We have a few good phrases we say in our house a lot, little catchphrases or sentences that carry a lot of meaning in just a few words. They are the phrases that distill a lot of conversation into one sentence. For instance, we say “calm your heart” and “we use our words to love each other.” This is another one: Guard your gates.
It was Halloween and we were at my parents’ house helping to hand out candy. We aren’t really into Halloween and so we hadn’t made a big deal out of it. At the time, Anne was barely two and Joe was only a month old so the idea of trick-or-treating was more daunting than delightful. So we stayed inside and handed out candy with my parents. Anne was off and about, playing here and there, but she happened to wander past the front door right at the moment that I opened up the door to a gaggle of teenagers decked out as zombies and witches. We can talk about whether or not teenagers with beards should be trick-or-treating another time perhaps, but I’ll tell you this: Anne was terrified of them. She didn’t even scream and cry, she just froze in absolute fear, her eyes swallowing her face as the color drained.
My mother saw her reaction and quickly scooped her up and away from the door. After I finished with the teens and shut the door, Anne was perched on my mother’s lap. I was privileged to overhear my mother helping my daughter learn how to deal with fear. As best I can remember it—it’s been six years and more babies since then—this is what she said:
“Annie, that was scary, wasn’t it?” Anne nodded, her mouth quivering. “Well, you know what? You don’t have to let that fear into your mind and into your heart, sweetheart. Just because there are scary things, it doesn’t mean you need to invite them. Let’s pretend your heart and your mind have a gate, OK? And we can either open the gate to scary things or things that make us bad or do bad things. Or we can shut that gate. Sometimes we still see things over a gate, right? But we don’t have to open the door and invite them to come in and set up forever. If scary things come into your mind and heart, it’s hard to get rid of them. Your eyes and your ears are your gates, Annie. So if you ever see something that makes you feel really scared or makes you want to do bad things, you just shut your ears and your eyes to it. You need to guard your gates, baby. If you guard your gates, then nothing will come into your mind and heart that you don’t want in there.
You want to open your gate up to the good things, sweetheart. You open your heart and your mind up to the things that make you laugh or make you good or make you think. “
Annie got it. Since then, all of the tinies have gotten it. In her childlike trust, she believed my mother, and the thing is, I did, too. Tinies are so sensitive, so easily influenced, so perceptive. Of course I wanted to guard her gates and teach her how to do the same thing. We are careful about what we allow the tinies to watch and experience and listen to—we know that it can become part of their very selves.
In a way, it’s become a bit of a family joke. If we’re watching Hockey Night in Canada and a commercial for a horror film comes on (seriously, HNIC, why do you do this? You know kids are watching), someone—often one of the tinies themselves—will holler “GUARD YOUR GATES” and then the tinies clap their hands over their ears and screw their eyes shut. They know that if they see that terrified girl or that blood dripping down an arm, it will become part of their mind and their heart, haunting their dreams.
I’m sure that when the tinies are all grown up, they’ll laugh themselves silly over how we used to holler “guard your gates!” during the commercial breaks of Chopped on the Food Network because an ad for a primetime show came on. Whatever. What’s parenting for if not to give them a few ways to laugh at you later on?
Confession time though: I still guard my gates. I’ve admitted at long last that I’m not immune either. I’ve learned to guard what I watch or listen to even in movies and television and music. Not because I have some weird legalistic thing about it, but because I’ve finally admitted what most everyone who loves me has known for a lot longer: I’m very sensitive. The tinies come by their sensitivities quite honestly. I take these things into my mind and heart and they latch on. I’d rather not open the doors of my heart wide to fear or lust or violence, for instance. If I believe those things are antithetical to life in Christ, then why am I flinging wide my own gates to them?
It’s funny how much I’ve tried to pretend that I’m beyond being influenced. Like I’m supposed to be so past it, so over it, that it doesn’t bother me or impact me. Like what I listen to or watch doesn’t affect what I think and how I speak and how I move through my life, how I view humanity and violence, sex and God.
