WALKING THE HIGH WIRE OF ADOLESCENCE
Series: When Faith Meets the Family Circus
Ephesians 6:4/Colossians 3:21
May 21, 2017
I survived the raising of two teenagers. And yet, there is no subject I know less about than adolescence. It is the Bermuda Triangle of parenthood. Every minute of every day can be an adventure—those lighthearted mountaintops of joyous chattering, those dark valleys of meltdown screaming. And everything in-between. And these mood swings can occur within a span of five minutes or less! Amen?
Life in the family circus with teenagers is a constant balancing act, walking a high wire, if you will.
The funny thing is that young folk this age can do some great and sacrificial things, and still perhaps not make the best of judgements.
The youth of Pastor Les Christie’s church came to him one Saturday afternoon with an offer to paint the church’s youth room. Seeing their enthusiasm, he gave his full endorsement. Unfortunately, he forgot to ask them what color, or colors, they planned to use. Even more unfortunately, he forgot that the senior citizens of the church also used that room for their Sunday School class.
That Sunday morning he was summoned to the senior’s class. They were absolutely apopletic about the new colors on the wall. He was sure he was going to lose his job over allowing the youth to do what they had done to that room.
But Les was a quick thinker on his feet. He informed the irate members that he was very proud of the teens’ spiritual maturity. They had chosen to paint one wall blue to represent heaven. The black wall represented the power of sin. The red wall stood for Jesus’ blood. And the white wall represented the purity that comes only from Jesus’ cleansing power.
Les’ explanation diffused the tense situation immediately. Les noted, “The church kept those colors in that room for the next 14 years, because nobody could bring themselves to paint over the blood of Jesus!”
- WHAT CAUSES OUR TEENS TO LOSE HEART
In Colossians 3:21, we hear these words: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they lose heart.”
The backdrop against which Paul writes these words is the ancient Roman culture, which had as one of its foremost laws the Patria Potestas, the law of the father’s power. A parent had absolute power over a teenager in those days—they could be forced to work 20 hours a day. They could be sold into slavery. The parent could even condemn them to death and carry out the execution! The teenager was at the absolute mercy of his parents.
Paul, having grown up in such a harsh home, makes an appeal to fathers, and we might add mothers, to take a different attitude in the rearing of their kids.
Now we live in a much, much different era than ancient Rome. We are not going to totally dishearten our adolescent sons and daughters by selling them into slavery (although one could be tempted at times!)
Yet, there are other attitudes and actions we parents demonstrate that do cause them to lose heart. Let’s talk about a couple of them, using some biblical examples for background…
- Our Teens Lose Heart when We Demonstrate Incessant Favoritism Genesis 37:2-4
When Jacob’s son Joseph was seventeen years old, he took care of the sheep with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. But he was always telling his father all sorts of bad things about his brothers. 3Jacob loved Joseph more than he did any of his other sons, because Joseph was born after Jacob was very old. Jacob had given Joseph a fancy coat 4to show that he was his favorite son, and so Joseph’s brothers hated him and would not be friendly to him.
What we have going on here is not an unusual problem. It happens in every family, but this is not just run-of-the-mill sibling rivalry. Joseph, we’re told by the writer of the text, was the son of Jacob’s old age. He was Jacob’s favorite. You know how that works. When the other boys of the family would walk into the room where Jacob was, he might ask them how their work was going or how the flocks were doing.
When Joseph walked into the room, their dad’s eyes would light up. His face would glow. When they were out in public, Joseph was the one their dad bragged about. On trips, Joseph was the one that Jacob would address, “Look at this sight, Joseph.”
Joseph got to stay up later, play longer, work less and get away with more than any of the rest of them. In a hundred ways, in ways that most parents are not even aware of but kids can smell a mile off, Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph just oozed out of him, until one day it took a very concrete form. Jacob gave Joseph a fancy coat–a very famous robe. The Hebrew word to describe it is a little uncertain. It’s translated “long sleeves” in my Bible. The old King James is maybe the most famous–it calls it “the coat of many colors.”
Jacob bought it at Brooks Brothers. It was hand-tailored. The rest of the boys got their clothes off the rack from K-Mart when the blue light was flashing.
What made this business about the coat so explosive was not just that it was more expensive or nicer material. In those days, as is true for most of the history of the human race, clothing was an expression of status. This coat marked Joseph off as his father’s chosen son! This was a visible, in-your-face expression of raw favoritism. Every time Joseph wore the coat, it was a reminder to his brothers that they would never be loved by their father they way Joseph was. Every time he wore the coat, they died a little inside. That beautiful coat became a death shroud for this family.
