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Dreaming for Our Children
Now and then in quiet moments, we sit and dream for our children. We wonder how we can help them grow into the people we long for them to be—adults who work hard, who build loving relationships, who know and experience God.
Part of the dreaming picture I have for my children is that God's love will shape them into compassionate people in a culture that is self-absorbed. I long for them to be individuals who like to offer cups of cold water to the thirsty, who dare to whisper words of life to the unreached, who want to love all peoples the way God does, who strive to set aside the pull of materialism and spend their resources on worthwhile purposes.
My efforts to mold them into compassionate individuals are thwarted by the reality of time pressure. Doctor's appointments, soccer games, and homework obligations overwhelm me. To give substance to this dream, I have to be intentional. Over the years, I've met people who have shown me what such deliberate parenting looks like. Here are two stories that illustrate this kind of intentionality.
Elaine Smythe, a homeschooling mom, suggested an unusual idea to her then nine-year-old daughter Helen. Elaine had read about a boy who had a pirate-theme birthday party, but instead of having his friends bring presents, he asked the children to bring the money they would have spent on presents. The boy's family then sent that money to help the family's sponsored child overseas. Elaine asked Helen if she'd like to do a similar thing for theirsponsored child, Roberto, in Brazil and let Helen decide.
Helen's birthday party was typical, except that a globe sat on the table along with a letter from Roberto, who was fourteen. The kids held back their "presents" and after the cake, they put the money in a little box. Helen tells how her mom explained that their family prayed for Roberto one day a week. "We told how we wrote letters to him and he wrote to us. I read one of his letters. Then we opened the envelopes and added up the dollars. I thought there would be maybe twenty dollars, but there was seventy dollars! When I look at Roberto's picture now, I think how special he felt when he got the money."
Todd and Marge Evans went out on a limb with their teenage sons. Their sons were used to skiing vacations, but Todd and Marge wanted them to experience a work camp in a developing country. Todd told them they would go back to skiing vacations again, "but just this one time, we were going to Nicaragua to build a school. So my boys and another boy decided to build a basketball court for the kids in the school there. They brought a hoop with them. When the cement was wet, they put their names in it."
Marge—a realistic mom who wanted to prepare her sons—warned the boys that the living conditions there would not be good. "We were right—it wasn't a great big wonderful picnic. We cleared land, made cement, and did masonry work. We saw how people lived with no electricity or phones or televisions but were happy in that setting. The kids respected that even though the Nicaraguans did things differently (like mixing cement by hand), it worked. They were impressed when one of the men used a machete to kill a big snake, so the men let the kids use the machete in their work. The boys worked hard—not like at home! They wanted to make a difference."
Did these boys give up on their parents as hopeless killjoys? No, Matt Evans went back to Nicaragua a second time and later spent seven weeks in Chile with the American Field Service. When he had to write about the experience that meant the most to him to for his college application, he wrote about the trip to Nicaragua.
In both instances, these parents were intentional about teaching their children to be compassionate toward the world, but they still had fun. Teaching our kids to be compassionate isn't a matter of sacrificing to the point of being bleak. It's about doing things families normally do (as you'll see in later chapters) but doing them in a way that involves loving others in the world.
Through this book, I hope to strengthen your intentionality as mine was strengthened several years ago when I volunteered for a week at the U.S. Center for World Mission. Daily I saw the needs of people from other countries: needs to hear about God and the gospel; needs to experience justice in unfair situations; needs for food, clothing, and health care. As the week progressed, my supervisor introduced me to his coworkers as a writer who focused on family issues.
When I was introduced to one of the more passionate people who worked there, he came out from behind the desk and grilled me, "Why are parents working so hard to help their kids get good grades, do well in sports, and be involved in youth group? These activities are OK, but do they make a difference? What is the point—to make them sharper, smarter kids? What are you focusing on your family for? Is having a happy, intact family the goal or a means to an end—advancing knowledge of God's mercy and justice on earth?"
The man's passion shocked me. I excused myself, dismissing him as a missions fanatic who must have had too much coffee that day. Back at my desk, my eyes wandered to a brochure that spoke more gently but just as clearly as my coworker.
Think over the energy you're throwing into life now—trying to be the best you can be, trying to get ahead, to be a better family member, a better you. Why work so hard? Why ask so often for God's blessing on your life?
