Friday, April 18, 2014

What I liked and didn’t like about "Heaven Is for Real"

Why a Christianity that’s overly-focused on heaven misses the point 

Heaven Is for Real is a well-done movie. By that, I don’t mean it is “epic” or grip-your-seat exciting, but that it does what it sets out to do: it brings to the screen pretty faithfully something that actually happened. What’s more, the story is about a religious experience, which makes it a “Christian movie”, and those aren’t easy. Christian movies, while dealing with something inherently un-believeable (because it’s supernatural) nonetheless have to be believable. And, because they deal with Christian subject matter, they have to be biblically faithful. And with Heaven Is for Real, that’s the rub.

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Plea for Digital Integrity (or - Why no, your 11-year-old shouldn't have a Facebook or Instagram)

--> This is a message to parents, and to fellow ministry leaders who work with kids & students, and to the kids themselves, who will never read this but who need to hear it anyhow: We all need to follow the rules.

Specifically, I’m referring to age restrictions on websites and apps, those forgettable and almost wholly unenforceable, check-the-box affirmations we must click before setting up an account. The reason for age restrictions is, ostensibly, to keep adult content away from child eyes, but also to comply with federal law.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was passed in 1998. It prohibits the collection of kids’ personal information without parental consent. The thing is, COPPA is a product of the early days of the Internet, and it was a response mainly to e-mail and subscription-based websites (for example, you needed to create a Yahoo! account in order to use Yahoo! e-mail). When COPPA was passed, people had to sit at desks to get online (imagine that) or find an Ethernet outlet to plug into with a laptop. The Internet and social media were on the periphery of our lives, not at the center.

But now? It’s everywhere, and it’s all the time. Give great credit to Apple, which by shrewd marketing managed to convince all of the developed world that every one of us needed to have 24/7 access to the Internet via a personal handheld device (despite the fact that we seemed to get by without it just a few short years earlier). What started out to be sophisticated toys bought by adults quickly got adopted by high school students, many of whom inherited their parents’ used devices. And then, quickly, smart phones and tablets became standard-issue equipment for middle schoolers as well. And they’re encroaching into elementary schools. (And - look at this: http://www.fisher-price.com/en_US/brands/babygear/products/78030


None of this is necessarily good or bad (though it is expensive). It’s reality. But it’s so much, so fast, that we’re left with this nagging suspicion that too much can’t be a good thing. Some control is needed. Parents are wanting to know what their kids are up to online, and wanting them to use devices less, or at least practice some responsibility.

But responsibility does not develop out of thin air. Responsibility is born of a commitment to observe guidelines, to define certain activity as in-bounds, and other activity as out-of-bounds. And so parents are installing filters and monitoring software, which are both imperfect and time-consuming (most of us barely have time to reflect on our own lives, much less that of another person). They’re trusting (hoping, really) that kids won’t figure out a way around the blocker or their password for parental controls, or creating anonymous, unmonitored accounts that parents don’t know about. And parents are resigned to the fact that there’s not much they can do to keep kids from accessing anything and everything on their friends’ devices.

In light of this, some parents are resorting to Digital Use Covenants, agreements the whole family signs about what constitutes acceptable and responsible tech use. Some are having their kids turn in digital devices during mealtimes or homework times or after a certain hour of the night. Some are learning how to check a browser history online. Gradually, family-by-family, definitions about what kids should and should not do/are and are not allowed to do online are taking shape. You might even call them “rules”.

Which brings me back to age restrictions.

When a preteen starts talking to me about something they saw on Instagram, my first question is always, “And what lie did you tell them about how old you were when you signed up for that account?” Because kids under 13 cannot, by law, be on Instagram. Or Facebook. Or any of a host of other apps and websites that are technically complying with COPPA by asking users to affirm that they’re over 13.

Why is this a big deal? Aren’t we living in a new digital era, one vastly different than the digital era of 20 years ago? To put it simply, if every kid is doing it, so what? Isn’t it just better to let them sign up, but then hold them accountable for the things they post and teach them to use it responsibly?

And the answer is no.

Because think about the message it sends when we turn a blind eye to kids lying about their age in order to get on Instagram – which is exactly what churches (or schools, or clubs) do when they promote use by kids who are too young to have accounts. The message is this: when it comes to those rules – meh.

And that’s a double standard.

The standard says: “As long as there’s no harm done, there’s no harm done,” and also: “No one has the right to tell you what you can and can’t do online,” – at the same time as we hope kids will willingly submit to family covenants and not try to defeat filtering software.

