Excited to Get Back to Parenting: My Report from the 19th Annual At-Home Dads Convention

Over the weekend I attended the 19th Annual National At-Home Dads Convention in Denver, Colorado. This was my third convention since becoming an at-home dad and once again I found it to be an enriching, encouraging, and rejuvenating experience. I appreciated reconnecting in person with a group of dads who have committed themselves to full-time parenting. These men are some of the most creative and compassionate guys I know. I continue to marvel at our different backgrounds and our passion for our families.

These conventions have become for me an annual opportunity to renew my vocation. Usually I cannot get out the door and on the plane fast enough. I notice my patience at home wearing thin. I find myself nagging my son. So, I relish the idea of a quiet plane ride in which I can read for a couple of uninterrupted hours. When I remember I won’t have to cook a meal for a couple days, I can’t control my smile. The chance to simply hang out and have fun with adults all day sounds scrumptious. But I end up receiving so much more than a mere respite from my daily routine. As the conventions end, I find myself excited to get on the plane back home. I miss my family and cannot wait to spend time with them again. I feel compelled to thank my wife for how she supports me in this vocation, I want to hug my son and employ all the healthy parenting tips I learned from the convention’s speakers and my fellow dads. Each year I think I’m just going to get a break and recharge my batteries. Instead, I am reminded of my calling and encouraged to serve my family in fuller ways.

I came into this convention feeling more physically exhausted than in previous years. My son is an outgoing, gregarious toddler whereas I am deeply introverted. I longed for some time alone and didn’t engage the other dads as much this year. I watched from the periphery, catching bits of conversations. This was the biggest convention yet with 106 attendees, many of them coming for the first time. It was a constant blessing to watch these first-timers smile in disbelief that something like the National At-Home Dad Network and this convention could exist. Time and again I heard dads say they couldn’t imagine how wonderful this convention could be and didn’t realize how much they needed the solidarity of other dads making choices similar to theirs.

The Denver Dads who organized the convention did a great job crafting a fun, meaningful, and thought-provoking experience. We went to a baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks at Coors Field. Yes, the game pitted two cellar-dwellers against each other, but what’s not to love about a baseball game in a wonderful stadium on a gorgeous night? The actual content of the convention was very solid, from the speakers and panels to the break-out sessions. We heard from three wives of at-home dads and they encouraged us greatly as they described their family structure, the challenges they face, and their gratitude for the lives they have created with their husbands. Dads gathered in groups according to their kids’ ages and we were able to pick each other’s brains about best practices. I also attended sessions on passing along our faith to our kids and photography. Other sessions  included online safety, healthy marriages, and family finance.

Our keynote speaker, Barbara Coloroso, gave a funny and practical discussion about dealing with kids. More importantly, however, she reminded us that we each have a parenting philosophy that we need to articulate. Parenting demands we think about who we want our kids to become. She said so much parenting and schooling teaches kids what to think, but if we are to raise kids who stand for good values and against injustices (she’s a former Franciscan nun), we need to teach them how to think. We want our kids to internalize the values that lead to good and just decisions, even when such decisions might make them unpopular. The parenting needed for these kinds of kids goes beyond knowing good techniques to creating an environment in which kids will develop self-discipline. Coloroso argues we have to commit ourselves to three convictions:

  1. “Kids are worth it.” (That is, kids are worth our time, energy, and love because they are children and for no other reason.)
  2. “I will not treat a child in a way I myself would not want to be treated.”
  3. “If it works, and leaves a child’s and my own dignity intact, do it.”

Parenting out of these convictions will move us from merely trying to get our kids to mind us to helping our children believe they are valuable and capable of good moral action.

Three years in and I’m already looking forward to the next convention. If you’ve found this blog because you’re an at-home dad or know an at-home dad, please consider attending the convention next year in Raleigh, North Carolina. You will be enriched and renewed. If you have any questions about this last convention or the upcoming ones, leave them in the comments section. I would love to connect with you. Parenting is tough. The African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. We parents need to remember it is up to us to connect with our fellow villagers so our kids are raised well. We need the wisdom and encouragement of our neighbors. The At-Home Dads Convention is just one opportunity for us to learn from and support each other.

