When the youth group goes to Fort Caswell for the spring retreat, one of the many traditions involves a team building exercise known as The Wall. The Wall is about 10-12 feet high and 6-8 feet wide and kids who choose to participate scale the wall with others in their grade. It’s always a beautiful thing to watch.
This year, Cameron, a 16 year old who has been raised in the church, made his first trip to Caswell. He’d been on other youth trips, but not this one; so he’d never seen The Wall, never participated in this tradition. Of course, he didn’t have to do it. No one would have objected if he’d taken a pass.
You see, since birth, Cameron has developed at a different speed than other children. One orthopedist even told his parents not to expect much in the way of gross motor development, saying that Cameron would likely be in a wheelchair. (His parents got a different orthopedist.) It took him awhile, but with the help of a kid-sized walker, Cameron put one foot in front of the other, and by the time he was four and a half years old, he was walking on his own. These days, while his muscle tone is still relatively low, he gets around fine. He does, however, walk slower and more intentionally than most folk. And, well, he just has to work a little harder than other people to move through the world.
But back to Caswell’s wall.
“Are you going to climb The Wall, Cameron?” We asked him mostly out of courtesy, not wanting him to feel left out.
“Yep,” he said, looking over his glasses that had once again slipped too far down his nose; and he made his way over to lifelong friends who awaited him at the wall.
Physically, Cameron couldn’t offer much assistance at all. He couldn’t push or pull himself up. He couldn’t reach out or grab hold. If he panicked, he would fall. If he struggled against them, they would drop him.
Cameron put his hands on sure shoulders and lifted a foot onto the human stool; his friends did the rest. One adult and two girls standing on the back of the wall reached down, while several guys at the base helped lift him up. Other teens gathered around, arms extended, ready.
He progressed, inches at the time, eventually straddling the top of the wall. Once there though, he seemed to get stuck. A moment of uncertainty followed when no one was exactly sure how to proceed. Then another teen—a bulky weight lifter—popped up on the back of the wall, reached down, and gently lifted Cameron’s leg up and over.
Cameron got his balance, looked out over the crowd, and hesitantly lifted a hand to wave.
Now for most kids, getting down is easy; but Cameron couldn’t jump off the platform to the ground without injury. No worries! His friends had already figured it out. Four strong arms waited to cradle Cameron from the wall to the ground. He let go, they held on, and then he was down, smiling at the cheers and congratulations from his youth group.
Cameron punched his fist into the palm of his hand and said, “I did it!”
And he did. He really did.
First Baptist Church of Asheville Youth Group, Fort Caswell 2014
. . . like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood . . . from 1 Peter 2:5
“How would it be if I proposed tomorrow night?”
The question of how and when to propose was one my son, Baker, and I had discussed a number of times over the previous three months. The logistics were the problem. While Baker and his girlfriend, Addison, are from the same hometown, they go to universities in two different cities. Also, Baker wanted his sisters home for the proposal, but one works full-time and lives in DC and the other is away at college. Plus, Baker needed to talk with Addison’s parents; but he rarely comes home and never without Addison. Talking with them without her knowledge would be quite a feat.
At the time of his question—Thursday night around 10 pm—Baker and Addison had been home for only about five or six hours. Neither of his sisters were in town and he still hadn’t talked to Addison’s parents.
Baker did already have the ring*, though; in fact, he’d had it pretty much since Summer 2015. Back then, my mother had offered him her mother’s diamond ring. She told Baker just to let her know when he was ready to propose and the ring would be his to redesign in whatever way he chose. So, Christmas 2016, he asked her for the ring; the two of us went to Jewels that Dance in January.
“Addison had specific ideas about what she wanted in an engagement ring,” Baker told us the next night after the deed had been done.
“We made it a game!” Addison explained. “I would show him a ring and tell him what I liked about it. Then I would ask him to guess what I didn’t like about that particular ring. It was really fun!”
“We played it a lot.”
“Because it was fun!”
“It was more fun for her than for me.”
So, using the diamonds from my grandmother’s ring, Baker (in collaboration with the jeweler) designed the ring with the round cut solitaire in the center and six of the diamond accents on the band. Between the accent diamonds, he had the jeweler fashion a palm branch.
“I’d seen people put symbols on their rings that represent their relationship,” Baker explained to the group gathered in our family room post-proposal. “And of course I could have put a music symbol because that is certainly something that is characteristic of our relationship.”
