It’s Hard Being 13: Thoughts on Ageism.

When was the last time you heard something positive about junior high?

Or, more broadly, about anyone who is even associated with junior high, like teachers, parents, or youth pastors?

As a youth pastor, I hear this all the time. Most recently, it was from a fellow pastor. At a church network gathering, he asked me how I serve at City Church. After I told him I work in student ministry, he replied with a very typical comment, eyebrows up: “pray for this guy.” He made sure to look over at a colleague for affirmation.

I get it. And I know firsthand that teens and tweens can be annoying or downright difficult. Though our boys are still quite tiny, I’ll eventually also know what it’s like to parent a teen.


But I tell you what, I’ve heard all the derogatory comments enough times that I almost don’t notice it. Like water spots and grime on the windshield, most of us don’t even notice how severely we speak of young people. We just keep on keeping on, oblivious to what we’re saying and what difference it makes.

Two days ago I overheard a woman complain to her friend regarding some kind of incident with young teens, “the more junior high boys there are, the lower the brainpower; it’s a mathematical formula!” I’m sure it’s much different for us adults as we struggle with generosity, honesty, addictions. I’m sure it’s an entirely different for adults throughout history who have cheated their company in cahoots with a team of other sane adults. I’m sure it’s also a different story for the many adults throughout history who have collaborated to lead genocide.

You get the point.

People at any age can do some pretty selfish, damaging, detestable things. And yes, I could list bad things that teens have done throughout history. Or I suppose I could list atrocities older adults have committed.

And yet, we routinely speak so disparagingly to other adults about the irritating nature of tweens or teens.

Now I want you to imagine something. What if instead of talking about tweens we were talking about blacks? Or someone within the LGBTQ community?

Maybe you’re thinking, gosh Ben, you’re way too sensitive. Read on.

I recently attended an event our church sponsored confronting single-ism. Our group of mostly singles listened to a compelling and theologically rich lecture on the systematic neglect and marginalization of singles. For example, single men [and women, if I remember correctly] apparently earn less money than married guys. That’s clearly a justice issue.

Now I don’t hold in my hands the research to support my case than teenagers are systematically marginalized, but I [and most of us, I’d think] have the anecdotal evidence of this reality. And I’m not placing ageism-discrimination based on a person’s age-at the same level as other kinds of injustice, I’m simply saying it needs to be considered more deeply.

We also need to ask tougher questions of our own systems and prejudices, and extend our concerns to the young. Neuroscience has revealed how the teenage brain is uniquely poised for risk. And yes, it can be really bad-or really good. Or, plain annoying.

Allow me to remind you that you-yes, you-were once a teenager yourself. Yep. At one point you were probably difficult to parent, difficult to teach, socially awkward, academically unmotivated. Maybe none of those things apply, though, and you were the perfect adolescent. If so, my apologies.

I know I was a handful during my early teens. To this day I preserve memories of incessant talking during class-the second my teachers turned the other way. I remember refusing to wear a hoody in Chicago during October, a decision that didn’t make my youth pastor all that happy with me. I remember forgetting my uniform on more than one away soccer game. I got in a few fights even, believe it or not [very uncool]. I persecuted other kids in plenty of ways and created my share of havoc.

Chances are that all of us struggled in certain ways during adolescence, some worse than others.

My goal in this brief article is to stimulate deeper thinking on the issue of how we treat adolescents and, ultimately, to prompt small changes in our adult approach to teens and tweens.

If you’re a Christian reading this article, here’s something for you. In one of the New Testament’s smaller epistles [letters], Christians listen in on a note to a young man named Timothy. He’s a younger leader in the church, and his older mentor, Paul the Apostle, is encouraging and directing him in his vocation. He says this:

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 

I could write pages upon pages about young people who have set an example for me in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. But I won’t. I’ll leave it to you to try a new practice in noticing young people who, though they are sometimes bothersome, are also examples to the rest of us in the ways they can be.

A final thought that strikes me as I move to a close is this: sometimes the way we treat people informs how they act. Yes, if we treat junior high students like incomplete human beings with no sense of how life is, they will likely act that way. But if we show patience and forbearance, if we listen, and if don’t look down on them, we might just impact someone’s life in a big way.

Or, I suppose we could keep up our old habits and go on making the same tired comments about junior high-ers.


Where was God?

