On Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Freedom and Inability

“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” -1 Corinthians 26-29

For the last 5 years, I have been a part of a preaching program at my school; the Preaching Ambassadors. A few months ago we had an informational meeting and anyone who was interested in joining the program could come and find out what it was like, and hear from veteran Preaching Ambassadors (which I was). There came a time during the meeting when the potentials could ask questions. One of them asked me, “How do you come up with an idea for a sermon? / how do you prepare a sermon?”

For most of my time in the Preaching ambassadors I had that same question – and it’s a very frustrating one, because almost every other weekend you would be going to a place you’d never been, meeting people you didn’t know, and living with families you’ve never met, and you were expected to prepare a message that meant something to them. After a while that wears on you! Every week you sit with your Bible and you just wait for an inspiring idea for a sermon to hit you, and you try to become super-sensitive to the spirit who knows what those people need to hear. Needless to say, it’s stressful.

Somewhere along the way, when I was going through a rough time in my life and couldn’t focus on anything (but was still expected to preach), I stumbled on something that I still stand by, and it was an answer to that same question that I had for myself: How do I prepare a sermon/develop a sermon idea?

It hit me: preach where you are. What is God teaching you in your life right now? Share that! What are you wrestling with? What are you going through? Make that your message, and allow your current place in life to communicate God to someone.

customer-satisfaction

I think that we, as ministers (whether by vocation or by the fact that we’re Christians) put a lot of pressure on ourselves to always have these profound thoughts or deep insights whenever we meet people. Or we think that, in order to speak into someone’s life, we need to be at this ideal spiritual level. So, what sometimes happens is that, when we meet with people – whether strangers or friends – we feel like we don’t have anything to offer them unless we’re running on a spiritual high or we become emotionally charged during the conversation.

This is something that I really appreciate the passage in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. There is a lot to be gained from these verses, but one thing that sticks out to me is that God doesn’t need us to be in some super-Christian place in order to touch someone’s life or be used by God. He uses us right where we are. I think there’s a lot of comfort in that – I think we need to give ourselves permission to be ourselves, and to say, “who I am is okay.” Instead of trying to constantly reach this new level while saying, “Oh, I would love to do more, if only [this] were different,” or “if I could be more like [this] instead of where I am now.”

That’s why I love our Wesleyan view of holiness. I forget which sermon it was, but John Wesley says that the moment we become a Christian, and the spirit of God enters into our being, that is what makes us holy. So the Christian life/sanctification is not this linear progression towards holiness that says, “someday I’ll reach this Christian ideal, but I’m not there yet”. The Christian life is about accepting that we are already holy, and then sanctification is the process of working that out and discovering what it means to be holy now that we are holy.

And it’s true that God is continually working in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we’re sub-Christian or less useful today than we will be tomorrow. Go wants to use us wherever we are. So the question is: are we allowing ourselves to be where we are, or are we too distracted by where we could be?

I’ll give you an example: I struggled a bit with coming to Kenya as a minister. I felt like 4 months was far too short of a time for me to be here. How could I possibly learn enough about the culture, language, and all the conversational nuances in 4 months to be able to minister to people? I was operating under the assumption that God couldn’t use me where I was. The truth is, if God wanted me to be an expert in African philosophy, culture, and language right when I got off the plane, then I would have been an expert right when I got off the plane. But, I wasn’t.

I wonder how many of us wrestle with thoughts like that. We think that we need to be at some other level in whatever before God can use us to be his hands and feet. I’m sure we’ve all heard the adage that “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” I think this statement deserves some articulation, because it seems to promote the idea that when God calls us we are not yet qualified to do ministry. But, the truth is that God calls us where we are for a reason; because he wants to use us where we are.

As long as we are honestly, earnestly seeking after God and desiring to be more like Christ, then we need not be concerned with our ability to ministry. Tomorrow we will be someone else, because God is constantly developing us. But today is not tomorrow. We need to be who we are today, and that is acceptable. After all, God is the one who makes us who we are, and God is the one who does most of the work.

Do we really believe this?

On Humanity and Resurrection (Part 2)

A few months ago I had a conversation with someone very close to me.  We were sitting on a couch together and began talking about what life will be like after we die.  Since we both experienced losing someone close to us, it seemed an appropriate conversation to have at the time.  Through the conversation, however, I was intrigued to hear how the person I was conversing with thought of what life will be like.