Brian and I tried to watch a show recently that everyone was raving about. We made it through two episodes before we realized we were both sitting there with a cringe-y look on our faces. “It’s just not us to watch this stuff, is it?” he said. “It makes my soul feel sad,” I admitted. So we turned it off. Maybe we can’t keep up with 99 percent of pop culture references, but I’m OK with that. Lesson learned. And yet I watch my fair share of crap, too—I can’t figure it out either. Some things just make me a worse version of myself. I can admit that now.
But as the tinies grow up, the simplicity of that instruction has shifted. As we deal with friends and challenges and new influences, we’ve had more conversations about what it means to guard your gates beyond just slapping your hands over your ears.
Guard your gates now means that we get to decide who influences us—how we think, how we feel, what we do.
As in most things to do with parenting, I find I’m learning right along with the tinies.
One of the tinies recently asked to listen to some quiet reinterpretations of old hymns after our bedtime prayers. “It feels like someone is still praying over me as I go to sleep, it keeps the gate open to good things,” they said. Another time, we had to have long talks about the influences of certain friends and how these friendships had opened up the gates to some unacceptable behaviors and habits. It was time to practice guarding the gates against those influences while still being kind and friendly.
When we have the agency or choice (which we don’t always have), we want to be careful about who and what takes up residence in our minds and our hearts.
I think this is the hard thing about parenting—OK, who am I kidding? One of many hard things—this whole “finding a way to help lead and teach and model nuance and wisdom” thing. When the tinies were toddlers, it was as simple as “shut your eyes and shut your ears” to scary things. Done and done.
But now that they are getting older, guarding one’s gates has to become an act of Holy-Spirit-led discernment.
Because there are times in our lives when we damn well better open our minds and our hearts to things that make us uncomfortable. In fact, I think sometimes a lot of good Christians take the toddler approach to “guard your gates”—they just don’t listen to or hear anything that might be difficult or complex or heart-breaking. They go through life with their fingers in their ears and their eyes screwed up tight against anything that might challenge them.
Indeed, I have been thinking a lot lately about the importance of listening to the stories that make us uncomfortable and challenge our peace. Just because something is terrible to learn, it doesn’t mean that I need to guard my gates against it. As Christians, I think it’s our responsibility to carry each others’ burdens and be a part of restoring justice for one another. Sometimes that means being able to carry truly terrible truths without letting it bury us whole. We grow in these places of challenge and hardship. Guarding my gates doesn’t mean shutting out the cries of our brothers and sisters.
Sometimes the most holy work we can do is listen to each others’ stories and take their suffering into our hearts, carrying each others’ burdens and wounds to Christ.
So, no, I don’t guard my gates against simply terrible or scary things anymore. Instead, I want to guard my gates against what diminishes wholeness and holiness in me.
I guard against the influences that make me the worst version of myself, the influences that feed my natural tendencies toward sin and bitterness, rage and cynicism, seeing the worst of people and being quick to offense.
This is a hard thing to write about without sounding like this is an exercise in boundary-marking and legalism. I’m not really into policing anyone else’s standards. I tend to trust the Holy Spirit in you. But it’s also a good bit of common sense to me now.
Sometimes it is this simple: Is this influence—whether it’s a book or a movie or a friendship or a Facebook page—bringing life and wholeness and the fruit of the Spirit to me and others? Is it challenging me to be fully alive, to be more compassionate and human, to be more wise and loving?
It doesn’t have to be pleasant, oh no, sometimes the things that bring compassion and wisdom and wholeness into our lives are the very things that break our hearts or make us angry or challenge us.
Even in the face of terrible and terrifying things, I want to open my gates to the influences that will help make me whole and holy. I want to grieve and lament, push back against evil and darkness, challenge injustice while still, as Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8-9, ”filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”
And I want to open wide the gates of my heart and my mind to the influences that bring life and light, goodness and holiness, to me.
I want to fill my heart with those things because then when I encounter the terrible and the terrifying, my true life will brim over into true words and deeds that bring life (Luke 6:44).
I have no idea if this makes any sense.