Category: Hearth and Home

Just you wait

September 1st, 2015 — 12:37pm

Somewhere near the top of my list of Extremely Irritating Things is when parents a few years ahead of me in the childrearing process say, “Oh, just you wait until . . .” Fill in the blank: “Just you wait until the terrible twos.” “Just you wait until the preteen years.” “Just you wait until they’re thirteen; you haven’t seen anything yet.” “Just wait until they want your car every Friday night.” And so on. I’ve had to boost my filters so many times, lest something slip out like, “I’ve seen the way you parent, and I guess we all reap what we sow. Thanks for sharing.” But let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

I’ve been warned and warned in particular about the “preteen” and “teen” years. Personally, I think Christians ought to be ashamed of thinking in these terms. God didn’t create teens, market researchers in the last century did, and we’ve fallen for the whole stupid construct like lemmings.

Preteens and teens are just children transitioning to adulthood. They’re not a third category in addition to children and adults; they’re simply young humans experiencing the very early awakenings of adulthood, who will (hopefully) spend the rest of their lives growing into mature adults, without (again hopefully) ever leaving behind the wonder, purity, and joy of childhood.

If young children need parents to keep them from killing themselves (!), to teach them to discern right from wrong, and to train them in loving and doing the right, emerging adults need parents to take them by the hand and guide them into the mental and emotional life of adulthood and into its responsibilities and accompanying privileges. I don’t know why parents seem so surprised when this is (for the parent) a lot of work. In the nature of the thing, you’re going to encounter a lot of emotional responses that are extreme and immature. That’s because . . . your child is immature. We don’t expect newborn colts to run races. Take it easy. Better things will come in time. Just don’t sink to the level of the immature responses yourself, and you’ll be fine. Remember, you’re the parent. You’re setting the example.

There’s the rub, though. In my experience (so far), emerging adults tend to “push your buttons” more than really young children for the simple reason that they’re now playing (however ineptly) on your game board. Suddenly they have ideas and opinions about adult things. Suddenly they have some real adult expectations (the age at which these expectations emerge in our entitled age seems to be getting younger and younger – one wishes the same could be said about a sense of responsibility). Suddenly they begin to manifest that they’re carrying emotional burdens and feeling passions and dreaming dreams that seem faintly . . . adult. You don’t just have a bunch of kids running around that you can put to bed or put down for a movie or otherwise put out of your thoughts as players in another game. They’re in your game. Their moves are starting to interfere with yours in real ways. To make things worse, they learned this game mostly by watching you – so guess what? You get to see all the ways you’re a loser at it, played out in very immature form in them. That child heaping snark on his sister got his tone, posture, and much of his vocabulary from you – and you get to watch it in caricature, because he’s still only ten.

It dawned on me the other day as I was talking with my twelve-year-old daughter, and she was blowing me away with her budding insight on the world, that just as I was far too surprised when my two-year-olds needed obedience training, I’m far too surprised when my preteens need virtue training – when they need calm, caring, and confident guidance in laying aside foolish ideas and emotional vices. Of course they still need a lot of wisdom. Of course their character needs to be formed in all sorts of ways toward goodness rather than selfishness and irresponsibility. That’s what this season of parenting is for. The fact that this is the season we’re in doesn’t mean we’re way off the track. It just means we need to get busy doing what we’re called to do: going for the hearts of our kids, training them to open that citadel to wisdom and invite her to sit on the throne. We need to rebuke, exhort, instruct, discipline, enjoy, empathize, invite, demonstrate, and cheer their every step. We need to ask forgiveness, and forgive. We need to spend time with them at the cross, where all progress starts and hope is always fresh. We need to put them through their relational paces every day, showing them how to prosper in their relations with God, other humans, and the stuff of the earth. We need to take the time that it takes. We need to be careful of frustrating them, because they’re still very new to the game. Where we see that they struggle because we failed in their earlier years – and we will see it every day – it’s critical that we repent to God and to them. Nothing is more central than teaching them that God is their Rock, and we know it, and we need Him, too.

Just you wait, then. Those who sow in tears will reap in joy. It’s going to be wonderful.

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The end of pioneering

February 17th, 2015 — 12:12pm

Long years after the last Conestoga wagon, the pioneering spirit lives on. For centuries it has made America great, this restless quest for a better life, and it animates us now more than ever. We may have run out of uncharted territories, but we’re still a land of options and opportunities, and we rush feverishly to every new frontier. Up and outward we move, seeking better things.

