Never Let Me Go

An older couple sitting on a grass bank

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

I’m sitting here looking around and I notice people that are always present, but I suddenly notice something for the first time. Something I’ve seen over and over again, but just now, I realize its significance. Something has been taking place day after day and the light is just now coming on in my brain and I see it for what it really is. It’s so essential, it holds everything together. It matters most.

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” – Goethe

There’s that couple struggling together with a crippling disease. They work as a team getting up and preparing to walk to their next stop. All that the rest of us do automatically, these two must carefully manage over and over. They live their lives intertwined, making life work because they have each other. This is one thing they know they will always have.

Over there is another couple. Now that time has passed, I don’t think she always knows where or who she is. But he is faithfully at her side, her duty bound escort, Prince Charming and devoted spouse through better and worse. Who would have planned this sort of experience for those golden years? But as I watch week after week I know that these two surely aren’t living their life according to plan, they are living their lives as they are. He is not a master of his fate, never was, but he is certainly a master of his heart.

Sometimes there’s a commotion. Children of all ages are scurrying about trying to find their place. I can sometimes see a few faces filled with giant smiles that stand out. Dark hair and darker complexions blending in with siblings that are fair and towheaded. It’s clear that these children were chosen, rescued from unfortunate circumstances and embraced into a loving family. These young lives aren’t supposed to fully understand what’s happened. Their job is to live, learn and love. It’s a marvelous reminder of an eternal truth.

We believe in God who has adopted us in the same way.

All around me, each and every day,  I see the reality that none of us can make it without others who love us. We need to have people who are committed to us in deep ways (like marriage, blood, and adoption) intertwined in our lives. At times we think about these people, we just don’t think about them enough. We always take one another for granted. We get blown over without realizing who it is that’s always there to hold us up. We let another day pass just assuming that those people in our lives will still be there tomorrow, as if tomorrow itself were so certain.

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part…  (From the Book of Common Prayer)

Children Ought to Have Parents

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When did you outgrow your parents?

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

– Joni Mitchell

I saw a television news program the other evening about families who have children that decide to adopt a different religious faith. This seemed strange to me. I know this to be a very rare experience. I wonder why the news thought it was something that we needed to hear about? Because it was abnormal? Television has become our version of the circus freak show, right?

Children don’t decide on their own about things like religious belief. Young adults sometimes do when they leave the family and strike out on their own. Children make decisions about religious belief in the context of their social environment, with family, teachers, ministers and friends.

A recent Pew study found that 44% of adults have switched their religious faith from the one they grew up in – but they made this decision once they became adults. The largest group were Protestants (the largest segment of the population).

  • Most of these reported that they made their switch to a different Protestant denomination, like from Baptist to Methodist.
  • They did so for two main reasons, because they had moved to a different community or had married someone of a different denomination.
  • We continue to live in a rapidly mobile society AND Protestantism continues to reinvent itself with all sorts of new “brands” emerging each year.
  • Switching from one distinctive religious group, like Judaism to Mormonism remains rare.

What struck me about the story on the news was this trend we keep experiencing in America of treating children as if they were completely self-aware adults who are ready to make all sorts of decisions for themselves like religious belief, sexual preference, gender roles, or even dress codes.

Children are supposed to be in a special kind of relationship called childhood. They need to relate in healthy ways with adults called parents who are chiefly responsible for socializing them, preparing them for successful entry into the world of adulthood. Parents aren’t supposed to surrender this role and suffer the angst of trying to be the BFF of each one of their children. Parents aren’t supposed to be disconnected (too connected to their work!) from the day to day lives of their children in such a way that they can’t engage in healthy, practical and successful socialization. It’s difficult, but someone has to do it!

I keep seeing cues from the media urging parents to let their children become self-regulating autonomous decision makers. This isn’t healthy for anyone. What do we need from parents?

  • Parents are the adults, and act like it
  • Parents model good decision making
  • Parents provide structure, rules and consequences – a safe and consistent environment in which to learn and grow
  • Parents help their children take appropriate steps that move forward

This article from a young adult blogger recently appeared in Relevant Magazine. She writes about five lessons she learned about life while being a part of her church youth group. As she reflects on the experience she’s discovered that these lessons have turned out to be true. It’s a great post and I thought about how she got involved in her youth group in the first place. Her parents took her to church, drove her to meetings, modeled their own religious lives and invested themselves in her spiritual growth.

