National Day of Prayer

I got to spend my morning focused on prayer. My day started a bit earlier than usual as I arrived here at work to prepare to partner with the school attached to our building. I did my personal prayer, following a devotional format that’s been around for several centuries now. Then, I ran audio/visual for the school as they used song, movement, words, and writing to direct their morning prayers. They then prayed over many different aspects of family and society at prayer stations led by people who filled those roles. After a short break I led a session on praying for the president of the United States. Finally, the groups prayed for the media. The rest of my morning dealt with organizing prayer response times for the next few months in our Sunday morning program in the elementary age group.

Prayer has been a big part of my day, and it still is as mysterious as it is effective. We compared it to the lift on an airplane today – invisible, but powerful enough to lift a heavy object into the air. I am still amazed at how God answers prayers – especially when it happens in a way I never expected. He is faithful and continues to show it.

I want to brag on my preteens. I set up prayer stations for our overnight retreat a week or so ago that covered the stories of Gideon and Mary. (Both had similar experiences of a messenger out of the blue, a big ask, and their own questioning, and final acceptance of their call.) Five stations covered their stories using silent prayer, prostrate (face-down) prayer, writing, and drawing. Would you believe nine 10-12-year-olds were quiet enough to hear a pin drop while they listened, prayed, and responded to God’s prompting?

Kids are capable of connecting with God easier than adults, I think. They haven’t set up as many mental blocks to that kind of direct communication with God. Adults often feel silly or wonder if their prayers are being heard. Ask a child to talk with God, and they’ll do it without hesitation – and without any kind of doubt whether or not God hears them. This, in part, is what I think Jesus was talking about when he says that we need to have faith like a child. Faith here being a trust that goes beyond simple belief.

So take some time today, be silent, be prayerful. Write a letter, a poem, or draw a picture while you talk to God. Just spend some time with Him. He is a Parent, so we know He enjoys time with His kids. Don’t come in as an adult with qualms and feeling like it’s silly – be like a child.

What does your prayer life at home look like? How do you model prayer at home? What do you most often pray about? Do you mark and celebrate answered prayers with your family?

Handing Down Riverdance

Last week I got to fulfill a dream that I’ve had since 7th grade. Thanks to the patronage of some very kind individuals, my wife and I were able to see Riverdance live. Now, my wife had seen the show before, but I had not. Sure, I’ve been to Ireland, and was even in Ireland during the 10th anniversary year. Now, though, we saw the 20th anniversary tour, and I was blown away.

What surprised me most was how these familiar songs still had the ability to move me. The energy of the dance was entrancing, even though all of the beats have been stamped into my memory thanks to an original recording of Riverdance that I kept on repeat for most of middle school while doing my homework. Each song felt nuanced, energetic, passionate. And I realized for the first time that this show is a bit of a 101 course in world dance, featuring the firm, dignified grace of the Irish step, the sensual, yet playful Flamenco, the aerobatic Russian style, and the jovial American tap. Each played a part in creating a fun, engaging experience.

Music has the power to move us. Whether we admit it or not, the ability of a melody or a tight harmony to make the hair on the back of our neck stand on end is a given. It helps us to grieve, to face overwhelming odds, to celebrate victories.

So I wonder about your musical gifts to your children. Are your children familiar with old hymns and new praise choruses? Are your children acquaintances of Beethoven and John Williams? Can they rock out and contemplate?

I’m the father of a yet-unborn little girl to whom I will bequeath a treasure-trove of music. I will hand down to her the music of my people, which includes, but is not limited to: John Denver, Southern Gospel, Jimmy Buffet, 90s country, classic rock (70s and 80s), Bluegrass, Celtic, Spanish guitar, swing jazz, Puccini arias, Mozart, Vivaldi, and some modern artists I’m not ready to admit to the public I like. I gained an appreciation for music as a way of life, through listening, singing, playing. I realized that the songs I hear every day are speaking to others differently than they speak to me.

I know I’ve asked this before, but have you introduced your kids to music? Do you listen to the same thing in the car every day? What would happen if you tried something new?

What I’m looking forward to is the day when my little girl looks up at me and says, “Hey, dad, check out this new song I found,” and my daughter will hand to me music in the same way I handed it to her. Now, I make no promises, future daughter, that I will like it, but I will listen, and I will appreciate that you trusted me enough to share it with me.

