Sometimes it’s the throwaway comments people make that stick the deepest in your mind. They don’t remember saying it, but you’ll never forget it. So it was for me one summer day, in the late 1990’s, as I rode shotgun in a pickup with Ernest Stein. Ernest was an elderly farmer in rural Oklahoma whose acreage butted up to land owned by two of his surviving three sons; the third had died in an automobile accident years before. We hauled hay to his cattle. He checked on the progress of some crops. And in an overgrown tree belt, he pointed out the spot where he’d nailed a trophy whitetail early one fall morning. We were bouncing along some ruts beside a barbed wire fence, talking about our families, when I asked Ernest what it was like to raise three sons. He glanced over, shot me one of his unique half-smiles, and said, “Raising sons? I didn’t raise any sons. The way I was taught was that you raised pigs but reared children.”
At the time my daughter was transitioning from the crawl to the walk, and my son was still but a twinkle in his father’s eye. Both are now teenagers. As I’ve tried—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to be a good father to them over the years, Ernest’s words have echoed in my mind. They resound in the form of a self-examining question. I ask myself, “Are you rearing or raising Auriana and Luke?” Linguistically, of course, one could make a convincing case that the two verbs are essentially synonymous when applied to the upbringing of children. But for me, “rear” and “raise” are more than verbs. They have come to serve as designations for two different approaches to parenting, both of which are based upon assumptions about what constitutes a human being, and, therefore, how that human being is to be reared (or raised) from infancy to adulthood.
If I believe that my child is the creation of God, endowed with a body, mind, and soul; if I believe that he, as a human being, is the crown of the Lord’s creation, distinct from and above all other created things; that his life is to be lived in faith towards God and love towards his neighbor; that, though he die an earthly death, he will nevertheless exist from now unto all eternity; and that he is so beloved of God that God himself lived, died, and rose again to save him—if I believe all that, and truths in concert with it, then I will rear my child accordingly. I will not merely provide for his bodily or mental needs, but the needs of his soul as well. I will teach him that, as the crown of the Lord’s creation, he is to image God on earth not by usurpation or exploitation of power, but in acts of loving service that imitate the way of our serving and loving Lord. To put it simply: I will rear my child as God’s child, for that is what he is.
If I believe that my child is merely the bodily product of sexual relations; that divinity played no role in his conception or growth; if I believe that my child, though loved by me, is really no more special than any other creature on earth, but merely one more cog in the vast machine of creation; that he will live here for a time, die, and then cease to exist; that this life is all there is, that God does not (or may not, or probably doesn’t) exist, and that therefore he is neither accountable to nor beloved by that divine figure—if I believe all that, then I will raise my child accordingly. I will provide for his bodily and mental needs, but not his spiritual needs. I will raise him as one rational animal raises another rational animal on a planet full of other rational animals. To put it simply, I will raise my child as my child, not God’s, for there is no God in this belief system.
What determines the kind of parent you will be? Is it your own upbringing, the culture in which you live, the influence of peers? No doubt these all play a role. But I say the single most determining factor in what kind of parent you will be is this: What do you believe? Specifically, what do you believe a human being is?
My elderly farmer friend in Oklahoma reared three sons, two of whom I was privileged to know, one of whom I will meet in heaven someday. He did well, Ernest did, with his wife, Lenora, in rearing those sons not so much as their own but as sons of the heavenly Father. May God grant all of us grace, who believe as Ernest did, that we might follow in his footsteps, that we might parent in a way that accords with who we are as human beings, and the kind of adult human beings we want our children to grow up to be.
If you enjoy my writings, please consider purchasing my recently published book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. This poetry gives voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Whether you weep, rejoice, struggle, or hope, through these hymns and poems you can speak to God with honesty and fidelity. By buying a copy, you will also aid mission work, for 25% of the proceeds from book sales go to benefit Lutherans in Africa. Click here to purchase your copy. Thanks!