How to make 2017 a better year

“2016 has been the worst year ever,” a friend posted on Facebook.

I personally think that’s a little extreme,…2016 may have had its ups and downs, but worst year ever?

Have they seen all the other years?

I kid. I kid.

As parents, we know what it is like to see the year turn from good to bad, even to “the worst year ever.” School doesn’t go how you or your child thought it would go. Your child’s team doesn’t do as well as she wanted. There’s unexpected injuries, sicknesses, relationship problems, drama of all kinds, and a never-ending list of things that can frustrate your family’s year.

As we step into 2017 you may wonder, is it even possible to have a good year?

I think it is.

If we fill our year with good things.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

Did Jesus just call us evil?

Yes. Yes, he did.

But that’s not his main point. His main point is, even if evil parents (like you and me) know how to give our children good gifts, how much more able is our perfect heavenly Father to give good gifts to his children. Which means, if you and I want good things for our families from God our Father, all we have to do is ask.

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “I have asked. And nothing happened.”

Yeah, I’ve been there. It stinks.

But in that stinky disposition I’ve found it helpful to ask God another question, “What do you (God) consider a good gift?” Because, let’s face it, God may be giving us good gifts, but we just don’t recognize them.

So what does God consider a good gift?

Not surprisingly, Himself.

We see this in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus says the same thing (likely to a different audience) as he did in the Gospel of Matthew, but this time there is a slight difference.

Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

Did you catch it?

In Luke, Jesus said, the good gift the Father will give to his children who ask, is the Holy Spirit. Why is that a good thing?

The Apostle Paul tells us, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 3:22-23)

Imagine 2017 being a year where your family is filled with more love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more goodness, more faithfulness, more gentleness, and more self- control.

I don’t know about you, but that seems like a pretty good year to me. And all we have to do is ask.

2017 will be filled with up and downs for our families but it doesn’t have to be the worst year ever.

Parents, ask your heavenly Father to give you and your family good gifts. No matter the time or the situation. No matter the drama at home, at work, or at school. Just ask.

He promises to give you a very good gift, his Holy Spirit. And a year filled with the Holy Spirit is a year filled with many good things.

Blessings,

One of the best gifts for children

When I was young I wanted to learn one skill—wiggling my ears.

My dad could do it. In fact, he enjoyed teaching others to do it too. He once taught every boy in my Cub Scout Den to do it—that is, every boy except me.

It wasn’t his fault, he tried. He instructed me the same way he did everyone else. Physically, I just couldn’t do it.

Thankfully, wiggling my ears turned out not to be an important skill for life. But of course, some skills are very important.

As a parent, we have the very difficult job of determining what skills are the most important to pass on to our children.

And often it’s not easy to choose.

What skills will help them to cope with pain and loss? What skills will help them succeed at school, or work, or just life? What skills will help them with relationships? What skills will prepare them for life as an adult in this crazy and broken world?

But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

What if, there is an easier way? What if, instead of stressing about all the skills we could or should teach our kids, God wants us to simply focus on teaching our children just one very important skill?

In the Bible one skill stands out above the rest:

“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

“And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20)

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect… for obedience to Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:1-2)

Did you notice a theme?

From God’s point of view, the most important skill any person could learn is to obey God. This is our “whole duty”.

But of course, we can’t obey someone we can’t hear. So unless we can also hear from God we’ll never be able to obey him. So the most important skill turns out to actually be two skills- the ability to hear God and the ability to obey God.

Hear. And obey. That is it.

Now, take a moment and think about how learning these skills would change your children’s life.

Just think for a moment about all the “big” decisions your children will make throughout life. Decisions like: What sport or club should I join? What classes should I take? Should I go to college? Where should I go to college? What job should I pursue? Should I date so and so? Should I marry so and so?  Or even just what should I wear today?

Now think about how much easier all these (and many more) “big” decisions become if our children know how to hear and obey God.

No more worrying about what activity or class they’re in, or what college they did or did not attend. No more worrying about what relationship did or did not work out, or what job they did or did not get. No more worrying about even what they did or did not wear today.

Rather, despite limitations or challenging life circumstances, they could know the peace of walking in and resting in God’s perfect will. They could experience the joy of knowing that they are right where God wants them to be.

Think about that for a moment.

Think about what a gift that would be for your children.

Do you want to give your children that gift?

If so, then take the first step by simply praying.

Pray and ask God to first give you the desire to hear and obey him.

Then, pray and ask God to help you show your children what he is showing you.

