The telephone rang in the midst of a busy day at the college, jarring my attention away from grading papers. I recognized the voice of the caller right away as my friend Rev. Victor Kim, pastor at Richmond Presbyterian Church in Richmond, B.C.
“Hi Ross,” he said. “I’m putting together a Friday night program next month for the families in our church and I wondered if you would be free to come out and speak on Christian parenting?” The question caught me off guard as I am used to presenting to local churches on topics in my theological wheelhouse – missional theology, church leadership, evangelism and preaching.
“Um,” I stuttered, “Victor, you’ve met my kids, right? You know that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing as a Christian parent.” Victor laughed and gently prodded me into accepting the role as presenter. I teased that my experience of “parenting experts” growing up in Winnipeg were usually the people whose kids were the most screwed up. When I hung up the phone a sense of dread overshadowed me. What could I have to say to others about parenting from a Christian perspective other than, “without the loving and capable leadership of my wife, everything would fall apart!” When I asked my wife that night at the dinner table whether she wanted to speak instead, she simply rolled her eyes and said, “Not a chance – you’re on your own with this one!”
I have a hunch, however, that I am not the only one who feels a little overwhelmed with trying to raise children to be faithful disciples of our risen Lord Jesus Christ in the second decade of 21st-century Canada, right? Culture is a huge influencer of our children’s decision making, their peer group exerts more influence than we do most days, dangers lurk around every corner, #metoo reminds us of the challenges our children face as they grow older, and every major fight in our household revolves around the use of technology. Lord, have mercy. So, where to begin? I opened the Scriptures looking for guidance and began to prayerfully discern the different roles we all play in the development of these young disciples that God has entrusted to our care.
As a Reformed Christian, I’ve always had a soft spot for Moses. I suppose it was all those burning bush symbols up around the church when I was a child. So for this exercise, I turn to Exodus. In the second chapter I read about Moses’ mother, in a terribly difficult moment, making the decision to launch her precious child out onto the waters of the Nile in a little papyrus basket. The story reminds me of those early years of parenting where we are both in awe of, and overwhelmed by, the gift of new life in our midst. The sleepless nights, the endless diaper changes, the acknowledgment that our own parents might actually know something about what we are now going through, and the fierce sense of wanting to protect this little life, are all tied up with the sincere desire that our little one might know and love Jesus. Singing our daughter to sleep with endless verses of Amazing Grace, watching the entire Veggie Tales series, attending parenting groups at the church, and beginning steps of catechesis in Sunday school all acknowledge that in order for our precious little child to know Jesus, we have to start letting go and accepting that we cannot do this on our own. The role of the Christian community in the catechetical development of our children is so very important.
I turn next to 1 Samuel 3, recognizing that like Moses’ mother, Hannah also had to “let go” of the control over her son and “let God” take charge of his calling. While in service to the elderly priest Eli, Samuel hears his name called again and again in the night. The phenomenon eventually requires the wisdom of Eli to help interpret what Samuel is experiencing as the call of Almighty God on his life. And what a life Samuel will have – anointing kings and boldly speaking prophetic clarity to God’s covenant people in a sin-sick and fallen world.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, suggests that Samuel was around 11 or 12 years old when he heard God’s call. For those of us with pre-teens and teenagers in our house, we need no reminder of how turbulent those years can be. Nothing we do or say seems to be right. Changes in both their body and social relationships makes them a ticking time bomb that leaves most of us exhausted and walking on eggshells. A wonderful, funny and godly elder in a previous church I served, described to me how during a period of his life, even chewing his cereal at the breakfast table upset his teenage daughter. She insisted that he take his breakfast to another room to eat. This was pre-internet and so he was reduced to communicating for a couple of years primarily by writing letters to his teenage daughter and sliding them under her door on his way to work. At night she would return the letter with her own thoughts. In the letters he regularly expressed his love for her and how God had a plan and purpose for her life.
“We made it through those years, Ross,” he said, “but only by the grace of God. My daily prayer was that the Lord would speak to her; call her by name.”
