Life Lessons from Build-a-Bear

Yesterday morning, my family and I set out for a day of fun and adventure, the first stop of which was supposed to be Build-a-Bear Workshops to take advantage of a promotion we had heard about a few days prior. It was a “pay your age” promotion in which kids could get a stuffed critter for merely the price of their age and for a family of our size this promised to be a deal that was just too good to pass up. Apparently we were not the only ones to think so, because before US stores even opened the Build-a-Bear Workshops corporate offices had to issue a statement apologizing that they would be limiting the promotion because of unexpected turn out. Well before noon, they issued another statement essentially shutting the whole thing down. Personally, I was relieved to not have to stand in line all morning. My kids were disappointed, but kids are resilient and easily bought off with Chic-Fil-A and ice cream so it was kind of a win – win for me. Not so much for Build-a-Bear though as they found themselves the rare victim of an idea that was so successful it became a complete and total failure.

Ordinarily, it takes a pretty slow news day for something like this episode to make much of an impact, but I find myself continuing to think about it because of two important questions that it raises in my own mind. While you may have no concern whatsoever with Build-a-Bear or its failed promotion, I think it will serve you well to contemplate these two questions.

Am I prepared to deal with the consequences of my actions?

Everything we do has consequences and some of those consequences are more predictable than others. It is good practice to think through any decision and try to determine some of the potential consequences you may face and be sure you are prepared to deal with it. Life is filled with unexpected consequences, but many of the consequences we face on a daily basis are totally predictable. For instance, you may not be able to predict being in an accident on your drive home, but you certainly can predict that if you are driving while intoxicated you have increased your odds of an accident.

I believe that each of us as individuals is responsible for the consequences of our actions and that it is wise to consider ahead of time whether or not you really want to face those consequences. This is exactly the type of thinking I try to teach my children on a regular basis. I frequently tell them something to this effect: “I cannot make you be kind to your sister, but if you are unkind this is the consequence that you are choosing for yourself. If you choose this consequence, you are doing it to yourself and you cannot be upset with me. Got it?” They always agree and they still usually get upset when they face their consequence, but we are attempting to help them grasp at a young age something that many adults still don’t understand – they are responsible for their actions!

What if I succeed?

Consider what it is that you are currently investing yourself in as it relates to your time, energy and finances. What are you trying to succeed at? Are you trying to get a business off the ground? Are you trying to save up to by a home? Are you trying to finish college? Or maybe you’re just trying to get your kid to stop eating day old toast that got forgotten under the table. It doesn’t matter; we all have something that we are trying to accomplish. We have endeavor, be it big or small, at which we are trying to succeed. Often times we consider the possibility of failing at those endeavors, but I challenge you to consider the possibility of succeeding. What impact will success have on you? What impact will it have on others? Will it make a difference for eternity? I am totally fascinated by the fact that what went wrong with Build-a-Bear’s promotion is simply that it went so right. It was a tremendous success. Everyone loved it. It was great. Until it wasn’t.

I just wonder if there are things in my life and yours that we want so badly that we do not see the potential negative outcomes of success. Do you get that promotion and lose your family? Do you build that house and lose everything because you can’t afford it? Do you raise perfectly well-mannered children who feel unloved by you because all you cared about was stuff and rules? I once heard a man say that his greatest fear was not that he would fail, but that he would succeed at things that didn’t matter. This challenges me to constantly evaluate my life and my goals to make sure that I am pursuing things that are actually important.

Seek first the kingdom!

We can never predict all of the consequences we might face and we should never live in fear of either success or failure, so how do I live a life that is both fulfilling and honoring to God? I think the answer lies in Matthew 6:33 where Jesus says that we are to “seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.” “All these things” is the stuff of daily life mentioned in the previous verses. For a Jesus follower, the priority of your life should be God’s kingdom. That means you put God first and pursue His will and plan. If you make that the aim of every decision, every goal, every action that you take, then He will take care of everything else. He will guide your steps and enable you to have the best possible version of your life!

 

photo credit to Doug Kline used by permission.

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Teaching Our Children Through Hurt Feelings

In my role as family pastor I frequently talk with parents who are concerned that their child is being treated unfairly at school, on a team, or even at church. Usually, the conversation revolves around the parent’s attempts or desire to “fix” the situation and force the teacher, coach or leader to be “fair.” Honestly, as a parent I can sympathize. It is tremendously painful to see our kids deal with hurt feelings and it can break our hearts to see them faced with the harsh realities of real life. I have seen my own child hurt because another parent pulled strings to get something for their child that mine was told was unavailable. I have seen the pain and confusion in my child’s eyes when he discovered he was excluded from an event his friends were a part of. And in those situations and many others I have faced the same temptation to protest the unfairness and step in and “fix” it.

