I heard several people in a row the other day talk about how this or that verse or phrase in scripture “jumped out” at them while they were studying. This is a phrase I’ve heard used my entire life, but especially in college by people asked to speak about the daily reading and come up with some sort of personal connection or application. I’ve done this myself many times and I wouldn’t say it’s an inaccurate description even if the analogy is a bit worn. What is going on here? I’ll take a stab at answering that.
How come scripture always “jumps out” at readers? They are synthesizing ideas as they read, drawing threads together, making connections – not just with the words on the page or elements of the larger story, but with personal thoughts and events in their own lives. A psalm, a piece of prophecy, and a gospel passage are immediately connected to the reader’s current time and person.
People can do this reading other fiction and especially non-fiction. Fewer people than ever in America today seem to be avid readers of history, poetry, or theology. We live in a golden age of TV. The public square is broadly, but not typically deeply informed. For many, (and I say this from personal experience and interactions with hundreds of people over the past 15 years or so) the New Testament epistles are the ONLY non-fiction they will likely read or experience outside of school textbooks.
The news is drama now and even most documentaries are now largely reality-infused drama. So when a contemporary entertainment-soaked man reads the epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, he barely knows what to do with it. What the heck is this? An 8-paragraph run-on piece of reasoning! But he finds it fascinating, perhaps for the first time, and gives it a shot. Such a thing is not too hard to grasp, WITH some practice, but it can’t be done cold-turkey. So when the young convert starts to read his bible and puts some effort into processing the words of the apostles, he begins drawing strings of thought together in his mind: Paul’s definition of love in 1st Corinthians, that line about the father’s love in 1st John, that pop song he was listening to earlier, that girl in his chemistry lab that is so attractive, and that sermon he heard last Sunday about losing your life to gain it, that fight he almost had with his coworker yesterday. Suddenly what happens? The text “jumps out” at him.
Why does this sort of thing stand out today? In many cases, only the “people of the book” experience this particular kind of subjective and highly personal intellectual exhilaration. Evangelicism has been moderately anti-intellectual in the past half-century. The joy of scholarship has often been limited to scripture proper. Because the secular academy has at least not been as limiting in the past generation or two, its members are more likely to have had these intellectual epiphanies while studying say, Jung, or Joyce, or maybe David Foster Wallace. They are not impressed by the young convert having them for the first time via a book they don’t take seriously.
We can beat them to the punch though. Christians have a long history of being great thinkers and readers. Do I even need to give a list? Aquinas, Allegri, Pascal, Newton, Lewis – good grief I could go on for an hour. We can be distinguished in this way AND rest in the revelation of Christ’s atonement for us. It’s not either/or. We don’t diminish the power of God’s revelation by supplementing our studying with the works of wise men both living and ancient. Years ago, I was encouraged to read the biography of Smith Wigglesworth, an early 20th century evangelist. He was purported to have never read anything except the Bible, frequently throwing other books and newspapers within his reach into the nearest trash can. This was purportedly a good and commendable thing. I disagree. It’s even worth reading the “bad guys” too just to have a better grasp of what’s going on. Learning a thousand things about the world should not undermine our faith, but rather bolster it. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but it’s just the beginning. He made our minds in such a way that we are always making connections and putting pieces of the creation puzzle together. EVERYTHING can “jump out” at us, not just scripture. Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s work takes this shape. Keep you eyes peeled.
Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and as far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.
-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.142
I believe that what is often called “talent” is not an inherent aptitude for a particular skill or activity (be it playing the cello or painting or public speaking) per se, but rather an inherent desire or drive to concentrate on, think about, or undertake that thing for far longer and with more intensity than the average person. And so in most cases, the violin prodigy doesn’t have anything worth noting about their fingers or even their IQ. What makes them unique is that they are more or less happy to practice the thing six hours a day without going crazy. Their peers live in the same environment and have similar parents. They are the same stature and eat the same food and talk about the same movies. But when they go to play violin, they get bored or tired after one hour and go on to something else.
So in what areas are prodigies the most common? The activities where one is likely to get “lost” in and lose track of time in a sub-world of immediate feedback. Music is one of those. You can enthusiastically tackle the piano for – literally – all day long and be enthralled with making the sounds more precise. Prodigy trumpet players are virtually unheard of – the dang thing is just too physically demanding to play for more than a couple hours a day. The really top horn players tend to emerge in their mid-twenties, not in their early teens like string players or pianists.
Mathematics seems to be another field that thinkers can just get lost in. Computer science is another. In addition to that, the greatest challenges can be tackled with relatively little equipment – pen, paper, and maybe an old VIC-20. In contrast, chemists emerge far later in life. Doing much of anything in that field requires an incredible amount of gear – much of it untouchable by children.
Literature is another tricky one. It’s not unusual for a young person to devour books, but to turn around and write them? It’s slow going and there can be incredibly long stretches between feedback. A person who falls in love with the piano can sit down and get immediate response. A budding writer can work on something for hours and hours and have only frustration to show for it and a bad first draft. Time to go back to the drawing board and read more books so you can find the right words to use. If anything, I think the best writers were probably the best readers in childhood. That is the prep. The output comes later after a long stretch with seemingly none.
As Norris points out, the monastic life is even more extreme in this regard. Nobody starts out being a good monk. It takes a serious amount of time and forming and most of childhood doesn’t count.