The teen years are ones where we long for our Christian faith to deeply take root in our children’s lives. Youth groups in our local churches and teen Sunday school classes are so important as the wider Christian community claims responsibility for raising our children in the faith, putting into practise those communal baptismal vows made long ago when they were babies. My local church in North Vancouver holds a breakfast club for the teens once a month. A beautifully prepared breakfast awaits the teens while an elder or other mature Christian leads a discussion group on a topic of faith that the teens submit in advance. Last week my teenage daughter told me they spent the whole morning debating the question, “Can the Bible be trusted?” She loved it. Creating a space either in congregational communities or so-called “para-church” ministries (like Young Life or Christian camps) where teens can hear God’s call is essential. I know I regularly pray that my three children might have the assurance given to us in Isaiah 43: “Thus, says the Lord, do not be afraid, I have redeemed you, I have called you by name. You are mine.”
Unyoking Young Adults
So, is that it? Is Christian parenting simply getting them through the difficult teen years with their faith in Jesus intact? “Oh no,” an older and wiser brother in the faith told me over coffee as I was discussing this theme. He smiled and sipped his latte slowly. “Then you get into the whole dating and career stage of parenting where the choices your children make affect you deeply, but you have very little influence or leverage on their decision making.” Ugh. I returned to my office where my scripture studies led me to the story of Ruth and Naomi. I puzzled over a state of parenting that I have not yet entered where our children start forming relationships and making vocational decisions that take them in directions very different than you ever imagined. What is our role in our children’s lives when they are young adults and the influence of parents and even the local congregation is vastly different than even a few years prior? As one Reformed pastor friend of mine lamented in reference to his new son-in-law, “Ross, it’s not that on the wedding day I lost my daughter but more that I gained a loser.” Yikes. Imagine Christmas dinner around that table? The Ruth and Naomi story illustrates an alternative imagination, however, whereby the people our children choose as spouse as well as the paths they follow can turn into a blessing for us as we move into later stages of our own lives. How might we see God speaking and acting in profound and unexpected ways in the new relationships and geographic locations that he calls our adult children into? What might God be teaching us about his faithful presence in the courageous acts our children take, moving further away from our parental orbit?
Finally, I have heard time and time again as a congregational pastor the profound and humbling act of grace that grandparenting can be for so many disciples of Jesus Christ. In scripture study I reflected on Paul’s comments to young Timothy. Paul noted that the sincere faith that now lives in Timothy first lived in his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice (2 Timothy 1:5). With Paul’s words fresh in my mind, I recall a familiar conversation had with many grandparents throughout my ministry; that is, a concern about the lack of faith in their own adult children and what that means for their young grandchildren. I would always encourage them to be unashamed evangelists with their own grandkids. The role of a grandparent is special. All the fun, none of the responsibility, right? Or is the responsibility actually to model, free of the stress of “hands-on” parenting, what following Jesus looks like for these tiny humans? Grandparents who speak freely about who Jesus is and how life in Christ makes all the difference in being human can be a huge support. The “Timothys” of this world need the testimony of a Lois.
At the same time, in the sharing of who Jesus is, grandparents are challenged to pass along an understanding of Christ free of a particular generational culture. I have often canvased local churches and asked the question of older members, “What are you willing to give up or change within this local church (including elements in Sunday worship) in order to make this a place that your children and grandchildren would want to participate in?” Grandparents engaging in testimony and prayer for their grandchildren not only changes the kids, but the elders – and potentially the church – as well.
After some time spent in the scriptures, I still feel overwhelmed by parenting. However, I am also strengthened by the knowledge that we are all participating in this calling in partnership with our Heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are not in this alone. We do not need to be the hero. The growing faith of our children is a connectional point between their catechetical development and the role of the wider faith community. Sam Wells, in his book on Christian ethics, Improvisation, reminds us that the term, “hero” never appears in the New Testament; rather, of the 64 references to saints in the New Testament, each and every one is plural.
“Saints are never alone,” writes Wells. “They assume, demand, require community – a special kind of community, the communion of saints. Heroes have learned to depend on themselves; saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith.”
Thank God for that good news.