More Thoughts on Family and Church

It is hard to blog on vacation, as the days tend to run until they crash, and there is little time for solitude.  I had half of an idea typed out, then a family crisis (threat level: powder blue)* happened, and when I returned to it, it was gone. However, I’ve finished the book Think Orange, and it certainly continued to push my thinking about how church and family intersect.

*My own Family Crisis Threat Level scale features the following colors, in order of ascending threat: Pink, Powder Blue, Violet, Black. There is little significance to any of this.

The key that catches my attention as I think about the ideas the author (Reggie Joiner) proposes is this: I have pastored for almost 15 years, and I have never thought about children’s and youth ministry in terms of equipping parents to do what they have been charged to do. And now that the idea has been laid before me, it feels as if there can be no going back. This is going to have to mean change.

For members of St. Paul Church who may be wondering, “Oh no,what does this mean?” – well, I don’t know. How much change it will mean depends on how much others will be willing to follow this trail. But I won’t be able to do the things I do in the same way. The whole thesis feels like one of those things that should have been obvious but wasn’t.

Away we go!

Family life and Church life

I’m reading a book that is pressing my thinking about how the church relates to families. There is a lot there that I am digesting, but here are a few central questions that are being raised within me:
What would we do differently in the church if we believe that what happens at home is as important as what happens at church?

  • Does our children’s ministry reflect a partnership with parents, or something less than that?
  • If we don’t function like we are partners with parents, what would change if we did?
  • If the church has access to kids for about 40 hours a year, and parents have access to their kids for about 3,000 hours a year, shouldn’t some of our time be spent helping parents use their time for greater spiritual impact?
  • Who has the primary duty to teach children about following Jesus, the church or the family? Does our educational plan reflect that belief?

That’s enough for now. I would be eager to hear your thoughts on these questions!

What is the best use of an Apple tree?

In the Fall of 2009, I was surveying my yard, when I realized that there was a tree growing out of a shrub – actually, it was several trunks growing out of the stump of an old tree, which had then been replaced by the aforementioned shrub.  I thought the whole thing looked ridiculous, so I got out my saw and started cutting down these new tree trunks.  There were lots of them, so I started with the smallest shoots.  After cutting off at least half a dozen mini-trees, I decided to let the three thickest trunks stay, to see how they did in 2010.

On our first day home from our summer 2010 sabbatical, we were re-acquainting ourselves with the yard when we made a delightful discovery: one of the three mini-trees that had been left standing had 2 medium-sized apples!  I had given no thought to what kind of trees these rogue stalks were, but now I was delighted to see that I had an apple tree.  Immediately, I began to plan how I would cultivate these trees to enhance their fruitfulness. Since all of the trunks seem to be growing from a common root system, my idea centered around cutting down at least one of the two trunks that had not produced apples, thereby sending more nutrients to the productive trunk.  And so, I began to anticipate Spring, and even next Fall, when I dreamed of enjoying more apples growing right in our back yard.

***

Late fall was the first time I noticed Zachary* trying to climb one of those apple trees.  Zachary loves to climb just about anything, but I didn’t think he’d get very far with these.  They are tall (10 feet at least) and thin as my forearm, and the branches are all high up on the trunks.  It seemed like these were unclimbable.  Of course, impossible isn’t a meaningful category for Zach.  He quickly figured out how to use two of the trunks in tandem to aid in climbing, and within a week they were his favorite climbing trees.

*For those of you who are new to our family, Zachary is my youngest son, who has autism.  And, some sort of Spiderman gene.  By which I mean classic Spiderman, and not the Broadway version, where people are falling all the time.  Zach never falls.

One of Zach’s favorite tricks is to climb up about 8 feet, and then position his rear end in the branch-notch of one of the trees; next, he swings his feet up onto a branch of the neighboring trunk, and leans back, like he’s in a hammock.  Seeing this for the first time is a memorable experience, as he sits serenely in the gently swaying trees.

Zach has unusual sensory demands.  He craves intense stimulation of his senses, more so than most of us.  So, the sensation of swaying in the trees as he sits almost unattached to the trees is soothing for him, even if it is terrifying for us (To see how much he enjoys this sort of sensory input, see the attached video).

 

Zach climbed the apple trees every time he could get to them over the Winter, and now that Spring has arrived, they are one of his favorite backyard destinations.  Swaying in the trees helps Zach to be calm, and to be happy.  It is as comforting for him, I suppose, as the idea of growing my own apples in the back yard.

***

That brings me to the question that opened this post.  I have looked forward to this Spring, when I would cut down one or two of those non-fruit-producing trunks, thereby diverting the nutrients they would receive to the one trunk that actually grew apples.  But now, I’ve decided that I’m not cutting down those trunks.  I will hope that another year of health and growth helps my apple tree produce more apples, but I will also let Zach keep his climbing and swaying trees, because they make his life better – and that’s not an exaggeration.  For a boy who has to work so hard to make himself understood, who has to spend so much of his time trying to get the sensory regulation that lets him feel at peace, these apple trees really do make his days better.  What I’ve encountered is an everyday example of saying no to the good (maximizing the apple-producing qualities of my tree) to say yes to the better (keeping the tree trunks as a sensory regulator for Zach).

Lots of us like to say yes to everything, or at least, to everything that is good.  We want to serve all the people we can, we want to experience all the good things we can, we want to give our kids every opportunity to participate in any sport or activity or program that might make them happy or enriched.  But we live in an over-programmed, consumer-driven culture.  There will always be another good thing to do, to see, to try, to sign up for.  We will burn out long before we exhaust the list.  How do we discern what to say “yes” to, and what to say “not this time” to?