Mary DeMuth wrote a piece titled “I’m Sick of Hearing About Your Smoking Hot Wife” over at the Christianity Today blog “her.meneutics” last week. There is a good positive follow-up post by Zach Hoag here. I am in agreement with a lot of what is being said in these posts. I just wanted to add a few things.
The first is to mention this note from Kathleen Norris. It’s from a larger essay on celibacy.
Any marriage has times of separation, ill-health, or just plain crankiness, in which sexual intercourse is ill-advised. And it is precisely the skills of celibate friendship – fostering intimacy through letters, conversation, performing mundane tasks together (thus rendering them pleasurable), savoring the holy simplicity of a shared meal, or a walk together at dusk – that can help a marriage survive the rough spots. When you can’t make love physically, figure out other ways to do it.
-The Cloister Walk, p.118
The point is that marriage is a many-dimensional thing. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons (circumstantial, psychological, physical) sex just isn’t possible or is ill-advised. What is there to fall back on? Hopefully a hundred different things! The secular culture drastically over-emphasizes sex. So what? But Christians fall in to a trap when they try to do the same thing. Christian books on marriage where literally half the text or more is about sex miss the mark. It would be ridiculous for a book on marriage to NOT have a chapter on sex. But it would be equally ridiculous for it to be about nothing but. We’re not helping anyone by playing along with the over-emphasis as if we can redeem it all by enough rhetoric or bombast in the other direction.
I would also like to take a page out of Wendell Berry’s work and mention the matter of time and age. Even if your wife is “smokin’ hot” by all accounts now, she won’t stay that way long. It is nonsense to talk about your 70-year-old wife that way. At that point, her beauty is apparent in other ways. Those ways are present now too. It is unhealthy and unsustainable to emphasize something fleeting and transient. Praise it, but balance it with the whole. We make a culture with no place for our elderly when everything we lavish praise upon is tied to youth – be it beautiful skin and figure, the strength of young men, or the great accomplishments of middle-age men “hitting their stride”. All good things to be sure, but not the whole picture. We need a place for snotty-nosed kids to be celebrated along with frumpy old women and bent-over men that can’t shovel the walk anymore. Where those people are sidelined, we will look EXACTLY like the rest of the world and not as some ekklesia of called-out ones.
I was taught as a child to read my Bible, but I wasn’t exactly modeled how to do that. I heard thousands of hours of preaching from scripture, but the reading and preparation going on behind the scenes was invisible to me. I remember when I was 8 or 9 years old, my mother had a list of things we could do over the summer to earn money. I think one Saturday I washed all the windows in the house. Another day, the assignment was to read the gospel of Mark. So how did I end up reading it all?
Early on I was given a hefty NIV study bible which had extensive notes. I would say it was at least 40% notes. I read every last one as I went along. I did the same with the well-done “Spirit Filled” NKJV study bible I used throughout college. I’ve read them cover-to-cover each at least once, and some sections like the gospel of John I’ve probably read at least 20 times. I enjoyed both of them and still pull out both of them frequently. Despite all the years of Sunday school and years of catechism, I think that reading through every single one of those footnote commentaries is what really gave me a broad understanding of scripture. Even now reading them is comfortable, even when they lead in theological directions I now have a different or more nuanced opinion on.
The topical preaching I heard so much of was hit and miss and it was only later in life that I really understood how scandalous the gospel was. But I have to say that I owe a tremendous amount to those heavily annotated tomes I still have on my shelf now. My mother bought the first one for me, my Grandmother the second one. Perhaps that is one reason I still love paper books. eBook readers don’t lend themselves well to parallel commentaries. What’s funny is that I’ve occasionally been exhorted by preachers to “not stop and read the footnotes”, as if might break a spell. Ha! Good luck. I can’t help read them all, at least a page at a time.
Here, Kathleen Norris describes another way to read scripture, one I am only now beginning to familiarize myself with:
The Benedictine method of reading psalms, with long silences between them rather than commentary or explanation, takes full advantage of these paradoxes, offering almost alarming room for interpretation and response.
For all their discipline, the Benedictines allowed me to relax and sing again in church; they allowed me, as one older sister described it, to “let the words of the psalms wash over me, and experience the joy of just being with words.” As a poet I like to be with words. It was a revelation to me that this could be prayer; that this could be enough.
-The Cloister Walk, p.93
I think I could read it all over again – this time with no commentary at all, just silence. Let the silence serve as the richest of footnotes.
How do we learn to read scripture? I don’t recall really being taught. I was exhorted too all the time, but who showed me how? I think I got lucky but I would not want people to have to fend for themselves so much. Better to learn when 8 than when 20. I’m not sure what to do with my own children at this point. This needs some more thought.
When Christian missionaries were kicked out of Ethiopia by communists in the mid-1970s, they left behind a fledgling church in the poor south of the country. When they returned twenty years later, they were shocked to discover it had multiplied tenfold. Now, what is going on? Hasn’t Ethiopia been famously a Christian country since the fourth century? Well, only sort of. The ancient kingdom of Axum in the north converted to Christianity very early on, but the south Oromo regions were a completely different race and culture. Even when they were later brought into the empire and saw themselves as Ethiopians, Orthodox missionaries made only nominal inroads into the various villages. The poor rural people didn’t want to have anything to do with the religion of the elite, rich, and oppressive northerners. It was, unfortunately, a great stumbling block.
