Kids need both mercy and judgment

We need to be like God to our kids, full of love and discipline and justice and mercy. But mercy without judgment is not grace, and that’s why rules and consequences for breaking them must be in place. I can’t help but think that some kids never really come to Christ simply because they have never been held to any rules and have wrong concepts about mercy and justice. Paul wrote, “The law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” (Galatians 3:24).

Rules can never make us right with God, but they show us how we are wrong so we can come to Him honestly, asking for mercy from Him who is so willing to give it. If we constantly let our children off the hook, they assume God will do the same. He will, but only on His terms, and as parents we need to do our best to lead our kids to Christ, who will care for them when we no longer can.

When she was a little girl, my older daughter loved riding her bike. She and I would sometimes travel for miles, me peddling steadily on my big 26” bike, and she cranking furiously on her little 20-incher from which I’d only recently removed the training wheels. She just loved riding with her daddy, and I often rode farther than I really cared to, simply because she delighted so much in the simple joy of being with me and traveling on a bike. If I couldn’t be with her, there were very limited areas where she could ride. Of course, these rules were mostly for her safety. We didn’t want her getting hurt, and nearby were dangerous roads only to be traveled at certain times with her father.

One day, she grew bored with our restrictions and rode beyond where she was told to go. It was fun for a while, but by the time she returned, the poor girl was wracked with guilt. In tears she confessed to her mother that she had disobeyed us. Wisely, my wife forgave my daughter and did not spank her for this offense; our little girl had suffered enough and knew that she was wrong, but my wife also pointed out that she had also offended God, and my daughter describes this event as a pivotal moment when she in reality came to Christ to be forgiven for her sins. God used the rules given by her parents to bring her to Himself.

I want my kids to understand that obedience is ultimately about submission to God. If I’ve only trained them to obey me, I’ve failed miserably because I cannot always be with them, but if they understand they also have a heavenly Father who sees all they do and, more importantly, loves them and desires their obedience to His wishes and wisdom, they may well make right choices when far from me. Above all else, they must know that God loves them, enables them to be righteous, and forgives their inevitable failures.

I have frequently confessed rather than excused my faults before my children. They know I am in need of His mercy, and when I have dealt with them wrongly, caused them offense, or made them stumble because of my behavior, I have asked them for forgiveness. Parents need not worry about losing credibility if they admit their faults. Children are sharper than we think, and when they see our inconsistencies, they are not fooled.

On the other hand, when they see me as a flawed man obtaining grace, they are less likely to dismiss my religion as a crock of rules given by a hypocrite. Oftentimes, I have come alongside my children, especially as they became adolescents, and I have conceded that my own struggles are much like theirs. I have admitted freely the sins of my youth and of my later life, explained how damaging those lapses have been, and shown them the Savior who forgives and empowers me and can do the same for them as well.



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.


Catching waves: Reflections of a middle-aged body boarder

This past week I spent some time with my married children at the beach where we played in the surf. Doing so brought to mind an article I published in Out and About magazine way back in June 2004. I may be more “old” now than “middle-aged,” but not much has changed, so I posted it intact, not even changing the “numbers.” That means I’ve been riding on waves for nearly a half-century, even though the article indicates it’s only forty.  

For nearly four decades, I have been riding on waves. As a boy, I used canvas air mattresses that rubbed my chest raw and made the salt water sting, but I would stay in the ocean for hours, getting knocked around by the waves and washing up on the beach like driftwood.

Later, when I was a gangling longhaired teenager in cutoff jeans, I left the rafts behind and took up body surfing. There was something free and just a little crazy about releasing myself to the waves with nothing but my own sack of bones and skin to carry me through the churning water.

My friends, my brother, and even an occasional girlfriend would join me in the madness of swimming into a rising wave, mounting its crest, and putting our arms out like Superman while the water foamed and broke, driving us up on the sand that unmercifully scraped and bruised our bodies.

That was more than a quarter century ago, and since then I have mellowed considerably. I’ve taken up body boarding, but I’d still rather be in the water than just about anywhere else; however, the reasons why I now ride the surf are not the same ones that got me started. It is a lot like a good marriage: the way that we fall in love is not the way we remain in love.

