Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Toddler's Christmas Experience

This year my family has the joy of celebrating our favorite time of the year with a two year old who is learning rapidly and growing in her ability to communicate, express emotions, and experience the world each day. I have often wondered about what a 2-year old gets out of Christmas, and how I as a dad can shape her heart from this year onward to see the beauty and wonder of Christmas as only a follower of Jesus can. Here are some quick pointers for celebrating and experiencing Christmas with toddlers and young children without being weird and while still enjoying the most fun parts of the season.

1. Be Together - if nothing else gets accomplished, help your toddler understand that Christmas is a time where people enjoy each other, as expressed through our love, generosity, and care for family, friends, and those less fortunate in our community. You shouldn't expect a toddler to grasp the immaculate conception of Jesus - but you should expect them to pick up on how mom and dad are more focused on loving others, giving to appropriate causes, and serving people than any other time of year. Attend special worship services together, go caroling together, and serve together (the best you can with a toddler, anyway) so that they understand the impact of the Christmas season on others. This helps shape their heart to be a little less selfish and a little more concerned with the well-being of others (I don't know about yours, but my 2-year old can be a little selfish at times...).

2. Centralize Jesus - if we really believe Jesus is the Reason for the Season, then how we behave, decorate, party, and give should all be proof of that belief. So are Santa Claus, Elf on the Shelf, and holiday movies okay to have around? In a word, yes. But when my toddler associates Christmas more with a commercial holiday, or more with gifts, Santa, or other fun traditions, then it will only be harder for me as she grows up to focus her attention on Jesus. We must begin early with this for it to stick. Think about how you have decorated your home: is Jesus what they see more than those other things? Think about the community events you participate in: is Jesus the focus? Leverage all of the opportunities of this season to point your toddler toward Jesus. And by the way, it's bigger than a baby in a manger - the fullness of the love and grace of God was in that baby, and we celebrate his birth, life, and sacrifice for us on the cross at Christmas.

3. Have lots and lots of fun! The brain of a 2-5 year old absorbs an insane amount of information and forms more rapidly than any other time of life! Make sure it is full of memories that bring joy and laughter. Every toddler is a little different here, but mine has more fun being with other people than anything else. While I want her to enjoy her gifts and new toys, above all of that I want her to simply enjoy every part of the Christmas season. I want my daughter as she grows up to anticipate Christmas because it makes her so full of joy, not just because she gets new stuff.

Our children grow up too fast to miss these simple reminders of how to leverage Christmas to help their hearts be shaped a little more like Jesus! I hope each of you has a wonder-full, Christ-full season full of laughter, joy, and fun with your little ones.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Recommendation to the People of the United States

As we approach a heated election season, I happened to come across a letter that James Buchanan dispersed to the America people in December 1860 just before the end of his presidency. I feel in so many ways that the church should be shouting the same call to our people today. Our fears and issues are different, but attitudes and the political climate are strikingly similar! Here is what he said.


Numerous appeals have been made to me by pious and patriotic associations and citizens, in view of the present distracted and dangerous condition of our country, to recommend that a day be set apart for humiliation, fasting and prayer throughout the Union. In compliance with their request, and my own sense of duty, I designate

Friday, the 4TH day of January, 1861,

for this purpose, and recommend that the people assemble on that day, according to their several forms of worship, to keep it as a solemn fast.

The Union of the States is at the present moment threatened with alarming and immediate danger — panic and distress of a fearful character prevail throughout the land — our laboring population are without employment, and consequently deprived of the means of earning their bread — indeed, hope seems to have deserted the minds of men. All classes are in a state of confusion and dismay; and the wisest counsels of our best and purest men are wholly disregarded.

In this, the hour of our calamity and peril, to whom shall we resort for relief but to the God of our Fathers? His omnipotent arm only can save us from the awful effects of our own crimes and follies — our own ingratitude and guilt towards our Heavenly Father.

