Two Advent Devotionals

Yesterday I preached on preparation, and how to prepare for Xmas. I neglected to mention anything specific about devotionals, due to the fact that I forget.  So I want to commend a two to you.

Here is one from The Church at Brook Hills church designed for families. Short, scriptural, sweet. I ran out of “s-words.” I’ll take “s-words” for 200 Alex….

Here is one from John Piper called Good News of Great Joy. Also, short, scriptural, and sweet. You can get it as an E-book or as a PDF. I’ve been digging this one.

Do yourself and your loved ones (and even the ones you don’t love or who don’t love you) a favor and take a look a these or other devotionals this Advent season. You’ll be glad you did, and they will too.

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Coach Schiano’s son and what do with "fatherly embarassment"

Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano has been, and will be under much scrutiny this year. First of all, he is a first year head coach. But more than a first year head coach, he is a first year head coach who came from Rutgers. Most college coaches don’t make good NFL coaches (and there was a good one last year, so the “law of averages” is not in his favor). Then he makes news in his second game of the season by implementing a college play (trying to cause a fumble during the “victory formation” kneel down). Then come reports of Schiano being a bully to folks visiting Rutgers.

Now the most recent story is his linebacker son at Berkeley Prep getting suspended for the rest of the season. Apparently vulgar language can come from coaches but not from players using such words in anger toward the referees. 

According to a FHSAA report obtained by The Tampa Tribune, Schiano was ejected from the Lennard game for using profanity at a referee. The conduct is considered a “Level 2” unsportsmanlike conduct, which carries a six-week suspension.

This is somewhat ironic in that Coach Greg Schiano preaches discipline. According to respected player Ronde Barber, “he even has rules for rules.” But his son was obviously playing by another set of rules.

Here are a few takes:

1.) A son’s behavior, particularly when it swims against the current of his father’s core teachings, reflects poorly on the father. Now it doesn’t mean that the father has done a bad job of instilling discipline. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he is a bad dad-although how one can be a good Dad AND good football coach is either a mystery or impossibility. But it really does dishonor and embarrass the father. When our kids do cuss out refs, or don’t shake hands after games, it really is embarrassing. I think that’s probably OK. But what we do with the embarrassment is where we can get into trouble.

2.) Regardless of the fact that it does embarrass the father (I’m sure I’ve embarrassed my father the same way my son’s tantrums embarrass me) I don’t think my embarrassment can EVER be the reason  why such a behavior is bad. Now for shame based cultures without the gospel, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s normal. Don’t screw up because you bring shame to the father. And if you do, you have to bear that shame somehow through atonement or suicide. But if the gospel reminds us that there is no shame for those in Christ (Romans 8:1), then parents can’t play the, “you embarrassed me” card. God doesn’t do it to us, so we can’t do it our kids.

3.) It’s natural to be embarrassed. But have you ever asked yourself, “Why is this so embarrassing for me?” Often times it is because we lose approval points. We don’t look like we know what we’re doing (which is only an illusion anyway). No one will give us the proverbial “parent of the day” award. And you know you want it. I do, and that’s why my child’s bad behavior is so embarrassing.

4.) While sins affects more than just the person sinning such as the parent, team, or community, the ultimate offended one is God. Schiano may have rules for rules, but God has laid out a perfect design for us to follow. And it is him whom we have offended. David reminds us of this when he says, “Against you, you only have I sinned Lord….”(Psalm 51:4) The sin of cussing out a referee or refusing to shake the other teams hands is not primarily an offense against the ref, the other team, or the coach, but against the Lord.

5.) It doesn’t hurt to read and re-read, and re-hash in our minds the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The younger brother, due to his sin and selfishness brings shame to the father. In a shame based culture, this is a bad idea. Bad Idea Jeans for sure. But the father meets the son outside of town, embraces him, and brings him back into town to remind everyone that he is covered. The father covers the sons shame while taking the sons shame upon Himself. How great is it to hear that God is not embarrassed or ashamed to call us his sons, nor is Jesus ashamed to call us his younger brothers (Heb 2:11). I hope I can remember this the next time I’m embarrassed by my son’s actions.

