Maybe We Should Listen?
You could be forgiven for thinking that most of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians amounted to not much more than scolding and whining. As a colleague once said, the apostle comes across here as a “pissed-on pastor” responding to his critics and antagonists.
Or perhaps he sounds like the parent reminding an inconsiderate child of all that we’ve been through for your sake. Paul is quick to mention a litany of “troubles, difficulties, and problems,” everything from facing angry people, being lied about, having to work to make a living so as not to burden the church, all the way up being beaten and thrown in jail.
We did all of this for you, Paul tells the Corinthians, because we love you. And what do we get in response? You don’t love us even a little bit.
It’s a wonder Paul didn’t get thrown out of more churches. That man had some nerve.
The apostle’s point, though, is not to shame the Corinthians. Or at least that’s not his only point. Paul’s sacrifices on behalf of the church might be extreme, but all Christians are called to suffer for one another. Paul speaks of rejoicing in the midst of sadness. This is why: he lives in and to Jesus by living in and to the community with a fully open heart.
The question for Christian parents is: can we get our kids to do likewise? It’s one thing to teach children to be kind and considerate. They learn that by imitation. But to teach them to be really Christian is a far different thing. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” remains a very difficult teaching, and an even tougher lesson. Hey kid, how’d you like to die for the team?
It’s difficult enough just to give kids the basics. Work and social commitments get in the way. You can hardly blame a parent of small children for feeling stymied by the prospect of getting them to Sunday School. Athletic schedules increasingly run into Sunday morning—not, as I’ve told many congregations, because organizers despise Christianity—but because so many have moved beyond it. In a secular age, Sunday morning is prime real estate for fun, relaxation, and family time. Church is an obligation, and not always a welcome one.
All of this is compounded by other social realities: moving decreases church attendance. So do economic struggles: those Americans hard-pressed to make ends meet are among the least likely to attend worship or be affiliated with a church. Divorce kills religious practice. There are many reasons—good reasons—for people juggling to keep their lives afloat to skip that one more damn thing on Sunday morning.
When you have a child with special needs, whether physical or emotional, it adds another layer. Children with complex medical issues often find it difficult to come and remain in worship. Autistic children are easily overstimulated by the songs, voices, and movement of worship. The developmentally delayed or disabled may have a hard time following along. Children with emotional problems can leave themselves and their families so drained church becomes a long, bad idea. Kids of all shapes and sizes and abilities need to move around and make noise. You would be surprised how many places still find that unacceptable.
The church itself often fails to support its own mission in passing on the faith to the next generation. The single, inevitable prime mover of that failure is this: we Christians fail to live up to our own faith.
We practice a shallow, unremarkable gospel of good feelings holding hardly any more substance than the golden rule. We are more interested in maintaining our traditions and institutions than growing in a complex faith. We betray Jesus’ message of self-emptying love through our judgmentalism and unwillingness to forgive, forget, or tolerate. Paul tells us “open your hearts” and we politely, positively, in a Christian spirit, decline the invitation. There is nothing so effective at disappearing Christians as the behavior of church people toward one another.
And yet, unaccountably, the kids turn out to be all right. A girl learns to love her uncle and his husband. A young man takes seriously the gospel command to make disciples and leads others into the faith; a daughter comes through her troubles with a seeker’s soul intact.
Even those children who learn “just” to be kind and considerate find the grace they receive from God is not for nothing. Sometimes despite their parents, they turn out to be compassionate, dedicated to friends, possessed of a strong sense of right and wrong. Our own son is like that. Curses too much, though. Gets that from his pa.
More important, as always, it is God who saves, not us. God will raise those Christians who are needed, inspire those who need to be inspired. Our job, as workers together with God, is simply to keep our hearts open. To the extent that mothers and fathers and other parental figures model the strength to lay down their lives for others, we show our children the face of the living God. Sometimes, to our shame, they show it to us.
Sometimes we speak to the children. Sometimes they speak to us. Maybe we should listen?