They’d met in the high school marching band. Addison became drum major her senior year, and Baker earned the role the next year when he was in 12th grade. Baker went on to major in music and Addison continues to participate in the music programs at her university and church.
“But really, I wanted something that represented our faith, because as important as music is to us, our faith is certainly more central to who we are as individuals and as a couple,” Baker explained. “The palm branch was an early Christian symbol. That’s why you’ll see it as an architectural motif at First Baptist of Asheville.”
Baker and Addison are both members and active participants of FBCA. Last summer, they were interns there—Addison with the children’s programs and Baker with the music ministry. The church has had a major impact on their lives and their relationship. The palm branch represents both their faith and their home church: a perfect addition!
But back to that Thursday night. Baker got busy making calls and forming a plan. Fortunately, everything worked in his favor. Addison slept late Friday morning—something she rarely does. Her parents’ schedules were flexible enough that he was able to talk with them before she awakened. We already had plans to go out to eat—the two of them and both sets of parents—to celebrate Baker’s 21st birthday (a week late). From that, he pulled together as many of their traditions as he could fit in one day.
You should know that they started dating when he was 15 going on 16 and she was 16 going on 17. (They are now 21 and almost 22.) On their first date, they went to Brixx; for their first Valentine’s Day, Baker gave her a bear (dressed—naturally—in a baker’s outfit) from Build-a-Bear. Every year on their anniversary, they go to Brixx; to date, Addison has six Valentine’s Day Build-a-Bears. And not so much tradition as habit—they often have reason to stop by First Baptist.
Hold up. Let’s just pause for a minute and picture 15-year-old Baker going into Build-a-Bear, choosing a teddy bear, going through the whole process of stuffing it, then picking out an outfit for it and dressing it. If that weren’t enough, then he had to walk back through the mall carrying the signature Build-a-Bear box. Yep. He did that.
Anyway, after talking with Addison’s parents Friday morning, Baker went over to Build-a-Bear. He left with an adorable bear—filled to just the right level of fluffiness (he’s an expert by now)—dressed in a bridal gown, complete with veil and sparkly shoes. My job was to order desert pizza from Brixx to have at home for the post-proposal celebration. (We were optimistic about a positive result!) Baker then called FBCA to make sure he could access their Sacred Garden that evening. A dear friend served as Baker’s accomplice; while we were at dinner, she would go to the Sacred Garden to set everything in place. The night before, Baker had contacted several close friends and his younger sister. They would be at our house by 10 pm to celebrate with the newly engaged couple. (Shout out to the world’s best millennials for making the four-hour drive with less than 24 hours’ notice!)
When we finished dinner, we parents said we would wait for the bill, asking Baker if he and Addison would go on home to let our dog out. He agreed, but just needed to run by the church and “pick up organ music he had left there” (wink, wink). Once there, rather than go in where they usually did, Baker suggested they just cut through the Sacred Garden and enter through the door on the other side.
“What’s that?” Addison asked when she saw something unusual set up in the Garden.
“I don’t know. Let’s go check.”
“It looks like a shrine to a teddy bear!” (The wind had blown Teddy’s veil up, giving it a shadowy and slightly eerie appearance. Not exactly the effect Baker had in mind!)
They approached, Baker went down on one knee, Addison squealed (repeatedly), Baker proposed, and Addison said yes.
“So,” I asked her as I looked at the ring sparkling on her left hand. “How did Baker do?”
“It’s prettier than anything I could have imagined!” she said.
“Yes!” Baker said, clinching his fist in victory.
(Wedding date yet to be determined, but it will be sometime after Addison gets her next Valentine’s Day bear.)
*Want to know the beautiful back story on the ring? Click here for the rest of the story!
Complaining about snow days. It’s what we do here in Western North Carolina
The problem? The weather here is anything but homogenous. Seriously. A friend who lives less than five miles from me can get six inches of ice and snow when I get not one flake. The southern part of the county might get a foot of snow while the northern districts get only a few inches. At my house, I can have just a dusting, then hear from a friend in the western part of the county who is looking at a two-inch sheet of ice on her street. It’s crazy.
Not only are the conditions markedly different from district to district, we have roads that coil around the mountains and are tricky when it’s 70 degrees and sunny. And that’s in my Honda. Can’t imagine what it’s like on those roads in a school bus. (Nor do I ever, ever, ever want to find out.)
