Tuesday, February 2, 2016

10 Things to Avoid While Parenting Teens (advice from your loving youth pastor) (Part 1 of 2)

It is universally agreed upon that there are three things in life that are supremely difficult. The first is riding a bicycle across the Pacific Ocean. The second is training a cat to rotate your tires. The third, and perhaps most impossible, is parenting teenagers.

I haven't attempted the first two, but I'm nearly finished with the third. I began the madness 11 years ago when I had lots of hair. I will finish in 2018 as bald as a baby's belly. That's not a coincidence. Being a parent of teens is a little like being President of the United States. Each day is filled with unexpected decisions we have to make. Should I let him go to the concert? Should I let him drive to his girlfriend's house on this rainy night? Should I let him get his buttocks pierced? I suppose it's hard being President, but at least he has a cabinet of experts to help him make these decisions.

Now, before I paint too negative a picture of this daunting task, I have to say that I love teenagers and I have loved parenting three of them. I love the spontaneity, the goofiness, the passion, the moments of greatness rising to the surface. I love guiding discussions around the table and seeing them wrestle with expressing their thoughts. I love watching sports together and debating who the best teams are. I love seeing them develop into young men with tremendous gifts and quirky personalities. My boys have made me laugh until I cried, filled our house with activity and life, been my friends, companions, and occasionally even my teachers. They've taught me about fashion, music, culture, and unbeknownst to them, how to pray really, really hard.

It isn't just my kids that I've learned from. I have been in youth ministry for over 25 years. I've worked with all types of kids--shy, boisterous, awkward, confident, athletes, nerds, band geeks, IB academics, musicians, rednecks, preppies, cheerleaders, artists, and some who have absolutely no idea what they are. Many of them have a tremendous understanding of spiritual things, and others have no clue. I enjoy them all. But I'll admit that there have been many times when I've felt like a total failure. The student I thought was walking with God made another bad decision. The one who seemed so excited to be involved suddenly disappeared from our ministry. It's heartbreaking work, not for the faint of heart. Just like parenting.

So with all that said, I would like to offer a list of 10 THINGS TO AVOID WHILE PARENTING TEENS. I don't mean to make you feel bad for the mistakes you've made, especially since I write from personal experience, but I hope I can prevent others from repeating them. I'm starting with 5 today because this is a blog, not War and Peace, and you have something else to do, I'm sure.

10) AVOID PUNISHING YOUR TEEN BY INTERRUPTING THEIR INVOLVEMENT IN CHURCH. "My kid got in trouble, so I'm not letting them come to youth group." When we make mistakes, the first thing the devil wants to do is separate us from God. Conversely, the first thing God wants is for us to come to him. I know youth group is largely a social event for kids. Sometimes we have to take something that hurts. But to remove time with God's people as a punishment gives a dangerous subliminal message. God is only to be approached when we are worthy. Church is an activity no more valuable than any other. The spiritual message and the presence of the Holy Spirit at our youth ministry are not effective. A better option is to let one of the youth leaders know what's going on so that someone besides you can have an honest conversation and pray with your kid.

9) AVOID FREAKING OUT OVER YOUR TEEN'S MISTAKES. In 25 years of youth ministry, I've heard just about everything. Are you shocked to learn that some of our teens have been caught stealing, had sex, gotten pregnant, cheated on exams, forgotten to turn in their homework, been depressed, cut themselves, lied to parents, snuck out of the house, posted something inappropriate online, looked at porn, gotten in a fight, gotten drunk, been kicked out of school, taken drugs, sold drugs, grown drugs in the backyard garden? When it's our kid, it's panic city for most of us. But it's important to remember that teenagers make serious mistakes (didn't you?), and though we don't wish for it to happen, it will. Freaking out about it doesn't help. Being too embarrassed to ask the youth pastor or youth leader for prayer doesn't help. I tell parents and teens that there is nothing they can tell me that would shock me. (Well, almost nothing. If your teen has a dead body hidden in the basement, I might be a wee bit surprised.) But honestly, I've heard it all. As sad as it makes us, it's also an opportunity to put our trust in the grace of God and let the Holy Spirit do an incredible thing. That's what God does--makes beauty out of ashes. Stay calm, and pray.

