Limits and Freedom

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A funny thing happened to me during Lent this year. I learned that freedom comes from limits.

Giving things up for Lent was supposed to be about depriving myself. I was doing it not to impress God, but to remember that Christ fasted for forty days in the desert. He overcame temptation. He suffered, because he loves you and me. So I gave up two things that I knew I would miss. Deserts and non-work related use of the internet. Why? Not because these things are evil, but because I have a sweet tooth and I’m a hopeless information junkie. I knew I would feel it and I did.

It was rough for the first couple of days. I didn’t know how to sit still after dinner. My computer called out to ease my boredom, but was too competitive to give in.  Besides, my daughter was taunting me, “you’re not going to let Jesus down are you?”  The rest of my family insisted on going on a baking spree, for all forty days of Lent. Smells of cakes and chocolate chip cookies wafted through the house. It nearly drove me crazy.

So I counted down the days until Easter, which had become for me more than a celebration of the resurrection, it was about getting out of jail. But when the day came something funny happen. The internet and deserts just didn’t do it for me anymore. A changed occurred during those forty days that I hadn’t noticed until it was over. I was calmer. I had more time. I wasn’t stressed at the state of American politics. I was enjoying my kids more. I was enjoying a spurt of creativity. I still liked chocolate, but it didn’t own me like before. Out of my self-imposed limits had come a surprising freedom.

We used to think freedom was a life without limits. But I’m beginning to believe that freedom is impossible without limits. Remember the blizzard of ’78 (for those of you who are old enough)? Who of us doesn’t look fondly to the days we were without power? We got outside. We met our neighbors. We built snow forts with our families. We don’t lament the loss of the TV. Those were days of freedom made possible by the limits of going without power.

Then I think about my children. The prevailing wisdom for parents lately is driven primarily by fear. It goes something like this: “The world is a cutthroat place, if you don’t give your child every opportunity and experience, they will get left behind.” Or how about its cousin, “if you don’t fill their lives with activity, they’ll get into trouble.” This drives us all and what happens? We become slaves to our schedules. We eat fast-food meals in our cars as we race to after-school activities, sporting events and dance classes. Are these things evil? Absolutely not, but without limits, it stops feeling like freedom. It begins to feel like slavery.

What about technology?  Television, internet, game systems and social media are evil in themselves, but without limits, we become slaves to our machines and our creativity becomes dulled. Growing up I spent prodigious amounts of time playing outside. Sports leagues were limited to one baseball season with games on Saturday (some of us could have used the direction), but we became creative within the economic limits that we lived with. It gave us the freedom to invent games like stickball (until neighbors’ windows got broken), wall ball, skullsies (a game with bottle-caps played on blacktop), kill the carrier (it was as violent as it sounds) and running bases. Limits didn’t deprive us, they became a door to creative freedom.

It is harder today, because so much more is available: technology, sports and education. It is so hard to say no, so we tend to say yes to everything. But I’ve been learning as a father that when you say ‘yes’ to the good things, it becomes impossible to say ‘yes’ to the most important things. Without limits, the freedom to simply be a family and enjoy each other begins to erode. Eternal things like the gospel and the hope of heaven are crowded out. Suddenly, your children are ready to leave home and you wonder where the time went.

What limits are you willing to try in order to cultivate creative freedom in your children and to create the space for the most important eternal things? What have you tried? Share them with us and post a comment to this blog. I need ideas and I’d love to hear from you.

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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.