Friday, August 01, 2014

Train Up A Child: Greg Pirtle

Greg Pirtle is one of the Student Ministers at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Abilene Christian University. Greg has served youth and families for nearly 15 years. And he is one of the staff members I get to work with beginning next week.
_____________


Time at the Table

I will never forget the words I heard from a friend years ago. I was 17 and it seemed to be another typical phone conversation that high school guys have – sports, school, girls – talking about things that seem so important at the time, but aren’t life changing. At some point though, I don’t remember how or why, the discussion took a turn and he said something that has remained with me for over 20 years now. 

“You don’t know how lucky you are, Greg.” “What do you mean?” I asked. His reply…

“You get to sit and eat dinner with your family.”

That’s it. That’s the life-changing sentence I recall, from one high school guy to another. Eating together was a regular practice in my home growing up, but I never considered the importance of it until that moment. And I never questioned it again.

I understand that when my friend was young, his family went through some difficult times, but he lived with godly, loving grandparents who took him to church and provided for him. It may have been a longing for his birthparents or wanting more attention from his grandparents, but of all the things he desired, it was to sit down at the table and eat dinner with his family.

It’s the secret ingredient that no one talks about, yet many statistics include. There are numerous studies showing that sharing meals as a family has a positive correlation in the values and habits of children and adolescents. No real explanations exist for why this is the case, but the evidence is pretty solid.

That alone should be enough to make eating together a priority, but I think there is something deeper. I believe there is a reason we often see Jesus eating with others and why the table is symbolic in our faith.

The table is the one place where everyone is equal. It’s the place where everyone shares a need to be fed. It’s the place where everyone serves and is served. It’s the place where we are reminded that God is the one who provides. It’s the place where we reconnect with God and the people we love.

To show up at the table means you’re committed to being a part of the family. The value and affirmation of each individual is highlighted in the conversation and experience. The bond of the collective group is strengthened and confirmed. 

Every meal is different. There are days where everyone is talking, sharing, laughing and enjoying the time together, and days where it seems way too loud and chaotic to be productive. Occasionally, the presence of a guest blesses our table and it gives us a chance to offer hospitality and enjoy time with friends. Some days no one wants to talk or some of us, maybe none of us really want to be there. Other days, one of us can’t be there, but those present still remember that person and anxiously await their return. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Then, there are those days where someone becomes vulnerable and shares their heart – their joy, pain, disappointment, or hope – and we celebrate, cry, listen, encourage or do whatever seems natural to do in that moment.

The Internet is filled with ideas for making family dinner easy and fun, but our family has a few things we try to do. We always pray. We always share something about our day. We always eat. We always clean up together. That’s about it. Occasionally we’ll do different things like come up with fun questions to ask each other or eat out in the back yard (you can tell our family likes to live on the wild side), but it’s simple and it works for us. Regardless of what we do, just being together feels…sacred. 

I understand this practice is easier to begin when children are younger. I also understand that people are extremely busy and finding time to be together as a family in any location can be difficult. But let me encourage you to remember the words of my friend and his longing to sit at the table and share a meal with his family…and may your time at the table be full.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Train Up A Child: Hillary Hoover

Hillary Hoover is one of the Student Ministers at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. She attended Abilene Christian University and has served teens for several years. Hillary is one of the wonderful staff members that I will get to serve beside very soon. 
__________________


4 Things I’ve Learned From Observing Parents

If you don't want insight into parenting from someone who isn't a parent then consider this a fair warning. I do have a cat that I’ve kept alive for 4 years. I also have a lot of kids in my life, including four awesome younger siblings, a niece, and two nephews who I let slide down my stairs in a cardboard box yesterday, and regularly talk me into getting them ice cream. I can't give perspective from one parent to another. What I can give you is the perspective of someone who spends time with teenagers and hears sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle clues about their relationship with you. I can give you the perspective of someone who has observed a lot of parents.

In order to learn from them, I pay special attention to the parents who have good relationships with their teen. I would describe a good relationship between parent and teenager as mutual respect, positive regard for one another, and a healthy process for handling conflict. I’m sure good relationships include a multitude of other factors, and I’m aware that what I witness and interpret as a good relationship might look differently at church settings than in the home. What I’m sharing here are things I’ve seen consistently in a handful of families over time.  

Here is what I’ve observed, and some potential, hopefully practical, next steps to consider:

1. They don’t do it alone. 
They ask for help, prayer, wisdom and insight. They give and receive support from others. 

You are playing a divinely-appointed role. No one can be your child’s parent the way you can; you are irreplaceable. But, you’re not super-parent. I don’t mean that in a “you’re bad at this” kind of way. What I mean is that you probably don’t have all the answers, and you’ll probably never be able to execute flawless parenting. The hope that you ever could is rooted in a lie. The truth is that you were meant to do this in community.

