A Gorilla, Fear, and the Myth of Safety

I waited quite awhile to weigh in on the tragedy regarding the young boy who made his way into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. I did this mostly because I’ve been fascinated watching the aftermath on social media. I’m not going to comment on what actually happened because a) I wasn’t there, and b) I’m not an expert on zoos, gorillas, or watching children in the midst of chaos and crowds. I will, however, comment on the crazy behavior of everyone on social media because, unfortunately, we have all become experts in that. People responded to this situation with a great deal of anger at all involved. Some called for the parents to have their children removed from their care, and there were even death threats. It caused me to reflect on why people responded in this manner. So, this post is not really about the gorilla situation at all; it is about what thoughts and emotions were behind people’s reactions and what that means for our lives.

After some reflection, I decided that it was likely that the main reason that people reacted with such vitriol is that they were afraid. It’s no secret that fear makes people do crazy and awful things, and this was no exception. Parents and others watched the video of the young boy with the gorilla and immediately thought about their own children or the children in their lives. They pictured what might have happened if the story had had a different ending. And it scared them. BUT, if they blamed the whole situation on the parents’ poor parenting skills, it allowed them to sleep at night. If they came up with a list of rules and regulations that should be put in place “so that this never happens again,” it allowed them to believe that future similar situations could be completely prevented, and they felt in control again. They could go to bed saying, with relief, “THAT would never happen to MY child. I would never be in that situation.” And it took away their fear. So the bashing continued, the demand for new rules and regulations continued, and everyone felt better about themselves, their lives, and the safety of their own children.

But, the truth is that we in America only live under the illusion that we are in control of everything. We believe that if we just work hard enough, take enough precautions, and put enough rules and legislation in place, we can keep ourselves and our children completely safe from all harm. But, that is a lie. You can be the best parent in the world and still lose a child. You can take every precaution and still see harm come to your child. We can legislate to the gills, and people will still find a way to cause pain and suffering to others. Even the best parent is not perfect and even the best situations can yield the worst outcomes. Why? Because the world is broken. It’s scary to say it, but the reality is that no matter what you do, you cannot ensure your child’s complete safety.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions. And I’m not saying that the parents in this particular situation did everything perfectly; I honestly don’t know. And I’m not saying that some rules aren’t necessary and good. But, I do know that disease, accidents, death, and violence can happen to children of very capable parents when all of the right rules are in place.

So, that’s a scary thought. And it definitely raises some important questions about how we should respond to such a reality, especially in our world of extra-cautious behavior. Many well-meaning and loving parents, both Christian and non-Christian, have clearly responded by overreacting and overprotecting. While I understand such a response (and could easily imagine myself being guilty of the same thing), I have to wonder if that response is the best one. So, I posed some questions to myself, namely the following: What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?  In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are? And, related to the first question, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?

Not long ago, I took some kids from my church to a local Christian camp for a retreat. At the start of the weekend, the camp staff made it clear that the kids would be exposed to a moderate amount of reasonable “danger” in their activities (I use the term loosely…we’re not talking Hunger Games here) over the course of the weekend and that the parent chaperones should resist the urge to jump in and rescue them. The parents nodded in agreement, but throughout the course of the weekend, a group of them couldn’t resist shielding their kids from any difficulty. I started to refer to this group as “the helicopter moms” (admittedly, that was not terribly nice), and watching them was fascinating. They complained about the lack of safety when one girl faced a challenge on a ropes course. The girl was fine (she ended up with a minor scratch), and most importantly, she overcame the challenge and grew because of it, which was, of course, the point. When a group of girls (including some from my own church) complained during free time that the kids were not being fair while playing tether ball, the moms jumped in and made a bunch of rules. (When the girls had complained to me, I encouraged them to figure it out for themselves.) It’s easy to see how a good desire to protect our children can result in the stunting of their development. The camp’s (right) philosophy is that children grow when they have to overcome adversity.

