Shepherdess: Ultimate Priorities

Introducing the Christian faith to one's children is something like a relay race. The most critical time comes at the passing of the baton. Once it has been successfully passed, the runner rarely drops it.

From James C. Dobson, Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives, copyright © 1980 by James C. Dobson, pp. 48'56; used by permission of Word Books, Publisher, Waco, Texas 76796.

You may think, from its title, that this is a strange article for the Shepherdess section of the magazine. But it really speaks to both father and mother in setting priorities for the rearing of their children in today's world, where there has been such a widespread rejection of Christian principles. In my classroom I find it very rewarding to use parent volunteers. 1 have been especially blessed for two years to have a pastor father who is willing to come in for a half-day each week on his day off to become involved with his children and their friends in the classroom setting. A few days ago we were discussing what a valuable asset children are and the importance of their rearing. He told me that as important as are the members of his congregation, he feels his children are his first obligation.

May God help us who are leaders of His cause, busy with spiritual obligations and responsibilities, to communicate the real meaning of Christianity to those of our own family.Marie Spangler.

It occurred first in 1969, when Dare to Discipline was being written. I was running at an incredible speed, working myself to death like every other man I knew. I was superintendent of youth for my church, and labored under a heavy speaking schedule. Eight or ten "unofficial" responsibilities were added to my full-time commitment at USC School of Medicine and Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. I once worked seventeen nights straight without being home in the evening. Our 5-year-old daughter would stand in the doorway and cry as I left in the morning, knowing she might not see me until the next sunrise.

Although my activities were bringing me professional advancement and the trappings of financial success, my dad was not impressed. He had observed my hectic life style and felt obligated to express his concern. While flying from Los Angeles to Hawaii one summer, he used that quiet opportunity to write me a lengthy letter. It was to have a sweeping influence on my life. Let me quote one paragraph from his message that was especially poignant:

"Danae [referring to our daughter] is growing up in the wickedest section of a world much farther gone into moral decline than the world into which you were born. I have observed that the greatest delusion is to suppose that our children will be devout Christians simply because their parents have been, or that any of them will enter into the Christian faith in any other way than through their parents' deep travail of prayer and faith. But this prayer demands time, time that cannot be given if it is all signed and conscripted and laid on the altar of career ambition. Failure for you at this point would make mere success in your occupation a very pale and washed-out affair, indeed."

Those words, written without accusation or insult, hit me like the blow from a hammer. It contained several themes that had the ring of eternal truth. First, it is more difficult to teach proper values today than in years past, because of the widespread rejection of Christian principles in our culture. In effect, there are many dissonant voices that feverishly contradict everything for which Christianity stands. The result is a generation of young people who have discarded the moral standards of the Bible. Consider the findings of UCLA sex researcher Aaron Hass as reported in his 1979 publication Teenage Sexuality (New York: Macmillan, 1979). Basing his investigation on questionnaires completed by 625 boys and girls in five States, he drew several striking conclusions. Among students between 15 and 16 years of age, 43 percent of the boys and 31 percent of the girls have had sexual intercourse. Twenty-eight per cent of the boys and 7 percent of the girls report having had at least ten sexual partners. Furthermore, among those 17 to 18 years old, more than nine tenths of the boys and two thirds of the girls approve of oral sex, and more than half of each group has experienced it! That is the world in which our children will be reared!

The second concept in my dad's letter was the one that ended my parental complacency. He helped me realize that it is possible for mothers and fathers to love and revere God while systematically losing their children. You can go to church three times a week, serve on its governing board, attend the annual picnic, pay your tithes and make all the approved religious noises, yet somehow fail to communicate the real meaning of Christianity to the next generation.

I have since talked to dozens of parents whose children are grown and married.

"We thought our kids had accepted our faith and beliefs," they say, "but somehow, we failed to get it across."

For those younger parents whose children are still at an impressionable age, please believe the words of my dad. "The greatest delusion is to suppose that our children will be devout Christians simply because their parents have been, or that any of them will enter into the Christian faith in any other way than through their parents' deep travail of prayer and faith."

If you doubt the validity of this assertion, may 1 suggest that you read the story of Eli in 1 Samuel 2-4. Here is the account of a priest and servant of God who failed to discipline his children. He was apparently too busy with the "work of the church" to be a leader in his own home. The two boys grew up to be evil young men on whom God's judgment fell.

It concerned me to realize that Eli's service to the Lord was insufficient to compensate for his failures at home. Then I read further in the narrative and received confirmation of the principle. Samuel, the saintly man of God who stood like a tower of spiritual strength throughout his life, grew up in Eli's home. He watched Eli systematically losing his children, yet Samuel proceeded to fail with his family, too! That was a deeply disturbing truth. If God would not honor Samuel's dedication by guaranteeing the salvation of his children, will He do more for me if I'm too busy to do my "homework"?

Having confronted me with these spiritual obligations and responsibilities, the Lord then gave me an enormous burden for my two children. I carry it to this day. There are times when it becomes so heavy that I ask God to remove it from my shoulders, although the concern is not motivated by the usual problems or anxieties. Our kids are apparently healthy and seem to be holding their own emotionally and academically. The source of my burden derives from the awareness that a "tug of war" is being waged for the hearts and minds of every child on earth, including these two precious human beings. Satan would deceive and destroy them if given the opportunity, and they will soon have to choose the path they will take.

