Jesus died because you didn’t clean your room (and other things we tell our kids)

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This kid obviously cleaned her room for Jesus.

Last week was VBS at my church. It was the first time my daughter was old enough to participate. I filled in as a backup crew leader. Think small group leader, but with more herding kids from one activity to the next. Also, pretending to know the motions to the songs, which occasionally meant spinning in circles while everyone else was jumping up and down.

The curriculum we were using* was all about God’s unconditional love. Which is a great theme to highlight, especially when you’ve only got a couple hours a night to engage kids, many of whom have no other connection to the church. If I could choose just one message to share with kids, this would be it. (Even if I can’t get the hand motions right.)

One night, we were supposed to talk about the fact that God loves us even when we do wrong. The curriculum did a nice job walking through the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. It also had a few suggestions for how to explain why Jesus died. One of them was to share some examples of sin that kids can relate to.

Like not cleaning your room.

Why did Jesus die? Answer: because your room is a mess and you didn’t tidy it up like you were supposed to.

I get that we have to keep things simple for kids. But is this really the best way to explain Jesus’ death? Is there no other way we can unpack for kids the idea that the world is broken and in need of rescue and repair?

Do we trivialize the gospel when we make it about “sins” like not cleaning your room? Do we sell our kids short by not telling them a more meaningful story?

Later that night, I saw proof that the kids in my group were itching for a better story, that they didn’t need a trivialized, oversimplified concept of sin in order for the gospel to make sense.

The makers of the curriculum wanted to address real issues that kids face, and they wisely included bullying as one of the featured topics. During the discussion time that evening, the change in my group was palpable. Suddenly, these kids—who wouldn’t take anything seriously all week, who spent the whole time cracking jokes and posturing for each other—got very serious. They listened. Each had a story to tell. Multiple stories, actually. You could see the hurt in their eyes. Each of them had been bullied at some point. Heck, they even wanted to know if I had been bullied as a kid. (Asking me a serious question—that was a first.)

Our kids understand the world is not how it should be. They don’t need us to soft-pedal it for them. They don’t need to be fed trivial examples of sin in order to understand Jesus’ death.

We don’t need to treat our kids as if they’re porcelain china, as if they’ll shatter into a million pieces if we’re honest about the way the world really is. Just ask them if they’ve ever had a run-in with a bully, and you’ll realize: they know what sin is.

They deserve a gospel that makes sense in the real world. And that, I think, is the main shortcoming of a primarily legal or transactional approach to the gospel. It reduces sin to a theological abstraction, one in which not cleaning your room is every bit as serious as murder or rape or bullying. It says naively that “all sin is sin,” when all sins are not, in fact, created equal. (For more on the problems of equalizing sin, see this post by R.L. Stollar.)

This, by the way, is one reason why I’m increasingly drawn to the Christus Victor view of the atonement, why I believe it makes the most sense of what Jesus did on the cross (knowing that the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to a single theory of atonement), and why I think it opens the door to sharing a better gospel story.

Christus Victor says we are captives of a broken world. Yes, some of that darkness resides in us. We are both victims and culprits. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and death, but we also contribute in ways both small and large. Christus Victor says that Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s victory over sin and death, as opposed to appeasement for the trivial “sins” of a 4-year-old who doesn’t clean her room.

Our kids deserve a better story.

(Although, if it will get my almost-4-year-old to clean her room…)

Related post: The gospel sketched for kids

*In case you’re wondering, the VBS curriculum we used was Weird Animals by Group Publishing. There are many, many good things about this curriculum: the way they tied in stories of impoverished kids in other parts of the world (and respected the dignity of those kids)… the way they highlighted God’s unconditional love… the fact that they created a music soundtrack that won’t drive parents batty. (No, really. My daughter is STILL singing the songs.) But when it comes to telling the redemptive story of the Bible, I think we can do better. 

Image by Paul Walsh on Flickr

The week I broke my blogging resolution…

At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution to write something at least once a week. In the past, I’ve aimed to write something everyday, but it’s always proved too much. So this year I decided to try for once a week — in order to keep me in the habit of writing, while giving me an achievable goal.

