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.

Civility Project: Political Polarization Trends in the U.S.

Pew Research released, “Political Polarization in the American Public,” a report detailing the widening gulf between American citizens along political lines over the last twenty years. More people now report being more consistently conservative and liberal than previously, leading to stretching the social fabric of the nation.

The report’s overview offers many things to consider from a civility perspective. First, let us dispense with a myth that being more consistently conservative or liberal makes people inherently less civil. Similarly we should not follow the temptation to think being moderate or centrist is somehow more civil. (Also, moderate or centrist is extremely difficult to define. Is someone a moderate because she takes a centrist position on most issues or because she holds a generally equal amount of conservative and liberal views on different matters?) Rather, the challenge for all of us—liberals, moderates, and conservatives—is how do we remain open to engaging in an appreciative manner views that are different than our own? How willing are we to be in community with people who disagree with us? How committed are we to not dehumanize others for holding views we find wrong? To this end, Pew’s report details troubling trends.

As Americans have grown more liberal and conservative, so has their distrust and even antipathy for the other side. “In each party, the share with a highly negative view of the opposing party has more than doubled since 1994. Most of these intense partisans believe the opposing party’s policies ‘are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.'” Clearly ideas and policies matter. One party may very well have plans that if put in place would hurt the nation. What concerns me is that this growing antipathy breaks the social fabric necessary for a pluralistic democracy. To credibly engage each other in the public square requires we give the benefit of the doubt to our neighbor, to trust he operates out of good intentions. I believe we must be able to say to one another, “Even though I may think your positions are misguided and possibly dangerous, I trust that you want the best for the nation.” Otherwise we have a rapidly decreasing amount of room to find mutually beneficial solutions.

This antipathy has serious consequences for our communities. Pew reports as people move more into “ideological silos,” they grow less likely to have friends who do not share their political views. More troubling, people express less desire to even live near those with a different political outlook. We’re becoming a nation that wants to be neighbors only with people who think like we do. Forget the redistricting fights that happen every decade—if we continue on this trend, we’ll gerrymander ourselves. This area of the report seems to be the most difficult to parse since the researchers found plenty of correlative but non-political data shaping the responses of how people choose where to live. For example, liberals voiced a preference for urban living where they could walk to the grocer, conservatives liked a rural environment with more space, and just about nobody loved the suburbs. One wonders how this data is any different than the realities that have shaped our communities historically. I live in the Bay Area of California, where many liberals flocked and many conservatives avoided for decades. Is the data new because what we’ve long suspected has now been shown with evidence? Or is this data new because more people are now saying explicitly, “it is important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views”?

Some might argue that for the sake of civility and the social fabric it would be better for consistent conservatives and liberals to moderate their political views, but I don’t think that’s a likely possibility. Asking people to give up, diminish, or silence core convictions isn’t a very civil request. Nor would a mass moderation movement necessarily change these disheartening trends. One could just as easily imagine moderates preferring only to live near other moderates and desiring to ghettoize the extreme left and right.

A possible solution I see would be a lot more messy and uncomfortable than our current situation. Silos and ghettos are a lot easier to maintain than choosing to live together. I believe we begin recapturing a positive view of our neighbors with whom we differ politically by committing to seeing them as our neighbors first before seeing them as a political adversaries. It is civil to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are operating out of good intentions. Finding ways to extend and ask for help from one another creates a neighborly environment. It becomes a lot more difficult to dehumanize someone when you help them change a tire or when they help you bring the groceries inside. That is, we remind ourselves that our neighbors have lives and concerns like us and they cannot be reduced to how far they lean left or right.

We not only try to see our neighbors for who they really are, we also take a hard look at ourselves. We ask if we are becoming more siloed, and if we are, we take steps to change course. That means fostering a willingness to make ourselves more uncomfortable by not receiving our political news only from a few sources that merely affirm our positions. We should engage news and thoughtful opinions from different sources, not to knock down or disprove those sources, but to really learn how our neighbors think. I also believe we have to take an appreciative approach, looking for what is good in our neighbor’s opinion, and seeking areas of agreement first, before we state our disagreement with him.

These trends pose special problems for the Church and they require us to ask ourselves hard questions. Are we shaped more by these trends in our society or by the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we view our neighbors who hold political positions that are different than ours—do we see them as children of God, or would we rather avoid them? Do we prefer to live only near those who hold similar political views as we do or are we willing to love our neighbors no matter how they vote?

