Friday, March 6, 2015

Are you exasperating your children?

I'm a dad of two young children, a three-year-old boy who has been described by his "Gaga" as "butt-stubborn," and a three-month-old girl.  And as a dad of young kids, my go-to Scripture verse--the first our son memorized--is Colossians 3:20: "Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord" (NKJV).  However, Paul immediately admonishes dads: "Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged" (3:21).

There is, in other words, a way for parents (and the Bible especially warns dads) to demand obedience in such a way that will provoke them to anger and leave them exasperated, embittered, and discouraged.

I don't know how you as a dad (or any parent) fall into this trap.  But trust me, you do.  "We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2).  Have you been praying that God would show you how you are demanding obedience in such a way as to discourage your kids?  Perhaps it will help to show how I do:
  1. Do you react to disobedience quickly in anger?  Rather than being "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry" (James 1:19 NIV), I often discipline my son in reactionary anger.  I don't wait to calmly talk with him about how he disobeyed so that he recognizes his offense and then understands the consequence accordingly.  This scares him because in the moment I am far harsher than I otherwise would be.  Fear doesn't create a place where he will listen.  As James continues, "Man's anger does not produce the righteous life God desires" (James 1:20 NIV).
  2. Do you use harsh tones of voice?  "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1).
  3. Do you assume your child is doing something wrong?  There have been many times where, knowing my son's track record, I interpret an action of his as disobedient, crafty, or mean-spirited, when the truth reveals it was something altogether different. I have often told my son to not go into the fridge by himself.  So when he opened the fridge a few days ago, I assumed he was disobeying.  It turns out that Mommy had asked him to get something for her.  I need to be "quick to listen" and fully investigate situations first, as God did at Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20-21).
  4. Do you demand perfect obedience with no room for grace?  Psalm 103:9 says that God "will not always chide."  Do you nag and get on your kids for every single thing they do out of step?  Some days I'm like this for sure.  It makes even me feel tired and discouraged.
  5. Do you fail to accommodate changes in your kids' environment?  Our son's behavior degrades when he is tired, hungry, or has had a change in routine.  God does expect us to do right all the time regardless of our circumstances.  But there's a level at which we must understand and approach our children as fellow humans prone to weakness.  "As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.  For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:13-14).  Fathers are supposed to know that their kids are weak!
  6. Do you choose words that belittle your children?  I have often used words like, "How many times do I have to tell you ...?" or "This is the third time you've done this today!"  Talking this way can make the child feel like a worthless, incapable dolt.  Jesus warned that everyone who through insults degrades another's personhood and value is liable to the fires of hell (Matthew 5:21-22).  The better way is to simply acknowledge each separate act of disobedience without piling up a burdensome tally.  After all, love "keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV).
  7. Do you speak over your children's heads?  I often orate my son with such long and complex explanations of his behavior and what is right and yadayadayada that even I get lost in my train of thought.  The kid is barely potty trained!  This doesn't leave our children with a clear understanding of what to do and what not to do.
  8. Do you discipline before a child is fully trained so as to know right from wrong?  God gave his people his written word because all Scripture is "profitable ... for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), and fathers are to "train up a child in the way he should go" (Proverbs 22:6).  God's Torah (instruction) was laid down for centuries through the priests and prophets of the old covenant before God's patience reached its limit and he sent them into exile.
When you realize these faults in yourself as a dad, remember that this is part of God's own fatherly care (Hebrews 12:5-11).  God has compassion on those who fear him and pardons all our iniquities through the blood of his Son Jesus (Psalm 103).  One of the best ways to show the reality of this good news to your kids is to go to them, explain how you sinned against God and also against them, and ask their forgiveness.  Then pray together, asking God for his pardon, trusting and thanking him for reconciling us to himself through Jesus, not counting our trespasses against us (2 Corinthians 5:19), and asking him to restore the relationship between you and your children (Malachi 4:6)--for we parents need Jesus' salvation just as much as they do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Christ and Our Callings, Part 4

Life makes life complicated.  As my wife once said, "Don't you hate it when life gets in the way of, you know, life?"  In case I'm being opaque, life's demands and responsibilities and limitations always seem to get in the way of the joys we want to pursue.  But what if instead of hindering us, these help us find freedom?

Back in November, Olivia gave birth to our second child, our daughter Margaret.  That means more bills, more childcare, more family needs--and of course more love and joy in our home too.  But nonetheless it has made us grapple with our priorities about time, money, and calling.

