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Raising Children in a Success Obsessed World

High school graduation is a wonderful high point in a teen’s life. Even after 22 years of teaching, I am always amazed at the transformation four years brings in the life of my students. But this year, as I watched them cross that stage, I was both impressed and bothered.

Looking for Success in all the Wrong Places

After the valedictorians gave their speeches, and those who were given the highest awards were announced, the students were then announced in this manner, “Sally Johnson, graduating with high honors. Graduating with honors, Joseph Brown….” As I listened to their familiar names, I started to question how we as a culture measure success. According to this ceremony, success is based on grades and advanced classes. But what of that student who is the first to graduate in his family?  The one who persevered despite homelessness, lack of home support, substance abuse, financial strain, or family obligations? What about those who overcame obstacles of disabilities, whether it be physical, mental, or academic? Indeed, our culture’s definition of success seems narrow and is far different from how the Bible views success.

Our culture pursues being the best. And parents ready their children to be the best at a young age. Children attend expensive preschools to prepare them for the highest rated elementary schools. They often participate in multiple extra-curricular activities a week, attend exclusive camps, have specialized tutors—all to rise above the rest and be considered “a success.” The rise of social media only fuels this drive for success as parents share all their children’s accomplishments online for the all world to see.

Success in the Bible

But despite this “look-at-me” world, God has a different view of success. In 1 Samuel, God sends Samuel to anoint Israel’s next king. He tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance . . For the Lord sees not as a man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7)…

When Pelicans Can’t Fly: God’s Comfort in Our Pain

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. I’ve been known to pull off the road to move a turtle out of harm’s way, and I’ve taken home one too many little rodents after stopping by the pet store. My husband fears what might end up tagging along home with me every time I say, “Just running out to grab some dog food.”

While on vacation, we took an evening stroll on the beach and I noticed a pelican in front of us standing strangely still. As we got closer, it became apparent that the bird was hurt due to a fishing hook caught in its wing. True to my nature, my heart went out to the creature who was clearly helpless in his plight and fearful because of our close proximity. I wanted so badly to fix the injured wing so it could soar again, but there was little I could do, and the bird was incapable of helping itself.

Unable and Helpless

I thought of this pelican a few times since returning home. Its presence was a vivid picture of my own inability to fix the brokenness I feel internally and that I see in the world around me. There have been times when personal suffering has felt paralyzing because no matter what direction I move, the pain still lingers. And as I watch headlines that blare agony, disillusionment, and death, I again feel unable and helpless.

Paul was a man who knew suffering, and we see just a glimpse of the extent to which he suffered in his second letter to the Corinthians…

What’s a White Church Lady to Do?

I’m no expert on race relations. Far from it. But I am experienced in messing up when it comes to race.

As a white woman who spent most of her life in Mississippi, I should have been prepared for God to expose some blind spots. After all, for years He’s continually peeled back layer after layer of how I selfishly see the world around me. First, He started by letting me see other people at all. When I was young, He pointed out the girl who did not quite fit in at elementary school. As a shy adult, I felt Him urge me to go up to a church visitor and introduce myself. After I recently moved to another state, He forced me to be the new person, understanding what it feels like to be unsure of social cues, blushing when I stood alone at a church event, or dreading more small talk while hoping it would yield a friend I could share a cup of coffee with.

Lately God is peeling back another layer, showing me how I don’t love my black neighbors well.

Wanting to Help

Weeks ago, I watched the news of George Floyd. I heard the helicopters swirling over nearby protest marches. News like his death had bothered me before, yet those stories seemed to be just that, stories that happened “somewhere else.” The coverage of George Floyd’s death felt different. Instead of my usual reaction of thinking wow, that’s terrible or talking about it with my husband after work, I felt restless and like I should do something. But I didn’t know what.

God gently peeled back to the next layer of sin—my lack of empathy. He convicted me to check in on my black friends. And, I felt ashamed I did not have many black friends to check on. One friend was back in Mississippi. We had served together in church ministry. After I moved to Texas, she checked on me if she heard of fires or storms happening in my new home state. I asked myself now, why was I not checking on her in the wake of all this?

