Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child -- Not in the Bible!

     Do you think the NFL feels put upon this week?  Do you think they long for the good old days when people were attacking them for team nicknames and for the effects of concussions on former players?  First the Ray Rice domestic abuse case, and the others that were drawn into the light, and now the Adrian Peterson child abuse indictment—you don’t think the powers at the NFL want to get the focus back on the game, do you?  As I said earlier this week in reference to the Ray Rice situation, none of us should be looking to the NFL for our moral guidance.  The NFL is a business.  All it cares about is making as much money as possible.  Players want too much?  Bring in scab players.  Referees are demanding too much?  Steal the best officials from the NCAA.  The home city is not willing to pay for a state of the art stadium or practice facilities?  Somebody else will.  The NFL only pays attention to morality when it impacts their bottom line.  If ratings (advertising dollars) begin to slip, then it is an issue to them.  Otherwise most do not care.  The Peterson case will be interesting to follow as the Vikings want the city to build a new stadium with tax dollars.  If the hue and cry reaches the level of the Ray Rice situation, they will have to make a business decision about whether to keep, to cut, or to trade their running back.
     For those not following the case closely, or those who were confused by the goings-on (like me—I thought someone else had been indicted for killing his child, but this is a different child), Peterson was indicted by a Grand Jury in Houston, Texas for child abuse.  Photos released by TMZ show a child said to be one of Peterson’s sons, with welts and cuts on his thighs.  Some reports claim other photos show the same welts on the child’s bottom, back, inner thigh and groin.  Though the indictment was over the use of a small tree in disciplining his son, most of us would be familiar with the “small tree” as a switch.  As we stood around Sunday chatting about the case, a number of parishioners had felt the dread growing up of having to go cut a switch from the backyard for a spanking.  A number of us shared other methods of discipline: paddles, brushes, belts, ping pong paddles, hands, spatulas, and the like.  All of us in the discussion asserted that we had turned out just fine.  While that last statement might be debatable among us, I think that all those gathered were not scarred by the discipline of their respective parents.
     As people continued to share their memories, I was finally asked whether I thought corporal punishment was appropriate.  That discussion has certainly pushed the Ray Rice situation to the background here in the upper Midwest.  In the discussions I have heard early about this case, almost all those who champion corporal punishment cite the Bible, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”  The line, as some with backgrounds of English know, comes from a poem written by Samuel Butler called Hudibras.  It cannot be found in the Bible!  Those who attribute that saying to Scripture are, in reality, quoting a poet who did not live until the 1600’s.  Just as Ephesians 5:22 is quoted to justify spouse abuse, people think they are citing Proverbs 13:24 when they look to the Bible in support of corporal punishment.  As with the Ephesians 5:22 verse regarding spouse abuse, there is much more to the intended Proverbs 13:24.  In its entirety, the verse that is being cited repeatedly by those who defend corporal punishment as God-given is something along the lines of “He who spares the rod hates his child, and he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”  The fight, it seems to me, that we Christians are going to have in this discussion is the meaning of the word careful.  A number of commentators have remarked how the state is getting too involved in the raising of children.  Some believe the state has no right to intervene in the parent-child relationship, especially in issues of discipline.  People rightly point to roads, Social Security, the IRS, and a host of other state-run entities to demonstrate just how ineffective the state can be.  Those who hate corporal punishment argue that the children have rights as citizens of this country and that the state has to intervene in order to protect them.  Many of those on this side of the debate have shared stories of discipline which they claim have scarred them for life.  Unlike those in our circle in the parish hall, these individuals do feel as if they are worse for the spankings.  Even a couple observers to our discussion later shared that they still suffered from their beatings, that they had had a traumatic, violent experience or set of experiences at the hand (or belt or switch) of the two people who were supposed to love them the most.  Who is right?
