Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Discipline, part one

[Thanks to all who want me to write a book. These blogs are super-edited versions of public and church seminars I've taught through the years, combined with general stories from our lives with our children. I don't know any book publishers at this point. If I run across one, I'll consider the book. Okay?]

When a new parent finds out that their child is a different person with their own mind and preferences, it can be a shock. All of a sudden that sweet, sticky, smelly bundle of joy stomps their foot and yells "No!" Parents tend to overreact or underreact because they weren't prepared for it. Who knew their kid would mimic the brats that live down the street?

It's discipline time! But what does that mean, exactly? Discipline is more a matter of teaching than it is punishment, and it is a form of teaching that is lived out more than it is spoken. We are the "play of God" acted out in front of our children. They learn self-control, love, dedication to God, loyalty to family, and submission to Christ by watching us. If we are not true to our convictions, they will sense it early, absorbing that lesson and learning to disregard what we say. Or what the church teaches.

Sentences such as "this is the kind of people we are" or "the way we do things is this" can combine with referrals to family and religious heritage to create a sense of identity and place for the child. They NEED to be special and they NEED to be different. Giving them a heritage that is lived out openly gives them both. Orthodox Jewish families keep most of their kids, even though their dress and life is so very out of step with the world. How? They inculcate a sense of identity from an early age, backed up with traditions, routines, and reasons.

When punishment is required, be creative. There are many different forms of punishment and very few of them require laying a hand on your child. Speaking of "the laying on of hands," let's look at some of the rules concerning physical punishment of any kind.

1. Never touch your child in anger.
2. Never mark your child. In all 50 States, that is considered abuse.
3. If the child is terrorized, they will not learn the lesson you intend for them to learn. They merely learn that you are dangerous and their position in your life (or in life itself) is tenuous.
4. Physical punishment only works when it is designed to get the child's attention so that the lesson can commence, or if it is to quickly remove the child from danger.
5. Children's bodies are not well developed. Grabbing them, shaking them, yanking them along behind you is a good way to dislocate joints, cause permanent soft tissue damage, or serious brain damage. A blow that is "minor" to us can cause serious damage to a child.
6. If a little spanking didn't fix the problem, a big spanking won't, either.
Continuing to do what you've always done, even when it didn't work, and hoping that it might work now is a sign of insanity.

Appropriate punishments can be anything that the child doesn't like, but which is not psychologically or physically harmful. Think of things such as:

1. Separation: boredom is a horrible thing in a child's life. Make them bored for punishment. Take away a favored toy, or all toys, for a time. Put them in an area that is boring -- at a kitchen table, in a chair away from friends and entertainment, etc. General rule of thumb is to not separate them like this more than two minutes for every year of their age.

2. Taking away priveleges: TV, games, playtime. Again -- boredom is the aim.

3. Grounding -- again, boredom.

4. Matching the consequences to the behavior: break your sister's toy, you have to do without your favorite toy/item until you have worked enough to "pay" for a new toy for your sister. Mess up daddy's screws, nails, and tools? While others are playing, you have to straighten up the tools to daddy's satisfaction. Play your stereo too loud? After a warning, you do without your stereo for the rest of the day.

More later....

Thursday, April 20, 2006

God is Smart... or... the "duh" factor...

So how do you raise children without constant rule-making? Some of you have written comments or sent me emails asking how we got our kids to go to bed at a decent time or come back home at a good hour without making bedtimes and curfews. Here's the way we did it:

We instilled very early in our children the concept of consequences. Within age appropriate limits, they were able to make decisions but they also had to bear the consequences. Consequences have largely been removed from our children's actions and that is a shame. Once upon a time if the child responsible for maintaining the fire failed at his duty, the house was cold, food was uncooked, and he had to deal with the disapproval of his family until the situation was rectified. Bring consequences and God back into the mix.

When God is entered into the equation, children learn that there is a metaphysical as well as a physical component to every decision made. If a child stays up too late, they still have to get up at the right time in the morning, go to school (or begin homeschooling), and show progress in their studies. If they could not maintain their grades or alertness, we removed benefits and extras. For instance, while they may not have had a bedtime set, the TV, computers, game machines, etc. were stopped at the same time each night. Quiet time then ruled. They could read, do homework, perhaps join in a family game, but there was no electronic stimuli to keep them up. Usually, once the noise was disconnected, the yawns set in and they went to bed. If their grades didn't stay at a decent level, we would work passages from Proverbs on work, rest, and growth into our discussions and devotionals. (and when they succeeded at school, raised grades, or did well we celebrated lavishly!)

