As our students and I continue our journey through the gospels, we have been trying to pursue every applicable detail within the ministry of Jesus and how to therefore understand our Christian life in light of Jesus identity as the Son of God, and Jesus reaction to the dehumanizing caricatures and the unfair burdens set on the hearts of his neighbors because of his intimate proximity to them, as he related to them in his humanity; as the Son of Man. Why are these dual sides to Jesus’ character so important? Well, precisely because it is not possible to understand Jesus in his fullness unless we understand that Jesus’ authority in his teaching and proclamation was always authenticated before witnesses primarily through his humanity. This is partly why so many misunderstood Jesus, and why so few could make actual sense of his wholeness.

 

In Christian action, we preach the gospel and therefore act in light of our faith that the cross of Christ has actually accomplished something quite profound. This does not always mean standing on a soapbox proclaiming the coming kingdom, but it does mean finding innovative and creative ways to serve as extensions of Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven as a culture as the overabundant overflow within our modern secular/pluralistic culture. This is usually defined by popular Christian thought as ‘acting in contradiction to our culture’, or ‘acting against our culture’, or perhaps ‘fighting upstream while everyone in our culture goes with the natural flow of things.’ While these definitions are helpful and very important, I do not believe that they encompass what our actual posture and disposition against our modern-day culture should actually be. I believe that perhaps a better way of understanding what our disposition toward our culture as believers should be could be understood along these lines:

 

We must not act necessarily counter to our culture but must re-contextualize our relation to and our perception of our culture by redefining our identities in light of the cross. This, therefore, allows us to depart from the authority, interpretations, and anthropology of our culture without departing from our neighbors.

 

Let’s examine how this looked like in practice in the life of Jesus and how we could perhaps reflect his engagements and mimic his movements through the Holy Spirit. First off, let’s define what culture is. A simple definition that says a lot in an easy to understand way can be found in Jon Ritner’s book Positively Irritating. He said this:

 

“Our worldview sits in our individual subconscious, but it expresses itself in our collective culture. Culture can be defined as: the learned pattern of beliefs, attitudes, values, customs, and products shared by a people. A culture is sometimes explained, metaphorically, as ‘the software of the mind’ that has been programmed into a given people’s shared consciousness through their early socialization. As members of a society act out the subconscious beliefs of a certain worldview in their public lives, they create a culture that reflects those beliefs. Collective culture is an external expression of each individual member’s internal perspective.”

 

When I teach our students that the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus is speaking of in Matthew 5:3 is a culture from heaven the Christian must abundantly overflow, I am trying to get across the fact that the entirety of Jesus’ beatitudes speaks of a culture that works through Christians within the community of the local church as a benefit for our neighbors outside of the local church. A clear progression is visible in Jesus’ beatitudes of a culture that works through the believer to display acts of mercy, meekness, compassion, peacemaking, and so forth. This, moreover, puts the believer in a position to react for and on the behalf of our neighbors precisely because the only way to truly cultivate peace is to do so in contexts and communities that are peace deficient.

 

Think about it. What is peacemaking? How do you do it? A major difficulty within the local church is our frail sense of peace within our communities, for we allow our belief in a passive peace to dominate with little reaction toward the responsibility of cultivating a context of active peace, the very thing that passive peace compels us to do. What do I mean? What affects parenting most? Why are so many Christian parents perplexed by the behavior of their teens? Why are Christian parents so consumed with the feelings of failure, as if they could and should have parented better with the magic benefit of hindsight? We assume everything should be so obvious for our teens, that they should be making better decisions, and their lack of being able to do so frustrates and confuses us (the same way our parents were perplexed every single time we as teens refused to make the decisions that would benefit us most, but only made decisions that robbed us of joy).

 

Yes, a passive peace does exist because of Christ and everything he accomplished through the cross on our behalf. Jesus and his cross was God’s action for us and we must find ways to apply the reality of this peace in a reaction that benefits our kids and our neighbors well. This was why Paul was creating Christian theology on the run (I have also written about this before). Paul’s aim was not to create a possibility for more head knowledge, but he aimed to answer this question:

How do we as the church, as believers, act and react in our culture and in relation to our neighbors in light of the cross?

