What Does Busy-ness Do to Our Kids?

What do we want for our children?  If you are a person of faith, my guess is that you want your child/teen/adult offspring to have faith in God.  Right?  And you probably also value the wisdom and teachings of the Bible.  So, when Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” (Matthew 19:14) we are warmed by the image of his open, welcoming arms.

“Let” them come implies that the children want to be with Jesus.  I believe this is the natural state of the very young.  There is a significant body of research and anecdotal evidence that shows how easily children understand God’s love for them.  I have engaged in work with young children on a spiritual level quite a bit, and have plenty of examples to draw from.  But spiritual language and behavior does not seem as natural when they reach their teenage years, at least not for many young people.  What happened?

I wonder.

I want to pose the question today about the outcomes we hope for in our children.  In education these days, outcomes drive the curriculum.  It makes sense; if you want graduating seniors to know where Iraq is, you have to show them a world map.

But I wonder whether we apply this logic to the spirituality of our children and teens.  If we want our children to be kind, they need to have models of kindness, and opportunities to practice kindness.  If we want them to believe in God, we actually need to talk with them about our faith in the home, because instruction at church does little to achieve this unless it is backed up by faith in the home.  Perhaps you do make a point of these things in your family.

Dr. Dorothy Law Nolte asserts in her popular poem that “Children learn what they live.” “If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.”

We like that poem because it is true.  It is a sobering piece though.  It actually begins with the negative:

“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.”

What are our children “living” these days?  I observe children and teens running here and there, schedules so full that they have little time to relax.  Teens need a lot of sleep (about 9 ½ hours), but rarely get it.  And so they are running on empty a good share of the time.  How does that affect their ability to learn, and to practice kindness, and to celebrate the goodness of life in an atmosphere of joy and peace?  Lack of sleep affects their mood, their ability to learn, and even makes them more likely to engage in at-risk behavior.

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Coaches naturally expect their athletes to give 100%.  We applaud that, because we live in a culture where achievement and winning are important.  I love sports; they are a great way to teach teamwork, and they develop character and fitness.  How hard should we push the students and still maintain their mental, physical, and emotional health?  I’m sure it is a tricky question for coaches and parents.  Sports are supposed to be fun, to be a source of re-creation.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a committee of coaches, teachers, and parents for each student, looking at all the demands on their time, and agreeing on healthy limits?  Your child doesn’t have a committee; he/she simply has parents.

If we want to grow healthy, well-rounded kids, they need to learn to make choices that are best for them.  We may need to teach them to say no to some great opportunities, for the sake of their own well-being.  We can point out the stories of Jesus withdrawing from activity, protecting his time apart to pray.  Connecting with God takes time.

If this generation can learn to exercise restraint for the sake of health and personal peace, I suspect our world will end up being less shrill and combative, less anxious, a more welcome place to live for everyone.

Parents, do your children have time just to relax, and play, or just hang out with their friends? Do you make worship a priority for the sake of your children’s long term spiritual health?  Can your family eat together on a regular basis?  Family mealtime is worth the effort; it gives you time to talk, to encourage, to laugh, to tell stories, to pray together.

This is why God has given us the Sabbath.  It is a gift, not just another duty to add to our long lists.  It is given to us by our Creator because our bodies and souls need it.  This is spacious territory, where nothing is expected of us except to be ourselves, grateful for all of God’s gifts.  Time to wonder who we are and who God is, and to look at the bigger picture.  Time to enjoy this world and the people in it.

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Perhaps it is time to consider the outcomes you hope for, to evaluate what your children’s routines are teaching them about what is important.  I pray that they are not learning this: that they are only worthy if they stay busy and keep producing results every minute of every day.  The good news of God’s reign is that they are worthy simply because they exist.  God loves them, and wants to love the world through them.

So I will attempt to add a couple of lines to Dr. Nolte’s poem.

“If children live at a healthy pace, they learn what well-being feels like.

If children live with Sabbath, they learn what a joy it is to be alive.”

Second Person Singular

In honor of her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, I am re-posting this because it includes the wisdom of Saint Theresa of Kolkata.

Words matter.  I realized this early on, so that when I was still in elementary school, if somebody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was “a poet.”

