helping kids grow their faith

Happily Ever After

© Dennis Jarvis. Used under Creatives Commons License. Sometimes the happenings of this world feel beyond what the heart can bear. A beloved comedian's tragic death. Reports of horrific conflict and genocide in the Middle East, with many of the victims children, their pictures transported thousands of miles across oceans to verify the reality of carnage. Closer to home, this moment, a family gathers at the deathbed of a dear husband, father and grandfather whose body succumbs to cancer, none ready to part with him.

Tragic pain. Heartrending loss. Inner and outer turmoil that the spirit in its purest place knows don't belong in this world, really. As parents we shudder and push through our days. As love-invaded friends of God we offer silent prayers framed with unspoken questions. And then a child's query breaks the silence.

"Why did he die? What happened?" And we have to find words somehow that are truthful and that teach.

Today I came across a gingerbread house-shaped book my third grader wrote last spring in school. His class was studying fairy tales and had the chance to write one. Derrin titled his "The Rabbit Prince and the Bunny Queen." The story unfolds complete with magic wand, castle, and dungeon, and it ends this way:

The prince got the key and got the princess. They ran out of the palace. They got in love and got married! and they lived happily ever after!!!

I smile at a child's simple resolution to problems and his belief in uncomplicated happiness-ever-after. If only ...  And then I think about Bartimaeus, the blind man who Jesus healed. We read about him together with Good Dirt a few nights ago. Bartimaeus received his sight "and followed Jesus along the road, " according to the Gospel of Mark. He begged Jesus for mercy, received it, and then  followed the Savior. It wasn't complicated.

I'm not sure if Bartimaeus lived happily ever after, but in following Jesus he had what he needed most. The evil in the world certainly raged on--Jesus would soon be killed, and death eventually came to this follower, but a bigger reality encompassed Bartimaeus. His life was hidden not in a dungeon or a castle, but with God in Christ for each moment and into eternity. He couldn't be touched by a mean rat (as in Derrin's tale) or an act against himself, a sword or invading bodily cells. Following Jesus put a greater reality in place.

We still stand against evil and illness, yet as we do we seek more and more to know Jesus' mercy in our lives, as Bartimaeus did, and to speak His mercy and life to a hurting world.

Thank God for His Word. It straightens crooked and broken hearts. And as we weep with those who weep, it holds out the promise of lives hidden in Christ for ever after.

The Biggest Piece

I was sitting at a baseball game for one of our boys last week and chatting with my mom, who had come to watch the game. She shared with me about a dream she'd had the night before. In the dream, she was with an extended family member of ours who has recently moved to another city, and they were visiting a church in the area. As they were celebrating the Lord's Supper and my mom's turn came, there were only crumbs left and she felt like she couldn't partake.  We smiled at the odd course that dreams often take. The next day, as our church celebrated the Lord's Supper and I sat next to our 8-year-old, the  dish of unleavened bread came down our row. Just like he always does, Derrin took a few seconds to survey the contents and pick the largest piece he could find. This one was particularly big. (I wonder if the deacons do that on purpose for kids like Derrin?)

He proceeded to whisper, too loudly, about the really big piece he got, and then he did the same with the tray of grape juice cups. He picked the one most full and let me hold it to prevent a purple spill, which has happened one too many times. We ate the bread and drank from the cup. It was good. The bread of forgiveness. The cup of new life gained through Jesus' suffering. A Good Friday celebration that comes to us again and again throughout the year. Solemn and sobering. Burden-lifting. Spirit renewing, even in the company of a squirmy, talkative child .

As many of us have reflected here at Good Dirt Families, it is the child who leads us. And the grandparent too. We want the biggest piece of Jesus we can get. We want to stop and survey the situation, and then choose carefully. We can't help but tell the one next to us in a loud voice about what we've found.

No, crumbs won't do. Being new and showing up only to find there's not enough--that scenario just doesn't fit the abundant life Jesus died to provide. How great to imagine each of us, like an 8-year-old, being intentional, selecting carefully  from this smorgasbord of life, eyeing Jesus, reaching for Him, and taking all we can get.  O Bread of Life, may it be so.

Gentle Whispers

Summer with kids screams the daily, material, ordinariness of life. In the prominence of all the ordinary, the tangible presses in on our moments and envelops our days as they spin into weeks and march toward Fall. Yes, we cherish the shining moments of  spectacular sunsets and interludes on the pavement viewing roly polies as they curl and uncurl. We triumph at a first ride on a two-wheeler and delight at a bouquet of dandelions. But so many other moments during summer involve the weary obligation of cleaning up after a camping trip, chasing flies around the house,  spraying stained clothing. Hanging up wet towels and clothes, pulling weeds, intervening amid squabbles, mopping the floor one more time to find missed popsicle drips, removing splinters, applying sunscreen to squirming bodies, putting away bedding from last night's sleepover, and buying yet another box of bandaids. Summertime is multi-tasking at its finest.

I find that in all the rush of nonstop ordinariness, I wonder if my kids are noticing God. I wonder if they're sensing His presence in these days that for them are magical, glorious, sun-drenched times--but times where they seem quite focused on themselves. I wonder when that awareness of God and life underneath the surface of this one finds a regular  place in their living.

The other day we were reading Good Dirt in the morning, in the family room with sleeping bags and pillows. My neice had spent the night with our two younger boys. They were up (very) early and bursting with energy. We read Mark 2:13-22, about the calling of Levi and about putting new wine into new wineskins. And then we got out paper and made two columns: The Kingdom of Me and The Kingdom of God. I expected resistance, but each child labeled their columns and readily got to work describing what each column was like.

