The Desires of My Heart

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I hear my daughter in the kitchen. She pulls open the freezer door and then slides it shut. She stands for awhile in silence and then opens it again, basking a little longer in the frigid glow.

“Do you need something?” I call from the other room.

“Well…” She hesitates. “I wanted a snack…but…umm…I guess I will just have some fruit.” She grabs an apple from the bowl on the counter and disappears before I can ask anymore questions.

I know the routine. What she really wants is ice cream but she is afraid to ask. She is afraid to even speak the words for fear that I most certainly will say no. And so she settles for fruit…or yogurt…or popcorn…or something that she thinks I want for her to choose. Something that isn’t so sweet and delicious. She doesn’t ask, so I don’t even have the chance to say yes. And what she doesn’t know is that I would love for her to choose ice cream. I bought the ice cream for her to enjoy…and I want to enjoy it with her.

This is often how I approach my heavenly Father. I am afraid that what I am asking for is too big, too extravagant, too rich and so I dance around my desires, asking only for what I think he would want for me to choose.  I would love to have a book published. But what I end up asking for is that I will put those notions aside so that I can be content at home doing housework. I want to be a part of my husband’s counseling ministry. But I settle for simply praying for my husband and watching him do well from the sidelines. It’s good to seek contentment. It’s good to pray for my husband and his ministry. But it’s not wrong to pray to have a book published or to pray for opportunities to open for me to serve with my husband.

Psalm 37:4 speaks of these longings. “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  I don’t interpret this verse as promoting a health, wealth and prosperity mentality. I don’t think God owes me anything or that I will receive blessing for anything that I do. But I also don’t think it means what I grew up believing…that if you want to do something it can’t possibly be what God wants you to do because God only asks people to do hard things…or your desires don’t matter and you should suck it up and shove them down and pray that God will change your desires to align with the most godly thing you can think of. Your desires are His desires. He gave them to you and He wants to use them. He even wants to enjoy them with you. Even if it is for the purpose of turning you toward Him or adding to the bigger picture that He plans to fulfill in the future.

As I said earlier, I would love to author a book. Maybe I pray everyday that I will get my book published. I work on it, I pray over it, I seek God, I give my desire to Him. This desire is not wrong and it is fueling me to write every single day. But maybe as I pray over the desire, other things come into my path: I am presented with a teaching opportunity. Now, because of that desire I have material to use to teach others. In the process my desire may become so strong for teaching that I no longer want to publish my book and I just use it to teach. Or I may teach for awhile and continue to work on my book while I teach and eventually get my book published because of the people I meet through the teaching opportunity. Or maybe God reveals to me that my desire has deep roots of selfishness and pride and He makes it clear that it is better for me to lay my desire aside until I can deal with those issues. God can even use your desire to pull sin from your heart in ways that never could have been accomplished if you had not pursued that desire.

Our desires are never wasted especially if we are praying over them and seeking God through them. We don’t have to shove our desires down to make way for  God’s desires. We can pray over the desires He has given us and let Him guide as He sees fit so that it is no longer “my desires” and “His desires” but they are one in the same.

So, in lue of a new years resolution this year I decided to make a list of the desires of my heart. This is my plan:

  1. Make a list of all the most extravagant desires that have been resting on my heart. Be aware of lurking selfishness and try to avoid anything sinful or self-promoting. Don’t be afraid to include the most exciting thing I can think of.
  2. Pray over the list every day. If I have missed any selfish motives in the first step, God will reveal them as I lift these desires to Him.
  3. Expect things to happen…because they will. Whether my desires are fulfilled, removed or changed God will do something. It will almost absolutely be something I wasn’t expecting, but it will be something.
  4. Don’t resist.It is futile to do so and will only makes things more difficult. Be okay with God removing or replacing things on my list knowing that God’s plan is perfect. Don’t try to fight Him for something that He is taking away, let my desires be molded as I continue the process of praying and seeking Him. God is sovereign and will do as He sees fit, resisting will only make it more painful.

I am not under the impression that this is some magic formula and that I will get exactly what I ask for.  I do not think that if I do this then God is obligated to give me something in return. I just know that my own heart has settled for less because I’m afraid to ask. James 4: 1-3 gives us a glimpse of what happens when our desires are not aligned with God’s.”What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions”.

Desires are powerful. They can become so important to us that they stir up destructive emotions inside of us. These verses say that some of us may fight for our own desires even to the point of murder. But James goes on to say that these powerful emotions can be avoided. He says that we do not ask for the right things, we do not ask in the right way or we don’t even ask at all. Our desires go astray and are unfulfilled because we do not present them to God in prayer and trust Him with the outcome.

It’s not sinful to ask for bigger things. It’s not sinful to expect a big God to do big things. This year I plan to give Him the desires of my heart…as big as they may be…and see what He will accomplish with them.

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The Dinner That Took Me 15 Years to Prepare

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“I think this might be the first time you’ve ever cooked for me.” Though I could think of a few other times I had actually made her a meal in the fifteen years that I had known her, the general concept was true. I hadn’t shared a meal with her as often as I should have. I wanted to deny it. I wanted to pretend it wasn’t fact, I wanted to fill in the gaps with so many other things that I had done for her instead…but the reality was still the same. I hadn’t cooked for her but it had nothing to do with the status of our relationship or the amount of hospitality I was able to perform…it had everything to do with how far I had sunk into an eating disorder and how long it took me to come crawling out.

I knew that I could always stand to be a better host but as I scrutinized the situation, I became less discouraged with my homemaking skills and more in awe of the amazing miracle that God has worked in my life. After years of only eating in front of people who knew about my food excentricities and didn’t make a big deal out of them. After years of avoiding restaurants and feeling terror over social gatherings that involved food. After years of not wanting to cook for anyone else because I lacked the physical capability of adding flavor to anything because of my strict limit on fat, sugar, sauces, dressings and carbs. I knew it tasted bad and I didn’t want anyone else to have to endure it. After years of bondange to an eating disorder I finally found freedom.

It was a process of handing things over to God. It was an exchange of my own desire for control for the understanding of His ultimate sovereignty and care. It was denying myself the need for approval so I could realize that I am already loved and accepted by the only one who truly matters. It was valuing and cultivating other characteristics in myself…kindness, love, generosity, patience, joy…above being thin. It was letting go of fear and letting mercy and grace reign. It was getting my life back after years of thinking I would be lost in that spiral forever.

She appreciated the time and work that I had put into her meal, not realizing it wasn’t just the hour spent in front of the stove. That meal was fifteen years in the making. She may never see all of the steps it took me to get there but in that moment I saw how far I had come and I was thankful.

A Concise Book Review: Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson

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What do you get when you cross multiple generations and parenting? Usually a heated discussion or at least a mild disagreement. My grandparents generation was all about hard work, discipline and conformity. My parents leaned more toward responsibility and making supervised choices. While my generation seems to swing on the side of uniqueness, individuality and freedom to make mistakes. But this book has a refreshing perspective. No matter what generation, the Gospel should drive our parenting, leaving no room for changing views and waning strategies.

Grace takes away the need to be a perfect parent. Perfection is out. Grace is in. If we know that the work is already completed. Christ already died for whatever we are going to say. Christ already died for whatever my children are going to do. He has already completely covered over our mistakes and so when God looks upon our parenting He sees the perfect life of Christ. We are free from the guilt that says we aren’t enough. We are free from the anger that explodes forth when are kids don’t act the way we think they should. The Gospel isn’t a list of what we should be doing…it is a story of what was already done. And focusing on that through parenting is freeing on so many levels.