Last week, I broke that resolution. But I like to think I had a good reason — all 7 pounds, 15 ounces of it:

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Oliver James was born at 9:34 a.m. on April 1. Plus side: his birthdate, 4-1-14 (or 1-4-14 for my international friends) will be easy to remember. Downside: no one will believe him when he says it’s his birthday.

Oliver, his brilliant mom, and his extremely proud big sister are all doing well.

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I’ll get back to writing more soon. For now, I’m preoccupied enjoying the miracle that is my newborn son.

By their phone you shall judge them

Flip phone, circa 2008

My cell phone, circa 2008



The other day, we took our daughter to the botanical gardens. There’s a spot on the way out where everyone takes a picture of their kids: the butterfly chair. No matter how many times we take Elizabeth to the gardens (which is a lot), she always wants her picture there.

As we waited for another dad to finish snapping a picture of his daughter, I caught a glimpse of the phone he was using.

A flip phone? What decade does he think this is?

Before I even realized it, I was forming a judgment about this guy from the device he was using to capture a memory with his daughter.

We tell our kids not to judge others by the clothes they wear, the house they live in, or the car they drive. But judging people for what kind of cell phone they use? Apparently that’s another matter.

According to one survey, more than half of people admit to judging someone based on the model and condition of their phone. The fact that I’m one of them worries me.

What am I teaching my daughter to value? The person or the technology they carry?

—//—

Could it be that all this new technology is eroding our sense of wonder, in addition to making us even more judgmental?

Remember 2007, when the iPhone was a groundbreaking innovation that promised to revolutionize your life?

Well, it did. Now… I get cranky whenever I leave the house and forget my smartphone. What, you mean I have to think about where I’m going? I can’t just let my phone tell me how to get there?

As my older-generation smartphone became slower and less responsive over the years, I became more and more irritable. Could you revolutionize my life a little faster, please?

And then the newer model came out. How come nothing happens when I try to talk to MY phone? What is this, 2008?

Technology that once inspired wonder and excitement gradually nurtured a sense of entitlement instead. I learned just how grumpy I can get when that technology doesn’t work the way I expect it to.

We are passing this discontentment on to the next generation, too. When my wife and I recently upgraded our phones, our daughter asked when she was going to get a phone like ours. Not a toy phone. A real one.

She’s three.

—//—

I’m not convinced the answer is to renounce technology. It has, after all, revolutionized our lives…mostly (though not always) for the better.

Still, I don’t want to the price of this revolution to be my sense of wonder. I shouldn’t forget that I was born into privilege, the likes of which most have never known. Even the old phone I recently replaced is one of the most remarkable pieces of technology ever made.

Most importantly, for my sake and my daughter’s, I want to stop judging others by what kind of technology they do (or don’t) carry.

I have no idea why the guy at the botanical gardens was using a flip phone. Maybe it was out of economic necessity. Maybe his iPhone was broken. Or maybe he’s concerned about the fact that most smartphones are made with unethically sourced minerals. Maybe he’s just not phased by the intense cultural pressure to always have the latest gadget.

It doesn’t matter. He is more than the technology he carries. We all are.

I don’t want my daughter to forget that. Which means that I can’t afford to forget it, either.

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The butterfly chair

Nurturing your kids’ faith when you’ve haven’t figured out your own

Photo by ☻☺ on Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/c0t0s0d0/2334183401/

Recently I’ve been making my way through Rachel Held Evans’ book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Yeah, it’s been out for a while, but you know… life.

I love this book for a number of reasons, not least of which is the sometimes startling honesty that permeates Rachel’s writing. Startling, because this kind of honesty… well, it’s not the norm for Christian authors.

cover-image1One example: when Rachel shares several reasons for being terrified of having children — something which, as she notes, can earn scorn from Christians who seem to think the whole point of being a woman is to churn out babies.

My wife and I waited eight years before we became parents, partly because I had many of the same fears that Rachel describes, especially this one:

I’m afraid that I have to figure out my own faith before I can pass it along to a new generation.

Today, I have a three-and-a-half year-old daughter who has captured my heart. A few weeks from now, I’ll hold my son in my arms for the first time.

And I don’t have my own faith figured out.

It’s not for lack of trying. I keep searching, wondering, fumbling in the dark. I used to be more certain in what I believed (and in the importance of being certain in what you believe), but then, you know… life.