One of them wrote this:

Kingdom of Me--bad things happen. I get disiplend (sic) Kingdom of God--Good things happen. God gets sad.

They didn't miss a beat in understanding the difference between the two kingdoms.

Later I read something by Dallas Willard. He has a new book out titled A Dallas Willard Dictionary, where various spiritual formation terms are defined using excerpts from his various books. I read the definition of "Spiritual Reality."

Spiritual reality is the hidden--because nonphysical--ultimate and powerful foundation of the visible, material and finite universe. It is the "where" of spiritual beings. It is the kingdom of God.

And this is the quote included with Willard's definition:

The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events. They pinch and pull and hammer away at our bodies. Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes and eggs. But instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently. And it appears both at the edges and in the middle of events and things in the so-called real world of the visible … . the tendency of life in Christ is progressively toward the inward word to the receptive heart. The aim is to move entirely into the hidden realm of spiritual reality …” (excerpted from Hearing God)

Once again, I knew that these kids have eyes to see underneath the surface of their days. They can hear the inward word, and by and large they have receptive hearts. These kids are living in the kingdom of God. Even in summertime.

Glad Places

IMG_1576 I've just returned home from bringing two of our boys to church camp for the week. Our other son is already away for a second week of training for a children's evangelism ministry he's taking part in this summer. And so, the house is quiet. We brought a neighbor boy and two neices along to camp, and all the way home as I drank in the blue Colorado sky with forests of evergreen and aspen, roadside streams and meadow flowers stretching mile after mile, I thought about each of the kids and each of their little personalities and passions, their gifts and their callings.

We read Good Dirt and the Bible this morning after final packing, and the passage we read from Luke 20 talked about a vineyard and unfaithful workers who mistreated all the  servants sent by the owner of the vineyard to bring back fruit. They even killed the owner's son.

"Instead of drawing the unfaithful workers, draw a picture of you working with God in his vineyard," Good Dirt instructed the boys. "How do you feel to be working with God? How does God feel to have you working with him."

And this drawing above is what my 8-year-old sketched very quickly. A big God and a small boy, working together in a vineyard, with God's response about how he feels to have Derrin working with him--an  imperfectly spelled "PERFECT!"

As I drove today I thought about my own process as a girl and young woman of learning who I was and learning how my growing passion for God could best be lived out in this life He'd given me. I remember road trip vacations as a child when we listened to a couple cassette tapes of country music over and over and over to pass the time--and how I realized later that this style of music, though my parents' favorite, definitively  was not "me." I remember my dad's encouragement toward the study of law as I entered college, and how I wrestled with his prompting but determined I wasn't created for this profession. Just two random examples, but they remind me that my kids, and each child I know and love, is created to meet God in particular ways and to work alongside God in ways fitting so rightly for him or her.

I pray this week that my two boys at camp, and my teenager sharing the Gospel with kids, will keep learning who they are and how they can best meet God. I pray they experience ways of loving God and worshiping him where they're at this week that fit who they are. And I pray they learn just a little more about how God has formed each of them to work with him in his vineyard.

Jesus talked so often about bearing fruit, about loving in action with God's love. I know my kids pretty well, but God knows them intimately in a way I never will fully know them. I pray that Mike and I can be parents and aunt and uncle and neighbors who will help the kids in our lives to pursue their passions along with God in the way Frederick Buechner described:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."

I pray they pursue a life where they know God is smiling as he works alongside them, even in them, and where they sense him whispering something along the lines of  "Perfect!" as they are glad together.

 

God Always Answers

Last week as we read Good Dirt and focused on the passage from Luke 11 where Jesus teaches the disciples to pray with what later has come to be known as the Lord's prayer, we talked with the boys at some length about how God always answers prayer. We've talked about it many times, but again there was some argument. "Well, God doesn't always answer prayer, like if you ask to become a millionaire. God might not answer that prayer," offered one of the boys.

And then we talked about how God may answer by saying, "No, I know what is good for you and I want to give you my best. I am not going to make you a millionaire but I will make you rich in other ways that will bring you much more joy."

And then we talked about how as we grow closer to God we begin wanting what He wants for us more than what we in our limited understanding can want for ourselves. We begin to have God's desires for our life rather than our own desires.

And then we talked about how Jesus taught his followers to pray for their everyday, usual needs. Our prayers don't have to be complicated. They can be simple. And we talked about what some of those everyday needs are. The boys reviewed the ways we pray from day to day--asking for help on a test at school, asking for healing from illness, asking for guidance in making a decision.

And after that time together and as the week proceeded, I began to think about how in parenting, with all the changing of our kids' stages of life and with all the challenges we have in knowing how to parent a child who is different from us, with all the waiting of months or years to know whether the decisions we are making now in parenting our kids are going to end up being the right ones to help guide and mature them--with all these unknowns it's a big comfort to remember that God always answers our prayers.

Mike and I got a glimpse of it twice this week with our teenager. An issue we have prayed about for years and not known if we were deciding rightly in the way we have gently but firmly kept him involved in something he didn't want to be doing has come full circle. He has suddenly embraced it and is seeking further involvement on his own and it's meeting a  place of passion inside of him. Another issue as well, he has embraced after some off and on complaining and resistance.

