Don’t Trap Your Kids!

I’ve recently had some work done on the house we live in. It’s a cozy little place, and my wife and I are happy with it. That said, our back hallway had this lovely funhouse feature where the paneling on the walls was warped and bowed in various places creating a disconcertingly Tim Burton-esque feel to the house. We had it repaired, but it got me thinking about walls. (It’s a lame segue-way, I know, lay off.)

Walls are some of the oldest human inventions… or maybe natural inventions. Regardless, we’ve been huddled in cave walls, hut walls, house walls, and city walls for millennia as human beings. We take comfort in knowing there’s only a few ways in or out of a place. It certainly makes defending the fort easier. It’s funny, then, when Moses sends the spies into Canaan and they come back talking about the huge walls of the cities they saw, and the giant people in them. Compare this description to how the Canaanites are described later as having heard what God had done in Egypt and being terrified of the Israelites. Suddenly, the walls aren’t a sign of strength. Walls become a symbol of fear.

This was pointed out by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his “Inspired Parenting” series. (Honestly, there are some great points worth hearing.) He notes that his parents allowed him to come into contact with ideas and people that were outside of his normal sphere. His experience was that these encounters did not erode his faith, but instead encouraged his faith to grow, to flourish, as he became more aware of the beliefs he was beginning to own and the covenant that he lived with God.

Every child is different. It bears repeating. The things one child can view or hear and process will be completely different from another. Some children learn to spot sarcasm early, some still need a sign after they hit the age of adulthood. Some kids can handle darker storylines, because they know that good will triumph over evil. Some kids can handle violence because they know that what they’re watching is fake and that the only time to fight is self-defense. Some kids can handle the issue with Bambi’s mother and the forest fire, and others are traumatized later in life. (A story for another day.) I say all this before making my next point because you know your child and their limits.

Don’t trap your kids behind walls. Walls will always have leaks and your children will run into ideas that run counter to yours eventually. Walls keep things out, but also keep people in. (Keep in mind that sieges are horrific experiences.) Remember, it’s better to be equipped early than to run headlong into college (or even high school for that matter) with no body armor and having never really considered one’s own beliefs and worldview. No amount of TV screening, “net nanny” programs, or Amish living will protect your family from the world’s influence. What can help, though, are fences.

No, not white picket ones. But boundaries that allow your children the freedom to explore, question, and develop, but that keep them safe as they do so. There was an experiment done a few years back that noted that children playing in an area with no fence had trouble leaving the safety of their teacher, but felt free to play and explore when boundaries were set. Fences are often see-through, which means that the views beyond the fence are part of the conversation, but still outside the boundary. (Keep in mind that the teacher was always present in these experiments, which applies to your constant presence and supervision of this process.)

For example, I was not allowed to watch “Professional Wrestling” (also known as “wrastlin'” in our part of the country) while I was in elementary school. Here’s why – I would have imitated the fighting, because my parents had already observed this behavior after watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers. My parents often explained why I wasn’t allowed to watch, and later in life I realized I hadn’t missed much. Or take my wife’s upbringing. She wasn’t allowed to watch movies with witches or villains who were more interesting that the hero. Why? Well, my wife had (has?) a very active imagination and would have mimicked the witches and villains over the heroes or princesses. This boundary stood until she was old enough to really differentiate villains and heroes.

The boundaries for your family may be different than the boundaries for mine or someone else’s. Just don’t build walls. Be willing to field questions. Rabbi Sacks told a story of a mother who instead of asking what her child learned that day asked instead, “Did you ask a good question today?” Suddenly, the mother had a better idea of how her child was thinking and questioning rather than getting a pat response that her child’s mind was acting like a passive sponge. Encourage your kids to ask, to explore, to play with ideas. Accept that you won’t always have the “right” answer. Honestly, “I don’t know, let’s go look that up,” is an awfully exciting answer for a child. Suddenly, the two of you are on a quest for knowledge like the heroes in their favorite stories. What could be more fun? (I learned this response from my dad, who loves learning and searching for answers to questions. We’d often go on these searches, and still do.)

