Now don't get me wrong. We have, in many ways and at many times, done all of the things I've just described, except maybe for the neighbors recognizing something different part. (Over the years in different communities and with different neighbors they have noticed something different all right, but it hasn't necessarily been our distinctive faith lives). And on a regular basis we still do our best to impart our values to our kids, but like most parents for whom faith is central, it is often a dispiriting process. Philosophically, I have observed two extremes, both of which I have wanted to avoid.
The one extreme is the "Christian family" so faithfully committed that children growing up have little choice but to rebel against the strictures and hypocrisies so often afoot. I have met so many parents over the years who have done their best to "lead our kids to Christ" but in the process have pushed so hard that they have lost two relationships ... their parental relationship and their spiritual relationship with their children. This is the extreme I was most familiar with in my earlier Christian days when I was centered in more conservative communities of Christian faith.
The second extreme is the church-going family who feels their responsibility is to live a moral life, but to let their children choose completely for themselves whether they will adopt this pattern of life or not. In the mainline Christian circles I now inhabit it's the "well, I'll bring my kids to Sunday School when they're young and to confirmation until they confirm their faith, but after that it's their choice." Now you tell me, how many 15-year-olds will decide on their own that they want to be faithful participants in a church or further engage their spiritual lives if this is completely their option. I mean, most good parents don't let their kids choose after ninth grade whether to go to school or not (even if it is legal, and even if they have a job). The extreme version of this laisse faire approach is little more than spiritual child neglect, in my opinion.
But I struggle with how to best interpret faith in my family. I struggle with this, and I am a pastor, trained in the traditions of faith, regularly involved in opportunities to form my own spirit, fairly disciplined about developing my own interior life. It has been so very difficult over the years to become less an instructor and more of an observant guide in my children's faith lives. I have come to realize that faith that is dictated is no faith at all, it is simply acquiescing to a more powerful person's desire. This approach could well be akin to spiritual child abuse. I have no desire to so inflict faith upon my children. I want to impart it, not inflict it.
And what that means is that often I have to let them make their own choices (not without my input, however) and constantly remind them by my actions and attitudes that they are precious children of God, growing in their lives (spiritually and otherwise) as they learn from experience.
This morning at our house has been an odd one. Several of our usually more compliant children have been slow to move and get ready for school. Our crabby teenage daughters (13 and 15) have been more civil than usual. In fact our older daughter who has been so challenging over the past three years was listening to Stellar Kart's "Me and Jesus" this morning in her room. This is not her typical listening fare. In fact, as I passed by her bedroom, I had to stop to make sure I was hearing correctly. I was. This is what I heard:
When there's nowhere else to turn
All your bridges have been burned
Feels like you've hit rock bottom
Don't give up it's not the end
Open up your heart again
When you feel like no one
Understands where you are
Someone loves you even when you don't think so don't you know you got
Me and Jesus by your side through the fight you will never be alone on your own you got me and Jesus
After all that we've been through
Be now you know I've doubted too
But everytime my head was in my
Hands you said to me
Hold on to what we got
This is worth any cost so
Make the most of life
Love like there's no tomorrow
As she trotted off to school this morning I heard her happy (?!) voice saying, "Good bye, Dad." She hasn't offered me a farewell in weeks, so it was a little shocking.
I have to admit that even after thirty years of faithfully following God and intently developing my spiritual life, I am daily befuddled by the mysterious ways of the Almighty. How I, or any parent for that matter, ever is able to impart spiritual faith to his children is beyond me. It is such a dense and complicated web, but it must somehow start with each of us. My children cannot, by osmosis, acquire my faith life. I cannot, by force, make them accept what I have come to understand as truth. But together maybe "me and Jesus" can get something done when it's all been said and done.