Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Faith, Trust and Dating

Rio Grande Zoo, Albuquerque, NM

In recent months, our daughter, S, has been forging a very good friendship with a young man her age.  They are at a point where they are holding hands now and then (so cute) and when I ask them to pose for a picture, they instinctively lean together and sometimes he puts his arm around her (even though for a long time, photos of the two of them might lead people to think they were complete strangers who happened to end up in the same shot).

But as this friendship grows into more than just friendship, I've been asked by many people I trust and respect, how we are handling this relationship with our daughter. I've been asked some really challenging questions and I am grateful to them for offering their advice as we go along.  We are such newbies to this season of life -- having a teen daughter on the brink of adulthood.  Like everyone we are figuring stuff out as we go along and some rules we had "in stone" earlier in S's life, don't seem to work as we'd hope.  So we're constantly reevaluating and consulting the Lord as we do so.

S struggles with attachment issues and has for as long as we've known her.  We have four children with varying degrees of Reactive Attachment Disorder and we have spent a lot of years researching and understanding more about this disorder so that we might be better resources and supports for our children as they grow and learn about the different ways in which they instinctively relate to people or struggle with trust issues and rejection of other people.

So on the one hand, I'm very protective about the people with whom she chooses to form relationships.  Her choices are not always the best influence on her.  But on the other hand, I'm learning to face that she is now a high school graduate and nearly a legal adult and by putting too many controls in place, I am forcing her to feel the need to separate herself from me even more, so that she feels she is able to make some of her own choices (as naturally, most 18-year-olds would like to do).

As a family with a close relationship with Jesus Christ, we have definitely tried to instill in our children the importance of purity and patience and self-control in all things, but especially as it relates to dating, marriage and sex.

In her early teen years, S read a lot of good books and discussed them with us about dating vs. courtship.  Keeping in mind that her early views of dating and marriage were much different than the ones she's exposed to daily at this point in her life, we tried to teach her some very strict rules to lean on:

1)  To even consider a relationship for more than a friendship, the other person must be a strong, faithful Christian who reads the Word regularly and though no one is perfect, he should be striving towards that end in his daily choices.

2)  No dating in the usual sense of the word.  Every interaction with the opposite gender must be done with a chaperone present at all times.  During the friendship phase, the two should be discussing their futures and whether or not they will be compatible for life.  Then and only then (after a certain age or time period and with certain permissions in place), they may begin a courtship, which would hopefully lead towards engagement and marriage.

3)  No kissing on the lips until marriage.

Now, for those of you (my family), who know me well, I'm sure you are scoffing at this set of rules.  I made every mistake in the book when it came to my teen years and my girl-boy relationships.  Faith wasn't the first thing on my mind -- or even there at all, really.  I dated a string of boys, coming back to my future husband twice before realizing he was the one.  The last I heard, one of the boys I dated in high school has a best friend in prison for life for allegedly committing a rape and murder on a local girl.  That guy was my first kiss.  I did a lot of kissing after him and some other things.

Why should I expect our daughter to behave differently than I did?  For one thing, while my parents tried their best to teach me discernment, they were not my sole influences in the world.  They both worked full-time for most of my rebellious years, anyway, and I attended public schools and gravitated towards people who weren't always the best influence on me.  I'm not blaming my parents, mind you, but this is the state of the world and the temptations that are present constantly.

I chose poorly.

C and I have done all we can to be present in our children's lives regularly.  This is one reason we homeschool.  Faith and Bible and prayer and church involvement are daily topics and a lifestyle for us.  We have been open about our past sins and why those choices were wrong.  We have also been open about the forgiveness and mercy of our loving God and how we are white as snow because of our acceptance of that forgiveness and mercy.  We have prayed over our children for so many years and hoped with all our hearts that some of these lessons would make their permanent mark on their hearts.

But something happened.

As much as we hope and pray and teach them, these kids still have their own ideas about the world.  They are all old enough now that some of their ideas do not really jive with what we believe.  Each of our children have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior and are self-professed Christians, but their journeys of faith are all so different!

If we look back at S's teen years, without delving into too much of her personal stuff, she has struggled with boy-girl relationships and making responsible choices as it pertains to them.  There has been a lack of honesty and integrity in the relationships she's gone into so far.

But then in comes this fine young man.  We are friends with his family.  We spend time with them and there is a certain comfort level between C and I and their kids and between the parents over there and our kids.  We all enjoy the growing relationships between the two families.

The tricky part is that even though the young man who has taken great interest in his friendship with our daughter (and visa versa), is a splendid individual with a great upbringing, good manners, and a sound morality about him, he is not a self-professed Christian.