8) AVOID COMPLAINING ABOUT YOUR TEEN TO OTHERS, ESPECIALLY ON SOCIAL MEDIA. This is one that should go without saying, but unfortunately I've seen it happen--parents venting about their teen to other parents, occasionally even online. I get it--we all need to vent sometimes. That's okay. My wife and I vent about our kids--and yours--on occasion. Venting with a trusted friend who keeps her mouth shut might be a better outlet than posting your frustration to 1100 Facebook 'friends.' Kids get bombarded with negativity all the time. Parents should encourage their teens at every opportunity and speak well of them to others. One of the things we try to celebrate in our youth ministry is the unique contribution each kid brings to the table as image bearers of their Heavenly Father. Every kid is made in the image of God, even when it seems from their mistakes that they are more like us. Look for the good in your teen and talk about that instead.

7. AVOID FREAKING OUT OVER YOUR TEEN'S DOUBTS AND QUESTIONS. It has been a long time since I was a teenager. It's impossible to remember what my brain was like back then. I mean, I used to think that I was never going to get over that girl dumping me for that kid I couldn't stand. I was absolutely certain that I was destined to spend my life alone in a Georgian Super Cave for Losers. All these years later, my wife of 27 years still thinks I'm hot. You see, the truth is that the teen years are developmentally tumultuous. The thirteen-year-old--a concrete thinker who has zero doubt that Jesus died for them and the Bible is 100% true--gradually becomes the 17-year-old--an abstract thinker who starts to wonder if Samson could really tie the tails of three hundred foxes together, and thus questions his salvation. Psychologist Jean Piaget identified assimilation and accommodation as key components of adolescent development. Teens are constantly learning new things and are forced to assimilate them into their existing belief system. When there's a conflict between new information and old, they are forced to make accommodations for the new belief. It's painful. It's normal. It's good. It's what helps us make our faith our own. So when your teen admits she is having doubts about her faith, don't freak out. I tell students all the time, "You haven't thought of anything that nobody ever thought before. There are reasonable answers worth searching out, and there are many things we cannot fully understand." Faith involves knowledge, mystery and wonder. It is never complete or static, and never should be.

6) AVOID OVERPROTECTING YOUR TEEN. When my son Tim was two-years-old, we awakened one morning to find him missing from the house. After a 60-second mad scramble, we discovered him outside, behind our car, nearly in the street, playing in the dirt. As a result, Tim spent the next 18 years of his life in a 4x4 dog kennel so that he would never do that again. All joking aside, some well-meaning parents, fearing the worst, do everything possible to shield their teens from danger, whether it be physical, social or spiritual. But over-protection is really parenting by fear instead of parenting by faith. Safety is NOT the ultimate goal. As our teenagers grow, we need to remove the harness and allow them to take some risks in search of independence. Our goal as parents is not to protect them, but to see them grow into independent, confident, even dangerous ambassadors for the kingdom of God. That means allowing them to interact with all kinds of people, to go on that mission trip or wilderness adventure, to develop a life outside of our family, to think differently than we think. Imagine if Mary, knowing Jesus was in danger, had never allowed him to leave the house? Playing it safe may seem like good parenting, but it might be hindering the kingdom of God.

Joe McGinnis of INGAUGE Parenting has an excellent diagram which is helpful to see how our role as parents changes as our kids grow up. It shows how we must transition into new roles as our kids grow and mature, moving from protector to teacher to model to coach to mentor. I find this very instructive.
For more, check out http://joedmcginnis.com/

So those are my first five Things to Avoid While Parenting Teens. Check back soon for five more. As you ponder mistakes, and all the others we've made along the way, please be encouraged that our mistakes are not the final answer on who our kids will turn out to be. Not only is God's grace sufficient for our teen's mistakes, but for ours as well.

Now I have to go see if my cat finished rotating my tires.