This mission of introducing one's children to the Christian faith can be likened to a three-man relay race. First, your father runs his lap around the track, carrying the baton, which represents the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the appropriate moment he hands the baton to you, and you begin your journey around the track. Then finally the time will come when you must get the baton safely in the hands of your child. But as any track coach will testify, relay races are won or lost in the transfer of the baton. There is a critical moment when all can be lost by a fumble or miscalculation. The baton is rarely dropped on the back side of the track when the runner has it firmly in his grasp. If failure is to occur, it will likely happen in the exchange between generations!

According to the Christian values that govern my life, my most important reason for living is to get the baton—the gospel—safely in the hands of my children. Of course, I want to place it in as many other hands as possible, and I'm deeply devoted to the ministry to families that God has given me. Nevertheless, my number-one responsibility is to evangelize my own children. In the words of my dad, everything else appears "pale and washed out" when compared with that fervent desire. Unless my son and daughter grasp the faith and take it with them around the track, it matters little how fast they run. Being first across the finish line is meaningless unless they carry the baton with them.

The urgency of this mission has taken Shirley and me to our knees since before the birth of our first child. Furthermore, since October, 1971, I have designated one day a week for fasting and prayer specifically devoted to the spiritual welfare of our children. Shirley joined me in that venture for several years, until she became physically unable to participate every week. This commitment springs from an intense awareness of our need for divine assistance in the awesome task of parenthood. There is not enough knowledge in the books—not enough human wisdom anywhere on earth—to guarantee the outcome of parenting. There are too many factors beyond our control— too many evil influences—that mitigate against the Christian message. That is why we find ourselves in prayer, week after week, uttering this familiar petition:

Lord, here we are again. You know what we need even before we ask, but let us say it one more time. When You consider the many requests we have made of You through the years . . . regarding our health and my ministry and the welfare of our loved ones . . . please put this supplication at the top of the list: Keep the circle of our little family unbroken when we stand before You on the day of judgment. Compensate for our mistakes and failures as parents, and counteract the influences of an evil world that would undermine the faith of our children. And especially, Lord, we ask for Your involvement when our son and daughter stand at the crossroads, deciding whether or not to walk the Christian path. They will be beyond our care at that moment, and we humbly ask You to be there. Send a significant friend or leader to help them choose the right direction. They were Yours before they were born, and now we give them back to You in faith, knowing that You love them even more than we do. Toward that end, we dedicate this day of fasting and prayer.

Not only has God heard this prayer but He has blessed it in ways that we did not anticipate in the beginning. First, it has represented a project that Shirley and I have enjoyed together, drawing us closer to each other as we drew closer to God. Second, this act of fasting each week serves to remind us continually of our system of priorities. It is very difficult to forget your highest values when one day out of seven is spent concentrating on them. Finally, and most important, the children have seen this act of discipline every Tuesday, and have been influenced by it. Conversations similar to the one below occurred during the early 1970s:

"Why are you not eating dinner with us tonight, Dad?"

"This is Tuesday and I'm fasting today."

"Oh, yeah—what did you say 'fasting' meant?"

"Well, some Christians go without food during a short time of special prayer. It's a way of asking God for a blessing, or of expressing love to Him."

"What are you asking for?"

"Your mother and I are praying for you and your brother today. We're asking God to lead and direct your lives; we want Him to help you choose a profession and to find the right person to marry, if that is His will. We're also asking Him to walk with you every day of your lives."

"You must love us a lot to fast and pray like that."

"We do love you. And God loves you even more."

I suppose there's another explanation behind my concern for the spiritual welfare of our two children. I'm told that George McCluskey, my great-grandfather on the maternal side, carried a similar burden for his children through the final decades of his life. He invested the hour from eleven to twelve o'clock each morning to intercessory prayer for his family. However, he was not only asking God to bless his children; he extended his request to generations not yet born! In effect, my great-grandfather was praying for me.

Toward the end of his life, the old man announced that God had made a very unusual promise to him. He was given the assurance that every member of four generations of our family would be Christians, including those yet to be born. He then died, and the promise became part of the spiritual heritage that was passed to those of us in George McCluskey's bloodline.

Since I represent the fourth generation subsequent to the one that included my great-grandfather, his promise assumes added significance. It has, in fact, been fulfilled in a fascinating way. McCluskey and his wife were ministers and charter members in their church denomination. They brought two daughters into the world, one eventually becoming my grandmother and the other my great-aunt. Those two girls married men who were ministers in the same denomination as their parents. Between them, they produced a boy and four girls, one becoming my mother. The girls all married ministers in the same denomination, and the boy became one. Then came my generation. My cousin H. B. London and I were the first two members to reach the age for college, where we were roommates. During the first semester of our sophomore year he announced that God had called him to be a minister in (you guessed it) the same denomination as his great-grandfather. And believe me, I began to get very nervous about the entire proposition!

I now represent the first, though not the only, member of four generations from the time of my great-grandfather who has not felt specifically "called" into the ministry. But considering the hundreds of times I have stood before audiences, talking about the gospel of Jesus Christ and its application to family life, I have to ask, "What's the difference?" God has marvelous methods of implementing His purposes in our lives.

Though my great-grandfather is long dead, having died a year before my birth, he still provides the richest source of inspiration for me. It staggers the mind to realize that the prayers of this one man, spoken more than fifty years ago, reach across four generations of time and influence developments in my life today. That is the power of prayer and the source of my life and optimism. Don't tell me God is dead, or that He doesn't honor His commitments. George McCluskey knew, and I know, that He lives!

The men in my family have transmitted a spiritual heritage that is more valuable than any monetary estate they could have accumulated. And I am determined to preserve it on behalf of my children. There is no higher calling on the face of the earth.

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From James C. Dobson, Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives, copyright © 1980 by James C. Dobson, pp. 48'56; used by permission of Word Books, Publisher, Waco, Texas 76796.

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