Be brave and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you. Don’t build walls. Set up fences that fit your family. Let the fences grow with your child.

What fences do you have for your family? What questions have you been asked? What does this say about your child? How can you encourage more questions and exploration in your child?


Three Hardest Waits

Waiting is a pain in the butt. I don’t care who you are, waiting is irritating, frustrating, disappointing (at times), and ulcer-inducing. Waiting is the hateful bully who comes by every day to give you a good wallop and then chuckle as it walks away. Waiting is the annoying sound of water dripping somewhere in the house when you’re trying to sleep, but you’ve already checked every faucet. In short, no one enjoys waiting.

See, there’s anticipation, which is fun, but as Lewis Black has stated, “Anticipation is the best part of any activity.” His pragmatic take then goes on to reference that no matter how good something is, the anticipation had built up the event so much that only disappointment could result. I don’t agree… but I don’t disagree either. (Also, I cannot recommend his comedy… just enjoy his role in Inside Out as Anger.)

There are three waits that I can remember clearly in my life. These three waits seemed long, but ultimately seemed worth it. Well, I’m still in the middle of one, but that just means I’m that much more qualified, right? Is that how it works?

Christmas, as a child. Do I need to write more? They’ve scientifically shown that waiting for Christmas at a young age is the equivalent of waiting a year later in life due to time perception differences. I remember Christmas Eve feeling like a year or two in itself. School was out, so there was nothing during the day to take my mind off of the events of the next morning. After the evening service and then an evening at my grandfather’s, the waiting would begin in earnest. My stomach would be tied up in knots, my mind racing with what might be waiting for me when I awoke. I would lie awake for what felt like weeks, just wanting the sweet release of sleep. Christmas Eve doesn’t seem to last so long anymore, and in fact, this last year, due to changes in circumstances, my evening was completely free. The night went by so quickly I hardly had time to blink before it was gone.

My wedding day. Yeah, yeah, rib me all you want, but you try standing peacefully while your grandfather-in-law stands beside you and tells you all kinds of stories of weddings going horribly wrong. That morning seemed to drag on despite the getting dressed, pictures, and other rituals surrounding the wedding itself. The moment when my wife-to-be would walk into the room seemed like an eternity away. I kept looking at my watch willing it to go faster to give me some relief. Eventually, though, the moment came and my wife entered the room, resplendent as the dawn. (Followed by almost six years of marriage, which has flown by.)

Waiting for my baby to get here. I mean, sure, “Little Bit” is just a few inches away, tucked inside my wife’s tummy. But still, it’s hard to wait until I can hold my kid in my arms for the first time. (Yes, I’m being coy with the gender here. We just found out and my wife hasn’t given me the go-ahead to announce it to the world.) I also know some friends who are waiting for kids of their own, too. Their wait is different, and maybe even tougher. They are on waiting lists, receiving news at a snail’s pace as the days seem to drag on. While I have an approximate date to hang onto, they are drifting out on a sea of waiting.

And I wonder about God waiting, too. We know that “God is patient, wanting everyone to come to repentance.” I have to wonder how deep His patience is for that happening. I wonder what knots God’s stomach turned sending Jesus to earth and then waiting for that moment of resurrection. I wonder how often God checks His watch waiting for His own bride to enter the room, dressed in spotless white. I wonder how God feels waiting on His children to be reborn, remade into the image of Jesus.

What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait? How do you tell that story? Where do you see touches of God’s presence in the waiting? How do you use waiting with your kids to help them experience patience?

You Can’t See Through Wood!

I heard an interesting theory this past week in the Cracked Podcast about how we as a society are becoming addicted to outrage. We open our phones or turn on the TV to the latest tweet or story designed to raise our hackles. The conclusion reached in the podcast is that this cannot possibly be healthy. Outrage triggers hormone releases in the brain that give us a sense of excitement, that can ultimately be addicting. Psychopaths were also discussed on this same podcast in that psychopaths are generally plagued by a severe sense of boredom that only increasingly intense risks can assuage. It might even seem as though our whole society has become psychopathic because each new tweet or story must be that much more outrageous to even register anymore.