Children, teenagers even young adults starting their lives need parents. They need parents to teach them how to survive in this world. They need parents to help them find their way to God. Remember, less than 20% of American households are two parents and children. A little more than a third of our children live in single parent or in cohabiting family arrangements. So many of our children are being raised in a variety of living situations.  Ones that are probably less secure, less certain. The job of parenting is as essential today as it ever has been.

 “Listen, there is no way any true man is going to let children live around him in his home and not discipline and teach, fight and mold them until they know all he knows. His goal is to make them better than he is. Being their friend is a distant second to this.”   – Victor Devlin

To Sir, With Love

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Actually, this was the title of a classic film from the 60’s. It had a famous soundtrack with a great song by Petula Clark. I’m aging myself, and that’s what this post is really all about. I’ve now noticed that everywhere I go people keep calling me “sir” – even old guys at church, gentlemen that I would refer to as sir – they are now calling me “sir” – what’s happened?

Have I all of sudden aged? Maybe. The past few years have been unusually severe. But I can’t imagine it would turn me into a “sir” – maybe a “bub” or “crackpot” – but whenever I hear “sir” I recoil with a slight shock. Are we as a society suddenly becoming very proper? I doubt it.

My students send me emails addressing me as “hey.” I’m not a professor so much as just another tweet. We had Christmas stockings hung in our college and all the faculty members had their first names only spelled out. All very casual. No danger of too much respect happening here.

Every now and then I run across a young man who will say “yes, sir” over and over.  He’s been well-trained and full of respectful interaction conduct. During those rare exchanges I feel like I’ve fallen into a military academy. Sometimes it’s a little over the top.

Is there a bigger application here? The last census reported that a third of our children live without their biological father. How do kids, especially young males, learn respect for authority figures like teachers, police, coaches, ministers and older relatives? How successful can this be in a single-parent home (usually a home with a single mom and no male father figure present)?

My point is that the fabric that holds our society together is stitched with all kinds of common values and practices. When we aren’t able to pass on much that we have in common, like how to demonstrate respect or live/work together in an orderly fashion, then we start to experience a kind of disintegration that keeps each one of us from thriving as well as we could. Those kids who were raised in fragmented homes end up missing out on valuable elements of social capital (habits, attitudes and behaviors) that benefit them once they begin their ascent into the larger society.

I’m not suggesting all our problems would be solved if we all started calling each other “sir.” What I mean is that all the little ways that we treat each other begins to reveal how well we’re actually held together as a society of real people. And… sitting around in a room full of strangers glued to your cell phone isn’t doing much to keep our fabric from fraying.

Father_and_son_27

 

Motherhood and Role Strain

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I got a great blog post sent to me this past week by my dean. It’s all about the role of motherhood these days here in America. The writer traces the ways it has been overcomplicated and presents contradictory expectations to young women and families. It’s a great read that I highly recommend:

We’ve Overcomplicated Motherhood Because We Don’t Like It

I was thinking about this article today when I overheard a celebrity on a talk show recounting the narrative of her recent courtship, marriage and birth of first child. I can’t remember if it went in that order, you know how it is these days. She said something very much off the cuff that stuck with me. She was talking about her wedding and she said something like , “we’re a modern couple so having a wedding wasn’t important to us.” I wondered what she meant by that.

Since 1960 the percentage of Americans 18 and older who are divorced or have never married has doubled (from 20% to 40%). I’m not sure that being modern means that people don’t want to get married, I think what’s happened is that young adults are afraid of failure. Marriage and all that it represents can seem like a daunting challenge, especially with the failures of their own parents’ relationship and some of the way’s it’s been overcomplicated. In a recent Pew study, 55% of American singles reported that they were not in a relationship and were NOT even looking for a partner. Over half the single population has given up on marriage (or even living together).

All of this brings me back to a concept that my sociology students were trying to learn last week. Role Strain describes the phenomenon of being overwhelmed by the expectations coming at us from a single social position we occupy, like being a mom, a dad or a spouse. Sometimes this “job” is just too much.

  • The expectations become unrealistic. Television, books, friends, and family can pressure us into believing we’ve got to get everything just right.
  • The lack of a support system often makes being a parent and/or spouse even more difficult. As our families become more fragmented we lose connection with an extended family that can provide experience and resources to help ease normal strains.

We experience role strain because we can’t physically, mentally, socially, or spiritually manage some of these expectations. These strains can come and go with each stage of a role but a feeling of strain can also persist with the everyday expectations and solitary nature of many family situations. The Overcomplicated Motherhood blog post details much about these kinds of unrealistic expectations.

