Wednesday, October 11, 2017

When We Fail to Learn

What if one of the best responses we can have in raising our kids to maturity is to let them fail? To let them face what they fear (perhaps even requiring them to do so)? What if, in all of the resourcing, all of the best intentions, all of the assurances that we’ve got it handled for them, we are not only restricting their growth but perhaps even aligning ourselves with the voices in their heads that tell them they are not capable of handling whatever comes next?

Don’t get me wrong. I could line a bookcase with my own parenting failures. This past weekend when my daughter, who is now a freshman in college, and I had a chance to catch up during her fall break, we talked about some of those places when I should have stepped in more. Afraid of becoming the helicopter parent whom I had often encountered on the other side of the desk, I watched and waited, intervening only when I felt it was absolutely necessary. But there are days I would redo, especially during her 5th grade and middle school years. Days when I wish I had provided greater support in navigating social pressures she was experiencing. Days I wish I had said more, given her permission to draw stronger boundaries, and expected her to “respond like Jesus” a little less.

So it is not without compassion for the struggles parents face that I share my concerns as an educator. I have worked with young people in some capacity—either in the classroom or in the church—since 1995, and I find myself increasingly at a loss. Private or public, secular or Christian, student or teacher—the pressure is unreal. For all involved. But I must confess, I am increasingly troubled by this present and real pressure: to ease distress by taking away the unknowns and reducing the possibility of failure.

Is it perhaps possible that discomfort, and even failure, creates resiliency, and that in our best, yet sorely informed, intentions, we are robbing the next generation of the potential to be strong, fierce and tenacious?

Maybe the body of literature I read is too narrow, and my experiences too limited, but there seems to be a distinct crisis at hand indicated by these markers:

GPA’s and anxiety are both on the rise—

“In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.” 1

“How rare is the C in college? The data indicate that not only is C an endangered species but that B, once the most popular grade at universities and colleges, has been supplanted by the former symbol of perfection, the A. For example, at Duke, which all evidence indicates is not a "leader" in grade inflation -- by a long shot -- C's now make up less than 10 percent of all grades. In 1969 the C was a respectable thing, given more than one-quarter of the time.” 2

"Recent findings show that the proportion of high school seniors graduating with an A average — that includes an A-minus or A-plus — has grown sharply over the past generation, even as average SAT scores have fallen. In 1998, it was 38.9%. By last year, it had grown to 47%. That’s right: Nearly half of America’s Class of 2016 are A students. Meanwhile, their average SAT score fell from 1,026 to 1,002 on a 1,600-point scale — suggesting that those A's on report cards might be fool's gold." 3

Educational opportunity (or privilege) does not alleviate anxiety--

“Teenagers raised in more affluent communities might seemingly have less to feel anxious about. But Suniya Luthar, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has studied distress and resilience in both well-off and disadvantaged teenagers, has found that privileged youths are among the most emotionally distressed young people in America. ‘These kids are incredibly anxious and perfectionistic,’ she says, but there’s ‘contempt and scorn for the idea that kids who have it all might be hurting.’ For many of these young people, the biggest single stressor is that they ‘never get to the point where they can say, “I’ve done enough, and now I can stop,” ’ Luthar says. ‘There’s always one more activity, one more A.P. class, one more thing to do in order to get into a top college. Kids have a sense that they’re not measuring up. The pressure is relentless and getting worse.’” 1

Access to smartphones (and increased media) may not be the smartest answer when it comes to reducing student anxiety--

“Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University who researches adolescent mental health and psychological differences among generations, used to be skeptical of those who sounded an alarm about teenage internet use . . . She searched for other possible explanations, including economic ones. . . The more she looked for explanations, the more she kept returning to two seemingly unrelated trend lines — depression in teenagers and smartphone adoption. (There is significantly more data about depression than anxiety.) Since 2011, the trend lines increased at essentially the same rate.” 1

Reducing risk of failure has an opposite effect on a student’s ability to both overcome anxiety and create success--

“But in order to retrain the brain, in order to create that message that says that even though I’m uncomfortable I can do this, we need to stop treating these anxious kids like they’re so frail, like they can’t handle things . . . ‘Kids are being given some really dangerous messages these days about the fact that they can’t handle being triggered, that they shouldn’t have to bear witness to anything that makes them uncomfortable and that their external environments should bend to and accommodate their needs,’ . . . Among many teachers and administrators I spoke to, one word — ‘resiliency’ — kept coming up. More and more students struggle to recover from minor setbacks and aren’t ‘equipped to problem-solve or advocate for themselves effectively,’ a school counselor in suburban Oregon told me.” 1

Label any new trend what you will, but the crisis in education today doesn’t seem to be related as much to the academic information students are learning, or the way in which they are learning it, as much as in who they are becoming. That is not a problem solved with raised GPA’s, college consultants, or political manifestos.

