Monday, January 30, 2017

Applause of Heaven - An Adoption Update

We celebrate Sensi regularly, making up for lost years of parental praise. We applaud little leaps and mighty triumphs. We praise him when he cuts his own food. We praise him when he wipes his own butt. We praise him when he finagles his own zipper. We praise him when he dresses himself. We praise him when he shuts the door, makes his bed, clears his plate, cleans up his toys, and finishes his homework.
Sensi ran upstairs and put on his blue shirt to "Join the Blue Team." We praised him for it.

As these motions become habitual, we scale back the adulation, but we're always on the lookout for new advances to cheer. Sensi continues to develop, progress, and nestle into our family. The language of praise is one simple way we can reaffirm our son.

Liz has developed an endearing routine to motivate Sensi with his homework. When he finishes a problem, reads a sight word, or articulates an idea, she proclaims, "You're so smart." She seals the compliment with a light jab to his shoulder. Sensi always beams with pride before retaliating with a punch of his own (always harder).

In moments of praise, Sensi's expression is priceless. His smile erupts, eyes twinkle, right arm bends at the elbow, and fingers splay out, pressed against his cheek. (Typically the middle finger shoots up first). Praise sends a positive shock through my son's muscular system. He cannot hide his delight.

One time while sitting around the table, Sensi performed a remarkable feat. He consumed a vegetable (that wasn't broccoli). Amazement gripped me and Liz; Claire and Margot sat in awe. We responded in the only appropriate manner: We gave Sensi a slow clap. He suffered sensation overload - grinning and jerking and flipping us the bird.

Sensi is not the only beneficiary of praise in our home. We praise the girls for their kindness, patience, and creativity. We praise Liz for her empathy, intentional love, and smashing good looks. We praise the dog for peeing on a light pole. And we praise me for endless displays of wit and wisdom.

The language of praise speaks to a universal need for belonging and significance. A biblical word comprising these concepts is honor. According to Bruce Malina, "Honor is the value of a person in his or her own eyes (that is one’s own claim to worth) plus that person’s value in the eyes of his or her social group. Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgement of worth." (The New Testament World, 30)

We all long for divine honor. We all want to hear the applause of heaven. Grasping for divine approval is in our DNA as image-bearers, for God "crowned [us] with honor and glory" (Psalm 8:5b). And for those who believe in Jesus, "praise, glory, and honor" awaits us the revelation of Jesus (1 Peter 1:7 cf. 5:1, 4, 10).

The ecstasy Sensi shows at a word of praise gives me a foretaste of the heavenly honor I hope to receive. In "Weight of Glory," C.S. Lewis explains this illustration:
I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child - not in a conceited child, but in a good child - as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised... I thought I could detect a moment - a very, very short moment - before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure. And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased whom she was created to please.
Lewis does not dismiss how praise turns to vanity or how ambition clouds our desire for approval. He does, however, help explain our native and innocent hunger for praise. And he encourages us to live for divine approval.
The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God... to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness... to be loved by God, not merely pitted but delighted in as an artists delights in his work or a father in a son - it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But it is so.
These reflections by Lewis bolster my resolve to speak praise to Sensi and my girls. Any fear that I may be "overdoing it" is quieted by the notion that I am preparing them for the applause of heaven. Some glorious day, I want to stand by as God says to them, "Well done." Then I'll watch their smiles erupt, eyes twinkle, and a shock of delight transform their humble bodies into glorious ones.

Monday, January 23, 2017

We Crave What We Eat (or Taste and See the Lord is Good)

In Made to Crave, author Lisa TerKeurst makes a simple but profound statement: "We crave what we eat." I tend to reverse the order, thinking, "I eat what I crave." 
Both propositions speak truth. When I crave something salty, I satisfy it with a handful (or bowl) or chips. When I crave something sweet, I treat myself to some of M&Ms (i.e, a small bag). Every time I give into one of these cravings, I train my body to want the guilty pleasures of sodium and sugar all the more.

