663) Learning at Salem Church

     

     Salem Lutheran is a little country church in northeast Kansas that Joyce Hazelton attended as a child.  A few years ago she went back to Salem for the congregation’s 125th anniversary.  She was asked to write a piece about her memories of growing up in the church.  The title of her piece was simply “Remembering What I Learned at Salem,” and it was published in The Lutheran Digest.

     Hazelton began the article by saying that the most important thing she learned was that God loved her, and that Jesus died on the cross to forgive her sins.  She then went on to list several other things that she learned by going to church (adapted):

I learned the discipline of patience from sitting next to my parents in church, who encouraged, coaxed, and then threatened me into sitting still and being quiet for the hour long worship service.

I learned the importance of giving thanks for daily bread as we paused from play to sing ‘Be Present at Our Table Lord’ before the meal was served at church dinners.

I learned the joy of music, from singing together in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, and, as a congregation in worship.  Still today, no matter where I am, the singing of certain hymns, especially Christmas carols, brings me back to that little country church out on the prairie.

I learned about the beauty of art as I spent many hours gazing at the stained glass windows in the sanctuary.

I learned the fundamentals of public speaking as I practiced my piece for the Christmas program, and my mother coached me on how to talk slow and loud so people could hear me.

I learned that it is good to give, from putting my coins in the Sunday School offering and from seeing my parents give in church.

I learned that death is a natural part of life as my friends and I walked through the country cemetery looking at the stones and the names and the dates.  From attending funerals at our church, I learned that even though people are gone from us here, they are not gone forever, because John 3:16 says that whoever believes in Jesus shall have eternal life.

I learned that there was a world beyond Salem and that life could be very different from our own, as we heard on mission Sunday when missionaries would come and tell of their experiences in faraway lands.

I learned that it is fun and rewarding to work together, from seeing the ladies make quilts, seeing the congregation serve dinners together, and by being a part of youth service projects.

     It is in simple settings like Salem Lutheran Church that faith is planted and nurtured and passed on from generation to generation.  Many people have such memories of the congregations where their faith was nurtured.  

     In a box of my grandmother’s old photographs, I found a picture of the entire Sunday School in my home church, taken back when Grandma was a Sunday School teacher.  The picture was from the middle 1950’s, so it was just before I started Sunday school and I am not on it.  But I know almost everyone in the picture.  I know several of the teachers, because most of them were still teaching when I was in Sunday School.  They are all dead now, and many of the kids in the picture are also dead.  It was that photo that comes to mind when I read the article by Joyce Hazelton.  Week after week, year after year, those faithful servants were passing on the faith to the next generation, just as the Psalmist describes in the verses below.  I am in the faith yet today, because they, along with my parents and grandparents and other loved ones, took seriously that command of God to pass on the faith to the next generation, and the Holy Spirit worked through them.  Others probably did the same for you, and we owe them our gratitude.  It is now our duty to do the same, and the Holy Spirit will also work through us and bless our poor efforts.

     I have thought much about faith, and how it takes root and grows, and how it sometimes does not.  I wonder about how people can have such different reactions to the same experiences– sometimes tragedy strengthens faith, sometimes it destroys faith; sometimes blessings lead to gratitude to God, sometimes blessings lead to pride and unbelief.  I wonder about how the Holy Spirit works in that process of coming to faith and remaining in the faith, and what part our own will plays in this.  I still don’t know how it all works.  I do think about it all with a great deal more depth than I did in Sunday school, though my understanding isn’t anywhere near the depth of Karl Barth’s wisdom and knowledge.  But Barth’s comment in yesterday’s meditation points us in the right direction.  “How do you know God exists?,” he was asked.  “Because my mother told me,” he said.  And that is what we should be doing as parents and grandparents and teachers and members of a church– making the best use of every opportunity to pass on the faith to the next generation.

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Psalm 71:17-18  —  Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.  Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Psalm 78:5-7  —  (The Lord) decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

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Almighty God, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us grace also to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–John Cosin

260) Child-like Faith

(See Mark 10:13-16)

     When I was a child I was often told that children were to be seen and not heard.  The disciples would have agreed.  In Mark 10:13 they are rebuking the parents who were trying to bring their children to Jesus.  The disciples no doubt thought that the Savior of the world surely had more important things to do than baby-sit a bunch of noisy brats.  But once again, the disciples had it all wrong.  Jesus had to rebuke them, and then Jesus welcomed the little children to himself and held them on his lap and blessed them.  And then Jesus paid the children the highest of compliments, holding them up as examples and models of the kind of faith everyone should have.  Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to the likes of these, and if you don’t all become like them, none of you will get in.”

     That could have angered the disciples, these men who with great faith had left everything to follow Jesus.  They had given up so much, but now they were being told by Jesus that if they wanted to have real faith they would have to be like these bawling, burping, mischievous children.  We too might wonder what Jesus is saying here.  Yes, kids are cute, but they are kids and they need to be taught.  Adults are supposed to be models for children, not imitate them.  What does Jesus mean?

