This is the final in a four-part series on the overused (and often insensitively employed) phrases that plague the Christian lexicon. Though I felt like I was offering some insight into what to do instead of offering these cliches, some asked for more specificity or clarity. So in that spirit, I thought I’d offer a final list of things to do rather than pop off with these phrases that may mean little or nothing to the recipient, or worse, may cause unintended – but lasting – harm.
Read article one in the series here: Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use
Read article two in the series here: Ten More Cliches Christians Should Avoid
Read article three in the series here: Nine (Final) Christian Cliches to Avoid
Ten Antidotes to Christian Cliches:
- Listen more; talk less. Yes, there were times in the Gospels when Jesus sermonized, but most of the time, he said much less than people expected. He listened first, and when responding to problems or questions, he often left room in his answer for the listener to wrestle with what was said and to arrive at their own understanding. We Christians don’t like to give up such control, though. We want to know that the person gets what we want them to get. But if we’re ever to get past the widely held perception that we’re a bunch of tone-deaf talking heads, we have to be quiet and pay attention more.
- Stop trying to fix everything. Christians hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone smiling and assured that everything will be just fine. But that’s not always reality, and sometimes, what people need is to grieve, wrestle or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready, despite what some evangelism training will tell you. People may even ask for answers, but what we’re all looking for, at a deeper level than our search for those answers, is peace. Sometimes that takes time.
- See yourself in the “Other.” Somewhere along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest turn-offs I hear about Christians is that folks see us as trying to make everyone like us. But Jesus himself was moved, affected and – yes -changed by the people he encountered. And lest we forget: the Greatest Commandment was not to convert people to Christianity. It was love others with all you have an all you are. Part of loving others is actually understanding what they want or need, not just giving them what you think they want or need.
- Pray. This one sounds self-evident, but I think it needs to be mentioned. Notice I didn’t say to tell people “I’m praying for you.” I hear from too many people that such a phrase is used passive-aggressively toward them to suggest they’re screwed up and need help. If you really believe prayer works, then just do it. And this doesn’t need to be some pietistic ritual, with knees bent, eyes closed, head bowed and hands clasped. If that helps you feel closer to God, fine, but it’s not a performance. There’s not a right or wrong way to “do” prayer. I think it’s more about noticing, about recognizing the Divine in all of creation and in one another, in noticing the brokenness in the world and responding to that need. This is what it means to make our whole lives a prayer. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. We Christians could use more of that.
- Quality over quantity. We have a bad habit of practicing what I call “Air Drop” Christianity. Whether it’s a quick in-and-out mission trip, a door-to-door evangelism or a quick handshake on Sunday morning and then we move on, we have a bad habit of sprinkling ourselves here and there as if our faith is a garnish, rather than at the heart of who we are. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I’m sure: INVEST IN PEOPLE. It’s hard work, but it’s the stuff of life when we have the proper perspective.
- Share generously of yourself. This doesn’t mean simply sharing a pre-packaged testimonial story you’ve told over and over again, or dropping a few dollars in the offering plate or in a homeless person’s cup. It means taking emotional risk, making ourselves vulnerable to others in ways that we hope they will feel comfortable being open and vulnerable to us. The way we approach people often times in the context of Christian evangelism assumes an inherent imbalance of power, with us on the side of that power. We know the truth, and you dont; we are saved, and you’re not; we are here to rescue you from yourself. But discipleship should be a lifelong and mutual investment. and why should we expect anyone to invest in us or what we believe if we’re not willing first to take a chance with them?
- Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong. Anyone who tells me that their faith has not evolved over time into something different than how it started makes me really nervous. for some this may only involve a deepening (or hardening) of existing beliefs, but for others, it is a never-ending process of growth, pruning and adding on. Consider the disciples; were they ever wrong? Did they ever change their understanding of what they believed? Of course. So why do we think we should be any different? Also, being open to the possibility that the person you’re with could actually teach you something honors their wisdom and experience, wherever they are coming from. Christian or not, every person has a unique story, because no one in the history of the world has ever lived that life except for them. Allow yourself to be moved and even changed by those experiences.
- Apologize. I have found that sometimes all people really want is a simple apology for the hurt inflicted by other Christians. Sure, you may not have done anything personally to that individual, but if you’re a Christian, you represent the whole of Christianity to that person. It won’t kill you to say “I’m sorry you were pushed away, made to feel like less of a person, judged, condescended to, denied rights in the name of the faith I claim.” Name the wrongdoing, validate the hurt, and then sit back and see what happens. More often than not, in my experience, such apologies are met with tears of relief, embraces, generous forgiveness and, perhaps the best of all, fascinating stories.
- Own your love. We Christians love to say things like “God loves you” or “Jesus loves you,” but for someone who isn’t sure what they believe, or who has been deeply hurt by the faith, this may ring very hollow. Instead, why not say “I love you”? Yes, it’s risky, and if you don’t actually mean it, don’t say it. But if you follow the steps above, it’s not hard to find a spark of Christ-like love for the person you’re with. Can’t muster such a personal offering of love? At least try something like “You are loved,” rather than leaving it all to God or Jesus. If we are Jesus’ body in the world today, this includes the heart. If only we were as good as being Christ’s heart to the world as we are at being his mouth!
- Make sure your life reflects your faith. One of the words I hear most often in describing Christians is “hypocrite.” There’s a reason for this. One solution to this is to stop making verbal promises your life doesn’t live up to. Another is stepping up our game in daily life. St. Francis famously said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” The fact is, if we’re really living the live we find revealed in the Gospels, there will be little need for words to explain what it is that we believe.