For years I've felt a growing unrest and dissatisfaction with being a public high school science teacher.  Along the way, a nagging Sehnsucht plagues me on and off.  Most recently, my desire to pursue graduate studies and a career in forest and wetland ecology has reached its zenith.  I started looking at graduate programs, such as this amazing one at Virginia Tech.  But the reality is that grad school would put us in debt and likely force us to relocate--all for a government job that would probably earn less money and give less vacation time than my current job.  As I considered my dreams of spending days outdoors, I realized that it was impractical, if not inaccessible.  I felt stuck--and glum.

Some days I still do.

But around new year's I had a revelation.  What if, instead of thinking about what job would be most enjoyable and satisfying, I rather looked at what my real priorities were in life, and chose a job that best supported those priorities?  My foremost calling is as a disciple of Christ and a member of his body, the church.  After that, I've made a lifelong pledge to become one flesh with my wife.  Third, I'm a father to my children.  Only after that am I a worker.  So what job would best enable me to fulfill the higher callings?  It makes little sense to have a fulfilling job at the expense of things that really matter more.  While teaching doesn't pay a whole lot here in Virginia, it does afford me nine weeks off in the summer--plenty of time with my family, if I'm not teaching summer school or picking up other work in the summer.  And I wouldn't need to go to grad school or relocate or place those other demands on my family.

It was suddenly freeing to think that way--like that gray raincloud over me was starting to lift. Instead of feeling stuck in a dead-end job, I began to feel more hopeful.  That this was where God really wanted me for now.  (Olivia would be quick to tell me that dead ends are only for people who are considering their lives without Christ in view.)   I still don't super love teaching.  That hasn't changed overnight.  But it gives me a little more hope that God will equip me to do a good job in it and to find days of happiness too.

Then I began also to consider my life under God's providence, his guiding hand.  Of all the people in the world who have no choice over their occupation and who've had no chance at an education, I was able not only to go to a university, but also to choose my own career path and land not one, but four jobs in my chosen profession.  That's a remarkable privilege that few in history have had.  If through all the choices I've had and doors God has opened, I have this job, then it certainly can't be a bad thing.  Maybe it's the best thing for me right now.

On top of that, having the job of your dreams certainly can't be essential to being fully alive, worshiping God and living out his image in the world.  After all, most people have to simply take whatever job they can find or learn whatever trade their family has been in for generations.  If it's not something attainable to all mankind, then it's not essential to life the way God wants us to live it.

(Sorry, no great conclusion here today!  But check out my earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Love = Holiness

In my previous post, I attempted to show from Scripture that in many ways, practical holiness involves living in love: sacrificial concern for the good of others that trumps concern for yourself.  It's living as God lives, holy as he is holy.  In other words, "holiness" equals love.

At the same time, the reverse is also true: "love" equals holiness, that is, living life under God's rule and under his law and promises and bearing God's likeness in the world.  If we live lives of love as "imitators of God" walking in Christlike love (Ephesians 5:1), then that means we aren't living like other people do; our love is to be holy as the Lord is holy (1 Peter 1:16).

While hippies waved banners about "free love," real Christian love is generous and costly.  It embodies grace and gives to others when they're undeserving.  Jesus said that love for one another and the world would be the mark of his disciples (John 13:34-35; 15:9-13).  And yet this same Jesus-styled love would cause the world to hate his disciples because it reminds them of him (John 15:18-25).  So there must be something inherently un-worldly about the way we are to love others.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Holiness = Love

In our effort to preach and live out the inclusive, merit-discrediting grace of God that welcomes real sinners into his glad home, it's easy to wonder what place things like holiness and obedience and God's law have in our lives as Christians.  But Scripture lays out two very clear truths: God's grace cannot be turned into license to sin (Romans 6:1-2, 15; Jude 4), and the chief virtue is love (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10).  We cannot whitewash God's call to holiness by saying, "It's all about love," but neither can we live out our holiness in isolation.  So what does biblical holiness look like?

The more and more I read the Bible and learn what holiness is--that is, living as one separated from the world to belong to Christ and live for his purposes, to beat with his heartbeat--I learn that living a holy life is living a life of love.  Our holiness consists in living the way Jesus did in sacrificial, compassionate, otherworldly care for others.

"As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I [the Lord] am holy.'" (1 Peter 1:14-15, quoting Leviticus 11:44)

So we are to be imitators of God, following him in his holiness.  But does that mean a life of monasticism?  Self-flagellation?  A doctorate in theology?  Only listening to "positive Christian radio" and watching Kirk Cameron movies?  Teetotalling?

"Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God."  (Ephesians 5:1)

You see, being an imitator of God, being holy as he is holy, means to "walk in love."  That is, we live in love for others in daily, step-by-step reliance on the love our Father has for us.  (Note that in both imperatives, Christians are called God's beloved children.)

