Our children are new worlds. Since they were born, we've been trying to land on their far shores, like Columbus, and take them hostage for our King. Score one for spiritual imperialism.
But that's just one side of the story. Trouble is, more often than not, we aren't sure quite how to pass on our spiritual legacy to our kids. I grew up in Africa as a missionary's son, watching religious colonialism at work. Heather slid into a life crisis, caught in the grip of a high-control fundamentalist church. We don't want to go back there. Score one for enlightened confusion.
So how do we take our own kids hostage for Christ without resorting to the kind of spiritual violence we now reject?
I grew up in a family of soldier priests. We didn't call ourselves that, of course. My dad used language like "serving the Lord" and "saving the lost." He was an ordained Swedish Baptist pastor, the man Barbara Kingsolver writes about in "The Poisonwood Bible," except Joe Kopp was all heart and no poison.
And we were his first mission field. He never doubted his right to do everything within his power to make his five kids disciples of Jesus Christ. Daily, he led us in our prayers. Almost daily, he saw to it that we were reading and memorizing Scripture.
Dad preached the Gospel as naturally from the head of the dinner table as from the shade of a spreading mulenga tree, as exuberantly from the darkness of a bush country campout as from the spotlight of the 11th Street Baptist Church in downtown Los Angeles. His readiness to speak his faith seemed all the more remarkable to us because he struggled with a lifelong speech impediment. "S-s-son," he would tell me, beaming and holding me by the belt loops to get my attention, "God just l-loves you!"
We grew up knowing that we were special, probably better, and definitely right. And we had to spread the news. How else could we explain our existence--a white family from the Pacific Northwest living in the Zambian bush?
The thing is, my parents succeeded. They healed and taught and served. They converted thousands. More to my point here, they succeeded in raising another generation of missionaries. Of their five children, all have grown up to become missionaries and pastors (who are raising more pastors and missionaries of their own). More or less. There's the exception of me, of course--introvert, editor, layman, Episcopalian.
My dad's been gone for 20 years. The few tangible things he owned--and he never owned much--are still in my possession: among them, a beat-up leather briefcase, a few books, a darkening oak desk. The other day, I was rummaging through the desk and came upon two mementos. One was a box of his Scripture memory cards, hundreds of them. The other was a manila envelope marked "Missionary Messages" in his careful, looping penmanship.
I had spent a few minutes thumbing through each, looking for Joe Kopp, Evangelist, thinking how poorly I had lived up to his example, before I realized he was not the man I was looking for. He was not, in fact, the man who continues to burn in my heart and shape most of my spiritual inclinations. That man is Joe Kopp, Dad. The more I thought about it, the more I understood that it was this man and not the other who won me for his King. It was not his fiery sermons but his long, hard hugs. Not his clunky theology but a life that overflowed with a joyful and compelling Presence. Not the unblemished record of a clergyman but the humble witness of an ordinary man who thought that raising his kids and serving his God were hopelessly and wonderfully mixed up into one terrific idea.
It is this, the gentle violence of my father's passion, that captured me for Christ. If so, then there's hope that in my own way I can succeed in evangelism of the Dad kind with my own kids.
Last weekend, I was driving my son Taylor back to campus for finals week. One year of university in the bag...on the whole, a smashing success. I felt a question rising, surfacing like a fish in an ancient lake. "Son, uh, I'm not good at asking this question," I began, almost against my will. "But can you talk to me about your spiritual life? What does being a Christian mean to you now?"
It means, as it turns out, that he doesn't appreciate frat boys or their endless partying or the way they treat girls. It means that he's noticed that some Christians on campus are "nominal." Of course, he didn't use that word. He said, "They just have their beliefs attached to them like a blob." By the time we were pulling into campus, Taylor admitted that sometimes he's not even sure that God exists.
"That's OK," I replied. "He's absolutely sure you do! Just keep asking Him to make Himself real to you." Then I heard myself say, "Son, God just loves you!"
Every father carries a treasure from his father. We carry it over the horizon like a torch to the new worlds in our care. Usually, we don't comprehend the exact shape of it until we see ourselves passing it on. Thinking about Taylor's responses to my question, I remember a stuttering man who went to Africa to find souls--and found a son.