Jesus talked about this anger in his Sermon on the Mount. He discusses just how important forgiveness and patience with one another is. One aspect of his teaching we don’t often talk about is contempt. He talks about contempt in a couple of contexts. The first is the progression of anger. Yoda said that fear leads to anger, anger to hate, and hate to the dark side, and Jesus said something similar: anger leads to judgment, abusive language leads to litigation, and contempt leads to the fires of Gehenna – destruction. (The phrase translated “You fool” could easily be modernized to “@#$& you” or any highly offensive racial epithet and maintain a little more of its original punch.”

Consider that Jesus’ main thrust is to consider others as important, as children of God, as worth our attention, love, and compassion. Contempt removes all of those things. Contempt allows a person to strip away love, compassion, and mercy, and leave only hatred. Contempt removes the humanity of the other. It is, in fact, the board that causes us to have a problem removing the speck in our brother’s eye.

Say you had a surgeon who was the best in the world. Her hands could deftly remove and repair any problem the body could throw her way. Now, imagine that she hates you. Imagine that she is the only person capable of operating on your successfully, but she doesn’t even see you as human. Would you trust her to perform the surgery?

Now consider that so many of us have blind spots of contempt – we have boards that are blocking us from seeing clearly. Those boards may cover people with a different denomination, a different skin color, culture, language, or maybe a different tax bracket, or maybe even someone who has just wronged us in the past. If at any point we are unable to extend grace, love, or forgiveness, we may have found a board that we need to remove. We will never be able to carefully, lovingly correct someone else if our vision is blinded by our own contempt.

Contempt is what led to the holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the Stalinist purges, and the lynching and civil rights abuses of our own United States. Contempt is what keeps the right and left from negotiating politically. Contempt is what keeps many Christian groups from working together. Contempt is the board we have carried around for far too long.

Am I free from this? Of course not. Do I have to work constantly to find boards that I never noticed before? Yes. Our outrage culture is cultivating a false narrative that contempt is healthy, and even necessary. A society cannot be built on outrage and contempt… otherwise we will see our story devolve in something monstrous and hateful. A legacy of contempt invites only derision, and that is if it is remembered at all.

How does your language model healthy compassion for others? Are there any people or groups that you see as less? How might you begin the process of developing true compassion for them? What kind of example does outrage and contempt set for our children?

Filling In Plotholes: Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

The 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast is arguably one of the best movies Disney ever made. The songs and story are strong enough to lend themselves to a Broadway interpretation as well as a new live-action adaptation released this week. My wife and I went to the Thursday night showing, because we just couldn’t wait until “opening night.”

Full disclosure: my wife and I love the original. In fact, we loved it so much that we inadvertently played Belle and Beast in two separate productions of the musical in towns on opposite ends of our state the same year. So we have spent a good amount of time with the story and songs of both the movie and stage production. Even after being surrounded by it for months at a time and with over a hundred views between the two of us of the animated version, it is safe to say we still love this movie.

Going into the viewing, we were interested to see the changes and what the director and art designers had come up with for each of our characters. Looking at stills, I can say I wasn’t a huge fan of the art design when it came to the characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth, but they grew on me and I began to accept the new art style as a unique take on the characters. I did miss some of the original voice cast, but due to age or death, we could not have all of them back.

Right out of the gate, this movie drips with amazing costume design and a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack. The costume reflect the period of French history that the story would have taken place, and the references to historical events such as wars and plagues give the world a stronger pull of reality than the animated version. My wife and I were floored at the attention to detail of both the set design and costuming that both paid homage to the familiar look of the animated film, while creating a solid, more realistic world for these characters to inhabit. The opening narration and score brought chills again, but with added visuals that created a greater sense of urgency than the stained-glass approach.

I have to give it to the writers this time around: they listened. Beauty and the Beast has been a whipping boy for unanswered questions in a film since it was released. I cannot tell you how many videos and articles I have read jokingly teasing the 1991 film for the amount of details that were glossed over that would have allowed for a more compelling story. In this retelling, we discover what happened to Belle’s mother, learn about Beast’s family life, why the villagers seem to have no idea about the gigantic castle not so very far away, and even why the servants were implicated in the curse as well. It felt at times as if the writers were cleverly nodding and winking when these details were given.