If we make it clear to kids that they don’t really have to follow the rules on the Internet, what makes you think they’ll ever follow your rules? Why should they?

The more I learn about social media, the more I understand it, and the less I fear it. But I also can’t ignore the fact that the longer I live, the more discerning I am, by default. We all are. Kids are not. I know not to judge my worth by how many Likes a comment or picture gets. Kids don’t. I know the harm that could come to someone else’s reputation, or my own, if questionable or offensive material is posted about them. Kids aren’t as careful. There’s nothing appealing to me about anonymous communication with strangers. Not so for kids.

Look at the rationalizations in these comments left by readers on a couple of blog posts about the the safety and appropriateness of Instagram for kids:

"I am 10 and I love Instagram! It's a fun place to post quotes and pics-it's really safe and if you use it very wisely than you won't have any problems with Instagram!"

"I am 14 years old and have a Instagram. I don't think it is safe for kids under 13 because a lot of people post BAD things and it may contain some overage images younger kids will find disturbing or gross. If you are a tween like 12 then that's okay because you can handle that stuff." (emphasis added) 

"I am 10-12 and I want a Instagram. I have promised myself to only follow people I know."

"I am a 13 year old girl that has everything - Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, you name it, I have it. My advice is not to get vine. It is for teenagers. Alot of my friends/other people I follow, we all swear at least slightly in our Vines. So its not intended for 10 year old ears. Wait until your 13. For Instagram, I think it's really ridiculous for 10 year olds to have Instagram. so I say wait until your 11 at least for Insta." (emphasis added)

Will most kids use Instagram or Facebook (or Snapchat or Tumblr or…) innocently and without causing harm or being harmed? Yeah, maybe. Probably, even. But (mostly) every kid who stumbles into inappropriate behavior online wasn’t looking for trouble when they signed up. It happened anyhow. And so the rules, archaic as they may seem and as much as we don’t like them, are there for a reason. They are to protect kids.

Mom, it’s ok. I’m not going to look at anything inappropriate.

No, I’ve never sent a sext, and I never would.

It’s fine. Me and my friends don’t post bad stuff on our accounts.

Everyone’s on Instagram. I’m the only kid without it.

All assurances kids make, and all sincere. But all beside the point.

Ultimately, our actions speak louder than words. It’s wrong to illegally download music I haven’t paid for. It’s wrong to hack someone’s account. It’s wrong to buy or sell pirated software. On what grounds do I tell kids they can’t do those things, even if they want to, even if all of their friends are doing it, even if what they’re doing isn’t nearly as bad as the really bad stuff you hear about, if when it comes to skirting age restrictions, I’ve communicated, “Eh, don’t worry about that”? In that case, does “No visiting adult websites” or “No sharing personal information with strangers” mean “no”, or “use your best judgment”?

Down the road, they will get on every app under the sun. And they will have to learn to self-regulate their own online behavior. I am talking here about people under 13. They are kids. They are forging an identity in light of what peer influence says they should be. They are beginning to test the limits of adult authority (“Do your parents really mean that when they say…?”) And they need to be taught that often, we have to say no to ourselves, even when we really want to say yes.

So if your kid is under 13 and is on social media, no shame. But delete their account (also, here). Tell them the law says so. Tell them you didn’t know that was the law. Tell them that yours is going to be a family that observes age restrictions. Doesn’t mean they’ll always comply. And they won’t like it. But it will send a message, a different message than “As long as you promise” or “As long as your intentions are good” or “As long as nothing bad happens”. We are teaching them that maybe, just maybe, there reasons to act other than immediate self-interest.

The idea that Kids are going to do whatever they want online…I have no control over it…All I can do is pray they don’t get into trouble is wrong. There are tools out there, and it takes a little work to stay informed and ahead of the curve, but you must. And one of those tools, at least for now, is the law on age restrictions. We need to follow it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

All About Instagram

From the Tween-Us blog – information on Instagram, the hugely popular photo-sharing app that is now owned by Facebook.

I share this with one caveat, and it’s a big one: People who sign up for Instagram accounts are, legally, supposed to be at least 13 years old. Which means 4th, 5th, and 6th graders are not supposed to be on Instagram, and those who are have lied about their ages to get an account. Maybe someday the law (COPPA) will change. It certainly doesn’t seem to reflect the realities of the current digital landscape. But until it changes, it’s the law; we and our kids should follow it.

http://www.chicagonow.com/tween-us/2014/01/kids-safe-instagram-parents-need-to-know/ 



The article also references Socially Active, which is a tool for monitoring your kid's online presence.
 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Study identifies "The Problem with Rich Kids"

We used to think that prosperity was a buffer against life's problems. Education and affluence were keys to security and well-being. But check out this article, which speaks to the growing number of problem behaviors and circumstances that correlate with high family income.