     As with any question we need to look at all of what the Bible has to say on the subject, and the Bible does have much more to say about adults and children.  The book of Proverbs has a great deal to say about raising children properly, as in 22:6 which says, “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”  The best known verse of all on the subject is the fourth commandment which says “Honor your father and your mother.”  In both verses it is children who look to parents for instruction and not the other way around.  In Ephesians 6 Paul has instructions for both generations, telling children to obey their parents and telling parents not to provoke their children.  The Bible gives authority in the home to parents, but it is not unlimited authority.  Parents must also obey– they must obey God.  So Jesus can point to child-like trust and faith and say we should be like that; and at the same time the Bible can teach that children must be taught so that faith can be passed on.

     This verse from Mark 10 does not mean that children are smarter than adults.  Jesus doesn’t say that.  What he does imply is that there is something about the trusting nature of children that adults can learn from.  As adults know, the older you get, the more you have seen; and once you have seen enough of this sad life and this wicked world, you can start to get cynical and suspicious and skeptical, and all of that can get in the way of faith.  Or, perhaps things have gone very well for you and you have become very comfortable in this ‘happy’ world.  Then you can get proud and arrogant and smug, and faith in God can be replaced by faith in yourself.  Or perhaps you just grow tired of everything, and you are depressed and down on yourself and bitter about life; and that too can be an obstacle to faith.  All of these attitudes and emotions that adults might ‘grow into’ can work against faith.  We can be drawn in on ourselves, either to focus on our own strength and importance, or, on our own problems and failures.  And by drawing the focus in on ourselves, we are taking the focus off of God.

     Children have their own problems, but they still do know that they are under the care and protection of someone bigger than themselves.  And so they still trust in and have faith in their parents, and it is this aspect of faith that Jesus is pointing to here.  He is reminding us that we are all still children, children of our heavenly Father, who is still a whole lot bigger than we are and can still care for and protect us.  God, like a good parent, will not shield us from every bump and bruise, or even from every tragedy.  But he has promised that in the end we will all arrive home and be quite safe.  Therefore, we ought not get cynical or skeptical, proud or arrogant, depressed or hopeless.  We can, like children, live knowing that we are being watched over and cared for, and we can be hopeful for a future when our heavenly father can and will make everything right.  Jesus reinforces this message with his favorite name for God which is ‘Father.’  When he taught us to pray, he said we should begin by saying ‘Our Father,’ so that every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we remind ourselves that we are children.  Think of that when you say the Lord’s Prayer.  We still have someone bigger than us watching over us and taking care of us– now and forever.

     I once sat with a grief-stricken old man whose adult son had just committed suicide.  This son was recently divorced and had no children.  His mother was dead.  His father was his closest loved one, even though they lived far apart.  The son left a note for his father in which he told him how his many troubles had become too much for him to bear.  And then the note said this:  “Dad, so many times I have wished I could go back in time to when I was a little boy and you and mom took care of me.”  This was a man in his 30’s, now alone and sad and confused; looking back to a time in his life when he had the perfect security of being cared for by someone bigger than himself, someone who he still believed could handle everything.  It was a heartbreaking letter of despair and hopelessness.  It was sad that he did not know, or could not believe, that his heavenly Father could still take care of him; in a very different way, yes, but in a deeper and more profound way than his earthly father ever could.  This is the kind of child-like faith and trust I believe Jesus is calling on us to imitate; a faith and trust that can feel safe and secure in the Father’s care.

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Mark 10:14-15  —  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom like a little child, will never enter it.”

Isaiah 49:14-15  —  (God said), “But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’  Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”

I Peter 5:7  —  Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you.

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Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled.  My Lord, fill it.  I am weak in the faith; strengthen me.  I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor.  I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you at all.  O Lord, help me.  Strengthen my faith and trust in you.  In you I have sealed all the treasures I have.  I am poor, you are rich and came to be merciful to the poor.  I am a sinner, you are upright.  With me there is an abundance of sin, in you is the fullness of righteousness.  Therefore, I will remain with you.  –Martin Luther

259) What I Believe About God

By Danny Dutton, Chula Vista, California, when he was eight years old

      One of God’s main jobs is making people.  He makes them to take care of things here on earth. He doesn’t make grownups, just babies.  I think that’s because they are smaller and easier to make.  That way he doesn’t have to take up his valuable time teaching them to talk and walk.  He can just leave that up to mothers and fathers.

     God’s second most important job is listening to prayers.  An awful lot of this goes on.  Some people, like preachers and things, pray other times than just before bedtime.  God doesn’t have time to listen to the radio or TV on account of this.

     Jesus is God’s son.  He used to do all the hard work, like walking on water and doing miracles, and trying to teach people about God who really didn’t want to learn.  They finally got tired of him preaching to them and they crucified him.  But he was good and kind like his Father, and he told his Father that they didn’t know what they were doing, and to forgive them.  And, God said, “Okay!”  His Dad appreciated everything he had done and all his hard work on earth, so he told him he didn’t have to go out on the road anymore.  He could stay, in heaven.  So, he did.

