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Posts Tagged ‘Counseling’

The Guilted Parent

Life offers us very few guarantees. We would like to thing, for instance, that all our efforts at our career would guarantee us success and wealth.  Or, that the time we invest in spiritual pursuits would insure us against troubles and pain in this life.  Or, that the investments we put into the lives of our children would promise us perfect kids who become perfect adults and in return raise perfect grand kids.  But there are no guarantees.

The problem lies in our constant search for those guarantees. We want a secret formula: put this into your life or your kids and this will be the result.  We want magic talismans: quote this Bible verse, pray this prayer, do these spiritual things and this will be what you see.  So, we run from book to book, conference to conference, in an effort to find the magic bullet that will kill our fears about the future.  While self-education and awareness is wonderful, there is no formula, talisman or bullet that will guarantee us against failure and disappointment.

No where is this more evident than in the frantic efforts of many Christian parents. Believing that a child enters the world tabula rasa (with a clean slate) upon which the parent can determine the outcome of a child, these parents go through all sorts of spiritual and mental contortions to do so.  The problem arises when a child does not “turn out” as expected.  This places a considerable amount of guilt upon the parent (and sometimes the child as well).  The rest of the Christian community looks upon the wayward or prodigal child and blames the parent for doing something wrong or not doing something right.  There is not a lot of grace or mercy available for parent and child.

It is faulty think that says the parent can always produce the child. It is a lie that guilts a parenting into believing that good “christian” parenting will produce godly children.   There are instances that we are all aware of where even under the best parenting and spiritual guidance a child has self-determined to go his or her own way completely contrary to how they were raised.  At the same time, there are plenty of instances where a child has come through and come out of a background that is filled with all kinds of social and spiritual problems and obstacles to be a success materially and spiritually.  This defies the psychological determinism that plagues so much of our Christian philosophy and theology about parenting and families.

It is the lie of psychological – or spiritual, in this case – determinism that has produced all the Christian formulas and programs available today. They each offer their own guarantees to raising successful kids as if child-rearing and child-training were a trouble-free, risk free endeavor.  In a B.F. Skinner-like approach, a Christian parent can produce godly children as if they were planting a garden or training a family pet.  One only needs to throw in a few well-placed Bible verses.

Thus, Christendom has produced the guilted parent; an impossible weight of legalism towards the parent-child relationship. It is as if the Bible was a parenting manual filled with formulas and spiritual laws that, if carefully followed just right, would produce guaranteed outcomes.  Thus, if the child did not turn out “right,” then it can only mean that the parent screwed up somewhere and did not follow exactly the prescribed formula or spiritual law.  The guilted parent syndrome is not helped by the “testimonies” of successful and winning parents who have raised obedient, respectful, compliant children who live faithful Christian lives with no missteps or disappointments.

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Edsel, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I have known parents who have carefully read and faithfully followed all the advice of Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. Yet, despite all their frantic and careful studies, they had a child(ren) who seemed determined to live a life completely opposite of their parents’ values and lifestyle.  I have other friends who systematically followed all of the rules from Growing Families International and their Growing Kids God’s Way curriculum with seeming success, until one of their children did not seem to respond to their carefully crafted efforts.  Both of these parents were at a loss and suffered under a load of guilt and shame for the outcome of their kids.

It is interesting to note that even in Scripture, some of the most successful people of God were followed by ungodly children. At the same time, some of the most wicked characters in the Bible produced righteous children who did incredible things for God.  Finally, if one were to measure God’s success as a successful heavenly Father based upon the actions and activities of all of his children, by the measurement of the material commonly marketed to Christian parents today, he would be a failure!

This has been our experience within my family. My wife, Kelly, and I are well-educated (both with Masters Degrees).  We have read the books, watched the videos and listened to the speakers.  Despite having our home full of books and constantly reading to our children, we have two children out of our four who had a very hard time learning to read and so don’t like to read.  Imagine this from a child who has a father with a personal library that numbers over 3,000 volumes.  Doesn’t make sense according to the formula we were given about helping our children become “readers.”

We also have always been involved in church, spiritual pursuits and openly talked about spiritual things with our children. We read the Bible, prayed around the dinner table, regularly included prayer for missionaries and surrounded our lives with very spiritual people.  We have not done this perfectly, but we have done it to the best of our capability and knowledge we had at the time.  Nevertheless, we have one child who has chosen to live a lifestyle with a set of values that are completely contrary to how he was raised.  Again, this doesn’t make any sense according to what we have been told all these years.

