The gospel in the messiness of life
One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received was at a parenting seminar I attended as a youth worker before ever I had children. One of the elders of my church told parents at that seminar never to ignore the questions children ask because of embarrassment, but to always answer them and use them as an opportunity to apply the gospel. The example he gave was when walking down the street with his young daughter and seeing a page of a porn mag on the pavement. The natural parent reaction in such a circumstance is to walk quickly on and deflect any questions the child might ask – instead, the gospel thing to do is to listen to the child’s questions without embarrassment and then answer them in the light of the gospel.
It has been especially in the area of sex that Grace and I have found this to be the case. We live in a highly sexualised culture and this means we parents have to be ever-ready to bring gospel clarity to questions about sex. It means we have been far more frank and upfront with our kids at a younger age than I would have wanted to be, but this has been demanded of us because of the culture in which they are growing up – a culture in which they are surrounded by soft-porn on every advertising hording and store front; where many of their friends come from broken homes; and where some of their friends are growing up in homes with same-sex partnerships.
In a culture like this we should never flunk a question out of embarrassment. Instead we should use every opportunity to reinforce what the gospel teaches about the dignity of humans made in the image of God; about the sanctity and goodness of marriage, and of sex within marriage; about the reality and destructiveness of sin.
It’s not just sex of course – that’s just the obvious example. There is much about our society that is messy, but the gospel always has an answer for the mess, so we parents need to become skilled gospel preachers. We need to show our kids how the gospel offers a better way to live – not just a more moral way to live but a better way; one that is more satisfying, more joy-filled and more worthwhile.
In the end, that is what the gospel is all about: Life, and life in all its fullness!
Being clear about the gospel also helps resolve tricky decisions that parents have to make. For instance, our youngest daughter (aged 8) was this year asked to a Halloween party by a school friend – what were we to do? Of course, as Christians we are unenthusiastic about Halloween (and as a Brit I resent the import of another unwelcome American activity!) and our initial response was that she should not go. However, thinking it through some more we felt that it was ok for our daughter to go, and in the result we were glad she did.
How did the gospel influence this decision?
1. We knew that there was an ‘innocence’ about the party – it was just one of the mum’s organising a party for her daughter, not a coven! As gospel people we have a sense of proportion.
2. We knew we needn’t be fearful about occult influences on our child anyway, because “greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.” As gospel people we are confident of God’s power at work in us.
3. We did not allow our daughter to dress as a witch. As gospel people we are free not to conform to the expectations of others.
4. Our value of relationships trumped our natural dislike of Halloween parties. As gospel people we work hard at building connections with others.
Grace went to the party along with our daughter and was glad we made the decision we did as it was an excellent point of connection with other mums and gave her some great opportunities to talk about parenting.
Similarly, we put pumpkins outside our front door (which we would do anyway at this time of year as we grow them to eat and they need to be dried off first) but we carve a cross rather than an ugly face. And we have sweets ready to give to trick or treaters, as they are mostly the children of our neighbours and we want to win them rather than alienate them.
So, approaching Halloween from a gospel perspective transforms it from being an evening to dread or hide away from, to something we can in some measure bring light to. Parenting involves making lots of decisions – let’s make them in response to the gospel!