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.

Allyson Felix, Lashinda Demus, and Ricky Bobby

Last night I had the opportunity to watch someone win and watch some “lose.” The gal who won, Allyson Felix, had been a “loser” the last two Olympics. Now that is accurate you want to define “loser” in a traditional Ricky Bobby “If you ain’t first, you’re last,” sort of way.

Lashinda Demus the 400 meter hurdler, lost just a bit before Felix won. She got the silver. If you had seen the look on her face-which maybe you did since a number of people actually watch the Olympics-you probably thought someone had just kidnapped her cat or something. As though she had stumbled on a hurdle while in the lead as Lolo Jones 4 did years ago in Bejing.

Maybe she listened to her inner Ricky Bobby?

Silver on the highest stage possible with her husband and boys cheering her on is not too bad of a gig. She belied a tiny bit of thankfulness in the post race interview, but vowed to keep vying for the gold. Only gold would seal her “legacy.” Although I would have preferred she use more accurate terms like “personal worth,” or “reason for living,” because I think her kids are probably OK with a silver legacy. They probably just love their Mommy for who she is and want to spend time with her. But maybe I’m reading too much into her twin 4 or 5 year old boys.

The interview was quite sad. But I didn’t feel sad for her loss, just sad for her. Sad for the idol she had put her hopes in: behind the gold was a real search for significance.

Allyson Felix didn’t “lose.” She got gold after 4 years of intense training with a somewhat unlikeable at times coach Bobby Kersee (husband of Jackie Joyner Kersee). She wanted that gold bad. She might have tried-and might still try-to get that gold in Rio. But from what it appears, I think the interview might have gone in a different direction.

I’ve always pulled for Felix. Now I know why. She grew up a preacher’s kid and her father is now a professor at The Masters Seminary. Check out this great article about her. Here’s but a snippet.

My faith is definitely the most important aspect of my life. My dad is a pastor and I grew up in a very strong Christian home. Our family was very involved in our church. I came to know Jesus Christ as my personal savior at a very young age. Ever since then, I have continually been striving to grow in my relationship with God.

She plans to be a school teacher some day. I can imagine the kids not in her class will be quite jealous of the lucky ones some day!

Missy Franklin vs. Gabby Douglass

Last night I had the opportunity to watch the Olympics “live” (I know that technically that is not true, but its more “live” than 2 degrees removed on the DVR) with my 4 year old. His nap “promoted” him to watching gymnastics and swimming “live” with Mom and Dad. 

When I look at him, I wonder how good he will really be at baseball (he is better than most 4 year olds I know-though I confess to know a dearth of four year olds). Right now I think he’s pretty good. But does that mean a decent player, an all-star, high school standout out, college scholarship, etc….?

Parents want the best for their children. That is typically the case and it should be so. However “their best” can present quite a problem when “their best” becomes the ever-consuming-yet-leaving-you-drained idol that “their best” most often is. For the kids, but more often for the parents.

As a parent, will I be willing to do all that I can to make sure he is able to do his “best?” There might be good things which I should ask myself will I be willing to sacrifice? Like fishing, watching football, sleep, etc..

But there is another pertinent question for parents: should I do all that I can do so that he can do his “best?” What should parents sacrifice and what should they not sacrifice? I’m at somewhat of an advantage (in my opinion) in that I’m a pastor, and so travel leagues taking Connar away from worship on Sunday are an impossibility. So will he then be able to do his best? Most parents jump to the conclusion and say “no.” But I would caution folks to not jump to such a conclusion.

For many Olympic athletes not in communist countries, yet still in high school, the question really resides with the parents. Will parents do ALL that is possible to see the young athlete succeed?

When that “best” is not the all consuming idol of power, significance, fame, pleasure, I do think that it is possible to do your “best” without taking the normal “at all costs” sacrifices to which most parents willingly offer. 

Let me give you two examples of different approaches, yet both seem to have done their “best.”

