Two sayings broken beyond repair

penWhen I was a boy and something broke, I’d take it to my dad. In my mind, he could fix anything. We’d go down in the basement to his work bench where we’d poke around in some of the boxes and containers. One tube of epoxy glue, one vice and 24 hours of patience later, whatever had been broken was as good as new.

Sometimes it’s not just objects that are broken. Sayings can be broken, too. Sometimes they can be fixed; other times, they’re beyond repair.

One of Israel’s favorite proverbs was broken and could not be fixed:

What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! (Ezekiel 18:2-3, CEB).

The proverb had become an excuse to shift blame. The rest of chapter 18 drives home the point that we must not blame our sins on those who came before us. Each of us is morally responsible before God as individuals.

Could what was true in Ezekiel’s day be true in ours? Is God asking us to jettison some sayings that have become counterproductive? Here are two that – like a dusty can of corn whose expiration date has passed – should be tossed in the trash, no longer fit for human consumption.

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

God’s grace is an amazing thing! Without it, we would be lost (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11). But in practice, we don’t read all the way to the end of the sentence. We get bogged down in the first four words, putting a full-stop where it doesn’t belong: “I’m just a sinner.”

The result is a sinning religion, a Christianity full of forgiveness but devoid of Christlikeness. We “get saved,” meaning that we’ve tucked our ticket for heaven in our wallet or purse for safekeeping. Now – so we think – we can do what we please. In theological terms, we may have been justified but we’ve stopped short of sanctification. The summit of the mountain lies ahead, but we’re satisified to camp out in the foothills.

Yet God invites us to climb higher. The lowlands of sin are behind us and there’s no turning back. Paul reminds the Corinthians that – while sin was a part of their past – it is no longer what they are about (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And because of this, Peter insists: “You will be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, CEB). 

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace” can be an entry ramp to the highway of spiritual compromise. It’s the travel companion of similar sayings like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It rationalizes our sinful ways by conditioning us to live with a divided heart, forgetting that those who are double-minded are “unstable in all their ways” (James 1:8, CEB). Yet Christ calls us to a deeper life, one characterized by joyfully living into the ways of God. John Wesley called it “holiness of heart and life,” understanding that the very essence of holiness is love for God and others (Mark 12:28-34).

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

If love is the very essence of holiness, then we must address a second saying that claims to be loving. But is it?

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

The saying at a certain level sounds like Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV). But can we ignore the repulsive effect that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb has upon listeners? It is often in social media conversations around sexuality that well-intentioned Christians trot out the proverb, thinking all the while that they’re being graceful in doing so. But any communication has two parties, a transmitter and a receiver. Effective communication only happens when the message transmitted is accurately decoded by the listener in the way that the sender intended.  And it is here that the breakdown occurs. The first phrase – “Hate the sin” – begins with the imperative, “Hate.” Like a flash-bang grenade tossed into the conversation, it deafens the listener to any words that follow. They never hear “love the sinner” because the only message they’ve received is that they are “the sinner” who is hated. If our objective is an evangelistic conversation, has the door just slammed shut? 

Some have suggested reversing the words so that the saying becomes: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” At least we then lead with love, not judgment. This seems closer to Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). First, he pronounced words of love to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (11a, CEB). Then, he instructed her to abandon her wrongdoing: “Go, and from now on, don’t sin any more” (11b). 

But I still wonder if the saying is beyond repair. Even if we lead with love by frontloading the words “love the sinner,” the proverb still has a whiff of smug judgmentalism about it. Phylicia Masonheimer asks:

Do we actually hate sin, or do we simply love judgment?

In “hate the sin, love the sinner,” the couplet “the sinner” comes across as clinical, like a medical journal article discussing “the patient.” It’s cold, aloof, and off-putting, like when a man talks publicly about “the wife.” What listener wants to have the verbal label “the sinner” taped on their chest? While it is theologically correct as a description of those who have not yet come to Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:10), we need God’s wisdom to know when is the right time as a relationship develops to speak of sin and its meaning. In our social media interactions, we forget that often we have not yet earned the right to speak at that deeper level, that many of our readers are still ripening to God through the action of prevenient grace. Our words will either stir up that grace or douse it. Experience tells us that whatever our intentions, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb pushes people away.  Isn’t it time for it to go?

