(This is part two of three for the second topic in a series on the subject of balance. It being the holidays, we thought titling this series the gift of balance was appropriate. By “we,” I’m referring to the series contributors. Joining me in this series are Mark Stanifer and Tonya Waechter. In part two on the subject of family and parenting we address one question.)
How have you approached spiritual formation in your family that is a balance between legalism and “letting them find their way”?
Tonya: My experience as a homeschool mom gave me an opportunity to teach them about the Lord. I taught them subjects like “who is God,” “can I really know him.” I also taught them a class on all the different religions of the world to make sure that understanding came from their parents. We tried to give them a bigger picture view. But the biggest piece for me is that you have to walk the talk. If I’m teaching them about the Lord, I need to be serving him and walking the talk.
Another thing comes from a book I read a long time ago on mother/son relationships. She talked about giving them room to make mistakes. If they aren’t allowed to make mistakes, they don’t learn how to recover from them. Without that learning, when they leave the house they’ll have no reference for recovery when they make mistakes. Giving them freedom was important.
We were totally attacked by several church people because of their hockey. We were told we should never go to games if they fell on Sundays. I said, “If I take something away from them that they love in the name of the Lord, who are they going to despise?” It was a balance of teaching them how to walk with the Lord even if we aren’t always at church. But, you know, when they go through those teenage years when they question everything, which I know now is important, they find their own faith and not their parent’s faith. That’s hard, but they have to have that to make their own choices.
Mark: I’m putting myself in your shoes, Tonya, with that do we/don’t we on Sunday activities. We also had the chance to put one of my boys in competitive ice hockey. For a couple of reasons, we pulled back. I still wonder what would it have been like to have one of my kids play. Growing up, I couldn’t do things on Sunday from the decision that my parents made. So there were a few baseball tournaments that my parents took flack on from the team, not from the church. So I can see it from the other side.
The balance that my wife and I have tried to take, particularly over the last ten years as our kids have gotten to the age where they can reason through some of this, is you cannot measure faith or any relationship with externals or with things that can be quantified by participation, giving, or other activities. It all comes down to what’s in the heart. We have pressed and pressed and pressed that it’s about the heart. Man looks on the outside; God looks at the heart. There’s no one that knows your relationship with God more than you. The externals flow out of that relationship, but they don’t define it. The other piece you alluded to, Tonya, is owning it. “Here’s our choice and our desire for you, but ultimately you’ve got to own it. You have to make this relationship priority and invest into it.”
Tonya: It’s not about religion, it’s about relationship. Jesus wants to have a relationship with us. If you want relationship, you have to invest time. The externals-reading Scripture, spending time talking with the Lord-is critically important. That’s how you get to know him, how to hear his voice. We felt it was important for them to understand relationship. It was a balancing act with ice hockey. There was no respect for Sundays or holidays. For them to play at the levels they were playing, they had to be there or be off the team. We had to talk through that, and sometimes I told them, “I’m feeling unbalanced like our God has become hockey, so how are we going to adjust this?” We had to work through that but also teach them that relationship is everywhere. “God is with you in the locker room. He’s with you when you’re on the ice. What does that look like?”
Mark: At the risk of sounding too critical, I think the Christian community has maybe placed too much sacredness on traveling into the four walls of a church rather than being the church in your activities. No doubt there is a balance, but there can be a powerful witness and testimony from two grounded and strong and committed teenage boys on a sheet of ice. Playing a game that is honoring and consistent with how they live in other parts of their life.
Tonya: It was also the idea of our opportunity as parents seeing the mission field of the other parents in ice hockey. I remember one morning at breakfast on one of the tournament weekends where I happened to be sitting across from the coach. I don’t know how it happened, but before I know it the table is full of people and he starts asking me questions. In no time we are having this long conversation about the Lord. He began sharing his heart about how God had been speaking to him over the last year. The result of that conversation was he started leading the team in prayer before practices and games. He knew that there was this God, and he wanted to recognize it. It was definitely a mission opportunity.
John: Two thoughts have come to me as you both have been talking. Mark, as you were talking about externals, one thought came to me of how legalistic thinking and practices are highly conditional versus unconditional, as you think about how people are loved and received. How do we help our family members understand unconditional relationship versus conditional relationship? That angle seems to not be thought about very much. The thought is, “Are you going to church or are to you going to hockey?” Conditional thinking is very do/don’t.
The other thought that is huge to me these days is the subject of grace. How does a kid understand grace? I don’t remember really understanding it as a kid; it’s a hard concept. We maybe don’t use that word with our kids, but we can model to them giving grace either to ourselves or our family members who don’t look or act like us. Unconditional/grace living go hand in hand-zoning in on what that means for me and how do I build that into the spiritual formation of my family by the choices we make.
Mark: Grace makes me think how easy it is for children to forgive and extend grace in comparison to parents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pinned my ears, tucked my tail and gone to my kids and said, “I’m sorry for my behavior,” and they demonstrate to me a willingness to extend grace which is way more than my tendency to extend to them or others. I think they’ve taught me more about grace than I have taught them along the way.
John: That illustration is an example of a teachable moment to help them understand the grace concept. They are doing it, but they don’t know to call it that. “You just exercised your grace muscle.” Help them understand what that means and as a family commit to it.
Tonya: You being willing to go back and apologize is you walking your talk. That’s an example of living out your faith-being willing to admit your faults, being open. You’re teaching them that’s how we do this walk. That’s really good.