I am guessing the stakes for college admissions will continue to rise, as will college debt and perhaps the need for further education to secure solid employment in one’s field. But the research seems to indicate that the more we try to navigate our children around the uncomfortable, even distressing, places in life, the less equipped, and less ready, they will be to handle life.




Sunday, February 14, 2016

Stepping Out

Her future looked more than dim.  It was all but dead and buried in the body of her late husband now shrouded in a tomb.  To all appearance, barrenness marked her story.  In a radical act of trust, Ruth made a decision.  Linking her future with a broken woman, who of her own volition renamed herself for the bitterness that beset her, Ruth chose to follow the indefinable voice that called to her--cling, do not let go.

A well-known, often quoted verse, Hebrews 11:6 reminds us, "And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him."  He is and He gives.  At the root of His very being is the goodness that asks for our trust.  Faith supersedes our mindful knowledge of Him, for even the demons believe in His existence (James 2:19).  True faith is an act of intimacy.

Hope--though a seemingly simple word, the four letters are fraught with implications of a loss of control, the inherent requirement to risk and the possibility of disappointment.  And all in a timing not of our own choosing.  Taking refuge in the Lord is not only an act of faith; it is one of direct obedience, and one not always easily or readily measured in our circumstances.

Rather than waiting for her knight in shining armor, or her aging mother-in-law, to define her future, Ruth chose to act from a place of selflessness.  Ruth 2:2 records how "One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, 'Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.' Naomi replied, 'All right, my daughter, go ahead.'"  In her own pervasive place of  loneliness and need, Ruth decided to play a part in someone else's story.  Little could she have anticipated the far-reaching impact of her choice.

Trusting God to take care of us doesn't mean remaining in a holding pattern and waiting for our answers to come.  It means stepping out and living to invest in someone else's need, all the while resting in the knowledge that God will meet ours.

"May the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done."  ---Ruth 2:12

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

All Things New

New home in a new town.  New job duties.  New church family.  For the past year, my life has been in a consistent state of transition and little of what I knew as familiar remained untouched.  While the thought of something new--be it a new outfit, a new relationship, a new opportunity--may create a swirl of excitement in us, the idea of change also has the ability to reveal deep places of insecurity and fear.

Late last spring when we were living with family while waiting for our house to be built, I was cleaning the grill when I suddenly became overwhelmed with the instability I felt, and I put my head down on the cover and cried.  We had left the security of a ministry where we had served for over twenty years to build something from seemingly nothing as we were planting a church in a nearby community.  Our kids keenly felt the uncertainty of the unknown as much as we tried to create stability where possible.  We had experienced transition in ministry before--a lot of it, as a matter of fact--but this time was different.  Grateful beyond expression, we had experienced tremendous support from our family, our home church and other church planters.  But no one could tell us the future, and we were leaving behind everything that had been consistent for something we had yet to see.  Exciting, yes.  Scary, absolutely.

In this season of change, however, I have learned much about the consistency of God.

He never changes.

He never forgets.

He never leaves.

Almost a year later, we are living in our own home, we have seen the Lord work miracles with the church plant, and our kids are gradually adjusting.  But we still live in the unknown.  Somewhere in it all, though, I have determined to know Him more.  In His presence, I understand that He is the God of new things Who knows all things, and I am learning to be unafraid of the new, not because I have figured out how to maintain more control but because I have learned to be content with less.

So when change comes--as it inevitably will--fear not.  He just might be about to make a roadway in your wilderness, a river in a desert you didn't realize you were inhabiting.

"Behold, I will do something new, Now it will spring forth; Will you not be aware of it? I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, Rivers in the desert."  --Isaiah 43:19 (NASB).

Monday, February 18, 2013

Re-entering the Chaos

After a hiatus that has lasted over two years, I am back in the world of Facebook. Shocking to some, I know. Anyone who knows me knows that I have been anything but silent, but it was just one of those seasons where I needed to pull back some from the noise that sometimes comes with an online, ever-so-verbal community. While the break has been priceless, I find myself in a season of transition.

