I told my daughter she can do anything. She didn’t believe me.

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Tonight before bed, my 6-year-old daughter was telling me about a boys-vs-girls competition at school today, which the girls won. I responded by saying, “Yay, girls rule!”

She cheerfully joined in at first, but then she stopped. Her expression grew more serious, and she said, “But not now, because Donald Trump rules.”

I told her Donald Trump doesn’t rule over everything, and he certainly doesn’t rule over her, and that someday a girl WILL be president.

She didn’t believe me.

She looked at me with an expression I have never seen from her before: a lack of faith.

I’m sure it can change. I’ll do everything I can to see that it does. I hope it’s enough. But right now, my daughter doesn’t believe girls rule. She doesn’t believe a girl can be president. She doesn’t believe women can do anything.

I told her there is nothing a boy can do that a girl can’t.

But she didn’t believe me.

To be clear: we haven’t talked about the election since I first broke the news to her that Donald Trump won. Our family has carried on as we normally do. And most of the time, my daughter is her same, normal, free-spirited self.

But it is there—the pain of being told that girls don’t measure up. That girls are second-class, less than, subordinate. And not just because of Tuesday’s election. I wish that’s all it were. But really, that’s just the latest thing.

My daughter is only six years old, and she’s already been told by the world around her that there are some things she can’t do, simply because she’s a girl. That she must take a backseat to the boys in her world.

This seed was planted long before a p*ssy-grabbing misogynist named Donald Trump received 60 million votes. But the lie dug itself a little deeper into my daughter’s heart this week, and it kills me.

So I did the only thing I could think of. I told her that I believe in her. That I am for her. That I will always be on her side. And that I think she’d make a wonderful president someday.

I’m with her.

Image: Charlotte Cooper / CC BY 2.0

What if ALL we did was tell our kids the story?

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Years ago, during an ill-advised—and short—career in youth ministry, I found myself teaching a junior high Sunday school class.

The denominationally approved curriculum didn’t exactly light a fire under my kids. (Not to worry: it wasn’t an Episcopal curriculum!)

One day I realized none of them were able to say why they were Christian, despite having been baptized and confirmed in the church. None could articulate the gospel story, much less tell David from Abraham.

I felt like I was losing them a little more every week. And I came to believe that, as one evangelical leader famously said, it’s a sin to bore kids with the gospel.

So I chucked the curriculum and simply started walking us through the story of the Bible.

Read the rest on GrowChristians.org.

Image: Michelle Tribe on  Flickr / CC BY 2.0

When my daughter prayed for Syria

A few months ago, I shared how my daughter is teaching me to pray again. What I didn’t realize then is that she’s also teaching me how to pray.

Every night, we say bedtime prayers together. Usually—and at her choice—I’m the one who prays. But lately, more and more, she’s been deciding that she wants to pray. This makes me happier than almost anything else she does.

Most of our prayers are nothing out of the ordinary. We pray for all the usual things.

We pray for our friends and our family—the one we were born into and the family we’ve picked up along the way, like Elizabeth and Oliver’s godparents.

We pray for Elizabeth’s day at school.

We pray for our friends serving in India.

We pray for the kids we sponsor in Rwanda, India, and Gaza.

When Elizabeth decides to pray, she’ll ask God to help her classmates be kind to others at school… and at home… and wherever else they might go. Sometimes she’ll pray for the whole world to get along. I kinda like that.

Then she’ll thank God for all her favorite things… her family (especially her “cute little baby brother”), chapstick, ladybugs, and Christmas trees…

After Alan Kurdi and his brother washed up on a Turkish beach, we started praying for Syria, too. We prayed that children and families from Syria would find safe places to live. I knew at some point, this would lead to difficult questions. But I guess I sort of figured that I would be in the role of the teacher…

—//—

The other night, Elizabeth decided she wanted to pray for Syria. It went something like this.

“Dear God…” Then she stops. “Dad, what’s that place the people are running away from?”

