On Loving and Honoring My Parents

How do you honor your parents or childhood church if you fundamentally disagree with important aspects how you were raised?

I am not talking about situations or structures where the law must intervene. The state exists in our broken world to bring justice and any healing, hope, or forgiveness can often happen only after justice is done. How such hope can happen in Christ in some situations is beyond any experience, wisdom, or grace I possess. This is a job for trained women and men and for years of careful spiritual work. Speaking the truth in love to those God has placed in authority to check the family or the church is not dishonoring one’s parents, but honoring the higher law of love. Sin dishonors, not truth.

And yet between these horrible structures and people, I write on the day Fred Phelps faces judgment (and may the Lord God have mercy on his soul), and the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus live most of us in the imperfect and barely tolerable middle.  What of mistakes, errors in judgment or theology, that every parent makes and many kids see?  I have sinned as a parent and my parents were not perfect. In American conservative Christian subculture these sins or errors fall in certain lines. What if my parents censored all “secular” music or classical literature? What if our Church taught foolish views of Biblical exegesis or falsehoods about science? I knew of a goodhearted Church that believed they had seen a piece of Noah’s ark, but were duped by a conman. What should I do when I outgrow errors?

Also common are students who move from one Christian tradition to another. What if I was raised a Baptist/Catholic and am persuaded that becoming a Catholic/Baptist is the way I should go? How can I avoid exposing the “nakedness of my father” (the sin of Canaan) and dishonoring my parents, but still be faithful to the truth (as I see it)?

Here are five basic rules I try to follow in answering this question for those who ask and in my own life in dealing with my biological and spiritual parents.

I cannot honor my father and mother and make money or a build a career on trashing their deepest beliefs.

The world is complicated and there may be exceptions, but there is something unseemly about a man or woman who spends his or her life talking trash about mostly decent people for fame or money. Humor or “loving criticism” is hard to stomach from anyone you suspect is still hurting from being raised in a family that did not “do prom.”

Notice the difference between Nathan, who spoke the truth to King David at great risk, and Noah’s son making a mock of his father’s nakedness. The person who speaks truth to power at great risk and cost is a hero, but such heroism must not be cheapened by conflating it without exposing the stupidity of one’s high school reading list for laughs. The support group for serious issues that acts as Nathan in the Internet age is a great and holy thing: the snark about Christian radio heard in childhood is something else.  Bad people and communities want us to hide sin or disagreement and sometimes a trumpet of alarm must be blown in Zion, but trumpets are not fit for all messages. We must take care with our new power to “share” that we do so appropriately.

I found Jesus in an Advent Christian Church, which teaches that the soul sleeps after death and that hell is not eternal. I strongly disagree with both of these ideas, but I (generally) refrain from harping on my disagreement to honor fathers and mothers who gifted me with greater goods. It does not dishonor to candidly disagree and healing can come from a testimony to a changed life or to the exposure of bad ideas, but I may not be the man to build a career around these areas and should take care to mention disagreement in an appropriate way: honestly, sacrificially, lovingly, without hint of gain, and as little as possible to achieve justice.

I cannot honor my father and mother without recognizing the good they did.

All of us have parents with dumb, false, or even wicked ideas. We are right to disown these errors in the family and separate from them, as we can, but a sad truth of history is that otherwise good people have bad views and these views are not “harmless.” Loving children confront those evils in their parents as gently as possible: doing to their parents as they would wish future generations to do to them.

As much as possible, we preserve relationships realizing that we take to be the “truth” or the “curve of history” may be provide the cause for the next generation to deem us degenerate. We would not be the first group of children to find our grandchildren rising up and calling their grandparents (or even great-grand parents) blessed!

If your parents provided you the very education that allows you to disagree with them, take care that you honor that good. If your too distant Dad spent time giving you a comfortable life, honor that sacrifice while refusing to honor the distance.

I cannot honor my father and mother and hate my father and mother. 

My parents are sinners and (I am blessed) that they are also my friends, I like them. Many I know are not so fortunate and they have the harder task of learning to love people they dislike.  Often, it is easier to love those who are evil than those we despise. We hate the ugly religious art from our childhood, it shames us. We loath the superficial politics of our parents, it annoys us. We detest the aesthetic of the worship service, dated to our parent’s youth forever.

And yet we can honor and love our parents without agreeing with or even liking our parents. We need not change our tastes, our politics, or liturgy in order to be kind. If Jesus could leave the goodness, beauty, and truth of Heaven and put up with us, then we can put up with our parent’s talk radio for a holiday. We can ask them to compromise on certain things . . . and even if they do not . . . use our disagreement to deepen our holiness. After all, our parents do not agree with us! Sometimes moving to a new area, the healing power of distance, can help disperse the dislike to make the hard work of sanctity easier.

I must judge my Mom and Dad the way I hope my children judge me. One way I can do that is to tell them my dislikes, but not everyone else.

I need to let go of petty griefs, but acknowledge to my parents  (if it is safe to do so) where we disagree. 

I have known people who cannot let go of the fact that their parents oppose evolution or did not vote for Obama. Let us assume the belief and the act were wrong. Let us go further and concede for arguments sake that nothing in biology makes sense without evolution and that no sound political reason existed to vote for Romney over Obama.

Neither the error or the vice is worth breaking the commandment. I can honor my parents for the good they have done with these disagreements. The petty man or woman who cannot love over vegetarianism cannot love Christ, though he may love cows.

I need to build my life around what I propose as an alternative not around what I oppose. 

My passion is a measure of what is central to my life. If my greatest passion is in attacking errors and not in proposing good, true, and beautiful alternatives, I need help. I live for Jesus, the Church, my family, and my community. I should not live for an idea, because I am a man and men use ideas, they don’t worship them. My God is a person and not a cause, my Church is made up of people living and dead, and my community is a band of neighbors. I will stand before God as a member of the American nation and not as an isolated ideologue.

And so when I think of the Church of my childhood, I need not put on distorting glasses, but merely love. When I pray for my parents, my in-laws, or my spiritual fathers and mothers, I can recognize their faults (as I see them) and then pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”



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