A Conversation with my Teen about Lunch, God, and Dinner

In adoration yesterday this conversation came to me. i know I need to have this very conversation with my kids as they start to transition into adulthood. I promised this conversation back in the letter I wrote a few years back about the deeper reality of Santa Claus. I get a lot of ideas in adoration. But I knew I just had to write this down. It’s only a start, but it’s a start.

In it I imagine Aaron coming home from school with a complaint.

Did you pack my lunch this morning Dad?

Yeah. What about it?

Really, Dad? Juice box? String cheese? Animal crackers? You even cut up my grapes.

You used to love that stuff.

Yeah, like when I was like four years old.

In fact you wouldn’t eat a whole lot else back then. What? This lunch not good enough for you anymore?

Dad, I’m older now and this just doesn’t cut it. I need meat. Bread. Something to fill me up. At least make me a sandwich. You don’t have to cut my food up for me.

Yeah I know that. I gave you that lunch to make a point.

I knew it. It’s never just lunch with you. Amiright?

You know me well.

So what’s the point?

You outgrew your lunch. What is your ideal lunch now?

Pizza, burgers, cheese sticks, tacos. You, know. Real food.

Yeah I thought so. I was like that when I was your age. Look where that got me.

Oh no, is this a nutrition lecture? I think I have some studying to do…

No, no. Just pointing out that you will outgrow your current ideal lunch like you outgrew the one you loved when you were five.

I don’t think so.

I sure hope so. If you eat like that until you’re my age that diet will straight up kill you. It’s developmentally appropriate for you to like that food right now.

But you don’t let me have it that often. So…

So… I know that you’re there, but I also know you can’t stay there. You need to learn the grown up versions of things. You can’t always eat what’s easy, what’s most pleasurable. You can’t always eat for yourself. When you are older, you eat for others’ sake as well.

(blank stare)

You know how I told you that when you are an adult your job is to live for others in some way. You need to eat to be healthy and strong so you can be around for others. When you have children you will need to eat as an example for them. You’ll need to eat for your wife to show her that you’re serious about sticking around to love her and not abandon her. You eat for a lot of reasons besides, “Mmmm… that looks yummy.”

You’re not making adulthood seem very appealing.

Well, it’s not developmentally appropriate for you to think so yet. That’s okay. But as your father I have to nudge you along.

So this is a nudge? So you’re trying to get me to eat more salad or something?

Nope, I want you to get to know God better.

That was random. I thought we were talking about eating healthy and stuff.

We were. Do you know what the word “segue” means?

Nope.

It means to make a smooth transition from one context or subject to another. No segue for you. Stay with me. Do you believe in God?

Um… yeah, I guess. I’m supposed to, right?

It’s okay to say no.

I didn’t expect you to say that. I want to say no because I just don’t see how something like God can exist in the real world.

Then say no.

No. I guess I don’t believe in God.

You know what I hear when you say that?

What? That I’m grounded?

You’ve outgrown your five-year-old lunch.

You’ve lost me.

The God you thought you knew. The God described to you in bible stories when you were in preschool. The wise bearded superman in the sky. That’s not God. That’s more like Zeus. A primitive image. That’s an image of God that you’re supposed to outgrow. It was appropriate to describe God that way to you because that’s an image of benevolent, powerful authority that you could relate to. Something that looked like a parent, which at the time was pretty much your whole world. We weren’t lying to you then about God. We were just cutting God up into pieces before we served him to you.

I see what you did there. Like the lunch, right?

You always were a clever one. Here’s the first thing any adult has to understand about God. You can’t understand God. Anything you say about him is imperfect. Any God that fits tidily in your brain is a rather sad, limited kind of God. God is bigger than that.

Okay, so you’re going to get to the part where you tell me what God is?

Patience, grasshopper.

Grasshopper?

Sorry. I’m old. Remind me to see if we can find “Kung Fu” on Netflix. Anyway, any image of God is limited and imperfect. But some images of God have benefits that exceed their limitations. They help you develop your faith at a certain stages in your progress. You are supposed to outgrow them. Use them to seek him, but don’t cling to them. Do you know what “idolatry” means?