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Church Risking Irrelevance to the Gospel

Many evangelical Christian writers have responded to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer and the subsequent protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. I appreciate how they let the gospel of Jesus Christ inform their views of these events. The African American leaders of my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), wrote a response emphasizing their commitments to reconciliation and to standing in solidarity with those who suffer. Dominique Gilliard, a pastor in the ECC, gave an interview to Amy Julia Becker on Christianity Today’s “Thin Places” blog in which he offers some broad strokes advice on how Christians can be agents of reconciliation. He says, “To foster reconciliation and healing within churches and the broader culture, Christians must be humble, repentant, and longsuffering. This process begins by having candid conversations about race, history, and injustice.” Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some other steps Christians can take to address the reality of systemic racism in our nation with the truth of the gospel. Christians need to educate themselves, listen from those who suffer, stand in solidarity with them, and act for justice. Morgan Lee of Christianity Today reports key findings from research on white and black evangelicals’ views of race. The results sadly show their views are moving further apart, with 69% of white evangelicals now believing, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” But we should be careful not to think all talk of racial reconciliation is a white and black matter or the events in Ferguson only effect white and black people. Eugene Cho, another ECC pastor, writes churches cannot ignore what happened in Ferguson and must instead address it head-on, for, “The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me, it’s a Gospel issue.” Thabiti Anyabwile, writing at The Gospel Coalition, also argues the costs for churches to ignore these matters are extremely high. He challenges evangelical churches—really, white, conservative evangelical churches—to respond to racism or face becoming irrelevant. It is not the irrelevance to the larger culture that concerns him, but irrelevance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anyabwile writes:

Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

Looking through the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul and the book of Acts, we see two great themes: the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus Christ and the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In other words, the majority of the New Testament concerns itself with grace and race. In Ephesians 2, one of the great chapters of Scripture, Paul describes the power of the gospel to take people who were dead in their sins and make them alive again in Jesus Christ. The first part of the passage contains one of evangelicalism’s favorite statements, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2.8-9, NRSV) But we often stop reading around verse 10, even though the argument continues. Paul goes on to show how this new life affects the relationships among Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Ethnic and cultural distinctions, while still important, are no longer barriers to fellowship. Just as Jesus Christ made reconciliation between God and people possible, he also makes reconciliation between ethnic groups possible.

Ephesians 2 is not unique in the New Testament. Rather, it fits well with other passages that show the good news affects more than just our relationship with God. Paul does not see reconciliation with God and reconciliation between races as separate objectives—they are the same mission. Notice how explicit Paul is when he talks about ethnicity and race. Paul does not believe, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” He seeks to improve race relations by bringing the tensions and conflicts into the light of the gospel. The New Testament does not discuss race relations in the abstract. Rather, the conversations are very real, very earthy. The New Testament contains passages on how we share a common table, what ethnic markers we place or do not place on our bodies, how we worship God together, etc. The discussion of racial reconciliation in the New Testament assumes many of the early congregations comprised different ethnicities.

How can we white evangelicals say our congregations are faithful to the New Testament witness if we do not discuss and pursue the dual themes of grace and race? I wonder if we don’t give as much attention to the second half of Ephesians 2 because we do not worship in diverse communities and our privilege in the larger society means we don’t have to think about race on a daily basis. Perhaps we white evangelicals don’t pay attention to the biblical emphasis on ethnicity not because we find that topic uncomfortable, but because we find the New Testament’s teaching on the subject irrelevant to the issues our congregations face. The real issue is, however, that our congregations risk becoming irrelevant to the New Testament. If our faith communities do not wrestle with the challenges that come from diverse people groups sharing life together, whole swaths of the Bible will not make sense to us.

As the events in Ferguson show us, we need racial reconciliation not merely so we can enjoy one another’s musical traditions in a worship service. The gospel places demands on us to stand with those who suffer and seek justice on their behalf. Racial reconciliation cannot take place only within church walls, though we obviously have a long way to go on that front. The gospel compels us to take risks and walk with those who seek justice. Anyabwile is right to offer the challenge to let go of our membership statistics for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus, which stands beside the oppressed.

I appreciate Anyabwile’s post because he reminds us having uncomfortable conversations about race is not enough. Christian communities cannot be satisfied with honest, gracious dialogue. Those conversations are absolutely necessary, but not an end to themselves. If our conversations about race do not lead us to prayer and to, “further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights,” then our conversations are merely theoretical exercises. Theoretical exercises will not help establish the vision of the African American Denominational Leadership of the ECC of “a church and society where reconciliation and justice are indispensable norms.” These leaders rightly remind us it is the cross of Christ that will break the wall of hostility. That is, Jesus’ actions and not merely his words create peace and justice. As followers of Christ, we must remember Jesus’ example and allow our theological reflections lead us to action.

We have to ask how have our communities of faith addressed the events in Ferguson? What has been the conversation? How have we prayed for peace and justice? What actions have our congregations taken? How has this event catalyzed our commitment to stand with those who suffer?