It was interesting to read my young college students’ examples of role strain. Many chose parenting or being a spouse. It was discouraging to see the level of fatal and insurmountable difficulty that they imagine for their possible futures.

Americans have built an instant gratification society. we really don’t like to suffer discomfort. We don’t even like to wait too long in the drive-thru line!

No wonder marriage and family are fading. It costs much and our collective character is too weak to bear the burden.

“Motherhood is a choice you make everyday, to put someone else’s happiness and well-being ahead of your own, to teach the hard lessons, to do the right thing even when you’re not sure what the right thing is…and to forgive yourself, over and over again, for doing everything wrong.”   – Donna Ball

Father Knows Best?

Speaking of Brian Williams…I don’t mean to pile on, but I was reading about this BEFORE he got really famous for his war stories…

A recent US Magazine article recounted a weird and disturbing story about the father-daughter relationship between NBC news anchor Brian Williams and his actor daughter Allison Williams. She’s currently acting in a very popular HBO cable series. The interviewer asked Mr. Williams his reaction to watching his daughter performing in a pornographic raunchy sex scene during a public premier viewing of the show. He brushed it off as just part of her job and nothing to be shocked about. He was coming off as the ultra-cool BFF-Dad.

I wonder what he really thinks? Are parents actually capable of turning their children over to any sort of depravity just to prop up an artificial friendship?

Social scientists who study the family tell us that for the past twenty years, parents have been spending a whole lot of their energy trying to become friends with their kids instead of playing out the traditional parent role. There are a number of reasons for this. Chief among them is the sheer lack of time that parents (40% are single parents) spend with their kids.* Who wants to use up that time enforcing rules or being a disciplinarian? Today’s hurried single parent wants to have positive time, building a loving relationship, squeezed in between school, practices, homework and social media.

We’ve invented a world of work that isn’t situated between 9-5. Technology has broken down barriers meant to keep us safe at home raising our families. Now we jump to work at the sound of the next beep. Our fractured families are equally ill-equipped to manage the overbooked lives of our children. The family has been fractured by broken relationships AND intrusive commitments from outside (too much homework, too much work/work, too much extracurricular careers). The parent-child relationship is being fractured because of a new family life that’s filled with busy-ness that turns parents and children into managers, customers, performers and clients when they relate with one another.

Children today and teenagers tomorrow need parents. Families need a parent-child relationship so that real people are nurtured and meaningful relationships are formed. They even need parents who would be horrified to see them performing soft-core porn on HBO.

*Some recent surveys seem to indicate that parents today spend as much if not more time with their children as parents of yesterday did. But when we dig a little deeper we discover that it’s not the same kind of time. It’s time watching from a distance at practice, sitting in the same room watching different entertainment programs and driving carpools of kids around the city.

Looking for Love at the Movies

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People have been complaining about the movies ever since they were invented. Our culture is organized around many values that are economically oriented.  Sex doesn’t really sell, it just gets our attention.

Don’t you think that the book and now film Fifty Shades of Grey have gotten a lot of attention? I wonder what they’re selling?

Dr. Miriam Grossman, a medical doctor with training in pediatrics and in the specialty of child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry recently posted what I thought was a very much needed response to the popular culture craze over Valentine’s Day related to the film Fifty Shades of Grey.

Please take a minute read her post here.

The film is very popular and making a lot of money on it’s opening weekend release. I think it’s difficult to teach and demonstrate healthy sexual relationships in this culture we have built. It’s even more of a challenge when mom is reading the book at soccer practice.

I don’t usually go to the movies in the evenings. Out here in the suburbs the experience had become more akin to the Conquest of the Planet of the Apes as the teens took over the mall and the neighboring multiplex theater. Of course the theater itself was being operated by teenagers…

Over the weekend teenagers stormed a movie theater in what reminds me of a scene from any number of current apocalyptic horror films. A witness at the end of the CNN interview hopes that the kids will be punished by their parents. That’s wishful thinking. Ever try to get a cat back in a bag? I’m afraid these kids don’t have parents. They’ve got one parent (who’s trying to be their friend), parents who are working all the time, or a family so fractured that it no longer works.

I did go to the movies during the evening over the Valentine’s weekend. It was eye opening. Love was everywhere and appropriate dress was optional. I kept wondering who’s dad let you out of the house like that and does he know where you are at this hour (and what you’re doing in public?).

While mothers create our civilization, I think it is the duty of fathers to protect it. When things start to fall apart – and everyone agrees that the American family is in free-fall – we look for someone to blame, but really someone to be responsible and solve the problem. We need some everyday heroes.