From Psychology Today: The Problem With Rich Kids

My take? We need to invest in kids and build them up where it really matters - not in money, but in the social and emotional factors that make them whole. We need to make kids R.I.C.H.

See also:
Making Kids RICH: The "R" is for "Relationships"
Making Kids RICH: The "I" is for "Identity"
Making Kids RICH: The "C" is for "Christ"
Making Kids RICH: The "H" is for "Heart and Hands experiences"

Friday, January 31, 2014

Making Kids R.I.C.H. - The "H" is for hearts & hands

Here's an experiment I'll sometimes do with 4th-6th graders. I'll ask them, "As a pastor in a church, what's my job?" and the answer is usually, "to teach us." (Sometimes, "to get us to follow God.") Then I'll ask, "And what's your job?" The answer is not surprising. But it is revealing.

"To listen," is the most common response. "To learn," is the second-most common. And of course, given the way we've structured church for people under 18 (as school), it's not unusual that they'd say that. But when I press, and ask, "What about your job as a Christian?" very few kids can answer, beyond, "to learn about God."

The earliest Christians were doers. They were learners, but the bulk of what distinguished them was their deeds. They stood out for their compassion towards humanity. We have to remember that for about the first 20 years after Jesus, there were no New Testament letters or gospels, and that the canon of scripture didn't coalesce for at least another 100 years.

So what drove them? The Spirit of God and the spirit of the life of Jesus. We have to think that they were so moved by his example, his sacrificial life and death, that they felt obligated to live differently.

What are we doing as Christians? I call these heart and hand experiences, and they are the "H" factor in making kids "R.I.C.H." Serving others changes us, in ways talking about serving others never will:

  • Serving empties us, creating a need to be filled.
  • Serving makes us reflect on the concept of "lack", both material and spiritual.
  • Serving tests our patience and challenges our motivation.
  • Serving makes us thankful for all that we have.
  • Serving puts us in contact with others who serve, and who know of other needs we weren't aware of.
  • Serving stretches us to do things we don't really want to do.
  • Serving forces us to set aside time in our schedule that's not about us.
  • Serving brings us close up to folks who aren't like us.
  • Serving pushes us beyond ourselves.

Years ago, I applied for a middle school ministry position and didn't get the job; I wasn't the person they were looking for, but also, "because it seems like you have a heart for missions." That was a really strange statement to me. Shouldn't all Christians have a heart for missions? Isn't that what we do - whether it's in your family, neighborhood, city, country, or internationally?

The "doing" in Christianity has to do with living our lives on purpose. It's not just existing day to day, and it's not just "being nice". When Christian living is nothing more than "being nice", Christianity is nothing more than a system for training children in virtue. No wonder so many kids outgrow it.

Heart and hands experiences set kids up to live lives on purpose. Short-term missions - even one-day projects - transplant kids to a different environment, where they think about different things and do different tasks than they would ever do on their own...with the hope that the doing will follow them back into everyday life and become part of a daily rhythm.

We have a missions opportunity coming up for kids & parents (kids can be any age, up through high school), to Mexico April 4-8. An interest meeting will be held next Sunday, February 9, at 12:30 in Room B-202.

Even if you can't travel to do missions with your kid, here are a list of ways to help in the community. Pick one (with input from your kid), and make it your "thing":

-->
·      Host single Marines for a holiday meal (you can contact Jack & Nina Baugh janiba1@cox.net who run our Military Support Network)

·      Care for an elderly neighbor (and, see below)

·      Provide a meal for 40 at Solutions for Change (http://solutionsforchange.org/)

·      Brother Benno’s (bring up a group) (http://www.brotherbenno.org)

·      Make a quilt or a craft, donate it to a hospital

·      Bread of Life (http://www.bolrescue.org)

o   serve at a nightly meal

o   twice a month they need volunteers to pack food boxes

o   Pick-up once a week or month from Trader Joe’s (good opportunity for a homeschooling family)

·      Respite care for someone who’s disabled in your neighborhood (and, see below)

·      Nursing homes need people to read or play cards (the low-income facilities need more visitors)
  