The true aim of pioneering, however, is settlement; the pioneering spirit is not mere wanderlust. The goal is to get somewhere and build something – something worth preserving. This creates a tension between the desire to go farther and achieve more, and the desire to stay, build, and beautify. A wagon track dotted by ghost towns is not a cultural achievement. For civilization to occur, some must stay and cultivate, being rooted for years, even generations. And this not just for stability’s sake, but for the glories that come only through long accretion.

Amid the mobility – the mad rush, one might say – of the 21st century, the tension just described is acute. Few of us are locked into any life arrangement; we can easily seek new and better things if something proves unsatisfactory where we are. Often it’s clear that we should do so: we should move to greener pastures. Yet for all the blessings of the fact that we now so easily can, we face a nagging question: how can meaningful relationships with people and place be sustained in the midst of endless pioneering? Relationships fare badly when nothing is nailed down, nothing deeply rooted. When is it important, in the interests of human flourishing, not to take the road to a better life, but to stay and build that life where we stand?

The problem is that, in the abstract, there’s no end to the possibilities of a better life. Things could always be better. Thus the temptation to move on from where I am is perpetually strong. Of course, it never works out exactly right. There are always tradeoffs. When I get to the new place, the new people, the new circumstances, there are always things I miss about the pasture left behind. With that said, though, there are always not just illusory but also very real benefits to be gained by moving on. I can find better things, a better life elsewhere if I look long and hard enough. So when is it time to pioneer, and when is it time to settle?

I think the answer must be that at some point, to experience meaningful relationships with people and place, I must simply commit myself in love to particular people in a particular place; I must love them particularly because in their particularity they are irreplaceable.

Marriage is the best example. In the abstract, can I imagine myself happily married to a number of women? Well, yes. That’s what makes finding the right mate so daunting. At some point, however, I must look at a particular woman and (if she’ll have me) decide my pioneering days are over and I’m hers till death do us part, “forsaking all others.” The idea that flourishing demands my keeping my options open thereafter – since a happier marriage might await me out there somewhere – is a ruinous (though very popular) delusion.

Flourishing requires loving relationships, and loving relationships require commitment – the end of pioneering. The commitment must be free. Coerced commitment is not really commitment to the beloved; it’s just acquiescence under force. But commitment, while free, is real: it’s a self-imposed binding of oneself to a beloved: “This will be my place. These will be my people.”

The same experience of flourishing that comes only after fifty years of faithful marriage will also be experienced after fifty years of faithfulness in a particular place to a particular people. This is not to say the first place one stops should be the same place one finds oneself fifty years later. Obviously, there are times when we realize a community or a location just isn’t a good fit for us, and it’s beneficial to move on. But we should pity the poor soul who, through no providential necessity but simply because of wanderlust, never unpacks his wagon, dismantles it, and builds a house where he plans to play with his grandchildren. Maybe it’s enough for him that he has seen many places and many people; the question is whether he knows any of them deeply, deeply enough to truly love them and be loved in return. The pioneers of old were going somewhere to stay; in this, we moderns would do well to imitate them.

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Young saints in the entertainment age

June 18th, 2014 — 4:30pm

I’ve never lived in any generation but my own, but I imagine it’s always been a challenge for Christian parents to help their sons and daughters be in the world but not of it, to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel while refusing to consent when enticed by sinners. I’m sure generations of Christian youth have tried to figure out how to “fit in” with worldling friends (and with “worldly” peers in the church) while maintaining their Christian principles. Jesus has not called us to live in a Christian ghetto (as if any space is purer because only Christians inhabit it), but He has told us firmly to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” – and how are we to do this while rubbing shoulders with real sinners every day? I’m sure it’s never been easy.

I think, however, that this challenge has become far more challenging since the invention of TV and the Internet, mostly because of how these media have changed social interaction. It used to be that youth related to their peers largely on the basis of shared experience. Bobby and Joe played on the same baseball team. Mary and Jane lived on the same block and went to the same school. Tom, Dick, and Harry shared a paper route or a fort in the woods. Sally and Betty entered the same contest in the local fair. And so forth.

Since the invention of TV and the Internet, North Americans have found themselves confronted with an array of entertainment options unheard of in the history of the world. These options are just a push of a button (or a voice command) away at all times, and one rarely meets a person who doesn’t indulge a huge weekly diet of TV shows, popular music, web surfing, movies, etc. It’s probably safe to say that most people spend most of their leisure hours consuming popular entertainment – and this means the common currency of social interactions is no longer (in most cases) shared life experiences but rather shared entertainment preferences. To “fit in” among their peers, your kids won’t be able to talk about stuff they’ve done and are doing with the other kids; they’ll have to be able to talk about the music the other kids are listening to, or the movies they’re watching, or whatever their new favorite TV show happens to be.

