Sherry and I have a friend and, as it turns out, the church she attends is looking for a pastor. They were talking some time ago and our friend said to Sherry, “I just hope we get a pastor who believes in a big Jesus. I believe in a big Jesus and people need that. I’m tired of people making Jesus small.”
As you can tell, her remark has stayed with me. For one thing it has made me think through the ways in which people attempt to make Jesus small, and ways I have done that as well.
Of course, there are those outside of the church – outside of the Christian community who exert great effort in an attempt to make God and Jesus small. But the trouble for me is when it happens with those who, like me, profess to believe in Jesus.
Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame, in recent years has done significant research focused on religion within teenage and young adults in the United States. While his research looked at religion from a broad perspective he and his colleagues provided insight on the American Church. He has discovered that something he calls Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism –is actually “supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in American churches.” The research, while focused on teenagers and young adults, points out that these teenagers and young adults were influenced by the faith practices of their parents and their churches.
Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, suggests the Christian life is “focused on living a good and happy life…being a good, moral person…being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, and responsible; working on self-improvement; taking care of one’s health; and doing one’s best to be successful.” That is in contrast to what to it being “a life of repentance, built upon prayer, worship, seeking the Lord’s will,” and being more concerned with God’s interests in the world than our own.” In essence being a Christian has come to mean “feeling good, happy, secure, at peace…about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.”
In fact, Smith’s research suggest that within American churches teenagers and young adults (20’s and 30’s) suggest a believe “that God created the world…” but do not think or live as if He is “particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”
If Smith is correct, and I am inclined to agree with him based on my experience, then it is little wonder that people outside of the church see little reason to believe that Jesus is little more than a guru. The trouble is what is being passed off as Christianity isn’t Christian – because it doesn’t have the greatness of Jesus at its core – if it did then it would impact more than just the individual but their families, work-places, communities, relationships, well – everything.
A fundamental claim of the Bible – a foundational aspect of the Gospel – is the Greatness of Jesus. One such place that makes that clear is a book in the New Testament, The Gospel of John. This text makes a striking claim: Jesus is God.
It says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Later on in that same chapter, John 1:14 & 17 it becomes clear that John is writing about Jesus. He writes, “And the Word became flesh (physically, literally) and dwelt among us… For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
In a few simple, somewhat poetic lines in John 1 we are confronted with a claim to greatness that it is difficult for us to wrap our heads around. John is stating boldly that Jesus is God and that Jesus was not only eternal, but present at creation, and not only that, but also all things were made through him.
In another part of the Bible, a letter written by a man named Paul to his friends in Colossae, we read that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:15-17).
Leon Morris, a theologian, said, “We often behave as though we can do as we like with God (with Jesus)…We say wonderful things about him. We say that he is great and wonderful and mighty. But then we act as though he were subject to our control. We even determine how he is to be approached and, of course, arrange things so that he is not going to be hard to get along with.”
And yet – that is exactly what a lot of church folk do – including me. I’d wager that a lot of Christian folks live as if Jesus is quite small. After all, if I can control and manage God how great could he actually be, surely not great enough to really have any impact on my life or neighborhood. I think some professing Christians – church folk – attempt to make Jesus small when we:
get sucked into Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. That’s not the Christian life because it has nothing to do with the Biblical Jesus.
try to keep Jesus as a small part of our lives. If we profess that we believe in Jesus – that He is indeed God – then it would stand to reason that what He has said about the way we are to live should consume us.
fear the darkness. When we cower from broken places and broken people – or when we believe that our besetting sins can’t be overcome. John tells us that Jesus – the Light of Christ – still SHINES – and the darkness can’t overcome (John 1:5).
The truth is, Jesus is great and awesome. He is intended to consume the life of the Christian. In fact, it is his love (for us, for humanity, for God, for God’s interests) that is to compel (2 Corinthians 5:14) every facet of the Christian life. No we can’t live this out perfectly – but that is part of Jesus’ greatness as well. He is able to work through broken busted people – like me – to bring about good in the world.
There are some folks who really get this (and I wish I did a little bit more). For one thing history is filled with the people who have been impacted by the greatness of Jesus and the compulsion to live and love as He commands. More than just churches have been constructed by those men and women. Hospitals, orphanages, clinics, schools / universities, shelters, have been constructed and ran because men and women have been consumed by the greatness of Christ. Marriages and families have been restored. The hungry have been feed, the homeless sheltered and clothed – and not just for the tax break.
