Children are not the center of the universe

Children need to know that they are not the center of the universe and that they have to answer to someone else. At first, it’s their own parents. Later, it will be other authority figures: teachers, bosses, the government, and, ultimately, it’s always God who is the one being submitted to or resisted.

Kids leap from the womb self-centered, always crying for one thing or another and demanding attention. At first, we must meet these needs, but, not very much past infancy, there will be occasions when we need to let them cry, not even attempting to meet their every whim. We must let them know that they may not always have their own way, usually for their own good.

When my older daughter was about three, I was getting her infant sister ready to go out and was putting on the little one’s clothes and bundling her up. I was about to strap her into a baby carrier/car seat in our living room, so I told my oldest to go to the car, climb into her own car seat, and I would be out in a minute.

When starting out the door, I noticed she was not in the car. I couldn’t see her anywhere, so I panicked a little, wondering where she had gone, and set down her sister. First, I looked out on the road, fearing that she would be imperiling herself in the worst way, but she was not there. Finally, I saw her way back by the neighbor’s yard, looking at chickens they kept in a coop. I yelled for her, and in the cute way only a little girl can run, she trotted and sort of waddled toward me, smiling the whole way.

I asked her if she had heard me tell her to go to the car. She said she did. I asked her why she didn’t do what I had told her to do.

She replied, “Because I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”

Believing that the root of all sin is a desire to simply do what we want, however benign or innocent that may seem to be, I was not pleased. My daughter could tell that her answer was not acceptable, and her smile collapsed.

Very calmly, I told her to go inside where I spanked her soundly. Afterwards, I hugged her, and she apologized for disobeying me. Such acts of open defiance were rare with my daughter, and at a very early age, she realized that her way was not the only way.

As I write this, I know some readers will take offence at the very idea of spanking children. I certainly understand their objections, for I concur that what often passes for corporal punishment is mean-spirited and destructive. Parents have no license to vent their frustrations on their kids.

Parents should be calm, not angry, when spanking their children. Anything other than a strategically placed paddling on a small one’s backside is probably child abuse, but the Bible encourages the use of proper corporal punishment (Proverbs 22:15; 23:13-14).

Besides the special revelation of Scripture, it seems like nature itself bears witness to this method of discipline, and it is as if God designed little people’s anatomy for spanking. A friend of mine told me about a coworker who was working on a scaffold and fell off, landing on one of those wrought iron fences with pointed posts like spears. Despite his hard and sudden landing directly on one of these dangerous objects, the man sustained no serious injury. Fortunately, he hit on his right buttock, and other than an odd scar only his wife sees, he had no lasting effects.

Our children will also have no lasting ill effects if we strategically swat this piece of muscle and fat. They will, however, learn through very real but temporal pain the difference between right and wrong.

My wife and I only administered corporal punishment for deliberate disobedience, not for mere childishness. Once we ascertained that our child knew he or she had rebelled, we very calmly administered a spanking, after which we allowed the guilty one to ask forgiveness for the offense. This was always followed by an assurance of love from me or my wife, and forgiveness, along with a big hug. Afterwards, we went all about our lives, the incident behind us, except for the lesson learned.

That is the difference between mere punishment, which demands justice for misdeeds, and discipline that is gracious and causes children to grow with their experiences. I never enjoyed spanking my kids; in fact, I hated it. I loved them so much, and inflicting pain on them was never my goal. Worse, though, would have been allowing them to remain the self-serving little people they were by nature.


Parenting and protecting

One of a parent’s primary roles is that of a protector. Because we wanted to limit negative input and maximize our own influence, my wife and I decided to home school our children when they were young. (Actually, my wife bore the brunt of this responsibility as she was at home while I was away at work, and I must add that she was a very fine teacher, indeed.)

While everyone may not be called to home education, too many simply farm their kids out to public, private, or even religious schools without monitoring those influences. At the minimum, we need to be aware of what is directly or indirectly shaping our children through their teachers, friends, and the overall culture to which they are subjected.