We need to know what we are most essentially about, and be willing to say no to those things that are good, but not at the heart of our purpose.  We have to say no not only to bad things, but to good things, to make sure we have the time, energy, and resources to say yes to the best things.  The relationships and activities that are most important to who we are as a person, or as a family, have to be where we give our primary attention.  I see a lot of families who try to do everything, and end up giving minimal attention to the things they say matter most to them (family relationships and church, usually).  Does that mean they were fooling themselves about what mattered most to them, or did they undermine their own goals by not being careful about what they added to their plates?

The same rules apply to organizations (like the church, which is of primary interest to me).  If we try to do everything…well for one thing, we won’t be able to, and we’ll be frustrated.  But even to the degree that we try, we’ll diffuse our ability to really get the most and best out of the things that are most important.  We will be spread too thin.  Churches in this cycle end up expending a ton of energy, and leaving all of their core members feeling like they are doing everything they can, but still, somehow, can’t get to key practices that they say are essential.  We need to know what we have been put in our communities for, and then do those things, and leave the rest for someone else.

Which is to say: I’m hoping for a few apples this year, but just a few.  That tree has a bigger job.

Getting The Words Out

I had two great meetings yesterday.

In the first one, Christy and I got a firm date on when our son Zach is going to get to start testing new Augmentative Communication software.  Augmentative Communication is what they call a device or software which is used to help people with speech delays communicate their thoughts.  Kids with autism (like Zach) use these tools, but so do stroke victims, or brain injuries, or other speech delays.  Many of these people have a world of thoughts going on inside their heads that they cannot express because of some problem in the linkage between thought and speech.  Augmentative Communication helps them get the words out.  In three weeks, we will get to start to see if Augmentative Communication can help Zach share what he’s thinking and feeling – I can hardly wait!

The second meeting was our More To Life group at church.  Last night, we introduced the group to a video tool that has been created to help Christians start a conversation about Jesus with other people.  The 20-minute DVD has people telling their stories of how knowing Jesus has changed their lives, and it is designed so one person can give it to someone to watch, and then follow up with that person to see if it created an opportunity to tell My story of what Jesus has done to change my life.  When I first found this material, this DVD was the single part that excited me the most.  I’ve always found it difficult to figure out how to start the conversation about Jesus with someone.  If they started the conversation, well that’s not too hard; but when I’m starting the conversation, my brain locks up.  But now, I’ve got a non-threatening, well-constructed conversation starter.  And I realized this morning that the More To Life DVD is another type of Augmentative Communication tool: it helps me get the words out, so I can share what I’m thinking and feeling about the most important person in my life.

Long live Augmentative Communication!

Still Remembering Gene

One of the people who helped change my mind in an irrevocable way is named Gene Eugene.  He died 11 years ago today, and I wanted to take this place to celebrate him for the way he changed my mind.  Gene was a musician, the lead singer and lyricist and guitar player for a band named Adam Again, which later led to him being a part of other bands (Swirling Eddies, Lost Dogs).  He was also a music producer.  What Gene and several other musicians did for me while I was in my late teens and early 20’s was make Christian music  that was not derivative* of what was happening in “Secular” culture.  It was music that was earnest and authentic, an expression of art and heart and spirit that also spoke the language of the world around it (and me).  The music of Gene Eugene (and others) was simultaneously timely and true.

*Of course, virtually all music is derivative in some way – it’s almost impossible to use instruments and voices to do something that hasn’t been done before on some level.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the tendency of Christian “culture” when I was a teen in the late 80’s (and sadly, still today) to take something from popular, “secular” culture and imitate it for Christian consumption, implicitly with all of the “secularity” scooped out and replaced with Jesus.  As in (to borrow an actual comparison guide that is about 3 and half years old): “If your kids want to listen to Lenny Kravitz, Stevie Wonder, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, then they’ll love Hyper Static Union!”  It happens with music, books, film, performance art – pretty much any form of cultural expression that can be copied.  And it has all the power and depth of a Wayans brothers spoof film.  Which makes me wonder who will be the Christian who comes up with a “Christianized” version of Charlie Sheen’s twitter feed?  (apologies to Joe Posnanski for blatantly borrowing his footnoting technique, which is utterly sensible to me)

And that experience I had of modern music by Christians that stood on its own merits dropped a rock so large into the pond of my soul that it is sending off ripples still.  Simply put, Christians should be the best culture makers, because we are children of the Maker of true culture.  Gene Eugene was one of the first people to help me come to that thought.  Thanks, Gene (and Charlie Peacock, and Michael Roe, and Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty, and Terry Scott Taylor, and Mike Knott, to name a few).

Trouble with Lies (lyric by Gene Eugene, 1988)

They unveil their latest crusade
It’s some moral outrage they’re stopping
Worldwide, religious arcade
It means their income was dropping
The host looks sincere
Irrelevant facts aren’t a part of his career

The trouble with lies
When you tell them you still got to sell them
With the look in your eyes
Oh, that’s the trouble with lies
As far as I’m concerned
With the lessons I’ve learned
I’m determined to try and survive
Without lies

This time it’s her out ’til two
He hears the car in the driveway
He wonders what story she’ll use
Did she get lost on the highway
He knows what it’s like
He had to come up with a good one last night

The trouble with lies
When you tell them you still got to sell them
With the look in your eyes
Oh, that’s the trouble with lies
As far as I’m concerned
With the lessons I’ve learned
I’m determined to try and survive
Without lies

I wish you could just tell the truth
I hear your voice getting nearer
It brings back the crimes of your youth
Avoid your eyes in the mirror
The trouble with lies
Is that you start to forget where the real man hides

The trouble with lies
When you tell them you still got to sell them
With the look in your eyes
Oh, that’s the trouble with lies
As far as I’m concerned
With the lessons I’ve learned
I’m determined to try and survive
Without lies