Let us, then, with deep contrition and penitent sorrow, unite in humbling ourselves before the Most High, in confessing our individual and national sins, and in acknowledging the justice of our punishment. Let us implore Him to remove from our hearts that false pride of opinion which would impel us to persevere in wrong for the sake of consistency, rather than yield a just submission to the unforeseen exigencies by which we are now surrounded. Let us, with deep reverence, beseech Him to restore the friendship and good will which prevailed in former days among the people of the several States, and, above all, to save us from the horrors of civil war and “blood guiltiness.” Let our fervent prayers ascend to His throne, that He would not desert us in this hour of extreme peril, but remember us as He did our fathers in the darkest days of the Revolution, and preserve our constitution and our Union--the work of their hands — for ages yet to come. An Omnipotent Providence may overrule existing evils for permanent good. He can make the wrath of man to praise Him, and the remainder of wrath He can restrain. Let me invoke every individual, in whatever sphere of life he may be placed, to feel a personal responsibility to God and his country for keeping this day holy, and for contributing all in his power to remove our actual and impending difficulties.
 

James Buchanan.

Washington, Dec. 14, 1860.



Frank Moore, ed., Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Documents and Narratives, vol. 1, Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, n.d.), 17.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Loving the Awkward Tweens

When you have an infant in the home, everything is so cute and cuddly, and when the baby smiles or laughs we freak out in excitement. Pictures are posted everywhere online and grandparents melt every time they see their grand-baby. But then the kids start to grow up, and they reach the awkward, pubescent, changing battleground of life, and things aren't so cute anymore...well at least to them it's not. I absolutely love my 4th-6th grade kids at church, and since I began working in camps with that age, I have always loved their intelligence, their heart, and their courage to take on new things. But at the same time, I also understand their awkwardness due to their changing bodies and their entry into the vast ocean of social ambiguity that all of us adults waded through. Looking back it seems like nothing being that age, but I have to empathize with them, for I understand that when these guys are in it, it can be a whirlwind.

If you have a 9-13 year old or work with them at church, here is some simple advice on how to practically show them love through the awkward and weird stages they go through. Of course, boys and girls can be very different in this stage, but I'm sure that parents know their kids well enough to understand how to apply these principles. Research says that by age 12, kids have established their foundation about things such as God and faith, and their worldview has already been developed. Also, about half of all Christians will make their decision to follow Jesus before 13, and about 90% by the time they are 18. So obviously, these years are incredibly important in the spiritual, emotional, and mental development of children.

Girls
When girls begin to notice their appearance more, and begin comparing their body to other girls, this can be an emotional and frustrating time; even when it seems trivial to adults, it's not to them.

-When she wears her favorite outfit, tell her how beautiful she looks
-When she likes the way she looks, notice it! Then use that as an opportunity to encourage her
-Don't say "you'll get through this" or "this is just a phase" or "you can barely see that HUGE PIMPLE:" it may be true, but it's everything to them. Use those opportunities to reinforce God's role in creating her and giving her a purpose. Focus on what she likes about herself instead of excusing what she doesn't like.
-Begin offering social accountability: friends are important, so make sure she gets to go to more social events such as sleepovers, or allow them set times to be on social media. Avoid thinking that church and school is enough social time for girls this age.
-Have intentional conversations with her; she may have awkward or personal questions, so be open to hear her concerns and allow her to bond with you over these things. Showing that you're willing to listen makes her feel respected and grown-up.
Boys
Boys do care about their appearance, but fitting in and finding a place to be cool and respected is often a motivator behind tween boys' behaviors.
-Use words like "handsome," or "stylish" instead of "cute" or "nice" when commenting on their appearance.
-Tween boys have deep emotional feelings, but they are learning how to hide them or keep them from mom and dad. Make sure you have intentional conversations and  pick up on subtle cues. Boys tend to express themselves with body language or actions instead of words.
-Emotionally unbalanced parents rub off on their kids; if a child is exhibiting rage or is extremely distant, there may be deeper issues that need to be worked out. Don't write off outbursts as just being a growing boy.
-Boys have an innate desire to be respected and honored: make sure that when they are awarded or succeed in school or sports, you make a big deal out of it. Show them love by the way you respond to good behavior and accomplishments. However, this is also why boys this age can be aggressive and arrogant. When the need for respect is stifled, they will act out to obtain it.
-Friends are important: just because a boy likes to play video games alone doesn't mean he really wants to: invite friends over and allow them to participate in sleepovers or camp-outs so they can feel connected to friends.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Making the Most of Holiday Table Talk

Thanksgiving and Christmas are busy, exciting, and sometimes overwhelming times of the year for parents and kids alike, but I want to provide a few simple, practical ideas to make the most of the time we have, especially when we are preparing food, eating, and sitting around the table for our big meals.