Everyone asks the question at some point:

Where was God when…

…my job was taken from me? …I was bullied in junior high? …when I…

The question is asked all the time. And it’s a perfectly decent question to ask. Even the Bible, the prime written testament to God, is packed with people bothering God about all kinds of things, sometimes getting an answer, sometimes not at all [see Hebrews 11].

I found myself asking this question the other night. After our older son, Silas, came home from a lice-infested nursery, we wanted to make sure he [and we!] wouldn’t unwittingly invite the little creatures into our home.

With my wife’s encouragement, I bathed him and applied the special lice medication I found at the drugstore and put him down to sleep with no issues. Until an hour later, that is, when he woke up crying out in pain. We know our son’s cries-that’s the mysterious ability of the parent. We can tell if our toddler is throwing a fit or throwing a lifeline for help.

The scenario we encountered was the latter: Silas desperately needed us. A tiny amount of the lice medicine had found its way into his eye and was now causing some significant irritation, far too much for a 20 month old to handle. We gave him medicine first. He slept for another hour after some angry tears. After another couple of rounds with cuddling, gentle words, and even a 2am bath, nothing was helping. He was enraged-and now he was struggling to open his left eye.

Kaile made it clear that she wanted me to go to the emergency room with him. I resisted for a moment, wondering if we had an alternative. Looking again, I decided it was the next thing to do. It was 3am. I was already exhausted [yeah, Silas has a new baby brother, so…]. Now I was hopping into an Uber car and making my way to the ER for Silas’s first visit. 

Thankfully, things went as well as they could have gone.

But the night was hellacious. I’ll be feeling the effects for a while, to be sure. After I got home from the ER, Kaile and I prayed for peace and endurance, for sleep and for health.

Now our situation is certainly not so terrible. Lots of parents have gone through worse experiences than this, more consistently difficult issues than we, more overwhelming pain or inconceivable loss. I know our little troubles are minuscule in the bigger scheme of things. In the future, we may face more difficult realities-who knows how life will evolve. And again, this particular situation was my fault anyway.

But however good or bad our situation, we end up asking,

“where was God?”

Let me interject a concept from Scripture. The Old Testament contains a seldom-preached book called Judges that depicts the very earliest years of the Israelite people. If you read carefully, you’ll notice a pattern in Judges, a cycle:

  1. Israel serves God
  2. Israel gets distracted from God and worships other gods
  3. Israel is enslaved
  4. Israel cries out to God
  5. God raises a judge [leader who spiritually and physically helps the people]
  6. God delivers Israel

The cycle, while not occurring at every instance in this precise order, reveals how when good things are happening, people depart from God.

It’s not hard for me to see this on the daily. Who needs God when your 401[K] is off the charts, your business is growing, when you just got a powerful new job, when your car is fast, when everyone oohs and ahhs when they see your Viking range and quartz countertops?

While God can be so close and so needed during our difficulty, God can turn into a trite joke with the rise of a career or the fortunes of a business.

Regina Spektor said it well in her song Laughing With:

No one laughs at God
When the doctor calls after some routine tests
No one’s laughing at God
When it’s gotten real late
And their kid’s not back from the party yet

God can be funny,
When told he’ll give you money if you just pray the right way
And when presented like a genie who does magic like Houdini
Or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus
God can be so hilarious

The song concludes with the concept that we’re actually laughing with God. Interesting concept, lots of great thoughts in this piece of art. Go look that song up and have a listen. It’s worth three minutes.

Anyway, you get the point.

We all want God at our beck and call-when we need something, when things aren’t going as well. We want God to fix the issue of the job we lost. Right now I’d like someone to lease our apartment once we move so I don’t have to pay $2600/month for a place I don’t occupy. Makes me think about a good image for understanding God-a concept I’ve written about before.

God is like a parent.

We love our parents at Christmas, when they buy us ice cream, when they give us a set of keys to our own car. But when dad makes us do homework or clean the yard? Forward-thinking kids would call Child Protective Services! Mom wants us to go to church!? What about my freedom of choice? I’m 15 years old, for goodness sake? Clean the dishes, sure, but I’ll need to see an uptick in my allowance for the week.

We treat God the same way. When tough stuff happens, God’s a jerk. Conversely, when things are going well, we plain don’t notice God. I guess God’s a little different than us parents in this-at least we [hopefully!] notice when parents do good things for us. This happened for the ancient people of Israel, and it happens in real life. Silly as it is, there aren’t that many practicing atheists in foxholes. Agnostics? Well, sure, why not.