Speaking of writing, every character gets an upgraded story that makes them more relate-able, especially LeFou and the Beast. The Beast’s banter with Belle creates a much more believable relationship, while LeFou is given some genuine challenges and complex moral choices. Overall, I was happy that each character was given a fair shake and their characters fleshed out with their dialogue and choices as well literally being “fleshed out” by this being live action. The Beast is also much less terrifying and “beast-like” in this version, coming across much more like a wounded person than animalistic. (That said, the wolves have gotten an upgrade in intensity, so do be wary of that.) Each character has the ability to make choices, or has made choices in the past that affect the plot. It is refreshing when every character has agency, especially the female characters (Belle, Mrs. Potts, even the wardrobe and village women.) Belle is especially bold in this version, shedding whatever demure qualities she had in the animated film for a more confrontational nature that does get her into trouble – receiving some direct abuse from the villagers for teaching a young girl to read. (I was also very impressed at the fairness given to the Catholic, I assume, priest. For one, the priest is black – hooray! And second, the priest is the one villager who seems to respect and support Belle and her father. I was a little disappointed he disappeared near the end of the film, but I did not spot him in the angry mob, except to try and stop Maurice’s capture.)

This film is much less about fate and magic than it is about facing the choices and the consequences that follow. Some characters make truly heartbreaking decisions, and the weight of those decisions shape the overall mood of the story. And, honestly, this aspect makes this movie a must-see. Children need to be shown that they always have a choice, and those choices often have consequences that can’t be fully realized. I was truly encouraged by the way this film handled it’s message about choice without using the sledgehammer to beat the audience.

Ok, I’ve put it off as long as possible. I know you’re here for my take on the “controversy.” I will tell you, though, that you’re going to feel silly about all the outrage. LeFou isn’t really “gay” unless you really picture him that way. Otherwise, he’s just a bullied man who has a heart that shows as he struggles with the choices placed in front of him. The “crossdressing” scene is done completely for laughs, one of the tough brutes being tossed into a dress and preening to the camera for a second. And, really, it felt like the “bros” you know who have done the cheerleading for mock homecoming powder puff games who prance and preen as a joke. It’s not offensive, unless you’re looking for it. And lastly, I missed the guy couple dancing. It may have 2-3 frames at the most, because I blinked and heard my wife say, “There it is!” I watched this movie with an eye toward the controversy and came out chuckling to myself at how overworked everyone had gotten.

So, I give this movie a 9.5/10. I know I don’t usually give ratings like that. But I need you to know how highly I feel about this film. I still love the original, but this adaptation is so darn near perfect that I have to give it a high score. Understand that there is so much I didn’t discuss in this review: the well-composed new songs, the combining of animated, Broadway, and original fairy tale sources to create a unique experience, and the added humor and one-liners. Go see this film. Take your family. If you need to, preview the film, and then have the joy of being able to see this film twice!



Quit Being So Wretched

Have you ever found yourself frustrated at someone because they continue apologizing long after you’ve forgiven them? I certainly have. Sure, the first heartfelt apology is good, clears the air, and paves the way for a restoration of relationship. The second shows that the person is truly contrite, illustrating that they have thoroughly thought through their actions. The third begins to show cracks in the thin veneer of genuine repentance and begins to point to a person’s focus on reputation rather than relationship. The fourth tends to lead toward resentment, and so on.

There are so many Christians who consider themselves wretched, unworthy insects being dangled over a fire by an angry God. (Points if you got that reference.) It does seem odd to me, though, how someone who has been chosen out of love for a grand new kind of life would continue to view themselves as wretched. See, the wretchedness of sin was something we used to live in. It is something we still struggle against, just as we do the dark powers that continue to strive for our worship and allegiance, but it no longer defines us. Paul even says distinctly, after describing the life of sin, that “you were that.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Paul uses the past tense because these things no longer define us.