However, I am convinced that we do our children a terrible disservice when we do choose to step in and manipulate people and circumstances for their benefit. I am not suggesting we should not protect our kids from physical harm and do all that we can to ensure their safety, but I am suggesting that there are worse things than hurt feelings. As parents, we are given the responsibility to shape the heart of our children toward God and teach them what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We must prepare them to live real life in a manner that is pleasing to God. That means both introducing them to some of the realities of real life and teaching them how a follower of Jesus should respond. If we “fix” every situation we deem unfair, we train our kids to believe that this is the reality they should expect in life. They begin to believe that they can only function properly if everything is stacked in their favor. Perhaps even worse, by always protecting our kids from all potential for hurt feelings and painful or uncomfortable social situations we miss out on an incredible opportunity to train our kids in one of the most difficult aspects of real life – responding properly when you are wronged.

Let’s face it; even as adults this is one of the most difficult things we ever do. Most of us can handle doing the right thing when life is going our way. However, it is when we are wronged, mistreated, or slighted that we struggle to act as Jesus would. This is something we must all work at! Because of that fact, I want to challenge you parent to parent to consider embracing your child’s difficult social situations rather than fighting them. Instead, use the opportunity to teach them some valuable lessons like:

  • Life isn’t fair. I know it’s cliché. I know it’s very grumpy old man of me. But it is true. Most of the time, life is not going to be concerned with treating you fairly. Can your child handle that? They will need to in order to succeed in life.
  • Consider another perspective. Oftentimes I feel hurt even though it was not someone else’s intention to hurt or offend. Teach your child to consider a perspective other than their own when they feel they are being treated unfairly.
  • Turn to Jesus. This is not meant to be a trite, churchy answer. This is an invaluable lesson we must all learn and should certainly teach our children. When you experience, pain, suffering, or mistreatment of any kind you should always turn to Jesus for comfort. Go to him in prayer. Seek comfort in His Word. Teach your children to lean on Jesus rather than to depend on retaliation or any resolution for our well-being.
  • Respond with kindness. Retaliating to unkindness just make things worse. We should teach our children to respond with kindness, especially to minor offenses and slights. The Bible even says to respond to evil with blessing (1 Peter 3:9).
  • Be humble. When my child is mistreated, I can use that to remind them of the pain we sometimes cause others and help them consider the grace and forgiveness they want to receive when they are the offender.
  • Calmly confront. Many people grow to adulthood without ever learning the important art of biblical confrontation. Teach your child how to respectfully and peacefully confront an offender. This will take him or her far in life.
  • Show God’s love. The Bible constantly urges us to show love in all situations and relationships, including everyone from your neighbor to your enemy (Luke 6:27-31; Gal 5:14). We must teach our children that the responsibility for showing God’s love does not end just because we are treated unfairly.

This is not in any way an exhaustive list of what can be learned from difficult or unfair situations, but I hope that it challenges you to consider the tremendous benefits of allowing children to face some of the natural discomfort and unfairness of life rather than always swooping in to protect them from reality. I hope you will consider that since reacting to mistreatment from others is so difficult for us as adults, we certainly can’t expect our children to magically figure it out once they are grown. They need practice now, even though that practice may mean some hurt feelings in the short term.

So, next time your child comes to you with an interpersonal or social problem, pause before you give in to the impulse to “fix” it for them. Perhaps instead you could take advantage of the opportunity to simply comfort, pray and teach. It might be hard at first, but the reward in terms of life-lessons learned and Christ-like character is well worth it!

 

photo Unfair CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson

Let’s Unplug!

Along with many from our church community, my family and I are about to embark upon a 48 hour unplugged challenge. This challenge is essentially a 2 day fast from electronic entertainment and it originated out of a desire to intentionally encourage, strengthen and support families. Our pastoral team believes that many families are suffering from a lack of genuine connection with each other, and a big part of that is due to the large amount of time the average individual spends watching tv, playing video games or engaging in social media. We have committed as a family to spend the next couple of days intentionally interacting with each other with the aim of strengthening our connection with each other and growing together as a family. As I have been anticipating this challenge, I have formulated some personal goals for this 2 days that I realized might also serve as valid reasons for you to consider “unplugging” your family for a period of time. In no particular order, here they are:

  1. Spend some time in prayer together as a family. I’m talking about some extended (that’s a relative term when we’re talking about 5 kids under 12) time of family prayer where each individual can share their concerns and pray with and for their family.
  2. Read scripture together. There is something powerful about simply reading God’s word out loud together – even without teaching or explanation. I plan to ask the kids to read a favorite portion of scripture and to share some of my own. You could choose to simply read through a shorter book of the Bible together.
  3. Have some substantive conversation. Some of you with teenagers are already skeptical, but I think it is possible to have some genuinely substantive conversations. That will look different for each family, but start with some specific questions that require some thought and don’t feel like they come from a place of judgment or condemnation. Don’t ask questions that necessarily have right or wrong answers. The goal is just to engage in conversation about something more meaningful than sports or weather.
  4. Tell stories. Story telling is becoming a lost art, but it is a tremendous way to develop imagination, speaking and listening skills, memory and creativity. It is also a powerful teaching tool. While I think anything from silly fictional tales to Bible stories can be valuable, I would also encourage you to tell personal stories. My kids love to hear about when I was a kid. You can use story to communicate a lesson while also building a connection.
  5. Of course you can set aside some time to read individually, but our big emphasis this weekend is family togetherness, so I want to do some family reading. This could be reading out loud with younger kids or reading something together with older kids or as a couple.
  6. Find wholesome, interactive forms of entertainment together. Play board games, take walks, put together puzzles – the options are really endless. All it takes is a little creativity. Again, don’t squander the opportunity to do these activities together even if it’s tempting for each person in the family to go occupy themselves. Find something everyone enjoys!
  7. Talk about some practical issues related to the use of electronics in our culture. If there are kids in the home, than there are an abundance of practical issues we should be discussing with our kids in regard to electronics, social media, and the internet. You could talk about anything from good manners (i.e. get off your phone when you’re having a conversation with people) to online safety (i.e. don’t give out personal information on the internet) and a wide variety of topics in between. If you don’t have kids at home, you could still talk about ways that electronics affect you as a family – you may be surprised at how different life is without Facebook or texting!
  8. Work together. You could do chores or even tackle a special project together. Working together can provide a sense of teamwork and accomplishment that we often miss out on by always working individually.
  9. Have a family meeting. Take some time to sit down and talk about your family. This will look different at every stage of life, but can still be incredibly beneficial for everyone. You could discuss goals, evaluate family health, get feedback on parenting, discuss schedules and activities, or even plan some future trip or event. However you use it, a family meeting can go a long way to developing a sense of togetherness and unity within a family.
  10. Enjoy each other! Finally, have fun! Don’t make this a miserable experience. Remember that the point of the challenge is to remove distractions so that we can reconnect as a family. Whatever you do, enjoy it!

Of course, every one of these goals could be accomplished to some degree without “unplugging,” but most of us don’t practice many of these activities on a regular basis because we feel we don’t have enough time. Well, without tv and other electronics you will find yourself with a lot more time on your hands to devote to these (and other!) family building activities. I challenge you to “unplug” from electronics for a little while and instead invest that time in your family. I promise you won’t regret it!

Beyond Gratitude this Thanksgiving

 

Earlier this week my children were excitedly discussing the upcoming Thanksgiving Holiday. Considering they are yet to come off their Halloween sugar high and the fact that Christmas is right around the corner (not to mention upcoming birthdays for two of them), I was extremely pleased that they were looking forward to a holiday like Thanksgiving which seems considerably less materialistic in nature. As I continue to listen from the other room, one of them runs in and says, “Dad, you know why I can’t wait for Thanksgiving!?” Anticipating something meaningful was about to be shared, I said “Tell me why, buddy.” He then blurted out with great excitement, “Because then you will let us listen to Christmas music!”

I had to laugh, because his answer pretty much reflects the reality of the season at our house. We intentionally do as much as we possibly can to put off the celebration of Christmas until after Thanksgiving is over. There is certainly some flexibility to this decision and it in no way indicates any kind of disdain for Christmas. We just feel that it is very important to take advantage of the holiday of Thanksgiving to help emphasize the importance of practicing a lifestyle of thanksgiving. Unfortunately, just like Christmas, there is great danger that the true meaning behind Thanksgiving can be obscured by our materialistic culture and values.

Before you start nodding in agreement and mumbling to yourself about all of those ungrateful pagans out there that don’t acknowledge that God is the giver of all good gifts, let me be clear that I am especially talking about the materialistic culture and values of those that are within the family of Christ. I am not saying that we as Christians are not thankful to God for what he gives us; I am merely saying that gratitude for stuff is the shallowest kind of thankfulness and still reflects that our priorities are material in nature. True thanksgiving is not about merely being thankful for stuff (though we certainly should be). It is not about being thankful for gifts; it is about being thankful for the giver. It isn’t even about being thankful for God’s blessings; it is about being thankful for God Himself.

I was recently struck by the truth and simplicity of this fact while reading Psalm 107:8-9. “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” Notice that we are grateful for God’s love and works, but he is the one for whom we are ultimately thankful. He is the one that satisfies the longing soul. It is not for the stuff he gives, but for he himself that we give thanks. We are compelled to offer our thanksgiving to God because He is the only one that can satisfy – only he can fill the emptiness within us. If we become fixated on the gifts we receive from God like health and wealth and relationships and toys then we will never be satisfied. While those things are good, they are never enough. However, when what we want is God, then we are content no matter what other blessings we receive. This is the key to true thanksgiving!

Today, as you offer thanks for family and friends and for turkey and pie and football and killer Black Friday deals don’t forget to spend some time going deeper. I challenge you to go beyond mere gratitude this Thanksgiving and contemplate God and his endless love and infinite goodness. Consider the immense spiritual blessings he has bestowed upon you like forgiveness and salvation and strength and power and courage. Offer thanks that he is your deliverer from trouble and distress. Thank him for being your wise guide through the difficulties of life. Be thankful that he is your protector, provider, friend and sovereign king. Have a truly happy and blessed Thanksgiving while practicing the words of the psalmist, “Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so!” (Psalm 107:1-2).