Retreat Reinforecments: Costs, Cultural Relvance Pass, and Youth Can Listen to Sermons

This is simply a follow up from yesterday’s Modgnik post highlighting some random things I learned as a leader last weekend.

1.) Retreats really do have a cost. Obviously they cost money, as the retreat center needs to be rented (600 kids!), speaker paid, band secured, creative skits practiced, food eaten, kids housed, gas guzzled, etc…..These retreats take up a big chunk of our youth budget, and family wallets/bank accounts do take hits. But there is also physical toll that retreats take on leaders. One of ours progressively got sicker throughout the weekend and will be paying for her sacrifice this week. Sleep has never been my companion on these retreats either. But also, consider the family sacrifice. My four year old was not happy to send has Daddy off, and so that made his Mommy’s sacrifice a bit harder as well. But it is part of my job, so how thankful am I to have parents and another non-parents come to labor alongside of me? Very thankful. I became acutely aware of some of the costs that really go into such a retreat (saying nothing of the sacrifice of those who regularly get together to plan these things). Modgnik is worth the price of admission and the “pay-offs” in the lives of these youth-and their leaders-is often eternal. Cost counting doesn’t make me prideful but thankful for those who sacrificed to send kids and leaders.

2.) Youth will give you a pass when you don’t pass the cultural relevance test. Our speaker referenced R.J.3, the former Heisman trophy winner and current Washington Redskins quarterback the first evening. The problem is that his name is Robert Griffin III, and so his nickname is R.G 3. He got some flack, but the kids cut him some slack. No mention of it throughout the weekend. Perhaps the Harry Potter allusions covered his bases, but I think that most kids get over that kind of stuff pretty quickly. Middle schoolers care that you like them much more than how well you know their culture. Fortunately. I must be living in the past, because I knew ZERO pop songs they played as we piled into the meeting room and cafeteria. Coolness and relevance are far less important to youth than love.

3.) Middle Schoolers can listen to sermons. This speaker is an RUF guy, and RUF guys do sermons. They preach expository sermons, and regularly allude to verses and say things like, “I get this from verse 8.” He didn’t disappoint, and yet I was concerned that he might be over the kids’ heads. Last year’s speaker looked and sounded very different, and spoke on very different subjects. This guy preached Revelation, yet he wasn’t over their heads at all! Most of them articulated back to me exactly what he said in our cabin discussion time. The amount of “take-away” from the sermons confirmed that kids really can listen. A number of girls even took notes. While I do think preachers like myself need to recognize folks with shorter attention spans (like myself), middle schoolers should be expected to follow along. As parents we can follow up with our kids and expect to have meaningful sermon discussion. But we have to raise our expectations beyond the “Well I didn’t hear him/her talking too much this week, so things are good” perspective.

4.) Illustrations are important for all, but especially so for middle schoolers. I consider illustrations as the “coat hanger” on which to hang both the truth and applications. When connected with the truth and application, they provide something to help the kid think about when the sermon is done. These kids could re-tell the illustration and the truth articulated. Reinforced the need for illustrations, and their power to connect the listener to more than just the preacher, but to Jesus.

Just some things I learned this week and want to pass on.

Positives and Negatives from Episode 1

With The Office going down the drain last year, my wife and I agreed on one show: Parenthood. In the end, I think the writers raise one major question: what does a real family look like? Not so much what one should look like-that’s what the other shows like Modern Family and The New Normal attempt to do-but what might it look like? Several work together. They play together. They live together, and celebrate countless parties together. So what does it look like when a family is ALWAYS together? Scenarios arise, and questions are raised. 

Like any show, the nuclear and extended family is either denigrated and redefined (Modern Family/ The New Normal) or it is idolized (only the latter is the case). At the same time, the directors/writers/producers/actors in Parenthood also provide a positive picture and even include, at times, “biblical” instruction.