Worshipping statues and stuff?

It means confusing the symbol with what is symbolized. Worshipping the image that points to some aspect of God instead of God. Any mature Catholic should at least be partially agnostic because he knows his understanding of God is woefully inadequate. That there is way more he cannot say about God than what he can say.

Well, if God can’t be known, why bother?

I didn’t say God can’t be known. There are images of God we can know are true. And those images can be very helpful. But – remember this well – when you find yourself questioning your belief in God it means that the limitations of your concept of God have outweighed the benefits for you. Part of that image is still probably true, but you’ve outgrown it.

So I don’t believe in God like I did when I was five? And I need to change my image of God?

Yeah. Kinda.

So anyone can choose any image of God they want? Just what feels good? That doesn’t seem right.

Well, you sure can do that. Too many people do. They select a God that fits in a convenient box and keep him there. But no, that’s not right as I, and the Church, see it. We hold in common that there are some things that the Church says are definitely true about God. Then there are some things the Church says are definitely not true about God. But there’s way more that no one can say about God.

That’s if I believe the Church’s version of God, right?

Right. I hope, eventually, you will.

Why?

Because I am your father and I want you to grow up and be a fulfilled, happy person.

I do not see how a concept of God will do that for me.

It won’t. God. The real, living God. The God of the Catholic Church and the Judeo-Christian tradition will help you do that. Everyone has a “God” whether they call it that or not. The one you choose to follow makes a big difference in your life.

Even atheists have a “God?”

More or less. But it would be very impolite for you to say that to their faces. Their connotations of the word “God” tend to be negative. Probably because they’ve obviously outgrown whatever image of God they had as children. Somebody either crammed it down their throat for too long or they did not get help in finding their next understanding of God. Imagine your parents insisting that you eat string cheese and animal crackers for lunch your whole life. “God” to them is a lot like the limited, sad God I mentioned earlier. I don’t blame them for not believing in God. But they still have something that functions for them as “God.” We all do.

So what kind of God does an atheist believe in?

Remember, that’s not polite to say. But everybody has some context that guides the “Why” and the meaning of life. Science can tell us lots of facts about the world. But meaning has to come from somewhere else. People have to answer questions like, “What is the purpose of life?” “Why am I here?” “What is my best life?” When they are presented with the findings of Science – I am a big believer in science and reason – something provides the “So what?” There are lots of ways to answer those questions. Some are somewhat helpful, some help you coast aimlessly through life, and some are downright disastrous. Everyone chooses something that defines their context and meaning.

What if they refuse to choose?

They can’t. Saying that life has no meaning, that we are pointless, that everything is random is still a choice just like deciding that Love is the guiding purpose and meaning of existence. At some point you choose. Even those who just go through life following their biological urges, instincts, and desires are choosing with their actions if not their conscious minds. My first hope for you is that you make a conscious, reasoned choice, whatever you decide.

And so you want me to believe in your God.

Will all my heart. Actually I think you already do. I think your mind just has to catch up with your heart. You have a lot of love in your heart. I can see it through your actions. I am confident you have a lot of experience with God.

Okay, so catch my head up. Explain to me how I’ve experienced this God I don’t know how to believe in with my head.

I will, but not all at one time. We’d be here forever. But I can give you a few short things to think about until we have time to talk again.

And I bet that will be soon.

Because we’re on a roll.

Is that what you call it? Fine.

Well, to start, the name “Yahweh” in the Old Testament translates roughly into “That which holds all things in existence.” You do exist, right?

As far as I know.

Me too. And I am grateful for that fact. There is a famous theologian who said, “God is not a being. God is Being.” About sums it up.

God is Being? That’s it?

Imperfect image, remember. One of the oldest, least incorrect ones. But still an image. But, to me, it’s the most basic experience of God. I am. That’s what God told Moses to say who God is, remember? “I am.”

Pretty basic.

But here’s the next thing. The book of Genesis also tells us that God created the world from nothing. That means at some point there was nothing, and there was something. Creation “Ex Nihilo.”

So who created God?

God is not a being, remember. God does not do time. God just is. God is Being.

So you say.

So the bible says. And we have to decide that we’ll believe that.