All this creates a situation uncommon in counties where the roads are straight and every resident gets equal precipitation. I call it the Snowless Snow Day.
Here in Western North Carolina, we have all at some time experienced the Snowless Snow Day. Consequently, we start talking about whether or not schools will close as soon as we see flakes in the forecast. We are not at all deterred by the fact that it does not matter what we think. Indeed, no one cares if we want or need a snow day. The principal of our school doesn’t care. The superintendent doesn’t care. The weather channel certainly doesn’t care.
Truly, the question, “Do you think we should have a snow day,” is about as relevant as “Do you think penguins prefer salmon or flounder?” The answer to either question has no impact on upcoming events. (Unless, of course, you are a salmon. Or a flounder. Or a chef for penguins with discriminating tastes.)
Me, I’d rather schools be closed when there is a chance they could have operated without incident, than to be open when safety is questionable. I think about the teacher driving a mini-van risking a wreck trying to get out of his icy neighborhood; the school bus driver traveling those icy corkscrew roads; and the teen driver who hasn't had nearly enough experience driving in ice and snow.
But I do know that it is not that simple for some folks. As I see it, these people fall into two groups.
Obviously, even if you do have a valid reason for your frustration with the status of school closing, it won’t change the decision. But at least you have legitimate cause to be upset. The rest of us are merely inconvenienced know-it-alls who have suddenly become experts on road conditions across the county.
Snow days are wonderful or hideous, depending on your circumstances or maybe your perspective. But one thing I know for certain is that all the fussing in the world (even if it’s on Facebook) won’t change a thing. So I’m going to try to spend the mental energy I would have wasted on school closings on something more important. Like, what kind of fish do penguins eat?
In my life as student and as parent, I’ve been blessed to know a number of outstanding public school principals. Among this elite group, is Oakley Elementary School’s former principal Linda Allison. What I loved most about Linda Allison was that she never put process ahead of pupil. Her compassion for students was matched only by her commitment to their success. Seriously, Ms. Allison should train new principals. She is that good.
When I learned that she was retiring (after I dried my tears), I wrote a story in her honor and later read it at her final faculty meeting. That was about 9-10 years ago. This year, my oldest will graduate from college and my youngest from high school. Their brother is finishing his sophomore year of college. But despite the passage of years, I remain so grateful to Ms. Allison for her leadership, dedication, and just her natural intuition as an educator.
So for this thank you note, I offer the story I wrote for Ms. Allison—the Little Red Hen of Oakley Elementary School. Thank you Linda Allison for setting the bar so high. I count you as one of the great blessings of my life. And so do my little chicks.
Once upon a time there was a little red hen who lived on a teaching farm that existed solely to train young farmers. The chickens on the farm, all one big family, got together and chose the little red hen as the principal of the farm. The little red hen was honored. She found great joy in sharing her life and work with her many brothers and sisters. Together they kept the farm running smoothly.
Unfortunately, the little red hen also had to work with three other animals who thought they owned the whole farm: a turtle named Wright Procedure who moved very slowly; a parrot named Polly Tisshun, who maintained a spotless image, talked a lot, but did very little, and an elephant named Feddy Govment who thought he knew everything, even though he didn’t even live on the same farm as the little red hen.
One day, the little red hen came upon a child and his parents.
“We want our child to have the best education, the best learning environment, and the best playmates the world can offer,” the parents instructed as they hugged the child and got back in their car, “We can’t stand around talking about it though, we have jobs, you know!” The parents drove away, leaving the child with the little red hen.
“Oh my, aren’t you a fine young fellow!” clucked the little red hen as she pulled the tyke under her wing. “Welcome to our farm!”
About that time a few of her brothers and sisters came down the path and she introduced them to the child. “Let’s get busy and teach this child how to feed the animals!” She smiled at the spark in the child’s eyes and in the eyes of the teachers.
But before the other chickens could even respond, Wright Procedure, the turtle who moved very slowly, poked his head out of his shell and said, “Stop everything! Don’t do anything until we get these forms filled out. We’ll need permission from the parents and clearance from the pediatrician. Plus, we’ll need a waiver signed by each of the animals the child will be feeding. Also. . .”
While Wright the turtle droned on, several of the little red hen’s sisters took the child down to the barn and started the lessons. The little red hen, back in the farm office, filled out the necessary paperwork. She called the pediatrician who put her on hold: “Important, urgent issues demand the doctor’s attention!” Once the little red hen had completed the child’s file she went to check on the child’s progress.
