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.


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*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*

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