The Orlando Conversation

While we, as a nation, grieve with those who have lost loved ones in the horrific attack on an Orlando nightclub, the internet has exploded into warring factions striving for their own agendas. While some pray for comfort and healing, others are shouting for action and others shouting dehumanizing remarks at the perpetrator and even the victims.

Now would be a good time to discuss with your children things such as death, loss, grief, and empathy toward others who are going through those things. It might be a time to teach children the importance of remembering the individuals and the dignity of all human life. All of us are made in God’s image. Following that, we should treat our fellow human beings with the respect they are due.

It might also be a good time to discuss how to interact with others online. So many sentiments have been tossed aside as rage begins to take hold instead of grief. Teaching children (and maybe some adults you know) to think before they speak may be the most important thing you do as a spiritual trainer.

Also, and I am keeping this as neutral as possible, it may be a time to discuss how your family feels about things like firearms and their place in America. Regardless of your position, being able to articulate your stance clearly, concisely and logically, without anger or vehemence, to your children will allow them to have a clear head when they encounter a differing opinion. Also, be aware, though, that your children are human beings, too, and can and will develop their own opinions. Help them to do that, and to base them on a studied, discerning understanding of Scripture.

Finally, this may be a time to discuss how some forms of radicalism can lead to violence, regardless of the group. There are very few groups who can honestly claim complete non-violence at every point in their history. This violence usually results when radical, unchecked segments of a group decide that their own interests are more important than those of the rest of the world. Your children may have questions, and as much as you may want to fire off a long, ranting list of why a particular group of people are evil, be cautious: as you are raising a generation that will have the choice between impassioned hatred or discerning wisdom and forbearing love.

Take time to process before interacting online. Spend time in prayer and study trusting in God to guide your words and actions.

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Treasure from Suffering

My family and a few other families I know have been having a rash of tough times. Between death, cancer, Alzheimer’s, infertility, theft, break-ins, and just general stress of work and home there have been more than a few people wondering what God has planned here. And, to be fair, I get it. Even Job who, early in the book named after this character, refused to offend God found himself at least questioning how this was going to end.

From what I’ve seen in my own life, suffering leads to wisdom. It can be practical, such as touching a hot stove being painful, therefore most hot things should be handled with care. To more subjective, I have experienced the loss of a loved one, therefore I can sympathize and be selective of my words around someone in mourning.

Joseph, in particular, (Genesis 37- and following) finds that wisdom is hard won. His naivete and maybe pride show in the beginning of his life when he shares his dreams of being in authority over his older brothers and father, much to their anger. He is sold into chattel slavery by his own family and bought by an Egyptian. Interestingly, with each bad turn in Joseph’s life, the phrase, “and the Lord was with Joseph,” appears. The blessing given to Abraham, passed to Isaac, and then Jacob, was being honored in Joseph’s life. God was with Joseph, and through Joseph, people were being blessed, such as Potiphar’s household and the jailer’s prison. Despite the pain he experienced, God blessed Joseph and blessed those around him as well.

At this moment in my life, I cannot say that I am suffering. I have stressors and frustrations, but very little that is breaking my back and bringing me to existential questions. Instead, I am watching Job and Joseph, and these families around me deal, cope, and struggle with the pain in their lives. I watch them rely on God’s strength, or try to handle it themselves. I watch them fall, rise again, stumble, and continue crawling on. I have to admire their determination to not simply lie down and surrender to the pain.

They all have hope, in one way or another. Many of these families find themselves relying on God through His people, the church. They retreat into the stronghold that God is in order to access that power that is made perfect in humanity’s weakness.

At the end of suffering, there is treasure: hope, wisdom, empathy. These are never replacements for what is lost along the way, just as Job’s blessings at the end of his story do not replace those he lost at the beginning. Instead, these are hard-won treasures that last a lifetime.

I bring this up because if your family is not suffering now, you might in the future. The way you handle that stress will often be inherited by your children. Do you allow yourself to be supported by God and His people? Do you run to earthly comforts or vices? Does anger begin to fester or bitterness resurface? Do your children see you develop wisdom as you progress through pain and stress?