We must learn to recognize that our primary job as Christians is not to keep ourselves safe. It’s not even to provide safety for others, though we do that when we can. Instead, we are called to be present where God is present and point out his activity in the midst of pain and suffering. God is there in the midst of unsafe situations. Indeed, he put his Son in the most unsafe of situations on our behalf. He sent his Son to stare evil directly in the eye and overcome it. And by the power of his Spirit, he calls us to do the same thing. By keeping our children from this holy task, we do not include them in God’s mission, we do not honor their baptism, and we stunt their spiritual growth. They may end up being safe, but they do not end up being faithful, and they never grow into the people whom God has called them to be.

In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are?

We Americans feel safe, generally. This makes us feel in control and independent from God. Third world parents don’t have this luxury. They know that no matter how good their parenting skills, their children are at high risk for disease, early death, or being victims of crimes. This is why the gospel spreads rapidly in these areas. The people are under no illusions about who is in control. We think that we are better off than they are (and perhaps in many ways we are), but in this way, they are better off than we are. Instead of elevating safety to be the highest good, we need to acknowledge our imperfections, our inadequacies, and our need for God’s intervention in our lives. We need to recognize God’s sovereignty and pray for his will to be done, even in the midst of unsafe situations. The truth is that we can never be in right relationship with God if we believe that we are the ones in control.

We need to acknowledge that God loves our children even more than we do, but that does not mean that he will always keep them out of harm’s way. What he’s doing in the world is so much bigger than simply keeping his children safe and comfortable.  His desire for them is not merely to survive, but to bring, through the power of his Spirit, his kingdom to bear on the earth. He will and does put all of his children in the line of fire to do just that. (Ever read the story of…well, almost everyone in the Bible?) When we in the church believe that God’s main mission is to keep his people safe and comfortable, we miss out on what he is really doing, and our relationship with him suffers.

Finally, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

I recently heard a parent say that she didn’t want her church reaching out to those in need in its community because she didn’t want her children to be in contact with those kinds of people (addicts, criminals, etc.). In her own words, her primary goal as parent is to protect her children. I understood where she was coming from, but I was also sad for her. In an effort to protect her children, she is keeping them from the places where God is most at work and where God calls us to serve.

Of course it is a natural instinct for parents to protect their children. Their love for them drives them to do it, and certainly God has created humans this way in order to ensure that the species survives. But, I don’t think that protecting their kids is the highest calling that parents have, though it certainly is part of it. Instead, parents are to parent in the way that the Father parented his Son: not by removing their children from all harm, but by teaching them to be faithful in the midst of every situation and by calling them to bring hope and healing to a broken and hurting world. Is that hard? You bet. Is it counter-intuitive and counter-cultural? Sure thing. But is it our mission? I think so. Does it bear fruit? It does. It draws us closer to the Father and allows us to participate in his work in the world. It also shows children that their highest aspiration for their lives should not be mere survival, but that their purpose is to live the life that God has called them to live, even in the midst of danger.

I remember being at a conference a few years ago and one of the speakers said, “Don’t pray for God to keep you safe. Pray for him to make you dangerous!” He talked about how when his children were afraid of monsters under their bed, he never prayed for the monsters to go away. Instead, he prayed for the children to be brave. I’ve never forgotten this. As an anxious child, I prayed for God to keep me safe quite frequently. I’ve since changed my prayers and have asked God to make me dangerous. We become dangerous to the enemies of God when we act faithfully. So, this is my prayer for all of the children whom I know and love: not that they are kept safe from all harm but that they are equipped to stare darkness in the face and beam the light of Christ straight into it. While this may not keep them free from all adversity, it will shape them more and more into the image of Christ, and that is what I most desire for them.