What art and experience have you introduced your kids to? What happened? How can you take time to introduce your kids to culture and to deeper conversations about how they interact with it? What song is played most often at your house?


One Dark Night

Your hero is dead. He was branded a traitor and killed mercilessly and cruelly. You watched as your own neighbors called for his death, shouting for the most painful execution available. Your oppressors efficiently carried out their duty, performing their grim ritual with blind reflex honed by multiple executions per month of would-be revolutionaries. Those zealots had taken up arms, had opposed the regime with righteous indignation and blood, and had paid with the same currency. The darkness overhead seems unbearable, even more oppressive than the grim eyes of the soldiers as they patrol the streets during the annual festival, prepared for another doomed coup d’etat.  You look into the eyes of your friends, once so full of hope and life, and see reflected in them your own creeping doubt and fear. Every sound, every gust of wind might be the authorities coming to take you away from your friends, your family, your own life. You look up to heaven and ask, “Why?”

At least, that’s what it would probably feel like to be a refugee in a war-torn country… or one of Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday. I can’t imagine living through the hell of war in a civilian area. As an American, the idea of fighting a war on our home turf is something out of history books and legends. Yet, so many today are living it, with nowhere to run.

Jesus’ disciples probably felt much the same the day Jesus died. Their friend, teacher, and king had been ignominiously executed between two criminals whose crimes were bad enough to draw Roman attention. This man whom they knew had done no wrong, whose revolution had been one of grace, peace, and radical love. We downplay this love. Jesus’ love for others wasn’t a wimpy, fickle love. His humility and acknowledgement of the dignity of human beings was profound, and changed lives. His love challenged authority, challenged hypocrisy, and leveled the playing field of faith. His love healed the broken, sought the lost, and strengthened the weak. His disciples felt this, and it transformed them… eventually.

Jesus’ death rattled them. Suddenly they were unsure, afraid, unable to move from their hiding place. The darkness overwhelmed and consumed their hearts, snatching victory and leaving only despair. I wonder what their prayers sounded like Friday night and Saturday? Did they pray? Did they shout in anger? Did they weep in despair? Did they recite Psalms calling for God’s judgment in harshest terms for those that had maligned and killed their teacher? Was there one that understood? Was there one who sat in the silence and heard the faintest whisper of Spirit saying, “Just wait and see…”?

In our lives it seems like we are always feeling like we are on one side or the other of Easter. We are Easter people, living in a victory that is still breaking through to our reality. But some days, we are surrounded by pain, by death, by brokenness, by sin, and we wonder whether we will ever see the light of the sun rise again. These things can’t hold Jesus… and they can’t hold us forever, either. God saved the Israelites from Egypt, and has saved us from the bonds of sin and death. God is faithful.

One dark night… led to a brilliant sun rise.

Easter is coming.

The Truth About Your Favorite Company’s “Social Media Activism”

I read an article in the New York Times today that struck me as so bizarre as to be almost humorous. Apparently, there’s a big push on social media for companies to start picking sides in conflicts over social issues. Besides being an absurd request, what has gotten into everyone’s mind about the role of corporations and social change?

Here’s a reminder about most large companies – they exist to make money. If a large company suddenly decides to pick a side on a social issue, that means that the company’s PR team has done the research and decided that picking one side over another will make them more money than by staying out of it.

For an innocuous example, consider that Axe Body and Dove are owned and manufactured by the same company. They couldn’t possibly have more different messages about their products, though. Axe is known for its ads that see culturally attractive women being easily won over by a musky odor. (If that were the case, then high school boys’ locker rooms would be overrun by women wanting a sniff – but I have yet to hear of any such stampedes toward that particularly pungent sector.) Dove is known for promoting “body positivity” in women, celebrating different body sizes and shapes. This is admirable, and very good marketing in today’s American culture. So despite the different marketing approaches which seemed designed to clash with one another, one company gets to ride both sides of the objectification issue and make money hand over fist in the process.

That example aside, a company picking a side is not evidence that they are socially conscious or making a stand on principle or values. A company picking a side is more likely to be a cynical money grab by a savvy marketing team who can weigh cost effectiveness.

Now, this is not to say anything about actual individuals who may run these companies or design these marketing campaigns. The individuals may actually be giving money to charity, volunteering their time, or making an effort to effect change for the better or stand up for values they believe are right. But we should be careful conflating individuals and companies. Corporations are file folders full of legalese-d paper that protect against being sued personally. And, as I hope we all know, file folders don’t have emotions or moral aims.