Remember, every moment is one that can be transformed by God’s presence. Deuteronomy 6.4-9 commands God’s people to speak of God at every moment of the day, to model faithfulness and trust and submission to our King.

PS: I’ll do something that doesn’t involve pain or suffering soon. Most of the things I share here are what I am reading at the moment – which for now are Job and Joseph’s stories.

Discussing Captain America News with Your Child

Yesterday the comic book world was treated to a startling piece of information in that Captain America has outed himself as a member of HYDRA. For those of you not gasping in incredulity, this one may take some explanation.

Before I begin, you may want to read this article, as I will use a few ideas from it to make a point or two. First, please be aware that this is a fairly standard money-grab, shock-jock tactic to sell a few more comic books as people rush to their local comic shop to see if the scuttlebutt is true. (The joke may be on Marvel and its writers, however, as there are many useful websites that divulge plot information and whole comics for free. Not that these are morally correct, but it does change the situation somewhat.) What this means is that Captain America will go back to being a bastion of justice and truth just as soon as this quarter’s earnings have come in. And that little analysis there brings me to my next point.

American cynicism has gotten out of hand. We have a very hard time believing anyone is decent, let alone good. How could Steve Rogers (Captain America) be so righteous and moral? Surely he’s got some deep, dark secret that disqualifies him from being a good man, right?

Well, that deep, dark secret this month is that Captain America has secretly been a HYDRA double agent all along. So what’s HYDRA? HYDRA (if you couldn’t tell from the reference to a gigantic monster or the fact that it’s all caps) is an evil organization that developed as an offshoot of the Nazi war machine during WWII, as written by Marvel comics. Yes, if you do the math correctly there, it does mean that Captain America is effectively a Nazi. If that doesn’t bother you just a little bit, it should.

So in a bigger picture look, the writers decided that in a world that is screaming for diversity in media and mercy for the refugee and helping those trapped in poverty Captain America, who traditionally fought to right these wrongs, should come out as a secret Nazi. Surely we can all see that our political situation is not the best. We can all see the unrest that has stemmed from poverty and a broken welfare system. We can all see that there are people in the world who are, in fact, choosing evil over good. We understand that our world needs fixing and is not in the best state.In that case, why would we decide that a fictional character designed to give hope should be striving against fixing the world and trying to destroy it.

As parents living in a world of superheroes, I don’t envy you having to discuss this issue (pun not intended) with your children. Hopefully this will all be some kind of ruse and this hero will be reinstated as the commiserate good guy. Until then, we have some soul-searching to do about how we raise this next generation. Do we want them to inherit this rampant cynicism, or would we rather them accept the world as it is and work to actively change it for the better?

As Christians, we also have to accept that no human being is perfect and that we all make mistakes and errors in judgment. Maybe that’s the take away here. It’s a hard discussion to have, but your children understanding that human beings have flaws is a part of maturing.

Maybe the discussion includes making plans to apologize when we as adults make mistakes, instead of talking them away or brushing them off. Perhaps this upcoming generation will have a better grasp on what it means to be human in the realm of forgiveness and understanding.

Has this news about Captain America reached your child yet? How will you handle the discussion? Will you allow your child to continue rooting for superheroes? Will you wait this event out to see how the characters fair with time?

Pain Isn’t So Bad

A thought trend I have been hearing lately from many sources, both religious and secular, has been to point to suffering as being the ultimate evil. Secular morality, it seems to me, is built on the idea that suffering is evil and pleasure (even simple comfort) is the greatest good for humanity. From this comes the idea that euthanasia, abortion, and intense military action is completely justified – because all of these seek to end or avoid suffering.