Read article one in the series here: Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use
Read article two in the series here: Ten More Cliches Christians Should Avoid
Read Part Four here: Ten Antidotes to Christian Cliches
The response to this series of articles has been pretty overwhelming, and generally, very positive. For the handful of folks who label me an apostate, atheist, anti-Christian or what have you for stepping on some rhetorical toes, it’s fine if you feel the need to cast stones. But do bear in mind that, when you do, you are living into a stereotype of Christians as knee-jerk reactionary, judgmental people. Something to consider.
And for the hundreds who have written with thanks for helping them feel their pain, alienation, confusion or resistance is heard and understood, thank you.
In that spirit, I have compiled a third (and most likely, final) list of Cliches to avoid because, frankly, there were still so many worth noting that have yet to be addressed. Thanks to those who have submitted suggestions for additional lists. And because I’ve had some emails and comments asking for more clarity on what to do or say instead of leaning on these cliches, I’ll offer a closing piece for this series tomorrow about what I’d suggest Christians focus on instead of well-worn rhetorical scripts.
Enough prologue. Here are the final nine cliches to strike from the Christian lexicon if we’re interested in reaching people on a deeper, more personal level.
- Christianity is the only way to God/Heaven. You may believe this with your whole heart, and I’m sure you have the scriptures at the ready to support it. But consider the possibility that either those you’re speaking with think differently about this, or if they haven’t put much thought into it, that what you’re saying feels like an ultimatum or a threat. Yes, there are texts to support a theology of exclusive salvation, but there also are some to support a more universalist notion of salvation (John 1:9 – “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”). And think about how such a statement might sound to someone who has lost a loved one who was not a Christian, at least by your standards of what that means. And theologically speaking, it opens up a whole Pandora’s Box in answering for the fate of all those who lived before Christ, who never hear about him, and so on.
- When God closes a door, He opens a window. Like some other cliches, this implies that, when something unexpected (and usually bad) happens to you, God did it to you. I know it’s well-meaning, but it’s not helpful in some cases. What about someone who feels like the door has closed on them, and there is no other hope in sight? That persona may benefit more from a compassionate ear, a loving heart and a simple “what can I do to help”” much more than some phrase that may or may not have any basis in reality.
- God helps those who help themselves. Let me be clear – THIS IS NOT IN SCRIPTURE. People treat it like it is, but it’s not. Benjamin Franklin penned this in the Farmers’ Almanac in 1757. Be very, very careful when quoting something you think is in the Bible. And even if it is, be very careful in how and why you quote it to/at people. People don’t need more reasons to resent or resist scripture; let’s not add things that aren’t even in there.
- Perhaps God is (causing something negative) to get your attention/It is God’s way of telling you it is time for (fill in the blank). To me, this comes off as speaking on behalf of God. It seems to me that the better thing to say, if anything is “Is there any good that can come of this?” or “What wisdom can we find in this experience?” but better than this is – as I’ve said before – being quiet, being present and being compassionately loving. Let God speak for God.
- There, but for the grace of God, go I. This suggests that the person who is the object of whatever misfortune you’re referring to is not the recipient of God’s grace. The thing is (at least as I understand it) grace isn’t grace if it’s selectively handed out like party favors. Relating to someone, and even sharing common experiences, or how you could see yourself in their similar situation is one thing. But making it sound like you’re not suffering because of God’s grace while they are is just unkind.
- If you just have enough faith (fill in the blank) will happen for you. Talk about setting God up! Who are we to speak to what God will or will not do in others’ lives? Sure, if you have a story of personal experience to share, ask for permission to share it. But be aware that someone in the midst of struggle may not be in a place to hear it. But fulfilling promises like this is above our human pay grade. As my dad used to say, don’t write checks your butt can’t cash.
- I don’t put God in a box. This actually is a favorite of many progressives. This comes off as pretty arrogant, in my opinion. You’re implying others put God in a box, and that your theological perspective is superior because you don’t. The problem is, anyone who believes in God puts God in a box. Yes, your box may be different than others’ boxes, but unless you share the “mind of God,” your understanding of God is some conscripted, dimly illuminated view of what God actually is, at best.
- (Insert name) is a good, God-fearing Christian. First off, the phrase “God-fearing” is a real turn-off to many Christians and non-Christians alike. Though some understand God as a thing to be feared, a lot of folks simply do not relate to that image of God. And if you happen to be using the word “fear” as a synonym for “respect,” consider the likelihood that your audience probably hears “fear” as “fear.”
- God is in control. This raises a very fundamental problem of Theodicy, which most Christians I’ve met who say this are not necessarily prepared to address. Theodicy is the dilemma between belief in an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God with the existence of evil and/or suffering in the world. And the other problem is that, if you believe that human beings have free will (a central tenet of most Christian thought), it needs to be recognized that that, in itself, is a concession of control by God. And like other phrases I’ve mentioned about God’s role in daily life, be careful in tossing this one around. Telling someone who was raped, abused, tortured, neglected, etc. that God was in control during that experience likely is enough to incent that person to turn from the concept of God forever.
After writing up my first list of Ten Cliches Christians Should Never Use, some folks wrote me with other suggestions. After simmering on it for a while, I came up with a second list of ten to supplement the first.
And as there was some confusions from a handful of fellow Christians about the intent of the articles. These are not intended to tell you to believe or not believe a certain set of things. Christians have a Public Relations problem; that much is self-evident. So in as much as I can respond to that, I want to offer these as advice on how to change the way we approach people about our faith.
On to the next ten cliches for Christians to avoid…
- Love the sinner, hate the sin. This is a backhanded way to tell someone you love them, at best. It also ignores the command by Jesus not to focus on the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes while a plank remains in our own. Bottom line: we all screw up, and naming others’ sin as noteworthy while remaining silent about your own is arrogant.