There has been much comfort not in feeling like "we were right" but in the realization that yes, God answered all those prayers, day by day, about how to guide him. In the end, it doesn't matter so much whether Collin stays involved in these particular areas or not. What matters is that we've tried to put our need before God and then follow the ways God seemed to be leading. The rest is up to God and He will take our child where He wants him to go over the course of his life if Collin learns to follow daily the leading of the Spirit as he places his needs before God.

"Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come." Thank you for teaching us to pray, God. And thank you that you always answer.

A Life That's Cruciform

© JD Warrick, used under Creative Common License.
© JD Warrick, used under Creative Common License.

It's those bedtime questions that can require the very most we have to give.

I remember hearing Chuck Swindoll say one time that for parents, it's those moments we're tucking them in when kids are the most talkative. Don't rush through bedtime with your kids, he encouraged. They'll do anything to delay switching off the light. Talk to them. Listen to them. Take advantage of their open hearts and listening ears no matter how tired you are and no matter how ready you are to be done with parenting for the day.

Austin, my 11-year-old, asked this one as I was giving him a final kiss at the end of a trying day, to put it mildly. Our 8-year-old had been through two meltdowns, our high schooler had been home sick from school and then had gotten his braces tightened. We'd been to music lessons which meant a late dinner. The boys had been squabbling.  Fishing poles and line were spider-webbed around our family room in an effort to de-tangle. And Austin and I had just finished studying for a surprise test. It was time for bed.

"Mom, if Jesus asked God a question on the cross--'My God, why have you forsaken me?'--then how could Jesus and God be just one God?"

The Trinity. Who really understands it? And how do I talk about it, and Jesus' most difficult moment here on this earth, to a tired pre-teen when I am feeling on the edge of sanity myself? Many times we've talked about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as 3 persons in one God, like an apple or an egg or a pumpkin--all different parts of one whole. That's the best way for our human brains to grasp what we can't really get. And this is what I pulled from down deep on this night. "Because the Bible tells us that Jesus cried out to God, we know he was talking to his Father. But the Bible also tells us  that Jesus is God, and that the Lord our God is One. So, even though our minds have a hard time really understanding it, it's true. Someday we'll understand it much better."

Now that I'm rested and the fishing poles are put away, I'm thinking a little more coherently. Not about my words to Austin, but about this place of mystery in our lives. The way we all deal with the unknowing that is an undeniable part of our Christian faith. As parents, and as people in relationship with God, we want to nail down the answers. We want to figure it out and learn it so we can defend it, and more, so we can live in an inner place of comfort.

I'm reading a book that pokes at this tendency of ours to want neat and tidy answers. To beneat and tidy people. It's titled Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron and is the fictional story of a pastor who has a breakdown of sorts and travels to Italy to encounter Francis of Assisi in his millenia-old surroundings.

In talking with a few priests who are hosting him, the pastor begins to see his own unknowing, his own brokenness, with new eyes.

"You'll never be able to speak into their souls unless you speak the truth about your own wounds," one of the priest says. "They want a leader who's authentic, someone trying to figure out how to follow the Lord Jesus in the joy and wreckage of life. They need you, not Moses."

And then the priest says, "Do you know how Simon Tugwell described Franciscanism? He called it 'the radically unprotected life,' a life that's cruciform in shape. ... Maybe living the unprotected life is what it means to be a Christian."

That night with Austin and a house full of tangle--it was the right night for a question without a good answer. It was the right night to remember Jesus' agony in relationship with his Father. And, perhaps my weary attempt was what it needed to be. The mystery of God, the cries of our suffering Servant, and the untidiness of me--they're things my kids need to see. And that image of the cross, I hope it comes to mind every time I'm spent and need to share just a little more of myself.

*The TAU cross shape in the photo above is the one that Francis of Assisi used in all his writings, minus the head. He painted it on the walls and doors of places he stayed and used it as his only signature. The TAU is a letter in both the Hebrew and Greek alphabets and has long been used as a sign of the cross. This stained glass is found in the St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Sacramento, CA.

Taking God on Vacation

IMG_1383 A friend once asked, "Do you pray with your kids at breakfast? Why not?" We talked about it and I didn't have a good reason for why not, other than that breakfast was a less formal meal around our house and often we didn't all eat at the same time. I'd never thought about it before.

In similar fashion, I asked myself another question a few  years ago as we prepared for a big family getaway. "Do we take God on vacation? Why not? Does it make any sense to break from family devotions, time in God's Word, prayer, when we're seeing spectacular places in creation and having times of quiet and refreshing that are ideal for turning us toward God?"

So I decided on that trip to be intentional. "What will make the time most meaningful, and how can I plan for what's really important so that it doesn't get lost in all that's urgent in prepping for the trip?"

I decided that since we'd be spending many hours in the car on the way to the Grand Canyon, there would be ample time for looking to God, reading his Word together, and talking about what we were reading. Why wouldn't we do this when we were planning all sorts of other ways to pass the time in the car to avoid whining and fighting and wiggles?

We brought along Meet the Bible and every day on the road we made devotions our first pastime as we traveled the highway toward our next stop. Grammy (my mom) was with us on that trip, and the time having devotions together turned out to be not just meaningful and not just God-focused, but a time we won't forget. Grammy shared stories from her life as we all talked about the Scriptures. The kids listened and responded to her and asked questions about the stories. They didn't complain, didn't think any of it strange, and the presence of God permeated the trip in a way that felt natural, that felt good.

