Parenting Inside Out – Clarify Your Focus

inside-out-core-diagram

Parenting is hard work. Even when we intend to do best, it is easy to slip into patterns that are less than productive and even unhealthy. Someone referenced the above diagram online, attributed to Dr. Meg Meeker from the Strong Parent Project, and I instantly knew I needed to evaluate the way I spend my time, energy, and focus as a parent.  I picked up a copy of one of Dr. Meeker’s books (which I found wonderful) and dug in.  One of the things I am working on is to shift the focus of my parenting away from false finish lines and toward the stuff that matters most.  Our culture often measures success in terms of external factors. We spend a lot of time as parents talking about grades, sports, clothes, and other things in the outer circle.  As a youth pastor, most of the concerned parents I talk to are worried about such things.  They don’t like their daughter’s boyfriend.  They are concerned about their son’s grades.  They want to know how to navigate the drama with their teenager’s social circle or how to help them succeed on the sport’s field.  Yet our kids would be better served and prepared for life when they leave our care if we shift our focus to their inner world. We need to shift our parenting from our child’s outer circle to their inner circle. Their outer circle consists of things like, school, sports, friends, and work. Their inner circle consists of your child’s morals, beliefs, character, and faith. These are what will last in your child’s life when school and friendships and sports have faded. And most importantly, when you’re not there to parent them anymore.

Here is a complication in this – behavior can be corrected in the moment, while character can only be cultivated over time.  You can hold a teen accountable for their behavior immediately (What would have been a better choice?).  Character changes slowly.  Character develops intentionally, but it does so in an almost invisible process.  We need to do the hard work of shaping our children internally: their virtue, their worldview, and their core beliefs.  I am talking here about fighting for their hearts and shaping them as people, not controlling their behavior. This means that TIME is the most important resource you have to manage as a parent. We are only given so much of it, and we cannot manufacture more of it. The psalmist was on to this when he wrote Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  In a song about the frailty of the human condition, we find this prayer.  This is such good advice for parents, regardless of where we are in the journey.  My own kids seem so young, and I often assume I have all the time in the world, but the truth is much more sobering.  If we blink, we might miss it. They just grow up. Time marches on without your permission. I do not have all the time in the world, so I must learn to spend the time that I have with my children wisely. The truth is that my kids and yours were on their way out the door the minute they were born.  God entrusted each of our children to us so that we can form their character, their hearts, and their attitudes. These things are ONLY cultivated over time.  So we don’t have any time to lose.

Sports are great.  School is important.  Still, when we focus on their internal world, the external concerns will take care of themselves.  When we focus solely on the external realities, the internal priorities are neglected and underdeveloped.  We will end up with young people who have had every opportunity yet have shallow and underdeveloped character. More than anything, this is about changing your mindset and your focus.  You still need to give teens boundaries; you still need to give them guidance.  You still want to provide them opportunities and hope they end up happy and successful, but your focus needs to be on their internal world.  Focus on the heart.  Shepherd the heart.  Shape the heart.  Win the heart.  This happens through attention, affection, and protection.

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Echo Parent Summit – Preparing for the college transition

This is from 2013, but I think its still good reading for parents preparing to send their teens off to college.

Echo Parent Forum

Echo recently sent its largest graduating class ever out for their first year of college.  I have had many conversations with parents and college freshmen this month, some of them have been encouraging and some of them have been concerning.  Echo reaches many parents with older teens, and for them the college transition is very close at hand.  Others have young teens, and maybe you have even believed the myth that the college transition is a distant dream.  Here is the cold, hard truth: your child started the journey out the door the day they were born.  They will all leave, that is the way of the world.  How they will leave, whether they stay gone, and whether they succeed has SO much to do with how we prepared them for this challenge.  Your son or daughter will leave your door and go face the world with only the…

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“Meh”ssiah? Is Jesus cool with your comfortable indifference?

Mehssiah-Title

Many people are casual fans of Jesus.  They aren’t comfortable with words like devotion, discipleship, adoration, or worship…those words sound extreme and fanatical.  Jesus is alright.  They assume that Jesus is just fine with their indifference, because well, He’s Jesus.  People like Jesus, because Jesus is quite likable.  Behind this casual appreciation for Jesus is often a picture of Jesus that is either lazy, uninformed, or both.  Sometimes this is the result of recreating Jesus in our own image.  We value our comfort above everything, so we want to imagine that Jesus will value our comfort over everything too.  We just ignore the things about Jesus that make us uncomfortable.  If we ignore them, maybe they will just go away? We want to be happy, so we create in our imaginations a Jesus that wants us to be happy above all.  We like to feel good, so we want Jesus to be concerned with our good feelings.  The trouble is, we won’t encounter our counterfeit Jesus in the pages of scripture.  This safe and sanitized version of Jesus just isn’t there.  No government would have ever bothered to crucify such an innocuous individual. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels was controversial.  He was a dissident.  Jesus was a revolutionary that taught dangerous and extreme ideas about God, life, and culture.  The Jesus we meet in the Gospels talked about God in such a way that He was labeled a blasphemer by the religious leaders.  He fought hard against injustice and challenged the leadership and culture of His day.  Jesus had a way of comforting the afflicted and unsettling the comfortable.  Each of us is faced when we truly look at Jesus with a polarizing choice: adoration or rejection.  It is very hard to stay safely and comfortably in the middle.  Jesus is not safe, but He is good.  Jesus is not tame, but He is beautiful.  Mark’s Gospel paints this picture well in the following narrative.