     You should always go to Sunday School because it makes God happy, and if there’s anyone you want to make happy, it’s God.  Don’t skip Sunday School to do something you think would be more fun, like going to the beach.  This is wrong!  And besides, the sun doesn’t come out on the beach until noon, anyway.

     If you don’t believe in God, besides being an atheist, you also will be very lonely, because your parents can’t go everywhere with you– like to camp– but God can.

     It’s good to know that he’s around when you’re scared of the dark or when you can’t swim very good and you get thrown in real deep water by big kids.  But, you shouldn’t just always think of what God can do for you.  I figure God put me here and he can take me back anytime he pleases.

     And that’s what I believe about God.

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Isaiah 11:6  —  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Matthew 11:25  —  At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Matthew 18:1-4  —  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child and had him stand among them.  And he said:  “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 9:13-16  —  People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.  He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.

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O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding:  Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

157) For Parents With Young Children in Church

Written by the wife of a Lutheran pastor at:  www.iamtotallythatmom.blogspot.ca

Dear Parents with young children in church,

You are doing something really, really important.  I know it’s not easy.  I see you with your arms overflowing, and I know you came to church already tired.  Parenting is tiring.  Really tiring.

I watch you bounce and sway trying to keep the baby quiet, juggling the infant car seat and the diaper bag as you find a seat.  I see you wince as your child cries.  I see you anxiously pull things out of your bag of tricks to try to quiet them.

And I see you with your toddler and your preschooler.  I watch you cringe when your little girl asks an innocent question in a voice that might not be an inside voice let alone a church whisper.  I hear the exasperation in your voice as you beg your child to just sit, to be quiet as you feel everyone’s eyes on you.  Not everyone is looking, but I know it feels that way.

I know you’re wondering, is this worth it?  Why do I bother?  I know you often leave church more exhausted than fulfilled.  But what you are doing is so important.

When you are here, the church is filled with a joyful noise.  When you are here, the Body of Christ is more fully present.  When you are here, we are reminded that this worship thing we do isn’t about Bible Study or personal, quiet contemplation but coming together to worship as a community where all are welcome, where we share in the Word and Sacrament together.  When you are here, I have hope that these pews won’t be empty in ten years when your kids are old enough to sit quietly and behave in worship.  I know that they are learning how and why we worship now, before it’s too late.  They are learning that worship is important.

I see them learning.  In the midst of the cries, whines, and giggles, in the midst of the crinkling of pretzel bags and the growing pile of crumbs I see a little girl who insists on going two pews up to share peace with someone she’s never met.  I watch a child excitedly color a cross and point to the one in the front of the sanctuary.  I hear the echos of Amens just a few seconds after the rest of the community says it together.  I watch a boy just learning to read try to sound out the words in the worship book or count his way to Hymn 672.  Even on weeks when I can’t see my own children learning because, well, it’s one of those mornings, I can see your children learning.

I know how hard it is to do what you’re doing, but I want you to know, it matters.  It matters to me.  It matters to my children to not be alone in the pew.  It matters to the congregation to know that families care about faith, to see young people; and even on those weeks when you can’t see the little moments, it matters to your children.

It matters that they learn that worship is what we do as a community of faith, that everyone is welcome, that their worship matters.  When we teach children that their worship matters, we teach them that they are enough right here and right now as members of the church community.  They don’t need to wait until they can believe, pray or worship a certain way to be welcome here, and I know adults who are still looking to be shown that.  It matters that children learn that they are an integral part of this church, that their prayers, their songs, and even their badly (or perfectly timed, depending on who you ask) cries and whines are a joyful noise because it means they are present.

I know it’s hard, but thank you for what you do when you bring your children to church.  Please know that your family – with all of its noise, struggle, commotion, and joy – are not simply tolerated, you are a vital part of the community gathered in worship.

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Luke 18:15-17  —  People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them.  When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.  But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

 English: Jesus Christ with children

Joel 2:16  —  Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children,  those nursing at the breast.

Joel 1:3  —  Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.

Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go:  and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

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A PRAYER OF GRATITUDE AND HOPE FOR THE LIFE AND FAITH OF HIS CHILDREN, BY A GRIEVING FATHER:

O God, you have dealt very mysteriously with us.  We have been passing through deep waters; but though you slay us, yet we will trust in you… You have reclaimed your borrowed treasures.  Yet, O Lord, shall I not thank you now?  I will thank you not only for the children you have left to us, but for those you have reclaimed.  I thank you for the blessing of the last ten years, and for all the sweet memories of these lives…  I thank you for the full assurance that each has gone to the arms of the Good Shepherd, whom each loved according to the capacity of her years.  I thank you for the bright hopes of a happy reunion, when we shall meet to part no more.  O Lord, for Jesus Christ’s sake, comfort our desolate hearts.  

–Campbell Tait, five of whose six children died of scarlet fever in one month, in 1856.  (From 2000 Years of Classic Christian Prayers, ed. by Owen Collins, 1999, page 169)