As a parent, what is it you need? Do you need to be taught skills to control your anger? Do you need prayer for God to give you strength? Do you just need to talk to someone who understands? Your needs are valid, but those around you can’t read your thoughts or see into your family life to know what you need. It is your responsibility to ask for help. 

Who can help meet this need? Is it another parent? Possibly someone who could benefit from a friend on their parenting journey? Is it a youth minister or another adult who interacts with your teen regularly? Is it a caring grandparent, young-at-heart type? Is it a counselor? Maybe it’s some combination of these. 

Recognize your need, and persevere in searching for people who will walk alongside you. 

2. They show themselves grace. 
A lot of parents are really hard on themselves, but that rarely leads to productive change. Every parent has missteps, and your teen might point those out. But, if your value and security are in Jesus, then your shortcomings as a parent are opportunities for growth. Failure isn't doom, failure is learning. So give yourself grace, learn from it, and move forward.

Don’t loosen up on yourself and use grace as an excuse to keep dropping the ball in an area of your parenting that you know needs work. But, don’t be bullied by guilt into taking hard steps forward.  Ask God and a few trusted others to help you take the next step. He will see you through making that decision, setting that boundary, or having that difficult conversation. Speaking of difficult conversations…

3. They have the difficult conversations. 
As a teenager, the conversations I tried to strategically avoid, and resisted with heavy sighs, eye rolling, and sassiness were, in hindsight, some of the most meaningful and helpful long-term. It’s easy to talk about what’s for dinner, but it’s hard to talk about pornography. It’s easy to talk about college plans, but it’s hard to talk about doubting God. 

If you aren’t giving your teenager guidance and coaching, I guarantee they are getting it somewhere else. Somewhere else may be google, it may be friends (the blind leading the blind), or best case scenario it may be their small group leader at church. You can play those odds, or you can take intentional steps to prepare for the subject matter, and then trust that God will use that difficult conversation to shape your teenager to become more Christ-like. 

Spend time in prayer asking God to prepare you with wisdom for the conversation. Do your part to gain wisdom by reading up on the subject matter, and ask someone who is a few steps ahead of you for insight. 

4. They seek to listen, understand, and know their kids. 
They know things about them, like who their best friends are and what they’ve been watching on Netflix. But, they also seek to really know them. Like, what drives them, what makes them belly laugh, their spiritual health, and what kind of character they have. Your teen probably won’t know how to answer if you ask them how they’re growing spiritually, but if you’re looking and listening, they will show you.   

Grow in awareness; provide opportunities for your teen to share their thoughts, ask clarifying questions if there’s something you want to know more about (i.e. “What do you mean when you say that?”), and listen well when your teen talks.


What would you add to the list?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Train Up A Child: Marti O'Rear

Marti O'Rear is the Children's Minister at the Greenville Oaks Church of Christ. Marti graduated from Pepperdine University and has been a significant leader in the field of Children's Ministry for several years. I first learned about Marti's ministry to children and families when I attended the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. I can't wait to partner with Marti as we seek to lead families and children to follow Jesus at Greenville Oaks.
____________________

I remember when I was a young parent and people would say, "Back in my day, it was just easier to raise my kids." Now that my daughters are grown and I am observing the lives of so many young parents, I think I can honestly say, "Back in my day, it was a whole lot easier to raise my kids." 

Please understand I am not assuming we did it better, but I believe we were not faced with as many challenges that families face today and I commend the families who are keeping a balance in their lives on behalf of their children and their family structure.


Obviously over the years since my children have grown, technology has expanded in a way that can be completely wonderful and tremendously challenging at the same time. Parents are having to make decisions as to when to introduce electronics or digital devices to be used for entertainment, communication, and education. They are having to monitor what and how it is used. The greater difficulty of it is that as adults, we also are having to learn to monitor ourselves for it indeed can get in the way of time and quality conversation taking place with our spouses and our children. It is not an easy task because we are faced daily if not hourly with the challenges of it in our work and in our homes. But from what I observe about many of our parents through actions and conversation, they are tackling the challenges. They are not allowing this to invade their desire to raise and help their children to know who God is in their lives. 


Recently in our children’s Bible classes, we talked about young king Josiah and the impact he had through reminding his people of following God one more time. He rid the country of the idols and when they discovered the Book of Law as they were attempting to rebuild the temple, he made sure it was read to the people to draw them back to God’s ways. I love what is said about Josiah: “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.” 