Why should I?

Because, well, think about the implications of creation “ex nihilo,” out of nothing. At the beginning, God was God. Perfectly cool with being God. He did not need to make some little followers to adore him that he could boss around. God does not need anything. God is just God. So that means that, if creation wasn’t for him, it was for us. Creation is a gift. And then after he created, he pronounced it to be “very good.” We are very good. A gift from God.

So I should just believe that because the bible says it? We know the world wasn’t created like that.

Sure. Genesis is not a scientific document. It’s a theological document. The creation story communicates truth, not scientific fact.

So why should I believe that everything is a gift and my existence is “very good?” Why shouldn’t I believe everything is just random or that life has no meaning?

If everyone has to choose the way they see the world anyway, I want to see it in a way that makes the world more fulfilling and meaningful for me. I want to choose a worldview that is consistent with the stirrings and yearnings of my heart. I love and want to be loved. I have passion. I am grateful when I receive a gift. I am relieved when somebody forgives me and we’re cool again. I experience God in my heart. I want my head to keep up.

Okay…

And I want my actions to be guided by this way of looking at the world. Because I know that my experience of the world is better when I choose to love others and when others choose to love me. God is love. And that sets the agenda for everything. If you let it.

I thought God was Being?

Limited image, remember? The next least incorrect way to think of God is that God is a special kind of love. A love that gives itself for the sake of the beloved. “Self-gift,” if you will. Remember when I said that everything is a gift? That’s God pouring himself out. Emptying himself out for our sake. Everything in the world is oriented to that kind of love. It holds all things in being. We can work with that or we can work against it. Our choice. My job as your father is to convince you that working with it is the best choice.

Or I could choose to see the world some other way.

You could. Many people do. Some people don’t see why they should give themselves away in love. They think that’s a sucker’s bet. There are many people who go through life looking out for “numero uno” and that’s it. It’s just that, I don’t think that’s truly what’s in their hearts. They’re just confused, lost, or hurt. I don’t want to believe anybody is just plain selfish by nature, even when they are habitually selfish. Creation is fundamentally good, right?

That you say.

So which world do you want to live in? The one where people love each other and look out for each other, even if it means sacrificing for one another? Or the world where everyone has to earn their right to live? Where might makes right? Where everyone looks out for only themselves?

You make that second choice sound like a bad thing. Kidding.

Well it’s not my choice. You can live in that world if you wish. Many do. I choose love. Love isn’t magic. It doesn’t make the hurts and sufferings of this world go away. It does not magically shield you from bad things. It just is a way of approaching the world that makes the most out of suffering and hurts. It is a way of life that reaches out and helps others get through the hard times. You live this paradox where, to truly live, you give up your life. To lead, you have to serve. To gain, you have to give everything away.

Again, you’re not making it sound attractive.

Well, let me put it this way. Without God, you would not be here. In this famiy I mean. If mom and I were just looking out for ourselves, if we were not looking for ways to pour out our lives as a gift to others, as God does, do you think we would have adopted you? Every payday we’d have been like, “Woohoo! Let’s go party and buy stuff!” If we didn’t believe in God’s brand of Love, we’d never spend thousands of the dollars we earn on you. We’d keep it for ourselves. We’d be a lot richer right now. But we’d also be miserable and wretched. Because selfishness is not the path to any kind of happiness or fulfillment. To me, living as if the God of Love, who created the world as a gift and judged it to be very good, is the best way to align my life so that my life is fulfilling and has a meaning that transcends my little span of time on earth.

So, it’s time for dinner….

Provided by God, aka Love, in the form of your Mother who used her time after work to do more work so that you could be fed. She could have just plopped down and watched TV, you know. So that stroganoff you’re about..

Stroganoff! Yes!

That Stroganoff you’re about to eat is yummy. Not the healthiest choice, maybe, but a tangible experience of God’s Love. Brought to you by a woman who is devoted to that kind of Love. So that’s why we pray before dinner. And your responsibility is to receive that love, be grateful, and respond by giving yourself as a gift in kind.

You’re hinting that I should offer to clear the table.