Many business owners I know are very involved in social action – donating money, time, and energy to causes they support. They tackle everything from medical research, to local religious institutions, to poverty, to overseas aid, to adoption, to foster care, and so many other issues that are desperately in need of support.

The take away here is to make sure our kids and families understand that companies exist to make a profit, unless otherwise specifically stated – or management isn’t up to snuff (ha, ha, business joke.) We need to train our children to think critically about advertising and what it’s actually saying, and what its unstated aims are.

How do you encourage critical thinking in your kids when it comes to advertising? How does your response to advertising inform your kids’ view of it? When do you stop and think about advertising and what its direct and underlying messages are saying to you and your kids?

TV Review: Trollhunters (Netflix)

There are very few shows that I would recommend with little to no caveats attached. Sure, most TV shows are going to have a few weak points or have some questionable content. Shows that have good lessons, engaging story, and characters that are believable and relate-able while still managing to wrestle in clean language and humor are rare. I can list most of the older elementary shows that fit this category in a short list:

Batman: The Animated Series (from the 90s)

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Gravity Falls

Danny Phantom

and introducing, Trollhunters

Now, to be fair, I cannot claim that I disovered Trollhunters on my own. This find rests squarely on the shoulders of my brother-in-law and nephew. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the show after watching my nephew swing whatever sword-like object he could find into the air shouting, “For the glory of Merlin, daylight is mine to command!” and proceeding to attack me ferociously. Well, as ferociously as a young child can, but it still seemed rather intense.

The show itself focuses on a young man in high school named Jim and his buddy Toby as they discover that trolls (a subterranean race of stone-based creatures) exist. Jim is chosen by “the Amulet” as the new “Trollhunter” (who ironically defends the good trolls from bad ones, despite the imposing name) who must stop an ancient evil from finding its way out of the Dark Lands. Now, if that seemed a little arcane to you, don’t worry. The show takes its time spooling out the thread of its deep and well-developed lore so that at no point will a viewer feel completely lost. The plot moves at a steady pace, not rushing in order to get to a destination, but allowing viewers to become truly attached to each of the protagonists and their personal struggles and victories.

Trollhunters delves into topics such as friendship and loyalty, single parent families, abandonment by parents, courage, determination, dependability, and honesty. Each episode may not have a specific “moral,” but at least one character has grown or changed by the time each credit sequence rolls.

If anyone could find an issue with the series, it might be either with the emphasis on magic and mild fantasy violence. Magic is used as a tool, that often causes more problems than it solves. (Think of magic here like the Internet, used appropriately, it’s a great tool, inappropriately, it can wreck lives.) Violence is part and parcel of the whole “trollhunter” role, but most of Jim’s battles are self-defense or the defense of others. He often chooses to fight with the intention to spare his enemies, though it doesn’t always work out that way. We also get to see Jim struggle with not being able to solve every problem and learn that most problems are more easily solved in a group. (There is a romantic plot between two characters, but it’s a chaste romance by modern standards: mild flirting, some glances, and an almost kiss, if I recall correctly.) Oh, one more issue is the plot device often left untouched by other superhero shows – keeping the heroism a secret… even from parents. The secrecy of Jim’s life begins to wear on his relationship with his mother and causes a rift. It is a great lesson in honesty inspiring trust, though and could very well lead to some great conversation about honesty and responsibility.

Overall, the series is well animated with a wonderfully cartoony style done with CGI. Characters (including trolls and enemies) are unique enough to maintain continuity and keep confusion at bay. Villains are scary, but never to the point of utter terror. The sense of urgency is quite present at all moments, creating a sense of acute dread that eases with the heroic credit music, but will keep viewers coming back with each successive episode.

If you have an aspiring hero in your house, give this one a watch. Watch it with your child. My brother in law is currently building my nephew a life-size replica of “Daylight” (the protagonist’s main weapon) because they both enjoy the series so much. Laugh, cry, gasp, and cheer with your kids at Jim and the Trollhunters’ exploits. It’s worth a watch for older elementary, and maybe even younger, depending on your child.

Watch with them. Ask questions. And learn about each other together.

Oh… and never forget Rule 3. It’s vital.

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?