Our friendship had included talking about race in how we did church ministry, but I had not connected the dots of thinking of her in context of the national news. As a mother of a black son. A wife of a black man. The things I would do for any friend— call, text, write, give space to process, make banana bread for— did not occur to me as it would if my same black friend had suffered a miscarriage, gotten a cancer diagnosis, or lost her mother. I did not understand how the knee on George Floyd affected my friends of color. I was a fool for not seeing it. It would be unloving to not reach out.

Then, I went to fear. What to say? What if I made things worse? I had not read enough books about race in the church. I regretted my failure to educate myself, and I felt painfully unprepared to love my black friends….

A Prayer for Abiding in Christ

“Get rooted.” It’s a quiet whisper the Holy Spirit impresses upon my heart when my mind starts to spiral or I’m tempted to react irritability or angrily to my outward circumstances, namely my kids. I’m thankful for this kind, yet bold reminder that stems from Isaiah 26:3 – “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts you.”

I’ve ruminated on the gospel of Mark quite a bit lately. A major theme I’ve noticed is the crowd that follows Jesus, literally, everywhere, day and night, constantly pressing in with their needs. I’ve noticed that Jesus responds quite differently than I tend to – He has pity, He shows compassion, and mostly, He stays at peace.

Even their constant need, and I mean constant need (check out Mark chapter 1), doesn’t disturb His inner peace. It doesn’t disturb Him abiding in the Father’s love. Anybody else have a posse of little kids? You can quickly relate to the constant following, the never-ending need, and even franticness when they think the need will not be met.

And yet, Jesus. 

Sometimes I think it’s easy to forget that Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully man. The author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus was made like us, in every respect:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16; also see Hebrews 1:10-18)….

The God Who Sees

So, she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing, for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”

Hagar and the angel of the Lord in the wilderness are an important piece to the relational gospel story between God and His people. It is a story for those who feel weak, used, abused, abandoned, those who are aliens, and those who long to be seen. El Roi is the God who sees us. This name of God is revealed in Genesis 16. Hagar refers to God as El Roi in verse 13, but to understand the importance of this name we have to see the name in the context of the entire story.

In Genesis 16 we see Sarai desperately wanting to push God’s covenant promise along in her own human effort, control, and plans. In the text of Genesis 16 we see she suggests to Abram that he take her maidservant to be his wife. Neither Abram nor Sarai refer to Hagar by name in this entire account recorded by Moses in Genesis 16. She is a maidservant, an Egyptian in slavery in a foreign land, and she is used as an object by Abram and Sarai—unseen to them as the named woman, by the personal name Hagar—to Abram and Sarai, she is servant or just a pronoun.

After Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarai deals harshly with her and Hagar flees. Hagar is pregnant, an alien in a foreign land, and up until this point has not been referred to by her personal name. She flees to a place on the way to Shur—a place that is so far from where Abram and Sarai lived that she must have traveled a very long way on foot to escape the mistress who mistreated her, never called her by her personal name, and dealt with her harshly.

In the desert, the angel of the Lord speaks to her and calls her by her personal name for the first time in the text of Genesis 16. In Hagar’s response to the angel of the Lord, we see for the first time in Scripture, the recorded name of the God who sees, El Roi—the God who sees me…

Swimming in Grace

This is a fish story. This is not a grandiose tale of record-breaking sizes nor of hard-fought battles of rod and reel, waves and wrestling. The scale is smaller and the location is my daughter K.’s apartment, in an aquarium that is home to Bob, the longear sunfish. Bob’s home is lush with green plants, their leaves wave gently in the water. The rugged stones on the floor of the tank afford him places to hide, rest, and dart about. Floating through the water are smaller fish, the same kinds he was used to eating in the Tennessee waters from whence he came. All in all, a pretty good life for a fish. Except it wasn’t.