The entire weight of our child’s salvation does not rest on our shoulders…only God saves souls. Somewhere along the parenting path, God gave me a bit of parenting advice. Though I can’t remember the particular source, the concept has stuck with me over the last few years. My children are little eternally living souls that will be in heaven or hell someday. I took that advice to personally, as I always do, and began living as if every choice I made would determine whether my child would become a Christian or not. But as I read “Give Them Grace” I became more aware of the fact that God chooses who will be saved. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that brings anyone to salvation. We read numerous accounts in the Bible about godly parents who appear to be doing things right, but end up producing evil rebellious children…and we also read of many godly servants of Christ coming from horribly ungodly parents. God can harden or soften hearts to the exact same message. So salvation is truly a give of grace, not of my doing, but a gift given by God.

You are a sinner parenting a sinner. After reading this book, things changed drastically within my own heart before my parenting strategy saw any form of makeover. I was expecting my children to do more than I could do myself. Though I knew it was impossible, in my own speech and actions, I was expecting perfection from them and never giving them any way out. And that is not how God deals with me. Though my life seems to be an endless cycle of sin, repent, repeat, God is gracious to me. He says, “I know you can’t be perfect and that is why I sent my son.” And so I should be more willing to say to my children, “I know you can’t be perfect, that is why Jesus died”…and continue to point them toward obeying out of love and gratitude for that sacrifice instead of constantly expecting them to obey the rules to perfection because nothing less is acceptable.

It’s not a child’s behavior that’s bad, it’s their heart. Long before I read this book, I could quote a long list of scripture about how wretched and sinful our hearts are, but the way I was parenting was failing to apply those verses. Bad behavior produced a punishment, usually without any further discussion. You hit your sister, you go sit on your bed. You disobey mommy, you don’t get to ride your bike. But I failed every time to get to the root of the actions and to help my children look at their behavior as God does. The book gives many examples of what a conversation might look like when you take the initiative to talk to your child about their sin instead of just automatically producing a punishment. Here is one such conversation (condensed and paraphrased from the book):

When I tell you it is time to go, it is not okay for you to start screaming and to throw yourself on the ground. First of all because it is unsafe. God put me in charge of you to keep you safe. Also, it is sinful and disobedient to act that way. That is sinning against Mommy and God. I know it is hard to do the right thing and because it is so hard you need Jesus. Do you know what Jesus did when he had to go somewhere he didn’t want to go? He told God he would do whatever He wanted him to do and he went to the cross to die for us. He knew it was going to hurt a lot but he went anyway because he loves us so much. And God showed me today how much I need Jesus too because I have a disobedient heart. I had pride and anger in my heart. Discipline hurts, but God can use it in both of our lives to make us love Him more.

In this excerpt, we see a few key points of grace filled discipline. Explaining that a parents role comes from God is a crucial way to teach a child that all authority comes from Him, all sin is against Him and to teach the ultimate source to which all obedience, love and worship should be directed. All grace filled parenting centers around the gospel so at all times we should search for ways to bring the cross into our conversations with our children. Showing them their need of Jesus right in the midst of their sin gives them hope and shows them the seriousness of their actions. And this book also points out how important it is to admit your own need of Jesus as well. Humility and repentance can be learned through our example to them.

Bacon, Zombies And Back to School: An interview with my kids

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mia and zaneYesterday the kids went back to school…Mia, to first grade and Zane, to preschool at home with me. I sat down and asked them both a few questions about school and about themselves before the year gets started. I think the differences in their answers clearly reflect their unique personalities…

Mia

1. What is your favorite part about school? Getting to play on the big playground. All the first and second grade gets to play together so I get to see all my friends from last year and I get to make new friends. I made a new friend named Lily. I didn’t get to know very many of the names for the kids in my class…but there were two boys who didn’t go to Cherokee last year…I don’t know their names…I will find out and tell you tomorrow.

2. What do you look forward to learning this year? I don’t know what we are going to learn about this year…my teacher hasn’t told me yet. I already know how to read chapter books but maybe I will learn some more about science. My teacher told me that Ms. Kelly is the science teacher this year because our old science teacher is filling in for someone who was going to have a baby. So now there are only three kindergarten teachers, I think.