As with so much of our modern Christianity, and much of humankind’s approach to God in general, we have reduced life with God to a formula rather than faith. Like the legalistic religious rulers of Jesus’ day, we have made our own set of laws about parenting that are too heavy for many to bear.  We leave those who are not able to perform according to these rule and regulations outside “the ark of safety” to drown in their guilt and shame.  But Jesus came to introduce a different way.

Living according to these “Christian parenting laws” only proves our failure. The apostle Paul reminds us that “the Law brings death” – and that can apply to just about any spiritual law or legalistic religious system.  Only faith in what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection can bring life to parents who have children who are spiritually and morally wayward.

  • It is a faith that believes that his grace is sufficient for all our sin and their sin.
  • It is a faith to believe that the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is still able to work in their lives and return them to the heavenly Father’s household of faith.
  • It is faith that believes that God graceful and merciful intervention can make up for all of my – or anyone’s – parental mistakes and short-comings.
  • It is faith that believes that the spiritual seeds that were planted at one time in a child’s heart will one day mature into a harvest of righteousness despite what fruit or weeds might be apparent there now.
  • It is faith that believes that God’s love as heavenly Father is greater and more abundant than my earthly parental love.
  • It is faith that believes that God accepts me even as a mistake-ridden and faulty parent to my children.
  • It is faith that believes that just as God’s unconditional love accepts and embraces me; it will also accept and embrace my child no matter where they may be on their own spiritual journey.
  • It is faith that believes that the same God who is our righteous and holy judge is also our merciful and loving counselor.

It is time to set the guilted parent free. It is time to replace formulas with faith.  It is time to reject psychological and spiritual determinism with a trust in God’s power to do what we ourselves cannot guarantee; which is children who worship and serve him.  Let the guilted parent be set free.

These thoughts came about as I finished reading “The Myth of the Perfect Parent” by Leslie Leyland Fields in Christianity Today (January 2010, Vol. 54, No. 1).  There is a follow-up interview with Donald Ratcliff by Katelyn Beaty that the reader may want to see.  Some of the terminology and ideas that are in my Blog came from Leslie Fields article.  Follow the link to see the complete article.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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One of the tragedies of being young or going to school for too long is that one knows all the answers.  It seems that when I was in high school and college that I had an answer or solution for everything.  Now that I have teenagers and children college age, I have that they are the ones with all the answers.

Of course, six years of college, two Bachelor degrees, three years of graduate school, and a master’s degree only compounds the problem.  In my related fields of study – theology, biblical studies, philosophy, pastoral ministry – I have a lot of answers for a lot of things.  My library of over 3,000 volumes helps me find one, along with the internet now, if I am unsure or need to shore up my thinking.

Alas, all of this has done me little good.  I have discovered as I have aged in years and grown somewhat wiser (using that term frugally) that having the answers and knowing the solutions are not the same as solving the problem(s).  This is true for my own life as well as those that I have counseled and coached over the years.  I can stare at the obvious answer in front of me.  I can clearly point out the solution to the person(s) needing an answer in times of trouble.  This, however, rarely, in my case or theirs, solves the problem.

What is the problem with the problem? Well, it is not enough to know answers or solutions.  You have to work the problem to get to the answer.  One must prove the solution to be true by working out the problem.  This is somewhat of a applying a scientific approach to problem solving.  The answer or solution is only the hypothesis.  The working out of the problem in reality either proves or disproves hypothesis.

Granted, this pragmatic approach to life does not always work.  Some answers or solutions are true whether they work out for us or not.  Their failure in our case may only reveal a defect in our method, approach or application and not in the answer or solution itself.  Thus, pragmatism is a poor philosophy to live life by.

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010

Wind Turbines, Wallula Washington, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I wish that I had learned this lesson earlier on.  It would have made me less arrogant and cock-sure in my younger years.  Perhaps patience with myself and for others would have had a more fruitful result in my life.  In any case, it turns out that my math teacher in my Junior High and High School years was on to something.  Her name was Mrs. Durkin.  She was a stickler for working the problems and showing your work.  She taught in Curlew, Washington.

I spent some of my most important formative years growing up in Curlew, Washington.  It is located in Northeastern Washington State near the Canadian border, right across from Grand Forks, British Columbia.  I have so many fond memories of that place and the people there.  I have revisited it a few times over the years, but it’s been a long while since I have had a chance to return there.