Well, spring break has just ended, and another family vacation. This one quite different from that Grand Canyon road trip. This time we flew to Florida to watch our high-schooler perform at Disney with his school band and choir. Devotions didn't work on the airplane, but Good Dirt and a small Bible were tucked into my carry-on and we pulled them out at the hotel. Yep, spread across hotel beds we read and talked together. I have to say-- it beat Direct TV hands down.

And once again, sitting with God and turning to the Spirit in a land of magic, dreams, and wishes helped anchor us in the Kingdom that is true, dreams that are God-given and wishes that are prayers offered not just on our own behalf but for a world in need of the God of hope.

Taking God on vacation needn't look the same for every family. We didn't get our devotion time in every day, and maybe your family time with God will take on a new and different rhythm from your time at home. Maybe you won't use a book. You might speak Scripture from memory. You might focus your family time on prayer. Or on journaling individually.

God will guide as you plan for vacation. His yoke is easy and his burden is light (i.e. not legalistic!). Ask for the Spirit to light the way to a plan that's just right for your family's next getaway. Then, when I bump into you and ask, "Do you take God on vacation?" you can tell me about all the ways you got away from home while getting closer to God in the face of new vistas and inspiring surroundings. I can't wait to hear all about it!

The Poison in Every Day

© Veronica Foale. Used under Creative Commons License. I've thought a lot about sin and how we define sin these days, especially with kids. I went through many hours of training with the organization Child Evangelism Fellowship, and we memorized a definition, with motions, for sin.

"Sin is anything I think, say, or do that makes God sad or breaks his rules."

In my years of church and Bible club teaching, I've used the definition countless times in explaining and reminding kids as we talk about sin and salvation. But over time I've tweaked the definition to make it one I think will speak to kids even better ... and will travel with them as they grow.

"Sin is anything I think, say, or do that makes God sad because I'm doing it my way instead of God's way."

We live in a Postmodern world where truth is thought to be relative and so right and wrong are simply matters of personal decision. Really, the words right and wrong don't have much of a place in our culture anymore. And while most young children don't have issues with understanding sin and their own wrong-doing, the world they live in will soon test their inborn convictions.

All of these realities came to mind as two of my boys and I read John 7, a passage where Jesus stays away from Judea because the Jews are looking for an opportunity to kill him. "The world ... hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil" (v. 7). As we used our Good Dirt devotional we talked about why people don't like admitting they are wrong. And we talked about the discipline of Confession, telling God the truth about ourselves.

We took some quiet moments to pray silently, each of us, confessing our sin to God and asking for forgiveness. It was good time. Often in the past I have prayed with the boys before bed and asked God to forgive "us" for our sin from the day, knowing that we can only ask forgiveness for our own selves, but hoping my boys will take to this prayer of confession and make it their own. How much better, though, to let the quiet give them a place to do it personally, right here and now.

How often we forget even to acknowledge sin and ask forgiveness. It's so easy, on our own and with kids in prayer, to ask for things and thank God for blessings. We're forgiven once and for all through Jesus' death on the cross. But we still struggle with sin in this life. Paul talks about it often in his letters in the Bible. Without regular confession of sin, and the receiving of God's forgiveness, our hearts can't stay tender and humble, letting God be God.

I recently heard the author of a children's Bible speak on the radio. Sally Lloyd Jones (The Jesus Storybook Bible) talked about how we can explain sin to children.

"It's like running away and hiding and thinking you can be happy without God, but God knows there is no such thing."

"It's a poison that makes your heart sick, so it won't work properly anymore."

When Jesus came to walk the earth and live with people, he was all about the heart. Everything we do and are is an overflow of the heart, Jesus stressed again and again. The heart can't be happy without God. And the heart can't be healthy without God.

May we, and our kids, guard our hearts every day by telling on ourselves. We need the discipline of Confession. It will travel with us as we grow.

What's a Hypocrite?

I don't think we've had this particular discussion before with the boys. It was verses from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) and questions in Good Dirt that got their wheels turning and, before we'd even finished the Scripture reading our 8-year-old was interrupting with, "What's a hypocrite? ... What's a hypocrite?" They couldn't really identify with Jesus' examples of blowing trumpets when giving money in church, or praying really loud on street corners, or fasting from food with troubled faces. So, the challenge was to bring hypocrisy to a kid's level.

"It's doing things so that other people will think you're a really good Christian, but you don't mean them in your heart. It's caring more about what other people think of you than what God thinks of you."

Well, that description seemed to satisfy. Except that our two younger boys haven't reached the place in life quite yet where they would conceive of doing good deeds to impress other people. It's not a motivation that resonates a whole lot with them. What you see is what you get.

However, as I've thought a little more on this, I've realized that we adults can sometimes use subtle ways of encouraging hypocrisy in our kids before they even really understand what they--and we-- are doing. For awhile our Christian school used a popular behavior program called Positive Behavior Management, where instead of focusing primarily on giving consequences for unacceptable behavior, teachers focused on praising and rewarding good and appropriate behavior. It was a big hit with the kids and it really did make a difference in the overall demeanor of the student body in classrooms and on the playground.  The kids rose to the occasion and loved being singled out for doing good things.

I wouldn't throw out this program completely. Encouraging kids is always good. Noticing the things they do right is biblical--the apostle Paul praised churches and individuals in his letters of exhortation. Praising those around us is part of loving them. The rub comes, though, when we consider what is motivating our kids to be "good," day in and day out, as they play with friends, serve their teachers and neighbors, and as they live as members of families in our homes.