Positive “biblical” instruction: 

One couple has recently adopted a 7-8 year old lad. He is correctly accused of stealing some sort of lizard, but the new mother doesn’t want to bring it up. At the end of the show, the husband exclaims that, “By not bringing it up, you are not treating him like family, but like a stranger.” The implication being that family can ask tough questions that unsuitable to ask stranger in the same home. Of course the truth also applies within the body life of the local church. If we’re not willing to ask tough questions, which may or may not imply guilt or the need to change, we are treating each other like strangers, not family. Loved this one.

Family-olatry.

After spending some time with another set of grandparents, a child is found praying. The parents are none too thrilled about that, as they want the right to raise their child according to their beliefs. Fair enough. But when asked to define their “doctrine,” neither could offer an answer. So the search begins and ends with the matriarch and patriarch. Neither seems to offer too much help, but the bigger questions like “Where did we come from,” is raised. The standard existential “whatever you decide it to be” wins out, with one “string” attached. This isn’t utterly existential. What shapes the question, and thus the question is this: Whatever “truth” practiced and expressed within the family exists in order to ameliorate the family.

The sad part about this is its accuracy. Many people come back to church to give their kids religion and morals. However many professing Christians never leave this stage. What can your church do to make my kids better kids? What can Jesus do for my kids? I’m good with anything that helps my kids be better kids. If Jesus can do something for my family, I’m good with him. It ends there. No sacrificial giving or going. No bringing people in to the family unless they make it better or more comfortable. Jesus can’t ask anything of me that might keep my kid from a scholarship, being more popular, more comfortable.

Of course this belief is on a continuum and shows like Parenthood help raise keep that struggle before us. If you love your family, this is always a struggle! In the end, I’m thankful to have a show raise such questions and issues. If we take every thought captive-particularly our favorite TV shows-then they can be as devotional as they are enjoyable.

That nuerotic parent just might be you

Just like every August for the last, well 20 years or so, the Little League World Series, has come and gone. With it another crop of kids thankful to play at such a high level, and others wishing they had just played one more game. Aside from the missed family vacations, the LLWS probably does more good than bad.

But one group which stuck out in my 15 minutes (total) of watching the LLWS was the parents. Numbers of parents had photograph face cut-outs on popsicle sticks of their kids. No doubt their kids names and numbers were on their mini vans as well. Neither activity is necessarily bad, but possibly more often than not, inform the world what these parents live for: their children’s sports success.

Parents can be really neurotic about their children’s success, and sometimes its very easy to diagnose that neurosis it others. And consequently it’s very easy to be disgusted when you see it. My wife couldn’t stomach the LLWS after seeing those popsicle sticks. I get disgusted when parents when parents will stop at nothing to make their kid front and center. 

But today I reflected upon my similarity to that neurosis I hate so much in others but often fail to see in myself. I had told someone recently that Connar was the best kid on his Tee ball team at the first practice. But on Tuesday he was hitting the tee, and actually throwing the ball “like a baby” (that’s the most apropos comparison I could muster). On one occasion, instead of throwing to first base, he simply rolled it! Another kid, a 5 year old, hit better, threw farther and fielded better.  Connar wasn’t the best anymore and I couldn’t take it.

So what did I do? I went out and bought a soft Teeball the next day. When Connar hit the stitches off the ball, I went out and bought a bag of balls. At what point do I want him to be the best, and “try his best to honor God,” for my sake, and for my glory. I was no different than those parents that made me sick: I need him to be front and center. I had already become (actually a while ago) the parent I had so quickly critiqued.

Here are some things I learned and may prove helpful

1.) Remember what is good about our kids performances. It is good to practice. After all we develop our spiritual gifts by practicing as well. Performances, whether in school, sports, plays, teach discipline and give us opportunities to do all things for the glory of God (I Cor 10:31). Praying, reading the bible, and telling people about Jesus are not the only “spiritual” things we do.