Then watch your kid get R.I.C.H. from the experience of living for something beyond themselves.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Some helpful info you need on a couple of apps, and some thoughts on competition

 “Tween Us” is a feature of the Chicago Tribune and frequently has short, helpful blog pieces about parenting kids 9-12. You can subscribe on their site if you want new posts e-mailed to you. Here are a few I’ve found helpful lately:

“What parents need to know about the Whisper app”
  
“Scary facts parents need to know about the Tinder app”

and a thoughtful piece asking Why must everything related to kids’ activities be a competition?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Some Thoughts on our "Digital Invasion"


Pulling off an event like this week’s presentation on kids & technology by Archibald Hart is not a small undertaking. Any time we put on a parent program, it’s never one program, but usually three – one for parents, one for young kids, and one for the older kids. That means a lot of details to cover. And my main thought the morning of the event was: this is all a distraction.

Not the presentation itself; it was informative, relevant, and challenging. I mean the whole issue of kids and technology, specifically the intrusive, ever-present personal computing devices most of us are attached to a good part of each day. (This, written on my laptop after midnight on Thursday.)

It’s all a distraction. By which I mean that ten years ago, we were barely dealing with the stuff we are now: Internet addiction, texting, sexting, easy access to streaming pornographic videos, and i-Devices which have brought e-communication off of the desktop and into our palms, making the digital presence all the more ubiquitous. And 20 years ago? Almost no one had even heard of the Internet.

And yet, 10 and 20 years ago, we were not easily churning out healthy, well-adjusted, spiritually strong kids and teenagers. There were enormous challenges and barriers keeping kids from spiritual maturity even in the pre-Internet age. Which makes all of these issues regarding technology – and they are big issues – a distraction.

Because even if there was a magical cure that kept kids away from porn and ended cyberbullying and cyberstalking and brought down people’s anxiety levels and re-set our brains (which are being re-wired by the demands that electronic communication place on them)…it still wouldn’t magically make kids into spiritual rockstars. It would merely put us in a place like where we were in 1994 – and we weren’t exactly a screaming success when it came to discipling kids back then, either.

My point is, everyone talks about technology as if it’s the biggest issue facing their families these days. And it may be. But we are naïve to think that if somehow we could remove tech from the equation or at least contain its negative effects, we’d pretty much have no more issues dogging families. Poor communication, lack of empowerment, the need to train kids to take on responsibility, high-risk behaviors, and dysfunction are still a part of family life because, well, we’re screwed up and it’s work to get along.

All of these issues with tech aren’t real issues. They’re irritants. And they’re factors which complicate those five features of family life I listed above. Tech is (often) a hindrance to effective communication, it detaches us from real life, it thrusts kids into an adult world they’re not ready for, it is a playing field that encourages risk-taking, and it promotes dysfunction.

Sometimes when we have a really big job to do, we chip away, taking baby steps, rather than taking the radical steps needed to finish the job. After all, if we aggressively conquer the biggest problem in our life, what then will we have to obsess over, right? Yet tech is not the biggest problem families face. It may be the foremost problem, but that just means it needs to be dealt with first so that moms and dads and their kids can get to work on the real issues of family living.

So let me encourage you to be decisive and to go after the tech issues in your home – because there are, in reality, bigger fish to fry. Need boundaries on tech use? Put them in place. Have a kid addicted to porn? Get help. Have kids who repeatedly abuse online privileges? Wean them off. You cannot afford to let these issues consume your child’s adolescence. Believe it or not, there’s more to life than that – theirs and yours.

If you aren’t looking for advice on containing the digital storm in your home, stop reading here. (And thanks for reading.)

If you are, here are my audacious suggestions of some things you might implement immediately. These won’t “solve” the issue forever, but they’re steps in the right direction.

1. Get a handle on your own tech use. Because we don’t reproduce what we want, we reproduce what we are. So to expect your kid not to text at dinner while you text at dinner is an unrealistic double standard. And it will fail. If kids don’t get to go online after a certain hour, adults don’t either. (And remember that kids play games or use social media for fun and to prevent boredom; many adults do work on their laptops or phones for the same reason. So it’s not enough to say, “You can’t play games, but I can work.” That, too, is a double standard.) The bottom line is, we cannot expect kids to use digital devices any less than we use them. We adults have to get this under control. (And this, written on my laptop now well after midnight.)

2. Kids under 13? No social media. Period. Know why? It’s illegal. Yup, that’s right – the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 makes it illegal to collect someone’s personal information online if they are under 13 without parental consent. And since most social networking sites and apps don’t want to go to the trouble of verifying consent, they state that a person must be 13 or older to use their services. In other words, kids who have Facebook and Instagram accounts are lying about their ages in order to sign up.

