Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Encouraging Young Women

There are a couple of recent blog posts that have resonated with me. They are addressing the problems with how some preacher/pastors talk about their wives in public. Particularly, they address the tendency to make "sexy" compliments in a public setting, and how this ultimately is a cheapening of something precious. I don't know if I can pinpoint the beginning of the trend, but it surely has something to do with Ricky Bobby's memorable prayer in Talladega Nights where he thanks God for his "Red hot smokin' wife, Carly, who is a stone cold fox." (Quoting Will Ferrell movies is an easy way to try to make yourself appear conversant in pop culture.)

I've heard a few similar comments in public settings, and have always been uncomfortable with them. I personally have an agreement with my wife--which I honor--that I will never talk about her or tell stories about her from the pulpit without her full approval. I think it has gone a long way in helping her feel comfortable with me preaching, not fearing that she'll have to get embarrassed in front of a few hundred people. (Not that I might not embarrass her on my own, but it won't be because I'm telling them stuff about her that she doesn't want them to know.)

There are a lot of good perspectives offered on this issue both here and here.

As one who works a lot with young adults, including teen girls, I've spent a fair amount of time over the last few years trying to think about what kinds of compliments most help young women to feel loved, encouraged, and empowered. Here are my thoughts about how to compliment young women. As I've never been a young woman myself, I would certainly welcome your comments and perspectives on this one.

1. Honesty over Flattery
To begin with, I simply don't go for hyperbole or false assertions. I don't tell them anything that I don't sincerely mean. If they failed, I won't try to imply they succeeded, though I can certainly appreciate their sincere effort. Also, I try to say things in a way that I would say them in any setting. I want for my words to them to be something that I'd be glad for their parents to hear as well, if I were quoted verbatim. Keep your words honest and pure.

2. Spoken over Assumed
Even though one has to be careful about interactions with younger members of the opposite gender these days, it is crucial to say the good things that need to be said. As often as I have a window to offer a genuine compliment (particularly of a type described below), I make it a point to do so. Don't miss an opportunity to build up young people. Don't just assume that because everyone else observes something good about them, they know what people are thinking. Young people are incredibly concerned with how people perceive them.

3. Praise Effort over Intrinsic Qualities
We don't expect our children to have perfect track records in any part of their life. We need to give them room to try things, and even room to fail. But rather than praising something that they can't change, or didn't work for ("You have beautiful blue eyes"), I look for things to praise that show courage, work, and resolve on their part. "I know it was hard for you to hold your tongue about that, but you showed great character. I saw that, and I'm proud of you." "I like the way you try to make Facebook posts that honor God and say positive things." "I know you were scared to try that, but you did your best, and I know it will make it even easier for you to have courage the next time, too."

We want our compliments to help them value what is most valuable. If what we want is for them to be dedicated Christians who show strong moral character, why would we spend all our compliments just talking about how pretty they are? If they seek your approval--and they do--be sure you verbalize positive things about what you most want for them. Not that you can't compliment their outfit, but don't neglect the weightier matters.

4. Self-expressed over Externally-expressed
The way you word your compliments can make a big difference. A lot of people try hard to pay compliments to kids, such as, "You're so smart!" or "You're so pretty!" The downside of things expressed this way is that the opinion expressed is purely an external one. These are words immediately appreciated, but also quickly forgotten when self-doubt sets in. Instead of just telling them what you perceive to be their qualities, try to get them to verbalize their own good qualities. So if they succeed at something you know they were worried about, you can say something like this:
"So I hear that you aced that test!" "Yeah..."
"Now if I remember, you were worried about that one?" "Yeah..."
"But you spent a lot of time preparing, and you did great! What did you feel like when you got your test back?"
"I felt like..._______"
"So you had a hard test you were worried about, but you ended up acing it...what does that tell you about yourself?"
"Maybe I'm smarter than I thought I was," or "If I work really hard, I can do it."

Many of the young people I worry about most are the ones who use a lot of negative language about themselves. "I'm fat." "I'm dumb." "I'm such an idiot." "I always screw everything up."
They will listen to their own opinion much more clearly than they will to anyone else's. It is important to help them learn to compliment themselves when they do well, and to believe positive things about their own capabilities.

