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what if were not really following Jesus at all?
By MARK STEELE
David C. CookCopyright © 2009 Mark Steele
All rights reserved.
Nineteen months are all that separate my two older sons, Jackson and Charlie. In practically every way, one is the antithesis of the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but smash them together and they fill out the other's weak spots, becoming one practically perfect human being. Of course, the scattered remains that are left would be a bit messy. In other words, they complete one another, either as a right example or as a wrong one—their choice.
Charlie is seven and Jackson just turned nine, which means their choices—at least for the time being—might skew a bit ornery. A few months ago I walked upstairs to turn off our daughter Morgan's light for bedtime. It was later than usual and a good hour after the boys had been put to sleep (which means something different for children than it does for pets). They had been told to go right to bed. Unconsciousness isn't really something that can be demanded of a child, but I—like millions of parents before me—made the attempt anyway. As I opened Morgan's door to check on her, I caught the two boys in her room. They ceased midplay, frozen, and stared at me—deer in the headlights. They stood in the middle of her bedroom, a clump of Legos squeezed in each fist. They gaped with wide-eyed guilt on their faces for about three solid seconds. And then they ran like mad wildfire through the adjoining bathroom. I heard the scurry of feet on linoleum, followed by the bounce of springs and the flip-flop of covers as they scrambled into bed.
Reasoning doesn't enter into the equation all that much at the ages of seven and nine. For some reason not only was the rationale to sprint away and dive into bed considered a good idea, but the identical urge to flee the scene hit both brothers at the same time.
I sauntered through the hall to their bedroom (the longer path than the bathroom route by about eleven inches) and creaked open the door. Each was in his own bunk, feigning sleep. And so the cover-up began.
They attempted to rouse themselves from their faux slumber, "What? Huh?"
ME: Were you out of bed and playing in Morgan's room?
A beat. A moment of pause. And then—both—simultaneously ...
Certainly I sympathize with the gut instinct of the cover-up. It is the defensive urge of the male, not to mention the mischievous prepuberty male. In later stages of life, it will be replaced in turn by hormones, rage at injustice, and unnecessary snacking. Throughout my own young journey, I was on the punishment end of the cover-up multiple times.
It felt ironic to finally be on the other side.
ME: No? You were NOT in Morgan's bedroom?
Sweat trickled down their tiny foreheads.
BOYS: Nope. No. Nope.
ME: Just now? Like, fifteen seconds ago, you were NOT holding Legos in Morgan's room?
BOYS: (Slightly more hesitant than before) Noooo.
ME: (I paused for dramatic effect.) Well—I saw you.
Not since the Noahic Era have the floodgates burst open so abruptly. The words "I'm sorry" rat-a-tat-tatted out of their mouths repeatedly in a fusillade of desperate penance.
ME: I know you are sorry, but you lied. You know what the punishment is for lying.
I'm fairly certain there were a couple of "yes, sirs" uttered amid all the slobber and snot.
ME: Go downstairs. You're each going to get one spank.
Yes. My wife and I believe in spanking. Not grab-your-knees-while-the-back-of-your-eyeballs-rap-against-your-brain spanking. But certainly a recognizable sting that serves as a tangible reminder of why the punishable incident was a bad idea. We want our kids to have a sensory reinforcement that sin is not such a preferable option. It always astounds me when parents don't believe in appropriate spankings, because the world spanks people every day—especially the people who didn't receive any as a child. Personally I would rather feel a short-term sting than the sort the Internal Revenue Service doles out.
Of course, an appropriate spanking is exactly that. Just enough to sting—and definitely on the derriere. And of course, the act is attached to teaching and forgiveness and a walking through of the issue so that it leads to reconciliation and change and love.
That's the pretty version.
The boys weren't seeing the benefits just yet.
Jackson and Charlie have a very different approach to the news of an impending spanking. Charlie just stares. Wide-eyed. His brain immediately begins clicking and whirring. Within fifty seconds he orchestrates a mental plan of how best to charm his way through the incident with minimal pain. By a sheer act of will and a reasoning through percentages, he determines swiftly that playing the situation down will cause it to end with only a slight portion of hurt to his person.
Jackson destroys everything within his wake.
Not literally. He doesn't throw things or flail. But within a small eight-inch radius the planet implodes. Jackson takes the news that he will receive one spank the way most react in a house fire. He hugs his favorite belongings close to his body while screaming and rolling on the floor.
I ushered Jackson into the spanking chamber (our bedroom) first as I knew that the twenty-two solid minutes it would take to actually deliver the one spank would be an epic purgatorial wait (and hence, bonus lesson) for Charlie.
The reason a Jackson spanking can take so long is because we don't believe in wrestling our kids into the spanking. There has to be the moment of surrender. Charlie can fake surrender like the best of them—but Jackson? Not so much.
ME: Lean over, son.
JACKSON: I CAN'T! I NEED A GLASS OF WATER FIRST!
