Not long ago, I read Christianity Today magazine's interview with John Piper because I was keenly interested in what the leading Reformed Baptist pastor had to say about race and reconciliation within the church. There's no doubt that most of us are a part of racialized churches, Christian organizations, and institutions.
I noticed that the interviewer, Christine Scheller, deftly turned from questions about racial reconciliation and reconciliation with Rob Bell, to an even more personal question about reconciliation between Piper and his one-time prodigal son, Abraham, whom his church, Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis, excommunicated.
Speaking about what transpired after the excommunication, Piper told CT:
From then on, for the next four years, he was walking away from the Lord, trying to make a name for himself in disco bars as a guitarist and singer, and just doing anything but destroying himself. We were praying like crazy that he wouldn't get somebody pregnant, or marry the wrong person, or whatever.
Although there has been some controversy about whether or not he should've stepped down from the pastoral role according to the scriptural guidelines set forth in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6, I found Piper's vulnerability and tenderness refreshing. Here's why: It reminds me that no one, not even the best "Christian hedonist" can guarantee that his or her son or daughter won't stray from the faith …
Tragically, many teens and young adults reject Christianity in part because of the spiritual dysfunction they witnessed within their own homes. (Abraham Piper notes this isn't the case with his parents.) Yet I know several exemplary Christian parents whose children have left the Jesus way. A few of these children have made decisions that would grieve any parent, Christian or not. Their waywardness, sometimes combined with profound dysfunction, is a crushing reality and a nearly impossible weight for these parents to bear alone.
One child who grew up immersed in the goodness of God and witnessing the sacrificial love of her parents is a drug addict. Until recently, no one knew whether she was dead or alive. Another friend who works for an internationally recognized and respected ministry has two sons. One is an agnostic, the other an atheist. While they don't question the love and goodwill of their parents, the grown sons have questions and experiences they cannot reconcile with the Christian culture they've known.
Another family I know well was judged by fellow church members because one son was "wild" in high school. These parents were wounded by back-handed expressions of concern wrapped in thinly veiled contempt and the questioning of their parenting skills. They stopped attending church, for a while, at least. Their son has yet to fully recover from his church hurt. Upon hearing about their experience, my first thought was, Then God must be a very bad parent because his own children strayed in paradise, and many are still out of control.
Although it doesn't make sense, parents who've "done everything right" have rebellious and sometimes highly dysfunctional children. Leslie Leyland Fields, in an excellent CT cover story, "The Myth of the Perfect Parent" (where she fleshed out many of the points I've made), observes:
One of the most resilient and cherished myths of parenting is that parenting creates the child …. Many Christian writers and parents have … drifted into what could be called spiritual determinism. We have absorbed the cultural belief in psychological determinism but spiritualized it with Bible verses, and one verse in particular. The result is a Christianized version of the cultural myth. It reads something like this: 'Christian parenting techniques produce godly children.' … entire formulas and programs have been created to divine and instruct on the kind of parental training that will secure the desired outcome.
Several students of mine have told our 5-year-old, Iliana, that she is lucky to have us as parents. We're grateful for their compliments, but realize there is no guarantee she'll be a faithful disciple. After knowing deeply Christian parents whose children have strayed, I believe that if my children are faithful disciples, it is a grace, not a gimmick. Fields wisely advises us to quit asking ourselves, "'Am I parenting successfully?' And … quit asking, "Are others parenting successfully?" Instead, we need to ask, 'Am I parenting faithfully?'"
for, according to Fields and others, as far as the nature/nurture debate goes, nature probably plays a more significant role than we realize. Consequently, instead of thinking the worst of parents and guardians whose children have veered off the path, we should gently offer them our gracious presence, tangible support, and prayers (like Judy Douglass and several thousand do).
Abraham Piper also offers concrete suggestions for parents with prodigals. Here are just a few:
1. Point them to Christ. He notes that the "problem is that your child doesn't see Jesus clearly." While it isn't easy, you need to show them Christ.
2. Don't expect them to be Christlike. If your child is not a Christian, you shouldn't expect that child to act like one.
3. Welcome them home. He writes, "Because your deepest concern is your son's heart, not his actions, don't create too many requirements for coming home."
These suggestions apply to our interactions with the youth in our churches and communities. It takes the community of Jesus to raise a Christian child. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen states that our heavenly Father "has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them …. His only desire is to bless."
May we as parents and Christian communities take that same posture.
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