- The Bible clearly says…Two points on this one. First, unless you’re a Biblical scholar who knows the historical and cultural contexts of the scriptures and can read them in their original languages, the Bible isn’t “clear” about much. Yes, we can pick and choose verses that say one thing or another, but by whom was it originally said, and to whom? Cherry-picking scripture to make a point is called proof-texting, and it’s a theological no-no. Second, the Bible can be used to make nearly any point we care to (anyone want to justify slavery?), so let’s not use it as a billy club against each other.
- God needed another angel in heaven, so He called him/her home. Another well-meaning but insensitive thing to say. This assumes a lot about what the person you’re speaking to believes, and it also ignores the grief they’re going through. The person who died is, well, dead. Focus on the needs of the living right in front of you.
- Are you saved? I’ve addressed the theological understandings of hell and judgment in other pieces, but regardless of whether you believe in hell, this is a very unattractive thing to say. First, it implies a power/privilege imbalance (ie, “I’m saved, but I’m guessing you’re not based on some assumptions I’m making about you), and it also leaps over the hurdle of personal investment and relationship, straight into the deep waters of personal faith. If you take the time to learn someone’s story, you’ll like learn plenty about what they think and believe in the process. And who knows? You might actually learn something too, rather than just telling others what they should believe.
- The Lord never gives someone more than they can handle. What about people with mental illness? What about people in war-torn countries who are tortured to death? What about the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust? And this also implies that, if really horrible things are happening to you, God “gave” it to you. Is this a test? Am I being punished? Is God just arbitrarily cruel? Just don’t say it.
- America was founded as a Christian nation. Honestly, I find it hard to believe we are still having this conversation, but here we are. Anyone with a cursory understanding of history understands that we were founded on the principle of religious liberty – not just the liberty to be a Christian – and that many of the founding fathers explicitly were not Christian. Thomas Jefferson, anyone?
- The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it. If ever there was a top-shelf conversation killer this is it. You’re not inviting any opinion, response, thought or the like. You’re simply making a claim and telling others to shut up. Also, I’ve yet to meet someone who takes EVERY WORD of the Bible literally. Everyone qualifies something in it, like the parts about keeping kosher, wearing blended fibers, stoning adulterers, tossing your virgin daughters into the hands of an angry mob…you get the point.
- It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. This is a little “joke” some Christians use to assert the superiority of opposite-sex unions over same-sex ones. But here’s the thing: if you really believe the first and only two people on the planet at one point were Adam and Eve, who did their kids marry and have babies with? This, my friends, is incest (happened again if you believe Noah’s family members were the only survivors of the great flood). This just demonstrates the selective moral blindness many of us Christian have and seriously compromises our credibility about anything else.
- Jesus was a Democrat/Republican. Seems to me that, when pressed, Jesus was happy to keep church and state separate. Remember the whole thing about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and giving to God what is God’s? And if we choose to, we can pick and choose anecdotes to support Jesus being a liberal (care for the poor, anti death penalty) or a conservative (challenge government authority, practice sexual purity). Jesus was Jesus, and if it was as simple as pegging him to one of two seriously flawed contemporary forms of government, I can promise you I would not be a Christian.
- (Insert sin here) is an abomination in the eyes of God. Almost always, when this phrase is invoked, it has something to do with sex or sexuality. Seldom do folks care to mention that divorce and remarriage is in that list of so-called abominations. Also, there are several words translated in English Bibles as ‘abomination,’ many of which don’t imply the sort of exceptionalism that such a word makes us think of today. And while we’re on the thread of things scripture says God “hates,’ let’s consider this from Proverbs:
These six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.
I’m going to go out on a limb and propose that telling someone that who they are or what they are doing is an abomination to God is tantamount to sowing discord among your brothers and sisters. And this, according to the text above is itself an abomination.
For part three in this series, click here: Nine (Final) Christian Cliches to Avoid
Read Part Four here: Ten Antidotes to Christian Cliches
We Christians have a remarkable talent for sticking our feet in our mouths. When searching the words most commonly associated with “Christian,” the list ain’t pretty. I think part of this can be attributed to a handful of phrases that, if stricken from our vocabulary, might make us a little more tolerable. Yes, these things may mean something to you, but trust me, non-Christians don’t share your love for these tried-and-true cliches.
So in no particular order, here are ten phrases Christians should lose with a quickness:
- “Everything happens for a reason.” I’ve heard this said more times than I care to. I’m not sure where it came from either, but it’s definitely not in the Bible. The closest thing I can come up with is “To everything, there is a season,” but that’s not exactly the same. The fact is that faith, by definition, is not reasonable. If it could be empirically verified with facts or by using the scientific method, it wouldn’t be faith. It would be a theory. Also, consider how such a pithy phrase sounds to someone who was raped. Do you really mean to tell them there’s a reason that happened? Better to be quiet, listen and if appropriate, mourn alongside them. But don’t dismiss grief or tragedy with such a meaningless phrase.
- “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?” No, I don’t, and neither do you. So stop asking such a presumptuous question as this that implies you have some insider knowledge that the rest of us don’t. And seriously, if your faith is entirely founded upon the notion of eternal fire insurance, you’re not sharing testimony; you’re peddling propaganda.
- “He/she is in a better place.” This may or may not be true. Again, we have no real way of knowing. We may believe it, but to speak with such authority about something we don’t actually know is arrogant. Plus, focusing on the passing of a loved one minimizes the grief of the people they left behind.
