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Trophy Kids

When we only want the best for them
This sermon is part of the sermon series "inSanity". See series.


When our eldest son was making preparations to start his freshman year of high school, I overheard him telling a classmate that he was planning to play football. I was absolutely thrilled about this. I played football myself for three years in middle school and was nowhere near as well-built as my strapping young son. He'll be a natural at this, I thought, and it will be so good for him.

I've always regretted not going on and playing football myself in high school. The guys who wore a football jersey just seemed to enjoy an esprits de corps greater than those of us who played basketball or nothing at all. They seemed more popular with the girls and more confident in general as they moved around campus. The guys on the football team brought home more than a few trophies for our high school, and a whole lot of those players went on to claim all kinds of other big prizes in life.

As I was thinking about my son's ambition, my mind raced ahead to future sunny Saturdays and our boy in pads and a shining helmet, running with his friends out onto the field to the sound of crowds roaring. So when, just a few weeks later, he started talking about maybe quitting the team because the practice schedule was tough, and the load of homework had gotten very heavy, and this new school was feeling really overwhelming, I was absolutely sure that he should not quit that team. I only wanted the best for him.

Being a good parent is a complicated thing. Proverbs 22:6 says: "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." But it is not always obvious what that training should involve. If you don't have children or grandchildren of your own, then maybe what I'm about to say will help you in your ministry with loved ones who play a parenting role, or you'll find principles here for other spheres of your life. Those of us who do have children under our care know that a lot of our life is, ostensibly, about the kids. We want them to have what some of us didn't. We want them to be well-regarded by their peers. We want them to be rich in character and rugged in competition, because we want them to have a life filled with the trophies of success. We give them a lot and push them a lot and worry over them a lot, and much of this is genuinely about providing our kids with stepping stones in life—because we only want the best for them.

When kids become trophies

When I am ruthlessly honest with myself, however, I know that not all of the choices I make as a parent are about my kids. Author David Goetz makes a similar confession by telling this story:

While assisting in my daughter's kindergarten class one afternoon, I read with the children. Each had a book that, when mastered, would be replaced with another. I read with my daughter, Kira, first, of course; she stumbled through the kindergarten-level book, but I felt good, even a little smug, about her progress. She is so advanced for her age. The next child, Trevor, breezed through a book that, as I learned a few minutes later, was at a fourth-grade level. I choked back my anxiety as I mumbled, "Great reading, Trevor." I don't think our eight-year-old could have read the book. [So] at dinner, I announced to our family a Great Books Reading Program, effective immediately. No more television after dinner.
I absorbed quickly that my children's education needed to be approached like an NBA championship. No detail was too small and no standardized test too insignificant. Education was not really about learning but about winning. One day after report cards, a friend of my oldest child (nine years old at the time) reprimanded me when I asked if he felt good about his report card: "My dad tells me that it's not nice to tell people your grades because some people don't get straight A's like I do."

Goetz concludes:

[Gifted and honors] programs, the traveling team … the SAT score—such symbols concretely, in the here and now, confer glory, something to be worshipped by the have-nots. Surprisingly, most of us seem to feel like we're have-nots. I wish my son could win the school's essay contest, and the winner's father comments on how good my son is at baseball …. The 'burbs are all about striving to be unique, but we all end up competing for the same symbols—the four-bedroom home with the Pottery Barn colors [and the gorgeous sun porch], the L. L. Bean underwear and outerwear, the fuel-guzzling [vehicle], the purebred dog, the family pilgrimage to Disney World ….

These, writes Goetz, are but some of the "immortality symbols" we routinely chase. If we are not extremely careful, our own children and their accomplishments can become just another one of these symbols, just another trophy of our own success. We can drive our kids to adopt a faster, more-better lifestyle which serves our own ego needs more than their long-term interests. We may fail to be honest about their immaturity and hurry them through a season of life they cannot get back. We can try to fashion them into ideal images of what we'd like to be and miss the miracle they already are. This would not just be sad, it would be bad, because instead of providing them with stepping stones, we may actually lead them to stumble into being possessed by the very same dark influences that already inhabit us.