Please don’t worry; I would not allow my child to play in a gorilla pit as a character-building exercise. I would, of course, do everything in my power to prevent such a thing from happening. I do not consider putting proper precautions in place at zoo exhibits and vigilantly watching children (though no parent can do so perfectly) to be “overprotection.” These are normal and good protective measures that should be in place and should have been in place in Cincinnati. My point is not that we should allow our children to enter into unsafe situations willy-nilly, but that we should not allow fear to rule our lives. More importantly, the fear should not be stilled by overprotection and countless rules; it should be stilled by trust in a loving God who is at work setting the world to rights. It is a dangerous place. But, praise be, we have a more dangerous God.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


Parents Matter Most

One of my favorite shows on television is the show Parenthood. There’s something special about the Braverman family and their relationships. They all have major flaws, but they tackle real issues, and they do it together. In an episode that aired a couple of years ago, there was a scene in which a couple was receiving premarital counseling from a pastor. The pastor asked, “Have you both considered what religious instruction you will give your [five-year-old] child?” The husband-to-be replied, “Well, I think that we’re probably going to encourage him to decide what spiritual path he’d like to take…and make sure that he knows about all of the options.” I couldn’t help but think that this kind of response is likely a very common one, even among committed churchgoers. I chuckled to myself as I thought about all of the things that this particular parent would make sure that he passed on to his child, and yet when it came to faith, this father was too afraid or unsure to share his own beliefs with his son.

At my last church, I loved watching some of the children’s conversations on Sunday mornings in the fall. Why? Because they were almost always talking about college football. Each week, I witnessed some of our youngest children passionately debating about which was the superior football team: Auburn or Alabama. I’d be willing to bet that most of these children did not come to these beliefs on their own. I highly doubt that they sat down, studied the statistics and history of each team and came to a rational decision about which team was indeed superior. No, chances are that their parents have a strong love for their football team of choice and have passed that love on to their children. They have done so by talking about their team, sharing game time experiences with their children, proudly displaying their team’s colors, and expressing joy when their team wins and sadness when their team loses. The same principle applies when one is sharing one’s faith with children. Faith is caught more than it is taught.

The research is nearly unanimous: parents matter most when it comes to the faith formation of their children. If you want your children to know Jesus well, you have to know Jesus well. If you want your children to feel the love, peace, and joy of Jesus, you have to show them that you feel that love, peace, and joy. If you want your child to read God’s word, you have to open it up yourself and share it with them. In the same way that your child “caught” your love for football or barbeque or Dolly Parton, your child will “catch” your love for Jesus and, at some point, make it his/her own.

We  in the Church must recognize that parents are the primary Christian educators of their children. If we are fortunate, we see your children for an hour or so each week, and we do our best during that time to nurture their faith, instruct them in the essentials of our tradition, and encourage them to form Christian friendships with one another. However, as important as that time is, we must know that it plays second fiddle to what happens at home. So, we need to renew our commitment to parents and families. We need to give you more tools to talk about faith at home, more ways to ensure that church attendance is a priority for your family, and more opportunities to share your faith with your children. I recognize that many churches are not doing this. Many churches are saying, “Bring your kids to us! We’ve got great curriculum and kind teachers. We’ll teach them everything that they need to know.” As controversial as it may be for a church educator to say so, I’m telling you to run the other way from that kind of church. (Or, perhaps a better response is to talk to and challenge the church leadership about this approach.) If your church is putting all of their time, money, energy, and volunteers into programs for children that happen on their campus and zero time, money, energy, and volunteers into supporting parents and what happens at home, they do not have your children’s best interests at heart. (Don’t get me wrong; they may have great intentions. Many churches simply don’t know any better. But, the end result is the same: your children not having their faith nurtured in the most effective way.)

Again, parents matter most when it comes to faith formation. If that sounds daunting to you or if you’re worried about the ways in which you are (or are not) passing values on to your children, think about the other things that you teach them. Think about the ways that you have taught them to work hard, be honest, eat healthy, or stay active. Think about the love for X (reading, fishing, baking cookies, etc.) that you’ve instilled. It really is that easy to instill love for Jesus…it just takes some intentionality. But, when your children are surrounded by it, they will pick up on it.