This has complicated Christian parenting. Whether your kids’ friends are mostly Christians or mostly non-Christians, the social dynamic is the same: either share the entertainment of other children, or be left out on the fringes.

What if a parent believes that the entertainment preferences of other children are objectionable? Or what if a parent believes that entertainment itself is a problem – that too much time sitting and being entertained is bad for children developmentally, morally, and spiritually? How do you talk this through with your 10-year-old son or your 16-year-old daughter? “No, you can’t watch that movie, even though it means you won’t be able to join in on any of your friends’ conversations for the next month. Just stand at the margins and listen, and hope they don’t ask you why your parents won’t let you see it.” (This is not, by the way, a social problem confined to children.)

I’d like to offer a few words of advice to Christian parents who find themselves and their kids in this awkward spot.

1. Be okay with being different, and talk about this a lot with your children. Followers of Jesus are going to be different, really different – some might even say weird. If you’re different for good reasons, remember that the smile of Christ is worth a million human frowns, and the worth of wisdom is more than all treasures (Prov 3:13–18). We do tend to forget or minimize this.

2. Be careful, though, not to give your kids the impression that Christian faithfulness requires a low view of culture. On the contrary, to love Christ is to love Him as Creator, and to love Him as Creator is to love culture as something He created. God made people to make things, including books, films, music, and machines; and because we love God and people made in His image, we should love both the process and the products of human making. We should not love the ways sin has distorted human making, and certainly some cultural products are morally repugnant in form and/or content; but we must always be careful to love the created goodness under the evils and distortions of sin.

3. If your kids come home and tell you that their friends have watched something or listened to something, consider watching it or listening to it with your kids, and then talking about it. Don’t just turn your children over to whatever the latest entertainment choice of their peers happens to be, but on the other hand don’t simply bar them (especially as they become older and more discerning) from seeing and hearing what their peers are seeing and hearing. Sit with them and teach them discernment. Help them develop critical filters. How does this cultural product show us that its creator is made in the image of the Creator? What sort of story is being told? What ideas are being communicated? Is it beautiful? Is it true? Is it good? Is it realistic? Does it show the brokenness of the world and the reality of human sin? Does it glorify sin? Does it gesture toward a hope of redemption? And many more talking points such as these.

4. Do real things with your kids and invite their friends along. This may be the most important way to push back against the entertainment glut in contemporary society. Give your kids and their friends something better to talk about than the latest top-40 hit or the most recent piece of drivel out of Hollywood. Take them camping, fishing, boating, or footballing. Send them out in the woods without their iPods. Sit them down, read them something (short!), and then discuss it. Make real-time memories.

The way to keep our children from being lemmings in the wake of the entertainment industry is to give them something better to love: a life of the spirit, mind, and body and a life in community that are better and more delightful than sitting mindlessly in front of the TV or Internet for hours on end. This will require a lot more work than using the electronic babysitter, and at times it will require great courage and determination from the whole family – but then, when has great value ever come without great effort?

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Changing a marriage

October 4th, 2013 — 11:32am

Speaking as one who has nearly burned out trying to help couples change their marriages, I completely agree with this assessment:

Contrary to popular thinking, it does not require two people working on a marriage to change it. Rarely are both partners equally motivated. But changing a marriage fundamentally does require that someone function as a leader in the sense in which I have been using that term. Where one partner can be taught to regulate his or her own reactivity, the other will often begin to imitate that behavior, and adaptation can ultimately be reversed. But for this shift to occur a critical point of departure must be reached: the more motivated partner must also be able to stop shifting blame to the other and to look more at his or her own input. This does not mean that they should look more at their own faults, but rather at how they have been compounding the situation. (Friedman, Failure of Nerve, p. 81)

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Gauging parental progress

November 8th, 2012 — 11:45am

So how do you know if you’re succeeding as a Christian parent? My first decade of parenting has been a whirlwind, I can hardly believe my eldest will be in double digits next year, and now and then I get my head above water and wonder how I’m doing as a dad. Here are three things I look for that help keep me oriented:

1.      Do our children know the Word, works, and ways of our God? Do they understand the “what” of our faith and practice?

2.      Do our children love our life with our God? Has our way of life with Him and for Him been explained to them so it makes sense and is desirable to them? Do they understand the “why” of our faith and practice?

