun technique to distract younger kids is a color game. Have your child choose a color and look around the room to point out everything he can see in that color. This can help a child break the worry spiral and calm the body and mind,” she said. A mother was playing “I spy” with her kids on my final subway ride.

Dr. Goodman says, “Once your child is in a good place emotionally, don’t make any promises about rescheduling events or making up for lost time.” Instead, focus on what you can do now for enjoyment or to support your community. For example, rather than the planned movie party with friends, maybe you can improvise and celebrate a birthday at a park by flying kites and riding bikes with children who are present on Facetime.

Scheuermann suggests if your child is upset about missing the chance to star in a play, ask if she wants to put on a play with the stuffed animals. Maybe you can Zoom with Grandma for her birthday or support a local business by having a cake sent to her. Maybe you can film the stuffed animal play and send it to Grandma! If a vacation has been canceled, have the kids create a poster board of activities they wanted to do on that trip. Essentially, find a way to modify the missed activity so it can be creatively executed at home.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says routine is crucial when tackling school closures, whether the teachers sent home a lesson plan or not. “Just by putting a routine in place can help alleviate stress for children and their parents. Create a homeschooling schedule and go over it every morning with your children and teens. Make sure to have consistency in your day-to-day and incorporate breaks, exercise and snack time.” Keep a physical copy of the schedule your child can look at, too. Watch out, of course, lest you interpret a child’s stress-induced resistance as a reason to get tough or give up. We can ease into it and build up our capacity. We’re facing enough losses, we don’t need to create more.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says research shows those with a positive outlook can manage stress better and actually live longer. So this is a time to help foster resilience in our children. “While some kids have a glass-half-full outlook naturally, others need to develop that over time, and these kinds of disappointments are great opportunities to do so.” Obviously, making a crisis into a long lesson on religion and human development is not likely to feel that great — and merely knowing lessons does not breed enough resilience. But taking our best shot at wisdom enacted in love will bring hope to the whole household.

The regions of the internet I inhabit were filled with good people inventing helpful things for their kids to experience. Part of my motivation for writing this was to stoke the fire of that creativity, hope and sharing. The Circle of Hope Parents Listserv, Facebook, and your neighborhood email list (better create one!) are all good places to keep sharing. I don’t think the government is going to do a great job at saving us (again!), and I don’t think we will do that great a job at saving ourselves. But I do think we can cooperate with our Savior and humbly receive (and wisely judge) input from experts as we navigate these uncertain waters. I don’t know a better way to get home.

Use the comments section here or the Parents List to share what you are feeling and learning!

Show up for your kids: Let go of your “helicopter God”

In a recent article for the NY Times Parenting section, Daniel Siegel, along with Tina Payne Bryson,  uncannily explored the gospel again. I’ve read Siegel’s books, seen him speak, and have often been surprised by how I resonate with his spiritual wavelength.

This time he is taking some loving swipes at how parents, especially people of means, are raising their children. The picture I lifted from the article shows the problem clearly, I think. He asks us to:

Take a moment and fast forward in your mind to a day in the future when your child, now an adult, looks back and talks about whether she felt truly seen and embraced by you. Maybe she’s talking to a spouse, a friend or a therapist — someone with whom she can be totally, brutally honest. Perhaps she’s saying, “My mom, she wasn’t perfect, but I always knew she loved me just as I was.” Or, “My dad really got me, and he was always in my corner, even when I did something wrong.” Would your child say something like that? Or would she end up talking about how her parents always wanted her to be something she wasn’t, or didn’t take the time to really understand her, or wanted her to act in ways that weren’t authentic in order to play a particular role in the family or come across a certain way?

Francesco Ciccolella, NY Times

The power of showing up

Of course, Siegel is going to say something brilliant that makes you wonder how you could have ever parented without him. For the most part, he thinks he can explain everything and make it all work reasonably well, even in territories as complex as the brain and your family system. But in this case, I think he is asking the right question,

Do our kids feel seen by us? Do they feel truly seen for who they are — not for who we’d like them to be, and not filtered through our own fears or desires?

I think the answer is probably, generally, “No.” And I doubt that when Siegel was thirty-two, and trucking kids to little league games and such, he was asking the right questions, either. Now that he is sixty-two, he has better questions than “How in the world are we going to get through this week?” Or “How are my children going to survive their next twenty years?”