When protestant missionaries finally showed up in the late 1800s though, they were seen, as they are nearly everywhere, as outsiders. BUT, apparently being an outsider wasn’t as bad as being an oppressive elite. The reformation gospel began to take hold.
Fast-forward. When the communists initially took power, they tried to supress the national Orthodox church. But after a few years of that, they decided it was more useful to co-opt the church and manipulate it, using the strong cultural ties to the people as a way to defend against western democracies that sought to undermine the regime. During this time, protestant churches in the country (let entirely by natives) came under heavy attack. The pejorative name given to all of these Christian groups was “Pente”, short for Pentecostal, but used to describe all the different denominations, whether they were actually Pentecostals or not. To this day, this word and it’s negative associations have stuck, even though the communists were kicked out over 20 years ago. Their undermining of the word in this case had a lasting effect.
Poluha describes the situation in this passage:
In class I saw no aggressiveness and no derogatory remarks or religious insults were passed between Christains and Muslims. Both talked, however, of Pente in very negative terms. Poluha explains some of the situation here.
The children were unaware of [how the term ‘Pente’ was promoted by the communinists to demonize westerners] and did not make any distinction betwen various Protestant religions or between Protestantism and Catholicism. What was intersting was that even the Muslim children experienced the advanced of the ‘Pente’ as something negative. Both Orthodox and Muslim children saw their own religions as an integral part of Ethiopia and its history while ‘Pente’, which came from the USA was an alien religion and posed a threat to the children’s own Ethiopianness.
In their negative opinions of Pente both Coptic and Muslim children were thus remarkably united. This could make life difficult for any child adhering to a Protestant religion, as revealed to me by 11 year old Alemu, one of the boys in class. In an interview Alemu had told me about the religious situation in his home. Originally his father had been Orthodox Christian and his mother Muslim. Then both had become ‘Pente’. But in connection with the death of the mother’s mother, the mother had been conviced by relatives and a Muslim priest to return to Isla. This had happened some years previously. The father and the children tried to persuade her to come back to her Protestant religion but up to now she had refused. Alemu was categorized as Muslim by his classmates and his two closest friends were two young Muslim oys. One day, after I had started with my group interviews, Alemu found me alone in the compound and asked that I should not reveal to anyone in class what he had told me, namely that he was ‘Pente’. Since all his classmates though he was Muslim, he preferred it that way, he said. I promised him to keep silent.
-Eva Poluha, The Power of Continuity: Ethiopia through the eyes of its children, p.164
A brief side note: Notice how in the boy’s story, the persuasion of family members plays a much more explicit and prominent part in the mother’s religious affiliation. This sounds alien to us in the US where highly personal and individual thinking is considered to be the only thing that really matters. “Who cares what your parents think? Screw them.” But this is actually a very modern idea. I think we in the west say that if the mother is considering going back to Islam, than she can’t possibly have had a significant relationship or experience with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. That may indeed be the case, but let me tell you, it is not as simple as that. Life is hard and when your family strongly believes something else, the stress they can put on you can cause you to doubt what you believed before. It can confuse you and to ease the stress, you may go against what you know in your heart to be true – to make life easier in some other sense. We see this in the substantial accounts of crypto-Christian communities inside of Muslim regions today.
But back to what I was talking about before:
One potentially positive side-effect of all this is that it has given the long-standing Orthodox church in Ethiopia a close brother to be a rival with. Bear with me as I invoke Rene Girard’s insights. While the people on the fringes of society remained animist or moderately Muslim, the nations cultural Christianity became sleepy. But as many of the lower class began to accept Jesus as their king, though not the same church structure, the existing Christians felt an increased need to distinguish themselves from their neighbors. The growing influence of Protestant churches has spurred the Orthodox to get its act together in some cases. The result of the backlash has often been to bolster their own religious fervor, rather than start wars.
A major change in the Orthodox Church that I have been able to observe over the past 20 to 30 years has been a steady increase in the attempts of the Church to teach people about the Orthodox ideology and to involve the adherents more in the Church’s various activities. As a result of these internal missionary activities, probably combined with the political upheavals and insecurity in the country for the last three decades, many Orthodox Christians have become more conscious of their religion and more intellectually and emotionally involved in its future.
She goes on to describe how in the last 20 years fasting has become far more widespread and is now often observed by the many people – not just priests. Missionary fervor and discipleship was dramatically increased by the encroaching western Christianity. But both sides, despite their differences, have a high enough respect for each other and enough other unifying elements of culture that they ultimately try to get along and don’t kill each other. This is in contrast to the sectarian violence seen in Northern Ireland in the past century, or unofficially in Iraq today.
The people doing the most damage in the country today are the secularists – their pockets loaded with money from the Chinese and Saudis. These people may be nominally Orthodox still, but the promise of stacks of cash has eroded their deeper sense of brotherhood.
This is the text and notes from the sermon I gave on April 21, 2013. Some parts I elaborated on more than is written here. The scripture passage was Joshua 24, the second half of Joshua’s farewell speech to Israel. It includes the oft quoted passage “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Dear Father. We are all gathered here today to worship you, to acknowledge you as our creator, and to listen to your holy word. Make these words come alive in our hearts. You have preserved them for us throughout the ages. They are still going forth. I ask that you send your holy spirit to work in our minds and lives and make a difference. We don’t need another history lesson. We need everything you have for us – to know how present you are with us today. Amen.