If it's to have a nicer, happier life that's' not a bad goal. Especially since that's what heaven will be—an easier, nicer existence. If that were God's purpose for you right now, [God] would simply take you home to heaven, right? But here-and-now, biblical discipleship is never described as "nice" or "easy."
Go ahead: Break out of the idea that to join God's family is to become part of a nice, privileged group. It's more like being born into a family business—everybody is naturally expected to take part in the [parents'] work. [my italics]
As I drove home that day, I wondered what being a part of the "family business" meant to me as a Christian, as a journalist, as a mom. In the quiet of this commute, I began to dream. I was teaching my kids what was important by what I emphasized most—studying hard in school, participating in sports, going to church. These were all fine pursuits, but wasn't my real goal for them to know the heart of God? to join God in important worldwide purposes here on earth? Based on the things I reminded my children about most, the important items in life were being on time, getting homework done, picking up bathroom towels.
I was teaching my children to pray, but service is a spiritual discipline just as prayer is. Service forms us spiritually, teaching us to trust God. As we serve alongside others, we (including kids) can't help asking ourselves: Will God work through the people in charge? (Sometimes you wonder!) Is my small contribution valuable? Will God use what I'm doing even though I don't see the results?
We tend to think of spiritual disciplines as quiet, devotional moments, but Jesus and the disciples not only prayed together; they also worked hard together. A spiritual discipline has been defined as anything that helps us practice "how to become attentive to that small voice and willing to respond when we hear it." If we're going to be cooperative at all while serving others, we'll need to be attentive to God's voice. We can help our children do this by asking them, as we serve together: What does the person I'm serving really need? How can I be helpful to the people I'm working with? How does it feel to cooperate with God and be a part of the "family business"?
Service also teaches us that prayer and work blend together. Yon may have prayed to love an elderly person, but when you enter a convalescent home and wrinkle your nose at the smell, you get to pray and explain to the children in your life, "I'm praying the odor won't bother us and we'll just enjoy ourselves." We weave prayer with service, the practical feet on the body of Christ.
As the commuter traffic slowed, my mind raced with difficult questions for God:
How could I impress upon my children that being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ was as important as punctuality, homework, and neatness?
By encouraging intellectual pursuits and neglecting of character-building activities, wasn't I teaching simple arrogance?
If my children had good character without a heart for God, wouldn't they be unbearably self-righteous?
Responding to these questions became a journey for me as well as for my family. To my surprise, this effort was not only fun, but I saw it make a difference in their personalities, in our neighborhood, and (by faith) in the world.
The Yes, but ... Questions
Maybe you're thinking, Who am I to teach my children or grandchildren about loving the world? I am so inadequate myself. I had those thoughts in the car that day. I knew from experience, though, how making other spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and worship, simple enough for my kids to understand had enriched my own capacity for prayer and worship. I decided to do the same thing with service—learn for myself while teaching my children.
Perhaps we can be inspired by teens. They are in a developmental stage laced with a fear of inadequacy, yet they still get involved. A Gallup poll found that "61 percent of American teenagers were volunteering on a weekly basis, compared to 51 percent of American adults. The contribution made by these teenagers was valued at more than seven billion dollars!"
The task is too big, you may think. That's true. Our challenge is to teach children to be process-oriented not product-oriented. "Mother Teresa was once asked why she kept caring for the sick when she knew that no matter what she did, they would still die. Mother Teresa said, `Whether they live or die is irrelevant to the act of love." She understood that the point of charity is to do the deed in love, not to worry about whether it looks successful to others,
You never know what good can come of an insignificant act. Barbara Hibschman, who served with her family as a missionary in the Philippines for a few years, tells how children in U.S. churches would pack up used clothing and send it to them. "We had a boy in a Christmas program whose parents were poor and couldn't afford the uniform for the program—a specific blue and white polka-dot shirt. We wondered what we should do. Yet three months before, a family had donated [just such] a polka-dot shirt and sent it with other clothes. Two days before the program, the shirt arrived and it fit the boy. It meant a great deal to him and showed him the proof of God's love."
This story illustrates the large truth that we usually don't know the fruits of what we do, which isn't so bad. Not knowing the outcome of our actions enhances the nature of service as a spiritual discipline—we learn to trust God for the results.
Perhaps you have another fear: Teaching children to be intentionally compassionate will get kids worked up about political issues. What I'm suggesting is not necessarily political. I'm talking about behaving like Jesus—caring for the throwaways, making the good news known. The fact that more than 35,000 children die every day of preventable diseases does involve some political issues, but at heart, it's a family issue. Each of those kids has a brokenhearted parent or two. It's a family issue that even though a single famine, earthquake, or flood has never claimed the lives of 250,000 children, malnutrition claims that many every week. An estimated 100 million children live on city streets around the world—with no family, no security, no future.
These may not be my kids, but they're somebody's kids, Being a member of God's "family business" makes their problems my business. As a parent of teenagers with runaway friends living on the streets, I weep when I learn that in Brazil and other poor countries, paramilitary squads are murdering street children in an effort to "clean up the cities."
The church—not the family—should teach kids to care, some will say. Yes, the church should do this job. The school and community should do this job, too. But most of all, I, as a parent, should do this job. Any other influence is trivial in comparison with a parent's. A child's view of the world—including missionary interests, prejudices, stereotypes—is developed largely within the home and extended family.
Won't it scare children to know about desperate conditions beyond their backyard? No, not if presented alongside the goodness of God who so loves the world. Christ made his mission clear: "to bring good news to the poor.... proclaim release to the captives ... let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18). We're not asking our children to take responsibility for the world's ills but to partner with an all-powerful God in this work.
Concern for people we don't know builds character. As the lack of ethics on Wall Street, in schools, and in polities surfaces, the gospel message stands radically against greed. If we don't intervene, our children will abide by the popular cultural cadence of using people and loving things. The radical message of Jesus is to love people and use things to love those people. Service builds the character of Christ in us.
If we teach children to be compassionate, won't they become soft and vulnerable to exploitation by others? No, not if they practice compassion alongside a wise adult like you and learn what you learn. Then compassionate kids will grow up to be innovative, concerned businesspeople who create good jobs, healthy workplaces, and useful products. They won't cut corners, abuse their workers, or pollute the environment. As union members or politicians, they will be honest and courageous, not greedy and self-absorbed. They will become teachers or church leaders who don't just put in time but have the heart of Christ and invest in the lives of others. They will live life wanting to communicate the heart of God to the hearts of people.
When kids know an oppressed person who was cheated, unjustly evicted, or passed over for a job (and they bear this heartache alongside a compassionate adult like you), they develop the important quality of empathy. When they're included in mission efforts, they become fascinated with people who differ from themselves, and they see the value of Christ's message. This is how they learn the real stuff of life—courage, caring, Christlikeness. They understand that personality, sex appeal, and flair are no substitutes for integrity, consistency, and humility. They learn to admire ordinary people of great character rather than celebrities with great charisma. They see that some things are more important than getting ahead and having more—caring about others, making a way for God's agenda to move forward.
The place for parents and grandparents to begin is with hearts that are touched, not callused. We begin by seeing the people on television news as individuals with real skin that can be bruised, real bones that can be broken, real emotions that can be traumatized, and real minds that can be tortured. This new way of seeing is part of our journey of learning to love God. "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 3:17) Teaching kids to care for people beyond their backyard is one more way to teach our children to love God.
Questions for Consideration
Choose a few of the following questions to discuss with others or to ponder yourself.
1. When and where have your children worked harder than they do at home (as the Evans boys did)?
2. Why do we automatically think that serving with our children might not be fun?
3. How do you feel about the notion of being part of God's "family business"?
4. Which "yes, but" issue below, if any, challenges you most?
developing compassion and wisdom while you help the children in your life do so
trusting God for the enormity of the task
understanding issues that appear to be "political" as family issues
presenting the goodness of God alongside the world's needs
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
Prayer. O God, help me to see Christ in my children, "the hope of glory." Show me how I can teach wisdom to them, presenting them mature in Christ. Amen.
Read any phrases in this chapter that have spoken to you or that you've underlined—especially phrases that describe your goals for your children. Read these phrases to them.
Reread 1 John 3:17 as quoted in the last paragraph of the chapter.
Prayer. All-powerful God, show us what it means to dream about being people who______. Help us to let go of fears about service being boring or scary. Teach us to enjoy working alongside you in your great task of preaching good news to the poor and offering the world's goods to those in need. Amen.