The Family Likeness

Its great to be a Nana! But I only get to see my two American grandchildren once a year, so I have to clock up lots of positive experiences with 2 yearold Nathan and newborn Evan, while I am here in California for September. Although Nathan and I have had two previous chances to "bond," this year will be the first he remembers. He does already know my face from Skype webcam communication, but he has been a little cautious, and even though I have been here nearly a week, not quite as ready for a hug as the Kiwi three. However, a few minutes ago, he signalled I am a "go-to" person. Despite his parents both being in the house, he came running in from outside calling "Nana Nana!" He was a bit freaked by a swarm of tiny ants crawling over his foot and pants and needed me to show him how to deal with them. Not a problem!

Today we went to a great Asian buffet for lunch, where I checked out my fortune cookie for an idea for this week's posting. (Sure, we have done some interesting family trips, including Lake Tahoe and Reno, but this blog is supposed to be about discipleship!). The advice that caught my attention was this one:
"Character cannot be purchased, bargained for, inherited, rented or imported from afar. It must be home grown."

I have often reflected on this notion as I have watched my grandchildren - here and at home - being parented. The challenge of raising kids successfully goes much further than feeding, clothing and changing diapers (you can see I have acclimatised to the lingo here); we want them to be good citizens of the world. And that is about character. As I observe the eerily similar things my grown-up children say to and do with their kids (and nieces and nephews), I note there is a family likeness, and that we are in the business of passing on a culture, which in our case is a rich mix of Scots/Irish/English/Norwegian/Chinese/Samoan and German, with a strong commitment to the Christian worldview coming in from several different angles. Character is about conveying the values we hold dear to the next generation, and this isn't always a matter of reasoned explanation. Its seen in the compassion expressed when a little one hurts a finger, in the dignity afforded when a child is supported in an unusual hobby, and in the humility exemplified when a parent admits they got it wrong.

Character can't be purchased, but it can be modelled. Kids watch their parents closely, and I guess most of us have had the experience of one of them parroting something we would rather they had not heard! This week I've seen Nathan "cooking' with his playdough and kitchen tools, and been delighted to share his "noodle soup," complete with plates, cups and chopsticks; Playcentre-trained Nana showed him how to make the noodles with a garlic crusher. His desire to make a bowl for everyone in the family is the beginning of a generous spirit we will want to nurture. In the church family too, the "family likeness" can be modelled. Paul told his people to "follow his example, and take note of those who live according the pattern he had passed on." (Phil 3: 17 and 4: 9) A good example of the power of role modelling is the experience of the many young people who come into the church from non-Christian homes. They watch and absorb the values and practices of their peers as they learn how the Bible plays a central role in the lives of followers of Jesus, how singing can be To God not just About Him, and how weekly worship is enriched by the shared contributions of a wide range of ages and cultures. Sadly they also sometimes learn less-desirable habits, such as judging the success of a service by "what they got out of it." But spending time with followers of Jesus offers them relevant examples of the myriad ways one can practise the Christian faith and grow as a disciple.

Character can't be purchased, but it can be shaped. There are lots of things that Nathan still has to learn, and this will take time, but some behaviour needs to be extinguished smartly. At present it is biting, and when warnings are not heeded, a spank may be required; in the USA it is not illegal! Parents have to learn the difference between childish irresponsibility - such as the cup of water Nathan just spilt - and wilful defiance - that biting is starting to take on an air of rebellion. Not that we want to raise compliant little machines who always conform, but kids do have to learn what is acceptable and what is not, in the context of family and society. Its the same in the church. The Bible tells us "God disciplines us for our good," and reminds us that while painful, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb 12:10,11) The Message paraphrases the benefits - "it pays off handsomely, for it's the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God." Of course in practice, some of the shaping of character has to be done by the Body of Christ, the local church. Culture and tradition will play a part here, and maybe no one else at our Baptist church shared my shock at seeing a young man wearing a party ribbon introduce his contribution to worship with palpable glee that "his" party had won that weekend's election. (In my time as a Presbyterian pastor, one of the elders would have spoken gently and firmly to him about the fact that the church includes a spectrum of political allegiance, and worship is not the context for pursuing that agenda. And maybe one of the Baptist elders did that). However I'm sure that any church leadership would stomp on an adult youth leader sexually exploiting a teenage girl at youth camp, or the prayer group that unthinkingly anointed every doorway, step, bathroom and item of furniture (including the organ) with olive oil, in a misguided attempt to cleanse the church; I have had to deal with both these is my time as a church leader. The character of a disciple needs to be shaped, and sometimes God delegates that spiritual whittling to his human servants.

Character can't be purchased, but it can be affirmed. My daughter often says to her little girl, "Good listening, Annabelle." She didn't learn that one from me, but she did receive lots of positive affirmation while she was growing up. Kids thrive on praise, and it is a powerful tool for moulding the Spirit. Nathan's parents offer him lots of praise when they "catch him being good". If we identify to ourselves those qualities of character we want to see in our children, we are more likely to notice and commend them when they turn up. Lots of schools have lists of values they wish to uphold and nurture in the children for whom they have responsibility, and families too can make such a list or "family mission statement." Such a statement can be very revealing; I remember hearing of one Christian family who together had distilled their core values into the heading "to be thought well of by others." I wonder what Jesus would say to that? In the church family too, we can make a list of the qualities we want to see being formed; actually Paul already did a pretty good job at that, see Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4. Once we have a common language for these, its easier to affirm them when we see them expressed. Not that we are very good at this; maybe its a Kiwi thing, but I recall the astonishment of a 75 yearold woman with whom I once worked, when I spoke of her as having leadership gifts. She had raised a family of great kids, led a Ballet School and a Girls Club, and in later life served for decades as the Secretary (we would say PA) to a national professional institute. But, at least in her mind, noone had ever told her she is a natural leader. We need to get better at identifying what God is doing in our faith community, and affirming the positive spiritual growth and godly character we see.

The object of all this self-improvement, of course, is to develop the family likeness. Its not that we have to get "ticks in the boxes" in order for God to love and redeem us, but simply that God who "while we were yet sinners" already loved and saved us, is now intent on forming us into his likeness, just as people who spend time together grow alike. (For a humorous take on this see Dogs and their owners). If I ever get round to composing a personal mission statement, it will certainly include something about becoming more like Christ.

To Chew Over:

How are you developing the family likeness? Is there room for you to model, shape or affirm godly character in someone you know?

"Character is what you are in the dark" - D L Moody.