“WOW!” she said to her siblings “You have done a great job teaching the child how to feed the animals. I believe we can promote the child to animal grooming.”
“Well, I certainly agree,” cooed Polly Tisshun, the talkative parrot with the spotless image. She smiled to the camera operator who had come along with her. Wouldn’t you agree, Little Red Hen that my program Accelerated Feeders has, well, haha, accelerated this child’s progress?” The camera clicked more pictures as Polly fluttered over and perched herself on the child’s shoulder.
“Well, Polly, I’d be happy to talk to you about that,” said the little red hen, as she motioned Polly off of the child and toward her office. The other chickens stepped in and hurried the child onto the next lesson.
But before the little red hen could leave with Polly, Feddy Govment the elephant who thought he knew everything, lumbered down to the barn. “Has the child mastered animal bathing yet?” he asked, his ears flopping.
“Well, no,” said the little red hen, about to explain that the other chickens were just beginning that phase of the training.
“What’s wrong with those teachers?” Feddy stomped his feet upsetting the animals and causing the teachers to cease training long enough to settle the animals. The child observed, learning, in the process, how to calm animals in the event of a disturbance.
“And anyway,” Feddy shouted, “Look at that kid! He’s not DOING anything! And the teachers are just running around like chick. . .well, like chickens do sometimes.” Feddy looked around, waving his trunk from side to side and looking everywhere except at the little red hen.
The little red hen started to explain. “The child has made remarkable prog. . .”
“Then give him the Animal Grooming Test!” thundered Feddy.
“I have one right here,” said Wright Procedure, the turtle who though he moved very slowly, always managed to find his way into the middle of any activity.
The child did not pass the test and so he had to take the actual course material. The teachers received official reprimands for their negligence and the farm was placed on probation until the child passed the test.
In the midst of the crisis, the little red hen was called away to meet with Wright Procedure the turtle, Polly Tisshun the Parrot, and Feddy Govment the elephant. A committee was formed to study effective teaching of animal grooming and the three friends recommended strategies for school reform that might, in time, bring the farm up to par. Their first recommendation: they would visit the barn immediately following the meeting. As the meeting ended, the little red hen’s cell phone rang.
“The child’s parents are here,” said the chicken on the line. We need you back here at once.”
The little red hen arrived at the barn before Wright, Polly, and Feddy did. (They had, as it turns out, been left behind.) The parents appeared worried, tired, and confused. They had seen the news and gotten the test results for the school.
“Welcome,” The little red hen said to the mom and dad, genuinely happy they'd come. She listened to their concerns, made notes for herself, and responded to their comments. They left, after a quick tour of the barn, saying they felt much better.
Time passed and in what seemed like a moment, the child had completed the requirements for Elementary Barn and it was time for him to move on. The little red hen, gathered friends and family and asked, “Who will help me celebrate this child?”
“I will!” said Wright Procedure, sticking his head out of his shell. He began designing a flow chart so that he could celebrate properly.
“I will!” said Polly Tisshun, wearing her red plume that she saved just for such occasions. “My camera crew is all set up to capture the moment.”
“I will!” said Feddy as he galumphed through the door and tried to take over the room.
“OH NO YOU WILL NOT!” Said the little red hen fluffing herself up to her full height and glaring at Wright, Polly, and Feddy. The little red hen extended her wing and gestured at the teachers who stood between the child and the three intruders.
"We will celebrate this child. We prepared this child. We taught this child We love this child. My brothers and sisters and I will celebrate this child.”
And they did. While Wright Procedure, Polly Tisshun, and Feddy Government looked on, completely befuddled.
In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday on 7-22-2015, I’m writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. This one to Ms. Linda Allison is #15. Please click on the tag "50 Thank You Notes" to read the others.
See, whether we like it or not, we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Failure underscores the lesson, highlighting it for future reference. It points to areas of growth and opportunities for improvement. Success feels good in the moment, but failure can benefit a person for a lifetime.
Still, the mother in me—and the aunt for that matter—hates to see children I love experience the pain of disappointment. I’ve seen it plenty of times though. Here are just three of examples.
In each case, though, my children learned more from these failures than they ever would have from succeeding in the same situation. My oldest learned that careful research is actually its own reward, no matter what an impartial judge may say. My son has developed persistence that is unrivaled; loss never diminishes his resolve. My youngest, still spunky and opinionated, discovered that true conviction is more important than academic assessment.