What Kind of World Do We Live In?

As reports of this Sunday’s Texas Church Shooting continued to unfold into the evening and on into this morning, I have been compelled to consider the tragic state of our nation and world. It is far too soon to react to any of the specifics or to make judgments as to eventual outcomes or implications, but I have little interest in this sort of socio-political exercise and generally feel unqualified to do so anyway. However, before this tragic event is added to the list of topics to be politicized and argued about all over news networks and social media, it stands as a striking symbol of all that is sad and tragic and evil. The senseless loss of life has led many to ask, “What kind of world do we live in?” Considering yesterday’s tragedy alongside the act of terror in New York City earlier this week and the mass shooting in Las Vegas last month, it certainly seems like a valid question: just what kind of world do we live in? This is a question for which everyone ought to know the answer; however, I feel it is particularly important that every Jesus follower understand and consider the answers to this question in light of biblical truth.

We live in a fallen world.

Though most of us enjoy a life surrounded by goodness and kindness only occasionally touched by darkness and tragedy, we must remember that our world is fallen because of sin. No excuse should be made for these evil men who are filled with such hatred, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that the ultimate responsibility lies with the sinful, wicked condition that befell us when Adam and Eve chose to rebel in the garden. The only answer for this sinful condition is Jesus, so in this fallen world we must live holy lives that point people to the righteousness of Jesus that can lift us from our fallen state. Do not return evil for evil, thus nullifying the message of hope that Jesus should bring to these situations. Even when evil is all around you and the wickedness of this fallen world is on full display, choose to do what is right in the sight of God.

We live in a blinded world.

Satan has spiritually blinded the hearts of those in this world so that we cannot see good and evil for what they truly are. While we should certainly hold accountable those who commit such atrocities and the perpetrators of these violent crimes should be actively opposed, our hatred should be reserved for the Evil One who has blinded the hearts of so many in our world. These evil men are small pieces in Satan’s attempt to thwart God’s plan of redemption for mankind, thus the true enemy is supernatural and we must fight against him with spiritual warfare. We must lift up our blinded world in prayer that they may receive the light they need to see the truth. Instead of being blinded by hatred and anger, show grace and mercy by praying for those who have been so terribly affected. Additionally, pray for those enemies who have sinned so terribly against their brother. This is how we can bring light into a spiritually dark and blinded world.

We live in a broken world.

Because of the affects of sin and spiritual blindness in our world, it is broken. It does not function as God intended. There is evil and hatred and sickness and death, all things He never intended for our world. Knowing this, we must look for opportunities to bring healing. We must resist behaviors that further break us apart as a human society. We must resist the urge to divide and accuse and generalize. We must resist the temptation to politicize these evil acts. We must instead focus on providing healing through our words, our prayers, our grace and mercy and our forgiveness.

We live in a hurting world.

It is simply the reality of the sinful state that this world is filled with pain and suffering. We feel it quite pointedly when events such as yesterday occur, but it is always true. People everywhere are hurting and we should be actively pointing them to the true Comforter. Our God is the God of all comfort. Jesus offers peace and comfort and even gave us His Holy Spirit to fill us and comfort us further. Through our actions of compassion and mercy we can draw a hurting world toward a God that can give them the comfort they so desperately need.

We live in a lost world.

While this should go without saying given the conditions we have already considered, the unfortunate reality is that many believers live their lives as if they have forgotten that this world is lost and without hope, separated from God because of their sin. I say we live as if we have forgotten it because most believers focus on social, political, and legal solutions rather than spiritual ones. When we see evil on display, we must remember that the solution is Jesus and embrace the opportunity to lovingly point people to Jesus.

We live in a loved world.

As dark a picture as we have painted, it would do us well to recall one of the most popular and well known verses from the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This world may be fallen, blinded, broken, hurting and lost; but it is also loved by its Creator God. And if a completely holy and righteous God can love this world enough to let His own Son die to save it, then we can and must love it too. I think we are moved to loving compassion for the victims of these terrible crimes, but we must also have love toward the murderous villains themselves. We cannot reserve our love for those that we like and agree with who happen to look like us and believe as we do. We must love those who look, live and believe differently than we do. We must love those who are sinful and unlovable; even those who hate us and wish us harm. In our responses to these senseless acts of violence, we must do everything out of love.

As we mourn those lost and injured at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, I call on my fellow Christian believers at this time to consider the words of Paul in Romans 12:9-18, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection…Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep…If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” What kind of world do we live in? One that needs us to live the truth of those verses every second of every day!

 

 

 

photo By Sasha Wolff CC BY 2.0

Real Life Parenting

Not long ago, I was lamenting to my wife about one of my children. As I passionately articulated my frustration with some particularly annoying behaviors she began to smile. Then she laughed and said, “You do know who that sounds exactly like, don’t you?” I somehow got the impression she didn’t mean her.

