What was the greatest gift your parents have given you? We children (young or old) could answer this question in a number of ways probably, but here is mine: The greatest gift my parents gave me was to make Jesus and his community of disciples–a.k.a. the local church–the central thing in their entire lives.
(In its early years my childhood church rented the auditorium of a local community college.)
That may sound a little strange, perhaps even a little lame or “pious”, but, wow, is it true. Here’s why (I will probably stop giving reasons before I run out of them): First, both my parents were accountable to persons outside our extended family. This didn’t hit me until about 4th or 5th grade when I noticed a number of my friends, within the span of six months, told me their parents were “getting a divorce.” I didn’t even know what that meant, so I did two things: first, I asked my parents what that meant; second, I watched as my friends were the innocent victims of two parents who cannot reconcile and often demand that their child pick a side.
I asked my parents one day, “What makes you two any different? How come you won’t get a divorce too?” They admitted that it was a possibility, but that to two things stood in the way: first, they had agreed that if/when they started to struggle, they would go to church leaders for help; second, they knew what they were capable of as sinners and, therefore, wanted to become (formal) members of a church where they knew the leaders would lovingly, humbly pursue them if their marriage was in trouble.
I remember my dad using the following illustration: “It’s not foolproof, but it’s like guardrails on a winding mountain road. If you really, really want to, you could drive your car fast enough and break through the guardrails and fall down the side of the mountain to your death. But if you trying to stay on the road but you don’t realize how slippery the road is because of rain or snow, then the guardrails will keep you from going over the edge.” That was incredibly comforting to me.
Second, my parents lived for something that was bigger than themselves. I can remember being disappointed at times when my dad couldn’t play with me, because he had to write up the minutes to the meeting of our church leaders or had to prepare a lesson for a Sunday school class, or had to leave for the their weekly Bible study on Wed nights (it was “not fair”, because they would leave and go to Pizza Hut without us kids and then go to the bible study).
And yet I realized that my parents’ life was not about them, and they were (on the whole) so very content. I can remember thinking as a kid, “Wow, this whole Christianity thing is probably true but it seems kind of boring to me, but my parents sure seem to be doing well.” My dad worked as an electrical engineer and my mom was a “full time” mom, and yet the center of their lives was (and still is) the local church. Indeed, it is the same local church: my parents started it the year I was born (1977), and they have served there faithfully for 37 years.
I saw my parents go through really hard times at our church: from a child’s perspective, they went through a lot–conflicts, misunderstandings, trials, temptations, disappointments, etc. And yet I saw them grow through all (or most all) of them. They have relational and emotional scars, and yet they have incredible relational and emotional health. Through hard times in the church they stayed and continued to serve faithfully, and (especially now that I’m a pastor) I can see how their commitment and perseverance have grown them and made an inestimable impact on so many lives.
As with marriage, remaining committed to a church and faithfully serving (vs. merely “attending”) has been God’s tool for radical spiritual surgery and ongoing spiritual health. The countless bible studies that my dad led, the ongoing exercise of my mother’s executive and relational abilities and the numerous couples, singles, and spouses that they have mentored have together given them an astonishing wealth of life experience: they have lived hundreds of lives in a single life, such that their wisdom in matters of marriage, parenting (they teach an incredible parenting class), vocation, nonprofit organizational behavior, addictive behavior, etc., etc., etc., is simply amazing. (And, yes, I regularly tap into that.)
To our culture’s eyes, my parents may not be particularly remarkable: they have only an undergraduate degree; their C.V.’s would hardly standout. My dad, though a long time leader in the church, is not a natural “gifted” leader (e.g., charismatic, gregarious, intuitive, blah blah blah). But he is a deeply insightful teacher and gifted peacemaker. My mother is a wonderful hostess and takes a deep interest in others, having mentored countless women. They are an incredible team, for many reasons, but not least for these two: first, my mother has devoted herself to serving and loving my dad; second, my dad listens to my mom.
But it is not “giftedness” that wins the day. As the Proverbs say, “Diligent hands [not gifted hands] will rule.” That is, over the long hall commitment wins out over talent–every time. Further, giftedness does not change people. Love does. So my parents used the gifts they were given, but did so with tireless commitment and genuine concern for others. If you were to ask me to list two of the most influential persons I know, my parents would easily make the top-10 list.
What is awesome–and super-motivating for all us who are not inordinately gifted–is that what made them influential (i.e., the commitment and concern) is within our grasp. In short, I saw my parents live for something–more accurately, for Someone–far greater than themselves, and I was always so impressed by both their contentment and their impact.
And what is more (and this is really important), my parents included us kids in that greater mission: we learned that life isn’t about us, and that it is manifestly obvious that “it is better to give than to receive.” They embodied the servant lifestyle of our Lord Jesus.
Third, because of my parents’ involvement in the church, I got to know so many different people. As a kid my parents regularly invited people into our home. Hospitality was (and continues to be) a way of life for them. Through that I was able to interact with all kinds of people–often persons who (in our culture’s eyes) were not the movers and shakers but the marginalized, the neglected, the disenfranchised. I interacted with persons that I would (sadly) never have chosen to interact with. And I learned a lot from them. I was enriched.
Further, from my parents’ interaction with our guests, I learned to interact with and engage others, to be a proactive listener and a sympathetic ear as well as a gentle but prophetic voice. Over meatloaf and potatoes and a salad with Ranch dressing, I saw my parents gain permission to hold the fine china–the most intimate and painful details–of peoples’ lives and then the permission to speak into their lives with an authoritative hope and a penetrating admonition. It was beautiful. They embodied the irresistible welcome and the subversive wisdom of Jesus. And in all of this they didn’t try to be something, or someone, other than themselves. And that was–and still is–very beautiful (and very freeing) to me.
I could give so many more reasons why this was the greatest gift my parents gave me, but I’ll stop here and just say:
Thank you, Mom and Dad.