For one thing, my world is getting bigger, even though it appears my community will be getting smaller. Preparing to move to the rural community of Thomson, Georgia, my life is downsizing in terms of people per square mile; at the same time, I have joined the ranks of a larger population: renewed dreamer (a.k.a. church planter’s wife). There is something about putting our whole life in a leap of faith that stirs dead places and calls me to listen closely because I know that God is always at work but I want to know that He has been at work in me. The real beauty is discovering that any dream He gives me isn’t really about me.

If I wait until I have total agreement from others—or until I no longer have the capacity to disappoint anyone—I will never move forward. Instead, there remains this persistent call to live for an audience of One and this very strong desire to live real and see others do the same. All the while, His message has been very clear: die to the opinions of man and love others extravagantly.

So, here I am.

Feel free to find my devotional blogs at and follow me on twitter@regina_awaken.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Some Thoughts on The Hunger Games

I just finished the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Although I don’t typically make pop-fiction a high priority on my reading list, this particular series (like others before it) has been moving like wildfire through both middle and high school students at the prep school where I teach. Add to that the fact that our 7th grade daughter wants to read it and suddenly it preempted anything else on my spring break reading agenda.

In all honesty, I was prepared not to like it—after all, other recent pop fiction series have failed either to garner or hold my support due to their content. This particular book, however, has left me perplexed—as a teacher, as a mom, and as one who has been involved in youth culture for many years.

Without a doubt, The Hunger Games has some powerful lessons for its readers. But that’s where I am stuck. Stylistically, the syntax is far from complicated, making it an accessible read for most middle school students and even upper elementary-aged students. Thematically, however, its symbolism and allegory are deep and multi-faceted, far beyond the grasp of the average middle school student.

As a literature teacher, I seek to be purposeful in the works I put in front of my students, and in no way do I shy away from things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable. For me, part of unpacking for my students what it means to have a Christian worldview means teaching them to engage those things which reveal a side of humanity that is far from Christian. The greatest challenge resides in training my students to take those ideas with them into all that they read.

Not an easy task.

In feeling the tension created by reading The Hunger Games, I have again come to the place where I so often end up. Everything has a message—even when it’s seemingly void. Books—good or bad—are no different. However, because we live in an entertainment driven society (one of the very points expressed in The Hunger Games), we digest media (music, movies, books) for its ability to interest us. But a book’s power extends far beyond its ability to entertain, even when it’s pop fiction. We must always keep in mind that books also provide a lens of interpretation and carry a platform for influence. We never approach a work of art, literature or mode of media in a vacuum, and we never leave it unchanged in some way or another.

So, how does that relate to The Hunger Games?

From the surface, many teens today seem to have it made compared to previous generations in terms of education, opportunities and material possessions. While Suzanne Collins may have never intended it as such, I couldn’t get away from reading The Hunger Games, not as a dystopian novel about the future, but as a mirror for the world teens live in today. Having worked alongside my husband in youth ministry for eighteen years, I see in the novel a generation used and abused, not by a controlling government, but by an unrestrained culture.

I find it interesting that the reaping takes place from ages 12 to 18, with the teens’ odds of being chosen increasing each year. To me, it speaks volumes of a media culture that tries to own our kids to a greater degree with every year they “mature.” Economically, teens have more buying power today than any other generation. Seemingly, they have significant input into the clothing market, the music industry, and the entertainment machine. But anyone who’s taken the time to see behind the surface—for example, the connection between Disney, MTV and VH1—can see who has the real power. At large, American young people do not belong to themselves—they belong to the culture.

And where do parents fit in the picture? Ask Katniss.

At fifteen, she is on her own—and trying to carry her family—not just physically but emotionally. Overcome by grief, her mother refuses (is unable) to be the grown up after Katniss’ father dies. Even Peeta’s father, who appears as a presence of compassion and strength, comes to see Katniss not as an act of selflessness but because she stirs within him a vision of love from the past. Simply put, she’s on her own before the games even begin. While there are certainly some figures who come to her aid in the best way possible, the message is real: adults are truly powerless to rise up against the influence of culture. Or even more concerning: strength and selflessness remain hidden (or dead) in the adults around them. Katniss and Peeta must set the pace on their own, for there are no heroes for them to emulate, much less to rescue them. Like Katniss, many of today’s teens live in a world where they expect to be abandoned by the adults in their lives.

