Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Demons and Devils

What's the worst thing that happened to you ever on Halloween? Demonic possession? Tripped on a black cat under a ladder? Saw a ghost? The worst thing that happened to me was when I dressed up as a wizard with a long cape. It was raining so my hair was dripping down over my face and some lady said to my older brother: "Oh, what a cute sister you have!"

There seem to be 3 Camps that followers of the Way fall into regarding Halloween:

1. Halloween is a day celebrating death and demons and Satan. Therefore, Christians should not participate or allow their kids to participate. This will be called Camp Rejection.

2. Halloween is just a cultural construct--we just dress up for fun and there is no deeper meaning. My kids can be puppy dogs or witches or cheerleaders (SCARY!) for a day, it won't affect their souls. In fact, I just read a book about a guy who tried to find Satan and couldn't so how bad can it be to put on red horns and carry a pitchfork? (The Devil Wears Nada, by Tripp York. Read it if you dare, it's funny but it will probably offend you more than once. Especially if you know any Unitarians.)This we can call Camp Meaningless.

3. Halloween is essentially evil, but as long as we don't ACTUALLY worship the dead or summon spirits we're ok. So our kids can dress up for Halloween as long as they dress up as harmless things like mice or kittens or maybe superheroes. This way, we aren't being 'weird' because we're still letting our kids celebrate the holiday, but we're still being faithful because, well, demons are evil. We could call this Camp Middle Ground.

People who know me would probably realize I most likely won't fit into any of the three camps. I would rather reject Halloween because it is a cultural construct that has no real meaning--sort of like how we don't celebrate Valentine's (i.e. Hallmark or be guilty if you're single. Btw, no one knows if a St. Valentine really existed, and if he did he was a martyr, probably killed in a gruesome way. Here's some flowers and chocolates to celebrate...Maybe we should dress up as dead St. Valentine for Halloween?) day. But I let my kids participate, largely because I like sharing their candy afterwards.

So the bigger question here (there's always a bigger question with me) is: is what I do normative? In other words, if I do this as a Christian am I claiming that all Christians everywhere have to do the same thing? People in Camp Rejection would have to argue that everyone who participates in Halloween is following some Satanic ritual--which would obviously be hard to prove. Meaningless campers run the risk of offending those in Camp Rejection, whom they no doubt believe to be 'weak minded believers' like Paul describes. The people in Middle Ground Camp just come across as epistemologically weak. I threw in a big word there. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. People in the middle ground seem to be admitting they really don't know why they do what they do but they want to do the 'right' thing.

So the bottom line, the point I'm trying to make, is that I think what we do with our kids at Halloween shouldn't be seen as normative. The more important thing is that we are engaging with our kids and explaining why we believe what we believe. I think we can use days like Halloween as opportunities for discipleship with our kids. Maybe it's even a time to engage in some critical thinking exercises with your young ones and ask them whether or not they think they should participate. What are the pros and cons? What does the Bible seem to say? What Would Jesus Do? (Ok, just kidding on that one. We have no idea what He would do.)

I think our kids would come up with more creative responses than the three camps listed above. After all, in order to enter the Kingdom we have to become like them...And please, our actions are not normative so let's not judge our brothers and sisters on this one.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

What they already knew

On vacation this summer we listened to several books on CD in the car. One of them was C.S. Lewis' classic: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. At first Natalie, who was 5 at the time, enjoyed it. But then it got scary and she wanted to turn it off. Then she was too absorbed in the story to turn it off--she wanted to know that Lucy would be ok. Then she almost cried when Aslan died and when he came back to life she said:

"He's just like Jesus." It was unsolicited. We did not say anything about Jesus the whole time we heard the story. She made the connection. I do not tell this story to extol the virtues of my child. I say it to extol the virtues of all children and even more so of storytelling.

Ancient people knew all about telling stories. That's why the Old Testament exists today: they passed down stories, verbatim, from one generation to the next. They understood the value of teaching stories to their kids. They spoke of a God who acts in the real world. He is a character in the stories. He is the one who brings plagues on Egypt and takes the people into the desert and He is a pillar of fire and He is a burning bush. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says that the best way to speak of God is in fact in story. (And I think he is right.)

Aside: For now I will neglect the obvious benefits of the actual telling of the stories..."Grandpa, can you tell the part again where Jesus feeds 5 million people?" "You mean 5,000? Well, they were all on the side of a mountain see, and...."

In the postmodern West we also tell stories. Well, we watch stories. Our stories are as much about presentation as content. If God is involved He usually makes an appearance in the 'moral' of the story--not as a character but as some disembodied cosmic genie. The stories we like, from TV and movies most often, do not have as virtues truth and substance, but rather shock value and of course a clean resolution every 30 minutes.

This is only the beginning of a discussion on the importance of stories for our children. Walter Brueggemann puts it like this: "How can we find ways of linking the big picture of the Gospel story with the immediate experiences of the child's daily life?" Clearly young children can make connections between stories, as Natalie did with Aslan and Jesus. Can they make connections between their own story and Jesus? Can we give them the tools to do so?

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pandora's Box

Proverbs 13:24: "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him."

There it is: one of the most controversial statements in the Old Testament. (Right behind "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".)

Interestingly, the OT is full of people who are successful in some way yet their kids run wild: King David and Eli are the first 2 that come to mind. But it certainly seems like the Hebrew Scriptures don't contain much good parenting material. But here it is: Don't spare the rod.

Of course there are scholarly debates about what this means exactly. Does he literally mean a 'rod', like something you would hit your son with? What were ancient rods like? Can I find one on Ebay? Are they in the toddler section? Do I have to upgrade to a preteen rod at some point? Or was that an idiom simply meaning 'discipline' (as suggested by the second half of the saying.)

Then there are a plethora of studies trying to link spanking children with violent behavior in later childhood all the way to adulthood. They are not, as a whole, completely convincing, mostly falling prey to the 'correlation vs. causation' distinction and/or the presence of numerous secondary factors. So what are we to make of this?

I thought about this yesterday when I was very angry at one of my children. My first two thoughts were: A: This is not entirely his fault, I could have been in a better mood to begin with; and B: if I were to hit him it would be simply to placate my own anger, rather than discipline him. (PS I was not seriously considering hitting him, but even in my frustrated state I took the time to reflect. I know, I'm weird like that. It's like a story I heard in a Brennan Manning book about a man being chased by people trying to kill him. The man jumps off a cliff and grabs onto a bush at the last second that happens to have strawberries on it. Hanging from the cliff with the potential killers above him he takes a bite of a strawberry and thinks: "That's the best strawberry I've ever tasted"...Yeah, I'm like that guy.)

I have in fact gotten into this argument with other believers before because I have never spanked my kids. I just don't see any Scriptural justification for it. This is besides raising the question I did earlier--at what point does it stop being about their discipline and start becoming about our anger? This is a classic threshold argument. What behaviors deserve spanking? When is my heart-rate too high for me to begin spanking my child? What criterion can we objectively employ to make this choice in a morally satisfying way? Additionally, it raises the question of my own sinfulness. If I were to spank in anger, would that not be rather sinful?

I could take it a step further and apply just war theories to spanking, but for the sake of my audience let's not go that far. Essentially, I believe that redemptive violence is a myth (the death penalty, for example, works insofar as it prevents a criminal from committing anymore crimes. But morally it is bankrupt--and it has not been shown to be a deterrent to other criminals. Notice how in Genesis God tries to stop this cycle of violence by PROTECTING Cain after he murders his brother...I don't have space to go into this here, but if you are interested read "The War of the Lamb" or "What Would You Do?" by John Howard Yoder.) So if redemptive violence is a myth on a large scale, why would it be effective on a small scale? Certainly it can work inasmuch as it can temporarily change behavior. But it does not help us make connections, and it leaves the door open for future bad behavior because at the concept of violence itself is not challenged. 

I've heard the phrase: "Violence is for a world that has lost its imagination". And I think the same is essentially true for spanking. Coming up with a punishment that fits the crime is psychologically effective and is morally defensible. For example, one day (some time ago) Natalie hit me with some toy she had. I simply took the toy and threw it in the trash. Lesson learned, and one fewer toy cluttering my house.

So my case is not that people who spank their children are evil or bad parents. I am also not making the case that kids who were spanked are more violent than those who weren't. Rather, I am simply explaining how I came to my decision not to spank my children. I believe it can be argued coherently from a Christian perspective. It also gives more integrity to my authority when I say: "Just because he hits you, it's NOT OK to hit him back!"

Peace and love,

PS> Please, if you are not convinced disagree gently...spare me the literal rod :)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Making Memories

So one of the things I've done in the last 2 months (since last writing) was go on vacation. Two adults, two kids, one car, 3,000 mile round trip.

