Just had a fantastic parenting conference this last weekend (recordings of which you can find in one of the tabs here). It’s always a gift to be reminded of things you’ve known to be true but somewhere along the way, you’ve forgotten or forget where the pieces fit. Obedience is always a gift.
One of the lessons that was re-impressed on me was the necessity of parental diligence and attentiveness in the little things. My co-pastor Joshua Appel gave a great talk on the glory of discipline and pointed out that parental sloth is not in the first instance a generic laziness but rather habits of inattentiveness, not addressing the littlest problems as they arise. Frequently, when parents find themselves frustrated by their children, when their children seem to be getting out of control, the problem is actually the failure of the parents to see the problem coming. It was a failure of vigilance, a failure to see the weeds when they were small. Of course there is a sort of parenting style which is actually tyrannical, manipulative, and the domestic equivalent of an angry police state. But in a Christian home, especially when the children are young, faithful parenting must care about little things, small fits, little whines, split-second bad reactions, over-reactions, lack of self-control. In fact, to some who do not know your children, your attentiveness may sometimes seem nit-picky, a little extreme. Now hear me carefully, I don’t think parents should actually be extreme cranks, time-bombs ready to blow at any time. Parents should rejoice in their children, laugh with their children, be full of praise for their children, but parental vigilance guards this joy by spotting the tiny lizards that will grow into ugly dragons. Faithfulness in the little things is the best way to avoid the bigger, more difficult things.
I remember going to a family’s house one time where there was a young boy who was maybe three or four years old who was scared of the vacuum cleaner. Thus, the father had instituted a household rule that every time the boy walked by the vacuum cleaner he had to punch it or kick it (or something like that; he wasn’t allowed to flinch or try to walk the long way around it). And if the little boy failed to observe the law of the land, he would be disciplined. Now, this might seem bizarre, nit-picky, harsh, blowing something relatively small completely out of proportion, but looking back, I’m convinced that this is the very sort of vigilance needed to prepare our children for the world. Not every kid needs this particular training, but every child needs to be known by his/her parents well enough to be trained in particular ways depending on their strengths or weaknesses. A vigilant parent knows what that smirk means, what that body language means, what that silence means, and a vigilant parent disciplines accordingly, not waiting for the eye rolling to turn into full blown anger, not waiting for the self-centered shyness to turn into a school shooting in ten years.
Now, so far, all very good and helpful in the realm of the family, and parents must pray for eyes to see what they need to see and wisdom and creativity to address the little weeds. But what I want to turn and point out is that the very same principles apply in the Church. Wise and faithful pastors and elders must know their sheep and know the shape of their flock well. While parents are entrusted with guarding and shaping the hearts of their children, pastors are entrusted with the task of guarding and shaping the hearts of their sheep. And this task entails the same kind of vigilance and care, and I suspect that a shepherd who is never accused of being picky or blowing little things out of proportion is allowing weeds to grow that will come back to bite him. I suspect that faithful churches, like faithful families, will clearly be places of joy and loyalty, but they will have particular house-rules applied with grace and wisdom that are shaped to the particular needs of the flock. While I may not have a “Thou shalt punch the vacuum cleaner” law in my house, I can see the diligent love of parents challenging their son to overcome fear and have self-control. Likewise, faithful pastors and elders will be diligent to see the little weakness in their people long before they grow up into ugly messes.
Last thought: this diligence and vigilance cannot be programmed. By its very nature, it requires wisdom — which is to say there are no explicit Bible verses that will direct you to make a big deal about the Vacation Bible School issue or the women’s ministry kerfuffle or the angsty teenager issue or the biblical basis for free markets. This is the realm of application. In other words, you run the risk of being wrong, and you run the risk of being right but misunderstood. The “safe” way to go is try to find the middle of a semi-respectable stream of good theology, good worship, biblical teaching, whatever. But the Spirit is not given to help you tuck your shirt in and comb your hair tidy. The Spirit is for withstanding the gravitational pull of human nature. And this is why simply mimicking others is not sufficient. Just taking somebody else’s house rules and enforcing them ruthlessly is just old fashioned legalism. What we are talking about is the art of wisdom. Wisdom first shows up in the Bible when God fills gifted artisans with His Spirit to build the tabernacle, and the Spirit has been poured out in the New Covenant for the building of the house of God, the Christian Church. And as anyone who knows anything about art knows, there’s a good deal about any fine art that is difficult to articulate, difficult to label, and sometimes seems a bit eccentric. Well so be it. May the Spirit of the Infinitely Creative God stir us up to see what we need to see, to tend our people well, to care for their souls and so present them to the Good Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd in holiness, without spot or wrinkle.