Friday, July 27, 2007

Brief Look at Sunday's Bible Lessons

On Sunday, at Friendship Lutheran Church, where I pastor, we conclude a series called Positive Parenting. Ordinarily, as regular readers of Better Living know, we use an appointed Bible reading as our lesson. But in the Sundays after Pentecost, I like to explore important topics. The idea is to help the people of the congregation--and me--to look at how we can live out our faith in life's everyday places. This is consistent with the meaning of the Pentecost Season, traditionally devoted to looking at the implications of faith in the risen Jesus Christ.

At Friendship, we'll be using two Bible lessons on Sunday. First, Proverbs 22:6:
Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.
Second, Mark 9:14-27:
14When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. 15When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; 18and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” 23Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.
A Few Comments:
1. The book of Proverbs purports to be a series of wisdom statements given by God to Solomon, ancient Israel's third king. (In terms of military, economic, and political power, Solomon was the nation's greatest king.)

2. In 1 Kings 3, we're told that God appeared to Solomon in a dream and told the earnest young man to ask of God anything he wanted. Solomon could have asked for wealth, power, sexual conquests, or anything. But he asked God for wisdom, the capacity to know right from wrong. At this, we're told:
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.” (1 Kings 3:10-14)
Proverbs represents part of God's answer to Solomon's petition for wisdom. The tragedy of Solomon is that in spite of a strong start, he became a spiritual disaster. He used his power and all the blessings God afforded him in selfish pursuits. He countenanced the worship of foreign gods. After his death, Israel split in two, never to be reunited.

3. The "promise" of this passage from Proverbs shouldn't be read in a mechanistic way. Just because parents expose their children to Jesus Christ and to God's values doesn't ensure that they will embrace faith in Christ or a life style of daily repentance and renewal. But when the foundation of faith is laid in children when they're young, the prospects of their returning to God even after they have strayed is stronger.

4. The Mark passage is, I suppose, mostly about faith. First, it's about the faith--or lack of faith--of Jesus' disciples who fail to even pray for the demon-possessed boy. Lacking confidence that God could or would do anything, they don't even dare prayer.

But it's also about the faith--and the faithlessness--of the boy's father. His words to Jesus, which are really a prayer, are among the most poignant in all Scripture: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The final word on faith comes from Jesus here. He assures the father that no one needs a large faith, only a little faith in a large God.

5. But there's something else in this passage which interests me and which I will address on Sunday.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Happy Anniversary...

to the Schroeders!

I'm Flattered

Thanks, Bill.

Positive Parenting: The Most Important Thing

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during the worship celebration on July 22, 2007. If you live in or are visiting in the Cincinnati area, feel free to worship with us.]

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Writer Bill Hulme writes about what happened when he was working in his garden one day. He bumped the trunk of a small tree and heard a fluttering noise.

Looking up, he saw a small dove fly to the ground from that tree and then, start to shuffle across his lawn. Hulme thought that the bird couldn’t fly and was concerned that his cat, a hunter, would go after it.

Soon, Hulme says, another dove swooped down and began, as he puts it, to “’dialog’ physically” with the other bird, “doing what looked like a dance.”

In short order, both birds flew off. It was then that Hulme understood that the second bird was the mother. “The smaller dove could fly,” Hulme writes, “but needed the mother’s encouragement, instruction, and whatever was happening in that dance. The mother knew this and rescued her small one from its potentially fatal predicament.”

Now what’s so interesting in this little incident, both to Hulme and to me, is that the mother dove did by instinct what we human parents are called to do with our children. But we have to think about it.

And what did the mother dove do? Well, she didn’t pick her little one up with her beak and fly away. She didn’t coddle her offspring. She didn’t paralyze the little one by doing everything for it. Instead...
She nagged.
She prodded.
She taught.
She commanded.
She encouraged.
She cheerled.
She did all of this until the little one decided to take off under his own power.

This nicely pictures the role of parents, as described to us in the Bible. From the moment children come to them, parents are called to prepare their children to make responsible adult decisions.

No child is fully capable of doing this until they’re 18 or so. (At least that's what the law says. But it usually takes us longer to grow up than that!)

As a result, most parents will do some version of that mother dove’s dance with their kids... prodding,
nagging,
loving,
cheerleading,
scolding, and
encouraging them
to take and be capable of handling responsibility for their own lives, until the kids finally grow up.

Parenting is the most difficult, frustrating, rewarding, enjoyable, gut-wrenching, heart-pounding, satisfying thing a human being can do.

Martin Luther wrote that what he described as “the office of parent” is the most important job in all creation.

The proof of his assertion can be seen in the Ten Commandments. As some of you will remember from your days in Catechism, the first table of the Commandments--the first three commands--talk about our relationship with God. The latter seven discuss our relationships with others.

And the very first relationship God talks about, the one foundational to every other human relationship, is the one between parents and children. “Honor your father and your mother,” God says.

My wife and I have finished raising our kids, of course. We’re basically empty nesters, although our son is rooming with us for awhile.

But all of us--empty nesters, singles, those who have never had children--have a stake in parenting. So, as I talk about four basic Biblical guidelines for parents--one today and three next week, I hope that all of us will derive something from the discussion. I especially hope that our teens will gain some empathy for the hard job your parents are trying to do. At the very least, those of us not in the midst of raising children can pray for those who are, asking God to help them rise to the challenge of raising their kids God’s way.

The first Biblical guideline for positive parenting, preparing children for adulthood, is this: Parents need to let their children know about the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Kids need to know...
that their lives have meaning,
that they’re children of a heavenly father,
that their sins can be forgiven,
that God will walk with them in good and bad times, and
that Jesus Christ died and rose for them.

Our Bible lesson for today comes from Deuteronomy, a lengthy farewell address presented by the Old Testament leader Moses to his fellow Jews. Moses was used by God to get God's people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses knew that he wasn’t going to the promised land, that he soon would die. And so, he reminded the people of what was important.

Most especially, Moses reminded parents of their duty to tell their children about God and God’s will for their lives:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Make sure, Moses was saying, that you constantly remind yourself and your children of the presence, the power, the accessibility, and the goodness of God. Talk about God. Live for God. Turn to God when you go wrong. Admit your wrongs to God. Receive the forgiveness God grants to the repentant. Worship God with your life. And let your kids see you doing these things.

Among the most ridiculous things some young parents say is, “We’ve decided to let our kids decide for themselves whether they want to go to church. Or read the Bible. Or learn about God in Sunday School.”

Do you know what those parents are really saying?

They’re either saying, “We don’t want to give God priority in our own lives” or, “We’re too lazy to teach our kids about God.”

Whatever their reasoning may be, the upshot is the same: Their children grow up without God in their lives. And no one who goes through life on this planet without God is really prepared for living, whether it’s here or in eternity.

And I mean that literally. Through the years, I’ve been asked to do funerals for families that have no connection to God. Of course, all of us, believers or not, grieve for loved ones who’ve died. It hurts. But I can tell you that the grief felt by those without faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ, have an inconsolable grief. Their lives are devoid of purpose or hope or joy.

What parent would want to deprive their child of these gifts?

Now, I must tell you that there are no guarantees that if parents share their faith in Christ with their kids, the kids will embrace that faith. God gives each of us the ability to say, "No" to Him and His promises. But I can guarantee that if parents don't share their faith in Christ with their kids, the chances of those kids following Christ in their adult years is severely diminished. That's what all the studies show us.

But the best indicator of whether children will embrace God and the eternity of hope that He gives to all who believe in Him is if parents impart the Good News of Jesus Christ to their children.

Moses’ words in today’s lesson tell us, faith is both taught and caught.
  • Children learn faith when parents deliberately set aside time to pray and have devotions that include Bible reading with their children. When parents see that their children are in Sunday School and Catechism and youth group.
  • They also learn faith when they catch parents leaning on Christ without the parents being aware of their observing eyes.
Years ago, when our daughter, now 22, was in the third grade, out of the blue she told me, “I know what you do after we go to bed at night, Daddy.”

I wracked my brain, trying to think of what she might have caught me doing. “What do I do, sweetheart?” I asked her.

“You pray,” she said.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because one time I came downstairs and saw you kneeling by the chair, talking to God.”

Kids need to know that before the Almighty and Everliving God, their parents are little children, too and that just as we rely on God, they can do the same thing.

Kids also need to know that through Jesus Christ, they can relate to a God Who loves them as they are, forgives them their sin, and strengthens them when they feel weak or scared.

They need to know that God understands and loves imperfect people like their parents...and them.

When our kids were young, I told them what Martin Luther said about people who didn’t thank God for their food before diving into their meals. Luther said that such people were no better than pigs.

I remember during one meal, we were in a hurry and we started eating without offering thanks. Philip threw up his hands and with a laugh said, “Oops! We’re pigs.”

We all laughed. Then we stopped to offer a prayer. In one quick slice of life, our kids saw that God wouldn’t zap us if we forgot to pray, but that, grateful for the love and blessings He gives us, we wanted to take the time to thank Him! They saw God’s grace and they saw faith in God.

The earlier you can begin talking with your kids and showing them the truth about God, the better.

When I was a little boy, my teachers taught us how to write and do math. They did a good job.

But it wasn’t just my teachers who taught me.

If I hadn’t gotten other help, I couldn’t have learned to do those things.

I remember that my mother sat with me and guided my hand across the page as I learned the magic art of writing.

I remember, too, sitting on the front porch of my early boyhood home on Thomas Avenue in Columbus as, between swigs of lemonade, my father and grandfather drilled me on my multiplication tables.

My parents (and grandparents) spent time in the everyday places of life, teaching me practical life skills.

The most practical thing for any child hurtling toward adulthood to know is the Good News of Jesus Christ: the news about God’s desire to forgive every sinner, His promise to help us face anything that this life brings, and His passionate desire to give everlasting life to all who turn from sin and follow Him.

It isn’t just Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Catechism teachers or Sunday morning preachers who need to impart these life-changing facts to kids. So do their parents, on the front porch, at the kitchen table, on vacation, or, as Moses puts it, “when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise,” all the time.

Few parents are indifferent to the God-given mission of preparing their children for responsible, fulfilling adult lives. Nothing a parent does will more empower their children for adult living than introducing them to a relationship with the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
  • Pray with your kids.
  • Pray for your kids.
  • Read the Bible with them.
  • Get involved in service in Jesus’ Name with them.
  • Apply the truth about God You learn from Scripture, from Bible study, and from worship to your everyday life.
  • Seek out God’s counsel when you make decisions.
  • Give to the poor.
  • Speak up for the despised.
In short, put God at the center of your lives, parents. Not just for you, but also because your kids are watching you. Even if they sometimes feign indifference to what you think or they rebel, your example will speak volumes to them.

More on positive parenting next week.