Fatherlessness in American produces moral chaos like we witness in an oversexualized media. Increasing teenage deviance, behaving like packs of wild animals, happens because there is no literal or figurative presence of a dominant, just and good father figure in the home and community.  These teenagers all lined up to get into the mall night club that night had such empty looks on their faces. I was probably over-diagnosing the whole situation but it made me wonder about what might be missing from their lives. Most didn’t look happy or excited to be out having fun. It was an empty stare.

So much that we worry about with our teens is really a deep longing  to just belong.

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot

 

 

Too Poor to Make a Family?

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A 2006 report, Charting Parenthood: A Statistical Portrait of Fathers and Mothers in America reveals some important connections between social class and family patterns.

Poor men and women were the least likely of any income group to be married, with the proportion married increasing as income increases. For example, 41 percent of poor men were married in 2001, compared to 66 percent of men with incomes at three or more times the poverty level. The marriage gap was even wider for women. Only about one in every three poor women is married, while about two of every three women with incomes at three or more times the poverty are married.

This difference undoubtedly reflects both the more advantaged backgrounds of those who marry, and the advantages of having multiple earners in the family that marriage can bring.

The percentage of poor men and women who are married has also been declining over the decade. Cohabitation is more common among poor men and women, declining markedly at higher income levels. Overall, 40 percent of all cohabiting relationships involve parents with children in the home.

There are numerous other facts, some alarming, many seemingly routine, but all ultimately describe an American family that is changing. While there are many reasons to explain current family patterns, the one that I wanted to point out here is the economic one.

Since the slow death of the great recession household incomes have still failed to rise. The number of people living in poverty and dependent upon the government for basic necessities continues to increase. Panic still plagues the middle class who are worried about jobs and taxes. These economic symptoms are causing people to organize themselves into different kinds of family patterns, new arrangements that harm today’s children and tomorrows future.

We are creating an ever widening gap between rich and poor. Our poorest citizens (with the largest birthrates) are raising children in broken families because the economy still isn’t working. These families will pay a brutal price right now as they try and manage families with children who stand a greater chance of:

  • A distorted self-identity
  • Poor health and obesity
  • Joining a delinquent subculture
  • Early exposure to sexuality and pornography
  • Lack of preparation for academic learning

But it’s our collective future as a society to which we must pay attention when we think about what’s happening now to these children.

Everyone is trying to solve the latest economic problem. We are American capitalists and the object of the game is to increase profits. There is nothing new here. But, Americans have also been very much concerned about the welfare of all our citizens, realizing that we’re all ultimately in the same boat. Raising the living standards of our neighbor actually helps us all.

As a significant segment of our population (45 million currently living below the poverty line) preparing their children for the future, it is our entire society that ultimately pays an even more terrible price.  As our leaders make economic decisions, let’s be certain to remind them that it’s our children and our future that’s really at stake.

 “Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.”  – Brennan Manning

 

 

Fragmented Identities

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Surely it wouldn’t take you but a minute to come up with a quick list of the most significant social experiences in your early life that helped to shape who you are becoming?

  • That birthday party
  • The fishing trip
  • Reading together before you went to sleep
  • Learning to drive
  • Christmas morning

Most of these experiences we take for granted. They were just part of the routine of our lives. The building bricks that helped prepare us for the next steps like our own marriage, college and the first job.

A recent article by Michael Barone in the National Review Online points out the social crisis that America is currently facing because our families are fracturing.

What is family fragmentation? The facts are easy to state. About 40 percent of babies born in America these days are born outside of marriage. That’s true of about 30 percent of non-Hispanic whites, more than 50 percent of Hispanics and more than 70 percent of blacks.

An American society that has destigmatized couples living together instead of marrying, out of wedlock births, divorce, and single parenthood is creating a two-tiered society. Children from these fragmented families experience:

  • less healthy lifestyles
  • poor education
  • higher rates of delinquency
  • less preparation for employment
  • little investment in college readiness

These fragmented families are mostly from a lower SES and are racial/ethnic minorities. This type of family fragmentation did not occur during the Great Depression. Fragmented families are producing an underclass that will cripple our entire society and no one is daring enough to say out loud, “your pursuit of happiness is damaging everyone else.”

Social Identity Theory helps to explain that as we construct our sense of self we are very dependent upon the social groups to which we belong. Families are the first and most important group that each of us experience as we develop our identity. Children depend upon a stable family group to provide role models that they in turn use to construct their own identity:

  • Gender roles
  • Parenting lessons
  • Spousal relationships
  • Work ethic
  • Career preparation

Families provide children with a number of essential and ongoing experiences that both build an individual identity and prepare for meaningful participation in society as adults.

