Family Devotions for the Young and the RestlessRelated Media
Preface: The following is an essay originally written for delivery on the radio over a decade ago, when my children were still quite young.
James Dobson was wrong. In his book, The Strong-Willed Child, Dobson creates the distinct impression that no man will sire more than one strong-willed child (at least, that's how I read the book). My wife and I clung to this false hope soon after the birth of our first-born son.
Though we had never met James Dobson, he most certainly witnessed Noah's grand entrance into the world eighteen years ago. Otherwise, how could he have described in such intricate detail the birth of our son when he wrote about the strong-willed child:
Just as surely as some children are naturally compliant, there are others who seem to be defiant upon exit from the womb. They come into the world smoking a cigar and complaining about the temperature in the delivery room and the incompetence of the nursing staff and the way things are run by the administrator of the hospital. They expect meals to be served the instant they are ordered, and they demand every moment of mother's time. As the months unfold, their expression of willfulness becomes even more apparent, the winds reaching hurricane force during toddlerhood.1
We were relieved to know that we had "gotten out of the way" our one trouble-maker; now we would relax, blissfully assuming that we could create two or three normal offspring with which to fill our quiver.
Then came Ben. Minutes after his birth, I pondered the depressing thought that Dobson had drawn a composite picture of my two sons in his description of the strong-willed child. Though bearing the marks of a different personality, Ben's volition was a faithful reproduction of the original.
In light of statistical probabilities, Pati and I felt quite confident that we could bring a third child into the world without creating another monster. But we did not plan on begetting a litter! Apparently, nine months of in-house fighting is sufficient time to strengthen anyone's will. (I suppose we'll never know which one would have been 'normal.') Though classified as fraternal twins physically, Andy and Zachary resemble Siamese twins when it comes to nastiness. Each boy pulls the other's hair, back-bites (literally), and uses lethal weapons in an all-out campaign to annihilate his womb-mate. 'Sibling rivalry' is a ridiculously euphemistic expression which does no justice to their overt antagonism. This is World War III!
There is little one can do to console the parents of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (though it would be nice if James Dobson would try!). Somewhere out there are three couples who have beaten the odds--they are providentially 'lucky' to have begotten one more normal child than they deserved. If you know who you are, thank us.
As Pati and I began to close one chapter of our lives and open another, the sobering reality of parenthood started sinking in. My romantic idealism was abruptly brought to its knees by the sight and smell of two babies (who were supposed to be napping) finger-painting on the walls with their own 'bi-products' (to put it politely). I have since become convinced that the only perfect parents on this globe are those who have yet to bear progeny.
Initially, I felt that begetting four sons in four years was no meager accomplishment (even if we did cheat a little). Rearing them, however, is quite obviously becoming the acid test. As I read the Scriptures, I come face-to-face with the mega-responsibilities which God has given to me as head of my house. One passage in particular has constantly gnawed at my conscience since our first-born opened the womb:
"And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up" (Deut. 6:6-7, NASB).
These two verses are wedged in the middle of a paragraph, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, known as the Shema (due to the first word of the Hebrew text). From the earliest times to the present day, this passage has been recited daily by orthodox Jews. It comprises the core of Judaism. Jesus quoted verse 5, calling it "the great commandment" (Matt 22:37), thus indicating his estimation of this portion of the Word of God. There are three elements to the Shema: (1) the doctrinal foundation--"Yahweh is One" (v. 4)--which stresses the unity of simplicity (or, indivisibility) of God; (2) the responsibility of people to love God in a wholehearted way (because God is indivisible, man's love for God should be, too); and (3) the primary sphere of application in which one trains others about God and his ways--namely, the family (vv. 6-9).
This text makes its point much the way a charging rhinoceros would! It is a seismic catalyst for every father's soul--it should cause us all to tremble before God! What awesome responsibilities we have! Unfortunately, like so many Christian fathers, I too have flip-flopped my biblical priorities. I desire so desperately to have an impact for Jesus Christ in my little niche on this planet. Often I have run around, 'doing' ministry, while my children flounder in a sea of paternal neglect. But as I read the Shema, I realize that if I succeed in the ministry, but fail at home, then I fail. Period. God holds me accountable for my family first, ministry second. When a man reverses the order, he inevitably spells disaster for both.