- “Can I share a little bit about my faith with you?” Too often, Christians presume we have something everyone else needs, without even knowing them first. Ask someone about their story, but maybe not the second you meet them. Christian evangelism often is the equivalent of a randy young teenager trying to get in good with his new girlfriend. When your personal agenda is more important than the humanity of the person you’re talking to, most people can sense the opportunism from a mile a way.
- “You should come to church with me on Sunday.” It’s not that we should never invite people to church, but too much of the time, it’s the first thing we do when we encounter someone new. My wife, Amy, and I started a new church eight years ago, founded on the principle of “earning the right to invite.” Invest in people first. Listen to their stories. Learn their passions, their longings, and share the same about yourself. Then, after you’ve actually invested in each other, try suggesting something not related to church to help you connect on a spiritual level. If the person really gets to know you and wants to know more about why you live your life the way you do, they’ll make a point to find out. Then again, if you come off as just another opinionated, opportunistic Christian, why should they honor your predatory approach with a visit to the church that taught you how to act that way in the first place?
- “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?” As many times as I’ve heard this, I still don’t really know what it means. why my heart? Why not my liver or kidneys? This also makes Christianity sound like a purely emotional experience, rather than a lifelong practice that can never entirely be realized. But yeah, asking someone if they’re engaged in a lifelong discipline to orient their lives toward Christlike compassion, love and mercy doesn’t exactly have the same ring to it.
- “Do you accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?” Again, this is not in the Bible. Anywhere. And for me, it goes against the whole Christlike notion of the suffering servant. People tried to elevate Jesus to the status of Lord, but he rejected it. So why do we keep trying? Plus, the whole idea of a lord is so antiquated, it has no real relevance to our lives today. Be more mindful of your words, and really mean what you say.
- “This could be the end of days.” This is one of my favorites. We Christians love to look for signs of the end of the world; we practically have an apocalyptic fetish. It’s like we can’t wait until everything comes to a smoldering halt so we can stand tall with that “I told you so” look on our faces, while the nonbelievers beg for mercy. Yeah, that sounds like an awesome religion you’ve got going there. Sign me up!
- “Jesus died for your sins.” I know, this is an all-time Christian favorite. But even if you buy into the concept of substitutionary atonement (the idea that God set Jesus up as a sacrifice to make good for all the bad stuff we’ve done), this is a abysmal way to introduce your faith to someone. I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me, and if I’m not a Christian, I really have no concept of how that could possibly be a good thing. he whole idea of being washed clean by an innocent man’s blood is enough to give any person nightmares, let alone lead them into a deeper conversation about what Christianity is about.
- “Will all our visitors please stand?” If someone finally is brave enough to walk through the doors of your church, the last thing they want is to be singled out. They probably don’t know the songs you’re singing or the prayers or responsive readings you’re reading. Depending on the translation of the Bible you use, the scripture may not make much sense, and they probably have no idea where the bathroom is. So why add to the discomfort by making them stand so everyone can stare at them? Also, calling someone a visitor already implies they are simply passing through, that they’re not a part of things. Instead of “visitor” or “guest,” try something less loaded like “newcomer.” Better yet, walk up to them, introduce yourself and learn their name.
For more, click the link below:
TEN MORE CLICHES CHRISTIANS SHOULD AVOID
For part three in this series, click here: Nine (Final) Christian Cliches to Avoid
Read Part Four here: Ten Antidotes to Christian Cliches
Following the series of four “Christian Cliche” articles, I received hundreds of responses from across the spectrum. One in particular, however, stood out to me. A man who does not consider himself to be a Christian asked me why it is that I identify as a Christian, particularly given my apparent difference on a number of key issues of the faith.
I do not ascribe to the notion of substitutionary atonement (Jesus had to die for our sins to be forgiven). I also do not hold a literal understanding of scripture as essential to my faith. Frankly, I’ve never met anyone who literally believes and follows the Bible, word-for-word, so I think the only honest approach to the bible is to admit we all interpret it on some level. I also have a far different understanding of salvation, hell, the Trinity and so on from many of my fellow followers of Christ.
For one, I don’t accept the idea that any individual or instituion (translated: church or denomination) has the authority to dictate what it does and doesn’t mean to be a Christian. That’s between me and God. Also, I think there’s a basic difference between a lot of traditional understandings of what it means to be Christian when compared with some more recent – and arguably, more historically ancient – beliefs in what it is to be a Follower of the Way of Christ.
I don’t believe adherence to certain doctrine, dogma, baptism, communion, a blessing from a priest or pastor, approval from organized religion, attendance at a church or giving a certain amount of money to charity make you a Christian. I understand many people do, and I am fine with that. But those don’t work for me. Although I’m not a vocal advocate for an emphasis on personal salvation as the primary purpose of Christianity , I do believe that each person has to decide for themselves whether they consider themselves to be Christian or not, and what that means.
Yes, some church leaders will claim that is heresy, because it strips them of authority in the process. The case is made that this is a slippery slope into religious relativism in which it’s a free-for-all, everyone picking and choosing what they like, as if their faith was a grocery store. But given that I do not believe there is such a thing as “ultimate, singular Truth” with a capital “T” and there is no such thing as un-interpreted scripture, I would suggest that EVERYONE does this already at some level.
You may recite the prayers and verses as you’re taught, but no one can make you believe anything. It’s a choice, That’s fundamental to free will.
So why, then, do I even call myself a Christian?
Rather than mine being a theology of “Jesus died for your sin,” mine is one of “Thy Kingdom come.” That is archaic language, and I find that a little off-putting, but given that it’s from the Lord’s Prayer, attributed to Jesus, I think it’s worth wrestling with. Basically, I share the interpretation of this line of the prayer with many seekers of social justice, like MLK, Walter Rauschenbusch and the like, who believe that the line, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” is an expression of longing, for God’s love to be fully realized, for our inequities and brokenness to be reconciled here on this earth, and not just some day after we die.