We parents may laugh at the notion that favoritism is an issue with our teenagers, but in every gathering of youth I’ve ever hung out with it is a big, big thing.
Over and over again, I hear young people saying, “My mom and dad expect me to be just like my big brother (or sister), and I just can’t live up to it.”
Some years ago, at every Friday night football game at Ft. Defiance HS, there was a set of parents cheering vociferously for their son on the playing field. And sitting beside them was his older brother, who has been made to sit there through every football and basketball game his younger brother has played in over the past six years.
Whenever you were in this family’s presence, they are always bragging on the athletic exploits of their younger son, while the older brother sat there, totally unmentioned.
This older brother later had to be placed under the care of a psychiatrist for deep, deep depression. And yet, the parents remained still oblivious to his pain.
Incessant favoritism happens in our homes today. And it causes our teenage children to lose heart.
- Our Teens Lose Heart when We Demonstrate Intolerable Inconsistency I Samuel 20:30-34
30Saul was furious with Jonathan and yelled, “You’re no son of mine, you, traitor! I know you’ve chosen to be loyal to that son of Jesse. You should be ashamed of yourself! And your own mother should be ashamed that you were ever born. 31You’ll never be safe, and your kingdom will be in danger as long as that son of Jesse is alive. Turn him over to me now! He deserves to die!”
Jonathan was as loyal a son as one could ever hope for. He respected his father, Saul, the king of Israel. He even fought in Saul’s army. But in time Jonathan turned away from his father. Why? Because of the intolerable inconsistency he saw in his dad’s life.
You see, Saul claimed to be king by virtue of God’s anointing. He claimed to be a righteous, God-fearing man. The people of Israel worshiped him almost as a deity.
But Jonathan saw a far different side of his father—an insanely jealous, insecure, bitter nature that caused his dad to attempt to kill his best friend David, the son of Jesse. Saul saw David as an eventual threat to his throne, so he tried to murder him with a spear. And thus, Jonathan grew to hate his father for the inconsistency in his life.
Teenagers are quick to pick up on the inconsistencies in our lives as parents. You can’t fool them. You can’t wear one mask in public and another one at home. If it’s one thing they are experts at detecting, it’s phoniness—that failure to walk the talk.
There was a Baptist preacher who took to a stray dog his two boys had become very fond of. It seems the dog was black as coal except for three very distinct white hairs on its tail. One day they saw an ad in the lost-and-found section of the newspaper. The description of the lost do matched the stray perfectly, including the three white hairs.
With his two teenage sons looking on, the preacher carefully separated the three white hairs on the dog’s tail and pulled them out.
Meanwhile, the real owner, hearing that a dog fitting the description of his lost pet had wandered onto the preacher’s small farm, went looking for his dog. When he arrived the dog showed every sign of recognizing him, so the man wanted to take him home.
Quickly the minister spoke up, “Didn’t you say the dog had three white hairs on his tail?” The owner, unable to find the identifying hairs, was forced to leave sadly.
Later the preacher would write, “I kept the dog, but I lost my boys.” By the way, what were the names of those two teenage boys? –Frank and Jesse James!
Whether or not we’re aware of it, our teenage kids are watching us, looking to us, to be examples of faith and integrity whom they can count on. And, indeed, they lose heart when we are filled with intolerable inconsistencies.
- WHAT HELPS OUR TEENS TO GAIN HEART?
Now, if there are certain attitudes and actions that cause our youth to lose heart, the converse is true as well—we can help them to gain heart, to become faithful, mature young people—by certain practices we carry out in our daily living:
- They Gain Heart when We Practice Unclinching Respect Luke 2:41-54
46Three days later they found Jesus sitting in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions. 47Everyone who heard him was surprised at how much he knew and at the answers he gave. 48When his parents found him, they were amazed. His mother said, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been very worried, and we have been searching for you!” 49Jesus answered, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” 50But they did not understand what he meant. 51Jesus went back to Nazareth with his parents and obeyed them. His mother kept on thinking about all that had happened. 52Jesus became wise, and he grew strong. God was pleased with him and so were the people.
Jesus’ parents were devout Jews. They went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover. But this year went a little differently from prior years. On the way home Jesus’ parents realized that Jesus was not with them. This was not like their son, and so the worried parents headed back to Jerusalem. It took them three frantic days before they located him. He was in the temple, sitting among the learned men, listening and asking questions.