That is what we ended up talking about this night where hypocrisy became our new vocabulary word. And Good Dirt helped us come to the crux of the issue with these words,

Today, Jesus is teaching us that because it is God whom we really need--not other people's approval--we don't need to act, perform, or pretend to be good to impress others. Let's practice that today by doing an act of secret service! Try not to be caught! Do something nice for someone else--maybe clean up after them when they're not looking, or make something nice for them, or do a chore for them--without telling anyone. Do it so only God sees!

That night our boys prayed, "Lord, help us not to be hypocrites. Help us not to have hypROCKrisy. Help us to do something in secret. Amen" The next night, again, they prayed for help in doing something secret--they'd forgotten. This may be an ongoing prayer. I don't think doing things in secret comes so naturally. It will be a good daily prayer for us all.

***You can get the next issue of Good Dirt by clicking on the title here and downloading for free, or you can order through Amazon. It's titled Good Dirt: Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide A Devotional for the Spiritual Formation of Families

Going for Gold

© Jon Wick, used under Creative Commons License. Olympic season and the Quinns are taking in some winter sports in Russia these days! We're rooting not only for the USA but also for Norway, Switzerland, and the Ukraine. Our high-schooler is part of a competition in his Global Community class and his threesome bid for these countries in their class Olympics. They chose well; we've celebrated more than a few golds.

It's fun to watch these exotic winter games and witness the amazing victories, along with the crushing upsets, injuries, and nerve-wracked sub-par performances. As we do, though, the mom in me can't help but ask questions that span far beyond Russia. It's these questions that run deep and wide, but that really circle back to the heart of each one of us and what it is that we're really striving after.

Is it gold medals and physical accomplishments my kids look to as the height of success? Does the personal training and dedication of these athletes mirror, for my kids--and, yes, for us parents--the training we do on the inside of us in our life with Jesus? Does the single-focused living these athletes must embrace point us toward single-focused lives where Christ is Coach and Trainer and we choose a run with Him that is for a lifetime, no turning back and in pursuit of a prize that doesn't wear out?

Or does the glory dwell just here, in Sochi and in the athletic accomplishments on snow and ice?

God's timing is good. On a Friday night we open Good Dirt and read from Mark 10. Two disciples are asking Jesus about receiving places of honor next to him someday in glory. Jesus proceeds to turn glory upside-down as he answers. "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. "

So, we talk about serving, about using our bodies for others and getting nothing in return. We talk about seeing the needs of other people and thinking about how we can meet those needs. We talk about praying. And we ponder the question, "How can you choose not to get your way?"

The next morning, this mom continues her own pondering. I'm banking on the fact that God's Word is alive and active. The words of Jesus take on a life inside my kids that no skier slaloming down a hill can ever do.

And then, before climbing out of bed I flip on a light, prop my pillows and read these words from Dallas Willard:

But Christ-likeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment. It is, finally, a gift of grace. The resources for it are not human, but come from the interactive presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who place their confidence in Christ, as well as from the spiritual treasures stored in the body of Christ's people upon the earth. Therefore it is not formation of the spirit or inner being of the individual that we have in mind, but also formation by the Spirit of God and by the spiritual riches of Christ's continuing incarnation in his people, past and present--including, most prominently, the treasures of his written and spoken word. ~ The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship, pp. 105-106

Thank you, God, for speaking into the Olympics. Thank you, Jesus, for speaking with your life and truth into this family and into this global community of people who need, more than anything, your gift of grace.

Just Like a Snowflake

© Julie Falk. Used under Creative Commons License This week we reach the mid-point of Epiphany, and this morning two of my boys and I had a fitting conversation on the way to school. First, I will backtrack.

We started off Ephiphany in early January talking about Jesus, the Light of the World. This season of Epiphany (between Christmastide and Lent) is focused on just that--Jesus revealed to us as Savior, Messiah, Light of the World. And as we have basked in the glow of Jesus during this season, we have also considered how he calls us to let our light shine before others. Our family has prayed many prayers thanking Jesus for being the Light and asking him to shine his light in our lives. I wrote a blog about how we even entered into discussions of Jesus, the Light, with our neighbors one night.

The family and neighbor time has been meaningful, though devotional. We don't often know how the talk will translate into the rest of life. And then last week my 8-year-old came home from school with a paper from Bible class asking what he could do to help another who was hurting. His answer, in a 3rd grader's block print, was to

"share the light with them."

And then this morning on the way to school, after a weekend of Colorado snow and cold, this same 8-year-old asks, "Mom, why does the snow sparkle?"

"Well, snowflakes are little ice crystals, and when light shines on water or ice it reflects back to us and sparkles."

And then Derrin's response, "Why  doesn't dirty snow sparkle?"

Hmmm... Teaching moment appears, despite early morning and a Monday. "Dirt fills up the snowflake so that light can't shine through it. It's kind of like sin, huh? When we're filled with sin we can't shine Jesus' light. But when Jesus' life is living in us it clears away the dirt so that we can shine just like a clean snowflake. "

The car gets quiet and we ride alongside banks of clean, sparkling snow and also dull, dirty roadside slush.  I think about how God brings truth to life again and again in our lives. His Word is living and active--with a house full of people of many ages and backgrounds, at a 3rd grader's desk, in a car on an almost-tardy morning. And God lives through his Word, through Jesus' life in us, differently every time and for each person. Kind of like a snowflake. No two are the same. Every time, every one, new and unique.