In case you are wondering if maybe you’ve stumbled onto the wrong blog (fish?) let me assure you that I think I’m on pretty safe ground using a fish for an illustration. The world God made is rich with objects, analogies, comparisons, and every wonderful thing to use as a picture to help us know him better. Camels, sheep, lamps, and coins – when we have eyes to see – help us to understand abstract truths in a concrete way. Think back to your favorite Bible stories and I’ll bet you can think of a fish or two.

A Certain Death

This fish was dying. The problem seemed obvious. Bob suffered from an ailment called “popeye,” where a fluid build-up caused his eyes to bulge out wildly, marring the appearance of his beautiful turquoise and orange body. Blinded, he kept swimming straight into the glass walls of the aquarium, unable to eat, and slowly starving to death. My daughter tried to give him different food, improve the condition of the water, and even treat the water itself with medicine— all futile efforts. Bob’s blindness was due to an underlying infection, and without treating that, he would not make it.

The problem was, how do you get medicine into a fish that won’t, or can’t, eat? K. sought a solution. Thanks to the Internet, You Tube, and a knowledgeable pet store owner, she found it. First she had to create a paste made of bloodworms (larvae that fish love to eat) and antibiotics. Next she put the medicated food into a syringe. Afterward she gently reached into the aquarium, took hold of the fish, and with her other hand used the syringe to squirt the food into its mouth.

What a beautiful illustration of the gospel! Here are some truths I noticed. Perhaps you can find even more!

An Illness

A host of problems plagued this fish. He was blind, ill, and starving. Fixing the obvious problem— his blindness— wasn’t enough. The greater, underlying infection needed to be dealt with. What a picture of our hopeless, sinful selves! Remember what Jesus said to the paralytic, handed down through the roof by his caring friends? “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). Paralysis was not the worst of his problems. And the problems that paralyze us are minor compared to our overarching problem. Our sins need to be forgiven. Friends, whatever problem or need initially drew us to Jesus, we needed to realize our real problem was our separation from God. We needed to be reconciled with him….

When a Tree Falls: God’s Faithfulness in Trials

In September of 2019 I embarked on a journey along with my husband. He walked 1,300 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Orlando, Florida; I biked 310 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC.

My husband loves doing crazy things and for some reason, I typically come alongside him!

An Unexpected Obstacle

For the first 310 miles of his “walk” I biked “with” him, although 98% of the time I was alone on the trail. He would get up each morning and begin his day on the trail while I drove 20-25 miles ahead to a trailhead, where I would park my car unload my bike and all the gear, get on my bike and ride back toward him, typically about 11 or 12 miles. Then once we met up, I would bike ahead of him his last 11 or 12 miles for the day, waiting for him every 5 miles until we reached the car. We would then set up camp and sleep until morning. We repeated this daily until we reached Washington, DC. (At this point our friend supported him with an RV and I drove to Florida to await his arrival 55 days later.)

I consider myself a “brave chicken.” I typically think of everything that could possibly go wrong with a plan, but I tell myself that if I don’t do “it” I will miss out, so I push through with my chicken heart and my brave soul! This usually consists of a lot of research, planning, and even more prayer.

But sometimes, even with all the research, planning, and prayer, the unexpected arises. And on this journey, it came about on Day Two. I was about 6 miles into my morning ride heading toward my husband, when I encountered a huge tree that had fallen on the trail. There was no way around it, over it, or under it. My only option was to go through it, carrying my gear laden bike. I had to lift it over part of the tree while ducking under a huge branch. There was also a tangled mess of vines I had to precariously walk through while I was climbing, carrying, and ducking!!

God’s Faithfulness Through Trials

Once I got through this obstacle, I took a break to reflect a bit on the scene. I was instantly reminded of my life—a life that has been filled with many unexpected tragic events that can seem overwhelming if I dwell on them too much. It made me consider the truth that in each of these events, there was no way around, over, or under, only through them. And it was through those situations that God refined me. His plans for each of these tragedies in my life drew me closer to Him in ways that on my own I could never have handled. Even in the events that occurred prior to my salvation, He used to prepare me to trust Him….