Category Archives: Marriage and Family

Background check debate: Stray guns and your child at the playdate

Maybe you missed it, as you (and probably your children) were discussing Jeff Bezos’ private parts and the amazing scandals piling up in Virginia.  Nevertheless, this past week the House of Representatives held its first hearing on gun violence in eight years.

The testimony at the hearing centered on a bill that would make it harder for a person to buy a gun without a thorough background check. Supporters pointed out that right now it’s ridiculously easy to get lethal weapons from an unlicensed seller who is not going to check to see if said purchaser might have a record of violence, stalking or involuntary commitment for mental illness. That fact should surprise and appall us, but by this time it probably doesn’t. By now, your kids might think everyone has a gun and feel strange if you don’t!

Opponents of the bill clutched the Second Amendment and argued that the real reason we have so many deaths by gunfire is … well, take a guess at what they argued were the reasons: A) Guns, B) Bullets, C) Immigrants.

Matt Gaetz
Not a fan, but you need to see his face. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press

Answer: All the above.

Representative Matt Gaetz [more/biased info on him], a Florida Republican read a short list of people who had been shot by undocumented immigrants. Then he said, “I hope we do not forget the pain and anguish and sense of loss felt by those all over the country who have been the victims of violence at the hands of illegal aliens. …Better background checks would not have stopped many of the circumstances I raised, but a wall, a barrier on the southern border may have, and that’s what we’re fighting for.” There are a lot of lawmakers prepared to say almost anything in their role as surrogates for the National Rifle Association. But it is still surprising that during this latest hearing the main gun advocate was from Florida.

Thousands of people took part in the March for Our Lives protest in Parkland, Fla., a month after the school shooting there a year ago. Credit: Saul Martinez for The New York Times

On Valentine’s Day we’ll observe the first anniversary of the Parkland High School shootings in which one student with a gun took the lives of 17 people. We just passed the second anniversary of the fatal shooting of 5 people in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport, which occurred six months after 49 people were shot to death at a nightclub in Orlando. And it was just a couple of weeks ago that a young man walked into a bank in Sebring, Fla., pulled out a pistol, forced 5 women to lay on the ground and shot each one in the back of the head. All these atrocities happened in Congressman Gaetz’ state. All the gunmen were native-born Americans.

The House bill I mentioned is unlikely to even get brought up in the Senate if it passes the House. But in 2017 the House and Senate did get together to revoke an Obama-era regulation that had made it harder for mentally ill people to purchase a gun.

We have terrible gun problems in this country not just because firearms are all over the place, but also because of the careless, and often stupid attitude so many people have toward them. This includes the Congress.  Their rejection of legislation of which the country overwhelmingly approves  helps perpetuate the attitude that guns are a casual part of everyday life, like your wallet or socks — something you wear when you go out to buy a loaf of bread, leave laying around the house and treat in general with less care and discretion than a light bulb.

This is the kind of thinking that gives us endless mayhem involving violent, semi-deranged young men who just grab one of the family guns and mow down five people in a bar. Toddlers who shoot themselves when they stumble across a gun that Dad or Grandpa left sitting on the bed, or find a rifle in the back seat of the car and accidentally kill Mom while she’s pulling into the preschool parking lot. We hear stories like that every day. I don’t think it is all due to caravans of immigrants coming to the border.

With all this, is my child safe to have a playdate?

Thus, one of the parents on our parents list asked what everyone does to make sure their children are safe on play dates. How does one bring up the question about how the parents of your kid’s friends deal with their guns? It is amazing this question must be asked, but we live where we live. Here is the original question:

“I’m wondering how you navigate that awkward “do you have guns? Are they safely locked up?” question when you’re arranging a playdate, etc. for your kids?  I feel like the easiest way to ask is just to put it out there with something like, “Hi, I’m _____. We’d love to have _____ over for a playdate. We don’t have any guns in the house. Do you?”  Hopefully, they’ll then feel free to respond.  Buuuuuut, what if they say yes?  Do you allow your kids to play at people’s houses who own guns and say they’re secured?  And if you don’t, then how do you tell them you don’t want your kid playing at their house?!  I think playdates are great for our kids and great for meeting new people, but I can’t seem to figure this out given our current world.  The end result for me is that I avoid setting anything up with people we don’t already know well, which feels like the opposite of what I want to be doing as I follow Jesus and try to “welcome the stranger.”

Answers

There was a lot more dialogue about this than there were answers on the parents list. But they were so useful, I decided to reprint them.  No names are attached, of course. If you want to be on the parents list, you can be. (I also added a hyperlink for Eddie the Eagle and left out what I thought was extraneous). Here they are:

1) I include this gun question along with questions about food allergies, pets (one of my kids has been bitten twice!), car seats, and other safety things I cover when doing a first play date with a family. Every parent I’ve asked this question has thanked me for asking it.

As for what do when I learn there is an unsecured firearm in the house, I don’t allow my kids to play there without me with them and I keep my kid in eyesight. I’m happy to meet up elsewhere or host the kids at my house instead.

2) I ask about guns when I’m trying to find out a little bit about how a family feels secure in their houses.  I ask about guns and pharmaceuticals (child proof caps?).  I’ve only had one person push back (and not much) about my guns question.  This may be because of where we live – not so many families are gun enthusiasts here in über-liberal West Philadelphia.  Every family I’ve asked these types of questions of has thanked me for asking them as well.