We are nearing a time when a critical mass of our children will not have a stable family nor enough time together with their over-busy family. Our children’s social identity will more and more be built from experiences they have at daycare, school, after school groups, neighborhood peers and the media. There won’t be a basic foundational family experience to support or contradict the messages gained from these additional social relationships. The family experience is the essential experience for healthy identity formation.

As family life is rapidly fracturing and our definitions of what constitute a family are widening, this is not only damaging to our social structure, it will also produce individuals who are less certain about who they are and how to form healthy relationships with other people. I guess that’s good news for all the social media conglomerates.

 

 

The Family at Christmas

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So many of us are surrounded by family during the Christmas holiday. Family is the social context in which the memories of Christmas are built. When you think about it, the arrival of Christ and the launch of his ministry was deeply integrated with his family. There’s nothing new here, just some reflections about the intersection of family and the advent.

  • God decided to visit humanity through the doorway of the family.  He had spoken and intervened in so many other ways in the past; a flood, a burning bush, mad prophets…but now it was to be through the ordinary lives of a humble and obedient family.
  • This family almost falls to pieces before it even begins its eternal purpose. But angels and dreams provide the assurance that all will be well. All families are just as susceptible to breaking apart. Now, just as it’s always been, communication and vulnerability are essential for maintaining family stability and strength.
  • Jesus becomes fully human within the context of his family. Just like the rest of us, those early experiences were essential to his development as a son, a brother, a friend and our Savior.
  • The way of salvation for all humanity is made safe and guarded by a frail earthly family. Dreams in the middle of the night and voice of angels kept Jesus the baby safe during those early years on the road and in Egypt (that place of exile). He remained safe in the arms of his mother and father. But not every child would stay safe.
  • His family remains until the very end of Jesus’ mission on earth – members of his family stick close to him and remain faithful up until his death. They are not necessarily seeking to understand but instead seek to demonstrate their love.  This is what families can do best, accept us and care for us, no matter the risks.

“The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.”
– Victor Hugo

Something is Missing

“I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin’ after you.” 
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Didn’t you notice when you were a teenager and your favorite band had a knock down drag out fight and then someone left or got kicked out (depends on who’s telling the story). Typically it never seemed the same again. That original sound was gone.

Everyone always talks about Journey after Steve Perry left…Arnel is close, but…

We just had a number of deaths in our Sunday School class this past month – moms and grandmothers. There are also a number of other older family members that are frail and needing ever more attention. Families lose members as life marches onward, but it’s never without grief.

Then all of a sudden a young wife and mother who is a dear friend suddenly died. She left behind three children and her husband. They were all just starting the next phase of their lives, kids finishing high school and heading off to college.

People all around you are living in families that are missing someone. These days, according to our social trends, these are choices that people have made. Divorce, abandonment, single-parenthood, and living alone are all much more “normal” than they have ever been. When families fall apart or when they never get stuck together in the first place, something is always missing from our lives. A spouse, parent, sibling, and extended family connection are all holes that never get filled up with substitutions.

That missing piece never gets replaced.

The family is a system that accomplishes essential tasks for individual survival and for the health of our entire society. The individual members of that system; parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. all fulfill important roles.

We have never stopped needing dads. The National Center for Fathering reports this alarming trend from census data:

Children Living with Mother Only-bwh graph

  • Source: US Census Bureau, “Living Arrangements of Children Under 18″: Tables –CH-2, CH-3, CH-4. 1960 – Present. U.S.  Census Bureau July 1, 2012.

What about the costs to our entire society? The U.S. Army now reports that only 30% of 18-24 year-olds would qualify for military service. The rest, 7 out of 10, can’t qualify because they are too fat, didn’t graduate from high school or have a criminal record.  That’s a whole set of family related problems that effect our entire nation.

No system is perfect, but why sabotage it with promiscuity, divorce, single parent-hood, fatherlessness, and illegitimacy? These versions of family life don’t work very well. It’s been documented. We keep doing it because we are shopping for happiness and settling for what’s left.  Once you have children, it’s never about you again…they aren’t here to make you happy, you’re here to raise them.

 “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose, and that is to support the ultimate career.”   – C.S. Lewis

Today, all I can think about are my friends who are trying to figure out how to put their lives back together as a family without their wife/mother.

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I held a Jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep
The day was warm, and winds were prosy
I said, “Twill keep”

I woke – and chide my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own

– Emily Dickenson

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted…”