Consider this analogy: Would you allow a child, spouse, friend, or even a passing acquaintance to continually put themselves down? Would you allow your child to continually say, “Daddy, I’m so unworthy to be your kid. I’m a terrible person”? Would you allow your spouse to say, “I’m a wretched, ugly human being. Why do you love me?” Does the thought of your spouse or child saying these things to you daily make you sick to your stomach even a little? Now consider what God must go through every day.

If we continue to claim the sin that used to define us, what separates us from those of God’s people who longed to return to Egypt? Those men and women were tasked with wandering for forty years and dying out partly because they allowed their former slavery to define them. Instead of reveling in their new freedom given to them by the God that chose them, they instead continued to see themselves as slaves. They were, in effect, continuing on in their wretchedness instead of their God-given freedom.

As followers of, co-heirs with, and adopted family of Jesus, we have also been chosen and given freedom by God. We, who are in Christ, have become a new creation – the old is gone and the new has come! (2 Corinthians 16-18) We are called out of the world to be a witness to that same world. And as a serious question, if the world looks into the life of a Christian and that Christian is calling himself or herself by these low names, what kind of hope will that portray to those looking in? Is there any joy or hope to be achieved in following Christ if all that person can see is an endless repetition of self-abasement?

Repentance is one thing. It is an act that involves acknowledging our wrong attitudes and actions and returning to the way God has set out for us. It is an action primarily focused on God, and our relationship with him. Self-abasement seems more focused on us, and punishing ourselves to appease our own sense of rightness.

We are more than conquerors and are currently sharing in the victory of Jesus over sin and over death. He has defeated the dark powers and is on the throne. His Kingdom is here, and is coming. We are ambassadors of that Kingdom, with the freedom and authority provided by that position. We bow no longer to the power of sin, and our old identities are no longer valid. We gave those up when we came up out of the water that day we we renounced all other allegiances. Our identity is children loved by a Heavenly Father, redeemed by our King, and guided by a wise Comforter. We are no longer slaves.

I cannot give as balanced a view on this in one blog post as is probably necessary. But I will ask the question: how do your words and actions reflect God’s character? Does your life of victory look inviting? Does it look worth the challenge and sacrifice? Or does it seem dreary and not worth the effort?

What do your kids hear when you talk about God? What do others infer about God’s character from the way you talk about Him? How does your family’s life reflect the victory of God over sin and death?

A Storied Life (My Grandmother)

Everyone has a fun name for their grandmother. I’m not sure which of us actually came up with the name, but it was probably my cousin who called her “Memom” first, and it stuck. Memom is my mother’s mother, and she is a woman who has lived a long, storied life.

She grew up in a large family, and has plenty of stories about her brothers and the trouble they would all get into. Whether it was a scheme as complicated as developing “purple medicine,” scaring one another half to death by jumping out from behind walls, or as simple as locking people into outhouses, her childhood was full of interesting stories. And, luckily for us, she loves telling them. She has worked in food service, and currently works in the optical business. And, truly, she has been working in the optical business in one form or another since before I was born. She knows the “Old Ways” and sometimes her knack for finding solutions borders on magic.

My early memories of her are of playing at her house, sometimes with my cousin, sometimes on my own. I did take a turn locking her out of the house, which, if I recall is something of a tradition in the family. We often got each other wet. I practiced “cooking” at her house, which usually involved dumping a mess of ingredients in a bowl and mixing it up, only afterwards realizing that the combination I had created tasted quite terrible. I managed to eat through a box of high-fiber cereal one weekend… which didn’t end well. There may or may not have been a moment where I ruined a perfectly good VCR with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the exact details aren’t important.

As far as food goes, Memom introduced me to some of the simpler pleasures. (And, yes, every member of my family has food associated with them. That, too, is a tradition.) She always made great fried okra and mashed potatoes, which we would have at almost every family gathering. She has also always enjoyed the carrot souffle at Picadilly – which for some may sound like a place in England. Picadilly is a cafeteria-style restaurant where you walk down a line and pick your food a la carte style – but the carrot souffle was always a must. Memom also showed me the joy of an Egg McMuffin. To this day it’s one of the foods I associate with memories of her. (And also my dad, who managed to engineer a homemade one.)