I’m always prepared to discuss why I think gun locks and gun safes are necessary when I ask these questions but the conversation has only gone that far one time.

Personally, I’m okay with a family who keeps guns in their house if they’re secured properly — especially if they’re hunting rifles and such.  Someone who keeps their guns in a safe understands that they’re machines for killing (people, game, whatever) and potentially incredibly dangerous.  Someone who keeps their gun “hidden” in their house so they can get them quickly if necessary is not dealing with reality and their worldview includes what is, to me, an unacceptable level of risk for my kids playing in their house.  There is probably a spectrum of people in between those examples but I’m really only okay with my kids playing in the houses of the folks on the first extreme.  If I meet parents of kids my sons make friends with who are of the “I keep my guns hidden in my house” variety, I plan to say something along the lines of “We’d love to have _____ over to our house but we’re just not comfortable with firearms in the house that aren’t secured so [my kids] won’t be able to come over to _____’s house.”  People who aren’t comfortable with that stance have their own stuff to work out — I’m okay with some tension between me and another parent if that helps keep my kids safer.

3) Our seminarian’s cohort, along with the pastors and the Leadership Team, wrote a teaching on guns and gun violence based on our discussion at our quarterly public meeting. It might be helpful for you as you consider this subject. You may have seen it before, but if not, you can find it on the Way of Jesus website here.

4) I hadn’t seen that summary from the cohort.  It’s wonderful.  This dialogue is making me think I might want to “struggle more” with this as our kids start to get into play dates at other kids homes.  I honestly hadn’t thought of it, nor to ask about other hazards.  Glad we are village parenting!

Image result for eddie the eagle nra gun

5) I think these are all good ideas to address the concern of kids, playdates and guns. To add another piece, talking to our kids about guns will be important, too. I grew up with a video called Eddie the Eagle [from the NRA},  which taught kids about gun safety. The whole thing is based around the question, what do you do if you see [find] a gun? And the answer, according to Eddie was: Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult. I believe Eddie is still around as a friend of mine said they covered the topic, with Eddie the Eagle, at her son’s pre-school. This of course, isn’t going to address a philosophical or theological perspective with kids, but it does address the practical instance of encountering a gun, if for some reason it happens, even with the pre-playdate conversations.

6) I’m so glad that you brought up the importance of teaching our children about how to react in the presence of a firearm. Unfortunately, we have sensed the necessity of having this conversation with our kids from a very young age – three or four years old, I think (?). The first conversation may have happened after I witnessed a few kids playing with a handgun on my street. Also, when my dad was a child in the 1950s, his best friend was accidentally killed while playing with a loaded pistol.  He often shares concerns about gun safety with our family.

We’ve tried to have this talk in a less-worrying way that focuses more on being prepared, similar to learning about how to react in case of a fire. I know, however, that some kids do worry about being shot, especially if they participate in school lockdown drills, see certain things in visual media, or have had the misfortune of being in the presence of gun violence.  So… I think we also need to allow our children the space to express how they feel about all of this, and to practice good listening.  That may also help us to discern how to be more proactive.

It is important to talk about everything with each other and our kids, isn’t it!

I suppose we’ll have to talk a lot if everyone is going to have their privates exposed and their guns strewn around their privacy. Here is one last word from Jesus that might be comforting in the face of this troubling era. I like it in The Voice translation: “I have told you these things so that you will be whole and at peace. In this world, you will be plagued with times of trouble, but you need not fear; I have triumphed over this corrupt world order” (John 16:33).

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando — video version

Hey everyone. Here is a video version of this week’s blog. For links and such, consult the written format. Thanks for reading and listening!

It’s the relationships, not the money: On the front line in Orlando

I had another Disney experience last week. Someone heard I was in Florida and said something like, “You’re kidding! Rod and Gwen do not seem like Disney people.” I assure you, they are right. But I sure met a lot of “Disney people” while I was away.  One nice family from Kent had a plan for ten days in the parks! Ouch!

I do not go to Disney for Disney. I go for five-year olds. We committed to take each grandchild to Disney when they turned five and I have not regretted that decision for one minute. I just got back from a trip with the half-Elsa and half-Minnie pictured below. This is the same birthday girl who was jumping with delight to see Elsa on her Festival of Fantasy parade float and whose birthday badge was spotted by her hero, who then mouthed, “Happy birthday” right at her! Papa got choked up.

Taken with my own Iphone at lunch.

I always learn a lot on my “field work” excursions out of my blue, Northeast bubble (where it is quite a bit colder, btw).  This trip was no different. When I was not thinking about where to find restrooms in the Magic Kingdom, I was in wonder that this many people have enough money to do the wildly expensive Disney experience.

The economy did not send people to Disney

My new, unexpected, best pundit friend, David Brooks, recently gave me some reasons for why the parks near Orlando are so crowded. He says, “We’re enjoying one of the best economies of our lifetime. The G.D.P. is growing at about 3.5 percent a year, which is about a point faster than many experts thought possible. We’re in the middle of the second-longest recovery in American history… If you were born in 1975, you’ve seen the U.S. economy triple in size over the course of your lifetime. The gains are finally being widely shared, even by the least skilled….The median usual weekly earnings for workers who didn’t complete high school shot up by 6.5 percent over the past year.”