The pressure to have it all figured out affects parents, would-be parents, and not-sure-if-they-want-to-be-parents alike. It’s real. I’ve felt it.

I know the pressure to be the perfect Christian parent who raises perfect Christian kids who have all the answers, pray the sinner’s prayer as soon as they can talk, and never question anything.

We’ve been told good Christian parents instill rock-solid faith in their kids, the implication being that if we project even the smallest doubt or the slightest hesitation when they ask difficult questions, their faith will melt away faster than you can say “evolution.”

We’re afraid they’ll see uncertainty as weakness, as a sign of something deficient in the faith we (aspire to) profess and live.

But what if our fear is misplaced? What if they see something else in us when we admit to not having all the answers? What if they see authenticity? Honesty?

What if we don’t have to figure out our own faith before we can pass it on to a new generation?

What would happen if we modeled a different kind of faith, one that leaves room for uncertainty? What if we gave our kids permission to be inquisitive, to wonder, to even doubt?

Would it really be the end of Christianity as we know it? Or is it possible our kids will find an inherently inquisitive faith to be more attractive than the kind that insists on having all the answers?

To be honest, I don’t know. If you’re looking for a foolproof model for passing your faith to the next generation, I don’t have one. I’m pretty sure one doesn’t exist.

Faith is a risky venture. There are no guarantees. There are no foolproof models. (Isn’t that one reason why we call it faith?)

One thing I’m sure of, though: a faith that leaves no room for doubt, one that insists on having it all together (or pretending to) — that kind of faith doesn’t have a future.  That kind of faith leads to disillusionment and even loss of faith when kids suddenly face questions they can’t answer.  

So I won’t pretend for the sake of my kids to have it all figured out. Then again, maybe you don’t have to have everything figured out in order to belong. Maybe belonging is what really matters — being part of a community of people, none of whom have their faith completely figured out either. Maybe belonging can help us overcome our unbelief.

I want my kids to know they belong, no matter how much or little they think they’ve got “figured out.” I want them to know it’s OK not to know everything. Uncertainty is not the enemy.

In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul urged his friends to work out their faith with fear and trembling. That doesn’t sound to me like the posture of someone who has it all figured out.

For Paul, faith wasn’t something you possessed. It wasn’t something you mastered or acquired. It wasn’t the end of the journey but the beginning of one. It’s something we have to keep working at, something we get to discover and rediscover anew every day.

That’s the kind of faith I want to pass along to my children: an inquisitive faith — one that never stops wondering, never stops asking. A faith that’s OK with not having every detail figured out.

In the end, it’s up to each couple whether or not to have kids. And choosing not to have kids doesn’t make you any less of a family than those who do. But if you have kids, or are thinking about having kids, the fact that you don’t have your own faith figured out is not a liability. It’s a gift.

 

3 things in the Bible you’ll want to avoid if following Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice

Kirk Cameron, photo by Gage Skidmore on Flickr
Former Growing Pains and Left Behind star Kirk Cameron is getting into the parental advice business. In a recent post, Cameron shared the “train, don’t explain” childrearing philosophy of author Jay Younts.

Basically, this approach says you don’t owe your kids an explanation. Ever. You tell them what to do/think/believe and demand their unquestioning, unhesitating obedience.

To quote Younts:

God has not called parents to explain but to train. Explanations often lead to frustration and anger for both parents and children. Children are not in need of lengthy, compelling explanations. What they are in need of is the understanding that God must be obeyed.

Setting aside the question of whether this parenting advice is better suited for raising robots than actual humans, there are at least three things in the Bible you might not want to let your kids read if you follow a “train, don’t explain” approach.

Otherwise, your kids might start getting ideas.

1. Don’t let them read Exodus 12. Or Deuteronomy 6. Or Joshua 4. 
The ancient Jewish faith had many rituals, ceremonies, and symbols. And these had a way prompting curiosity. Every time a family would celebrate Passover or break out the phylacteries or build a monument from a pile of stones, kids would ask why.

Even worse, it seems this was the whole point: so that kids would request an explanation from their parents:

“When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’…” (Exodus 12)

“In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees, and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?’…” (Deuteronomy 6)

“In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’…” (Joshua 4)

It’s almost like the Israelites didn’t follow Kirk Cameron’s parenting advice at all.