Parents – hide behind this law! The online marketers and social media people hate the law. And, given how much has changed since 1998 (the dinosaur days of the Internet), it probably is a little out of date. But for now, it’s the law. So when your son or daughter asks if they can start an Instagram account, you can say, “No. It’s against the law.” But all my friends have one! “It’s against the law.” See how easy that one is?

3. Practice saying no. As in, “Mom…really, I can’t have an Instagram?” (Answer: “No. It’s against the law.”) You will be the meanest, most unreasonable parents on the planet if your kid is the last one to get an iPhone…according to your kid. You will be the dorkiest, most backward family in the neighborhood…according to your kid. But you must say no – at some point. I can’t tell you where that is. You will decide for yourself at what age your kid gets his or her first phone (hopefully a dumb phone at first), at what age they graduate to a smart phone, and when they get their own computer or tablet – but build in “no” somewhere. There has to be a limit to what you will buy or provide. Because the other option is, there’s no limit, and that’s a terrible position to put yourself in. And it’s a terrible thing to grant your kids, who will always ask for more than you really want to grant them permission for (and believe it or not, they don’t always expect you to say yes). Have some standards. What won’t you say yes to - when it comes to tech or otherwise? Because if the answer is nothing – if you will not say “no” to anything your kid asks – well, then, that’s the answer: it’s never no.

4. Seriously, seriously rethink handheld Internet devices. I mean, seriously. Because your son will use it to look at porn. Not exclusively. But it will happen. “It will happen anyhow.” In all likelihood, you’re correct. Most teenage boys not only have looked at porn, they do so regularly. Part of your job is to make it not so easy.

5. Wi-fi must die after a certain hour. This is one of the making-it-not-so-easy steps. (And this, from me, posted to an online blog well after midnight. Sheesh.) But really, it makes sense. If night is for sleeping, and you turn the lights off, and the TV off, and the computer off, why not the Wi-fi, too?

6. Install filtering and/or accountability software. www.covenanteyes.com is a good place to start if you know nothing about this. Filters are frustrating. There are ways around them. Both true, but again, your job is to make it not so easy for kids to encounter harmful things online. Trust your kids, because you must. But also verify. I like accountability software for kids who are older, because it puts them in a position of having to answer for where they’re going online. Don’t install it as a “gotcha” maneuver; install it with their full knowledge and participation.

7. Get kids prepaid phones that charge by the minute and per text. These phones show a declining balance on the home screen. Kids tend to think that minutes and data transfer are “free”. Disabuse them of this, immediately. Put a fixed amount of money on the phone each month and when it’s gone, it’s gone. (Caveat: Since I often hear that the reason preteens have phones is so their parents can easily get in touch with them, make it a rule that Mom and Dad’s calls must be answered. If minutes expire, deduct $10 from the next month’s allotment. If they don’t answer when you call – either because they’re out of minutes or aren’t paying attention – take the phone away, because really, why then do they have it at all? And really – they’ll be fine without one. They’ll be ok. So will you. Just make sure they know how to call home – that they know your home number and your and your spouse’s cell number.)

8. Become a student of tech. You must do this. Even if you never use apps. Even if you wish they were never invented. Even if your phone is still dumb (like mine is). Whatever your reason for resisting and resenting the tech onslaught, you must be familiar with what’s out there. Because your kids are. It’s second-nature to them. Two sites I recommend: http://internet-safety.yoursphere.com/ and http://www.commonsensemedia.org/

9. Allow kids to be bored; don’t allow tech devices to rush into the vacuum. Archibald Hart closed with this, and I thought it was like gold: When he was a child, he was often bored – and it made him creative. I thought about that and thought about a kid I know who’s a really good artist. He was showing me a cool drawing once, and told me he did it over a school break when – you guessed it – he was bored, with nothing else to do.

Then I thought about my own work, and how one of the things I so often lack is creative space. Though I dream of having whole days and weeks to brainstorm ideas for KidsGames or summer camp or teaching series, it never seems to happen. You know what else never seems to happen at work? That I am bored. More often – nearly always – my schedule is packed to the gills, with half a dozen things to do at once, five tabs open on my Internet browser, and four messages I should have returned a week ago.

And you know what happens when I do hit a point where I feel caught up? Facebook, that’s what.