Regular consumption reinforces my cravings. I crave what I eat; I eat what I crave. The cycle trains my greedy palate and digs deep grooves into my gut. My stomach decides for me when and what to eat. Every attempt at dieting and self-restraint dies quickly to the power of habit.

Lisa TerKeurst was not original in her observation. St. Augustine made similar remarks in his Confessions. His lust for academic success and sexual pleasure diluted his appetite for God. He wrote:
I had no liking for the safe path without pitfalls, for although my real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul, I was not aware of this hunger. I felt no need for the food that does not perish, not because I had my fill of it, but because the more I was starved of it the less palatable it seemed. Because of this my soul fell sick (3:1, emphasis added).
Our cravings are not easily ignored because we have steadily fed them. Our occasional rewards -- a Coke, cookie, or can of beer -- become routines. Once entrenched, our cravings become compulsory. They take on a mind of their own, hijacking rational thought and rewiring our wills. (Read James K.A. Smith's You Are What You Love for more on spiritual habit.) 

Two stories come to mind: I think of Edmund eating Turkish Delights in the Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. How many Turkish Delights did he consume before betraying his siblings? The more he fed his appetite, the less he craved family loyalty. Perhaps, Edmund's loyalty to his siblings was already famished. Perhaps, it was not the dark magic of the morsel that controlled Edmund, but the darkness of his appetite to rise above his older brother.
Another story of dangerous cravings appears in the Book of Genesis. Esau, twin brother of Jacob, returned home from a hunting expedition famished. His hunger felt deadly. His brother offered him an appetizing bowl of red stew. But Jacob demanded a high price. "Your birthright for my food." Perhaps, it was not the savory aroma of the stew that controlled Esau, but his lack of spiritual dependency. He made the exchange and exposed his disregard for God and family.

Both Edmund and Esau fell prey to selfish cravings. However, to limit cravings to food would obscure the point. 

Cravings also comprise success, pleasure, security, wealth, entertainment, physical well-being, knowledge, control, and significance. We need not look far to identify our cravings; it includes areas we expend a majority of our time, money, conversation, and mental/emotional energy on.
  • We crave physical health when we feed our bodies with a steady diet of exercise, nutritional facts, supplements, and disease concerns.
  • We crave amusement when we feed our souls a steady diet of sports,* television, movies, social media, shopping, books, board games, and YouTube videos.
  • We crave success when we feed our minds a steady diet of self-help literature, late night emails, early morning memos, sixty-hour work weeks, dreams of advancement, and ongoing comparisons.
St. Augustine warned against craving these "lesser goods." Confessions opens with the memorable precept: "Our hearts will find no peace until they rest in You." Echoes of that idea weave their way throughout the book. In other words, God must be our primary craving to experience true satisfaction.

But to crave God, we must feed our spirit with a steady diet of His Word (preached, read, and memorized), His presence (prayer, solitude, and corporate worship), His people (large gatherings and small clusters), and His work (evangelism, justice, giving, and serving). 

We are called to "taste and see the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). We will crave Him when we consume His goodness. We must not accept substitutes.

*As an anecdotal example, I weaned myself off NFL football in recent years. Ten years earlier, I watched every weekend, played Fantasy Football (FF), and tracked statistics obsessively. Football became something of a god. Then my daughters were born and we cancelled our TV service. I stopped playing FF and only watched games at other people's homes. Each year, I've watched a little less (2 hours total in 2016 season). Cared a little less (Who's in the Superbowl?). 

It helps that I'm a Browns' fan, but I'm mostly not starved for NFL because I've replaced it with family time and naps. I always win with a nap.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Myths, Storks, and Same-Sex Advocacy

We watched Storks with our children last weekend. Based on the previews, I expected nothing more than few dumb laughs. We had exhausted the family-oriented Redbox rivals, so Storks it was.

We watched and laughed. Hard. More than a few times.