An Epiphany of shining moments.  An Epiphany of Light.

Dirty Work and New Growth

sprout Kids never cease to surprise. Over Christmastide, the period of the twelve days of Christmas beginning December 25, our family had a time of sitting together and focusing for more than 30 minutes on both the spiritual parallels for the 12 Days of Christmas song and then on what spiritual disciplines are, why we practice them, and some discussion on a few specific disciplines.

We are using a book titled Good Dirt: A Devotional for the Spiritual Formation of Families by Lacy Finn Borgo and Ben Barczi (which you can download for free to use with your family or purchase in paperback from Amazon, with two  subsequent issues for upcoming parts of the church year available soon). The book has a brief family devotion for every day, centered around the theme of planting and growing--our souls, both kids and adults, are like plants that need good dirt and helpful conditions in order to grow and flourish with God. Each of the few steps in the daily devotion fills a planting metaphor: we till the soil with prayer, we plant the seed of God's Word by reading a noted Scripture passage, we water the soil by acting a story, drawing a picture, or talking about how God's Word applies to our lives, and later on we weed, considering how we applied or failed to apply these themes in our day.

Our family has taken easily to the Good Dirt format and we've experienced meaningful times of listening to God and each other. That day during Christmastide stands out because we'd had a few days of being in and out of the house, active with extended family and various activities of the Christmas season. We had not spent time in our Good Dirt devotions for three or four days and there was much good material we'd missed. On this day, we started by discovering what none of us had known:

"Some say that the words of the [Twelve Days of Christmas] song were secret code for people to remember their faith during times of persecution." ~ Good Dirt

For example, a partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments, three French hens are the three virtues listed in 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love, and on it goes. This song with it's Christian faith parallels is a fun way to help kids review important, foundational themes of our faith.

The Christmastide period, being twelve days, also fits ideally for bringing into discussion each of the twelve spiritual disciplines (as identified by Richard Foster in his classic book Celebration of Discipline). These disciplines are grouped by inner, outer, and corporate disciplines and include prayer, meditation, study, fasting, simplicity, solitude, service, submission, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. They all will be re-visited throughout the coming year in Good Dirt.

I mentioned that kids never cease to surprise, and here is why. On this day during Christmas, we didn't set out to make up all of our lost ground in the devotional. We just started reading together and one thing led to another. Before we'd realized it, we had spent time on the song, talking about spiritual disciplines, and reviewing the first disciplines covered in the days we'd missed. And our boys tracked with us on every bit of it!

Our 8-year-old has been in perpetual motion since he was a toddler. He focuses just fine but cannot stop moving his body. Every Good Dirt session he is rolling on the floor, playing with a ball, walking around, or moving in some other sort of way. He learns and processes by moving;  it's just who he is. Our 14-year-old is a teenager. He's wonderful ... and also a little hormonal at times. Our middle guy at age 11 is on the quieter side. He usually ends up helping to re-direct his brothers.

Three personalities, three stages in childhood. So, the reality of sitting for such a long period together and discussing some pretty involved areas of theology and spiritual training is something I wouldn't have thought possible or advisable for us or anyone. Yet it became a time of fun and absorbing discussion and learning.

I've often thought about how much I have read and learned and experienced in my life with God and his people in the years I've lived, and how I want to share so much of that with my kids. A lot does come up in the living of life, often at the most unexpected moments. Yet, some of what I hope to share with them, like the spiritual disciplines and some of the more complex foundations of our faith, seems to stay on the periphery of our lives together, and though these do come into conversation at times, sometimes they do so without much framework or intentional commitment toward living out and practicing these habits and truths  in ongoing ways.

Good Dirt has begun to change that. I'm learning about my kids in the process. They are deep people. They can discuss and absorb spiritual ideas typically thought to be adult territory without missing a beat. They can venture deeper in their lives with God. We can do it together and learn from one another and God in simultaneous ways.

Getting dirty together has its benefits. Everything may not work, but sometimes the things we never would have tried become the soil for a brand new season of growth.

Have you experienced a similar time of spiritual growth with your children, where a surprising and unexpected route became a catalyst? Would it help your family to try out a resource like Good Dirt?

**You can follow various families blogging on their use of Good Dirt and its themes by subscribing for free here.

Light for the New Year, Light for the Neighborhood

Used under Creative Commons License.
Used under Creative Commons License.

Part of Anne Lamott's story  has stayed with me like a persistent whisper even years after reading her memoir Traveling Mercies. A few families in her childhood opened their lives and gave her a sense of God and his Word and life with him. Her own parents didn't believe, yet in a 1960's San Francisco culture of drugs and alcohol Anne was drawn to God. She experienced life with the believing families of various friends and her own sense of a living, personal God took root.

We Quinns live in a busy suburb here in Colorado, surrounded by houses next door, behind, and across the street. Mormons live behind us, several Hindu families from India are down the street, and a mix of other Christian and unbelieving households live all around. Our culture doesn't mirror Lamott's of the '60s, but we have our own demons to be sure. We've walked with neighbors through deaths on each side of our home, one a suicide and one a father with Cystic Fibrosis. We feel the weight of materialism, strained marriages, self- and entertainment-focused living, career pressures.  Our street has seen a baby born to an unwed 19-year-old, teenagers crawling out of upstairs windows at night, a marriage happen between singles who shared a back fence, divorce, and lots of pet-sitting, lawn-mowing, house-siting, even a dog swap!

