Involving children in worship services

I love having kids in church both as a dad and a pastor. I love it when kids recite the Creed putting emphasis on different words than I do. It helps me think about what I’m saying. I love it when they smile back at me during the Aaronic Blessing. It shows me how they’re receiving it in faith. There is so much in worship both for kids and for adults through kids in worship. Here are three suggestions to help everybody in the family make the most of worshiping together.

  1. Sit with or near others who are close to your kids. Even though my parents had seven of us, they never handed us off to others. We always sat with them. They wanted us to see them worship, but not only them. They made sure I saw grandpa worship. I remember that one Sunday still today. I looked down the pew and saw my grandpa praying the Lord’s Prayer too. I remember the sincerity on his face and the words that were obviously so familiar to him. And I remember getting back to praying like I’ve never gotten back to it before.
  2. Strategically teach your kids the liturgy. There is nothing I love better than watching my 4-year-old speak the response to the words, “This is the gospel of our Lord.” I love seeing that she knows what it is and better yet knows why it is. We taught her as a 3-year-old, “Elliana, Jesus taught us everything we need to know and he saved us so when we hear from him we get all excited.” Pick some low-hanging liturgical fruit like that for your younger ones. If you have an infant son, help him fold his little hands during the Prayer of the Day. If you have a 5-year-old, help her nail the Creeds. If you have a 12-year-old, show him some profound theological connections. For example, ask him to think about why we sing about the Lamb of God right before the Lord’s Supper.
  3. Receive the Word in faith before your kids. Most weeks the pastor is going to say, “I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Receive that in faith and joy as the best news you’ve heard all week. Even consider leaning over on occasion to whisper into your teenage daughter’s ear, “I really needed that today.” And she’ll get it. She’ll remember your apology for being too hard on her earlier in the week and see how you received Christ then and there for it. Dust off the sermon, too, on the ride home. Tell the kids why it mattered to you so much. Then ask them what mattered to them in it. If it’s crickets, help them remember. You might just see your kids’ ears perk up a bit more next Sunday.

Turning a “can’t” into a “can”

It’s hot in South Carolina in the summer. Sunny too. How’s that for stating the obvious? The solution? Go to the pool. That’s where my daughter’s “can’t” came to life in a way stronger than anything I’d seen in her before. She didn’t want to dunk her head, but at the same time she did. She was at war with herself.

Saying, “no,” to something one can do is sometimes about an inner tension for a Christian. We’ve all felt it. One minute you’re making the grand pronouncement, “I can do it all by myself.” And the next, just like my daughter did, you stare at what’s in front of you and you say, “Daddy, I can’t.” Sometimes it’s the unknown you don’t want to step into. Sometimes it’s the fear of failure that grips you. Other times it’s the easiness of inertia that captures your heart.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to overcome the “can’ts.” But helping our children know how God has recreated them in baptism is important. God didn’t baptize us into timid lives or shy choices or despairing attempts at worthwhile living. He certainly did not want us to face life fearing every event. Confidence in our love for our children and especially God’s love for them is a factor in moving forward. He baptized us into lives of confidence, love, and self-discipline. And so for me, saying “can’t” when you can isn’t just a matter of merely pounding on the will or somehow gaining compliance; it’s a matter of understanding the gospel itself.

That’s why I relished my daughter’s “can’t” moment. I saw it not as a moment to develop more grit in her but rather to set loose the grit she already possessed in her recreated self. And I believed that turning her former “no” into a full-bodied “YES” wasn’t really a matter of pushing on her will. I believed it was a matter of putting down her old will that was holding her back and raising up her more powerful, recreated will so she’d turn into the dolphin I knew she could be.

How do you do that in real time, real life living? You apply law and gospel. Was she scared of her underwater attempt? I gave her the safety net of a father’s gentleness and ever-present love. Was she being lazy or combative? That’s not who God recreated her to be, and I don’t have time for that. Some variation of “Git’er done,” was occasionally the right medicine for the moment. Was she emotionally tapped out? It was time to float with the noodles, take a break, and try again later.