None of those valuable life lessons could have been acquired through success. It took failure to teach them the hard lessons.
Knowing this does not mean I want my kids to fail. I don’t. I never celebrate when my beloveds fall short of their objectives. (Frankly, if I had my way, my kids would never even have a bad hair day, let alone a true heartbreak.) When things don’t go their way, I grieve with them and share their disappointment.
But over time, as tears dry up and emotions settle, I do my best to uncover the blessing in the setback. And it’s always there. Always.
That night 18 years or so ago, I had just about reached the end of my proverbial rope.
Our children were nearly 4, 2, and 3 months when my husband got a job in a town 4 hours away. He began working there during the week and coming home on the weekends; the kids and I stayed local, trying to sell our house so we could all move to our new city together. Weekdays, I was basically a single parent with three children under four, a part time job, and house that needed to be tidy and ready to show potential buyers at a moment’s notice.
That was hard enough but the 2-year-old, Baker, was chronically sick. He'd been diagnosed with asthma when he was 15 months old and often had week-long bouts of wheezing during which he had multiple breathing treatments every day. Many times, I would be nursing my infant (Margaret), with Baker cuddled up right beside me, holding the nebulizer mask to his face.
One of the most difficult issues I faced with my asthmatic son was that he didn't like to take oral medication. And when I say he didn’t like it, I don’t mean he was mildly disinclined. I mean he would run screaming and crying through the house as if I’d just threatened to remove his tongue. No kidding: there was no oral medication he would abide. Those bubblegum flavored pain relievers that kids beg to take because they are so sweet? No deal. Delsym? The delicious cough syrup that tastes like a gourmet orange sauce you'd add to a fancy desert? He spat it out like poison.
So that night, Baker was in the midst of an asthma crisis for which the pediatrician (who we’d seen earlier that day) prescribed oral steroids. At the time—I hear it’s better now—liquid prednisone tasted about how I suspect motor oil would taste if you added a touch of raspberry flavoring. Getting prednisone in that child required the kind of good cop/bad cop pairing that police officers might use to soften the most unrepentant offenders.
Already (yuck alert!) my boy had been throwing up mucus, massive amounts too. It was vile. I explained to Baker that either he had to take the medicine or we’d have to go to the hospital. (I wasn’t exaggerating.) Much to my surprise and relief, he summoned the intestinal fortitude and swallowed the dose.
Victory! A fleeting one.
A few minutes later, while I carried baby Margaret in her sling as I held Baker, perched on my hip, my boy lost the dose, throwing up at least as much as he had earlier, only this time it was tinged an undeniable raspberry color. He’d aimed for the floor, and mostly made it, except for the 1/4 cup or so that landed in my hair and down my back.
Naturally, his wheezing spiked immediately, as did Margaret’s discomfort and therefore her screaming.
Before I even realized it, Trellace, always the helpful child, went to get something to help clean up the mess. Oh look! There’s a refill jug of soft soap! Let’s use that! You guessed it: while trying to get some soap on a cloth to clean up the mess, my four-year-old spilled the ENTIRE jug of soft soap.
(Pause. Have you ever tried to clean up soap? What do you use? Soap is out. And you can’t use water ‘cause that just makes it worse. A trowel maybe? I’m asking, you see, because I don’t know the answer.)
Somehow, in the midst of that disaster of an evening, I found myself on the phone asking for help. I don’t remember now if the phone rang in a Holy Spirit kind of way or if—perhaps even more miraculously—I found the strength to reach out. I couldn’t tell you.
I just know this. When I asked Becky Garrett for help, she came. I think maybe her teen-aged daughter was with her; I’m not sure. But when she left, my hair and my clothes were vomit free, Trellace was in her pj’s, Baker’s breathing sounded less like whistling (thanks to a successful second attempt with the medication), and Margaret was content. Not a trace of soap remained on my floor, my dishes were clean, and my laundry was folded. The cacophony had quieted; harmony was restored.
That’s Becky. She’s the kind of person who brings peace with her. I think chaos just shuts down when she appears. I don’t know how she does it. No idea. But I know that when I was holding on—barely—to the frayed ends of my rope, Becky arrived, gently took the rope from my hands, and gave me a net instead. She looked just like Jesus.