Begin with slides and light discussion on the Joshua 24:15 “money quote” and posters. See this blog post for details and lots of pics.
Have the people stand and read the part of the people from Joshua 24, 1,13-24:
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and called for the elders of Israel, for their heads, for their judges, and for their officers; and they presented themselves before God.
Joshua: ‘I have given you a land for which you did not labor, and cities which you did not build, and you dwell in them; you eat of the vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.’
“Now therefore, fear the LORD, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the LORD! And if it seems evil to you to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
People: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. We will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”
Joshua: “You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.”
People: “No, but we will serve the Lord!”
Joshua: “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord for yourselves, to serve Him.”
People: “We are witnesses!”
Joshua: “Now therefore, put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord God of Israel.”
People: “The Lord our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!”
Everyone can sit down. So y’all will serve the Lord? Yeah right. Of course, Joshua knew you wouldn’t (he said as much!) and God knew it too, before he even chose these people. But he gives them this land and makes these promises anyway.
We find out in the book of Judges, right after Joshua, what happens.
So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel.
When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel.
Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers.
And later in Judges we hear:
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
So all the immediate folks that were alive when Joshua was around, who saw the conquest of the land, they followed the Lord, but their kids ditched it.
Moses –> Joshua –> Joshua’s Children –> Tanked!
If you were a parent who remembered the walls of Jericho falling down when you were a little boy, but your own kids thought God was a sham, you would be distraught. If you bought up your son to respect his mother and worship God and memorize his laws, but then when he was about 18 you found him cavorting with the prostitutes down at the temple of Asherah, would you not be angry, and feel like a giant failure? But that’s what happened to much of the next generation.
A total failure right?
Kind of looks like it, but this is just a snapshot. We need to look at the big picture. Let’s expand this timeline of the nation of Israel a bit.
Abraham –> Isaac –> Jacob –> Joseph –> Egypt –> Moses –> Joshua –> Joshua’s Children –> Judges –> Saul –> David –> Solomon –> Civil war –> Bad kings –> A few good kings –> More bad kings –> Babylonian Exile –> Nehemiah –> Roman empire/Pharisees –> Jesus (Rejected Messiah) –> Diaspora
When we zoom out and look at a longer timeline, we see the situation is more complex. There is an undercurrent of believers who are steadily faithful to YHWY, even when the popular consensus or the monarchy is against God and his law. There are good kings who lead many (not all) of the people back in the right direction, and there are terrible kings that revel in evil, corruption, and murder, dragging down (again most, not all) the people with them. But even at the low points, the good guys (so to speak) are still there.
The prophet Elijah lived during the reign of King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel. HORRIBLE rulers! He got very depressed at one point and what he said is recorded here.
1 Kings 19:14,18
And he [Elijah] said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”
Then the Lord said to him: “I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
We actually discover this sort of thing happening throughout scripture. When evil men are leading the country in a certain direction, there is always a remnant that is faithful and when the evil passes, they spring back up and flourish. When a good ruler is in charge, things are generally better for everyone, but they pass too.
When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice;
But when a wicked man rules, the people groan.
Keep in mind that history has to boil things down and rely on key indicators (like who is currently in charge of the country) or the state of the physical temple is Israel. The actual situation on the ground with real individuals and families and tribes is always going to be much more complex. What is going on at a national level doesn’t have to define what you do on a personal and local level.
In fact, at the time Jesus came, they (the law abiding Pharisees) were dominant in many aspects of Jewish culture, even though it was now subject to the Roman empire. In a sense, the “good guys” were in change again. Idol worship was way down and had been for several hundred years. The temple was bright and shiny and the piety of the Pharisee bible teachers was highly respected and influential, even while the national government was in the hands of the Romans.
I don’t think it’s difficult to draw parallels to the state of our culture in America. People do it all the time. The story we sometimes here about the US often goes something like this:
Christian Founding fathers –> Great awakenings –> Christianity dominant through WWI and WWII generation –> Everyone went to church in the 1950s –>Sexual revolution (Free love) –> Bad (Abortion) –> Worse! (No God?) –> ACK!!!
Again, total failure, right? A lot of people are worried about this stuff today.
Talk about Christianity off-limits in public schools (and often, public discourse) legalization of abortion, gay marriage, “nones” generation. This is what we see all around us. In particular, the Pacific Northwest is least religious region of the country. And our own kids are being born into this current vortex. Are they going to get sucked into it too? How not?
Keep calm and look at the big picture.
Early Christians –> Constantine –> Evangelization of British Isles –> Fall of Roman Empire –> Medieval kingdoms –> Muslim conquests and crusades –> Some good kings –> Some bad kings –> Reformation –> Conquest/colonization of Americas –> Christians and secularists found USA –> “Manifest destiny” –> Great awakenings –-> Civil War –> Christianity dominant –> World wars –> Sexual revolution –> Immigration/diversity/globalization –> Decline of Christianity and fertility in the West –> Rise of the Christian global south?
I tell you all this because I think we can very easily get hung up on thinking about ourselves in the here and now. We are the center of our own little universe and all of the hundreds of people that came before us and will come after us are off the radar. I think it is calming to study history and see how we are part of the huge story that is Jesus redeeming mankind. To someone that does not fear God or believe in him, the idea that their life is just a blip on the radar or a drop in the ocean is a terrible and fearsome thought. Considering how big the world is and how vast history can make us feel small and meaningless. OR, it can show us how we are part of something much larger outside of ourselves. If we fear God and love him, then zooming out can relieve us of the pressure of living. We can’t possibly handle this world. Our efforts are like a bad joke. We need a redeemer with total power over creation. Fortunately, that is what we have.