The “recovery” should be making people feel great, right? Bill Clinton was famous for having a motto that helped him win the White House: “It’s the economy, stupid.” He wanted to remember to maintain his personal sell out to capitalist bondage as he was helping to teach our children to sell their souls as well. His winning strategy has been key to all the political playbooks ever since. As a result, we are up to our necks in economic microdata and even prominent Evangelicals defend Trump’s inaction on the Khashoggi murder by suggesting the country needs to protect its business deals with the Saudi’s other magic kingdom rather than protest assassinations!

But Brooks accurately notes that the economy is hardly what normal people care about the most, Clinton notwithstanding.  A few minutes on the bus to Disney will prove that people will spend whatever it takes to get what the economy has ruined: relationships. Disney has discovered how to package up the relationships people want and sell them to us. I think we might have an experience similar to the day we bought at a Disney park at Fern Hill Park. But it was exciting to have my little Elsa creating the “snow” (so she said) that Disney Hollywood pumped out for the “holiday” show. We need to be together.

Money is not, again,  making us happy or holy

People have more money, for the moment, but they are far from happy. The economy won’t make you happy! Jesus did not add “Stupid!” But I suppose he could have. Because we humans, in general, have a history of being rather stupid when it comes to what we think will save us. The U.S. Empire promised our big, fat, rapacious, world-dominating economy would save us. But it seems Trump has finally convinced many people such a promise is as faulty as they suspected.

Brooks notes that “about 60 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country. Researchers with the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index interviewed 160,000 adults in 2017 to ask about their financial security, social relationships, sense of purpose and connectedness to community. Last year turned out to be the worst year for well-being of any since the study began 10 years ago. As the recovery has advanced, people’s faith in capitalism has actually declined, especially among the young. Only 45 percent of those between 18 and 29 see capitalism positively, a lower rate than in 2010, when the country was climbing out of the Great Recession.” That’s not a big surprise: college debt, gig economy, unpaid internships, hugely expensive health care, high housing costs, tax cuts for the rich – Thanks “economy!”

A solitary worker at an e-commerce company’s distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania. — Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

The crisis we feel is not just the economy (I will not add the contemptuous “stupid.” and if you hear it in your brain, you should resist). The bigger problem is the crisis of connection. The following has become common knowledge (except, maybe, in Congress). Brooks says, “People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.” That’s the crisis.

“And they are dying.” Last week, “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives. And yet here we are — a straight-up social catastrophe.” It is a crisis of caring and sharing, led by the most immoral president ever and his collaborating Senate, characterized by a flood of opioids, guns and video games  ready for purchase by eager teenagers.

The economy can’t sell us a solution to the crisis

Circle of Hope was designed as an antidote to the sociological, psychological and spiritual decay that even pundits are starting to talk about. Just call us a “tribe of covenant partners in Christ” and you can see, in every rarely-used word in that phrase, that we supply quite an alternative. As Brooks notes, many young people are bereft of the support structures they need to persevere in school and get the skills to help them survive — we provide them as a matter of course. The natural, organic system of our church provides the so-called “soft skills” that Brooks says the economy can’t locate: leadership, communication and collaboration. The society is awash in technical capacity but people can’t bring themselves to answer personal email (I know, I write them!). We can figure out how to program our phone-app-run thermostats but rarely listen to our voicemail, if anyone still records one. We are sold a lot of ways to connect, but many in the society are having a terrible time getting connected.

Brooks concludes by saying, “Conservatives were wrong to think that economic growth would lead to healthy families and communities all by itself. Moderate Democrats were wrong to think it was sufficient to maximize growth and then address inequalities with transfer payments. The progressives are wrong to think life would be better if we just made our political economy look more like Denmark’s. The Danes and the Swedes take for granted a cohesive social fabric [that hygge] that simply does not exist here.” The country is experiencing a lot of wrongheaded stuff! We all need a “cohesive social fabric” — but the “economy,” as presently dominated, won’t give it to us even if we fight for it, mainly because it is not interested in cohesion, society or even fabric, unless it is being sold by the bolt.

We know all that. We are among those people who are more alone than ever, as well, of course. We struggle to know our anonymous neighbors and have a tough time “volunteering” for our own church and sharing with our own covenant partners in Christ! We are not immune to the social catastrophe the “economy” continues to exacerbate. Lord save us! — the “economy” is dithering about whether it should sacrifice profits to save the world from climate change disaster!! We know all this and we are all this, to a degree. But we are also bravely on the front lines with whatever gifts we have to build an alternative.

OK, I was on the “front lines” in Orlando last week. The big disaster I faced was when they cancelled the last, giant show they had planned for 3000 of us, or so, because of technical difficulties.  But, in the middle of waiting for that catastrophe to be announced by a pre-recorded message, I played a lot of rock/paper/scissors, with a giggling five-year-old. It’s not the economy, it’s the relationships. It is not the money, it is the love. It is not the magic kingdom of the American dream, it is the kingdom of God represented by normal people filled with the Spirit. Those truths are easier to hang on to when a child is hanging on to your hand or a cell mate is hanging on to their faith for dear life in your living room. There is an alternative being created in us every day.

What do YOU think? Is screen time damaging the kids?