2. Definitely don’t let your kids read the book of Job.
After being hit with all kinds of calamity (apparently the result of a cosmic bet between God and the devil), Job spends most of the book demanding an explanation… from God himself.

Job’s three friends are shocked by his impertinence. Their advice to Job — essentially, “Shut up and take your medicine” — sounds a lot like Kirk Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting.

The only problem is God doesn’t seem to mind Job’s impertinence. He shows up. He answers Job’s summons. And when he does, he’s angry — not at Job, but at Job’s friends.

If kids read Job and see that it’s OK to question God, they won’t think anything of questioning their parents now and then.

3. While you’re at it, you might want to avoid any mention of Israel.
After all, their name means “wrestles with God.” To the ancient Israelites, the Scriptures were not a monologue from God; they were a dialogue with God. And God’s people didn’t hesitate to ask some hard questions.

In fact, it’s probably best not to let your kids read the Bible, period. Otherwise they might stumble across Abraham asking God to explain how he can possibly deliver on his promise of children for the aging patriarch. Or Jeremiah accusing God of deception. Or Habakkuk demanding God explain himself over his plan to use Babylon to punish his own people. Or Jesus wrestling with his Father in the garden.

And so on.

God is often described as a Father in the Bible. Yet he doesn’t seem to follow Cameron’s “train, don’t explain” method of parenting with his own children.

Maybe a better approach would be one that honors the curiosity and personhood of our children. One that shows them it’s OK to ask questions. In other words, “Explain. Don’t just train.”

(H/T Benjamin L. Corey, who wrote about Cameron’s parenting advice on the Formerly Fundie blog.)

Why I don’t plan on “giving my daughter away”

Photo by Mance on Flickr

“Who gives this woman?”

I never really thought about this question until recently. Until I had a daughter.

It’s taken for granted as a normal part of a “traditional” wedding. It was part of mine. And if you were married in a Christian church, chances are it was a part of yours, too.

But of course, no one asked who gave me away to be married. Only my wife.

Maybe for most people this question is an innocent affirmation of the special bond that often exists between dads and their daughters. (I certainly hope to have that kind of bond with Elizabeth for the rest of my life.)

But what does it say to the woman about to be married?

“Who gives this woman?” implies ownership.

It suggests that I own my daughter. That she’s my property. That she is mine to give.

The ceremonial response — traditionally, the father says, “I do” — implies that I’m the authorized spokesperson for my family. Sometimes it’s broadened to “her mother and I do.” But still it’s the father, the male, the paterfamilias, speaking on behalf of his family.

Am I reading too much into it? It’s worth noting that “who gives this woman?” didn’t find its way into our wedding ceremonies by accident. In a more patriarchal era, marriage involved a transfer of ownership. The bride went from being under her father’s authority to that of her new husband. She did not spend a moment outside the authority, control, or headship of a man.

And for some Christians, that’s still the case. You only have to read the stories of women who grew up around Christian patriarchy, fundamentalism, or the Quiverfull movement to realize this notion of marriage is alive and well in many corners of the church today. This kind of thinking has a cost: abuse, exploitation, loss of faith. All stemming from modern-day patriarchy.

OK, but thankfully not everyone accepts fundamentalism or patriarchy. In which case, is “who gives this woman?” a harmless vestige of a bygone era? I’m not so sure. Because words don’t just express a worldview; they help shape it.

If men continue to use language characterizing women as objects or possessions, is it any wonder that women are treated like objects or possessions? Is our failure to respect women as people made equally in God’s image really that big of a surprise?

All of which is why I’m not going to “give my daughter away,” assuming she decides to get married someday. Because the truth is, I don’t own her to begin with.

For this short season of life, my wife and I are entrusted with our daughter’s care, nurture, and protection. But she is her own person. She is not a possession. She is not and never will be the property of anyone else.

If she decides to get married, I will give whatever blessing she wants to her and the person she weds. I will pledge my love and support to both of them. I will beam with pride and give thanks for the bond we’ve enjoyed — and for the new one she is forging.

But she is not mine to give away. And I’m starting to think that coming to terms with this reality is one of the most important things I can do for her.

What do you think? How does the idea of “giving our daughters away” affect our view of women?