I think of women like Mother Teresa and her work among the poor and dying. I think of things like the International Justice Mission and their work to help free those who have been oppressed. In fact their website puts things into perspective. It says:
There are more examples. There are Christians living in every community who recognize the greatness of Jesus. Usually they live it out in small ways, as best they can. But, like my friend said, there are a lot of people who profess faith in Jesus who attempt to make him small. But the Bible claims clearly – and firmly that Jesus is Great. What a difference it would make if more of His people lived in light of that reality.
There really are folks who understand that Jesus is great – and as a result they are doing great work. We can do better – there needs to be more and more of this – but here are a few:
Sherry and I have three sons. We, like most parents, love our children – deeply. As a rule, love means we long for, pray for, work for, hope for – do all we can for – their good. It also means we are on the defense, working, as much as possible, to prepare them more than protect them from things that can bring them (and others) harm. That is no easy task, as most parents know.
One area that poses a threat is the area modesty and our overly sexed culture. Yesterday I watched an interview (on ABC/news) with a woman who is trying to “help.” According to the report 90% of kids (some as young as 8) have been exposed to hardcore pornography. That is troubling on a number of levels, but the woman being interviewed was concerned because of the impact hard-core porn can have on a persons expectations and understanding of intimacy.
Her way of “combatting” the damaging effects is to promote the idea to “make love not porn.” At first I thought she was an anti-porn crusader. But her idea, that is being heralded as a great response to counter the impact of hardcore porn is, well, to create a soft core porn site where ordinary people can post videos of their lovemaking. The emphasis is to showcase real lovemaking / real intimacy between partners as opposed to what hardcore sites offer. She theorizes, since we can’t possibly protect kids from porn then there should be a site that focuses on showing the beauty of lovemaking.
The problem with this idea is that it is still pornography – even if it is soft-core. While she is trying to show the beauty, she is just providing one more site in a world awash with images that have an impact on the ways in which men and women interact with one another. I could make a list of the faulty thinking in this plan, but I will not. However, it is one more challenge to the soul and one more challenge for parents who are striving to raise men and women, not children.
Our three young men started back to school this week. It is a reminder that they are getting one step, one year, one grade closer to being on their own. Sherry and I want to prepare them for what that will mean. We can’t protect them, fully, but we can prepare them.
The world is full of foolish things, like attempts to curb the impact of porn by creating another porn site. Our greatest assurance for parents who want to raise men (and women) is that we can help them to see the difference between things that bring wholeness and those things which bring harm – and we can encourage them and help them to work for good. If we are to live out of the law of love (which Jesus commands: love God, love neighbor, love each other) it will mean helping our children to think through what it means to long for, pray for, work for, do all they can for the good of others. Porn, on any level is demeaning to women and men because it reduces human beings to being mere sexual beings, and nothing more. It does not bring about the good of another – it is not love but a false sense of it.
Raising Christian men and women is the task of every Christian parent – within that is the call to live out of Jesus’ law of love. Parents today have challenges in front of them that are different from earlier generations in some respects. Those challenges, however, can be overcome – but not in our strength or wisdom or power or techniques – but in God’s. Raising godly men and women means pointing them toward the God who saves, helps, restores, and is at work in the world. Our children need to see that their parents depend on God as He really is – able and greater than anything else.
In the New Testament book of John (1:5) we read that the “light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” In other words, God is very much on the move and at work in the world. We have no reason to be afraid of anything. Neither do our children. They need to be ready to live in a world that is broken and yet loved by God. There is darkness in the world but there is also a much more powerful Light – and that Light is the person and work of Jesus – the Self-Expression of God’s great love.
One great way that the Light is at work in the world is through different people who are trying to live out of the law of love. I recently came across a great lecture given by Jessica Ray on Q: Ideas for the Common Good. I’d recommend families watching it with their teenage kids and talking about it. Jessica talks about the evolution of the swimsuit and modesty; she does a great job. This actually is a great way to counteract the impact of an overly sex consumed society and culture.
I have liked wrestling for some time. No. I don’t mean WWE (although I enjoyed watching a Texas Cage Match with Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Rowdy Rodney Piper once). I mean scholastic, collegiate, Greco-Roman wrestling.
I wrestled in high school – gave it a go in college (that did not go well)- and helped out with a few high school teams while working for Young Life and in student ministry. Wrestling is a great sport and I appreciate what it taught me. However, all my experience on the mat did not prepare me for what I experienced when my son took to the mat this past year.
Turns out that he has more natural ability than I ever had. Each week he wrestled in a tournament and I would stand as close to the mat as I could. I stayed quiet, not wanting to shout over his coach, and settled calling out moves into my hand cupped over my mouth. I felt myself twisting and turning, wrestling an invisible opponents as if simply by body language I could convey a message to him. In some ways I felt as I was on the mat with him and by match end, I was exhausted.
He did very well but he did not win every match. At the end of those matches I wanted to be there for him all the more – but in the right way. I wanted him to move forward. I did not want him to stay stuck in a moment he could not fix. I wanted him to reflect on what had happened, see it for what it was and use it to get better and ready for the next match. His feelings of shame and failure had to move out and be replaced by hope and confidence. I wanted him to know that he was deeply loved – win or lose.
I’ve come to understand that I am not the first dad to stand on the edge of the mat and participate move for move.While it may be difficult to understand or believe, the Old Testament book of Psalms says that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1, ESV).” This Psalm reminds me that life requires a good bit of wrestling on all our parts – but especially those who have professed faith in Jesus. It also lets me know that God is very present.
To be present means more than to sit idly by. Some folks have an image of God, if they believe in one, sitting outside of things and not involved. The Bible, however, gives other images of God – including one where God is present in the middle of wrestling matches (collegiate or otherwise), an image of God as Father with feelings and longings for his children.
To be present also means that God is “well proven” in times of trouble. He is not one that is way off but present – there in the moment. That is a great comfort in the middle of tough moments, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the troubles I’ve created or ones someone else has caused. It is good to know that God is wrestling with me and very often for me.
This week all three of my sons, separate from one another, have told me what they want to do with their lives. Our oldest announced that he’d like to be a director – and make great movies. Our twelve-year-old said he wants to be a doctor – a surgeon perhaps. Our youngest said, “Would you let me be one of those guys who stands on a stage and tells jokes. I think I’d like to do that.”
What’s amazing to me about these conversations is how clearly I could see each one of my sons doing those jobs. Those callings fit them. In a way it is who they are. Yes, I know, I’ve heard it too, “we are not defined by what we do – we are more than our vocations.” I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure that there isn’t a very close connection to being and calling. I could be wrong but…
Knowing my sons the way I do, I believe there are vocations they are better suited for than others. I also believe that not helping them to understand who they are, how they are hard-wired, and telling them they can do anything is not all that helpful to them in the long run.
In other words, know your child. Study them. Understand how God made them and help them to see how God made them. Give them a vision for the target that God has laid out for them and help them to move toward it. Telling our arrows they can fly in a lot of different directions, any direction they want, and expecting them to hit a target is perhaps an exercise in futility.
I believe that who my sons are (being), how God has put them together, gives shape to their vocation (calling). How God made them will give shape to how God intends to use them, His target so to speak. I think that shaping continues their entire lives. However, when I fail to take into account how God put them together and fail to give them a vision for God’s target for their lives, I am setting them up for frustration.
I know a number of parents who want to make sure that they give their child every opportunity and experiences. It is as if the opportunities and experiences will somehow give shape to their children – and it does – but not always in the way that we had hoped. In other words, we send kids to science camps, sports camps, literary camp, (to see if they are going to be a scientist, athlete, or writer or all three). Sometimes it is just for fun but most of the time it is because we believe they can do anything they want to or put their minds to and we just need to give them opportunity and experience to figure it out.
Fortunately, kids sometimes know themselves better than parents do (and it may be frustrating to them to hear us say ‘you are awesome and can do anything you want’ they know that isn’t true for them – it wasn’t true when our parents said it either). What’s more is that some parents have forgotten opportunity and experience are not all that makes a person a person. We work extra hard to give those opportunities and experiences for our kids in hope. All we have to do, really, is spend the time to get to know who they are – really. How they are hard-wired plays a part. In other words, being and calling go hand in hand.
Who knows if one day Sherry and I will one day watch a major motion picture that our son directed, or ask our son for medical advice, or laugh in a crowd at the jokes of our youngest (I’ve given him a lot of material to work with). But, at least at this point, I can see that what they say they want to do is consistent with who they are.
Somehow in the midst of all the mistakes and messes I make of being a dad, God is still directing the being and calling of our sons. My prayer is that I don’t muddle things up too much and I am able to help point these young men toward THE target for their lives. Of course, THE target is that they advance God’s purposes in the world (as agents of shalom) for God’s glory. My job as dad is to help them understand who they are and to give them a vision for THE target so that no matter the specific calling they are finding their purposes wrapped up in God’s. I believe that is how these young men will flourish and those around them will flourish as well.
C.S. Lewis was a man of letters. Not only did he write books and articles – he wrote letters, lots of them. Lewis was also a man of prayer. He not only cultivated his own prayer life but he encouraged others to do the same. In 1951 he wrote a letter to an American man for whom he had prayed. The man, a veteran of WW II, had come to faith in Christ – which was THE answer to Lewis’ prayer. Not long after that Lewis wrote him a letter, urging him “to be ‘busy learning to pray.’”