As parents, we must parent in light of the cross, that either in seeming success or failure (we will all have both) we trust that our kids are in the hands of a God who does not have to worry about success or failure, for he only wills what is good and beneficial for our children. We must act and react in light of the cross and let go of the unfair and burdensome weights on our hearts, comparing ourselves to other parents or comparing our kids to other people’s children, for our identity as parents are secure in light of the cross, not in light of our performance as parents. This will weigh us down with an immense amount of emotional and relational weight that is not ours to carry and will therefore affect our relationships with our teens tremendously. When we miss our marks, when we do not reach the expectations we have for ourselves, we parent outside of the bounds of grace. Why? Because we are pursuing something other than, something that doesn’t allow us the room to fail; something that doesn’t allow us the space to rest. Therefore, if we are parenting in light of God’s mercy, there is room for failure, and there is room for healing.

 

Understand this: as you parent, all those years of rearing and loving your children, God is parenting you too. Your parenting is not only for your children but is also a process that reveals the hidden assumption and tacit justifications that create facades of peace in your own heart. This sort of disposition compels us to cultivate a loving relationship with Christ amidst the tension and uncomfortable contexts that will come up as we also seek healing. This, moreover, will give your teens the greatest gift that you could possibly give; you falling. Do not feel as though you must conceal your mistakes or keep the moments you have no clue what to do next from them. How can we give our teens the tools to cope, the resources to deal with failure if they have never seen you fail? How will they feel bold enough to rely on grace in desperate moments if they have not seen it modeled for them? Show them Christ’s grace with no shame, and show them less of yourself.

 

What is a practical change in our Christian character that this sort of recontextualization in light of the cross brings into our lives? It allows us to put everything in a healthy perspective, and not allow ourselves to be crushed underneath the weight of disappointment and expectation. Whenever our parenting is questioned by our children or anyone else, we can receive and learn from it without being guarded or defensive because the security of our dignity and self-esteem is not found in making sure we are the perfect parent, but in light of the cross of Christ. This, therefore, creates a new sort of relational cultivation with our children that creates a safe environment for them to be just as vulnerable in light of our own transparency.

 

See, our children struggle with personal vulnerability because our culture teaches that we must be defined by personal performance, or, in the words of Michael Sandel, we are constantly seeking to hide any weaknesses in light of our culture of merit (or to use his actual verbiage, meritocracy). Showing any sort of vulnerability is not seen as a strength that heals relationships but as a weakness that stifles individual expression in our journey toward an authentic identity.

 

I have been speaking a lot about Christian reaction. What do I mean exactly? Michael Ignatieff in his book The Need of Strangers has a chapter where he breaks down Shakespeare’s King Lear. In this story, there are two sorts of languages that Ignatieff speaks of: the language of desire and the language of need. The most affluent in this story were only associated with the language of desire; whatever they wanted they could attain, for nothing was outside of their grasp. However, once some who had only known the language of desire begin to be in want, they become associated with the language of need; a posture they had never intimately known anything of. Because of this newfound language and disposition, they could take one of two paths:

 

They could either become bitter and resentful, becoming frustrated with those they have never been in intimate proximity with. Or, they can begin to empathize as their condition reminds them that whatever influence they may have had, or whatever they perceived as their right, pales in comparison to the similarities they have and the common ground on which they now stand with their neighbors. Realizing that we have far more in common than different, even with our non-believing neighbors, is the first step to cultivating authentic intimate proximity to others, as we learn to relate to our culture in the right way. See, when Jesus said this:

 

“You have heard that it was said…” He is not only acting by bringing clarification and attention to a faulty biblical interpretation, but he is also reacting in light of those who have been crushed and abused by such crooked and faulty interpretations that have forced them to carry unwarranted and unfair burdens. This is why Jesus’ clarification in Matthew 5:3 is so important to the entirety of his Sermon on the Mount. We cannot justify segregating a specific person as ‘poor in spirit’ or a segment of our culture when Jesus so clearly says that every single person is actually “poor in spirit.” While our culture oppresses specific people we view as outcasts, Jesus says we are all fundamentally spiritual outcasts.

For the Christian, we must never become associated with the language of desire, because this posture allows us the justification to forget those who share in the language of need, and it allows us to turn from our neighbors (and even our children) and never have to react on their behalf because we are justifying our distance from them. Regardless of their posture toward God, they still nonetheless possess the image of God, and it is the responsibility of the local church to remind our neighbors of that fact by reacting on their behalf, even if our most fundamental beliefs are never fully reconciled.

 

What is also helpful to be able to understand Jesus Kingdom Culture with clarity, we must understand what our culture in Los Angeles idolizes; or in other words, what our culture lifts up and propagates as what should be our ultimate relentless pursuits in life, which are the very things that will give us meaning and purpose if we can grasp them. We can think of academic success for example. There are only two outcomes to such a pursuit: we either obtain academic success, or we do not. What happens if we can attain educational success? It becomes our identity, it becomes our definition and the very thing that authenticates and makes sense of our lives. It, therefore, goes to our heads and we will inevitably begin to believe that we are good and smarter than others precisely because we were able to reach such goals, even when others have not.

 

Michael Sandel in his book The Tyranny of Merit breaks down just how relentless our culture lifts up success and materialistic progression as the end all that our young people must live their lives pursuing. This, therefore, creates a culture of meritocracy, where for any progress to be made in this life we must store up more merit, more achievement than the next person, even if it means we step on heads to arrive at our end goal. But, what happens to our young people who seek to be defined by academic success and are not able to attain it? What happens to their self-esteem, to their dignity, to their view of the self? They will inevitably crumble underneath the weight of expectation; expectations not able to truly carry the weight of our desires and needs.

 

Moreover, because our culture does not teach the importance of vulnerability and transparency in light of the possibility of reconciliation and restoration in safe spaces as important for human flourishing, our young people do not know how to cope with disappointment and anxiety. Because of this relationships are cut off, as our young people seek out to only invest in relationships they can instrumentalize, using others as tools in order to find ways to try and cope and deal with the uncertainty of emotional isolation. Alan Noble in his book You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhumane World writes this about communal transparency in our culture:

 

“In the modern world, public vulnerability is always a choice, and therefore it takes on an overwhelmingly performative quality. Here’s what I mean. When communities (like churches, neighborhoods, clubs, and so on) are voluntary and ‘liquid,’ they become places we visit rather than dwell. So when a church community or a group of friends or neighbors pressures us into vulnerability, we can retreat to our homes or smartphones. You don’t have to stick around and share your burdens with anyone, ever. One day you may ‘break’ or be ‘exposed,’ but you still don’t have to share. The result is that our moments of vulnerability are often carefully cultivated and prepared for public consumption to maximize attention and develop our image.”

 

It is imperative, especially for parents, to be dead set on cultivating a context of transparent vulnerability deliberately in their homes. See, at moments we as parents will find out something distressing about our kids, but they will be far too nervous and afraid to share it with you because they are afraid of the ways you will react. It is safe after a long day of school to clock out and sit in front of the Nintendo or Netflix for hours on end. Why? Because it is familiar; because we can forget. However, this is not because our kids couldn’t cope, it is because they do not know how to do so safely. Acting and reacting as parents interpreting our relationships in light of God’s vantage point of us allows us a solidified and constant reference point, which allows us the assurance that God has gifted our kids with the necessary tools, and it is our job to teach them how to properly use them in light of God’s patience.

 

You might interject and say (or think) something along these lines:
‘It is my job to interject! It is not my job to create a safe space as much as it is my job to set my kids right! I am more of a parent than a friend. Also, shouldn’t I react? Didn’t Jesus?’

 

Before I answer these questions, answer me this:

Who or what influences your parenting style? This will go a long stretch into letting you know if you are reacting in light of our culture, or in light of Jesus’ Kingdom Culture.