And here's another key: we bound ourselves to the same rules. If the children saw us being slothful, not following through on promises, and not studying or improving ourselves they had every right to bring it up!

We also taped shows (no Tivo or DVR back then, kids) that we normally wouldn't watch. We would then play them back with the kids and hit the "pause" button repeatedly and ask questions: what if people really acted like that? Would you be their friends? What's going wrong here? This all started when my little girl was watching a rerun of Magnum PI with me one day and Magnum shot a guy. "He just shot that guy," Kara said. I allowed that he had done that very thing. "Why did he shoot him?" she asked. I told her that the man was a bad man. "So we're supposed to shoot bad people?" she asked again. I gave that a good think and decided that she had put her finger on a real issue with the show. It was a short step from there to watching an episode of "Friends" and asking: would you be friends with someone, or want to date someone, who has sex with that many people? We did research to show that to live in those apartments in NYC and have those clothes and that lifestyle, each of the Friends would have to make over $250,000 a year. Every unreality, we emphasized. We talked about what the consequences of their behavior really would be. (With that many sexual partners, we would have STDs, a lot of embarassing moments at the grocery store when you ran into old lovers, broken hearts, anger and violence, etc.)

Covering it all were words from the Bible to show that God is smart. He decreed a way of life that included work, rest, play, joy, worship, and growth. His law also prohibited things that hurt us; things which He handily arranged into lists such as Proverbs 6 and Galatians 5 (things God hates, fruit of the flesh). For each item that God hated, we asked "why" and found out that God was smart -- everything He prohibits is something that really, really hurts us. That's the "duh" factor. God is smart, kids. Well, duh!

We even used I Love Lucy reruns: what is making their life one crisis after another? A lack of God. If they just treated each other kindly and told the truth every single crisis would be averted (the same works for Flintstones and a lot of other shows). We would play a "how would having God in the house solve this problem" games with TV shows. The more we did this, the more the kids learned that God really IS smart and the more we listen to Him, the fewer crises in our lives (at least, self-inflicted crises).

Use the Proverbs. Use the Psalms. Use the lists of sins and graces throughout the New Testament. Apply them to everyday life. More examples as we continue. May God bless you as you journey towards heaven with your children.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Decisions, decisions...

Duncan and I have been on our own for this week. Kami is visiting her last living grandparent, a dear lady who lives in Boise, Idaho. She was concerned about us: would we eat right? Would the house be okay? I told her, "We'll be fine and happy. You'll come back to see us both sitting on the couch in our underwear watching TV while everything in sight is covered with a fine layer of Cheeto dust." For some reason, that did not comfort her.

Since this was also Duncan's Easter break I thought I'd rearrange my schedule so we could do guy stuff -- golf, shooting, topping up our cholesterol levels -- but that isn't the way it turned out. He got one of his birthday presents early -- a custom made radio for his 74 Ford Gran Torino complete with MP3 player and extra speakers. It fit in the old slot so it was supposed to be a simple switch out... but it wasn't. After several false starts we drove it over to Best Buy. It took them 5 hours but now Dunk has tunes!

Other plans had to be changed on the fly. It all reminds me that we are not in charge of much. Duncan is a man -- six foot four and 190 pounds of pure muscle. Kids love him and run up to him at church. They know he'll be gentle with them. Girls know they are safe around him. Guys know he'll treat them with respect. I'm proud of that, but it also means he has lots of friends and sometimes that interferes with the plans I make. We haven't golfed yet, or gone shooting yet. We went to see Ice Age 2 (very good) and we've done a few things like that, but he is a busy young man. And I'm giving him freedom to be who God wants him to be and to make the network of friends he will need in the next few months or years.

Tomorrow evening we go have dinner with the Marines. He will talk to them about the Delayed Entry Program and the Platoon Leader Option. We've known he was a warrior for a long time now. When people see what he is planning many of them come to us and ask how we can let him join the Marines (not that we could stop him). Won't we be worried? Won't we be terrified?

Sure. But we will also be proud. Decisions have costs. If he decides to be a Marine he will not be... well, a lot of other things. If you go to Lipscomb that means you can't enjoy Harding's campus life or football weekends at the University of Michigan. Decisions are not neutral.

And letting him grow, letting him go, is our decision. It hurts sometimes. I sometimes miss the little boy who followed me everywhere, but Duncan is not my puppy. He is God's son. God gave him his talents, personality, body, and mind. Duncan has decided to use it in the best way he can.

