28 June 2007

Parenting with Both Hands and Both Keys

To clarify up front, I'm not writing this to advocate for or against spanking. I know there are divergent opinions on that means of discipline. I believe there is a place for spanking and other kinds of corporal punishment, but I am also convinced that a wide variety of factors are involved in determining the best and most appropriate sort of discipline in any given situation. Families have different personalities, as do individual parents and children, and different people respond differently to various ways of dealing with circumstances. At least in my experience, boys generally require a different approach than girls; which shouldn't be much of a revelation to anyone who may have noticed that men and women also tend to communicate in rather different ways. In any case, we sin not only in our thoughts and with our words, but also in and with our bodies; so there also needs to be an exercise of bodily discipline. But I'm not writing this to make any particular case for how such things ought to be handled.

I do not presume to be any expert in parenting. I have had twenty years of experience as a father, including multiple opportunities to deal with all of the ages and stages of childhood, but most of what I've learned has been by trial and error. My wife has done the vast majority of hands-on parenting along the way, although I've certainly taken an active interest in that work. I try to be consistent and fair, objective and just, firm but understanding, patient and merciful, as our Father in heaven is merciful. That is what I want, and what I aim for, and yet I still find that I get impatient and lose my temper. Especially if I'm feeling stressed out or anxious about other things, or weary and exhausted, I too quickly raise my voice, speak too harshly, and yell at my children when a calm and quiet voice would be more effective. I do believe there is a time and place for spanking, but sometimes I resort to that approach too readily, instead of taking the time to train my children in a better way. Aware of these weaknesses in myself, and concerned to be the best parent I can be, out of love for my children, I think a lot about how best to discipline them. I'm writing this to think out loud about that a bit.

There are vocational hazards to being a pastor, such as the fact that I am inclined to analyze everything theologically. Actually, that's not a bad thing in itself, but I do tend to overanalyze things and second guess myself. There are plenty of times when it would be better just to do whatever it is that needs to be done without thinking too much about it. Well in this case of parental discipline, I've had some confusion in my mind and questions that I've wrestled with since the very beginning. I remember comments that were made in some of my psychology classes at Concordia, Seward, that really perplexed me and never did make sense to me, neither in theory nor in practice. To say it simply, the question has been one of how to divide the Law and the Gospel without compromise or confusion in the discipline of children. This question was brought to the forefront of my mind at the CCA a couple years ago, when we dealt with the Fourth Commandment, and I think my own confusion has been exacerbated since then. Perhaps it is not an issue with anyone else, but it has been a nagging concern for me.

I don't know, this may even sound amusing to others, but I honestly find myself tied up in knots over how to apply both Law and Gospel in disciplining my children. How do I avoid a confusion of the Law and the Gospel, practically and concretely, when I am given both to punish and to forgive my children? How do I ensure that the Gospel has the last word and predominates, while at the same time administering consequences for behavior that must be corrected? These are the questions I have found myself asking and trying to answer in my mind, time after time, as I have gone about the task of parenting and disciplining my children.

These broad concerns have come up, indirectly and in general, in our Monday evening Bible class over the past couple of weeks. We're studying the Smalcald Articles, and we've been looking at Luther's discussion of Sin, the Law, and Repentance. A good question was asked about how these things pertain and play themselves out in the context of a family. Specifically, how should confession and absolution take place between spouses, parents and children? In the process of responding to such questions, and in subsequent conversations with Pastor Grobien, I've recently had one of those wonderful "light bulb" experiences that help to clarify things.

I remember Dr. Preus once saying, in the only class I was able to take from him (Justification!), that when his wife would apologize for something or other that occurred in their life together, he would not respond with a word of absolution, "I forgive you," but would wave it off with a simple "that's alright." I was intrigued by that comment, and I'm sorry that I never had the opportunity to engage him in conversation about it. Surely there are circumstances in which a specific word of forgiveness is called for. I believe that would happen naturally and appropriately within families (and among friends), if Christians were making regular use of Individual Confession and Absolution with their pastors. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that Dr. Preus was making a very good point about the day-to-day life that Christians live with one another in this world. If every sin were confessed and absolved in a deliberate and formal sort of way, it would all become terribly complicated, cumbersome and contrived, and we'd never get on with living in our vocations and stations in life. It would become another version of the enforced enumeration of sins that the papacy required and the Lutherans rejected at the time of the Reformation. Similarly, it would bring disproporionate attention to the outward infractions that we commit against our neighbor, and thereby distract us from the weightier sins of the heart, our covetous lust and idolatry. As a general rule for family life, I think that Dr. Preus was exactly right. Love simply covers a multitude of sins, and we live together in faith.

