Walking a Mile in Different Shoes

I have been thinking about an interesting phenomenon that I have experienced over the past few years.  Some of the my friends that I have known for awhile and quite a few that are newer friends were raised or came of age in environments that were very conservative politically and theologically. These environments actively discouraged any sort of questioning of what were considered the “correct” views.  As time went by, many of them had questioned and modified some of their theological and political views and had experienced both a sense of relief and freedom and also a degree of pushback and even ostracism from previous relationships as they went through this journey.  I frankly felt a sense of disconnect with their experiences as I heard of them.  Over time I came to understand that the disconnect I felt was that my own experience had been quite different.  I wasn’t raised in a theologically or politically conservative environment.  I was raised in a mainline protestant church until I was 16 that didn’t really leave much of a mark on my thinking one way or another and in a household that fairly apolitical – we didn’t really talk about politics at all.  In fact, my ruling philosophical outlook (such as it was) that had begun to emerge in my early adolescence was a strange mixture of hedonism (of the sex, drugs and rock & roll variety), generic Reaganism (for some reason I really liked Ronald Reagan and felt a vague, but strong sense of patriotism) and love of fantasy and science fiction.  Then I experienced a radical conversion to Christ at the age of 16 in, of all places, a charismatic United Methodist Church that carried with it very strong social and political conservatism.  From late adolescence to my mid-20s I pretty much accepted the entire thinking framework I received, theologically and politically but didn’t really live in any sort of culture warrior mode.  I went to school at Christ for the Nations, Tarrant County College and Howard Payne University (a Texas Baptist school that was quite orthodox theologically, but not necessarily conservative politically – actually pretty centrist).  I learned and thought through many things a bit at a time, but never in a comprehensive way and always in a very nurturing environment.  Questioning wasn’t discouraged by my parents or teachers or pastors – but honestly my questioning was fairly limited.

Then I went to seminary at Brite Divinity School at TCU and was beginning the process of candidacy for ordination in the United Methodist Church and for the first time felt a significant challenge to my theological (and by extension my political) viewpoints.  This was disorienting for me and in many ways quite scary.  I saw viewpoints that I held characterized as either out of touch or inadequate in some settings and downright dangerous and bigoted in others.  Viewpoints that I held as pretty uncontroversial were portrayed as controversial and those that I knew were controversial (such as being unequivocally pro-life in regards to abortion) were portrayed as ugly and hateful.  These challenges were generally done not a confrontational or threatening way – but in a philosophical and academic way.  I didn’t consider myself to be persecuted and didn’t suffer academic or professional harm (my grades were quite good and I sailed through the ordination process).  But I was viewed with suspicion or disregard by a not insignificant portion of my professors and denominational supervision and this was a new experience for me.  I think I stewarded the experience fairly well.  I didn’t become angry or reactionary but I do think I became wiser in the process.  I did change the way I thought about certain issues but as a whole I came through the experience relatively unchanged in the sense that I remained (and remain) theologically conservative (by that I mean holding to historic Christian orthodoxy) and politically conservative (although much more critical of the Republican Party and American politics in general and much more aware of where ideas come from and what they mean).  I did shed a good deal of legalistic baggage and have a much deeper understanding of the grace of God – but that was less because of a philosophical change and much more because of life experience and experiencing God’s love more deeply.

So back to the original thought.  When I sense a disconnect in what other people have experienced, the best response is not to discount their experience or compare it to my own.  It’s to let their journey be their journey and let my own be my own.  I can benefit from what they have experienced and learned along the way and hopefully they can benefit from mine as well.  But the bottom line on any of our journeys is this.  Is this bringing me closer to Christ?  Am I better positioned now to receive God’s love and grace for myself and to share that with others?  A corollary to this (and a good indicator of whether or not I am better positioned to be a good receiver and sharer) would be am I now more charitable in my dealings with others who think differently than I do.  Have I made peace with the baggage of my past without giving into bitterness?  Am I free to walk away from any relationships that were a part of that past that are toxic without guilt and hate?  And am I comfortable in my own skin – regardless of where I am now in the journey?

I have loved hearing the journeys of my friends as they wrestle with the good, the bad and the ugly of where they come from and I hope that I can be an encouragement to each of you along the way.