When parents make the decision to give their children leave to find and fulfill their mission, the parents usually suffer. But that's all right. Decisions are not neutral and sacrifice is the name of the game when it comes to parenting. It's not about us. It's not even about them. It's about standing in the place God gave you when He planned you and wove you together in that secret place before delivering you to two people -- parents -- who are commissioned to teach you, hone you, and then deliver you up.

We are all Abraham and our children are all Isaacs. We have to take them to the mountain of God and give them back to Him. Thanks, God, for letting me have Kara and Duncan for a time. Even though the gift wasn't permanent, it was wonderful.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Safety Valve

NOTE: this begins a long, meandering, frequently interrupted series on raising faithful, happy children. I've done 20 seminars a year on child and family matters -- as well as another 20 on other subjects. I hope these will be of some use to those of you still raising your children or grandchildren.

My son turns 17 in a week. He is a fine, strong Christian gentleman. My daughter is 23 and married to a minister. She sparkles with the joy and love of the Lord. People ask us how we did it and, when we tell them, they scratch their heads and wonder "That can't work, can it?"

Yes. Yes, it can.

When I was a boy, my father and mother canned a lot of the food we ate. My father worked as a missionary and a church planting minister so money was always very tight. We'd often be paid in vegetables or other produce. I spent many, many evenings in front of a tiny black and white TV as I snapped bushels of beans. Then dad would bring out the huge... heavy... scary pressure cooker.

Our pressure cooker was approximately the same size and weight of an NFL linebacker. The thick steel and the heavy screws that secured its lid were impressive, but I was fascinated by the dial on top. It showed the pounds per square inch of pressure that was building up inside the steel pot and the top of the arc was red: danger. Dad told me that if the needle moved up into that area the pot was in danger of blowing up. The shrapnel, he assured us, would kill us all. Yikes!

Then he would point to the tiny little valve sticking up in the middle of the lid. It was a safety valve. If the pressure got too high that valve would pop up and release steam quickly, but safely. It might be noisy and hot, but it was preferrable to having a steel and green bean grenade go off in the kitchen.

Most homes fall into one of two categories. Some try to "can kids" in a cooker with no lid. The kids have no limits, the parents have no spine (or interest in the children), and therefore the children are raised by happenstance and the current culture. The result is predictable and tragic.

The second category is of the parent who've seen the flotsam and jettsam of their neighbor's kids and says "not in my house." They put the lid on their kids and screw it down tight. Rules are not only made, they multiply both in number and in restrictiveness. Rules and controls are mistaken, in this family, for spiritual instruction. The result is not as predictable, perhaps, but it is every bit as tragic. The pressure builds and, for a time, the child is safe and forms into something good and special. But with no place to release steam, an explosion occurs, the child rebels, the family is broken.

In my own family, I saw it happen again and again. Argument or dissent was not allowed. Disagreement on any point - even the smallest point -- was viewed as open rebellion. Walls were built around us, our behavior, and any desire to be or do something other than that which had been decided for you was viewed with horror. The result? Half of my siblings want nothing to do with God and very little to do with the family. There was no valve. The pot exploded. I barely survived it myself and find that I often put God and family at arm's length even to this day.

When we had our daughter we determined to do things differently. Both of our children were raised with a philosophy that had several parts, a few of which are these:

1. Our job is to prepare these children to live without us. That means that -- while we must have some rules -- it is far more important for the child to learn the reasons for rules, the ability to think, and the skills necessary to find their own way in a dangerous world.

2. Never say no when you can say yes. Allow them the maximum amount of freedom possible while maintaining our Christian ethos. If it is a matter of sin, stand and fight. If it is a developmental, cultural, or situational matter -- negotiate. Use wisdom, grace and humor -- but do not paint your child or yourself into a corner. Make sure that, if they need to run, they know it is safe to run towards you.

3. Allow your child to be who God made them to be, realizing that His dream for them may very well clash with yours. Will I spend sleepless nights as my son enters the Marines? Did I worry about what my daughter would major in and what she would do after graduation? Sure. But if God makes my son a warrior, then he is a warrior. If He had made him an artist, minister, or businessman I would have supported that.

4. Encourage independent thought, using every discussion as a teaching time about truth and consequences. Negotiate freely so that they feel free to speak to you about anything, and so that they can work things out verbally right in front of you without fear of ridicule or punishment. We (and here we will lose some of you) never gave our children a bedtime after the age of six, nor did we give them a curfew. Because we had trained them how to make their own decisions, neither of them ever abused that trust. Not once.

There are more bits and pieces we want to share with you in months to come. However, here is the payoff: because they were allowed to release steam in small amounts, they never felt the need to blow up. Did we disagree with some of their decisions? Yes (but, to be honest, that didn't happen a lot). But if Kami and I were to die today we know that Duncan has all the skills he needs -- even at 17 -- to make his way forward from here without us. Kara is already a godly woman, and a very wise one, who would miss us terribly... but she has all the skills she needs to move on without us.

Knowing that, we are at peace. Raising your children to be thinkers and to live in freedom is scary. Some say it is like a walking a high-wire without a net. We say "no. It's more like a pressure cooker with a safety valve. Things might get noisy and messy... but nobody dies."

Saturday, April 08, 2006

The New Priests

For centuries, people turned to the clergy to answer their questions about the universe and their place within it. The deepest metaphysical questions were added to mundane queries and their priests, prophets, and pastors answered them -- some correctly, some not. Since Darwin -- and we are simplifying things here -- that changed; slowly at first, then rapidly, and now, slowing again.

Scientists are our priests and their Eucharist is macro evolution. It is the shibboleth that shall not be questioned. Social scientists, biologists, psychologists, linguists, geologists, educators, and political scientists are all required to tug their forelocks and genuflect before the Agreed Upon Story of evolution and state -- and re-state -- their switch to the new and improved priesthood of science.

Doubt me? Let one example suffice. Let's say you're feeling a bit unwell. You go to the doctor's office but you are not allowed to see the Great Healer. You must approach a representative of the doctor but, even there, you may not directly speak to them. You speak through a glass, darkly, and make your case as to your worthiness to be seen. If you are granted a measure of acceptability you are directed to enter the Place of Waiting where no one is allowed to know the day or hour of the approach of the healer.

Eventually, a door opens to another realm and a name is called. One of your number stands as others watch in wonder, awe, and fear. The time comes -- it is your name. You enter a long corridor of light and are told to move along it to Another Place. Even there, no healer appears. You are directed into another room of waiting -- a hades of sorts. There, you are directed to doff the clothes of sickness and put on the paper gown of embarrasment. You are then directed to sit upon the cold table of surprise and wait once more. No matter how faithfully you watch and wait you will still be surprised when the door suddenly opens and a being dressed in white wafts in.

You know your time is limited. If you are not heard by this One there will be no healing. You speak respectfully, quickly, trying to get the facts of your case out before you are dismissed or the One leaves. You have no control over the situation. If you are blessed and the Healer decides to offer you aid, he will write on a special tablet that you -- not one of the priests -- may never own. He will use a strange language only readable by other scholars and priests.

You must take that sacred script with you on a holy journey across town past dangers and trials (ever driven in Detroit?) and enter another place where you find other priests dressed in blue, living in an elevated position. You hand up your sacred scroll to them and patiently wait for them to interpret it and supply to you the medium of healing.

I love science. I have two doctorates in science. I read it for fun (sad, but true). Yet, the way that science has closed its ranks to any dissension, elevated itself to priesthood status, and demands the destruction and humiliation of any who question its Received Wisdom is deeply troubling. As one columnist has noted recently (, they have taken the role of The Church against any modern day Galileo who questions their Divine Theory.

In a world where professors and department heads at major universities are seriously considering rescinding the doctoral degrees of any former graduates who later are found to be creationists; where Scientific American fires an award winning columnist in the field of electronics for privately believing in creation (he never wrote of that belief), and where churches and churchmen rush to agree with newsmagazines and tabloid reports of the significance of each supposed new link in the chain of our crawl from the premordial soup... God bless the rebels who refuse to bow to the new priests, who keep their minds open to truth -- untainted truth -- from God and nature, and who believe, not in the new priesthood, but in the One God.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Men of Grace

Last night, in place of our usual Wednesday evening seeker service called Connections, we had a concert by the Men of Grace. All of these men are former addicts who have completed or are completing a year long rehab program at the Grace Centers of Hope in Detroit. Grace Centers of Hope has homes for the men to live in, a clinic to treat anyone who needs help, and an ethic of work, prayer, and dignity that has proven miraculous to many, many men.

Most of the men are African-American (as is most of Detroit). Some were raised in believing homes and then -- for a variety of reasons -- they fell all the way down to the street. One by one, they told us their stories. We sat there transfixed by the pain they had experienced and by the ABSOLUTE and total lack of self-pity in their voices. They constantly praised Jesus for healing them and bringing them back to sanity.

And they sang. Lord, how they sang. When you realize what a man has gone through and how far back the journey was, when he sings "And I'll cherish the old rugged cross" there isn't a dry eye in the house. It was wonderful and we hope to have them back again.