God will answer your prayers. He loves you. He loves your children.

And God knows, one of the very best gifts he could give you and your children, is the skill of learning to hear and obey his will.

Christmas Doubt

My older sister wanted to go to college out of state. We grew up in a small town in California. So she decided to go to college in New York City. It was as far out of state as she could get—both physically and metaphorically.

She wanted to see the world from a different perspective. And she did. As I remember it, this became clear one Christmas break when she announced that she was no longer a Christian.

It’s not an unfamiliar story to many parents.

Your son or daughter may or may not be in college. But at some point, your child (young or old) will question and maybe even walk away from the Christian faith.

A recent study by the Fuller Youth Institute found that “seventy percent of students…reported having doubts in high school about what they believed about God and the Christian faith.”  Often these times of doubt come during the Christmas season. Because it’s a natural time of year to reflect on whether or not the Christmas story and all it implies is really true.

How can parents respond?

Here are three simple responses that will help you help your children as they work through doubts and unbelief:

  1. Give your child time and space to share their doubts

Don’t respond first with arguments. Instead, listen to your child’s doubts. Ask them what led them to their doubt? Praise them for thinking seriously about matters of faith. Allow them to critique, challenge, and even deny their faith. Don’t critique their critiquing. Instead, ask questions that seek to understand where they are coming from. And keep the dialogue going.

  1. Expose them to other Christian viewpoints

Often when your child questions Christianity, he or she is really just questioning their understanding of Christianity. New York City pastor, Timothy Keller, is famous for saying to young skeptics, “Describe the God you don’t believe in. Maybe I don’t believe that God either.” He then encourages skeptics to expand their understanding of Christianity by learning about how other Christians around the world understand and worship God, deal with suffering, and live the Christian life. As a parent, one of the best things you can do for your child is expose them to the breadth of Christian thought and practice throughout history and around the world.

  1. Remember this may be just a season

Don’t blow them off assuming this “phase” will pass. But don’t freak out assuming this “phase” is permanent. Remember God is bigger than our doubts. He’s not scared or offended by them. God is still at work in your child’s life, even if you or your child can’t see it. If you prayerfully pursue the above two actions it will only be a matter of time before you see what God is up to in the life of your child.

My older sister is actually proof that God is faithful even in the midst of doubt. Today, she loves Jesus, is committed to the church, and is married to an Anglican priest!

Hopefully, your Christmas season won’t involve any denials of faith. But if it does, see the moment as a door for opportunities. An opportunity to listen to your child’s story. An opportunity to expose your child to other Christian stories. And an opportunity to trust God that your child is still a part of His story.

Parenting With Less Frustration

I’m sure it is just the age and stage our family is in…hopefully…but often parenting feels a little frustrating.

The other night we were trying to have family devotions. But then someone was mad that they did not have an opportunity to read the Bible passage. (Yeah you read that right. Our kids get upset when they aren’t allowed to read the Bible…good grief.) Then someone else realized that they weren’t sitting where they wanted to sit. They now wanted to sit in a spot on the couch that was already occupied. And they were going to do whatever it took to take that spot. Needless to say between one’s feelings of injustice about not having the opportunity to read and the other one’s lust for a particular seat on the couch, chaos ensued.

I recently came across a new book by Paul David Tripp entitled Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family. To be honest, at first I was skeptical of this book. It sounded a little too much like a here-are-more-things-you’re-not-doing-right-as-a-parent, so-do-these things-and-your-life-will-be-better kind of book. But I received a free copy of the book so I could provide a review and I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, I am really enjoying this book.

Tripp points out that one of the reasons I—and every other parent on the planet—experience frustrations is because our kids are sinners. It’s true. And what is worse, you and I are sinners too. What?! I know it’s hard to hear. But this little bit of information, which we conveniently tend to forget, has huge implications. Specifically, Tripp argues that due to our own sin we, on our own, are incapable of changing our sinful kids, or creating a perfect (sin-free) living environment. So what’s the solution?

Tripp’s encouragement to parents is as follows:

Here is the single redemptive reality, right here, right now, that makes parenting possible: God in you! You read that right. The apostle Paul says that you don’t really understand who you are and what you’ve been given until you understand this amazing thing: that God knew that our calling would be so huge and our weakness so deep that the only thing that would help us was himself. So in an act of incredible grace, he has unbuttoned us and gotten inside of us. Now think about this as a parent. This God who has the ability to do things that are way beyond your ability to conceive, who has perfect wisdom and unlimited strength, right now lives inside of you.