Unfortunately, I am all too often faced with the reality that my children generally reflect my behavior rather than my oh-so-wise parental instruction. Obviously this challenges me to make sure that even at home my behavior is consistent with what I would like to see in my children and, more importantly, with what is befitting a follower of Jesus. It also challenges me to find better ways to combine the teaching of biblical truth with real life in a way that impacts my kids and affects their behavior. As counter intuitive as it may sound, I believe that to genuinely impact our children’s behavior we have to actually focus less on their behavior and more on their heart.

Consider the words of Deuteronomy 6:7-9. “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” These verses convey two eye-opening principles. First, my goal as a parent should be to shape the heart of my child toward God. If this is my goal, the primary focus of my parental instruction is biblical truth about God and His Word rather than behavior modification. Secondly, These verses tell me that the context of my parental teaching is not primarily church, special “family devotion” times, or fatherly lectures – it is real life. Whatever my family and I find ourselves doing together provides a platform for shaping the heart of my children toward God.

Not surprisingly, this is the approach that Jesus took with his disciples – and what is parenting if not intense discipleship! A quick perusal of the gospels shows that Jesus trained these undisciplined, uneducated men into the foundation of the Christian church by simply spending intentional time with them. They took road trips together; went to dinner and parties together. They ministered and served together. They visited sick people and went to funerals. They managed finances, went grocery shopping, and harvested crops. They went fishing, they told stories, they hung out around campfires and even went to church. In short, Jesus shaped the heart of his disciples toward God through real life personal interaction. As simple as it may seem, this is still the best way to shape the heart of a disciple (or child) toward God. Notice that there are two essential elements to this approach: intention and time.

We have to spend time with our kids doing the kinds of things they do on a regular basis. It isn’t a waste of time to play, color, read, take walks, and have meals with our kids. Additionally, we also have to find ways to include them in the things we do. Let them help you with chores, take them to work, serve together as a family. Of course it’s easier to do these adult things without kids, but when possible we should include our kids.

As we spend time with our kids, though, we must sure to be intentional about using these experiences to connect our kids and their lives to God. You don’t have to preach. Just use casual comments. Isn’t it cool that God made us with the ability to play? Didn’t God give me a neat job? God sure is amazing/powerful/wonderful/etc. Or you can pray together. Ask spiritually minded questions. You will need to find what works for you, but just be intentional about connecting real life to God’s truth.

A discipleship approach to parenting will take some thought because most of us are used to reacting to bad behavior rather than focusing on proactively shaping our child’s heart toward God. I know from experience that it is tempting to chase down every bad behavior and counter it with teaching about why it’s bad, but I also know from experience that this is generally futile. Instead, we must commit ourselves to a lifestyle of intentional discipleship. It will likely prove to be long, hard, tiring, and inconvenient at times; but it will also prove worth it!

Choose What Matters

As a parent and as a pastor, I frequently find myself in discussions about the busyness of life – when my wife and I try to pick a date to have friends over and can’t find an opening for weeks; when counseling appointments are continuously moved; when meetings have to be rescheduled; when church programs seem to be competing with sports and entertainment. Over and over again, the conclusion is reached: “man, life is just busy.”

When life is this busy, we are faced with an almost constant need to make choices as to how we will spend the little time we have. How will we fill our day? What will we do with our “free time”? What activities will the kids participate in? Which invitations should we accept? What obligations will we take on? These are legitimate and realistic questions that I would estimate each of us face on a very regular basis – more than likely multiple times a day.

The temptation is to simply field each of these questions as they come. Here I decide to do what is easiest and there I decide to do what feels good. Convenience, feelings, urgency, preference – each becomes a standard of decision making in the busy family. While it may feel like it cannot be helped, I think this style of decision making can lead to inconsistency, frustration and even the promotion of values that are not our own. What we need is one standard for decision making that always trumps all other standards.

Fortunately, God has given us the standard in His Word in Matthew 6:20. Jesus says, “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” We often think of this verse in relation to money, but I would suggest that the point of this verse is of larger scope than that. Far from merely being instruction on how to spend money, Jesus’ words were an admonition to make the kingdom a priority in your life. Later in the same chapter he supports this understanding by admonishing his followers to “… seek first the kingdom of God.” What does all of this have to do with making decisions amidst the busyness of life? Everything! Our quest for a singular standard against which to weigh all of our decisions ends here at this verse. When we are sorting through all of the options for our time and energy and even finances, we must choose the things that matter for the kingdom – for eternity.

It may seem innocent enough to skip church to play sports or to go to a movie rather than serving in a ministry. Perhaps it isn’t wrong to chill out and watch tv rather than put the effort into conversation and family devotions. And that is exactly the point! So many of the decisions we face are not necessarily between right and wrong, but between things that matter and things that don’t. I challenge you today to choose the things that matter. As you parent your children and lead your family, consider the lesson you are teaching with every decision you make. Consider the values you are instilling and the priorities you are strengthening. Toward those considerations, here are some choices you should make to ensure you are choosing the things that matter.