What is your first reaction? Is it something like: 'You're crazy!', or is it more like 'I can't wait to do that with MY kids!'?

Actually my kids were amazing. My wife was on the phone and I was driving when the trip mile counter passed 1,000. The kids were in the backseat laughing with each other. It's hard to ask more of them than that! So anyway, the discipline part of the trip was pretty easy. I'm not going to write about how to pacify kids on a road trip.

The more important question that comes up, at least in my mind, regards how important experiences like this are. I have memories I will take with me from this vacation: having to dive under a wave with Natalie on my shoulders then miraculously finding her sunglasses in the ocean over a minute later, listening to a master storyteller at the local library, listening to the 4 cousins on the baby monitor as they pretended to sleep, Jonah getting really excited about gas stations and hotels...and many others.

But will my kids remember any of it? What is the biggest benefit of going on a trip like this with them?

I would suspect that most people would say it is quality time with our children and even if they don't remember it per se they are still bonding with us and their quality of life increased.

In fact, as I think about it, I think these events become an integral part of the fabric of who we are as a family. We know who we are as a family because of the stories we share together. The things we do as a family end up defining us. It's not altogether different from how they used to talk about God in the Old Testament. They always emphasize His actions: "The God of our fathers, who brought us out of Egypt..."

In the end, we do the same thing with our families. When we get together with our grown brothers and parents we retell the same old stories over and over--not because we don't know them but because that's where our identity comes from. ('Hey, do you remember that one time when we set off the alarm at grandpa's house in our swimsuits?' 'Or how about when your brother got stung by a bee rolling down that hill?') We are a family because we have a shared narrative that gives depth to who we are.

If we are not focusing on creating memories with our children, we are failing to give them this gift. If we are not giving opportunities to actually SHARE life together with them we will lose this extremely important part of what it means to be a family. I sincerely hope that when my kids get older they don't think: "Dad was gone all the time working" or "my childhood was so boring..." I hope they get together as adults and retell the stories of our family. Their individual identities will be better formed, paradoxically, by the events and stories they share with the whole family. These stories are a far more important gift than anything material I could give them.


Monday, May 23, 2011

We can't all win the super bowl

This'll be a short one.

How many of us would start a job without training? How many of us would go skydiving without asking advice from someone who has done it before? How many of us would go drive our cars if we didn't know our mechanic knew more about cars than we do?

Of course none of us do these things. But we dive into parenting (which is more important and perilous than any of those other things) with only our own experience to guide us. Yes, it is true that we were all kids once. We all had (some sort of) parents. That doesn't qualify us to be parents any more than watching the Super Bowl qualifies me to be a quarterback.

(I am reminded of a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where Calvin asks his dad what lightning is or how they build bridges or something, and his dad gives him some made-up ridiculous answer. Calvin says something like: "There aren't many requirements for being a dad, are there?")

There are several problems with this.
1. Our parents didn't do a perfect job. (Some maybe came close, some not so much). And even if they were perfect, we are not perfect receptors.
2. We are not our parents. (We may not be as smart, patient, etc. as they were. Or maybe we are smarter, and they gave us a bad example.)
3. We are not living in the same culture as when we were kids.(Some challenges are the same, some are new. When I was a kid, my parents didn't have to worry about me looking at porn on the internet or meeting girls on Facebook. Now we do have to deal with these things--the nature of kids is the same, the prevalence of temptation is, in many cases, greater.)
4. Like anything else, if we neglect those who have gone before us, we are asking to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I know this sounds like an ad. for this blog. It's not. I merely want to make us aware that we all need to approach our status as parents with humility, grace, and a little humor.

I am often convicted of this when Natalie says: "Dad, you always...(forget, leave, are mean, tickle me too hard, ignore me, etc...) Our culture is such that offering parenting advice (or even thoughts) is taboo. And this even among Christians! As Christians we admit our sinful nature and our need for each other. I hope we can somehow create a new culture (right under the nose of the other one!) where it's ok to admit our shortcomings as parents and explore together what it means to be a Christian first and a parent second.
Peace hope and love,

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I'm not big enough

Does the Church exist to strengthen the family?

With multiple Christian organizations preaching this message constantly, most of us accept this as a given. The Church helps our families become stronger. It is the Church's responsibility to protect the sanctity of marriage and of families. And of course here we are speaking of 'the nuclear family'-mom, dad, 2.3 kids. Many Christian colleges have an unwritten expectation that their students will be married when they graduate: There's the proverbial 'senior scramble' and sayings like: "Our college is a shoe store--you come in alone and they box you up and send you out as a pair!" or "Ring by spring!".