I can’t say I have actually developed the talent for that, but words still move me deeply, and I strive to craft my sermons and essays thoughtfully.  Language is often the vehicle for transformation and revolution.

A 19-word sentence I first read several years ago has had more impact on my life than any other extra-biblical statement.  I was on an “urban immersion” mission trip with a few high school students from the congregation I serve as pastor.  The earnest college students who led the program selected a few quotes and taped them on the walls and doorways of the building.  The words were meant to challenge, provoke, inspire.  One of them exceeded their expectations, at least for me.

“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”

Many of Mother Teresa’s messages had a way of cutting through the politics of the world’s inequities.  In this case, she did not shy away from making it personal: “…so that you may live as you wish.”

Sometimes when I am writing a sermon I become conscious of the pronouns I am using.  It is important to use the first person plural—“we and “us”—often, because Christianity in the U.S. has become too individualized, whereas the biblical revelation indicates that we are collectively God’s people who need to identify with and lean on one another.  We are called to trust God as a community of faith.

But sometimes the pronoun has to be “you.”  Second person singular.  You are responsible for your money, for deciding to spend it on yourself instead of offering it to serve the needs of the poor.  You are the one who sees the balance or imbalance of your stewardship.  You have to decide whether a child will live or die on your watch.

If we resort to generalities, as in “we ought to do more to help,” how easy is it to walk away from that?  To assume that somebody else will figure it out.  Somebody richer than I has money they should spare for the poor.  Not me.  I have plans for my money.

I know the rationale.  I have caught myself reasoning, “Who can blame me for wanting to keep up with the standards of my society?”  Well, Mother Teresa can, that’s who.  If anybody had the street cred to say it, she did.

And so a little Polish nun with her own vow of poverty serves as my conscience far more often than I want her to.  I don’t even know what her voice sounded like, but her image seems to suffice.  She interferes with a lot of Pinterest-generated plans.  She sits next to me on the couch when I see TV commercials for customized home scents or linger on Amazon a little too long looking for just the right throw pillow.

“It is a poverty,” I heard once when I bought another cute pair of red shoes.  “It is a poverty” I heard during the restless night at our hotel.  “It is a poverty” rang in my ears as I drove back to the store and returned the shoes.  “Was there something wrong with them?” the clerk asked.  “No, I just changed my mind,” I replied, and walked away, slightly richer in spirit, money freed up to feed a child for a few more days.

That makes a nice tidy ending to a post, doesn’t it?  But heeding that voice is complicated, and hard.  Baby steps, sometimes bigger, but mostly baby steps, in old shoes.

Sanctuaries

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I was staying in my hometown for a two-day retreat, and decided to do what we often do when we go home: visit the place.  There is a wildlife sanctuary called Union Slough near the little town of Titonka.  I had never explored it when it was only a few miles from the acreage where my father served a country church.  With an afternoon of free time, wandering to a place where I could observe wildlife seemed like just the ticket.

The slow drive through the refuge was rich with observations of water birds and wild flowers who were undisturbed by the crunch of gravel under my tires.  Pelicans, swans, egrets, herons, cranes, cormorants, and ducks all calmly feeding, swimming, wading.  Flowers offering their ephemeral, dazzling brightness to the bees, the world.  All of them oblivious to my hungry observation as I tried to file away notations of beauty in a mind usually occupied with TV images or letters in clusters in rows on pages in books, books, books.

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But the birds don’t care one way or the other.  They simply awaken each day with an aliveness, unaware of the pulsing exquisiteness of their lovely curves, unconscious that they are teaching the casual passerby what it means to exist.

And then I drove to Ramsey, the church only 30 yards from the parsonage in which I grew up.  I sat on a pew near the back as some folks do every Sunday.  I wanted to make room for the memories.  Couldn’t get too close to the ghost of my father in the pulpit: steady, steady pastor.  I know the work he did, because I did it too, offering words to the farmers and housewives who unfolded his words during the week inaccurately, and added their own, then came back for more.  Or not.  At least they came, and sang, and prayed.  Gathered as God’s people in their Sunday clothes because that is what you do on the Sabbath.

This is my heritage.  Quiet, subconscious faith pulsing like the white breast of the swan, unaware of its beauty.  Hard-working, kind people who raised the children to trust God, because that is what you do.  That is what you do.