With encouragement and love,
-Pastor Steve

Monday, January 25, 2016

Rhythm and Blues

My boys have rhythm. I wish I did.

Tim has the best rhythm in the family. The kid is so naturally rhythmic, I swear he could tap his head, rub his stomach, do an Irish jig with his left foot and the moonwalk with his right foot, all while carrying on a conversation defending Breaking Bad as the greatest moment in TV history.

Jon has this nice little dance he does. It involves his hips and his hands in a unique combination that would make Pee Wee Herman jealous. It's pretty much a family legend. Thomas can play the guitar or the piano without giving it a second thought and keep his tempo intact like a boss. Music flows from him like water from the tap.

Me? I can clap my hands and sing at the same time. This, by the way, is not a skill possessed by everyone. I've seen you in church.

Anyway, rhythm is a nice thing to have. I wish I had more of it. It's what I need in my life right now.

When I think of rhythm in a spiritual sense, I mean something a little different than imitating the Blue Man Group. I mean the balance of life and work, the discipline of prayer mixed with the spontaneity of play, the patterns of exercise, rest, Sabbath, productivity, creativity and relationships that give me the most joy and satisfaction. Rhythm means preparing for the normal but being ready for anything. Perfect rhythm brings perfect peace.

For me, this is simple to plan but difficult to master. I need a regular pattern to my life and work. I need my days to be structured but not overstuffed. I need time with people. I need time alone. I need to have a place to be, and I need to have nowhere to be. I need a harmonious schedule that provides time to think, pray, exercise, and create. When life does not allow for those things, due to circumstances under or beyond my control, I feel out of rhythm and out of sync. My heart suffers. My body suffers. My spirit suffers. When I have no rhythm, I have the blues.

This year has been pretty blue. It started off with a couple weeks of sickness. Then we got nailed by the snow which brought everything to a halt. It's nearly the end of January and I feel like I have gotten nothing done at work and regressed spiritually. My prayer life is pretty weak at the moment. I haven't exercised much. And the worst part is, I don't feel like doing any of it. I am out of rhythm with myself and out of sync with God. I need a spiritual pacemaker.

I don't know if you can relate to any of this. People are wired differently. Some are disciplined through whatever comes their way. My wife, for example, protects her prayer and exercise time like a bear protects her cub. It doesn't matter if she's sick, exhausted, or too busy to breathe, she's up before dawn every day and she says this is what keeps her sane. Others don't want any schedule at all -- they need to find something new to do every day. For me, I do best when there is mix of these things. I need routine, rest, and coffee. I need to be busy, but not too busy. I need lots of structure, but with moments of laughter and fun thrown in for good measure. A vacation to look forward to is always good as well.

So here's to starting 2016 over again. I'm planning to get back to the gym. I'm planning to get up at 6:00 to read my Bible and walk the dogs. I'm planning to keep Tuesday mornings free to write and create things for the best youth ministry anywhere. I'm planning to get away once a quarter to pray. And I'm planning to write a blog every other week. I like the rhythm of the tapping of the keys as I create something from a well-rested and inspired mind.

Here's to a better rhythm, starting now.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Happy Festivus!

Today is Festivus!


As is fitting, I would like to end the year with the Airing of Grievances. It has been a bad year for my blog, and I'm feeling a little testy. I have five grievances. If they make you mad, well, come at me with your feats of strength. Hopefully, though, you'll chuckle instead.

5. AUTO TUNE. I like my fruit fresh, not in a can. I like my vegetable fresh, not in a can. I like my meat grilled, not in a can. I guess I'm not a big fan of cans. That's why I like my music with real voices and real instruments, which is getting harder and harder to find, at least on the radio. I know I'm old school, but super-synthesized and auto-tuned doesn't do it for me. Nor does DJ-generated turntablism. Give me the sound of the guitar fingers sliding, the bass rumbling, the raspy voice breaking, and the leather pants stretching anytime. Okay, maybe we can do without the leather pants, but for goodness sake, if you can't sing the song in tune, you probably aren't that good.