Some may argue that we are sheltering our children. I have no defense for this, for we parents must assume our role as wise protectors. It’s something like what my neighbor does when he starts his vegetable garden. He plants seeds in little trays inside his house during the dead of winter and then transfers the seedlings to a cold frame while it is still too early to plant them directly into the garden. Protected beneath glass from killing frosts, the plants grow until they are ready to be placed into the weather.

At this point the glass comes off, and soon they are transplanted to the garden where they grow strong in the sun and are tempered by the wind. If they were to remain under glass, the plants would become stunted and eventually wither and die. Similarly, there is a time to protect our children and a time to let them stand on their own.

Those transitions can be especially hard on parents as we release our children to the world, but we must equip them for diverse challenges and opportunities. My wife and I were the ones to educate our kids, in due time, about the snares of worldliness. We, not their peers or even church youth leaders, discussed sex with them, as well as the other issues they needed to confront.

When our oldest daughter finally entered a public high school, she reported back to us that she didn’t realize how sheltered she had been, but we had given her enough knowledge to stand a bit aloof of many potential pitfalls she was exposed to, and she assumed her place as a sojourner shining her light rather than being overwhelmed by the darkness.

All three of our home schooled kids eventually went to secular public colleges, and they all graduated with high GPAs and their faith still intact. I am grateful and acknowledge God’s grace and mercy in their lives because I have known many godly parents whose children have strayed.

Parents have different situations, and there is no single correct answer to most questions we face regarding our children, but it seems that by God’s grace we can both protect and prepare our children for the real world.


Even if being a father isn’t really a “calling,” it is vital

fathers day

When I was younger and obsessed about what I was going to do with my life, I’d ask other guys, “What do you feel God is calling you to do?” Some spouted off grandiose notions about becoming pastors, prophets, preachers, or Christian rock stars, but most of their “leadings” never came to pass.

A few simply said, “I think God’s called me to be a father.” Well, at least those guys eventually became what they thought they would be, but stating that one was called to be a father always seemed mundane to me.

It goes without saying that we’ll be fathers. After all, most men do have kids, but I’ve come to the conclusion that while most men do become parents, far too many miss the responsibilities and opportunities that come with children.

Some men fail to spend enough time with their kids, or they refuse to discipline them, or they confuse grace with letting children do whatever they please. Or through the course of daily life, they demonstrate to their kids that success in athletics or a career, or the acquisition of possessions and prestige, is actually more important than being in right relationship to Christ.

On the other hand, children who truly embrace the faith will go on and impact many beyond whatever spheres of influence their fathers may have inhabited. I have told my own children that they could be whatever God led them to be: accountants, teachers, nurses, missionaries, auto technicians, preachers, or businesspeople—it has never mattered to me because a person sold out to God will draw people to Christ, even if he or she is not on a church payroll.

Ultimately, I have desired that my children would be a blessing to others and glorify God, and not necessarily be successful as many would measure such things. I still wish the very same for my children, and their children as well.


Missing the point in love and romance

We tend to get the whole quest for love all wrong and look for that special someone to fulfill our deepest needs, so we date, go steady, experiment with other people, and test them to see if they work for us.

Unfortunately, the lovers we seek have the same agenda, and like sailors in a shipwreck, we cling to each other and drown. Only when we have sufficiency in Christ can we hope to really love anyone. Otherwise, we are basically using people, and that is sin in the first degree.

I never intended to use anyone, but from the start, my relationships were self-centered. The summer after seventh grade, my first “real” girlfriend met me at the local elementary school playground where we’d hang out, talk, and generally waste summer evenings.

Once we stopped walking around, looked at each other for a seemingly interminable moment, and kissed. We liked it enough to give it another try and wound up having a major make out session.

That evening I went home feeling like I had come into a new territory, a place where I was someone different. The realization that I wanted to kiss someone who also wanted to kiss me back was a major boost to my ego. No longer was I a loser without a girlfriend.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized this truth: much of what passes for love is merely our need to be affirmed by someone else. True love, however, is always focused outward because it is a gift from God in Christ, the one through whom we all can find true acceptance.


Marriage: Something like days of heaven on earth

At one of those church gatherings for men, we all stood around a campfire, and one guy was giving a little macho-spiritual talk about our role as leaders, husbands, and fathers. I was poking around in the dirt with a stick and trying to listen as best I could when he asked us, “What happens to your life when you get married?”

It didn’t seem like a rhetorical question. I thought he was actually looking for a response, so I answered, “Once you’re married, your life is over.”

Everyone laughed and thought I was being funny, or maybe they were just laughing because I’m sort of known for saying things that are a bit strange, but I was completely serious. I had to explain myself because even among church folks it seemed that people thought I meant that the loss of a life was a bad thing, which isn’t always the case. After all, don’t we Christians believe in life after death and spending eternity in heaven?

Once I got married, my life was indeed over, and it was replaced with another type of existence called “our life.” As marriages go, it seems like the changes my wife and I experienced have been smoother than they have been for many others, partly due to the fact that my wife and I both did not hold on to our own lives, but rather embraced this new realm of living with another person.

Of course, we had already given ourselves to Christ, and while we are still learning all of what that really means, I’m pretty sure that’s a good foundation for getting along rather well for over three decades. I’d hate to attempt something so life altering without Jesus.


Grace is like cruise control for the soul

I like to drive fast; in fact, it seems that I almost have a need for speed. Now, I know that flying down the road increases my chances for an accident, imperils others, and uses more fuel than driving in a more temperate manner. None of that changes my natural inclination to put the pedal to the metal.

Road signs along the way remind me of the speed limit, which is the law. Oftentimes, I’ll lean on the brake and comply—especially if I see a cop or know I’m about to enter an area known for speed traps. Other times, I find speed limit signs insulting: why is there a 25-mile limit here? I might as well get out and walk! Something in me wants to rebel, especially when there seems to be no good reason for slowing down.

It’s been quite a while since my last ticket, though, because of cruise control, a little gizmo that keeps me within the bounds of the law, unlike traffic signs, which only serve as a constant reminder that I need to obey or that I’m already guilty.

Cruise control, however, reminds me of God’s grace. Sure, there’s a sense of grace being like a cop tearing up the ticket I completely deserve. But such a view limits all  that grace provides. Should an officer tear up the ticket if he knew I’d pull away with my tires squealing? Too often, we expect God to be like that.

That’s where the cruise control comes in. I must be willing to do the speed limit in order to set it, but once I’ve repented of speeding, so to speak, there is actually the ability to do what the law requires, which is the way grace works. It’s so much more than just being forgiven, and so much better than the law, which only confirms that I’m guilty.


Money is not the root of all evil

Contrary to what some people think, money isn’t the root of all evil. That little cliché is actually a misquote of I Timothy 6:10, which makes it clear that the “love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.”

Money and the commensurate things it brings can either be a blessing or a curse, depending on how I feel about them. If money and possessions consume my life so I’m not minding God’s business, that’s evil. If my desire for money eclipses my desire for Him, I’m guilty of idolatry.

Material possessions can either be tools and pleasantries for my earthly pilgrimage, or they can get me off track. I used to see these possessions as an enemy of sorts, and they certainly can be, but now I know that having material things can also be a God-given pleasure and a source of blessing to others.

Some of the most spiritual and most generous people I have known have been wealthy. On the other hand, I have encountered poor folks who were greedy, self-centered, and horrible stewards of their possessions. Some of the street people I knew would earn a little money and then spend it on frivolous and stupid things. My friends were even ripped off by one of the men to whom we had offered a place to live.

During my career in insurance claims, I saw quite a bit of money get paid to lower income people for injuries they may or may not have sustained. These awards were usually frittered away very quickly on nonsense items like fancy cars and expensive vacations, and in short order the recipients were often worse off financially than they were before.