3. What do you want to be when you grow up? I used to want to be a teacher, or an artist or a doctor but I’m pretty sure that I just want to be an actor now. But not like a movie star…just like the kids on the Disney channel.

4. Who do you like to play with? Lillian and Jacob and all my friends at school and Brynn and Kate and all my friends at church and all my cousins…Bryce and Collin and Brooke…oh and Bronson, but he doesn’t really play yet…and Carly, when I get to see her.

5. What is your favorite tv show? Full House…but I watched them all already.

6. What is your favorite food? Bacon!

7. What do you like to do? Ride my new bike…I like it so much, I can’t stop riding it. It’s a princess bike and it’s bigger than my old bike and it has a place for my baby to ride and it has a bell. It can go faster than my old bike too. But it’s not as big as Anthony’s new bike so he goes a little faster than me. 

8. What is your favorite color? Pink and purple…and all the colors

9. What do you like to wear? I like to wear high heels but sometimes they don’t fit very well because my feet are SO SMALL! They are so tiny!! They are like the size of a toddler! 

10. What is your favorite place to go? I like to go to Ohio but we don’t get to go there very much.

 

Zane

1. What is your favorite part about school? Playing outside for recess

2. What do you look forward to learning this year? Umm…I don’t know. Can I just have my chocolate now.

3. What do you want to be when you grow up? A cooker, remember!?

4. Who do you like to play with? My scooter and my ninja turtles.

5. What is your favorite tv show? I like this (as he points at the tv…which pretty much means that he likes whatever he is watching at that moment)

6. What is your favorite food?  Happy’s Pizza!!!

7. What do you like to do? Play zombies with Bryce

8. What is your favorite color? Blue

9. What do you like to wear? My soft ninja turtle pajamas

10. What is your favorite place to go? The new mall

 

To Grieve and Give

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Have you ever read an open status update or blog post that you feel is directed toward you?…Things not to say to someone going through a divorce….What you shouldn’t say to someone who just found out they have cancer….The most insensitive comments I have received since my dad died….and you find, in fact, that you have said at least one of those things. Your heart sinks and you feel rejected. Though you tried to genuinely offer a listening ear and share your experiences without being offensive or presumptuous, you are left feeling as if you never want to try to help again when your comments are criticized.  You truly hoped and prayed to provide comfort only to be told your acts are unacceptable because you didn’t say exactly the right thing, at the right time, in the right tone.

But I also know…when I am in pain, I think it’s my job to offer advice in a public, open context to those who want to console or help me…because how else will they know how to respond unless I tell them exactly what to do and not do? how will they know how not to hurt my feelings?….don’t ask about adoption when I’m suffering with infertility…don’t offer suggestions about an illness you have never experienced….don’t pretend like your cat being sick is the same as my daughter having spinal surgery…I want people to say something and not avoid me but I don’t want them to say something that will hurt me and I don’t want them to say anything that will make me doubt and I don’t want them telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. I can unintentionally set up a parameter of guidelines that can never be contained…a pile of standards that can never be met. I want comfort from someone who is genuine, knows everything about my situation, is always sensitive to my feelings and never allows awkward silence. And I want to place blame and hold grudges against anyone who can’t get it just right.

I’ve had to remind myself often as I have endured difficult times that the amount of wisdom a person has is not a measure of their heart….and sometimes suffering is a lesson in my own pride. Sometimes in order to actually receive comfort I have to be willing to give of myself, let my own perceived rights go. Some of the most loving people have left the most hurtful impressions on my mind when I was suffering, not because of thoughtlessness or ill intentions or even because what they said was necessarily wrong…but because of my own expectations and my own selfish view of the situation. When I was struggling with infertility a friend approached me with her own predicament….”I think I might be pregnant” was all I heard and I shut down. How could she be so insensitive? How could she be so ignorant? I’m sitting here knowing that I may never have any children of my own and she is complaining about the inconvenience of getting pregnant a year too early. I didn’t take her perspective. I didn’t offer any comfort. I ruined the rest of our day and our friendship because I was selfishly focused on my own pain. I failed to see that she had no one else to turn to. I failed to see that she was as confused and scared as I was. Pain creates tunnel vision, it creates rights in our mind that aren’t ours to be taken.