1. Prepare your kids ahead of time - communicate expectations for how you would like your kids to be involved with the process (setting table, help bake, etc.) Explain who is coming over or what the day's schedule will be like.

2. Be present - explain the value of staying with the family and enjoying face-to-face time with holiday guests. Some kids (I was one of them) would prefer to eat and run off to their rooms, but it's important to explain the value of spending quality time with company and family during these occasions. Create an agreement for cell phones and tablets usage beforehand so children know what is expected of them and try to keep children engaged in conversation by including them.

3. Invite kids to play a role - offer kids a choice with how they can help with things like cooking, cleaning, etc. Create a teaching tradition by intentionally picking one item and allow them to help, such as setting the table, preparing the turkey, baking pies, carving the turkey, etc. These are skills parents can pass on as a legacy in their families.

4. Celebrate how God is working in each person's life - Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to talk openly about God and give Him the credit for specific blessings. This goes beyond the pre-meal prayer but sets an attitude of thankfulness for the whole day.

5. Practice kindness and grace - teens especially can be a target for relatives to drill with questions during holidays. Try and keep conversations focused on the positive things your kids have been doing; this is the perfect opportunity to publicly affirm children as well.

Fun Idea! Purchase a light-colored tablecloth and sharpies. Ask everyone to write something they are thankful for on the tablecloth, and then reuse the tablecloth each year and watch it fill with thanks and memories!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Our Volunteers Burn Out

One of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of ministry to work through is volunteer burnout, and it seems to keep happening even with the best efforts to prevent it. However, I believe there are some simple, and maybe some complicated reasons why our volunteers may stay committed for a while, but over time they fizzle down, get burned, and quit. Some even have to leave their current church altogether and start over somewhere new (and the cycle continues...).

1. They Serve People First, Not God
Most of the ministries of the church revolve around people serving other people in some capacity, whether it is teaching, children's ministries, youth, senior adults and many more, but ultimately we should be serving God and His purposes in the church and community through those functions. When we serve only other people, we tend to become focused on results, numbers, progress, and reputation. When we plan events, outreach, and new ministries and only a few people show, we get disappointed and regret signing up. Volunteers burn out because the glorious results they had hoped for didn't pan out. They wanted people to see them serving and get at least a little credit, but none was given. They put in the time to prepare and no one seemed to care, so they stop trying. All these have happened many times because volunteers (and staff for that matter) are focused on the people and not on serving God. Jesus tells a story in Luke 17:7-10 that fits well with this:

"Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Won't he rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"

At the end of the day, we are God's servants, and our reward comes from Him. Let's try and remember we serve God first, and through His strength we serve others.

2. They Are Spiritually Dry
Baptists (the people I know and love) are professional fakers when it comes to their spiritual condition. We can preach and teach it all day, but the reality is that relatively few in our congregations have a strong, personal relationship with Jesus. For whatever reason, personal Bible study, prayer, and reflection just don't happen during the week, so many come to church empty and expect God to do something amazing. He still has the power to do so, but the Spirit is ready to work when we are ready to receive Him, listen to Him, and respond to Him. Many volunteers fall into the trap of going through the motions and planning a lesson and being on time to serve, but throughout the week they have experienced little spiritual growth. God can certainly use a volunteer position to ignite spiritual growth, but often volunteers enter into a role unprepared and with an empty spiritual gas tank. When a volunteer coasts on fumes, they will eventually run out of energy. Many volunteers have to miss Bible studies or even worship services because of their roles, so it is even more important that they prioritize their relationship with Jesus at home before they step into a volunteer role at church. Just before the verses above, Jesus says the famous line, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'be uprooted and planted into the sea,' and it will obey you." (Luke 17:6) This issue is about priority - our relationship with God is first, and then out of that flows a joyful attitude and a willingness to serve others despite any other circumstances.

3. They Are Overworked and Under-Appreciated
The reality of most church situations is that about twenty percent of the people do about ninety percent of the work. Those statistics are sad, but true for many. The Sabbath concept is foreign to most Americans, and the idea that we need a time of rest to reflect on what God has done and what He will do in the future has abandoned most of us. Pastors and ministers often forget that our volunteers are unpaid workers, and most of them have busy schedules throughout the week with jobs, kids, and other activities. Having a week off, or a short break from a particular area of service allows volunteers to simply be a church member every once in a while so that they can refresh and reconnect with God and others. Incentives and bribes should not be necessary, but a simple thank you and a show of appreciation for their dedication is always welcomed by our workers. They know that they should not expect earthly rewards, but sometimes a little appreciation goes a long way to maintaining devoted, enthusiastic volunteers in ministry.