Memom has always been a storyteller. She reveled in stories old and new, and has always been an avid listener and reader. As long as I can remember, she has always had at least one or two audiobooks in her car at all times. She wrote one of my favorite interpretations of the story of the ten lepers, giving that one who came back to thank Jesus a marvelous character arc of change and repentance. It was a stirring retelling of the story. Some of my earliest times of service were going to church with her every so often and getting to work the puppets for her church’s children’s ministry. Could be that set me on the path to becoming a children’s minister. Her love of stories certainly passed down the generational line. I love hearing stories from all kinds of places, people, and time periods. I consider myself a collector of stories.

She also encouraged my education. In middle and high school, she would reward me for every A, which meant I worked extra hard to make sure I had a full list of them. She also encouraged me at college by sending me snacks and food so that I could eat well while studying.

She put up with my special brand of strange while making sure that I knew that I was loved, by her and by God. It’s nice to know that I am part of a story that started long ago and is continually being written. And I hope that my part of the story can be as unique and as much of a blessing as hers.

Your Boycott Is Futile (And How to Fix It)

So, you’re considering boycotting the newest film in the Disney collection? You’ve found some items in the movie that you disagree with and would prefer not to see the movie. You’re now on a mission to get all of your friends and family to do the same! Onward Christian soldiers, to the battle lines to stand there and do… well… uhm… nothing?

The problem with most boycotts of the Christian variety is that they are fundamentally campaigns of inaction. It’s much like saying, “All right men, steel yourselves for the coming battle in the ‘Culture War.’ Our next move is to continue to sit here with crossed arms and scowls.” Really? Is this the best we can come up with?

History lesson: American Christianity has already tried a Disney boycott. Do you remember the nineties? Do you remember when a major denomination suddenly declared Disney the enemy and all families should give no more money or time to Disney and its related media? I do. I remember almost missing Hercules because it was released during the “Boycott.” (To be fair, it’s not a great movie… but I have a soft spot in my heart for its art style and dialogue writing.) Did that boycott accomplish anything? Did it last? Did it slowly die as the leadership of that denomination realized that people were still watching these movies and spending money on trips to Disney World/Land anyway? (In order the answers are no, no, yes.)

So what’s different this time? Is there a real call to action? Is something going to be done with the money that would have been spent on tickets to Beauty and the Beast? I haven’t heard of anything like this. For the average family, a theater trip is around $40. What could $40 do to change the life of someone around you in your community?

In today’s culture Christians are often known by what they’re against rather than what they’re for. But I seem to recall Jesus saying something about we should be known by our love… It’s a shame that such a positive thing as “looking out for the good of others” has been replaced with “what makes us uncomfortable or what we disagree with.”

Now, I haven’t seen the movie yet, so, again, I cannot give a fair review. But here’s the rub: if something in the movie does reflect one of the more sweeping societal changes in our American society, what makes you think your child won’t see it elsewhere? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to have the discussion at home after a shared experience rather than let someone else teach your child about the ethics your family has chosen to uphold?

I’m not advocating for seeing Beauty and the Beast, though I will most likely be going to see it. (My wife and I played Belle and the Beast the same year in separate troupes. It’s one of those shared stories that we enjoy.) Disney has spent enough on advertising that one mediocre blogger (me) won’t make much of a difference. And I’m not advocating for a boycott, either. But, if I were to advocate for a boycott, I would recommend putting some money where your mouth is. I would recommend donating the money that would have gone toward tickets to a local food bank, community kitchen, or homeless shelter. I would recommend spending an hour or two volunteering to spend the run time of the movie doing something to make a difference in your community.

As parents, we all have decisions to make regarding media. Your decisions are yours to make. My only caution is to think all the way through your decisions to see what the long-term, or maybe unexpected, outcomes may be. Do our children see us as people of action, of love, and of charity? Do our children see a culture of anger, complacency, and clenched fists?

How will your family handle social action: volunteering, boycotts, marches, protests, just to name a few? How do your discussions and reactions to these things affect your children? How are you modeling Christ’s love in response to these things?