That’s a start. Also I want you to think about God as Love. Creation as a gift that is very good. And what kind of world you want to live in. I also want you to know more about who God is. To be cool with the idea that the “superfriend in the sky” does not exist, you need a better idea of who, what, whatever, God is.

But… we don’t have time for that because we’re about to eat…

Stroganoff, yes. But here’s something to think about. God is a relationship. Not a person. A relationship.

Um, okay.

That’s what we mean by the Holy Trinity. But that’s another day. My brain is full and my stomach is empty.

I’d say that it looks like the reverse is true but that would not be very loving of me.

I’ll show you love. Come here and let me smack you.

To be continued. (No, I don’t smack my kid. Very hard. In front of people.)

 

To Girlzilla on her first day at university

I am so proud of you as you start college! As your mom and I were shoveling, er, clearing out some stuff you left in your room, I came across the letter I gave you at your graduation. I’m posting it here because I think it bears repeating and I want it to be Google-able in case you (or I) need it.

So, here’s the thing about adulthood. You start becoming an adult when you get your act together and can take care of yourself and you’re nobody’s dependent. But you don’t finish becoming an adult until you live your life for others and not for yourself. Remember that stuff about essential discipleship and generative discipleship from your Teen ACTS talk? You can’t claim to be a grown-up until you have both in full swing.

My hope for you is that you get there in God’s time and don’t hold on to some fantasy about this next few years being “the best years of your life.” Bullpockey! It gets better as you go, but you gotta go. An extended adolescence is a recipe for self-absorption and misery. Getting on with responsibility is where ultimate happiness lies. No, really.

And so I have to apologize for not saying more about how proud I am of you. I have been hard on you lately. And by lately, I mean for like a year or so. I do adore you and want more than ever to share some of our dwindling spare time with you. You are someone I really like to be around. As a human being, not just as my daughter.

But my problem is that I am your Dad and I can’t help but want to try to save you from the suffering I had as a young adult and, to certain extent, even today. Every parent wants to save their children from making their same mistakes. I see the troubles I am having with diabetes, for instance, and I get scared that I didn’t do enough to protect you from it. I gave you my genes but not enough good habits to compensate for your natural disadvantage. Thats just one.

And, because of those kinds of fears, I sometimes can’t help picking at you and cajoling you. My fears and mistakes are my burden, not yours. It’s not fair of me to try to correct 18 years of parenting mistakes in the last months before you go off somewhere and strike out on your own. And I wish I had spent more of this year encouraging you and less time trying to “shape” you. Please accept that it’s all out of love and, as a Dad, I cannot help it.

But enough about me. I wanted to let you know in no uncertain terms that I admire you and am in awe of the woman you are in the process of becoming. I am very privileged to be a part of what God is doing in you.

In you I see a deep kindness. When I see you stop and focus on making someone feel loved, supported, and accepted, I see God at work in my world. It is a joy to behold. Please let this be a core value for you. In every moment. Because this is what will help make you a joyful adult.

I admire your loyalty in friendship. You have the capacity to be fiercely devoted and that’s a great thing. Just don’t let your fierce loyalty draw lines between Us and Them. To God, we’re all Us.

You are a natural leader. You’ve had the gift of persuasion from an early age (like, say, age two). You have a Tom Sawyerish ability to get people to do things for you and with you. That’s a powerful gift and will serve you well as an educator. But that gift must always be focused on others and what they need. When focused on yourself and your benefit, it is a venomous poison! I don’t want you to poison yourself.

I am so happy that you made it to your age with your natural playfulness and whimsy intact. I would tell you to keep taking time to play, but I know I don’t have to. And that’s a great thing. A challenge for you would be to approach everything as play, even the mundane stuff of adulthood — bills, housework, commuting, whatever. It’s a trick I only have started to try to master. I just know you can be better at it than I am.

You have such a gift for creativity. You have the talent to be a producer of art and entertainment and not just a consumer of it. You owe it to the world to continue to develop that gift. Because it seems you can always see a more fun, interesting way to do or say things. And with your creative gifts, drawing, graphics, video, etc. you can make some of those things a reality for others. This will mean the difference between being a good teacher and being an awesome teacher. And I see in you an awesome teacher, whether or not that’s how you end up making your living.