I have been doing some thinking about technology again in prepration for the seminarians cohort meeting next Monday. We are inviting everyone to do some theology around the question: Should I buy the Playstation, Iphone, AI device for Christmas?

Image result for fortnite skins

Among the articles that stuck with me is one by Nellie Bowles in the NYTimes: A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley. I have grandchildren. She alarmed me, since they love their screens and I love to give them what they want.

Being avoidant is not enough

She says, “The people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it. Technologists know how phones really work, and many have decided they don’t want their own children anywhere near them. A wariness that has been slowly brewing is turning into a region wide consensus: The benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development seem high. The debate in Silicon Valley now is about how much exposure to phones is O.K.”

Christians have often been resistant when it comes to technological advances. Many of the people in our church, Circle of Hope, come from Mennonite stock and have relatives or acquaintances who are Amish. The Amish are still trying to keep progress stalled at the pre-industrial level! I admire their stubbornness. But the cool  Anabaptists I know are tired of legalistic ancestors and feel queasy about making too many rules that will stifle their own children like they were stifled. So the debate about information and communication technology gets them coming and going. They have an instinct for avoiding the temptations for the world, but they have no little revulsion for overdoing avoidance.

Sometimes I think they use their resistance to overdoing avoidance to avoid making decisions that might save their kids. They don’t want to be legalistic, so they don’t do anything to guide the family. So their poor, impressionable kids are rolled over by the tsunami of technology without much guidance, much less theology. So the wave consumes their imaginations and they adapt to the worldview stories that justify every new relationship with a machine that comes on the market.

Tech inventors are keeping their kids away from screens

The experts from Silicon valley are beginning to resist the technology onslaught for the sake of their children. Just listen to these quotes.

  • “Doing no screen time is almost easier than doing a little,” said Kristin Stecher, a former social computing researcher married to a Facebook engineer. “If my kids do get it at all, they just want it more.”
  • Some of the people who built video programs are now horrified by how many places a child can now watch a video. Asked about limiting screen time for children, Hunter Walk, a venture capitalist who for years directed product for YouTube at Google, sent a photo of a potty training toilet with an iPad attached and wrote: “Hashtag ‘products we didn’t buy.’”
  • Athena Chavarria, who worked as an executive assistant at Facebook and is now at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
  • Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now the chief executive of a robotics and drone company said about screens, “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” Technologists building these products and writers observing the tech revolution were naïve, he said. “We thought we could control it,” Mr. Anderson said. “And this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. This is beyond our capacity as regular parents to understand.”
  • Those who have exposed their children to screens try to talk them out of addiction by explaining how the tech works. John Lilly, a Silicon Valley-based venture capitalist with Greylock Partners and the former C.E.O. of Mozilla, said he tries to help his 13-year-old son understand that he is being manipulated by those who built the technology. “I try to tell him somebody wrote code to make you feel this way — I’m trying to help him understand how things are made, the values that are going into things and what people are doing to create that feeling,” Mr. Lilly said. “And he’s like, ‘I just want to spend my 20 bucks to get my Fortnite skins.'”

I think we all know by now that online platforms, especially the games, are designed to be addictive. That’s how the inventors profit, by keeping us engaged and selling us virtual products. In case you didn’t know that, it’s no secret

I did not write this post to solve the problems we are all confronting. But I do think we Jesus-followers have the perennial solutions:.

  • A view of who we are and who God is appropriately contradicts the narratives the world offers.
  • Dialogue, like this, and like our meeting to do theology, helps break the power of manipulative lies that hook us into a track we later regret.
  • Questioning the strategies of our spiritual ancestors and having the courage to resist and restore in our own ways allows us the space to make decisions that have some discernment.

We do not need to bend the knee to whatever powerful force comes beaming into family life demanding we organize around it. Like many tech experts, we’d better figure out just what we are going to do about the invasion very soon, since the powers are grooming our kids for future profiteering and shaping their brains and their loves as they do it.

See also, from 2013: Screen time saps resistance

Give the baby a church, for Christ’s sake.

Park FellowshipMy parents did me a great favor when I was a kid, they sent me and my sister to a pretty horrible Baptist Church across the street from Chino High School. I do not know why that was their pick. I do not remember one word from them about why we were there. But even though they never darkened the door unless I was in some kind of performance, one of them usually got up and took us to Sunday school. Usually we even “stayed for church” because we found it quite amusing.

I found out later they had been very burned by a nasty church split when they were first married and it soured them on Jesus and the whole church thing. That is a sad, often-repeated story — repeated by others of course, my parents guarded their own soul-wounds religiously.  There are a few things my parents did not give me that can still burn me if I blow on the embers. But there is one thing they gave me that was inestimably more valuable than they expected: the church.

Protecting kids from the church

Being raised in a family where mom and dad were visibly not Christians and where Jesus was only mentioned in relation to a curse, I have repeatedly felt the need for more education when it comes to what it feels like to have Christian parents. Over and over, I run into thirtysomethings who want to make sure their kids are not bored in church, who are channeling their own bad experience of being obligated to something their clueless parents perpetrated on them, or who have been wounded in many ways they are afraid their kids will experience. I keep listening because I have so little natural empathy, since my recollection of the church  at which I was dropped off is that it was about a hundred times worse than anything Circle of Hope could fall into. Yet it was in that very imperfect, even unorthodox and sometimes damaging community that I met Jesus at a very early age. I can’t imagine why they think depriving their children of the community in which they will learn faith, or even protecting them from it,  is a good strategy.

