Lesser Moseses, all of us, we wear a path up and down the mountain trying to mine some truth. Up and back, nodding toward one another as we pass. Up and back, hoping to find something to cling to, something to carve in stone.
Often the trip looks like this: a well-meaning friend responds to something in the words of a writer, pastor or public theologian. Perhaps that writer or thinker scrawled their message with shaky hands on an available scrap of paper; perhaps he or she intended to write a new law. Either way, the hearer repackages and presents their words, in person or online, as if they’re chiseled from the rocks of Sinai.
At my most careless or guileless, I do it too. I label an article as must-read, must-follow, something you can’t live without. The human heart longs to turn convictions into commands—especially in matters close to home.
Parents place their hands on the Bible and solemnly swear to the benefits of their school of thought or discipline method. As I grow into life as a father, my ears attune to the sighs of the disregard and the dismissed drawn out by the parentally convicted.
The parent of a child with invisible or visible disabilities. The single mom scrapping and scraping by. The family whose child came home carrying trauma. Often the latest, urgent message about screen time, catechisms, or sleep habits misses these parents and their circumstances altogether. My own son outgrows or kicks against every imaginable rubric; more often than not, I read the mandates friends post to Facebook and think, “This doesn’t apply to him at all.”
The experts and the engaged warn against ruining our children, against shoving them down slippery slopes; many parents I know simply want to reach their kids, to help them thrive in the little things. Lengthen the law they must follow, and the sensation registers like someone pressing on a bruise or piling on burdens.
Blissfully ignorant parents and pundits—confident their way is the way, the truth, and the life—talk over the heads of peers trying their best to meet their children where they are. Their words curve around daily medleys of grief and respite, joy and hardship. Ultimately, these words cut through struggling parents, leaving them feeling unheard, helpless and more alone.
Both those who initiate the message, and those who pass it along, bear responsibility. We play a cruel game of Telephone when we fail to consider everyone holding their ear up to our tin can. A very real temptation lingers in the air, to act as if everyone within the reach of our words lives out the same situation. Christians with public platforms must check themselves before they wreck someone else’s day.
Without a second or third thought, it becomes easy to assume readers live in a similar community with a similar spouse and similar kids, all of whom think like we do, struggle like we do and will respond like we do. The thoughtless projection of our normal produces an imperative-driven, one-size-fits-all discipleship that rarely accounts for differences in personality or learning style, let alone race, economics, health or trauma.
I understand the perils of writing to all possible readers. Trying to address every objection, question and degree of difference usually means addressing next to nothing. Even now, I picture the people left on the sidelines of these sentences—the single, the consciously celibate, the childless. All this talk applies to the mixed and errant messages delivered to these audiences. Christians too often talk of marriage, sex, sin, and community as if these people don’t exist or are content to eat the scraps from the master’s table.
Satisfying everyone seems impossible. Softening our hearts to consider a perspective beyond our own, to imagine experiences beyond our own—and to count that experience equally valid—happens through the practices of self-forgetfulness and bearing witness.
The writer, the pastor, the dedicated parent—all should believe in what they do and why they do it. Absent of conviction, why stay the course? But caution and tenderness never ask us to abdicate responsibility or avoid wisdom, only to admit ours is not the only conceivable answer. To think of others, and tune our messages to possibility, mystery and mercy, refreshes tired hearts and fulfills Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
My son turned 6 last week. On days when I can’t get out of my own way or his, I parent past him. I recall reports of black boys shot in the presence of police, and parent over his head, already focused on his future and not the moment in front of me. I parent around him to a child that exists in some alternate reality. I parent through him, not straight to his heart. God forgive me if I parent a child existing on paper, and not my son in all his flesh and blood.
A counterintuitive challenge lies before me: to bend godly wisdom to my son rather than bend my son to wisdom. That sounds dangerous, even downright heretical, to those of us who came of age in the church, hearing and fearing about absolute truth.
I believe in the presence of fixed things, but take them with open hands. I grow less and less convinced we can apply absolute truth absolutely. I ache for my son to harbor great affections for Jesus. I want to steer him around the seductive and the destructive. But I want to do so in a way that gets through to him, that creatively and lovingly acknowledges who he is.
These days, I want to shape my life, my parenting, into something more descriptive and less prescriptive. My mind lights up with messages to impart to my son. Everyone you meet is a miracle. You shrivel when you stake your self-worth to what you do. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never end.
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