Encouraging parents to stay involved in their teens’ spiritual lives

I have a new article up at Bible Study Tools! At first I was hesitant to write on this topic, since my kids haven’t become teenagers yet. But then I realized I worked with teenagers for 15 years! Also I was teenager once…a pretty difficult one, I think 😉

How to Encourage Your Teenagers to Read the Bible

My editor chose this photo, but I really like how moody the guy looks.

Raising hands in worship: a new (or very old) way of thinking

Some of my students call it Football Hands: both hands lifted high in the air like a ref calling a touchdown. They try to predict what part of the worship song “everybody will go Football Hands,” when the music becomes the most moving and people want to express themselves more fully to God. This bothers me as a deeply serious person, but they’re joking in the way kids sometimes can, without real cynicism.

Raising hands, dancing, clapping, and shouting are hallmarks of Pentecostal worship. Having grown up in a well-behaved Baptist culture, I was drawn to this aspect of the college group I joined, which I later learned was Pentecostal. I could see their sincerity on the outside as well as the inside. Worship was about more than singing—it was an experience.

There’s a weak side to this expressive culture. Sometimes you’re expected to wear your worship on the outside for all to see. And if you don’t, you’re thought to be a bit less than spiritual. I’ve been guilty of raising my hands because I didn’t want to be the only one not doing so.

Now I’m attending a somewhat formal liturgical church and I’m back to square one on figuring out when to raise my hands. A few people do in our church, but honestly, one of the biggest obstacles is the printed bulletins we all hold with the words to the songs and prayers written out (no powerpoint slides.) Lifting one’s hands also means waving around a bulletin and not being able to see the words.

Should I overcome this obstacle when I can, or does it not matter much? Why is it wrong to raise my hands for others to see? Why is it weird to be able to predict when everyone will spontaneously go Football Hands?

Scripture is full of descriptions of people worshipping with their bodies, emotions, and minds. Just to keep things brief, I’ll only bring up a few that talk about raising our hands.

Psalm 63:4 says, “I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.”

Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!”

And Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:8, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.”

Maybe there are some scriptures that describe raising hands as an involuntary action, but most of the time it’s either an exhortation or a commitment. (“Lift your hands” or “I will lift my hands.”) It comes across as a choice we can make.

As usual, there are really good reasons for this instruction and practice for God’s people.

When I raise my hands in worship, my mind tends to be more engaged. It takes some attention to keep my hands in the air, and sometimes I have chosen to stay in that position even when my arms were tired. It’s a way of saying to God, “I am fully here. Body, mind, emotions. I mean what I am singing, and I’m not letting my mind wander. I’m not saving my energy for something else.”

Is it right to raise my hands if I don’t really feel overcome by worshipful emotions? Isn’t that insincere? I would suggest that it’s no more insincere than singing words that we’re not really “feeling” in the moment.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Our devotion to God—singing worship songs, spending time with Him, obeying His commands—has to do with his deserving our devotion, not necessarily with our feeling devoted. He deserves our feelings too, but we don’t have a lot of control over that. We do have control over our minds and our bodies and our actions.

One of our choices is to involve our bodies in worship, and people have been doing that for eons. Anyone with an arm or two can participate. This simple act transcends cultures, centuries, languages and social classes.

Raising our hands helps us focus our minds, give God our energy, and make sure that worshipping is the only thing we’re doing at the moment. It’s hard to multitask when your hands are in the air, not to mention awkward.

I’m not suggesting that “real” worship must be punctuated with raised hands. There are plenty of other ways to fully involve ourselves in worship. This includes holding my preschooler on my hip and holding the bulletin in the other hand to sing unfamiliar songs to the best of my ability. My utmost for His highest looks different in different moments.

To those who feel strange doing something unfamiliar, afraid that others may notice and judge: try to shift your attention to God’s view of your actions. Try picturing Him watching you worship, listening to your words, and seeing your face. Try turning on a worship song at home and lifting your hands as you sing. Imagine yourself in a crowd with the holy people of old, King David even, hands raised; and there is God, so pleased with His people.

