Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sacrifice and Service

Memorial Day was last Monday. My thoughts this week have been on the images from that day, the words, and ideas of sacrifice and service. At the Cubs game Monday afternoon a soldier who lost three of his four limbs in Iraq threw out the first pitch. He got the loudest and longest applause of anyone that day.

Unfortunately too many soldiers have not been able to come home alive. It's staggering to think of the number of people who have died over the centuries in various conflicts. Men and women, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, losing their God given gift of life at far too young an age. Some of them were drafted into service, some volunteered to fight, but I would imagine at some point all of them must have fearfully wondered, why me?

Why them? There's no good answer for that question. It's a cliche to say that they died so we might live free. But you know, it's the truth. God has blessed me with freewill and has placed me in a society that allows me to choose to do just about anything. It's not that way for everyone. Not everyone can live a life of discipleship in freedom, but I can. And while a Christian may sit in prison in China or loose his life in Indonesia, I can proclaim the gospel as freely as the Holy Spirit leads me.

I don't know why those soldiers had to die or why it had to be them? But I do know this... their service to the United States and their sacrifice is a gift of love to me, my family, and my community. I thank God for them.

There is a poem written during World War I that is often connected with Memorial Day. I want to lift it up here on this last day of May:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—By John McCrae

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Moving On, Moving Up

Grant and Bailey graduated from Preschool on Tuesday.

For years I have heard social commentators describe the foibles of extravagance and too much praise for children in our modern world. They have described overdone preschool graduation ceremonies and overly dramatic rituals for children moving from second to third grade. Cynics are quick to suggest elaborate ceremonies for your toddler when she moves from a sippy cup to a regular plastic glass or multiple gift possibilities for your eight year old when you put away the car booster seat. I must admit that its easy for me to fall for the smug criticisms the cynics express.

But not this time. Oh yes, like every critic of the soccer mom culture I can honestly say the first graduation ceremony I ever took part in was when I finished high school and I turned out just fine. (The old, "If I didn't do it, why do they need to?') But after Tuesday I understand that that doesn't matter. It was a great night. And not so much because my five-year-olds deserve all kinds of gifts and accolades, but because the graduation was a formal chance for them (and more importantly for us parents) to come together and acknowledge that time and life is moving on.

A period of my twins' lives has come to a conclusion and a graduation ceremony in miniature is a better way to live this change out than to simply yell out "good bye" to their teachers as you drive them way on the last day of school.

I have vivid memories of three significant last days in my childhood. In 1984 my family moved from Milwaukee to Michigan. I remember to this day the smells and sights of the Madison Elementary School hallways when I knew it was my last day to be there. I was in sixth grade then, and only four months later I was saying good bye once again to my new school, Kennedy, because next year I would be in middle school. There was no graduation, but there was me and some of my new friends sitting near a jungle gym for the last time. I was very much aware that most of those friends would be going to a different school for seventh grade than I was, which lent itself to the melancholy feeling of that day. It's a feeling I have not forgotten.

I had those same feelings two years later when I completed eighth grade. Once again most of my friends would be going to a different high school and experience told me that I would never see most of them again. On the last day of school they played "I Believe the Children are our Future (Greatest Love of All)" by Whitney Houston throughout the school as we walked to our buses for the last time. That was our graduation.

Milestones are important. We should honor those occasions with caring and love. Maybe the best way to do that is with a graduation. It sure seemed to work on Tuesday. Ceremony and ritual are excellent ways to mark the passing of time within community. The cynics and grouches are wrong this time. It is better to honor than to ignore. It is better to share than to stand alone.

Even adults can benefit from connecting ritual and ceremony with important milestones. How have others been able to honor significant events and changes in your life?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Exposing Lies, Proclaiming Hope

Over the last month I have watched movies called Little Children, Celebration, and Happiness. Sound like some sweet movies, don't they? Well... Not so fast. You can't judge a movie by its title. All three of these movies were actually quite painful to watch at times because all three of them dealt with family problems, sexual dysfunction, crimes of a sexual nature, and suicide in one form or another.

On the surface these films have nothing in common. Little Children came out in 2006 and was nominated for Oscars. Celebration is a Danish film from 1998. Happiness, also from 1998, is an American film with an ensemble cast. But all three movies have similar things to say about sexuality, perfection, and life. Sexuality is expressed as shameful, dishonest, and sometimes even criminal. Perfection and the pursuit of the ideal is simply a facade for hidden sin. Life, according to these movies with dishonest titles, is a lie.

These are difficult movies to watch. In each case my initial reaction at the end was "how awful." But I can't simply forget about these films. Because of the coincidence that I would by chance watch these three unrelated films within a month of each other... these films that indeed have so much in common... has left me with questions that I continue to ponder.