  • Choose important over urgent. One of the most common barriers to making decisions that matter for eternity is the myriad urgent matters that materialize over the course of a day. Urgent and important aren’t the same thing, yet urgent generally trumps important for most of us. Especially in a family, there seems to always be something that has to be done “right now.” Take the time to step back and ask the question “Is all of this urgent stuff demanding my attention actually important?” Important tasks contribute to long term mission and goals, so make sure that what you are spending time on is something you would consider important to your family health and priorities.
  • Choose productivity over entertainment. One of the constant complaints in my house is that “this isn’t fun.” This always leads to the never-too-soon-to-be-learned life lesson that “life’s not all about fun.” Unfortunately, this expectation is not restricted to children only. Our society seems addicted to entertainment. Though I am certainly not anti-fun, we should be cautious about over prioritizing it. I believe that the majority of what we do should have some productive value. It should contribute to our overall life priority of pleasing and following God. This does not eliminate fun, it merely requires that we think more strategically about the kind of fun we have. It’s tempting to sign our kids up for every sport, camp and activity that they might enjoy, but enjoyment doesn’t make something necessary or even beneficial. Again, each of these decisions must go back to your over all priority to put the kingdom of God first. We must consider what value all of this endless entertainment truly has for the follower of Jesus. I am not at all saying that all entertainment is wrong, but I think we should choose productivity over empty entertainment and choose entertainment that adds value to our families.
  • Choose relationships over amusement. Though very similar to the previous point, this choice is primarily regarding wasted time. We spend countless hours watching tv, scrolling through Facebook, playing video games, and wasting time in a wide variety of ways. I challenge you to choose to spend your time building relationships rather than merely amusing yourself. I know that we greatly value our downtime, but I would challenge you to limit this wasted time so that you can intentionally invest in relationships within your family. Ask questions, read and study the Bible together, enjoy each other’s company. I certainly can relate to the desire to “just relax,” but we should make the choice to prioritize activities that build and strengthen relationships.
  • Choose service over selfishness. Our children are growing up in a culture that is increasingly self-centered. Despite our desire that our children not be selfish, we regularly make decisions that instill in them the belief that the world revolves around them. We give them everything they ask for, shower them with toys and treats, drive them from practice to game to class without regard for the impact on the family, provide endless entertainment with little responsibility and spare them the consequences of bad decisions. We must stop choosing to conduct our families in a way that promotes selfishness. Instead, choose to model, promote and prioritize service. Choose to deliberately allow your children to sacrifice for the well-being of others. Choose to serve together as a family. Choose to prioritize serving in church and the community. Consider the lessons you are teaching when you insist your child make their soccer game, but skip your turn to serve in your church ministry. If you want to make choices that matter for God’s Kingdom, start by choosing service over selfishness.
  • Choose character over convenience. With the busyness of life and the hectic pace that many of us face, it is quite easy to make decisions based merely on convenience. While there are certainly times that convenience is an appropriate standard for decision making, it cannot become our primary method. We cannot expect to always take the easy way through life and arrive at God’s intended destination for us. It might be easier to give in to the demands of our children, or to let them do whatever they want; it is often easier to do things for our children rather than have them do for themselves. It might be easiest to park them in front of tv or video games to keep them occupied. It may be easiest to stay home from church to sleep or study. Unfortunately, easy is not always best and it is through intentionally choosing to do what is difficult that we can actually choose to develop character. As you sort out your life and schedule, I encourage you to evaluate whether or not you are simply choosing convenience. You might be doing so at the expense of character development.
  • Choose eternal over material. In the interest of choosing things that matter for the Kingdom, you will of necessity need to reject the countless opportunities to make material things the priority in your life. Even for professing followers of Jesus, material possessions are often a never-ending pursuit. It is hard to defend the claim that God’s interests are our greatest priority when we make decisions based solely on accumulating finances and possessions. Consider what values you are teaching when you choose to buy that new car or boat; when you have to have the newest and nicest of everything. I urge you to make choices to live on less; to avoid excess and extravagance. Choose to live and give sacrificially. Deliberately choose to go without certain conveniences for the sake of being able to be generous to others. You should look for ways to invest in the kingdom even if it seems to negatively affect your own wallet. Jesus’ followers must intentionally and passionately pursue eternal interests rather than material ones.

 

All of these choices can really be summed up in one ultimate choice we must make: choose God over everything else. As a believer, it is your responsibility to raise your children to love and serve God. I believe that most Christian parents want this for their kids, yet regularly make decisions that instill and encourage values contrary to this end.  I urge you right now to evaluate your busy schedule against the standard Jesus set for us and choose the things that matter!