Writing is being like God

It’s bad press to say that you want to be like God. It’s absurd and sounds delusional. But God invites us to be like him. “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Holy means “set apart.” But how can we be different as God is different? Maybe part of the answer is tht we can be set apart from the world of plants and animals, by joining in his creative work.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

In his image

We are made in God’s image. Humility and logic would lead us to believe that we are a shadow of his image or a cheap knock-off that makes you wish you had the real thing. But when God first declared that we’re made in his image, the very next thing he said was that we were to be fruitful and multiply, to fill and rule the earth.

We are to be creative, to reproduce, to fill, to lead and to rule. Those are things God does. This call to be like him was not a parody or an off-brand version of being like God. He told us to do the things he does. He gave us that ability.

Photo by Brian Jimenez on Unsplash

Of course there are limits to that. Thank God there are limits. He holds the blueprints and supplies all the materials, and he trains us to do the work. The wonder of it is that we were invited to the jobsite in the first place.

Something out of nothing

Writers are being like God—fulfilling their call to be like God—when they open a blank document in Microsoft Word and begin to write, multiplying and filling the page with that which was not there before. Writers create something out of what was once nothing.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Granted, we have some material to work with: our experience, the language we’ve been given, the sights and sounds around us. We’re responding to something. But creating a short work of fiction, for example, is creating something new.

In the business of doing new things

God busies himself with new things. Behold, he says, I am doing a new thing. I will bring springs of water in a dry land. I will pour out my Spirit like new wine into empty vessels. I will stretch and expose, I will turn traditions on their head, I will grow a new sprout out of a sawed-off stump.

Before I would call myself a writer, I had to wrestle with some cynicism about writing, especially in the Christian sphere. There are SO MANY books. Name a topic and surely there are at least 12 books in print that can say what I would say, only better. But still I have this desire to write a book someday.

I think that desire may be partly the call of God to be like him. Each person has different ways that they can be like God, and a drive under the surface of our consciousness leads us to take a crack at it, even though we know it may fall short of our hopes.

My daughter has recently been asking why I wanted to become a mom. She’s asked 3 or 4 times, and I’ve given her a different answer each time. The one that felt the most right was that I wanted to be like my mom. I have a wonderful mom, and it feels like I was made to be like her in a lot of ways. But I think underneath that is a desire to be like God. God makes people and takes care of them. Being a mom is being like God.

Powerful words

The other thing about writing is the power of the words themselves. Somehow, stringing together a combination of syllables in a written code can change lives. This power comes from being like God! God’s words have power: power to create, power to heal, power to change history. Being made in God’s image means the words people say or write or hear also have power.

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

This can go wrong. While God’s words always bring life, people’s words someimtes bring death. Proverbs says “the tongue holds the power of life and death.” (Prov. 18:21) Being a writer means using the power of words and if it’s done for the purpose of bringing life, in that way we’re being like God.

This case can be overstated. Being like God doesn’t mean we replace God. Doing the things God does is meant to bring us into closer relationship with him. Working on the job site with him means we get to spend the day with him. It doesn’t mean we tell him not to show up tomorrow, because we’ve got this figured out.

What a wonder he is, the Maker of our universe! He not only creates something out of nothing, he creates someones who, in some smaller way, can also make something out of nothing.

Update!

To the faithful and few QuickReads followers, first, I thank you for reading, and I wanted to share a couple of updates.

  1. I have another BibleStudyTools.com article: How Do We Wait Upon the Lord?
  2. I have officially made this my personal blog, which I said I’d never do. What I mean is that I promised myself not to journal online, because there is already so much good material online (and there’s plenty of lousy writing out there, which I wanted to be careful to avoid contributing to.)
  3. My new aim for this blog is to share with my readers what I am learning presently, in my voice and in my own way. Writing for others as a very-part-time occupation has made me miss being able to write my own thoughts without concern for how it reflects on others. QuickReads is an outlet for that.
  4. Also, my family is treating Sundays as our Sabbath day (i.e., our day to rest), and I’ve decided that the afternoon is a perfect time to regularly contribute to my own blog. Therefore you will hopefully see more blog posts coming on Sunday afternoons!