I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I do remember some key points in our conversation.  The main ideas my partner had about the afterlife were as follows (If this person is reading this, please forgive me if I am remembering them wrong): We will not recognize people, and we will have no memories of our life on this earth.  A third idea that others tend to add on to this list is that we will not have a physical existence; we will exist solely in spirit.

jesusresurrection_2When I preach, I often say a simple phrase at one point in my sermon when I am expounding on a Scriptural idea.  The phrase is this: “If we take this seriously, then what does that mean for us?”  In this instance, I want to use it in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ:  “If we take the resurrection of Jesus Christ seriously, then what does that mean for us in terms of life after death?”  This is a critically important part of theology, not only because it talks about Jesus, but because Jesus was fully man and so what he experienced shows us what we as humans will experience.  If Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t show us what our future existence will be, then his resurrection really doesn’t mean anything.

So, what did Jesus show us about life after death in his resurrection?  Well, for starters, he recognized people.  When Jesus rose from the dead, he went to meet with the disciples and had conversation with them.  He knew their names, and they knew his. They recognized who Jesus was.  In fact, Jesus referenced previous conversations with the disciples as we see in Luke 24 (verse 44 specifically).  He knew who people were, and death did not sever his relationship with them.

Also, Jesus did not have his memory wiped upon his death.  He could clearly recollect people, conversations, and memories.  At one point, while he was talking along the road to Emmaus, he went through the entire Old Testament to show the people he was walking with that this man who died was the Messiah.  What he referenced from the Old Testament was what he learned as a Jewish student while he was growing up.  I find it difficult to say much more because John 20 and Luke 24 so clearly portray Jesus as not only recognizing people but he was also able to clearly remember things from his life before death.

Lastly, Jesus had a physical existence.  It’s not as if Jesus resurrected in a spiritual ethereal form.  he even directly says to his disciples, “Look at my hands and my feet.  It is I myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39)  He was able to eat, walk on solid ground, and be touched by others (John 20:27).  God himself took on a physical, material existence even after he had died, although for whatever reason we tend to demonize the material world as insignificant compared to the spiritual world.  Jesus shows that both are significant.

So, let me ask again, “If we take the resurrection of Jesus seriously, then what does this mean for us?”  For one, it means that when we die we will not have our memories erased.  We will be able to recognize people and share memories with others.  Second, it means that we can look forward to a material existence.  We will have physical bodies, and our life will be just as real as it is now.  God himself created the material and the physical and saw that it was “good,” so why would he abandon it and have us live in purely spiritual forms?  (By the way, this notion that a solely spiritual existence after death is what we can expect is not a Scriptural idea. It stems from Plato’s teachings, not Jesus)

I will admit, it is difficult for us to contemplate having memory after we die.  How can we really enjoy the presence of God if our memories consist of sin, brokenness, pain, loss, and imperfection?  I contend that it is in light of our imperfection that we can better see who God is.  If we have no memory after we die and join the community of Faith that has gone before us, then God means nothing to us.  Why would we need to worship God?  What would make God worthy of our praise if we knew absolutely nothing of our sin and need for grace?  Why would we need a savior, and what makes Jesus so significant?

in truth, if we have no memory after we die then God is a cruel being.  People would exist in Hell with no idea of why they are suffering eternally, except to know that God sentenced them there.  Likewise, people would exist in Heaven without knowing what brought them there in the first place.  Also, it nullifies the Judgment.  How can someone who has their memory erased care about having their deeds read back to them during the Final Judgment, as if they can associate themselves with their earthly actions?  This brings me to my next point.

If we have no memory when we die, then our existence on this earth does not mean anything.  We would merely be pawns of God, doing things that carry eternal significance without even remembering the joys of participating with God in redeeming the world.

I want to be careful here, because I know that many people hold these ideas very dearly, and the person I had a conversation with is someone I deeply love and respect.  I am, however, concerned with our general lack of appreciation in what the resurrection of Jesus means.  Our future life is something to anticipate and be excited about, not just because we will be in perfect relationship with God (although that is certainly a major part of it), but because we will be reunited with our loved ones and we will be able to talk with one another just as we have here in this life.  In truth, we give death far too much power if we think that it can separate us from one another indefinitely.  When we carry the belief that “when someone dies that is the end of our relationship with them”, we are neglecting the unifying power of God and the incredible unity of the community of believers.  God created the Church to be a family of believers that not even Hell can prevail against.  Death cannot sever our relationships with loved ones, because the bond of the Spirit is greater, and Christ showed us that in his resurrection.

One final thought here.  I anticipate that some will be tempted to say, “well, it’s all well and good to say those things about the resurrection, but Jesus was God.”  True, but Jesus was also fully man.  As I said in my previous post, either we accept that everything Jesus did expressed both the fulness of his divinity and the fullness of his humanity, or we need to throw the crucifixion and resurrection out the window because they won’t mean anything otherwise.

Do we really take the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus seriously?