Good Sunday afternoon, reader.
This is my first blog of 2023. I don't blog as much as I once did, but I still find this little corner of the Internet comforting and useful from time to time.
What is below are remarks I made at our church's ladies' retreat held this weekend. What I actually said when I spoke was a variation of this. I typed out my thoughts in full, and then I spoke using an outline of what is shared in this post.
The theme of this year's retreat was exploring the command to become like little children in order to please God. Three teachers were asked to speak about what we can learn from the various age groups represented. I obviously spoke about the darling eighteen and nineteen year olds I teach.
Jackson Street Ladies’ Retreat:
Exploring God’s command to become like little children
Free Commerce Between the Ages
March 11, 2023
The invitation to speak to you today implies I have something worth sharing, some knowledge that can be of use to others. When Kara shared with me the theme for this weekend and why she was seeking a high school teacher, I was intrigued. Actually I was, for a good while, dumbfounded. I have been tasked with sharing with you what we as adults can learn from the students I teach.
But the students I teach are eighteen and nineteen years old. While scripture tells us plainly we should become like little children to be pleasing to God and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, I do not teach little children, and this is admittedly my preference. I have always said I don’t want to teach students until they are a few years past puberty. This is in part because of the awkwardness of the middle school years. Additionally, their age allows us to read and discuss mature literature not suitable for younger students.
So while I am teaching the age group I believe I am best suited to teach, it would be easier to stand before you today and recommend my students’ habits to you if my students were younger and more innocent. I am going to share with you some ways we as adults can emulate teenagers and some things we can learn from watching them navigate the world in 2023, but I admit these suggestions did not come to me easily or immediately. My first thoughts were:
-they are self-centered
-they are addicted to their phones
-they don’t read
I actually wrote these things down, a con list, if you will, and as I looked at it I realized these are not flaws specific to teenagers; they are human flaws. They are flaws that apply to many adults. So my first challenge to you (and to me) today is to pay attention to how you criticize younger people. Are you also guilty of the same vices?
One of the works I cover every year with students is C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. This book is a series of letters written by a fictional demon named Screwtape. He is writing to a younger tempter named Wormwood who is new on the job, the job of course being to drag a human to Hell. The letters are essentially advice to Wormwood regarding how best to accomplish his purpose. The following is included in one of the letters:
And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages, there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.
This work is a prime example of Lewis’s extraordinary understanding of human nature. It is our nature to flock to those who are most like us, and one of the most obvious and frequently used divisions is age. We feel that people our own age understand us, and it’s natural to gravitate to them. Both the Bible and C.S. Lewis warn us not to ignore the wisdom that can be shared when there is, to borrow Lewis’s phrase, “free commerce between the ages.” And so that’s our purpose this weekend, to think about what we can learn from those who are decidedly out of our age bracket.
The first thing we can learn from teenagers is to reject earthly leaders, particularly political leaders, as people to be admired or emulated. What does this mean? Well, it means to always remember the lesson the Israelites learned when they clamored for a King. It’s our nature to desire a physical, tangible earthly leader. This is what Israel wanted, and their desire for an earthly leader is a desire common to man and one that often leads us down dark paths.
I was born the year Ronald Reagan was elected President for the first time. I have always considered the circumstances of my birth to Gordon and Susan James in October of 1980 to be incredibly fortunate. My students sometimes tell me they envy aspects of my life; I am a fairly stable, organized adult, but I am the product of two loving, stable parents; I grew up in the eighties and nineties without a phone in my hand during a time when evil was called evil. Today, in 2023, we are electing men and women who struggle to stand up and state basic truths regarding two fixed, biological sexes, and I believe the void of stability and morality among our earthly leaders can potentially turn some young eyes to Christ.
The second thing we can learn from teenagers is to rely on God as Father. I am blessed with a wonderful earthly father. When I was young, most of my friends’ parents were married; they were married, and their marriages were stable, and they were present for their children both physically and emotionally. This is becoming a precious rarity, and this is true whether you sample public school teens or the teens I teach at a private, Christian school.
So I ask, is there any benefit to this? Is this an example of God working for the good of those who love Him in all circumstances?
In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis reminds us that this world is not our home. We are not supposed to be overly comfortable here. My life has been and continues to be one of relative ease and comfort. My life is of course not perfect; I have a daughter with a chronic illness, and her diabetes is a daily reminder that we are all aging mortals; we were not designed for this earth. We were designed to spend eternity with our Heavenly Father in a body that will be decidedly different from the one we inhabit now, one that ages and betrays us.
I strive to be both thankful for my blessings and remain alert to the fact that extreme comfort knits me to this world, and Satan wants me to be comfortably knitted to this world because it takes my eyes off of Heaven.