Thanks,

Allie

What Lake Michigan has in common with my niece

The thing I like about walking at the lake every morning is the same thing I like about holding my newborn niece. They are made by God and not too different from the way he made them. They don’t expect me to say anything coherent to them.

Also these two created things are both constant and changing. I walk the same route to the lake every day. It frees up my mind to think of other things and to talk with God. When I get to the lake, it’s always the same in most ways. A depth of expanse rivaling the sky, it’s empty of complication or obstruction. It’s so deep, there are no plants sticking up in the middle and I guess I’m there too early in the morning to see boats.

The simplicity calms me. Even the path next to the lake is simple. One asphalt lane, on a bluff above the shore. One bridge across a ravine. One bench at the end of the path where I turn around and start walking home.

My one-month-old niece is another story. Her face changes from moment to moment; her sounds gurgle up in charming variety. But there is something pleasantly the same about her. It’s the familiar smells—her head smells just like my kids’ did at that age and so do her diapers. She responds to the same motions and sounds as my kids. Some day soon she’ll become so different I’ll forget all about holding her for an entire movie while she slept. I’ll forget the smell because it’s unlike any other smell besides that of other infants. Is it because she’s the cousin of my children that she is so familiar in her newbornness? Am I smelling my husband’s genes?

The lake has its changes too. One morning, it is hazy and there is no discernible line between the water and the sky. Another day, the lake is so bright with the sun that I can barely look in its direction. But these changes are suitable and not too surprising.

I walk the same way every day. I revel in the sameness of the lake. I rest in the familiarity of the way my niece smells.

As if from outside myself, I’ve noticed how much pleasure I’m taking in these two God-made things, and I have assumed it’s because I generally like nature. But now it dawns on me that I’m enjoying the calm that their sameness brings.

So little in my life is presently familiar. We’ve moved to a new state, which of course means a new house and all sorts of other new things. We now live close to two sets of family (including the sweet-smelling niece). We are just normal participants in our church, rather than being church leaders. Half the people in our neighborhood talk loudly on the phone in Spanish and the other people have professional landscapers mow their lawns. We fit into neither category and feel a little like live-in tourists. But we like it here.

Also unfamiliar is staying at home with my kids rather than sending everyone off to school/daycare so I can go to work. Exceedingly unfamiliar is having my husband home all day every day because he still does not have a job. Neither situation is actually unpleasant, but it does feel unknown.

All this lack-of-normalness has created a thirst in me for that which is known. No one knows the pleasure of water like a desert nomad, which I suppose is one of the perks of being such a person. This is one of the benefits of difficulty: to take pleasure in the things God made because you desperately need them.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. James 1:2

Latest article published!

Dear QuickReads friends, I’m sorry I’ve been AWOL for a while. We’ve moved from Indiana to Illinois, celebrated the too-short life of our niece, and I’ve also started assisting a rather industrious science editor.

In the midst of that, I’ve had the opportunity to write for a website that I use on a regular basis! My favorite feature on Bible Study Tools is their Interlinear Bible, where you can look up the Hebrew or Greek for the scripture you’re learning.

And here’s my article, inspired initially by grieving with my kids as we’ve moved states. In the middle of writing it, my niece passed away, so this material became all too relevant. Special thanks to another niece, Mary Grace, who lost her sister, for giving valuable first-hand insights on this article.

How to Use Scripture to Encourage Grieving Kids

Grieving boy

Finding self-control

At the moment, my self-control is lame and limp.  What have at times been fairly robust inner-strength muscles have atrophied, wasted away.  

What do I do, oh Lord? What have I done to get me here?