4. ANGRY ATHEISTS. Congratulations! You've discovered enlightenment and are now smarter than the rest of the human race. Unfortunately, your new-found uber-humanity seems to have upset you. That's why you insist on posting angry articles declaring that Jesus is as real as the Easter Bunny and Christians are holding onto our outdated beliefs like hoarders on the set of the Home Shopping Network. I'm not sure why you're so mad at people who believe. Did someone take your favorite toy or something? Anyway, there's a lot in the universe we don't understand--so maybe a little faith and mystery will bring some cheer back into your world.

3. ANGRY CHRISTIANS. Speaking of angry, atheists aren't the only ones who seem angry these days. Why do so many Christians seem angry about things that Jesus isn't angry about? Signs that say Happy Holidays? People who favor gun control? Obamacare? Donald Trump? Political debates? Red cups at Starbucks? Chick Fil-A being closed on Sundays?

Jesus got angry at religious hypocrites and anyone who made it harder to get to his Father. We might do well to follow his example, at least in how we present ourselves in social media.

2. NFL INSTANT REPLAY. Fans of the Sunday Synagogue are always ranting about poor officiating. I am guilty as charged. But instant replay, designed to "get it right," only makes things irreducibly complex. The ability to slow plays down into nanoseconds and watch them from a gazillion different angles makes them indecipherable. Did he catch it or bobble it? Did it hit the ground or just a blade of grass? Is a blade of grass considered the ground? Was his arm moving forward to throw or was he just waving to his mother? As he tumbled to the ground like the lunar module, was there control--defined by 76.5 lbs per square inch of pressure on the ball--or did the ball just rotate with the earth? After the interception, did he perform a football move, or was he just reenacting a scene from Magic Mike? Or my personal favorite, Let's check the spot of the ball to see if it made it to the 41.9846 yard line (though on the previous play it was tossed to the ground with all the care of a half-eaten chicken wing). Watching the NFL is like watching Inception; the layers get deeper and deeper until we can no longer tell if we're watching replay, real life, or the Miss Universe pageant. "Ladies and Gentlemen, 43 years later, the Immaculate Reception is still under review."

1. NEW YEARS RESOLUTIONS. Who's idea was this, anyway? We take an otherwise relaxing holiday and turn it into a guilt trip and 365-day reminder of how little self-control and discipline we have. I had some amazing resolutions coming into this year -- encourage 6 people daily (fail), go to the gym 200 times (fail), write a blog every other week (fail), and read 30 books (done). I'm one for four, which even upon review by NFL officials, would mean I SUCK. New Year's Day is like the cake you haven't even eaten yet, and might never eat, but feel guilty for wanting to eat, and awful after you eat it. I resolve to strengthen my resolve to not make resolutions this year.

Happy Festivus, everyone, and more importantly, MERRY CHRISTMAS, too!

Monday, September 28, 2015

The God of the 99

Youth pastors, trying to appear humble and spiritual, will tell you numbers don't matter. We lie. Sometimes they matter. A lot.

Last night there were 99 people at our high school youth ministry, which we call SOS. The name is a mystery to most, but it actually stands for "Stoked On Sunday," a tag I brought from my days in Denver, where people tend to say the word stoked a lot. For the past 15 years, we have been gathering students and youth leaders together on Sunday nights to talk about God and hang out together.

I still remember my first Sunday night at Mountain View. It was May 2000, and I was a candidate for the youth pastor job. As part of my vetting, I was asked to meet with the few high school students of the church. There were about 10 of them gathered in Dave Carruther's living room. The church had only existed a couple of years, so they didn't know each other very well and didn't seem to care. We played a stupid game where you make shapes out of bubble gum. I'm pretty sure they were all thinking, "loser."

I got the job anyway.

That fall we started a youth ministry from scratch. The high school kids met in a nice basement in Holly Hills. I recruited my first high school volunteers, Scott and Erika Rape. The kids were cool, they seemed to like me, and pretty soon we had 25 or more every week. We started small groups. We talked about the Bible. We ate a lot of pizza and shot a lot of pool.