He is trying to help us all with his new book, The Power of Showing Up. The main point is something you may already know:

Showing up means bringing your whole being — your attention and awareness — into this moment with your child. When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child right now….The idea is to approach parenting being present and aware in your interactions with your child — and to make repairs when that doesn’t happen.

As usual, I think he has a great idea. But, as usual, I think it would be even better if he had Jesus to make it happen.

Where does one get the power to show up?

The power of showing up is great if you have the power to show up. Doesn’t it seem a bit grandiose to suggest in a parenting section article that people should simply change their mind and show up? — they should bring their whole being — their attention and awareness — into this moment? Buddhists have suggested that philosophy for centuries and some great people have practiced it well. But most of us are having trouble with our “whole being,” not to mention “attention” and “awareness.”

His advice has a lot of merit, in my opinion. But he does not give a lot of help with where to find the power to follow his advice unless you happen to have it already. Helicopter parents may communicate a lot of their anxiety to their child because they feel powerless, not because they intend to exercise a lot of power. I think the reason most people hyper-parent is their fear of doing a bad job. Many people in the United States are driven by the fear of missing out or failing and they don’t want their kids to miss out or fail. They are hyper-responsible, since they believe whatever life is, it is up to them to get it and live it. Their world is a competition for scarce resources and everyone needs to be their best self to get what they need or want. Siegel has deeper things to say than that, but I think even he would say that is a realistic assessment of what drives people.

Those fears drive Christians too. A hyper-responsible worldview may drive you when you are parenting, even if you don’t admit it. You may want to believe that trusting God is a live option for your child, but, in fact, and in the schedule, life is all about preparing them to succeed in the world as it is, according to the stranglehold the “economy” has on most of us.

Our view of God matters when we parent

To be honest, most Christians have a “helicopter” God who is the main example for their helicopter parenting. For many, God is the hyper-parent who does not see them for who they are, but sees them for who they ought to be (and who they have never been). As a result, Siegel’s book will just add more pressure to “show up” properly. You may already know about this demand to “show up” and have not fulfilled it yet, either.

The power to show up will be a result of trusting God the Parent who showed up in Jesus and continues to show up Spirit to spirit. I’m not sure how much Siegel’s reparative idea will help unless parents are Parented by the God revealed in Jesus. We love because God first loved us, not just because we had a good idea and implemented it well.

Our view of God, our Parent: Father/Son/Holy Spirit in a loving family system, Jesus as our pioneering older brother, makes all the difference in the world when it comes to showing up. We show up for our children and have the spiritual and emotional depth they need because we experience God showing up for us in Jesus. If we show up as weak examples of God showing up, we still know that God will, personally, show up — and that is a lot better than whatever I might provide.

Image result for ron reagan atheist

Last week many of my friends were talking about Ron Reagan. The old atheist advertisements from the Freedom from Religion Foundation were rerunning during the Democratic Party debate. He notably signed off in them by saying he is not afraid of burning in hell.

His view of God is faulty. He got the message that God is the ultimate helicopter parent scrutinizing people and weighing how well they have matched up to the ideal set before them – an ideal of which they are well aware yet to which they are still not conforming. The people I talked to knew what he was talking about, since many of them have that God, or know people who do. I think Siegel has a similar “god” when he is giving his good advice.

It is hard to make sure your children feel safe, seen, soothed and secure, as Siegel advises unless you feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. I, personally, see no hope for myself feeling or offering those vital experiences to anyone unless I have a constant relationship with God who saves me, sees me, soothes me, and makes me feel secure in a world which constantly demands more of me than I have. So that is where I am starting again today, giving over to trusting my trustworthy Savior, rather than mostly trying to get good enough so I can trust myself. Then I can hope to show up.

Background check debate: Stray guns and your child at the playdate

Maybe you missed it, as you (and probably your children) were discussing Jeff Bezos’ private parts and the amazing scandals piling up in Virginia.  Nevertheless, this past week the House of Representatives held its first hearing on gun violence in eight years.