 

If home is no safe space for honesty and vulnerability even when it hurts, even when it is tense and uncomfortable, somewhere else will become that space and that somewhere else most likely will not be a place that cultivates the possibility of healing and growth as much as it will serve as a place where our youth can attempt to numb their emotions and cut off all the relationships that remind them of the very things they are attempting to numb away. Yes parents, the process of deliberate dialogue and vulnerable relationships with our teens will be very difficult, but that is the entire point.

 

As a Christian it is the tension we must invite; it is the tension we must thrive within.

Why? Because a safe space for your teens to be honest and find healing is the exact place where all your preconceived justifications and assumptions will be dismantled, and healing will find you too. What does this mean practically? Well first, and perhaps most importantly, confess in front of your children too. Not to them, just like their confession in your midst is no confession to you; but to God. Model what you seek in your teens by humbly and courageously acting and reacting in light of the assurance of the cross, precisely because Jesus modeled what he seeks in us first. This process of relational and communal confession in light of the intimate proximity of Jesus and his cross is for our neighbors and our teens to see less of us, and far more of Jesus’ beauty and intimacy.

Moreover, ask and demand more of your teens in a cultivated safe space of transparent community. Allow them to be a presence in your healing process, allow them the responsibility to help you lean and depend on grace daily. I am not asking you to allow your teens to parent you, but we must allow them to understand that in those transparent moments, they are not the only ones with the weight of obligation to confess something. They don’t have to speak, they don’t have to teach, and they don’t necessarily have to impart wisdom. However, they should feel trusted and valued, and they should feel that they are progressively learning what active mercy and grace looks like in application, not just as a concept for head knowledge. Grace and mercy must be cultivated in an environment that allows for application, that is mercy deficient. What I mean for context is this:

 

Every single cultivated safe space begins deficient of active mercy. As I explained earlier in reference to passive and active peace, mercy must create within us a posture of reaction, a disposition prepared for the tense and uncomfortable process of healing within spaces that lack it to begin with. The cross of Christ has secured us mercy, and in order for us to serve as extensions of this mercy we must not be afraid to apply an active mercy on behalf of our neighbors. This means intimate proximity to those nearest us, that we seek them out in relationships as we attempt to invest beautiful things into their lives.

 

As I write, I do so very empathetic to the difficulties parenting brings. I am a father to a beautiful boy, Jacob Daniel Gomez. But, he is just that: a very young boy (soon to be two). I do not have the experimental reference points to speak as practically as I would otherwise want to, for I have yet to hit these moments and therefore apply my faith and my parenting in light of the cross. As much as I am able, I can stretch back and see how I as a teenager affected my parents; how I took, how I complained, how I fractured the relational intimacy that I am still so desperately attempting to fix even as I write. I have seen in many years of serving as a leader within churches of young people that they are emotionally fractured and realize it to a certain extent yet feel safe within it. They are confused about their purpose and meaning as different sorts of narratives and anthropologies that our culture confronts them with daily wage war over them, as they so desperately seek a space to understand what is happening, by seeking people who are not offended or shocked by their misapprehension.

 

Remember what it was like, remember how you felt and how difficult it was to make sense of the world and of your identity as a 16 year old. Jesus has set the example, for he still this very moment has not forgotten what it felt like to experience moments of anxiety and emotional isolation, and he has not forgotten what it felt like to be forsaken by those most close to him. He remembers, and as he continues to relentlessly pursue our hearts he does so as the one who never forgets.

 

Because of this (this is vital, please don’t forget it), he is that much more approachable and accessible. Our youth feel timid when they are experiencing something you have told them to avoid, and they fear the process, they fear the moment. Why? Because of shame? Perhaps. Also, whether they know how to articulate it and make sense of it yet or not, they somewhat know that we have perhaps forgotten what it feels like to stumble, and we have forgotten how it feels to be so confused and emotionally vulnerable that we feel stuck. If you forget, you forget the moments of grace Christ carried you, and because of this you will fail to fully carry your teens through their moments of confusion and desperation. So, even though I have yet to fully experience all things good and tough that the teenage years will bring me, I will try not to forget.

 

 

Richard Gomez, FPCH Youth Discipleship Coordinator

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