Most parents I know act like school is inviolable, since getting into better schools on the basis of your past record is supposedly going to give you your best life. If they sign up their child for a sports team it is a covenant they must keep, so no matter when the game is or where it happens, the child must be there. Dance, musical instrument, tae kwon do, all sorts of enrichment activities fill up most of the week and the activity schedules dictate what is happening in the family. It all looks very religious to me. But if the church seems demanding, that’s an obligation that feels intolerable! There are a lot of reasons for that feeling and please know that I understand plenty of people have never felt it. But I keep running into it, which leads me to my main purpose for writing.

Image result for children on Christmas eve in church

Don’t deprive the child of their church

As a follower of Jesus and as a person with my unique experience, I say that the best thing you can do for your child is give them a church. They need to grow up in an environment where they can learn faith. Here are my reasons for saying that, for now:

1) Your family is not enough

I have acquaintances who rely on their parents in Lancaster to come in and sit with their children while they do something together (and it is rare they do something as a result). They are on their way to isolating their kids in their nuclear family instead of training them to live in the extended family of the church. They undermine the sense that the church is a family in Christ by refusing to let it happen. They can’t even work out a mutual babysitting arrangement. I think that is a very practical way they deny Jesus his demand that he be more important than the family from which they came. Their children will likely keep their distance from Jesus and the church, too.  Children need to be raised in a village and Jesus should be the leader of it. It is short-sighted parenting to think you have everything your child needs in the “relative” category. They need to be born into the body of Christ and surrounded with the grace of God, first and foremost.

2) Culture matters

What is my identity? In Western culture that has become a standard question children need to answer. Queer theorists may talk us out of this before long, but until then children must decide: male/female, gay/straight, what color, what place among the school cliques, even what political stripe. The place they get their Christian character is certainly in your family, but it is actualized in the church. If they never feel like they are part of an alternative community centered on Christ, they will probably join another community that is centered on themselves, or some identity they have adopted.

Making the community of the church is a parental top priority — at least if they want to raise children who can live life with Jesus. I am often amazed at what parents will give their children over to while they lightly visit a church, one they may not even claim as their own. What kind of child will come of that? Will they join the Fortnight community or Eagles Nation?

3) Lifetime assumptions form early on.

What is the meaning of life? That question will eventually be asked by your child. Even if they have consistent, loving Christian parents, they will still have to ask the question and get a decent answer for themselves (or get used to their despair). I thank God Mrs. Elrod often drove out to get me for Sunday school when my parents were indisposed or sick of it all (I can’t remember which caused her to appear). Sunday school was not that great, but Mrs. Elrod making me feel worthy of her effort, her undeserved service, made an indelible impression. I still remember what her front seat feels like! Her behavior spoke to me in deeper ways than her lessons. Children need a lot of opportunity to pick up grace assumptions in the church and plenty of acceptance as they mull  them over.

4) It is your duty as a parent

I have already said this, but I wanted it to have its own bullet. Building the church is the responsibility of everyone who follows Jesus. We are, by our redeemed nature, bricks in the temple of the Holy Spirit. Each of us have value and cannot be replaced. The energy we bring to the redemption project of Jesus is multiplied far beyond our personal efforts by God and by the community we tend. In these times especially, children need to learn community, since they are being trained to sit alone in front of a screen all day, among other things. It is your duty as a parent to give them a chance to be saved from whatever they presently face and what will come. That salvation will come from a deeper place than just a resilient capacity to have their own mind. They will need the strength of a loving, Spirit-filled community to help them

5) You child needs to see mom and dad follow Jesus.

It is great when a child is teachable. But I think they mostly they get what is caught, not taught. Some people think they are wrecking their family because mom goes to her cell meeting once a week and dad puts the kids to bed. I think it would be fine to tell your two year old, “Mama is going to build the church. I follow Jesus and I hope you will too, one day. I am going to make sure I build you a strong community so you can become your true self. There is nothing more important to me than following Jesus. He is the source of all the love I have for you.” I think it is good for a child to know that the family is moving according to something outside the family — namely Jesus is leading them. If Jesus is not making the family, what will the child learn about who makes family? And if they ever read the Bible, what will they make of Ephesians 3?

Image result for body of christ

Start now, even if you don’t have children yet

If the church is not good enough, reform it for the sake of your children, don’t leave it up to someone else. If you end up in a place where there is no church, make one; it is the vehicle for the work of Jesus in the world and your children need it. If you feel overwhelmed and want to hole up in your house with your shower gifts for four years until the baby releases their grip on you, have some vision, that child needs a healthy Christian parent, not merely a servant of their desires. The best time for the child to have a church is when they are 5-8 and forming some very important foundations for their later days. Make sure they have one. If your friend just had a baby and you can’t figure out what to do for them, give their baby a church, for Christ’s sake! I know people use that as a curse, so I am being cute, but it means “on account of Jesus” or “in light of the purpose of Christ.” We’re working with Jesus to prepare the way for the baby to walk into fullness of life when we build her a church.