Summing it all up

My dad was gifted at fixing broken objects. Sometimes when sayings are broken, they, too, can be mended. But there are other times when it’s best to just throw them out. The expressions “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” and “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are two such popular sayings, well-intended but counteproductive. May the Holy Spirit help us to be sensitive to these and other sayings that produce negative effects.

 

 

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When you’re the minority

eggsIt’s known as the country of hospitality, and for good reason. Living for 4 1/2 years (1999-2003) in the welcoming but scorching and malaria-ridden African nation of Benin was simultaneously a joy and a monumental challenge. We’ll forever be grateful that they took-in an American missionary family and – despite our failings – opened their hearts to us and loved us. We will always have Beninese soil in our shoes!

For all the positive memories of Benin that I treasure, one negative memory was a phrase we heard too many times to count:

Yovo, yovo, bon soir. Ça va? Cadeau!

Translation: “White person, white person, good evening. How are you? Give me a gift!”

It was a little sing-song that parents taught their children, what they apparently thought was a harmless ice-breaker. Every day Monday through Friday, I’d arrive at the church office to the enthusiastic greetings of a small group of neighborhood children. “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” I knew they meant well, so I’d shake their hands and tell them:

It’s true, my skin is white, but I have a name. It’s Pastor Crofford. What is your name?

I’m a teacher, so I was confident I could gradually teach a proper greeting to a group of little boys and girls, and they responded well. No longer was I “yovo.” Little-by-little, they called me “Pastor.” But around town was a different story. Outside of restaurants? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Walking down the street? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” Arriving at one of our new churches? “Yovo, yovo, bon soir!” And it wasn’t always just children; sometimes adults also called you “yovo.” I’d remind myself that it didn’t matter, not to be so sensitive. But when it’s happening for the 10th time in one day, it’s like a grain of sand in your shoe on a long walk. It might be small, but it starts to grate you. You begin to wonder: 

Is the only thing about me that’s worth mentioning…my skin color?

Somewhere down in my soul, a seed of resentment quietly sprouted and took root. “You’re a Christian, a missionary no less!” I would preach at myself, but like fighting the Borg, resistance seemed futile.

One Sunday night we had a Bible study. Missionaries from various churches gathered at the house of an American diplomat. We always supsected that high-ranking U.S. Embassy personnel like “Rick” (not his name) lived in an involuntary bubble, but Rick confirmed our suspicions. He’d already lived in Cotonou for over a year. A week earlier, he’d been drafted to run in a 5k, representing the U.S. mission. We asked him how he’d done. He’d run well, but many had called out to him from the sides of the route, so he asked us:

What’s with this “yovo” thing?

We burst into laughter. We’d known about it since our first day in the country.

My wife, Amy, had a chance to chat with her adult English students, a dozen or so upper-class and well-connected Beninese. “What do you think of Benin?” they asked. She complimented them on the many things we liked, but got brave. “There is something you should change,” she remarked. “Get rid of the ‘yovo, yovo, bon soir’ chant. Ex-pats hate it.” It was an eye-opening moment for them. They thought the chant was welcoming; we saw it as a nuisance, a constant reminder that we were “other.”

Before we left the country a year later, we noticed fewer children were chanting it. When I visited Cotonou again four years later, the chant was gone!

Living in two West African nations for nine years forced me into a skin-color role reversal I never would have otherwise known.

In the New York state Erie Canal town where I attended school as a youth, African-American students – or “Negroes” as was commonly said then- were rare. Likewise, the college and seminary where I studied were almost entirely white. After seminary, I pastored a church in a Midwestern town that until 1948 had maintained two hospitals, one a well-equipped facility for white citizens and a separate (and inferior) hospital for black citizens. Our ministerial association had only white pastors, though there were some small all-black churches on the “other side of the tracks,” far away from our all-white churches.