Mark 11:12-21 –

12 The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

20 In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

22 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. 23 “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

A few things are pretty shocking about this passage. First, it seems out of character for the sugar and spice and everything nice version of Jesus to blast a poor innocent tree with holy wrath.  He is hungry, and wants some breakfast, but the tree doesn’t want to cooperate. It becomes worse when Mark’s Gospel implies that it is not the time for the tree to produce fruit. If something was wrong with the tree, it would be a little more bearable, but to curse a tree that isn’t even supposed to have fruit yet? That is just unreasonable.  I think the general idea is that the time to bear fruit is when Jesus comes looking for it, but I also think there is more to this passage.  I don’t think Jesus is really mad at the tree.  I think his anger is directed someplace else.  The way the narrative of the tree is interrupted by the events of Jesus’ visit to the temple give us a literary clue.  The fig tree forms a literary frame for the story of the temple.  What Jesus is really raging about is the fruitless and corrupt state of affairs he finds at the temple.  Jesus cannot abide the empty, self-focused, and exploitative religion he observed in the temple of Jerusalem.  This reminds me of Martin Luther’s visit to Rome.  People are looking for God, and instead of finding God they find a door closed in their faces and all kinds of hoops to jump through.  What if Jesus visited your church today? Would he hate our religious constructions? Would Jesus tear apart our temple remind us of the truth of the Kingdom of God?

Here is one thing I think Jesus would challenge: Any religion where comfort gets in the way of mission.

The issue with the fig tree is that it didn’t produce fruit when Jesus required it.  The faith of the Jews needed to be reformed.  It had become something that was focused inwardly, on the comfort and care of people that looked down on outsiders and relished in their privileged status. What is the fruit Jesus is looking for? I think there is a clue in a detail that Mark includes. Mark includes this phrase: My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” This would make much more sense if we were present when Jesus said it, but because we are not we need to understand something of the geography of the temple. It consists of several different courts. The outermost court was called the gentile court, followed by the women’s court, then Israel’s court, then the priests’ court, and finally the holy place and the most holy place. This action of selling livestock and changing money is happening in the Gentile Court. They were providing a legitimate service to pilgrims from all over the world that have come to sacrifice at the Temple. This is about convenience. It would be easy to exploit the poor pilgrims, and that makes Jesus angry, but there is something else going on here. Jesus’ rebuke includes the phrase “prayer for all nations.”  This is reminiscent of the call of Abraham, where he and his descendants were invited into a unique relationship with God, where they would be blessed by God to be a blessing to all the nations of the world. What is going on here illustrates how far Israel is from the heart of God and from their covenant. This court is the ONLY place a seeking Gentile could come and experience the presence of the God of Israel. Now, slowly, their sacred place of worship has become a market for the convenience of the “elite” and the “chosen.” The only place where a Gentile can come and pray and seek the one true God is now filled with the sounds of a shopping mall! This is the only place he is allowed to set foot, everything else is “off limits” to him. What they have done in the temple is to shut out any seeking Gentiles from the presence of God. They have become so focused on themselves; their own needs and convenience that they have forgotten their commission to reach the world for the one true God. Jesus is angry because those seeking God were being shut out from his presence.

I wish this didn’t happen in churches today, but the truth is that far too often the language and programming are built exclusively for the insider.  We make the tragic mistake of excluding outsiders for the sake of making things more comfortable and convenient for the insiders. We often program and message and operate in a fashion that is only accessible to those familiar with the church subculture.  I wonder what the Jesus of the Gospels would have to say about that.  Which of our tables would he overthrow? Would he rage against our men’s prayer breakfast, our “Christian” concerts, our merchandising, and our celebrity worship? Would Jesus find a space where skeptical, curious, and seeking outsiders could come to have questions answered and feel close to the God that they long to meet? Would Jesus find your church to be concerned with the outsiders or with the insiders? I think Jesus would unsettle the people safely hiding within the subculture we have created.  I think Jesus would rattle us a bit, reminding us about God’s concern for those far from Him.  God cares much more about you engaging your culture than about protecting your comfort.