     As Christians, we need to recognize that a couple of competing values are at play in this discussion.  On the one hand, parents are responsible for raising their children.  Parents should have a very large say in what their children eat, what they read, what activities they do, who they date, who they hang out with, and, yes, how they are disciplined.  Those same children, however, are afforded certain protections under the state.  One of those protections is, and I think should be, against abuse.  While the debate will be waged in the press and on talk radio for the next few months, the real decision making will be done in the courtroom.  Whether Peterson is guilty of abusing his son will be determined either by a judge or by a jury.  Our job in the church is not necessarily to serve either of those roles, though the blood of the wounds makes it hard for many of us to remain silent.  If the early indications of the debate hold true, I think a large portion of our role will be to recapture what Scripture really says about discipline so that others will find it hard to use Scripture as justification for the abuse of others.  We could easily dismiss the discussion by reminding ourselves of the absurdity of idea of Jesus abusing anyone, but especially children.  But in failing to engage with others, we miss a wonderful teaching opportunity, an opportunity that might give us a significant role in teaching someone estranged from God of His love for them!
     Specifically, Proverbs 13:24 is being discussed a great deal in secular media as it seems to be the justification many use for corporal punishment.  Given the low numbers in society that go to church, we should not be too surprised that no one is challenging the idea that “Scripture says I can beat my kids however I want.”  No it does not.  Scripture is clear that the most important responsibility a parent has is in raising a child is to teach that child to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, and strength.  As with everything else we are given, parents are stewards of their children.  Hear that again: Children belong to God, just as does every other speck of creation.  They are not our property; they are not ours to do as we see fit.  They are given to us that we might share the love of God with them.  We call them gifts from God because they are!  What the author of Proverbs was trying to teach the people of Israel was that the withholding of discipline is to condemn one’s child.  Put bit differently, if parents do not discipline their children, those children will walk apart from God.
     We are beginning to see the wisdom of this part of the verse playing out in society around us.  Individuals who were shown no discipline as children have entered the workforce, entered into relationships, and have entered into adulthood with no sense of boundaries for good or expected behavior.  The backlash against abuse was so strong that some schools did away with grades or red ink for fear of demeaning Johnny or Susie’s sense of worth.  Parents bragged about becoming “permissive parents,” explaining that they did not want to inhibit anything in their child.  Discipline, other than suspension or expulsion, was removed from schools.  Now listen to the results.  Ask a boss in the secular world about the work habits of the generation that has entered the workforce.  Those children who went largely undisciplined now do not like the idea of work schedules, of accountability to bosses or owners, have a hard time fitting in to group projects, or even recovering from failure or firing.  Good discipline teaches us where we come up short, where we need to work on our behavior, and, ultimately, if parents use it wisely and carefully, why we need a Savior.  Good discipline even teaches us about perseverance, especially through failure.  Great discipline teaches us about grace by showing that which our Father in heaven first showed us!
     The other side of that verse, however, reminds us that the loving parent, the one that takes his or her job seriously as a steward of the child for God, is careful to discipline the child.  I have read a number of pastors trying to explain that a “rod” in the time of Proverbs was not really a stick or switch.  I find those arguments, thus far, unconvincing.  When the Psalmist speaks of a rod in Psalm 23, I am certain the Psalmist was not referencing “right behavior” or “a canon of accepted practice” or some other such interpretation that attempts to remove a physical piece of wood from the hand of the Shepherd.  Harsh words would do little to scare a lion or other predator from a flock or herd.  That rod, though, is used to protect the Psalmist just as this rod is used carefully to discipline.  But, if a rod is used to draw blood on a child, is it reasonable to expect that child to be comforted by its sight?  As I stood in the hall listening to and sharing stories of corporal punishment efforts gone awry, I wondered whether any of us are comforted by the sight of a broken hairbrush, a snapped spatula, a parent’s hand in a cast to protect a broken bone, or a splintered paddle?  Are we really comforted by the idea of a teach having snapped a paddle on our behinds in school so long ago?  I think not.  Clearly, others listening to us were taken back to a memory they would much rather forget.  Was that group scarred?  No, but a couple observers were.  Could we ruefully laugh at the experiences?  Obviously, but some in our midst wanted to scream at us and cry.  Did everyone agree that the actions that caused the bad disciplined were serious?  Yes.  Could our parents have done a better job of disciplining us?  Absolutely.  And what of those among us who were abused?  Would those stories comfort them?
     The challenge for Christian parents is to discipline a child, but to do so in a way that will remind the child they are loved not only by the parent, but by their Father in heaven.  Our rules that we use to govern our and our children’s lives ought to reflect the instruction that our Lord gave Israel.  We should have clear boundaries and clear consequences.  We should be consistent.  But all of that needs to be fashioned with the clear goal and objective of reminding our children that they are loved by God.  I do not think, however, that the rod should ever draw blood on our child.  The rod should not leave welts.  The rod should never invoke fear in the sight of our children.  Jesus took that scourging and that beating for them, just as He did for us.