The testimony at the hearing centered on a bill that would make it harder for a person to buy a gun without a thorough background check. Supporters pointed out that right now it’s ridiculously easy to get lethal weapons from an unlicensed seller who is not going to check to see if said purchaser might have a record of violence, stalking or involuntary commitment for mental illness. That fact should surprise and appall us, but by this time it probably doesn’t. By now, your kids might think everyone has a gun and feel strange if you don’t!

Opponents of the bill clutched the Second Amendment and argued that the real reason we have so many deaths by gunfire is … well, take a guess at what they argued were the reasons: A) Guns, B) Bullets, C) Immigrants.

Matt Gaetz
Not a fan, but you need to see his face. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Answer: All the above.

Representative Matt Gaetz [more/biased info on him], a Florida Republican read a short list of people who had been shot by undocumented immigrants. Then he said, “I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens. …Better background checks would not have stopped many of the circumstances I raised, but a wall, a barrier on the southern border may have, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” There are a lot of lawmakers prepared to say almost anything in their role as surrogates for the National Rifle Association. But it is still surprising that during this latest hearing the main gun advocate was from Florida.

Thousands of people took part in the March for Our Lives protest in Parkland, Fla., a month after the school shooting there a year ago. Credit: Saul Martinez for The New York Times

On Valentine’s Day we’ll observe the first anniversary of the Parkland High School shootings in which one student with a gun took the lives of 17 people. We just passed the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of 5 people in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport, which occurred six months after 49 people were shot to death at a nightclub in Orlando. And it was just a couple of weeks ago that a young man walked into a bank in Sebring, Fla., pulled out a pistol, forced 5 women to lay on the ground and shot each one in the back of the head. All these atrocities happened in Congressman Gaetz’ state. All the gunmen were native-born Americans.

The House bill I mentioned is unlikely to even get brought up in the Senate if it passes the House. But in 2017 the House and Senate did get together to revoke an Obama-era regulation that had made it harder for mentally ill people to purchase a gun.

We have terrible gun problems in this country not just because firearms are all over the place, but also because of the careless, and often stupid attitude so many people have toward them. This includes the Congress.  Their rejection of legislation of which the country overwhelmingly approves  helps perpetuate the attitude that guns are a casual part of everyday life, like your wallet or socks — something you wear when you go out to buy a loaf of bread, leave laying around the house and treat in general with less care and discretion than a light bulb.

This is the kind of thinking that gives us endless mayhem involving violent, semi-deranged young men who just grab one of the family guns and mow down five people in a bar. Toddlers who shoot themselves when they stumble across a gun that Dad or Grandpa left sitting on the bed, or find a rifle in the back seat of the car and accidentally kill Mom while she’s pulling into the preschool parking lot. We hear stories like that every day. I don’t think it is all due to caravans of immigrants coming to the border.

With all this, is my child safe to have a playdate?

Thus, one of the parents on our parents list asked what everyone does to make sure their children are safe on play dates. How does one bring up the question about how the parents of your kid’s friends deal with their guns? It is amazing this question must be asked, but we live where we live. Here is the original question:

“I’m wondering how you navigate that awkward “do you have guns? Are they safely locked up?” question when you’re arranging a playdate, etc. for your kids?  I feel like the easiest way to ask is just to put it out there with something like, “Hi, I’m _____. We’d love to have _____ over for a playdate. We don’t have any guns in the house. Do you?”  Hopefully, they’ll then feel free to respond.  Buuuuuut, what if they say yes?  Do you allow your kids to play at people’s houses who own guns and say they’re secured?  And if you don’t, then how do you tell them you don’t want your kid playing at their house?!  I think playdates are great for our kids and great for meeting new people, but I can’t seem to figure this out given our current world.  The end result for me is that I avoid setting anything up with people we don’t already know well, which feels like the opposite of what I want to be doing as I follow Jesus and try to “welcome the stranger.”

Answers

There was a lot more dialogue about this than there were answers on the parents list. But they were so useful, I decided to reprint them.  No names are attached, of course. If you want to be on the parents list, you can be. (I also added a hyperlink for Eddie the Eagle and left out what I thought was extraneous). Here they are:

1) I include this gun question along with questions about food allergies, pets (one of my kids has been bitten twice!), car seats, and other safety things I cover when doing a first play date with a family. Every parent I’ve asked this question has thanked me for asking it.