'Acting It Out'
How then should a man rear his children? Again, the Shema lays out a tidy agenda for fathers. The head of the family is not merely a sergeant-at-arms who wields a big stick. His duty is not solely to rescue his wife from certain insanity every evening by becoming a surrogate screamer as his hoarsey spouse recoupes in the kitchen. Biblical fatherhood is more than yelling and swatting. In fact, it is quite different from that. We are to have a positive influence on our children by training them, in words and behavior, in the ways of God. Even teaching them good morals is hardly adequate. The Shema reminds us that we are to teach our children good theology--we are to teach them about God.
For the past several years I have taken this responsibility quite seriously. At times, too seriously. We started in Mark's Gospel and after dinner every evening I would read a full chapter to two squirming children (both preschoolers) and one impatient wife. The troops were then quizzed on the contents. Pudding- or cookies-rights would be conferred on those who passed the exam. Once, when my mother-in-law came to visit, no one was allowed to rise from the table until all twelve apostles had taken up permanent residence in their craniums. The Inquisition would have been pleasant fare compared to such paternal sanctimony!
At least, I was trying. And, as Howard Hendricks has pointed out, it's easier to steer a moving car than a parked one! Joshua was our next assignment. I began to adapt a little more to my boys' attention span. Swallowing my seminary-trained pride, I read only one paragraph at a time--and from a paraphrased edition no less! (I am still in the process of realizing that we must not treat Scripture as so 'sacred' that it becomes untouchable. What a paradox! That which is capable of touching our lives in the most profound way we too often 'revere' by speaking of it in a spiritual jargon and a stain-glassed voice! But this Book is alive! If it is unpalatable to our children, the fault too often lies within us. The Word of God is a feast for all who hunger after righteousness.)
Back to Joshua. One particularly restless evening, I decided to let the boys burn off their excess energy (though, in reality, we have yet to plumb the depths of Ben's energy source; if it could only be harnessed, America could thumb its collective nose at OPEC!). We were in chapter six. It struck me that role-playing might help to wear down these offspring of mine. So, for no more spiritual a reason than that I was physically drained, we 'acted out' the text. We built a small city out of blocks and then marched around the coffee table seven times in silence (a grade 'b' miracle in itself). On the last lap, the boys shouted and stamped and clanged and clapped. Needless to say, Jericho fell.
That was just over three years ago.2 To this day, Noah and Ben remember the story of Jericho well because they not only heard it-- they marched it and shouted it and stamped it, too. The 'Battle of Jericho,' for us, became a turning point in this family's walk with God. "Do you want to walk it out?" has since become a standard line in the Wallace household to evoke squeals of delight from now four precious little men.
Goliath meets the Karate Kid
Parting the Red Jello
To date, we have acted out large portions of the following 'scripts': Joshua, Genesis, Exodus, Esther, and Daniel. Usually devotions require little in the way of props. But sometimes we need a day or two of planning in order to pull off a memorable event.
Daniel and the lions' den was a snap. We simply put a few chairs together and threw several stuffed animals in the middle (including one large lion which Pati had created). Noah insisted on playing Daniel, though I personally felt that I was the more logical choice. Ben and the dynamic duo represented the one hundred and twenty satraps. I played Darius. Pati was the audience (her favorite after enduring a day with four chattering, clattering munchkins!). The satraps saw Daniel praying and fingered him before Darius. I had no choice but to throw him into the pit with Winnie the Pooh and the Cookie Monster. It was easy enough to keep the ferocious beasts away from devouring the boy--the trick was in getting them later to crush the satraps' bones! As I recall, Noah accommodated us by doubling as a half-starved lion. If I didn't know better, I'd say he rather enjoyed pouncing on those satraps.
David and Goliath was also easy to stage. We didn't use real stones, of course, though Ben came close to a temper tantrum as he reflected on the missed opportunity to really harm his older brother! The biggest hurdle to overcome was that Goliath refused to die. But when 'David' placed a couple of well-placed karate kicks at Goliath's torso, he went down like a rock! Sadly, David missed another opportunity when a plastic spoon, instead of a broad sword, was used to cut off Goliath's head.
Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac also required little planning. Shortly after we had gained two new tax deductions, we found ourselves in Genesis 22. Clearly Ben was in the throes of an identity crisis. And had I reflected on the situation, it should have occurred to me that Noah might like having one less sibling rival around. Nevertheless, we marched on. As Abraham, I took my only son (Ben) on a camping trip. He carried some wood (pipe cleaners) for a weenie roast. Then suddenly, I tied him up, placed him on an altar (bed), brought out a knife (knife!), and stood over a bewildered little boy. In retrospect, I should have told him the whole story before we began acting it out. In fact, as I held the knife overhead and waited for the angel of the Lord to appear, there was a long enough pause to devastate any notions of blood being thicker than water! Then, as the knife began its descent, the angel leaped up from behind the bed and shouted, "Daddy! Don't do it!" Though Noah had forgotten his lines, this was one time I was actually grateful. . .
Other family 'altars' have required some fairly serious planning. The classic example was Jacob and Esau fighting in the Rebeccah's womb. This one took months of preparation, plus an extra blessing from the Lord! On this occasion Pati supplied all the props. . .
Parting the red sea also took a little effort. Pati made a bowl of Jello (red, of course). After it jelled, the Lord parted it (with a serving spoon). G. I. Joe led his troops through on dry ground. But when Pharaoh and his Indians followed in hot pursuit, they found themselves buried under an avalanche of hot, liquid gelatin.
Through such devotions, we have discovered that a child's imagination is incredibly elastic. Our boys have no trouble seeing a hungry lion in the eyes of Winnie the Pooh, or Moses waving an M-16 in army-issue khakis. And they have equal facility in comprehending the spiritual lessons derived from these biblical events. They have learned lessons of faith, love, courage, compassion. And always they have learned that God is in control and that he cares for his children.
But most importantly, they have learned the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. One evening in Exodus brought this home most effectively. We were in chapter 12. Pati fixed a four-course dinner at my request (including bitter herbs and grape juice) while the boys and I were painting some butcher paper blood-red. As we read the passage, we ate. Then we 'slit' Pooh's throat and taped his 'blood' over the doorpost. As the angel passed over our house, our first-born son, Noah, sighed in relief. But then we switched roles and played the part of an Egyptian family. We took the blood off the doorpost, Pooh was restored to life, and Noah bought the farm! That one evening has become a springboard for illustrating grace, justice, faith, salvation--even a burden for the lost. Noah and Ben both trusted Christ at age four and now openly share their faith. God has certainly been gracious to make the gospel clear to them and to bring them to faith in him at such an early age. We are praying that he will do the same for Andy and Zach.3
No Infallible Methods
Now I do not wish to foist our method for family devotions on others as though it were some ex cathedra approach. In fact, we do not always 'act out' Scripture. We employ a variety of means to teach our children about the Word of God and the God of the Word--not all of which are entertaining, either. We memorize Scripture, interpret life as it comes at us through a theological grid, read passages quietly in the few still parts of the day, and speak often of and to our Lord. But 'acting out' Scripture is frequently the best medium to utilize the God-given energies of four little Indians who might burn Daddy at the stake if they were forced simply to hear a Bible story.
The bottom line is that I am beginning to face the gigantic responsibilities that I, as a father, must bear. The what is clearly prescribed in Scripture. I am to teach my children about God. That is the unvarnished, inflexible objective of every man who would be a Christian father. But the how is not so rigid. We as fathers have incredible latitude to dovetail the biblical precepts with our own God-stamped personalities. For those with strong-willed children, the task may seem too much. But the challenge is to carve out our own method (one which neither alienates your children nor dilutes the objective) as you diligently pursue training your children about their Creator and Redeemer. After all, what can be more rewarding than seeing your own children face the challenges of life in communion with the Savior?
1 James Dobson, The Strong-Willed Child (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1978) 20.
2 That is, when this message was originally given in 1986. The boys were, at that time, seven, five, two, and two.
3 Andy and Zach also came to faith in Christ, at age five.