     When I was asked whether I believe in corporal punishment, I joked a bit that I am so old and  so slow that I am lucky in the prevent defense that Karen and I are forced to employ with seven children ever to be in the camera picture with them, let alone close enough to lay a hand on them.  It caused some laughter, as most know Karen and I were forced to give up man-to-man and zone defenses many ages ago!  Then I told them I had become more of a swatter and grounder as I learned more and more about discipline.  With the first four kids, I was a champion of corporal punishment.  One of the uncomfortable truths about myself my wife and a couple seminary professors made me face during the childhood of my first four was that the spankings were more for me than for the children.  I was spanking more out of frustration and anger than out of an idea of causing them to love God.  Put simply, I had forgotten that I was a steward of my children.  
     I learned that for most of the children (those who know us will know the exceptions! lol), a grounding of some sort or an added responsibility worked wonders in correcting behavior.  That is not to say I am not above a good swat.  When God blessed us with the younger three, I would still swat a hand away from a boiling pot, a hot dish on the stove, a hot grill, an electrical outlet for a time, and other dangerous situations, but I did so certain in the knowledge that my swat would hurt far less and for far less time than the experiential knowledge they were about gain were I to let them touch something that would burn.  The loss of freedoms or added responsibilities, however, worked very well for discipline.  The tasks assigned were often things that might get overlooked for the week or that we determined needed being done again simply because the child hated a particular task.  Did it work, or is it working?  Like most things with children, it was a process.  But, those of you active in the parish can see the results for yourself.  And, if you want to know what they think of it as a style of discipline, particularly as it relates to their peers, ask them, especially the older girls, they are of age!
     I am not a fan about using me or my family as a sermon illustration, but the question of disciplining children is one in which Karen and I have lots of experience and lots of discussion, and it is one which you all have had the responsibility of observing and evaluating during our time with you.  Do we as Christians have the right to discipline our children?  We not only have the right, it is one of our charged responsibilities as stewards of His little ones.  Might we occasionally need to use a rod to enforce discipline?  Yes, if having children has taught me anything, it has taught me that original sin is real.  No parent instructs a child how to lie, how to backtalk, or how to disobey.  They seem to understand all that instinctively.  Do we have the right to use the rod as we see fit?  Absolutely not!  Whenever Christian parents are disciplining their children, they need to keep God’s discipline of themselves in mind.  The rod is meant to comfort children, to remind them of the unfailing love of their Father.  The rod was never meant to cause terror, to cause pain, or to induce nightmares and the need for counseling later in life.  And when we Christians hear or see another parent who has seemed to have forgotten the Father’s love of all His children, we need to speak into that situation.  Perhaps a rebuke will be enough; maybe our voice will require the summoning of authorities to determine what constitutes discipline and what constitutes abuse.  In many cases, it falls to neighbors, to teachers, to doctors and nurses, and even to pastors to voice the terror being experienced by those children abused in our midst.  But if we remain silent during those promptings of the Holy Spirit, we are no different from the parent who withholds discipline or the Pharisee who would not love his neighbor as Himself.  Our silence, our complicity, tells them we hate them, not that we and He loves them.  Thankfully, when we disobey, He withholds that rod in His hand from punishing us.  Thankfully, when that rod needed to be applied to us, His Son interposed Himself between us and that discipline.  May we ever live that kind of love in sight of all His children!


Monday, September 15, 2014

Heralds of Mercy, Trumpeters of Grace!

      Pastor, how many times must I forgive my son and his friend? — So began a conversation the day I returned from dropping Amanda off at Hollins.  It was almost a direct quote of Peter’s that we read today, so much so that I knew, before I had a chance to see last week’s readings that this reading was going to be assigned last week!  This person in orbit of our parish wanted to know how many times she had to let her son and his best friend continue to make her mad.  The answer that came quickly to my tongue was this passage.  I asked her how many times Jesus instructed Peter and us that we must forgive those who sin against us.  Bah, I KNEW you were going to say that.  Why does He have to make it so hard?  In truth, Jesus’ command about forgiveness and repentance is both incredibly hard and incredibly easy.
