Friday, February 24, 2006

Where Are the Parents?

Two recent incidents with Charlotte connections, both involving 18-year-olds, have made headlines and initiated debate over parental involvement and control of their offspring. Perhaps it is a good idea to consider these events ourselves to hone our judgment on such matters.

The first episode appears to be a success story of the first degree. A local beauty, Brooklyn Decker, from the Charlotte suburb of Matthews, North Carolina, finishes high school last summer and immediately sets out for the bright lights and possibilities of New York City. Within a few months, she is modeling for national publications, and soon she lands one of the top modeling assignments in the world: Victoria’s Secret. Most recently, she secures another top-model prize when she appears in Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit edition, adding her name to a short list of supermodels like Heidi Klum, Rachel Hunter, and Elle Macpherson, who are also Sports Illustrated alumnae. All this fame and success has occurred in just seven months!

But the poses and the scanty attire! Obviously, modeling has become increasingly revealing, and perhaps the foremost peddlers of skin—at least in terms of popular awareness—are Victoria's Secret and Sports Illustrated. Lingerie and bathing suits these days leave little to the imagination, and these are the meager articles of clothing in which young Miss Decker is regularly photographed and displayed in catalogues, magazines, commercials, and other advertisements. Do her parents not mind that every red-blooded male in America sees her like this—not to mention where their carnal minds subsequently drive them?

Not in the least, according to Miss Decker, who was interviewed by a local talk-show host this past Wednesday morning. Her parents are totally behind her and support her every decision. As she says, they think her pictures are "beautiful" and "happy" because they make her happy—"They are definitely not ashamed of it. . . . They're more than proud." Her younger brother, who is sixteen, thinks it is cool that she hangs out with the biggest names in modeling and that he gets to attend some of the parties, where he can take pictures of her new friends to show to his buddies at school. She claims that her whole family revels in her success—but what she does will have no affect on their family values. She will "remain grounded." As for nudity, it depends on the situation; in fact, most of the time, she says, it is "just artistic."

The second incident happened early Sunday morning on Charlotte's I-485, which encircles about two-thirds of the city. Brock Franklin, a high school senior from a prestigious neighborhood, drunkenly drove his vehicle the wrong way along the interstate, and the only thing that stopped him was a head-on collision with another automobile. The two passengers in the latter car died at the scene, and Mr. Franklin lies in a coma at a Charlotte hospital with bleeding in his brain and a lacerated liver. If he recovers, he will be charged with several crimes, certainly driving while impaired and perhaps two counts of manslaughter.

Franklin describes himself as a "redneck that parties with my friends all the time. I enjoy getting drunk and gettin [sic] high," saying that, as he filled in his expletive-strewn profile, he was smoking pot. He lost his father, a Charlotte firefighter, two years ago, and lives with his mother and sister in an affluent section of the city. Yet, despite his sobering loss and his family's need for strength and maturity, everything about him that has been made public portrays him as an out-of-control, self-destructive young man.

Until now, his mother has been publicly silent about him and the accident. How silent was she about his drinking, drug-taking, and partying? Having lost all control, did she just throw her hands up in exasperation and let him run wild? Or was she ignorant of his activities? It is hard to believe she was not aware of his radical behavior. Evidently, she did nothing about it.

It is true that both of these young people are legally adults, but does parental responsibility and care come to an immediate end on a child’s eighteenth birthday? Maybe more to the point, the behaviors in question did not suddenly begin on the child's eighteenth birthday but were supported or allowed before then for some time. Evidently, the parents' permissiveness or absenteeism in their children's younger years led to their recent dubious activities. Although the parents would deny it, they essentially let their children grow up on their own. The Bible says—and how true it is!—"A child left to himself brings shame to his mother" (Proverbs 29:15).

We live in a youth-oriented and -glorifying culture, a fact that blares on our radios, televisions, billboards, Internet sites—everywhere. But young, good-looking, talented, strong, capable, exciting, and fun does not necessarily translate into wise. This is where parents should come in. They need to be the moral, ethical, commonsense voice that provides direction and guidance for the energies and aspirations of young people. Yet, for a number of reasons—all of them silly in the final analysis—parents these days seem to be afraid to correct their children. Solomon again provides a pointed proverb: "Chasten [discipline, correct, advise] your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction" (Proverbs 19:18). Put negatively, if for whatever reason parents fail to guide their children, they are actually dooming them to lifetimes of grief and ruin. This should be incentive enough to try to make a difference!

