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February 2010

God, Children, and the Limits of Parental Sovereignty


"We are not capable of producing perfect followers of Christ, as if we were perfect ourselves. Our work cannot purchase anyone else's salvation or sanctification. Parents with unbelieving children, friends with children in jail, the discoveries of the geneticists, and the faith heroes in Hebrews 11 are all powerful reminders of this truth: We will parent imperfectly, our children will make their own choices, and God will mysteriously and wondrously use it all to advance his kingdom."  
(Leslie Leyland Fields, in "The Myth of the Perfect Parent")

Fields' article in the January 2010 issue of Christianity Today is one of the most liberating and frightening things I have read this year.  The myth she is counteracting is the belief that if we "train up a child in the way he should go," that he or she will in fact go that way, that is, that what we put in by way of parenting technique will most certainly yield a certain result: saved, Godly children.  That is, if we do it right.  That's the frightening part: that it may not.  The liberating part is that I'm not responsible for my children's salvation or sanctification.  I'm off the hook!  But wait a minute.  I'm not even responsible for my own salvation!  If I can't fix myself, what makes me think I can fix my children?  Ultimately, I need to trust God to take my mistakes and my successes in parenting and use them for His glory, entrusting my children's spiritual formation to Him.  So, here's a few things I want to remember:

First:  My best moments as a parent, when I say the apt word, master a teachable moment, or display a Christlike attitude in the midst of a child meltdown may, for all intents and purposes, not have the desired effect on my children.  It's like that wonderful moment when you're riding in the car and your child asks "how the people who die not hearing the gospel are saved," and you launch into an eloquent if partial explanation of what you know on the subject only to discover they stopped listening and donned IPod earbuds about 15 minutes ago and heard nothing after the initial windup.  Oh well.  It's like that.  The best moments may have no discernible effect.  And yet God is at work independently of what we think we're doing.

Second:  My worst moments as a parent, as when I spoke firmly (my word) as I screamed (their word) at the malevolent offspring who finger-painted the walls, probably won't produce young adults needing anger management or who become axe murderers.  We make too much of ourselves, obsessing over our every indiscretion and parental failure.  They've moved on.  Like the family dog who got beat over the head with the newspaper for chasing cars, they forgive and forget, quite readily.  Believe it or not, they don't believe in perfect parents, and even if they thought we were, that belief would in and of itself have the potential to create its own problems for them. 

Third:  There is no technique that I can apply that will guarantee either saved or Godly children.  They've heard the Gospel, but I can't make them recognize their need for it. They've seen the Gospel lived out, albeit imperfectly, and yet I can't make them want to live it even as I require their external conformity to its mandates.  God may use parents, good or bad, in the spiritual formation of children --- or He may not.  Our children may be on a different track, on another plane of existence, quite insulated from parental teaching which may seem like irrelevant gibberish or just plain boring lectures.  And yet God will do His work.

Fourth:  I don't need another book on parenting.  I tossed out Growing Children God's Way a long time ago.  What I need is what I already have: faith, hope, and love.  Faith is a gift God will give or already has given my children.  (How do I know they have true faith? I don't.)  I have hope because God can be trusted to work His will in their lives, to give them the gift of faith I was given, even though its evidence may be hidden or veiled at the moment.  And love is only possible because God first loved us and forms the only parenting question I really need to ask myself: What does love require now, with this child, in this place?

Fifth:  I need to be faithful.  I need to train by word and deed (mostly the latter), not because its results are guaranteed or its effects apparent.  I need to pray, not because my prayers assure me of a certain child-product but because they connect me the One who can form faith and righteousness in my child.  I can't use my lack of sovereignty as an excuse for being a slacker-Dad.  God is pleased to use me, or not, in the spiritual life of my children.  I just need to be faithful and yet remember I am not sovereign.  He is.  Thank God.

I'll stop at five things to remember.  That's quite enough.  I'm not writing a book, after all.

Fields sums it up well when she says that "[p]arenting, like all tasks under the sun, is intended as an endeavor of love, risk, perseverance, and, above all, faith. It is faith rather than formula, grace rather than guarantees, steadfastness rather than success that bridges the gap between our own parenting efforts, and what, by God's grace, our children grow up to become."  And don't forget hope, the hope for what we don't already see but in faith believe will come (Rom. 8:24).  We'll need it.  I need it.

Heaven's Waiting Room

Huge.96.480020 "There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations, these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat."  (C.S. Lewis)

"Whose cell phone is that? Turn your cell phone off, Ma'am.  TURN YOUR CELL PHONE OFF!  NOW."

It's a rotund African-American security guard, yelling at us all, all of us waiting in the uniform blue seats in the square room, with the signs on the walls of do's and don'ts ---- a non-descript government building. Take a number (You are a number.)  Take a seat (Behave.)  Go to the appropriate window when your number is called.  (Red Hall, Blue Hall, A, B, C, D).

"Sir, please turn your phone off."

"It is off.  I'm just reading emails." And the weather.  And the stock report. Texting home.  Updating my status.  I have a lot to do.  I'm important.  And who does this guy think he is, I want to know.

"The sign says 'no electronic devices.'  Sometimes I can be a little lenient, you know, but if someone cops an attitude, if they're gonna be a hard ___ (Did he really say that?) I'll show 'em the door.  You know what I'm saying?  You know?"

"No problem.  I know what you mean."  (Not really.)  That'd be just great. The white man in a suit (the only person in a suit) gets kicked out of the Social Security Administration office.  I put it away.  Now what? No book, no email, no blog reading, no backgammon games.  I look up for the first time and look around me. Where do these people come from?  None of them look like people I work with, or even people I shop with or eat in restaurants with.  All ages, Oriental, African-American, Latino, poorly dressed, half-dressed, several obese women and men, some obviously handicapped, some lethargic (perhaps out of work?).

I hate to say it, but I have a realization that I've got an attitude.  I don't want to wait. I particularly don't want to wait with these people.  They're not like me, or they?  A creeping snobbery threatens me.  I begin to generalize. (Probably don't need benefits.  Feeding at the federal trough.)  I'm uncomfortable.

Then it dawns on me that these are the very people I will share heaven with.  I am going to heaven by God's grace, not my goodness (which there is precious little of), not as one of the beautiful all together well-dressed intelligent articulate well-mannered slightly but not too obnoxiously hip people, but as one reconstructed by Him, reformed by Him, redressed by Him.  And some of these people will be there too. 
And. . . some. . . of. . .these. . . people. . . will. . . be. . . there. . . too.  They will.

Everyone should have to go to the Social Security Administration office and wait.

Everyone has to go to DMV for their license renewal.

Everyone should sit in a state district courtroom and watch the people who parade through.

Everyone has to serve on a jury.

And everyone should go to Wal-Mart on a weeknight after midnight and watch the clientele.  They may not be like you and me.  And yet they are like you and me.

These experiences are great levelers.  They remind us that as different as we are, we are all human, all needy, all sometimes stumbling through life by God's grace, and all saints or devils behind whatever human face or facade we have.

Those people in Heaven?  They're going to look like these people here, only we'll be so warmed by their souls that we'll not see any external blemish.  It doesn't say anywhere in the Bible that we'll look the same, that some won't be weightier than others, some shorter, some taller, that some won't talk a lot, more than us, or have annoying habits.  None of that will matter.

So I try for a minute, right here, to imagine the loud lady across from me in Heaven with me.

I'm trying.

I think I need a better imagination.

"Number 22, Window 14, Red Hall."

That's me.  Goodbye immortals.  Goodbye saints.  Goodbye devils.  See some of you in Heaven.  Maybe even you, lady.

Begin Here, Now: A Review of "The Hole In Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns

51pnAvUiESL._SL500_AA240_"I believe we have reduced the gospel from a dynamic and beautiful symphony of God's love for and in the world to a bare and strident monotone."

Go to any third-world country and the immensity of the need is overwhelming.  It's tempting to despair of making any difference.  When you leave and return home, normal routines can insulate you from this sea of lack, from the images, sounds, and smells of a world deprived of the most basic of necessities.  What are you to do?  Assuage your guilt by sponsoring a child?  Try not to think about it?

From his first trip to the third-world country of Uganda, Richard Stearns, President of the Christian relief organization, World Vision, has been asking that question: What do I do?  What, in fact, do we do?  The Hole In Our Gospel is his attempt to wrestle with those questions, challenging both himself and the American church to a whole gospel, to a gospel that puts feet to its words.  Part biography, part catalog of need, and part sermon, Stearns issues a wake up call to Christians in America.  By our pietistic emphasis and distraction by materialism, he says we have robbed the Gospel of its core, of it life-changing, society-renewing power.  Appropriately beginning with the Gospel, he demonstrates how it extends beyond just a simple transaction, a decision point of faith, to kingdom living.  Whatever else he says in the book, he roots his challenges in Scripture, in a Gospel of faith and works.

This is personal --- so much so that as the reader you never have the sense you're being lectured or talked down to.  The tendency not to trust God, not to act in faith and obedience, is one Stearns recounts from having lived it.  A Christian, a churchgoer, and the successful head of a major corporation, Stearns gave up a great deal to take the job as President of World Vision.  More than lost income, though, was lost pride, as he felt like he had nothing to offer the organization.  As successful as he was, he could not see what he had to offer the organization.  He felt scared and helpless.  But the question he wrestled with then is the same one for us all: Are we willing to be open to God's will for our life?

There are plenty of statistics here, numbers that numb the mind and stir the heart. 854 million people do not have enough food to sustain them.  25,000 people die each day of hunger.  Lacking access to clean water, five million people die each year to water-related illnesses.  One-third of the world's population is infected with the TB bacillus (that's two billion people).  And yet he balances this bad news with good news.  The under-five mortality rate has been cut in half since 1970.  Polio has been virtually eradicated.   Adult literacy has increased from 43 to 77 percent since 1970.  Shockingly, he points out that the tithe given by Christian churches averages two percent of income, demonstrating how adept we are at holding onto our money and yet how much need would be met if we simply gave the full tithe.  There's more, bad and good, but the point is that he doesn't beat us up with statistics but simply opens a window into the challenge, helping us take the focus off ourselves and our felt needs that pale in comparison.

Statistics and scripture are animated by abundant personal anecdotes, stories of families and children encountered in other countries and how simple things made a tremendous difference in their lives.  The cynic in us wants to say so what, what does one person matter, and yet some of these stories show the power of one person who does small things with great love.  He challenges us to take our time, talents (all that is uniquely ours), and our money and use them, to fill the hole in our Gospel by beginning where we are.  In the end it's a challenge to do two things:  Go, and give.  That's all.

So, will you?  Will I?  As I told a friend the other day, rather than asking why you should go, or why you should give, rather ask why you shouldn't go, and why you shouldn't give.  Presume that the love of Christ always pushes us out, even to the edge.  Let God stop us.  Let's begin here.  Now.

He took me a while to read this book.  It's not that it's long, but simply required self-examination along the way.  It comes with a helpful study guide that may make it suitable for missions committees or small groups.  Just read it.  You'll change.