10. Say no. (Now that you’ve been practicing.) We must say no to some things so that we can say yes to other things. As good as it feels to check the items off your electronic to-do list, or clean out your e-mail inbox, or delete a bunch of files you no longer use (all the organizationally challenged people are thinking, “Files? What are files? I use the desktop.”) – it is fleeting. So fleeting. And so not the point of our lives. Which is why I’m going to hit save and close this laptop, right now. And why you should, too.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Making kids R.I.C.H. - the "C" is for Christ

Without Christ, there is no Christianity. Profound, I know. But the great religious struggle of your kids’ generation will be to maintain the distinctness of the Christian faith, up against every other religion, philosophy, and value system. The big question, when it comes to navigating life in a world that is prone to dysfunction and disorder, will be Is Jesus really necessary? Only kids who are rich in Christ will answer rightly.

I have seen many attempts to explain away the significance of Jesus: that he was a prophet, as was Abraham and Mohammed; that he was an altruist, as was Gandhi; that he articulated a paradigm-shifting philosophy of loving one’s neighbor, putting him in the ranks of the world’s great thinkers; that the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ” of faith are different – the former being a historical figure, the latter being an invention of the church which bore his name after his death.

Some of this I even accept as the product of curiosity; so, Jesus becomes like Gandhi because he’s not like Hitler. I get that. But what’s troubling is when I hear language that downplays the importance of Christ from Christians.

It’s happened right under our noses the last several years with Christmas. I couldn’t care less whether Target wants to wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. What I care about is the narrative that accompanies the Christmas season, which has become nearly entirely secularized despite borrowing heavily from traditional Christian songs and symbols. And we’ve bought it. Christmas, the prevailing storyline goes, is about goodwill toward others. Cunning marketers will even throw in a reference to “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” despite the fact that those words were not spoken by the angels to the shepherds as a command. They’re not another version of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” They were heralded in response to the angel’s pronouncement that a Savior had been born, that the awaited Messiah had come, and they tell about what God did – he brought peace between us and Him.

Yet the retailers who invoke “Merry Christmas” are the good guys and those who don’t are the bad guys? It’s as simple as that? Uh-huh.

Christianity is losing its predominance in America, and that makes some believers feel insecure. I get that. But have we really become so desperate for affirmation that we’ll embrace any bland, civic, watered-down appeal to religion of whatever kind because “at least they mentioned God"?

There’s now a holiday called “World Kindness Day” (this year November 13). So from September-on, kids are hit with almost four months solid of messages urging them to “be good” and “make good choices.” Think about it. The school year begins with pep talks about cooperation and the importance of good character, followed not long after by Red Ribbon Week (don’t use drugs, in October), followed by World Kindness Day, followed by the Thanksgiving-Christmas-Happiness-for-all season. Forget the ever-expanding Christmas shopping season. Pretty soon, the entire year will be one, continuous feel-good and do-good fest, a marketing triumph and a retailer’s boon.

And you ask, “What, Scrooge, is wrong with that? The whole world is ‘celebrating’ Christmas!”

Quite simply, that Jesus didn’t live and die for commerce. He died for salvation, which is not a tweak to the human condition, it’s an upheaval. But when we settle for “whatever works”-style religion, his sacrifice – his whole existence – becomes a detail.

We live in a world that is trying desperately to flatten the landscape of religion. The result is that rather than defining ourselves, Christianity gets defined by cultural wishes. That’s how demonstrably untrue statements like “all religions are basically the same” have taken hold. In that equation, Jesus is quaint – kind of like how your grandparents grew up listening to the radio, your parents were raised on TV, but your kids watch their iPads. Different mediums, same objective.

Well, Jesus is not Gandhi. He is not Buddha. He is not Muhammed. Sorry, but I can’t accept that. I can’t accept that God allowed the murder of his one-and-only son for the redemption of the world if hopeful thinking, “sending positive energy” and random acts of kindness could have achieved the same thing.

Jesus did not come that he might leave behind “Christian principles”, nor did he die so that we would “live by the Bible” or “love one another” or “forgive” or be nice or smile more or try harder or save ourselves! No, Jesus came “that we may have life – and that life is in his Son.” (1 John 5:11) You know, all that “Apart from me, you can do nothing” stuff that Jesus hammered home the night before he died (John 15)? And all of those benefits – love, forgiveness, the healing of relationships, etc. – flow as byproducts of the life of Christ, in and among us.