Which brings me to the idea of hunger.

A common motif in literature, food and hunger signify something much deeper than the physical need. Consider Jane Eyre, a classic story of a young woman’s search to know love and to know herself.  In her novel, Bronte artfully uses the food motif. For Jane, hunger is much more than an empty stomach. It is a revelation of the very emotional and spiritual longings that consume her being. Different meals mean different things based on the one providing the meal, the setting of its consumption, and the place of growth in Jane’s life. How very true of The Hunger Games.

In Collins’ novel, food and relationship often become synonymous—and relationships, like food, are not always life-giving. Whether it’s discerning which plants are poisonous, reacting to the rich foods she has never eaten, or pacing herself in times of plenty, Katniss’ ability to navigate the lack or prevalence of food becomes more significant than the presence of food itself. The longing for love is real—hence, the reality of hunger. But its satisfaction is complicated and calculated. By the end of the book, not even perceived safe places are real safe places—the book is a continued series of losses and any victories are short-lived. A powerful commentary on the teenage perception of faithfulness, trust and commitment.

True of our society today, those eligible for the reaping aren’t the only ones who suffer hunger. It infects every individual, with the exception of those who feed on the weaknesses of others.

I have to admire Collins—she creates a riveting piece. In these few thoughts, I’ve barely unpacked the surface of the work. And I guess that’s where my concern stirs. Young people, as much as they profess independence, are looking for someone to follow, and they identify strongly with a Katniss and a Peeta. Too many parents will be ecstatic that their children are, yet again, reading an extended novel with great interest and speed. We must always remember that the highest measurement of something’s value isn’t found in its ability to entertain.

As adults, we must take seriously the call to action presented by The Hunger Games. Whether they verbalize it or not, young people feel uncertain (and at times threatened) by the very world in which they seem to be victors. In communicating the hope of Christ, the greatest gift we can offer anyone--but especiallythe generations below us--is our love, our time, and our conversation. I think some call it . . . relationship.

On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, "Anyone who is thirsty may come to me!  Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, 'Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.'" - John 7:37-38 NLT

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hold fast; forsake doubt. 

God hears.

Psalms 34

Psalms 40:1

Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Alabaster Summer

As someone who has a very fair complexion, summertime has rarely ever meant tanned skin. For me, laying out in the warm rays, although relaxing in itself, requires layers of sunscreen unless I want to look something like a strawberry. When I was a teenager, I persisted in believing I could gradually gain that sun-kissed look given enough baby oil. Yeah, right. I finally learned my lesson after enough painful nights of trying to fall asleep with a vicious sunburned back and days of putting up with dry, peeling skin layers. Occasionally, I still have the opportunity to wear the ever so luxurious farmer’s tan (burn in my case), but for the most part, I’ve decided sunscreen is a blessing rather than the bane of my existence.

So when it comes to my skin tone, an alabaster summer is a regular occurrence for me. However, this year, it means something different.

In three different places, scripture records an unforgettable occurrence of a woman with an alabaster container of perfume. Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-9 and John 12:1-8 all record the same event from three varying, yet synonymous, perspectives: that of Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointing the feet and head of Jesus as he dined at the house of Simon the leper.

We first learn about Mary when Jesus comes to the house of Mary and her sister Martha. While Martha was busy trying to show her love for the Lord by doing things for Him, Mary wanted just to be with Him. While I am sure Jesus appreciated the meal Martha was preparing, He knew that relationship isn’t built on works but on intimacy, and He commends Mary for her willingness to pursue what was most important—time with Him (Luke 10:38-42).

Undistracted by the wealth of her family and their high-profile friends in the Jewish community, Mary knew she needed Jesus. Mary’s story, though, doesn’t end there. She also experienced hard places of wondering what God was up to and witnessed things beyond her imagination (John 11:1-7, 17-45). Because she knew places of closeness with Him and times of questioning, she chose to live outside the boundaries of others’ opinions—both those of her sister and those in her community. She believed in the glory of Jesus and His great love for her, and so she willingly laid down all that was valuable in order to pursue Christ.

Like Mary, I want to grow in what it means to sit at His feet and spend time with Him. And I want it to learn it from an alabaster summer.