Over the years things steadily grew and changed. We met in lots of different locations. We filled the basements of Katsotises, Sheehys, Joneses, Leggits. We romped around the corridors of the Landon House for four years. We'd average 35 or 40 kids, maybe 50 on a big night. We added lots of great volunteers. We did so many retreats, mission trips and conferences that sometimes I felt like a travel agent instead of a youth pastor. Even with all the changes and activity, I remember nearly every student who was ever a part of our ministry.

Five years ago, things changed dramatically. We opened our new building, home of the coolest youth room in Frederick County, which we called the PIT. We optimistically bought 80 chairs. We had live music and a snack bar and a legit arcade-grade air hockey table. We had modular sofas aptly named "Love Sacs" and tons of pictures on the walls. The night we opened, we had about 75 people. We settled at an average of 50 or so. We've grown steadily since. Last year we bought 20 more chairs to accommodate that growth. You can do the math. It has been very rewarding and humbling. I reflect on it often, and I'm blessed to have been a part of this.

Yet, despite the success we've had, I still have doubts and fears. Mine is this: I worry that I'm getting too old for this. I worry that I will lose my relevance, my youthfulness, my ability to relate to students, my identity as a youth pastor. I worry that I'll be left in the dust, like an old piece of stereo equipment in the digital age. This has been my life's work--what will become of me when I'm no longer "Pastor Steve" to the students of Mountain View?

In a moment of vulnerability, I shared this with the students at SOS last night. I talked about fear and how it hinders our relationship with God. Fear is really lack of trust that God is powerful and that he is good. The truth is, we all have fears which hinder our relationship with God. High school students have lots of them -- the fear of being alone, the fear of being left out, the fear of failure, the fear or unrealized dreams. I'm sure you have your own fears. They are always with us, reminding us we're not in control. The key to defeating them is to remind ourselves what God has done for us, and that he is capable of even greater things.

This morning I awakened with a refreshing sense of confidence. I looked at last night's attendance and smiled. 99 is such a unique number. It represents where we've come from, and where we are going. It represents what God has done, and a threshold we are going to cross. There may be 99 in the fold--a beautiful number to be sure--but there is always room for another. God makes room. And he makes room for us to play an important role in his work of adding to the flock. I have 99 reasons to trust God's faithfulness, and one big reason to keep going. I don't know why I ever doubt him.

I trust the God of the 99. I hope you do, too.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Dog Years

It started as a conspiracy; four members of my family plotting behind my back, devising their manipulative plan while I was at work. The plan hatched into the open one night at dinner, timed perfectly amidst my giant bite of spaghetti so I would be rendered helpless to respond without spewing food.

"We should get a dog," Karen said.

"Yeah, Dad, we should get a dog," echoed three smaller voices in unison--big, hopeful smiles on their cherubic faces.

It was January 2004. We had lived in Walkersville for three and a half years. The boys were 12, 10 and 6. Our lives were full of family, church, and sports. Our home was simple but warm. Life was good.

I chewed my spaghetti and looked at the four sets of eyes staring me down, their pleading smiles reaching into my chest to tug on my heart. I stayed calm. "No way," I said after swallowing. I played it cool, as if I had known about their secret whispers all along.

"Why not?" asked Karen with that look that always gets what it wants from me, the one in which emotion defeats logic.

Why not? I thought to myself? Why should we? It seemed wrong on every level. I'd never had a dog. Dogs are work. Dogs are dirty. Dogs are like children, only worse. And by golly, they are expensive, with their shots and food and vet bills. We were a one-income family in a tiny house with barely enough money to buy name-brand cereal. We already had three boys running around making messes everywhere. We didn't need another source of chaos.

With self assurance, I assumed my role as PD (Practical Dad) to squelch the uprising. I suggested these reasons, and others, and gave a firm, "No."

All of which fell on ears as deaf as a doorknob.

"We've all discussed it, and we think it's a good idea," said Jonathan, the oldest at 12, speaking for the conspirators.

I responded with my trump card, holding out hope that perhaps my supreme logic would draw the lone other adult in the room to see the foolishness of this idea. "You know who would end up caring for it, don't you?" I said to all involved. "Your mother." I dropped the words on the table like Thor's hammer, certain of victory.