My experiences in life until age 30 had been as a white person living in a white world. I had zero experience being in the minority. It’s hardly surprising then that I had no way to interpret the seemingly over-the-top comment of an African-American pastor who guest lectured in class one day. The only black man in the room speaking to a room full of white seminarians, he bravely observed (paraphrased):

Whether you acknowledge it or not, everyone in this room is at least somewhat racist. You can’t help it; that is the way you’ve been shaped by your white culture.

That was until I lived in West Africa. Only then, as a white raft adrift in a sea of black, did I have some appreciation of what it means to be perceived through the narrow lens of skin color. One of my Ivorian students admitted: “When we were little, our parents told us that when white people sleep, coins fall out of their ears.” I laughed! Maybe this was the tooth-fairy legend garbled? “No coins in my ears or on my pillow,” I assured him.

But when do seemingly harmless stereotypes mutate into something more sinister?

In the United States, white supremacist ideology is pernicious because it stubbornly rejects what God has revealed, that all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). It thrives on discredited notions of eugenics, that there are superior “races” and inferior “races” rather than a single race, the human race. Contrary to the Apostle Paul, who taught that we are “one in Christ Jesus” no matter our gender, our nationality, or whether we are slave or free (Galatians 3:28), the twisted thinking of racism conditions children to fixate on the minor differences that divide us rather than celebrating the major similarities that unite us.

Sometimes the seeds of discrimination are planted subtly. When I was five or six, I’d sometimes watch public television. (It was “Sesame Street” or a similar educational program.) Three colorful round shapes appeared on the screen, and one square one. The catchy jingle?

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

It’s only in retrospect that I’m appalled by the lesson since little boys and girls have no way to process it. How would I have felt if I were Bruce or his sister, Julie, the only two African-American students in my class of twenty-five at elementary school? The sub-text was clear: I’m not like the others, so I don’t belong. 

This was public television, but shouldn’t Christian churches do better?

I loved my childhood church. At church, I learned many good things, including what it means to love God, but it’s not all that I learned. One adult, “Steve,” (not his name) would tell jokes at church at the expense of black people. His prejudiced yarns drew nervous chuckles from his grown-up listeners, but no one challenged him publicly.

Or how about the pastor who a few years ago – after a missionary service where they’d responsed well to the report of our work in Africa – walked us to the parking lot. He advised us to turn right out of the parking lot and not left. Why? “You’ll want to avoid the ‘bad part of town.’ ” The pastor drove off, but when he was out of sight, we turned left anyways, driving into the “bad part of town.” (It looked fine to us). For an hour, we enjoyed a tasty meal at a restaurant, the only white customers yet welcomed by the smiles of two dozen African-Americans who seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did.

Once, my fellow bank-teller during a lull in the drive-thru lamented (in all seriousness) that black men were “out to sleep with white women.” I mumbled a half-hearted protest, but uncomfortable, changed the subject.

NileCrocodile

Racism is pernicious because – like a crocodile – it lurks just below the surface of the human heart. You never know when it’s going to surface, clamp down on a victim and drag them under. Like the person who sees the splinter in the eye of her sister, not realizing the board she has in her own (Matthew 7:5), we must constantly bring ourselves before the Lord and ask God to examine our hearts, to “see if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:13, NIV). We must sing the old Methodist hymn: “It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”

When all your life you have been part of the majority group, it’s tough to put yourself in the shoes of the minority.

Yet if my experience in West Africa of being a minority teaches me anything, it reminds me that my “default” position should be to give credance to the complaints of minorities and not simply shrugging: “There they go again, playing the race card” or dismissing charges of prejudice out-of-hand as exaggerations.