3.      Do our children advocate the things of God that they know and love? In verbal and non-verbal ways, do they testify of the goodness of the Lord?

I actually think there’s a progression here. In the early years, my wife and I have been occupied mostly with teaching our children the “what” of God and the gospel (not just in words – reading, explaining, praying, catechizing, etc. – but also in the rituals and “atmosphere” of our home and community life). The fruit of instruction, enactment, and sometimes discipline has been that our children have developed a great taste for worshipful living. In time, as they continue to mature, they’ll be able more articulately to testify of the goodness of their God. Even now, it’s amazing to listen to them witness to their friends.

Nothing profound here, just a few things that help me keep my eye on the ball.

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Our daily taste

June 28th, 2012 — 4:43pm

“O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.” (Capon, Supper of the Lamb, pp. 27– 28)

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Why I make great love

May 25th, 2012 — 11:15am

Dear young single 21st century North American churchgoing male,

As I near the end of my thirties, I’d like you to know I enjoy the holy grail of pleasures you’re always fantasizing about. I’ve arrived. I’m there. Which is to say, I go to sleep every night and wake up every morning next to a fabulously beautiful woman, and we make great love together. There are moments lying in her arms when I can’t believe such delights exist on earth.

I want to tell you why I enjoy this pleasure, this privilege. And why you’re still fantasizing about it. Let me give you ten reasons.

1. I’m married. Unlike you, I’m not pretending that I’m married to a girlfriend. I’m not banging and fornicating and then showing up for worship (sometimes) on Sunday. I’m married. Let me put this differently: I’m committed. Before I ever shared this woman’s bed, I gave her a ring and my word till death. I promised some ridiculously ambitious things to her in front of God and a lot of other people, and I will carry those things through, though every gale in hell bar my way. She knows this, and it makes for great love.

2. I’m still married, ten years later. To the same woman. Who now knows what a consummate ass I can be. I don’t think I had her one bit fooled the day we wed; I’ve certainly got nowhere to hide now. She’s seen it all. And you know what? She still loves to go to bed with me. Despite the zillion times I’ve made her cry. Despite all my asinine stupidity and sin. Because I’ve been man enough, by the grace of God, to repent, and repent, and repent (God knows how much I’ve needed to). I’ve had to grow up in ways I didn’t even know about or want to know about; I’ve had to offload a ton of crap, and get down to the business of loving my woman as the greatest gift God ever gave me next to Himself. I’ve had to figure out how to make her feel special, how to make her feel like the treasure she is, how to be interesting and keep her interested, how to keep “I love you” fresh and green. I’ve done it for ten years, and she still thinks I’m the man (don’t ask me why). As for me . . . well, I can’t wait to get in bed with her, still, after ten years. Can’t wait to see what it’s like at twenty-five years, or fifty.

3. I’m educated. I don’t have your $60K diploma, but I spent ten years getting two postgraduate degrees; and far more importantly, I know a lot about how much I don’t know, because I read all the time, and I’ve thought long and hard about a lot of deep stuff. My brain works. It’s not strung out on video games and pornography. It’s part of why my woman still finds me interesting, even though she’ll always have more native intelligence than I.

4. I’m employed. Do let me be clear what this means. I work on principle, not simply as a means to a huge paycheck, and that means I’m employable in any economy. I started working when I was a child, at home, without an allowance. I was working outside the home by age thirteen, making something like $4 or $5 an hour. I’ve spent days in front of copy machines, cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors; and today I’m successful in my calling, not because I was able to sell someone on the completely unfounded idea that I deserve a six-figure income, but because I’ve done my time. My wife gets into bed with me knowing there will never be a time when I will not work my hind parts off to put food on her table. It makes for great love.

5. I’m her pastor. I’m married to a woman who needs to know and love God more than me, and my task every day is to serve her so her relationship with her God flourishes. She knows that my chief concern is how things are between Him and her. And her knowing that I put her first love first is a huge part of what makes our love so sweet.

6. I don’t skip worship. Ever. I’m a worshiping man, and we’re a worshiping family, before all else. First things first. See #5.

7. I treat her like the lady she is. She doesn’t buy the moronic idea that true womanhood is found in being treated like a hockey player. Or any other kind of man. Neither do I. I like to dress her up and take her out and open the door for her, because I like to honor her. And she likes it. It has never crossed her mind that I think she can’t do things for herself; she feels valuable and valued. And contrary to a lot of feminist bull#$%^&*, that’s a good thing.