 

Photo by Jagbirlehl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Thoughts On Middle School Ministry

I recently had the privilege of being part of a small-scale survey of local church middle school students. Our desire was to gauge the spiritual mindset of these young students in regard to church, God, the Bible and worldview. The survey was anonymous and designed to allow students to express doubt rather than only choose an absolute right or wrong answer. Keep in mind that 95% of these students claim to know Jesus as their personal Savior, so our thinking was that they mostly would know the “right” answers and would be tempted to give the “right” answer rather than the “wrong” one if forced into a corner. We wanted them to feel as free as possible to let us know what they truly thought about these spiritual issues. Though this was a pretty small group of students, I found the responses quite interesting and thought that I might make some conclusions that could potentially prove useful to others.

The first thing we discovered is that these students still enjoy going to church. Though about 20% of them felt like church was mostly for adults, over 90% like going to church, would go even if they didn’t have to and plan to go when they are adults. With so many teens and young adults dropping out of church and developing some pretty serious disillusionment with the established church, I was thankful (if not a little surprised) that these young students still find church attendance an enjoyable part of their lives. This could certainly vary from church to church, but I do think that middle schoolers in general are still open to the idea of church being a normal, enjoyable part of their spiritual lives.

We also discovered that despite their claims of a personal relationship with Jesus and enjoyment of church attendance, they struggled with some fundamental truths about God Himself. Perhaps the most alarming find was that 60% wondered if God was even real. With that doubt in their minds, it isn’t surprising that 65% wonder if God hears and answers prayer and half don’t regularly read their Bibles or see how the Bible is relevant to their daily lives. In fact, the Bible seems to be a significant hang up for many of them. Over 30% doubt the creation account or think some parts of the Bible might be untrue and admit that what their friends think shapes their decisions more than what the Bible says.

While these struggles should be taken seriously, I think that we must resist the temptation to panic. Remember, these questions were asked to determine doubt, not an aggressively oppositional attitude. These students are not hardened against truth or firm in disbelief. They simply have questions; and the good news is that they want the answers. In fact, every single participating student said they would like to know more about how to grow closer to Jesus.

To me, that is the biggest take away from this student survey: my middle school students (and probably yours, too) have big questions, but they are willing to hear the answers. It is up to us as parents, teachers, pastors, and church volunteers to step up and offer the truth. For too long, we have treated our younger students as if they weren’t ready for the truth. Not the real truth, anyway. I’m not saying that we routinely lied to our students, but the church as a whole has traditionally kept pre-high school students on a steady diet of Bible stories, morality tales and soft “do the right thing” principles. When they have big questions and we give them small answers – or worse, deflect and refuse to answer – they begin to decide that church and God and the Bible must not have all the answers. So they go somewhere else. Don’t believe for a second that they quit asking the questions. They just ask them until someone answers and too many times that answer is found in a secular, anti-God school curriculum or a television show or a well meaning friend with the same struggles.

I am becoming increasingly certain that the middle school years are crucial for determining the faith a person will have as an adult. Obviously, faith is always a personal decision, but I believe we need to be aware of how susceptible these middle schoolers are to falsehood. Additionally, we must be intentional about engaging them with real, practical, substantive truth about God and His Word. They need to understand that the church is a place where they can belong. They need community of their own. They need to see adults living out their faith outside of church. They need safe places to ask their questions about God and life. They need teachers and mentors who can explain how the Bible impacts real life. And they need it now! As they grow closer to high school and adulthood, the window of teachability closes. We the church need to embrace this opportunity and begin urgently engaging our young students with God’s love and truth.

You can start today. Get involved with middle school ministry at your church. Talk to a middle schooler (gasp). Ask them questions and listen to their answers. Join a conversation like this one. Share your ideas about how you are reaching students or ask how others are engaging them. Above all, begin praying for middle school students you know and their parents. And as you pray, listen to the Holy Spirit as he tells you how to make a difference. God loves each one of these students and would be happy to use you to draw them to Himself.

A Change of Heart

I recently heard a godly, well-meaning older gentleman tell a young father that raising kids was just like training dogs. He explained that you just need to develop a routine of simple, specific commands that you repeat regularly and you can train them to respond on command. While most people don’t state it in that fashion, this advice reflects a behavior based understanding of parenting that is extremely common – even within the church. As parents, it is incredibly easy to make our children’s behavior the focus of our parenting. Raising “good” kids that behave “properly” is the assumed end game for many parents. While there is nothing wrong with desiring and working toward good behavior in your children, this should not be the goal you are working toward as a parent.

The responsibility of a Christian parent, the very heart and soul of all we do, is to shape our children’s heart toward God so that they will have a thriving personal relationship with him. In a word, it is “discipleship.” The focus of our parenting should be discipling little followers of Jesus so that one day they become grownups that genuinely and faithfully follow Jesus.

It should be overwhelmingly obvious that the task of discipling a child – shaping their heart toward God – has to be all about the condition of their heart. Unfortunately, this is something that many Christians miss in their personal walk with God as well as in their parenting. We are always trying to make the Christian life about performance, rather than about identity in Christ and personal relationship with the Father. God himself spoke of this problem, condemning his own people because they “…come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29:13) .” In this instance, the problem wasn’t their behavior – it was their heart. They said the right things and did the right things, but it was merely outward conformity to a bunch of rules.