Andy Sandberg (the voice of Junior) delivered (pun intended) with his usual blend of sarcasm and self-depreciation. His female counterpart, Katie Crown, gave life to the offbeat Tulip. The officious boss Hunter, lively Gardner family, and posturing Pigeon Toady provided comic relief. But the wild and relentless Wolf Pack stole the show.

Well, not quite. A tiny little scene at the end of the film grabbed my attention. When the storks resumed their work of bringing babies to wanting families (instead of e-commerce to consumers), the filmmakers captured the emotion in a closing montage.

[Cue Vance Joy's Fire & Flood. Release the storks.]

The birds carried infants of various shapes, sizes, and colors to families of various shapes, sizes, and colors. One delivery followed another. Each couple reached with open arms and bright smiles. White couple. Black couple. Old couple. Young couple. Same-sex couple. Hispanic couple. Mixed race couple...

My wife and I shared a similar reaction. Wait!? What?! Was that two women who just received a baby?! Were they just sisters?! Were they just friends?! Did our kids notice that?!

No: They were certainly not just sisters. No: Our children watched unaware. The same-sex advocacy was too subtle for their little eyes.

However, same-sex relationships are not a foreign concept to them. They saw me reading an article on the computer the day the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v Hodges. They asked why rainbow lights shone on the White House.
"Now men can marry men and women can marry women," I explained to my 8- and 9-year old daughters. "Huh?" they replied.

A few months ago my younger daughter read graphic a novel called Drama. She asked her mother, "What does gay mean?"
"It's when a boy likes a boy, or girl likes a girl," my wife said. "Huh?" Margot responded.

We have had further conversations with our daughters about marriage as defined in the Bible. (I know a prevailing wave of thinking in our culture would qualify my statement as "how we interpret marriage in the Bible." I'm certainly not ignorant of lenses I bring to biblical interpretation; we all have them. Nevertheless, I am confident the lenses I wear have been formed by diligent personal study and orthodox faith.) Storks delivering babies may be a myth. Progress and tolerance may be myths. Biblical marriage is not a myth. It is a mystery: God ordained husband and wife to reflect the love of Christ for his church (Ephesians 5:31-32).

Moreover, we expect the regularity of such conversations with our children to increase as they mature. Same-sex advocacy will be less subtle when they graduate from elementary school and watch Prime Time TV. It won't slip pass them in a closing montage; it will smack them in the face in school hallways and on sitcoms.

Sexual practice has always been somewhat loose in high school. Now sexual identity is loose, as well. We want to prepare them for gender liquidity without engendering fear or scorn. We want them to show confidence in their convictions but grace in their interactions. This "perilous and exciting" balance is what G.K. Chesterton called Orthodoxy. I am an advocate.

Monday, January 9, 2017

God's Property - Reflecting on My Identity in Jesus

God owns me. My redemption and adoption secure my place in his household. Through the blood of Jesus and seal of the Spirit, I am God’s blessed child. To forget this fact is to forsake my true identity.

Sadly, various voices make rival claims for my soul. My job tries to take possession of me. It demands more than my nine-to-five allegiance. Work creeps into my weekend and nightmares. Obsessively, I check my phone for emails.  Incessantly, I craft my sermon to perfection.

My consumer goods try to take possession of me. Old things tell me they're worn out and ready to retire. New things shout false promises of happiness. Advertisements come through my phone and TV screens; they blare from billboards and arrive direct in my mailbox.

My physical appearance tries to take possession of me. I ignore its signs of middle age—balding, bloating, and bad knees—and pretend still to be sprite. “I am a runner,” I proclaim. “I can still wear an Adult Small," I lie. (Mediums fit better.)

My expressions of leisure try to take possession of me. I push against the streaming impulse of binge-watching and social media. I binge read and evade Facebook. But I regularly check Yahoo Sports and my Twitter feed.

My religious affiliation tries to take possession of me. I can pile up modifiers -- born again, evangelical, Grace Brethren, progressive-conservative, non-liturgical-but-as-traditional-as-the-rest-of-them (whoever "them" is) -- to narrow my niche to a point. My moral convictions only sharpen the point to a sting.

I have only scratched the surface. Rival voices abound. Our social classes and Linked In networks, alumi and sports teams, soda brands and cell providers, dietary fads and hobby clubs, successes and self-help groups, mental disorders and family dysfunctions all make claims for us. 

In reality, these interests and factors identify us by reduction. We become algorithms instead of image-bearers. I echo Jarod Lanier's titular sentiment: You Are Not a Gadget. I offer Eugene Peterson's warning against dehumanizing our souls into impersonal functions.
In our present culture all of us find that we are studied, named, and treated as functions and things. "Consumer" is the catch-all term for the way we are viewed... To be treated as a consumer is to be reduced to being used by another or reduced to a product for someone else's use. It makes little difference whether the using is in a generous or selfish cause; it is reduction. Widespread consumerism results in extensive depersonalization. And every time depersonalization moves in, life leaks out. (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 39)
We must not let reductive titles take possession of our identity. We are not gadgets. We are not consumers. We are not cogs in a machine, affiliates in a religion, or aging bodies grasping for former glory. We are so much more. We are image-bearers of God. And we, who follow Jesus, are God's treasured possession (1 Peter 2:9).

This post reflects upon my Unlikely Belonging sermon (1 Peter 1:1-12). For further reflection, consider these questions:
  • From my list above, what voices try to possess your soul? What other voices could you add?
  • How do you reduce people in various contexts (home, school, work, church, social media, shops/restaurants, entertainment)
  • What words do you hear God speak over you as it relates to your true identity?
  • Will you accept the Misfit Mission? See picture below.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Sensi's First Christmas - An Adoption Update

Celebrating Christmas with Sensi gave us a fresh love for the holiday. All our senses experienced renewed appreciation for Christmas songs and movies, candies and presents, decorations and traditions, lights and stories. Each time we introduced Sensi to a new aspect of Christmas, we also enjoyed its novelty. The greatest joy, though, came when I overheard my daughters coaching Sensi on the true meaning of Christmas.

"Sensi, is Christmas about presents?" Claire asked.

Sensi shook his head.

"Is it about Santa?" Margot quizzed.

Sensi shook his head.

"Is it about Jesus?"

Sensi nodded. (This took several practice rounds to perfect!)

A bonus of the season: Christmas bolstered Sensi's vocabulary. We heard him repeat the words Christmas, Santa, wreath, tree, presents, and, every night before bed: snow, snow, snow. Sensi strains to speak; garbled words tumble out of taut lips. But he continues to advance.

The day after Christmas the snow melted. Temperatures crept up and tepid rains fell. When Sensi spied the scene from the bathroom window, he began to weep. His whimper breaks my heart; tears leave conspicuous streaks down his dark cheeks.
Later that day, we drove to my parents for our third and final Christmas. On the way Sensi answered one of Liz and my looming questions: How will we know if Sensi is sick? Answer: The pile of Chicken McNuggets in the parking lot.

Three Christmases proved too much. While Sensi did not grow tired of presents, movies, and food, he showed a longing for home at the end of four days at my parents. In addition to time with family, we shopped and visited a friends. Each time we piled in the car, Sensi muttered, "Home." He wanted his own bed, toys, and space. We all did.
Christmas travels require us to leave our comforts and suspend our routines for a time. I wanted my slippers and morning quiet time. Liz wanted her rice bag and daily walk. Claire and Margot wanted their kitten and family meals. Sensi wanted his bed and parents' undivided attention.

This longing for home at Christmas is all too appropriate, for it's native to the original Christmas story. The Son of God left the comforts and routines of heaven for a temporary stay on earth. By the time Jesus reached Gethsemanae, I hear one word tumbling from his taut lips: "Home."

We eventually took Sensi home. We did not stop for Chicken McNuggets on the return trip.

*Sensi inspired the introduction to a Christmas Sermon entitled More than Wonderful. I've embedded the Prezi for it below: