“OUR BEST TEACHERS”
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
October 4, 2013; 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Isaiah 50:4-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14
“I am reminded of your sincere faith,
a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois
and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”
2 Timothy 1:5
When I was a kid, I belonged to the Boy Scouts. One of the things we had to learn by heart, even before we achieved the rank of Tenderfoot, was something called the Scout Law. So deeply are those twelve words burned into my consciousness that I can recite them to this day: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”
At various times we’d hear talks from our Scoutmaster about one point of the Scout Law or another. As we listened to those words expounded, one by one, we came to understand each concept better: trustworthiness, helpfulness — even bravery. But there was one point of the Scout Law I don’t think we ever talked about. There it dangled, at the very end of the list: point number 12, “A Scout is reverent.”
It’s not that our Scout leaders had anything against religion. Our troop was sponsored by the Presbyterian Church. We met in the basement, in a Sunday School room, surrounded by all those colorful old Bible-teaching pictures on the bulletin boards: Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes, baby Moses in his basket in the bulrushes, and all the rest. Signs of religion were all around us: but there was little talk of reverence.
It was kind of a hard subject. Our Scout troop included boys from a whole assortment of religious backgrounds: Catholics, Protestants — and, one of my best friends, Rich, who was the sole Jewish representative. Ocean County in the early 1960s wasn’t as diverse as it now is, so there weren’t any Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims that we knew of: but it was a tough nut to crack, even within the Judeo-Christian tradition. How were the Scout leaders to talk about reverence without treading on somebody’s denominational toes?
But we have no such restrictions here. So, I’m going to ask…
Parents! Do you want your children to grow up to be reverent?
Note that I didn’t say “reverend,” with a “d” at the end. That kind of reverend is what I am: it’s a job title. The sort of “reverent” I’m asking you about ends with the letter “t.”
So, what do you think? Do you want children who are reverent?
I’d imagine you do — especially if you’re sitting here today, and have your kids with you, in church. You want your kids not only to have a certain amount of head-knowledge of what Christians believe; you also want them to feel that faith deep down in their hearts. You want God to be more than just a word to them. You want them to know Jesus, personally, to revere him in their hearts. And you want them to have a day-to-day working relationship with the Holy Spirt, to trust the Spirit as their advocate and guide, all throughout life.
But how do we teach reverence? How do we guide our kids from point A to point B on the spiritual journey?
A lot of you would be quick to say, “That’s what Christian Education programs are for! That’s why the church has Sunday School and youth groups — and that’s why I bring my kids here. That’s how it works, doesn’t it? I provide the chauffeur services, bringing them here: and the Sunday School teachers and youth leaders take it from there.
Well, there’s great value in Sunday School and youth programs, I’d be the first to say that (no surprise!). We’ve got talented staff members who work in that area — Sarah and Courtney are just great — and I think the world of the teachers and helpers we commissioned just a short while ago. But, for all the good work these dedicated people do, it’s not enough. There’s got to be something more, if kids are going to learn reverence.
Our New Testament lesson points us in that direction. It’s the second letter to Timothy, from the Apostle Paul. Now, biblical scholars are quite sure it was written long after Paul’s death, and probably Timothy’s too. It’s an imaginative re-creation of what Paul actually said to his young protegé. But that’s beside the point. Take the letter at face value, and you have a wise pastor, close to retirement, writing to his young seminary intern about how to carry on in his place.
Paul recalls, in verse 5: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”
Lois and Eunice were not Timothy’s Sunday School teachers. Nor were they his youth group advisors. They weren’t even his seminary professors. They were his mother and grandmother.
Lois and Eunice were Timothy’s best teachers. This wise apostle who wrote the letter had been pastor to that family long enough to know the important role these two women played in shaping the faith of the next generation.
It was true a couple thousand years ago, and it remains just as true today.
Now, some of you may not think so. There’s an idea floating around out there that, after a certain age, parents just don’t have a whole lot of influence over their kids. Once kids hit adolescence — the story goes — when the girls start wearing a whole lot of eyeliner, and the boys retreat behind closed doors to play video games, emerging only to utter a few sullen grunts in response to questions; and once they start spending every moment they possibly can out of the house, hanging with their friends, parents may figure their influence is on the wane.
But, don’t kid yourself. Some recent studies have shown that parents continue to be the most significant influence on their kids’ future development, through the adolescent years and even beyond.
How does this happen? It’s all summed up in a little quip by the author, Robert Fulghum: “Don’t worry that children never listen to you,” he says: “worry that they are always watching you.”
And when they watch us, with respect to these all-important questions of religious faith — of reverence — what do they see? What do they see?
Do they see a parent (or grandparent) who seems to spend little time thinking about matters of faith, other the occasional that hour of pew-sitting on Sunday mornings? Or do they grow up knowing that faith is a big part of their family’s life — the deeply spiritual center of their family heritage, a living tradition cherished by the significant adults in their lives, even today?
Kenda Creasy Dean teaches youth ministry at Princeton Seminary. She’s written a book that knocks the socks off of just about everything we thought we knew about youth ministry. Let me try to summarize her main point.
We used to think the best way to do youth ministry was to separate young people from their parents, put them in an age-appropriate youth group with a caring and engaging young adult, that meets in some distant room in the church building with cast-off overstuffed furniture and a refrigerator full of snacks, and farm out to the youth advisors all the work of passing on the family’s faith traditions. But, do you know what the researchers have found? Participation in a youth group has little or no influence on whether or not those teenagers will continue to practice the faith into adulthood.
Does that mean youth ministry programs are of no value? Not at all. Youth groups continue to be very important to the young people in them, for a variety of reasons. They’re just not the biggest predictor of whether or not those kids will be back in the church in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and even beyond.
There’s a far more important factor in making sure kids keep a place for God in their hearts, as they become adults. It’s what they’ve observed of their own parents’ faith and religious practice (or the faith of the other significant adults in their lives).
Once kids get a little older — and especially as they move into adolescence — parents may think their offspring care little about what they see them doing, or not doing. But that’s wrong. Even kids who are in open rebellion against their parents, and barely speak to them, pay close attention to what they observe.
If they see that regular worship participation is a big part of their parents’ lives (or the lives of other significant adults), it’s far more likely to become a priority for them — if not right away, then in the future.
Here’s what Kenda Dean has to say — and her words are very challenging indeed to the church, and how we typically go about our common life:
“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe; namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us’ — which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all. What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all?”
Wow! That just about bowls you over, doesn’t it?
Now, here’s something else the researchers discovered. I’ve already shared their finding that the single most important predictor of whether kids will be active in a church as adults is whether or not their parents (or other close adult relatives) have been. But here’s the surprising thing: the kids don’t have to come and sit in church beside their parents in order to have that outcome. It’s enough for the parents to keep on visibly practicing their faith on their own, even if their kids stay home. The important thing is that kids know faith is important to the significant adults in their lives, and that therefore it’s part of their heritage, too. Whenever it may happen, in their lives, that they hit a rough patch of water, their family’s faith is there for them, like a life preserver, and more often than not, they’ll reach for it.
It’s as C.S. Lewis once said, in one of his books: “Christianity, if false, is not important. If Christianity is true, however, it is of infinite importance. What it cannot be is moderately important.”
“Moderately important” doesn’t make disciples. Only “infinitely important” can do that. If you’re an adult, and you have kids or teenagers in your household — or if you’re an older adult, and kids have access to you (either because you’re a grandparent, or for whatever reason) — you can be sure they’re watching you all the time. You are their best teacher, when it comes to matters of faith. If you and I show reverence to God in our manner of life, it’s very likely that the next generation will learn how to be reverent, as well.
So, today let us celebrate the vital role of teachers and advisors in our Christian Education programs. These folks do a splendid job! But even more, let us redouble our own efforts to visibly practice our faith, to be present in worship, to step forward when the call goes out for helpers of various kinds.
To come to the Lord’s Table, as we soon will, and partake of the bread and wine, is no mere private act of personal devotion. It is a very public gesture, performed by disciples of Jesus Christ. You and I take our place at the table in the presence of the saints of past generations. Whether there will others from future generations to do the same very much depends on us.
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford, 2010), p. 12.