Still, that’s nice, but what about us right now? I feel myself getting dragged down by today’s materialism. I REALLY want that new iPhone. Everyone else at my work has one. I want one too! And many guys at my work have traded up for a new wife too. I want one! Maybe a blonde this time. Good grief. Shake that off! Like that will make anything better. Ha! I love God. I believe he made the whole world. I believe He made me. I believe he loves me and saved me from my own slavery to sin and death. And I believe he loves my children as well. What do I do about them? How can I grow the up to not fall into the snares all around us? How can I teach them? Maybe if you have older kids, you are thinking, “They used to listen to me and now I don’t think they do. It seems they love the world now too and the world tells them over and over that God is meaningless.”
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,
But the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous.
We transmit our faith our faith to them. I think we as good parents want to leave an inheritance for our children, and I’m not talking about money. Proverbs 1 says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. How can we give that to our little ones?
Modeling, living like Christians ourselves, giving them something to imitate
Teaching, propositional truth, facts, catechesis
Participation and experience, Worship, sacraments, labor and service, mystical experience*
How you talk, what do you talk about?
What do you spend your time doing?
What can be inferred about what you really care about?
Are you a friend of God? A servant? A distant casual admirer?
Example: Want kids to read books but don’t have time to read yourself.
Example: Want kinds to have a good attitude about chores, but you complain about doing the dishes all the time.
Example: Spending lots of money on entertainment, but rarely give any away to people in need or causes
Example: The cliche “Actions speak louder than words” is very, very true.
Example: Lying doesn’t work – kids have very good B.S. detectors. Hypocrisy is just “slow lying”.
What you teach them at home, where you send them to school or in homeschooling or private school, with tutors, etc.
Teaching them about the greatness of God, the lowliness of man
Example: New England Primer alphabet versus secular motivational rhetoric
Example: Sunday school, Christian school, Christian summer camp
Bible teaching, religious education
How much does their secular education counter Christianity? Preempt and mitigate that sabotage.
Example: You know your children are going to be told by a lot of authority figures that having multiple sex partners is totally fine and not a bad idea in the slightest. But you live with them – you get to them first and give them the straight dope.
Modern motivational posters versus the lowness of man taught in the early New England Primer
Participation and Experience
Bow your head in prayer, sing praises to your creator. This is something they can start doing very very young. They don’t have to pass a theology test to pray. Little kids will just follow their parents in this right away. And in doing so, they participate – it becomes part of their life.
The Lord’s Table. This is a big one. Jesus explicitly gave us the bread and wine of the communion table to eat and drink with each other, to eat of his body and drink his blood. Now Christians throughout history have, to vary degrees, debated about how special or magical what happens at the Lord’s table is, but it is something tangible that all of us who follow Christ can participate in directly and personally. It’s not just listening to somebody up here talk or observing someone else serving. You eat and drink yourself along with everyone else.
Special dates and times
Do you celebrate birthday’s in your house? They draw attention to an individual and show that they are loved and that family and friends care about them. And everyone gets to participate in that with presents or cake or games or whatever. What about Christmas and Easter. There are other Christian holidays and festivals too, though they are lesser known unless you came from a tradition that emphasized them. The point is, these are things that your children can participate in. They are great moments. Make Christmas special. You probably already do. Make Easter special too. Talk about why they matter. Act like they matter. Take a break from working and driving around everywhere. Break out the really good food and drinks – not the stuff you have every day! Children will remember that. We need to stop and remember these things too. When these holy days and seasons are hijacked by modern marketers though, they lose their power and meaning. You can minimize how much that happens in your own house though.
Labor and service
It’s one thing to hear someone say, “Help the poor”. It’s another to see your father helping the poor. It’s a third thing, and an even better one to help the poor yourself. Even if you are young child and can’t articulate all the theology behind it, it still has an effect on your heart as you labor. Maybe your motivations don’t feel like they are all there. It doesn’t matter. Work and the fruit of your labor will make the motivations clear. Don’t know who to server? Help you mom do the dishes. That’s a good start. My wife recounts how her father would often go to the grocery store on Thanksgiving or Christmas eve and get a bunch of food and take it down to the really seedy hotel on the edge of town and find some down-and-out family to give it all too. She went along with him and carried the grocery bags. It’s a little thing, but it made a lasting impact on her. My own parents went on two short-term mission trips when I was a child. I think that it would have been even better if I could have gone with them, but just knowing that taking several weeks off of work – not to go on a vacation – but to go work at a medical clinic in the slums of Haiti – that that is just the sort of normal thing a Christian would do – that shaped how I viewed the world. I mention those as positive memories of my parents and inlaws. I could recall plenty of negative ones of course. It’s a mixed bag of course. But I can grow up and forgive them for those. Just like me, they probably didn’t know what they were doing half the time anyway.