2.) Repent regularly. I think as parents we cross back and forth over the lines of my glory/kids glory/God’s glory all the time. Therefore we need to reflect, repent, and rest in Christ often. Very often.

3.) Listen to ourselves talk. One way to examine our motives is not to look at other people’s mini-vans, but to listen to our own words. Do we talk an inordinate amount of time about our kids interests or about Jesus? We talk about what we cherish (channeling my inner John Piper now). And we teach our kids by talking about what we cherish. 

4.) What REALLY is my primary goal?  Is it a scholarship for my kid? That would be great, but I’m not planning on that happening. As long as my son wants to practice hitting and fielding every day in our front yard, I’ll keep pitching fastballs to him. Yet my primary goal is for him to walk with Jesus and connect to a church when he leaves the house. If that really is my goal, it will be reflected in my conversation, prayers, time spent, and even my dreams. I don’t think it hurts to regularly remember and recast that vision to yourself and your spouse time and time again.

When these things are in place, I can get back to coaching, practicing, and simply enjoying and delighting in my child as the great gift from God he is. Regardless of his performance. That’s how God looks at His children, so I figure that’s probably a good model.

I can have a cut-out (though I doubt I ever will), I can put his name, number, and sport on my minivan (though I know I never will), when I remember who God is and who my child is not.

Kurt Warner’s concerns for safety don’t go far enough

 There has been much discussion amongst those in the NFL relating to player safety. The issue with the New Orleans Saints “bounty program,”and recent suicides of former players allegedly due to repeated undiagnosed concussions have brought two main questions to the forefront: what will life look like after the game of football, and do I want my kids to even play this game?

Kurt Warner, a former Superbowl winner (they beat the Bucs to get there in 2000 because of a terrible call which actually spawned a new rule), chose to answer the latter in the negative. He expressed concerns and even desires that his kids would not play football.

This drew the ire of a former teammate (for a year or two) named Amani Toomer and current ESPN analyst Merril Hoge. Hoge called him “uneducated.”

Some have labeled Kurt Warner hypocritical. After all, it was the NFL (or at least the path to the NFL) that literally allowed him to stop working at a grocery store. But since Hoge has probably 10 times more concussions than I have had, he’s probably not someone I’d be taking advice from.

Kurt isn’t alone in his concern. Giants Osi Umeniora had this to say

“Kurt Warner is Right to think how he is thinking about his kids and football,” Umenyiora wrote. “Its an awesome game and has done a lot for me, but i know when im 45 there is a strong chance il be in a wheelchair. If i can avoid that for my son, i will. But if he wants to play i wont stop him.”

I surmise that my sons will be too skinny to play “tackle” football and am grateful for it. It is probably more dangerous than other sports; it’s hard to argue against that point. But parents today often steer their kids toward sports or away from certain sports with only physical safety in mind. While that’s wise, it is not wise enough.

Parents often do a good job of thinking through the long term physical effects of sports. Will my kid be able to walk after sports? How many surgeries will be needed? But what about our kids “spiritual walk?” Most Christians really don’t think through the long term spiritual damage which sports may bring.

If your kid regularly misses corporate worship to play sports when he’s under your roof, where will he “worship” when he’s in college? Probably Bedside Baptist or Pillow Presbyterian.

What is it that we really want for our children? Is it for them to walk with Jesus in college or simply the chance to get an athletic scholarship (do we realize how hard these are to get)? Sure we’d like both, but our lifestyles often prove which one is more important.

And kids aren’t stupid. They are smarter than they look. They really are. Even the ones I think are totally out of it see things in parents that amaze me. They are learning all the time. Like that old drug commercial which depicted the father asking the son where he learned such stuff, “I learned it from watching you, Dad.”

Many kids don’t connect to a church when they go to college. We wonder why not. But do not we parents play some part in this? I do fear that we have concerned ourselves with the physical safety of our children and ignored their spiritual safety.

