Safe for the Whole Family

Safe for the Whole Family: A popular slogan for Christian radio stations who filter out questionable content to guarantee a safe and sanitized environment. (This is arguably the main impetus behind much of “evangelical subculture”: creating a safe place, protected from the muck of “the world,” for Christians to live in.)

The salesman is young and blond and clearly uncomfortable in his dress-shirt and tie. The suitcases he carries are heavy with vacuum components, bulky in his arms.

He coughs, sniffles, apologizes. He’s getting over a cold he says. Around his left eye, I can see the faint raised outline of a fading black eye.

The salesman is quick and matter-of-fact. He pulls metal parts from the box and assembles the vacuum in one fluid motion as he gives a running monologue of the features of this fabulous machine. He uses phrases like lifetime guarantee. Like the last vacuum you’ll ever have to buy.

He is doing a quick demo, then whipping out the used coffee filter to show us the dirt content of my ledges, my walls, the creases where the floor and the wall meet.

Vacuum this area the best you can, he tells my husband, only to use his fancy, shiny model to prove what we are missing with our ten-year-old Hoover: sand, dirt, shredded bits of broken carpet knotted into miniature tumbleweeds.

He looks at me pointedly, this young boy. Do your kids crawl around on this floor? He says it gravely, holding the coffee filter out so I can see what is at stake here.

I try to stop the weird little laugh that bubbles up, but it’s no use, because my kids were actually eating leaves off the lilac bush today, and I had to pull wads of green mush out of their mouths.

Dane is every day catching some new slimy critter, and for all the scrubbing, I can’t seem to get the dirt out from under his fingernails. Liam is tasting grass and sand and various rocks, and this guy is holding up a little coffee filter of dust, and I’m thinking, Oh buddy, you have nooo idea.

And who can say what is under all this? What dirt we drag in from the outside world? Who knows what lodges itself in the fibers of our family? We wash and vacuum and at the end of the day throw those boys into the tub, but the dirt is in the air itself. It’s hitchhiking in on our skin. It’s invisibly working its way down into our carpet.

But there is this thing that the vacuum guy wants to sell me and it’s the same thing that the Christian culture has been selling for years: safety. A clean environment, free of contaminants. You put up these barriers to keep dirt out, and you hunker down with your dear ones. You use the $2500 vacuum and you clean the hell out of things.

I heard recently at the round table of my parenting class that the influx of allergies in recent years is partially due to over-sanitizing. That there is a purpose to all of this dirt, that these germs make our children stronger. That without it, their bodies turn in on themselves, become intolerant of even good things.

And it makes me think about the wild gray of parenting. It’s this ambiguous combination of protecting and releasing, of holding on and letting go, of discipline and freedom, and none of it is clean or sanitized or easy.

There is dirt embedded in every bit of it – our own selfishness, our own wrongness, our own baggage is deep in the carpet they crawl on.

The world is infused with pain and with evils of all shapes and sizes, and they will encounter it, our children. It will get under their fingernails, on their toes. And in the end what I want most to do for my children is to teach them to walk well in a world that is sharp and hard and broken. I want them to love bigger, to love stronger, to be able to stay healthy when they encounter dirt of all kinds.

I don’t know what that looks like exactly. But I think that the Gospel in action is not really about sanitizing or about collecting unseen dirt in coffee filters. It’s about a Love big enough to cover all that lies beneath the surface.

The vacuum salesman makes three strategic calls to his boss, bringing down the price by a full thousand dollars, but still we shake our heads. He puts away the vacuum attachments, the hose, the heavy metal base. Sighs.

When he opens the door to leave, invisible dirt particles fly in. They will work their way down into our inferiorly-vacuumed carpet. They will stay there, possibly until next time I get roped into a vacuum sales demo. There will be dirt, and we will teach our children, as best we can, to walk tall over it.