We are called to be humble, we are called to put others first, we are called to comfort and create peace among our brothers and sisters in Christ…with no exceptions. Suffering doesn’t offer us a free ticket to be selfish…a pass to correct in bitterness instead of love. People don’t generally intend to be insensitive but sometimes they are…it doesn’t give me license to be insensitive in return. By pointing fingers and giving unsolicited advice and guidance in how to best help me, I’m not creating an avenue for comfort, I am creating a wall of isolation….pushing others away with the rules I have created for them. And in our hearts we begin to say, “I will only accept your help if it comes to me exactly like I want it.” No one will ever experience the exact same pain in the exact same way…no one will ever know exactly what to say…no one can read my mind to know what I want, especially when my feelings are indistinguishable to myself. So if I don’t want to sit alone in my pain, then I have to get over my rights and my feelings and let someone try to help…even if they fail.

Suffering is a part of a sinful world. As long as there is sin in the world, there will always be suffering. And as long as we are on the earth we are called to serve others…in a constant, never-ceasing way. So the balance between these two things cannot exist in a one or the other scenario. They should always exist together in a constant tandem. We don’t stop serving and thinking of others when we are going through a difficult time. The world tells us, “you just lost a baby, you need to take time to focus on you. You just be selfish for a while. You deserve it.” But that is not the stance that the Bible takes. In turmoil, in grief, in pain, in suffering our lives are not about us and if we take the view that love and service must cease while we grieve or suffer than we would never find a chance to reach out…we will always be reaching in.

On either side of suffering…experiencing it first-hand or ministering to someone through it…it is about keeping a cautious mouth and a heart that is eager to serve. It is about counting others as more significant as yourself, no matter what you are going through. I am not saying that there isn’t time to stop and grieve and allow healing. If you need to take a break from some things or pull away for a while, there is nothing wrong with that. But when time goes by and your life is still marked only by grief, then service has stealthily slipped from your radar.

As I write this I think about a dear friend who lost a baby last month in the second trimester of her pregnancy. She gave birth to a tiny, lifeless son who she loved very much. From her own account, the staff at the hospital was very helpful to her. They took pictures, gave her gifts and made sure she had all she could to remember the little life that grew inside of her. She found out that not all women get this kind of care. Many are sent home with no mementos and no resources. She nearly immediately set to work making sure that other women got the kind of special attention that she did. She contacted friends and family to begin giving donations so that she could compile resources for these women who have lost a child like she did. She is currently contacting hospitals, businesses and partnering with other organization to ensure that this area does not go untouched and overlooked. In the midst of it all she continues to grieve. But in the midst of it all she continues to give. (Check out The Ezra Project on Facebook for ways that you can help out).

And yet another friend of mine lost her husband to ALS only 20 months ago. In the midst of it all she fought to live amongst the pain, continuing to come to church, pouring into my life when we first moved here and repeatedly helping friends and opening her home when she truly only wanted to stay in bed and never get up again. At the time of her husband’s death and in the months to follow, grief was her life and it surrounded her and in that time she was taken care of and she cared for others. And now as time has worn on, she is reaching out even more. She has spear-headed the efforts of bringing a Griefshare program to our church so that she can help others who are dealing with the death of loved ones. She continues to grieve for the loss of her husband. But she also continues to give…and to an even greater capacity as time goes on.

You Are Not Who You Think You Are

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Days had been spent hovering over my daughter’s damaged body. Her whimpers sent me stumbling across the room in the middle of the night. I spent long days curled up next to her. Her tiny body looked even smaller in a massive hospital bed.

