Sunday, 31 August 2008

Of the Writing of Parenting Books, There is No End.

There really isn't. They just keep multiplying. Not unlike rabbits.

Jean has a great post here, where she discusses parenting books and how to read them.

I read parenting books every other week. The nice thing about them is that they are quick (most aren't all that profound), they have mostly one idea and they keep me thinking about what I am doing as a parent.

The downside of course, as Jean points out, they come with a huge amount of guilt attached. My favourite is the book which implies on the first page that if you don't follow their exact method your children will be drug dealers. Thanks. Very much.

But aside from that, they often have good ideas and useful insights.

Ultimately though, like marriage books, they tell you more about the person who is writing the book than they do about the subject itself.

I was slumming it this week with The Yummy Mummy's Family Handbook. Such a great title! I came across it at the library. It has been absolutely fascinating because it is written by someone from my generation, who is not even remotely Christian and who essentially spends the book unpacking her values and worldviews.

A full review would be fun, but I really don't have time. So two comments will do instead.

The first is that she has no absolutes in her world. Nothing is just 'wrong' (except smacking your kids), but she still has really strong values and beliefs. An affair, for example, is not on as far as she is concerned. Why? Because commitment builds stronger relationships and is far more rewarding long term. So having an affair might seem like a good idea, but it really is just a mirage. There is nothing wrong with having one, in her mind, but it would just be stupid to throw away all that you have worked for in this relationship and have to face divorce. (Interestingly she assumes that very few people can cope with adultery in marriage, though she doesn't explain why). Unlike our parents' generation, she states baldly that divorce is just bad for children (ours is after all the generation that got to test that one out for ourselves), and you need to minimise it as much as possible, if after all you decide to go ahead with you affair, or your partner has one. It's a 1950's view of marriage with no basis but with a strong sense of conviction.

This book has helped me realise that my generation is far more 'moral' in one sense than the previous generation, but just as selfish and self-interested. Affairs might be frowned on and spoken against (as opposed to the self-expression, love-must-have-its-way kind of 'open-mindedness' of the previous generation). But only because of the damage it does to what might otherwise be a rewarding relationship. There is nothing inherently wrong with having sex outside marriage. You don't even do it for the sake of other people, but for your own sake. Your happiness is best served by faithfulness in marriage.

Selfishness springs eternal in the human heart. And sometimes it can even prompt people to make good decisions.

The second thought I had was that this book reflects the kind of nervousness I have noticed in many of my generation. When it comes to the big things of life, like getting married, raising children and so forth, we seem to become quite anxious. How do we do it properly? The number and level of dysfunctional families in the previous generation has scared many off the whole family thing permanently. This creates a level of anxiety about doing the thing properly and not ending up with a wreckage at the end. The way some of my generation do this is to find the Right Method and stick to it, believing that this will guarantee a good outcome. I think this might be why whole groups of people in my generation have split over whether or not controlled crying is the best way to get babies to sleep. (Please feel free to comment passionately about this subject on this blog; I will feel free to not publish your comments because I am only using the issue of controlled crying as an example. When I post about controlled crying, then I will publish your comments if you care to make them. Just so we understand each other).

This tendency to needing the answers is illustrated in The Yummy Mummy's Guide in that for a relatively short book most things are covered and dealt with in a paragraph or a few pages. The writer has an audience who wants to know the answer. And she provides answers. What to say if your child complains of boredom; what kinds of toys to buy; how to manage 'play-dates'; how many times per week post-children married people have sex (I am not kidding); how long to let children surf the internet at which age, how long a child should be allowed to have the door to his or her room closed per day, at what age children are allowed to swear and which words at which age (again, not kidding) and so on and on.

I think it is true of my generation that we do want answers to the minutiae of life. Of course, what we'll do is take a few from her book, another lot of answers from another book and so on until we have a unique pastiche that we are fairly committed to. And that way, life is kind of under control. We base our fragile confidence in doing an OK job of raising our children in a bundle of answers other people have given us. I think this is true of non-Christians, but I also think it equally true of most Christian families I know in my age-group.

I like the determination that many in my generation has to get it right. We take it seriously and we don't want to mess up the lives of our children and realise that we can't just take this for granted: we have to think about this and act deliberately. We realise that we will make mistakes and want to avoid that as much as possible. Our actions and speech affect our children. It is good to take responsibility for that.

But as always, we have to take our attitudes and thinking from God: because he is our Creator and is where wisdom lies for all our lives, and because he is our Judge and will ultimately assess our lives to his standard. God's central command pivots on love: to him and to others. So when we think about being faithful in marriage, we don't think about our own fulfillment and reward, but about the person we are married to, and we follow God's instructions about marriage, thereby loving God and our neighbour in the one action. And simultaneously, we say 'no' to selfishness. The only way we can do this is by God's Spirit working in our lives, transforming us into people who delight to do his will and enjoy serving others. It's not something we slip into. It takes the salvation of God, through the death of his Son on a cross to enable ourselves to be put to one side.

Similarly, when we feel our shortcomings and weaknesses, we don't resolve them by arming ourselves with all the answers, and place our confidence in those answers, or in ourselves for having come up with the answers. We place our confidence in God: asking him for his mercy and wisdom in our lives, and for his blessing and kindness to our children. And, most difficult for my generation I am beginning to think, trusting God to act in their lives as he will, recognising God will act according to his Word as he thinks best. We want guarantees, I think, and will do anything to get them. But we don't get them. God doesn't guarantee us a spouse that won't stray, or children who won't rebel. We have to trust God in the face of the uncertainty that comes with life in this world and we find it very difficult, as all generations have found it. The only way we can trust God is to be certain of his kindness towards us, which we see in the salvation he provides for us in Jesus. There we have unarguable love, demonstrated, making it possible to trust God beyond today with ourselves and our children.