"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." (Colossians 3:12-14)

"Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again ..." (1 Peter 1:22-23).

If we are to live as those "chosen by God, holy and beloved," those who have "purified [our] souls," the clear command is to love others the way Jesus loved us.  (Heck, just skip the rest of this post and read all of 1 John.  Then read this book if you're ready to be humbled.)

If holiness involves both belonging to God for his purposes and being unstained by sin, then I think the Holy Spirit wants us to recognize that sin's core ugliness involves self-worship and self-concern that keeps us from seeking others' interests and good ahead of our own.  To be freed from the pollution of sin and really live in holiness is to live less and less with our own cares and needs in mind and look instead to how we can do lasting good to others.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Hymn that Makes Me Cry (Almost)

This afternoon at church, we sang several amazing songs (including "Be Still, My Soul" by Katharina von Schlegel).  But our closing hymn was the one that almost always brings tears to my eyes (inasmuch as that happens for me): "For All the Saints" by William How.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might;
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear their one true Light.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

But lo!  There breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Alleluia, Allelu ...

More than any other, I want this hymn sung at my funeral (preferably in Christopher Miner's tune, but I'll take Sine Nomine).  If songs about Jesus as Victor get my hands raised and my feet a-stompin', then it is songs about Jesus' faithfulness in leading his church to her eternal bliss in the news heavens and earth that bring a quiver to my lips.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why We're Not Baptizing Our Children (Yet)

While on the phone with my mom a few weeks ago, she asked us again why we belonged to a Presbyterian church which baptizes infants, but we ourselves have not had our son baptized.*  I hope to explain here why I've chosen this path for our family.  I realize this is a huge issue that cannot be covered in a few paragraphs, but here's my best attempt to briefly explain it.  And I write this with great humility--I am fallible and could be wrong--and with great respect for the Reformed heritage and for my brothers and sisters in Christ at URC and City Church of Richmond.

What is the Presbyterian doctrine?

Presbyterian and Reformed churches see baptism as the equivalent of circumcision, which was applied to children to show their status within the Abrahamic covenant.  Start by reading Genesis 12, 15, and 17 to get a picture of God’s promises to Abraham.

Circumcision was the “sign of the covenant” God gave to Abraham (Genesis 17:11 ESV).  It served as a sign (visible representation) of the covenant relationship between God and Abraham and his offspring.  It was also a seal confirming the reality of this covenant relationship and God’s vow to “be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7; cf. Romans 4:11).  Circumcision signified inner spiritual renewal and cleansing (Isaiah 52:1), as well as the need to live consecrated to God--or else one too would be cursed and “cut off” from life under God’s blessing (Genesis 17:14).  Through bloodshed it prefigured the bloody judgment of Christ that would ultimately earn this spiritual renewal and cleansing for God’s people.  

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Of Bills and Babies: Hope for Parents Concerned about Money

Good news: Olivia is pregnant with our second child, due in November!

Of course, this leads me to always wonder how on earth we're going to support a second (or someday third, fourth, ... ) child.  This would require some major restructuring of our work situations, child care, etc.  God clearly has something up his sleeve for us in the future.  (Frankly, I hope it's money for a heat pump.  Two hundred dollars per month for heating oil is killer.)

But to still my anxious heart, God has lovingly been reminding me of Psalm 37:25-26 again and again.  Not that I ever intentionally memorized it, but it has somehow come to my memory almost every day for the past few weeks:

I have been young, and now am old,
     yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
     or his children begging for bread.
He is ever lending generously,
     and his children become a blessing.

What a blessing!  To know that somehow, some way, God will always provide for us what we need.  I mean, how many families do you see at Walmart where a single, working mom is towing a whole flock of youngsters?  Sure, God's idea of "what we need" might not intersect with our ideas of comfort or convenience.  But when the goal of our life is the enjoy and glorify our Maker and Sustainer, those "c-words" are only added graces.  So I might not have any clue what our life will someday look like, or how he will provide, but I need to choose to trust that God will be faithful to us and look after our family--better and more lavishly than we could imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9).

You may ask, "Andrew, how do you know you're one of 'the righteous'?"  Fair enough--a good look at my life might reveal a whole lot that isn't close to righteous.  But in the Bible, the "righteous" aren't the perfect people, but those who recognize their sinful brokenness and humbly cling to God and follow his ways the best that they can.  And today that means trusting in Jesus, whose perfect sonship and obedience is credited to everyone who hopes in and follows after him.

For additional thought: 2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Philippians 4:10-20.