In matters of money, the poor are often no more virtuous than the rich, but it seems to me that acquiring a lot of material possessions creates real competition to true spirituality. Here in the land of promise and excess, even the poor can amass an amazing amount of junk.

A lot of time and attention is given to earning money, shopping, buying, using, and caring for our possessions, regardless of our economic position. Both the poor and the rich would do well to simplify their lives and focus on the unseen and eternal, not that which inevitably rusts, rots, decays, or must be left behind when we exit this life.

Money is not evil, but how we get it and what we do with it is not a neutral matter either. Jesus said, “If therefore you have not been faithful with the use of unrighteous mammon [money], who will entrust the true riches to you?”(Luke 17:11) Later, he made it very plain that we “cannot serve God and mammon.” (Luke 17:13)

Everything I have comes from God, but I can’t really own any of it. Eventually I’m going to die, and nothing will go with me, but the way I handled my material blessings has eternal implications.


Rust and sweat: Making money and the slavery of things

My father always told me that work wasn’t about having fun or making money; it was about being of service to people. That’s a very godly perspective to have, and I try to keep that attitude, but my dad actually made good money doing what he did, and I, well, I have always made enough, but never much more.

Possibly because of my horribly misspent youth, or maybe there were other mysteries at play, it took me quite a while to find a viable career path, as they say in books about such things. Through experiences, the suggestions of others, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, I finally concluded that I should be a teacher.

In order to do that, I reluctantly entered graduate school. By God’s grace and through the unfailing support of my wife and parents, I obtained the education needed to become a certified teacher.

An instructor’s pay isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. At this point in my career, I make a fairly respectable income, though not as much as some who are my age with my level of education.

Unfortunately, I was almost a decade older than the typical graduate when I became a first-year teacher, near the bottom of the pay scale with a pregnant wife and facing responsibilities beyond those of most beginning educators.

My wife was content to live in a very used trailer that first year, and she did an amazing job stretching my salary to meet our needs. To quote Bob Dylan, Linda’s “a God-fearing woman I can easily afford.”

During my second year of teaching, we managed to buy a small but brand new house in a development. About 80 residences on one-acre lots were built in the midst of cornfields and woods, and living there has been something like being in the country without the isolation, or maybe it has been more like living in the suburbs without as much convenience.

Up and down our street, families moved in, and they obviously spent money. Neighbors showed us their ongoing projects: finished basements, upgraded flooring, sunrooms, professional landscaping, and other improvements.

My wife and I did what we could afford and didn’t really worry about it much because we had our priorities in mind: I was teaching, and my wife was staying at home to raise our daughter. We also planned to have more children.

After supper, Linda and I would chat while pushing our daughter in a stroller, passing our neighbors and waving, sometimes stopping to talk. When we first met one couple, they had a little one in a stroller, just like we did, so conversation came easily. Eventually, the woman asked my wife what she did, and with some veiled embarrassment, Linda revealed that she stayed with our daughter and wasn’t working outside of the home.

The woman sighed, one of those genuine, protracted, groans of remorse. “I wish I could do that,” she said. “But we just can’t afford it.”

I felt sad for her, but by then we were in front of their home, which was the same model as mine, only they had a completely finished basement. Mine was nothing more than bare cinderblock walls and a cement floor, waiting for the time when we really needed to finish the space.

Two new cars were parked in their freshly paved driveway. We did have a fairly decent little Ford Escort wagon parked on our gravel, but I was driving a rusty Dodge Colt to work every day.

I felt sad for that woman because she desired the freedom to do what she really wanted to do, but she apparently hadn’t discovered that our belongings have a way of enslaving us and cutting back our options. There was no way I could have become a teacher, and my wife couldn’t have stayed home with our kids if we had been paying off cars and a hefty mortgage.

Everything we own requires labor to acquire and even more to maintain, and that takes up our precious time. We can always make more money, but we can never make more time. Consequently, I’m not a big fan of things.


The Kingdom of God

In this election year marked with so much arrogance, fear, and rage, it is good for us to consider the Kingdom of God as an alternative.