As for teens, who are going through these difficult times, remember Solomon’s sage advice:

Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old. . . . The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice, and he who begets a wise child will delight in him. Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her who bore you rejoice.” (Proverbs 23:22, 24-25)

Friday, February 17, 2006

'We Live to the Lord'

How many of us—Christians, disciples of our Savior Jesus Christ, begotten children of God—lead lives based on the principle the apostle Paul presents in Romans 14:7-8?

For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord's.

This apostolic pronouncement, confirmed in numerous passages throughout the Bible, runs counter to the prevailing philosophy of this age. Our American society—as well as other modern and postmodern societies around the world—is built on the concept of individualism. Just a few centuries ago, people believed that "no man is an island," but over the intervening decades a spirit of personal independence has grown to become a central tenet that influences every facet of life.

Perhaps the last two remaining vestiges of the older way of thinking exist in family ties and teamwork, and both of these are slipping away at a frightening rate. Progressives have sought and succeeded in redefining family to include just about anyone living under a single roof, no matter how they might be related by blood or marriage—or not. As for teamwork, all one has to do is watch just about any team sport and the trend becomes readily apparent. Business has kept team spirit alive, but the fundamental reason for it comes down to individual profit.

It would be interesting to ask a significant sample of the population, "What do you live for?" The answers, of course, would be many and varied, but it is probable that they would boil down to a few major categories:

  • Self
  • Family
  • Wealth
  • Power
  • Fame/Prestige
  • Excitement/Risk/Adventure
  • Knowledge
  • Altruism/Philanthropy
  • Nothing/Uncertain
  • Spiritual/Religious Reasons

Obviously, some of these overlap or go hand-in-hand, but most of them are fundamentally self-centered and self-aggrandizing. Even "family," "altruism/philanthropy," and "spiritual/religious reasons" have selfish angles. Because we are human, we have a terribly hard time—perhaps an impossible one—extricating our baser selves from even our highest aspirations. In even the most altruistic among us is a desire to satisfy one's own desires.

Yet, through the apostle Paul, God lays down a guiding principle that human nature makes almost impossible to live up to: "We live to the Lord." Perhaps had God called us out of a culture of slavery, as those in the first century were, we would be better suited to do this. But He did not. He called us out of the most individualistic, materialistic culture that has ever existed on the planet, perhaps rivaled only by the days before the Flood (Genesis 6:5) and the chaotic period of Israel’s judges when "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25).

God must think that it is possible, even for us. This is not to say that it is easy. It takes faith, courage, perseverance, and a great deal of vision to wrench one’s thoughts, words, and actions out of the raging current of this world (Ephesians 2:2) and to paddle in the opposite direction. It is mentally and emotionally exhausting, and progress is often slow—and sometimes nonexistent and even retrograde! However, the effort is beneficial in itself, teaching us valuable lessons and building essential traits of character.

So, how are we doing?

Do we "do all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31)? We should not consider this in just the major matters of life but in the minor details, for if we set our minds to honor God in the little matters, we will already be in the habit of doing so when the big ones arise (see Luke 16:10). As His representatives on earth, it is vital that whoever observes us sees a reflection of Him in us.

Do we give "thanks always for all things to God" (Ephesians 5:20)? In this day of rudeness and incivility, gratitude is a misunderstood and often undervalued virtue. However, gratitude teaches obligation and acknowledgement of providence. Being thankful keeps our minds trained on the fact that, without God, we would have nothing, and thus we owe Him our obedience as our kind Benefactor.

Do we "live by faith in the Son of God, who loved [us] and gave Himself for [us]" (Galatians 2:20)? Living by faith means that we follow Jesus' teaching no matter where it leads us because He owns us wholly and completely by His redemptive work. So, if God's Word says, "Come out from among them and be separate" (II Corinthians 6:17), we should be doing our very best to reject the anti-God practices of this world, no matter what they are and what may result. We do this because we implicitly trust our Savior.

Paul writes in Philippians 1:21: "For to me, to live is Christ." Do we think this way? Do Jesus Christ, His teaching, and His desires for us fill our lives to the extent that they are our lives? That is what Paul means: His every waking moment was lived with Christ foremost in mind: obeying Him, glorifying Him, thanking Him, pleasing Him. If we do this—if we try to do this—we will make great strides toward being prepared for (Revelation 19:7) and hastening (II Peter 3:12) the establishment of God’s Kingdom.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Under Green at the Crossed Flags

If you will, please indulge me, as I am about to give some advice. Today, I begin my fifth decade, and since this opportunity presents itself so rarely, I want to take advantage of it. Call it my chance to take stock of my life at its halfway point, God willing, and having done so, to share some of the lessons I have learned.

Many of you have heard me say that one of my favorite psalms, perhaps my favorite, is Psalm 90, a contemplation or prayer by Moses about time, particularly about God's timelessness as compared to man's brevity. It can also be seen as a comparison between God's power and man's frailty. After mulling these matters over, Moses' conclusion appears in verse 12 as a plea to God: "Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom."