Dr. Luther, in his preaching on the Fifth Petition, makes the marvelous point that we are all so deeply indebted to one another, and all the moreso indebted to God for our trespasses against Him, that we should all be badly off without the recourse of this prayer. In praying for the forgiveness of our trespasses, and pledging the forgiveness of our neighbor for his trespasses, the Lord has enabled us to draw a line through the entire ledger, and all the debts are cancelled. That doesn't mean there aren't occasions for apologies and reconciliation, for confession and absolution (both between brothers and with the pastor). But our daily life is not burdened and bogged down with a neverending stream of transactions, as though we were in constant need of negotiating sins and the forgiveness of sins. Rather, we live in the Atonement of the Cross, in the free and full forgiveness of Christ Jesus, in the global Absolution of His Resurrection, clothed (and clothing our neighbor) in His righteousness, innocence and blessedness. The status quo, if you will, is not the measure of our behavior (be it good or bad), but the grace of God in Christ.

This state of grace, it now seems to me, is the key to the predominance of the Gospel in parenting and discipline. That is to say, the entire family lives each day, each week, each month, year after year, in the context of grace and the forgiveness of the Gospel. Not so much in the sense that everyone is kind and polite, considerate and nice to one another; though it is surely true that gentleness and respect should characterize a Christian home (and the fact that it often does not is a call to daily contrition and repentance). What I have in mind, quite concretely, is that parents faithfully take themselves and their children to Church: to hear and receive the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, in Word and Sacrament. And that parents, in the home, living from the weekly Divine Service and back again, daily catechize themselves and their children in the Word of God and prayer; that parents read the Scriptures to their children, and review the Catechism with them, and pray with them, and sing Psalms and hymns with them. In short, that the family be making regular use of the means of grace, and finding their spiritual life and health and strength in the Gospel precisely there. This then serves as the foundation and the norm for the rest of life. The Gospel then predominates, even in the midst of discipline, because it is the overriding context in which everything else happens.

In the past, at least for the last few years, I have tended to think about parental discipline in terms of the Office of the Keys. Maybe that is another vocational hazard to being a pastor, because this is certainly the framework in which I think about the pastoral care of my members (among whom are my own children). I'm not so sure, at this point, whether or to what extent fathers (and mothers) are to exercise the "office of the keys" per se. Certainly, they are to call their children to repentance by means of the Law and the Gospel, and they are to speak and bestow the forgiveness of sins upon their children. But I'm not clear on how or when a father would ever use the binding key with his child (to retain sins). In any case, it is no prerogative of parents to excommunicate their children or exclude them from the Christian congregation.

Such questions aside, I think I have been mistaken to suppose that every occasion of discipline or punishment requires a specifically corresponding word of forgiveness. This is where I have gotten myself so tied up in knots. Do I speak forgiveness right away, and then administer punishment? Do I withhold forgiveness until an apology is given? Or do I wait until after there has been some consequence suffered, and then forgive my child? Trying to think through these things in terms of the Office of the Keys and Confession, it always seemed muddled to me. We don't believe, teach or confess that absolution (or forgiveness) is contingent upon any penance; yet the Office of the Keys is the authority to forgive the sins of those who repent and want to do better. Where sins have been forgiven, there is no longer any condemnation. There are no contingencies or strings attached to the Gospel. But as a father, I must discipline and train my children to live responsibly and obediently, to respect authority, to do no harm to their neighbor; not for the sake of forgiveness or salvation, but for the sake of their life in this world.

Here is where the two "hands" come in, the left and the right. This is terminology that Lutherans have used for the two "kingdoms," that of the temporal governing authorities on the "left hand," and that of the Church (the Kingdom of Christ and His Gospel) on the "right hand." Parents are given a responsibility and a coinciding authority on both hands. They are responsible for the catechesis of their children in the Word of God, in faith and prayer, but they are also responsible for the temporal care and training of their children for life in this world. There is a kind of discipline on either hand, but it seems to me that parental discipline is chiefly carried out with the left hand, that is to say, for life in this world as good neighbors and citizens. It is not primarily aimed at spiritual correction and improvement, but has for its goal the safety and well-being of bodily life and property, as well as the ongoing formation of self-discipline and personal responsibility, which become more and more necessary as children grow into adulthood, if they are to provide for and serve their own future families and communities. All of this is fine and good, an aspect of God's ongoing providence of His creation and among His gifts of daily bread. But it isn't the Office of the Keys, and it doesn't require that every admonishment, correction and rebuke be coupled with an explicit word of forgiveness.

If you blow it at work and bear the consequences of some error or infraction, you don't expect your boss to absolve you of your transgression or allow the problem to go uncorrected. Or, if you get pulled over for speeding, you don't suggest to the officer that you are heartily sorry for your sin and repent of it, supposing that he will forgive you and tear up the ticket. In neither case do you conclude that you remain in your sin and have no recourse. You go to the pastor and to the means of grace for the forgiveness of your sins, even as you pray for such forgiveness daily in the Our Father. You know and trust that, for Jesus' sake, your sins are forgiven and taken away, as far as the east is from the west. You still have things to take care of at work, and you still have your traffic fine to pay, but you understand that these do not touch upon your life and salvation in Christ (except that you go about them in faith and love as a Christian).

Likewise, when a Christian parent disciplines a child in the context of a Christian home, the child knows and trusts the Gospel, and will continue to hear and receive the Gospel (both in the home and at Church), without supposing that he or she will escape the consequences and punishment of sinful behavior. Of course, the Law does its work of accusing and crushing the old Adam, whether it be applied on the left hand or the right. That is the Lord's prerogative, and it is always aimed at repentance, unto faith in the forgiveness of sins. The Law best serves that purpose, however, not when it is tempered or compromised, qualified or softened, but when it executes its judgment and administers its sentence with firm, objective fairness.

Well, those are my rambling thoughts on the matter for now. Perhaps I will think of a dozen more things I should say, and would like to say, as soon as I publish this post. But I suspect that my thinking (and thinking out loud) about parenting and discipline will be an ongoing, lifelong enterprise. Parenting is more of an art than a science, and I need to keep practicing the art. It is ultimately my Father in heaven who catechizes me to be a good father to the children He has entrusted to my care and discipline. I give Him thanks and praise, therefore, for what seems to be a greater understanding and clarity of thinking at this particular juncture in my life.


Susan said...

>>This question was brought to the forefront of my mind at the CCA a couple years ago, when we dealt with the Fourth Commandment, and I think my own confusion has been exacerbated since then.<<

I know what you mean. So I have fought and argued and discussed and questioned Pr Bender to no end on these matters. A couple of years ago, he did a class on a Sunday afternoon on parenting, with a bunch of theses for discussion. That helped a lot.

>>But I'm not clear on how or when a father would ever use the binding key with his child<<

Wouldn't it be that you just keep using the law until it works repentance?

But also....
(and I've gotten into some doozy discussions on loopers over this one)....
it is not the law alone which works repentance. Have you ever had this experience? Kid disobeys. You call him on it. You speak the law. He insists on his innocence. You have proof of his transgression. He denies it. It's not his fault; it's somebody else's. On and on. No repentance. Just self-justification. And finally you tell him how much you love him, and that he is your dear son, and that no matter how wickedly he has behaved, he cannot make your love for him be less. And then he breaks down in tears and confesses and asks for forgiveness.

Because isn't that what God does for us? Didn't He go searching for Adam before Adam came to confess? We do not believe in contritionism where my "I'm sorry" gets me back into God's good graces. So it is with our kids. They are our children, whether they sin or not. We're not kicking them out of the house. Our love is there for them and it is constant, whether they receive it or not. So we may spank and send them to their rooms and let them fret for a while, and then speak words of love. Or we may hug and speak words of forgiveness, and then dish out the punishment.

Christopher Gillespie said...

Well-spoken Pastor. I have struggled with these same issues while at seminary, our ethics course, and in my own parenting. I have found so little written with a distinctly Lutheran approach. Your "rambling" comments are useful fuel to stoke the fire.

One struggle highlighted from your post is determining whether in a specific dealing with a child you're operating with the sinner or the baptized saint. In reading Köberle's "Rechtfertigung und Heiligung" he makes a useful distinction. If dealing with guilt (or lack thereof) its time to deal with law/sin and justification. If dealing more with shame or lack, this is a matter of sanctification.

The power of holy living is not the Law. It is the Holy Spirit. Too much of the parenting "advice" we read deals entirely with the Law but not with empowerment. Well, that's wrong, the empowerment is the rod. A Lutheran approach understands both are needed but in dramatically different situations. Where there is no remorse, no recognition of sin, we bring out the Law. Where there is guilt or shame, we give Gospel as the Law has done its work.

This distinction is useful for choosing applicable discipline (and suffering!) Now I go rambling! I'd like to see more of the tension of sinner/saint in discussion of Law/Gospel parenting.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful and helpful comments. I'm sorry to be slow in replying, although what you have added really speaks for itself, and I don't have lots more to say at this point.

"Dizziness," your point that Christian children are both saints and sinners is a good observation. This is something to which I will have to give more deliberate attention in the future, as I continue to think (and think out loud) about these things. It also bears mention, of course, as we parents are well aware, that Christian fathers and mothers are also both saints and sinners. We all live only by the grace of the Gospel, and not by any righteousness of our own. Faithful parenting is as much or more a matter of faith than of any particular approach or philosophy. In fact, I am wary of any attempt to come up with "the one right way" of parenting.

Susan, thank you for your helpful example of a particular scenario. What you have described is exactly the sort of thing that I have envisioned and tried to express. At least as I read what you have written, it was the context and climate of love that allowed for confession and absolution to take place: not immediately at the point of discipline, but after the fact, as there was opportunity.

Finally, I do want to clarify my comments regarding the things that Dr. Preus said to us in class. That was fifteen years ago, by the way, and, as I said, I never did have the opportunity to visit with him about his remarks. They troubled me for a long time, because I couldn't understand why a specific word of forgiveness would not be the right thing to say in response to an apology. But in retrospect, I believe his point was not concerning every case of sin; nor that he would fail to speak forgiveness in response to a particular confession of sin. I think he was talking about the fact that we sinners cannot live together without constantly "bumping" into each other, so to speak, in all sorts of ways, all of which involve our sinfulness (because we are sinners from the inside out). Yet, we don't deal with all of these many and various sins by trying to address each and every one of them with a formal confession and an explicit word of absolution. The more I think about that, the more and more it strikes me as a spin on the Roman enumeration of sins, which finally can't ever be done completely or satisfactorily. By and large (and this is how I take the sainted professor's point), we live under the umbrella of the Gospel, in the Atonement of the Cross, and overlook the faults of our neighbor in the love of Christ.

Please, please, please, the last thing I am trying to suggest is that families should not speak words of confession and absolution to one another! It is my usual drumbeat to urge more such speaking within the home and family. But there are extremes on either side of anything. And there are times when trying to make a case of discipline into an occasion of confession and absolution becomes confusing and contrived. That was my point.

I do think that confession and absolution would happen more readily, and far more often, in the home and family, if it were actually practiced by Christians on a regular basis in the way that the Small Catechism teaches us.

Anita said...

RYC: Thanks so much for your comments. I hope I did not come across as argumentative or anything. I've been told I can get rather "preachy" on subjects that I'm passionate about and I guess it's a good thing that I am passionate about parenting:)
I do value your thoughts and insight and thank you for sharing them. I also wanted to add that while I am passionate about the choices I have made in my parenting, I am equally as passionate about respecting every parents right to make the choices that are best for their family. It has been a great pleasure to get to know all the families at Emmaus and I hope to have that pleasure for many years to come!

Susan said...

About Dr Preus's comment:
I remember being told that it's bad to wave it off and say "oh, that's okay" when someone apologizes. I was told by some pastor somewhere that you should say "I forgive you." Well, maybe I should, but I don't. At least, not often.

Then another time, I was told that "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you" wasn't any good because those become pat phrases. That pastor said the proper words were something like "I have sinned against you" and "It's forgotten."

Oy. I don't want to spend that much effort thinking about the wording. Seems to me that "I'm sorry" and "that's okay" is fine. After all, if I tell you "that's okay," doesn't imply the state of grace you were talking about? Like you said about what you learned in Justification class, I think it can (doesn't have to, but can) become contrived when we feel we must say "I forgive you" to every infraction in the home. What's more important is that the forgiveness is there, that we flawed people live together in love, with patience and acceptance of each other. Of course there are occasions when people need to hear "I forgive you" or even "I forgive you for Jesus' sake and I love you because you are mine, not because of what you do or don't do." But honestly, we can't be doing that all day every day, or dinner would never get made and the lawn would never get mowed. (Am I being overly practical???)