The Church and Stupid Fathers, All in Time for Mother’s Day

I don’t write much about being an at-home dad. One can easily find plenty of solid blogs written by good guys. That said, I want to address a couple of videos that recently crossed my path and deal with fatherhood. The makers of these videos seek to honor in a comedic way the hard work that mothers do. The videos they produced, however, rehash tired stereotypes found in the popular culture as they portray dads as bumbling incompetents who should not be trusted with the care of their children. I’m all for celebrating the unique work of mothers—I merely don’t think we need to make dads look like idiots in order to do so. I address these videos in particular because they are produced by Christians and are marketed toward the Church in preparation for Mother’s Day celebrations. (I wonder, how many churches will celebrate non-Church holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day, but not the Ascension of Jesus or Pentecost? That’s another post.) I am concerned some Christians think the best way to honor one group of people, mothers, is to ridicule another group, fathers. Further, we should not be in the business of mocking dads as inept, but instead celebrating dads who are deeply involved in raising their kids and encouraging dads to be even more involved and Christlike. Let’s look at the videos.

First is the trailer for the film Mom’s Night Out.

I hesitate to comment on a film I haven’t seen since trailers can be cut in misleading ways, but we can at least discuss what appears in the trailer. Here we have overworked moms needing a break from childcare. They set up a mom’s night out and leave their husbands to take care of the kids. The dads are so inept they can’t think of anything to do except take their kids to a restaurant/indoor playground where they can lock their kids up, “like Shawshank Redemption.” This inevitably leads to a trip to the emergency room. Another dad leaves his child at a tattoo parlor and goes out on the town by himself. All this fatherly incompetence requires the moms to cancel their night out and save the day.

The second video comes from The Skit Guys, entitled, “Mom Goggles.” They make short videos with faith-based messages and often use humor to make their point. The set-up for this video is essentially the same as the trailer above: a couple moms take some time for themselves, leaving their children with the fathers. The dads worry about possible outcomes, realize they don’t have the necessary skills, and thus order “Mom Goggles” from a “Daddy Doomsday Survival” website—doomsday for a dad is apparently having to take responsibility for your children. Through this wonderful invention, the men are able to see the world as their wives do. Toddler babble suddenly becomes intelligible. A child’s painting becomes a masterpiece. And the greatest miracle of all, these men realize just how hard their wives work as mothers. Thankfully, “Mom Goggles” does not fully encapsulate The Skit Guys’ view of dads. As Chris Routly points out, The Skit Guys have produced an excellent video extolling the virtues of fatherhood and show dads being great in their roles.

Since these videos are intended for Christian audiences, we can take a look at the theology they communicate.

Positively, these videos seek to honor mothers, which is one of the Ten Commandments. It is right to remember how our mothers offer us unconditional love and grace and to thank them for it. It is no accident that biblical authors describe God’s love like that of a mother’s. To that extent, we learn more about who God is when we experience our mothers living into their vocation.

By adopting the dominant culture’s mockery of dads as 8-year old boys trapped in middle-aged men’s bodies, the Church offers no counter narrative, no city on a hill to be a contrast to the rest of society. Instead we say the dads in the Church are selfish, immature, and obtuse. Sure they have their moments of epiphany, but that only happens after some catastrophe or because of magical tools. As my friend Chad wrote, “If you need Mom Goggles to change a diaper or see the beauty in your kids’ artwork, well I’m just going to say it, you suck as a dad.” What we’re saying is that the gospel has largely not transformed these men into people who think of the interests of others before their own. At least they cannot be bothered to work at becoming better dads until after the kids are released from the emergency room. I do not think we need to present Christian fathers as though they are without blemishes, but it would be nice to see how the good news has made a difference in their vocation as dads.

I am also concerned that these jokes can only work in a world in which there are hermetically sealed gender roles. A mom is honored only when a dad crosses the boundary and tries to engage in a different role. Worse, these videos encourage keeping those roles entirely separate. These videos actually don’t encourage men to become more involved and caring fathers. Instead they warn dads away from engaging in childcare. The videos communicate, “Just stay on the couch and watch football. Don’t try to do what your wife does because you’ll hurt the kids and yourself.” Theologically, this is dangerous, because just as we learn about God from the examples of our mothers, we also learn about God from the examples of our fathers.

If you think I’m being obstinate or just can’t take a joke, which is a possibility, I invite you to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine someone made a video or a feature length film wanting to honor dads by employing the same gender stereotypes, but reversed the players so that the filmmakers mock moms. Are churches going to show a Father’s Day video in which a couple moms have panic attacks about mowing the lawn and needing to order special “Dad Gloves” so they can teach their kid to throw a baseball or work the circular saw without cutting their fingers off? Imagine a movie in which moms have to fill in for their husbands at the office and then make such a terrible mess of it that the dads have to come in and save the day because, well, you know, the office just isn’t the woman’s place. We would say those stereotypes are backwards and sexist because mothers—and women in general—are capable of excellence in the workplace and can skillfully use power tools.