So I think we need to insist upon, highlight, reaffirm, and celebrate the centrality of Christ in Christianity. Not Christian principles, but Christ. In the days before pluralism, we didn’t pay attention to this as we should have. Jesus was the only game in town. If people made an appeal to religious ideals, they were Christian (or at least, Judeo-Christian) ones. So the essential nature of Christ (“without Christ, there is no Christianity”) got muddled.

We need to make kids rich in Christ, and we do this by challenging them not just to think about their faith from the inside-out, but from the outside-in. So instead of merely asking them, “Why did Jesus die?” (something everyone inside of Christianity ought to know), we need to also pose the question, “Can sin be forgiven apart from Jesus? If not, why not?” Because those are the questions people outside of Christianity (in other words, more and more of our friends and neighbors) are asking, or would ask if you entered into a dialogue with them about religion.

If we don’t insist upon the centrality of Christ, the power of the cross gets neutered, because Jesus died for no reason. Paul says so in Galatians 2 – if we are going to take our salvation into our own hands, trying to accomplish it by our own actions, then we are “setting aside” the grace of God. Jesus was God, expressing his grace – so to claim Jesus for anything less than he was is to remove grace from the Christian equation. What you have then is an entire world under condemnation. Not good.

So have a meaningful Christmas. But let’s not leave Christ there. Let’s take him into the rest of the year, too.

Here are four ways, besides challenging kids to think about their faith from the outside-in, that we can make kids rich in Christ:

1. We must teach (and believe ourselves) that Jesus=God. Sometimes it’s more helpful with kids to use the phrase “God in human form”, or “When God came to earth, he was called Jesus”. “Son of God” means he came from God, but can also imply to a kid that he was created. And if he was created, he isn’t God. (Incidentally, here’s how I explain the Trinity to kids: I am an uncle. And I am a pastor. And, until recently, I was a seminary student. Then I ask kids, when I’m working at the church, what am I? Do I stop being an uncle or a student? No, it’s just that the primary expression of me at that time is as a pastor. When I’m with my nieces and nephews, do I stop being a pastor or a student? And so on. Skip the apple or egg metaphors – they imply that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are different parts of the same thing – each one-third of God, if you will. That’s wrong.)

2. We must believe and teach that the Christian life is supernatural. Humans are natural. We can try hard to be good. But that’s not Christianity. That’s still of ourselves. God is supernatural – outside of ourselves. We need to bring him inside.

3. We need to be surrendered to him and teach surrender. Not verbal assent to facts about Jesus or the Christian religion or the importance of kindness. Surrender.

4. We also make kids rich in Christ by doing what he did. No, we can’t become a sacrifice for their sins. But Jesus didn’t only die. He also lived, and where he went, he ministered – he met people’s needs. Needs like relationship and identity – which are the first two legs of making kids R.I.C.H.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Making Kids R.I.C.H. - the "I" is for Identity

When I was a kid (I started school in 1978), it was common to hear, “You can be anything you want to be.” It was encouraging, and it was the natural outworking of a distinctly 20th century American philosophy. Our grandparents had weathered the Great Depression and won World War II. Our parents had fought communism and for the rights of blacks and women. And now, the world was our oyster. The modern version of the American Dream lay straight ahead, and we could choose our path. We were, in the words of the quintessential ‘70s anthem for kids “Free to Be You and Me.”

The problem is, it was a myth.

More and more I have become convinced that we don’t do kids any favors when we tell them they can be “anything”. The intention is noble – we want them to work hard, to believe in themselves, and to exceed everyone’s expectations. And we want them to persevere. We think of Michael Jordan, who was "cut" from his high school basketball team (he wasn’t, but it makes a good story), and look what happened because he didn’t give up?

But the fact that Jordan stuck it out through a year of junior varsity and went on to be the greatest basketball player ever doesn’t prove that “you can be anything you want to be.” Instead, it’s an argument for the dirty little secret that cuts against the grain of all our wishful thinking: we thrive in our giftedness.

Because remember Jordan the professional baseball player? The one who led the White Sox to a World Series championship, proving that with hard work, an athlete can be good at any sport? Of course you don’t, because Jordan’s baseball career, sandwiched between his stints in the NBA, was not memorable. It wasn’t wrong – he probably had a lot of fun, and he’s Michael Jordan, so he gets to pretty much call the shots on anything he wants – but Jordan belonged in the NBA.

And that’s what identity is all about: Belonging. Like it or not, we are defined and shaped by the crowd around us. There have been self-made men and pioneers and guys like Richard Proenneke, but they are extreme exceptions.