The challenge of Jesus

That is why we so need the word and wisdom of Jesus. In Matthew 18, we read of this fascinating encounter between Jesus and his disciples. Verse 1 says: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'" The disciples want to know how God measures true greatness. What does success look like? What is required to win the trophies? I'm sure they expected Christ to describe one of the great prophets or leaders from Israel's history, or maybe even illustrate from the shining example set by one of them. But verse 2 says that Jesus called a little child and had him stand among them. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

Jesus says in effect: To God, greatness looks like this. Don't be so concerned about making children just like you. Figure out instead, how to be a bit more like them. Develop humility like children have and all that goes with that. In fact, Jesus even says: if any one of you causes one of these little ones who have it right with me to become just like you, woe unto you! You'd be a lot wiser to figure out what part of you is doing this damage and just cut that off or gouge that out right now. It would be better for you to make some changes that may cause you to look blind or stupid to your neighbors than for you to keep marching yourself or your kids in a hellward direction.

Get low enough to see

Does this teaching hit you with anything like the force that it hits me? How do we live out what Jesus is saying here? What does it mean to value and preserve the humility of children or to "humble" our own selves like a child? And why is this the way to greatness? Well, in the plainest sense, to humble oneself means to get low.

I was out to win a parenting trophy a few weeks ago. I'd been reading hard for this message series and feeling very convicted by what I was reading. I realized that it had been far too long since I'd had anything approaching quality time with my youngest child, and so I asked Reed to take a walk with me into town. We'd hit Coldstone Creamery and then maybe walk down and watch the trains go by. It was one of those incandescent summer evenings. We'd surely have Kodak moments together. And so we set off.

I don't know how long we'd been walking before we were no longer "we," but I suddenly realized that I was walking really fast and Reed was not next to me. I turned around and saw my eight-year old down on all fours on the sidewalk half-a-block behind me. At first, I thought he stumbled and hit his head. But it was actually me who had stumbled and had the head problem. I caught up with him by going backwards. "What are you doing Reed?" I asked. "Oh, hi, Dad. I'm watching this roly-poly cross the sidewalk. He's got this really little shadow." And I watched my little boy's shadow move as he bent lower still.

How long has it been since you got low enough to notice life's details, life's miniature miracles? Is it possible that one of the reasons we live so discontented amidst so much is because we so rarely stop to see and enjoy the things that are so little? We fly along at 50,000 feet surveying all. A little child goes on hands and knees at five inches. Who sees more? Who has the more expansive life? Why are we so eager to make children just like us when Wisdom says in the voice of Jesus: Change and become like them. Get low enough and slow enough to meet the miracle and beauty of life before it has crossed over and is gone or someone less visionary steps on it. Change and start looking for the shadows of God's glory. They are there all around us.

Get low enough to play

Let me suggest one more way to change and get low as children do. It is hidden in the phrase I have heard my middle son say almost every time I come home: "Dad, will you play with me?" Like pausing to see, playing is a form of humility that children keep trying to teach us. Mark Buchanan explains it this way:

Adulthood is mostly about getting things done. Past a certain age, our existence is consumed by obligation. Deadlines loom. Responsibilities are mountainous. Chores are piling up. There's a list, always, of things to do …. So one of the first things to die in adults is playfulness. We are … a grim bunch generally: stern and mirthless, bent beneath huge, invisible weights. Most grown-ups—and an increasing number of youth and children—feel that life is all work and no play. Play feels irresponsible.

But play is one of the ways we humbly acknowledge that there is a heavenly Father who is finally in charge of life's house. As Buchanan asserts:

If God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called to his purposes, you can relax. If he doesn't, start worrying. If God can take any mess, any mishap, any wastage, any wreckage, any anything, and choreograph beauty and meaning from it, then you can take a day off. If he can't, get busy. Either God's always at work, watching the city, building the house, or you need to try harder. Either God is good and in control, or it all depends on you.

Humble yourself today and play. Get down on the floor with the children. Roll on the ground with the dog. Tumble in the hay with your spouse. Kneel down in the garden with the flowers. Let go and let God be God and remember that you are not. And that that is OK.


I'm not really sure what to do about my eldest son and the football team. I want to say to him: "It is so important that you learn the value of strenuous work, of not giving up when things are hard, of being part of a team that strives together. But you are not my trophy. You are a child of God. If there's no margin left in your life to simply stop and see life's beauty passing by, if the crush of responsibilities has left you with no space to play, then I say, make a change. Don't lose your capacity for a childlike spirit, even as you become an adult, because of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. When kids become trophies

II. The challenge of Jesus

III. Get low enough to see

IV. Get low enough to play