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!

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

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.