Back when I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to visit my ancestral home of Glarus, Switzerland. After leaving the rest of the group behind, I was all alone, and had very poor German skills. After a few hours there, I began to wonder what the heck I was doing. No one seemed to speak English, and everyone was yelling at me! After a little while longer and a lot of walking, I heard a group of people talking ENGLISH!! All of a sudden, the discomfort went away as they talked to me and explained the community and, most importantly, that the people were not yelling at me. Switzerdeutsch is a very rough language and it always sounds that way. Learning from that group and then being sent off changed my experience from being lost and frustrated to a marvelous weekend of discovery and learning.
I cannot help but think about what it was like on that day of Pentecost where all who were gathered were able to hear the message of God in their own language (especially thinking of the comfort I found bumping into a group of English-speaking people in a foreign land!). What hope and power there must have been in the welcoming comfort of the message in their native tongue.
Today, much of faith and Christianity has devolved into pious discussions concerning who is right and sadly, who can be part of the faith and who are excluded. To me, this is a very personal thing! As I have said many times before, church is where we should all be able to come together and be accepted as children of God. The basis for all of this is the fact that God has created this world and created each of us.
Knowing that we are created in God’s image is important because it helps us realize the gift God has given us. Moreover, it stands as a clear symbol that God has made us to be who you are called to be. However, there is another important message, which is to accept yourself; this is one of the biggest difficulties that we face as individuals. As a mentor of mine has told me many times, “You cannot hear the love in this world until you open your heart to hear the love that is in there!”
Oftentimes we are beaten down by the judgments in this world. Many who are at work or in school are judged by their weakness or difference. However, the message of God is that God did not create us to be compared to each other, for we all possess different skills, abilities and knowledge. This makes us inherently different, while at the same time recognizes that we are all seen as equal in our incompleteness.
Knowing that God has created us in this way should give us strength to take control of our lives and listen to the ways in which we are called to be or not to be part of the world. I often tell people in counseling that the commandment “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev 19:18)” starts with the commandment to love and understand yourself so that you can begin to understand and empathize with your neighbor.
Thus Pentecost becomes a celebration of the church, the individual’s faith and a calling to welcome all into God’s House! While we do not speak all of the languages that are found in our community, we can learn to love those who are in our midst, seeing that we are all children of God! And this can be a place where we can learn to love ourselves, love our neighbor and love God.
The theme this year for Pentecost is “All God’s Children Have a Place in the Choir.” This comes from a favorite children’s song by the same name. It is a perfect children’s song, since it makes you giggle, but behind it is a very serious message: God does not exclude anyone from his choir or the church or the community. I ask that this year, you invite a friend or neighbor to join us for this very special day as we celebrate Pentecost and the fact that God loves us so much that his spirit is here!
When you first met Sid Byrd, he would hand you a business card with a logo on the top that read "F.B.I." On the back, it explained that stood for "Flat Broke Indian." Sid was a Dakota raised on the Lakota reservation. I spent the summer before college on mission with Sid, ministering on the Sisseton Reservation in South Dakota. I learned a lot that summer, mostly from mistakes, but a great deal came from long car rides with Sid.
Sid was very open about the fact that white people were not to be trusted. As he regaled old Dakota stories and his own history, it was hard to miss why he would feel that way. Abuse would not begin to cover the extent of those experiences. It was the first time I really was embarrassed about my heritage and realized my privilege. The stories he would tell had a common theme of things being taken away, starting with crafts and land and dignity to identity and finally, life itself.
The stories were hard to hear, but he always seemed to come back to the questions, “How can one claim ownership of another person or the land or even the right way to live?” To him, everything belonged to God, and subsequently for him that was where his Dakota faith connected with the Christian faith. For Sid, accepting a sovereign God was in line with the faith of the Dakota people, and Sid taught me the first very important lesson in my professional ministry.
