I ended last week’s column with an image in which I said that “God is not a helicopter parent”. Someone asked me what I meant, so I thought I would expand on that thought.
I learned about this image from Old Testament scholar Pete Enns in his wonderful and accessible book “How the Bible actually Works”. I love the subtitle: “In Which I Explain how an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers—and Why That’s Great News”.
Enns is a recognized Biblical scholar who writes in very accessible ways. He has a knack for writing about complex subjects in a helpful way. It also helps that he has a fantastic sense of humour.
Early in the book, he narrates an experience when the youngest of his three children started junior high school. “The principal told a captive audience of nervous, success–oriented parents that we help our children best when we resist the urge to become helicopter parents, parents who ‘hover over’ and direct every aspect of their kids’ lives so they can ‘succeed’. Wise parents know that their job is to equip their children to be independent, to acquire skill sets for navigating on their own the ups and downs of life, to experience failure and triumph, pain and joy, and everything in between, and handle it all well—in other words, to be in training to become mature, well–functioning adults.” (page 13)
“Many of us,” he says, “have been taught, in one way or another, that the Bible is our instructional manual, and that God is helicoptering over us to make sure we stick to it. We have been told that if we read this instructional manual carefully, it will inform us on any topic we need an answer to: climate change, parenting, finances, human sexuality, gun control, evolution, which candidate to vote for, whom to marry, whether to buy or rent, where to go to college, what career path to take, what church to go to, what books to read, whether to be vegan, whether to recycle, and so on.”
In the rest of the book, Enns demonstrates that the Bible was never written for that purpose. The Bible is “nothing at all like a Christian owner’s manual” and that “God is not a helicopter parent”. Rather, the “Bible’s main purpose is to form us, to grow us to maturity, to teach us the sacred responsibility of communing with the Spirit by walking in the path of wisdom”.
As we grow in faith to become mature and adult disciples, Enns says, “there is plenty of room for pondering, debating, thinking, and the freedom to fail.” In other words, faith is not a once–for–all–time decision. Rather, faith is a matter of growing in relationship with the Source of our Being (to use Paul Tillich’s wonderful phrase). As people of faith, we are free to explore our lives in the context of God’s loving presence. As we explore, we are also free to fail when we attempt different ways of articulating the profound questions of life.
When we come to understand that “God is not a helicopter parent”, we discover that living and growing as faithful and mature followers of Jesus becomes a sacred responsibility. Sacred because all of our efforts to be wise and faithful are sacred acts of seeking to be aligned with the life–giving, hopeful, loving, and joyful purposes of God. And it’s a responsibility because we are charged to make decisions which are for the common good, which take other people into account, and in which we seek “to love our neighbours as ourselves”.
As Paul reminds us in Galatians 5, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” As we learn to exhibit those virtues in our daily living, we grow in our ability to live as the Spirit–filled people of God.
But it is up to each of us to make faithful decisions daily about what it means to be loving, what it means to live as a peaceful people, what it means in every different circumstance to be patient and kind and generous and faithful and gentle. It is up to each of us to understand and decide what self–control looks like in each specific instance.
Enns reminds us that the Bible helps us gain wisdom as we seek to follow God in mature and faithful ways. The way we live in 2020 is so much different from the way we lived in 1920 or 920 or the year 20. We are asking different questions and finding different answers. The Bible doesn’t provide an answer to questions that our ancestors in faith never even thought of asking.
A single example. The Bible knows nothing of medical technology. I’m a diabetic. In Biblical times, I would have died by the time I was 35 (if not before). Most of us, in fact, live much longer than ancient people lived. Living faithfully and wisely in this context for me includes taking insulin and other meds, taking care of my diet and exercise (unfortunately, I don’t do the exercise thing so well), and so on. The Bible knows nothing about insulin, or treatment for cancer, or extending life beyond our “natural span”. In the same way, neither does the Bible say anything definitive about medical assistance in dying.
As new technologies arise, we are called to become ever more wise and faithful as we make decisions about how we might use them. We become more mature as we respond to the changing circumstances of life. We make those choices in response to God, who gives us the ability to make those choices in freedom and trust.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook