Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Parenting Unrehearsed: How to keep your kids from reading too many Bible verses

— adj

(of a play, speech, etc) not having been practiced in advance

I might also add off-the-cuff, in no particular order, results may vary.  For six(ish) weeks I'll share here  -- off the top of my head -- a few practices we may have learned in our twenty-one years of parenting four children. 

Chapter 1:  Your Kids Were Supposed to Have Perfect Parents.

Chapter 2:  Your Kids Are Not Fragile

Chapter 3:  It does take a village.

Chapter 4: 

How to keep your kids from reading too many Bible verses.

  (or Help Your Kids Be Like Jesus)

A few years ago, when two or three-dozen of my extended family still gathered  for a Thanksgiving dinner, someone got the ambitious idea to dance. After the pie we turned the far side of the fire hall into a dance floor.  One by one four generations, the littlest cousins, an uncle, an aunt began to dance.  After not much wheedling, Grandpa and Grandma took their turn on the floor. 

The fox trot never looked so good.

On a few occasions –  volleyball matches and whiffle ball games on the cottage lawn – I noticed the same twinkle in my grandfather’s blue eyes, matching rhythm with his eighty-plus-year-old feet.

Standing next to me, watching, my mother whispered, “All these years, he thought he wasn’t supposed to dance.”

It’s one of the saddest epigraphs I can imagine. 

Grandma and Grandpa as the last couple standing in the 
"Longest Married" dance at  Ryan & Macia's wedding

My First Dance

I remember everything about the night perfectly. After twelve years together at a Christian school, my best friend enrolled in public school her senior year.  The first dance and I tagged along for moral support because neither one of us had ever been.  

I wore a shiny polyester white blouse (mock neck and capped sleeves) and pastel pink pleated pants, pumps, dangly earrings,  moussed-up bangs.  I'm sure we danced with people a few times -- some of Lori's new friends -- but mostly I remember the throbbing music touching off some inner pulse I didn't even know I possessed.  To borrow a line: I had the time of my life and I'd never felt this way before.  

It was glorious.  

Who told us we weren't supposed to dance?  Same people who told us we weren't supposed to go to movies, listen to rock music, play cards or drink alcohol, I guess.  Someone told my grandparents first (on both sides of my family) and then they told us.  They told us because they loved us and wanted to protect us.

My beloved grandmother on my mother's side handed down a few extras for the list:  no pants for women and no facial hair for men.  Thankfully, my parents had a touch of the rebel in them and wore pants and beards with abandon.

It made (almost) perfect sense to me back then.  The items on the banned list representing the evils of the secular culture.  We were not part of the secular culture.  We were part of the Bible culture.  Our very own category of citizens, requiring special rules so that we could look differently and live differently from the World.  We took pride in looking different and wore the mocking we received from the Public School Kids as our own personal Cold War.

We did not read classic literature in our small Christian school.  Or study art.  We knew nothing of old films. I knew well Fanny Crosby and Thomas Kinkade  but nothing of Flannery O'Connor or Wassily Kandinsky.  I could quote huge portions of the Bible, rattle off all 66 books, twelve disciples, and ten commandments but not a speck of Shakespeare.  I knew the difference between the minor prophets and majors but knew nothing of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

This is what it meant to cast off secular culture.  In a misguided attempt to be holy, we confused culture with worldliness and the Bible as an antidote instead of the living Story of God.

It's a crying shame.  And I do mean literally.

"One of the challenges of being a Christian parent is to keep too much religion, as opposed to truth, out of the lives of your children ...
You can ask a child to memorize one Bible verse too many.  You can share one little platitude as an answer to a real question once too often. There is a straw that breaks the camel's back. If you are teaching obedience to Christ and enjoying the ancient traditions of Christian liturgy and the Eucharist, the meaning of the sacraments and worship, teaching the value of Western culture, its art, its thought, studying its history, discussing today's movies and politics, looking at the world of nature and nature's God...your children will be naturally surrounded by the fruit of Christianity and its thought. They will still have to make their own choices about what they believe to be true, but they will have something positive by which to judge the claims of the world...."  (Franky Schaeffer, Sham Pearls for Real Swine: Beyond the Cultural Dark Age - A Quest for Renaissance)
I am forever grateful for that little bit of contrarian in both of my parents -- Mom taking us to the library religiously, showing us art, renting film projectors so we could watch Oliver Twist on my 13th birthday, making us inviting us to memorize poetry, teaching creative writing electives at our school. Dad with his woolly beard, shameless love for the Beach Boys and impromptu family dance parties.

The 2012 Annual Family Vacation Dance Party.
It's a little-known fact that this tradition began in my parent's living room
 one snowy New York winter night in front of the fire place
 with Dad's favorite Beach Boys tunes on cassette tape.

The message of the Incarnation -- the spiritual God putting on physical flesh and dwelling among the culture of men -- tells us that God blessed His entire world as good.  In case we ever got confused between physical and spiritual realms, he put on skin to make sure we saw with our own eyes.  

He never sends mixed messages, dividing secular and spiritual.  He lived seamlessly, giving and receiving blessing in all places and times and among all people -- an undivided life.   The Word-made-Man studied the Torah, knew all the prophets and Law, yet lived fully present to the culture into which He was born.   

The Bible verses He learned never once told Him that He was fragile in an evil, unbearable, sin-cootie culture.  Instead, His understanding of the Scriptures formed a lifestyle of blessing culture, enjoying culture, making culture.

When we live as though He did not bless all the world as good, when we lead our children to believe that the Bible teaches us we are fragile and, thus, need to create some sort of refuge from culture, we do not live out the Gospel of Christ.  No matter how good our intentions, we teach a false Gospel. 

I wouldn't say it so plainly if I hadn't seen this bad teaching wreck so many lives -- either by legalistic fear or lawless apathy.  Even so, I've also seen Jesus heal spirits crushed by legalism, and make beautiful things out of broken things.

And, I am not saying we don't need to live thoughtfully within our culture.  Certainly, the pathway for an undivided life is mapped out by acts of discernment.  The heresy that separates the world into spiritual (good) and secular(bad)  produces minds with the inability to think critically between what is good, true and beautiful and what is bad, fake and ugly.

When we live in a legalistically divided life we never cultivate the practice of discernment, leaving us stunted in our ability to recognize and enjoy the good while putting away, correcting the bad.

Discernment Unrehearsed

In our home, we've tried to practice this sort of discernment. We've made more mistakes than I can count, penduluming between legalism and lawlessness.  Sometimes fueled by a bitter reaction to legalism, we did not steward our children's eyes, ears and hearts well. Other decisions my mind said "We are not fragile" but my mouth said "Is it Christian?" because I didn't feel like doing the work of discernment.    

Take, for example, the time our oldest son started buying music that surpassed the boundaries of my own comfort zone. Frankly, more than concern for him, I felt mad that we'd given him so much freedom and he still managed to push the boundaries.  

What now?

 I started by listening to the songs myself. I had no reference for the  lyrics and musical aesthetic so my legalistic impulses kicked in with full force.  Everything in me wanted to say "No, you're not listening to this music.  I haven't figured out why so don't bother to ask." 

Next, we listened to the disc together in the mini-van.  Right away this created artistic tension since this particular genre had no business playing through the speakers of a mini-van.  Still, we cranked up the volume, rolled down the windows and I listened while Andrew educated me on the finer points of a genre I'd never bothered to consider before he brought it to my attention.

I started to understand better the history, the context, the  poetry.  I could not get over the obscenity.  I couldn't do it.  In an extreme fit of not-knowing-what-in-the-world-to-do, I started singing along to the lyrics.  At the top of my lungs.  With the windows down.  In my mini-van.  At a stop sign.  With pedestrians waiting at the corner, I free-lanced the words I couldn't understand (the majority) and over-pronounced the words I could (all the four-letter and explicit ones).