In other words, God is not calling us to do more to change our kids. Rather God, by his grace, has given himself to us so that we, as parents, can rely on him and allow him to work through us to reveal himself to our children. The rest of the book explains what this looks like. I highly recommend reading it.

The chaos is still there. But the frustrations are a little less…at least a little less in those times I remember Tripp’s parental wisdom. In those times I’m reminded to focus less on what I can do to make my kids or my situation better. But instead to ask God, what do you want to do with my kids and how do you want to make this situation better?

 

The Secret of Strong Families

I have to hand it to Facebook. They finally figured me out.

For the longest time the ads in my feed were useless and annoying. But last month there was an ad from Crossway Publishing promoting a free five day email course on Family Worship.

I clicked on it, signed up, read the emails and watch the videos for each of the five days. And to my surprise the videos were all very helpful. So I bought the book the videos were promoting.

The book is called Family Worship: In the Bible, In History, and In Your Home by Donald S. Whitney. And it really is a great book…so great, I wrote the following review on Amazon:

Every Christian family should read this book. Clear, simple, short but very informative, and very practical. This book will be helpful for any family interested in family worship…especially for those that have never done it before. As a pastor I will be recommending this book to every family in our church.

The book is really that great. So here I am recommending it to every family in our church.

One thing that has become clear to me over the years is, families who worship together flourish together.

Worshiping families are closer. Their kids do better in school, and they make better choices with their friends. Their kids don’t leave their faith in college and they tend do better after college.

Worshiping families flourish because they make Jesus the foundation of the family…and that’s a foundation that doesn’t break.

But here’s the thing,  if you’re like me, maybe you’re not sure how to do family worship. Growing up my family was a Christian family. But we never spent time as a family reading the Bible, praying, or singing. Those were things we did “at church”…not at home.

So when I wanted to start family worship in my own home I didn’t have a clue what to do. It was awkward. It was frustrating. It often felt forced.

I needed help.

Family Worship: In the Bible, In History, and In Your Home has been that help.

My hope is that every Christian family will buy this book. Not because I want to add one more thing to your to-do list. But because it is my prayer that every Christian family will commit to worshiping as a family throughout the week. Because I want every Christian family to be a strong family…built on the strong foundation of Jesus Christ.

If your family does not worship together, consider getting a copy of Family Worship: In the Bible, In History, and In Your Home. If you want to preview things before you buy here’s the link to the five day video course. And if you just need someone to talk to (or vent to) about family worship leave a comment, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.

May God bless your family!

Abortion and The Gospel

Abortion is in the news again. I suppose, in some ways, it always is.

I don’t know about you, but at times I find the whole issue overwhelming. Every time I watch the latest video, read the latest news, or hear the latest personal story, I’m tempted to feel depressed, angered, frustrated, and overall hopeless.

It is at this point of hopelessness that it hits me, I have lost sight of the gospel.

So where is the Gospel in the midst of abortion?

As heinous and horrible as abortion is, I do believe that it is able to point us to the Gospel in at least three ways.

  1. Abortion shows us the idols of our hearts

Abortion itself is not the idol. The idol is what we think abortion will give us. Timothy Keller once wrote, “When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshiping” [1]. Abortion shows us what we believe is an “absolute requirement” for our happiness. In most cases it has something to do with freedom. Freedom to pursue a better life. Freedom to pursue other relationships. Freedom from shame. Freedom from regret.

Freedom is good, but not when it becomes an ultimate good. Abortion reveals this idol within all of us.

  1. Abortion reminds us of God’s grace

Any one of us could have been conceived by someone who felt compelled to have an abortion. The circumstances of our birth were completely out of our control. A few changes in the living circumstances, the peer group, and the values of our parents and many of us would not be here to read this. From the moment of our conception our lives were hanging in the balance. Abortion reminds us of this fact.

This in turns reminds us that the only reason any of us are here is because of God’s grace. God, by his grace, allowed us to be conceived by people who valued our lives and allowed us to live.

  1. Abortion reminds us we all need a Savior

Abortion reminds us that we all need someone who is able to save us from death. All of us have used our freedom for selfish gain, in inordinate ways, and for evil ends. All of us are helpless to save ourselves from the judgment and consequences we deserve. Abortion reminds us of the evil in our hearts and in our culture. It reminds us as individuals and as a nation that we do not value what God values, we do not pursue what God pursues, we do not act as God would have us act. We are all very guilty. We all have blood on our hands. We are all in need of a savior.