In today's vernacular, we would say, "Help us to realize that our time here is short so that we will prioritize rightly." Seventy or eighty years seem like a long time, but as one ages, a lifetime appears to become shorter and shorter. Elderly people tell me with frightening regularity that they really wonder where all their time went—and that they have noticed that it speeds up as they get older. They just shake their heads in disbelief, perhaps regretting misspent days and weeks and months and years in futile endeavors. With human life so brief, like grass that sprouts in the morning and withers by evening, we have to put life's big issues first.

So I have come up with a few tidbits based on my forty years of experience that may help others, particularly younger people, in prioritizing life. They are in no order of importance.

  • Do not read when afflicted with measles. I contracted measles when I was fifteen, and no teenager wants to be out of commission for the few weeks it takes to get over them. But there was really nothing else to do but read. I remember at least one of the books I devoured during my convalescence, and I regret every word of it every time I put on my glasses. I probably had weak eyes anyway, but reading while plagued with measles hastened their decline.
The bigger picture is, when sick, it is a good idea to rest and recover. Sickness is the body's rather painful way of telling us that we need to slow down. Rushing to get back into circulation could cause worse problems down the road.
  • Be sure that your sin will find you out. I would rather not go into any of the grisly details of my sins, but I have learned that, if we are a child of God, He does not let us get away with anything. Sin always comes back around to bite us—and often when it will hurt most. Suffice it to say that, not long before my encounter with measles, I lied to my parents about an activity I really wanted to go to. Of course, circumstances just "worked out" that they ended up at the same place, and my goose was cooked!
Things like this have happened too often to be mere coincidence. God is watching out for us, and desirous to build character in us, He forces us to acknowledge what we have done wrong and to feel its bitter effects.
  • Ups and downs are normal, and the downs provide momentum to get us to the top. There were times during my college years that life seemed to be a neck-spraining rollercoaster ride. One day I was mowing grass, pruning shrubs, and blowing off sidewalks, and the next I had the cushiest job on campus—as a rising sophomore! A short two years passed, during which I had to navigate lesser hills and valleys, and then I was back to pruning shrubs, having fallen from grace. Yet, less than a month later, I was hired at the campus radio station—what a cool way to spend one's senior year!
Looking back, I can see that God was completely in control of my trajectory and that the low spots were interludes that enabled me to prepare or be prepared for upcoming high spots. A slice of humble pie is often a good thing.
  • The glass is half-full. I cannot remember when I decided not to let life's brickbats turn me sour—perhaps there was never a conscious decision but just my personality. I do know that, during a period of reading Ernest Hemingway novels, I really pondered the meaning of Ecclesiastes 1:5: "The sun also rises," the title of one of his books. To me, it can mean the same as Little Orphan Annie singing, "The sun'll come out tomorrow." One might as well expect every day to be sunny.
Life is too good to spoil with negativity. Sure, there are times to be serious and even grave, but perpetual pessimism is bad all around. It lines the face with wrinkles, frays the nerves, inflicts splitting headaches, crushes hope, and could send one to an early grave. A life full of joie de vivre is so much more appealing.
  • Stay away from the edge of the cliff. A person is most likely to get into trouble when he puts himself in harm's way. The best way to avoid trouble, then, is to play it safe. I took at least three defensive driving courses while at college, and they have proven invaluable. Until now, of which I am thankful, I have never been in a car accident—never been ticketed even. Besides having God's blessing, I credit it to focusing on driving when I am behind the wheel and steering clear of potentially dangerous situations.
Sometimes, life's course takes us through dangerous country, but we can choose to follow the safe path or the risky path. Temptations lie along the risky route, which is lined with precipitous cliffs that portend neck-breaking falls. Jesus says the way to His Kingdom is difficult enough as it is. Do not make it any harder.
  • Everyone needs an avocation. Most of us spend a great deal of time and effort finding, preparing for, and building a career, a vocation, but too few of us pursue an avocation—commonly called a hobby or diversion—with anywhere near the effort. This, I have heard, makes Rich a dull boy and fills his life with stress. My vocation (minister and editor) and my avocation (writer) are complementary. I also enjoy NASCAR racing, which allows me to let off a little steam every once in a while.
Americans are world-renowned for their work ethic, but in too many cases, it results in burned-out, relationship-challenged men (and sometimes women too). Having an enjoyable pastime helps to round a person out and bleeds off the pressure of life.

Well, there it is, for what it is worth. I hope my few drops of wisdom brighten your day and enhance your life. They have mine. Thanks for indulging me.