It seems odd to me, though, that a country claiming to be built on Christ’s example would be walking down a path of avoiding suffering. Jesus himself was no stranger to suffering: seeking refuge in Egypt from an unstable ruler, facing intense hunger during fasting, facing the whip for the accusation of being apolitical dissident, and finally facing the traitor’s death at the hands of an oppressive government. Paul, also no stranger to suffering and who made his point clear while listing off his suffering like a list of prestigious degrees, continually called churches to task in order to stand firm and prepare for the worst. Paul wrote to the Roman church, “[…] We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope.” (Romans 5.3-4 Kingdom New Testament)

The Jewish people, God’s chosen, themselves have suffered immensely over the years, steeling themselves to live under the weight of oppressive regime after cruel tyrant. They, who wandered in the wilderness, faced their own trials and testing in the desert, who poured out their hearts through the prophets and psalmists, were no strangers to suffering. These are the people who treasured Job in the list of sacred texts, a book that answers few questions, but instills hope.

So why pain? Well, first, consider that a person who feels no pain or who is incapable of feeling emotion does not gain the title of “human perfected” but instead is often diagnosed with some kind of disorder. Why is that? If avoiding pain is the greatest good, why would people incapable of pain not have reached the pinnacle of humanity?

Perhaps it is that, deep down, we understand the necessity of pain and suffering. Pain often brings wisdom. Suffering often leads to understanding and sympathy. Comforting someone becomes much different when we have lived through the same traumatic experiences as another. We often learn the correct and incorrect ways of living and acting through the pain caused by our own choices. Do we think of others on the other side of the globe when things are going well? Or do we only focus on those places of poverty and destruction when the suffering of those people finally reaches the light of a camera on our televisions or laptops?

Not to say this is the way things should be. God hurts when we hurt, but how often do we as humans need pain to learn and grow? My own scars, both physical and mental, are a list (always growing) of lessons learned and mistakes made. Are they all my own mistakes? No. But have I grown because I have accepted what happened and decided to make a change or become a more caring, understanding individual? Yes.

I think maturity involves coming to grips with human suffering. Many great minds, much more adept than mine, have delved into that dark pool to search out the bottom. I have not had such great suffering as they, but their insight into humanity’s heart and mind have come to shape the way we live and think. James, Jesus’ brother who ended up becoming one of the key leaders of the church in Jerusalem, wrote: “My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience.” (James 1.2-3 KNT)

This may be why the early church, after the great persecutions ended, sought out monasticism and voluntary fasting. Perhaps there was a sense that suffering, while an unpleasant part of life, helped to remind us of the important things. Loss often leads us to cling tighter to those important people in our lives. Destruction strips away our trust in physical resources. Suffering reminds us that our own bodies will fail.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentioned that a  proper Jewish story begins with suffering or sorrow, and ends with hope. That is also the story for Christian people, for all people – our sorrow can be turned into joy, our crying to laughter, and our pain to celebration. We have a God that is working, even now when we may not be able to perceive it, to set things to rights. We are sitting in the “now and not yet” waiting for the full realization of the victory already achieved through Jesus, as NT Wright would say.

Hope is what we have to hold on to. Hope keeps us strong in the midst of suffering. As we learn and grow, slowly and painfully, we have hope that God, who is ever faithful, is working in every situation to bring about the final victory.

How do discussions about suffering go at your house? How are you using every opportunity to instill hope in your children? What ways have you found to help children find understanding in hope even in difficult situations?

 

Fighting from the Low Ground

To fight from the low ground is to fight at a disadvantage. Having the higher ground means having a better view. Being higher means having gravity working for you and against your opponent. Would you prefer to start from the higher or lower ground?

Christians have gotten into  a bad habit over the past 1000 years. Ever since Christianity became part of an empire, we’ve been used to having enough power and authority to be able to leverage people into the kind of life we think they should live. That time is very swiftly drawing to a close. Christians are losing the high ground politically.

We’re coming to a time when legislation and power plays in politics will be harder to come by. What then, brothers and sisters, shall we do? We relearn how to function from the political disadvantage. We relearn the principles that Jesus laid out when he warned and encouraged his followers that in this world we will have trouble, but take heart, Jesus has overcome the world.