My goal throughout? Nurture her recreated self and put down her old one. How’d that turn out for us this summer? Honestly? I’m happy to report that she has now officially turned into a dolphin. And better yet, she is living her recreated life more powerfully making waves for Jesus. And not just in the pool, either.

Jesus is real for you too

Just last week we sat together at a Starbucks, the unlikeliest of friends. He a horse trainer from L.A. Me a pastor of a church plant in Aiken, S.C. We sat there amiably chatting about life in Aiken, etc., etc.

I sat there and prayed, “Lord, show me a way to talk to him about you.” And suddenly my friend announced, “I’m gay.” Opportunity provided.

I won’t recount his story to you, but I will tell you that I ached for him as he related it. All these years later, you know what thought really killed him inside? He said, “You’re clean before God. I never can be. This is who I am. I will wake up tomorrow just this way. There will always be this fundamental separation between God and me.”

I know. I know. I’m supposed to talk about what we might say to our children about same-sex relationships. But, honestly, in a way I just did. This man had once been a child. In fact, this man had once been a child in a very pious Christian household. And his only present conception of God was one perfectly antithetical to the gospel. We believe in a God who broke down the wall of separation between us and him with his Christ. We believe in a Jesus who came the whole way to us—no, he didn’t just come the whole way, he chased us down because we were self-consumed and self-willed in ways so destructive that even now we’re still coming to understand how bad it was. And as I sat with my new friend I got glimpses of him, the boy, who’d never glimpsed a God that good—a boy who’d never understood that Jesus isn’t just theological theory. He’s flesh and blood Savior for very real inner darkness.

As I stared into that history, I sat in my present and thought of my daughter and I asked myself, “What truth can I deliver to her now that the Spirit can leverage on her heart? I want her to know that good God. When and how do I do that?”

After all, it is in my fatherly job description to answer those questions. In some ways, I suppose I already have. I enjoy her personal flair, but I call her on it when it morphs suddenly into sass. I love to play ball with her, but when she becomes selfish and possessive? She’s going to know about it. And then I always lavish her with Jesus when she “gets” it. Did I say lavish? And why? Her personal darkness is no theory. Neither is her Savior. And if only she knows those divine truths, she will be able to deal effectively with any proposed alternatives that surface in her life.

And I tell her The Stories. It’s my favorite part of parenting her. I LOVE to tell her The Stories. I don’t just do the Christmas story. I do them all. Light. Darkness. Sin. Grace. I do the ones that include violence and even death. (It was really something to see Samson through her eyes last week! And how else do you do Good Friday?) I do them all.

I can guarantee you that by the time she grasps by experience the darkness of this world, she’ll already have known that truth from the Scriptures. That “modern” family at the mall won’t surprise her because her daddy told her that story about Lot. That rumor about her fifth grade classmate won’t confound her because she’ll already have learned from the Scriptures how to think about it—all right there sitting on her daddy’s lap. All in a context of gentleness, love, and the Spirit of God himself.

And then? Well, I plan to live in that moment. Because I just want to be her dad. Not a template. Not a cookie cutter. I just want to be her dad. When her young mind sees sin firsthand, I don’t want to bust out my pre-planned speech. I want to hear what her tender, young conscience is causing her to think. When she confronts big questions about sexuality, I don’t want to get out some canned approach. I want to minister to whatever issues of sin and grace bubble to her surface so I can properly wrap her up in a hug of truth.

What will that look like? I don’t know. I do know where I’m headed, though. I want her so confident in the gospel that at a Starbucks in 2046 she’ll sit with someone just as her daddy once did and say, “I too have evil desires that wage war on my soul. They’ll be there tomorrow too. But I know the gospel, and I want you to know it too. God gave me Jesus as my substitute and he’s poured his Spirit into me as my new impulse. And can I just tell you this? Jesus is real for you too.”