We love the people who share this little piece of Colorado with us. We've gotten to know many of them and we spend considerable time with some. I pray for neighbors almost daily as I walk for exercise, we pray for them at family meal times, and we try to follow the Spirit's moving to share the with-God life as we try and live it. We Quinns are so flawed ... we fumble all the time in loving each other and others ... we're so much on the journey ourselves. But somehow--I think it's like the mustard seed that Jesus' preached--God's presence takes hold and He enters lives.

New Year's Eve each year we get together with the family across the street. Fondue, games, and ringing in the New Year has become a tradition all the kids relish, and this year we added some Good Dirt! Our neighbor kids didn't understand about "family devotion time" so we talked about it when they came early before dinner. After the long meal around pots and platters of food, we read about Service and talked about what a spiritual discipline is. Our 8-year-old has trouble transferring that word discipline into the "good" category, so we all went round some more together on the concept, and then our teenager read about Jesus, the Light of the world. Our neighbor parents jumped in with ideas on when we might need Jesus' light in our lives. All the kids agreed that when they're afraid of monsters, Jesus' light is a good thing, and sometimes when they're at school they really need the light of Christ for help.

Those minutes of sitting together focused on Jesus were a bright spot New Year's Eve; Jesus' light indeed filled our time together. I hope these kinds of moments continue to fill our year. I want to thank Lacy and Ben for writing Good Dirt, for putting together this blogging community, and for overseeing the process as we all journey together. Jesus' light is reaching our family in warm, daily ways. And it's reaching our neighborhood family, too. We'll never be anyone's salvation. But Jesus the Savior might be. Yes, come Lord Jesus.

"Whoever follows me ... will have the light of life." John 7:12

Pondering All These Things

© macinate, used under Creative Commons License. How is it that amid all the bustle and keeping of commitments during this season, a mother can be deep in thought about the future and the present and the shape of her kids' spirits? It makes me smile to realize that the pondering I'm doing is not really so odd. There was another mother who pondered the child she held and the shape of his future and his spirit.

"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." Luke 2:19

Mary pondered Jesus' life on the day of his birth, and all these years later as we look back on that humble yet glorious day, I feel in the best of company doing some pondering at Christmas over three boys and the way the Spirit of Christ is forming and shaping their futures.

Are they growing more and more in their sense that God is life and life is God? Do they get that what matters most is a life lived daily with God? Are they learning to be still inside and listen to the voice of the Spirit? Are they learning to live and grow in community with the people of God? Are they learning to choose the hard way  sometimes rather than the easy way or the attractive way or the natural way because sometimes it's the road more difficult that brings life?

Mary pondered how the particulars would play out for this Savior babe. She considered how it would be that the Child born of her loins would mean eternity for every soul to ever live.

And I ponder how this Christ Child will day by day, year by year draw my children into an ever-deepening life with himself, Immanuel, God-with-us. As we focus with our boys on Jesus' birth, I think along with Mary about all Jesus means to me and to them.  It's the story of Jesus that I ponder as I consider my kids' stories and how they will live into--and out of-- this story of Christ.

Christmas and pondering. The season of the Story gives us mothers and fathers a lot to think about.

The Many Voices of Christmas

© Luke Saagi, used under Creative Commons License.
© Luke Saagi, used under Creative Commons License.

What's not to like about Christmas? It's a wonderful season. The music and good cheer, bright lights and parties, secrets and stories and sentiment. It's a magical time for children, and a time that as parents we love for our children's sake even as we cherish quietly, and with them, the focal point of the whole celebration--the coming of Jesus to our lives.

This will be our fourteenth Christmas with children, and as I think back on the years and look toward another celebration this month, its the voices of Christmas that come flooding to mind. The voices that have spoken into our choices about what and how to celebrate...

"What if Christmas, [Grinch] thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!”

Three gifts for each child--Gold, something they will value and treasure. Frankincense, a gift to help them meet with God. Myrrh, something to anoint and care for their body.

Sinter Klaus Day, Dec. 6. A first gift to each child in celebration of the caring bishop who provided dowry's for girls without one.

A birthday cake for Jesus on December 25.

Cub scout giving of gifts to needy families. Operation Christmas Child gift boxes. Gifts to men and women  serving far away in the military. Gifts to orphans  in Africa and others at risk worldwide.

Advent wreath lighting and reflection.

Epiphany remembrance and observance.

Creative and tasty gifts for neighbors.

Crafty holiday touches throughout the house.

Meal traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning and Christmas lunch.

Caroling in nursing homes.

Gingerbread houses and cookie exchanges.

"Bah," said Scrooge, "Humbug."

Oh, the list goes on. Each of us with many voices, many choices before us each year as we hurtle from Thanksgiving to Christmas and New Year's. And laid back as we might be, surely we all have to squelch just the vaguest inclination toward a "Bah, humbug" as we spend our December days determined to remember the reason for the season and to keep the meaning the main thing as we live out all the ways of doing that.

Just last week I heard on the radio that many years ago, Christmas was not even celebrated. The church celebrated Easter in a big way, but because birthdays were not celebrated overall, the birth of Jesus just was not a church holy day. The thought. No Christmas, compared to ChristmasofToday. It's a startling dichotomy.