Consider that Jesus, through his disciples, was capable of turning the Roman Empire upside down to the point where governors are having to write letters to the emperor to figure out how to handle these nutty Christians. What was the early Christians’ biggest sin in the eyes of the Roman Empire? They refused to take part in politics, which were tied to emperor worship. Because of this, they were labeled traitors and “atheists.” (I’ll continue when you finish chuckling over that point.)

How did Christianity spread so quickly? Well, besides the Spirit of God moving powerfully, persecution was the biggest mover. Persecution broke out in Jerusalem, so the Christians spread out into other cities. Then those cities got frustrated and drove the Christians on to even further-flung cities and villages. Even struggling from the disadvantage proved to be an advantage for God and his mission.

For a while, we as Christians have been struggling with how to use power. We like the phrases in Genesis “fill the earth and subdue it.” And, yet, we also see that our own sinfulness has made power a very dangerous weapon to wield.

Paul makes clear that God makes the wisdom of the world seem like foolishness, and that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Perhaps it’s about time we begin bringing up a generation who understands how to fight from a disadvantage.

We always bring up the Civil Rights movement when discussing power, weakness, and change. Even though many who held power resisted that movement, the quiet strength and disadvantage of the marchers and peaceful protesters was nearly unstoppable. Consider what Jesus could accomplish if we stopped depending on our own power and began acting out of our weak points so that God’s strength could be made perfect through us.

Does this mean raising a generation of weak men and women? Of course not. It takes an indomitable spirit and willingness to face danger and anger and power itself. It’s being Paul listing his suffering, it’s being Peter sitting in jail, it’s being Jesus shutting out the mocking by asking God to forgive his tormenters. These people aren’t weak, they’re strong, but their power isn’t one of violence and privilege. Instead theirs is a power of peace, determination, perseverance, and trust in a God bigger than the current suffering.

How do you and your family talk about change that needs to happen? When culture seems to be lashing back at Christians, how to you react? In what ways are you preparing your family to act boldly from the lower ground.

Righteously Disgusted

As a part of our Sunday Morning curriculum we have had a month discussing the character trait of perseverance. The whole month has been centered around people from the Bible who refused to give up when things got hard.

Don’t we all have a favorite person from the Bible who refused to give up, even when things looked absolutely bleak?

The reason I mention any of this was that our most recent lesson had three short stories, two of which ended with someone who refused to give up: a girl with dyslexia who read out loud in class despite her difficulty and a really lackluster soccer player who discovered his dream to be a coach instead of a player. These got the children excited and interested, they began engaging with me as I told these stories. And then we got to the middle story.

The middle story was about a young lad who had trouble tying his shoes. His dad bought him a fantastic pair of new shoes, but they had laces… And when I told the children that instead of practicing or working hard the kid gave up and never wore the shoes his dad bought him, the look of disgust and disbelief on their faces was surprising.

There has been so much trash talk swapped between generations since the ancient times – even the Greek philosophers talked about the “wild and crazy” youth. But lately, the jibes have been turning from “wild and crazy” to “just plain lazy.” I wonder where that comes from.

The looks on these kids faces told me that giving up wasn’t even an option. The idea of someone just throwing up their hands in defeat stunned them into silence and then argument. “What do you mean he just gave up? That doesn’t make sense!” Kids don’t give up, it almost seems against their nature.

I wonder when many adults lost that sense of righteous disgust at giving up when things get hard? Where did the younger generation pick up a habit of “it’s no use?”

If you have a rebuttal for your particular instance, this may or may not apply to you. Or, maybe you should take a moment and think about where that rebuttal stems from and where your emotions are.

Giving up isn’t in human nature. God designed us to push forward and take one more step toward our goals. Jesus himself pushed through terrible pain and anguish because he could see the victory on the other side of the struggle. And maybe that’s the key. Maybe kids have a clearer vision of the possible victory and joy. Maybe their eyes haven’t been clouded by cynicism and apathy.