ME: You can have a glass of water after your spank. It will take ten seconds.
JACKSON: I MUST HAVE A GLASS OF WATER FIRST! I'M THIIIIIRSTY!
ME: You cannot have a glass of water until after your spank.
No one tells a father he is going to be put in a position to say these sorts of irrational things.
ME: You're stalling. Let's just get the punishment over with.
JACKSON: NOW I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM!
JACKSON: YOU CAN'T SPANK ME BECAUSE I'LL PEE! I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM FIRST!
ME: You can go to the bathroom after I spank you. We would be finished already ...
JACKSON: YOU'LL WHACK THE PEE OUT OF ME!
ME: I promise I won't whack the pee out of you.
See. Irrational things.
Of course, this is when Jackson moves from delay tactics and transitions into physical blockers. As I lean him over and pull back the spank stick, all sorts of appendages start flailing about spastically like Muppet tails, blocking the punishment trajectory. I've never seen the kid move so fast as he does when he strategizes a spank block.
The kid is Mister Miyagi-ing me, suddenly Jean-Claude Van Damme, blocking every attempt to close the deal. He won't play football, but this he can do.
I finally settle Jackson down.
ME: Jackson, I'm not going to fight you. You have to decide that you're going to accept the consequences for what you've done. You've fought me so long, that now you're going to get—
(Wait for it.)
ME: —two spanks.
I had no idea what the kid had in him. He began to writhe and weep and gnash his teeth. I'd never seen gnashing—but it's actually very impressive. I believe he may have even utilized sackcloth. The boy just flat-out wailed like he was being branded with a hot iron. To the neighbors, it must have sounded like I was stunning him with a police Taser.
And then Jackson moved away from delaying and blocking—to step three: blame.
JACKSON: IT'S MORGAN! SHE'S THE LIAR!! SHE LIES ALL THE TIME!
ME: Who are you and what have you done with my child?
JACKSON: MORGAN LIES! SHE LIIIIIIIIIIIIES! MOOHAHA!
ME: All right, son. For that, you're now going to receive—
Somewhere, between the bedrock layers of our planet, a mushroom cloud was forming its power, readying itself for a self-imploding FOOM! Tension built, and a roar and a rumble began to build just beneath the crust of the earth.
ME: —three spanks.
And that is when Jackson vomited.
He wasn't sick to his stomach or coming down with a virus.
The boy got so worked up over three spankings that he literally upchucked everywhere.
He blew chunks all over the proceedings.
As a father you can't help but debate your own discipline tactics at this point.
I helped him wash up and then cooled him down with a cloth. He began to settle. After a few moments I addressed him.
ME: You okay?
JACKSON: I told you I needed to go to the bathroom.
Against all of Jackson's hopes and dreams, the regurgitation session did not replace any of the punishment, and I forged ahead with the three spanks anyway. The beauty of Jackson is, though he fights you all the way, you know where he stands. When the punishment is over, Jackson is quick to reconcile, huddled and sobbing in my arms. At that moment, after the pain, he is truly repentant. And he always comes out the other side changed.
Amid all of this excitement, Charlie sat waiting in the hall.
For twenty solid minutes. Hearing the sounds of torrential screams and human retching.
He sat, stone. Eyes like nickels on a plate of fine china.
Needless to say, Charlie walked in, bent over, and received his one spank in about six seconds flat.
But alas, not nearly as life-changing as Jackson.
It's harder to tell whether or not Charlie truly changes, because Charlie knows how to charm. During that same spanking, he sat near Kaysie and spoke to her as Jackson's sobs and moans were muffled behind the bedroom door.
CHARLIE: I'm not gonna do anyfing Jackson is doing when I go get MY spanking.
KAYSIE: You're not, huh?
CHARLIE: Nope. I'm gonna walk wight in and jus' get spanked.
KAYSIE: That's a good idea, Charlie.
CHARLIE: I do not wike it when Daddy spanks me.
KAYSIE: I'll bet you don't.
CHARLIE: I wike it when you spank me.
This piqued Kaysie's interest and she hesitated before asking nonchalantly–
KAYSIE: Oh really? Why?
CHARLIE: Because when Daddy spanks me, it hurts—but when you spank me, it does not—
Charlie's gaze finally met Kaysie's. The realization of the privileged information spilling out of his mouth occurred to him. He stared.
CHARLIE: I pwobably should not have told you dat.
Kaysie smiled pleasantly.
KAYSIE: Tell you what, son. From now on we'll let Daddy do all your spankings. Charlie sighed.
CHARLIE: Yep. I definitewy should not have told you dat.
So there is an inherent difference in the way Jackson deals with disappointment and in the way Charlie deals with it. Yes, Jackson goes off the deep end, revealing his scars and putting his emotions in front of a microphone—but at least the microphone tells the rest of us what we need to know. Jackson wrestles his flesh to the ground—and he does so in public. That's how we know the transformation is real. I know that his repentance is true because I witness his internal journey from resistance to acceptance firsthand.
