Prayer: Surrendering to God’s Dreams for your Children

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Jacob wrestles with the Angel of the LORD.

Jacob wrestles with the Angel of the LORD.

The are certain prayers that flow naturally out of a parent’s heart.  We want our kids to be safe.  We want them to do well in school.  We root for them to make the team.  We pray that they get into college.  We want them to have lots of friends. We hope that they find the right spouse and avoid falling for that person that reminds you too much of yourself.  We’ve all prayed prayers of self-preservation, ‘LORD change them.  Make them behave.  Make them listen to me.  Turn them away from the path of self-destruction.’ We didn’t learn these sorts of desperate prayers in a parenting class.  They are inspired by our compassion for our children and a desire to live our lives without popping heartburn medication and anti-depressants.

But what if God’s plans for our children go deeper than a life of happiness, success, safety, and good behavior?   How would that challenge the way we pray? Think about the opening words of Jesus’ prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  There is surrender in those words.  Our dreams for our children contain visions of peace, happiness, love, success, and behavior, but God’s dream is deeper, stronger, darker, but more compelling.  When we pray, we are not only acknowledging our powerlessness, we are surrendering our dreams for God’s dreams for our children.  ‘Your will, not my will, be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

So what does God value more than safety, success, and happiness?  Paul captures God’s dream in Romans 8:28:

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

So what is this good that God works in all things in our lives and in the lives of our children?  Paul writes:

Romans 8:29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son …

Here is God’s dream for your child, that they become like Jesus.  The hope this passage gives us is not that God will make lemonade out of the lemons of our lives.  Rather, that God will use your child’s successes, failures, sins, triumphs, joys, and sorrows to deepen their faith and mold them into the image of God’s Son, Jesus.  The truth is, only God knows what your child needs to make this happen.

It was Peter’s public failure where he denied Christ three times that broke his heart open to God.  For Abraham, following God meant leaving his family for a far-off country from which he would never return.  Mary’s journey with God took her through the terrifying experience of a teenage pregnancy. David’s best moment came not after his triumphs, but after his greatest moral failure, his adultery with Bathsheba and the ensuing cover-up (see Psalm 51).  Jacob became a true man by wrestling with God and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

We surrender to God in prayer, not because we believe that he protect our children from disappointment, failure, and pain, but because we believe that God can and will work through all these struggles to make our children like Jesus.  Think of this: what if God answered our natural prayers?  What if our kids sailed through life with the perfect marriage, the successful career, and the sterling public reputation, but they were never brought to the place where they were confronted by their need for Christ?  What if they our children are so satisfied with this life, that they lose their desire for the next one?

Prayer, at its heart, is a terrifying surrender to the will of God.  It is owning God’s dreams for our children and abandoning our own. How can we take such a step of faith? Our thoughts go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed with sweat pouring off him like drops of blood.  He has the option of walking away from the cross, but instead he prays:

Luke 22:42 Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.

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Prayer and Powerless Parenting

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Mark 4:26 This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know why.

Paul Miller in his book, A Praying Life, argues that the greatest thing a parent can do for their children is to pray for them.  I used to think that was a cop out.  I’ll resign myself to prayer because nothing else seems to be working.  I refuse to believe that I am that powerless.  But what if we are?

My greatest fear as a parent is that my children will not believe the gospel and not follow Christ.  What happens if my son and daughter comes to the end of their life without surrendering to Christ?  Then what? That question leads to these kinds of fears.  What if I am failing my kids?  Are there things I should be doing that will “make them” believe the gospel? If only I set a better example for them and wasn’t so short tempered.  Will it be my fault if they grow up to be unbelievers?

I believe these types of fears and self-doubt mask our deepest fear that we as parents are unable to control our children’s decision to believe the gospel.  Here is what Paul Miller writes about coming to that realization:

[Emily – Paul’s daughter] walked a little ahead of me, so I slowed down and prayed, ‘God you have got to give Emily faith this year.  You have no choice.’  I was keenly aware of my inability to grow faith in her heart.  God just had to do it … Was this a name-it-and-claim-it-prayer? No, I wasn’t trying to control God.  I certainly wasn’t in control of Emily.  I was simply praying God’s own heart back to him.

At the heart of prayer is a surrendering to our powerlessness, not to give up, but to tap into a power source that is greater than ourselves.  I am convinced that we can not parent our kids effectively until we allow God to bring us to this place.  It is only in the place of powerlessness and desperation where true prayer can emerge.

Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a garden and gardener..  A gardener tills the soil, plants the seeds, pulls weeds, puts down fertilizer, and does pest control.  While he works hard to create the conditions  for life to flourish, the power to create life is beyond his control.  We as parents provide a stable home, model the Christian faith, correct our kids, bring them to church, teach the faith in our homes and pray with them. We do our best to create an environment to foster faith.  But the ability to create faith is no more within our grasp, than a gardener is able to coax life out of a dead seed.  We put in the effort, we pour in the love, but it is God who supplies the power.

The farmer plants the seed and tills the ground but at the end of the day he must pray to the LORD of the harvest to cause the seed to germinate and  to send the rains and the sun.  And so it is with us.  Through prayer we surrender to our powerlessness, so that by faith we might believe that God can and will channel his power through imperfect people likes us so that in our weakness we might be the gospel for our children.

It was Paul who came face to face with his powerlessness when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus.  After a lifetime of effort, Jesus asks him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.”  (see Acts 9) In that moment self-reliant Saul died only to be resurrected as weak Paul who lived by a new and greater power.   Paul writes this of his experience.

2 Corinthians 12:19 But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Could it be that parenting is our own Damascus road experience where God confronts us with our powerlessness, forces us to our knees, and moves into a new joy where we discover God’s power shining through our weakness?  Maybe that’s the point.

Parents – The Chief Repenters

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John 3:19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

If you grew up around an evangelical church like I did, you know the importance of being a witness for Jesus Christ.  The problem was that I had a warped understanding of what that meant.  It went something like this.  A witness tells a “before and after” story. Here is what I was like before I met Jesus.  Here is what I’m like after Jesus.  With a little faith, you can become like me.

I can’t begin to tell to you the enormous pressure stories like this bring.  In order to get others to buy Jesus, I had to convince them that I was so much better now.  If I performed better, then I would be a more effective witness, and more people would come to Christ.  Here’s the problem.  What do you with the fact that as a Christian you still sin … all the time?  Let me make it worse.  You can probably hide your imperfections from your neighbors, co-workers, and the people at church, but your kids? They’ve seen it all.  They know it all.  You can’t fool them. How can we convince our kids of the transforming power of Jesus to save us and change us, when they have a front row seat to all our failures? Is there a way for us to be gospel witnesses to our kids that points them to Christ and not to our moral performance?

As I read the New Testament, I am struck by the raw honesty of the apostles, the early leaders of the church.  While you can’t deny that these people were transformed by Jesus, they are quite open about their failures.

  • Mark’s gospel which is a written collection of Peter’s teachings has preserved for us his colossal failures.  In one night Peter disowned Jesus three times and struck off the ear of the servant of the high priest.
  • Paul was a murderer who actively persecuted the church.  And yet after his conversion and a successful missionary career he confesses to Timothy, his son in the Lord: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.  Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I AM the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 3:15-16)

What makes Christians unique is not their sterling moral character.  The early church was filled with angry violent men like Paul and cowards like Peter.  At the same time we all know unbelievers who are gracious, considerate, and generous.  What makes a Christian, a Christian is their ability to be honest about their sin.  A Christian is someone who lives in daily dependence on God knowing that we need his forgiveness even for the great things we do for the wrong motives.

What if our testimony to our children was centered around this question: “why do I need Jesus today?”  When I remember this, I no longer give apologies like: “I’m sorry that Dad snapped at you, but when you do ________ it makes Dad angry.”  Those are apologies that desperately cling to our “before and after” stories. In effect we are telling our kids, “if it wasn’t for you, I’d be following Jesus right now.”  But imagine, if I’m able to say to my kids after striking out verbally at them in anger, “your father is an angry man and I am deeply sorry for the hurt that I caused you.  Could you tell me what it felt like to be on the receiving end of my anger so that I can better understand how desperately I need Jesus?”

“The before and after” gospel stories point to ourselves, but “here is why I need Jesus” stories cast Jesus as the hero.  What we want our kids to exclaim: “Wow, if Jesus can save people like Peter, Paul, mom and dad, he can certainly save me.”

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8)

Christmas, presents, and the poor

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Ralph, a young Filipino boy, receives a shoe box from Operation Christmas Child in the dump outside of Manila.

All of us as parents have felt that uneasy tension at Christmas.

The flash of joy in a child’s eyes the moment they rip open a gift, and the nagging question of where are we going to put all this stuff, as you drive home from a family Christmas party.  Giving is a central part of our holiday celebrations, but how does this square with the fact that Jesus was born a homeless refugee?

The tradition of gift giving at Christmastime is not a pagan tradition, but comes from the story of the Three Wise Men in Matthew’s gospel. Here you have the clash of wealth and poverty in the story.  A young working class family visited by three fabulously wealthy court officials bearing extravagantly expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  A God who created and owns all the wealth in the universe is now a member of a family gripped by poverty.  Jesus does this to give us an opportunity to receive His Father’s inheritance through his self-sacrificial love.

The question for us is not how we eliminate gift-giving from our Christmas family celebrations.  Gift giving at its best is an expression of love. Our love for our children should be a reflection of Christ’s greater love for them and thoughtful gift-giving can be beautiful expression of that love.  But how do we keep in front of our families that God’s gifts to us is not all about us?

I think small traditions can play a big role in reshaping our children’s understanding of Christmas and recovering the holiday from the crass commercialism that assaults us every year.  One such tradition is the Operation Christmas Child program organized by Samaritan’s Purse.  Operation Christmas Child marks the opening of the Advent/Christmas season for our family.  Each year our kids get involved in shopping for small gifts, stuffing the shoe boxes with the gits and carrying the haul down to church.  From there the shoe boxes are shipped to poor children all over the world.  What do the kids learn?  There is great joy in taking a small portion of the blessings God has given us and giving them away.  They don’t have to wait until they are adults to make a real difference in the world.

This is something your family can do on their own, you can learn how to pack your own shoebox at Samaritan Purse’s website.  You can also participate in the “PUCC family and friends” events where we will be wrapping, sorting and stuffing the shoeboxes on Saturday evenings from 6-8 PM (October 15, 22, and 29) at the church.  These events are inter-generational and open to people of all ages.

Giving gifts to the poor in honor of one of the kids is another way to reintroduce the concept of sacrificial love into our Christmas celebrations.  Each year we “buy” gifts such as a goat for a family in Nigeria, a microloan for a single mother in Honduras to start a business, or a water purification system for a family in Bolivia.  What we do is try to match the gift to the child.  For example one of our daughters constantly drinks water.  We might give the water purification system this year in honor of her.

Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision are two organizations who publish catalogs that make it make it convenient to give  honorary gifts to the poor.

What are some of the traditions you’ve tried to introduce your children to the ideas of generosity and love for the poor?  Leave us a comment and share what has worked for your family at Christmas time.