So as the kids learned yesterday, “When life gets hard, remember what Jesus did for you.”

What is the culture of perseverance at your house? How do you talk about difficult situations and which ones need perseverance and which ones need a brave refusal?

Batmeh V Supermeh (A movie Review)

I feel… conflicted about this movie from a personal standpoint. I feel like the actors did well with their roles and didn’t overact too much. (Except for Lex Luthor, who they turned into the Joker.) The special effects in this Wagner-esque saga were quite well done, even if the camera work looked like a middle-school film project. (Can we please be done with the shaky-cam trend, now, please?) And about an hour of the run time could have been cut and very little would have been lost.

Usual bits here: violence (punching and stabbing and shooting), bit of language, some sexuality (bathtub scene), and an overall dark and oppressive tone that might be a bit much for some kids.

So, the main conflict here advertised heavily in advance of Marvel’s Civil War film with a similar premise felt shoehorned and forced. Superman and Batman had very little reason to actually fight, even though their ideals differed… that’s kind of the point of having the two characters together. Anyway, I haven’t been the biggest fan of DCs latest trend of gritty re-imaginings of their characters turning them into sociopathic murderers to pad out the tension. I won’t tell you who “wins” the fight, but let’s say that by the time you’ve sat through the build up, you’ll find yourself mentally shouting, “What’s the point!?”

I think the real issue here is that the production company is trying to create a franchise similar to the Marvel films, but doesn’t quite know how to set up future movies without being confusing. Then again, DC comics is no stranger to confusion, having to restart its entire comic book line several times because its own fans and creators couldn’t keep up anymore.

So why even bring up this joyless, gritty, forced confrontation between two beloved heroes? Because there’s some deep thought from the writers/director that you should know about!

And by deep thought, I mean some philosophical pondering by the semi-insane Lex Luthor. Having been turned from the traditional presentation of put-together, self-made businessman with an ego the size of Asia, Luthor is now a wacky, loose-cannon inheritor of a technology company and a self-stated abuse victim. Why mention this? Abuse is serious business and it needs to be discussed. Often times it gets tossed around as a short-hand excuse as to why a character has so many moral or mental flaws. And here, it feels that way. There’s no nuance, there’s little struggle, and it gets a halfhearted mention during a standoff with Superman.

The thought that stuck with me is the idea that because of the abuse he suffered, “God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful.” And this is an idea that gets tossed around a lot in today’s society. If God is all-good and all-powerful, he’d straighten everything out and no one would ever have anything bad happen. Conversely, because bad stuff happens he either doesn’t care or cannot act.

And this is where the big sticking point is for your family if you watch this film. How do you discuss this? Does the Bible even talk about this?

Part of this movie centers around the idea that humans would begin assuming Superman is some kind of god or messiah-like figure. (Hard to miss with all of the Christ imagery the director throws around like party confetti.) We see scenes of people bowing, reverencing, and treating Superman as if he were a holy being. Luthor’s scheme then is to “prove that god can be killed or corrupted.”

The Bible is clear that bad things happen to everyone. Why? Each day we make choices, and if we’re honest, many of them end up hurting others. We can justify our actions, but it doesn’t change the fact that we hurt people. And if the way we purchase, speak, or act causes the suffering of others, can we then ask the question, “Why me?” God makes the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous – God shows love to those who follow him and those who don’t. (Matthew 5.43-45) We all have good days and we all have bad days. Life is tough and full of danger and pain, but also full of joy and love. To blame God for every problem we have is a little short-sighted and selfish.

God has worked, is working, and will work to set things right. At the moment all of creation waits, groaning in anticipation of the day when God renews the world. (Romans 8.20-25) God also often chooses to work through His people who have caught a passion for His mission. So when I hear, “Why doesn’t God do _______?” My first reaction is, “What are you doing about it? Maybe you’re the one to do it!”

Think about the kind of conversation you might have with your child as you watch movies together. Anticipate what questions they might have. Look for the moments where you see echoes of Jesus’ story to latch on to and use.