Change came when the Beninese took our “yovo, yovo” complaint seriously, and started teaching their children a different way of interacting with expatriates. How about us, as white Americans? Are we willing to listen, to allow minorities to point out our blind spots, and to adjust our behavior accordingly? May we be willing to pray, as Jesus taught us: “Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others…” (Matthew 6:12, CEV). And once forgiven, may God grant that we become the Lord’s agents of reconciliation.


Image credits

Eggs — Keira Hamilton, on Linked-In

Crocodiles — CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66978

Cultivating curiosity

1024px-Curiosity_in_childrenJames writes that our life is but a vapor, here today, gone tomorrow (James 4:14). Life’s brevity means that we can’t experience everything, even if you give full-time to your “bucket list.”

There is so much to learn, and so little time.

While I’ve been able to experience some things in my life that others will never experience – such as living as a missionary in four different African nations – what one chooses necessarily precludes other choices. There are other paths unchosen that I’ll never walk, even if I had the aptitude early on to do so.

I will never…

-Pilot a 747, though as a boy I thought I would become a pilot and was fascinated by jets;

-Be a bank officer, though I’ve been a teller more than once and was eyed by management for promotion;

-Work as a medical doctor, though I was in the top 3 of my zoology class as a college freshman;

Obedience to God’s calling on my life has led me in a different direction. I married, went to seminary, pastored a church, had children, then went overseas as a missionary educator. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Yet one of the dangers of specialization is the death of a wider curiosity.

As a theological educator, most of my reading is given to religious topics. I can read entire books on theological subjects that fascinate me but that would seem esoteric to you. How many people, after all, care much about the soteriological implications of the eschaton? (Eschatology – the doctrine of “last things” – is high on my list, and I’ve even written a book about hell). Someone once defined doing doctoral research as “learning more and more about less and less.” There’s some truth to that!

With the advance of knowledge, specializaton seems unavoidable. In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had the reputation of being a “universal man.” Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was similar; both had broad interests, expertise, and accomplishments in multiple fields. But in the 21st century, it’s hard to find anyone who has an encyclopedic knowledge like theirs. Too many additional volumes are in the encyclopedia now, too many “hits” from a simple Google search.

The downside of specialization – no matter what your field of study – is that a kind of glaucoma can set in, an intellectual narrowing of the field of vision.

So while I can have a stimulating conversation at a meeting of a theological society, what do I say when I sit on a plane next to a fellow passenger who is a supply chain manager, a physical therapist, or a gay activist? We live in different worlds. Rather than engage the conversation, I might choose to watch a movie or read my book about John Wesley. It’s a safe choice, but there’s no connection. Community suffers.

Yet specialization need not mean the death of a broader curiosity. With a healthy curisoity comes the ability to interact fruitfully with people from various walks of life. To this day, I will sometimes read about airplanes, follow financial news, or learn something new about biology. Though I didn’t walk down the career path of pilot, banker, or medical doctor, when I need a break from theology, I’ll dip my toe in another pool.

Curiosity is the mother of learning. Here are a three practical ways to cultivate curiosity:

1. Get a liberal arts education. I’m part of a denomination that sponsors multiple liberal arts universities. (Full disclosure: I teach at one, Africa Nazarene University). Though I was a religion major in undergrad, Eastern Nazarene College required me to take a number of “core” courses including World Literature, Living Issues, Intro to Math, Arts and Music, and General Psychology. This helped me situate the “tree” of my own discipline (religion) within a broader “forest” of knowledge. Even if what I gained was just general knowledge about various subjects, I at least knew where to start if ever I wanted to dig deeper. Because of a liberal arts education, I’m more likely to ask good questions from specialists if I want to know more. That makes for human connection.

2.  Listen to others with opposing viewpoints. One of my life’s guiding principles is this:

The first duty of love is to listen.

512px-Ear

 

Are you pro-choice? Read a pro-life website. Are you a Republican? Read a Democratic friendly news weekly.

You may not be convinced by the other side, but the discipline of curiously probing why others draw different conclusions than you do will help us avoid demonizing the “other.” Curiosity helps us co-exist, even if sometimes we must “agree to disagree.”

3. Read a book outside your discipline. During this “staycation,” I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in an Age of Accelerations (2016). It was a gift from a friend who knows you can’t hammer out good theology if you don’t understand the context in which you’re theologizing.

Ours is a world of specialization. While mostly a blessing, let us not become so narrow that broad-based curiosity dies. Let us keep cultivating a healthy curiosity so that – while we may never totally agree with one another – at least we can understand each other. Then maybe, just maybe, we can live together in peace.


 

Image credits

Big brother and baby: By Vitold Muratov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons;

Human ear: By David Benbennick (took this photograph today) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Followers of the Prince of Peace?

640px-Collared_DoveJesus is all about peace.

Isaiah 9:6 (NIV) foretold his birth, predicting the coming of one who would bear four exalted titles: 1) Wonderful Counselor; 2) Mighty God; 3) Everlasting Father, and 4) Prince of Peace.

When the Messiah arrived, his message included this important, peaceful strand. The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in both Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6:20-49, but is it in Matthew’s account where the peace motif shines. Among the famed Beatitudes, we find this commendation:

Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children (Matthew 5:9, CEB).

At his arrest, Jesus corrected Peter when his petulant disciple drew his sword to defend the Lord. “Put back your sword in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all those who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52, NIV). The rest of Jesus’ words on the occasion are lesser known: “Or do you think that I’m not able to ask my Father and he will send to me more than twelve battle groups of angels right away? But if I did that, how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say this must happen?” (vv. 53-54, CEB). Jesus overcame one of history’s greatest acts of terrorism – crucifixion – not through superior strength but through a radical act of passive non-resistance. God exalted the Prince of Peace by raising him from the dead, vindication and a seal of approval upon Jesus’ counterintuitive ways (Acts 2:31-33).

Elsewhere, the New Testament affirms the humility that is inherent in the peace ethic. Paul portrays Christ as one who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, CEB). Following Jesus’ example, as much as possible, we are to “live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18b, NIV). We are sanctified entirely not just by “God,” but by the “God of peace” (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Further, the writer to the Hebrews exhorts:

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy. Without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NIV; italics added).

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3 holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus

praying-handsYesterday, the United States inaugurated its 45th President. The colorful pageantry we have come to expect as power passes from one American administration to another was on full display.

Whatever our feelings might be toward a given leader, emotions are fleeting; habits endure. Here are three holy habits to develop as citizens who follow Jesus, no matter what country we call home:

1) Pray for leaders. As missionaries, my wife and I often let our supporters know specific ways that they can pray for us. We know that the task God has given us is too big on our own. If we are to make it, we need teammates, people calling our name before the throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16, Ephesians 6:19). In the same way, Scripture asks us to pray for “kings and for everyone who is in authority, so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity (1 Timothy 2:2, CEB). The task of civic leaders is heavy and often thankless. Are we in the habit of praying for them?

Sometimes it’s hard to know specifically how to pray for leaders. Here’s a public prayer I recently offered:

Lord God, we pray that you will guide our new President. Give him your wisdom and self-control. May he seek the good of others and listen to those who are marginalized. Grant that he may not depend upon himself but upon you in all the important decisions that he must make. Surround him with those who will have the courage to say what must be said. Make his heart tender that he might lead our nation in a directon that pleases you. In Christ’s name we pray, AMEN.

2) Call on leaders to do what is right.  So important to the Bible’s message is doing what is right by the poor, the forgotten, and the powerless that this concern is woven like a golden strand throughout both Old and New Testaments. Deuteronomy 27:19a (NIV) warns: “Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.” Likewise, Amos was a simple farmer from the village of Tekoa, near Bethlehem. In the 8th century BC, God sent him on a mission to Bethel. There, he railed against the abuses of Israel’s elite, insisting: “A lion has roared: who will not fear? The LORD God has spoken; who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:8, CEB). His message – while addressed to many nations – was also for the leaders of his own people, Israel’s elite. He accused them of crushing the “weak” and the “needy” (4:1), offenses that he later in the chapter warns will result in domination by foreign powers, famine, drought, and disease.