This is not likely something at which we will entirely arrive in this life, but it is something toward which we should re-orient ourselves daily, in order to seek it out, actively and vocally, in all we do. This, I believe, is Christ’s call to the world.
I also hold a somewhat different understanding of God than many other Christians. Whereas some consider God to be some “other” being “out there” somewhere, I don’t believe in a God that is “other.” Rather, I relate to such phrases describing God as:
- I Am that I Am.
- God is love (not God has love or owns love, but God IS LOVE).
- In the beginning was the Word.
In so much as I understand God to be the pervasive presence of love in the universe, and in so much as I understand Jesus to be the most perfect embodiment and expression of that love in the world, I believe that Jesus is “love, made flesh.”
I recognize much about the human condition that is broken and that, left untended, leads to more brokenness. I see Christ’s life and message as the path through that brokenness (not to avoid it, but to make our way through in spite of it), and as such, his life and word is salvific. Folks talk about salvation about a one-and-done sort of fire insurance policy, but I see it as a lifelong process of healing past, present and future hurt (both individual and collective). This doesn’t mean that the hurt ever stops, that we suddenly, upon becoming Christians, are always happy, smiling, bubbly folks. But it does mean we believe in a love that is greater than the sum total of that hurt, and than it is in community that we can both multiply our joys and share the burden of our tragedies.
Feel free to quote the scriptures that point to selective salvation, blood atonement and the like, but I’ve read and heard them all before. Many times. We all have. This is what I believe, and although I remain open to changing and growing in my faith, I will not stop speaking plainly and publicly about that belief, simply because it makes some uncomfortable or even angry (trust me, some things you do piss me off too). But we’re still brothers and sisters, all part of a greater body, be that the Christian Body if you are of that faith or the whole of humanity if not.
My hope is that we can try a little harder to act as such.
I’ve been thinking about Christian parenting lately, and more specifically, how that looks different today than maybe in the past. When I started thinking back to scripture, my mind first wandered to several “what not to do” stories, which abound in the Bible. For example:
- Don’t pass out drunk before securing your loincloth first (See: Noah)
- Don’t hand over your virgin daughters to an angry mob to be gang-raped (See” Lot)
- Don’t lay your son out on top of a big rock and attempt to sacrifice him to God (See: Abraham)
I could go on, but you get the idea. There’s plenty of fodder for sub-par parenting in the Good Book if we want to find it. But based on the examples of Christian parenting I see in more contemporary culture, the things we’d be best to move beyond are a little subtler (sometimes anyway) than the examples above.
Consider James Dobson’s (former head of Focus on the Family) writing on raising children. He advocates corporal punishment, placing the male as the “head of the household,” and other advice that makes a guy like me cringe. And interestingly, a lot of the differences I have with traditional (some might say “evangelical”) Christian parenting parallel my differences in how to approach Christian community all together.
In that light, here are five habits, often attributed to “Christian parenting” values, that I’d just as soon replace with something new:
Beatings will continue until morale improves. Though physical violence is a shortcut to compliance, it sends the wrong message to our kids. We say as Christians that our core values center on mercy, love, grace and compassion, so where exactly does corporal punishment fit in this? Some will contend that sparing the rod spoils the child, but the Hebrew word (shebet) often translated as “rod” can also be translated as “authority.” In this sense, we can interpret that the author of Proverbs (from which this 12th century phrase seems to come from) may have meant that if we don’t use our wisdom, authority and influence to guide our children’s lives, they will likely be lost.
Because I said so. This style of parenting is a bit like being in the middle of a theological debate and throwing down the “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” trump card. True respect doesn’t come from browbeating or intimidating someone into compliance or silence. It comes from living the example you preach, and in doing so, illuminating a path your children – and perhaps even others – desire to follow.
Father is King. This certainly isn’t limited to Christian households (my dad was an atheist and ascribed to this ethos), but it’s certainly prevalent within lots Christian families. From Promise Keepers to the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, there are many faith-based groups that base their family values on the establishment and maintenance of a clear, hierarchic order. Everyone knows their role, their place, and that the dad is ultimately in charge. Yet in Galatians, Paul says that as Christians such labels and hierarchies should fall away. If, instead, the principles of the Greatest Commandment (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; Love your neighbor as yourself) are placed at the head of any family, the rest falls into its proper place.
Sex is dirty; save it for marriage. We Christians have such a screwed up relationship with sex and sexuality, it’s a wonder we keep finding a way to reproduce at all! From Eve to Bathsheba and Delilah, we delight in paining the woman as the sexual temptress who leads men astray, as if we have no control over ourselves. And from this, any number efforts to oppress the rights and identities of women emerge. But guess what? We’re still clueless when it comes to sex. We tell our kids about how scary, dirty, dangerous and evil even thinking about sex is, but then we tell them it’s precious gift to save for the one person you love and plan to live with forever. This is a setup for sexual confusion, guilt and even sexual addiction or abuse later in life.
Think like me when you grow up. Many Christians say that their faith is all about a personal relationship with Christ, trumpet the primacy of free will and love to quote scriptures about “seek and you shall find.” But not when it comes to our kids. We feel the need to force-feed our notion of the faith on them far too often, rather than trusting that, given the chance, they will find God on their own terms as they come to understand it. More often than not, it seems at least within my generation, the didactic forcible approach to raising kids in the Christian faith causes them to run the other direction as soon as they’re able. How many millions more will it take walking away from Christianity forever before we finally wake up and realize that maybe we’re part of the problem?
“I told them they needed to put out the fire, but they just kept riding around in circles on their stupid unicycles.”
“I had a weird dream too,” I said over a cup of strong coffee. “I came into the bathroom and you were using my razor on the sides of your head.”
“Really? How’d I look?”
“Kinda like Nadia Bolz Weber,” I said. “It might work for her; for you, I’m not so sure.”
By the time I reached the bottom of the cup, I decided the two dreams were connected. No, it’s not that Amy’s a clown or that I think she should sport a Mohawk for her first Sunday in Portland. We’re both working through our fears of the “worst that could happen.”
Amy’s fears seem to focus on the past; mine focus on the future. Amy worries about what’s going to happen to the folks we’ve left behind; I worry about her taking on a very different – and in some ways, a much larger – challenge at First Christian Church in downtown Portland.
All of it is about the vulnerability of having no control. Truth be told, we usually have less control than we think we do anyway, but when you move out of state, the lack of agency is pretty much right there, in your face.
We’ve invested eight years of our lives into this community called Milagro Christian Church (Spanish for “Miracle”). As we have said many times before, it has our DNA throughout it. Our story is Milagro’s story. Our struggles and breakthroughs have been Milagro’s struggles and breakthroughs.
And now the paths are diverging, and although it’s exciting and necessary, there’s a part of it that really sucks.
As for us personally, this is a radically new path, especially for Amy. We’ll be a good twenty-four-hour drive from her family, and even further from mine. For the first time in our thirteen-year marriage, Amy will be the primary wage-earner, and the expectations for both of us are high. It’s a new state, a new culture, a new congregation, a new reality.
Can we handle it? There’s one way to find out.
Same goes for Milagro. Yes, they’re going to do things differently than we would. Hell, they were already doing that before we left. What will be especially weird is Sunday morning, when they gather to worship for the first time without us. Technically, they’ve done it before when we’ve been on vacation, but there’s something different about doing it when you know the folks who got you started aren’t coming back.
I’m kind of glad that our travel plans have us headed from New Mexico to Las Vegas Sunday morning. We’ll stop in Flagstaff to have lunch with the daughter of one of our closest friends back at Milagro. But there’s a strange metaphor to be found in us taking off out west while our Milagro family gathers to figure out who they’re going to be without us.
And maybe to complete the metaphor, I should let Amy drive.
It turns out that packing all the belongings you need for at least three months into the back of a Prius is a challenge. Of course, being a guy it’s the kind of challenge that makes life worth living. Anyone who has ever been a Tetris junkie can appreciate the exhilaration of fitting forty-seven differently shaped items into a space made for about half the volume. Yes, I had to jump up and down on the back hatch, and several keepsakes are undoubtedly smashed beyond recognition. But by God, I got it all in there.
While I was basking in the glory of being a master packer, my family was busy feeling. Amy kept up her “four cries an hour” regimen, while three-year-old Zoe melted down whenever she realized this toy or that piece of furniture was not going with us after all. It’s a strange feeling, leaving most of our valuables behind, but for me, it’s kind of liberating. I love the idea of grabbing what I can carry and heading west until I reach the edge of the earth.
Apparently my family doesn’t share the same romantic bug. They like stability.
“This is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere,” said Amy, wiping tears aside. “This is home.”
“Yeah, but we’re taking home with us,” I said, trying in vain to employ the typically male strategy of emotional deflection.
“Taking it where?”
We’re dropping the kids off at Grandma’s in New Mexico for a few weeks while Amy and I make our way up to Portland to look for temporary housing. We’ll likely land in a furnished apartment downtown (you know, cause we left all our stuff in Pueblo) until our house sells. Then we’ll find a new home, I’ll fly back and get everything moved once instead of twice. Practically speaking, it’s way easier than dragging everything up and into a rental, then repacking and moving at all again in as few months.
Emotionally, it’s a little bit more complicated. At least if you have “feelings” like the rest of my family. Lucky me to be born with Vulcan sensibilities.
“I’ll miss our couch,” Zoe cried, clinging to it like a binkie. “I love this couch!”
“The couch will come later, honey,” I said. Of course, explaining “later” to a three-year-old is kind of like trying to explain Vegas at a monastic convention?
But there’s no such thing as a monastic convention, you say. Yeah, well, mind your own business.
So instead of focusing on how everything we were doing was the last time we would do it in our home, I decided to make it into a contest.
“I’m gonna be the last one to pee in the back bathroom!” I hollered.
“I’m the last one to sit on the couch,” said Mattias, spreading himself across the sectional like a big starfish.
“I’m the last one to hug this,” Zoe said, squeezing a column between the living room and dining room.
“I’m the last one to cry in our house,” said Amy.
“I don’t doubt that,” I said from the bathroom. After she was done showing the walls some love, Zoe came back to check on me, as she tends to like to do. Apparently she’s unaware of the fact that I’ve been peeing with fairly regular success for thirty-seven years prior to her existence. But somehow, now that she’s here, she’s the pee police.
“Good job daddy,” she said, patting me on the back. Not exactly the best idea while a guy is peeing, but as I said, I have four decades of experience; I can compensate for such minor distractions.
“Thanks baby. Why don’t you give me a little bit of space?”
Zoe, being three, is low to the ground, so not much gets past her if it’s below three feet. We’ve been in “purge” mode for a while, and Amy in particular is a machine when it comes to getting rid of stuff. I’ve found some of my own stuff in the trash lately, but I know better than to reach in for it; it’s probably booby-trapped.
Zoe had a going-away party at her day care provider’s house a couple of days ago and came home with so much new crap you’d think it was her birthday. I could feel the temperature rise in the room when Amy saw the parade of bags coming in through the front door.
The small, flat stuff stayed. Messy, bulky or noisy things found their way to other loving homes. A couple of things simply hit the round file cabinet, like the Dora Hearts. I’m not even sure exactly what they are, except that they’re heart-shaped, plastic and have Dora on them. Some doink in a marketing lab figured out that’s all it takes to trigger the “I want” reflex in three-year-olds, and man, does it trigger.
Especially when they see the Dora Hearts in the trash.
“Mommy,” you could hear her winding up for a tsunami of three-year-old fury, “you threw my heart in the trash! How could you? I loved those hearts sooo muuuuuch!”
“Shut up,” Amy scowled.
We finally made our way to the door after a quick round-robin prayer where we each shared one thing we loved about the house. And of course, faithful to the challenge, Amy squeezed one final cry in following the heart-in-the-trashcan fit, so she was in fact the last one to cry in the house.
As I pulled the front door closed, I reached up and gave the brass lion door knocker a few solid whacks.
There have been lots of roller-coaster moments in the last few days. Sunday, we said goodbye to the church we started in our living room eight years ago. The first week, we thought this whole church planting thing was easy. Some friends and family showed up, and the house felt full of life. There was an anticipation of what this new thing might become. Folks hung around afterward and chatted; we were pretty sure the whole thing couldn’t miss.
Then there was the week (not long afterward) when NO ONE showed up. Amy and I sat there in the living room, communion prepared, sermon written, songs ready, but no people.
“If you think you’re preaching to me,” I sighed, leaning the guitar against the wall, “you’re sadly mistaken.” We took communion, prayed it out and went to the pub for a beer.
Last Sunday, we looked around the sanctuary, every seat filled, smile mixed with tears, and each one bearing a story about how they got there and why they stayed. Stories of recovery from addiction, healing in its many unexpected, mysterious forms, lost hope resurrected by a community of faith who loved them through it. It was beautiful.
And then we said goodbye and left.
It seems like all we’ve been doing lately. To friends, family, and even those people who acted heartbroken that we’re moving on, even though we don’t exactly remember being friends with them. turns out some people feed on the drama of “goodbye” like it’s some strange narcotic. Reminds me of Helena Bonham Carter’s character in Fight Club who got off on other peoples’ misery in an endless chain of twelve-step groups she crashed.
For me, goodbyes pretty much just suck.
Amy’s taken all of this harder than I have. I worry about her dehydrating from all of the tears produced in the past two weeks. I keep expecting to wake up next to a raisin, formerly known as Reverend Amy Piatt, who has cried herself into a freeze-dried state.
She keeps asking me why I haven’t cried. I remind her that I’m a guy, and therefore have no feelings. That part was just scooped out of me during gestation. I do cry, on a schedule kind of on par with the Olympics: one every four years whether I need it or not.
I did cry once during all of this, when a girl at our church came up, tears filling her eyes, and hugged me like I was ballast in the middle of a violent storm. Truth be told, she’s been through her share of storms, and we’ve seen her though plenty of them. That did it for me. I cried into her long, dark hair, trying to imagine her ten years in the future, with the life we had imagined for her so many times.
And then I let her go.
All of this is not the worst part of moving. The worst part is going through every single thing we own, assessing its value and either packing or discarding it. I sent a message out yesterday on Twitter while sifting through the physical landmarks of my life that anyone who doesn’t think their life is cluttered with much stuff should make a practice of going through and physically touching everything they own at least once a year.
This problem of too much stuff is what I like to call a “White People Problem,” or WPP. Really, it’s a byproduct of privilege, but it’s more fun to call it what I call it. I even like to put it to music, doing my own karaoke version of the old Naughty By Nature song:
You down with WPP? Yeah, you know me…
The most interesting stuff was in the attic. That’s the stuff you usually stuff in a corner and forget about for years, often until you next move. It’s like doing a little archaeological dig through your own life, plowing down through the layers of papers and other artifacts to remember what you used to think was important enough to box up and move across the country.
I’ve done enough moves over the years that most of it actually was worth hanging on to. I’ve whittled my personal memory stuff down from a good dozen boxes to one file folder box. Some of that has been intentional and some was through attrition. It’s funny how I can give you a line-item list of the stuff I’ve lost in previous moves, while I’m hard pressed to tell you what’s in the boxes I do have left in storage.
I did find some interesting things in the stacks. There’s the old Instamatic camera I used to carry everywhere with me, snapping pictures of mundane things like grandaddy’s wood pile or the hubcaps on our custom van like I was Rain Man. I was/am a little, I guess, but at least I like to think I take a better picture now.
I found scores of notebooks with my early notes, poems, one-act plays, essays and short stories filling them from front to back. There was a time when I never went anywhere without one of these little notebooks, just in case the muse struck. It helped me realize that my obsessive tendency toward being prolific hasn’t just come on recently since I started blogging. I’ve pretty much been a freak for decades.
I hung on to the notebooks, not because the contents are particularly brilliant. In a way, I kept them because the stories are so obviously less than perfect. The “me” today would edit the crap out of the nineties “me,” but given that I kind of get now where that “me” was coming from, I’ll let the imperfections linger. The narcissist in me likes to think that someone some day will be interested in my old journals for posterity. You know, for when I publish that million-copy bestseller and Terri Gross is asking me about my life over a cup of strong coffee and a ten thousand dollar microphone.
But mostly I keep them because it’s so familiar. I see the same passion, the same yearning for connection and self-expression that I pour into my work now. I’d like to think I’ve gotten a little bit better at it over the years, but I like that guy who scribbled in all of those notebooks, and even took printed versions of my stories that no one else ever read and bound them at the office supply store, just to make it feel more like a “real book.” I’m still that same kid, even if a few more people are listening.