Two weeks later, a smelly and excitable puppy ran around our kitchen as the boys squealed with delight. Jonathan named her Treble.

Treble had quite a backstory. Her mother was a Jack Russell who had been featured in the Frederick News-Post because she had been running free on the base of Ft. Detrick, escaping capture for a number of months. During the winter, she had three puppies, all of whom took on the characteristics of their part-husky/part-beagle father. It was hard to imagine the exchange, but the result was an extraordinary mix of true dog snout, beautiful markings, and poor behavior.

The poor behavior was nearly enough to drive us insane. Daily garbage shredding. Leash-straining so relentless we thought she was going to choke herself. She gained a reputation as a runner, jumping over our fence and running off to herd the cows in the field behind our house. More than once the whole Anderson family was seen chasing her across the train tracks into the park. She once broke her leash and ran off into a lake, only to return soaking wet and sheepishly unrepentant. She was blacklisted from one kennel for her behavior, and once bit a veterinarian to the tune of three stitches. We soon learned it was nearly impossible to take her to ballgames or picnics because she would not settle down. We tried to expend her energy in the backyard, chasing her in figure eights until we were panting harder than she was.

And the eating! My goodness, that dog would eat herself to death if possible. She once stole four double cheeseburgers off the counter. She devoured a pan of delicious breaded chicken Karen had lovingly made for dinner. She ate butter, cream cheese, tampons, socks, and cat poop. When she wasn't eating, she would groke--relentlessly groke.

Groke (v) origin unknown: To silently watch someone while they are eating, hoping to be invited to join them.

During every meal, every snack, every bowl of cereal, Treble would stare at us, eyes fixed with a look of entitlement and inevitability.

Treble was a bad dog. I was so right. Getting her was the most impractical thing we'd ever done

But as you've probably guessed by now--I was also so wrong.

She nestled into our family routine like a warm, comfortable blanket. She would spend the evenings in the middle of wherever people were gathered, even though it meant we had to step over her. She would allow each of us to be in her face, her ears back in total submission and trust as she rolled onto her back for a "rubbing of the tum." She would let Tim hold her snout and blow in her nose like a balloon. She gained the surprisingly neat habit of only pooping at the fence line of our property so that we didn't have to clean up after her. She stopped running and became easier to manage. And when we would return from being out of town for a few days, we would be greeted by a jumping, dancing and yelping of joy so inexpressible and thick, it would bring tears to your eyes. She loved us. And we loved her.

A few years ago, she tore her ACL. It eventually healed itself, but it slowed her down. She gained some weight, mellowed out. She became the most docile, loving creature you could ever imagine. People could do no wrong to her, and her gentleness was a gift to us.

Karen indeed ended up being the one who did most of her care, but I'm convinced I am her favorite. She is my "other girl." In recent years, as Karen returned to work, I received the privilege of being the designated walker. Our trips around the neighborhood in the morning have been a blessing to me. I lovingly chatted with her as we walked, and dutifully picked up after her like a bridesmaid carrying her train. I loved giving the "Poop Wave" to my neighbors as they drove to work. (See March 12, 2014 blog). I adore my dog, and she adores me.

Now she is dying.

About four weeks ago, Treble awakened us in the middle of the night, whining and scratching. I found her pressing her empty water dish up against the wall. We had already filled it several times that day. We knew something was wrong. Lots of tests have followed, with a variety of vague diagnoses. Doggie Diabetes was one of them, but our training in giving insulin proved to be in vain. She has stopped eating altogether. It seems to be a matter of days now. I have seen each member of our family taking our private moments with her, and girding ourselves for the difficult day that will soon be here. I'm glad all five of us are here to say our goodbyes. We should have no regrets, only sadness and gratefulness.

