New

I love the beginning of a new year.  To be more specific, I love the thought of newness.  The idea of a clean page of paper, a new beginning, the opportunity to start over creates (or at least rekindles) great hope.  The older I get, the more that I appreciate the rhythms and seasons of life.  As the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven (say that out loud without the words, “turn, turn, turn” running through your mind – I dare you).  People make resolutions at the beginning of a new year, but that isn’t what gives me hope.  Hope isn’t a time or a season for me.  It is a Person.  God gives times and reasons and is the Author of the rhythms of life.  He has many purposes, but for you and I He has one great purpose that the new year reminds me about.  He makes us new.  New is good, isn’t it?  We love receiving new things.  Watching my boys at Christmas demonstrates the joy of receiving something new in technicolor and stereo.

Maybe as we get older we lose a bit of that ability to receive something new with such abandon.  But we don’t have to.  That may just be my greatest aspiration for this new year.  To recover the capacity to receive God’s newness with greater joy and abandon.  Remember, in Christ we are a new creation (2nd Corinthians 5:17).  Not just our lives, but all of creation and history consumate in the newness of God.  Among the last words in all of Scripture God declares, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  Do you want that for yourself this year?  I know that I do.  It may just be that the key to experiencing this renewal is embracing the repetition of times and seasons in our lives that we take for granted.  God placed the capacity to receive within each of us, but all too often we let it become jaded and atrophied.  We don’t celebrate the newness that already surrounds us.  Each day, each breath, each smile from people that we love, each sunrise or raindrop is a gift, something new.  In a strange way, patience and novelty work hand in hand, as we experience the same things over and over, we are actually experiencing something new.

G.K. Chesterton, unsurpisingly, expressed something of the heart and character of God as the Great Renewer in a quote that I certainly can’t improve upon.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

I want to experience more of the newness of God in my life and I think that the path to that involves the monotony of acknowledging and embracing the ultimate monotony of human experience, the presence of God.  If I tune my heart (or allow my heart to be tuned) to recognize His presence in the monotony of every moment, then it and I become new.  This really is what meditation is all about.  It is choosing to think deeply about God’s presence inhabiting this moment in my life.  Today, this year, let us choose it more often.

Teaching Children How to Pray

My wife and I began an exciting chapter in parenting recently.  We have decided to intentionally teach our children how to pray.  There is, however, a major complicating factor.  I feel like anything but an expert in prayer.  Don’t get me wrong, I pray.  I pray several times every day, and have done so for 30 years.  I have read books on prayer as well.  But I still feel that I know very little about prayer and that sense of inadequacy has likely delayed any attempts to actually teach our boys to pray.  We have prayed for our boys and in front of our boys their entire lives.  They have also memorized quite a few verses of Scripture over the years.  But how does one teach children to pray?

I decided to defer that to the ultimate Teacher, Jesus Himself.  In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we have the best example possible of how to teach prayer.  Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  The model prayer that He used is often called the Lord’s Prayer.  What better way to teach our children to pray than to teach them the model prayer that Jesus used to teach His disciples?  So we read the Scripture passages involved to the boys and asked them to repeat the Lord’s Prayer with us. Then something amazing happened.  We discovered that our boys already knew the Lord’s Prayer.  Unbeknownst to Bonnie and I, my parents had already taught them this prayer and had prayed it with them many times.  What a wonderful surprise!  So I took that opportunity to talk to the boys for a moment about one part of the Lord’s Prayer, the part that refers to God as Our Father.  And then we prayed together.  I discovered (or at least was reminded) of two wonderful truths about teaching children to pray.

1.  We have the best resource possible in the many prayers in the Bible and in Church History.  There is no need to re-invent the wheel.  We can pray the prayers of Scripture and the Church and know that we are praying wonderful, perfect prayers.  Children can memorize much easier than most adults and love to learn this way.  Have your children pray the Lord’s Prayer (and other, similar prayers) with you as often as possible.  In the morning, at meal times, before bed are all great times to pray.  Don’t worry about how much they understand and at what level they “get it”.  After all, how much do we really understand the marvelous mystery of prayer?  It matters much more that we actually pray and turn our hearts toward God than that we have it all figured out.