At the same time, though I have busied myself in trying to learn to pray, to be honest, I haven’t felt the urgency that is often needed to become a full-fledged man of prayer. In other words, though I have prayed earnestly, with frequency (daily), with faith, hope, assurance and a times out of desperation, I can’t say that my first instinct always is to pray. That is until recently.
It happened rather suddenly. One day I woke up and realized I had a severe case of adolescents – two in fact. Talk about being “busy learning to pray!”
Now, don’t get me wrong. Sherry and I have great sons and I am not complaining. I am so grateful to be their Dad I can’t even put it to words. I’m simply stating a fact. As great as our guys are – well – they are teenagers and with that comes a whole new set of challenges.
Since the early nineties I have worked with students in one capacity or another. I’ve met with parents and heard all sorts of stories. All of that has taught me at least two things. First, it semi-prepared me for being the parent to teenagers. Second, it taught me that nothing could fully prepare me for being a parent to teenagers.
If sharing a home with teenagers doesn’t make a person want to learn how to pray, I don’t know what will. In fact, of late I’ve felt more and more compelled to be busy learning to pray. That’s the funny thing about prayer. Sometimes it takes discovering how much we really need God to be at work before we can actually learn how to pray. When our kids our young we may have a tendency to pray huge, broad winged prayers.
However, when they are on the cusp of adulthood, when they are engaged in the wonderful yet strange mid-term years of adolescents we may begin to pray much more specifically. It is during adolescents that kids begin to exert more independence and we have to let them, sometimes holding our breath. That’s when we may actually learn to pray – and pray we must – because the truth of the matter is every parents only hope is God.
Of late I have longed to get “back to normal.” It doesn’t matter all that much that my sense of normalcy is far from, well, the norm. The life of a pastor is anything but normal to begin with but when you add a huge transition into the mix everything is up for grabs.
In the last month we moved from Charlottesville, VA to St. Louis, MO. We tried to prepare. We tried to imagine ourselves in a new church, new schools, a new community and city. We made plans and made a budget. Then life set in and, well, like Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.” The result has been, as my friend Bob Burns would say, we are living in ambiguity.
We left VA not knowing exactly where we were going to live. That’s right. The five of us, plus Cash – our dog – packed and loaded up and drove 14 hours in a day to St. Louis, MO. We had only a slight notion of where we were going to live. That isn’t something we planned – believe me. Rather, it was something that developed. We planned for a smooth and easy transition. We made plans for a place to lay down each night, a place for meals, a place for pots and pans, and somewhere for dust bunnies to collect. We planned to leave one hearth for another. That wasn’t to be – despite our best-laid schemes.
We knew (know) that Jesus had provided jobs for us in St. Louis but we were unsure of how He was going to provide a place for us to live. Nothing was on paper – nothing was solid – all we had was a one week reservation at a Residence Inn. We didn’t know where we were going to go beyond the first week. We didn’t know if we would find a house to buy or a place to rent. God did.
Since arriving the last week of June we have seen God’s hand at work. He has provided places for us to stay – even the dog. A number of families have opened up their homes to us – inviting our family to stay in their homes, hosting us for dinner, inviting us for a swim. We are grateful for the way that God has provided. He has even opened up a door for us to buy a home (we close- God willing on July 24th – thank you David Klotz!).
The folks in our new community have been God’s source of wonder amid the chaos of a less than smooth transition. It is an experience that only comes from stepping into things the way that God wants us to. Even in the midst of chaos God’s wonder prevails. BUT, do not get the impression that we are just sitting back relaxing in God’s goodness. No. No. Not even close.
If you want to see what life is like for our family you need only flip into the Old Testament stories of Abraham and Moses. God called those men – along with the families and tribes they led – to step into ambiguity. Oh – God provided wonder amid the chaos – but the people grumbled, complained, fought, and chafed in the midst of uncertainty. Yet, God was faithfully putting together His plan, providing for them and establishing hope and salvation through Christ. But the people blew it often – God never did.
That actually captures more of our story over the last few weeks. Yes, we were willing to step into ambiguity – willing to trust Jesus as He led our family. Yes, we’ve been blessed by the ways in which God has used His people to provide for us. No, we haven’t been these super saintly folks who have not been affected by the unknown and the stress of transition. We’ve bickered with each other. We’ve grown weary with waiting and our prayers have had the sound of lament. We’ve lost our cool with our kids and they with each other and us. We have blown it often but God has not.