The dog years began 11 1/2 years ago, and though I got a late start, they now represent 1/5 of my life. They began with no teenagers in the house yet, and will conclude with only one remaining. The fact that her life coincides with the raising of our sons causes me to reflect upon the brevity of life and the quick passing of parenthood. Wasn't it only yesterday Treble chased Jonathan, Timothy and Thomas as they played whiffleball in the backyard? It's too much to bear if I think about it too long, my heart both full and achingly wistful at the same time.

Mostly, I am grateful. Though once I was blind, now I see. Treble has made sure of that. I am a full-fledged dog lover. In the bigger picture, Treble has helped me realize how chaos and expense are small prices to pay for the richness of relationships, human and canine alike. Practical Dad needed to be defeated, and he was. And as I grieve her impending loss, I wonder if perhaps I'll see her again in God's perfect future, for surely paradise includes everyone's Treble. "In this world you will have Treble, but take heart, I have overcome the world."

The dog years have been the best years of my life.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Defending Santa

Every year at this time, I read lots of posts and hear lots of people discussing whether or not they are going to play up the Santa myth with their kids. Thoughtful young parents, especially evangelical Christian ones, tend to lean on each other to find their path in matters such as this. We do a good job in our subculture of making every decision a bigger deal than it probably is and laying guilt on ourselves to be the perfect parents whenever possible. We live in fear that we will commit the unpardonable parental sin that leads our kids into apostasy, atheism, or the wearing of skinny jeans.

The logic usually goes like this: If I tell my kids Santa is real, I am lying to them. When they find out I lied to them, they will no longer trust me. Therefore, when I talk about Jesus, they won't trust me on that either. Furthermore, Santa also steals the real meaning of Christmas away from Jesus, and I want my kids to love Jesus more than they love Santa. Therefore, I will not allow any Santa in my house, thus fulfilling Commandments 1, 2 and 9.

I'm overstating it a bit to make the point, but the whole issue does cause me to wonder if perhaps we all need a spoonful of lighten up. So, I've decided to defend my position. I am defending Santa.

First, I must confess that I'm a bit biased. As a child, I believed in Santa. I loved the mystery and the anticipation of him. My parents would send me to bed at midnight on Christmas Eve. I would be so excited for Christmas morning that my skinny body would be charged with electricity and the footy pajamas I was wearing would be nearly busting at the seams. I knew that Santa would not come if I was awake, but I would always have trouble falling asleep. So I would attempt to lie there perfectly still, my eyes half closed, trying to trick Santa into thinking I was asleep while I listened for his approach on the roof. I wanted to hear the proof of the hoof, see the shadow of the reindeer against the moon. I never made it past 12:30.

In the morning I'd find a package "from Santa," and it brought me nothing but joy.

I love those memories.

Karen and I played up Santa with our kids to a lesser degree. Jon was always too smart for us. He figured things out early on and relayed the message to his brothers. Nevertheless, we dutifully stuffed their stockings with packages marked "from SC" in silly handwriting to throw them off. (Santa apparently shopped at the Walmart checkout line a lot). A couple times before they were entirely sure, the boys tried to "catch" him by tying a thread across the fireplace that he would have to break upon entry.

So I have a special place in my heart for the big fella. Which is why I am writing this blog in his defense. So, with all due respect for those who disagree, this is why I think we should all get our chimney cleaned before Christmas.

Here are a few facts I am certain of. First, we should not fear messing up our kids with every decision we make. We aren't going to derail their faith in us and send them into decades of therapy because we put a present from Santa under the tree. We aren't going to send them on a path to hell because we allowed them to read Harry Potter or go trick or treating. We aren't going to ruin their worldview because we forced them to watch old Star Trek episodes on Netflix (although some of the sillier episodes may leave a scar).

I believe we pose a much greater risk to our kids' well-being and faith when we fret about everything, fill our homes with lots of worry, and make the Christian life more work than play. Joylessness is the killer of faith.

Second, telling our kids that Santa is coming doesn't make us liars in the biblical sense. Is God angry with us when we wake our kids up at 6:00am on April First and tell them there's a camel in the yard? Does he judge us for telling them mom and dad were in the bedroom, um, "talking?" Are we in danger of eternal fire when we tell our three-year-old that, "Why yes, of course I knew that was a picture of me you just drew"?