1.) American gymnast Gabby Douglass moved from Virginia Beach to Des Moines, Iowa, to get the best training possible. Wow. Her older sister had to convince her to keep training, when she clearly wanted to quit. Looks like it paid off as Gabby is competing in the individual all around competition in place of favorite Jordyn Wieber. Doing her best however, meant sacrificing much of her childhood.

2.) By contrast, let’s look at Missy Franklin. Missy is just a teenager. An incredible swimmer already with a gold medal, she’s still just a normal kid. When questioned about moving away to Florida (would have been tempting for me!) or California from Colorado because it wasn’t a “swimming state,” she responded, “Why leave family or school or friends?” In other words, the pursuit of swimming was not an “at all costs” thing. It wasn’t an idol upon which she would sacrifice other more important things. She stayed at home, even resisting the sponsors which would have precluded her from competing on her high school swim team. She didn’t sacrifice her childhood.

Now whether her parents had a say in the whole “we’re not moving so you can do your best at swimming” decision, I don’t know. The interview was silent on this part. But perhaps they had parented her in such a way that “her best” didn’t become an idol? She could do her “best” in Colorado, alongside family and friends who would love her even when she fell short of her best.

Was her training stunted because of inferior coaching? Doesn’t seem to be. This girl is gifted and a hard worker. In this case, that seems more important than the “opportunities” she could have had elsewhere.

I wish more Christian parents would think through these two questions more carefully

1.) Is honoring Jesus more important than my/my kids’ performance?

2.) If my kid is really gifted and works really hard, can he/she still compete at the highest level, even when my commitment to Christ may preclude some “opportunities” which would regularly take him/her away from corporate worship?

We see the answer to the latter question is yes. Talent and hard work makes some “opportunities” superfluous. You can say NO and still see your kid succeed. 

Just some things to think through when we look at our little ones and genuinely want for them to be the best that they can.

What we can learn from Brandon Marshall

After Junior Seau’s suicide two weeks ago, many folks have begun pondering what to do about it. How should we think about it? Is the primary problem the concussions or is that but a piece of the puzzle?
Troubled Bear’s receiver Brandon Marshall (formerly Bronco’s, Dolphins, and UCF) wrote a thoughtful piece for the Chicago Sun Times about mental health and the stigma. He thinks there is something to learn from brain study but recognizes the best treatment is to “start to treat the living.” Marshall offers some helpful insights into the whole question of suicides after football, though this is helpful for all people whether going through the darkness of depression or not. The whole article is brief and worth the read.
There are many people out there who are suffering and have nowhere to turn for help or are afraid because of the stigmas placed on mental health.
Even though so many folks are on medication for depression, that doesn’t mean there is still no stigma for those struggling in this area. As an athlete, Marshall feels and has felt that pressure. Real men shouldn’t feel depressed, right? Real pastors shouldn’t feel depressed either. But I have, and have felt shame over the stigma. Fortunately the gospel began to deal with not only my depression (and still does), but with the fear, stigma, condemnation that comes with treatment and even medication. Believing Romans 8:1, that there really is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, is tough but completely applicable here. I still feel some stigma here and there, but now I can, somewhat, boast of my weakness (II Cor 12:8-10). Because of it, I’ve actually had more contentment, not to mention opportunities to minister to those struggling with depression.
As I began to meditate more on Junior’s death, I began to think about this vicious cycle our world is in. The word ‘‘validate’’ started to run through my mind.
The cycle starts when we are young boys and girls. Let me illustrate it for you:
Li’l Johnny is outside playing and falls. His dad tells him to get up and be strong, to stop crying because men don’t cry.
So even from the age of 2, our belief system begins to form this picture. We are teaching our boys not to show weakness or share any feelings or emotions, other than to be strong and tough.
Is that ‘‘validating’’?
 What do we do when Li’l Susie falls? We say: ‘‘It’s OK. I’m here. Let me pick you up.’’
That’s very validating, and it’s teaching our girls that expressing emotions is OK.
I don’t think depression is a-physiological. Medicine can help. But working out or doing P90X, and taking medication will not completely deal with it. Sounds like Marshall is on the same page here. You can blame things on concussions and brain damage, which probably play a part in it all. However it’s only a part of the puzzle. 

While he doesn’t go back to the gospel (though he does admit prayer is a part of it), he does recognize there is more going on. Women can cry. Men are told not to do so. I tell my son there is no crying in baseball when you get out, but it is OK to cry when you get hurt. But try not to do that either. I’m beginning to think that telling him not to cry is more for my good than for his. And if he can only be “tough,” and never show emotion, weakness, is that a man I want him to become? Is that a man who believes the gospel, that there is no condemnation before God and others? Nope. This certainly gave me something to think about.
Here’s one last snippet where Marshall gets to the root of the problem. Sounds like Tim Keller could have written it!
As athletes, we go through life getting praised and worshipped and making a lot of money. Our worlds and everything in them — spouses, kids, family, religion and friends — revolve around us. We create a world where our sport is our life and makes us who we are.
When the game is taken away from us or when we stop playing, the shock of not hearing the praise or receiving the big bucks often turns out to be devastating.
Sounds like a fantastic description of an idol to me. You go to something for life, affirmation, purpose, and when that something is taken away, so is your life and reason for living.  Nailed it Brandon. Keep up the good work.

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).

Rings and things with James and Nowitzki

I sat mesmerized last night while I watched the Dallas Mavericks take down the Miami Heat in Game 6. Aside from the fact that Lebron James confidently claimed not not one, not two, but 8 future championships, I actually thought fielding (or maybe “courting” is a better word) a team comprising arguably the best (if not better when it comes to Chris Bosh) players in the NBA would serve as a recipe for success. And they achieved some success in some sense: getting to the Finals. However they, but primarily James, fell short of getting that elusive championship ring upon which athletes center their effort, as well as their hopes and dreams.
And on the other side of the court sat someone else-though Mav’s owner Mark Cuban hardly sits still during games-vying for that elusive ring as well. In addition, Dirk Nowitzki, spent his whole career trying to win a championship. And each will finally will get his ring. 
I wonder what it’s like for both parties today, the morning after.
For the losers: Sometimes in God’s grace he will not allow you to get something which has become an idol. Sometimes the Lord actually withholds things which seem so good to us (whether it be an NBA championship ring or wedding ring) because to give us something which seems good-but it has become an idol, the reason we live or die-may not be loving. Sometimes he wants to spare us from the inevitable result of making something or someone else an idol: divorce, depression, anger, disappointment, emptiness, etc….He doesn’t withhold anything good from those who walk with Him (Psalm 84:11). While I often fail to  believe this, God nevertheless proves this to me over and over.
For the winners: On the other hand, sometimes God may actually grant us the idol out of love. This sounds strange, but it can also be an act of love for the Lord to give us the desire of our hearts even when that desire is not healthy. For instance, if my main reason for living has become an NBA ring, wedding ring, or ring like Gollum’s, then God may in His goodness grant that. Yet I will then soon be sorely disappointed that the ring didn’t fill the God-shaped hole in my heart. I will eventually turn back to him for the first or the hundredth time.
How many of us have thought if I could just be married (I did), if I could just have a kid (I did), if I could just get a job (I did) that it would be well with our souls? Then we got those things, and those things left us empty, only to pursue something, although ideally Someone else. In love, I think God may sometimes grant us those things, in order for us to see the true emptiness in those things, and run to Him instead. 
Unfortunately many of the things/people we’ve sought and found have become to us empty wells. But instead of turning to Jesus, we turn to someone/something else. That’s often why folks want to divorce: the other person, as advertised in scripture, has become an empty well no longer producing the respect, love, importance, power which we demanded. But in God’s grace we’ve received that idol, so that we can see the emptiness, and return to the spring of living water. 

I do hope that Lebron either never gets that ring, or that he does (although not 8 times over!), and he realizes how the hole in his heart is not ring-shaped but God-shaped.