In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday on 7-22-2015, I’m writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks. This is number 14. Click on the tag "50 Thank You Notes" to read the others.
I've seen lots of memes lately that say something like, "I just love meetings that last twice as long as they should, says no one ever." So here you go: my very own "Says No One Ever," statements.
That's what I've never heard. What about you? What can you add to this list?
"Be who you needed when you were younger." This meme, trending in social media, offers a great reminder to those of us who may have forgotten the struggles of our younger years; it's also a great suggestion for how to minister across generations.
In the community and in church, I hear so many negative comments about kids, teens, and young adults. "They require technology to have fun!" "They won't commit." "They lack direction." But really, we've all been there haven't we?
When I was in elementary school in the seventies, a certain doll was all the rage. My sister and I each got one for Christmas: she got Crissy, the brunette, and I got Velvet, the blonde. Crissy and Velvet had these magic belly buttons that you pushed to grow their hair; to make it short again, you turned a knob on their backs. With this new-fangled 20th century technology, and their fashionable outfits, they were magnificent! Today the latest technology is certainly advanced from Crissy and Velvet--and even Teddy Ruxpin--for that matter, but kids are very much the same. They are attracted to the newest (and most effectively marketed) toys, just like you and I were.
What I needed as a child was someone who was interested in the things that thrilled me; someone who took the time to get to know and understand me. (Oh how I loved explaining Velvet's fancy features to befuddled adults!) Today's children need that too. Sure, their toys baffle us, but so what? The more confused we are, the more delighted the kids will be to enlighten us.
As a teenager, I was often flummoxed by relationships, high school struggles, and post-graduation options. By grace, loving adults invested in my life. They asked questions, listened to my answers, and sometimes offered advice. Teens from this decade--just like teens from every other time--may not realize how much they long for your company. But think back. You remember how you felt when an adult (other than your profoundly stupid parents) took an interest in you, right? Today's kids need to be valued and appreciated just as much as you did.
Then there's our college and young adult years, heaven help us. Are you proud of every choice you made during your twenties? Yeah, me neither. The good news is our college choices weren't tweeted out to the world as a permanent digital record of adolescent angst. The better news is it's really quite easy to find out what today's young people are doing. Not too long ago, I was talking to a teenage friend and mentioned some picture I'd seen of him. He was shocked and accused me, hands on hips, "You've been stalking me, haven't you?" Equally surprised that he hadn't realized how accessible his antics were, I responded, "Umm, yeah. Daily." Then I talked to him about choices, direction, plans for the future. I needed that kind of intervention when I was his age; I needed real adult guidance. By that time, my parents had grown out of most of the pathetic dorkiness they'd suffered from during my teens, but I still needed other mentors. Young adults today do too.
And when it comes to the church, to ministry, "Be the person you needed when you were younger," has even greater import. Think back. Did you need someone to give you a "Get out of Hell free card," or did you need someone to tell you about the depth of God's love? Did you need people to give you all the answers, or did you really just need a safe place to ask the questions? Did you only need friends your age who were struggling with the same issues of faith as you? Or did you value the companionship of those whose faith had sustained them through a lifetime of trials?
If we are the Body of Christ, it really isn't enough for campus ministers, youth directors, and children's Sunday school leaders to reach out to specific age groups. It's not enough because to be the Body, we need the tendons of relationship to connect young muscle to wise bones. Thus strengthened, the Body of Christ becomes better equipped to build the Kingdom of God. And that . . . that is church.
*This piece was first published on October 19, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
OK, wait. Hear me: I know that we have been blessed to raise our children in a church with sound biblical teaching, qualified adult volunteers and a variety of interesting programs. I truly do understand that sometimes godly community eludes even the most faithful seeker. So, if you are in that agonizing place of longing, please know I get it. I’ve been there and I know it is a dark, dark space. My prayers are with you as you search for a church family.
I’m really talking more to folks who are currently connected to a congregation of believers, to those of us who regularly make choices about whether or not to attend the church we’ve chosen to call our own.
Back in the ’70s when I was a child, I went to church a lot. This was not, I confess, out of a burning desire to draw near to my Heavenly Father. No, I went to church mainly because my earthly father was my pastor, and also because church was my social activity center. Not much happened in the small towns of my childhood beyond the doors of the church. In 2015, things are different. Kids have more options today and church is just one of many places where children can spend their after-school hours.
