It has begun. Multiple times a day, the Thoma children announce how many days remain until the last day of school. I bet they’d be ready with the hours, minutes, and seconds if I asked any of them. I’m certainly not annoyed when they do this. I know why they do it. For youth, summer and freedom are synonyms. Besides, I did it, too. As a kid, I counted the days until my only schedule-consuming responsibilities would be jumping ramps on my bike, hunting crawdads in muddy creeks, playing army in the forest behind my best friend’s house, participating in socially recalibrating neighborhood scuffles, watching late-night scary movies, and just about anything else summer could conjure.
Thinking back to those days, even though I stayed up pretty late almost every night, I don’t really remember sleeping in the following day. I remember wanting to get as much from my summer as possible. And so, I’d hop out of bed no later than 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., throw on the cleanest clothes from my floor, have a bowl of cereal, and then fly out the back door to the rusty shed where I kept my bike. I’d throw up a dust trail speeding down our gravel driveway or go off-roading through our bumpy backyard, my bike clanking and rattling all the way. But whichever direction I went, the horizon’s possibilities were limitless.
Some of the summer’s possibilities were great. Others, not so much. I remember one summer hearing that my friend, Todd Smart, fell from the tree in his front yard and died. It was July of 1983. I was ten years old at the time. My dad told me the news. I certainly knew the tree. I’d climbed it, too. If I had to guess, I’d say it was at least twenty feet tall. Although, things seemed so much bigger when you were a kid. As the story goes, Todd had just about reached its peak when the branch he was standing on broke, and he fell to the ground, hitting branch after branch all the way down. A couple of days later, my friend, John, told me he’d heard Todd looked like a pinball bouncing off the bumpers as he fell. Oddly, John and I had that conversation about ten feet from the ground in a tree near my grandmother’s apartment.
It’s strange the things one remembers from childhood. Before telling me the news about Todd, I remember the look on my dad’s face. It was uniquely unordinary. I knew I was going to hear something I didn’t expect. I remember the tree near my grandmother’s apartment. I remember which branches a kid needed to grapple with to climb it. I remember my friend John’s home phone number. I just typed it into Google. A woman with an extraordinary name—Drewcylla—appears to own it now.
Whether winter, spring, summer, or fall, each season holds more across its horizon’s boundary than what’s right in front of us at any given moment. What we experience in those lands will be with us well into the future—well into forthcoming seasons. Some things we’ll remember in detail. Other parts we’ll forget. Some we’ll observe from this side of life and realize how we didn’t fully comprehend the event’s particulars because of our immaturity at the time. Remember, my friend died climbing a tree, and a few days later, another friend and I discussed the tragedy while climbing a tree. I’m well past ten years old, and I only recognized the irony just now as I typed this. Still, the Christopher Thoma tapping on this keyboard this morning is the same one who dangled from that tree near Valleyview Heights Apartments in Danville, Illinois, forty years ago. And yet, I’m not the same person. I’m entirely different after meeting each season’s moments. That’s life. That’s development. That’s growth. And it’s normal.
Seasonally speaking, I’m absolutely certain that growing up in the 1970s and 80s barely compares to childhood today. For one, I don’t remember any of my classmates identifying as cats. (Honestly, the neighborhood scuffles I mentioned before would’ve fixed that weirdness in a hurry.) I don’t remember any of my teachers encouraging me to explore my gender identity or encouraging anyone I knew to consider gender reassignment surgery. The 70s and 80s could get crazy, but not this kind of crazy. I certainly don’t recall any of my teachers attempting one of the worst kinds of crazy: to undermine my Christian faith or divide me from my parents. For example, my son, Harrison, came to me this past week to tell me that his AP US History teacher at Linden High School overheard him talking to a friend about a scene from the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian.” Harrison hasn’t seen the movie, but I have shown him a few of its more hilarious scenes. The conversation unfolded something like this:
“Isn’t your dad a priest or something?”
“He’s a Lutheran pastor,” Harrison answered.
“He actually let you watch that movie?” the teacher pressed.
“No, I haven’t seen it. I’ve only seen a few scenes. They don’t really want me watching it.”
“Of course not,” the instructor replied. “He probably doesn’t want you watching it because it’ll challenge what he’s taught you to believe and teach you another way to look at the Christian religion.”
Nice try. But most certainly a hit and a miss. Jennifer and I haven’t kept the movie from Harrison because we’re his cruel overlords. Thankfully, he knows this. And thankfully, he talks to us openly about things like this. For the record, Mr. History Teacher, his mother and I don’t want him to watch the movie because it employs a few choice words we’d prefer for him to avoid and has full frontal male and female nudity. Other than that, it’s hilarious. And if anything, the “I want to be called Loretta” scene makes you and your dreadfully woke automaton colleagues look imbecilic by comparison.
Right now, even as Harrison is sixteen, he’s developing. It’s our job to help him along. We do this by ensuring he knows we love him more than anything, second only to Christ. When Harrison’s beyond this season of our responsibility, we’ll be happy to let him take the helm. That’s how it works. He’s already proving his ability to make his way without us. He’s already showing that he’s seeing and enjoying the world in ways far different than what the world would prefer. I’ll come back to this in a second.
In the meantime, as sure as I am of the vast differences between the 1970s/80s and today, I’m just as confident that the nature of humanity hasn’t changed all that much. Kids are developing—spiritually, socially, physically, and psychologically. What happens right now—how we talk to them, what we allow to happen to them, whom we allow in their circles, whom we allow to teach or influence them—all these things might seem irrelevant in the moment. And yet, like it or not, every one of the atom-sized occurrences relevant to each situation is affecting them. Twenty years, thirty years, forty years from now, each situation’s truest impact will be remembered and likely demonstrated. As I already said, that’s life. That’s development. That’s growth. And it’s normal.
But know this: The Lord’s normal differs from the world’s normal. And so, with Christ as one’s north star, “normal life” itself is affected. Both the good and bad seasons meet first with the One who promises to go before us, pledging to never leave nor forsake those who are His own (Deuteronomy 31:8). With that, all things meet the child quite differently. In any given moment, recognizable or not, this Gospel will be doing what our faithful God says it’ll do: cultivating joy, resilience, and a necessary endurance that will only strengthen as one matures toward a final breath and then enters eternal life (Proverbs 22:6; Deuteronomy 6:7; Isaiah 54:13; Jeremiah 29:11; Matthew 19:4; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; and the like). As parents, we bear no insignificant role in this exchange. God included us in His baptismal mandate, insisting that we teach our little ones the Christian faith and support them in it (Matthew 28:19-20).
I suppose one reason I’m probably thinking about these things leads back to where I began. We’re coming to the end of the school year. My kids are counting down. As I look around at the children in this congregation’s school, I’ll bet they are, too. Even so, I’m hopeful for their forthcoming summers. I can be. For any of our good or bad seasons (which every community experiences), each child and his or her family has enjoyed the opportunity to meet first with the Gospel of our faithful Savior. Myriads of parents and children in countless schools worldwide don’t enjoy that. In our little corner, on this fractional portion of each of our students’ developing timelines, they do—and in abundance. Forty years from now, when I’m ninety—if I’m still alive—I expect to hear retellings of the memories associated with these things. I’m sure it’ll make me smile then, just as it does right now.