It’s also never too late to start nurturing your child or grandchild in the faith. I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan, and Cleveland Browns fans are conditioned to hate the Pittsburgh Steelers. Well, lo and behold, after college, I moved to Pittsburgh, lived there through two Super Bowl wins, and ended up marrying a Steelers fan. While I still don’t bleed black and gold, it’s hard to hate them anymore. The love that my husband has for them and the joy that they bring to the people of Pittsburgh are infectious. I consistently find myself rooting them on (except for when they’re playing the Browns, of course).

Surely, love for Jesus can be—and is!—just as infectious!

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Questions to consider

  • How is our church supporting parents and families and providing resources and tools for parents to use at home?
  • If you are a parent, think about all of the things that you have shared with, taught, and passed on to your children. Which ones “took?” Which ones didn’t? What is the most important thing that you hope that you have instilled?
  • Some parents put nurturing faith as a low priority for their children, but they allow them to go to church with grandparents or friends. Knowing that what happens at home is most important, how can the church reach out to these children and their parents?

Godly Goosebumps: Embodying Awe and Wonder

This week, I’ve been preparing to lead a workshop for parents on “parenting in the pew.” I’ve been pondering just how unique the church experience is. For so many parents, they consider it a victory if they have managed to keep their children quiet and well-behaved during worship. For many of them, taking their children to worship is akin to taking them to a business function: it’s not for the children, but they have to be there, so the parents need to keep them as invisible as possible and do whatever they need to do to make it through. I wonder if it’s possible to shift this thinking so that taking children to worship is seen as an opportunity to introduce them to and participate with them in an amazing, wonder-filled experience of God.

About a year ago, my husband and I, along with my in-laws, went to Disney World. It was the first time that I had been there since I was five years old. We had a great time, and we did a lot of observing. We paid close attention to parents and kids, noting who was struggling, who was having fun, and what the factors seemed to be. (For your information, having children under the age of four, missing naptimes, and using strollers seemed to account for most of the challenges.). We also watched the Disney cast members very closely to see how they were being hospitable, paying attention to every detail, and creating this very special environment.

One of my favorite things to watch was the way that parents were demonstrating awe and wonder to their children. This is not hard to do at Disney. Almost everywhere you look, there is something amazing. However, these parents were not just doing it because of the amazing things; they were helping their children to have a better experience. They were joining in on the fun and participating in the magic so that their children could enjoy the encounter to the fullest. It was a lot of fun watching big, tough dads wear silly hats and act like star-struck kids when a Disney character walked by. And their children were better for it. It gave them permission to exhibit joy and awe and wonder, as well, and it created a meaningful, lasting memory.

However, although I have no hard evidence to prove it, my hunch is that these same parents have a totally different posture when they take their children to church. Instead of pointing and oohing and ahhing over the amazing things that are going on around them, they are probably silently encouraging their children to be still and distract themselves with a quiet activity. Why?

A few reasons, I think:

1.    Parents misunderstand the church’s expectations.

Most parents believe that the church wants them to bring their children to worship, but they also believe that the church expects their children to behave as adults during worship (sadly, many churches do have this expectation). If you brought your children to a children’s museum, would you expect them to calmly and quietly walk through the museum without touching anything? Would you want them to sit in the corner of the museum and distract themselves with a coloring sheet or iPad? No, you would expect them and want them to interact with the objects in the museum. You would want them to be delighted and fascinated by what they were seeing and doing. This is because you know that a children’s museum is for children.

Well, guess what? Worship is for children, too! It’s for all of God’s people. And when children are in worship, we should expect them to behave as children. This doesn’t mean that they should be running around the sanctuary screaming. It does mean that they will wiggle and ask questions and sing loudly and off-key. Making it clear to parents that children are encouraged to be themselves during worship is hard. It takes more than a passing comment by the pastor or other leader. It involves a shift in culture, and it takes time. But, if we consistently affirm children’s presence and participation in worship (and give parents some helpful resources for parenting in the pew), over time, the expectations will change and parents will begin to see worship as a very special experience in which they get to guide their children.