To be a Christian is to be in the minority, and we need young people with a strong sense of Christian identity and moral courage that doesn't depend on peer approval. Women are and have always been such an important part of the Kingdom of God. Their value to us runs so much deeper than how they look. Let's make sure we help them to know it.

What kinds of compliments have stuck with you over the years?
What kinds of encouragement has helped you most?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Christ is the Solution

What sad news from Boston yesterday. My heart and prayers are with the victims of the terrorist attack. I will never be able to wrap my mind around how anyone would think that in order to support their religion, they need to attack innocent people. Though I'm enough of a pragmatist to understand how our nation justifies going to war in some cases, the idealist in me struggles with how violence is ever really the answer. It seldom brings any of us to our enemies' cause, and in response, it seldom helps our enemies to become our friends.

As of the time I'm writing this, not much is known about who committed this crime. Typically, when something like this happens, people will ramp up their war-time rhetoric. "Whoever did this, we will find them, and we'll do to them what they did to us." And of course, government is there to carry the sword, and to be a terror on those who do evil (Romans 13:3-4). But earthly governments will always be inferior to the Kingdom of God because they are largely dependent upon coercion to remain in power. When one strikes, another strikes back in return. Lives are lost. Innocents die on either side. People abuse their power. Hatred continues.

Recently I've become quite fond of the abundance of Youtube videos that feature Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. He grew up in India, and has insights about the value and truth of Christianity that few people would be capable of perceiving. I heard him tell a story the other day about a meeting he had with a Muslim leader of a Palestinian(?) group. He was pleading with him to seek peace. This man was hardened by war, and had even lost one of his sons, whom had been murdered by his enemies.

Ravi made a point to the man that I think carries a lot of importance at a time like this. Before he left the meeting, he told the man, "I believe that God gave his only son to die for the sins of the world. And until we are willing to accept the sacrifice of his son as sufficient for our needs, we will continue to sacrifice our own children on the altars of our gods." (This is my paraphrase from memory.) Keep in mind, he was saying this to a man who had in fact given his son in the cause for which he was fighting.

The only real solution to war, suffering, and hatred continues to be Jesus Christ. Until we embrace this, we will continue to give up what is precious to us to further lesser solutions. God sent Jesus to reconcile his creation to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). Once acts of terror and murder have been committed, they can be punished, but they cannot be undone. As Christians, we must respond with compassion, and with an unwavering commitment to speaking the truth on behalf of the voiceless. Acts of terror are unjustified, but bloodlust is not a better response. Christ is the only one who can reconcile all of the problems in the world. By accepting his Lordship and joining his mission to draw all men to himself, we do the best we can do to usher in a better world.

Whoever did this should be brought to justice. Let's be prayerful for the families involved. Let's be prayerful for our representatives who will decide what happens next. But in loving justice, let us also learn to love our enemies, and to pray for those who are so misled that they would think that violent acts of terror are a constructive means to their desired end. Don't forget that before he was the Apostle Paul, Saul of Tarsus was known and feared as a murderer of Christians. In Christ, there is always hope and redemption. I pray that the families experience healing, and I pray that whoever did this, their sins will find them out. But in this process, my hope is that they will come to know Christ, and will find a better cause to which they can dedicate their life.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Having Nothing and Everything in Common

You have to wonder what Jesus was thinking when he chose His apostles. There were the boorish fishermen, who could have probably fit in well on the Duck Dynasty show. There was Thomas, a skeptic. Then you have the odd pair of Simon, a zealot and Matthew, a tax collector. Matthew's occupation was to collect taxes for the same Roman government that Simon was committed to overthrowing. This is all not to mention Judas Iscariot, a crook and a traitor. Could Jesus have possibly assembled a more perfect mess of personalities?

Community is a hard thing. Sure, it's fun to see other cultures for a few days at a time, or to pose for a few snapshots with a local. But learning to get along with one group in one place for many years is quite a different experience.

G.K. Chesterton had good thoughts on the dynamics that we experience in a smaller community like a congregation:
The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

Jesus had a way of picking the harder path to travel. His vision for the Church was a united vision (John 17:20-21). Yet the unity He desired would occur between people so different from each other that only something as strong as the love of God could bring them together. If we have Christ in common, we have all things in common. The challenge for us is to embrace and embody this vision. It not easy love, but difficult love which reveals that this narrow path we are on is truly the heavenly path. God has chosen for us a community of people He dearly loves. Let us love each other as He has loved us.