There is one option though, that rises above all others: sports. Think about it. Let’s say you are a teen with three conflicting obligations on a given Wednesday night. You have a volleyball game; you have to study for an English test; and you have church. Which one are you going to do? There’s no discussion is there? You have to go to the game; your team depends on you! You'll study when you get home — even if you have to stay up late.
Athletic responsibilities also trump family obligations. If you are playing in a tournament the same day as a family reunion, you’ll most likely forgo your Aunt Nell’s homemade macaroni and cheese and suit up for your game. The family will forgive you, but you can’t let down the team!
Athletics. It’s where many of today’s Americans put their time, their money, and their unwavering focus. And I’m not sure why that’s the case. Most of us aren’t thinking our child is going to be the next Mia Hamm or Serena Williams. We might hope they’ll play in high school, maybe get a scholarship to college. But that’s rarely the case. In fact, many student athletes quit long before the recruiters scout them out because … well, because they’ve been playing that sport for a decade and a half!
Maybe it’s all the benefits of sports. Teamwork, sportsmanship, persistence, endurance, integrity: all these things are modeled and formed in athletic settings. Plus, friendships are formed across socioeconomic and ethnic boundaries. All that, and kids get valuable physical exercise too. So what’s my beef? It's this: in this country, too many people make sports — more specifically their children’s sports — their top priority.
When I’ve inquired about kids who missed Bible study, the excuse, “She has a soccer game,” is offered as if there’s no escaping it. The tone could just as easily be applied to the statement, “She’s incarcerated at a maximum security facility in Outer Mongolia.” My response is expected to be something like, “Oh! A soccer game. I didn’t realize! Well, of course she can’t be here.”
Listen, I’m the first to admit that church is not perfect. There will be times you or your kids are bored at church, times you don’t think your family has gotten anything out of the experience, and times one or all of you may leave with hurt feelings. Still, church offers something that is difficult to find elsewhere. It offers connection to the Body of Christ: to the saints who’ve gone before you, those who worship with you now, and those who will come after you.
See, I just wonder sometimes if America has the whole thing upside down. What if for the last 30 years or so, we’ve been prioritizing in the exact opposite order of importance? What if we should be viewing spiritual formation as primary, then family obligations, then academics, and finally athletics? What would that be like in our culture today?
Well, at the very least, we’d have to learn to say things like, “I’m sorry, he can’t play games scheduled for Wednesdays because he has children’s choir at church that night.” Or, “Oh, I wish she could go to that swim meet, but on Sunday mornings, we are with our church family.” And even, “No, my kids won’t be at basketball camp. They have Vacation Bible School that week.” It wouldn’t be easy. But if we are talking about lifelong well-being, what is more important than spiritual formation? What will sustain our children into the adult years, as parents, employees, spouses?
I know one thing. It’s not Little League.
*This piece was first published on September 21, by Baptist News Global. I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
Parenting. It takes some energy. Here's a story from March 2008 when my son Baker was almost 12 that recalls a time when I expended a good bit of energy, but got even more in return.
My 6th grade son can be very high maintenance. Like this one Wednesday night. Baker had make-up work from being absent one day the previous week, plus it was church night (three hours—gone.) In addition, my husband had been on a business trip and when Daddy is out of town, Baker is out of sorts. Suffice to say that on that night, Baker was putting us through the emotional wringer.
So there we sat at the kitchen table at 9:30 trying to finish his science homework project which included a drawing and a report—both of which he had been working on already but just couldn't get them finished. I sat here with him for a full hour and a half—he went to bed at 11:00—until he got it done.
“Try starting the sentence with this, Baker. . .”
“The colors look great in your picture—you think you should go over that title with a black pen though?”
“Move on to the next paragraph now. . .”
On and on it went. I was trying to get some work done in between answering his questions, but it seemed that if I took my mind off his task for one moment, he was overwhelmed or distracted. It was painful. I was tired. I had things to do.
Finally the child finished and went to bed, but not before issuing orders: “ Don't forget to lock the doors, mom. Check the garage door. Make sure you turn on the alarm system. .. .” Help me. Go to bed for the sake of your mother if not for yourself.
I went downstairs to lock up, went back by his room to assure him it was done, kissed him goodnight and walked out.
Heavens what now? Deep breath. Patience restored.
“I just wanted to thank you so much for sitting at the table with me and helping me get my work done. You know, it’s sad, but some kids don't have a mother who would do that just for some little science report for their son. Thanks a lot.”