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Learning to Love

I married late.  I was 34 years old (soon to be 35) when I married nearly 12 years ago.  This wasn’t entirely my choice as I certainly desired to get married before that age.  But I am truly glad things turned out the way that they did.  I get to share my life with Bonnie and that was worth the wait.  So although I have no regrets about how my path to matrimony unfolded, there are certainly lessons that I have began to learn in married life that I wish I would have learned earlier.

Last year The National Marriage Project released a report entitled “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America” , looking at (among other things) the fact that the average age of marriage has trended up significantly over the last few decades.  In general, people are waiting longer to get married.  There are certainly many factors involved in this trend and this blog post isn’t an attempt to analyze all of these factors or even to endorse the report or any of it’s conclusions.  But one observation did stand out to me in the report.  It is the tendency within American society to increasingly view marriage, not as a “cornerstone” event in one’s life, but as a “capstone” event.  What does that mean?  Simply put, it means that for many people in our society, marriage is not looked at as something that is done as a part of launching one into adulthood with parenting, building a house and other aspects of one’s adult life to follow, but as something one does once all other ducks are in a row (finishing one’s education, getting one’s career established, a degree of financial stability and independence, etc.).  This observation could drive all sorts of other discussion but one thing occurs to me most prominently when thinking through this.  What an odd way to look at marriage.

Think about it.  One certainly wants to be prepared for marriage in the sense of having a certain amount of maturity, having some prospects for making a living and at least a vague idea of what the desired future might look like.  But the truth is that even though I was in my mid-thirties when I finally tied the knot (to the relief of my parents and my friends), I had no idea what I was getting into.  By that, I mean that my understanding of what a husband’s love was truly all about was woefully incomplete.  In almost 12 years, I think that I just might be starting to gain a clue.  In Ephesians 5, the Bible explicitly compares the love of a husband for his wife to the love of Christ for His Church.  Good luck with that if it’s something that I have to come up with out of my own resources.  It’s humbling to say the least.  But being married to Bonnie has been an incredible journey in learning how to love.  Those lessons have come from all sorts of places (my wife, my parents, my children, friends, books, sermons the list could go on and on) but mostly from the experience of living it out day by day with the constant loving presence of the Holy Spirit living in me and in Bonnie.  Before I got married, I did think of marriage is some sort of destination – a goal to be accomplished (and for all too long in my life, something that seemed out of reach).  And getting married was certainly for me an occasion of great joy – one of the greatest events in my life.  But I do wish that I would have understood back then that the journey is way better than the destination.  I wish that I would have understood that nothing is wasted in God’s economy and that every moment of my life leading up to that event and since that event are part of the same journey.  That journey is a drama where God’s love is the central reality and the love that Bonnie and I share with one another has its truest meaning in its revolution around that reality.  Marriage isn’t an arrival.  It is a vocation.  And by that I don’t mean a job (although work is involved).  I mean that it is a calling, an integral part in the purpose God has for many, many lives.  I was complete in Jesus Christ before I married Bonnie.  But without her, my calling in Him could never be complete.

I am learning to love.  God is my Teacher.  Marriage is one of my primary classrooms.  Bonnie is my lab partner – or should I say dance partner (ironic for a guy who really can’t dance, huh)?  Who ever knew that learning could be so much fun?

Delighting in Honor

This past week my wife and I attended my company’s annual party.  It was a the House of Blues in Dallas and was an all around blast.  But what I enjoyed the most might be surprising.  We haven’t attended the company party in a couple of years and there are several friends that I work with who haven’t seen my wife in quite some time.  The universal reaction to her can be summed up in the words, “you look great!”.  I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.  She does look great and I tell her that often.  But it was great to hear other people compliment my wife.  I loved watching Bonnie’s face when she was repeatedly praised.  There was a look of slight bewilderment mingled with a wide smile.  Bonnie is not a vain person who angles or manipulates to receive compliments or praise but like all of us she does like to be appreciated and noticed.  As her husband, however, there was no bewilderment on my face.  I loved hearing others vocalizing the sentiment that is in my heart.  Bonnie is beautiful, inside and out.  She works hard to stay in shape and eat right and that does show up in her appearance (and in her sculpted arms which were highlighted by her pretty dress).  But that appearance only accentuates the beauty that permeates her entire being.  It is a beauty that more than anything else is the result of a heart that is reflective of the great love of God.  And I am delighted when others notice and give her honor.