He is at our house a lot.  If you've visited our house, you'd know from walking in the front door that we're Jesus Freaks (in a good way).  We pray at all our meals and he thoughtfully bows his head and prays with us -- or at least sits silently and respectfully.  I am really quite open as I discuss issues of faith and church and religion.  He doesn't seem to flinch when I bring it up.

So when Sabrina wanted to start pursuing something a tad more serious than a friendship with this young man, I found myself permitting it.  C is in unison with me on this decision.

I know I'm probably making some highly conservative people flip out right now about this.  I consider myself pretty high on the conservative side as it is.  I question myself all the time if we are doing the right thing here.  So if you disagree, I understand!!

The weird thing is that this boy treats her better than any other boy with whom she's tried to connect.  He treats our family better than most any friend she's had in her life.  He is opening up and becoming big-brotherly towards our sons (and they are a handful, trust me).  He's respectful towards C and towards me and he's actually making an effort to get to know us.

My thinking is that maybe in relaxing a little bit on rule number one for now, God is allowing us to continue to be a light for this young man and his family.  I'm not put here to make people come to Christ, but I am here to be a light in the dark world and to set an example for our God and as Christians. I am here to love others.  We're all sinners, some of us just have realized it already.

The old question of What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)? leads me to the answer we've come to and that is to love others as we love ourselves.  It's not like he's come out and disrespected us for what we believe or taken a stance of atheism or whatever.  It just may be that his faith journey is different than the rest of ours.  Perhaps we are a part of his journey and by making a different choice here, we would be closing off a chance to be a part of his life and to live out our faith right in front of him.

So that brings me to rule number two.  I love the concept of courtship and if you've never really grasped this idea, there are many books (and probably some websites) out there dedicated to teaching this relationship method.  You've probably heard of Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye or Say Hello to Courtship.  Harris is one of the leading authors on the subject.

However, had it not been for dating, I may have never ended up with the best husband in the whole world (in my opinion).  We dated, we got engaged on my high school graduation day and less than a year later, we were married.  For some reason, 21 years later, we are still married and still committed to the no-divorce option when the tough times come around now and then.

Dating vs. Courtship is really kind of a tough thing to debate about.  What it came down to was that while I love the idea of courtship over dating, I love our daughter more.  We have taught her well (as well as teaching her to be an independent thinker) and there comes a point when all that teaching starts coming to life as she approaches adulthood and must be trusted to make more of her own choices.  After all, she will be the one to pay the biggest price for the bad ones.

So yes, S and her favorite young man have been on dates.  They have gone to a few places unchaperoned.  First of all, these places have all be in public.  Second of all, I mentioned before that this guy has a high moral standard and if anyone is pushing the relationship to be more and faster, it's our daughter and not him.  We are putting our trust in our God to protect them both when they are together and to help them to remember to have self-control and purity in mind.  They have continued to demonstrate these things and have proven to be trustworthy together.

They also do a lot of things with our family (and his).  The picture at the top was our trip to the zoo yesterday.  I gave them permission to explore the zoo on their own, but then twice they met back up with us and spent a significant amount of time talking with me.  He was even texting me off and on throughout our time there -- one time sending me a photo (of course, I sent him like five).  When we were all together, he shared with me some of the other photographs he took of the animals (he got to see the baby giraffe first!!).

Overall, there seems to be a good balance happening between private time and group time.  I take that as a good sign that they are doing nothing to be ashamed about, therefore, they can easily maintain the same kind of relationship whether they are with us or on their own. If I start noticing that they never want to be around their families and only want to be by themselves -- we will definitely be initiating some chats.

As for rule number three, they have yet to break that one or to ask for us to reconsider it.  They just got to the hand-holding part, after all.

Is what we're doing the right and godly thing?  I hope so.  I hope that by relinquishing some of the controls and extending more grace that we will see a changed attitude where S has been rebellious in the past.  I hope that as we continue to consult our God in everything, He will put up an obvious wall for us change direction if we are on the wrong path with this.  I hope that as always, for others who may be judging us or noisely disagreeing with our methods and parenting (in whichever direction), we can continue to extend grace towards them and continue to shine the Lord's light through us in our everyday lives.

I wanted to share our journey and our choices for our oldest child here so that perhaps it will help out some others walking through this same season of life and considering their options.  I expect no one to do exactly as we do, I just hope that whatever choices are made are done so in conjunction with their Christian faith.

I'll let you know down the road if this is all a complete disaster -- but hopefully it won't come to that.  We like this guy and I'd be just fine if he stuck around for a long, long time.