Telling a five-year-old that Santa is coming will not turn you (or him) into a liar. I know my dad ate that cookie on the hearth, just as my boys know that it was mom who got those stupid drinking straw eye glasses at Kohls. I never once thought of my parents as liars, and I'm sure my kids don't think of us in this way either.

Third, one of the best things we can do for our children is feed their sense of imagination, wonder and awe. This is a mission we have to pursue relentlessly, in every way imaginable. If we do this well, it's like giving vitamins to our children's faith in Christ. Eventually, they'll discern the difference between the fable of Santa and the reality of Jesus. In the meantime, we cannot overfeed the imagination. The Santa story is really about wonder and possibility, and I think it helped feed my appreciation of the wonder and possibility inherent in the Gospel. How could God become incarnate in a baby, and how could a man walk on water? If we worry Jesus somehow won't be able to overcome "reality competition" from Santa, it seems we don't truly believe in either of them.

Lastly, having fun with Santa can help create the kind of winsome family atmosphere kids need to flourish, It's not the only thing -- not a necessity -- but it worked for us. We kept the Santa story alive as long we could, but it was just one piece in the game box. We also told lots of ridiculous stories at bedtime (I made them all up--liar!), read lots of good books (the Chronicles of Narnia top the list), and played lots of games of whiffleball in the backyard. Our kids grew up in a family that likes to laugh. They grew up aware that the world is filled with wonder and mystery. (For years, I had them convinced there was a secret compartment in my car that they could never find.) As pastor's kids--sometimes privy to the strain that church life can bring--they grew up knowing that home was a fun place to be and their parents were normal people. Most importantly, they grew up knowing that the Lord Jesus--who was at the center of our lives in a thousand ways--was the giver of joy, not the killer of it.

Santa faded, but the warmth and winsomeness of our family system endures to this day.

So here's to you, Santa, you big red figment of my imagination. Thanks for the memories. Haters gonna hate, but don't be late! I can only stay awake so long.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


The Pittsburgh Steelers laid an egg on Sunday against the New York Jets. Coming into the game as the league's hottest team, the Steelers somehow managed to give away four turnovers and not score a touchdown until there was a minute left in a 20-13 loss. There was lots of blame to go around, from QB Ben Roethlisberger (2 interceptions) to receiver Antonio Brown (2 fumbles) to coach Mike Tomlin (1-8 vs. teams with a winning percentage under .200). But the most likely cause of this loss was the pre-game visit from Justin Bieber. According to reports, Bieber paid a visit to the Steelers' team Bible study on Saturday, thus throwing off the Steelers' ever-so-fragile mojo and tossing them into the black hole of NFL weirdness on Sunday.

Justin Beiber was at the Steelers' Bible study on Saturday. That sentence alone boggles the mind on a number of levels, but it makes perfect sense that this would cause the Steelers to lose. It also got me thinking what would happen if Justin Bieber visited other NFL teams? If you're a football fan, you might agree with me.

If JB visited the Washington Redskins, Dan Snyder would sign him to a 7-year contract.
If JB visited the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo would fumble the handshake.
If JB visited the Houston Texans, JJ Watt would invite him to the school dance.
If JB visited the Baltimore Ravens, John Harbaugh would blame him for bad officiating.
If JB visited the Denver Broncos, Peyton Manning would find a way to get him 10 TDs.
If JB visited the New York Jets, Rex Ryan would get a naked tattoo of him on his arm.
If JB visited the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers would give him the Discount Double Check.
If JB visited the Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler's face would not change expression.
If JB visited the Cincinnati Bengals, he would have the shortest arrest record.
If JB visited the Cleveland Browns, he'd be mistaken for Johnny Manziel.
If JB visited the Kansas City Chiefs, Andy Reid would eat him.
If JB visited the New England Patriots, Tom Brady would date him.
If JB visited the Oakland Raiders, they would still lose.

As a precaution, I suggest that Justin Beiber never show his face around the Steelers ever again. I think James Harrison will tear him in half.