The truth is that for most of us, “be anything” is not liberating, it is crippling. When you can be “anything”, it means that you are, in fact, nothing until you become whatever it is you choose to be. And to a certain set of over-achievers, it even communicates that you ought to be everything. Most of us are not destined to become everything, but a few things. There’s no shame in that. And the ideas of “calling” and “skill set” and “giftedness” are having a renaissance. I say, it’s about time.

What does it mean, then, for your kid to be rich in Identity? Three things, corresponding to the past, the present, and the future:

The first is for them to live in the acknowledgement that they are created beings. As such, they are dependent. And they have no rights. Sound harsh? I don’t mean rights in the American political sense, but rights in the sense of a deserved birthright of destiny. Lots of people live under this myth: I deserve a happy life, to make lots of money, to have the family I want, to live where I want, on and on. Truly grateful people recognize that they’re not independent, and not reaping an endless supply of deserved benefits. It all comes from God. How would it change the way you prayed to God if you started by acknowledging, "I have no rights"? How would it change the way you live?

The second aspect of being rich in identity is intrapersonal awareness. Kids rich in identity know themselves, and this means knowing not only what they are, but knowing and coming to peace with what they aren’t. This is hard when you’re young, because you live under everyone else’s expectations. Discovering who you are and what you’re good at entails a lot of trial and error, but we've pretty much eliminated failure as a component of upbringing. There are dead ends and false starts. It takes a mature kid to say not just, “I don’t like that,” but “I’m not cut out for that.” And certainly, we don’t want to give kids permission to give up too easily. What might not appeal to them at one age might end up being what they love to do and are good at a few years down the road.

But that’s the thing about giftedness: we don’t choose it, we discover it. It is revealed as it develops in us, and yes, lessons and tutors and mentors and exposure can shape that to some degree, but as Muff Potter sings in the musical Tom Sawyer, “A man’s gonna be what he’s born to be.” So somehow, without slotting kids too soon or rigidly tracking them in school, we need to help them discover that they have a design, which has suited them for certain things and limited them from other things (which, amazingly, other people might be perfectly suited for). The KidUnique program that just wrapped up at our church was all about this: What draws your child? What makes them come alive? How can you encourage that? Those are questions some adults have never considered for themselves.

I’ve found that for kids, labels are not particularly helpful and can be debilitating. So adults really get into knowing that they are INTJ and not ESFP, and reading the descriptions of each. Kids just know how they feel. They know if a certain kind of work or style of working or environment or group of people feels right. They know the difference between engaging in an activity that’s boring and one they hope will never end. All we have to do is teach them to pay attention to this and then be reflective and try to put words to it: what was happening that really made you come alive? When else have you felt this way? etc. Then rather than intimating that they be “well-rounded” (i.e., good at everything), we let them lean into those strengths.

To acknowledge that they are created, dependent beings is to acknowledge something God has already done, in the past. To discover the design He’s put in you is an ongoing work, in the now. The final aspect of identity pertains to where they’re going. It is to experience and bring redemption.

Kids rich in identity understand that their purpose in the world isn’t related to short-term things like pleasing adult authority figures. It is future-focused and other-focused, and for that reason, purpose shapes every major life decision. God does things on purpose. Our job is to pick up that ball and run with it. We experience redemption as we live in his forgiveness. We are new creatures. We then bring this gospel of newness to the rest of the world, in the context of the personhood we’ve been given by God. We are the message. A person living as though they’re unredeemed is a poor billboard for redemption.

Cassie Carstens, the South African pastor, trainer, and author of The World Needs a Father will be out in February, says kids need to have a handle on their identities by age 11. Much later than that, and the storms of adolescent life will batter them from one pole to the next. A preteen understanding who they are is incredibly counter-cultural. To make it happen, we have to open the world to them and relax the perimeter of protectiveness much sooner than we are accustomed to, and sooner than many would like. But Carstens says the window of opportunity for kids to apprehend the state of the world and their place in it is really narrow. If we wait until they’re teenagers, chances are they will have already bought into so many of the world’s values ("It’s all about me"..."Safety and comfort are the highest goals"..."School achievement is paramount to life success"..."Money buys happiness") that there’s no bringing them back.

Think of that: Your 11-year-old’s ability to be used by God for the rest of their lives hinges largely on the self-perception they’ve honed up until this point. How are we doing at giving kids opportunities to understand the world, and as a part of that, themselves? If the church of now wants to be an effective church in 30 years, maybe making kids rich in their identities while still young is the best investment we can make.