I am happy Faith Breunle, Charlie Brake and Paul Woodward were around when I was in Jr High to demonstrate to me that Christians existed in the real world. To be honest, they were not that great of teachers or examples, as I look back. But periodically, I met up with their heart – the one that motivated them to keep making this crazy little church to which my unbelieving parents attached me. They opened up my imagination for what I might become and build. By most objective observation, what they were doing was very ineffective. But that ineffective thing was very effective when it came to me. I don’t think Jesus needs a great church. The little church in Chino created and lived in an environment where Jesus was assumed and honored. I wandered into that. They probably thought I was a weird kid, coming from those heathen parents, and all. I’m still a weird kid, only I know Jesus and that has made my life possible.

Maybe your kids won’t all be uniformly faithful. Trust cannot be coerced, can it? But I wouldn’t expect them to know Jesus if they don’t hang out around him. He’s in the body of Christ. It is being built all the time in every era with every new follower. If for no other reason, build it for your kids, for Christ’s sake!

The relationship cutoff: 10 reasons it is so common these days

In my 40+ years of counseling and pastoring I’ve heard about many kinds of emotionally distressing situations triggered in all sorts of ways. But one of the greatest sources of pain I hear about is feeling cut off. The cutoff hurts most in a family or an intimate relationship. But it is also probably the main pain people experience and fear in the church – which is like a family and often full of intimacy or the desire for it. Regardless of the reasons, people who are cut off when people leave them or the church (and sometimes when they stay) feel much the same: shame, confusion, stress, and sometimes even depression and a feeling of being disempowered. [Remember Gotye?] They particularly feel these things when no explanation for the cutoff is provided. People may cut each other off for months, years, and sometimes even a lifetime with little or no explanation.

I am experiencing variations on this theme right now. A couple of very significant people in my life have cut me off. So I have felt some of the feelings just mentioned!

University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo told Psychology Today, “The pain of losing a meaningful relationship [that one still wants or needs] can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact. With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.”

In The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson writes, “When a loved one dies, the loss is absolutely final…[but] abandonment survivors may remain in denial and postpone closure, sometimes indefinitely.” Some people never accept the need to grieve and come to acceptance when their pain comes from the loss of romantic attachment or intimate friendship, especially when the loss is extended over time (as in they keep meeting up with the person who has cut them off or they are connected via other relationships).

When there are emotional loose ends — unanswered questions, mistrust, betrayal, disbelief, bewilderment  — it can be very difficult to heal. What makes it worse is that our culture is somewhat hostile to people in this situation. People often judge those who don’t move on right away. Being the one struggling without answers is a difficult experience.

People with abuse and trauma in their backgrounds are especially vulnerable. The breaking of attachments can trigger anxiety, depression and evoke unhealed psychic wounds. Anderson goes on the say: “Emotional experience is more painful when it echoes an episode from the past; that’s especially true when it comes to rejection and loss. The relationship that ended today may be the fulfillment of your worst nightmares from childhood. Grieving over that lost love opens a primal wound.”

The following are some of the most frequent reasons why someone is likely to cut someone off, or to freeze them out of the fold. Before I get there, let me say a couple of things. This is not an exhaustive list. I am NOT suggesting that cutoffs are healthy or even reasonable. I can’t imagine something less like Jesus than cutting someone off. On the other hand, I am also NOT suggesting that people need to put up with abusive, demanding, overwhelming people. We’re not as able as Jesus, for the most part. When boundaries are set and someone refuses to consider them, something’s got to give. So there is another side to what I am about to list and we can talk about that some other time. This time I am honoring people who have been cut off. It can be tough on them. As I enter this confusing set of dynamics that go so dreadfully awry, keep in mind that love is as hard as it is crucial.

So why is the cutoff so common these days?

Modeling

Some people grew up in families that have a history of cutting off members when they are disappointed, angry, or experiencing other less-than-pleasant emotions toward them. Perhaps you witnessed your mother do this to her mother-in-law while you were growing up. You then learned that cutting off relatives is an option. You may follow the pattern when you feel similarly disenchanted with someone. We all learn from what we see modeled at home.

Trauma specialist Hala Khouri says, “If it’s hysterical, it’s often historical.” People who have experienced trauma often don’t differentiate between the person triggering them and the original source of trauma. When difficult emotions arise, they may feel real feelings of threat and anxiety. Their brain may shift toward fight-or-flight mode. A cutoff can be a flight response that helps keep difficult emotions at bay.

Power and Control

In all systems, there are dominant and less-than-dominant members. The dominant may lead the whole group to cut someone off simply to exert their high level of power and control (or for any of the other reasons on this list). Where do children learn the playground dynamics of bullying? At home, a bully may be exerting the same kind of power and control. Not long ago our pastors warned covenant members about a “wolf” (who is still threatening people!). This was a necessary use of their power. But cutting someone off from the church is so rare it seems like it never happens among us.

Exhaustion

Sometimes people simply get exhausted and depleted by a person who seems difficult to them. They may feel that they have put up with certain behaviors for too long, and they may feel hopeless about things ever changing. They may start by phasing out a person and then handily place them on the “do not interact with” list. Everyone has their own pain tolerance level and can only handle so much. People who are addicted or mentally/chronically ill often end up over the tolerance level, which our church often notably ignores – but it can happen. If you are truly exhausted, maybe you shouldn’t ignore it. Thank God we live in community and someone else may not be exhausted at all.

