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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One Sunday afternoon, a member of a church invited several friends of the congregation over to dinner, including the pastor. As they sat down to the table, the pastor turned to the 6-year old daughter of the house and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” The little girl looked up to the pastor and replied, “Oh no, I wouldn’t know what to say.” To which the pastor answered politely and encouragingly, “Just say what your mother would say.” And so the guests around the table bowed their heads and listened to the earnest words of the little girl echoing the thoughts of her mother, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”
For better or worse, our children are watching and listening to us every day. They are modeling their choices upon our own. They are modeling their faith upon our words, deeds and prayers. Certainly, there are occasions and opportunities when others participate in this spiritual growth. Every loving grandparent and dutiful godparent prays that their involvement in the life of a child will foster growth and maturity. As a parish pastor, I pray that my own nurturing will provide an example of a living faith. And yet, I’m not always successful. I know of one child who was so restless during the sermon as it dragged on and on, that she finally leaned over to her mother and whispered a little too loudly, “Mommy, if we give him the money now, will he let us go?” But my friends, when all is said and done, it is ultimately in your home where a child grows from infancy to spiritual maturity. It is one of the most important choices that you make.
We live in a world of choice. Indeed, we make choices every day. We choose the clothes we wear, the way we travel, the movies we watch, and the places we shop. From time to time we make bigger choices as well: the neighborhoods we live in, and the jobs or universities or schools we go to. These choices give us a measure of control over our lives. But not all the choices we fret over are truly worth the energy we devote to them. The choice of faith should be of ultimate consequence, but many dedicate little time to its pursuit.
Of course, there are families who do not believe that spiritual development is their responsibility at all. They defend the notion that faith is a personal choice and state openly: “My child shouldn’t have to believe what I believe. I want my child to learn to make his or her own decisions.” Families who choose such a dangerous practice are either abandoning their most important task as parents, or unaware of the world in which we live. Dr. Ross Campbell, in his best-selling work, “How to Really Love Your Children,” writes, “One of the chief complaints we hear from teenagers today is the failure of their parents to give them ethical or moral standards to live by in their formative years.” Youth are constantly searching for meaning, and children look first to their parents for the direction that allows them to develop healthy and meaningful values.
My friends, whether your children will have faith or not is largely up to you. So how do you, like the ancient leader Joshua, choose to express your Christian faith, so that your children will receive your faith and serve the Lord? This morning, let us meditate on the teaching of faith. How you choose to serve the Lord can be summed up in five simple thoughts. These thoughts are suggested by the word SHARE. Stories, Habits, Attitude, Responsibility and Energy.
Let us begin with early childhood and the private role you play in the home. For young children the two most important ways of receiving the Christian faith are in the telling of stories and through the habits or patterns of your home. We expect that telling the Biblical story happens in Sunday School. And we should expect that adults can tell the great stories of the faith. Although, I have noted in my previous congregations, that Lutherans often state emphatically that they’ve learned everything they need to know about their faith in confirmation, until they’re asked to teach 1st grade Sunday School, and then they’re simply not sure that they know enough. My friends, telling the story should also take place in your home through reading stories, watching movies and listening to music. Now why is this so important? Certainly, it acquaints your child with the names and places of the Bible. But more importantly, stories create your child’s reality. Young children do not learn morals and values, or what is right and wrong, by teaching them. Children learn these lessons through stories. Stories create your child’s reality. They create a reality of what is good and evil, fair and acceptable, just and honorable. The Biblical story creates a reality in which in God “all things are possible.”
In contrast, I’ll tell you from my experience living in the former Soviet Union why communism was so effective in nearly destroying the Christian faith. Communism controlled the stories. In pre-school kindergartens, in schools, in after school activities, children were told stories that convinced them of a different reality. The Communists’ stories created a reality in which “with God nothing was possible.” The educational system actively worked to destroy the Christian reality. And what families survived embracing the Christian faith? Those who dared to tell the story of God’s abiding presence in Jesus Christ. You too must be aware of the stories, the cartoons, the movies and the music that blanket your children. The language, the attitudes and the values in these stories may be creating a different reality for your child as well. Yes, a three-year old singing, “I’m not so innocent” may not be so innocent.
For young children, you share your faith as well through the habits of your home. After church one Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a pastor when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us,” his mother answered, “But what made you decide to be a pastor?” “Well,” the boy said, “I have to go to church on Sunday anyway, so I figure it would be more fun to stand up and yell than to sit still and listen.” Young children copy the habits and patterns that they hear and see, so set your habits carefully. Prayer, quiet times of reading, worshipping together as a family, these habits not only set a pattern for emotional and social growth, but they also set patterns your child’s spiritual development.
Let us turn now to adolescence and its principle ways of sharing the faith- your attitude and responsibility. This is, after all, the stage in which children discover that not everything their parents have told them is completely true. A Sunday School teacher asked a little boy, “Bobby, do you believe in the devil?” “No,” the boy said, “He’s just like St. Nick. I think it’s my dad.” And of course, it’s not just parents who undermine the innocent world of children. A little girl wrote a letter to God, “Dear God, my friends told me about being born, but it doesn’t sound right. They’re just kidding aren’t they?” Yes, when the legendary figures of childhood are gone, and the mystery of hormones and love appear, children and young adolescents wonder who they should believe.
Your children will forgive you for the little “white lies” of early childhood, if they can witness two characteristics in your own spirituality- your public attitude and responsibility. They will forgive you for Kris Kringle, if they see your genuine joy and love in giving. They will respect your habits of prayer and attending Sunday worship, if they see your genuine longing for peace and spiritual centering. But if a child perceives that Church and Sunday School are merely your attempts to “put a little religion” into their life, it is all in vain. The Search Institute noted that already in the 4th grade, church leaders could determine the families which would continue in the church after the 9th grade. They were the families which had shown a common public attitude towards worship and religious involvement.
And how do you share and model this public faith? The activities are countless. There are the obvious examples Sunday School teachers, Church Council members, readers in church, singers in the choir. But there are also the less obvious examples- workers in a soup kitchen, volunteers to visit the elderly, sorting clothes for the poor, and giving generously and sacrificially to your church or charity. By contrast, children who are dropped off at the door for Sunday School while their parents “do brunch” will drop out of the church. You see, it is at this age that your children are quietly studying your attitudes and responsibility. If it is not publicly important to you, it will not be important to them. But if you demonstrate a positive attitude toward the church and an active responsibility for your faith, your children will develop this same attitude and responsibility.
Finally, we turn to young adulthood and the maturing faith. Many Christians learn the stories of faith and know the fundamental difference between right and wrong. They embrace the values and morals of the stories they learned as a youth. But they still lack one final characteristic which you must share. They lack energy, enthusiasm and excitement- they lack the free choice to follow Christ. Ask yourself, where do the children you love, your children, your grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and godchildren, see you directing your energy?
There is nothing wrong with work and wealth. Throughout the ages the world has known wise and generous men and women who have chosen to use their gifts to the labor of the Lord’s kingdom and to the glory of God. They have made sound choices and spread the word of faith. But many men and women make the wrong choice. They spend all their time and energy in the pursuit of riches. They spend all their time and energy on themselves, enjoying their riches, and not on their neighbor.
Many of our grown children have never experienced a mature faith. And perhaps, you have never known a mature faith as well. Why? Because you haven’t freely chosen to follow Jesus. You have chosen to use your time and energy in other ways. As the often controversial American theologian Marcus Borg, the author of “Seeing Jesus Again for the Very First Time,” has written, you have only experienced a “second-hand faith” and you have discarded it as unimportant. Borg writes of the genuine faith, “To believe doesn’t mean to agree with a set of doctrines about Jesus. It means to give one’s heart (freely) to the risen living Christ who is with us.” A mature faith, you see, is not simply the proper confession or creed. A mature faith is an energetic relationship with God. And it takes a personal commitment of your time and energy.
J. Edgar Hoover, the father of America’s FBI once said, “Mothers and Dads that take their children to church never get into trouble.” To which someone added, “But going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than going to the garage makes you a car.” And it’s true. We don’t know all the influences that affect our children lives, or frankly the influences that take hold of our own lives and imaginations. So when we wonder whether our children will have faith, where should we look for a place to nurture the faith?
You should look to your house and home. Why you may ask? For one simple reason. Within the sheltering arms of your home, within the cradling arms of loving mothers and father, within the safety of a healthy marriage, Jesus is blessing your children every day, and he is blessing you. There is no more important place for the spiritual development of your family, than in your home. For it is in your home that they experience the wonder of sacrificial love. It is in your home that they experience forgiveness. It is in your home that they experience protection. Yes, it is your own home that they experience the truth of the Christian faith.
Will the children you love have faith? Ask yourself: How have you chosen to “share” the faith through Stories, and Habits, Attitude, Responsibility and Energy? My friends, “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.