The good news is that in Jesus Christ we meet that savior: The one who has overcome evil. The one who offers us forgiveness. The one who paid for our sins.  The one who can remove our guilt. The one who can change our hearts.  The one who poured out his blood, and gave up his life, so that you and I could live, now and for all eternity.

Abortion points us to this gospel.

The truth that our hearts are wicked, that we can not save ourselves, and that we are in need of a savior to give us life, now and forever.

 

I pray that by His grace God would enable you today to repent of your idols, receive his grace, and put all your hope in our savior Jesus Christ.

 

 


 

[1] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters.

 

 

 

 

Should I let my teen go to another church?

 

When I was in high school (I still like to think that wasn’t that long ago) everyone I knew who went to church, only went to one church—their church.

But now, twenty years later (holy cow) things have changed. Students attend different churches all the time.church

Is this a bad thing?

I don’t think so.

Here’s why…

First, there are a lot fewer church-going Christian students than before. So students are now looking for their “tribe” where ever they can find it.

Second, different churches have different strengths (and weaknesses). The big churches “down the street” are great at attracting students through big events, high entertainment youth nights, and giveaways. They’re able to reach a lot of students who would be scared (yes scared) to step foot into a traditional looking church. Their ability to reach the unchurched is a great thing!

On the other hand churches like Fellowship, because of our size, have different strengths. We are able to easily connect with people. The first time someone comes to us, we know their name. We’re also able to focus more deeply on discipleship. More than once a student has told me that he likes coming to Fellowship because he can ask hard questions. Others have told me they like the fact that the groups are small, and not overwhelming.

Here’s the thing. One kind of church is not better than the other. As long as we’re all doing our best to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples, we’re all on the same team. And there is no need to worry about competition.

Today students like being able to grow in their faith through both big and small churches. They like experiencing God through Gospel-driven entertainment, relational settings, and making deep connections with adults and friends.

All this is fine as long as one thing doesn’t change.

That is your student has a church home. By church home I mean, that they are committed to a family of believers on Sunday morning. Obviously I’m biased toward having them commit toward the family of believers at Fellowship.

But here’s why this matters. Church is like a family. And your student needs to be committed to a family and have a family that is committed to them.

Why?

Research shows, the teens who flourish in their faith after high school are the teens who had multigenerational relationships in their home church. That is the teens felt comfortable around and loved by the whole church family and not just their peers. They felt connected to the parents and the grandparents of the church as well. Teens only experience these kinds of relationships when they and their families commit to making one church their home church.

So don’t feel guilty if your teen wants to go with their friends to another church. It’s not a competition. Every church exists for a reason—to display the glory of God in the manner God has called them to. Let them enjoy seeing how God is working in another church. But on the other hand encourage (maybe even require) your teens to be committed to a home church—a place where they feel a part of the family. A place where they will be known and loved by multiple generations and given the opportunity to flourish in their faith.

The best parenting advice I’ve ever received

Early in our marriage there was a time when my wife, Meredith, and I seriously contemplated not having kids. I chose to verbalize this contemplation one evening while we were attending a Christian couples retreat.

We were sitting in a circle with other young couples. Everyone was sharing about marriage, family, and kids. Some couples shared their hopes for future children, other couples shared how great it was to have kids.

I sat there with my knee nervously bouncing, completely unable to relate.  For me, the thought of having children seemed overwhelming and not great.

So I raised my hand, waited for our group leader to call on me, and then I asked a question I knew was heretical in some Christian circles…

“Why should we have kids?”

Dead silence.

More silence.

Still more silence.

Finally, one husband (a future pastor) piped up, “Because, we are commanded to.”

I knew he was referring to Genesis 1:28 where God commands Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

Touche,” I thought.

So I followed up with my real concern.

“Ok, but isn’t it inevitable that you’re going to cause your kids pain? Isn’t there going to come a time when they no longer like you or may even hate you? How can you willingly bring a child into the world knowing that you’re just going to screw them up?!”

Again, dead silence.

This time the silence was broken by the leader of our group, a seasoned wife and mother whose children were adults (and still walking with Jesus). She calmly replied,

“Yes, that is all very possible…”

She then shared with us some of her own parenting mistakes. She recounted the many times she and her husband “lost it” with their kids. The many times their kids “disowned” them. And the many times she and her husband did not do the right thing in the right situation.

I thought, “Yes, this is what I am talking about!”

But then she gave us the best piece of parenting advice that I have ever heard.

“Pray for your kids,” she said.