I put this one on the list, but it doesn’t really belong here as a way that you transmit your faith to your children. When most people talk about “experience”, they mean some sort of very meaningful event in their life where it seemed like God touched them or spoke to them. Maybe it was that time you went camping and you felt like God was with you when you prayed all afternoon on that hike. Maybe it was when you were heartbroken and then after coming to church and singing praise songs, you felt a strange overwhelming sense of joy and peace, even in the midst of your trouble. Perhaps you were studying the bible and suddenly a passage jumped out at you and you seemed to hear it ringing in your head everywhere you looked the rest of the day or week. These are really great moments and I believe that God absolutely does touch people like this all the time. This sort of thing has happened to me several notable times. But these aren’t things you can set up or give to your kids. These things come from God. They are the work of the Holy Spirit in inidivuals lives. I think the best thing you can do is, if you perceive that they may be going on with your children, don’t stop them. Don’t poo poo it. If they come home from summer camp and are really excited about Jesus, don’t get all cynical on them and act like it’s no big deal. These moments may be subjective and fleeting, but I think they are completely legitimate and if you were to talk to almost anyone here in this church, they would tell you that these sorts of experiences are a big part of their faith in Jesus, a big part of their Christianity. If you talk to someone of a more Pentacostal background, they may talk about these things more frequently. If you talk to a Christian of a more Reformed or intellectual tradition, these might not be the first thing to come up, but they are still there. Let God do this stuff – with you, and with your kids. You may get to share in some of it, you may not. Don’t try to make this stuff happen, but let it happen. A lot of time these sorts of experiences come at low points in our lives or in the lives of our kids. Pray for your kids. When they are really in the dumps and hurting, and you hurt for them, this could be when God will touch them.
Now I want to take a moment to talk about something that is pretty much the exact opposite of personal experience. I’m talking about institutions. It’s very popular to rail against the “institutional church” these days. It’s pretty him to just read Christian books and hang out on internet forums and maybe have coffee with other friends that quit going to church too. When an organization gets big, it also can get impersonal, wasteful, and stupid. A big church, even a good one, is usually an easy target for criticism. So why should we still support them and belong to them? Well, there are many reasons, but on of the main ones is that they outlive us. Our lives are short. We just blow away. We live a max of 80 productive years.
An institution can span generations and centuries. Our great-great-grandchildren can worship in the same place and way we did. War and tragedies can tear families apart, but the church, as an institution, can help keep us as a people glued together. As many problems as they may have (and of course we have some of the usual ones here at Bridge Bible Fellowship), they are worth keeping healthy. The apostles thought so too. The church is the primary one, but this goes for institutions of learning, and to the state as well. Religious freedom is a good thing and not so common. But states and empires come and go. Ours in the USA has been around a while, but not super long. Remember the big timeline again. Someday it may too pass or change into something quite different.
Now, none of what I’ve been telling you so far has been the gospel. It’s been some history, hopefully some of what I’ve said is good advice. But none of it is good news. Not really. Now for the good news.
Before I get to this, I want to stop and say that this is really hard to talk about. We humans absolutely love lists of stuff to do. We are just enamored with this idea of “we are the change we have been waiting for”. The gospel just flies in the face of all that. It’s like the opposite of karma. What Jesus did for us just blows our mind. It’s funny, we can hear it a hundred times and then we still need to hear it again because we just can’t process this stuff. I really want to talk about grace today, but it’s challenging to do well. I really care about this and I wrote a bunch of stuff down and then deleted half of it and I still don’t know if much of it is in a form that I can get across, but I’m going to try.
Look back to what Joshua said in his farewell speech in the passage we read. He said “You cannot serve the Lord!”. Joshua’s name in Hebrew is Yeshua, it means, “The Lord Saves”. It’s actually the same as Jesus. Joshua was a savior of sorts but here, at the end of his life, he’s thinking, “I’m about to kick the bucket! I’m no savior. These people need a real savior.” The good news is that we have a real savior in Jesus Christ.
Let me try to approach this from another angle. We are all worried about how our kids turn out, and what we pass on to them, but what about all the good stuff WE have? Most of it was an unwarranted gift. It will be the same for them.
Notice what Joshua reminds everyone of in verse 13:
Joshua 24:13 – You were given a land you did not labor for.
Sound familiar? That’s us right now too. We have this beautiful prosperous country to live in and we didn’t labor for it. You know the last WWI veteran died last year. We haven’t had a major nation-threatening war in over 60 years. We have big houses and grocery stores full of every kind of amazing fruit – just down the street. And though our grandparents did work hard for us – billions of people all over the world work really hard too and still live in poverty. The truth is, so many of the good things we have, materially, have just fallen in our laps. We have been given a land of vineyards we did not labor for too.
Here is another case, this time from the 10 Commandments of all places. His Grace, that is, his undeserved gift, transcends all our failings and the failings of our parents.
I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
This verse is part of the heart of the hard OT law, but it’s also a verse for children whose parent’s screwed up, and a verse for parents who have screwed and are maybe still screwing up right now. Do your sins affect your children? You bet. It is genuinely destructive. Does the love of Christ cover and extend over that failure times a thousand? Yes indeed. Even in the Old Testament we find promises like this at every turn.
What if your parents divorced? Left you hanging? Abused you? Never told you about God? Told you hokey confusing things? Gave you a lame education? Didn’t leave you any inheritance (money or otherwise)? You’re in luck. All the really best stuff is free and it comes out of nowhere.
Everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
Come, buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.
Good parents pass on an inheritance to their children, but our God has adopted us into HIS family. Through the waters of baptism, our old life of flesh is put to death and we are given a new life of the spirit. We may have no inheritance from our earthly parents, but he gives us a marvelous one out of nothing. Creating things out of nothing is his specialty.
Let me return to Joshua and looking at some of this tension between the old and new covenant.
Joshua 24:20 – He will not forgive your transgressions nor yours sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you.
You hear that? God will not forgive you. Uh oh. But wait – that’s not the end of the story. This is the problem with taking bible verses out of context. You need to read the whole bible. God knew you were a lost cause from the beginning. That’s why he sent Jesus as a substitute. That is why we read later in Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 31:34, I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.
The thing is, even if your children fall away from the faith, that’s not the end. How many of you fell away in your twenties, but came back? If it seems that your kids don’t care about God anymore – it’s painful to watch, but it’s not over. People come back, and you can find a new way to relate to them, even after they are grown up. For example, how many people have terrible inlaws? I mean, it’s so common as to be cliché right? Well, guess what, if your kids are moved away from home now and running away from God, you blew it and there is nothing you can do now right? No. You can be a kind and generous mother-in-law or father-in-law – one that really helps when they can and knows when to butt out. As some of you know, that is something precious and rare! Your children were at home with you for 20 years, but now you have to figure out how to relate to them for the next 40 years after that. Don’t count it out. Living as a Christian during this later time still works it’s way deep into their lives.
Here is another example. In college I spent several years volunteering with a campus youth ministry. It was very similar to Cru, though with a different affiliation. I remember I used to be so disappointed that a couple of friends I knew at the university would never come to our bible study meetings. I figured they wanted nothing at all to do with God. But now I have them on Facebook. They are in their thirties now and have several kids. And waddayaknow, now they talk about how they love Jesus and go to church all the time. What gives? It turns out they grew up nominally in the faith, but needed some time to figure out what they really believed and for a few years in college they were kind of in limbo and it didn’t look like anything was happening. Don’t give up on these people. It’s not the end of the story. This could be the situation with your own distant kids too. We don’t work this out. God does. We may play a part, but he doesn’t need our help. And that’s a relief.
Disclaimer about parenting advice. (See this blog post.) Take what I say with an appropriate grain of salt.
I will only add a few more things, hopefully in the “general guidelines” category:
The more effort you put in up front, the greater the pay-off. Put in a lot of energy when your kids are toddlers, and they are, generally, less likely to stray as teenagers and young adults. Wait until later to invest a lot of time and it won’t have near as much return. It’s like a saving account. Load it up front for maximum effectiveness.
Going back to modeling versus teaching – What you do, how you act and what you talk about day-to-day, carries more weight than what you say or teach directly. Concern yourself with living for God and it will rub off on your kids, regardless of what form their education takes or even their religious tradition (what church you go to.) Don’t get too hung up on specific methods.
So, in conclusion, I’d like to go through just a brief recap. The people of Israel saw God do many wonderful miracles for them, but their children didn’t see them. Just the next generation on down gave up on serving God. Our situation is not so unlike theirs. Our children will, presumably, do the same if we do not effectively instill our faith in them or transmit our loves and beliefs to them. This all goes not just for our own biological children, for those of you who are parents, but also for anyone with friends, or anyone who interacts with young people – even grown up young people. We transmit our faith to them through modeling, teaching, and participating in their lives. They absorb what we say and do. They fill up their minds with what we and others teach them. They live with us and are nurtured by us and much of our lives are shared – sometimes even throughout adulthood. We have a great responsibility on our shoulders! This stuff doesn’t happen if we are asleep at the wheel. But, at the same time, even our best efforts are nothing without the direct action of the Holy Spirit of God in their lives. The Lord can take failures and turn them into something beautiful. We can count on God and his gifts to get through to our young loved ones, even when times seem dark and irrational to us. Indeed, his grace is the only thing that can make a substantial difference in our lives and their lives. He is making everything new. We, and our children are part of a long history, a long timeline spanning from the beginning of creation to now and beyond. Jesus Christ raises the dead (that’s us) and so transcends all our failings, both now in part, and completely at the end of the age. So, as Joshua says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” As for me and my house, we will serve the our Lord Jesus Christ, who does ALL the heavy lifting.
Let us pray.
Father. Thank you for making us your children. Thank you for being a perfect father to us. Thank you for loving us. We want to love our children and our friends just as you love us – even when they are terribly difficult and rebellious or stupid, just like us. Lord, for the parents in the room, bless their difficult efforts to raise their children on the right path, wherever they may be on that journey. But also God, make good on your promises and blow their efforts out of the water with your own grace and by your own actions and involvement. Do that in our own lives too with our own aging parents. For the children in this room, lead them to a place where they can learn to love you more than life itself and everything that seems cool and meaningful around them. We can’t take them there God, but you can. Cast out anger and fear from our midst. We ask you to strengthen your church Lord and to bind our families tighter together in love and friendship. Amen.
I get to give a sermon next week on Joshua chapter 24, which includes Joshua’s farewell speech and covenant renewal with the general people of Israel. Verse 15 is particularly well known, especially the last sentence:
And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
This is a great quote and I frequently see this verse displayed as artwork on walls in homes. I thought for fun I would do a survey of what these things can look like.
OK. That’s pretty nice.
Not too shabby.
Going for the illuminated manuscript look this time.
Apparently, this one takes HOUSE very literally. The couch is definitely in on the deal.