Something needs to be said here: we have the bravest and coolest elders on the planet. You see, Men of Grace are not from "our tribe or tradition." Most of their songs require the use of instruments and (for those of you who stumbled onto this blog from other traditions) that has always been a super big no-no for our church. We went to our elders and asked them if we should ask the Men of Grace to sing only acapella and our elders said, "Why bring them here if we can't let them be who they are?" They went on to say that this was a good work, these were honorable men, and we needed to support and encourage them. "Let them sing and play as they usually do, and we will love them openly." They did, and we did, and God was praised throughout the evening.

At the end of the concert I asked the men and their pastor to line up in the middle aisle of our family room (that's what we call the auditorium). The people them gathered around them, laying hands on them as we prayed. One of the men was overheard saying to another one, "Man, I really feel loved here!"

Thanks, elders. And thanks, Men of Grace. For a quick laugh and a bit of fun, check out what someone with too much spare time has put together on Then, go to and see what the Men of Grace are doing now.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Jesus on Trial

[Thank you for your prayers. I got back safely and had enough energy to preach the three morning services yesterday. I'm even in the office today!]

When I was a kid I heard a lot of sermons about Jesus on trial. They would go over the injustices down to our Lord and, truth be told, there were a lot of them. Legal experts have crawled over the Misnah for centuries and been shocked at the number of violations that took place during that series of trials. I found books that listed from 12 to 27 different serious violations of Jewish law. That's impressive. Those sermons, however, didn't motivate me to live a better life; they just made me angry at those old Jewish guys and Pilate! I'm not sure how helpful that was.

To me, that was the failing of "The Passion of the Christ." I am glad Gibson made the movie. I think it needed to be made. However, it emphasized the injustice, pain, and gore without emphasizing the love, grace, and hope of the Christian message. I know, I know -- one movie can't do it all. I'm just saying...

I can remember wondering, when I was a kid and listening the Trial sermons, "Why did they think they could get away with this?" It wasn't until I was older and read Matthew 21:33-45. It has to be the most bizarre parable Jesus ever taught. Think about it: a group of tenants ambush and kill those sent to collect the rent. When a larger force is sent out, they kill those men, also. When the Lord of the harvest sends out his son, he assumes no one would dare touch him, but the tenants think -- and here's the weird bit -- that if they kill the son THEY will inherit the land! That's sick. Yet.... when the chief priests and Pharisees heard this, they knew he was speaking of them.

Even though the NIV strips the passage of its power, Luke 20:70,71 shows another important aspect of this matrix. When Jesus is asked if he is the Son of God, he reveals that those questioning him have said, privately, that he was! They KNEW he was the Messiah and they killed him anyway. Why? Refer back to Matthew 21. They were relying on their special relationship with God to get them through this. They were certain that if they rejected Jesus, as they had rejected so many of the prophets, God would -- perhaps after a suitable punishment -- restore them and send them someone else; maybe someone more after their liking.

As sick as this is, it is exactly what we do with Jesus. Jesus is on trial every day in our lives -- and so are we. He told us not to lay up treasures on earth, to give to the poor, to be people of prayer, to be faithful to God in our words and deeds... and we would rather have Caiaphas. Caiaphas' job as high priest was to maintain the temple, keep the worship going, and keep the people in line. That seems to be the goal of most churches today! Jesus' goal was to overhaul people, destroying anything in them that kept them from God. That's scary stuff.

Example: a man sat in my office. I was working with him, trying to get him to take his Christianity more seriously. He responded, angrily, "If I tried to run my business according to the Sermon on the Mount I'd be broke in a month!" I shrugged and said, "So? Go broke." Unfortunately, he -- and most of us -- agreed with Caiaphas in John 18:14 that it was better for Jesus to die than for the whole social framework to die.

So, we keep our power, position, and comfort zones at the cost of Jesus, all the while relying on our special relationship with Jesus to change God the Father into God the Grandfather; sweet, understanding, saying "Aw, shucks, it's okay." The people in Matthew 7:21-23 thought they had a special relationship with God that would let them get by the gates of heaven. And they were wrong.

Jesus is on trial. Every time we choose a phrase to use to speak to our spouse, everytime we write a check, everytime we choose an entertainment, everytime we choose to pass our neighbors by rather than reaching out to them... Jesus is on trial. We cannot let his teaching die in our lives and then expect our special relationship with God to save us. "No one comes to the Father, except through me" he said. I think he meant it. If you doubt that, ask Caiaphas.