While doing things for the kingdom is important, true service begins with our intimacy and worship. It is so easy to define our ministry activities as our time with Christ. We justify that since we’re doing things for Him, we must be close to Him. But doing things for Christ isn’t the same as knowing Him or loving Him. I can wash my husband’s clothes, clean the house and make His favorite meals—and those can be an expression of my love for Him. But I can also do all of those things and not make him a priority in my life or even be committed in love to him. The same is true in our relationship with Christ

Mary’s story also shows us that worship reveals and purifies our motives. Claiming they cared about the poor, some of the disciples, specifically Judas, resented Mary’s worship. In truth, he cared only for what he could gain. Our willingness to focus on Christ reveals places in us where we care too much about ourselves and our desires. Setting aside time for Him makes us deal with the heart of why we serve Him—is it to have our needs met or because we are truly captivated by Him?

In thinking about Mary’s sacrifice, we can see that Mary’s gift represented her life. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:7 that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” He is the treasure in us—our relationship with Christ is not about us having life all figured out. He longs to fill us—the alabaster containers of our humanity—with who He is.

As we think about how to live out this truth in our lives, consider the following characteristics of alabaster:

• Its soft quality makes it pliable but also fragile.

• Because it is soluble in water, cleaning (if not handled properly) can often mar the quality of the stone.

• “Each vein of alabaster has its own unique colour and characteristics”1

• Trying to mix alabaster with other elements to add support can often destroy the alabaster.

“Damage often occurs when alabaster is combined with other materials in the construction of an object. For example, a constricting wooden or metal frame or mounting bracket can impart stress on the alabaster, resulting in breakage. Old repairs often were made with metal pins or ‘cramps’ in the form of large staples, inserted into holes drilled in the alabaster. When these expand with temperature fluctuations or corrode from moisture, they can break the alabaster. Other repair materials found on alabaster objects can also cause further damage. These include plaster, and various adhesives that can shrink and become brittle over time.” 2

Battered by life and plagued by the enemy’s lies, we may feel broken with little to offer. However, the image of the alabaster box filled with precious ointment stands as a vivid picture of our lives once we are filled with the treasure of Christ’s Spirit in us. An unrefined stone, we have been bought with the blood of Christ. Any attempts to “clean” or “save” ourselves end only in greater brokenness, and the walls of protection we build in our own strength serve only to damage our ability to be the woman Christ has created us to be. But like Mary’s alabaster box, our true value comes from the life of Christ in us.

That brings me to the point of an alabaster summer. While summer is a great time of year for hanging out with friends and relaxing in the cool of a summer night, I want it to be about more than making great memories with those I love. I want to be changed in His presence.

To me, an alabaster summer is about:

INTIMACY—to discover more about who God is and what He believes about me

SATURATION—to be filled continually with His Spirit and experience the restorative power of His presence, so much so that it permeates everything I do

TRANSFORMATION—to know the healing power of His word and be changed by His truth.

With this vision in mind, I am going to go after a few key areas in my spiritual life and I invite anyone to join me.

1. Quality and frequency of our time spent with Him

• Is time with Him a priority in our day?

• Is our quiet time truly quiet (in other words, are the cell phone, email, facebook, television, and conversations with others a distraction or do we separate from those things during our time alone with the Lord?)

• Do you place we time in the Word above your time in other resources (Christian books, sermons, twitter, doing ministry)? While these are great resources, they cannot replace time in His Word.

2. Transparency and focus in prayer

• Are we honest with God about our needs and desires?

• Are we honest with God about our sin and our feelings/actions toward others?

• Do we take time to hear His opinion and pray according to His direction?

3. Quiet meditation on His Word and Rest (spirit, soul and body)

• Do we like silence?

• Do we seek out opportunities for rest (which is different than sleeping)?

• Do we look for God’s creative input into our lives?

Perhaps a bit unusual for a summer challenge, there are no guidelines for a set number of chapters in the Bible to read each day, hours to pray, service projects to complete, souls to win or times to fast. However, all of these disciplines--study, prayer, giving, evangelism and fasting—are intrinsic parts of our spiritual walk and should be a natural outpouring of a greater understanding of His love and character as we mature in Him.

So, if you so choose, I encourage you to join me on this summer journey. While the most important thing will be a hungry heart, I also encourage you to have a journal ready, find a Bible reading plan and let go of control. The God of the universe stands ready and willing and He loves to be with you.

My heart has heard you say, "Come and talk with me." And my heart responds, "LORD, I am coming." - Psalms 27:8 NLT