Anita said...

Susan, in our home we felt a little too formal saying "I forgive you" so instead we decided the proper acknowledgment and acceptance of an apology was simply "thank you".
It seemed appropriate since saying "I'm sorry" can sometimes be a difficult pill to swallow.

Sean said...

I don't know if I can agree with Dr. Preus's statement. A former girlfriend of mine and I were talking about this- about making a point to say "I forgive you" instead of "it's ok". She raised the statement that if someone says "I forgive you" to you, it makes you feel rather low. I would say instead that it makes you feel humble.

When we confess sins, we simply say "I have done ____". It is not best to explain it, give background or reasons, or give justifications (these are all ultimately excuses in the true sense of the word). Excuses get old quickly. I learned this with a former landlord who constatly would explain at length why he needed to ask for rent early etc.... when really all he was saying was "i need money now, will you give me some?".

Shouldn't an "i'm sorry" be in this same spirit? If the hearer IS offended by an "I forgive you" reply, it indicates that they were surprised to hear such a response. "I forgive you" acknowledges both that a [sin] has been made, and that it is forgotten and done away with (forgiven, to define a word with the word). To someone who was not really confessing a [sin], "i forgive you" acknowledges something they weren't trying to say, or perhaps were trying to skirt around.

I think the alternative response (that's alright/that's ok) declares something that is [sin] to not be so. It does not call the thing what it is, but rather "excuses it" as something not wrong. This is different than ommitted or forgotten sins [in an enumeration] that are of course forgiven because we live in a state of grace. If "i'm sorry" is said, the [sin] IS confessed. The law is on the sorry person, and has brought the [sin] to light! There must be a response: either "no, what you have done is in fact NOT a [sin] and there is nothing to be forgiven" (much like a Pastor would say if a "false-sin" were confessed) or the sin is forgiven (and thereby acknowledged also, but done away with). The words "it's alright" say the former, though we may not be wishing to mean that. If we aren't trying to say "I forgive you" or "that wasn't actually a mistake", then we are really saying nothing, aren't we? That seems worse to me even than denying a sin. It leaves the person in the law, or at least very confused.

In my experience, when someone has refused to say "i forgive you", it seems as if I am indeed not reconciled with that neighbor. When they are offended that I have said "i forgive you", it seems that their "sorry" was merely empty words.

Of course, what in the world does it mean when David says "Against [God] and [God] *only* have I sinned"?

Living in forgiveness (someone who will say and understand "i forgive you"s) is one of the things I am looking forward to about someday (hopefully) marrying a Lutheran girl. Not everyone understands forgiveness, and I happen to know that I will be in need of it a lot.....

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Sean. I'm sorry that I didn't spot them sooner or have a chance to reply more quickly.

I basically agree with everything you have written here. In general, I believe that confession and absolution ought to happen more regularly within families, between spouses and parents and children. I tend to think this would happen more naturally and more often if everyone were making regular use of confession and absolution with the pastor, as the Small Catechism teaches. That is where and how we learn to know the Law and the Gospel, our sins and the forgiveness of sins, properly.

My initial reaction to Dr. Preus' comments was much the same as yours, and for many years I simply assumed that I disagreed with him. As I've mentioned, I never had the opportunity to discuss it with him, and I don't want to misrepresent him or his words. But it does occur to me now, in retrospect, that he wasn't making a blanket statement against confession and absolution, but was speaking of the way that Christians live together in the state of grace that has been accomplished and established for us by the Atonement of the Cross of Christ.

In the bump and grind of day-to-day life, there are so many ways in which we step on each other's toes and often inadvertently rub each other the wrong way. If every little infraction were turned into a formal confession and absolution, we'd frankly never get around to doing anything else. Yet, we don't fluctuate in and out of grace, in and out of reconciliation, in and out of forgiveness, depending on a specific transaction for each and every mistake or misstep. I think I mentioned previously Luther's lovely comment about the fifth petition being a recourse that God has provided, whereby we simply scratch a line through the entire ledger of debts, those we owe and those owed us. I really like that, and I think that is what Dr. Preus was getting at. It is another way of saying that love covers a multitude of sins.

Nevertheless, where there is a specific confession of sin, there ought to be a specific word of forgiveness. And again, I think that would happen very naturally, if everyone were making a regular practice of individual confession and absolution. We learn to deal with others and their sins against us, by the way that we deal with ourselves and our own sins.