Jesus modeled this kind of prophetic spirit in Matthew 23:37-39 when he wept over Jerusalem for having killed the prophets and having rejected his own message. Earlier in the chapter, he condemned the teachers of the law and the Pharisees not only for their hypocrisy but for having forgotten “the more important matters of the law,” including “justice, peace, and faith” (23:24, CEB).

While praying for our leaders is crucial, it is insufficient. We as prompted by God must go further, raising our voice on behalf of those unjustly targeted. Amos and Jesus give us a pattern for responsibly engaging our leaders, calling on them to do  what is right. Moments arise when – to use the words of Dallas Willard – a “holy discontent” wells up inside and we must prophesy or else be disobedient to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Who are the “fatherless, the foreigner, and the widow” in our day? Who are the citizens around us who are neglected, even oppressed? There comes a time when Jesus followers must speak up, voicing our opposition to policies and decisions made by our leaders that crush the weak and needy among us. To do less is to deny who we are as Christ followers.

3) Be the change.  Beyond prayers and speaking up for what is right, a final holy habit comes from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This outlook is implied by Paul in Romans 2:21b-22a (NIV): “You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” We cannot expect the behavior of our leaders to be exemplary if our own conduct is sinful. Instead, Paul elsewhere calls us to be “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation” (Philippians 2:15a, NIV), to be “people who shine like stars in the world because you hold on to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16a, CEB).

A pastor in a large cathedral in Nairobi recently invited the police to come to a special service. At a key moment, more than 200 officers came forward and received a prayer for God’s safety and blessing. Though later during his sermon he did not hesitate to admonish them to act with intergrity at work, he reminded everyone present that the character of the police and all our leaders is merely a reflection of the character of a people as a whole. The leaders produced are a direct product of the community that produces them.

800px-martin_luther_king_jr_nywts_6
Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks of “self-purification.” As civil rights marchers faced police brutality in the 1960s, he knew that hate could not be overcome by hate, so instead he called his people to non-violence. Self-purification meant rehearsing behind closed doors how to passively resist when publicly beaten by a billy club, dragged by the arm or aggressively handcuffed.

King’s self-purification was applied in a specific circumstance during the civil rights movement, but what would happen if followers of Jesus applied it more generally? He knew that they had to be the change. If they wanted non-violent police, then they themselves had to be non-violent. Likewise, if we desire public leaders who are righteous, what private sinful practices must we allow God to eliminate in our own lives? A transformation of the public realm must begin in the private realm, yet long experience teaches us that human beings are woefully indadequate to make such changes in their own lives. Only God’s power can do that! (2 Cor. 5:17, Romans 12:1-2; 1 Thess. 5:23-24).

Praying for leaders, calling them to do what is right, and modeling needed change are three holy habits for citizens who follow Jesus. God may lead us to develop others, depending upon the situation. Nonetheless, no matter who occupies positions of authority over us, may these practices help God’s people live with winsomeness and integrity.

_____

Images used in the essay are in the public domain.

Passing the faith along: all ages on the journey together

Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France
Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France
We were lost in Versailles.

Sure, we had the address of the congregation we wanted to visit, but somehow got all turned around. With the 10 a.m.  service time fast approaching, my wife and two young sons followed nervously behind me. On the corner, a Roman Catholic nun waited to cross the road. In my best French, I greeted her then told her what church we were trying to locate. “Turn right at the next street,” she advised. “I think it’s just a few hundred meters down on the right hand side.” Thanking her, we followed the directions and soon found ourselves walking in the front door of the church. Simultaneously, twenty gray-haired worshipers turned to see who had come to visit. When they discovered a young family with children, their eyes lit up and smiles beamed. Unfortunately, their pleasant surprise didn’t last long. We were at the wrong church! Reluctantly, the usher directed us to the next street where he assured us we would find our denominational tribe.