And then I found the tapes. No, not the Watergate tapes, but sort of like that. Back when I was working on a semi-autobiographical novel called Damien’s Tribe (we writers all have one of those sitting on a shelf somewhere) I sat down with each of my family members and interviewed them. I had one of those little micro-cassette recorders because every serious writer in any movie I’d seen had one. I’ve long since lost the recorder, but I still have the tapes.
One of them was marked “Dad Interview.” Long story short, I haven’t talked to my dad in about five years. He checked out one night while visiting us here in Colorado, packed up his stuff in the dark, and I haven’t seen him since. If you want the longer version, buy the book (how’s that for a shameless teaser?) but let’s just say it wasn’t the best “goodbye” I’ve ever done – or not done, as it were.
I sat there, flipping the tape back and forth in my hand, wondering what words and stories were trapped inside on the little thread of tape. I do remember him being kind of stiff and stilted when I interviewed him, kind of like it was for a job interview or a grand jury, but that was my dad: always guarded. Beyond that, I can’t remember much of anything about the talk. Did I get him to say anything unexpected? Was there any hint of emotion? Probably not.
If I tracked down a micro-cassette recorder , I could solve the mystery, I guess. But there’s a part of me that prefers to imagine what’s on them, rather than actually knowing. Reality probably isn’t that interesting, at least to anyone but me. But as long as I don’t listen, they can contain the most profound reflections between a father and son, deep philosophical revelations, scandal, humor and tragedy.
It could be the greatest story never told.
I might listen to them someday. Just not today.
Following is taken from Banned Questions About Jesus.
Galatians 3:22: Is it the faith of Jesus or faith in Jesus that’s the key?
Amy Reeder Worley: It is both the faith of and in Jesus that lead to salvation, which is another word for “liberation.”
Jesus’ faith in God was absolute. He lived in complete service to God. Jesus prayed: at Gethsemane (Matt 26:36), after healing Simon’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:35), before he was baptized (Luke 3:21); when the disciples asked him how to pray (Luke 11:1); before the transfiguration (Luke 9:28); before he was arrested (John 17: 1-26); and minutes before he died (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ relationship with God was so intimate he called God “abba,” or daddy. He praised God’s works. (Luke 10:21). And he beseeched God to forgive his executioners. (Luke 23:46).
Yet Jesus’ did not tell us to just have greater faith in God. Rather, Jesus said he was “light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:22). What did he mean? Jesus explained further, “I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. You do not know him. But I know him and I keep his word.” (John 8:42). In other words, come with me; I can illuminate for you a path to God.
In saying that faith in Jesus and the faith of Jesus are both “the key,” we get dangerously close to a tautology (using different words to say the same thing). But in this case I don’t mean that both Jesus’ faith and faith in Jesus are the same. I mean that our faith in Jesus illuminates how to practice a faith that brings us closer to God.
Modern Christians focus so much on believing. We too often forget that faith requires practice, doing. Jesus embodied this practice. Our faith in Jesus as our guide to a relationship with God is a condition precedent to salvation, or a liberating faith in God.
Pablo A. Jiménez: I have always preferred to speak about the faith of Jesus than about faith in Christ. Most people find this shocking and many have tried to correct my theological statements. However, I persist in speaking about the faith of Jesus.
In English, the phrase “the faith of Jesus” is ambiguous. It can mean “the faith that Jesus had”, “the faith inspired by Jesus, who is our theological center” or “the faith that belongs to Jesus.” When asked about which meaning I imply in my preaching, my answer is: “Yes, I mean all of the above.”
First, the Christian faith exists because Jesus was faithful to God and to the mission that God delegated on him. In this sense, the church exists because Jesus had “faith,” a term better understood as faithfulness and commitment.
Second, believers must see Jesus as the model of belief, conduct and practice. We must strive to imitate Jesus’ faith.
Third, believers belong to Jesus. This is what the phrase “Jesus is Lord” means, after all.
Of course, correctly understood the phrase “to have faith in Jesus” implies all the theological ideas expressed above. However, I have found that many understand it as simply acknowledging Jesus’ existence, without a clear commitment of faith.
Therefore, for me sharing in the faith of Jesus is more important that having faith “in” him.
Christian Piatt: I would tend to say it depends on whom you ask, but based on my personal experience, maybe it has more to do with when you ask someone such a question about their understanding of Jesus.
I grew up understanding that the latter was the cornerstone of my faith, and ultimately, my salvation. This leaned heavily upon the idea that acceptance of Jesus as savior was the one and only way to heaven, and that Jesus died for my sins.
I have since come to understand both this passage in Galatians, as well as the notions of atonement, salvation and the place of Jesus in my faith, a little differently. Instead of Jesus dying for my sins, I now tend to embrace the concept that Jesus died because of our collective sinfulness, meaning that Jesus made himself fully vulnerable to the fearful, violent smallness that humanity brought to the cross, to the point of death.
Why? Because he believed in what God anointed/enlightened/blessed him to do, more than life itself. That is, he claimed love as paramount over all else, including his own personal wellbeing.
This brings us to the idea of the faith of Jesus raised in the question. How could someone put their humanity aside in the name of such sacrificial love? To me, it would take divine inspiration to hold so fast to one’s faith. And that same divine breath is what is passed on through the generations, within the body of Christ, as well as among those who embrace the spirit of Christ.
We’ve all heard the phrase “God is love,” but for me, the point that Jesus endeavored to make, to the foot of Calvary and beyond the open mouth of the tomb, is that LOVE IS GOD.