It is a festive season in rural America. During the week of Thanksgiving many communities held ecumenical worship services. Families gathered to express their gratitude to God for his abundant blessings.

Now most little towns are holding parades in their downtown area. Bands, floats, clowns, beauty queens, saddle clubs and Santa Claus are almost universally present.

Public places are ablaze with holiday lights. Clubs and Sunday-school classes fill the calendar with parties and dinners.

Many of these occasions provide an opportunity to visit with persons one might not otherwise have opportunity to interview. Here is the gist to three conversations with a common theme–expectations.

Scene 1: A counselor for students at our rural high school laments across the banquet table the low and poor expectations of many of the students. She identifies three types.

Some believe that they are the victims of a biased system which will not give them opportunity to achieve. They seem to have convinced themselves that there is no reason to strive to get an education. They are opting for early pregnancy and a life of dependency.

Some seem to have become convinced that they lack the ability to learn and achieve much in this economy. They have accepted a label as being stupid and or lazy. They are opting to settle into a “get-by” lifestyle.

Others have come up with an alternate plan. They see themselves as smart, too smart to adjust to the legitimate modes of life in our society. They are drawn to criminal activities–selling drugs, stealing identity of others or the sporting life. They call their approach one of “free styling.”

The counselor believes, correctly, that to adopt low personal expectations, erroneous expectations or modalities of life which violate the expectations of the law is a prescription for a wasted, unhappy life. She wishes that she could motivate the students to have higher, yet realistic, expectations for themselves.

Scene 2: Several local grandparents at a recent luncheon lament the unrealistic expectations put upon, and/or held by their grandchildren living in the suburbs of several regional cities of the southeastern United States.

They have been told repeatedly that they can do and be anything that they set their minds to. The children seem to be on a merry-go-round of activities and lessons with a very tight schedule.

Perhaps this idea sprang from a reaction to “low expectations” of a poverty-plagued past. But it is unrealistic and wrong also. As great as our grandchildren are, there are some things that they just cannot do. They lack the temperament and/or the “genetic given” to do so.

Sometimes it seems that parents are trying to compensate for their own inadequacies by driving their children to succeed in areas where they failed. They throw their children into competition with their peers, often to experience a sense of intense failure. Status and ego satisfaction are the “supreme goods” of our sinful society.

Scene 3: The pastor stands in the pulpit at the ecumenical Christmas service in the town and preaches that one is to seek the will of God for his/her life. He continues by talking about servanthood, going the second mile, cross bearing and loving one another. After the service the congregation congratulates the pastor. Few see any disparity between the values of the message and the values that drive their lives. But there are. He and I lament this over a cup of coffee the next morning.

In the past few weeks we have heard a lot about “values.” We were told to vote our values, and we told the pollsters that indeed we did this. The deeper question, of course, is “What values?”

An even deeper question is “How do the values of our culture and the values of the teachings of Jesus line up?” Not well, I fear.

But the deeper still questions are, “What does Jesus value, and what does this tell us about what we must value?”

The resounding answer is “the will of the Father.” God has a general will for each person. This is to be holy, loving and just. How this is expressed is unique to each individual and to each relationship.

Most of us have been asking the wrong questions and consequently getting the wrong answers. Our youth need to be determining what abilities God has given to them and how they may use these abilities to serve him and his kingdom.

In the social life of Christians we must constantly reflect upon our behavior in terms of whether or not it is holy, loving and just.

In our political life we need to be seeking public policy that supports and promotes holiness, love and justice.

This is hard work. And the fact that we live in a society which is fallen means that often we will swim against the stream.

Perhaps, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus we should find time to reflect upon how he lived, what he taught and what his expectations are for his disciples.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.

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