May we continue to guide our children in God’s plan for them. For indeed, He does have a plan for each of them. May we not allow the challenges of life to cause us to veer to the left or to the right, but walk the path that keeps our family close to God.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

I. Had. No. Idea.

10 years ago I married Holly Nicole Packer. 

I had no idea what I was doing.
I had no idea what love was.
I had no idea how loyal she would be.
I had no idea how much grace and forgiveness she would have to offer me.
I had no idea how how patient she would be.
I had no idea that she would be the reason I would stay in ministry in difficult times.
I had no idea that she would be the perfect personality to balance mine.
I had no idea what a wonderful mother she would be to our kids.

I. Had. No. Idea.

I just thought she was beautiful.

I was a 20-year old who made impulsive decisions like...a 20-year old. Like many 20-year olds in love, I'm sure people could have made good arguments against our decision to get married. But like many 20-year olds, those arguments would have only driven Holly and me to marry each other anyway just to prove them wrong.

I married her because I believed she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

And God protected us, despite our immature reasons for choosing to commit our lives to one another.

We couldn't see it at the time, but beauty will not last forever. At least, not the beauty I looked for 10 years ago.

But Holly's outward beauty (all my eyes could see at the time) paled in comparison to her inner beauty.

I. Had. No. Idea.

But perhaps that is how God keeps marriage interesting. With every passing decade, another level of beauty is unveiled. I can't wait to see what our second decade of marriage will reveal. I know there is so much more I have to appreciate that I haven't discovered yet.

Happy Anniversary Holly! I'm so grateful for your committed love that you show me on an daily basis. You have shown me the grace of God more concretely than anyone else ever has. You are a blessing to me.

You have given me three of the greatest gifts I have ever received: Maddox, Addison & Brooklyn.

May God bless the next 10 years!

And over the next decade, I can't wait to discover the things about you that will make me say again...

I. Had. No. Idea.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Train Up A Child: Life Verses

One of the special things Holly and I have done for each of our children is to select a Bible verse as a life verse for them.

It is a Bible verse we wanted to pray over them for their entire lives. Maddox has memorized his verse. Addison is in the process of learning hers. And Brooklyn has heard her verse a few times.

I'm not sure where we got the idea to do this, but we would encourage you to consider this practice for your kids.

We don't know how these verses will impact their lives, but our prayer is that God will use these Bible verses to shape them in unexpected ways.

Here are the verses we selected for each child.

Maddox Austin Packer
"He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ - with all boldness and without hindrance!" -Acts 28:31

Addison Grace Packer
"But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and forevermore! Amen." -2 Peter 3:18

Brooklyn Kate Packer
"And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." -Micah 6:8

Friday, July 11, 2014

LeBron James' "Decision" to Return Home

I'm a LeBron James fan.

And today's "Decision," is the real reason I'm a LeBron fan. Today, LeBron James announced his return to Northeast Ohio. He's leaving South Beach to return to the gritty, blue-collar city of Cleveland, a city that hasn't won a professional sports championship in 50 years.

The Cleveland Browns won the 1964 AFL Championship (before the Super Bowl existed).
The Cleveland Indians won the 1948 World Series.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have not won a basketball championship...yet.

Cleveland has the second largest championship drought for any city that has at least two major sports franchises. The only team with a longer drought is San Diego. (Which makes Tony Gwynn's legacy even more significant. You can read my article on Gwynn here.)

Legends are judged by individual accomplishments and the ability to lead their teams to championships. One without the other isn't enough.

It's what makes Lionel Messi's World Cup Final game on Sunday so important. His individual statistics will guarantee him a spot in the conversation. But if he never wins a World Cup, he can't be considered the greatest of all time.

James went to Miami to win championships. In his 4 years in Miami, LeBron won 4 Eastern Conference Championships, 2 NBA Championships, and 2 Most Valuable Player Awards.

But James' return to Cleveland doesn't merely signal a change in location. It signals a change in him as a man. And it's why James is becoming the kind of man I want my kids to emulate.

Before our eyes, we're watching the evolution of LeBron James.

His announcement was far different this time. Rather than hosting an hour-long television event to announce his move to Cleveland like he did 4 years ago, LeBron's decision was without fanfare (if it's possible to ignore the 24-hour "Breaking News" ticker on ESPN).

You can read his well-thought-out essay on his return to Cleveland here. It's well worth the read!

In the essay, LeBron is confessional. He admits if he had it to do over again, he would have left Cleveland differently. And this time around, he seems to have learned his lesson.

I don't expect to hear LeBron guaranteeing 8 rings like last time. He now knows how to win a championship and how naive it is to guarantee multiple championships. He sees the folly of his ways.

This decision to return to Cleveland isn't about cementing his legacy as the greatest of all-time. His calling is bigger than that.