And yet even in our failures – our very real humanness – we have seen God’s wonder amid the chaos and something else has emerged. It is something I think the people with Abraham and Moses experienced as well. We’ve found ourselves more aware of our deep need and longing for ordinary days of home.
Ordinary days of home are the sort of days that we often complain about– days in which we have to make meals and do laundry, pull weeds or rake leaves, tend to homework and bills. I have found myself daydreaming about planting a garden, washing dishes, cooking, painting walls, and welcoming friends for meals. Sometimes God, for whatever reason, calls us to step out of those ordinary days into ambiguity. If you walk in that long enough while you will experience God’s wonder amid the chaos, you may experience a longing for ordinary days and thankfulness when they return.
There is much that can be said for the ways in which those ordinary tasks are an extension of what it means to give and receive love, to build into the lives of children, to strengthen a marriage, and the joy of hospitality. Granted, in our family ordinary tasks are often the places where we hear and feel the loudest grumbles. However, taken away, the ordinary tasks of home are sought out because they are as much a part of the relational components of home as rest. Kate Harris, Executive Director for The Washington Institute, wrote
By coming to see my ordinary tasks in light of their relational nature and their wonderful, purposeful inefficiency, I come to see what Soren Kierkegaard means when he writes, “The love of repetition is in truth the only happy love.” What is more, I can begin to think afresh about the simple, mundane, but purposeful work God calls me to pursue for the care of myself and my family day by day. Indeed, the Incarnation itself shows us how intimately familiar God is with our daily needs, deeming the faithful care of a loving mother and father sufficient to provide all of the necessary, bodily care and nurture for His only son while on earth.
Ambiguity has given our family something that we may not otherwise have ever known: a chance to see God’s wonder amid chaos and an awareness of the significance of ordinary days of home. I think Jesus understands that. In the New Testament (Matthew 8 and Luke 9) Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” That text brings great comfort because it reminds me of the cost of following Jesus. Following Jesus means stepping into ambiguity, finding our peace in the way God provides, being aware of our constant need for God’s Spirit to help us, and joy in the most ordinary of days of home. It is not easy but it is filled with wonder, hope, and good.
For the last few months my family and I have walked through a pretty difficult time. I’ve hesitated to write about it here – mostly because I’ve been processing all that’s happened – and frankly I didn’t want to process it publicly. The bottom line is that I was laid off in February mainly due budget issues.
The good thing is that I was preparing to leave Trinity. For some time now I’ve realized that the Lord was leading us to pursue a new pastoral call. However, being laid off was not in my plan – it was in God’s. I’d have to say – even though it made sense – it was still very, very difficult. I will not go into the reasons why it was so difficult. I will say that we’ve seen God’s hand at work at every turn. We can honestly, faithfully and confidently say that God is good and that He does provide.
One way that was clear is that Trinity’s Session was very good to my family and gave us a heads up and salary from February to August. They also freed me up to work on my dissertation and to look for a new job. A lot of the elders have come alongside of our family, prayed for us and did their best to encourage us. That has been truly good.
Another way that God provides is that He was preparing our family for this moment as many as four years ago. That was when I started my DMin at Covenant. On my first trip to Covenant I almost immediately fell in love with St. Louis. I can say that without reservation. God also introduced me to Bob Burns – who at the time was over the DMin at Covenant. Now Bob is the Head of Staff at Central Presbyterian. Bob and I became friends – and now – Bob, along with Dan Doriani (and the Session), is my new boss.
That’s right – this week the session at Central Presbyterian in St. Louis, MO extended a call (Presbyterian speak for job offer) and I heartily accepted it. I will be the Pastor of Community Development. What’s more – Central has a school – a great school – and they were looking for a 2nd grade teacher…Sherry applied and next year she’ll be teaching 2nd grade!!! Yes the Lord does provide – but not only with jobs – but with wisdom – much-needed wisdom.
Packing Up Our Family
In June our family will be packing up and moving to St. Louis. But packing up – this go around – isn’t just about boxes and a new job. It is about a time of huge transition for all three of our sons – new schools, new community, new church – right at the beginning of their adolescent years. But God is faithful – and He has provided for us. He’s put people in our lives to help us to be aware, even vigilant when it comes to our sons.
When we moved to Charlottesville six years ago our kids were a lot younger. Now they are 13, 12 and 6 (soon to be 7). While our 7-year-old is pretty easy-going about the move, Charlottesville has been the only home he’s really ever known (he was born in AL). But our older two have lived most of their childhood here – and this move is something that will mark them. They really liked their school, their friends, the youth group at Trinity. Now they have to walk away from all that for something new.
A lot of folks in St. Louis and in Charlottesville have asked how our sons are taking the news of a move. I’m glad they have because I think I could honestly overlook their emotions in the hustle to get going. Truth be told I could overlook Sherry’s emotions as well. Even though we’ve prepared for the possibility of a move for some time it has now become a reality. We are excited and thankful and I can’t wait to get to St. Louis – to show my family around a city that I love and I church that I am thrilled to be called to serve. However, it is in that excitement that I could overlook or even be annoyed by my family’s slow transition to embrace what I’ve long embraced. That would be a terrible failure on my part.
So even while I’m thrilled – I think I’m going to have to take things slowly and allow my family to take things in stride. I’m confident that they will come to love the city and the church like I do (at least I’m hoping). But getting a heads up from friends has been helpful already. In fact, today a friend of mine who has moved many times in the last few years sent me an email with some much-needed wisdom.
He wrote, “As one who has moved more than is optimal in the past…my encouragement to you and Sherry is an old one: even if you are going to a great place and your gifts and inclinations are well-suited to your new position….and even if the place to which you are moving has many familiar faces…it can easily take 3 years to begin to feel like home. So give it some time. And keep a close eye and ear on your sons. Ours are just now talking through some of the difficulties they experienced when we moved…they were 12 and 14 at the time…sound familiar???”
With that said – I know that God is providing for our family – so I’d like to ask something of you. Would you be willing to toss some ideas our way? If you have moved with teenagers – or if you moved when you were a teenager – can you toss some advice our way? I’d be very, very grateful – and – my family may be grateful as well.
Last week the school where my sons attend held their first poetry festival. I must say that I was impressed. Students from Pre-K (that’s four-year olds) thru sixth grade recited poems of varying length. They did an incredible job. What stood out to me was how well the students had memorized poetry (including the Pre-K class) and that they stood in front of tons of folks and recited it. It was great!
That festival – and festivals like that – are important. Not just because it exposes children to poetry (that can be good or bad) nor just because it connects them to the arts (although that’s significant). It is important because it can give shape to their moral imagination, which hopefully will move them towards wisdom.
I haven’t heard that sort of language – especially at it relates to children – all that much. I have heard a lot about character formation and I’ve heard a lot about preparing kids academically for their future. But what about wisdom (can you separate character and wisdom? Is it wise to separate knowledge and wisdom?) What is shaping the way a child makes decisions? How are they becoming not only smarter but wiser? Where are they learning to navigate the gray areas of their own hearts and the hearts of others?
The “real” stories do not hide the fact that life is tough and our actions have consequences. Not everything ends in “happily ever after.” These stories make us aware of good and evil, right and wrong, and the fact that human beings and life in general can be gray and not merely black and white. In these stories the reader becomes part of the action because they are so compelling and honest about what it means to be a real person. Thus they awaken a sense and desire to move toward the good (especially when the main character is not so inclined or acting – well – foolish).
That thought jumped out at me during the poetry festival. So many of the poems that these children had learned moved toward wisdom. They used images and story, carefully crafted metaphor to offer insights into life. Not all the poems did that – but a lot of them did (some where just great, fun poems from Shel Silverstein). But one poem that three young women recited at the festival has stayed with me. It is a somewhat familiar poem. It is a poem called “Three Gates.”
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold
These narrow gates: First “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?”
In your mind give truthful answer,
And the next is last and narrowest,
“Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.
From the Arabian (Tapestries of Life)
It is easy to see how this poem sparks the imagination and could move a child (or an adult) toward wisdom. My hope as I sat there and listened to these students was that the words they were saying – ones they had memorized – would find their way into their imagination – that they would move beyond words on a page – and move them toward wisdom.
Perhaps there is no better source of poems to give shape to moral imagination and move people toward wisdom than The Psalms. Tucked within that book of verse are poems of all kinds and various genres. The great thing about a lot of the poems is that we know a lot about the poet: David, Israel’s great king. Many of his poems tell the stories of his life in verse and, the best part, David is not the hero of his poetry.
That’s why they are perfect for giving shape and moving a child toward wisdom – because they point to the fact that David was like every other human being: broken and in need of help that only God could give. How can a poem like Psalm 3:1-4 not give shape to a child’s imagination – how could it not move a person toward wisdom?
The great hero of this poem – the poet tells us – is God. The poet cried out and God answered him. One great thing about this poem – as it shapes the imagination is that it points out that God delivers – He has done that once and for all in Christ. Think of how poems like this – given to memory – can give shape to moral imagination and move a child toward wisdom.
Not long ago I signed up for something on Facebook. The reason – the name. Bourbon & Boots. Today I got an email – an ad no less for Raw Cotton.
For $25 you can buy a pound of cotton from North Carolina – The Cottonman. I think that’s awesome and I’m thinking of buying some but not just because I like cotton. Rather, it is because the first time I saw cotton fields they captured my imagination and led to an experience that I’m not likely to forget.
I was driving in rural Alabama. It was the time of the cotton harvest. It was a beautiful day – which is mostly the case in the Deep South (even when it is so hot it feels like someone wrapped you in a wool blanket and poured hot water over it). The sun was out – but there was something white blowing across the road. I had seen white stuff blowing across the road before – but that was when it was gray and cold and the sky full of clouds. This wasn’t snow.
It was cotton. Some bits and pieces pulled free from huge cotton bundles on trailers as trucks took them down the road. Other bits and pieces blew from the once white fields made mostly brown/black stalks by enormous, green harvesters. The fields were a jumble of sticks and dirt and bits of left behind cotton.
Cotton and cotton fields have long-held a place in my imagination. As a little boy I was drawn to Civil War history, to Mark Twain, and pretty much anything to do with the south, her history and culture. Cotton and plantations were always somewhere in the background of my imagination. The reason, I think, was quite simple. I could not make sense of it.
What I mean is that I have always loved the south but as young boy I couldn’t make sense of the painful, sad parts of her history – which was most often represented in my minds eye by cotton fields. I can close my eyes and see them – the white fields – plucked clean now by machines – where once they were filled with men, women and children – stooping, pulling, and filling sacks. It is hard not to connect the full white fields to days when Americans “lawfully” enslaved people. In the land born of liberty and freedom there was slavery, injustice, and oppression; all for money. That painful, sad history extended beyond the fields, entering into city ordinances, state laws, churches, and schools and my imagination.
It took the law of love to bring change. It was encouraged by pastors and extended by children, some as young as six. The children went from churches – marching to pray, singing hymns and spirituals as they went, all the while suffering abuse and jail from their fire-hose and dog wielding oppressors. This history is not lost on me as a Christian, a student of history, and a southerner who hates racism while loving the south (and one who for love of union and abolition is glad “we” lost the war).
And yet – now the image of cotton fields reaches into my imagination and memory reminding me that even out of pain and sadness there is hope. God’s children are not without suffering. We are not without pain and sadness. And yet there is hope – God can bring good out of the worst possible places, out of slavery, out of racism, and out of the cotton fields of Alabama.
My family and I were living in Alabama – a state filled with places that look like a scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. A friend, Mark, invited me, to attend an unusual gathering of folks. Mark ran a farm of sorts near the campus of Alabama A & M. All the work Mark and others put into raising food was so that poor people could eat. Mark believed that God wanted him to farm (despite not knowing anything about farming) and give the food to the poor. Turns out the Bible supports that notion – and Christians are to care about folks flourishing – it has something to do with shalom.
When all the work was done folks didn’t leave. Instead they started to gather in a large, hanger like building that had once been A&M’s cannery. This was what Mark had invited me to witness; it was an experience I will not easily forget. Folks began to gather at one end of the building, in a close semi-circle. They sat on buckets, chairs, and the concrete floor. An elderly, African-American gentlemen sat down and the shuffle of feet subsided. Mark looked at me with a big smile as the gentlemen began to sing.
I did not know the song. I had never heard it before and at first I thought he was making it up – beautiful, soulful as it was. Then, just as he finished the first chorus – folks around me joined him. They filled the room with their voices, with their songs, and they were tied to the fields painful, sad history.
There was no way for me to know the words to the songs. These were not my songs because these were songs born out of the pain and sadness of slavery, of injustice, of oppression. They were songs born in the fields and tied to the cotton field’s history of pain and sorrow songs BUT not left there. These slave songs were born out of pain but written and sung and passed down with hope that God by His Son and through His Spirit would redeem his people.
What I saw that day was truly one of the most amazing worship services I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know the first song. I could only stand back and listen. Mark couldn’t help smiling at me. “It’s like this every week,” he said.
That worship experience was more than fourteen years ago. I’m not even sure if Mark is still farming – we moved away from AL six years ago. Yet I can close my eyes and just about hear them sing. They sang songs that had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents, slave songs – which, though born out of something terrible, connected them to the same hope and joy which has lifted God’s people up since Adam. They knew the same God who sets the captives free in the Bible is the same God who set their great grandparents free, set them and their children free from injustice and sets them free in Jesus.
If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible you might be surprised to find that it isn’t all “puppy dogs and rainbows.” In fact, it is true to life – telling humanities story and God’s intervention in sometimes graphic terms. Some folks struggle with that aspect but I think it is quite helpful because most folks I know struggle with one thing or another. I don’t have much capacity for the pushers of Pollyanna theology, the “God just wants you to be happy and healthy and rich” – you know the big ego, big stadium, big hair kind of folks. I’m not sure what version of the Bible they are reading – if they are at all.
The Old Testament doesn’t skip over the bad parts. Those slaves songs, like the Scriptures, were passed down from parents to children (Deut 6). They were meant to prepare people for life in a fallen world and point them in a Godward direction. Sometimes I think we do kids a bad turn when, in an effort to protect them, we insulate them from reality. They are bound to have troubles because, until Jesus comes, that’s the way of the world. There are things beyond our control and we’d do better by our kids to prepare them – shape their character and their moral imagination.
The Psalms, in particular, give shape to the way God’s children learn to pray and sing and live. Reading them gives a person the full scope of life. The people who sang and prayed these Psalms had once been slaves in Egypt, and they sang of God’s deliverance. They knew pain and sorrow – a great deal of which was their own fault (which sound familiar to me). They also tasted injustice and hatred – and they cried out to God. Psalm 137 is one of those Psalms; it is written from anguish and heartbreak: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6 ESV)”
These were God’s people – they had been carried away in exile. They knew pain and sadness well. Their lives were ripped open. They were mocked, abused, forced to leave their home. They knew hardship and pain in ways that I don’t even want to imagine. But they wrote about it – as prayer to God.
What stands out to me is the fact that this text still remains. It is a painful Psalm to read because of the anguish, the anger, the pain. It was a dark time in the lives of God’s people, a terrible time. And yet, this Psalm, marked this time and it was passed on from one generation to another – down to this very day.
I think I know why – at least I can speculate. The Babylonian Empire hasn’t existed for – well a very long time but God’s people still do. Apparently, God really does love justice and he does keep His saints. I also think what is expressed in this Psalm gives shape to the way God’s people pray and sing. Because sometimes we feel the way they did and because God delivered His people – and still does.
Verses like these giving shape to our hopes by telling us that we are God’s children. We have been adopted by God (and I love adoption); we are His sons and daughters. Of course, our adoption is made possible through Christ – that’s what Paul is trying to tell us – our place is sure in Christ.
But something else gives shape to our hope – its phrase cry Abba or Father. When does a child “cry out” for their dad? In times of pain and trouble, of course. And – since we know we are his sons and daughters we know that we can do that – approach God as Father in the midst of troubles.
But how does we hope a father will respond? Well, in all honesty I don’t alway respond with the sort of kindness and compassion that I should. Sometimes when my sons cry out I’m busy and I don’t want to be bothered. Well – that’s my way but not God’s way.
Children also cry out in moments of joy and surprise. That’s always a good sound – when your kids are glad to see you – when they say, “I love you.” When they thank you for the good things you’ve done for them.
Isn’t this a nagging verse? Is the Bible giving an assurance that things will turn out for good for God’s people? It sure seems so…But isn’t this the hope we long for?
I think it is. Even though we may not understand why it is that we go through things and they may be terrible – in the midst of them we want and need hope that things will work for good. God gives this hope to His children which is part of the way we can persevere. In fact, I believe the story of the Bible is wrapped up in this hope – that Christ by His life, death and resurrection makes new lives out of broken ones (something I can personally attest), sets captives free (and we are captive to something), restores human beings to God, brings peace (shalom) to fractured relationships, and brings light into dark places. The essence of the Biblical story is that God, through Christ, redeems the painful, sad parts of life and makes them good as only God can.
I think this hope has carried God’s people from the time of Adam until now – ultimately God will restore all things and make things right and good. I think it was this hope that shaped the slave songs. Their assurance was bound up in Jesus in ways I could only image. Jesus turned their mourning into gladness – even as they worked those fields. The foundation of their songs wasn’t sorrow, nor self-pity – it was hope, a hope in Christ, a hope that all their suffering and hardship was going to turn out for good. It is a hope that all God’s children can sing about.
I may buy a pound after all…
Links and Resources:
Learn to sing the Psalms: http://psalter.org/
Want to know more about Civil Rights & The Children’s Crusade – Birmingham 1963 http://library.thinkquest.org/ http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/clayborne-carson.html http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Home.jsp http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders See King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
Check out the history of Negro Spirituals, Cabin Music and Slave Songs http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/ http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/index.htm http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/ Honey in the Rock: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs By Olivia Solomon, Jack Solomon