Saturday, March 7, 2009

Would I Be a Better Person If I Went to Church?--Raising Children to be the Kind of Humans We Want Them to Be

Yesterday, I read a Washington Post article about Michelle Obama feeding the homeless at Miriam's Kitchen. I hope she has her daughters with her, I thought. Then I realized it would have been a school day, so she probably wouldn't have.

I have had friends who make no demands on their children. Actually, my friends seem often to be on one end of an extreme spectrum or the other: no demands or too many demands. The ones who make no demands, except that their children go to school, say, "Well, they can decide for themselves when they're older." But then my friends seem shocked when their children grow up deciding to be self-centered and lazy. They say, "How did they learn this? I set such a good example."

Unfortunately, setting a good example isn't enough. We have to require our children to do things that will shape them into the kind of humans we want them to be.

For my family, a lot of that shaping came through church work. We raised money for the poor, we made Christmas baskets for abused women, we created food baskets, we worked in food pantries and so on. Some of my friends went to third world countries to help the poor, so I felt that we got off easy.

And thus, we learned compassion for those less fortunate than we were, and we learned a strong thirst for justice.

I have no children. I admit that it's easy for me to declare that if I did have children, we would all participate fully in church life. But we would. I would pick my battles, and that would be one I would fight. My children could rebel and tell me how stupid church was. But they still would have to go with me, to weekly service and to do social justice work and whatever else I deemed important. School would be non-negotiable, and so would some chores, and so would church, and so would social justice work.

When I saw the article about Michelle Obama, I thought, what a good example she's setting! But based on the experiments of parenting friends, setting a good example might not be enough. Unfortunately, with our current spiraling economy, many of us are learning compassion for the poor from first hand experience, as people we know lose money, jobs, and houses. It's not how I would wish that people would learn this lesson, don't get me wrong. But a collapsing economy can remind us of the fragility of our lives and make us think about the structures in which we have placed so much trust. Many of us are learning that our trust has been misplaced: the bank won't help us with our mortgage, and our bosses are not our friends who will let us keep our jobs, even when profits dry up.

Again, as a child in the church, I watched the church help members down on their luck. I learned the value of community, especially a community where members care for one another. It's rare to find non-family communities that exhibit that level of care anywhere else in our society--and unfortunately, it can be rare to find it in churches.

Still, in many churches, we go to worship service every Sunday and hear God's vision of the world that we should live in. Ideally, we go out into the world and work on building that Kingdom in our current lives. And yes, maybe parents can teach that on their own, and instill those values in their children without any societal support. But what a help it is to belong to communities, religious and otherwise, that provide additional undergirding for those values.

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