What does my faith in Christ say in response to these movies? Are their messages about life true? I want to make clear that I am not put off by these films because of their intense subjects. Sexual crimes, misconduct, and indiscretions are unfortunately present in the world we live in. Christians must not ignore the existence such sins. Unfortunately they even raise their ugly head even within the church. So I am not disturbed by these movies because of some righteous piety. Instead what haunts me about these films is that they express little hope. They all say the same thing: "people are hypocrites and that's not going to change." According to these films people shouldn't look for happiness in the ideal, or celebrate phony baloney milestones, or hold up the innocence of little children. Sure Little Children does seem to show some redemption at the end of the story, but it certainly is not joyful or hopeful for that matter.

These films are accurate in an over-dramatic and extreme way. What they depict can be found within this sinful world. I feel they act as warning about the directions the human mind can go without knowledge of the gospel. Without Christ people will look for the ideal, for meaning, and for pleasure in those things that can only destroy. All of the flawed characters in these movies fall for the same trap... the same lie that sin has sold too many of us. It is a pit they are not able to come out of once they fall in. Oh they all try get out in some way and a few even are able to escape, but without hope, joy, or the gospel, these characters just take the pit of sin with them.

The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that the Lord jumps into the pit sin and death with us. While we all do not fall into the trap of sexual crimes and suicide that these films depict, we do all sin. You don't have to be a criminal sex offender to be messed up. (Which is one of the messages of these films: The clean cut neighbor living behind you is as dangerous as the rapist in prison.) So what hope is there for us messed up sinners? According to these movies, nothing, that's life. Learn to live with it. But according to the gospel there is hope for us who sin. Our hope comes through Jesus who shines his light on sin, the pit, and all those hollow promises of meaning and exposes them for the lie they are. Through the forgiveness granted through Christ we are taken out of the pit of sin and washed clean of sin's power.

Jesus calls us, his disciples, to stand against the allure of sin by blanketing the light of the gospel upon the shadows of sin. Ultimately I like these movies because they expose the lie of sin with all its ugliness. Now it is our job as Christians to pick up where these movies leave off. Happiness is found through love, service and faith in Christ. Life is a celebration because of the hope the Lord has given us through his cross. Through our baptism into Christ we sinners have been made righteous, transformed into God's little children.

Monday, May 07, 2007

TV: The Babysitter

While my wife Valerie was pregnant with our twins we often discussed how much television we would allow our children to watch. Our desire was to not have them watch any TV until they were two. Desire did not, however, resemble reality. Well before they were two my kids began watching the likes of Dora, Blue's Clues, and Sesame Street. Now that they are five we have drawn new battlelines by trying to keep them away from Sponge Bob and Fairly OddParents.

Recently an American Academy of Pediatrics survey came out that indicated that 75% of children ages 6 months to 6 years watch television on a typical day. In fact 18% of babies under two years old even have a TV in their nursery, watching on average 75 minutes of television a day.

Being a parent of three kids five and under, I can understand how helpful television can be. It's a blessing to be able to put on Dragontales or Clifford at a particularly hairy time of the day to calm the kids down. And it's neat to see them actually learn a thing or two from some shows that are well done. But none of my kids have a TV in their room, and we have no plans to change that anytime soon. Yes I have a TV in my office I never use, but there is no way I'm going to be putting it in one of my kid's rooms.

As I wrote a month ago, there are times I would like to just put on a ballgame and send the kids to their room with their TV babysitter, but I just don't think that's right. As a parent I feel it is my responsibility to see what my kids are watching... and when we accidentally let Nick and Disney stay on a little too long as those channels switch from preschool mode to "Teen" mode, I know about it and can change the channel or turn it off.

There are so many voices in this world competing for our children. Companies are spending millions of dollars trying to get their products in front of our kids, even our 2 and 3 year-olds. Having a TV in your preschooler's bedroom only makes it easier for them to get their gospel of want and spend into their young minds. It's tough to raise your kids right. So give yourself a parenting advantage by keeping the TV in the family room and keeping the bedrooms for creative play and sleep.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

This Place is a Zoo

I took the kids to the Lincoln Park Zoo on Sunday. It was a beautiful day for walking around, taking in the sights and seeing the animals. The highlight for the kids was watching the King of the Jungle standing and sitting high on top of a rock in the lion exhibit. It drew quite a crowd. Kinda like a scene from the movie Madagascar.

For me the most impressive animal at the zoo that Sunday was the human animal. In the couple of hours we were there we encountered families of many different races and nationalities speaking a wide variety of languages. To go with English I heard Spanish, German, Polish, Arabic and Chinese (or at least I think it was Chinese.) At times my kids were playing in the Children's Zoo area with kids who spoke English, but understood completely when their mother said "let's get going" in Spanish (or at least I think she said "let's get going.") It was the same way later on with a family which spoke Arabic.

The variety of people and cultures that can be found around the globe are too numerous to number completely. And you know what... they were all created by God. We live in a time of great tension and too many wars. Our natural instinct is to not trust one another. But on this day, in a zoo, we all spoke the same languages of family, togetherness, and a love for the nature God has blessed us with.

Sunday gave me hope. In God's good world, among God's children, there is hope for peace.