For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
-Romans 12:4-5

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Soul Care of Children

      The first story that came to my mind in thinking about Jesus as a child and his interactions with children and what we can learn from that, is from Luke chapter 2.  This is on page 945 in the pew bibles.  Here we have the story of Jesus’ birth and the shepherds coming to visit him as a newborn, after the angel had announced his birth to them.  Then, when he was still an infant, his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.  It was Jewish law that every firstborn male would be set apart to God and the parents would bring the baby along with a sacrifice, and dedicate the child to God.  This is where we get our practice of child dedication from and some of you will be doing this in a couple of weeks.  Our understanding of this practice is a little different.  We don’t bring animals or birds to sacrifice when we do a dedication.  And actually our understanding is more that we are dedicating ourselves as parents and as a congregation to raise this child to be a disciple of Jesus, rather than dedicating the child.  We parents, and we congregation members, are making a vow to each other and to God to model and teach the Christian faith to our children, to provide an atmosphere where they can learn and to encourage and pray for them, so that they will make their own decision to live as disciples of Jesus.  And we believe God honors these vows and works with us in drawing our children’s hearts towards Him and giving them the gift of faith.
            Then in verses 41-52, we have the story of 12 year old Jesus who is going to the Temple with his parents for the Passover celebration.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for Passover every year.  They were a family who took their religious duties seriously.  Mary and Joseph modeled their faith for their children.  We parents are vital to our children’s faith development.  They need to see us putting our own faith in action in order to believe.  In fact researchers have identified parents as the most significant factor in a child’s faith development.  When children see their parents modeling a life of faith, and hear their parent’s faith stories, it has more of an impact on them than anything else – more than the influence of their peers, of other people at church, of youth workers, of teachers, of pastors, of service or missions experiences or sending them to Christian school instead of public.  Outside of the Holy Spirit, parents are the number one influence in a child’s faith development.
            Jesus’ parents took their role in faith development seriously and they brought their 12 year old son with them to the Passover celebration.  But lest we feel bad that perhaps we as parents don’t live up to the model of Mary and Joseph, the story goes on to say that when they left Jerusalem to go back home, they neglected to bring Jesus with them!  For anyone who has ever been less than the perfect parent, this story gives some comfort.  No matter how short we may fall with our own children, we’ve never lost the son of God!  But all of us can sympathize with Mary and Joseph when they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them.  They thought he was with some others in the group they were traveling with and when they discovered he wasn’t, they immediately turned around and went back to Jerusalem.  They searched for 3 days.  Can you imagine the panic they must have felt?  They finally found him at the Temple.  He had been there the whole time, hanging out with the teachers, asking them questions and talking with them.  Luke tells us that everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers to the teachers.  When his parents asked him why he had worried them so he said “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house, or be about my Father’s business?” 
            Even as a 12 year old, Jesus knew his purpose.  He knew he was  supposed to be at the Temple, going about His Father’s business.  Our children are capable of great understanding of faith issues.  They are capable of being about the Father’s business and we do them a disservice if we don’t include them in that business.  This summer, we had prayer walking in the neighborhood every other week.  In planning for this we debated as to whether we should have childcare at the church during that time.  But after discussing it we decided that it would be good for families to do prayer walking together.  Remember it’s important that our kids learn from us how to do this faith stuff.  So we included the kids in prayer walking.  I went out for one of the prayer walks into Oxford Village with Quinn, Lani and Carmela.  When it came time to pray, Lani and Carmela, who have both grown up in this congregation, blew me away with the insight and passion with which they prayed.  As we walked, they talked about the different people from the Village they knew through summer camp experiences or through church activities and they prayed with real insight and wisdom for the community.  A few weeks later Ron Sider went out with Jaron Tinsley and I think Jacob Prunes and maybe someone else on a prayer walk further down Langdon Street as you go towards the Boulevard.  When he came back, he said he too was so impressed with how these young boys were able to pray for the neighborhood with insight and faith.  It’s important that we remember that our kids, no matter how young, are capable of understanding and being about the Father’s business and I hope we will continue to find ways to have our children involved with us in ministry.  I tried to include  a sense of that involvement in the video we just saw.
            Jesus thought children were very important and that there was a lot we adults could learn from them.  In Mark 9:35 (page 932), Jesus was at a house in Capernaum and he called the 12 disciples to sit with him to teach them.  Earlier as they traveled to Capernaum, his disciples had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  So now Jesus tells them that if anyone wanted to be the first, he must be the servant of all.  Then he took a little child and placed the child among them.  I think by placing a small child in among his group of disciples, he was communicating that this child was also a disciple.  Then he took the child in his arms and told the disciples that whoever welcomed one of these little children in his name, welcomed him.  And whoever welcomes him, welcomes the one who sent him.  Then in verse 42 he tells them that it would be better to be drowned than to cause one of these little ones who believe in him to stumble.  Jesus was teaching his disciples an important lesson that greatness in God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of being the best or the first, but a matter of service and looking out for one another, encouraging each other in growing in our faith.  And he used a small child to teach this lesson.
