I heard humorist Jack Handey say that you should never criticize someone until you walk a mile in his or her shoes. Then, when you do criticize them, “You are a mile away and have their shoes.” That’s not bad advice, especially when it comes to telling others how to parent their children. If you want to kick over that notorious hornet’s nest, do it from miles away, or at least make sure those shoes on your feet are running shoes. While this is one of the quickest ways to get into serious trouble, this doesn’t stop the practice from being all the rage these days, however. Websites, blogs, reality shows, that crazy old blue-haired lady at the park, the priest who has never had the experience of being an actual father, your grouchy neighbor whose own children are now on Social Security themselves: Everyone has an opinion – and words of instruction – for what to do and not do with your children.
Personally, I don’t appreciate very much of this unsolicited counsel (I don’t know many who do). Yes, when we need advice we should seek it, and we should all bend listening ears to those people we genuinely trust and respect. But armchair parenting? No thanks. That’s why I couldn’t believe that I became one of “those people,” one who stuck his big nose into someone else’s parental business. It happened so quickly, so impulsively, that I have gained a new understanding for those who sometimes rush in with uninvited guidance.
I was sitting at my son’s mid-week football practice, watching with a group of other parents when a mother stood to leave and called to her young lad: “It’s time to leave; we have to go to church.” Her son, not more than five-years-old, had been busy playing with his friends. He was not happy with the interruption. He popped off, “No! I don’t want to go to church!” His mother answered, “Well, then God will send you to hell with the devil and his angels if you don’t go to church.” And that is where I stopped being an observer and became an interfering, meddlesome busybody. “Don’t you ever say that to your child again!” I snapped, not realizing at the time how loud my voice had become.
For her part, the mother I chided looked as if she could have stuffed me and my little fold-up lounge chair into the trunk of my car. I don’t blame her, for I had interfered at too close a distance and had embarrassed her publically. Yet, I just couldn’t let her comment pass, because it was horribly wrong. My outburst arose from the fact that I had been subjected to just such religious threats as a child myself. Church was not always something warm and welcoming, a place of community, peace, and learning. It was often a hard place with legalistic pressure, spiritual intimidation, and such high attendance requirements that I was never allowed to play in community sports programs as a child. My participation would prevent me from attending the midweek prayer meetings.
Church was a difficult place, I logically concluded, because God was difficult. I was resentful and distrustful of him; a God whom I actually believed was eager to send a child to “hell with the devil and his angels” for missing the occasional Sunday School class. When you believe this about God, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about going to the building that bears his name. Ironically, I have remained a church person my entire adult life, being in a pew or a pulpit most every Sunday. But I am no longer part of a rigid, hostile, fear-mongering faith because I no longer believe in a rigid, hostile, fear-mongering God.
This doesn’t make me an enlightened expert sitting in my fold-up chair. I simply have learned that God is not one to be wary of or to be resented, because God is not a threat. The childhood prayer is correct: “God is good,” and he is good all the time.