Like many an American Christian, my greatest struggle with self-control is eating.  I am like a vacuum, a bottomless pit of a stomach, though I myself certainly am not bottom-less.  Food fills up my need for fun, for rest, for stress relief. Also, I often overeat in social settings, just to avoid displeasing anyone.

I have tried a zillion diets, none of which have successfully kept off excess weight for very long.  Because after the allotted time is done, I go back to overeating rich foods.  

Also there’s something weird about aging – the bar is moved up on how disciplined I have to be to maintain a decent weight.  It makes perfect sense, actually. If you want someone to continue to grow in a skill, you raise the difficulty gradually.  

I imagine God is my personal trainer.  His primary objective is not to tone my external muscles, but the strength of character inside me.  So, like a wise guru, he designs obstacle courses for me to conquer. He designs resistance exercises to test and hone me.

He’s made it clear that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” But right before James says this, he also writes,

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.”

And “The testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”

I hear testing and trial and I think of the Oreos in my pantry.  Test #1: can I eat three of them and leave it till tomorrow?  Test #2: can I throw out the leftover Oreo on my kid’s plate rather than sneaking it in my mouth as I dump the healthier contents in the trash?

Last week, the answer to these questions was, “No, apparently not.”

First-world problems at their finest.  But I have to see that these present difficulties are producing for me an eternal weight of glory.  Right now, they’re producing for me an everlasting weight of body. Lord, help me.  

Self-control is promised as the fruit of the Spirit.  I have imagined it like an orchard where I can pick an apple labeled self-control anytime I need.  There’s a sense in which I still think this is true. “He has given us everything we need for life and godliness in Christ Jesus.”  

But it would seem that the fruit of the Spirit is actually growing on me, as though I am a plant myself. God is the Master Gardener, tending and pruning and training.  Now that I think about it, he is the vine and I am the branches.  And the fruit comes out of that connection, that union with him.  

I’m a little afraid that all my failure in the eating category will disqualify me from something.  Like I’ll fail the test so many times that I get kicked out of the program.  But maybe God’s tests aren’t to see what we’ve learned.  Surely he already knows that? They’re to teach us how to apply what we’ve learned. Also, apparently, they’re teaching me how puny is my fruit outside of him.  

“Every branch that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, so that it may bear more fruit.”  It doesn’t say how much fruit.  God, can you find a little self-control in me?  In your mercy, continue to prune me.

Today, when I am faced with tests of my character, small and big, let me see God in it, wise and pure, strong and kind.  Let me ask for help because we all know I can’t do it on my own. In other words, let me abide in him and watch for the fruit to form.  

Why so downcast?

“Why so downcast, oh my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”

–David, to his own soul, whose question I now ask myself.

Well, Self, I feel downcast presently because I just said goodbye – indefinitely – to a student in whom I’ve invested for a long time. Working through the ups and downs of her spiritual life have made me value her well-being more keenly than if she’d been all put together the whole time.  She is a prize fought for and won fair and square. (PS, I was a cheerleader in the fight, not the One who won her back.)

David’s question to his own soul could be seen as rhetorically implying that he should not be downcast.  Because he follows up his question with an exhortation to himself:

“Why so downcast, oh my soul?  Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”   Psalm 42:11

The implication may be, “You shouldn’t be downcast, because you can hope in God.”  

But I know that my present feeling of downcast-ness (probably not a word) is not resulting from a lack of hope in God.  It’s due to the value of what I’m losing, this lovely girl in my everyday life.

(If I have any readers who think this girl may be you, it probably is.  I feel this way about all of you.)

So is it okay to be downcast sometimes? Instinctively, yes, of course it is.  Grief means you’ve lost something important to you. If we’re to make sure we’re never downcast, we must either value nothing or we must lose nothing.  

This month of saying goodbyes and transitioning into a new, unknown season, has been full of downcast-ness and disturbance.

 Admittedly, sometimes I’ve popped the question: “Why so downcast, oh my soul?” and the answer has to do with a lack of hope in God.  I’ve been fearful about finding a place to live, even though God has always provided generously in that area.  Underneath that layer, I’ve been fearful that I won’t have an important role in people’s lives anymore, because I won’t be a campus pastor anymore.  A big reason I signed up for that gig was because my campus pastors were important to me, and I wanted to be important to someone else. I wanted that more than I wanted money or renown.