            In another story in Matthew 19:13 (p. 908), we see that parents were bringing their children to Jesus so he could pray for them but his disciples were telling the parents not to bother Jesus with that.  But Jesus said “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  And he placed his hands on them and blessed them.  Jesus had been welcomed by the teachers in the Temple as a 12 year old boy.  He had been welcomed to ask questions and learn.  And he welcomed children to come to him.  He allowed their presence when he was teaching the 12.  Not only did he allow it but he included them in the teaching session, placing a small child among the disciples and holding the child in his arms, blessing the children that were brought to him and praying for them. 
            Over the last year we’ve included our children in the worship services.  They might tell Pastor Leonard and I that we could do a better job of making the sermons more interesting to them, I don’t know.  But one parent told me her child was listening to the sermons and said she liked being in service and found the sermons interesting, and she could understand them.  As the children have shown me their sanctuary art pictures, I’ve enjoyed seeing the detail they put into them and how they are able to express what they learn through their art.  Take the time to look at some of the pictures sometime because they capture some interesting aspects of the sermons.
            We’ve included the children in such things as Bible memory.  One of the things I’ve appreciated about Rich’s approach to the Bible memory is how he has found so many creative ways to do it and the kids really seem to love it.  I heard a story from this summer about Josiah Leaman working on the bible memory verses and he knows we are supposed to say our memory verse to someone else in the church and then we can put our paper up on the board.  He was learning his verses and was then helping his stuffed animal Ruff learn it as well and Ruff had to tell the verse to someone so he could get credit for learning it.  That’s disciple making in action!  Already Josiah is passing on what he himself is learning.  As we include our children, as we set them among us and let them learn, they will grow in their faith and will start passing it on to those around them.
            The last story I want to share from the Bible is from Matthew 21:14 (p. 910).  This took place in the week before Jesus was crucified.  He was at the Temple and, according to Matthew, it was after he had run the money changers out of the Temple.  The blind and lame came to Jesus and he healed them.  But the chief priests and teachers of the law got indignant, not only because of the wonderful things Jesus did, but also because the children were in the Temple courts shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” in reference to Jesus.  When the religious leaders confronted Jesus about what the children were saying he answered, “have you never read, ‘from the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise?”  Jesus accepted the praise of children.
            Jesus accepts the praise and prayers of our children.  It is precious to him.  When my daughter was little, we used to tell her when we came to church that we were going to Jesus’ house.  It seemed like a simple way to explain what church is and I think it helped to communicate a sense of belonging for her.  Just like she belonged and was welcomed at Grandma’s house or Nana’s house, so she belonged and was welcomed at Jesus’ house.  We wanted her to know that it is normal for her to join in the praise and prayer and learning and service that happens at Jesus’ house and not to feel like that was something for the adults but not really for her.  I can remember having that feeling some as a child and maybe some of you have also.  But Jesus acts as if it is perfectly normal and acceptable that the children would be shouting his praises in the Temple courts.  It’s what he expects.  And our children should feel it is normal and acceptable that they participate in all aspects of congregational life and learning and worship. 
            What do I hope we as a congregation take away from this Children’s Sunday service?  One, we are incredibly blessed that God has entrusted the souls of so many children into our care.  As parents, we’ve been blessed and we’ve been given a great responsibility to nurture faith in our children, to care for their souls.  We need to make sure we get this right.  We parents need to be seeking the wisdom, strength and grace of God to guide our children in faith because, outside of the Holy Spirit, we are the most important influence in helping them grow in faith.  So we parents need to be continually growing in our own faith if we are going to nurture faith in our kids.
            We as a congregation have to be committed to nurturing faith in the children who have been entrusted into our care.  We have to consciously work to make church a safe, welcoming, accepting place for them, a home where they belong.  We have to continue to include them in what we do as a congregation and we should be continuing to have conversations about how to do that.
 I was going through files on my computer this week and I came across a testimony that one of our youth wrote after the youth missions trip to Berlin last year.  In expressing what the trip meant to him he wrote, “It was not necessarily what happened while we were there. Rather, it was the fact that those adults within our community made it possible… The devotion and support we saw from the adults around us… If I had my way, everyone would experience it…What was really important to me was seeing the older generation reach down, grab the hands of the younger, and allow them to write another passage of their lives- one that will never be forgotten, and could never be replaced.”  I would hope that every child in this church experiences this same devotion and support from us.  The children of this congregation need to know that we believe in them, are praying for them, are available to them, and are willing to help them go further than we ourselves have gone. 
       Many of you are working directly with our children and youth in the Christian Ed classes, in choir, in volunteering through OCCCDA, through mentoring, and through praying for our children, through encouraging them.  I’m going to ask Pastor Leonard to come now and to lead us in prayer for those who are working in our Christian Ed. Program in the coming year.  We want to dedicate ourselves to this work and to ask for God’s anointing so we can do it well.