Contentment through the Spirit

Contentment cannot be taught. If it were that simple and easy, we’d all have it all the time. Someone would just teach us the logic of it and it would stick.

“Don’t you see,” we’d tell our kids, “contentment makes the same sort of sense as 1+1= 2.” And then they’d nod their heads in agreement won over by our irrefutable logic.

Pretty sure that’s not effective. Why? Because I know me. And I know my daughter. And if the Scriptures are true, I know you and your kids too.

If I’m going to tamp down the whirring, yearning, and chasing of my discontentment this Christmas, if I’m going to help my daughter do the same, there is only one force with both the consistency and the power to deliver. His name? The Holy Spirit.

He alone will allow me to walk past the Apple store without a second thought. He alone will allow my three-year-old daughter to walk past racks of Christmas toys without throwing a tantrum or convince her she’s alright without that additional Christmas cookie. That’s just honest.

Keeping that in mind, here are a few quick thoughts on unleashing the Spirit:

  • Unleash the Spirit on yourself. In the Word, you’ll find this incredible, mind-blowing God who has met every one of your most basic and most profound needs in totally overwhelming ways. Did I gush enough to make my point? The reality is that if we parents are not convinced we have everything we could possibly want or need in Christ, how could we possibly hope to share that same news with our kids? My daughter can smell a rat a mile away.
  • Unleash the Spirit on your child(ren). See above. Just think, it’s December! What better picture is there than that mangy manger for teaching the love and promises of God?
  • Live gratitude. Even shout it! I do, and I heartily recommend it. When I see another stunning Carolina crescent moon, my whole house knows about it (and who put it there!). Sometimes at dinner, I’ll very intentionally ask my girls, “What are you thankful for today?” We do that at bedtime, too. At the tender age of three, she sometimes has a hard time getting past the zoo, but—hey—I don’t mind asking her, “Are you thankful for Jesus, too? Why?” (Quick aside: if you want to feel joy after a tough day, do what I suggest and just watch your daughter’s eyes light up with gospel glow as she tells you about the God she’s learning to know. I’m telling you, there’s nothing better!)
  • Ignore, squash, or redirect discontentment. Pray for wisdom on which of those triggers to pull in which circumstance and then pull it. Don’t be afraid to let the Spirit convict through you. Whatever you do, don’t ever indulge it. The human heart is a bottomless pit. One more thing will not satisfy. Only Jesus does.
  • Finally, build these rhythms into your family life intentionally, practically, and concretely all the time. The human heart doesn’t magically heal from discontentment after December 25 rolls by. Before we know it, 2016 will drop in on us, and once again in the new year we will find our hearts in need of Holy Spirit-provided contentment. I am also delighted, however, to tell you that once again in the New Year you’ll reliably find the Spirit for yourself and your children in the words and promises of God.

Disciplining my Cinderella

I wish I could tell you it’s never happened, but it has. I’ve rounded a corner to find my two-year-old daughter about to start dancing on the counter. Yeah, she’s that kind of kid. Wow, do I love her for that!

I figure it’s all a part of the plan. God decided, “Since I’ve decided they’re only going to have one child, I’m going to give them one that’s going to thrum with life.” And she does. She lives life to the hilt. I’m pretty sure she thinks she’s not really living unless she’s somehow perched three feet off the ground.

What do you do with a daughter like that? Sometimes I just grin when I see her antics. How can you not when she looks at you with her big blue eyes and her classic, “What, Dad? This is totally safe,” kind of look? Other times a grin couldn’t be more out of place; where there’s something far more insidious going on; where we just know. We know it’s more than just innocent curiosity and it’s more than just vibrant wonder. When we see the look that says, “Dad, I know you told me not to and I don’t care,” we know it’s open rebellion.

For us, how we discipline is often decided by her attitude—the why behind it all. We have lots of patience for her fearless approaches to whatever climb she’s after next—metaphorical or otherwise. We’re happy to teach and guide with all the gentleness and tenderness we can muster. And we’re happy to parent her like that as long as she is innocently learning her world, but never when she’s trying to overthrow it. When she becomes self-willed, “whys?” us to pieces, or has that rebellious glint in her eye, we never tolerate it. We move swiftly and firmly to let her know that’s never okay. We love her too much not to.

I suppose everybody’s anxious to know what that looks like. In my experience, it always looks different. I’ve found that it’s a judgment call based on 1) the danger level of the activity, 2) her level of understanding about that activity, and 3) her attitude about whatever it is that she’s up to. Once I’ve ascertained those things, I’m ready to discipline her.

What is the right way to do that with your two-year-old? Yours is different than mine so I can’t tell you. Does any open rebellion demand some sort of physical reminder? Is a time-out the most attention grabbing strategy? Do you have a tender little conscience in your care that only requires a verbal reprimand? I’m not sure. And what happens when your two-year-old becomes a more nuanced and sophisticated preteen? What does discipline look like then? Ah, somebody help me!

No matter what you decide as a parent, we’re probably after the same thing. We want our children to “get it” when they sin so that we can comfort them with the gospel until they “get” that too.

In moments when my little girl grasps the seriousness of her situation, there’s no greater joy than asking her in that same moment, “What did Jesus do with your sin?” and having her respond, “He wash it all gone.”

I’m convinced that’s why Elliana lives with so much pep and confidence. Sure, sometimes I’ve rounded a corner only to find her expressing that gospel confidence with an attempted counter dance, but, hey, that’s in the job description too. I’m always more than happy to grab my little Cinderella, explain the danger in a clear and animated way, and be her Prince Charming by dancing with her on the living room floor.

Parenting mistakes

Recently I was talking to a new mom. It had happened. Her normally stationary infant had gotten just enough strength to roll. And roll she did. Right off the bed. Tears streamed down this young mother’s face as she lamented, “I just turned my back for a second.” Thankfully, as any seasoned mother will tell you, infants are tougher than you think and the child was fine about 60 seconds later. No worse for the wear.

We have those moments as parents. Those times when you make a decision and your child is negatively impacted—usually physically—because of that choice. And sometimes it’s those mistakes that are the most memorable. But I have a theory about parenting mistakes that I’m still working out. I think the biggest parenting mistakes are the ones that affect the soul and of which we are ignorant except in moments of rare clarity.

I had one of those moments recently. I was sitting on the couch with my daughter. I reached over to grab my coffee, and that’s when I noticed something about my daughter. She had grabbed our iPad. And there she sat quite adeptly swiping and tapping, squeezing and pressing right through about three different apps. That’s just in the time that I watched her. Did I mention she was not yet two?

Now you might suppose that I’m about to talk about her developing young mind or her language acquisition or mourn the times my parenting had deprived her of the natural environment, but I’m not. Not right now. That’s a worthwhile discussion for sure. There’s a reason why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad. What I was concerned about in that moment and what I’m writing about right here is something that I think is even more profound. What I’m writing about right now is a dad who has at least on occasion absented himself from his daughter with an iPhone. What I’m concerned about is the power of the ding of a text message or the pull of an e-mail that had required me (so I thought) to hand her a replacement parent. What I’m writing about is a young soul who had been taught a lesson about the value of her presence vs. a glowing screen—a lesson that was all too personal for her.

I need grace from Jesus for that. And I know I have it. There was no temptation that would or could pull Jesus from his higher calling of loving children. Not even when he was exhausted and tired from a long day of dealing with people. That righteousness is mine through faith. I’ve worn it since my baptism. I believe that so deeply as a parent. And that righteousness not only covers me, it calls me. It calls me to be better, to work harder, and sometimes even to set family policy. When we go out to eat, I leave my phone in the car now. When we eat family dinner, my iPhone is set to vibrate in the other room. And when my daughter gets up in the morning now and needs a minute to wake up, she sits in my lap with her blankie and I use the time for prayer.