Certainly Mary and Joseph had rules for Jesus, just as every loving parent has rules for his or her child. But this story reflects that they also respected the fact that Jesus had learned a healthy sense of autonomy.
Mary and Joseph were concerned that Jesus was not with them, but they did not panic, and there is no sign that they over-reacted with punishment. There was a mutual respect in this young family.
Remember how Joseph respected Mary under the suspicious circumstance of her pregnancy. And look how they treated Jesus in this moment of disobedience. And notice how the story ends: Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus was saying, but he went home with them to Nazareth; and he was obedient to them, and Mary kept all these things in her heart. 52Jesus became wise, and he grew strong. God was pleased with him and so were the people. This was not only a love-filled family; it was also a respect-filled family.
Our teenagers need to know we respect them. They need to know we value their opinions and intellect and skills and faith. Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and realize that we reared them to do the right thing, and we simply have to trust them to do it.
It’s not easy. You’ve heard the saying there are no atheists in foxholes? Well, there are no atheists in the passenger side of the family sedan when you’re teaching a teenager how to drive. I did a lot of talking to Jesus back in those days! I’ll never forget that whole harrowing experience of teaching my daughter and son to drive. It’s a wonder I have any hair left at all!
I recall one Saturday afternoon not long after Allison got her license. She asked for the car to drive the 10 miles to Staunton. She said she needed to pick up some school supplies and a pizza. I hesitated, and I came up with a dozen reasons why she shouldn’t go.
But Allison is real good at debating her father. Her response was, “Daddy, don’t you have any faith in me? After all, you’re the one who taught me everything you know about driving, right?” And there was no way I could not help but respect that! And she turned out to be a very conscientious driver…in fact, she’s a much better driver than her old man!
Mutual respect certainly helps our teens to gain heart.
- They Gain Heart when We Practice Unconditional Love. Luke 15:11-24
21The son said, “Father, I have sinned against God in heaven and against you. I am no longer good enough to be called your son.” 22But his father said to the servants, “Hurry and bring the best clothes and put them on him. Give him a ring for his finger and sandals [c] for his feet.
23Get the best calf and prepare it, so we can eat and celebrate. 24This son of mine was dead, but has now come back to life. He was lost and has now been found.”
The parable of the Prodigal Son is the most well-loved parable in all the gospels. You know the story well—the younger son gets tired of the longs hours on the farm. One day he insults his father by asking for his share of the inheritance which should come to him on the day his daddy dies. But the father doesn’t hold him back—he gives him the money and lets him go.
That son goes off to Las Vegas and blows it all—it’s life in the fast lane. But soon the money runs out, the women leave, and he’s left slopping and living with hogs in the pigpen, the ultimate degradation for a Jewish teenager.
He comes to his senses, carefully rehearses a speech of deep contrition, and comes home to face the music.
His father is out in the fields, slaving away in the hot sun, when he spies a familiar face in the distance coming over the hill. He drops his hoe, and comes running as fast as his creaky, old legs will carry him.
He throws his arms around his son tightly and tearfully. The son tries to get his “I’m so sorry” speech out, but the father will not let him speak. He sees his son’s emaciated body, the cracked hands, the sores on his feet, the sunken eyes. He knows his son has been through hell and back. There are no I-told-you-sos.”–only unconditional, joyous love. His son was dead and is alive again; he was lost but now is found. And that’s all that matters.
And that is what, above all, makes the difference in the lives of our teenage sons and daughters as well. It is their security in knowing that ultimately, no matter what dumb mistake they may in life, we will never, ever stop loving them.
We as parents, if we have given our lives to Christ, have that capacity to love unconditionally, because we know it is with this same love that Christ has loved us.
Yes, there are times when our teenage kids just simply drive us crazy. And we scream and yell and awful scenes ensue.
But when the anger of the moment subsides, let us always find some way, some how, to quietly sit by their side, put our arm around their shoulders, and tell them we still love them and believe in them, just as Christ still loves us and believes in us.
Our teens gain heart when we practice unconditional love.
Robert Orben writes, “Who can ever forget Winston Churchill’s immortal words: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills.’ It sounds exactly like our last family vacation with our two teenagers!”
Indeed, living with adolescents is not easy, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. It is indeed a high wire act most days. But let us never forget some very key principles:
Our teens lose heart when we demonstrate incessant favoritism and intolerable inconsistency. But, conversely, they gain heart when we practice unclinching respect and unconditional love.
And may the grace of God be with us all! Amen!