A lot of what we practice in Christianity is not really Christian; rather, it is cultural. Moreover, a lot of what people do in the name of Christianity is not Christian either. He was the first person to show me how people used a particular myopic view of Christianity to oppress and repress people. Sid also helped me to see how I had been influenced by that view, creating an idol to worship rather than God. For Sid, Christianity was very much about humility and stewardship. I remember him saying once that the moment one realizes they are not God, they recognize their responsibility to care for this world because the land and our lives are gifts. From an early age, I was taught that anytime you borrowed or used something that was not yours, you had a responsibility to leave it better than you found it.
The problems that we face in our world today are based in the fact that we have no real sense of humility and stewardship. Fracking and its by-products are causing earthquakes and sickness in many communities because we do not think about where our gas, oil and electricity are coming from. We arrest and deport people because they were not lucky enough to be born in our country, even though many of the conditions they are coming here to escape are caused directly or indirectly by our consumerism or power grabs. The shootings and violence we see all around are caused by the fact that we are disconnected from each other. Not only do we not love our neighbor, but often we do not even know our neighbor.
Our society lifts up warped values that claim wealth to be success and power to be good, and often this is done under the guise of Christian faith. So often we reject the realities that are happening all around. When things are good, we credit ourselves, and when they are not, we take no culpability. So often we are left wondering where God is, rather than finding ways to let go and truly be present with God.
I remember one day driving through the wheat fields of northern South Dakota, just south of North Dakota, through rolling hills far away from any development. We pulled over at a place where there was no sign of civilization except the car we were in and the little dirt road we were on. Standing at the top of the hill, we looked all around, and Sid said, “This is all God's, and to God it will return. Never forget that.” It is a beautiful memory, but I can only think of how we, in our quest for control and power, lost our call to be good stewards of God’s world.
We, as people of faith, have to make a change and live into the community that God calls us to be part of. We must begin to model for the world a faith based in humility and stewardship, recognizing our place in the world and our call to live as servants to God and not to be God, to listen to God's call for our humility and to not create idols that only serve to support a warped faith of power and persecution.
As a pastor, some of the most powerful moments in my ministry come in the most interesting places. Early in my ministry, I was at a street fair that happened to be going on a few blocks from my church. Being a downtown pastor, many people knew who I was and, like here, would often come up and ask me questions about their faith journey. In the middle of all the festivities, carnival rides, and laughter, a man with a sour look asked me if God loved him. His sadness in the midst of such joy was jarring.
“Of course, God loves you!” I responded. Without another word, the man walked away, I am sure mumbling things under his breath. About an hour later, I made my way back to the church and sitting on the front steps was this man.
“How can you be so sure? You don’t even know who I am and what I have done,” he said. Meanwhile, in my mind I was fighting my own humanity of being tired and annoyed that this man was bothering me when all I wanted to do was go home. I also knew that questions like this were often loaded and could be a sign of psychological or other issues, so I took a breath and sat next to him. I told him, “I know that God loves you because you are concerned about God’s love. That means that God is in your heart, and as Paul said, if God is with you, who can be against you?” The man started to cry and walked off.
Over the next few weeks, I learned more about the story of this man as he would come in to visit and talk. He was in a bad place, and I guess I said what he needed to hear, because he began to become very active in the church and the sourness of his look began to fade.
I am a strong believer in the power of God’s love and that our salvation is assured in God. To me, this comes from an understanding of predestination. A lot is made of Calvin’s discussion of predestination, and for some, that is an essential part of Calvinism. It’s not. It is a doctrine that Calvin himself changed and struggled with throughout the various writings of his institute. This theological understanding tries to convey a truth that the God that created us will never abandon us, and therefore we are elected into the body of salvation.
Of course, nothing can be that simple. When making an argument for a theology of predestination, often people venture into the land of fatalism, which is an understanding that everything in life has been predetermined. This is not the same as predestination, because within predestination, there is free will and choice. You can be blessed, yet still reject the faith. You can also be blessed and never know Christ fully, or at least not know Christ in a way that is familiar.