8. I lead. I initiate. I make decisions. I don’t sit on the couch and wait for her to plan and pull it all off. I don’t expect her to be my mommy (or nanny) till I’m eighty-four. I think about what needs to be done, and I come up with ideas. I see what needs to be done, and I do it. This includes washing dishes. Everything in our life is my problem, not hers. The buck always stops with me. That said . . .

9. I listen. God isn’t my copilot. God is God. My wife is my copilot. And she sees all manner of things I don’t see. She has all kinds of insight I don’t have, and I never make a decision of any magnitude without her input. You and your girlfriend have never made any decisions of any magnitude, you both still live with your parents, so you have no idea what I’m talking about. But believe me when I say that fantasy about being in bed with a fabulously beautiful woman is just that, a fantasy, unless you’re a man who listens. With both ears. And his heart.

10. I ask for forgiveness. A lot. I need Jesus, and she and I both know it. And because she knows I know I need Jesus, she trusts me. She knows I don’t think I’m all that. She also knows I’m man enough to get on my knees and beg her for grace that I know she can only get from Jesus. Which I do, and she does, and this has everything to do with making great love.

One other thing: I have her permission to write this letter. Which also has everything to do with making great love.

My advice to you: Get a job (not the six-figure one you think you’re entitled to). Go buy a stack of great books. Read them all. Never again skip worship. Marry her. Stay out of her bed until you do. Stay married for ten years and more. Shut up and listen. One day we’ll shake hands and shake our heads together in disbelief that such delights exist on earth.

Sincerely, etc.

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No worlds

May 15th, 2012 — 7:19am

“Learn to despise the place where you were born, its old customs, its glories and its shame. Then stick your head in a comic book. That done, you will be triple-armored against the threat of a real thought, or the call of the transcendent. Some people have no worlds for God to pierce through.” (Esolen, Ten Ways, p. 132)

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How to raise unbelieving children

May 9th, 2012 — 6:04pm

There are two ways to raise unbelieving children. One is to tell them, in ways subtle and not-so-subtle, that God doesn’t love them. The other is to make it clear, in ways subtle and not-so-subtle. that God made a mistake in giving them to you.

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Parental options

April 30th, 2012 — 1:40pm

Reading Esolen’s work, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, has made me step back for a fresh look at my own parenting and the parenting of others in various Christian circles. It’s not always a pretty sight.

What’s unsettling is not that we’re all struggling to train, instruct, discipline, guide, inspire, occupy, and in some cases even control our children. That struggle is normal. Parents have been struggling for centuries to get children to sit still for, say, an hour of worship, or thirty minutes of family dinner. Or to play outside for more than 30 seconds without pounding on the door. Or to finish a page of multiplication problems, or read a book. Or to stay by Mommy’s side at the store. Or to be quiet (in appropriate situations) the first time they’re told. What’s unsettling is how many options our modern world has supplied us for short-circuiting this struggle, and how many of us have bought into the options wholesale.

There are, of course, drugs. Not usually the first line of defense in Christian circles, but lots of parents do seem to have bought the lie that their children suffer from a sort of pathology that can only be treated by an expert. I’m not saying that’s never the case. I am saying there’s a fair bet that in most cases pathology is the fruit of parenting.

Then there’s the automobile. We can now be all over the place seeing all sorts of people and all sorts of stuff all the time. We don’t need to walk; we can drive. We can drive far and fast, and get our children involved in interminable social activities wherein they, for extended periods of time, become (more or less) someone else’s problem.

There’s also digital entertainment. The cloak: “my kids need to live in the 21st century.” The reality: Marie Winn’s “plug-in drug” is now handheld. It’s absolutely amazing. A child who’s bouncing off walls one minute can be reduced the next to a silent, unblinking, motionless bit of furniture, totally intimate with the thing in her hand, totally oblivious to everything else. It’s not fun that her “buzz” is even worse whenever she reenters the land of the living, but it’s the price we pay for a few minutes of peace. Some children will still sit and watch a feature length movie, but that drug is so yesterday.

How did parents (and kids) survive before all of these options, when all we had was face-to-face time, books, and dirt in the yard? And please. Don’t tell me the kids are happier now.

A short while ago, I walked upstairs to find my 21-month-old playing with the colored beads of an abacus. First words out of her mouth when she saw me (with enormous enthusiasm): “Shee, Duddy?” I do see it, girl. Fine work, even if your toy is seriously out of date. Long may your imagination prosper.

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