Me: “You mean Syria?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Why are they running away?”

“Because there’s a war there,” I say, a little worried about what’s coming next.

“What’s a war?”

Now I’m fumbling for an age-appropriate response. “War is when people are fighting very meanly with each other. It’s when they’re destroying people’s homes and doing all sorts of bad stuff.”

Elizabeth starts to pray again: “Dear God, please be with Syria. And please help the kids there learn not to fight…”

I interrupt, hoping God won’t be too mad at me for cutting off a 5-year-old in mid-prayer.

“Actually, Elizabeth, it’s not the kids who are fighting. It’s the grownups.”

Elizabeth looks at me, disbelieving. “What?”

Then she starts praying again: “Dear God, please make the grownups stop fighting because they should know better.”

Yes, Elizabeth, they should.

Sometimes it takes a 5-year-old stating the obvious to make you realize just how badly we’ve lost our way.

To my daughter, it’s simple. You should be kind to people. Not that she’s perfect at it. Far from it. But for her, there’s no complexity. There are no mitigating factors. You should just be kind. Period.

For her, you should take care of the earth because the earth is our home. You should respect people who are different because different isn’t bad; it’s just different.

Christians often talk about sin—or sinful nature—as something we’re born with. We call it “original sin.” I believe there is something to this idea. We are all both victims and culprits of sin in various ways. Inevitably so.

But perhaps the greatest sin of all is losing our childlike ability to see the world in simpler terms as we grow older. You should just be kind to each other because being kind is good. You should take care of the earth because the earth is our home. You should be OK with the fact that people are different because that’s how God made us. You should love each other, because what’s better than love?

My daughter isn’t just teaching me to pray again. She’s teaching me how to pray—and how to look at the world when I’ve opened my eyes again.

Image: Freedom House on Flickr / Public Domain

3 alternatives to saying the sinner’s prayer with your kids

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Writer Cindy Brandt recently shared three very good reasons why she hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer with her kids. For those of us who grew up evangelical, praying the sinner’s prayer was a Very Big Deal. In my church, when someone was assessing your spiritual state, one of the first things they wanted to know was, “How old were you when you asked Jesus into your heart?” It was almost a competition: the younger you were at the time, the better.

The sinner’s prayer was supposed to give assurance of salvation, an easy way of knowing if you were in or out. But the pitfalls Cindy identified are real—which is why I’m not praying the sinner’s prayer with my kids, either.

So what can you do instead? Here are three ideas for parents who want to nurture their kids’ faith without relying on the sinner’s prayer:

1. Enchant your kids with the goodness of God’s world.

The premise of the sinner’s prayer is that your identity is chiefly and overwhelmingly characterized by sin. You’re not a person. You’re not an image-bearer. You’re not someone who struggles with sin or who’s affected by sin. You’re a SINNER.

It’s the very first line of the prayer, the very first thing you say to God—at least according to the script proposed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which is arguably the closest thing evangelicalism has to an official form of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.

When we lead our kids in the sinner’s prayer, the first thing they say to God is the opposite of what God first said to us.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Very good.

That’s the Cliff Notes version of Genesis 1.

That’s the first thing God said to his creation.

God’s very first words to us were not a curse but a blessing.

Yes, a lot happens after Genesis 1, but it does not erase the first part of the story. It does not change where the story began—or where we should begin with our kids.

The first thing our kids should know is that the world is good because it’s made and loved by God.

That’s the other thing the sinner’s prayer gets wrong: not only does it start with a faulty notion of our identity; it completely sidesteps the rest of the world. It makes sin and salvation about me and myself.

Growing up, I was taught that “saving souls” mattered more than nurturing life. The prize of salvation was escape—liberation from this body, evacuation from this world…which is just going to burn anyway.

This is not the story Scripture tells. And it’s not the story we should tell our kids, either.

All things hold together” in Christ. “All things” will be reconciled to God—yes, even “things on earth.”