Tragically, this outward conformity to religious standards that God hates and condemns is precisely what many parents are encouraging through parenting that focuses on behavior modification. Yes, you can train your child like a dog to follow your rules and do what you want them to do, but without a heart that is chasing after God they are no better off simply because they’ve followed the rules. Instead of always focusing on changing and curbing bad behavior, we must use bad behavior as an opportunity to look into our child’s sinful heart and shape it toward God.

The shortest answer as to how to do this is simply to give them the gospel.  We must give our children the gospel faithfully, constantly and relentlessly because a man-made training program of rules and commands might change behavior, but only the gospel can change a heart. When sinful behavior presents, take a step back and remember your goal. It is not conformity; it is genuine heart change. So you need to take the time to understand why they misbehaved. You need to empathize by sharing your own struggle with sin and then explain that this is a universal problem for all of humankind. Give correction and help them understand why consequences are good and necessary. Also, make sure to share the good news that God offers forgiveness and He offers to help us have victory over sin. Over all, you should place drastically more emphasis on God’s goodness than on your child’s badness.

Of course all of that takes time – much more time than a harsh word of reproach and a swift punishment. And the results take more time to. You may not get immediate conformity, but that’s ok because the goal is not to shame them into conformity but to drive them toward God’s heart. Make this the central focus of all you do as a parent. I urge you to make your child’s relationship with God more important than their behavior. Work toward shaping their heart toward God more than you work at changing their actions. Make discipleship your aim because if good behavior is your goal, you may one day reach the finish line and find you have run the wrong race and lost your children in the process.

3 Signs of Selfish Service

One of the great privileges and responsibilities of the Christian life is service. Different individuals and churches may call it volunteerism, ministry or some other title, but the idea is the same – we show our love for God and appreciation for his blessing by doing acts of service in his name. Unfortunately, there is always the possibility that what appears to be service for God is actually service for ourselves. This may not always be easy to detect, but there is an interesting verse of scripture that gives us 3 signs our service might be selfish.

The verse is John 3:26 and it describes a relatively minor incident with John the Baptist’s disciples. Speaking of Jesus, they come to John and say, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” This brief statement and John’s response clearly indicate that these men were struggling with some jealousy over Jesus’ ministry and were, at least for the moment, serving for selfish reasons. Before I articulate these signs, I do want to be clear that the presence of these signs in the lives and ministry of these unnamed disciples does not make them bad people. It just makes them human and I would suggest that each of us be aware that we are indeed susceptible to falling into selfish service in our own ministries from time to time. The following signs of selfish service should help us in determining our own motivations for serving.

  1. Ministry is competition. To John’s disciples, ministry was a competition. John was their master and their ministry was the right ministry and they didn’t like Jesus messing with it. Anyone that followed Jesus was someone not following John and was thus a problem. While this seems ridiculous when thinking of Jesus, it is a big problem in today’s church. If you are involved in serving in any capacity, I want to urge you not to let ministry become a competition. That means, don’t view everything different as wrong. Don’t compare results, leaders, accomplishments, etc. – this can lead to jealousy. Don’t view your personal ministry as “the good one.” Your church isn’t the singular light in your community. Your ministry isn’t the only good one within your church, either. This kind of competitive spirit is a sure sign your service is taking a turn toward selfishness.
  2. Ministry is about numbers (26). Remember what John’s disciples said about Jesus: “all are coming to Him.” They exaggerated; John was still baptizing people and over-all Jesus was rejected. However, the point is that they were watching the numbers. They were measuring Jesus’ success by the crowds and this made them feel less successful. The world and fleshly believers equate success with numbers. The size of the crowd doesn’t necessarily indicate the success or validity of a ministry. However, selfishness causes us to measure success with the wrong standard. Any attitude that equates spirituality with numbers is dangerous. A large ministry might offer the temptation to discount the significance of a smaller one. In a small church, we might accuse all big churches of compromise so we can feel better about ourselves. We might feel our ministry is better because more kids show up or begin to feel insecure if our church event is not as well attended as another church’s similar event. This emphasis on numbers is a common indicator of a selfish view of ministry and we must guard against it.
  3. Ministry is self-serving. The very idea of ministry is that we should be serving something other than ourselves, but selfishness can cause us to lose our way. Slowly, our service becomes about self-glory, fame, importance or any other of a number of wrong points of focus in our work. We are left ministering for our own purposes rather than for God’s. As servants and ministers, whether by profession or volunteer, we must resist ever serving out of a desire for what we might gain from our service. Though service for God naturally comes with a variety of immediate and eternal blessings, we should never serve because of what we might get out of it.

Service for God is an incredible privilege and can be a genuine act of worship when done with the proper motives. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to slip into a mindset of service that is partially or totally selfish. I would encourage everyone who serves in any capacity within the church to examine their heart as to what their motives for service actually are. Confess any selfish motives and pursue once again a posture of humble, sacrificial and selfless service.