As for what do when I learn there is an unsecured firearm in the house, I don’t allow my kids to play there without me with them and I keep my kid in eyesight. I’m happy to meet up elsewhere or host the kids at my house instead.

2) I ask about guns when I’m trying to find out a little bit about how a family feels secure in their houses.  I ask about guns and pharmaceuticals (child proof caps?).  I’ve only had one person push back (and not much) about my guns question.  This may be because of where we live – not so many families are gun enthusiasts here in über-liberal West Philadelphia.  Every family I’ve asked these types of questions of has thanked me for asking them as well.

I’m always prepared to discuss why I think gun locks and gun safes are necessary when I ask these questions but the conversation has only gone that far one time.

Personally, I’m okay with a family who keeps guns in their house if they’re secured properly — especially if they’re hunting rifles and such.  Someone who keeps their guns in a safe understands that they’re machines for killing (people, game, whatever) and potentially incredibly dangerous.  Someone who keeps their gun “hidden” in their house so they can get them quickly if necessary is not dealing with reality and their worldview includes what is, to me, an unacceptable level of risk for my kids playing in their house.  There is probably a spectrum of people in between those examples but I’m really only okay with my kids playing in the houses of the folks on the first extreme.  If I meet parents of kids my sons make friends with who are of the “I keep my guns hidden in my house” variety, I plan to say something along the lines of “We’d love to have _____ over to our house but we’re just not comfortable with firearms in the house that aren’t secured so [my kids] won’t be able to come over to _____’s house.”  People who aren’t comfortable with that stance have their own stuff to work out — I’m okay with some tension between me and another parent if that helps keep my kids safer.

3) Our seminarian’s cohort, along with the pastors and the Leadership Team, wrote a teaching on guns and gun violence based on our discussion at our quarterly public meeting. It might be helpful for you as you consider this subject. You may have seen it before, but if not, you can find it on the Way of Jesus website here.

4) I hadn’t seen that summary from the cohort.  It’s wonderful.  This dialogue is making me think I might want to “struggle more” with this as our kids start to get into play dates at other kids homes.  I honestly hadn’t thought of it, nor to ask about other hazards.  Glad we are village parenting!

Image result for eddie the eagle nra gun

5) I think these are all good ideas to address the concern of kids, playdates and guns. To add another piece, talking to our kids about guns will be important, too. I grew up with a video called Eddie the Eagle [from the NRA},  which taught kids about gun safety. The whole thing is based around the question, what do you do if you see [find] a gun? And the answer, according to Eddie was: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult. I believe Eddie is still around as a friend of mine said they covered the topic, with Eddie the Eagle, at her son’s pre-school. This of course, isn’t going to address a philosophical or theological perspective with kids, but it does address the practical instance of encountering a gun, if for some reason it happens, even with the pre-playdate conversations.

6) I’m so glad that you brought up the importance of teaching our children about how to react in the presence of a firearm. Unfortunately, we have sensed the necessity of having this conversation with our kids from a very young age – three or four years old, I think (?). The first conversation may have happened after I witnessed a few kids playing with a handgun on my street. Also, when my dad was a child in the 1950s, his best friend was accidentally killed while playing with a loaded pistol.  He often shares concerns about gun safety with our family.

We’ve tried to have this talk in a less-worrying way that focuses more on being prepared, similar to learning about how to react in case of a fire. I know, however, that some kids do worry about being shot, especially if they participate in school lockdown drills, see certain things in visual media, or have had the misfortune of being in the presence of gun violence.  So… I think we also need to allow our children the space to express how they feel about all of this, and to practice good listening.  That may also help us to discern how to be more proactive.

It is important to talk about everything with each other and our kids, isn’t it!

I suppose we’ll have to talk a lot if everyone is going to have their privates exposed and their guns strewn around their privacy. Here is one last word from Jesus that might be comforting in the face of this troubling era. I like it in The Voice translation: “I have told you these things so that you will be whole and at peace. In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order” (John 16:33).

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando

I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away.  One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!

I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.

Taken with my own Iphone at lunch.

I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw).  This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.

The economy did not send people to Disney

My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”

The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!

But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding.  A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.

Money is not, again,  making us happy or holy

People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.

Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”

A solitary worker at an e-commerce company’s distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania. — Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.

“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games  ready for purchase by eager teenagers.

The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis

Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.

Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.

We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.

OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties.  But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.

What do YOU think? Is screen time damaging the kids?

I have been doing some thinking about technology again in prepration for the seminarians cohort meeting next Monday. We are inviting everyone to do some theology around the question: Should I buy the Playstation, Iphone, AI device for Christmas?

Image result for fortnite skins

Among the articles that stuck with me is one by Nellie Bowles in the NYTimes: A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. I have grandchildren. She alarmed me, since they love their screens and I love to give them what they want.

Being avoidant is not enough

She says, “The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them. A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a region wide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.”

Christians have often been resistant when it comes to technological advances. Many of the people in our church, Circle of Hope, come from Mennonite stock and have relatives or acquaintances who are Amish. The Amish are still trying to keep progress stalled at the pre-industrial level! I admire their stubbornness. But the cool  Anabaptists I know are tired of legalistic ancestors and feel queasy about making too many rules that will stifle their own children like they were stifled. So the debate about information and communication technology gets them coming and going. They have an instinct for avoiding the temptations for the world, but they have no little revulsion for overdoing avoidance.

Sometimes I think they use their resistance to overdoing avoidance to avoid making decisions that might save their kids. They don’t want to be legalistic, so they don’t do anything to guide the family. So their poor, impressionable kids are rolled over by the tsunami of technology without much guidance, much less theology. So the wave consumes their imaginations and they adapt to the worldview stories that justify every new relationship with a machine that comes on the market.

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

The experts from Silicon valley are beginning to resist the technology onslaught for the sake of their children. Just listen to these quotes.

  • “Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”
  • iPotty: Brilliant, or worst idea ever? Experts weigh in on new potty  training deviceSome of the people who built video programs are now horrified by how many places a child can now watch a video. Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”
  • Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
  • Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company said about screens, “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”
  • Those who have exposed their children to screens try to talk them out of addiction by explaining how the tech works. John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology. “I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.'”

I think we all know by now that online platforms, especially the games, are designed to be addictive. That’s how the inventors profit, by keeping us engaged and selling us virtual products. In case you didn’t know that, it’s no secret

I did not write this post to solve the problems we are all confronting. But I do think we Jesus-followers have the perennial solutions:.

  • A view of who we are and who God is appropriately contradicts the narratives the world offers.
  • Dialogue, like this, and like our meeting to do theology, helps break the power of manipulative lies that hook us into a track we later regret.
  • Questioning the strategies of our spiritual ancestors and having the courage to resist and restore in our own ways allows us the space to make decisions that have some discernment.

We do not need to bend the knee to whatever powerful force comes beaming into family life demanding we organize around it. Like many tech experts, we’d better figure out just what we are going to do about the invasion very soon, since the powers are grooming our kids for future profiteering and shaping their brains and their loves as they do it.

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

Other articles: How Does Screen Time Affect Kids’ Mental Health?

To weave community: Outdo one another in showing honor

Babies are being born in my circles of the church. They are bundles of disruption who demand their parents and those who love them abandon most self-oriented pursuits. They insist we honor what else really matters: weaving community.

The community helping babies thrive in South Sudan

Community makes regular people ambitious

I have followed my dreams and ambitions my whole adulthood, and I am sure I have been led by God to do so. But the Lord also taught me, early on, that family and friendship — the basic, personal relationships that pull us to develop community, provide a home for the love that keeps my ambitions humming. The momentary revelations of love remind us we are alive.

Here’s an example of a moment. When I was a child I would shake my hands with glee when I was excited – my family never forgot it. (One of my grandchildren paddled their belly with similar enthusiasm  – and probably still does when no one is looking). When my younger sister was brought home from the hospital, I was about 2 ½. I was standing in the driveway jumping up and down and shaking my hands with glee — so eager to meet her! No one ever forgot my joy – or the wild way I showed it!  It was one of those moments people love to recall — a moment when love and joy ruled the family. I suppose we keep going to meetings of the church because, so often, something happens that reminds us that God is with us and love is possible — joy and love rule the family of God.

In the U.S. society, we are so overrun by philosophies of autonomy and individualism we spend all our time mastering them at the expense of weaving the fabric of community together. It’s not that both movements aren’t important. Individuals make up the community and communities make individuals — they always run in tandem. But it is easy to see that individual pursuits often overshadow making relationships.