Jesus began his earthly ministry by telling people to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 4:17), but it wasn’t the kind of reign most were looking for, one in which an oppressive government would be overturned and a new nation would come forth in power. Christ explained that the “kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21).

Pilate, the Roman official who ordered Jesus to be crucified, asked him if he was a king. Jesus acknowledged that he was, but added, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting that I might not be delivered over” (John 18:36).

Those who are followers of Jesus truly have a new citizenship in a heavenly kingdom and must view any earthly allegiances as utterly secondary to Christ and his Lordship. He compels us to come unreservedly and completely to him, so much that our own devotion to country and family and even ourselves must pale by comparison.

Jesus declared that “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-27). Jesus made it clear elsewhere that we are to love others completely and well, but that love could considered hate in comparison to the love we reserve for Jesus.

This love is not just a warm or sentimental feeling, but a consecrated devotion. Because we have seen Christ and his way to be the source and goal of all that is eternally valuable, we can willingly forsake everything for him. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

In another parable, Jesus represented himself as one planting wheat in a field, but his enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. Here the field is the world, the wheat represents the “sons of the kingdom,” and the weeds are the “sons of the devil.” Both weeds and wheat grew together in the same field, but removing the weeds would have uprooted the wheat as well, so he chose to let them grow together until harvest, when the wheat would be gathered into the barn and the weeds would be burned. This indicates that at some time in the future, the true believers will be separated from those without faith, who will be consumed in judgment, and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:24-30; 37-43).

In the meantime, however, the kingdom of God coexists among that which is anything but godly. It is only reasonable to conclude that those who belong to the kingdom of God ought to live differently from those around them. Such people are called to be “the light of the world,” and Jesus exhorts us: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).

Therefore, I refuse to be swept up in the septic tide that is politics in 2016.


Trump, the Falwells, and culture wars

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the largest evangelical college in the world, Liberty University, has not only endorsed Donald Trump in the presidential primaries, but has also actively campaigned for him. I can understand that some of my brothers and sisters in the faith see Trump as an alternative to something worse, though I beg to differ with their views.

What I can’t fathom, though, is enthusiasm for a man who seems the Sermon on the Mount’s antithesis. Trump is brash, arrogant, and at times downright crude. His speech regarding migrants, refugees, immigrants, the poor, and the downtrodden in general has been spiked with contempt.

Of course, he is a successful businessman, and maybe that gives him some credentials for leadership, but much of his money was made in ways that don’t exactly resonate with Christian virtue. The man is best known for his reality television shows and casinos that feature not only gambling, but strip clubs, too. Dig a little deeper, and one finds his business style is marked by an uncharitable degree of egotism, bullying, and ruthlessness.

Unfortunately, American Christians are easily manipulated. Way back when Jerry Falwell Jr’s father was first coming to national prominence, touting something called the Moral Majority, American Christians were led into a culture war. Many believed that our country was falling away from its Christian roots, and the “majority” needed to stand up and make its voice heard.

Reclaiming our alleged spiritual heritage and gaining political clout was supposed to bring revival to this depraved land. We backed candidates who gave lip service to ending abortion and other moral causes, and too many Christians became single-issue voters in an increasing complex political world.

We wound up losing the culture war anyway. Not only has abortion continued to be legal, but gay marriage is now the law of the land. In the meantime, our own churches are rife with sexual immorality, divorce, scandal, materialism, and greed. America doesn’t need a new type of politician to implement reform from the top down; our country needs average Christians who truly believe Jesus is Lord and live their lives accordingly, which could transform society from the bottom up.

Back in the 80s when the Moral Majority was flexing its muscle, I was part of a campus ministry at the University of Maryland. When I tried to share the gospel of Christ with a particular student, he completely dismissed the message, vehemently proclaiming that the church was a hypocritical institution with a political agenda.

I told a brother who was with me at the time, that if real persecution came to Christians in America, it wouldn’t be because of our faith in Jesus, but because of our political allegiances.

I hope I wasn’t right about that.