Imparting Faith: Forgiving My Father and Being a Father

In the Bible, God gives parents a vocation to pass their faith on to their children. This central aspect of my vocation as a father consumes my thoughts more than remembering Elijah’s vaccination schedule, cooking him healthy meals, or offering him adequate educational stimulation. I see too often the gloomy statistics of children walking away from the faith once they leave the home. These statistics concern me because I want my son to experience the love and joy from Jesus I have known. I want him to “take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim. 6.19)

Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, recently published, “Teach and Love Your Children Well,” in which he encourages parents to consider how to raise children in the faith. He points to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengtson’s research that shows faith is best passed on in families in which parents prioritize and talk about faith and model faithful practices. Another factor, creating an environment of familial warmth, is actually the greatest indicator of faith being passed between generations. Bengston’s research shows a close bond with one’s father matters more than with the bond with one’s mother, though that bond is still important. As Walter summarizes, “Dads, when you combine a sincere faith with a quality relationship with your children, you enhance the likelihood of your children owning their own faith.”

Walter’s article made me reflect on my father as well as my role now as a dad. What did I receive from my father and how can I pass the faith on to my son?

My parents created an environment of familial warmth, but for the majority of my childhood, my father was not a model of the Christian faith. He did not tell my brother and I the stories of the Bible. He seldom attended church services—usually Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day—and chose instead to work on the Christian Sabbath. He bowed his head at prayers for meals but rarely, if ever, led them. I only remember him reading the Bible when asked to during Advent candle services in the home that my mother initiated. My mom was the spiritual leader of our house, communicating the truths of the faith and modeling the practices for us. She taught us to pray. She showed us the Christian basis for generosity and compassion. The faith I have today is more a product of my mother’s faithfulness than my father’s example.

Near the end of my adolescence I grew jealous of my friends whose dads were spiritual leaders. I longed for a father who could impart to me the wisdom and truths of the Christian faith. I resented my dad for not being a spiritual father figure to me.

In college I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a powerful reflection on Jesus’ famous parable and Rembrandt’s painting of it. Nouwen explores the characters of the younger son, the older son, and the father. The sons must each, in his own way, return home and accept the father’s unconditional love and their identity as their father’s beloved child. Nouwen tells the personal story of coming to the realization that in order to truly find his place as God’s beloved son, he must forgive his own human father for his shortcomings. Nouwen describes this forgiveness, this release as a “return from a false dependence on a human father who cannot give me all I need to a true dependence on the divine Father.” The return to the divine Father “allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (83)

These words helped me to forgive my human father for not being the spiritual father figure I desired. In doing so, I learned to allow my dad to be “the good, loving, but limited human being” he was. My eyes opened to the many ways he did embody the Christian faith in his quiet and radical generosity, his refusal to speak ill of people publicly, the hospitality he and my mom extended to people who needed a meal or a place to stay.

Walter’s article and Nouwen’s book remind me that though God tasks me with passing on the faith to my son, I will not be, indeed cannot be the perfect Heavenly Father Elijah needs. I pray fervently that Elijah will know, love, and follow Jesus. I work hard at telling him the Christian story and modeling faithful practices to him, even at this young age. My wife and I seek to create warm familial bonds with him. All the same, I must remind myself that I will fall short, and one day Elijah will have to forgive me for not being the heavenly Father he needs. This fact is humbling and at times humiliating, but I cannot let it shame me. I have to let my shortcomings draw me even deeper into prayer.

Insidious Evil: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander details the history of how the United States now has more people in prison or in jails than any other nation, whether measured by raw numbers of prisoners held or by rate of incarceration. The U.S. prison population has grown dramatically—from 300,000 to 2 million in about thirty years—since the beginning of the War on Drugs made billions of dollars available for arresting, convicting, imprisoning, and paroling drug users and dealers.

Alexander argues the War on Drugs is not merely a war against addiction to dangerous substances or the crime associated with the drug trade. Rather, it is largely a form of social control based on race that has created a caste-like system. She offers a compelling argument that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are the latest forms of legal social control in the U.S. against people of color, particularly against African-American males. When slavery, the first legitimate system of control, eventually became illegal, the powerful white elites who sought to control the slaves did not give up their racist views with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. They shifted their tactics to legally marginalize black people from participating in mainstream society through Jim Crow laws. Similarly, when Congress, the courts, and the states began dismantling Jim Crow, those who had interest in maintaining legal segregation did not give up their desire for racial marginalization. The tactics again shifted toward laws that were technically colorblind, but in actuality targeted people of color disproportionately. For example, the mandatory federal sentence for possession of crack cocaine, which is more likely to be used by African-Americans, is much stiffer than the sentence for possession of powder cocaine, which is more likely to be used by white Americans. Yet both forms of cocaine are essentially the same on the chemical level. In a thorough, fascinating, and angering account, Alexander shows how the laws at every stage of the criminal justice process are stacked against people to ensure their conviction and disenfranchisement.