One example of the overshadow is how often people wait to get married until they have settled their careers. “Millennial men and women are more concerned with establishing their own lives before agreeing to share them with a partner” (Cosmo). Likewise, once those thirtysomethings are having children, the pursuits of their individual families often remove them from their extended family, much more do those pursuits remove them from the life of the church or neighborhood. Very busy people often become very successful in the economy at the expense of their community; this is an old story now.

Weaving individuals into community is a Bible theme

Balancing our God-given uniqueness with the weaving of community  is one of the major themes of the Bible from start to finish. It is a basic story about love. The story about Joseph and his brothers is a great example. The fabric that makes up Joseph’s “coat of many colors” is desecrated by his brothers. But it is his understanding and leadership skills, combined with his capacity to forgive, which saves his family and supplies the strong ties that will keep God’s people together in Egypt. The next big story is about Moses and the themes are similar. Just as the social fabric of Israel is unraveling in slavery, God commissions the uniquely gifted Moses to lead the people into their own country. Over many years on their heroic journey, they learn to weave the fabric of authentic community. The unique vision of Israel and their authentic community go together, or there is no promised land.

Image result for musketeer bowing before a lady

A good way to see God’s people weaving community is in the Ten Commandments Moses delivered from the mountain.  One way to look at these famous sayings is that they install disruptions to individual ambition and personal glory in honor of maintaining community ties. They are all about honor, which is the foundation of life in community. When we honor God and have no other gods, we love the Lord with all our heart, soul mind and strength; we devote our energy to the innate desire of all creation for communion with the Creator.  The obvious extension of that honor is to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

As the list of commands are completed, they enjoin us to honor our parents — being trained to give fundamental respect to others by giving respect to the community who formed us. We are called to honor the Sabbath — to cease our self-directed work and honor who we are and the community that shapes us. The rest of the commandments honor individual rights: to life, to marriage, to property, to honest public affairs and to individuality. The communal fabric is sustained if we have respect for the individual. The individual is sustained if we weave a supportive communal fabric which supports them.

For all my life, people in the United States (and other societies) have been having quite a contest about whether they will be subject to these principles. With all our capacity to be autonomous and an acceleration in our preoccupation with individual rights and the technology to exercise them, we are all experiencing a dangerous unraveling, it is even hard for the church to hold together.

Healthy ambitions spring from extravagant honor

When I am counseling couples, especially before they are married, I often end up using an old metaphor to make a point about honor. If we want to stick together, we all need to “doff our hats” to one another, like a chevalier greeting a lady, or a lady curtsying to another. Such courteous behavior used to be common and it made sense.

It is easy to see the flaws in any society, but most of them have something quite brilliant built in, too. In the 16 and 1700’s the nobility of Europe were trying to hold on to their power in the face of the pressure of individualism and democracy, not to mention capitalism (individualism on steroids). Back then, they developed systems of rank and honored people according to their rank with great expressions of courtesy, which they thought hearkened back to better days. So Alexander Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844, looking back to 1625, when d’Artagnan was learning the elaborate ways of courtesy. Movies ensued and so we all know about it. Try this one you’ve never seen at ~24:45:

I often tell marrying couples to figure out how to express that great clause in the great Romans 12: “Outdo one another in showing honor” (ESV) – “prefer” one another, “take delight” in honoring the other, “eagerly,” “excelling” at it. If you want to be ambitious, be ambitious about that. When your mate enters the room, bow before them as if they were really something. If you are wearing a hat, ceremonially, sincerely, let it sweep the floor before them. At least put down your phone for a second and look them in the eye!

Honor is the foundation of community. It is the practical expression of our love for God. When the Ten Commandments says “Honor,” it does not mean “obey” and it does not merely mean “respect;” it certainly cannot be reduced to  “sending thoughts and prayers.” Honor is profound regard for the innate value of others before God. It is the life of Christ bowing before sinful humanity with forgiveness and self-sacrifice and then Jesus trusting his followers with his own Spirit. Honor is Joseph finding that his uniqueness is valuable for the preservation of his community even after they had left it unrecognized and squandered it. It is Moses taking on a job he does not want for the sake of the people.