The school was a two story brick school that housed all the grades.  A number of years ago they built a new building.  The old brick building was recently destroyed in a fire.  Mrs. Durkin’s room was at the top of the stairs, left down the hall (not a long distance) and the last classroom on the right.  The office was next door at the head of the hall.

When you stepped into Mrs. Durkin’s room, there was no question as to who was in charge.  There was also no question that she loved math and loved teaching.  But she was impervious to the pleas of students, like myself, who had the right answers on their papers but had not shown their work or whose math work was wrong even if the solution was right.  In either case, it was marked wrong!  How unfair.

How like life.  Life is a rugged classroom to learn in.  Wisdom is a ruthless teacher.  Wisdom does not care if you know the answers or have the solution.  It mocks your arrogance to just fill in the answer and think you can get by with that approach.  Wisdom will demand that you work the problem of life to “show your work” or prove your answer.

The demands of life and learning wisdom have turned out to be a lot tougher than Mrs. Durkin’s algebra classes.  She would often challenge us, “Students, you must show your work!”  She would remind us, “Unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer!”  This probably explains why she always assigned the even-numbered problems in the book when the odd-numbered ones had the answers in the back!

Even if she did on a rare occasion assign one or several odd-numbered problems, the only point was so that you could show or prove to her that you could come up with the same answer.  (Very tricky, Mrs. Durkin.  Very tricky!)  And it better be the right way to arrive at the answer or it was still wrong!  Creativity may count in art class but not in Mrs. Durkin’s math classes!  (You were so mean, Mrs. Durkin.  So mean.)  Yet, life can be like this – “assigning” to us problems we know the answers to but requiring us to work out the problem to get to the same solution.

It turns out that life’s classroom has been a lot more relentless than Mrs. Durkin ever was in her’s.  It turns out that Wisdom has been a much harsher teacher than her also.  Someone repeated the much worn contemporary mantra of American evangelicalism the other day that say, “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”  Baloney.

Maybe I am unique in this, I do not think so, but God has frequently given me things way too big for me to handle.  It is not enough for me to point to an answer in the Bible and claim some truth or promise.  Neither does it work to simply spout some theological dogma I have been taught about life and its trials.  I find I am no better off by finding where to find the answers in the “back of the book;” even though I do appreciate a good concordance.  The little “Our Daily Bread” Scripture promise box on the table or a quote from the most recent pop-Christian author falls empty into the dirt of my work-a-day life.

Perhaps I hear the voice of the Lord in Mrs. Durkin’s classroom demands.  “Son, you must show your work.  ‘Study to show yourself… a worker…correctly handling truth‘ ” (2 Tim. 2:15).  “Son, unless you can show your work, you have not shown me that you really know how to arrive at the answer.  ‘Apply your heart to understanding…then you will understand…every good answer‘ ” (Proverbs 2:2, 9).  Turns out that math class taught me more than math.  I was a stinker of a student in Mrs. Durkin’s class.  Here’s hoping I will become a better student at solving problems in the future.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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We have all seen them.  A highlight tape from a sporting event.  Or, it might be a highlight tape of one particular athlete’s accomplishments.  When I coached football, I would sometimes help put together a highlight tape together for the team or a player.  It was fun watching all the great moments – touch downs, incredible runs, interceptions, fantastic pass receptions, bone crunching blocks and tackles.

What those tapes never showed you, however, was all the other moments.  The lost games, fumbles, dropped passes, jumbled plays, and missed blocks and tackles.  They also didn’t show you all the hard work behind the scenes such as the two-a-day practices before the start of the official season or the hours of conditioning training, often spent in the rain and cold.  But all this would miss the point of the highlight tape wouldn’t it?

Our cultural appetite for victors and heroes, victories and stars, has bled into other aspects of our lives as well.  We have grown so used to consuming only the highlights of others that we now mentally prepare and practice our own “highlight tape” to show to others.  Whether it is sharing our life over a meal, posting it our social network site, or writing it on our resume, we have learned to self edit our lives.

This is not always a bad thing.  There are appropriate times to only give the highlights of our accomplishments and life journey.  This could be for a job or meeting someone new.  There are times when naked vulnerability is not socially acceptable because the time, place, and or person is all wrong.