4. They Are Simply Unqualified for the Position
I hate to say it, but sometimes volunteers are not cut out for a certain role. They are not gifted, experienced, or skilled but still feel compelled to serve in some way. God bless their motivation, but as leaders we understand that qualified, effective leaders will be able to impact others. I am a firm believer in training and I also believe strongly that God will provide what is needed for a particular area of service. This is why we must offer training and consistently build up our volunteers so that even those who are more unqualified can find their place and serve as prepared and joyful volunteers. Practically, volunteers entering into a new area of service shouldn't be thrown in the fire at week one; give them a couple weeks to observe and watch how ministries and classes are done. They may even need more time than that. A little patience and guidance often can take a volunteer with little experience and transform them into the most motivated and excited volunteers a church has!

Finding great help is possible, and with a little planning, prayer, and preparation, leaders have the necessary tools to develop motivated volunteers who can experience God's grace and glory each week as they serve the church and serve others in Jesus' name.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Spiritual Gifts:" Where We've Gone Wrong

It is no coincidence that gifts from the Holy Spirit has been heavy in my thinking, because this is the time of year where churches look for new volunteers to fill all sorts of positions and roles needed for our churches to operate. I've also been reading, thinking, and meditating on what Scripture actually tells us about how Spiritual Gifts are supposed to function in the church. Not to my surprise, I feel the way these gifts are often treated poorly represents what the Bible teaches and what the Holy Spirit desires to accomplish through believers in the local church.

Peter said, "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms." (1 Peter 4:10, NIV). The focus and implication that I believe is often overlooked is grace: Peter is saying that because of the grace given to us, we have been gifted, or in other words, it's the grace inside of us that has equipped us to serve the church. Therefore, we have to immediately fight the tendency to rely on our own strengths, talents, and experience lest we miss out on what the Spirit is offering here. It's an incredible struggle for many churches to find excited, motivated volunteers to fill positions on committees and in children's and youth departments. You know why? The excuse we hear is, "I'm not good with little kids," or "I've never worked with students before," or the classic, "I'm not comfortable doing that..." (That one makes me want to cry sometimes...). From Peter's teaching in this one passage, we can derive several truths about how God has gifted members of the church to serve one another.

1. Gifts are a result of grace - spiritual gifts were not implanted in a believer at birth; sure, God will use talents and predisposed abilities in many useful ways, but that is not necessarily the same as spiritual gifts. It is the grace received in one's heart that blossoms into various acts of service ("various forms" in 1 Peter 4). Grace given to sinners may radically change ones predisposed abilities into whole new creations; for example, a young adult who was abused as a child may be afraid to work with children or teens, but through grace they are given a new perspective and can begin to rely on the Spirit as He uses their experiences to mold them into a servant of the church. God can take a stage-frightened, introverted boy and transform him into a teacher and bold preacher of the gospel. It's not about our talents and our skills - it's about His glorious grace!

2. Gifts are to be used to serve others - I know that some church members would rather die a painful death than stand in front of an audience and speak, but that's okay because God created gifts to serve others. Spiritual gifts are certainly not confined to the public roles in the church, but rather they are used all over, as long as they are for serving others. Peter rightly focuses on the fact that the Holy Spirit gifts believers to serve, not to be served or to look good or to show how awesome the gifts can be. They exist for service, so whenever a believer receives grace, they are immediately equipped by the Spirit to serve others. Peter goes on to say in 1 Peter 4 that if you speak, speak with authority; if you serve, serve with the strength only God can provide. You see, once again it's not about what I can do, what I'm good at, what I'm comfortable doing-it's about doing what God has asked, so that He is praised in the end. If our service brings us praise, even if it brings the church praise, we've failed. Peter makes it clear in 1 Peter 4:11 that our service should bring God all the praise! So whatever the Spirit gifts you to do, do it to serve others!