This month, all sorts of things have happened to me and those I love that reveal how important community is. As a result, the fabric of our community has been strengthened. When the baby is born, when the wedding happens, when people change, when we find ourselves in a funeral, we are reminded that our individual pursuits happen within a community. When people die alone (and they increasingly do) it shows how unraveled we have become. God, in Christ, has made us the alternative to dying in general and dying alone in particular. To be that alternative, start with the easy stuff and recalibrate your schedule, if it needs it, to honor our community. Weave the fabric. Your unique contribution is crucial.

If you let yourself do this, be sure you have spent time being prepared by God before you leave the house, because that kind of love can take over your life. You might be drawn to honor each person you meet, not just your mate or friend, with at least a doff of your hat. You might even smile at people who think their headphones make them invisible, untouchable and safe from alarming contact with other humans. You might risk talking to the needy. You might ignore the resentments you think have made a boundary between you and someone. We need to keep weaving, since we all know how fast things can unravel! Often, the weaving is stretched thin just in time for the baby to be born and remind us just how much those relationships mean to us and to the world.

Give the baby a church, for Christ’s sake.

Park FellowshipMy parents did me a great favor when I was a kid, they sent me and my sister to a pretty horrible Baptist Church across the street from Chino High School. I do not know why that was their pick. I do not remember one word from them about why we were there. But even though they never darkened the door unless I was in some kind of performance, one of them usually got up and took us to Sunday school. Usually we even “stayed for church” because we found it quite amusing.

I found out later they had been very burned by a nasty church split when they were first married and it soured them on Jesus and the whole church thing. That is a sad, often-repeated story — repeated by others of course, my parents guarded their own soul-wounds religiously.  There are a few things my parents did not give me that can still burn me if I blow on the embers. But there is one thing they gave me that was inestimably more valuable than they expected: the church.

Protecting kids from the church

Being raised in a family where mom and dad were visibly not Christians and where Jesus was only mentioned in relation to a curse, I have repeatedly felt the need for more education when it comes to what it feels like to have Christian parents. Over and over, I run into thirtysomethings who want to make sure their kids are not bored in church, who are channeling their own bad experience of being obligated to something their clueless parents perpetrated on them, or who have been wounded in many ways they are afraid their kids will experience. I keep listening because I have so little natural empathy, since my recollection of the church  at which I was dropped off is that it was about a hundred times worse than anything Circle of Hope could fall into. Yet it was in that very imperfect, even unorthodox and sometimes damaging community that I met Jesus at a very early age. I can’t imagine why they think depriving their children of the community in which they will learn faith, or even protecting them from it,  is a good strategy.

Most parents I know act like school is inviolable, since getting into better schools on the basis of your past record is supposedly going to give you your best life. If they sign up their child for a sports team it is a covenant they must keep, so no matter when the game is or where it happens, the child must be there. Dance, musical instrument, tae kwon do, all sorts of enrichment activities fill up most of the week and the activity schedules dictate what is happening in the family. It all looks very religious to me. But if the church seems demanding, that’s an obligation that feels intolerable! There are a lot of reasons for that feeling and please know that I understand plenty of people have never felt it. But I keep running into it, which leads me to my main purpose for writing.

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Don’t deprive the child of their church

As a follower of Jesus and as a person with my unique experience, I say that the best thing you can do for your child is give them a church. They need to grow up in an environment where they can learn faith. Here are my reasons for saying that, for now:

1) Your family is not enough

I have acquaintances who rely on their parents in Lancaster to come in and sit with their children while they do something together (and it is rare they do something as a result). They are on their way to isolating their kids in their nuclear family instead of training them to live in the extended family of the church. They undermine the sense that the church is a family in Christ by refusing to let it happen. They can’t even work out a mutual babysitting arrangement. I think that is a very practical way they deny Jesus his demand that he be more important than the family from which they came. Their children will likely keep their distance from Jesus and the church, too.  Children need to be raised in a village and Jesus should be the leader of it. It is short-sighted parenting to think you have everything your child needs in the “relative” category. They need to be born into the body of Christ and surrounded with the grace of God, first and foremost.