Sadly many teens have daily reminders, often in the form of an empty seat in the bleachers or an empty chair at the dinner table, that this world is not their home, and often earthly fathers let us down. Can this be a blessing? The answer to that is Yes, yes it can be a blessing if their earthly heartache turns them toward their Father in Heaven.
What I can do, and what you can do if there are teens in your life, is show them they are worthy of love. Many do not believe they are worthy of love because few if any adults in their life have shown them this. Once they believe this, they are able to better understand the love of their Heavenly Father, and once they are convinced He loves them, I have witnessed them blossom due to the relief and the thankfulness they feel at finally feeling they are loved, they belong somewhere, and they have a future that gives them hope.
The third and final thing I am going to suggest we can learn from teenagers is to remember we were created by a God who values order and structure. I could quickly divide the students I currently teach into two categories, those whose lives are structured and those whose lives are chaotic. Those on the Structured list have better grades and are overall calmer, happier people. Those on the Chaotic list have lower grades, are overly anxious about minor day-to-day stressors, and I worry tremendously about their future after graduation.
I strive to not only teach them some British literature but to show them the importance of creating structure despite the chaotic world in which they live. When a student indicates they are anxious, I am often tempted to say, “This is because your life is chaotic.” I believe the rise in teen anxiety is due to several factors. One factor is the increasing chaos in homes. Adults who never learned how to rightly govern themselves are having kids, and this is not going well.
Another significant factor fueling teen anxiety is their phones, these devices that are always in their hand. They can access information faster than any previous generation, but what they often access is terrible news, both local terrible news and global terrible news, videos and games that are mindless and sometimes vile and are ruining their attention span, and photos of their friends and acquaintances that fuel their feelings of inadequacy and discontentedness.
Satan loves chaos. He loves constant noise. He loves keeping us distracted. Our phones, if we allow them to do so, deliver all of this - chaos, noise, and distraction - on a constant stream via a device we pay four figures for, a device we have in front of our face for many of our waking hours.
The Eagles sing a song titled "Learn to be Still." These are some of the lyrics:
Just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
Give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will
Learn to be still
We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don't know how to be alone
So we wander 'round this desert
Wind up following the wrong gods home
But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
One more starry-eyed Messiah
Meets a violent farewell
Learn to be still
Learn to be still
The lyrics of this secular song implore the listener to learn to be still. The lyrics strongly echo Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Notice that the verse doesn’t say, “Know that I am God.” It begins with the directive to be still. I believe this directive is both literal and figurative.
The song channels so much of what I see in today’s teens, in today’s world in general: an unending, exhausting restlessness fueled by constant chaos and noise. The song, however, offers no answers other than to learn to be still. What we know is that in the stillness we meet God; “We are like sheep without a shepherd,” Don Henley sings, but we have a shepherd. “We don’t know how to be alone,” he sings; we fill our lives with people and events and technology that leave us empty while we ignore a Savior who implores us to find rest in Him, who says, “I am always with you.”
I have told many teens they need to learn to be alone, to enjoy their own company, by which I mean truly alone without a phone in their hand. In any moment of stillness or silence, they pick up the phone. They do so in order to feel connected to someone or something, to avoid sitting with their own thoughts, but when they put it down they are exactly where they were when they picked it up because they are trying to fill a God-sized hole with everything and everyone, every distraction imaginable, but nothing works. But it does keep them distracted, and that’s the goal. Satan doesn’t have to tempt us to constantly commit big sins; he just has to keep us distracted so we never meet God in the stillness and the silence. Be still. Hear, O Israel. Knowing our nature, God tells us how to receive Him and His word: Be still. Hear, O Israel. Get off TikTok, O Israel.
Young people need love, discipline, and structure. But guess what? We all need love, discipline, and structure. I know this to be true because God loves us, disciplines us, and created everything (the family, the church, and our very bodies) to reflect His desire for order and structure. I know He values order and structure because He dedicated numerous sections of scripture to giving us detailed instructions regarding the structure of the family and the structure and organization of the church. The further families move from these instructions and the further churches move from these instructions, the more openings Satan has to enter and create chaos where order should reign.
Upcoming generations are learning valuable lessons in hard ways; they are learning to turn their eyes and ears away from flawed earthly leaders, imperfect, often absent fathers, and the chaos with which Satan attempts to distract them. The chaos in their lives can be an opportunity to show them the peace and order of the Lord and His church. Help them as they seek God, as they, bereft of love and stability on earth, seek the love and stability God offers, and guard your own heart and mind so that you can, by way of example, show them the peace that only our Heavenly Father can bring.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. Thank you to Kara for asking me and to all who organized this weekend. I hope this has been as beneficial for you as it has been for me. I’ll return to my students Monday after a week of Spring Break with a softer heart. I encourage you to pay attention to the teens in your life. Many are struggling in ways we can’t imagine, and the answer to many of the issues that plague them is a kind adult who listens to them and shows them they are worthy of love and points them to the Father’s love for them.
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