     We sometimes like to look down on those societies which preceded us as rubes or ignorant or unsophisticated.  While we can all admit we are technologically ahead of those societies which came before us, Peter’s question illustrates the truth of Ecclesiastes—nothing new under the sun!
     After Jesus’ instructions on how to deal with unrepentant sin in the Church, Peter asks a serious question.  Some commentators like to argue that Peter was attempting to elevate himself in the eyes of Jesus and the other disciples.  Considering how quick Jesus was to rebuke Peter (and the other disciples) whenever they got a matter of the heart wrong, and the absence of such a rebuke here, I take Peter’s question as seriously as I did the lady in the office two Tuesday’s ago.  It is a struggle to forgive.  There is a natural tendency, I think, to seek to hurt those who hurt us.  Certainly the Rabbis of Peter’s time and before had dealt with that tendency and Peter’s question.  One of the accepted life rules, if you will, was that Jews had to forgive each other seven times.  If somebody sinned again against you an 8th or 80th or 800th time, clearly they were not really repentant.  Why was seven chosen?  My guess is that it had something to do with completion.  As those studying the Book of Revelation can now tell you, numbers sometimes serve a symbolic purpose.  The number 3 figures prominently in the Scripture, as does the number 7 and the number 40.  In the case of 7, it often is used to represent completeness.  What happened in the first week in Genesis?  God created the heavens and the earth, saw that it was good, and rested—the first week.  Perhaps rabbis and others though that one might need as many as seven chances to repent for repentance to truly germinate in the heart.  Maybe rabbis thought that seven false repentances completed the hardening of the heart.  Maybe it was a combination of the two.  That Peter offers the number and does not earn Jesus’ rebuke tells us that Peter’s question was sincere.  Forgiving somebody seven times would be hard, indeed!
     Jesus gives a huge answer in response to Peter’s suggestion.  In truth, some of the ANE cultures were not as concerned with numbers as were other cultures.  Cultures like the Phoenicians and the Arabs would do well in our eyes as they were pretty particular in how they accounted for numbers.  Other cultures, such as the Jews, had their focus on things other than algebra or other mathematical sciences.  What Jesus answers could really be 77 times, but it could also be 490 times.  I rather liked Robin’s illustration today of 7 to the 70th power.  I think it captures Jesus’ meaning, but not His words.
     Can you imagine the shock?  The lady who entered my office and asked this question knew the answer.  She knew I would give it to her.  Still, she felt compelled to ask.  How many times must I forgive?  Part of the reason for the question, I think, is that we get tired of the hurt.  The more accurate question I think that Peter and this lady were asking is how many chances do I have to give somebody to hurt me?  Jesus’ answer seems, rightly so, without end.
     We talk a lot in the Church conflating words and the meaning.  A great example would be in the parable that accompanied Jesus’ instruction.  We speak often of grace and mercy, as if the two are the same word.  In reality, both words are very different.  The parable that Jesus uses to illustrate His point involves debt.  A man appears before his king with a debt of some 10,000 talents.  The amount involved would have been unfathomable to Jesus’ audience.  It would be nearly no so to us.  A talent was worth approximately 6000 denarii.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  A talent was equal to a laborer’s compensation over nearly 20 years!  To put that figure in modern minimum wage salaries, a talent would be worth about $2 million.  Imagine owing 10,000 of those!  Even credit card companies won’t let us get into a couple billion dollars worth of debt!  And this man has the audacity to tell his king that all he needs is a little bit of time to pay his debt in full.
     The king, Jesus tells us, is moved by the man’s plight.  The king understands the reality.  The king shows mercy by not giving to the man what he deserves—being sold with his wife and children into slavery to satisfy a small portion of the debt.  The king goes one extra though.  The king shows grace by giving the man something he does not not deserve—he writes off the debt!  Think of the gift given the man in question.  The equivalent debt of a couple hundred years of labor is wiped clean!  And how does he respond?
     On his way out, Jesus tells us, the man encounters another slave who owes him 100 denarii, merely a 100 days labor.  Compared to the debt that has been forgiven for the first man, this seems a paltry sum indeed.  How does the slave who has been shown mercy and grace by the king respond?  He withholds mercy.  He gives the second slave what he deserves.  He tosses the fellow slave into prison until the debt is paid.  Talk about ungrateful.