God loves the elderly, yet churches that have only older folks know that their days are numbered. In nature, a failure to reproduce can spell the end of a species. It is no different for communities of faith. A failure to pass along a Christian faith to the next generation will inevitably lead to a church’s demise. Well has it been said that the church is always only one generation away from extinction. To endure, she must reproduce. This happens in two important ways.  First, we share our faith with those outside the community of faith, inviting them to put their faith in Christ, to join their story to the story of God and God’s people. A second way is by nurturing faith in our children, passing our faith to the next generation. It is this second way that concerns us here.

How can the church more intentionally and effectively pass Christian faith along to children and youth, making their commitment to the people of God lifelong and not just something they grow out of as they come into adulthood?

A lesson on the importance of inclusion comes from the Xhosa and Zulus of South Africa. When a serious matter affecting the community arises, or a dispute, the chief may call an indaba, a meeting where everyone has a voice. Traditionally, the youngest speak first, followed by those older. Finally, the elders speak.  All the while, the chief listens carefully, taking into account all points of view before rendering a verdict on the matter-at-hand. As a Xhosa, this is the inclusive leadership style that Nelson Mandela brought to the South African presidency. It helped heal wounds festering from decades of racial segregation. It brought together black, white, colored and Indian,  young and old into a national indaba that allowed a nation to begin to turn the page on a dark chapter and imagine together a brighter and more hopeful future.

Among the people of God, indabas can take the form of prayer meetings. In our church, my parents went to adult choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints not in the choir would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.

The danger of the “grown up table” and the “kids’ table”

At large family gatherings at holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, children are sometimes segregated at the “kids’ table.” In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan, 2011), Kara Powell and Chap Clark lament that too many churches follow that kind of separation between the ages when it comes to church. With good intentions, have we allowed children’s programs, youth programs and adult ministries to function independently with little time to mix between generations? Why are we then surprised when youth find it difficult to transition to adult membership in the community of faith? The gap is huge and – while they may have come to the same building for years – they are virtual strangers to each other.

Recognizing the high church dropout rate of young adults, Powell and Clark give many ideas of how families can instill lifelong faith and church involvement in their children. For our purposes, let’s talk about inter-generational worship, service, laughter and play.

Worshiping together

We need not repeat insights about worship detailed in an earlier chapter. Here, the focus is on all ages worshiping together. North Americans used to do this better than we do now. Somewhere along the line, we’ve grown more impatient not only with crying babies but with wiggly toddlers. Yet even toddlers and young children are picking up more during a worship service than we think. As a pastor, one Sunday night I received a drawing from red-headed 8-year-old Amy after the service. She’d drawn a picture of me while preaching. The picture was detailed, including my mustache and tie, but what encouraged me most was the the Bible reference she’d scrawled at the bottom, my sermon text. That little girl hadn’t just been drawing. She’d been listening!

A church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe included all ages in a raucous Sunday morning worship service. People came from distances and weren’t tied to the clock. Three hours together gave ample time to get up and move, as the worship team encouraged us to dance to the lively praise music. That day, I saw a 60 year-old grandma move out into the aisles right next to 5 and 6 year old boys and girls. There was no “adult table” and “kids’ table” that day. We were in it together, and having exercised well during the music and offering, adults and children sat still and listened well to a 50 minute sermon preached in English and translated into Zulu. It was a fine spiritual meal enjoyed by all ages.

Serving together

The Puritan proverb warns: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Wholesome work gives human beings dignity, and working together side-by-side – young and old in service to others – builds character and fosters Christian community.