New life stories

There are all kinds of church members who know a lot about your history and younger self. Perhaps you don’t want to be reminded of your past. How do you go about rewriting your history and changing your narrative? One way is to shut out the people who know all about your past. Eliminate them from your life, and you can rewrite your story without anyone letting the proverbial cat out of the bag. Avoid those people, and your past is more likely to be left right where you feel it belongs — in the past. Maybe you moved to Philadelphia to make that happen! When we had our “divorce dialogues” this year, a few of the divorced felt shamed because people talked about their history; but we were just trying not to participate in their cutoff narrative. We were not avoiding. Instead, we were acknowledging that a new story was being written.

Loyalty

Some of us have felt forced into situations where we had to choose between people who were cut off from each other (like in a divorce). Or maybe you feel coerced into choosing between pastors, or even a former pastor. These are dreadful situations, but we all know someone who has been in this position. Is the situation common? Yes. Is it easy? Not at all. In our church, where we have formed a nice, often tight community, people who cut off sometimes hover around the edges and ask for collusion, even ask for a pledge to cut off the same people they have.

Avoiding slighting and being slighted

Sometimes a set of misunderstandings occur between people in the church. If the misunderstandings don’t get discussed, understood, and forgiven they can build up, and eventually break down relationships. It is tragic that such build-ups lead to breakdowns.

I often feel like avoiding things, but I also feel like it is an obligation to God not to do so. But for many people, “discussion” is synonymous with “confrontation,” and so avoidance is their go-to choice. When a new person wanders into a set of relationships in which people are covering up their distress with avoidance, it all feels rather inauthentic.

Why cut someone off without saying why? For one thing, explaining opens a conversation, implying you want to work things out, which you don’t. But there’s another reason, too. Many of us find it hard to say anything “negative” outright, so we swallow our hurt—until it chokes us. Ghosting means still not saying anything negative.

For those who are pondering what they did to cause them to be ghosted, it may help to know the answer may be: nothing. For instance, a woman was relieved when–-decades later— a friend who had disappeared reconnected and explained that she’d been going through a tough time and had cut everyone off. Another woman recalled her own habit, when she was younger, of cutting friends off: she’d pursue a friendship, then feel overwhelmed by the closeness she’d created — and flee. It might be you, but it might not be.

A person doing the cutoff may benefit from taking a deep breath and asking, “What am I trying to avoid here?”

Money

Financial issues are often the source of relationship difficulties. Money may not always be able to buy love, but it sure can lead to lots of bad feelings. Consider the dynamics of the church dividing up a diminishing income, or imagine the bad things that often happen when a family system is also a business (like Circle of Hope!). People sometimes flee the pressures. In the church people can cut themselves off by not paying their share or get cut off because others feel like they are freeloading.

The demands of the needy

Do you want to see a church disintegrate? Watch what happens when people try to share the responsibilities involved in caring for people who can’t care for themselves – sort of like the need to bring grandma into the home of one of her kids. There are certainly family systems that come together and handle these sorts of situations beautifully, but putting a needy person in the middle of the system is also high on the list of reasons that relatives get disenchanted with one another — and sometimes cut off. In the church, people sometimes get cut off because they are not functioning up to standards; they are too needy. Sometimes people cut off because they are overwhelmed with people who can’t contribute and they feel they don’t have enough to give what is required.

Abuse

Unfortunately, many people have been emotionally and/or physically abused in their past – even by relatives, as I already mentioned. This damage cannot always be completely repaired. In many cases, people cut off because they have painful interactions with people that are reminiscent of the abuse in their past. The repeat feels intolerable and often the system (like your cell) does not acknowledge it, so it again feels like the secret trauma they experienced before.

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Lack of Elasticity

Some communities simply lack elasticity. They lack the ability to recover from difficulties and, like a rubber band, snap when stretched too far. Flexibility takes confidence that we are not cut off from God and that, no matter what trials we face, Jesus has and will overcome them with us. Even when someone cuts us off, Jesus is with us as we recover and find our way into what is next. If a group does not have the character to bend and grow, people cut off or get cut off.

Every day we wake up ready to effect reconciliation in the world. We are all about helping each other mend relationships. Sometimes there is so much history and damage that there is little desire and energy to do the mending. Yet Jesus continues to highlight the need to plant and grow love in the world. And he promises to not leave us orphans in the process – he will never cut us off; we’ll have to do that ourselves. We’ve been cut off enough times to have trouble believing that. So we will need to meditate on what we have been given. We will need to leave what we DON’T have to God and move with what we have been GIVEN.

 

 

 

 

 

The Shape of Water: Enough already!

The Shape of Water Poster

My one-line review of The Shape of Water for Facebook

I went for the beautiful. Stayed for the overlong, derivative, pig in lipstick movie. Del Toro snoro.

I suppose daring to put out negative reviews on Facebook invites conflict. I did it anyway, since I rarely leave a movie so irritated. Maybe I was just in a bad mood. But probably not, since I usually even like the bad ones (like Downsizing!). But I needed to say something lest everyone run out expectantly when it wins some Academy Award.

A lot of reviewers think this movie is great.

The most welcome and notable thing about The Shape of Water is its generosity of spirit, which extends beyond the central couple. Full review

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water elegantly blends whimsical fairy tale with a fresh spin on classic monster movies for a delightful experience. Full review

However, the Observer called it

A loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.

