Your Kid Is A Theologian

While I was praying the other day, I was struck with deeper meaning to a verse I had read over and over again, but something new rose out of the old. The verse was Genesis 1:27 “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is going to come as a shocker, I know, but kids are made in God’s image, too. (I’ll wait while you pick your jaw up off the floor.) It seems obvious, but what didn’t seem obvious to me was the implication that kids have the ability to teach us about God as much as we have the ability to teach them. (I would argue, though, that perhaps they have much more to teach us.)

My first example is an elementary-age girl in my children’s ministry, whom I will call Lana for the sake of safety. Lana is so full of love, energy, and enthusiasm, that she cannot help but throw her entire body at the objects of her love in a kind of linebacker-style tackle that, if you’re not ready, could easily knock a fully grown man to the ground. Her boundless love, and preferred method of showing it, reminded me of the story of the prodigal son, when the young man’s father runs at full tilt, crashing into his son with all the force of longing and love built up from sorrow and expectation. I expect God is like this whenever any of his children turn back to Him – smothering them in a love that has all the force of hurricane-strength winds.

I learned about the simplicity and effectiveness of prayer from a little girl named Michelle (again, name changed for safety.) Even at around 2 years old, she got the concept of praying. She would pick up her toy phone and say, “Hello God? Kissy, Alex, Baby Re-re. Bye.” (Let’s take a moment to collect ourselves after that level of depth and adorableness on display.) This little girl understands that God hears us – and that God cares about what we care about. We had so many people praying for us the week my daughter was born, but I was absolutely humbled by the prayers of this little one. Luke encourages us, often with pictures of nagging neighbors and widows, to continually pray and to not let things go. Regardless if I have the words to say, I know that even a two-year-old’s prayer can be more effective than hours of prepared words.

I see Jesus’ compassion in one of our young men, named Jeffrey. Jeffrey is the kind of kid who can be crazy, bold, and exude more energy than several kids his age at a time. And yet, I have seen him put others first in more than one occasion. I watched him help every other child obtain a candy bar before he attempted to reach his own. (I had taped them just out of jumping reach to get them to help one another, and he did so without prompting.) I’ve watched Jeffrey tip his own Easter egg basket to let eggs fall out behind him when he saw little ones show up late to our church Easter egg hunt. Paul, in Philippians, says that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself humble, taking on the very nature of a servant. He became obedient, even to death on the cross. Jeffrey reminds me, often, of what it means to show Jesus’ compassion, humility, and servanthood to others.

Finally, my daughter has taught me vulnerability. She depends on her mother and I for everything in life – safety, food, cleanliness (because diapers don’t change themselves.) Little Bit is a perfect example of how we live before God, vulnerable, dependent on Him for all of our needs – as we pray “give us today our daily bread.” Our dependence on God is no weakness, as the Israelites knew, and often forgot, but rather our greatest strength.

What have your kids taught you about God? I, for one, am looking forward to learning so much from my daughter as she continues to grow with each day.

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Gender: Another Straight, White, Male Perspective

If you haven’t noticed yet, these posts usually end up dealing with something that comes up in my daily conversations. When I begin hearing about issues from friends and relatives and not just online sources and media, I realize that maybe throwing my hat in the ring could help someone navigate an issue, or at least help someone think through something. And today I am going to lay down on the metaphorical hand grenade that is gender.

I have a little girl on the way. I cannot tell you how excited I am to raise a little girl. I already know she will be the light of my life and that even though we haven’t touched directly, she’s already wrapping my heart around her finger. I have gotten the question posed to me several times, “Aren’t you worried about raising a little girl?” Honestly, no. I have seen so many amazing women role models in my life that are in my family or go to my church that raising a girl seems like a natural thing.