My son was not amused.  

At all.

Definitely not one of the better tactics in my history of  parenting children.

Eventually, I figured out I needed help.  I called on our tribe.  Those who had more experience in the genre Andrew preferred  (read: were younger than me) and some who had children who'd already passed this particular era (read: were older than me).  Those whom I trusted to have a thoughtful, theologically-informed, culturally-savvy, relationally-intelligent discernment

 After listening to our community we decided the following parameters:

1.  Some of the music in the genre contained two specific themes we rejected. Andrew could listen to the genre -- any song that did not contain those two themes.  (We trusted him to pick those out on his own.)

2.  He had to continue cultivating a diverse catalog of music (all genres).

3.  He needed to learn the value of context.  Unlike his mother singing obscenities loud enough for the neighbors, he needed to learn the right times and places to play any particular music.

these boys know they are supposed to dance

Practice Discernment

1.  Discernment does not happen by itself or when you are by yourself.  For example, all the practices I've mentioned in the preceding posts work together to form a healthy atmosphere for thoughtful decision-making.

An analogy for this point might be that the acts of forgiveness, confession and tribe-building (and more) are seeds planted into the soil of discernment, wisdom the good fruit that springs up after long days of cultivating the soil.

2.  Practice humility.  Do your prayerful best to make a good decision and then take the next step. If you find out you got it wrong, make confession, receive grace, start again.   "It's better to get a message wrong and proceed in humility than to get it right and to proceed if it's all up to you."  (Jennifer Fulwiler, Conversion Diary)

3.  Love learning, model a reading life.  
  • As our instruction to Andrew to cultivate a diverse listening catalog, same is true for reading.  Read the Bible, yes.  Read it heartily.  AND read fiction, biography, fantasy, theology, memoir, poetry, essay, comedy, news, comedy, history, plays, cereal boxes and blog posts.  
4.  Relax.  You've got time; it's going to take time. Are you tired of hearing me say this yet?  How about this? Reject hyper-vigilence, embrace spacious grace as you watch for fruit of your decisions.

Seeing some less than healthy fruit? Make small adjustments until health returns.  Avoid making major, life-altering decisions as a method for correcting previous mistakes.  

5.  Don't take yourself too seriously.  (another form of humility)

Put another way...



Next time on Parenting Unrehearsed: 

I love to hear from you!  For example, what are some ways you've both learned and taught healthy practices of discernment?  Also, please feel free to share the sorts of questions you've been asking about parenting.


P.S. If you'd like to receive This Sacramental Life in your inbox, enter your email address here

*Thank you to the lovely Lindsey from Lindsey Davern Photography for capturing the hilarious -- and unrehearsed -- family photo I'm using for this series.*

*Thank you to Andrew Shipman for the sweet photo of my grandparents dancing*


  1. These posts are becoming a must-read for me. Thanks, Tamara. Always good to hear what you have to say. I do think these posts have the potential to become the parenting book that could give us back a little bit of hope and joy in this crazy time of life. I'm tired of reading blog posts and snippets of books (some of which I've literally thrown across the room in anger) that inspire fear and anxiety and raise the bar to an unhealthy (not godly) place. Just chew on this idea. I think there's something here. I really do.

  2. This series of posts is the first time that the written word has made me cry. I love you, mom.

  3. I grew up under the heavy influence of legalism (your list of don'ts are all too familiar) and only now in my 50's am I beginning to see the damage it has done in my life. My Grandmother sold her engagement ring because it was too worldly to evidently even own let alone ever think of wearing it. As I look back it all makes me sad and even somewhat angry as I see the way it shaped my teen years. Thanks for writing on this subject.

  4. Love this: "The items on the banned list representing the evils of the secular culture. We were not part of the secular culture. We were part of the Bible culture.
    Our very own category of citizens, requiring special rules so that we
    could look differently and live differently from the World. We took
    pride in looking different and wore the mocking we received from the
    Public School Kids as our own personal Cold War."

    It's interesting. I am reading this at a blog conference (a secular one). Last night we danced. I jumped right up and joined in. I can't think of a better way to become 'more human'.

  5. tamarahillmurphy10/06/2012 11:06 AM

    Shannon, I know I already told you this in person, but wanted to write it here "for the record". :) Thank you for your affirmation...what a gift! Also, I can't think of anything I'd hope for more than you to feel "hope and joy" from reading here. You are a good mom and a good friend. I'm grateful to journey with you.

  6. tamarahillmurphy10/06/2012 11:06 AM

    Alex, now YOUR words made me cry. I love you, son. Thank you for making me a mom.

  7. tamarahillmurphy10/06/2012 11:10 AM

    Debbie, thank you for spending time here and for taking the time to write a comment. I am sad for the "heavy influence of legalism" you experienced, yet grateful for your ability to reflect and re-think. May you know grace as you grieve (the sad and mad feelings you describe) and as you heal.

  8. tamarahillmurphy10/06/2012 11:11 AM

    Kaley, I can totally see you dancing there! Love your description of "becoming more human." Love you!

  9. Natalie Briggs10/08/2012 7:56 PM

    I have been chewing on this post for a few days now. My parents were not believers (when I was young) and there were a lot of "worldly" things that I was "exposed" to. Some of them were deafening and others were just normal stuff. I'm grateful for the culture that was instilled in me by my music lovin' father (especially Elvis) and my arteest mother (we even lived on Gauguin St.!). I did miss some generally beneficial teaching about the Bible that many young children raised in a Christian home receive. I found however that I struggled with how to balance the culture and my new found faith when I was a teenager. How do they both go together? Should they be balanced? Isn't it an all or nothing thing?
    I've laughed retrospectively at the forbidden things in our home (i.e. Shrek! Primarily because I didn't think it was for kids) and how at times we've not discipled properly (letting scripture teach how to live) and then used the scripture to discipline. Talk about Bible beating!
    I want for my kids to have wisdom in decisions and to seek God's ways and to not be shackled by the culture but I also want them to not fear the culture and to be able to engage the world around them. I trust that in due time they will be able to.
    Recently our small group leader made an excellent point for us as parents. Our kids are their own moral agents. While we are to train them up and shepherd them they will be accountable for what they have done because He works in each of us and each of us will give an account. Somewhat freeing in allowing your kids to make decisions for themselves.
    Perhaps tonight's dance party to 80's hits will give my kids just a taste of age appropriate culture. (BTW, I let Joshua watch Shrek this weekend. He enjoyed it and I don't think he wants to be an ogre yet!)

  10. tamarahillmurphy10/09/2012 5:27 PM

    Natalie, thank you for this thoughtful response. I think that so much of what we choose as parents is -- at least in part-- a response to our own upbringing. I think the goal is to find the "all things in moderation" baseline for our own families to prevent us from swinging to extremes. Also, we're always learning so our parameters should reflect that too. I also suspect that when we as parents and Christ-followers shepherd our kids in the culture we actually shape their response to it. In other words, perhaps, some (maybe not all) of the "deafening" cultural experiences you experienced before your parents followed Christ might have had a completely different impact on you had you experienced them with Christ-following parents shepherding you. Does that make sense? Sometime you'll have to share some of your stories with me. Also, I can just picture all the bathroom jokes that Shrek has now inspired in your house! I still can't think about ear wax after watching that movie. :)

  11. Tamara, I have found myself digging back thru these older posts on your blog (you'll link to something in a recent post, which links to something else, and so on), and I just can't stop reading. So much wisdom and grace - I thank you for writing this all down. I know I will learn so much from you!

  12. tamarahillmurphy9/09/2013 9:47 AM

    Katie, I'm grateful to you for spending time with me here. It means a lot to me that you are feeling encouraged. God bless you, friend.


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