It won two Golden Globes and was nominated for five more.  Like the foreign press noted, it does have a wonderful score and it is a feast for the eyes. I think the acting is a credit to the actors, who were given one-dimensional characters to play. I almost decided to suspend my criticism when [spoiler alert] the souped-up creature from the black lagoon mimicked Fred Astaire in black and white. (I am one of those people who brakes for Fred and Ginger on TCM). But I guess I was already homaged to the breaking point.

Instead, I ended up with two reactions:

Enough already with the magical alternative family!

Del Toro with cast. Watch out for the plaid dude, family.

Once again we have lonely lost souls creating an alternative family. Wasn’t this done to the saturation point with Friends? We’ve had fourteen more years of saturation since that show ended. OK, we get it. There are a lot of brave, lonely souls out there who can’t seem to be accepted for who they are. We are all like that and society stinks. But here we go again anyway.

The family clings together in the middle of a rotting 60’s city, rundown apartments and an overwhelming, secretive, cold war, government installation. The villain is not only a bureaucrat, he’s a suburban lunkhead and a Christian fundamentalist. I share your prejudices, but enough already!

Beauty and the Beast made $1.2 billion dollars last year. Weren’t we saturated with that story when the Disney gave us the first movie in 1991? (I was). But here we go again. Del Toro wants to take it a bit farther so his nonhuman monster becomes the romantic hero. Even they are worthy of love and acceptance. The audience is invited to kiss that beast.

I am down with love, acceptance (and I will add the crucial forgiveness). They are basic to the message of the gospel. And I understand alternative family, I have been living in Christian community since I began to follow Jesus. I never submitted to silly men and the damaging institutions they create, at least not for long. I appreciate artists expanding my vision. You’d think I’d love this thing. But this redundant messaging from filmdom borders on propaganda and us autonomous souls relating to the screen are its victims.

Enough already with the magic of romantic (mainly sexual) love!

Surely everyone interested in this film knows this, so I won’t consider it a spoiler. At the end of the movie there is a violent scene in which the lovers, mute girl and amphibian, are shot. The creature heals, gets up to slice the shooter’s throat, picks up his dying lover and dives into the water with her. In his natural element, he not only revives her, he gives her gills.

To be fair, Del Toro, steeped in religion as he is, says of this ending, “A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end. It’s also used in fairy tales,” which he loves. “In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title ‘The Magical Fish.’ And [it’s] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.” That should make me feel better, shouldn’t it?

But I missed that symbolism completely. If you go see the movie, it will probably help to see it in that light. What I got was the final, summarizing voiceover from the narrator.

When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem. Made of just a few truthful words… whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago…:

Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.

That would be a great prayer, wouldn’t it? Instead, it was pictured as a moment when the male sea creature gives his mate the capacity to become one with him after she saves him to do it. That’s one problem. More generally, it is a moment when love becomes all. It shows us that the magic of our love is beyond us; it is where we find our shape. When it is actualized, we are created. The words could be straight from a Christian mystic, which I appreciate. But the visual container is free of God content. It reinforces the repetitive teaching that we must find a lover who accepts us as we are and magically makes us who we can become. They are god-like. Their presence fills us. Enough already!

I have a good marriage, but as godly as my wife is, I know she is not God. I am glad we know we are not gods and love the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ so we do not kill our relationship with expectation and despair. This movie would be a great reason to never get married.  Because we know the beasts do not always get beautiful enough to look good at the ball. The monsters do not all turn out to be healers. Magic does not begin with or reside in sexual attraction. Life is not really the way the movie taught us AGAIN.

Like the movie, this short post brings up more to talk about than it attempts to answer all the questions. The film tells a story. It is a love story on many levels, which is nice. I have a story of my own in response. And I link my story to Jesus, not hidden in the fine print, not symbolized in the fish, but Jesus right out there for everyone to see, the one who can truly remake us into the shape to love and who is present with us when we can’t or don’t, too.

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Marriage advice: Don’t take Trump to bed

The desire wells up in me to pass out unsolicited advice. I think it is because I have counseled quite a few couples this past quarter, and quite a few of them should have solicited some advice!

So here is some advice for blue staters, especially, as we head into the inauguration ordeal: Don’t take Trump to bed.

marriage advice: don't take Trump to bed

1) When you go to bed, it is better to wind down than to ramp up.

Continue reading Marriage advice: Don’t take Trump to bed

Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)

Kindness and so much moreI feel like I have a new friend after reading Katherine Willis Pershey’s book: Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity. We have only exchanged one email, but I already hope she moves here, or at least comes over to inspire us.

I would like to quote you the entire book, in case you do not buy it immediately, but I will just do this one part today. It feels urgent that I get you to think, feel and pray about marriage, since several are falling apart as we speak, and, I think, the partners in them don’t really want them to fall apart, but they are floundering. They did not do what the following quote suggests we do and the resulting injuries feel insurmountable.

Pershey is talking about John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (another recommendation). Specifically, she boils down his work into one very Christian exhortation: be kind. If you need a Bible verse, it could be Ephesians 4:32 (memorize it): “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” I agree with her. That about sums it up.

Continue reading Lifelines for drowning marriages (and whole societies)