While in seminary, my church took a mission trip to the Bahamas. Our task was to help finish off the inside of a new church building, putting up dry wall and installing a suspended ceiling. The trip was life-changing in many ways, but one special dynamic was the broad age range of the participants. There were several grandpas and grandmas on the team, along with twenty-somethings like myself, all the way down to 16 year old “Eric.” Eric was new to the church and had no profession of faith. As he began to feel more comfortable with us, he began to open up about his troubled home life and some of his destructive addictions. For the first time, Eric felt like he had a family as he saw the love of Christ lived out before his eyes, both in our love for him and the Bahamians to whom we had come to minister. By the last day, he had prayed to confess his sins and invite Christ into his life. I’ll never forget the joy on Eric’s face when we went down to the beach and our pastor baptized him in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There’s something about an activity where those of all ages work together that binds us together with cords of love. Youth see that Christian faith is for the long-haul and appreciate the listening ear and wisdom they receive from those much further along in the journey. It’s not showy but it is solid, and that’s winsome.

Laughing and playing together

Life was never meant to be serious all the time. Victor Borge famously said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and he’s right.

One of the mainstays of our bi-annual family reunions is the night when we settle down after a good meal and someone starts to tell the old stories. “Do you remember when….?” And even though most everyone has heard the stories before, they never fail to evoke laughter. When they hear the harmless antics – and sometimes a bit of mischief – my nieces and nephews think it’s hilarious what their mom or dad did, and who better to tell the story than their uncle or grandma? In the same way, the church does life together, and stories of embarrassing mishaps from mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools or Bible Quiz meets get trotted out, a telling of the inter-generational story that binds us together.

In South Africa, churches love to host a braai (barbeque). Often there are games with young and old taking part. Playing and eating together as the people of God makes memories and builds relationships. Braais are an all-day affair. It’s a time to slow down and get to know each other better in a relaxed setting. It’s a place to belong.

Summing it all up

The church needs its children and youth. They are both her present and her future. For Christian faith to be both winsome and “sticky,” being intentional about all ages worshiping, serving, laughing and playing together is key. As older believers invest in the lives of children and youth, commitment to Christ and Christ’s community – the church – becomes a cherished legacy that young adults will long to pass along to their own children. Having studied the people of God, let us in the next section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World sharpen the focus to this question: What is the church’s mission? 

Which church is the true church?

A note to my readers:

Life has been hectic, but a good kind of hectic, with a fruitful teaching trip to Zimbabwe last weekend.  My weekly Saturday blog did not happen, but I’m pleased in its place this week to reproduce for your enrichment a short essay from my friend, Edward Fudge.

We’ll see you again next Saturday.

– Greg

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“The right true church, part 2” – by Edward Fudge – from his gracEmail of July 26,  2015

EdFudge1The year 1054 is remembered in church history as the year Pope Leo IX excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople and declared himself head of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Patriarch responded in kind and the Great Schism was under way, thereafter with East (Constantinople) and West (Rome) both contending for primacy as head of the exclusive true church. The Reformers promised the right of individual biblical interpretation, which in turn brought a multiplicity of churches. Soon, Protestantism had its own contenders for “the true church.”

Most cults claim to be God’s only true or faithful people. Mormons teach that the true Church went into apostasy shortly after the original Apostles died, but that God restored it about 1830 through the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith, Jr. Mr. Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon from ancient inscriptions on gold plates under instructions from an angel named Moroni. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Jesus returned to earth invisibly in 1914 and set up his kingdom, with their Watchtower Society as its visible form.

The Philadelphia Church of God is but one of several offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God which claims that it alone represents God’s “government” (and New Testament Church) today, based on the unique doctrines of the late Herbert W. Armstrong whom they see as the last-days “Elijah the Prophet” of Old Testament prophecy. (Happily, the original Worldwide Church of God has denounced its cultic past and has udergone a Christ-centered reformation of its own.)

Amid all these confusing and contradicting claims, we do well to remember Jesus’ warnings concerning would-be messiahs. We do not need to go running here or there in search of the “true teacher” or the “true church.” The Bible does not envision “Lone Ranger” Christians who intentionally avoid fellowship with others. But while “church” is very important, no particular brand in the Yellow Pages has any exclusive claims on God or his salvation. Jesus — not any religious institution or ecclesiastical organization — is the door to the Father. Whoever has Jesus has life, and whoever remains in union with him is complete in the eyes of God.