However, on the flip side, when do we have an opportunity to put away the highlight tapes and share our failures, regrets, and shortcomings.  The game of life continues to unfold while we are in play.  Who is there to coach us to become better?  Who do we have to help us become better at who we are and what we do?  What outside instruction and encouragement urges us on to finish well and finish strong?  My guess is that if all you live by and show others is the personally edited highlight tape of your own life, then the answer is no one.

Unfortunately, the Church at large in our western culture has become captivated by this social phenomenon.  Sunday mornings are little more than highlight tapes of “successful ministry” and “spiritual” lives.  The congregants are told these stories and shown this view to supposedly inspire them to become better Christians.  However, I wonder if we have not misled them.  I wonder if we have not left the most vulnerable among us wondering if they could ever measure up to what they see and hear on the platform.

If I were to never know anything else about the game of basketball except by what I saw on a career highlight tape of Michael Jordan, I would immediately assume that there is no way that I could play the game, let alone compete.  Watching the outstanding physical abilities displayed in his aerobatics, his sixth sense leadership on the court, and his finally honed jump shot would not encourage me to get out and play the game.  I would be content to just be a spectator; one who vicariously lives the sport through a hero or role model.

Perhaps spectators are what we have unwittingly created in our American churches because all they every see are persons that they assume they cannot emulate.  Thus, the average congregant assumes that there is no way they could ever be good at this spiritual journey we call following Jesus.  Any attempts that have resulted in failure only reinforces the idea that they don’t belong “out on the court” or “in the game”.  Instead, they grow content vicariously living their spiritual lives through super-spiritual leaders and speakers.

Personally, I have grown tired of going to another conference where all I see are the highlights of someone’s ministry.  I have no desire to watch and hear anothet highlight show of  how such-and-such church has become successful.  My years involved in church ministries has taught me that there is a lot more that goes on behind the scenes than what we are told.  Personal interaction with “successful” ministries and churches has taught me that there are a lot of growing pains, missed opportunities, mistakes, and even casualties in the story that do not get to be told.  And often I am told that the reason is that “no one wants to hear bad news”.

I am not recommending becoming a community of  “Sad Sacks” and naysayers.  I have never thought that a pessimist was better off than an optimist, but just the opposite.  Negativism can become a cancer that destroys not sustains healthy growth and living.  However, vulnerability should not be mistaken for negativism and pessimism either.  We would do well to learn to distinguish between the two.

Ron on Giant Rock Seat

Ron on Giant Rock Seat, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almber, Jr. (2009)

The most profound growth and changes in my life have often come after someone shared with me his or her struggles.  It was often someone I looked up to as successful or spiritual.  Then, in a moment of vulnerability they shared with me their struggles, starts and stops, and failures.  Instead of being crushed by them and defeated, they had discovered a way to stand back up and keep going.  These moments have always left me inspired, thinking, “If they can go through that and make it, then I can too.”

By discarding the constant use of our personal life highlight tape we move beyond the veneer of our lives, which is so thin anyway.  Healthy vulnerability shared at the right moment, in the right place, with the right people does not weaken our lives but strengthens them.  It also encourages and strengthens those we share our lives with at those times.  The question that begs to be answered, I believe, is are we providing a place for that in our lives, churches, or faith groups?  Where do we remove the masks to become real to another person?

If all of your conversations on the faith level are only punctuated with “Praise God brother/sister!  Everything is going great!  God is good all the time!  I live such a blessed life!  The church was packed!” then it might be time to ween yourself off your self-edited highlight tape.  Find a personal and place to become vulnerable again.

One of my favorite sayings is, “God is never disillusioned with you.  He had no illusions about you in the first place.”  After all, who are we really trying to hide from – God?  Nice try.  The one who sees everything knows our life’s successes and failures.  It is the reason why one biblical imagery of a human standing before God is in nakedness.  How embarrassing is that?  God caught us all naked – with our spiritual pants down!  And still, he forgives us, accepts us, and loves us.  Perhaps it is time the community of saints he formed start to look and act the same way toward all.

I am not suggesting that Sunday mornings become a group counseling session or that the pastors and leaders reveal the most intimate failures of their lives every time.  Nevertheless, perhaps more opportunities can be given for them and others to pull up their sleeves and show the hidden “scars” from the spiritual battles they have waged.  Maybe, every once in a while, the ministry highlight tapes could be discarded for a more real view of what can be expected of all of us in our journey with Christ.  That just might encourage more of us to join the team.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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