Nothing like some 12th century B.C. watercolor.
As for me, I shall wear a tie and sport a receding hairline.
As for me and my house, we shall wear matching shirts during a professional photo shoot.
As for me and my pumpkin…
I think I’ll write a book!
I think I’ll write another book! This time a self-published novel with $2 in bad stock photography on the cover.
Shalom!!! Hebrew is cool.
The obligatory spoof.
And what, do you ask, is more hardcore than getting a bible verse tattoo?
All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors, We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things. Even mathematics can express itself in terms of itself only so long as it deals with an ideal system of pure numbers; the moment it begins to deal with numbers of things it is forced back into the language of analogy. In particular, when we speak about something of which we have no direct experience, we must think by analogy or refrain from thought. It may be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret God by analogy with ourselves, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything.
-The Mind of the Maker, ch.2
Kathleen Norris is thinking along the sames lines here:
I sometimes get in trouble when I refer to the Incarnation as the ultimate metaphor, daring to yoke the human and the divine. To a literalist, I have just said that the Incarnation isn’t “real.” As a poet, I think I’ve said that it is reality at its most alive; it IS the new creation.
-The Cloister Walk, p.158
We don’t need to be afraid of this stuff. Take scripture seriously, but not always “literally”. Nothing is quite as starkly and nakedly as “literal” as you think it could be any way. That idea comes from modernity and lives in the mind of the mechanistic scientist – not in the thoughts of any of the children of promise, the prophets, or the apostles. What they have to say is even MORE true than that. You need a more powerful analogy to get even close. Christ, the incarnation, was that on earth for a while.
Robb Davis over at Front Porch Republic published a piece today title A Long Repentance: A Decade of Turning Away from (a Part of) the American Dream. In it he talks about his decision ten years earlier to sell his car and how it changed his family’s life, mostly for the better. He explains that he is using the word “repentance” in it’s more literal meaning and not attaching the usual theological significance to it.
It reminded me of this comment Kathleen Norris recounts in The Cloister Walk (p.295):
A monk in his early thirties once told me that he’d come to the monastery not realizing what a shock it would be to suddenly not have to compete for the things that young men are conditioned to compete for in American society – in his words, “a good salary, a cool car, and a pretty girlfriend. When all of that was suddenly gone,” he said, “and held no account, I felt as if my whole life were a lie. It took me years to find out who God wanted me to be.”
My only thought was, “Gee, why do we have to become a monks to give up on the cash, the cars, and the girls?” We can do that in whatever our pedestrian vocation is. Entering a strict religious order is no necessary prerequisite. It only makes working out some of the details a bit more cut and dried.
After many years of observing and interacting with parents and families of many shapes and sizes, I’ve come up with a model for how likely you are to receive stupid parenting advice during the course of a casual conversation. What do I mean by stupid parenting advice? Not necessarily bad ideas (though there are plenty of those too), but things that only work in specific contexts presented as general guidelines.
Some examples include:
Letting your child “cry it out” at night
The utter superiority of co-sleeping with your baby
The amazing virtues of various diets
Special techniques to get your baby to walk or talk or perform calculus early
Making your children do lots of chores
Never making your children do chores
Bribing them with money or candy or not
Letting them watch lots of TV or not
Giving them strict curfews or not
How-to advice on hundreds of other common topics
A graph of when you hear these sorts of (usually) worthless suggestions can be seen here:
Young singles have ideas about how they are going to do this or that and will volunteer their opinions (completely devoid of personal experience) more often than you might think.
The absolute worst are parents who have successfully raised an only child. It worked for their kid so it must be the best plan ever! Some of these folks actually write and publish parenting books. They (the books) are complete garbage. Yes, an idea they have may very well be helpful in your situation. But in the very next sentence could be something that will never work in a thousand years. Why? Different kids, different contexts, different houses, different families, different everything.
The more children people have, the more they realize this. Techniques that seemed to help their first daughter to sleep through the night or do their homework have absolutely no effect on their third daughter. You spent a lot of time with your oldest son when he was young, but now you live in a different city and have a more demanding job and you don’t see your second son near as much. You have to figure out different effective ways to relate to him.
This goes on until by the time someone has raised a lot of children, they are hesitant to give any advice at all. I’ve asked folks I know who have 8 or 10 kids for advice and they just mumble something about “it depends…” and then (if you’re lucky) might tell a story that they think might be relevant to your situation. They are old and wise and they know that VERY LITTLE of what they can tell you will actually be of much direct value. You are going to have to figure it out on your own with your own children.
Very general guidelines are all the smartest folks will give you. That’s all you find in scripture too. You get to fill out all the details for your context. It’s a tall order and no one else can do it.
I realized recently that I needed to adjust my model a bit though. Here is my revised graph.
Somewhere around the double-digits, this trend toward wisdom and general guidelines can get hijacked by people’s own high opinion of themselves and their accomplishments. They start dishing out stupid advice again, usually prefacing it with “Well I raised 11 kids and the very best way to do such and such is ______”. Now they are an authority on everything and they have forgotten their humble journey. They are back to publishing parenting books again, this time seemingly immune from criticism. These folks can be ignored too. Don’t let their insistence cause you to second-guess yourself.
So the best of luck to all you parents out there, wherever you are on this continuum. Listen to the ideas out there, especially from people you trust but just remember that each one of your children is different and even the best advice will need some adaptation and discerning application.