And, in what has been at times my joy and my exasperation, you have the gift of powerful words. Since you uttered your first word, Mom and I have had many occasions to shake our heads and say, “My God, what hath God wrought!” Your speech has the power to heal. I’ve seen it lots of times. Your speech has the power to wound. I’ve seen that too. But nobody can deny that you are a great communicator. So you have to decide who you are going to serve with everything you say. Remember the movie Hancock where Will Smith caused a lot of damage when he was careless and did a lot of good when he used his power mindfully? You have a super power like that.

I can look back and see how Mom and I either encouraged these gifts in you or just gave them to you by virtue of heredity. So I feel a little better about the diabetes gene thing. And the ADD gene thing. I know that your gifts will help you get over some of the hurdles we left you with.

Since I am a Dad, and since you’re sitting here watching 67 gazillion people walk across a stage and don’t have a lot better to do right now, let me indulge myself and offer some advice:

Always turn outward. Always. If you find you’re bored, or depressed, or in a general funk, that is the time to find something to do for someone else. Turn off the TV and go find out what you can do to help. It’s the surest way to ensure your true happiness. Focus on helping others be happy instead of yourself. This is not my idea. It’s how God set things up. Just ask Him.

Remember that you are poor. When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he meant for you to remember that you have nothing that is not from Him. It’s all God’s. It’s like he says to everybody, “Hey, hold this stuff for me. It’s good stuff. And when you see someone who needs some stuff, give them some of this stuff I asked you to hold. That’s what I put you here for, to give out my stuff. So take some of the stuff when you need it, because I want you to be rested and healthy and ready to give out my stuff. But be certain that I want you to pay attention and look for opportunities to give away my stuff.” Remember, none of your stuff is your stuff. God”s stuff is better anyway.

Embrace suffering in little doses for a big purpose. This is a hard lesson that I am learning. I can see that, like me, you are a procrastinator. (Sorry again.) Do a small task now to avoid a large mess later. Get the boring essential discipleship stuff out of the way so you can achieve the good stuff. The trick is to have a clear view of the Why, the Purpose, the Big Hairy Deal. Keep your Eyes on the Prize, so to speak. Each bill you pay, each dish you wash or shirt you fold can be put in the context of some big Core Value or Goal. So teaching will have lots of paperwork and administration. Do it promptly and you will have more time to do the funner teaching stuff and you will reach your Goal faster.

Love is a decision, not a feeling. In fact Love is what you do when you’re not feeling it. Mom and I are fond of the idea that “Love is being bothered for the sake of another.” Practice being bothered in lots of small ways everyday so that you don’t have to endure too many big hassles.

Reach out and ask for help. You can’t do it alone. Neither can they.

Practice being alone. Practice being still. Read Matthew Chapter 6. Practice listening to God. Sometimes you have to get away by yourself with no distractions to truly understand, at your very core, that you are never really alone.

So by now you may already know about your graduation present. And I promise to help you set it up so you can be successful with it. But I offer you a few more things.

I promise to give you maddening advice. I can’t always give you a straight answer. Often because I just plain don’t know the answer. But sometimes I do know and still there’s value in you getting at least part of the way on your own. As a teacher, you understand that idea. I promise to be there for you, but try not to do too much. Your life is becoming your own life and we both need to get used to that.

Of course, I promise you my constant prayers, but not necessarily for what you want. I thank God for the many times He did not give me what I wanted. Someday you will too.

I promise you a prophetic voice. I am a guy who looks to the future. It’s what I do. I tried to use that when you were little, guiding you to this or that hobby or interest that I thought might best position you for the future. Remember the times you were grounded and the only electronic thing I would let you do was Paint Shop Pro? That was what I was trying to do. I can still offer that kind of thing. I make a living, in part, helping people think goals and plans through, helping people see possibilities. I can help you with any time you ask. And forgive me in advance for the times I can’t help myself and do it without being asked. (Like when I urge you to take every opportunity in college to study distance education. Wave of the future, I tell you.)

I promise to always be your Dad. This job never goes away. It just changes.

And, of course, I promise to always love you.

Dad