This is the difficult part, because as we really dive into the Gospels, there is a trend that happens within the teachings of Christ. Christ is always pointing to God—a God that we know to be both mysterious and compassionate, angry yet patient, judgmental yet grace-filled. The other truth about God is that we only have a glimpse of God’s fullness. We do not always know what God is doing within the hearts of others. This puts us in a precarious position, for if we choose to judge others on their faithfulness, we could very easily be judging God and the way that God is working within the heart of that person.
This is why it is so wrong for Christians to judge others. Many would call this a sin, but I don’t know if that fully encompasses what is going on, because judging others is not just a separation from God, it is both an active rejection of God and an attempt to become a god, asserting control and dominion over others. Biblically, we see this most in Jesus’ teachings about Caesar and the illegitimacy Jesus claims (Matthew 22:16-22).
For me, knowing that God loves me and has already reached out to save me gives me the freedom to truly live. Thus, I live my life in thankfulness for what God has done for me, and I don’t desire to do wrong. And when I do, I know that God will give me the grace and welcome home that I don’t deserve but is there because of his promise that he instilled at my birth.
There are so many things that are going on in this world, it is often hard to make sense. Whether it is gun violence, immigration, discrimination, or even political discourse, I believe that the underlying problem of our society is the fact that we have dehumanized our neighbors to the point where we can make the assertion that one life is better than another.
If we really want to be honest about the Ten Commandments, all of them are about being part of the community and respecting others for who they are, and looking inward to ask ourselves how we are embodying the faith that we are called to follow. It is noteworthy that within the Ten Commandments themselves, there is no judgment, just an expectation of how we are called to live.
So, when I was asked to host the Transgender Day of Remembrance in November, I said yes without hesitation. As I walked through the sanctuary, my heart was pained because hanging on the walls were pictures of transgendered people who had been murdered or committed suicide. These were people others had decided were subhuman or not whole—so much so, they could judge them and either exterminate them or force them to kill themselves. What was so disturbing was knowing the history and the role faith has played in so much of that judgment.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have historically had real issues with accepting people of sexual minorities. In our tradition, this discrimination is mostly based in theological writings and practices that are not biblically based. In fact, the “biblical” insights that discuss sexual minorities are a very small number of passages.
The interesting thing about those passages is that their interpretation is often taken out of the context in which they are found. For example, the decree in Leviticus is not in the sections on sexuality, but in the religious practice section, alluding to other common religious practices where sex was regularly part of worship. It is interesting that our denomination, and most mainline churches for that matter, split over these interpretations.
What makes it all the more interesting is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, the first gentile baptized. It was fairly common that royalty would have eunuchs in their court. Often they would have fairly high positions, as is the case in this story, where this man was a court official to the queen.
What I find most interesting thing about the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is how unremarkable it is. At its core, it is merely a story of a man struggling with scripture. The Spirit guides Philip to engage the man, they have a Bible study of sorts, the man comes to believe and is baptized.
As you can see, it is fairly routine. Many of us have had similar experiences when sharing the Good News of Christ. What makes this story so remarkable, beyond the fact that this was the first baptism of a non-Jew, was that he was a sexual minority that would have been excluded from most religions at that time. Some write it off a coincidence, but the Bible always has a deeper meaning in what it is doing. Here it is clear that the point the Bible is making is that no matter where someone is coming from, they can be welcomed into the faith.
This is one of the great tensions of faith: we have to name our prejudice and admit that it is based in our desire for power and control in this world. Unfortunately, the more power and control we have, the more our egos make us act like we are gods ourselves, determining who is worthy and who is not.
It is interesting that my father, who grew up in a very conservative German Lutheran (now Missouri Synod) church, believes that if someone asks to be baptized, they should be baptized right away and that any believer should be able to do it, because it’s ultimately God, not the individual that is doing the baptism. I tend to agree, but this is dangerous, because it means that we have to trust that the Spirit is really at work and put aside our prejudice.
We are called to be the church, a church that is not guided by the whims of individuals but by the discernment of the Holy Spirit—a Holy Spirit that calls us to welcome all, especially the Ethiopian eunuch.
A eunuch is a male who has been rendered incapable of procreation through some form of castration.
