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Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

Big bears!

Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2013, at 2:07 PM

I went back to Evansville for our family Christmas gathering. My only surviving sibling (and much older-than-me sister!) wanted to go to the Evansville Museum for a few hours and invited me to go with her, a very surprising invitation since she hasn't been inside any museum's doors since Richard Nixon was president.

It turns out that she had read in the Evansville paper about the return of the Kodiak bear.

Allow me to explain. In the 1950s someone from Evansville had been hunting in Alaska and came back having survived a contest with a Kodiak bear. He donated his "trophy" to the Evansville Museum and so the bear had stood in a basement corner frightening little children.

My sister and I had very creative parents! They had different levels of ... discipline for breaking their rules. When all else failed to keep us under control my parents would announce that they were going to leave us with the bear at the museum. As children we would go there and stare for what seemed like hours at the very tall, very angry looking, and very hungry looking bear. Back in those days you could touch the bear and, after doing so, we would run screaming to our parents and promise to obey all that they told us to do. This once-a-month drama must have been repeated for several years.

Having read in the newspaper that the bear was once again on display, we searched for nearly an hour until finally finding the poor thing now behind protective plastic. It stands just a little bit taller than me. It's size is not that much larger than my sister. Even the teeth show some of the wear and tear of the years since it was alive.

I turned to my sister and said, "it doesn't look so frightening now, does it?"

We were looking at this stuffed bear as adults, siblings now surely passed the halfway mark of our lives. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't care to wrestle with a living Kodiak bear under any circumstances. However, this stuffed bear no longer had that fantasy allure to it, that imaginary, fantastic fear that my parents were able to use.

Like most of the things that frighten us in childhood, I now saw this Kodiak bear as being just a Kodiak bear. I recognize it for what it is and not for what my childish imagination had created.

I no longer obey rules because of fear instilled by my parents. Don't get me wrong. I still obey rules but now see other benefits for doing so besides avoiding punishment or being lunch in a bear's stomach.

Weeks later, I'm walking through our local Walmart when I hear parents trying to control their children by instilling fear in them. They weren't using a Kodiak bear in some dark basement corner of a museum. They were using religious references. "The Devil has gotten ahold of you," I heard one say to what must have been a three year old. "God will punish you for putting me through what you're putting me through," I heard another say to an apparent seven year old.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a firm believer in "all things Christian" as one of my seminary professors used to say. Yet, those children I saw in Walmart are going to grow up. Will they become adults who believe negative, limiting statements they heard from their parents years ago, possibly suffering a lifetime of self-doubt and low sense of worth to the community or even to themselves? I hope not.

At the same time I fear they will grow up and stand "face to face" with the realities of what was once effective discipline. God won't have "punished" them for things they did. Will they reject the idea of the punishing God or will they reject the idea of God?

I stood with my sister remarking that the wrathful bear of our childhood didn't look so scary anymore. Please don't put it into children's thoughts that God is a wrathful God, a punishing God, or weak in comparison to others. What might work as effective discipline now could easily backfire on you.

After all, there really are frightening Kodiak bears in Alaska.

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Sunshine for the Soul
Rev. P.T. Wilson
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P.T. Wilson is the senior pastor at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, Greencastle, and is also the University Chaplain at DePauw University.
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