But pain often reminds us of the loss or displacement of something formerly good. The investment account that tanked during a bad quarter used to pay steady dividends. The painful divorce followed years of marriage that contained some meaningful conversations, maybe a couple delightful children. The cancer metastasized ravenously within a body that had flourished for decades.

People find their way back to church after a divorce, after the loss of a child, after news of cancer, after financial woes rise to undeniable levels. I think part of the reason people come back because God is whispering to our souls how much we’re loved, how much we’re missed, how much is waiting for us. A wise person told me the sunrise comes every morning whether we get up to see it or not. Is this not true with our connection to God? Does not God still exist whether or not we pray, whether or not we fail to believe that he is there?

As I think over the situation with our son the other night, I picture God caring for me in the same way I cared for my son as he suffered. Again, the analogy doesn’t quite work because I’m not God and I’m far from perfect. After all, I could have worked harder on keeping the suds out of his eyes-it really was my bad.

But I hope I continue to prove my love for Silas as I continue to care for him in good times and bad. I hope to model, even if it’s in an imperfect fashion, the constant love of God. Sure, I’ll fail him, but I still hope I can offer the tiniest glimpse of forgiveness so he can turn and thank God for his life and the blessings that surround him.

It was a powerful moment for me when Silas woke up with closed eyes. He needed my hand to get around our little apartment. Without sight, Silas was forced to trust me to give him the things he needs. As his eyes stayed shut, I fed him his whole lunch. What he doesn’t know yet is that his daddy is the same way. I’ve got to hold God’s hand, whether I’m making a life choice or just trying to get better at parenting [and keeping lice out of my house!]. I’ve got to trust God with things that are beyond my control, things that I can’t see.

I would be devastated if Silas lost his vision permanently, and I regret getting soap in his eye. But, amidst the chaos, I treasured the moments when he had to put his faith in me to the extent that I fed him lunch. Thankfully he is recovering, resilient little rascal that he is.


Maybe, moving forward, I’ll be shocked at how few bad things happen in my life and in my community and how much goodness exists in our crazy world.

Maybe, during seasons when it’s easiest to forget God and blame him for problems and difficulties, I’ll turn and say a genuine thank you to Jesus, even as he prays for the world and even for me.

Maybe, as I continue this path-my own spiritual journey-I’ll get better at asking the “where was God” question during good times and hard times, and learn that he’s holding my hand the whole time, feeding me body and soul.


Storytime: Maelin Hosea, Our Second Son

Yesterday began just as the four weeks that have preceded it: Kaile felt heavy, tired, worn and I felt a bit tired but also overly ready to welcome a new life into our family.

I brought Kaile a bowl of cereal after Silas woke up [we haven’t set an alarm clock in over a year]. After she finished, she headed to the bathroom. Soon, I heard a sound I have heard so often over the past month: low groans.

The moaning soon blossomed into early labor. Quite similar to our first birth experience with Silas, over several weeks Kaile’s cervix had slowly dilated and effaced to four, five, then six centimeters. But with Maelin, the process took longer, and Maelin didn’t appear to want to leave the womb. A week prior, we had been at the birth center one evening for a full four hours, only to return home tired and disappointed.

Earlier this week on Tuesday, we had said our goodbyes to my parents who had been in town since September 17th. It hurt to see them leave, especially since we had such a long window of time with them-ten days during which we would have loved to celebrate the birth with their support. We had hoped their trip would be rewarded with the experience of meeting their third grandchild. But their time came to leave, and Silas came back home with us; we both wondered again if the baby would ever come. We now had the responsibility of caring once again for our toddler as the infant inside continued to wait, which didn’t exactly make daily life easier.

Back to the morning groans.

As Kaile continued labor, it became apparent that this was no false labor; this was as real as the moment twenty months prior when Silas was ready to enter the world. I called Mattea, our doula, then Julie, the on-call midwife at San Francisco Birth Center.

Earlier in the morning our friend Taryn had texted Kaile from down the street asking if we needed anything from the market.

Kaile texted to tell her were all set.

Not less than 30 minutes later, I called back asking if she could take Silas-we were having the baby!

The timing was no less than perfect. As it turned out, the window of time Kaile went into labor was in the middle of one of the few breaks Taryn has from her three children every week.

