Before I was married, I would meet up with my friend Trish each summer to backpack through a national park. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the destination of each and every one of our hikes was always a lake. Anytime we found ourselves frustrated by fog, complaining of steep climbs, limping with pain, or sloshing with wet socks and shoes through the rain, we found comfort in reminding each other of what lay ahead – a placid, picture-perfect glacial lake. I can still recall the elation I felt as we turned the final bend or clambered over the last boulder to behold the beautiful lake before us.
Years later it’s rarely the lakes that she and I discuss, but rather details from time spent on the trails to and from each lake. The miles we hiked are what built stamina and fortitude, not the time spent lounging by the lakes. And no matter how lovely it was to refresh ourselves with a quick dive into crystal clear waters and a sunbath on an ancient rock, that time always had to end so that we could hop back on the trail once again.
Most of our lives are spent on the trails, but far too often parents are inclined to seek the next lake, or at least a less challenging path – for both ourselves and our children. If we can just get through this school year. If we can just figure out why he is acting out so much. If she would just stop hanging out with those people. If Covid would just end! We continue to fall into misguided thinking that we’ll round the bend of a particular struggle and finally “arrive.” Or perhaps our efforts to find comfort along the way lull us into thinking things are good enough.
Yes, the Lord promises to “lead me beside the still waters” but His word states that I will also “walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” And all along the way, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:2-4) but nowhere are those paths described as smooth or comfortable. In fact, Jesus stated quite the opposite: ”If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
After two years of a pandemic, I hear more and more parents clamoring with desire “to get back to normal.” And while I long for a world without illness, masks, and human isolation, I do not long to get back to all that we accepted as “normal.” We might feel like we’re ready to throw out the Covid-crusted hiking boots and relax barefoot in the sand, but it’s important we evaluate what sort of paths we were trodding pre-pandemic. If we’re honest, many of us sought out paths of comfort, often selecting widely-traveled routes with very little risk or resistance. Some of us were stuck in deeply-rutted ravines because generations followed without question in the footsteps of those who went ahead.
Let me be clear: there is much to grieve with the loss of life and health and community that has pervaded our existence these past two years. Yet there is also much hope now present in the opportunity to change and move forward differently, as a result of the seismic disruptions we’ve all experienced in our everyday lives.
Listen to the Youth
We’d be wise to listen to our young people, many of whom are telling us that they don’t want to just go back to the way things were — go back to what was “normal” — particularly when it comes to the way the church has operated. There is much to be celebrated in the history of the church, but there are also plenty of issues that we’d be wise to acknowledge and consider along with our youth.
I’m hearing from our young people that what the church says doesn’t always match what it does. Teenagers yearn for guidance but don’t necessarily want to be told exactly what to think, as much as they want to learn how to think about Scripture and what it means to follow Jesus in our current cultural moment. Young people desire to learn how to wrestle in all the complexity, and also desire to be in relationship with adults who are wrestling well. They aren’t opposed to fun youth group events but they want leaders to welcome everyone, regardless of how they may presently look, act, or identify. They sometimes wonder why the church seems silent about issues they value, particularly when others have a lot to say. They want to see adults unafraid to engage any subject or idea, and to be able to share why the Gospel matters in all of it.
While many of our youth are deconstructing their faith, parents need to be willing to assess the effectiveness of the models we’ve long embraced and the paths that we have long traveled. Rather than reverting to what we had normalized, let’s be open to the idea that perhaps there is a more authentic way.
Jesus is That Authentic Way
Jesus declared that he was “the Way” (John 14:6) and the earliest Christians in Acts were described as followers of the “Way,” sometimes experiencing persecution for that reason. Life in Christ called people to die to self, and many actually lost their lives along the way. Jesus still calls his people to die to self, but it seems that many Christians in America have instead forged their own way and then invited Jesus along. We’ve emphasized the pursuit of peace and comfort more than we’ve accepted that persecution and discomfort are equally present qualities of the Christiain life.
God promised his people through the prophet Isaiah: “I will lead the blind by a way they do not know, in paths they do not know I will guide them” (42:16). Perhaps we need to ask the Lord to reveal the ways in which we were blindly following our own paths in the past and truly submit to His guidance on the unknown paths ahead. This may involve changes in our family lives, work lives, church lives, or social lives. Whatever this may entail, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).
Remember that Jesus never recommends these straight paths for the faint of heart. In fact, he reminds us to “take heart” because in this world we will have trouble – yet he has “overcome the world” (Matthew 16:33). It will be uncomfortable and sometimes painful to walk in “the Way,” because He calls us out of normalcy and into something extraordinary. Our children are watching and longing to know why following Jesus makes any difference at all. They desire to tread the difficult paths with us. The last thing they need is to merely “get back to normal.”