Recently I have come across a slightly worrying trend in parenting that involves letting a child pick their own gender. For one, the effort involved in raising a gender-neutral child seems enormous to me, if for no other reason that making a decision of language that might feel unnatural to most. From an educational perspective, I question whether it is helpful to allow a child to grow without that helpful structure. Consider that the human brain isn’t fully formed until a persons 20s, and the idea of letting children decide something as monumental as gender seems less than ideal. Even if we all end up some day with the position that gender is a societal construct, gender, and other societal constructs, do help to create order and smooth interactions between persons and groups. Dismissing something because it is a construct is akin to dismissing city planning or architectural plans as inconsequential. Sure, we can build a city without those things, but it won’t be nearly as organized or substantial.

I think one of the biggest issues facing society today in gender issues is the falling out over what masculinity is. (Yes, of course the straight, white male would say masculinity’s the problem.) Basically, masculinity fashioned itself as the anti-femininity for so long that once women began to step out and fill those roles, men found themselves trying to develop a philosophy on a negative. Instead of hearkening back to the positives of ancient masculinity – courage, curiosity, grit, loyalty, etc – society fell back to the negatives of primal man – aggression, anger, greed, hunger for power, hard-headedness – and in return we got the rise of machismo culture and what some call “toxic masculinity.” Considering that the male role models in my own life have none of these traits, it does beg the question, how do we then define masculinity?

For me, it comes down to the argument between traits and roles. I will argue for one and against the other. Roles are expectations set on a person either by themselves or society. Both genders have these roles, and when a man or woman is incapable of filling that role, he or she finds a gap, a hole, a chasm filled with disappointment and disillusionment. Suddenly, a stay-at-home dad who works his tail off taking care of a home and kids, hardly getting time to himself gets unfairly labeled as a failure and lazy because he isn’t out making money. Or maybe a woman who isn’t a mother and wishes to focus on her career is unfairly characterized as cold, calculating, uncaring because of her desire to put off or forego motherhood. These, and many other roles, often come with unfair expectations, and I am completely ok with some of these roles getting the “gender neutral” treatment so that it won’t matter which gender fills them, as long as the family continues to function.

Traits, on the other hand, I will argue for all day. There are, in my view, masculine and feminine traits. And, in agreement with Eastern thought, I see each person as having some traits from both columns. Personally, I understand how I come off to others even in my own field. I am a Children’s Minister who dresses well, enjoys cooking and writing, is not exceedingly athletic, and who is compassionate, thoughtful, and polite. I have been asked by fellow children’s ministers, after some strange looks, whether or not I was using children’s ministry as a pathway to being a lead pastor. I would often smile, say, “No, I really enjoy building the next generation,” and watch their minds try to wrap around that thought. I can be a man, with all the virtues of manhood, and yet still have feminine traits that allow me to care for my family and my kids at church. Consider that God, who is most clearly shown in Jesus, exhibited both masculine and feminine traits. He was remarkably firm, showed tough love, and suffered through immense pain with a perseverance and toughness that many of the strongest men might shrink from confronting. He was also kind, compassionate, and unwilling to harm those who were vulnerable. He sat children on his knee, he allowed women to care for his needs like shelter and food, and taught indiscriminately using words that still speak to us today. Instead of throwing out gender entirely, let’s instead do the hard work of developing a concept of manhood and womanhood based on traits rather than roles, allowing men and women to inhabit their God-given character traits without judgment.

From here on out, I will be assuming a Christian perspective, that I hope is at least fair and well-considered. How often do we hear people and not listen? I am beginning to realize that as often as I hear people, I am not really listening. Sure, I can probably tell you exactly what you said, and how it applies to the conversation. I might even understand some of the inside jokes or allusions you put in your sentences. Yet, when I hear a complaint or a criticism, I may not listen for the underlying issue. I am beginning to listen for the underlying questions and concerns involved in this gender discussion. The questions underlying everything else is, “Who am I?” It’s one of the most basic human questions along with: “Why am I here?” and “How, then, shall I live?” The question is one of identity. As our Western way of thinking has become more and more individualistic, we have begun to lose the sense that society is a good. Instead, the instinct is to go against society, to hole up within ourselves and find a small segment of society that allows us to feel comfortable and safe. This further fragmenting of society creates smaller and smaller cells which see one another as, at best, loose associates or, at worst, enemies. Our political discussion nowadays seems a great example of how neither side can have a discussion because both sides feel threatened by the other. Relative truth creates a scenario where discussion breaks down because neither side can even agree on facts. The individual is supreme, and society is an evil to be avoided for all of its rules and expectations. So what happens when, instead of interacting with society, we demonize it? We create generations of individuals who value themselves over family, over groups, over society – and without those support structures, identity is… difficult to construct. Another idea that I ran into from Eastern media is that an individual has no sense of self unless confronted with an “other.” In other words, we define ourselves against someone or something else. Our identity builds itself off of accepting or rejecting what we see in the world around us, and society, at its best, is the historical accumulation of “best practices” in identity and group construction.

So at the end of the day the problem will not be solved with any magic bullet solution, but rather hard work, compassion, curiosity, love, and patience. We must learn to live with a more complex manhood and womanhood that has a place for traits, but that still celebrates the differences between the genders. The godly life is lived in tension. We live in a tension between male and female, between the individual and society. When we attempt to erase complexity, a dangerous simplicity arises. That tension comes from accepting who we are, who God made us to be, and then collaborating with those that are different from us. The greatest picture of God we have is when men and women are working together. God created each of us to inhabit a piece of the picture of God, and we can only share the full picture in a collection of others who have different traits, ideas, and talents.

I know I don’t often land on solutions, because I think simple solutions to complex problems often turn out to be disingenuous and lack long-term effectiveness. If we are going to continue to live and work as the church, we must begin the process of giving up ourselves and submitting to our King, Jesus. We must die to self, set aside our own desires and pride and find our identity first in Christ.

How have you handled gender in your own home? How do conversations about how God made each of us tend to go in your house? What can you do today to better show God’s love through the traits, talents, and relationships you have?

Peace in the Family?

I’ve been thinking a lot about child-parent relationships lately – mainly because I’m already trying to develop one with my own little girl. (A few months left before a face-to-face visit, but I’m already making sure to spend time with her nearly every night, talking to her, playing her music, and giving her some rubs. My wife’s not sure how to feel about the whole thing, but she’s being a good sport while I talk to her tummy.)

Not only has my own child’s impending birth got me thinking, but a passage in Romans got me thinking as well. See, Paul and I used to never get along. Growing up, my understanding of Paul was limited – I saw him as an angry grump who decided to switch to a Greek mindset once the Jewish community had ousted him enough times. I saw his trips to the synagogues in each town as more of a “let’s get this over with” deal. And because of that, the way I read his work was through a primarily Greek mindset – using philosophies built on Plato and Aristotle via the Middle Ages and Enlightenment. Recently, though, I have had a rather profound “duh” moment when I had an author (NT Wright) point out that Paul remained strikingly Jewish throughout his life and writings. Suddenly, I realized I need more insight into that line of thinking, and so I undertook a journey through the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and began listening to Rabbis to get a better grasp of how Jews view the Torah. And, fellow Christians, we’ve been missing so much!

Anyway, back to Paul, in chapter 5, he speaks about how we now have peace with God – a relationship… a parent-child relationship. In the previous chapter, he talked about how faith is the basis of Covenant membership now and how Abraham had been given covenant membership before his circumcision and the giving of the law. So now, the whole world is eligible for covenant membership based on faith – in trusting God who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead. And on that basis of being called “in the right” we have peace with God, a reconciled relationship.

The idea of reconciliation of family is a theme that runs deep in Jewish thought, and especially the Torah and Prophets. In Genesis, we see four sets of brothers, who become increasingly reconciled, but never reach the point of complete peace: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Joseph and his brothers come the closest, but his brothers still remain on edge in case Joseph decides to revoke his kindness and pay them back. The Prophets continually use the metaphor of family reconciliation to talk about the time when God will forgive the idolatry of His people and heal the relationship between them. Both of these threads tie up nicely in the person of Jesus who made that peace possible through his own faithfulness in Israel’s place.

Sigmund Freud’s lesser known theories include one that the source of all conflict is sibling rivalry – that each child is vying for resources, particularly parental love and affection. Children may perceive parental love as a limited resource, rather than the unceasing fountain that it often is.

As I’ve wondered, I reach this point: how will I make sure my children understand that love will never run out? How do I give them each the affection they need to keep them convinced of their status of peace in the family?

How does your love model God’s to your kids? How do your priorities show your kids that love?

Table Triumphs

I recently finished a book called Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, which is a history of several flavors that have become uniquely American. It covers several of my favorites, including vanilla, garlic, and chili powder. (I highly recommend the book. It’s written in a conversational tone, gives lots of stories, and provides surprising information.) Learning about the history of food helps me to appreciate the long, or surprisingly short, histories of the flavors that make up my favorite dishes. It got me to thinking… what are the flavors of my own history?

Honestly, the book has me pegged as far as flavors go. Vanilla has always been used in my house. Now, some houses use vanillin, the artificial extract which, scientifically, does work better in cookies. Growing up, my mother had discovered Mexican vanilla during her trips to Texas and visits to Progresso, Mexico. There is something unique about vanilla produced in Mexico that provides a depth of flavor that makes any dessert truly special. In fact, this stuff is so precious to us that any member of the family that goes near Mexico is charged with bringing home several bottles. To this day, I have a bottle of Mexican vanilla that I bake with, and I am looking forward to sharing this flavor with my little girl once she gets here.

Butter. Scoff all you like, butter was and still is a flavor in my house, as it was growing up with my parents. During the “oil is better” craze in past decades, my parents still believed in butter. Butter added a richness to grilled cheeses, a presence to mashed potatoes, and provided a weight to scrambled eggs that is unmatched in my opinion. Butter was a topping on popcorn, a way to fry food, and a lubricant for pans and baking sheets that did more that create a non-stick layer – it added flavor. Today I live differently by using unsalted butter, but the butter is still ever-present. As I grow and cook more, I’m beginning to truly appreciate butter and how it behaves in the pan and in dishes. My family has never been able to make good friends with margarine, but butter has always been welcome.

Sage. Why sage? It seems like such an odd herb. To me, this herb has just the right about of bite, savoriness, and sharpness to create something magical – see breakfast sausage. Sage is one of the primary flavorings of our breakfast sausage (or at least the way I make it.) Sausage was something that we ate often growing up – Tennessee Country Pride, if I recall the brand correctly. We’d usually go for the mild, but every once in a while we’d accidentally grab one of the hot ones and have quite the surprise at the breakfast table. My dad prepared sausage – and was up earlier than the rest of us, so he made breakfast every morning for us. Sausage and egg days were the best. And then, on the weekend, that same sausage would be crumbled up and made into a cream gravy that would cover our biscuits in a goodness so rich, you’d have to take a mid-morning nap after eating it. Sage’s sharpness would shine through at each stage of that process, providing a lightness to the gravy that might not have been there otherwise.

Banana. And here’s where we take the turn into left field. There is one dessert that will cause me to go out of my way – banana pudding. Call me simple, that’s fine, but even an adequate banana pudding is ambrosia and joy to me. My mother would get a wild hare every once in a while and make these banana puddings, layering pudding with bananas and nilla wafers that I still remember. We’ve always talked about driving over to the Banana Pudding Festival (yes they have one, and it must be a beautiful sight!) near Memphis, but we usually have something else going on that weekend. If you ever go, eat a second helping in my stead. Or, really, whenever you eat banana pudding, go ahead and eat a second helping in my stead… Or better yet, bring me some?

Mint. I love mint. Put it in just about anything and I will be exceedingly happy. My dad and I share this flavor – and it all started for me when I ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream like my dad. My tongue fell in love, and has been adoringly enamored ever since. We both put mint jelly/sauce on our cuts of lamb, and enjoy it in candy bars. To gripe for a second, who at Hershey’s decided that getting rid of the mint chocolate cookie bar over a decade and a half ago was a good idea? No, seriously, and the nasty white chocolate cookie bar survived that purge? Did someone mistake one for the other, because I have been a touch bitter about that ever since – and yes, it was over 15 years ago at this point. I still remember spending the night at my friend Aaron’s house in high school and we would brew tea with fresh mint from his garden. Sure, maybe we were weird, but sweet tea with freshly crushed mint is a delicious treat on any day, especially those hot summer days.

These are just a few of the flavors I love, and that my parents passed on to me. These flavors make up a part of who I am, and are flavors I will hopefully pass on to my kids. See, to my family, food is something to be celebrated and shared… unless it’s unbearably good, and then you stash it and hope no one finds it. Seriously, though, we tend to tell long stories about the meals we’ve eaten, while eating a meal. We reminisce about trips we’ve taken, and the restaurants or snacks we found on the way. My grandfather always said, “All you get is what you wear and what you eat.” And we take the second part of that statement and run with it… right to the kitchen.

Consider that food is important, especially in the Bible, as a way to remember. Don’t forget that God commanded a yearly meal to remember the Jewish family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his followers to eat part of that same meal to remember his family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery to sin and death. Food tells a story. What story does your dinner tell your kids?

What flavors make up your history? What flavors have you shared with your kids? What are your food stories? What places can you take your family that you went to as a child?

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.

Listen at Dinner

I had planned to write a double feature for today: one post for Trump voters, and another for non-Trump voters in order to get some perspective for myself and maybe someone else. The posts are taking longer than I had intended, so look for them sometime next week.

That said… take time to listen at dinner. You may have some people at your table who are more than a little anxious about the topic of politics arriving, which it inevitably will. Be willing to listen. Be willing to empathize with your family, friends, and others, regardless of which side you are on. We’ve had enough division, so let’s let food and gratefulness bring us together.

What is thankfulness? Thankfulness to me this year is being content no matter what my situation. Thankfulness is holding our kids a little closer this week. Thankfulness is seeing the red face of a newborn boy and the pride reflected in his parent’s faces. Thankfulness is watching a gaggle of little girls in princess costumes dancing with their daddies on a cruise ship. Thankfulness is waking up on a cold morning and realizing how amazing it is that my feet touch the floor and feel the tingle of cold hardwood.

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Thankfulness is knowing that no matter what this trip-through-Willy-Wonka’s-horror-tunnel of a year throws at me, I still have my family, and we can laugh, and cry, and share life together. Thankfulness is getting sappy on a blog post that everyone can see.

Listen, share, forgive, seek understanding. Don’t let miscommunication drive you apart. Seek reconciliation, seek common ground. Pursue love. The most profound thing pointed out to me about 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s poem which describes love, is that Paul ends his poem not with “So be like this” but rather ends the poem in 14.1 simply with, “Pursue love.” We can pursue each of love’s characteristics and wind up missing most of them, but if we pursue love itself, seeking the good of others above our own, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Photo Credit: Thanksgiving Dinner via Wikimedia Commons

Putting the Blessing in Dysfunctional

I was reading Genesis 29-31 this week and my commentaries struck on an idea.

First, to summarize, Jacob and his family are a mess. They’re a dysfunctional, jealous, lying, cheating, conniving, bragging, deceitful bunch of misfits that drag other people into their family drama. They’re extended family brings the heat as well with their own brand of deceitful trickery, which only adds to the chaos of Jacob’s life.

But here’s the kicker: God still used them. God’s purposes were still being accomplished even in that moral swamp. Judah would grow to become a leader and the ancestor of kings. Joseph would save his family. The Israelites would teach the world how to live and worship the one true God. And how did it all start? With a big, messy family… that God blessed.

Here’s to your messy family. May God bless you and turn your chaos into riches and your sorrow into joy. May he turn your business into productivity, and your rest into refreshment. May he bless your family’s efforts to reach others in His name.

God uses messy families, even yours, even mine.

Photo Credit: FUNnel Vision – FGTeeV: 300 CUPCAKES CHALLENGE! w Surprise FUNnel Vision Kids Get Messy via YouTube