God's kindness to us in revealing himself to us in Scripture and coming to us in his Son overflows into all of our lives, and because of that, into our children's lives. This is a great place of confidence and grace, and is the wellspring for a life of service to our families. Reading Yummy Mummy drove this home to me, from another angle.

(Photos brought to you courtesy of Scotland; a very photogenic place!)

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Remembering the Brave

So you want to know who the Covenanters were and why you should care?

The Covenanters were a group of mostly ordinary people who lived in Scotland in the mid to late 1600's. The simple version goes like this: The English King was a tyrant and insisted on a kind of obedience that would make Saddam Hussein look cuddly. He made it illegal not to go to church (which a lot of people weren't doing because the King had changed the way church was run so that they were really uncomfortable participating in it). He not only made it illegal, but made it treason, which meant people could be arrested, tortured and exiled, transported or executed, or a special package deal, which included several of those options. So enthusiastically was this policy pursued that special tortures were invented for the Covenanters.

Opposition to the King's decrees was expressed through the signing of a Covenant or 'National Covenant' in 1638 in which those who signed promised to keep the Scottish church faithful to the Gospel, and not let the King interfere. It all becomes very complex politically as the next 50 years unfold, but that is roughly what is at the heart of it all. It is mostly influential or official people who sign the Covenant, but is adopted by many Scots, who are keen to see Scotland as a land where people can love and follow Jesus without needing go through priests and so forth.

The villain of the piece was a guy called Sergeant Claverhouse who is always depicted as having neither fellow feeling nor conscience. He comes to notice particularly in the martyrdom of John Brown of Priesthill, one of the more famous Covenanters, who was shot without a trial by Claverhouse in front of his wife and two children. His wife is similarly remembered for her great bravery in the face of this.

Many ordinary people were killed: men and women, elderly through to children. One of the more famous tales includes the execution of two women: one young (about 16) and one elderly (about 70?), who were taken by the soldiers and tied to post in the sea. They died as the tide came in. The older was tied further out in the hope that the younger might lose courage and recant. She did not. They both died.

A memorial to these two women in a graveyard just beneath Stirling castle. It is rather idealised, with an odd emphasis on the younger woman's virginity, which I frankly I find somewhat alarming. It really isn't relevant.

It was no less devastating when the clergy died. They had left the church, their livelihood and were often hunted by the soldiers. They held services on the moors for their people, and lived in hiding, going from place to place. One memorable tale involves the execution of a faithful preacher, whose head was put on a pike and displayed outside the city gates. His little boy was hidden in the attic at the time, but somehow got out of the house (as is the way of little boys), and sadly, saw his father's head. He came back to his aunt's house in tears and wouldn't say anything except "I saw my father's head" again and again. (I believe he grew up and become a clergyman himself, but died young from fever, I think).

This time was known as the "Killing Years" in Scotland.

There was much bloodshed. There was little mercy. Ordinary life for these folk was put on hold. Some never knew 'ordinary life' at all.

Why didn't they just go to church??

They didn't go to church because they knew that their only Lord was Jesus. No-one else could save them, and no-one else should have first claim on their lives.

It's a difficult movement in some ways because it is Scottish, and so necessarily tied up with Scottish nationalism (as with all things Scottish). As you read accounts (many have been 'polished up' since the 1600's), it is sometimes hard to distinguish what it is that people are dying for. But it clear that for many of them, it wasn't about Scotland the Brave so much as their commitment to the Lord Jesus.

For those folk, they didn't go to church because they believed that Jesus was their Lord. He had died to make them right with God and so they both loved and followed him, trying to imitate his love and loyalty to them. Jesus was their Lord, so Jesus had the final say in all of their life: the way they lived in everyday life, the way they spoke when they went to church, and the way they thought and the way they prayed for the King of England. They did pray for him, often as they were dying, but refused to acknowledge that he was in charge of the church. Jesus was true Lord.

Jesus had to come first for these Scottish Christians because he is true Lord and king of Kings. Not just that they thought he was, but that he is. So, you can't play around with that. If you have to suffer because of it, you have to suffer. You can't change true things just because other people tell you to. And while this is true of many people all over the world: political activists and so forth, what sets Christians apart is the assurance we have that Jesus is with us where and when we suffer, that it doesn't go unnoticed and that he warned us this would happen if we followed him.

So when we hear the tales of the brave Covenanters, standing firm in the face of fire, ocean, hunger, cold, torture and other such situations, we need to remember that they weren't bravely standing up for their beliefs all alone. They were standing with their Saviour, being loyal to him and he was with them, comforting them and infusing bravery into worn out hearts for one last stand.

Their martyrs deaths may seem remote and distant to us, here in the relative comfort of the 21st century. But their readiness to put all their hopes and dreams for this life aside and endure pain, hardship and ridicule should remind us that the Lord they died for is the same Lord whom we know, if we are Christians, and who will comfort us and make us brave in the face of persecution.

These battered, faithful Christians found him a faithful Saviour in the cold, bleak days of the seventeenth century. In our day, here and now, let us look to him and find him faithful for all our trials and in all our suffering.