The New Jim Crow raises many issues Christians need to consider. We must investigate whether laws are fairly written and executed. Alexander shows a felony drug conviction in the U.S. is essentially a life-long sentence, for even when a felon is released from prison, he finds himself shut out of many forms of assistance and employers are largely free to reject his employment application sight unseen. Unlike many Western nations, most felony drug convictions in the U.S. disenfranchise people from ever voting or sitting on a jury. Christians believe in the truth of redemption, but what are we to do when it seems redemption is kept from our neighbors with criminal records? I won’t explore these questions in this post. Rather, I want to focus on a theological reality Alexander’s book demonstrates, namely, the insidious nature of sin and evil.

Alexander persuasively argues the mass incarceration explosion in America has deeply racist roots while under the guise of colorblindness. Unlike slavery or Jim Crow, laws that “get tough on crime” do not technically target certain races, but specific behaviors. The results show, however, that these laws do target certain races more than others. The War on Drugs has negatively affected populations of color disproportionately despite the fact that rates of drug use and sales are similar across the races. People of color are far more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted of drug crimes. They are more likely to be charged with more serious crimes than white suspects.

Here we see sin’s insidiousness. To create and maintain the previous racial caste systems of slavery and Jim Crow, rich white elites preyed on the resentments and fears of poorer whites to garner their support. Though the working class white citizens gained little from slavery or Jim Crow—and, it could be argued, were in fact hurt by those systems—they became some of those institutions’ strongest proponents. Today, most people would never consciously support an overtly racist set of laws. If some people began to push for the return of Jim Crow laws, most Americans would oppose such legislation. Tough on crime policies, however, have proven especially popular among Americans of all races because we want safer neighborhoods. The trouble is that many of us are ignorant of the effects these laws have—I was unaware of just how much these laws have disproportionately hurt people of certain ethnicities. Alexander rightly reminds us that most people convicted of drug crimes are guilty of illegal behavior. Our natural and good desire for safety has been used to disenfranchise, hurt, and lock large numbers of our neighbors into a system without hope for redemption.

Unlike slavery, the legal basis for mass incarceration cannot be done away with by one or two amendments to the Constitution. Unlike the dismantling of Jim Crow, there is not merely one law or one set of laws that could be rewritten in the legislature or struck down in the courts. Rather, the problem of mass incarceration emerges from a web of laws, policies, legal decisions, and popular opinion. Such is the way of sin. It subtly works its way into our lives so that we are unaware of its presence. We take it to be the norm. In fact we cannot imagine our lives without it. We can be unconscious supporters of and participants in its injustice. In 2012 voters in my state, California, approved Proposition 36, which revised the existing “Three Strikes” law to institute mandatory life sentences only on those convicted of serious or violent felonies. Opponents of the proposition offered many arguments against it, one of them being that it would release many people who had been in prison into our communities. Neither the convicts nor the communities would be ready for this reintegration. Worse, while these convicts went to prison for nonviolent offenses, being in that environment likely hardened them into violent criminals. The argument in this case was essentially it would be better to maintain the status quo and keep prisoners who had not committed violent crimes locked up. We sent them to prison because we deemed them dangerous and prison made them more dangerous so the safest thing to do, the only thing to do, was keep them in prison. Sin has convinced us that we cannot live any other way.

As we consider how to respond to the serious problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., we should allow Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous quotation regarding his opposition to the Vietnam War guide us into repentance. Heschel writes, “In regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.” Though we are first citizens of Christ’s kingdom, we are also citizens of the U.S. As citizens of the U.S. we have to ask how have we been responsible for the dehumanizing policies of our nation? How are we responsible to the communities we rightly want to keep free of crime as well as to those who commit such crimes?

“Mental” Theology

My friend Emily Perez recently preached a sermon that discussed prayer, depression, adoption, the psalms, community, God’s unrelenting pursuit, and grace. Exploring all those topics at a deep level and making them cohere gave the sermon a high degree of difficulty and Emily stuck the landing. She delivered the sermon at City Life Church in Sacramento, using Psalm 126 as her text and titled the sermon, “‘Mental’ Theology.” (The audio can be found here. It is dated 4/27/14.)

I recommend the sermon highly because Emily articulates the darkness of depression as well as the good news God offers those who suffer. For many, that good news does not come in the form of immediate alleviation from the pain, but in people willing to travel with the other person through the darkness. I think Emily clarifies the mission of the Church to be like Emmanuel, “God with us.” We are called to be with those sitting in darkness and who cannot yet see the light. We are not there to answer all their questions, correct all their confusion, but to be with them, listening. The Holy Spirit comforts us through friends who do not judge or frighten easily when we ask angry questions.

For those who preach or speak publicly, I also recommend the sermon as a wonderful example of story-telling and reflection. It really is amazing that Emily could cover all those topics and still craft a unified sermon. When preachers try to cover a myriad of topics in sermon, they often dilute their message. Emily’s sermon, however, grows stronger as she combines these important matters.