Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fatherhood on a Wing and a Prayer

We celebrated another Father's Day a week and a half ago, and in the midst of the handmade cards, celebratory lunch and hugs from the kids, I was struck by how much of fatherhood is, well, "winging it". I also was struck how much grace there is in parenting, and how I'm praying that my best intentions of being a good father come to fruition despite my own limitations and mistakes.

There are no introductory courses that are offered before one becomes a father. There are no entrance exams to test for competency. Books have some value, I suppose, but my sense is books tend to fall short in that they either (1) provide guidance so conceptual and high-level that they lack value in the day to day decisions of being a father or (2) otherwise fail to account for your particular scenario of parenting because every situation and child is different. That's probably the point: parenting is more art than science. Take, for example, the relatively straightforward scenario of trying to comfort a crying baby. It's not something that one can solve with a cheat sheet. I mean, some of the television shows I grew up with, such as Family Ties, the Brady Bunch and Diff'rent Strokes can help with select scenarios. Even the Bible, which as the apostle Paul wrote is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" isn't an IKEA-like turn-by-turn instruction manual on good parenting.

I think most of the fathers in my age group, if we were to stop and think about it, would and should tremble of the awesome responsibility that we've been given. And most of us could pause and realize that bachelorhood and even childhood weren't that long ago for us. At least to me, it doesn't seem too long ago when I was the kid who was walking around the house bored or whining about school or the like. I remember having to deal with days where I didn't want to go to class or not wanting to get on that school bus. I remember times of loving summer vacation and days of worrying about tests at school. Now I'm in the position of being the father; the voice of wisdom, love and assurance.

And in the midst that responsibility, it's tempting for me to think, "My goodness, do I really know what I'm doing?" as if I woke up in a cockpit of a 747. I catch myself in the middle of a serious talk with my son thinking, "Boy, I really hope I telling him the right thing." My external assertiveness in parenting belies the fact that I'm constantly praying and hoping that each time I open my mouth, direct, comfort, teach or discipline, that I'm doing the right thing. After all, in parenting there are no referees and there is no instant feedback. 

If there's one thing that I'm confident about, it's that I love my children, and I suppose I could throw out something trite about love being enough, and as long as my intentions are loving, then that's all that matters. I just don't believe that's completely correct (as I've pointedly, though hopefully graciously told my own parents). Yes, none of my parental errors may be malicious, but those mistakes still might bring consequences and pain to my children that I'd just as soon do without.

Like all things, we look to God to equip us to do that which were are incapable of doing. I just pray that He would be particularly gracious in this area where the stakes are so high.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chance Encounters in the Plaza

One evening recently, our family enjoyed a dinner at the Sugar Land Town Square and afterwards spend some time in the Plaza, where the kids did their usual running around the fountain area while Sarah and I sat back and enjoyed the cooling temperatures which had settled from an oppressively scalding 98 to a merely hot 88.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young man who couldn't be older than 19 walking around with a notebook and pen in hand and a book bag slung over his shoulder. He walked tentatively towards individuals in the plaza, and by watching his interactions with a number of individuals, I deduced he was either soliciting for a charity or proselytizing. Now having experienced walking through New York City for more than ten years, I've become pretty skilled at using non-verbal cues to make it clear that I absolutely do not want to be approached, and if you do so I will seriously make you regret it. Conversely, I also know how to make myself more approachable so a solicitor or similarly motivated stranger would sense that I could be approached without risk of life or limb.

Being in a pretty good mood that evening, I decided to put forward the "feel free to talk to me" vibe. I looked up at him as he shifted tentatively in my direction, and made eye contact and he shuffled over and nervously recited his rehearsed opening:

"Hi there. I'm doing a project to understand people's views towards religion and spirituality and was wondering if you wouldn't mind if I asked you some questions."

I pretty much knew where this conversation was going. So a little background on myself; I'm a devout Christian but I'm also prone to being a mischievous wiseguy so at this point my mind was racing. There was a 90% chance he was going to go the Evangelism Explosion script and then follow up with a "If you died tonight, what do you think would happen to you?" or he might play it a little softer with the InterVarsity or Campus Crusade Spring Break contact evangelism route and simply see what my religious experiences were and play it by ear.

So here was my mischief dilemma and my options:
  • Option #1: I could play the hardcore atheist and tell him that I used to be fundamentalist before I got my doctorate in philosophy at Yale. I could pull some Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins militant atheist material out and make him work. Maybe I could throw out some perceived biblical contradictions - lack of harmony of certain gospel passages or perhaps some philosophical twisters around God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Or I could ask him about the crucifixion and the inseparability of the Trinity. 
  • Option #2: I could play the non-Christian and let him go through his script while I would appear increasingly engaged and enthusiastic about this gospel that He was sharing. As he spoke, I would increase the pace of my nods and my eyes would narrow in deep thought and agreement. I would ask "softball" questions such as "So I see that I'm a sinner and I can't make it up by doing good things, but then how can I be saved?" and "Could God possibly love me after all of he bad things that I've done? Isn't being a Christian all about following rules?" and "But I'm not a Bible scholar. Don't you need to understand the whole Bible to be a Christian?" It was the evangelism equivalent of letting my son beat me at checkers.
  • Option #3: I could just be myself and be transparent about my own faith.
Options #1 and #2, while probably intriguing and darkly amusing, just felt too dishonest (and if done the wrong way, mean) for my conscience to take, even if I were to slap him on the back afterwards and tell him, "I'm just messing with you kid, thanks for being a good sport." Option #1 also had the danger of possibly introducing questions for which he might seriously not be ready.

So mischief aside, I played it straight and God was gracious in actually bringing to bear a really nice conversation. I invited him to sit down near me and we when he asked me how sure I was that I was going to heaven, I told him that my total assurance was based on the sufficiency of what Jesus Christ had done for me on the cross, securing my salvation by paying the penalty for my sins and cloaking me in His righteousness. At that point he put his pencil away.

Thankfully, he didn't just walk away to find someone "worth saving" (this actually happens occasionally when some contact evangelists meet Christians), but stuck around so I could ask him about who he was (a 19-year old college sophomore-to-be from Patrick Henry College home for the summer), what he was up to (joining his friends in trying to share the gospel through open question dialogue), where he went to church and what sort of Christian fellowship he was part of in school.

I shared with him about my own faith and my church, shared some words of encouragement and prayed for him and his evangelism project. He was effusive in his thanks as we parted.

But in truth I found the encounter really encouraging. Seeing faith in action, and a child-like enthusiasm to share about Jesus' love is something that was both challenging and humbling. There was something very pure about the way the young man carried himself; there was little evidence of cynicism or arrogance in his endeavor, but rather a humble determination to share good news and to be used as God's instrument in spite of his own nervousness, youth and inexperience. These are things I should aspire for more of in my own life.