We should help our kids fall in love with a world that God thinks is worth saving. We should nurture their sense of wonder, imagination, and inquisitiveness.

The other day, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk in the woods near our house so we could experience the colors of fall together. This is one of the holiest, most sacred things she’s ever asked to do.

Yes, there is evil. Yes, there is brokenness. But that is not the whole story. Instead of teaching our kids that they’re utterly evil, or that the world is utterly worthless, let’s help them see themselves—and the world—as God does.

2. Assure your kids of the constancy of God’s love—by demonstrating the constancy of yours.

Fear-based tactics, like the sinner’s prayer, might deliver a short-term result. (Really, how hard is it to scare a five-year-old into saying a prayer they think will keep them out of hell?) But the long-term results are rarely as satisfying.

That’s why many kids end up praying the sinner’s prayer over and over. As Cindy writes:

I was taught praying the prayer would become the mark of assurance, our get-out-of-hell card. I remember praying it with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping God hears and receives it. Then I remember praying it again, and again, and again. If praying the prayer was supposed to be reassuring, it certainly did not work on me.

When you introduce fear as a motivator, that fear never goes away. The solution offered—in this case, a loosely scripted prayer—might provide temporary relief. But that fear will come creeping (or storming) back eventually. A God who is willing to throw five-year-olds into hell for lack of saying a few magic words might just as easily throw you into hell for doing something bad after you said them, or for not saying them fervently enough, or not being able to remember exactly when you said the prayer.

The sinner’s prayer becomes a talisman—and not a very good one—a cheap substitute for the real basis of our assurance: the character and nature of God.

The best way to show our kids who God is and what he’s like is to love them the way God does. Most of us do this intuitively—even though we are far from being perfect parents. We tell our kids, “There’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.” We tell them we love them because they are, not because of what they do.

And when we show it, day in and day out, they get a glimpse of what God is like.

If God is the author of love, and if this is the best way to love our kids, then why would we expect God’s love to be any different? The best way to assure our kids of the constancy of God’s love is to love them with the same constancy. As Cindy writes, “Assurance of God’s love doesn’t come packaged in a tidy little prayer, it is delivered through consistent provision of tender care by the children’s caretakers.”

3. Treat your kids as full members of the community of faith.

A third problem with the sinner’s prayer, as identified by Cindy, is that it elevates belief—often a cheap, unformed belief—over belonging. It disrupts the natural timeline of a child’s spiritual journey, forcing a decision on kids before they’ve even had a chance to “count the cost” of being a disciple. (After all, isn’t that what Jesus told us to do before following him?)

The answer, of course, is not to impose an even heavier burden on our children. It’s not to raise the threshold of belief even higher. The answer, I believe, is to give kids a place to belong as they work out their faith.

The problem is that in many of our churches, we inadvertently marginalize our kids instead. It’s just easier to send them off to “children’s church” than to find ways to make the main worship time meaningful for all ages, together. A certain amount of age-appropriate programming is a good thing. But if we wait till our kids are fully grown to welcome them into the “real” church or to upgrade their membership to full status, then we’ve waited too long.

As Methodist pastor Tom Fuerst writes:

From the time my generation was born, we were thrown in the nursery with other babies. Then we went to children’s ministries with other children to be entertained while our parents when to “big church.”

Then we had middle school ministry. Then we had youth group. Then we went away to college and we found a church with a stellar college ministry.

It wasn’t until we graduated college that we were actually expected to be a part of the intergenerational community called “church.” We’d been segregated by age for the first 22 years. And you not only allowed this, you encouraged it.

And now you’re wondering why we don’t want to go to church. Now you’re wondering how to reach us to make us a part of the church?

I’m sorry, but you never really valued us being part of a church before.