2) Culture matters

What is my identity? In Western culture that has become a standard question children need to answer. Queer theorists may talk us out of this before long, but until then children must decide: male/female, gay/straight, what color, what place among the school cliques, even what political stripe. The place they get their Christian character is certainly in your family, but it is actualized in the church. If they never feel like they are part of an alternative community centered on Christ, they will probably join another community that is centered on themselves, or some identity they have adopted.

Making the community of the church is a parental top priority — at least if they want to raise children who can live life with Jesus. I am often amazed at what parents will give their children over to while they lightly visit a church, one they may not even claim as their own. What kind of child will come of that? Will they join the Fortnight community or Eagles Nation?

3) Lifetime assumptions form early on.

What is the meaning of life? That question will eventually be asked by your child. Even if they have consistent, loving Christian parents, they will still have to ask the question and get a decent answer for themselves (or get used to their despair). I thank God Mrs. Elrod often drove out to get me for Sunday school when my parents were indisposed or sick of it all (I can’t remember which caused her to appear). Sunday school was not that great, but Mrs. Elrod making me feel worthy of her effort, her undeserved service, made an indelible impression. I still remember what her front seat feels like! Her behavior spoke to me in deeper ways than her lessons. Children need a lot of opportunity to pick up grace assumptions in the church and plenty of acceptance as they mull  them over.

4) It is your duty as a parent

I have already said this, but I wanted it to have its own bullet. Building the church is the responsibility of everyone who follows Jesus. We are, by our redeemed nature, bricks in the temple of the Holy Spirit. Each of us have value and cannot be replaced. The energy we bring to the redemption project of Jesus is multiplied far beyond our personal efforts by God and by the community we tend. In these times especially, children need to learn community, since they are being trained to sit alone in front of a screen all day, among other things. It is your duty as a parent to give them a chance to be saved from whatever they presently face and what will come. That salvation will come from a deeper place than just a resilient capacity to have their own mind. They will need the strength of a loving, Spirit-filled community to help them

5) You child needs to see mom and dad follow Jesus.

It is great when a child is teachable. But I think they mostly they get what is caught, not taught. Some people think they are wrecking their family because mom goes to her cell meeting once a week and dad puts the kids to bed. I think it would be fine to tell your two year old, “Mama is going to build the church. I follow Jesus and I hope you will too, one day. I am going to make sure I build you a strong community so you can become your true self. There is nothing more important to me than following Jesus. He is the source of all the love I have for you.” I think it is good for a child to know that the family is moving according to something outside the family — namely Jesus is leading them. If Jesus is not making the family, what will the child learn about who makes family? And if they ever read the Bible, what will they make of Ephesians 3?

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Start now, even if you don’t have children yet

If the church is not good enough, reform it for the sake of your children, don’t leave it up to someone else. If you end up in a place where there is no church, make one; it is the vehicle for the work of Jesus in the world and your children need it. If you feel overwhelmed and want to hole up in your house with your shower gifts for four years until the baby releases their grip on you, have some vision, that child needs a healthy Christian parent, not merely a servant of their desires. The best time for the child to have a church is when they are 5-8 and forming some very important foundations for their later days. Make sure they have one. If your friend just had a baby and you can’t figure out what to do for them, give their baby a church, for Christ’s sake! I know people use that as a curse, so I am being cute, but it means “on account of Jesus” or “in light of the purpose of Christ.” We’re working with Jesus to prepare the way for the baby to walk into fullness of life when we build her a church.

I am happy Faith Breunle, Charlie Brake and Paul Woodward were around when I was in Jr High to demonstrate to me that Christians existed in the real world. To be honest, they were not that great of teachers or examples, as I look back. But periodically, I met up with their heart – the one that motivated them to keep making this crazy little church to which my unbelieving parents attached me. They opened up my imagination for what I might become and build. By most objective observation, what they were doing was very ineffective. But that ineffective thing was very effective when it came to me. I don’t think Jesus needs a great church. The little church in Chino created and lived in an environment where Jesus was assumed and honored. I wandered into that. They probably thought I was a weird kid, coming from those heathen parents, and all. I’m still a weird kid, only I know Jesus and that has made my life possible.

Maybe your kids won’t all be uniformly faithful. Trust cannot be coerced, can it? But I wouldn’t expect them to know Jesus if they don’t hang out around him. He’s in the body of Christ. It is being built all the time in every era with every new follower. If for no other reason, build it for your kids, for Christ’s sake!