When a lack of hope in God is the reason for being downcast, then I need to quit being downcast and rejoice in the character of my faithful God.  

I need to remember that He’s the one who gave me a role of significance in the lives of these girls (and some of the guys, too.)  Therefore, as He sees fit, He’ll fulfill my desire for significance again, one way or another.

When being downcast is due to normal, healthy grief, like I feel right now, putting my hope in God is simply the next step.  It’s not a corrective measure. Maturity doesn’t look like sailing through the potentially painful times without tears.

I ask myself, “What now?”  Now it’s time to hope in God, to praise Him, because He is the constant. He will always be my Savior and my God.  

Grieving the loss of good gifts He’s given is one sort of praise. This wouldn’t hurt if You hadn’t been so good.  

Self-care vs. selflessness

Mahatma Gandhi.  He’s so famous that autocorrect doesn’t even blink.  It’s used to people botching his name. Gandhi is entrancing in his white robes and skinny bones.  What a disciplined, selfless human.

Also great is Dr. King, whose story and earnest face have won my kids’ hearts.  My first-grader had a homonyms spelling test, including “piece” and “peace.” He’d say, “is it piece like a piece of cake, or is it peace like Martin Luther King, Jr.?”  I suppose the Reverend’s heart would thrill at such an association.  Dr. King gave his life for peaceful reconciliation.

Self-less-ness.  Having no self? Not living for self?  Giving of oneself for others? Its opposite is self-ish-ness, which everybody knows is bad.

What then of self-care?  When is self-care self-ish?  Is it that we all need a bit of selfishness in our lives to survive?  How did grown women of yesteryear survive without adult coloring books?  

The disciplined warrior comes to mind.  A physically powerful man who eats well, refrains from excessive food or drink, trains hard to strengthen his muscles and his skills for battle.  He would use an adult coloring book as toilet paper. But he is a paragon of self-care. What motivates him? Perhaps he’s driven forward by a swirl of reasons:  desire to win, because such men love competition; desire to impress the ladies; desire to go down into history as a great man.  Is his self-care then also selfish? Or are these motivations human and rational and even laudable? Did Dr. King have any such desires?  

I am no Gandhi or MLK, Jr, but I’ve known moments that call for big selflessness.  I thought that cleaning up the floor after my college roommate puked everywhere was godly.  I thought that her hangover the next day was justice. Then I bore infants who routinely puked all over my clothes, and they weren’t even drunk.  Now they’ve grown into elementary kids who puke in the middle of the night every few months, but need me by their side, because puking is hard emotional work.  The next morning, we both need some self-care.

After a long and dangerous march, did Dr. King sleep in and ask his wife to make French toast?  Maybe after so much selflessness, he needed some self-care, so that he could get out there the next night and be a world changer again.  In the Selma movie, he called Mahalia Jackson in the middle of the night so she could sing to him.  I’ve heard that detail was based on reality.

A college student might go into “self-care mode” by bingeing a Netflix show and painting their nails. Contrast this with the disciplined warrior.  Perhaps what is lacking in the Netflix and nail polish version is the “care” part of “self-care.”  

Self-care could fuel selflessness.  Regular rest is needed in order to be selfless.  The right kind of self-care can recharge one’s sense of purpose, nourish one’s brain and body, bring one into a fuller sense of clarity about the world and the cause worth championing.  

Calling movie marathons and facial masks “self-care” is like calling pizza “Italian food.”  Pizza is delicious. It should not be banned. But don’t try to sound better than you are by saying you’re going for Italian when it’s really just Domino’s.  If you’re going to veg and watch TV all night, just say so. Don’t call it self-care and make it sound less selfish than it is.

The phrase “self-care” should call us to the caring of ourselves, so we can serve others more selflessly tomorrow.