We need to show our kids they matter, that their presence matters, that our communities are not quite whole without them. This means creating new ways of “doing church” together. It means welcoming their participation as equals, alongside the adults. At the altar, at the table, at the baptismal font. In the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall. When we pray and when we wrestle with the Scriptures. And, above all, when we serve.

This is, after all, the way it was always done. Children of the first covenant (well, the boys anyway) were marked by circumcision—a sign of their full belonging—before their brains could formulate a single thought about God. The sign of belonging changed with the arrival of a new covenant. It was no longer limited by your gender or your identification with a certain group. But the sign is still a gift that is given before it can be grasped.

Our children need to belong before they believe. There will, of course, be more to their journey than this. The path they take might be more circuitous than we’d like—or take them places we didn’t expect they’d go. But the best thing we can do is not try to rig the outcome in advance by coaxing them into praying the sinner’s prayer. It’s giving them a place to belong, to be loved, and to experience the goodness of God.

Photo by Jake Guild on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The effects of spanking kids (infographic)

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Recently I came across the infographic at the end of this post, after sharing why my wife and I choose not spank our children.

I was a little surprised at how prevalent pro-spanking attitudes still are. Yes, Christians (78%) are more likely to think that kids need a good spanking, as are Republicans (80%), those who live in the South (78%), and those with less education 78%). But solid majorities of non-Christians (66%), Democrats (65%), Northerners (63%), and the college-educated (67%) agree with them. In fact, majorities in all but one group (Asians/Pacific Islanders) approved of corporal punishment.

But here’s the one that stopped me in my tracks: 1 in 6 kids are spanked before their first birthday. 

I’m on my second tour of duty as the parent of an infant. I know they can be frustrating. Especially when it’s three in the morning and they JUST. WON’T. SLEEP. But there is nothing—NOTHING—that justifies striking an infant. They’re not even capable of doing anything to deserve punishment. The parts of the brain that govern emotions, relationships, and thought have yet to fully develop.

I’d venture to say at least some of these infant spankings are because the parents were taught their kids are tainted with original sin from the moment of conception. I remember years ago when a VERY reformed colleague of mine brought his newborn daughter to the office, expressing his astonishment that such a beautiful creature could be so utterly depraved, as he put it. Well, if it’s hard to believe, there might be a reason for that. Yes, I believe in sin and its universal effects. But if your theology leads you to hit an infant, you have a pretty terrible theology.

Besides, the Bible implicitly acknowledges that kids of a certain age aren’t yet capable of doing anything bad. (And there are other reasons to revisit our understanding of original sin, as Peter Enns argues.)

Back to the infographic… it also highlights some of the adverse effects of spanking. To me, the evidence is overwhelming that the negative long-term impacts of spanking—higher rates of antisocial and aggressive behavior, poorer mental health, MUCH higher risk of abuse, etc—far outweigh any positive short-term outcome. (In fact, temporary compliance seems to be the only “positive” outcome of spanking.) To those who support spanking in certain cases, what do you make of these findings? Do they cause you to rethink anything, or do you believe there are other factors not considered here?

Oh, and I did wonder about the site behind this infographic. It appears to be a website for researching online psychology degrees. But the content seems to hold up to scrutiny; and, importantly, they cite their sources at the bottom.

Psychology of Spanking
Source: Online-Psychology-Degrees.org/

Why I won’t spank my children

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I was spanked as a kid, though it was only a handful of times. My brother was more of an instigator, which meant he had more experience with the wrong end of a paddle.

Our experience of corporal punishment was nothing like what Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son endured. There were no belts or switches in our case. No open wounds or other physical injuries. Typically it was one swift, sharp swat—administered after a requisite “cooling off” period and followed quickly by an affirmation of our parents’ love for us—and then it was done.

My parents’ approach to discipline marked a significant departure, if not a complete one, from that of their parents’ generation. Which is pretty remarkable, when you consider the overwhelming pressure that fundamentalist churches put on parents to spank their kids. (To this day, 80 percent of born-again parents think it’s appropriate—even necessary—to spank. That’s down just slightly from 90 percent when I was growing up.)

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas, but parents weren’t the only adults who thought they had the right to spank a child. I remember being spanked by my third-grade principal… at a public school. (I was surprised to learn that 19 states still allow spanking in public schools, and that a quarter-million public school kids were physically punished as recently as 2008.)

The incident from third grade has been lodged in my memory for almost 30 years. Maybe it was the perceived injustice of being physically punished for such a minor infraction. (In my case, it was playing flick football with a plastic straw during lunchtime). Maybe it was the shame attached to a disciplinary trip to the principal’s office. Maybe it was the giant wooden paddle he used, which sat ominously perched against the office wall when not in use.

As parents, my wife and I have decided we’re not going to spank our children. There are several reasons for this, but there is one in particular that’s especially important to me.

The false gospel of spanking

We could talk about the religious arguments for and against spanking. To me, using the Bible to justify spanking is one of the more egregious examples of an overly literal—and highly selective—approach to Scripture.

In a recent article for The Week, RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt took apart the religious argument for spanking. He might be overstating things a bit when he says the “rod” mentioned in Proverbs 13:24 and 23:14 was a shepherd’s staff used for guiding, not hitting. It is indeed the same Hebrew word, shaybet, used elsewhere for a shepherd’s staff—notably in Psalm 23. But the context of Proverbs 23:14 in particular suggests it sometimes had a more violent use, unfortunately.

Even so, Merritt is 100% right when he points out that the Bible hardly mentions corporal punishment outside the non-literal book of Proverbs. The sayings in Proverbs were meant to express general truths—which, like all the other writings in the Bible, were shaped by the culture that produced them. (This, by the way, was a culture that practiced a far more severe form of corporal punishment than anything endorsed by most evangelical proponents of spanking today, with the possible exception of Adrian Peterson.) Turning these proverbs into absolute, literal, universally applicable statements creates all kinds of problems.

Merritt is also right when says spanking is never encouraged in the New Testament. Meanwhile, there are plenty of passages that discourage Christians from engaging in violence of any kind.

And that’s what spanking is. It’s an act of violence, no matter how much restraint is exercised in the application. Which means Merritt is also right when he refers to the promotion of spanking by Christians as a “false gospel.”

The overwhelmingly negative effects of spanking

We could review the overwhelming evidence, summarized well in Merritt’s column, that spanking is an ineffective deterrent and has long-lasting negative consequences for children. Spanking is linked (not surprisingly) to hostile behavior in kids, impaired brain development, and depression.

Especially troubling to me is that when we spank our kids, we’re teaching them that violence is a legitimate way of resolving conflict. Whether we mean to or not, we show our kids how to deal with their anger and frustration by how we handle our own. If my anger at my child’s misbehavior leads me to strike, all I’ve done is teach her to do the same when she gets angry.

We cannot proclaim a gospel of peacemaking while at the same time using violence to solve our short-term problems. We cannot show our kids what it means to “turn the other cheek” if we’re busy swatting theirs.

Spanking is a sign I’ve given up  

But for me, one of the most important reasons to swear off corporal punishment is that spanking my kids would mean I’ve given up trying to find another way.

Believe me, there are times when I’m tempted to spank my 4-year-old. There are times when she puts my parenting skills, such as they are, to the test—when she goes for gold in the Tantrum Olympics. She is a normal kid, after all, which means she can yell, hit, kick, and claw with the best of them.

There are times when I just don’t know how to help her calm down, how to help her channel her behavior in a more positive direction. There are times when it’s tempting to believe a quick swat on the butt will snap her out of it. There are times when I feel my own anger welling up, feeding off of hers.

Whenever I feel tempted to resort to corporal punishment, it means I’ve run out of other ideas. It means I’ve given up finding another way to help my daughter learn how to behave. It means that instead of helping her work through the tumultuous and often confusing emotions of childhood—instead of helping her find a more constructive way to express her feelings—I’m teaching her to shut them down, to stifle them. It also means I’ve given up practicing a nonviolent ethic of love.

Refusing to spank—even as a last resort—forces me to be more creative as a parent. It forces me to engage with my child rather than simply trying to control her behavior. It keeps me honest when I tell her that we shouldn’t ever hit someone else… and especially when I tell her about a person named Jesus who responded to all the violence of this world with disarming love.

Have you sworn off spanking your kids? What are some creative ways you help guide their behavior instead?

Image credit: Boston Public Library on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

When the dreams you had for your kids fall apart

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Lately I’ve been reading the stories of parents whose children came out of the closet.

When James Brownson’s 18-year-old son told his parents he was gay, it prompted a five-year period of reflection and study (Brownson is a New Testament scholar), culminating in the book Bible Gender Sexuality.

Elsewhere, an anonymous evangelical pastor shared his story about the night his 16-year-old daughter handed him a note that read, “I am gay. I am happy this way. And if you really love me, you won’t try to change me.”

Both parents are Christian. Both love their kids. Both want them to follow God. Yet these parents have very different understandings of what it means for a child of theirs to be gay. One came to a place of affirmation — the case for which he unpacks in his book. The other believes as strongly as ever that same-sex intimacy is not part of God’s design, though he admits having lost his taste for the political crusade against same-sex marriage.

Despite their differences, both parents confessed to having the same reaction when their kids came out of the closet. Both say the dreams they had for their children died that day.

Brownson:

I spent some subsequent time in depression, grieving the loss of the heterosexual future for my son that I had dreamed of.

The anonymous pastor:

The dreams we had for [our daughter’s] life changed dramatically that night… Something truly died within me.

I’m in no place to judge either parent’s story. The most difficult news I’ve ever had to absorb from my three-year-old is that she thinks I smell bad when I come home from a run.

Previous generations of parents — especially Christian parents — weren’t encouraged to consider any possibility except that their kids would grow up to be heterosexual, happily married, baby-making machines. In which case, yes, I can imagine it would feel like a dream has died within you when your son or daughter tells you they’re gay.

But what’s it like for a child to hear that they’ve crushed their parents’ dreams — simply because they summoned the courage to share part of their identity? (Note: I’m not suggesting that either Brownson or the anonymous pastor said anything like this to their kids.)

How does that weigh on a heart? What does that do to a child’s spirit?

The dreams we nurture for our kids hold tremendous power over us — power that we, in turn, can wield against our kids to devastating effect.

This was brought home for me the other night as I was getting my daughter ready for bed. We just welcomed her little brother into the world a few weeks ago, and the whole experience has been a source of endless wonder for her. She loves reminding me what happened, as if I wasn’t there: “Hey, dad! Yesterday a long, long time ago [we’re still working on her concept of time], when I stayed at grandma and papa’s house, the baby came out of mommy’s tummy, and now I’m a new big sister!”

Elizabeth loves her baby brother. She loves the babies at church. She loves playing with baby dolls. It’s not hard to imagine her becoming a mother someday. It’s not hard to picture myself as a grandfather (a long, long time from now). It’s not hard to begin cultivating a specific dream for my daughter’s future — a certain vision of how her life will play out.

That night, I almost said, “And one day, you’ll be a mommy too!” But then I remembered the stories of those parents. Stories of soul-crushing disappointment, weighing heavily on them and their kids alike. What I’m slowly learning as a parent — and having to relearn every day — is that it’s not my job to write my daughter’s future. And it’s not her job to live up to my dreams for her.

If I can learn this well, I might save both of us a lot of disappointment one day.

After all, what if my daughter isn’t able to have kids? Or what if she doesn’t want kids? What if she decides not to get married? What about the 3-10% chance, statistically speaking, that she might be gay?

If I construct an overly specific vision of her future in my head now, won’t that make it harder to adapt and respond appropriately when her real future collides with the present?