31 thoughts on “Safe for the Whole Family

  1. Oh my goodness, I just fell in love with everything you said. Also, I heard KLOVE echoing in the back of my head.

  2. I’ve said for several years now that I don’t want to insulate my kids from secular music, because I don’t want it to become the source of their rebellion when they turn 14. Maybe I’m crazy, I don’t know. (Well, I know that I sort of AM, but hey…) My son listens to the same Metallica, Guns and Roses, and the secular stations that I do. We get a little frustrated with Rihanna’s S and M and some of those that reference sex so callously, but, yeah, there’s music on his ipod with cuss words and violent references. Yet, he NEVER uses those words, and I think he gets more frustrated with “hell” and “damn” from the DJs mouths than even we do. The seven year old daughter watches far too much video with teen age stars, I know, but her creative mind sucks up “material” to play act because she loves performing. How much is too much? We don’t know, but we’ve seen MANY kids that were forced to “abstain” for all their lives go buck crazy as soon as they get out of mom and dad’s reach.

    Life is messy.

    1. Life IS messy. We’re not at the stage where we have to make decisions like that yet, and I’m glad that our biggest fight right now is about whether or not he can dig for worms.

      It is such a vast, gray area, a constant dance between protecting and guiding and letting go and trusting. I’m totally scared.

  3. This ties in with the “no fail” parenting too. I will want my children to fail a test, lose a baseball playoff game, I want them to (occasionally) disappoint themselves. Why would I want this for my own kids? Because I want them to want to avoid these things in their adult lives, and when failure does find them, to know how to deal with it. Good post Addie!

  4. My first thought (*) is that you are correct, you can’t isolate yourself from the world. You can stand apart by living out your values, but you have to do that in the world not apart from it.

    Completely isolating yourself from the world is never a good thing. Creating a walled compound to keep the world at bay most often ends up in separating you from reality, and finding yourself on the evening news.

    (*) Actually, my first thought was amazement that people still sell vacuum cleaners door to door. Who knew?

    1. I agree Dave. Love this: “You can stand apart by living out your values, but you have to do that in the world not apart from it.” Perfect summation.

      And yes, if anyone ever calls and offers you a Totally! Free! Carpet Cleaning! just say no. It’s not what you think.

    2. As the child of parents who created a walled compound–or maybe just joined one, the IFB–all I can say is “separating you from reality”? YES. Multiple, so many times, I have said “they are so out of touch with REALITY!” Ugh.

  5. there is a great book called Fearless Faith that challenges the insular sub(par!)cultures we’ve created. the premise is Jesus’ prayer in john 17:15

    “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.”

    we are here to get our hand dirty. lovely post, lady.

    1. Thanks so much Suzannah. Will have to check out that book! (Also…Christian sub(par!)culture? LOVE that.)

  6. Oh, I’ve been pondering this idea of why we “clean the hell out of things” lately. Why does so much of Christiandom prefer to isolate and stay in the bubble? It directly contradicts Christ’s teaching but we also miss out on so much. It is not good for us, just as you note it’s not good for us to isolate completely from the germs. Yes, we still need to wash our hands regularly and use good judgment when it comes to our “worldly” interactions. But we were never meant to devolve into us vs. them.

    1. Yes, Leigh. Such a difference between smart cleanliness and NEUROTIC cleanliness. And I think the evangelical culture has slipped into a sort of moral OCD. As if we can earn God’s love and grace through moral performance and right living. As if that was ever the point.

      1. Moral OCD–love that. And “As if we can earn God’s love and grace through moral performance and right living”: Yes, it so becomes that (in far too many circles). Since that theology (minus grace being what gets you in the door) was my starting point…I have much to untangle.

  7. Unrelated comment: My mom is such a clean-freak (cleanliness is ABOVE Godliness) that when they did the filter thing, it came clean. He tried several different spots. Same result. He left.

  8. I think part of the fear here is that some worry Christianity can’t handle the mess of this world, that Christianity is only a way out, not a transforming force from within… say like yeast.