Months had been spent planning doctors visits. My patience was thin with doctors who cancelled appointments without enough notice. I was on the edge about talking to nurses. I was disappointed that life might not look the way I had always imagined it to look for my daughter. And I feared the steps ahead of me.

Years had been spent with the knowledge that her body was broken. All the minutes passing without answers or without a planned course of action made me panic over the future. I pictured her as a playful 6-year-old trapped in the prison of a body that wouldn’t let her walk. I imagined her as a ostracized teenager, unable to ever be free of diapers or a catheter. I fought, I cried, I prayed.

But through it all I had always counted on one thing…I was the mother of a sick child. If all else seemed awry, I could bank my trust on one thing…my daughter needed me.  I had a purpose to my life and that purpose was to take care of my daughter and make sure that she could be well again someday.

So as we wheeled Mia down to a regular hospital room…away from ICU, away from her debilitating wires and medicines and masks…I struggled to find real joy. She was happy again and I knew she would be able to walk and dance and run and play like a child should and yet I mourned what I had lost. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t the appointment scheduler, the medical advocate and the permanent fixture on the church prayer list. I felt like my identity had been stripped away with the slice of a scalpel. And even as my daughter strengthened and thrived, I felt like I had disappeared. And I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this…

A middle-aged man clings to life after a mysterious stroke sent him into a tailspin of declining health. He endures long hospital stays and life threatening procedures. All this, after over a decade of mysterious symptoms that continually went without explanations. He is broken and mystified and lost in the endless wandering on a never-ending path. Twelve years of being sick without a single explanation….a torential downpour of loss….unable to work….unable to drive….with pain being a constant reminder of what is attempting to label him as weak…all these things make it so easy to forget that he is not just a medical mystery. His speech is littered with medical jargon and he is well aware that the only topic he can seem to pull from his traumatized brain is his medical history. He has forgotten that he is not defined by symptoms or a diagnosis (or the lack there of). He can’t remember who he was before all this happened. He even fears what it would look like for him to be well again. Who will he be if this is how his life continues? Who will he be if one day it all just goes away? He is not just his illness….but who is he?

In the dark hours of the night a wife walks the floors of a 1970s bungalow, praying that this time will be as smooth as the others. As her husband is whisked away by the blurred faces of an ambulance crew she walks through the usual process in her mind…pack a bag, follow the ambulance, wait as her husband sleeps through meds, wait as the doctors come in and out, wait as the endless hours creep by, and then go home. It had become a solid, expected ritual. She pushes away the thoughts that this time might actually be different…he might not get better, she might come home alone. Since her husband got sick ten years ago, her life has been consumed by being his caregiver. He requires all her work, all her strength, all her thoughts, all her time.  Silently and shamefully she craves the freedom that his death would create and yet she fears the obscurity that it would bring. What would she do without him? Who would she be? Who is she now?…she doesn’t even know anymore. She can’t just be the wife of an ailing husband…then who is she?

A teenage girl stares blankly into the full-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. Her eyes snag on every curve and lump and she wishes that she could become less…less and less until she becomes nothing. Walking away, she picks up a notebook and quietly scrawls her final calorie intake for the day…celery…0….and she feels that she has won, yet in the grand scheme of things she always feels like she is losing. She wants to be free from it but she doesn’t know who she is without it. She fears what lies ahead in a ritual-free future full of endless possibilities. She clings to the safety of what she knows and what it seems she will always be and has always been. If she isn’t just her eating disorder…then who is she?