Picture is from wikipedia.com and is an Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
Like the Hawaiian greeting "Aloha" or the Hebrew "Shalom," the greeting “Peace be with you” is a common way that Christians introduce themselves into an everyday situation as well as depart from it. I began to think of this phrase the other day when I left the hospital and out of habit, I said, “Peace be with you” to someone who was unconscious. Like many things we do, saying “Peace be with you” is something that I was taught to say, but never really gave a great deal of thought to until I decided to look it up in the Bible.
"Peace be with you" is a quintessential New Testament phrase with the only close relation in the Old Testament found in Job, which, loosely translated, says, "May you find peace in the fact that God is with you." This is not too far off from what the writers Luke and John point to in their use of "Peace be with you." In each occurrence, it is in the voice of Christ and is often linked to a deeper revelation of Christ. In John 20, in each of three appearances, the risen Lord greets the disciples with “Peace be with you.” I hope you realize the humorous nature of Christ’s appearances here, since in each one, they are behind closed doors, in the dark. Obviously, the disciples were not at peace, even though the revelation had come to fruition. Therefore, we can see the spark of irony or even humor that is found here.
Most of the other places in the New Testament this phrase appears are in the midst of the Pauline epistles. In Greek, the word “peace” is εἰρήνη. The Friburg Lexicon defines it as:
εἰρήνη, ης, ἡ peace; (1) literally, as a state of peace (LU 14.32), opposite πόλεμος (armed conflict, war); figuratively, as an agreement between persons (JA 3.18), in contrast to διαμερισμός(division, dissension); (2) as a greeting or farewell corresponding to the Hebrew word shalom: health, welfare, peace (to you) (1T 1.2); (3) as a religious disposition characterized by inner rest and harmony peace, freedom from anxiety (RO 15.13); (4) as a state of reconciliation with God (GA 5.22); (5) of an end-time condition, as the salvation of mankind brought about through Christ's reign (LU 2.14; AC 10.36).
Peace can be difficult to achieve, especially when we place ourselves in the middle of controversy or distress. If there is anything that we learn from Job or the Gospel of John, it is that peace is a function that can only result from allowing God to work his peace in this world.
Some might say, “But I do work for peace,” but here is the real kicker. In order for peace to grab hold, we need to let ourselves be given over to God, no strings attached. Granted, this is virtually impossible in the midst of our society. We operate—myself included—in the reality and complexity of our social structure, which causes us to give up peace in lieu of safety, security, and sometimes, personal comfort.
In discussing grace, Bonhoeffer distinguishes between costly grace and cheap grace. He argues that the grace God offers is a costly one, because in its end, it calls us to give everything over to God, as opposed to a cheap grace which requires nothing. Here is where peace and grace become similar, in that true peace will come only when the whole of the earth accepts and welcomes that peace. Until then, we can only work for peace in our little corner of the world.
Here in our community, putting God’s call for us to work for justice and equal voice among all its residents is one way to bring peace among us. Among many ways to bring peace to our part of the world is to reach out to others and reconcile estrangements. Opening our ears and eyes to see and hear how God is calling us is yet another, as well as changing to meet other people’s needs.
So, when we turn to each other on Sunday morning and offer peace, I hope you remember this note. I hope that you realize when we say, “Peace be with you,” we are making a pledge to work together as a community. Furthermore, we are calling each other to step out of our “box” and let the spirit of God guide us in whichever way God chooses. In this, I say: Peace be with you!
One of the most interesting things that we find in the Bible is the fact that even in its earliest story, the Bible does not trust a singular witness. It gives us back-to-back accounts of the creation; accounts, by the way, that do not really line up. The book of Deuteronomy literally means "second telling," and I can go on. One of the many things this tells us is that what we think we know is not always the whole story and sometimes it may not even be correct.
In doing a deep study of the gospels, many come to a very disturbing realization that, like the creation stories or Deuteronomy, the story does not line up. With the exception of Matthew and Luke, the timeline is not even the same. Many atheists are quick to point this out. The problem is that throughout the history of the Bible and the people of the book, a small segment of people has wanted to read the Bible as if it were a cookbook that needed to be strictly adhered to and was correct in every way. This is problematic, since there are numerous contradictions.
The Bible was written in a way that mirrors life. There is a lot of information and a lot of little things we could focus on, but when we focus on the little things, we miss the picture of the whole. In doing so, we find ourselves disconnected from the faith that we long to have. This is one of those overarching themes of the Bible and especially the gospels. While the interactions and stories of what actually happens changes a bit in the gospels, the message of Christ does not: that we need to put our trust in God first, then we will better understand what is important.
It reminds me of an old friend I had when I first started out in ministry. This man was well into his retirement years, and for the first time in his life, he was finding joy in everything that he was doing. As a young man, he had always been angry and frustrated. He self-identified as a racist, among other things, and as he put it, was a real S.O.B. Today, we might have labeled him a bully, as he was always right and one would need to watch out if they were on his wrong side.
For him, something changed after the birth of his first grandchild. As he said, “When I was younger, I was convinced that I was right and everyone that did not agree with me was wrong and needed to be made right. But I was not happy. When my grandson was born, and I felt this incredible joy, I realized that the only thing that was important was to be with him.” That changed the way he approached everything. As he took a step back from the “facts,” he realized what really was important.
By taking a step back, my friend began to see the world very differently. He realized that many of the things that he based his life upon were not the things he should have; as he said, “They were incomplete understandings.” In one of our last conversations, he let me know that his greatest regret in life was that he spent so much time focused on being right and not on being good to the people around him.
I think that is true of so many things, whether it is relationships, or the Bible, or even ourselves, when we focus on small things, we often cannot fully be who we are called to be. So, take a step back and accept your place as a child of God, and you will see things in a whole new way!
We are Easter People!!!
Every once in a while, you are called to sit back and examine your life. The other week as I was cleaning my house, out fell this obscure picture of a young man. For a moment I did not realize who it was. It was a 12- or 13-year-old in a cream sport coat and a fancy shirt. As I looked harder, this person I did not initially recognize was, in fact, me.
After the surprise wore off, I began to think of how much different I am today than I was back then, not just with physical changes, but in my intellectual and spiritual growth. While in many ways I am the same, there is no way I could ever go back. I know too much, and life’s experiences have taught me lessons that would help me make different decisions.
We are Easter people, people of the Resurrection. When we were baptized, we were initiated into the body of Christ. This means that we have been united with Christ, made one with his fold. While we hope for good in our lives here, we know because of what we have seen and heard and how we have grown in our faith that we are living our lives into the glory of something more.
Being people of the Resurrection, we are called not to be stagnant but to be ardent and active. We are not called to be separate from the world, waiting and hoping; rather, we are ever growing and changing. As it was written in the Hebrew Testament:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with.”
Life is full of change and growth. Who we are today is not the same as who we were yesterday or the day before, or even tomorrow. While it is sad to let our old selves go, it is a celebration to grow in our life with Christ and the Holy Spirit.
“ARE YOU READY?” the park attendant yelled. My friend and I felt the safety bar clamp down with a loud click, followed by a clack. Then with a jerk and a loud screech, the car began to roll down the first hill, up the second, descending into quick turns, flips, then fast ups and downs. It was a 30-second exhilaration that made my heart beat fast and spiked my adrenaline. The ride was so great, I wanted to do it again. I went to stand in line and wait. It took only 35 minutes this time.
When I was in high school and went to the Six Flags for Physics day, the manager held a question-and answer-period. One of the first questions had nothing to do with the physics of the rides: why was the wait so long? The manager explained that the wait was an essential part of the ride. By the time people get on the roller coaster, they are already excited with anticipation, and the ride drives that excitement to another level.
As we work our way through the time of Lent, we are journeying toward a new life, to the promise fulfilled. As with the ride, the great anticipation leads us to a glorious new experience. Easter provides a glimpse of that glorious new experience. By Easter in most parts of the country, some early flowers are beginning to bloom, and we begin to see signs of nesting birds and new life all around us. The gloom of winter transitions to the beautiful blue skies and sounds of spring.