3. We are stewards of God's grace - like a tattoo placed on our foreheads, God's grace remains with his children. Wherever we go, we have the Spirit-given gift of grace which means that other people should see that in us. Also, as stewards, this grace is not ours to hold captive - it's from God and we should cherish such an incredible gift by using it properly and by allowing it to bless others. It's simple: when the grace in us impacts others, God is glorified. According to the Puritan Thomas Moore, "Grace is the seed, glory is the flower." When grace is manifested in incredible ways, God is glorified. This is why we must be looking for the Spirit to lead us in service instead of doing what we like or what's most comfortable. Think about it, when you are able to serve others and impact a person's life in a way you never thought possible, isn't that an incredible moment? Even in our moments of weakness and failure, God uses the grace within us to change lives and bring Himself the glory He alone deserves.

Here is what really excites me about the gifts the Spirit gives: they always have a purpose! What if I said that the Spirit could provide you with what you needed, when you needed it? What if you didn't need any kind of skill sets or natural talents before you responded to God's call? What if you are actually the worst teacher ever, and God wants you to teach? Is the grace inside of you not enough? The Bible is full of weak, unable people that God used to do incredible things (Moses, Gideon, David, Amos, Peter...and the list goes on) and bring Him glory that He may not have received had he called out the best and brightest to fulfill His purposes. We need to remember that the same grace and the same Spirit are given to all Christians. I know that each of us brings different skills and abilities to the table, and God can and will use them for His glory when we submit them to Him, but in the end God's story is about making the weak strong, about making the useless useful. That's a beautiful picture of how God is glorified through His children.

I would have laughed (and maybe puked) if you told me five years ago I would be a kid's pastor and have the opportunity to teach, preach, and serve full-time in a church. I know that the grace in me has changed me, and that the Spirit has equipped me to do things I otherwise would never be able (nor want) to do. Our thinking on this issue needs to be reworked, and I think many of us are too comfortable filling the same positions and working with the same people at church because it's comfortable. God hasn't called us to be comfortable, he's called us to serve others so that Jesus Christ is glorified and so the Father is praised. Let's do our best to be obedient to serve wherever we can, because we know that the Spirit will gift us and equip us for His purpose. So next time someone asks you to volunteer, think about how God can use you, and please, resist that natural urge to focus on "what I'm good at" or "what I'm comfortable doing." God is glorified when incapable people are made capable through His Spirit! I like what Melvin Blackaby says: "Do you sense that God wants to use your life, but you think you have nothing to offer Him? Don't merely look at what you have to offer the world; seek the heart of God and allow His Spirit to work through you." It's never been about what we have to offer, but it has always been about what God can do through broken, incapable, even downright boring people to bring about transformation in others. So let's be active in changing our thinking and begin serving in ways we never thought possible!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Those Who Mourn Will Be Blessed: Kids of Divorce and the Church's Response

I was struck when reading a recent article from Lifeway's Kid's Ministry, and I was reminded about the precious children I see who already have divorced parents or who are facing such a situation. In some ways it seems that divorce has become accepted to the point that the children are sometimes overlooked, but I believe that an incredible amount of pain, loneliness, and uncertainty fills the hearts of these kids. A child exists because of the union of his/her mother and father, so when that marriage dies, the very essence of that child's identity is broken: the child wonders if their existence even matters anymore, and if they will ever be able to cope with this disaster (on average it can take 10 years for a child to fully process a divorce). We all know these kids, see them playing ball, even coming to church regularly, so what should be our response as the church? How can we create hope, stability, and maturity in these children when their home life is divided, confusing, and unstable? When a child loses a parent to death, the church is usually there to offer support in many ways, but what about the child whose mother or father has left home? Maybe it's time that the church began ministering to its most vulnerable parts instead of turning away from the shame divorce brings.

If the church is unwilling to grab hold of this issue and seek to serve kids of divorced parents, then the statistics will continue which show us that high percentages of adults whose parents were divorced have left the church and have no desire to return. This tragedy can be reversed if the church is a little more patient, a little more loving, and a little more concerned about the spiritual life of children who have divorced parents. Let's make sure they are welcomed, that their hearts are nurtured by caring teachers, pastors, and friends, and that they know God's love and grace are just as available to them as any other child. Instead of regret, anger, or anxiety the church must give these kids hope, joy, and a growing relationship with their Heavenly Father. May we as God's ministers never be responsible for the downfall of "one of these little ones who believe in Me" as Jesus said.


Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child — this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one child like this in My name welcomes Me. “But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me — it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea! (Matthew 18:4-6, HCSB)