The advice was so simple, I couldn’t help but think, I could do that.

She explained, “That’s one thing we’ve done right is we pray for our kids. Every night after our kids went to bed we prayed for them. When they were still little I would go in their room and put my hand on their warm little backs and pray that God would heal them from any hurt that I have caused them. That he would remove any evil that had come into their life that day. And that he would protect them from the consequences of my sins.”

She assured us her kids weren’t perfect and their family still had hard times.

But she said, “Jesus answered those prayers. Jesus was bigger than my mistakes, and today we have good relationships with our kids.”

In that moment I had a strange sensation of  hope.

As I write this we now have three kids and another on the way. Meredith and I are far from perfect parents. And our kids are far from perfect kids. But we have made it a priority to pray for our kids, every night at bedtime, sometimes in the morning and at times through out the day. I don’t do it because I’m a super spiritual pastor. I do it because I recoginize I am a very imperfect parent with imperfect kids in need of a very perfect God.

And I pray for my kids because in the decade plus years since that couples retreat, I have talked to many other parents. And I’ve met a number of parents whose kids I wish I could duplicate. Parents who have excellent relationships with their kids (even as adults). They all have one thing in common. They all spent time–lots of time–praying for their kids.

And so I pray for my kids.

It’s the best piece of parenting advice I’ve ever received.

Two simple things parents can do to keep their kids walking with God

 

At some point every parent realizes time with their kids is running out. That their kids will soon leave the house. That their kids will soon make life choices without their consent.  As Christians we worry that one of those choices might be to walk away from their faith.

It’s a valid concern.

According to LifeWay Research, “70% of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school do, in fact, drop out”[1]. About two-thirds will eventually return at some point, but nevertheless that is a large number, even if it is just for a season.

So what can parents do to beat the statistics?

It may be of some comfort to know that this is not a new problem. In fact, it is a very old problem.

About 3,000 years ago a Levite named Asaph, who worked as a musician for King David, wrote Psalm 78. Within the song Asaph speaks of what must be done so that the next generation will not become “a stubborn and rebellious generation, whose hearts were not loyal to God, whose spirits were not faithful to him.”(Ps 78:8)

Asaph is concerned for his kids, and all the children of Israel. He is concerned that one day they might not follow in the faith of their fathers.

So what is Asaph’s solution?

He commends parents (and leaders) to do just two things. Pass down the Deeds and Decrees of the Lord.

Deeds

In verse four Asaph writes,

 We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.

And in verse seven he writes,

Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds

For Asaph, telling the next generation what God has done was of utmost importance. He understood that in order for people (of all ages) to know God, they must first hear about the works of God.

Today God calls parents to do the same thing. We are called to simply share with our kids what God has done. But not just in the Bible. We’re called to share what God has done, and is doing, in our lives.

I’ve found that most students want to hear how God is working in the lives of their parents. They don’t want a lecture. But they do want a story. They’d like to hear about a time when their parents needed God’s help and how he came through.

As a parent, your stories offer hope to your students. Hope that the same God who helped you will in turn be the same God who will help them.

Decrees

Stories are great. But stories alone are not enough to sustain the faith of a student. Asaph longed to pass down more than stories. He also longed to pass down the decrees of God.

In verses 5-7 he writes,

He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

For most of us, “commands/decrees” have a negative connotation. But Asaph knew the commands of God were good. He knew the words of King David:

Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night…whatever he does prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

He knew that people (of all ages) grow in a deeper relationship with God when they begin to delight in the decrees of God.

What might this look like for parents today?

Parents don’t have to hang the Ten Commandments on their kid’s bedroom wall (they can if they want). But they may want to talk to their kids about the choices they are making and why they are making them.

It is helpful for parents to explain to their kids why it is they follow the decrees of God. Parents can share why it is they don’t cheat on their taxes. Or why it is they don’t lie. They can share with their kids why it is they try to do what is right. And how doing what is right in God’s eyes has benefited them.

Again kids don’t want a lecture. But they are interested in real life case studies–especially from people they know. Giving them real life examples of the benefits of God’s decrees will show them that God can be trusted. It will show them God is good. And ultimately it will inspire them to delight in God.

We can’t force our kids to continue in a relationship with God. But we can model for them what an authentic relationship with God looks like. This happens when we spend time (lots of time) sharing with them the deeds of God and the benefits of the decrees of God. And when we do these two things we might just see our independent kids desiring to grow with God rather than choosing to walk away from God.

 

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and-disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html?paging=off