With Mattea, our doula, on the way, I raced downstairs to meet Taryn and explain a few details regarding care for Silas. She gracefully took him with her, and I fiendishly made my way back up to our fifteenth floor abode. Kaile was now retching in pain: contractions were coming too consistently to track. Kaile told me she was feeling the urge to push. I told her to breathe and, well, we breathed [heavily!].

I glanced around the apartment, picturing what it might be like to try to catch a baby there. Would the midwives come to us if the baby couldn’t wait? I called Mattea again to see if she could come *a little sooner*.

Mattea made some minor adjustments to her SUV’s velocity and arrived several minutes later.

Once again, the race was on, but at least now we were together.

The 20 minute ride down Mission Street, over to Franklin, then west on Geary felt more like 20 hours. We circumnavigated some a couple great hills in the city, and this challenged Kaile’s ability to remain centered, but we made it-and just in time. We made our way painstakingly out of the car and up to the third floor.

We had been hoping for a water birth, but since we were unsure of the timing for the baby, we hedged our bets and kept low expectations.

Nevertheless, Julie, the midwife, seemed to read our thoughts. She filled the large bathtub with warm water. Thankfully it had a high volume nozzle. Soon, I was in my bathing suit and Kaile was moving from transition-the final step in labor-into the first stages of delivery. In other words, our stressful moments in the car and our hilly trip to the birth center had contained much more of the labor process than we had imagined. And yet, she was doing perfectly, and her body was tracking right along.

I gave some pressure on her hips during the approximately 12 contractions she experienced at the birth center, and scratched her back in-between.

Before either of us expected it, Julie was preparing us for the inevitable. I subtly asked Mattea if there was a mirror. Since I was behind Kaile, it was impossible to see Maelin from my angle. Later I discovered Kaile wasn’t thrilled about the idea-but she was quick to forgive.

Moments later, I watched as a tiny head appeared. Even through two feet of water I could clearly tell our child had a full head of hair. Julie calmly told Kaile, “Okay, now a couple more big pushes; push your baby out!” That was the first time Julie had said anything about pushing-Kaile’s uterus had been working overtime for over two hours [or, more accurately, 10 months!], and Kaile had trusted her body to carry the process toward completion.

So that’s what she did-she did her first strong push. Joining her cognitive and physical strength with her body’s natural effort, progress became quite apparent. Julie’s coaching and Mattea’s words of encouragement were a soothing balm as Kaile continued her work.

She had been leaning forward on the tub, but Julie suggest she lean back on me for the final moments. She shifted, and as she leaned back, I held her legs out and toward me, allowing space and openness for baby to proceed.

Soon, I could see the whole head-and of course that was the hardest part. Seconds later the shoulders and abdomen followed, and before I realized what had happened, our infant, stubborn as he had been, rushed out into the warm water. Julie carefully lifted Maelin up and placed him on Kaile’s chest. A soft cry followed: he had exited the womb and officially entered our family.   


A slightly awkward moment followed.

Up to this point, Kaile and I still didn’t know if our Maelin was a boy or girl. The only moving piece was the middle name. Had we become parents of a girl, the middle name would have been Junia. As much as I enjoyed taking in the moment, my curiosity was piqued: I had to know!

Carefully, I lifted up our still-purple child, and without as much as a trace of a doubt, I beheld a boy child. Silas now had a younger brother, separated by only 20 months [to the day!].

Kaile and I are both still processing all of the past few weeks [and year as well!], but here is a deep spiritual reality that I’ve gleaned from the experience. In John 16, Jesus explains to his followers that he would be leaving. They’re confused, as they often are, and Jesus unpacks what he means, likening his coming departure from earth to the experience of a woman in labor: 

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.

It’s curious how Jesus uses the gritty events of life to speak to spiritual truths. And yet, though Jesus departed, he unleashed the Holy Spirit to be even closer than he would have ever been. It’s curious too how the Son of God entered human existence not through a magical appearance, but through Mary’s womb. Why the risk on God’s part? I don’t have answer for that, but welcoming Maelin Hosea into our lives reminds me how vulnerable it is to be an infant. It’s certainly curious that God chose to get involved with humankind in the same intimate fashion.

Our hearts had been longing for Maelin to join our family, and indeed he has finally come to us. And as we celebrate his presence in our lives, we are reminded that he is a gift from God, a blessing and a sign of the love God has for all people: big and small, old and young.