But...Jesus (and Paul) didn't talk like that.

Jesus said things like: "Who are my mother and brothers? And stretching out his hand toward his disciples he said: "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, those are my mother and brothers and sisters."
"And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life."

I think our mistake is this: We hold up marriage, and thus families, as good for their own sake. But they aren't. That is far too narrow a view. What if families exist to strengthen the Church? What if they are little microcosms of the Church, and are only really fulfilling their purpose as they serve the Church? What does this have to do with how we are parents?

First, once we have the big picture in mind, we become less self-focused and more ready to share our gifts (like children) with the Church. In other words, our goals become something bigger than ourselves--and that gives purpose and meaning to everything we do. Without the hope of something beyond ourselves...well then what is the point? (If nothing else, we are encouraged by the knowledge that there are others facing the same challenges we are.)

Second, this also means that we are parents to all the children of the Church and they are parents to ours. Certainly the Shema still stands as the central parenting message of the Bible. But all the kids running around, whether they're 'mine' or not, are all part of my huge, beautiful, dysfunctional family.

Third, families that are strong make the Church stronger. As a healthy hand or foot of thyroid gland is good for the whole body, a healthy family builds up the body. They are able to offer themselves more fully to the body. A healthy family is one in which each member depends on the others to do things s/he cannot do alone. Just as marriage is the adventure by which two become one through interdependence, so a nuclear family becomes one with the body. (Remember: "Whoever does the will...these are my mother and brothers and sisters.")

There are plenty more things that could be written here, but I think I will leave you with a quote from the ever-wise Samuel Wells. "When Christians are invited to join public discussions over issues...they do so as representatives of a body that adopts the unwanted baby, nurtures the unusual child, persists with the manic or addicted teenager, befriends the terminally ill neighbor, remains present to the elderly friend even while her mind dies. If they can point to such a cloud of witnesses they speak with authority: if not, they have perhaps little to say." (Highlighting added by me)

It turns out our vocation as Parents influences everything we think and say and do.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

How you party says a lot about you.

One of Natalie's Kindergarten friends has been inviting her to his birthday party since the year started. Finally his birthday came and she, with great excitement, attended the party.
In my opinion, the party was a monumental failure.
It was at a local pizza place/arcade establishment. (I won't say the name, but you can probably guess. If they really wanted to make it fun, they would make you buy pizza with the tickets you win at the games..."Sorry, 200 tickets only gets cheese and sauce, no crust for you!")

Now, I have to say that, as a believer, having parties at places like this is giving the opposite message than the one we are trying to pass on to our children. (I don't know if Natalie's friend's parents are believers or not, so they're off the hook :) ) P.S. The following may sound like a rant, but it is more like the detached amazement you feel right after doing something clumsy like falling down a staircase.

First, when we got in there, it took us several minutes to even find the correct party--which leads me to the first issue: it was impersonal. Soren Kierkegaard, everyone's favorite Danish philosopher, once wrote: "What is official is impersonal, and being impersonal is the greatest insult that can be paid a person." Like usual, I think he's right. The party wasn't about the KIDS, it was about the NOVELTY. It was about the games and the coins and the noise. When this boy opened presents, there were so many and it was so loud he actually missed Natalie's present. When I went to pick her up I got there early only to find her standing by the door waiting. She said she had been there for a while because someone told her the party was over. It wasn't--they hadn't even had the cake yet!! So at least we were able to go back and get a cupcake...

Second, places like this are really encouraging unhealthy consumption. All the kids received tokens they could use to play games (including the American classic: Deal or No Deal...I wonder what someone from a poor country would think watching that show...) to win tickets to get prizes. This in turn encourages selfishness and, once again, no recognition of the 'other'. I was playing ski-ball with Natalie at one point and I turned to look at the tickets. By the time I had turned back another kid had actually jumped in front of me on the game I was playing. I said: "I was using that, can you say 'excuse me' please?" He looked at me like I was from another planet. (Maybe I am). On the way home Natalie was looking at one of her prizes (an aptly named: 'Airhead') and she said: "This was free!" Actually, I cringed to think of how much was spent on that party! It did take me a while to explain how that airhead was not, in fact, free.

Anyway, the point is: what do our celebrations say about us? As Christians can we come up with birthday celebrations that not only honor the birthday kid but also those coming to the party? Can we have celebrations that reflect our belief in a God who gives us all we need and loves us where we are? Or do our celebrations always have to involve greasy food, loud noises and overzealous child gambling? I'm not saying arcades are evil--but I think we can do better with a little imagination.

For example, Natalie's last birthday was held at the outdoor campus. It was free and (mostly) outdoors. Each kid was greeted by name at the door made his/her own trail mix using various ingredients we brought. We did an outdoor peanut hunt (after asking about allergies, of course) on some trails, and then came inside where a naturalist was ready to teach us about some animals and even let the kids touch a few of them-the turtle, with its *frightening* speed, was  admittedly a little scary for some of the young ones. The party ended with a gift exchange: each kid brought one gift and exchanged it with another so everyone went home with one gift. This way Natalie didn't get a bunch of stuff she didn't need and all the kids felt important and loved.

How well do your parties reflect your God?

Peace, hope and love,


Thursday, April 7, 2011

What kind of story have we got ourselves into?

I apologize in advance. I think blogging is generally selfish...but in this instance I hope that we can have some dialogue about parenting. So it's not for me.(Please write some, community, community)

If we are going to talk about parenting then we have to talk about kids. And if we're going to talk about kids then we have to talk about the reasons why we have kids. An author I was just reading said that we have lost sufficient reasons in our society for having kids. And we have lost reasons for not having kids as well--which puts us in a pretty precarious place if he's right.

 Please allow a brief digression into philosophy. (I know, I just about ensured no one will read the whole post...I dare you to...) There are at least 2 kinds of reasons for doing something: explanations and justifications. A quick example illustrates: Lancelot organizes a movement to save the Rainforest because he thinks Guinevere loves the rainforest and he will earn her love by doing so. So the explanation for what he does is that he wants to win her love. But as it turns out, she couldn't care less about the rainforest. So he is wrong, and thus has no justification. Now of course we know saving the rainforest is a good thing (for the sake of argument) and so he is justified anyway even though that reason (saving the rainforest is the right thing to do) doesn't explain why he did it.

Now to parents: do we have good justification, as Christians, for having kids? Things like: "I've always wanted to", "I don't want to be lonely", "I just love kids," are explanations but not justifications. Christianly speaking, even reasons like: "I want to keep my family legacy going" are a bit of a stretch since they're a bit self-centered, aren't they? How about: "The birth control didn't work". Ha, we've been there. (Clearly and explanation, not a justification.) Luckily, God has bigger plans for our kids than we do.

What if our justification for having kids lies more in our desire to tell them the Christian story? What if we see our children as receivers of a great tradition that witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ and God's loving, creative action in the world? Of course that challenges how we see ourselves, but if you have kids and they haven't made you question yourself then you're way further along the journey than I am!

So if our kids are to be receivers of this beautiful gift, how are they going to get it? How does that impact our parenting decisions? If I had all the answers I'd write a book, not a blog, but I can reflect on my own situation...

It is important for us that Natalie and Jonah begin to see the bigger picture early. They, as we, are part of the larger story of creation, sin and redemption that began in Genesis. The Scriptures are not just to be read, they are to be acted out, generation after generation. We want our kids to see us doing that, and join us in it.

That's why Allison stays home right now. As a sole income-getter, I only make enough to get us on the 'free & reduced lunch' list at the public school. But our ability to spend time teaching and modeling Scripture for the kids is more important than our financial comfort. And spending time in community with others is an important witness to teach them that we depend on each other in the church--individualism is a huge scam (it is learned in community, I mean come on). So we try to practice hospitality to everyone. We learn more by sacrifice than we do in our illusions of safety.

There truly is nothing new under the sun. But we don't need new things--we have a long tradition to continue acting out in our lives. And that's way more exciting and fun than the modern idea, which is: "To each his own".It's why we answer questions with: "That might be good enough for other kids, but not for you. We're Christians. That's why Christmas is about giving. That's why it doesn't matter if you have new fashions or cool shoes and it's ok for people to think it's weird that you pray during share time and don't know what Nickelodeon is and you've never seen Hannah Montana except on backpacks at school. That's why we forgive each other and try to love the mean kids at school even if it's hard. It's who we are."

Why do Christians have kids? How does that impact how we raise them? How do we combat the individualism that has been a staple of our societies for 300 years? How hard is it to juggle the Christian way amid all the competing truth claims we hear?
Keep seeking in peace, hope and love,