We all have things that we feel define us…relationships, jobs, hobbies, talents, past experiences, conditions…and exposing those representational entities through loss can be devastating, especially when we have allowed them to consume us. It doesn’t have to be so dark on the other side, because deep down we are not just a mom…we are not just a caregiver….we are not our illnesses or even our hobbies and talents. At our core we are children of God, created for His glory on all the different avenues that he sends us down. We are heirs of the King of all creation with a promised inheritance of no less than all the treasure and gifts that heaven can offer (Ephesians 1:3). We are wrapped seamlessly in the identity of Christ (Galatians 3:27, Colossians 3:3)), the Savior and Messiah of all mankind, so that no matter what may fall away from our earthly existence we are still forever and always righteous, chosen, honored royalty with a future of boundless opportunity to serve the one who made us. Our lives change and with it the labels we have placed on ourselves, but if you are a Christian then one thing can always stay the same…you are not your illness, disorder or disease…you are not your job, title or task….you are not your talent, hobby or persute…you are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). You are sons of God (Galatians 3:26). You are children and heirs (Romans 8:17). You are a citizen of heaven (Philippians 3:20). You are a conqueror (Romans 8:37).You belong to Christ (Romans 1:5-7). And nothing can take any of that away.

 

Bad Guys and Other Scary Things: A Christian Perspective on Stranger Danger

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At lunch the other day, I walked in on my kids talking about their views on the ever-present topic of the danger of “bad guys” and the “stranger danger” rules that my daughter had learned in school. “If a bad guy comes, I will rip off his mask,” Zane said with a snarl.

“Zane….bad guys don’t always wear masks,” Mia retorted with an eye roll….”If I see a bad guy, I will punch and kick and hit him. And if a bad guy grabs me, I will yell FIRE so that everyone will look”. Since she had been to school already, she knew a few practical rules that her teacher had taught her about “stranger danger”…and though these rules can be helpful in a tight spot, they don’t always encapsulate the entire story.

I challenged them with a soft bit of truth in the form of thought-provoking questions…”Did you know a bad guy can look just like me? There can be people who look nice but are really trying to hurt you. Do you think you would be able to tell if someone was a bad guy?”

My kids returned my lesson with blank stares. So I continued, “I will pretend to be a bad guy and you show me what you would do if I was trying to get you to come with me,” I started with my 6 year-old daughter with the intention of her being an example to my 4 year-old son. I began in a calm, comforting voice, “Well, hi little girl. I’ve been passing out candy to all the kids at the park but I seem to have run out. Would you mind coming over to my car with me so I can get you some too?….”

And before I could continue, she shouted in her meanest, toughest voice, “No. I won’t go with you!!” She usually errs on the side of complete mistrust of anyone she doesn’t know. She has always been intimidated by new people and cautious of new situations. But her leery outlook often inhibits her socialization. So, I turned to my son, who had been listening to everything we said, “Oh, you are such a cute little boy. I have some ice cream. Would you like some ice cream?”

He nodded, “My mom lets me have ice cream.”

I continued, “Well, I left it over there. Would you like to come with me?” And with a naive grin he nodded sweetly and my little game became a shocking truth. My sons friendly, loving spirit is a detriment to his safety. It’s a characteristic I don’t necessarily long for him to overcome entirely, but I do want him to be safe. So, how do I teach my kids to be kind without being naive? How do I teach my kids to enjoy meeting new people and to allow new people into their lives without terrifying them into mistrusting everyone? How can my kids know what to do if they get separated from me without them being overly unnerved by being lost?

Part of the answer to these questions is that we are always to trust God. We can’t control every situation that our children encounter. I send my daughter to school and pray that she is safe. I pray that the regulations that the school has set up will protect her. I pray that she and her teachers will make wise choices and I pray that those who I am trusting for her care will not take advantage of her. And I occasionally leave my son with babysitters. I pray those who watch over him will know his impulsivity and keep him from hurting himself or wandering off when he makes rash, dangerous choices. My own care is faulty. My own instincts are imperfect. I lose sight of him at the park, I become wrapped up in a book while I’m watching him play in the front yard. And just this last week, I had to quickly leave my children with a nurse I had never met in order to get an unexpected x-ray. As parents we have to leave a lot to God’s perfect sovereignty and that often is the most terrifying part of this equation.