    1. I agree. And when Christianity becomes Escapism, we’ve entered dangerous territory.

  9. Was it Kirby?? I was so insulted when they came to my house…they did the same thing “looked meaningfully at my dirt – then me!” Hate them with a passion. But loved the post. So – I live in Massachusetts. After living in Cairo, Egypt in a city of 21 million people by day, God has seen fit to have me living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Home of Harvard, MIT and in many ways, a faith vacuum. Sometimes I almost wish I could have a bubble because it is so unavailable to me and I want my kids to have a safe spot. A safe spot for faith like their gay friends have a safe spot at school. They have no Christian friends. Not one. Not even one they don’t really like that much. And I? I’m the same. And I don’t want a bubble. I hate bubbles. But the idea of sitting down and having a discussion on faith with someone instead of safe sex is so appealing to me. That said, your post challenges me to keep on creating a Holy home in the midst of my Cambridge world that challenges every fiber of my being. Because as you said so beautifully – “There will be dirt, and we will teach our children, as best we can, to walk tall over it.”

    1. I’m not naming names (but yes, it totally was).

      I’m sorry that you’re feeling so isolated from Christian community where you live. I think we all need and crave relationships with other people of faith, not so that we can circle the wagons and keep the outside world out, but so that we can encourage and help and hold each other up. That makes total sense to me.

      Be encouraged, friend. It sucks to lack that physical community, but we’re here, however virtually, however physically far away. (And if you’re ever in Minnesota…:))

  10. We called it “supervised exposure” when we raised our kids…
    I know two strong believers who are violating the “no cuss” rules they were raised with. And the argument that clear boundaries for our kids ensures their rebellion is a little sketchy. I just so long for us to keep our eye on the ball. Strike 1: Moral Majority. Strike 2: Focus on the Family. Generations of evangelicals were set firmly on the bench of life and mission because of those ridiculously influential movements that got all our eyes off the ball. Three strikes (Growing Kids God’s Way?) and we’re out.

    1. Yes. I love what you’ve said here. (P.S. I’d love to see you and Judy do a book on parenting next. I’d love to hear more about what you did, how you’d do it if you had to do it over, how we can make sure we don’t keep “striking out” as parents.)

  11. Good post Addie. In the North of England, there used to be an old saying: ‘you have to eat a peck of dirt!’ That sums it up really. They say that kids are so mollycoddled from all kinds of dirt and infection that they don’t develop antibodies against diseases, and so people are getting all kinds of silly little colds and infections all the time simply because parents are too protecting! How ironic really.

    We have to be concerned in today’s world, but we also have to have trust in God; He sees the bigger picture after all.

  12. I’ve always wondered why Christian music stations promote the fact that they are “kid safe” or “family friendly.” Is there a Christian station out there that isn’t? Is there some rogue Christian station on the air somewhere with a Howard Stern sound-a-like morning show, off-color jokes all day long and a racy relationship advice call-in show on late at night? I haven’t been around much, but I’m guessing there’s not. I’m guessing that the clean-cut nature of the programming is the reason that people are tuning in. I an effort to sanitize the radio, the industry has become so cookie cutter that you could argue that there is really only one Christian music station in the entire country. They just play local commercials.

    Personally, I’ve become very disillusioned with Christian music in the last few years. Most of it is morbidly introspective. And, honestly, some of it is just plain bad. What happened to the days of bands like Stryper who got mad respect from metal fans of every kind because they’re great musicians. I much prefer a band like U2 who continue to put out music dripping with Gospel and doing it better and with more honesty and truth than you’ll hear for hours on sanitized Christian radio.

    1. Yes, Aaron, I would agree with you on Christian radio personally. I know for a lot of people it’s a helpful place for encouragement and inspiration, and I don’t begrudge them that, but it mostly just awakens my inner-cynic when I listen to it. I find it easier to hear God’s voice in the poetry of less overtly “Christian” bands. Often through songs with…GASP…swear words. It’s all a little blurry, isn’t it?

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