As we work toward Easter, we need to do so with diligence and patience. Easter is the beginning of something new. It is the most important day of the Christian year, not only because it is the prophesy fulfilled or the promise of life eternal. It marks the beginning of a journey that will take us to new places and make us feel things we would not have otherwise felt.
Isaiah prophesized that in the coming of the Lord the world would be called into something new. Thus, the world was going to begin a journey, one that would be new and glorious. He said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
As we prepare, we must do so in preparation for the new journey to which Christ calls us. We must challenge ourselves and our trepidations to allow Christ to change and mold us.
I barely got on the ride that time. It was the first roller-coaster I had ever been on, and the whole time I was standing in line, I knew where the exits were. By the time the attendant screamed, “Are you ready?” I did not have much time to say yes, no, or dart. I was ready, whether I wanted to be or not. In our lives we are on a journey with Christ. Granted, there are times we don’t realize it, but it is through this journey that we prepare ourselves for what is next—the Resurrection.
I remember many years ago getting ready to baptize an adult and going through the choreography of the service. He was so excited, as was I for him to make this profession. His life had not been an easy one and he was looking forward to the baptism to serve as a demarcation of a new life for him. So we went through the service, I poured the water over his head, and the congregation clapped and welcomed him.
A few days later, he came up to me. “I am so disappointed,” he said with a tear forming in his eye. “I was expecting to ‘feel’ something, and I don’t think I did.” This spawned a long conversation where he told me that he was expecting to feel something like an electrical surge or overwhelming calm or something like that, but all he felt was what he always felt at church, peace and contentment.
He was not unique. Many people look to baptism to be a magical thing that pulls you from one state of being to another. Contrary to what many people think, baptism is not a magical moment. It is more than that! Baptism is an outward sign, a community recognition, of what God has already been doing in our lives. In other words, it is a ceremony where we individually and with the community we belong to celebrate the commitment that God has already made to us.
It is often hard to think that God is with us when we suffer or struggle. So we look to these special moments to give us clarity, hoping that they will give us some assurance that God is with us. Of course, God has already been working in our lives, suffering alongside us and holding us in our pain; it’s just that we don’t always recognize that presence. Just as the people did on Palm Sunday.
Palm Sunday is a façade. It is an empty celebration by a community that was already plotting against Christ, leading up to the crucifixion. In the context we have today, we have a great celebration of Palm Sunday and then another great celebration of Easter, and often we skip the Passion of Christ's betrayal, abandonment, conviction, humiliation, and ultimately, the crucifixion itself. We somehow are unable to see the fullness of the Resurrection because we are unable to see the fullness of the sacrifice that Christ made by suffering through the Passion.
Understanding the Passion and Christ’s suffering are important, because the empty tomb is rendered meaningless if we do not know and understand how Christ was put in the tomb to begin with. Missing Holy Week and skipping ahead to Easter is like winning a race that was never run. Or, in other words, Easter is meaningless without the struggle.
The struggle is important. Unfortunately, as a society, we all too often cut out the struggle. When crafting games for children, political correctness has allowed the struggle to be cut in order to “make everyone a winner.” In life, if we don’t like our place, we can move. If we do not like a person, we can avoid them. If we don’t like our job, we can search for a new one. If we don’t have money, we can borrow it. We can do many things to elevate ourselves from suffering, and so could Christ.
In another way, it is similar to our secular lives. The freedom that we have as a people is due in great part to the suffering and struggles of those who came before us. In the same way, there are many who, because of the struggles of their parents, are able to live better and more comfortably than any prior generation in their family. Thus, history plays an important role, and the struggles of our previous generation shape who we are.
The same is true of our faith. It is in the struggles of Christ that we understand the importance of the Resurrection. God’s choice to send Christ into this world allows us to see God through Christ as fully human and fully divine. We know that he felt the same pains that we feel. He got sick, as we get sick. He was tempted, as we are tempted. And he suffered as we suffer. Thus, he suffered so that when we suffer, we know that he is suffering with us. Furthermore, he did all this out of love; he did this so that we may receive his grace and have life—not magical moments that are fleeting, but the sustained presence of God from before we are born until after we die.
As we go through the Lenten season trying to understand who God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to act, I think about the role of everyone in the congregation. A few years ago, I took a class at the United Nations on children and the church. I think this is one of the great struggles that the church has, because connecting with children and youth is foundational for a lifelong relationship with God. But this is a very difficult discussion, because we really do not have a very developed theology of the child. This is actually a remarkable aspect of our tradition that we have not really systematically dealt with a theology of the child. In fact, within the faith traditions, there is still a debate as to the definition of the terms child and childhood. Though more sociological than theological, the definition of the child often holds us back in understanding the role of the child in the church and may complicate our perception of the theology of the child.
On the most basic level, defining the demarcation between adult and child is very difficult. For some, childhood ends with a physiological change; for others it has to do with age; still others use acquired knowledge and wisdom. All three make good arguments, but still fall short in being helpful to discern the parameters of childhood.
The United Nations, through its Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is now over 28 years old, places an end to childhood at 18. This seems to be a clear demarcation. However, 18 years of age is not a clear demarcation here in the United States. In this country, the last legal demarcation between children and adults is 21. What this has created is a confusing dichotomy, since children as young as 12 are often treated as adults in legal matters. However, in some social spheres, childhood has extended into the mid-20s. Thus, the fluidity of childhood makes it difficult to dive into a theology of the child because once again we are called to look at a different set of parameters.
As a denomination, this is made even more difficult because we really do not have a coming-of-age ceremony. Unfortunately, we are relegated to using confirmation, which is not really a good substitute since it is about making a public profession of faith more than transitioning between child and adult. This often creates an awkward time for youth in the church where they are no longer little kids, yet not fully connected with the adult activities of the church. This frequently makes it hard to dive into the complexity of the child and may very well contribute to some of the difficulty that churches have with ministering to high school and college-age youth. But that is a different article altogether.
Sadly, when we do discuss childhood and youth, often the church dwells upon the social side over the spiritual side. Buying into the social understandings of the child frees the church and theologians from having to come up with a deep understanding of the child from a theological standpoint. In the introduction to one of our texts, Marcia Bunge points out that “ … the absence of well-developed and historically and biblically informed teachings about children in contemporary theology helps explain why many churches often struggle to create and to sustain strong programs in religious education and in child-advocacy ministry (Bunge 4).”
Churches often find themselves reacting to the needs of the child as issues and problems arise—usually cutting out the child from the process. Seeing the child as a vital part of the planning and ministry means that when we are working with children, we must include them in the process. When we discovered this, the response from one member of the class was, “But that takes a lot of time,” and it does. To really dive into the process of working with children, we have to open up and listen to them. We must look below the surface. It means that we may have to be uncomfortable by trying something new or abandon things we hold dear that serve no purpose for the child.
At the root of any good ministry is a clear theology directing us to action. Expressing that theology is quite difficult because we have so many different views of the child. This was evident in the UN class as each faith-based speaker came before us. They all seemed to have different perspectives and ideas. If I were to have one complaint about the class, it is that these thoughts tended to veer toward the social end rather than theological end. I am going to venture out and make my own theological claim about children. Let me know what you think:
As we come to understand the child from a theological point of view, the basis of our understanding is rooted biblically in the fact that we are all created in God’s image. Therefore, children are a vital part of the church and body of Christ. Children are human and thus prone to selfish want and desire. Thus, children, like adults, are imperfect. The child is growing physically, mentally, and spiritually, and it is the role of the church to empower the child to have a relationship with God.
This recognizes two issues: the relationship of the child to God, and the fact that children are neither superhuman nor less human than adults. In fact, a child’s life is as complicated as an adult’s, though in different ways. Starting at that point, this theology calls us to approach children and their needs, recognizing that they may have vital knowledge about their own needs that we may not see, but need to hear. More than anything else as a church, we are called to empower the powerless. Often the ones with the least power are the children.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen