Parenting By Grace

I ran into an article several months ago, written by amateur theologian and parenting adviser Kirk Cameron, in which he told us that parenting by explanation was neither Biblical nor healthy (you can find the article at the link http://kirkcameron.com/problem-explanations/, but be prepared for a smoldering picture of Mr. Cameron’s face right next to the article.)

I find myself at odds with Mr. Cameron’s parenting advice a great deal of the time, but rather than write an entire blog post on what is wrong with what he has to say, I decided to write one about the parenting that I have found most effective in my house. It’s an answer, not only to Mr. Cameron, but to many of the current “Biblical” models of parenting that are popular in extremely conservative Christian circles. I will present in list mode, but the points are not placed in order of importance.

1) Your child is never “bad”.

When we talk to our kids, we never, ever tell them that they are bad, or naughty, or mean. We always preface those words with the word “acting.” “You are acting mean.” “You are acting badly.” “You are behaving poorly.”

This might seem like simple semantics, but I have discovered through a lifetime of being really effective with my words that the words we use are sometimes more important than the sentiment behind them. I cannot tell you how many times I have been involved in arguments in which someone said, “That’s not what I meant.” To which I often respond, “But that is what you said.”

The words that we say to our children become the voice in their heads. If the things that we say sound like character judgements, rather than behavioral judgements, then we set them up for a lifetime of believing that the way they act is the way that they are. We must, rather, encourage our children to be their best selves, and we must help them understand that people can be good, yet act poorly at times. This actually sets up my next point, which is…

2) We must always forgive bad behavior.

This is not to say that we must tolerate bad behavior, or that we let people who behave badly towards us continue to behave badly towards us. What this means is that we allow people to sometimes be their worst selves, while still believing that they are capable of being better. We always see the possibility for redemption in people, no matter how awful or unlovable their behavior might be. We tell our kids this all the time, “Even when you act badly, I still love you. You are still good.” If we are to really teach this to our children, if we are to make them believe that they can still be inherently good while misbehaving, then we need to teach them to model that grace and forgiveness towards those around them.

3) We are not afraid to be wrong.

This is the biggest problem that I had with Mr. Cameron’s article. Explanations are how children learn. It’s true that you can’t use the same logic with your young child that you would with a teenager, but that doesn’t mean that you just use the old standby “Because I said so.” That frustrates children, because even a young child can become offended when you insult their intelligence. Kids need internal motivators for good behavior even more than they need external motivators to avoid bad behavior. If the only motivator that you give your children to behave well is your own authority, then you will not only create a climate of fear in your household, you will ensure that your children will behave poorly the minute that you’re not around to “crack the whip.”

Additionally, if you can’t find a logical, reasonable explanation for why you are not allowing something for your child, then you probably need to reconsider your position. Admitting that you’re wrong about something, or that you don’t have a good explanation, isn’t a sign of weakness or insecurity. On the contrary, it teaches your kids at an early age that you don’t have all the answers, and that even the smartest and strongest people are sometimes wrong. That’s an important lesson, and it softens that awful moment that most children have when they realize that their parents aren’t infallible. Ease them into the idea at an early age, so that the ground doesn’t completely cave under them in their teenage years.

4) We do not spank. Ever.

I have run into so much controversy over this one, and yet I stand firmer than ever on it. There have been scientific studies on this (http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/23/health/effects-spanking-brain/), and yet I continue having this conversation with otherwise good people.

“There’s a difference between spanking and abuse.”

Allow me to be very, very blunt: no there isn’t. If there is a difference, it is only matter of degree, rather than a difference of kind. The only line between socially acceptable spanking and physical abuse is where you hit the child, how much you hit the child, and how hard you hit the child. Notice that every phrase in that sentence has you hitting your child.

There is a story that I read several years ago. A woman was getting ready to discipline her young son (I believe the child was 4 or 5). According to the story, this was the first time he had ever been spanked, and the mother was simply using the same method that had been used for generations in her family. She told the child to go outside and pick a “switch” from the tree, so that he could be spanked for his misdeeds. The child went outside, was gone for a few moments, and then came back in with a rock. He said, “I couldn’t find a stick, Mommy, but you can hit me with this.”

She never even thought of spanking her child again.

Hitting is hitting is hitting. You cannot hit your child in love. You cannot hit your child and justify it with a good reason. If you hit your child across the bottom, you are still hitting your child.

This is not to say that every person who spanks is a bad person. Spanking is a learned behavior, and most of us in my generation were spanked as kids, far less severely than our parents were. Perhaps the reason we were punished less severely was because our parents saw something wrong with the way that they were spanked. Well, I recommend that our generation break the cycle entirely. Let’s just acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea of hitting children in order to educate them.

5) We teach empathy as the highest value.

I have said this before on social media, but it really bears repeating. Empathy is the most important thing that you can ever teach your children. Empathy is that value that the Golden Rule embodies: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When a child learns that the kid across the playground is just like them, they learn to treat that child with respect and kindness. Mean words said to another child become just like means words said to them.

Whenever one of my sons does something that directly harms another person (normally that other person is whichever son I’m not correcting), I always ask the question, “How would it feel if that person did/said the same thing to you?” That forces our child into an emotional exercise, in which they can find a reason for treating people better. It’s that internal motivation for positive behavior. We might say to a 2-year-old simply, “We don’t hit!” But, to a child as young as 4, a much better response is, “How would you feel if he/she hit you?” Internal motivation always works better than external motivation. We teach our sons to be internal motivators.

And, finally…

6) We feed their wonder.

My younger son is 4, and he is absolutely obsessed with all things related to outer space. To him, the universe is a huge, massive, gigantic place, and he wants all of his questions answered. So, we set out to give him the biggest collection of space-related books that any 4-year-old could ever ask for. And it has only increased his wonder. He can name all of the planets, and tell you something significant about them (his favorite factoid is that Venus has lots of storms.) And he never gets tired of telling you these things, with a wide, wonderful look in his eyes.

Adults live in a boring, tired, cynical world. Everything has been explained for us, everything has been reduced. We need to stop that. We need to look at the world through our children’s eyes once in a while, to see all that mystery and awesomeness of the unknown. We need to be willing to feed that wonder, that hunger for explanations, that fascination with exploration.When we do that, we create kids who see books and hikes and even walks to the parks as adventures.

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That’s all that I’ve got for now. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I have never (and will never) claim to be a parenting expert. But, if Kirk Cameron can write parenting articles, then, by God, so can I.

Grace and Peace,

Michael Woywood

Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Social Gospel?

I’ve claimed Christianity as my faith since I was a child, but for the first 20 or so years of my life it was what I like to call a “hereditary faith.” I was raised in a “Christian household”, so being a Christian was just one of the things that was expected of me: clean your room, do your homework, confess Jesus Christ as Lord, take out the trash, etc.

Scripture was the language that we spoke in this world, and so I dedicated several of my childhood years to diligently memorizing Scripture. A lovely program called AWANA (Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed) encouraged this habit by giving me pins and ribbons whenever I memorized a certain amount of Scripture. I was a Bible Quiz champion. I was encouraged in my reading and memorizing of the Bible, and everyone who knew me at church knew that I was destined to do great things for the faith.

Then, something happened. I read the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges. And, even as a kid, I was really disturbed by what I read. I didn’t understand why God would command the deaths of entire nations of people. But, being a kid, I kind of brushed it off and kept reading and memorizing.

Fast forward to my 20s, and suddenly those questions mattered a great deal. They mattered so much, and I received so few satisfactory answers, that I gave up. I quit reading the Bible. I quit going to church. If this was the only way to read the Bible (which I had been taught), then I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

Then, something else happened. When I was 29 years old, I began to read again. This time, I started with the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – and I read them as separate accounts, rather than as just four chapters in the grand volume of the Bible. And I discovered something that blew my mind and revolutionized the way I viewed Christianity.

I discovered that the Gospel wasn’t about me. It was about everyone.

I soon discovered that I wasn’t alone in this discovery. Lots of people understood this, and there was even a term for what I now understood – “Social Gospel.” The Social Gospel was based on the idea that Jesus didn’t come specifically or specially to die for my personal sins, but that He came to teach and eat and drink with the poor and the outcasts, and that He died for those very same people.

So, I started to talk about the Social Gospel. I started to write about the Social Gospel. I started to preach about the Social Gospel. I wanted to share this new understanding with every Christian that I had ever known.

It has not made me many friends.

To be fair, many people that I knew in church back in the days of yore that were the 1980s and 1990s have come on similar journeys. Not every single one of them responded negatively to my new understanding. But, enough of my old friends and family have been “concerned” and “prayerful” for my newfound heresy understanding that it began to hurt a little. And then there’s the Internet. (Lord, save us from online comments.) Suddenly, I wasn’t the approved workman that I had always been praised as. I was a dangerous false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a dirty heretic who just wanted to ignore all the important parts of the Bible (like the parts that tell us who not to have sex with) and “cherry pick” the parts that felt really good (like the part where Jesus says to deny yourself and take up a cross.)

Why are we all so afraid of a Social Gospel?

Even good-hearted, community-minded Christians that I know don’t want to hear too much about it. They want a Social Gospel sermon once a month, maybe once a quarter. The rest of the time, they want to hear about the “regular Gospel”, the one that says that you alone were so special to God that He came and died on a cross so that you wouldn’t have to. He punished Himself to avoid punishing you. And, because He did that, we can all go to Heaven instead of Hell and sing all 7 verses of Amazing Grace in front of the Throne forever and ever, world without end. All we have to do is believe that God did that… and make sure that we keep our genitals in line, because, you know, Leviticus.

That’s what makes the Social Gospel so terrifying to people. Because it means that the Gospel isn’t about you. When you read the words that came out of the mouth of Jesus and just… let them sink in… you realize that the Gospel isn’t about you avoiding punishment. What you understand instead is that the Gospel is about rescuing the oppressed, the powerless, the hungry, the naked, the prisoners… and exalting them.

None of us are comfortable with that. None of us should be comfortable with that. When you make the Gospel about everyone else, instead of being about you, then you suddenly realize that the sins that really upset God are the ones that we’re all too prone to: the sins of indifference, of greed, of grasping at power, of exalting ourselves above others. Suddenly, all that personal righteousness seems less important, when you realize that Jesus taught that our relationship with God is only truly expressed in our relationship with “the least of these.”

Suddenly, you feel a crushing responsibility. Suddenly, that old man or woman holding a sign that you passed on the road doesn’t look like a drug-addicted, dirty bum anymore – that person looks like Jesus. Instead of someone just looking for a free handout, that person looks like your salvation, your redemption.

These people suddenly look like the nobility of the Kingdom of God.

You realize, when you understand this Gospel, that your only opportunity to be considered “great” in the eyes of God is to make yourself least. You have to get in the dirt with the poor, into the cells with the prisoners, into the cardboard boxes and park benches with the homeless. You have to take all that power and prestige and influence that you’ve spent your whole life grasping at… and give it all up.

If the Gospel makes anything clear, it’s this: it is the poor, oppressed and powerless – the least, the last and the lost – who have the best seats at God’s table. Those who spent their lives gaining power and using it to oppress and denigrate, those who spent their lives gaining wealth and failing to care for their fellow people… well, I don’t think they’re going to Hell. But, Jesus seems to say that you’ll be lucky to be eating the scraps that fall from the feast.

That’s terrifying. We want to shy away from that, get back to the Gospel of Me, really believe that if we were the only person on Earth, Jesus would have died for our sins. We don’t want to think about the Gospel of Us, the Gospel of We, the Gospel of the Poor, the Gospel of the Oppressed.

People have told me that I only read the Bible the way that I do because I want license to sin. Well, if you think that the Social Gospel is an easier Gospel to follow, then you don’t understand it at all. Because, now I sin every time I pass a homeless man on the street without stopping to talk, or get him a cup of coffee, or give him some food. I sin every time I refuse to help someone in need. I sin every time I refuse to visit someone in prison. I sin every time I eat too much while others starve. I sin every time I buy a luxury that I don’t need while others go without their basic needs.

If anything, my potential to sin has increased.

But, where sin abounds, so does Grace. But, it’s a liberating grace, a costly grace, not a cheap and easy grace given by a few simple words said and a belief held. It’s a grace that demands as much as it gives. We’re saved by this Grace, so that we can take that same Grace and save others.

The Gospel isn’t a formula for salvation. The Gospel isn’t a “Get Out of Hell Free” card. The Gospel isn’t about the death of Jesus, with a bunch of unimportant stuff happening before it.

The Gospel is Good News. It’s the key to every chain. It’s the power of God to go forth and feed, clothe, house and care for the needy.

The Gospel is freedom, both from the very real oppression that people do to others… and from the oppression of our selfish, grasping natures and the slow death that those natures bring.

“I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.”

Believe it. Believe it with your life, not just your heart.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Michael Brian Woywood