I’m hoping professing Christian Kurt Warner attends a Saturday night church with his boys. Because his job, now on the NFL Network has once again continued the pattern of not going to church as a family on Sundays. To care about physical safety is just not enough. May he and all Christian parents wade through these waters with much prayer and in community in order to discern how God may use sports to further His Kingdom instead of our own agendas.

Parenthood and family idolatry

One of my favorite shows these days is Parenthood. I think its fairly popular in this area, largely due to the fact that the family unit is so popular in this area. And that’s a good thing. It’s just not the ultimate thing-which is Jesus. And as Tim Keller reminds us so well that when a good thing becomes the ultimate thing, that is an idol. It blocks the gaze of our Savior (not His gaze of us, but ours of His). And we all say yeah, yeah, I know Jesus is more important than our families-at least that’s what we’re supposed to say if we read and follow the bible (Luke 14:26). But we are all vulnerable to saying one thing, and living something else-which is consequently a more accurate depiction of how well we believe.

I’ve seen episodes that actually challenge the idol of the family and demonstrate some positive ways to lead a family. But last week’s episode-which was not without commendable material-ended up leaving me fairly saddened and frustrated.

Grandfather Craig T. Nelson tries to assemble ALL his family and ALL their children to go visit his mother for her birthday. Because his daughter-in-law is skipping out on the adventure, he goes nuts. After acting like a neurotic jerk who later tells his kids, “You all suck” he seems to come to the point where he is almost repentant. And then his true savior, who has let him down (as all min-saviors do) is expressed verbally: “All there is in life, when it all comes down to it, is family.”

Before his family arrives, the daughter-in-law praises the overbearing father-in-law for “creating” this family. Idol affirmed. Now this man is not without worthy qualities, though over all, he makes me thankful that my father and father-in-law are NOTHING like him.

Then his family shows up, and of course, they seem apologetic and everyone seems OK.

Here are a few thoughts.

1.) An idol will always let you down. And when your idol is being threatened, you will bite, claw, kick, and fight to preserve that idol. That’s what he did the whole show. We all do this. When you idol is removed, you feel there is nothing else to live for. All is lost. If you want to locate your idols, look at your attitudes and actions. Its foolish to think that our families don’t become our idols. When kids or parents don’t behave or fulfill us they way we demand of them, we get nasty. So we need to be careful that the idol of family is not just a non-Christian problem…Its ours as well.

2.) Is life only about family? What about those who have crappy families? Are they then doomed? At the end of the day it is not about how much money you make, how nice of a car or house you have. Most people can eventually get past those things when housing market crashes or when they have cancer. But most folks still miss Jesus because, in the end, its all about family. However, in the end, its all about being included in His family. I remember a lass in my college days telling me this when her father had been in a terrible accident. Such a blessing when you’re family lets you down and vice versa. Or when you move, or have to move, etc….

3) At the end of the show, Craig T Nelson finally got what he had so eagerly sought: his mother’s approval. His whole life, he had loved his kids and told them that he loved them. And though his character is overbearing, and clearly at times “needs” more than love his kids/grand-kids, he does care. And he expresses that care verbally with an “I love you.” But his whole life he worked for her approval and it didn’t come. Until this episode.

It shows the importance of expressing the words, “I love you” to our families. But some people will never hear that from their deadbeat fathers or mothers. They really won’t. While that verbal affirmation is important, it is not essential for the child to break free from the bondage of parental failure. I know folks who have. And its beautiful. It demonstrates that while they may not have heard it from a father or a mother, they face each day with the promise of “I love you and I love who you are becoming” from their Heavenly Father. That promise is something we inherit from our elder brother Jesus. The joy and delight God has over His son (Matt 3:17) is now shared with us as part of our inheritance. And the fact that he didn’t spare His son, but gave him up for us all (Rom 8:32), is not just a spoken “I love you,” but truly sacrificial “I love you” still evidenced by his scars (John 20:27).