So instead, that night I told my daughter, “And one day, if you decide it’s what you want, you can be a mommy too.”

We all have dreams for our kids. I do. I want my children to know they are loved by God. I want them love God and others in return. Beyond that, I just want them to know they are free to pursue their own dreams. I want them to discover who they are so they can live fully into their identity.

 

The week I broke my blogging resolution…

At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to write something at least once a week. In the past, I’ve aimed to write something everyday, but it’s always proved too much. So this year I decided to try for once a week — in order to keep me in the habit of writing, while giving me an achievable goal.

Last week, I broke that resolution. But I like to think I had a good reason — all 7 pounds, 15 ounces of it:

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Oliver James was born at 9:34 a.m. on April 1. Plus side: his birthdate, 4-1-14 (or 1-4-14 for my international friends) will be easy to remember. Downside: no one will believe him when he says it’s his birthday.

Oliver, his brilliant mom, and his extremely proud big sister are all doing well.

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I’ll get back to writing more soon. For now, I’m preoccupied enjoying the miracle that is my newborn son.

Nurturing your kids’ faith when you haven’t figured out your own yet

Recently I’ve been making my way through Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Yeah, it’s been out for a while, but you know… life.

I love this book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the sometimes startling honesty that permeates Rachel’s writing. Startling, because this kind of honesty… well, it’s not the norm for Christian authors.

cover-image1One example: when Rachel shares several reasons for being terrified of having children — something which, as she notes, can earn scorn from Christians who seem to think the whole point of being a woman is to churn out babies.

My wife and I waited eight years before we became parents, partly because I had many of the same fears that Rachel describes, especially this one:

I’m afraid that I have to figure out my own faith before I can pass it along to a new generation.

Today, I have a three-and-a-half year-old daughter who has captured my heart. A few weeks from now, I’ll hold my son in my arms for the first time.

And I don’t have my own faith figured out.

It’s not for lack of trying. I keep searching, wondering, fumbling in the dark. I used to be more certain in what I believed (and in the importance of being certain in what you believe), but then, you know… life.

The pressure to have it all figured out affects parents, would-be parents, and not-sure-if-they-want-to-be-parents alike. It’s real. I’ve felt it.

I know the pressure to be the perfect Christian parent who raises perfect Christian kids who have all the answers, pray the sinner’s prayer as soon as they can talk, and never question anything.

We’ve been told good Christian parents instill rock-solid faith in their kids, the implication being that if we project even the smallest doubt or the slightest hesitation when they ask difficult questions, their faith will melt away faster than you can say “evolution.”

We’re afraid they’ll see uncertainty as weakness, as a sign of something deficient in the faith we (aspire to) profess and live.

But what if our fear is misplaced? What if they see something else in us when we admit to not having all the answers? What if they see authenticity? Honesty?

What if we don’t have to figure out our own faith before we can pass it on to a new generation?

What would happen if we modeled a different kind of faith, one that leaves room for uncertainty? What if we gave our kids permission to be inquisitive, to wonder, to even doubt?

Would it really be the end of Christianity as we know it? Or is it possible our kids will find an inherently inquisitive faith to be more attractive than the kind that insists on having all the answers?

To be honest, I don’t know. If you’re looking for a foolproof model for passing your faith to the next generation, I don’t have one. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.

Faith is a risky venture. There are no guarantees. There are no foolproof models. (Isn’t that one reason why we call it faith?)

One thing I’m sure of, though: a faith that leaves no room for doubt, one that insists on having it all together (or pretending to) — that kind of faith doesn’t have a future.  That kind of faith leads to disillusionment and even loss of faith when kids suddenly face questions they can’t answer.  

So I won’t pretend for the sake of my kids to have it all figured out. Then again, maybe you don’t have to have everything figured out in order to belong. Maybe belonging is what really matters — being part of a community of people, none of whom have their faith completely figured out either. Maybe belonging can help us overcome our unbelief.

I want my kids to know they belong, no matter how much or little they think they’ve got “figured out.” I want them to know it’s OK not to know everything. Uncertainty is not the enemy.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul urged his friends to work out their faith with fear and trembling. That doesn’t sound to me like the posture of someone who has it all figured out.

For Paul, faith wasn’t something you possessed. It wasn’t something you mastered or acquired. It wasn’t the end of the journey but the beginning of one. It’s something we have to keep working at, something we get to discover and rediscover anew every day.

That’s the kind of faith I want to pass along to my children: an inquisitive faith — one that never stops wondering, never stops asking. A faith that’s OK with not having every detail figured out.

In the end, it’s up to each couple whether or not to have kids. And choosing not to have kids doesn’t make you any less of a family than those who do. But if you have kids, or are thinking about having kids, the fact that you don’t have your own faith figured out is not a liability. It’s a gift.

 

3 things in the Bible you’ll want to avoid if following Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice

Kirk Cameron, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr
Former Growing Pains and Left Behind star Kirk Cameron is getting into the parental advice business. In a recent post, Cameron shared the “train, don’t explain” childrearing philosophy of author Jay Younts.

Basically, this approach says you don’t owe your kids an explanation. Ever. You tell them what to do/think/believe and demand their unquestioning, unhesitating obedience.

To quote Younts:

God has not called parents to explain but to train. Explanations often lead to frustration and anger for both parents and children. Children are not in need of lengthy, compelling explanations. What they are in need of is the understanding that God must be obeyed.

Setting aside the question of whether this parenting advice is better suited for raising robots than actual humans, there are at least three things in the Bible you might not want to let your kids read if you follow a “train, don’t explain” approach.

Otherwise, your kids might start getting ideas.

1. Don’t let them read Exodus 12. Or Deuteronomy 6. Or Joshua 4. 
The ancient Jewish faith had many rituals, ceremonies, and symbols. And these had a way prompting curiosity. Every time a family would celebrate Passover or break out the phylacteries or build a monument from a pile of stones, kids would ask why.

Even worse, it seems this was the whole point: so that kids would request an explanation from their parents:

“When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’…” (Exodus 12)

“In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’…” (Deuteronomy 6)

“In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’…” (Joshua 4)

It’s almost like the Israelites didn’t follow Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice at all.

2. Definitely don’t let your kids read the book of Job.
After being hit with all kinds of calamity (apparently the result of a cosmic bet between God and the devil), Job spends most of the book demanding an explanation… from God himself.

Job’s three friends are shocked by his impertinence. Their advice to Job — essentially, “Shut up and take your medicine” — sounds a lot like Kirk Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting.

The only problem is God doesn’t seem to mind Job’s impertinence. He shows up. He answers Job’s summons. And when he does, he’s angry — not at Job, but at Job’s friends.

If kids read Job and see that it’s OK to question God, they won’t think anything of questioning their parents now and then.

3. While you’re at it, you might want to avoid any mention of Israel.
After all, their name means “wrestles with God.” To the ancient Israelites, the Scriptures were not a monologue from God; they were a dialogue with God. And God’s people didn’t hesitate to ask some hard questions.

In fact, it’s probably best not to let your kids read the Bible, period. Otherwise they might stumble across Abraham asking God to explain how he can possibly deliver on his promise of children for the aging patriarch. Or Jeremiah accusing God of deception. Or Habakkuk demanding God explain himself over his plan to use Babylon to punish his own people. Or Jesus wrestling with his Father in the garden.

And so on.

God is often described as a Father in the Bible. Yet he doesn’t seem to follow Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting with his own children.

Maybe a better approach would be one that honors the curiosity and personhood of our children. One that shows them it’s OK to ask questions. In other words, “Explain. Don’t just train.”

(H/T Benjamin L. Corey, who wrote about Cameron’s parenting advice on the Formerly Fundie blog.)