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A year or two ago, in late autumn, an advertisement appeared on one side of a double billboard near my home. It pictured a young girl wrinkling her nose in protest against a pinkish food on her family’s Thanksgiving table. I don’t recall what was being promoted, but the girl was cute and the ad worth a chuckle.

Around Christmas, though, I was taken aback by a new ad, also featuring a little girl, on the adjoining billboard. This waif trudged along a windswept sidewalk, her hand clasped in that of a mostly unseen guardian. I remember precisely what was being advertised: Mel Trotter Ministries, which runs a shelter in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., for people who are homeless.

The hapless youngster on the second billboard was in every way the foil of her unintended counterpart on the first. The satiny dress of one gave way to the other’s grimy overalls. Both faces were unhappy, but the second girl’s was dirty and pinched rather than peeved. She was making a heart-wrenching appeal: “Please pick me up.”

The first child in this ironic juxtaposition suddenly came to symbolize for me the “enemy” that all too often is us. She became the unwitting representative of all in our culture that is selfish, pampered, demanding, and complacent.

Parents deal with the pressures of materialism all the time, especially in today’s economic climate. The lifestyle limitations imposed on us by the loss of a job, divorce, or the death of a spouse may affect our children acutely. But excessive sacrifices to shield children from a decline in social status may be ill-advised.

Sure, some concessions to style and selective attention to fads make sense, but trying on our kids’ behalf to keep up with the little Joneses at school will yield disappointing results in terms of our children’s character development and ability to find lasting satisfaction in life. Name-brand clothing, expensive extracurricular activities, and electronic gadgetry may, in the long run, be “casualties” worth losing.

Kids are resilient, and we may easily underestimate their capacity to come to terms with financial reversals. When one of my three adopted daughters was 7, she demonstrated precocious (and precious) insight. Reflecting on her move to my home from an earlier family due to a disrupted adoption, she announced, “This is a littler house than I’m used to, but it’s more important to be loved.”

The opportunity for spiritual gain in conjunction with material decline may be a bonus our families might never experience unless we’re forced to scale back. God, who delights in irony, regularly camouflages blessing within adversity on our behalf. The testimonies of two seasoned saints, as expressed in Genesis 50:20 and Romans 8:28, bear this out in unforgettable language.

Each of us is invited, like the little girl on that second billboard, to ask with childlike trust for God to pick us up and carry us along, knowing he’ll readily comply. If you’ve never noticed Deuteronomy 33:12, take a moment to let its words sink in: “The one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.” Wow! We do well to make sure our kids know this aspect of their heritage.

But there are also times when the message flows in the other direction. Maybe you, like me, have learned a thing or two from your child.

Years ago, my then-3-year-old grandson, straining to see our pastor in his vestments, pleaded, “Please pick me up. I can’t see God.” What more eloquent statement of our number-one priority as Christian parents! Let’s be open to the possibility of God buoying us up through our kids’ insights.

Yes, children can reflect back to us the shortcomings of our me-first, materialistic culture and lifestyle. But if we’re truly willing to listen, they can also touch our hearts with long-forgotten wisdom.

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