2.    Parents (and other adults) have lost their own sense of wonder and awe about what is happening in worship.

There is no question that everything at Disney is absolutely amazing, and there is something magical about it that I can’t quite explain. However, at the end of the day, it is a man-made place with actors playing parts (quite convincingly, I admit!). But, in worship, what’s happening is incredibly real. In fact, it’s even more real than anything else that we experience in our lives, because in worship, we are the restored people who God called us to be, rather than the broken people who we act like each and every day.

I’ve often asked parents the following, “What if I told you that the God who made heaven and earth, who put the stars in the sky, who makes the trees grow, who knows every hair on your head…what if I told you that that God was standing outside the door right now and about to walk in?” You’d be amazed, you’d have a little knot of excitement (and perhaps a bit of fear) in your stomach. If your children were with you, you’d hold them a little closer and point to the doorway with anticipation. Well, that’s exactly what happens every week in worship. God is really, truly present with us. But, instead of us pointing him out to the children around us, we tell them to distract themselves with a quiet game. If we truly believe that God is present and showing himself to us, we won’t let our kids sit there and play on their iPods. We’ll be thrilled to share this experience with them and won’t want them to miss a second of it. This is our chance to introduce our children to God and help them to see where he is at work in their lives and in the world around them. Let’s not miss it.

3. The church does not assist parents in exhibiting awe and wonder.

The thing about the Disney cast members is that they never make you feel stupid. When we were there, we weren’t seeking out photo opportunities with all of the characters. However, my mother-in-law and I did manage to score a photo with Belle. When we got to Belle, my mother-in-law said, “My granddaughter (referring to my niece) just loves you!” The cast member playing Belle could have laughed and made a comment, but she never broke character. She smiled and told us to tell my niece that she said hello. She brought us into the magical world, and for a moment, even I believed that we were taking a photo with a real-life princess.

Church members, however, are often quite different. Many are kind and offer encouraging smiles and compliments. Some are less kind and offer an evil eye or a disparaging remark. But, very few participate in the magic with you and make you feel like you are sharing an experience together. I’m as guilty as the next person. Even when I am in awe of the mystery that is happening in my midst, I don’t want to step on parents’ toes by saying anything to their children, especially if the children don’t know me very well. When you offer to assist parents, it can come across as though you’re criticizing their parenting skills or as though you think that they can’t handle it. This, again, requires a shift in culture.

The church leadership has the challenge to create a culture in which this kind of community is genuine and expected, where everyone sees themselves like a Disney cast member who is playing a part in pointing out the magic. At Disney, even the folks sweeping the streets are in character. And, they are always willing to lend a hand. If you ask for directions or they see you struggling, they never make you feel silly or embarrassed. They’re right there with you, showing you grace and helping you find your way. In my observations, parents were not offended and did not take their offer of help as criticism of their parenting skills. They were grateful to have these partners on the journey. Our churches can, and should, offer the same sense of community.

What happens in worship is truly amazing. It may even be more amazing than Disney World. It may even be the most amazing thing to ever happen. The God who made us comes to be with us. Ordinary things like water and bread and wine become extraordinary. Sins too heavy to bear are forgiven. Normal, everyday sinners become the holiest of saints. Tiny, helpless babies are declared to be children of God. A morsel of bread and a drop of wine inexplicably nourish our souls. Heaven, which often seems so far away, comes near. Can you think of anything more extraordinary? Can you think of anything that you’d rather share with your children?

 “But Jesus intervened: ‘Let the children alone; don’t prevent them from coming to me. God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” (Matthew 19:14, The Message)

Courtesy of Miriam Smit

Courtesy of Miriam Smit

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways can our church encourage parents and children during worship?
  • What are some steps that we can take to recover our own sense of wonder and awe about worship?
  • Think back about an experience that you have had (either as a child or as an adult) where you experienced awe and wonder. What made it special?

Magical Moments in Worship to Point Out to Children:

  • When the acolytes bring the light in (and out)
  • When the organist plays and the choir sings the anthem
  • When the bread is broken
  • When a baby (or adult!) is baptized
  • When we pray for God to speak to us during the sermon
  • When the sunlight streams through the windows
  • When someone helps someone who needs it