     The fellow slaves, not surprisingly, are upset at the behavior.  They complain to the king about what has happened.  And the king has the first slave brought before him again.  The king rebukes the first slave for showing neither mercy note grace to the second slave.  Better still, he determines that the man will be tortured until the debt is paid.  Given the size of the debt, all in the audience knew that the first slave would experience torture until the day he died.
     Jesus’ use of the parable is illustrative of the superficial attitude many of us Christians have toward forgiveness.  We will tell people that we have been forgiven our sins and talk about how free we are, but then we turn around and show an utter lack of compassion to others.  The world around us notes this superficial attitude and calls it hypocrisy or two-faced.  Those who have not internalized the mercy and grace offered by our Lord are quick to reap the benefits.  We will tell others the church to which we belong if it helps our social or economic prospects.  We will act like the Pharisees and Sadducees and make a big deal out of our attendance or offering or some other aspect of worship we deem important or esteemed.  In reality, though, the person who has not internalized the mercy and grace of God will reflect that hardened heart in their treatment of others.  Jesus’ parable ought to remind us that each one of us stands in danger of being the first slave in this story.  What cost can you pay for your life?  What cost could you pay for your eternal soul?  In reality, none of us could begin to pay God what they are worth.
     God has offered each one of us mercy; He has withheld the condemnation we have each earned through our countless sins.  But, rather than free us simply from the chains of death, our Lord has shown us amazing grace through the offer of adoption.  The grace that we have been shown is that now, not only can we be forgiven our sins, we can be empowered by His Holy Spirit and charged as His sons and daughters on earth to represent Him.  WE can pray on Healing Sunday and expect God to act.  WE can pray for provision certain that He will provide what we need.  WE can face even death, confident that He has the power even to overcome the grave.  Best of all, God has attached Himself to us in such a way that if we are mocked, ridiculed, besmirched, treated with contempt, or any other such behavior, He will know and He will act as if such actions were done to Him!  Think about that grace for a second.  Though we do not deserve it, God treats a sin against us as a sin against Him.
     As we as disciples walk in faith the mercy and grace given us by our Lord begins to transform our hearts.  The slights and pangs and dishonors of this world come to be less and less important to us.  We can act merciful and gracefully countless times to others because we know our debt to God was infinitely greater than any debt owed by others to us and because we know that He has bound Himself to us for all eternity.  We can begin to show in our lives, and not only say with our lips, the peace that passes all understanding.  We simply become heralds of grace and trumpeters of His mercy trusting that, in the end, justice and vengeance are His.  If the neighbor sins against us 7000 times and seeks forgiveness each time, we have no reason to withhold.  Still our debt to Him was greater.  Still He showed us how we were to treat and love others in His name.
     Perhaps sitting here this week, you find yourself a bit unnerved.  Maybe, as you read the story again and reflect on your life and attitude, you find yourself described in the actions of the first slave.  Maybe the Holy Spirited has prompted you to see that you are too focused on what has been done to you by others.  Is there hope?  Of course.  So long as one draws breath, there is always hope that he or she will return to God.  We have danced around the mercy and grace offered us by God a bit this morning.  Though God could have rightly and justly let us wallow in our lives or in our prisons trying vainly to work our way out of His debt, He chose to give us a narrow path out.  He sent His Son, who lived a sinful life.  Our Lord Christ laid down that life, shedding His blood for our sakes, that all our debts to God might be repaid.  The cost of our salvation was horrendous.  Someone, indeed, had to die the death we each earned.  But for His obedience and faithfulness, He was raised again from the dead as the firstborn of the Kingdom.  And in His infinite grace, He promised that all who believed in that Son shall live forever in His presence.  Brothers and sisters, if you find you are well described by the first slave, there is still time to repent.  There is still time to ask God to forgive you, still time to ask Him to circumsize your heart, still time to ask Him for the privilege of ushering others into His kingdom and presence by demonstrating mercy and grace to others, still time to ask Him to wash away the hypocrisy we have exhibited in our lives, to experience the true joy of forgiveness, still time to ask Him to help you focus less on what has been done to you and more upon what He has done for you!  There is still time to call upon His name and grasp the glory that He offers.  It will not be easy, but then He described it as cross-bearing.  But in the end, we know, we absolutely know, just as our debts owed to Him dwarf any owed to us, so will His blessings overcome by orders of magnitude our debts for all eternity!