And that's the exact language he used: "calling." In his essay, he said,

"But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get."

LeBron is a man growing up before our eyes. This time around he's married with a third child on the way. He's choosing to forgive Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavaliers, for his spiteful letter after LeBron's departure to Miami. His return home to Ohio is about more than basketball. It's about giving hope to a region of Ohio that raised him. 

This time around, it's not about winning multiple championships for LeBron and his legacy. It's about winning a championship LeBron and his city.

LeBron has always had his haters. The "Greats" always do. 

But it's hard to hate on this "Decision."

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Train Up A Child: Go To Church

We want to raise our kids to see the importance of church...which just happens to be one of the most  countercultural parenting decision these days.

After all, these are the days of the "spiritual but not religious." These are the days when its popular to criticize the church. Everyone loves Jesus. Very few seem to care much for his bride.

And I get the pushback. The church has hurt a lot of people. The church has failed to lead the way in areas of justice in the world. I work for the church, but I'm sometimes tempted to lie about my occupation when asked.

Yet, even in the midst of the frustrations I have with the church, I can't seem to give her up. I can't get away from her. I can't seem to shake her.

I grew up as a preacher's kid. I loved every minute I spent at the church. I knew every corner of the La Mesa Church of Christ. I knew the best hiding places for hide and seek. Because we were hundreds of miles away from grandparents, church was my family. We spent holidays with our church family. They became our "cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents."

I held a stained-glass picture of the church. The church was God's gift to earth. The church was God's kingdom come. The church always seemed to meet my needs and taught me how to see and care for the needs of others.

But anyone who grows up with those fulfilled expectations will eventually walk away unfulfilled. Because church is also a mess. It's filled with people who have problems. Every one of us. And if you spend enough time with enough people who have enough problems, there are sure to be unfulfilled expectations.

But part of growing up is acknowledging that all institutions creak and groan from time to time. The church is no different.

And that realization led me to start having conversations with new people who want to know more about my church. It was the conversation I had at Littleton. And it will be the conversation I'll have as long as I'm a leader in a church.

The conversation goes something like this...the guest asks: So, tell me about your church.

And I say: "I can only promise you one thing about this church. All I can promise you is that this community will disappoint you at some point. It's a matter of when, not if. We'll do our best to form your kids in the way of Jesus. I'll do my best to preach the Word of God faithfully. We'll do our best to shepherd and equip you as a disciple of Jesus Christ. But rest assured that we will fail you and disappoint you."

You can tell I went to school to be a salesman.

Then I continue: "What it means to be a church member is that when we disappoint you, will you choose on this side of that inevitable disappointment to work through your disappointment? Will you choose to reconcile instead of leaving? Because if you leave, you're going to miss an opportunity to see how the grace of God can fill the holes left by our community's failure."

It's easy to to be "spiritual but not religious." But that's not Christianity.

It's easy to love God by yourself. It's easy to love God without the church. But Jesus called us to love God and our neighbor. And without a church you're committed to, you'll never get a chance to live out the second part of the Great Commandment.

Because church isn't a perfect place for us to have our spiritual needs met.

No, no, no...church is the place where broken people come in close enough contact with one another that they experience friction and are forced to develop the Fruit of the Spirit as they work through those problems.

That's what is wrong with marriage today. We have come to believe marriage is the place where we get our needs met. That's not marriage. Marriage is the chance to live close enough to someone that we can't hide our flaws from them and they sharpen us to become the people God wants us to be.

It's the same way with church. If you're trying to find a church that will fit you perfectly and fill you up every Sunday, you misunderstand what the church is about. It's not a perfect place with perfect people. Instead, it's an imperfect people who come in close enough contact that God can shape us through the relational struggles we will inevitably face.

And that's why we want our kids to grow up in church.

Not because they need perfect attendance to make God happy.

We want our kids to grow up in church because we want them to experience a community that will inevitably wound them and heal them at the same time. We want them to live in close enough contact with people they would never choose to be in relationship with outside of the commitment of diverse people who love Jesus more than their own agendas.

We live in an age of echo chambers. We listen to our iPods with our choices of music on demand. We listen to our cable news channels that spin the facts in just the way we want them. We don't have to live in community with people who believe differently than us in many parts of our society.

But in church, we don't have a choice.

If you've been baptized, water is thicker than blood. The family of God is closer to me than my own family of origin. My tribal loyalties are less important than my kingdom loyalties.

We want our kids to value church not in order to fulfill some legalistic obligation.

We want them to value church because they live in a world where it's so easy to mold their world in a way that assures them they are right about everything.

That's not possible in church. Because it's not our church. It's not my church. It's God's church.

Is church attendance an important value to pass on to your kids? Why or why not?