Charlie? Well, you don't always know with Charlie. Charlie is good at seeming fine. He keeps his deepest feelings close to his chest. And the rough stuff? You could go a very long time without Charlie allowing anyone to see the rough stuff. The result is an engaging and personable child—everyone's best friend—though you don't always know what's really going on inside there.
Charlie positions and decorates himself instead of getting messy and raw. In this same way that we cannot see Charlie's true repentance and feelings, we as a Christian culture disguise the ugly, bury the past, and soak the dirty laundry in perfume. We do it as an effort to put our best foot forward, believing that "faking good" ministers more than "revealing bad." We have an emotional need to seem holier than all the "thous" we encounter while fitting in to the perfect flawless world of those who side-hug us on the way to the sanctuary.
We delay. We block. We blame.
We cover up.
And we somehow believe that this delivers a better impression of what it means to serve Christ. We believe that seeming the Stepford Wife makes us some sort of recruitment tool. But the truth is, we have done more damage to the world's impression of Jesus by feigning inaccurate perfection than we could ever cause by allowing those who don't follow Christ to see us wrestling our sins and flaws to the ground.
Many cite Matthew 5:48, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect," as a reason to make ourselves look good. But that verse doesn't have anything to do with fakery. It is a call, instead, to spiritual maturity. And maturity owns up to the truth. Others refer to Jesus and how it was His holiness that truly ministered. This, of course, is true. But we too quickly forget that His holiness ministered most powerfully as it stood side-by-side with His humanness. And never was His humanness more on display than in His birth.
Jesus revealed the rough stuff with the very way He first came into the world.
It seems to me that the first sentence in the first telling of the Son of God entering into this world would be glorious and filled with holy hyperbole. Not so. Instead we get a few pragmatic words: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ." This is merely a preamble to the names that follow—names that expose Christ's lineage. The first chapter of Matthew fires the names off bam, bam, bam: so-and-so was the father of whatcha-ma-call-him—never taking the smallest breath, diving headlong into historic minutiae until ZING! Verse seven delivers the whopper—the first specific detail mankind received about the family Jesus comes from:
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife.
Uriah? Wasn't he the guy David had killed? Murdered after David slept with his wife? That guy? Why on earth, out of all the admirable people in Jesus' lineage—and for that matter, all the honorable traits of David—why is this bucket of family dirt given the first and greatest mark of attention? A golden opportunity missed. Here the ultimate history book had the option of paving a red carpet lined with paparazzi before Jesus, publicizing the elitist line He came from and urging the public down to its knees in awe. This was the proof: that Jesus came from the lineage of the favorite king, the man after God's own heart—David. But instead of applauding this fact, chapter one in Matthew pauses to remind the reading audience that this great King David whose line led to the Savior—this beloved ancestor of Jesus Christ—was a man of great failure and greater scandal.
Matthew started his history book with tabloid fodder. Why?
Because just like you and me, Jesus came from a scandalous history. But unlike you and me, Jesus was not afraid for the world to know and remember that scandal. As a matter of fact, He welcomed it.
We all come from something scandalous. Perhaps those who came before us, perhaps the lives we lived before we lived for Christ, perhaps some aspect of our current lives. But in modern Christianity we have somehow deluded ourselves into believing that priority one is to eradicate this reality.
We bury. We pretend. We deny to others and ourselves.
And even worse—when the opportunity arises to actually come clean with the soiled spots of our life history—we instead make believe everything is, and always has been, a series of either perfect, fine, or no big deal. And in so doing, we make ourselves into the very fakers we detest. We somehow convince ourselves that this is what Jesus would want: a wiped-clean facade. A steam-pressed, white-cotton, buttoned-down church shirt.
We live the rough stuff—sin, hardships, our scandalous histories—but we keep it silent. We believe it to be a lapse in faith to actually comment on the rough stuff or give it reference. We assume that exhaling the rough stuff somehow gives it more power, so we smile and wave and praise the Lord that everything good is permanent and everything not-so-good had zero effect on us. We have a terrible habit of skipping the rough stuff.
I do this too. And I don't understand why.
I look at the way Jesus entered this world and I see very quickly why it was important for Him to make mention of His scandalous history. It softened the blow for the shame and disgrace that would accompany Him into the world. It was as if Jesus said, I know the manner in which I am born is going to start the rumor mill flowing, so I might as well give it a head start. And what rough stuff it was:
a mother pregnant before even married
a father who almost broke off the engagement
parents who make their decisions based on angel dreams
a cousin born of the elderly
a birth in an animal barn
adoration from astrologers
a birth that prompts the murder of hundreds of other infants
Excerpted from CHRISTIANISH by MARK STEELE. Copyright © 2009 Mark Steele. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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