I think that may be because I have begun to learn that represents the heart of God toward His own Beloved, which is you and I.  It delights the heart of God to see ones He loves be honored.  When we notice the beauty in others and call attention to it, it doesn’t just please the person receiving the compliment, it delights the heart of God.  When we relate to one another in a way that reflects the heart of God, honoring others and delighting in the honor of others becomes normal.  How would our relationships change if we really grabbed hold of this?  What would the dynamics look like if we looked for ways to give honor to others and delighted in the giving and receiving of honor?  I think it would be wonderful.  It would treat mistakes and disappointments differently, to be sure.  It would soften the hard shell that I find myself walking around with from time to time for self-protection.

More than this, what if we grabbed hold of the idea that this is the heart of God toward us?  Would it change the way we approach God?  Would we hesitate to come to God when we screw up?  Or would we run all the more quickly to God knowing that His presence is the perfect place for our screw ups to be sorted out?  I am so grateful this is the heart of God for His people.  And that as we grab hold of it, it can become more and more of our heart toward ourselves and others as well.

Remembering

A great deal of life in Christ depends upon remembering.  Over and over throughout Scripture, God’s people are commanded to “remember the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:18 among many).  The central act in Christian Worship, the Eucharist, is commanded to be done “in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).  One of the vital ministries of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is to “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26)  There is something vital to living that requires active memory of what God has done for us.  We are required to remember His words, His actions, His sacrifice.  Forgetting is equated in many places to disobedience, to idolatry, to disloyalty and faithlessness.  Why is remembering so important and why do we find it so difficult to keep top of mind the words and actions of our God?

A passage in the Narnian novel, “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis gives an interesting perspective to this reality.  Aslan, the Christ-like Lion has given a task to Jill Pole, who along with Eustace Scrubb are tasked with the rescue of the lost Prince Rilian.  Jill has received very specific instructions (“signs”) that are crucial to the fulfilling of the mission.  After she has repeated and learned the signs, Aslan emphasizes their importance to her.

“But first, remember, remember, remember the signs.  Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night.  And whenever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.  And secondly, I give you a warning.  Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly;  I will not often do so down in Narnia.  Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken.  Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.  And the signs which you have learned will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there.  That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances.  Remember the signs and believe the signs.  Nothing else matters.”

The air certainly is thicker here.  And our minds can certainly become confused.  And most of all, things are very rarely what they appear to be.  A great deal of the reason that remembering is so important is that the confusion of life alters our perception of reality.  We need fixed points to anchor our soul onto to maintain equilibrium.  And the ultimate reality is the reality of God’s words and God’s actions.  Our identity, our destiny and our course in daily life are shaped by this ultimate reality and our response to that reality.  Calling to mind, remembering, saying to ourselves over and over the “signs” of God’s goodness is perhaps the primary task we have in growing in Christ.  We don’t produce that growth on our own, but we certainly cultivate the ground for growth with our remembrance.  There are no shortage of other words, other signs or other appearances to provide us alternative narratives from which to live.  But all of these are skewed and in the final analysis, damaging or incomplete.  Remembering is a choice.  It is a discipline.  It is a way of life.  What will you remember today?  Forget what needs forgetting and remember what is most important to remember.  God’s thoughts, words and actions toward you are what is most worth remembering.

Moral Imagination

Exactly how do we teach right and wrong to children born under the influence of sin?  Is it by behavior modification, the right balance of sticks and carrots to nudge them toward what is good?  Do we teach them ethical values as a series of rules that govern human life?  In today’s society for most parents most of the time, that describes almost the entirety of the teaching of right and wrong.  In light of Scripture and human history, it’s also perhaps the worst way possible.  The Scripture teaches that human beings are not in need of reformation, but transformation.  We don’t need the right information communicated to us in the correct way.  We need a new heart and a new mind.  But how does this happen?  We become what we behold.  One of the greatest Scriptural statements of this reality is found in 2nd Corinthians 3:18 (see below).

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.  And this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” ESV

The Apostle Paul also refers to this in Ephesians 1 as, “having the eyes of your heart enlightened”.  Jesus used the picture of a different sense, “those with ears to hear”.  God gives people a faculty to apprehend spiritual truth that changes us for the better

Another way that we learn right and wrong is by story.  Societies throughout history saw storytelling as a primary means of teaching children virtue.  The word virtue (as opposed to modern term “values”) refers to the character of full humanity, the development of men and women as they were intended to be.  It contains the idea that people have a purpose, a place in the world that is uniquely theirs to fulfill, a station in life that in some sense is assigned to them.  This does not diminish the idea of human freedom, but disabuses of the idea of some autonomous moral agent, responsible only to be “true to oneself”.  Right and wrong is not just about the individual, but about community and one’s relationship to God.  Stories illustrate life in a way that appeal to the faculty for spiritual truth.  They give children a grid that makes moral choices make sense.  The contemporary philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre puts it this way.

“It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…, that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words” (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd Edition Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p.216)

A final way is in the example we as parents set.  Children learn by watching the way others act.  We give them cues whether we intend to or not.  Is there a place for rules and principles?  Of course, but they are nowhere near sufficient.  We teach our children best by facilitating opportunities for them to behold God’s glory and experience His presence.  We teach them by telling them stories that fire their imagination with struggles of good and evil, heroism and betrayal, redemption and rescue.  We teach them by living out right and wrong in front of their eyes.  This does more good than lectures and rules, rewards and punishments.  Our children are not a mere set of behaviors to modify, but men and women in the making, ready to be drawn into the great adventure of living.

3 Ways to Engage Your Child’s Heart

One of the ongoing battles of parenthood is seeing beyond the immediate.  It is so easy to live in the world of unfinished schoolwork, messy rooms and sibling squabbles.  One can play and replay endless cycles of correction and behavior management.  But as a parent, my most important task is the shepherd my children’s hearts toward God.  That is much more than behavior modification and enforcing boundaries.  It involves engaging them at the level of the heart.  This challenges a parent to slow down and notice what is going on beyond the crisis of the moment.  How can I engage my child’s heart?  Let me offer 3 simple ways.

1.  Enter their world.  When is the last time you stopped what you were doing to watch your child work or play?  By work, I don’t mean doing a chore that was assigned to them – but something that they love to do.  Put down the remote, let the laundry go unfolded for awhile longer, put your priorities on hold for a bit and just watch them.  Next, without intruding in the flow of what they are doing, talk to them while they are at work or play.  Ask them questions about what they are doing or thinking.  Let them share with you some of their inner delight.  When you do this, you are communicating to them that you love what they love because you love them.  If possible (and if invited), work or play with them.  Every person longs to share what they love with someone else.  Give your child the gift of allowing them to share it with you.

2.  Share something that you love.  Your children may not love (or even like) the same things that you love.  But they do love you.  Take time to share with them why you love the things that you do.  The reason your children may not share some of your favorite things is that they don’t understand why it is special to you.  Explain it to them, without getting upset if they don’t jump on board your bandwagon.  Even if they don’t take up your love, they will at least understand you better.  Children long to understand their parents.  They want to know you so much more than you might think.  They may simply think that you plunge into some hobby or activity (or book or movie or game) as a way to fence yourself off from them.  Unfortunately, for too many parents that is true.  Make sure that it isn’t true for  you.

3.  Tell them why you love them.  Most parents tell their children that they love them.  But have you told them why?  What is it about their personalities that delights you?  What is about them that makes you smile?  When is the last time you told them that?  (By the way, this works with spouses too – but that is a different post)  Be specific.  And make it something that goes to the heart of their character and identity.  My oldest son, for example, has an incredible sense of justice and fairness.  He intensely wants to see the good guys win.  That is a big part of who he is.  My middle son observes everything.  He notices all sorts of things that other people miss.  What a gift.  My youngest has more determination than almost anyone I know.  He does not give up easily and has a hard time taking no for an answer.  That will serve him incredibly well in almost anything he will ever do.

Every investment that you or I make in the hearts of our children is invaluable.  It is layer of protection against the attacks on their identity that are sure to come.  And the joy of connecting deeply with them cannot be replaced.  Engage them today.  You will be glad that you did and so will they.

Discipline

One of most enduring influences on the lives of children is when, how and why they are disciplined.  We have all heard (and some unfortunately have experienced) the nightmare of discipline gone far wrong, lurching into abuse and scars that go far beyond the physical.  Many more in our culture have experienced the other extreme, a permissiveness that leads to a lack of self-control and inability to understand proper boundaries.  As we consider how we might discipline our children in a way that reflects “the nurture and admonition of the Lord”, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1.  Discipline is Teaching –  “discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root word.  It might help to think about what Jesus did with his disciples.  More than anything he taught them (by word and example).  When correcting our children, it is always helpful to keep this in mind.  What am I trying to teach them?  If the goal of discipline is simply getting your children to stop doing something that is irritating or embarrassing you, you are missing the point.  Any correction should really be about teaching something specific to your child.  If your child is disobeying a specific instruction – the discipline should be about teaching the child how to obey.  This goes way beyond just giving a negative consequence for disobedience, it is about teaching them what obedience looks like and why it matters.  If your child is throwing a fit or exhibiting an outburst of anger – discipline is about helping your child learn to control themselves.  Your child can only learn from you what you are actually teaching them in that moment.  We need to be careful about what we are teaching.

2.  Discipline Does Not Equal Punishment – If the only time we consider discipline for our child is when spanking is involved, we are failing to actually discipline.  Giving out negative consequences is an important part of discipline (and yes, spanking can be a quite good tool here).  But it isn’t all there is to it.  Giving clear instructions to our children and rewarding their obedience and good attitude is every bit as important.  Children don’t just learn to avoid what gives them negative consequences, they also can learn to embrace what gives them good consequences.  Praise is one of the most powerful tools of discipline.  Life-giving words of affirmation can give a child the fuel to overcome obstacles, finish tough tasks and become a good influence on those around them.

3.  Discipline is About Building Relationship and Restoring Fellowship – Disciplining our children should bring them closer to us, not drive them away.  No one enjoys being corrected or living out the negative consequences of poor choices.  But when done well, the bonds of relationship can grow stronger during that time.  It can test those bonds, but just as exercise can strengthen muscles by tearing them down temporarily in a controlled fashion, discipline allows for moments between parent and child that aren’t pleasant in the now,  but builds up that relationship moving forward.  And the goal of discipline, particularly when correction is sharp, is to restore the child to full fellowship.  Forgiveness and restoration should be complete.  When we communicate conditions on this front, it can do damage to our relationship with our children that can have far-reaching ramifications.  Discipline is not primarily about behavior.  It is about relationship.  Behavior is temporary (even if consequences can be long lasting).  Relationship is eternal.

I recently had an experience that reminded me of all of this.  Micah, my oldest, has been exhibiting a bit of a temper lately.  He wanted to watch a particular show, but it wasn’t his turn to pick.  I overruled his choice and he exploded.  I sent him to his room and he stomped up the stairs, punctuating his arrival by throwing a couple of toys (maximizing the noise in the process).  This set me off and I followed him up the stairs.  I asked him if this was how he was supposed to act and he gave me a pretty whiny and loud response.  I sent him into our bathroom fully intending to give him a spanking that he wouldn’t quickly forget.  But thankfully, the Holy Spirit nudged me (not too gently, either) with a little warning in my heart.  Micah was struggling with self-control and I was about to reinforce that with a lack of self-control and an outburst of my own anger to react to his.  I took a breath and talked to Micah.  I reasoned with him about his behavior.  I asked him how he wanted his brothers to react when it was his turn to pick the show to watch.  I asked him if wanted to rejoin the rest of the family and enjoy the evening or if he wanted to be separated and on his own, in his room with nothing to watch.  I told him that we don’t always get what we want, and that when we don’t, losing self-control only makes things worse.  His attitude melted and he wanted to rejoin his brothers.  I held him for a moment and that anger and tension in his countenance and body was gone.  He told me he was sorry for losing his temper and I told him I was sorry for losing mine as well.  We went downstairs and had a great night (popcorn and Star Wars always help).  I want Micah to learn self-control and how to manage anger and disappointment when things don’t go his way.  The way not to teach that would have been for me lose my self-control.  But a bit of instruction, forgiveness given and received and restoration to fellowship are a lot more helpful.
There is a time for the rod of instruction applied firmly to the backside of learning.  There is a time for grounding and losing of privileges.  There is a time for tough consequences.  But those times are specific and limited.   Relationship, learning and fellowship are for all times.  When people say that parenting is about being the parent and not being your child’s friend I understand what they mean.  But that overstates the point.  You aren’t a peer to your child.  You are in authority.  But Jesus said that we are his friends if we do what he commands.  Authority and friendship aren’t exclusive on one another.  When you are really a parent to your child, you are the best friend they could possibly have.