One of the great struggles we have today in the Church is preserving our children in the Orthodox Faith. Too often they seem not to be interested. Can we somehow motivate our kids to be excited about following Christ and being Orthodox Christians? I believe there is a way. It takes commitment and hard work, but it's worth it.
When I was eight, my mom passed away, and my dad remarried when I was ten. One summer evening when I was about fourteen, I was sitting on the front steps of our home in Minneapolis, thinking about how much I missed my mom. That night I decided that if I were to have nothing else in life, I wanted a great marriage and family. I put it above education, above a successful career, above my standing in the community.
My wife Marilyn and I both committed our lives to Christ while we were students at the University of Minnesota. One evening Dr. Bob Smith, a professor at Bethel College in St. Paul, talked on marriage and the family. Somewhere during his talk he created a picture that was indelibly etched in my mind. He said, "One day I'm going to stand before the judgment seat of Christ as a father, and my goal is to have my wife and children by my side, saying, `Lord, we're all present and accounted for. Here's Mary, here's Steve, here's Johnny, we're all here.'" That night, I prayed, "Lord, that's what I want when I get married and have children-that we might all enter Your eternal Kingdom intact."
Through college, seminary, and forty-five years of marriage, my commitment to have a great family and to bring them into the Kingdom with me has never wavered. My wife and I have kept our marriage healthy and have striven to be godly parents and grandparents. I want to outline for you five specific things Marilyn and I tried to do and, by the grace of God, mostly succeeded in doing, to build up our family in Christ and His Church.
1. Make Your Family Your Priority
More important than anything other than the Kingdom of God is our family. I believe if we're going to raise Orthodox Christian families, our spouses and children have to be our highest priority, next to Christ and His Church.
For the believer, our journey with Christ and His Church always comes first. On that matter, the Scriptures are clear, the Fathers are clear, and the Liturgy is clear. At least four times each Sunday morning we call to mind our holy and blessed God-bearer and all the saints, saying, "Let us commit ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God." Our relationship with God comes first, our commitment to our family comes next, and our dedication to our work is third.
As parents, we need to make a vice-grip-firm commitment that above job, above our social life, above all the things that vie for our time, we will prioritize our families.
During the early years of our marriage, I worked with Campus Crusade for Christ. After that, I spent three years working at the University of Memphis, and then eleven years at Thomas Nelson Publishers in Nashville. At each juncture the battle for balance-work vs. family-raged. I would like to report that winning it is easy, but it's not. I cannot tell you the number of friends and acquaintances I have had-Christian people-who lost their families because, by their own admission, their career came first. They were absentee dads and moms, and their jobs ate them up.
In most of my work over the years, I've traveled. It was true in Campus Crusade in the 60s, it was true at Thomas Nelson in the 70s and 80s, and it's true today in my work for the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. I'm gone about half the time. When the airlines some years back started offering frequent-flyer miles, I thought, "Wait a minute, there's a way I can beat this problem. I'll take my kids along."
So in those years at Thomas Nelson, I began to take one child at a time with me on some of my trips. On a trip out East with one of my daughters, we rented a car in New York City and drove to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I think we had the best talk we ever had together during that drive. Another time I had to drive all night from Chicago to Atlanta, and I had my son Greg with me. When we got out into the country where there were no city lights, he remarked he could see the stars more clearly than he had ever seen them before. That night we talked about God's creation. As adults, most all our six children have said, "Dad, some of my favorite times were those trips I got to take with you."
If you're busy, find a way to compensate. I made appointments with my children. If your time is in heavy demand and you don't block out time for the kids, you'll never see them. If someone calls and has to see you, you say, "You know, Joe, I've got an appointment. I can see you tomorrow." You decide to prioritize your family.
2. Tell Your Children of God's Faithfulness
In Deuteronomy 4, Moses is talking to the children of Israel about the importance of keeping God's commandments. And then he speaks directly to parents and grandparents: "Only take heed to yourself, and diligently keep yourself, lest you forget the things your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. And teach them to your children and your grandchildren" (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Maybe you are a parent who came to Christ later in life and feel you didn't do a good job spiritually with your kids, and now they have families of their own. Well, now you've got a crack at your grandkids! This opportunity does not mean that you become your grandchildren's parent. But what you can do is tell those grandchildren what God has done for you, just like Moses says. Talk to them. If you've become more dedicated to Christ later in life, tell your grandkids about that. Tell them lessons that you've learned. Tell them real-life stories about God's faithfulness and His mercy to you.
Moses goes on to explain the importance of such conversations by recalling what the Lord had said to him: "that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children" (Deuteronomy 4:10). Children who are rightly taught the Word of God will teach their own children.
How did we teach our kids? Before I answer, let me say I think it's possible to overdo it. You can't ram Christianity down your family's throats. If you are a zealot, you may be tempted to force-feed them until they become rebels. I met a few men in seminary who were there not because they wanted to be, or even because God had called them; rather, they came to please their parents. And that's scary.
Central to everything we tried to do as a family was going to church Sunday morning. Even through the struggles of the teenage years, there was never a question as to what we did Sunday morning. I was not a priest during the teenage years of our older children, but regardless of that, as a family we were in church on Sunday morning. And if we traveled, we went to church wherever we were.
I knew that if I cut corners with our kids, they would cut corners with theirs. If you compromise, they will compromise more. So this point was never open for discussion. Thank God, all six of our kids are Orthodox, their spouses are Orthodox, and our seventeen grandchildren are Orthodox. And they're all in church on Sunday morning.
Now, Orthodox churches have more services than Protestants do. So what did we do? We always went to Saturday night Vespers, Sunday morning Liturgy, and major feast days. Was there mercy in that? Absolutely. Would I keep them away from the prom or a big football game on Saturday night? Of course not. But we didn't want them to be out so late that it interfered with their participation on Sunday morning. On feast days, if they had a midterm the next day, did I force them to go? I did not. The line I tried to walk was to put Christ and the Church first, but not to do it with a hammerlock. There was discipline, and there was also mercy.
And that is the same spirit we tried to keep in family prayer. When the kids were little, we read Bible stories to them every night. We would pray together. We did that all the way through, and as they got older we encouraged them to say their own prayers at night.