But the other side of these questions is our own responsibility and that is where much of the confusion lies. In our attempt to be conscientious, the scale becomes weighted in the direction of worry and fears. We try to remove all instances of danger by keeping them close and creating unnecessary isolation. Or we create a mantra of “God is in control” and we lose sight of the job we’ve been given. It is a huge responsibility to guard a child’s safety but it doesn’t have to be frightening to you or the child. It’s not always as simplistic or straightforward as we would like to make it but it also doesn’t have to be so complicated either. I am certainly not an expert on child safety…but over the last week I have been observing, gathering information, and asking questions, so that I could break the confusion in my mind over the dichotomy between avoiding strangers and building relationships. Here’s what I came up with…

When discussing the concept of “stranger danger”, don’t give kids too many rules. A small list of general rules is better than a huge list of specifics. If they know that it is generally the best idea to ask a parent first before taking anything from someone else…if they generally know it’s not safe to go into someone else’s house without permission…if they generally know it is only ok to talk to a stranger when a parent is close by…then you don’t have to fill in the blanks with every possible scenario that may arise. As in so many other areas of life, thinking skills are much more important than rote memorization of rules.

Talk about people that they can trust. Kids shouldn’t fear all strangers…on occasion, that can be as dangerous as thinking everyone is a friend. Firemen, policemen, sales clerks, and neighbors can be a huge help to a kid in trouble, but many kids feel paralyzed with fear because of too much emphasis on “stranger danger”.  While this particular point could become bogged down with a long list of “what-ifs”…the truth is, a stranger in public is often safer than someone they know in private.

Give them opportunity for practice. Kids don’t always have the best sense in dangerous situations but if they are given a chance to practice making choices for themselves they will know what to do when a crisis actually arises. If you shelter and guard your child at all times they will not know what to do when they are put in a position to choose for themselves. They can’t sense danger as well if they have never been exposed to what danger can look like. And, on the flip-side, if you guard them too closely, they will have difficulty knowing when they can actually build a relationship. It may be helpful to take cookies to a neighbor, or to strike up a conversation with someone in line at the grocery store and then have a discussion later about why that particular situation was okay and what scenarios would not be okay. “It was okay to take cookies to the neighbor because we have talked to her a few times in our yard and Mommy was with you. It would not be okay to go over to her house if I was not with you, even if she invited you. Maybe when we have time to get to know her better we can go over together.”

Don’t think you’ve covered it if you talk about it once. I showed my son how to call me or my husband in an emergency. After we had gone over it a few times, I expected him to have it…but he didn’t. Not because he wasn’t listening, but because it takes repetition and application to learn something, even for adults.

Don’t overdo it. Some parents give their children too much information to deal with. They can’t comprehend adult situations and they shouldn’t have to in order to stay safe. But you can also “under-do” it too by thinking that it is too much to even mention the possibility of someone hurting them. Then as a child approaches the age to understand, it is helpful to open the lines of communication about difficult choices and to present more drastic applications.

Be your child’s advocate. If you are uncomfortable with the way a stranger is talking to your daughter, speak up. She will learn from your assertiveness. She can learn from your instincts. Your fear about what people will think of you could be a clear avenue for your child to be taken advantage of.

Create an environment of openness. A child shouldn’t feel afraid to speak up. There shouldn’t be a broad stroke of shame covering talk about your body. There are times and places to be frank, and there are times and places to be private…your child should know the difference. Privacy should look completely different from shame. And wrong choices don’t always need to be punished. Kids don’t have the same reasoning as we do and it’s unfair to punish them for something that they were ignorant of. Sometimes a grace filled discussion is enough to replace negative thoughts or actions with positive on)es and provide afluid line for children to express their worries, opinions and concerns in the future.

And so, being cautious about strangers does not have to equal isolation and rude behavior. Galatians 5:14 says we should “love others as you love yourself” (The Message)…strangers are people too, so we are called to love them. But we don’t have to be ignorant either. Children have a special place in the kingdom and we are to protect and guide them.  We are actually instructed to follow their example of faith. And anyone who causes them harm faces the wrath of God. (Matthew 18:3-6).