When I was younger, the attraction of the breakers was nothing more than the quest for a thrill. Indeed, riding an ideal wave is truly exhilarating. To paddle into that perfect spot where there is nothing but rushing water and pure adrenaline, to ride on the edge of both terror and childlike glee, that is just about as good as it gets. But in reality, such completely transcendent rides are rare.

I live on the East Coast where the waves are usually small and tame. Consequently, I rarely see surfers at the beach, and the ones I have watched seem to wait forever for a wave, then paddle frantically and finally stand up on their boards just as the whole thing fizzles out. The entire process looks like a lot of effort for nothing, so I have never felt a need to attempt “real” surfing.

On the other hand, even a day with small waves has its pleasures for the body boarder. Simply bobbing up and down on the swells with nothing better to do than waiting for a decent wave is relaxing, even if it isn’t exciting.

Better yet, being in the ocean with friends or family creates a certain kind of communion. We share the same watery element, locked into the same ebb and flow of the surf.

When a wave with potential comes, we call to one another, scramble into our positions, and ride in together. Sometimes we make a competition of it and see who can ride the farthest up on the sand, or we playfully pull each other off our boards, but it is always a friendly contest, for no one who rides a wave can ever really lose.

Of course, there is a measure of danger in what we do. I’ve seen my share of wicked waves that flip boarders end over end and make them eat sand. Still, real injuries are rare among the people I board with because we observe two important rules. First of all, most people break or sprain their necks because they try to keep their heads above water, so if you ever get upended, duck your head and let the wave take you. Secondly, as soon as you are able, look back out to sea so that another wave doesn’t get the drop on you.

While we have been in the ocean together, I’ve taught my children these lessons and perhaps others that have nothing to do with the surf. There is much time to talk and to listen as we rest upon our boards and wait for a ride-worthy wave. Now that I’m older, I can truly appreciate the way that being in the ocean “gives” me time in a way few other activities can.

For the vast majority of my life, I am driven by schedules, deadlines, and all-consuming busyness. I find myself wondering where days, months, and seasons have gone, but when I’m in the ocean, there are no seconds, minutes, and hours. There is just the timeless rhythm of the waves.

Sometimes I am surprised when I come out of the water and discover it is not as late as I think. One hour often seems like several, and an afternoon stretches out before me like an entire day, but I’m never bored. It’s more like I’m actually immersed in time, much like I am in the ocean itself, rather than skimming the surface of a day like a rock tossed across the water.

I suppose that if I could find a way to shake off my responsibilities and spend more time at the beach, I might live to be a hundred. Better yet, I would not find myself wondering where all my time had gone. I would have lived each moment as it came, deliberately riding the waves instead of being caught up in a mad race that too often substitutes for real life.


For Linda on the cusp of our empty nest

Here we are with our children

Almost completely gone

And we wonder:

Is this house a home

And who are we without them?

For me it’s easier, to be sure,

My dear wife and friend,

Because you are a nurturer of all things:

Flowers, wild birds, mongrel dogs,

And not only children.

On the other hand, I am a mere man.

Still, I am not so different from you:

Longing for a home

We truly made one together

And it has been good.

When I was younger but all grown up

Like our own children are now,

I was too old for mother and father

But yearned for a sanctuary in the midst

Of all the craziness and toil.

Before you, it was only me,

And then it was us,

But it felt just like home

With only you and me and God,

That unbreakable cord of three strands.

Later, we added to ourselves

Children who were precious and delightful.

Nonetheless, they were our own tiny crosses of sorts

Nailing our self-interest down and making it good as dead.

But resurrection and joy came in abundance:

As we gave ourselves to them

They returned more than I ever expected.

And now they too are about

To spread their tendrils of love

And create homes of their very own.

That leaves us with you and me

Still bound together in love

Just as when we started.

So I remind you that we are still at home

With only one another in the house.

Perhaps what you feel

With our children going away

Is just a reminder that we

Are essentially pilgrims still on the move,

Always questing and yearning

But nurtured by foretastes of unsurpassing

Grace and peace and, above all else,

Love beyond measure

And certainly beyond comprehension.

It is no wonder that we are a bit restless

On this side of death’s golden threshold.

One day we most likely will not cross together.

Rather, one will go ahead of the other,

And whoever gets there first

Eventually will greet the other and say,

“Welcome home.”

For the very first time

We will mean it absolutely and completely and forever.