2.  As we teach our children to pray, we are not in this alone.  My parents have helped us teach the boys and there are wonderful children’s ministers, workers and Sunday School teachers all around who can partner with us.  Take advantage of these resources and let each contributor reinforce the other in teaching our children to pray.

Prayer is one of the many things that is often better “caught than taught”.  Surround your children with prayer, let them hear you pray and pray with them.  Expose them to the best of prayer, in the Bible and in the history of the Church.  Encourage them to pray on their own and let them know that whether they speak words out of their own minds and hearts or use the words of great prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer, that God loves to hear the prayers of His children no matter how young or old they are.  A heritage of prayer is one of the best gifts you can ever give to your children.  Don’t drag your feet like I did, there is no reason to wait.  Teach your children to pray today.

A Child’s Vocation

I love watching my boys play.  It is endlessly entertaining and also instructive.  They so easily enter into whatever role their play demands.  One moment it is a super-hero, the next a cowboy, then a ninja and so on.  A story develops throughout each moment and the boys are totally immersed in that story and completely committed to it in that moment.  It seems random if one isn’t really paying attention, but the play is full of purpose.  Within the imagination is the learning of an incredible range of morality, value and meaning.  The common themes include heroism, justice, loyalty and teamwork.  They re-enact these themes over and over, rehearsing them in different ways so that the framework gets firmly established.  These stories become written into the fabric of who they are and who they want to become.  It is life-giving for them.  At this point in their growth, it is as important as they air they breathe and the food they eat.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of squabbles over toys and who’s in charge of what.  But that’s just part of the picture.  It is merely filling out the details of the story.  And the story keeps going.

So what does this have to do with vocation?  Everything.

Vocation means calling.  It means living out the purpose for which you were created.  It means hearing God’s voice and acting on it.  Most of all, vocation is finding your place in the biggest Story of all.  That Story is the the Story of God’s redemption of fallen humanity in Christ.  It is the Story of the liberation of creation.  Heroism, justice, loyalty and teamwork are all needed in this Story.  Where can one learn these virtues?  One place is the great stories, the types of stories that children want to re-enact in their imaginations and in their play.  And just maybe, the more fuel and space we give our children to do just that the more they will be open to hearing the call of God to take their place in the Greatest Story of all.

One more thing.  I’m not a little boy anymore (although I do often act like one).  But what if one of the best ways for me to open up my heart and mind to hear God’s call is to engage those same imaginative muscles that adults all too often let atrophy while we take care of “more important things”.  Do you think I can learn something from my boys?  I certainly hope so.

Talking, Walking, Teaching and Learning – A Full-Time Parenting Task

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord or God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall team them 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.”   Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

We have a great responsibility as parents to teach our children.  Regardless of their age and level of formal education, whether they are in public school, private school, home school or at university, parents are the primary teachers of their children.  That teaching responsibility goes far beyond formal schooling.  It is much more than reading, writing and mathematics.  It is the school of life.  And your children are learning from you whether you are teaching or not.  This foundational Scriptural passage lays out that responsibility clearly and also gives some important clues on how to teach your children well.  Here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of those clues.

1.  Embrace the Responsibility – one of the biggest impediments to effectively teaching your children is thinking the responsibility belongs to someone else.  We live in an outsourcing world.  Any task we don’t want to do, we outsource to someone else.  Generations of parents have peddled the job of educating their children to the government and then complain when the job isn’t done to their satisfaction.  Even worse, generations of Christian parents have outsourced the job of teaching Christian faith to children’s and youth ministry and then wonder why their adult children take a different path.  We assume that colleges and universities will train our children to make a living, or worse, help them discover a purpose in life.  We need to stop with the outsourcing.  Schools, ministries, colleges and universities are wonderful resources and can help provide a lot of great things for our children.  But teaching children is a God-given parental task.  Embrace that task.

2.  It takes time – the passage speaks of talking with your children when you sit in your house, walking along the way, bedtime and early morning.  It assumes that parents are actually spending this time with their children.  It assumes that parents are sitting down with their children in the house, walking with them along the way, tucking them into bed and being there when they wake up.  Are these conversations taking place?  Are they taking place without television, computer games and smartphones dividing the attention of either the parents, the children or both?  Parenting requires unhurried time.  It requires saying no to many good things to embrace the best.

3.  It is comprehensive – the other thing about the time-intensive nature of parenting is that it covers formal and informal.  Some of the best teaching takes place in the most informal of settings.  In parks, in cars, in stores, in any and all kinds of shared experiences.  The life of a parent is the life of a teacher.  But these moments must be looked for, recognized and grasped.

4.  Learners make the best teachers – the command to teach is followed by the command to remember and constantly consider.  The best teachers are the ones who maintain the intense desire and curiosity to learn.  In formal schooling, the teachers I remember most fondly are the ones who exhibited an enthusiasm and love for the content that they were teaching.  Their passion was contagious.  Children will pick up on a lack of engagement and will often check out as a result.  Are you passionate and joyful about life?  Do your children sense that your faith gives you zest for living?  Do they see you reading, learning and speaking with others about the things that you are learning?  We can create a hunger in our children to know, to learn and to live.

5.  It only works when it is surrounded by the Love of God – the command to teach follows the command to love the Lord your God.  This first and greatest commandment is the wellspring of life and learning.  We are commanded to love God, but we only love because He first loves us (1st John 4:19).  The truth is that we will default to what we love.  We will effectively teach our children only to the level  that we have experienced God’s love for ourselves.  And our children will only learn that love when we, through our words and our actions, express and embody that love to them each day.

It can be a liberating experience to embrace the responsibility of teaching your children.  It is scary, but it throws us into the hands of God because we can’t do it alone.  God has given this task to us as parents because He wants to be our ultimate parent – a loving Heavenly Father.  Embracing that role can teach us more about the Father heart of God than we have ever experienced before.  It is more than worth it.

What Does “Train up a child in the way that he should go” Mean?

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6 ESV

This verse in Proverbs is often used a sort of legal guarantee, that if a Christian parent raises a child in the Christian faith that even if he or she strays from the fold for a period of time, they will eventually come back to the faith.  This is certainly a comforting thought for parents who see adolescent or adult children walking down a path apart from Christian faith, but it isn’t really what the proverb is about.  Instead, it is a short powerful statement that highlights a vital truth of parenting.  It provides an insight that can guide parents in understanding and guiding their children towards a life of purpose and meaning.

The Hebrew verb (and its variations) that is translated “train up” in many translations is often translated differently in other contexts.  It often is used in the context of the dedication of buildings or objects to the Lord as well as the sense of initiation, discipline and education.  The phrase “in the way he should go” refers to both a moral sense, that is, a way a child ought to go or behave, and also a sense of path that one take through life in accordance with their temperament, personality, gifts, talents and resources.  When one puts these meanings into context it paints a much different picture.  It paints the picture of a parent that is carefully tending to a child, paying close attention to their uniqueness and seeking to understand what the best future for that child might look like.  It also paints the picture of a prayerful parent who understands that they are a steward of that child, dedicating that child to the Lord on a daily basis and co-laboring together with the Holy Spirit to guide that child towards a path that is suited to God’s purposes and the child’s unique design.

When seen in this light, this proverb offers an encouraging and challenging template of parenting.  It is encouraging, in that unlike the “legal guarantee” style interpretation it acknowledges that a parent cannot control either their child or the future.  Children make their own choices as they grow and that is a good thing.  They need to learn to do this in a healthy way and parents have a role in helping this to happen.  It is challenging, however, as it highlights the meticulous care and deep prayerful dependance that godly parenting requires.   Every child is a complicated bundle of emotional, spiritual, physiological and mental wiring that even the most sensitive parent can misunderstand and damage along the way.  Our role in stewarding that child requires all that we have and even that isn’t nearly enough to the task.  We need the help of the Holy Spirit every step of the way.

One final thought is appropriate to mention as well.  Acknowledging our dependance on God’s help does not excuse us from the responsibility of engaging deeply.  Engaging with your child is not the same as “helicopter parenting”.  But it does mean being present and being attentive.  It means coming to grips with being a steward, not an owner of your child.  They don’t belong to you, but ultimately to God.  But what a privilege to have the responsibility to help shape that child along the way.

The Impact of a Father

I got my undergraduate degree from Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.  I was part of their honors program, the Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom.  When I graduated I received a numbered, special edition (signed my MacArthur’s widow, Jean) copy of his autobiographical book, “Reminisces”.  It had been years since I read it, but I recently picked it up again.  I am a history buff, so much of the material is right up my alley.  Much of the early part of the book deals with his family history, particularly the life of his father, Arthur MacArthur, who was a great soldier in his own right and a hero of the Civil War.  In fact, Arthur and Douglas are the only father-son duo in American history to have both been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor that our nation can bestow upon a soldier.  It is obvious in all of the material that deals with his father that Douglas MacArthur nearly idolized him and that their relationship was very close and full of great respect and affection.  One of the most poignant passages in the entire book is when MacArthur relates the story of his father’s death, on the 50th anniversary reunion of his Civil War regiment, the Wisconsin 24th.  He relates the details of the event in a straightforward, almost clinical fashion, similar to how he describes military maneuvers and strategy throughout the rest of the book.  But he adds a coda that is incredibly telling.  He says, “my world changed that day and I have not been able to fill the hole in my heart since”.  He writes this 50 years after the events happen, as a man in his early 80s whose life experiences, accomplishments and decorations few in history can match.  But the pain that comes through his words, even after all of those years stopped me in my tracks.  The “ultimate soldier” (at least that is the public image that MacArthur cultivated, I have no idea whether or not that was true), grieving the loss of his father, half a century later.

What an impact a father has.

I got my seminary degree from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and during my time there “inclusive language” (that is to say, gender-neutral language) was a fairly big deal among the student body.  The NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translation of the Bible was relatively new and its use of gender-neutral language in reference to God in many passages made a few waves.  Brite is definitely left of center theologically but it was not a place where (at least in my experience) liberal theology was shoved down anyone’s throat.  But that experience made me think a lot about how Jesus referred to God as “Father” or even “Daddy” throughout the Gospels.  Some argued that emphasizing this might be hurtful or raise unnecessary obstacles to faith for those who had difficult or hurtful experiences with their earthly fathers.  But doesn’t this make the same point as emphasizing it, only in a different way?  You can face up to it or ignore it but you can’t make it go away.

What an impact a father has.

I am not interested in arguing a theological point or discussing gender roles or language.  I am only pointing out the obvious.  Fathers, by their presence or absence, their success or failure, love or anger, faith or lack thereof make a huge impact.  What kind of impact did your father have on you?  Is it a cause of gratitude or pain to you?  And if you are a father, what kind of impact are you having?  Because you are having one, make no mistake.

I don’t know what your earthly father was like (thankfully, mine was and is wonderful).  But your Heavenly Father loves you more than you could possibly understand.  And the impact of knowing that can do more in your heart and soul than anything else.

You Pay Attention

One of the most powerful and life-changing experiences of my life resulted from hearing three simple words.  They were ordinary words, but what made them powerful was a potent combination of who spoke those words and when and where I heard them.  Those words were spoken eight years ago, but they resonate within me as if they were spoken eight minutes ago.  First let me back up a bit…

I spent over nine years in pastoral ministry within the United Methodist Church.  Those nine years were filled with a mixture of great blessing, constant struggle and a nagging sense just below the surface that something wasn’t quite right.  Looking back, it is not difficult to diagnose, but during that time frame I could not identify what was wrong.  I was living in a state of mixed obedience, and was living as a result in a state of mixed blessing.  When I was sixteen years old, as a very new Christian, I experienced a call to ministry. But that call was never really defined, it was a vague, but powerful, sense that I was to “do something” with my life for the Lord.  As years went by, this vagueness continued.  So I did something that is very common for Christians to do.  I filled in the blanks.  I decided to forge my own path the best I could.  I “leaned on my own understanding”.  I had warning along the way that this might not be the best way to proceed, but I kept on going.  I had (and have) a genuine call to ministry and was (and am) powerfully gifted by the Holy Spirit for pastoring, teaching and leading.  As a result I found a not insignificant measure of success everywhere I went.  I flew through the ordination process without a hiccup (it took six  years, but trust me this is flying through the process).  In the interim, I secured an M.Div degree, served at four different churches in a nine year period (including four as a senior pastor), saw a lot of people blessed through my ministry and made many wonderful friends.  Best of all, I met my wife, Bonnie, fell in love and got married.  There was only one problem.  God never told me to do any of this.  (To clarify, this applies to the path of ordained ministry within the United Methodist Church, not the decision to marry Bonnie.  God absolutely told me to do that) I just decided to do it because it seemed to me to be the best course of action.  It’s kind of a mystery, isn’t it. how God can bless us and accomplish his will and purposes in our lives despite our failure to follow his path.   I firmly believe that God led me to the perfect woman for me and that many of the relationships that were initiated and developed during that time frame were absolutely God-ordained.  But at the same time, I know that I walked down a path that God never led me on and likely never intended for me.  It seems impossible to reconcile those two thoughts, but I believe that both of them are true.

But there came a point where things had to change.  And boy, did they change.  Without going into to too much detail, I crashed and burned.  I left pastoral ministry and started looking for a job.  Oh, by the way, Bonnie was pregnant expecting our first boy and our finances, to put it mildly, were a mess.  God provided a job (eventually a great job where I still am today) and we found a church home.  I was crushed and confused, a walking ball of hurt and questions.  At the same time, I was relieved and blessed, knowing that I was not continuing along a path of disobedience.  Along the way, Micah, our oldest son was born and my heart was filled with joy and gratitude.  This brings me back to those three simple words.

It was a Sunday morning and we were at church.  The music began. We stood up and began to sing.  Micah, now about 4 months old, was in his carrier on the seat beside me.  He was fast asleep.  I had my eyes closed and my hands raised, thinking about how good God had been to me.  My voice was raised in praise and in that moment, life was wonderful.  I suddenly felt as if a hand was on my chin, gently but forcefully pulling my head downward to look at my son as he slept.  I looked at him sleeping and clearly, loudly and even a bit sternly – I heard these three words that I knew without a doubt were God’s voice to me.  “You pay attention!”.  Three words.  But I immediately knew that God’s message to me was a lot deeper and  more comprehensive than those three simple words.  The blanks that were still there from that sense of God’s call on my life all those years ago were filled in irreversibly.  I knew in that moment my purpose for being.  I am a father.  There is nothing in my life on earth that I will ever do that is more important and more deeply obedient and fulfilling of God’s purposes for my life than – in daily relationship with Jesus Christ, led by the Holy Spirit and in partnership with Bonnie – shepherding Micah, Nathan and Julian toward their destiny in Christ.  Every other possible ministry activity pales in significance.  I am a father.  And our world (heck, our churches) desperately need fathers.

In the years that have passed since, this sense of purpose and calling have only grown.  I have experienced great healing and freedom in the Lord as I have learned more of what this means in daily, practical terms.  I have patiently (sometimes more patiently than others) let the Lord refine and flesh out what this calling looks like.  And recently, I have sensed a release to step into a new season in this journey.  Most of what I have learned and experienced along the way I have really kept to myself and shared only with Bonnie and bits and pieces with a few close friends.  But now it is time to share a bit more widely.  In this blog, and in other forums that are yet to be determined, my focus will be much more on sharing and encouraging other toward godly fatherhood.  A lot has been downloaded into me over these past eight years and I look forward to sharing it.  But let me start (and end this post) with a simple truth to dads.  If you are a father, understand your impact.  No matter what your calling in life – there are very few things in this world that can possibly surpass the lasting legacy that you leave as a godly, strong and loving father.  It means way more than you could possibly imagine.  Embrace that.  Dad, you have a high calling and it is one that can change the world.