An article by Eugene Petersen tells the story of his family's Christmas when he was eight. Eugene's mother had found  a passage in Jeremiah that seemed to speak against the tradition of Christmas trees, and so that year, much to his own and his neighbors' chagrine, his family had no tree.  He reflects back now:

Mother, thank you ...  for providing me with a taste of the humiliation that comes from pursuing a passionate conviction in Christ. Thank you for introducing into my spirit a seed of discontent with all cultural displays of religion, a seed that has since grown tree-sized. Thank you for being relaxed in grace and reckless enough to risk a mistake. Thank you for being scornful of caution and careless of opinion. Thank you for training me in discernments that in adult years have been a shield against the seduction of culture-religion. Thank you for the courage to give me Jesus without tinsel, embarrassing as it was for me (and also for you?). Thank you for taking away the Christmas tree the winter I was eight years old. And thank you for giving it back the next year.

I don't know that we ever settle into an easy, contented Christmas rhythm. Much as we would like to, the good and the tradition and the holy are so intermingled that, without tossing away the holiday and stepping back a few hundred years, we can't escape the cacophony of voices and choices year by year.

For me, one voice helps bring perspective each time I feel I've failed or fallen irreparably behind. Funny, it's Scrooge again, but later in the story: “I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”

Each day, all year, is a celebration of Jesus' life come to change mine. Each day is the time to spend meaningful moments with family, to care for another in need, to offer a thought-filled gift, to meet God in his Word over the light of a candle. It's a wonderful season, and all the more when we let Christmas illumine each day of our lives.

Recipe for a Happy Thanksgiving

Folded up in the back of my recipe box are greasy sheets of notebook paper filled with Mike's scrawling. Homemade stuffing. How to make turkey gravy. How to stuff the turkey. How to make a pie crust. All written during numerous phone calls with his mom between Denver and Chicago. They're from our first years of marriage, and those greasy pages have guided us through many a Thanksgiving production over the years. Early on, Mike's parents came for the holiday about every other year; eventually they moved here. My mom and extended family have always come, and year by year a baby or two joined the mix--a child of ours, a new cousin. For so many years the cooking happened in-between nursing and diaper changes, naps and play breaks. We set up assembly lines of bread and vegetable chopping, onion-simmering, turkey-cleaning. Grandparents came a day early for food prep, and year by year the boys began to grasp that Thanksgiving is all about lots of commotion, good smells, plans with family, hours of play time with cousins, games and sitting close with grandparents, and sometimes new, friendly faces.

If I'm honest, there have been tiring days and weeks getting ready for these gatherings. We've had plenty of cooking fiascos. Just last year the foil turkey pan was gouged with a knife and I found turkey juice and oil days later seeped down inside the cupboard. But it's also gotten a little easier over time. The recipes have become so familiar we don't have to pull them out and follow the steps. The boys help with food and place cards. It's become a traditional, anticipated season.

Not so in my own childhood. Holiday traditions took a turn when my parents split up and each year became a different combination of here and there and what and how. We gave up on tradition and, without saying it in so many words, simply accepted each holiday for what it brought and who we were with. Now, two of my siblings and one of Mike's also face this reality of back and forth with kids and ex-spouses. Once again, we all have learned to take the day as it comes.

When I think about Thanksgiving as a parent and as a moderately accomplished Thanksgiving chef who accepts any and all help, I come back to those gravy-stained recipes and realize that family love and grace, shared together and with others, is what holidays are meant to be in the spirit of Jesus. Tradition is wonderful when it fits. When that recipe doesn't work, flexing with one another and appreciating each hour for what it brings is really what it means to be grateful. No doubt all our families are stained and worn in one way or another. It's in unfolding those grease-covered pages of our lives and partaking together in whatever the day holds that we really live out with our kids the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Meet the Quinns: An Unlikely Journey

quinn
quinn

We’re an unlikely family. Mike and I married after being single for quite a few years, and then we waited a few more years to have kids. As two introverts who are very content reading the evening away, we’d have laughed you out of town if you’d told us we had three lively boys in our future.

Well, laughter happened over a baby in the Bible. It seems that baby surprises are more common than not when God is on the move. And so here we are, fourteen years later and still wondering how in the world you parent boys, how you keep a household running and clean and fun and meaningful as the world presses in on all sides and the culture won’t pipe down about what we need to do, watch, buy, see, and be.

It’s hard to parent day in and day out. Hard to keep up with children’s changing stages and capabilities. Hard to know when to let it be hard and enforce anyway, and when to let up and let them own their choices. And hard to stay connected personally with God while also teaching and guiding our kids in spiritual growth.

The parable of the soils is one of my long-time favorites. I’ve known Jesus since I was small and for many years I’ve carried with me the mental image of good dirt, of green things growing and thriving in dark, wet soil. It’s a metaphor that’s always worked for me and it’s been the focus of my prayers for people I’ve loved. Being dirty is pretty common around our house. Being good dirt, though, isn’t a given, for me or for my kids. I hope it will be true for us, nonetheless.

And so, this Good Dirt adventure is one Mike and I are eager to enter and live out together with our kids. Helping them to understand the spiritual disciplines, letting them experience how the choices in our days make us who we are in God, helping them to see that words and habits and attitudes of the heart matter a lot, that our life with God is worth more than anything else in this life. This is what we’re seeking. This is the quest for the Good Dirt.

An unlikely journey? Maybe. But unlikely journeys are always part of the story when God is on the move. We’re looking forward to embarking on the Good Dirt adventure together with you.